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The siege of Morris Island.

General W. W. H. Davis.
The siege of Morris Island has passed into history. The wearisome day and nights in the trenches, with shovel and rifle, under the plunging fire of the enemy's batteries, and the repeated assaults of almost impregnable earthworks, are numbered among the past events of our late wonderful war. Morris Island is a sandy waif of the sea, lying on the west side of the outer harbor of Charleston, and stretching three miles from north to south. It varies in width from two or three hundred yards to a few feet at the narrowest part. A ridge of sand-hills run parallel with the beach, just out of reach of the tidal-line on the east; while on the west it slopes into marshes, two miles wide and intersected by a labyrinth of water-courses, which separates it from James Island. At a few points the tide breaks entirely across it. It is an island of fine white sand.

A watchful enemy had carefully guarded this approach to Charleston, where the late rebellion had its birth. A strong earthwork, known as Battery Gregg, had been erected on Cumming's Point, at the north end of the island, mounting four ten-inch columbiads and one ten-inch mortar. This battery had been used in the siege of Fort Sumter, in April, 1861; but the work had been altered and strengthened, and some of its guns now pointed down the island. About the narrowest part of the island, where Vincent's creek approaches the sea, was erected Battery Wagner, on which were mounted sixteen guns and mortars, most of them of heavy calibre. This was one of the strongest earthworks ever built, and gave evidence of the highest order of engineering ability. The bomb-proof would [96] accomodate a garrison of fourteen hundred men, and was strong enough to resist the heaviest shot and shell. It was flanked on the west by Vincent's creek and the marshes, on the east by the sea, and had a wet ditch. It could only be approached in front over ground that was completely swept by its guns. The guns of Gregg took it in reverse, while those of the enemy's batteries on James and Sullivan's Islands took it both in reverse and flank. The barbette guns of Sumter commanded it by a plunging fire, and threw shells a mile beyond. The operations were carried on along a narrow strip of land less than one-half the front of the work, a thing of rare occurrence in besieging a strong work; while it differed from most operations of the kind, in the fact that both parties had communication with the sea. A more difficult problem than the reduction of Battery Wagner has seldom been presented to the engineer for solution. The enemy had also constructed detached batteries in the sand-hills lower down the island, which, with those previously mentioned, commanded the approaches to it from all quarters. On the south end of the island was a long rifle-pit to guard against a landing from boats. Directly south of Morris lies Folly Island, separated from it by an inlet of the sea three hundred yards wide. Its general features are the same, except that it is covered by a heavy growth of timber, well calculated to conceal preliminary operations. On the west Folly Island is separated from James Island by a narrow stream and a continuation of the marshes that bound Morris Island on that side.

After the failure of the attack on Fort Sumter, in April, the government determined to place Brigadier General Quincy A. Gillmore in charge of the operations about to be renewed against the defenses before Charleston. At the time he was at the head of a division in the field in Kentucky. He was called to Washington. After listening to the views of the administration and fully understanding their wishes, he agreed to accomplish three things, if placed in command of the land operations, viz.: possess and hold the south end of Morris Island, reduce Fort Wagner, and destroy Sumter for offensive purposes. The Secretary of the Navy gave him to understand that if these things were accomplished, the iron-clads would go in and finish what remained to be done in the capture of Charleston.

General Gillmore reached Hilton Head on the 12th of June, 1863, at which time we had a small force on Folly Island, holding it as a base of future operations. The General immediately proceeded hither to examine the situation. From the jungles on the north end of the island he looked across the inlet on to the sand-hills of [97] Morris, crowned with Confederate guns. From where he stood Sumter was in plain view. He saw everything with the eye of a practical engineer, and decided at a glance where to erect his batteries, and the use he would make of them. Necessity compelled their erection within a few hundred yards of a vigilant enemy; discovery would defeat the enterprise. The engineers were immediately set to work, and a dense thicket served to conceal our operations. The laborers, materials, guns, and, in fact, everything used in constructing the batteries, were taken to the front at night. The greater part of the work was done under fire, for the enemy suspected we had a force at the head of the island, and they shelled it continually. Troops were landed under cover of the darkness, and before the morning dawned they were concealed in the timber and bushes, and the transports that brought them were sent to sea again. The island was carefully picketed to prevent the enemy's spies landing to discover what we were doing.

