Five miles from Charleston
lies Morris Island
, facing the broad Atlantic
to the east, and divided from James Island
by a wide marsh and a winding channel.
It is a bare, desolate tract of barren land, scarcely rising above the level of the water.
The wind sweeps
over it, whirling the sea-sand into ever-shifting hillocks and hollows, like the deserts of Arabia
, but without the attractions ascribed to those wildernesses by the poet Moore
; for down these slopes spring no ‘silvery-footed antelopes’ and nowhere does ‘the Acacia
wave her yellow hair.’
Only a few stunted shrubs grow along the western side of the island near the creek, affording a scant refuge to the little sea-birds which build their nests among the wind-tossed branches.
The only inhabitants are an oyster-gatherer and a few men who attend to the light-house.
If human vision could reach so far, one might stand on the beach and look across the intervening space to the continent of Europe
; but as this is impossible, and we can only gaze at the waste of waters, there is nothing to awaken fancy, or enlist any one's attention, and a stranger would merely consider this low island to be a hopelessly desolate and utterly insignificant part of the surface of the earth.
Yet the waves that break heavily along the shores seem to murmur the sad refrain of the prophet of old, ‘Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by?’
while the wind replies mournfully, ‘Nothing.’
Those who are unacquainted with the facts of the case will hardly realize the statement to be true, that twenty-one years ago, during the months of July and August, that parched and sterile island was the most important spot of ground in the State of South Carolina
; and was the point to which all hearts and eyes turned.
It was the out-post of Charleston
, and under the burning rays of the summer sun, our best and bravest soldiers were fighting in defense of this old city.
The first question that was asked in those days, when friends met, was, ‘What is the latest news from Morris Island
The shells could be plainly heard in town, of course, as for weeks they continually swept like a hail-storm over the Island
; while on our side the artillerists at Battery Wagner and Battery Gregg replied loudly, and the guns of Fort Sumter
joined in the awful concert, keeping up an unremitting fire, day and night, upon the enemy's camps, assaulting columns, working parties, and the fleet.
During the seige it became customary to call the different batteries, as they were constructed, by the names of officers who had been killed-thus Battery Cheves was named after Capt. Langdon Cheves
, of the Engineer Corps, who was killed at Battery Wagner; Battery Simpkins, after Major John Simpkins
, of the Regulars, who also fell at this post; Battery Haskell and Battery Kringle
, on James Island
, after Captain Charles Haskell
, of the Regulars, and Captain Robert Kringle
, besides many others, which cannot all be enumerated.
In this way the most important and famous of all these earthworks, Battery Wagner, was called after Major Tom Wagner
, of the Regulars, who was killed at Fort Hamilton
by the bursting of a gun. This excellent and valued officer was much regretted, and his name has been handed down to history by the heroic defence of this noted battery.
The fighting for Charleston
, which was to continue without cessation until the evacuation of the city, almost at the close of the war, began at the southern point of Morris Island, July 10th, 1863, where Captain John C. Mitchel
, with a handful of men, held the enemy in check and prevented their landing for many hours, until our soldiers were largely outnumbered, while our position was enfiladed by the fleet.
When they at length retreated, poor John Bee
, a Lieutenant in the First artillery, was one of those who were left dead behind them.
He was a good officer and a fine fellow, with generous, chivalric feelings.
How little did those who knew him as a light-hearted boy dream that he would fall on that ocean washed shore and sleep there so soundly that the loudest cannon could never more awaken him to the turmoil of this mortal life.
Battery Wagner was assaulted that very night, and the weary but brave-hearted artillerists, who had fought through all the heat of the day, were called upon to stand to their guns again and help to repel the efforts which were vainly made to capture this work.
I have heard an amusing account of a little incident that occurred on this occasion.
Two brothers—one a Captain of a company, and the other a private—were standing side by side, awaiting the charge of the foe, who had already been beaten back.
Suddenly the younger one (quite a boy) was struck by a bullet, and, falling down, exclaimed: ‘Oh, T,—— I am killed!
I am killed!’
turned his head anxiously towards him, but perceived at once that in the excitement of the moment he had overestimated the extent of his injuries, and replied sternly: ‘You are not, sir. Get up and shoot your gun.’
‘Well, T——,’ said the junior, meekly, ‘I thought I was killed; but I'll try to get up.’
With that he scrambled to his feet and manfully met the oncoming attack, standing at his post until it was defeated, and only going to the hospital to have his wound dressed when all immediate danger was over.
On the night of the 18th of July, Battery Wagner was again furiously assaulted, and although one angle of the fort was carried by the assailants, they were at last driven off and obliged to give up the idea and abandon the hope of ever capturing this work by force
of arms; for our troops were too vigilant to be surprised, and too resolute to be overcome.
So the engineers, who had steadily advanced their lines of earthworks every night closer and closer to ours, ever since they had obtained a foothold on the Island
, undertook the task of obtaining possession of Battery Wagner and driving us away, and they eventually succeeded by their skill in effecting what they desired.
The cannon of the enemy were of much heavier calibre than ours, and tore down our parapets; and a calcium light which they mounted threw an illumination almost as bright as day upon our defences, so that our working parties at length could accomplish nothing, our guns could not be remounted, nor the breaches in our walls repaired.
This kind of warfare is not so dangerous as the storming of redoubts, or battles in the open field, but it is very wearying and harrassing, and breaks down the spirit of troops unless they are very steady and well disciplined; for there is no excitement in it, and the protracted strain on the nerves wears them out. Many soldiers after their term of duty was over at Battery Wagner went home only to die of typhoid fever, as did Captain Julius Alston
and Lieutenant Randal Craft
, of the regulars.
The bomb-proofs were used as hospitals, and were intensely hot so that the atmosphere in them was stifling, and men who were at all fastidious preferred remaining outside of them, even when they were ‘Noff duty,’ and running the risk of being killed by the continually exploding shells.
