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The boat attack on Sumter.

by Thomas H. Stevens, Rea]1-Admiral, U. S. N.
By July 10th, 1863, a combined movement of the United States land and naval forces in the neighborhood of Charleston had given them a footing on the south end of Morris Island, and active preparations followed for the reduction of Batteries Wagner and Gregg. The results of the movement referred to, and the establishment of batteries, gave General Gillmore's command a position about half a mile from Wagner. For two months operations were conducted against the enemy, and during this period one or two unsuccessful sorties1 were made from Wagner. On July 18th the second of two assaults was made against that fort, which resulted in a loss to us of from six to seven hundred men out of four regiments.2 Of this affair Rear-Admiral Dahlgren says in his “Memoirs” :
About sunset an aide brought a note from General Gillmore on half a blank leaf, written in pencil, saying that he had ordered an assault; and by the waning light we could see the masses coming along the beach, but the darkness shut them in ere they reached the fort. Presently came the flashes of light and the sharp rattle from muskets and cannon. There could be no help from us, for it was dark and wee might kill friend as well as foe. All we could do was to look on and await an issue not in our control. The contest went on for an hour and a half, and then died away. It was over; but who had won .

This and other statements in the “Memoirs” show the lack of mutual support between the two commanders. Without such support failure was inevitable. Had the time for the assault been fixed so that the navy could have supported the movement,--as, later, at Fort Fisher, when the fire of the ships was directed by signal,--it is fair to presume that the effect of our supporting fire would have been most demoralizing, and might have been enough so to have produced, a different result.

From this time until the abandonment of Wagner and Gregg, hardly a day passed without urgent appeals for the assistance of the fleet from the commanding general, who was at times apprehensive of a sortie from the fort. Now aid was asked to intercept probable reinforcing expeditions of the enemy, and again the vessels were called on to interpose for the protection of the forces engaged in the trenches and approaches to Wagner. To all of these appeals the navy responded promptly and zealously, and under the protection of our [48] guns work on the trenches went on steadily until September 6th, when they were pushed up to the ditch of Wagner. All that day we cannonaded the fort, preparing the way for an assault to be made the next day at 9 A. M. Wagner was soon silenced, and thereafter the men worked in broad daylight without molestation, whereas, before that time, as Admiral Dahlgren states, “a man could not show a finger.”

About daylight on the 7th a message was received by the admiral from army headquarters, stating that the enemy had evacuated Wagner and Gregg, and that Morris Island was in our possession. The news spread quickly, and afloat and ashore speculation was rife as to what the next move would be and how the great advantage gained would be improved. “On to Charleston!” was the prevailing sentiment.

General Gillmore, anticipating an attempt of the enemy to recover a footing on Morris Island, requested the admiral to send a monitor up as near as practicable to Battery Gregg to frustrate any attempt in this direction, and the present Rear-Admiral E. R. Colhoun with the Weehawken was finally selected for the duty. In carrying out these orders the monitor grounded badly within easy range of the Confederate batteries on Sullivan's Island. About 5 o'clock all the other iron-clads came up to engage the batteries on Sullivan's Island, while an examination was being made of the obstructions across the channel-way, two hundred yards above Sumter, as the admiral was desirous of learning if there was a passage on either side of them, and also, what was the condition of Sumter's channel-face. For this duty my command, the Patapsco, was designated, with the Lehigh as a support. We had to run some fifteen hundred yards of batteries on Sullivan's Island before Sumter could be reached. Realizing the insignificant power of two monitors against the force of the enemy's batteries, and the fact that the more quickly the duty was performed the fewer were the chances of disaster, I determined not to jeopardize the Lehigh's safety as well as the Patapsco's, and orders were given to get up a good head of steam, to load the guns with grape and canister, and to turn the turrets fore and aft in a line with the keel, the guns pointing forward. Waiting until the iron-clads were hotly engaged with the enemy, the order “four bells and a jingle” (full speed ahead) was given, and, not waiting for her consort, the Patapsco dashed forward. When the enemy perceived the object of this movement, many of their batteries opened on us heavily, but it was not until we had reached a point about 150 yards from Sumter and the like distance from the obstructions, that we encountered the terrific converging fire from Fort Moultrie, Batteries Bee and Beauregard, and the batteries still farther up the bay. To make an examination of Sumter and the obstructions occupied 25 or 30 minutes, during which time we were struck 25 times by the heaviest projectiles of the enemy, and suffered serious damage. We fired several rounds of grape and canister at buoys supporting the obstructions, supposed to be of rope and extending from shallow water at a point two hundred yards above Sumter, in a northeasterly direction, to the shoals on the Sullivan's Island side. We did not see a man on Sumter nor any sign of a gun on the channel-face, which seemed to be intact. Having accomplished the object of our mission, the bow of the Patapsco was turned seaward to run the gauntlet again and report to Admiral Dahlgren the result of our examination. The iron-clads were still heavily engaged when we came up to the Ironsides, to which vessel the admiral had gone at the beginning of the engagement; I found him in the gangway, looking ill and anxious, but evidently much relieved at the Patapsco's safe return. Many officers of the vessel and the fleet shared in this feeling. When it is remembered that, since the first attack on Sumter by Du Pont, no demonstration had been made, except in full force and under cover of the night, that the enemy had exact range to cover with their guns the approach to the obstructions, and that while making the examination we were enduring the converging fire of the enemy's heaviest batteries, only about eight hundred yards distant, our escape from more serious results seems remarkable.