In twenty days the batteries were finished, mounting forty-eight guns and mortars, with all the appliances of bomb-proofs, magazines, etc., and each piece supplied with two hundred rounds of ammunition. So well had all our movements been concealed from the enemy that he did not dream of the existence of our batteries until they opened fire upon him. The assault was made on Morris Island the morning of the 10th of July. It was a combined attack by infantry in boats, consisting of General Strong's Brigade, and a heavy cannonade from our batteries. The infantry embarked during the night of the 9th, on Folly river, and at daylight in the morning lay in Light House Inlet, off the southwestern point of the island. General Truman B. Seymour came into the batteries just before daylight, impatient for the bombardment to open. The night before, the brush in front of the batteries had been cut away, and the embrasures opened. Seymour asked the officer in command of the three thirty-pounder Parrotts on the right if he could see a certain gun of the enemy mounted among the sand-hills distinctly enough to take aim at it On the officer replying in the negative the General called a party of engineers to shovel the sand away from the embrasure. Day broke before they had finished, and the General remarking, “It will never do to let them get the first fire,” called in the engineers, and directed the officer to “blaze away.” Immediately the quiet of the morning was broken by the roar of artillery. The infantry moved up about the same time, and in a little while effected a landing, and carried the enemy's rifle-pits. General Strong, in his anxiety to land, stepped overboard in seven feet of water; but this mishap did not prevent [98] him mounting a Confederate horse, without saddle, and barefooted, and join in the pursuit of the foe. His patriotism received the double baptism of fire and water. The reveille had just sounded in the enemy's camp, and they had turned out for roll-call, when our shot and shell went tearing through their ranks. Officers and men were killed before they had time to dress. The iron-clads crossed the bar at daylight, and after we had effected a landing, they moved up and rolled their ponderous shells over the island. At the Beacon House our troops came within reach of the guns of Wagner, when a halt was made, and some intrenchments thrown up. The day was intensely hot, and the troops were completely prostrated. Our loss was small. Thus had General Gillmore redeemed his first pledge. At this period in the operations a fatal mistake was made. Fort Wagner should have been immediately assailed, and would then have fallen into our hands without much opposition. The assault was delayed until the next day, when we were repulsed with considerable loss. While these operations were going on, a division of troops was sent over to James Island to engage the enemy's attention in that direction, where a spirited action was fought on the 16th of July, in which the Federal forces were victorious.

The failure of the attack on the 11th satisfied General Gillmore that siege operations must be commenced against Wagner. Ground was broken on the night of the 13th, and the work was pushed with such vigor that the first parallel, at the distance of thirteen hundred and fifty yards, was completed on the 17th. It mounted twenty-five rifled guns and mortars. An assault was arranged for twilight the next evening, and two additional brigades were added to our forces. During the day our batteries, in conjunction with the navy, kept up a warm cannonade on the fort, and by 4 P. M. the enemy's guns were silenced. The troops chosen for the assault were the brigades of Seymour, Strong and Putnam, the whole under the command of General Seymour. They moved up the beach about sundown, and advanced upon the work in deployed lines. At the distance of nearly a mile, the enemy opened upon them with shot and shell, which they changed to grape, canister and musketry at closer range. The troops steadily advanced in spite of this iron and leaden hail, with scores of men falling, killed and wounded, at every step. A portion of them reached the ditch and. mounted the parapet, and seized and held that part of the work near the salient for some time, but, after a fierce struggle for the mastery, were compelled to retire, leaving the killed and wounded in the hands of the enemy. The assault was bravely made, and the repulse bloody. Our loss footed [99] up 1,517. The attack was a direct one, the situation of the work being such that no feint or diversion could be made. The guns of the enemy swept every foot of the ground our men marched over. When they left the ditch for the parapet they were met by the bayonet, and nearly every other missile and weapon that is used on such occasions. The gunners were driven from the curtain, and many of the garrison sought safety in the bomb-proof. The fort was within an ace of being ours; but we were driven back. There comes the old story that somebody failed to support the advance at the proper time; but here the responsibility ends.

