Our Confederate Ancestors: Part Four, Conclusion, of The Daring Exploits of H. D. D. Twiggs and His Confederate Compatriots in the War Between the States: The Union Assault on Battery Wagner, July 18, 1863

A Series on the Daring Exploits of Our Confederate Ancestors in the War Between the States.

Then came a few stirring words, addressed by the Federal officers to the troops; they responded with loud and prolonged huzzas and breaking into a full run they rushed gallantly upon the fort.

Wagner, which up to that moment seemed to the Federals to be almost without life, was suddenly lit up with a sheet of flame from bastion to bastion. The deepening twilight was illumined by the irruptive flashes of the small arms and the dark parapet of Wagner was decorated by a glowing ring of fire. The rattle and crash of thirteen hundred rifles was deafening and the guns of the gallant Simkins, the light battery of De Pass on the left, and a howitzer outside and on the right flank of the fort added to the roar and clamor.

Part Four, Conclusion, of
The Daring Exploits of H. D. D. Twiggs and His Confederate Compatriots in the War Between the States
The Union Assault on Battery Wagner, July 18, 1863

[Publisher's Note, by Gene Kizer, Jr. : This is the second half of Lieut. Col. H. D. D. Twiggs' Address on the Battle of Battery Wagner delivered before the Confederate Survivors' Association in Augusta, Georgia April 26, 1892.

This is incredibly fascinating reading since most people's knowledge of the Battle of Battery Wagner comes from the movie Glory. Around 1,300 Confederates endured 11 hours of non-stop bombardment in bombproofs as hot as ovens in mid-July with no water, then, when the order was given, sprang out onto the parade of the fort and to their places on the parapet to face an attack by 6,000 Union troops.

The numbers engaged are not much different from the Battle of Secessionville 13 months earlier, on June 16, 1862, when 6,600 Union troops attacked 500 Confederates at Tower Battery on James Island, which was soon reinforced by 750 Confederates via a mile-long footbridge across the marsh.

Once again, brilliant planning and strategy, with valor unsurpassed in the history of the world, enabled Southerners to defeat, thoroughly, far larger numbers of well-equipped, well-fed, vastly-better-armed Yankees from the most powerful army in the world.]

from Lieut. Col. H. D. D. Twiggs

. . . Anticipating that the smaller guns and the light battery would be destroyed or disabled by the bombardment, General Taliaferro had directed them to be dismounted from their carriages and covered with sand-bags, and the sequel proved the wisdom and foresight which suggested it.

Again, in order to avoid delay, particular sections of the parapet had been assigned to the respective commands so that they could assemble there, without first forming in the parade of the fort, and thus ensure prompt resistance to the rush upon it which was expected.

The enemy believing Wagner to be practically demolished, and its garrison too crippled and demoralized to make other than a feeble resistance, were rapidly forming to make their grand assault.

As soon as the firing had ceased, the buried guns were hastily exhumed and remounted. The Charleston Battalion, which had all day nestled under the parapet, were already in their places and when the order was given to man the ramparts, one regiment alone failed to respond.

The bombardment of eleven hours had served to utterly demoralize the 31st North Carolina Regiment and all the efforts of General Taliaferro and his staff to persuade or drive this command from the shelter of the bomb-proofs was unavailing; therefore the south-east bastion and sea front to which it had been assigned was left unguarded.

While a faithful narration of facts requires me to note this incident, it gives me pleasure to state that this regiment fully redeemed itself the following year by gallant conduct on the field of battle in Virginia.

When the order to man the ramparts ran like a bugle from the stern lips of Gen. Taliaferro, all the other commands, officers and men, leapt to their feet and rushed out into the parade of the fort. Seeing the dark masses of the Federal infantry rapidly advancing, these veteran Confederates, still undaunted by the experience of that dreadful day defiantly rending the air with enthusiastic cheers, sprang to their places on the parapet.

Fort_Wagner_-_Charge_of_56K

The Roncevalle's Pass, where fell before the opposing lance the harnessed chivalry of Spain, looked not upon a braver, a better, or a truer band. It was a sight once seen never forgotten.

Dropping on their knees, crouching low, their keen eyes glancing along the barrels of their leveled rifles, the whole face of the fort was suddenly transformed into a line of bristling steel upon which the sinister red glow of the setting sun was falling.

