Union attempt to storm Fort Sumter observed
CHARLESTON — Monday marks the 150th anniversary of the only Union attempt to storm the South Carolina fort where the Civil War began – an attack doomed to failure by rivalries between commanders, poor planning and the fact the Confederates knew exactly what was coming.
The Sept. 9, 1863, attack on Fort Sumter was, like the Confederate bombardment of the fort in Charleston Harbor that opened the war more than two years earlier, a complete Southern victory.
This time, with the Confederates holding the fort, about 500 Union sailors and Marines in small boats approached Sumter in an unusual nighttime operation. But after about 20 minutes, the shooting was over.
There were about 125 Union casualties – five killed, 16 wounded and the rest captured – while the Confederates lost not a man.
“The federals lose five boats. They lose five stands of colors, and they have 11 officers captured. It’s bad,” said Rick Hatcher, the historian at the Fort Sumter National Monument who will be narrating the details of the battle during a harbor boat tour on Monday’s anniversary.
The fight made national news at the time. Now, 150 years later, that fight like many others during the war has been lost amid bigger milestones such as the Battle of Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg earlier in the summer of 1863.
The Union wanted Charleston for two reasons, Hatcher said in a recent interview.
“This is where rebellion and treason began,” Hatcher said. “Charleston was also the most successful blockade running port in the Confederacy.”
The attack developed after the Confederates evacuated Battery Wagner on Morris Island three days earlier. Wagner was the battery that the black 54th Massachusetts soldiers unsuccessfully stormed earlier that summer – their exploits chronicled in the movie “Glory.”
What the 54th could not capture, the Union forced the Confederates to abandon when their siege lines moved closer to the oceanfront battery. Capturing Sumter seemed the next step in taking Charleston.
Rear Admiral John Dahlgren, commanding Union naval forces, wrote in his log he was informed by Army Gen. Quincy Adams Gillmore that Wagner had been evacuated.
“The island is ours,” he wrote. “I sent a flag demanding surrender of Sumter. Answer: ‘Come and take it,’” he writes in the log included in the “Official Records of the War of the Rebellion.”
Dahlgren and Gillmore both wanted the glory of taking Charleston for themselves and both planned an attack for the same night without consulting the other, Hatcher said.
“Your dispatch by signal that you intended to assault Sumter tonight reached me about an hour after I had sent a letter by one of my staff, informing you I intended to do the same,” Gillmore telegraphed Dahlgren. “In an operation of this kind there should be but one commander to insure success and prevent mistakes.”
But there was no cooperation. When the Navy began its attack before could Gillmore could began his, he recalled his 500 troops. Dahlgren’s remaining 500 sailors and Marines were hampered by poor planning.
“Dahlgren hasn’t done any reconnaissance. He hadn’t sent out any boats at night to see what the situation is and he provides no scaling ladders,” Hatcher said. The attackers were in small boats pulled toward the fort by a tug boat and then set adrift. Three Union warships that were supposed to provide supporting fire never got into the battle.
“Some of the sailors and Marines can’t make their way through all the debris by the fort that has been knocked down by the earlier bombardment,” Hatcher said. “Some make it to the second level but then hit a straight wall and have no ladders.”
“After casting off from the tug, I pulled up to the northeast face of the fort,” Lt. F.J. Higginson of the USS Housatonic wrote in his report. “I succeeded in reaching the fort and immediately attempted to land. I found myself upon a narrow ledge of rocks in which no foothold could be obtained.”
The Confederates, who had recovered a Union code book from a sunken ironclad when Union naval forces attempted to run past Sumter earlier that year, could read federal signals and knew what was planned.
After the fight, Union forces would never attempt to assault Sumter again. Hatcher said that in the following months, the Charleston blockade was tightened and East Coast blockade running shifted to Wilmington, N.C.
The battle for Charleston “pretty much devolved into a stalemate” with troops from both sides being shifted into other theaters of the war.
With the blockade solidified, there was no real imperative for the Union to take Charleston “other than the moral factor of putting a U.S. flag again over the city,” Hatcher said
The Union would never take Charleston. It was abandoned in early 1865 when U.S. Gen. William T. Sherman marched through South Carolina to the west, cutting the city’s lines of communication.