This repulse caused a modification in the plan of operations. By possessing Wagner the works on Cumming's Point would have fallen of their own weight; whence it would be an easy matter to bombard Sumter. General Gillmore was now convinced that Wagner was too strong to be taken by assault, and could only be reduced by regular siege. As the guns of Sumter would be a great annoyance to the men in the trenches, commanding them by a plunging fire, he determined to destroy that fortress over the head of Wagner. This was contrary to the usual course of military engineering, but necessity compelled its adoption. The distance at which the breaching batteries had to be erected was unprecedented, and the task was pronounced impracticable. None but the boldest engineer would have undertaken the work. Beauregard assured his troops that Sumter could not be breached until after Wagner had been reduced; but Gillmore thought differently, and bent all his energies to make good the faith that was in him.

The engineers commenced work on the night of the 25th of July, and by the 16th of August the batteries were completed. They were eight in number — the nearest one being thirty-four hundred yards from Sumter, and the farthest forty-two hundred and thirty-five yards. Seven of these batteries bore the distinctive names of Brown, Rosecrans, Meade, Hayes, Reno, Stevens, and Strong, mounting the following guns, viz.: one three-hundred-pounder, six two-hundred-pounders, nine one-hundred-pounders, two eighty-four-pounder Whitworth, two thirty and four twenty-pounders; all Parrotts except two guns, and the whole of them rifled. Never before had such a weight of metal been directed against any fortress in one attack since the art of war began. Those who have not engaged in such operations can have only a faint idea of the labor and fatigue attending the construction of the batteries and mounting the guns. The three-hundred-pounder gave great trouble before it was got into position. It was transported more than a mile from [100] the dock, through deep sands, and across semi-marsh overflowed by the tide. It broke down three sling-carts. It was about a week on the way, and in the daytime it was covered with brush and weeds to conceal it from the enemy. Not only were the batteries mostly built, but all the guns were mounted, at night. Most of the work was done under fire.

At this period there sprang into existence a battery built in the marsh between Morris and James Islands, which has become famous as the “Swamp Angel,” and as such will go down to history. Its construction was early determined upon, and the suggestion, we believe, was that of Colonel Serrell, commanding the New York Volunteer Engineers. It was expected that shells thrown from it would reach the city and probably cause the enemy to evacuate. The spot chosen was almost a mile from Morris Island, and nearly on a line between what were known as the “left batteries” and Charleston, on the edge of a deep creek that served as a wet ditch. On reconnoitering the locality it was found that a pole could be run down sixteen feet anywhere thereabouts before coming to bottom. The active part of the work was assigned to a lieutenant of engineers who, when shown where the battery was to be built, pronounced the thing impracticable. The colonel replied that the project was practicable, and the battery must be built on the spot selected. The officer was directed to call for anything he might deem necessary for the work. The next day he made a requisition on the quartermaster for one hundred men, eighteen feet high, to wade through mud sixteen feet deep, and immediately called on the surgeon of his regiment and inquired if he could splice the men if furnished. This piece of pleasantry cost the lieutenant his arrest, and the battery was built by men of ordinary stature. A heavy foundation of pine logs was laid in the mud, on which the battery was built entirely of sand-bags. The timber was hauled several miles from Folly Island. The bags were filled with sand on the island and taken to the battery in boats. All the work was done at night, for the eyes of a watchful enemy were upon all our movements. They knew we were at some mischief so far out on the marsh, but did not realize the truth until they looked across one bright morning and saw that, like Jonah's gourd, a battery had grown up in the night. It was commenced on the 4th and completed on the 19th of August. The sand-bags cost five thousand dollars. The battery was mounted with a two hundred-pounder Parrott, and great labor was required to put it in position. It was hauled to the edge of the marsh, where it was embarked on a raft in the creek, and thus floated down to the battery. The distance [101] from Charleston was eight thousand eight hundred yards, and the gun was fired at an elevation of thirty-five degrees. The strain on it was such that it burst at the thirty-fourth discharge.