The Federal columns, 6,000 strong, under the immediate command of Brigadier-General Truman Seymour, were steadily approaching the fort manned by a little more than 1,300 troops.

This division of the enemy consisted of three fine brigades: The first, commanded by Brigadier-General Strong, was composed of the 48th New York, the 66th Pennsylvania, the 3d New Hampshire, the 6th Connecticut, the 9th Maine, and the 54th Massachusetts.

The second brigade, commanded by Col. Putnam, consisted of the 7th New Hampshire, the 100th New York, and the 62nd and 67th Ohio.

The third brigade, led by Brigadier-General Stevenson, consisted of four excellent regiments. These troops were from the 10th and 13th Army Corps, and were the very flower of the Federal army.

The first brigade, commanded by Gen. Strong, led the assault in column of regiments, the 54th Massachusetts, negro regiment recruited in that state, leading the brigade. On they came with a steady tramp until within easy rifle shot of the fort; they had been instructed to use the bayonet only.

Not a single shot had yet been fired from the parapet of Wagner and only the mournful cadence of the waves was heard breaking upon the beach. The stillness was ominous and oppressive.

Then came a few stirring words, addressed by the Federal officers to the troops; they responded with loud and prolonged huzzas and breaking into a full run they rushed gallantly upon the fort.

Wagner, which up to that moment seemed to the Federals to be almost without life, was suddenly lit up with a sheet of flame from bastion to bastion. The deepening twilight was illumined by the irruptive flashes of the small arms and the dark parapet of Wagner was decorated by a glowing ring of fire. The rattle and crash of thirteen hundred rifles was deafening and the guns of the gallant Simkins, the light battery of De Pass on the left, and a howitzer outside and on the right flank of the fort added to the roar and clamor.

Union attack on Battery Wagner in Harper's Weekly, Aug. 8, 1863.
Union attack on Battery Wagner in Harper's Weekly, Aug. 8, 1863.

These guns, heavily charged with canister and grape, poured at short range a withering and destructive fire upon the crowded masses of the enemy. The carnage was frightful; yet with unsurpassed gallantry, splendid to behold, the intrepid assailants, breasting the storm, rushed on to the glacis of the fort like the waves of the sea which broke upon the shore.

Oh ! the sickening harvest of death then reaped. Like the ripe grain that falls beneath the sickle, the Federal infantry reeled and sank to the earth by hundreds; yet the survivors pressed on over the dead and dying. Many crossed the ditch, and some leaping upon the parapet met death at the very muzzles of the Confederate rifles.

The Federal commander either did not remember the existence of the creek upon the right flank of the fort, or did not estimate the short distance between it and the sea at this point; therefore, as the assaulting columns pressed forward, they became crowded into masses which created confusion and greatly augmented the loss of life.

Human courage could no longer withstand the frightful blasts of the artillery, which, handled by Simkins with consummate skill and rapidity, well nigh blew them to pieces.

The 54th Massachusetts, leaving half their number killed and wounded on the field, broke and fled in confusion, and falling upon and forcing their way through the ranks of the advancing column threw it into confusion, and the entire brigade rushed to the rear completely routed.

The loss of life was terrible; the brigade commander, Gen. Strong, and Col. Chatfield of the 6th Connecticut, were mortally wounded; Col. Shaw, of the 54th Massachusetts was killed outright besides large numbers of other officers killed and wounded.

In the meantime the Confederate fire was incessant and destructive and a general repulse seemed so imminent that General Seymour saw the necessity of immediate support and he accordingly dispatched Maj. Plympton of his staff to order up Putnam with his supporting brigade.

To his amazement Putnam positively refused to advance, claiming that he had been directed by Gen. Gilmore to remain where he was.

Finally, after a disastrous delay, and without orders, says Gen. Seymour, this gallant young officer, who could not stand idly by and see his class mates and intimate friends cut to pieces, led forward his brigade and fiercely assaulted the southeast angle of the Fort.

He was received with a galling fire, for the first brigade having been repulsed, his approach was enfiladed by the centre and both flanks of the Fort, which swept the glacis and ditch in front of that angle with terrible effect.