As soon as my report was made the iron-clads withdrew from action and took up their usual anchorage for the night.

The morning of the next day (September 8th) found the Weehawken still aground and the enemy pounding away at her. About 10 A. M. signal was made from the flag-ship, “Iron-clads assist Weehawken.m” Slipping the moorings of the Patapsco we hastened to the relief, but before we had gathered headway a shot from the grounded monitor landed in Moultrie and exploded a magazine; this elicited loud cheers from sailors and soldiers, and the admiral signaled, “Well done, Weehawken.” Colhoun was defending his vessel vigorously and valiantly when, by 11 A. M., the iron-clads moved into position and opened a strong fire on the Sullivan's Island batteries. Colhoun was then left in peace and afforded an opportunity to arrange for the liberation of his vessel from her extremely perilous position. About 4 p. M. she floated. About 1:30 P. M., as we were heaving up the Patapsco's anchor, in obedience to the signal, “Withdraw from action,” our engine was disabled from the effect of our own fire. I hailed the Natant and directed Lieutenant Cornwell, her commanding officer, to drop down to our assistance and take us in tow. This order was given through our surgeon, Dr. Wheeler, who, at great personal risk, went forward and passed it along. Cornwell was prompt and efficient in obeying the order, under a heavy fire, and he soon had us within easy hail of the present Vice-Admiral Rowan's vessel, the Ironsides, which had taken up her anchorage beyond the range of the enemy's guns. As we approached, Rowan made a welcome signal for me to come on board his ship to dine, as usual. His views and mine in regard to the situation, and our ideas as to future operations, were in perfect harmony. He had had a large professional experience, and I never saw his equanimity or judgment disturbed under the most trying circumstances; while the intelligent handling and fighting of his ship [49] showed conclusively that a master of his art was in command. In the incomparable Belknap —— the present commodore — he had an executive always ready to do his will, and in the best possible way.

We had just lighted our pipes on the Ironsides for an after-dinner chat when Flag-Lieutenant S. W. Preston was announced, with orders for the commander of the Patapsco to report on board the flag-ship. On our way to the vessel Preston informed me that it was the intention of the admiral to attack Sumter that night in boats, and added: “You are selected to command.” This information was corroborated by the admiral. My judgment opposed the movement on the grounds that we were without reliable knowledge of the internal or external condition of the fort, and of the practicability of scaling the walls, for which no provision had. been made; that sufficient time had not been allowed for the proper organization of a force for service of so desperate a character; that the enemy had been fully notified that some demonstration was to be made by the gathering of boats around the flag-ship, in open daylight; that they would naturally conclude Sumter to be the objective point and would defend it to the last extremity; and, finally, that if a lodgment were by any possibility effected on the fort, and the fort taken, we could not hold it so long as the obstructions remained in the channel. For the enemy's iron-clads and batteries above and around Sumter, being unmolested and beyond our reach, would sever our communications and starve our people out. I made these representations and asked permission to decline the command. To this no direct response was given, but, in the course of conversation, the admiral said: “You have only to go and take possession. You will find nothing but a corporal's guard to oppose you.”