The “Greek fire,” of which so much was said, was one of the great humbugs of the war. Nothing of the kind was used during the siege. Three shells filled with pieces of ordinary port-fire were fired into the city of Charleston; but everything beyond this was due to the fancy of newspaper correspondents. The distinctive name of “Swamp Angel” is said to have been suggested by Sergeant Feller, of the New York Volunteer Engineers.

Meanwhile, the enemy had not been idle. We contended against a foe as brave and vigilant as ourselves, and they taxed every resource of the profession to repel us. They erected new batteries on James Island to take us in flank, and strengthened those on Sullivan. They mounted new guns to match our superior weight of metal as far as possible. The range of one of our guns was tried on Sumter on the 12th of August. The shell struck the parapet and knocked down a quantity of bricks, which fell on a steamer lying alongside, and broke off her smoke-stack.

The regular bombardment was opened on Sumter at sunrise on the 17th, and continued without cessation, from day to day, until the 23d. At the same time the iron-clads moved up and took part; the monitor batteries “Passaic” and “Patapsco” directing their fire at the for, while the others engaged Wagner. When the firing ceased on the 23d, the fort was practically destroyed for all offensive purposes. The barbette guns were dismounted and buried up in the debris. The gorge-wall and sea-face were so badly breached that in many places the arches of the casemates were exposed. The lines were entirely destroyed, and it appeared a shapeless mass of brick and mortar. Our batteries were occasionally reopened until the 1st of September, when the first bombardment terminated. In this time we threw six thousand two hundred and fifty projectiles, of which two thousand one hundred and sixty-five were solid shot and four thousand and eighty-five percussion shell. They were of the calibre of one, two and three hundred-pounders. The enemy replied feebly to our fire, and did but little damage. The sight was a fine one; the artillery practice as good as ever was seen. The scream of the shot and shell, as they took their course to the devoted fortress was fearful, and every hit was followed by a cloud of brick and dust thrown into the air. The fire of the land batteries was continuous, with reliefs of artillerists for the guns. On the last day of the bombardment the “Ironsides” and monitors took an active [102] part. The correspondent of the Mobile Tribune gave an interesting account of the situation of the garrison of Sumter at this period. He said:

The “Ironsides” and monitors commenced a terrific bombardment. A fog protected them from the guns of Moultrie. Sumter, having only two ten-inch and one eleven-inch gun left on barbette, could only fire an occasional shot to show life. For seven hours, at close range, the fleet hurled shot and shell into the work. Striking the wall near the parapet, loose bricks were thrown up in columns, and fell in showers around the gunners and around the work. Walls were ploughed through, casemates filled with sand, and the shells passed across the parade, striking the interior wall of the west magazine, containing powder enough to destroy the fort and garrison. One shell struck the ventilator and exploded. It filled the magazine with smoke. Another more successful shot and all would have been lost. It was an anxious moment, but the fort was held. Gradually the morning dawned. The fog lifted, and Fort Moultrie opened fire on the ships. Instead of continuing their fire at this critical period the fleet withdrew, and the danger was removed. The object was now, in the unsafe condition of the fort, to get rid of the powder. It depended on time and the movements of the fleet. Had the fleet renewed the attack the business might have been done. The fleet delayed! Night after night the powder, ten thousand pounds, was moved in barrels, under the enemy's guns. Only eight hundred pounds were left; the crisis was passed.

While the batteries were being erected and their guns directed against Sumter, the engineers pushed operations against Wagner, which they approached with steady and toilsome pace. On the night of the 23d of July the second parallel was opened six hundred yards nearer the fort. Here was our strongest position, defensive as well as offensive. In this parallel, it will be remembered, was mounted some of the guns that breached Sumter, and batteries were erected there mounting fifteen other guns and mortars. Here was built a store magazine that contained a supply of powder for all the contiguous batteries, and a small splinter-proof contained an army telegraph instrument to communicate with headquarters. Here was the “headquarters” of the trenches, where the general and field officer of the day remained when on duty at the front; and from this point the details for guards and fatigue in the trenches were sent to their respective localities. On the top of the magazine a soldier was stationed to watch the firing of the enemy's batteries, and when he pronounced the significant words, “Johnson, cover!” or “Simpkins, cover!” every one sought the friendly shelter of the neighboring sand-bags. In front of the parallel was constructed a wire entanglement to trip up assailing parties in the dark. Firing was resumed between the enemy's batteries and our own on the 25th, and there were numerous casualties. On the night of the 26th a shell from James Island burst amid a fatigue party mounting a gun, and wounded twenty-one men. [103]