It will be remembered that this south-east bastion had been left unguarded by the failure of the 31st North Carolina to man the ramparts there.

Notwithstanding the withering fire with which he was received, this intrepid officer cross the ditch, which had become filled with sand, and several hundred of his brigade poured into the sout-east bastion.

Heavily traversed on three sides this salient secured to these troops a safe lodgment for a time. Seeing the advantage gained by Putnam, Gen. Seymour had just sent an order to Gen. Stevenson to advance with his brigade to his support when he also was shot down.

While being carried from the field he repeated the order to Gen. Stevenson, but for some reason it was not obeyed.

Meanwhile Col. Putnam had leapt upon the parapet, and, surrounded by his chief officers, Col. Dandy, of the 100th New York, Capt. Klein of the 67th Connecticut and others, was waving his sword and urging his men to hold their ground, as they would soon be re-inforced, when he was shot dead upon the parapet.

In the language of his division commander, "There fell as brave a soldier, as courteous a gentleman, as true a man as ever walked beneath the Stars and Stripes."

An officer of his staff, Lieut. Cate, of the 7th New Hampshire, seeing his chief fall sprang to his side to aid him when a bullet pierced his heart and he too feel dead across his prostrate body.

Putnam's brigade now having also been repulsed with great slaughter, the enemy abandoned all further effort to carry the fort and thus ended this memorable bombardment and bloody assault.

The enemy's columns, shattered and torn, retreated as rapidly as possible until they gained the shelter of their works.

There was no cessation, however, of the Confederate fire during this rush to the rear, and Sumter and Gregg also threw their shells over Wagner into the crowded masses of the discomfited enemy.

In the meantime the Federal troops in the south-east bastion of the Fort were hopelessly cut off from retreat.

In the language of Gen. Taliaferro, "it was certain death" to pass the line of concentrated fire which still swept the faces of the work behind them, and they did not attempt it.

Still, these resolute men would not surrender and poured a concentrated fire into the Confederate ranks. Volunteers were called for to dislodge them, and this summons was responded to by Maj. McDonald of the 51st North Carolina, Capt. Rion of the Charleston Battalion, and Capt. Tatem of the 1st South Carolina, followed by many of their men."

Rion and Tatem were shot dead by these desperate refugees who seemed to invite immolation.

Being securely sheltered in the bastion of the Fort by heavy traverses, the effort to dislodge them failed and for hours they held their position.

Finally, Brigadier-General Johnson Hagood, of South Carolina, late Governor of that State and one of the most heroic soldiers that she ever sent to battle, landed at Cumming's Point at the head of Harrison's splendid regiment, the 32nd Georgia, for the purpose of reinforcing the garrison.

Hurrying to the Fort he found the assault repulsed, but he arrived at an opportune moment to compel the surrender of the obstinate men in the salient, who, seeing themselves outnumbered and with no hope of escape, laid down their arms.

The engagement had ended in a bloody and disastrous repulse to the assailants, and the ground in front of Wagner was literally strewn with the dead and dying. The cries of anguish and the piteous calls for water will never be forgotten by those who heard them.

The Federal loss, considering the numbers engaged, was almost unprecedented. Gen. Beauregard, in his official report, estimates it at three thousand as eight hundred dead bodies were buried by the Confederates in front of Wagner the following morning.

If this is a correct estimate, it will be seen that the Federals lost twice as many men as there were troops in the Confederate garrison.

Among their killed were Col. R. G. Shaw, of the 54th Massachusetts, Col. H. S. Putnam, and Lieut.-Colonel Greene of the 7th New Hampshire. Brigadier-General G. C. Strong and Colonel J. L. Chatfield, of the 6th Connecticut, were mortally wounded; Brigadier-General Seymour, commanding, Cols. W. B. Barton, A. C. Voris, J. H. Jackson and S. Emory were among the wounded. Lieut.-Colonel Bedell, 3d New Hampshire, and Maj. Filler, 55th Pennsylvania, were among the prisoners.

The Confederate loss in killed and wounded was only one hundred and seventy-four, but the loss on both sides was unusually heavy in commissioned officers. Among the Confederate officers killed were Lieut.-Colonel John C. Simkins, 1st South Carolina Infantry, Capt. W. H. Rion, Charleston Battalion, Capt. W. T. Tatem, 1st South Carolina Infantry, and Lieut. G. W. Thomson, 51st North Carolina.