Oh, those shells!
who, having once heard their rushing voice of woe, can ever forget them?
When they rise up in the air, from afar, and draw gradually nearer and nearer, roaring, screaming, and hurtling through miles of space on their errand of destruction, it is almost impossible to believe that they are inanimate objects, the appalling sound they make is so expressive of hatred and malignity.
On the 6th of September an attack was made upon Battery Gregg by barges, from Vincent's Creek; but our signal officers had been clever enough to read the enemy's signals, and we were therefore prepared to meet their advance—our entire force at Battery Wagner, except the artillerists having been temporarily transferred to the point where the assault was expected.
When the barges approached, they were received so warmly that they soon withdrew in confusion.
, the commander of our forces on Morris Island
, now reported that the engineers no longer considered Battery Wagner tenable.
A council of general officers was held, and it was decided that at last Morris Island
must be evacuted.
had held out fifty-eight days, but she was finally to be abandoned, and so the evacuation began, at 9 o'clock on the evening of the 7th of September.
We had a considerable number of wounded men, because of the close proximity of our works, and the Federals
, who had trained their sharp-shooters to pick off our soldiers very accurately, whenever any work was done on our defences.
The wounded were taken to Comming's Point and embarked first.
After their departure the infantry were taken across to Fort Johnson
, on James Island
; next followed the artillerists, then the rear-guard, which was composed of a small detachment of Regulars from Battery Gregg and Battery Wagner, and, last of all, three officers and a sergeant, who remained to deceive the enemy up to the moment when Captain Huguenin
lit the fuse which was expected to blow up the powder magazine.
They moved about from angle to angle, firing off rifles as fast as they could load them, so that the Yankees
might not be aware that our troops had departed, and that all they had to do was to walk in and take possession.
This was a very trying ordeal, for at any moment an attack on our shattered lines might have been made, and this minute garrison captured or killed.
It was by this time 1 o'clock in the morning, and the moon had risen.
The doors of the powder-magazine were opened and the fuse ignited; then they hastened down to the beach to take their places in our last boat.
‘Hurry,’ shouted the sailors who manned this barge, for the enemy had discovered that something unusual was taking place, and had sent their barges forward again, either to make another attack on Battery Gregg, or to ascertain our movements, They had intercepted two of our boats and captured forty-nine men. The officers, in obedience to the warning summons, hastened rapidly on, but Captain Huguenin
had been twice struck that day by fragments of shells which had exploded near him, and was so lame that he could not advance very fast.
‘Go on,’ he said to his comrades, ‘and I will overtake you.’
But when he got to the beach, he found, to his dismay, that in the darkness and confusion they had gone off and left him, supposing him to be aboard.
His position was truly a melancholy and precarious one, for the guns of the enemy's batteries and those of the fleet swept the open beach, as the tide was out; and if he returned to Battery Wagner, that was no refuge to seek shelter in, when every instant he hoped to hear the powder blow up, and all of our batteries and Fort Moultrie
had been instructed to concentrate their fire upon it as soon as the signal of our having evacuated Morris Island
had been given.
To surrender, and be taken prisoner,
was also dreadful.
Just then a boat, which was apparently going out to sea, swept by. He hailed it, and was informed, to his joy, that it was a ten-oared Confederate barge, which had turned back to avoid capture, and was going round by Sullivan's Island
The officer in charge, in reply to his earnest appeal, ‘For God's sake take me with you!’
replied, ‘The Yankees
are too near to stop, but wade out, and we will take you in.’
So the last Confederate soldier who left Morris Island
waded out breast-high in the water and was hauled aboard as the boat shot by. They reached Fort Johnston
at about 3 o'clock in the morning, and found that Colonel Yates
and a detachment of Regulars were about to set off for Morris Island
, to make an attempt to rescue him, but the effort would probably have failed.
A report that Captain Huguenin
had been killed preceded him to the city, and when he reported himself, at about 8 o'clock, at General Ripley
's headquarters, the greeting given him by the General
was very characteristic.
In his bluff, military manner he said: ‘Is that you?
Why, I thought you were dead.
I am glad to see you.’
It appears, therefore, that in South Carolina
, as well as Scotland
, ‘short greeting serves in times of war.’
was much disappointed at Batteries Gregg and Wagner not having been blown up. Why the zealous and reliable officers who were deputed to do this failed in accomplishing their design was because the fuses they were ordered to use were defective.
As soon as Captain Huguenin
was told that the duty of blowing up Battery Gregg was assigned to him, he cut off several pieces of the fuse and touched them off, to ascertain if this important factor was in good order; but he soon found that it was worth nothing.
In some parts the fire died out after being kindled, and in others the powder flared up so quickly that it was anything but a slow match.
He therefore went to Colonel Keitt
and said: ‘This fuse will never explode the magazine.
It was brought here in an open row-boat, and probably got wet, for it is useless; but if you will allow me to use my discretion I will guarantee such an explosion that where Battery Wagner now stands there will soon be only a creek.
We have two barrels of resin.
I will put them into the hospital, which adjoins the powder-magazine, set them on fire, and open the doors of the magazine, so that the flames may soon ignite the powder, and if the Yankees
take possession of the fort one minute after I leave it, no man will be found bold enough to venture to go in and try to extinguish the fire.’
called a council of officers to consider
the question, but they decided that as the commanding General
had said ‘a fuse,’ nothing else could be used.
So the letter of the order was obeyed, while the object in view was lost sight of. The fuse was accordingly lighted the night of the evacuation, and after burning awhile the fire died out. Neither Battery Wagner nor Battery Gregg, consequently, was blown up, and the enemy quietly took possession of them next morning and mounted their guns on our parapets.