The third parallel, four hundred and fifty yards from Wagner, was opened on the 9th of August. The approaches were pushed forward as rapidly as possible, sometimes by the full, and at other times by the flying, sap. The fourth parallel was opened on the 22d within three hundred yards of the fort. Immediately in front was a sand ridge where the enemy's sharpshooters were stationed, from which they constantly annoyed our men in the trenches. To take it was a necessity, for while they held it the approaches could not be advanced. On the night of the 26th a dash was made at it with the bayonet, when it was taken, with seventy prisoners. The alarm opened the guns of Wagner, and brought a shower of grape, which killed and wounded a few of our men. Shovels were placed in the hands of the prisoners, who were obliged to dig for shelter from their own people. The fifth parallel was opened the same night, within two hundred yards of Wagner. This was the most advanced parallel. Beyond this point the approaches were simply zig-zags, making sharp angles with each other, and thus the engineers crept gradually up to the work until the counterscarp was crowned on the night of the 6th of September.

The next day after the ridge was taken the enemy made one of those fatal shots sometimes witnessed in siege operations. The Eighty-fifth Pennsylvania Regiment was the guard in the trenches. There had not been much firing during the day, and in consequence the men became careless. Nine soldiers of this regiment were sitting in a little area, without the cover of the trenches, when toward evening a single mortar shell was fired from James Island. Slowly it described the usual curve of such projectiles, and coming to the earth, fell and exploded in the midst of the party. Seven were killed outright, and the two others so badly wounded that they died in a short time. The members of their bodies, clothing, equipments and broken guns were scattered in all directions. The nearer the approach to the fort the more difficult and dangerous became the operations. The enemy kept up an incessant fire day and night, and the low trenches afforded poor shelter to the troops guarding them. The engineers and fatigue parties were almost entirely without protection. The enemy had planted the ground immediately in front of the fort with torpedoes, which increased the danger; a number were digged up and destroyed, while others exploded with fatal effect to our men. The ground was literally sown with them; they were buried just beneath the surface, and so arranged with a plunger that they would explode on being trod upon. Their presence was rather turned to our advantage, for they prevented a sortie from the enemy. [104]

Immediately we had secured a lodgment on Morris Island, a party of boat infantry was organized to patrol the creeks and water-courses that lie between this island and James, to prevent the landing of the spies and scouts of the enemy. The enemy employed a similar force, and occasionally these boat pickets had an encounter upon the water. Two attempts were made to surprise Battery Gregg, by a night attack in boats, which, if successful, would compel the garrison of Wagner to surrender. The enemy discovered the approach of our boats, and both attempts were failures. In one of these the commanding officer of the expedition called for a volunteer to blow up the magazine-one who “feared neither man nor devil” --when Sergeant Rosenberger, a fine young soldier of the One Hundred and Fourth Pennsylvania Regiment, stepped forward and offered to apply the match.

Sumter out of the question, every energy was directed to the reduction of Wagner, which alone stood in the way of our possessing the whole of Morris Island. The siege operations dragged their slow length along. Day after day and night after night our brave men digged and guarded in the trenches, subject to a galling fire. The enemy clung to their stronghold with great tenacity, for it was then considered the gateway to Charleston. They met us with a sternness and courage worthy of a better cause. It was Greek pitted against Greek. The extreme heat of the weather and the excessive fatigue were rapidly wearing down the men, while their constant exposure to death in the trenches was more dreaded than open combat. Only those who have experienced it know how it tries the nerves of men to lie in a narrow trench with the thermometer at 120 degrees, exposed to a heavy fire, or, while thus situated, to ply the shovel. The casualties were numerous; the sick list was largely on the increase — some of the regiments having more than half their men unfit for duty. We had already lost three thousand of our brave fellows on that narrow sand bank. The burial of the dead was constantly going on, and at last became so frequent that music was prohibited at soldiers' funerals. At this period the medical inspector of the department reported that unless Wagner should soon fall the troops would not be in a condition to further prosecute the siege; and that a third assault would be more economical of life than a continuance of the present operations.