Going down to the wardroom, my decision was briefly made known in reply to the interrogations of friends. Within half an hour Preston joined us; he had evidently been conversing with the admiral, for he was thoroughly informed on the situation and used his best efforts to alter my determination, urging among other reasons that the army was organizing for an independent demonstration to be led by General T. G. Stevenson, an officer of tried valor and established reputation for whom we all had a great personal liking. As Stevenson was the ranking officer, General Gillmore contended that the expedition should combine under his leadership. The admiral would not consent to this, on the ground that it was a boat expedition and purely naval in its character. After giving me this information, Preston added: “If you do not go, the naval demonstration will fall through and the army will reap all the glory.”

My convictions of the impracticability of the assault were unshaken, but my reasons could not be made known without injurious results. I was in a quandary and saw no way out of it, but personal appeals from such men as Lieutenants B. H. Porter, Preston, and Moreau Forrest, with other considerations, finally had their effect, and I reluctantly consented to go.

By the time the watchword for the night had been arranged it was half-past 10 o'clock. As we were taking leave of our friends, the present Rear-Admiral Rhind suggested to me that one division of boats should be sent around Sumter as a feint, while the remainder should wait within easy distance of the fort for the order to advance. This suggestion was adopted, and Lieutenant (now Captain) Francis J. Higginson was selected for the command of the party. His demonstration, among other things, was to develop the extent of the enemy's defensive preparations.

The admiral's barge was placed at my disposal, and Lieutenant Forrest, an officer of rare judgment, intelligence, and merit, was appointed as my aide,, Final instructions were given to the officers commanding divisions to make the best of their way to the fort when the divisions were formed and the order was given to advance. Instructions of a general character were given to Lieutenant Higginson, and a tug having been brought into service, its commander was directed to lie by the Patapsco on leaving the flag-ship. The barge was to stop alongside the former vessel for Dr. Wheeler, as we had no medical officer with us.

We finally shoved off, and after the necessary short delay by the Patapsco while the surgeon was making his preparations, were towed by the tug toward the picket monitors Montauk and Lehigh, which I instructed to move up to our support, as the admiral, at my request, had authorized me to do. We moved slowly on our way to the fort. It was a calm, clear, starlight night. The only sound was the steady thumping of the tug's propeller, and nothing was seen ahead but the grim, half-defined outline of the fort. When the master of the tug reported that he could go no farther, the boats were cast off, the divisions were formed, and Higginson, an officer of courage and judgment, was directed to carry out the instructions previously given him. He accordingly moved off to do so, and most of the division commanders dashed off also, under the impression that his movement was a general one, and that the order to advance had been given. Efforts to recall them were made, but in vain. Nothing remained to do but to give the order for the remaining boats to make the best of their way to the fort. Through this misapprehension all the good effects of Higginson's demonstration were lost. On our way to the fort in the barge, fairly flying under the strokes of the oarsmen, we observed a large number of boats lying on their oars; we hailed them and directed them to pull in, but as no sign of a movement was made by them, then,--or, indeed, during the whole affair,--we concluded that it was the army force awaiting the result of our demonstration. As we neared Sumter we were hailed loudly by the enemy, but no answer was returned. Simultaneously a rocket was sent up from the fort, and almost as it exploded the air was filled with hissing, shrieking missiles from the James and Sullivan's Island batteries, which seemed alive with fire, while an iron-clad was pouring grape and canister into the boats and sweeping the approaches to the gorge. The parapets and crown of Sumter were [50]

The boat attack on Fort Sumter.

filled with men pouring a murderous fire down on our defenseless party, and heavy missiles and hand-grenades helped on the work of destruction. Before this fire had fully developed, two boats from the Powhatan and others had effected a landing. As was subsequently learned, their crews and officers were driven to shelter and taken prisoners. All these things were evidences of the enemy's foreknowledge of our purpose and complete preparation to frustrate it. The “corporal's guard” that we were to have encountered proved to exceed our own numbers. Under these conditions but one expedient was left — to effect an early withdrawal. The order to retire was accordingly given through Lieutenant Forrest, and was several times repeated.