The gallant Maj. Ramsey of the Charleston Battalion was mortally wounded. Among the wounded were Captains De Pass, Twiggs, and Lieutenant Stoney of the Staff.

It is said that "the bravest are the gentlest and the loving are the daring." This was eminently true of that accomplished gentleman and splendid soldier, Lieut.-Colonel J. C. Simkins of Edgefield, South Carolina. As Chief of Artillery, he had directed its operations with conspicuous skill and coolness, and he frequently mounted the parapet during the assault to encourage the infantry. He fell pierced through the right lung with a minnie ball, and died by my side with his hand clasped in mine. To me he gave his dying message to his wife, and long afterwards I found an opportunity to discharge this sad duty in person. Mrs. Simkins was the accomplished daughter of Judge Wardlaw of South Carolina, and not long since she joined her heroic husband in rest eternal beyond the stars.

The limit of this address would be far exceeded to give any account of the operations which for forty-eight days were incessantly prosecuted for the reduction of this indomitable Battery.

Suffice it to say that it was never reduced by artillery or captured by assault and was finally evacuated on the night of the 6th of September, 1863, after the Federals, resorting to the science of engineering, had pushed their sap to its counterscarp and were about to blow up the work with gun-powder.

In alluding to the defence of Charleston the Rev. John Johnson of that city, who was a gallant officer and the distinguished Chief of Engineers at Fort Sumter, in the conclusion of his admirable work entitled "The Defence of Charleston Harbor," from which I have drawn much valuable data in the preparation of this address, says: "It did not end in triumph, but it has left behind a setting glory as of the western skies, a blazonry of heroism where gold and purple serve to tell of valor and endurance, and the crimson hue is emblem of self-sacrifice in a cause believed to be just."

No sting is left in the soldier heart of the South for the brave men who fought us. The great Captain and Lord of Hosts, who guides the destiny of men and nations, directed the result of the struggle and made the Union of the North and the South indissoluble. Thus united, this great country which, in its marvelous development of progress, power, and wealth, has startled the world, is yet destined to compass inconceivable possibilities of achievement in its onward march in the race of nations.

Let us therefore accept, like a brave and patriotic people, the result of this great war between the States.

Let us bow with reverence to that Divinity which shaped it. Let us rejoice in the peace and prosperity which has followed it. Let us give our hands and hearts in cordial friendship and greeting to the gallant boys who once wore the blue. Let us forgive them more freely because time has made them like ourselves at last---the wearers of the gray.

But Comrades, let us never cease to honor and revere the martyred heroes who died in a cause they believed to be just.

"Forgive and forget?" Yes, be it so
From the hills to the broad sea waves;
But mournful and low are the winds that blow
By the slopes of a thousand graves.

We may scourge from the spirit all thought of ill
In the midnight of grief held fast,
And yet, oh Brothers, be loyal still
To the sacred and stainless Past.

She is glancing now from the vapor and cloud,
From the waning mansion of Mars,
And the pride of her beauty if wanly bowed,
And her eyes are misted stars.

And she speaks in a voice that is sad as death,
There is duty still to be done,
Tho' the trumpet of onset has spent its breath,
And the battle been lost and won.

And she points with a trembling hand below,
To the wasted and worn array
Of the heroes who strove in the morning glow
For the grandeur that crowned 'the Grey.'

Oh God ! they come not as once they came
In the magical years of yore;
For the trenchant sword and soul of flame
Shall quiver and flash no more.

Alas ! for the broken and battered hosts:
Frail wrecks from a gory sea;
Though pale as a band in the real of ghosts,
Salute them. They fought with Lee.

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2 Comments

  1. Though I made reference in my book “Slavery and the Civil War” to Fort Wagner, pointing out that Negro troops were often used by the Union as cannon fodder against unassailable positions, I have never done a study of individual battles, focusing instead on politics and sociology. Hence, your detailed presentation of this event is utterly fascinating. Thank you for a great piece!
    garry

    • Garry,

      Twiggs did leave us an outstanding account. Loved that ring of fire
      reference. I could see that too. What a shock to the damn Yankee invaders
      that must have been.

      Gene

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