The night attack in boats on Battery Gregg having failed, it became evident that Wagner must be stormed, if taken at all, and this was resolved upon. The time fixed for the assault was Monday morning, the 7th of September. Operations were pushed against the enemy [105] as vigorously as possible. The garrison was harassed day and night. To prevent them repairing damages at night a powerful calcium light was turned upon the ramparts, which made them as light as day — thus blinding the enemy, while it enabled our men to see what was going on. Our sharpshooters were so numerous and so close to the fort, that the enemy were kept from their guns. Our trenches were widened and deepened to hold the troops for the assault, and the light mortars were taken forward and mounted on the advanced parallels. The final bombardment was opened on the fort on the morning of the 5th of September, and continued more than forty hours without cessation. At the same time the iron-clad frigate “New Ironsides” moved up within a thousand yards, and opened upon it with her heavy broadsides. The air was filled with shells bursting in and over the fort, which drove every living thing from sight. The garrison was compelled to seek shelter beneath their impenetrable bomb-proofs. The island and the sea fairly trembled under the discharge of artillery. At night the spectacle was grand, for the heavens seemed alive with the fiery projectiles as they flew to their destination. During the last thirty-six hours of the bombardment the admitted loss of the enemy was one hundred and twenty-five, in spite of all their means of protection.

At eight o'clock on the evening of the 6th of September the commander of the troops selected for the assault of the next morning met General Gillmore in council. The troops chosen consisted of two brigades and two regiments. The two regiments were to assail the sea bastion from the trenches, spike the guns that swept the beach, and secure the entrance to the bomb-proofs. The two brigades were to pass the sea bastions, and, while one was to assault the fort in the rear, the other was to form across the island, to prevent reinforcements coming down. The troops were to be concealed in the trenches; the signal of the attack was to be the raising of the American flag on the surf battery, when they were to rush out by the nearest parallel to the assault. The batteries were to continue their fire to the latest moment. Our final instructions arrived at midnight, and each regimental and brigade commander was furnished with a drawing of the fort. The troops were to be under arms at half-past 1 o'clock, so as to take their place in the trenches before daylight. The hour of assault was fixed at nine o'clock A. M. Brigadier General Terry was placed in command of the troops, and had charge of the assault.

The night was an anxious one to all who were to participate in the work of the morrow. Many important, but unpleasant, offices [106] have to be performed before one is prepared to enter the “eminent deadly breach,” and there was but little time allowed for them. The troops were aroused soon after midnight, and by the hour designated were under arms on the beach. The men carried a canteen of water each, and a few crackers in their haversacks. Two hundred men carried shovels in addition to their arms and equipments. The regiments report at the place of rendezvous, and the column is soon formed. Although a mile and a half from the enemy, everything was done in the quietest manner. The commands were given in that low tone of voice that marks the approach of danger. The morning was bright with moonlight; there was hardly a breath of air stirring, and the quieted sea broke in gentle murmurs on the sandy shore. In view of what was to come, a marked solemnity impressed everything. While waiting to move forward an undefined rumor reached us that a deserter had come in and stated that the fort had been evacuated; but as it could not be traced to any reliable source it was considered a camp story. At two o'clock we moved up to what was thought to be a bloody morning's work. At the Beacon House a halt was ordered. After waiting some time we were joined by General Terry, who announced that the fort had been evacuated between nine and ten the night before, and that we were marching to a bloodless victory. The enemy retired by way of Cumming's Point in boats, a few of them only falling into the hands of our boat infantry. Captain Walker, of the New York Volunteer Engineers, pulled up some of the pallisading around the fort about ten o'clock, most likely while the evacuation was going on. The first man to enter the work was a sergeant of the Thirty-ninth Illinois, who is said to have volunteered to go in alone to see if the enemy had gone. Upon his return a few troops entered and took undisputed possession.