Admiral Dahlgren, who was watching the operations from a boat in the distance, says in his journal, “Moultrie fired like a devil, the shells breaking around me and screaming in chorus.” What must have been the impression in the midst of the cyclone, where the air was blazing with bursting shells, and the ear was deafened with the roar of cannon, the rattle of musketry, the whistling of grape, and the explosion of hand-grenades!

Withdrawing in the barge from the vortex of the fire, we remained near the fort to afford assistance to any disabled comrades, and about 4 o'clock, as day broke, we pulled to the flag-ship to report the results of the assault and determine the extent of our loss. We found this amounted to 124 killed, wounded, and missing, out of 400 men.

Among the killed was Lieutenant C. H. Bradford of the Marines. Lieutenant E. P. Williams, Executive of the Powhatan, a brave and dashing officer, and Lieutenants B. H. Porter and S. W. Preston were taken prisoners. They were all exchanged, and Porter and Preston were killed in the second attack on Fort Fisher. Preston, Porter, and Forrest — the last of whom died of yellow fever in the West Indies--were close friends, and alike in those qualities that adorn humanity and make heroes of men. Lieutenant F. W. Bunce and Dr. Wheeler, both of the Patapsco, in this affair sustained the high reputation they had already earned on every occasion when the Patapsco had been engaged on perilous service. Conspicuous, also, were the services of Daniel Leech, Acting Paymaster of the Patapsco, who at the same time performed the duties of signal officer. There was material in the command, both in officers and men, that would have insured success, had this been within the range of human endeavor. Five thousand men could not have captured the fort that night.

After the war General Beauregard wrote me two letters on the subject of the attack, in which he says, in effect: “After the fall of Wagner and Gregg, acting under the belief that our forces were thereby demoralized, the enemy would doubtless make a demonstration against Sumter. Our impression to this effect was strengthened by the number of armed boats seen to be gathering around the flag-ship, from vessels inside and outside, during September 8th. We were, moreover, able to read all the signals made that day.3 Sumter was [51] accordingly reenforced,4 and, when attacked, contained 450 men. One of our iron-clads was ordered to take up a position to sweep the approaches to the gorge with canister and grape. The guns in the shore batteries were loaded and trained upon the approaches to the fort, and the men were ordered to stand by their guns, lock-strings in hand. At the given signal of a rocket from the fort, all the batteries were to open.” And farther: “If our guns had not opened so soon and fired so rapidly, we would have captured or destroyed your whole command.” This is true.

In the “Memoirs” of Admiral Dahlgren I find, under the date of November 20th, 1863, the following: “Last night the army undertook to feel the force in Sumter, and sent two hundred men in boats for that purpose. About thirty yards from the fort a dog barked and aroused the garrison, which fired, wounding two of our men. The rumor was, the night before, that an attack was to be made, and I ordered the monitors on picket to cover our men. A few shots were fired by the fort and then there was quiet.” I think this was the last demonstration of the kind attempted.

1 In the “Military operations of General Beauregard” mention is made of a reconnoissance in small force on the night of July 14th-15th.--editors.

2 Ten regiments participated in the attack. The four suffering the greatest losses were the 54th Massachusetts (colored), 272; the 48th New York, 242; the 7th New Hampshire, 216; and the 100th New York, 175 = 905. The total Union loss was 1515.--editors.

3 On the 13th of April, 1863, Beauregard announced to the War Department that he had obtained a key to the signals, but suspected deception. Major John Johnson writes to the editors that advantage was taken of the signals in preparing to resist the assault on Wagner, July 18th, and the boat attacks on Cumming's Point and Fort Sumter, in September. On the other hand, General W. B. Taliaferro, who commanded on Morris Island at the time of the attack on Battery Wagner referred to by Major Johnson, states in the Philadelphia times, November 11th, 1882, that the Union signals were not interpreted on that occasion.--editors.

4 Major John Johnson says of this statement: “Sumter was not reenforced; but on the night of September 4th--5th, Rhett's enfeebled garrison had been relieved by Major Elliott and the Charleston Battalion of infantry, 320 strong. No troops after that date were sent to the fort before the boat attack on September 8th.”

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