The announcement that the enemy had left was received with satisfaction. Three thousand hearts beat happier. However ardent a soldier may be in the cause he fights for, he feels no chagrin and mortification when the enemy yields him a triumph not purchased by blood. The pen of the romancer may write about the disappointment because there were no enemy to fight, and the untried soldier imagine it, but he who breasts the bullets and the storm does not participate in this unnatural feeling. The troops marched up to the head of the island under a cross-fire from the batteries on James and Sullivan's Islands. On the return I went into Wagner, and never before saw a place in such universal ruin. Everything but the sand was knocked to pieces; guns dismounted, carriages broken, and [107] wagons smashed up. The commissary building was literally reduced to splinters. The impenetrable bomb-proof was the salvation of the garrison. The filth was in keeping with the ruin that prevailed; and the heap of unburied dead without the sally-port showed how hasty had been the flight of the enemy. The troops returned to their camp about sunrise. The night of the 7th Admiral Dahlgren made an attack upon Sumter in boats manned by sailors and marines from the fleet. It was anticipated and repulsed. The next day an action took place between the iron-clad fleet and the enemy's batteries on Sullivan's Island, which was, probably, the severest naval engagement that ever took place in America. The enemy opened with a hundred guns of heavy calibre, but before the day was closed they had all been silenced. The “New Ironsides,” commanded by that noble old sailor, Commodore Rowan, played a giant's part in the fight. Another bombardment would have given us the island, but the Commodore was not permitted to renew the action in the morning, and the time given the enemy to strengthen his batteries rendered them quite impregnable.

The engineers were immediately set to work erecting strong batteries at the head of Morris Island for offensive and defensive purposes. Our guns at Cumming's Point were a mile and a half from Forts Johnston and Moultrie, and within less than a mile of Sumter; and from Charleston, as the bird flies, more than three miles. By the 17th of November our batteries erected against the city were in such state of completeness that fire was opened and thirteen shells were thrown into Charleston from a thirty-pounder Parrott. The next day a one hundred-pounder was opened from near the same point, which threw fourteen shells into the city. From that hour to its surrender the firing was continued on this doomed city; at periods of several nights in succession a shell was dropped into it every five minutes. One of the thirty-pounders had a remarkable life. It was one of the two first that opened upon the city, and was fired at an elevation of forty-two degrees. Day and night it continued to hurl the missiles of destruction until the night of the 19th of March, when it gave up the ghost at the four thousand six hundred and fifteenth round. This was the first gun of this class and calibre that had been known to burst, and I challenge the history of artillery to show equal endurance in any other gun. There were fired from it one hundred and thirty-eight thousand four hundred and fifty pounds of iron, and it burned one-sixth as much powder. Down to the time of which I write, the 19th of March, there had burst in our operations twenty-three heavy guns, of which one was a three hundred-pounder, five [108] were two hundred-pounders, and seventeen one hundred-pounders, and in only a single instance was injury done to the artillerists. The amount of labor performed during the siege operations was enormous. I have no means of giving that done by the whole army, and can only speak of my own immediate command. The little brigade which I had the honor to command, and which never had much over one thousand men for detail, performed nearly an hundred thousand days and nights of duty. The trenches, parallels, splinter-proofs and batteries constructed measured about eight miles in length. Think of the days and nights of toil, and labor, and danger, that fashioned these eight miles of moving sand into strong defenses, and how often their earthen walls were bathed in the blood of the trusty soldier!

Numerous interesting incidents happened during the siege. The night we broke ground to erect a heavy battery between Wagner and Gregg there occurred an event which seemed to be a Providential punishment of those who avoided their duty. The working party was in charge of Captain Pratt, of the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Volunteers. After he had placed the first relief on duty he walked out to the beach; he saw there two soldiers sitting in a large hole made by one of the enemy's shells. Upon being asked who they were, they replied that they belonged to the second relief. He suspected they were shirking duty, and kept them in mind. The Captain again walked out to the beach, after the second relief had been placed on duty, and found the same men sitting in the shell hole, who failed to recognize him in the dark. He repeated his inquiry, and was told they belonged to the first relief that had just come off duty. Almost at the same moment he looked across the harbor toward Fort Moultrie, for he was on the beach facing it, and saw a mortar shell rise from the fort. Knowing the range was taken for his working party, he stepped to one side and watched the flight of this messenger of death. He saw it rise high in the air; the fuse twinkling like a moving star; describe the usual curve, and fall to the earth a short distance from him. Upon going to the spot he found that it had fallen into the hole where the two were sitting and killed them both. They died shirking their duty, with a lie on their lips.

Soon after we took Battery Gregg there happened a very sad accident. A captain of a Maine regiment, who was a member of a court-martial, and not engaged in the operations, went to the front one afternoon to have a good view of Charleston. He stood alone on the top of the bomb-proof at Gregg, in plain sight of the enemy's batteries on James Island, a mile and a half distant. A rebel [109] gunner in Fort Johnston trained a gun on him and fired. The aim was unerring, and the shell cut him in two.

About the same time, while a party of the One Hundred and Fourth Pennsylvania Volunteers were asleep at night in the bomb-proof of Gregg, a shell fired from James Island entered the door and exploded, killing and wounding seven. Many things likewise occurred that were amusing. One day a small negro boy was leading a horse, hitched to a cart, up to the head of the island; Moultrie paid her respects to the young African, and, a large shell bursting near him, killed his horse, knocking the head off of it, leaving the boy unharmed, with the bridle in his hand.

The siege of Morris Island, or, as it will be known in history, “The operations against the defenses before Charleston,” is, in many respects, one of the most wonderful in military annals. In the future the student of military science will study it with marked attention and interest. Here was first developed the power of the modern long-range gun, and the experiments proved the Parrott rifled projectile to be superior to any other in the world. Instead of battering down walls of masonry at the distance of a few hundred yards, Gillmore taught the world that American guns could do it nearly three miles. Whoever before heard of a first-class fortification being destroyed over the head of intermediate works, two miles removed from it? And where do we find a city bombarded from a battery that was five miles distant? This was the first operation in modern times, on land, where guns of a heavier calibre than the one hundred-pounder were used to any extent. It introduced the two hundred and three hundred-pounder rifle, never before used in siege operations, and demonstrated their great superiority over every other arm in use. It was all that was required to make the United States the first nation in the world in all things that pertain to the art of war.

That part of the operations devoted to Sumter opened a new chapter in military engineering. Hitherto batteries to breach walls of masonry had seldom, if ever, been erected one mile from the place to be battered down, and a gun that carried a projectile that weighed sixty-four pounds was the heaviest metal used. In the days of Vauban, in his time the first military engineer in the world, and almost the father of the present system of permanent fortification, as well as the system of attack and defense of fortified places, it was laid down as a rule that the first parallel should not be opened at a greater distance than six hundred yards from the salient angle of the covered way. With him it was customary to establish breaching [110] batteries on the glacie. General Gillmore overturned the theories and practice of the schools, and set at naught the teachings of the oldest masters. He erected his breaching batteries miles away from the point of attack, and under the most favorable circumstances did not wish to approach nearer than a mile before he let the enemy feel the weight of his metal. He looked upon the old forty-twos and sixty-fours as discarded engines of war, fit to be laid up as “bruised monuments,” but no longer to figure in war's active operations. He chose instead the new projectiles of Parrott, and hurled at this proud fortress of the sea shot and shell that weighed two and three hundred pounds each. His operations astonished both friend and foe. Then, again, Wagner was approached over ground much less in width than the front of the work, a thing very unusual, if not almost entirely unknown. A narrow sand ridge, bounded on each side by the sea, and only a few hundred feet across in its widest part, was all the space to develop the trenches and parallels. There was another peculiarity in these operations; the communications of both parties were open to the rear, and could not be interfered with. When the history of the war comes to be written, General Gillmore will be pronounced its foremost engineer, and his operations on Morris Island considered one of its most creditable performances.

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