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Reminiscences of service in Charleston Harbor in 1863.

by Colonel Charles H. Olmstead.
[The following paper was read by its gallant and accomplished author before the Georgia Historical Society, March 3d, 1879, and we are sure our readers will thank us for giving them an opportunity of enjoying its perusal. We only regret that the crowded condition of our pages compels us to divide it.]

In preparing the following paper, it has been my desire only to record what its title suggests—personal reminiscences.

Leaving to other and abler pens the task of writing an accurate history of the scenes and events to which reference is now about to be made, I shall confine myself simply to the task of setting down such things as came under my personal observation, or within the scope of my individual knowledge.

I do this the more confidently, remembering the marked interest that invariably attaches to the testimony of an eye-witness, and also bearing in mind (for my own comfort) that this interest will always incline his hearers to leniency in judging literary demerits. It is probable, too, that some of my old comrades will be pleased at this recurrence to an eventful period in their lives, while a younger generation in the ranks may be glad to have placed before them a record, not of the ‘pomp and circumstance of glorious war,’ but of its privations, its hardships, its perils, and, it may be added, its lessons of self-abnegation and of devotion to duty.

Early in the month of July, 1863, while stationed very comfortably at the Isle of Hope, a courier, ‘spurring in hot haste,’ brought orders from department headquarters that set our camp at once in a turmoil of eager and excited preparation. The Thirty-second Georgia, Colonel George P. Harrison, Jr., the Twelfth and Eighteenth Georgia battalions, Lieutenant-Colonel H. D. Capers and Major W. S. Basinger, and a battalion from the First Volunteer regiment of Georgia, [119] were ordered to proceed with the least possible delay to Savannah, there to take cars for Charleston.

A private note at the same time brought the intelligence that that city, so long threatened, and indeed, once already assailed by sea, was now to undergo a vigorous and combined attack from both land and naval forces. The day was an eventful one to us without this additional stimulant. In the morning we had received the sad news of the fall of Vicksburg, and the consequent opening of the Mississippi river to the Federal fleet, from the mountains to the sea, a disaster that secured to the enemy the grand object of his most strenuous exertions, while it severed the young Confederacy in twain and deprived our armies east of the river of all the aid and comfort in the way of material supplies and gallant recruits, that had been so long and so freely drawn from the west bank. We had just learned, too, of the check received by General Lee at the battle of Gettysburg, and now came the summons to tell that our turn had come for a little squeeze in the folds of the traditional ‘Anaconda,’ that the New York Herald had so graphically depicted as encircling the South.

The men received the orders with enthusiasm—indeed, when was it otherwise with the Southern soldier. Thoroughly conversant, as they all were, with the details of the war, they could not but be depressed by the news of such grave reverses to our arms as the morning's mail had brought them, and they gladly welcomed the relief that active service promised from the tedium of camp life, and the necessity of thinking upon melancholy subjects.

Our march began in the midst of a terrific thunder-storm, that had the effect, not only of cooling down any overplus of excitement, but also of rendering the road to the city almost a quagmire throughout its entire length.

There are pleasanter ways of spending a summer's evening than in trudging for eight miles, through mud and rain, in heavy marching order; but upon this, as on similar occasions during the war, I was deeply impressed by the uncomplaining patience and cheerfulness with which the men endured hardships that few would care to face now, but which, then, were regarded as mere matters of course— distasteful, certainly—but not worth talking about.

The storm delayed our march considerably, and upon reaching the depot we found that the Thirty-second regiment, which had been stationed at a point nearer the city, had already taken train for Charleston.

We, too, were soon en route, and early in the forenoon of the following [120] day—July 10, 1863—the three battalions were safely in bivouac at the terminus of the Savannah and Charleston railroad. Here we were met by a staff-officer, who informed us that we were to reinforce the garrison of Battery Wagner, on Morris Island, and that at dusk the necessary transportation would be furnished to take us down to the fort. He also told us that the enemy, under cover of a tremendous fire of artillery, from batteries on Folly Island, which had been unmasked during the night, had effected a lodgment on the south end of Morris Island, and had driven our forces back upon ‘Wagner,’ which fortification would, doubtless, be attacked on the next day. We learned, also, that another force was threatening James Island, and that the Thirty-second had been sent, with other troops, to meet that danger. Events proved that this last was a feint, to distract attention from the main attack.

All day we remained quietly at this place, endeavoring to make out the various points of interest in the beautiful harbor spread before us, and watching the little clouds of smoke that ascended from the parapets of Fort Sumter, as its guns were slowly fired at the enemy. It was a lovely day, clear and bright, without a cloud in the sky. The vegetation about us, freshened by the rain of the previous evening, added sweet odors to the soft sea-breeze that came up the bay. Upon our left the city of Charleston ‘sat like a queen,’ her roof tops and spires glittering in the sunlight, while afar down, over an expanse of shining water, could be seen the ships of the fleet swinging lazily at their anchors.

The picture was beautiful, and for one, I would have found it difficult to realize that beneath it all were the grim front and iron hand of war, but for the dull rumble of the constantly recurring shot from Sumter. That was ‘the fly in the ointment of the apothecary,’ that ‘the spectre at the feast,’ that the refrain ever ringing in our ears and suggesting the unwelcome thought—‘it looks peaceful enough now, but just wait until to-morrow.’

About nightfall we embarked in a steamer that had been sent for us and, after many delays, were safely landed at Cumming's Point, on the northern end of Morris Island. The line was formed at once, and we set out for Battery Wagner, reporting to its commander, Colonel Graham, of the Twenty-First South Carolina regiment, at about 11 o'clock at night.

At the risk of being somewhat tedious, I must here devote a few lines to the topography of this famous Island. It is a long, narrow strip of sand, running almost due north and south for about four [121] miles, varying in breadth from, say one hundred yards at the narrowest point to half a mile at the broadest. Upon the west side the Island is separated from James Island by Vincent's Creek and by broad marshes intersected by numerous salt water creeks, while its eastern shore is washed throughout its entire length by the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. At the south end were the batteries from which our troops had been driven in the morning. Light House Inlet separated this point from Folly Island, and across this Inlet the enemy had suddenly thrown their forces, under cover of a furious fire of artillery, as has already been stated. At the northern extremity of the island, known as Cumming's Point, was located Battery Gregg, and about three-quarters of a mile to the south of this, Battery Wagner stretched entirely across the island from the sea on the left, to Vincent's Creek on the right, the battery facing due south. It was an irregular work. On the extreme left, a heavy traverse and curtain protected the sally port and gave a flanking fire down the beach, to any force that might assail the main work. Then came a salient, one face of which commanded the ship channel, then a broken line, arranged for flanking fires, extending to the marsh. The parapets were solid, and a broad, deep, dry moat added boldness to their profile. Within the parade were bomb-proofs and lightly constructed barracks for the small garrison that had heretofore occupied the work. The armament consisted of one 10-inch Columbiad and some 32-pounders in the sea face, and four or five lighter guns, chiefly howitzers on the land-side. A short distance in front of the right of the line an inward bend of Vincent's creek narrowed the island in such manner as to render it obligatory upon an attacking force to deliver its assault only against the left half of the fort, and also affording scant opportunity for the deployment of such a column. In point of fact this peculiar feature in the topography proved of great service to us, and correspondingly troublesome to the enemy in the operations that followed. The surface of the island is but little raised above the level of the sea and presents a glaring stretch of white sandy hillocks, which were sparsely dotted with the coarse grasses of the coast, and which changed their contour in every high wind.

There is but to add that the main channel by which ships enter Charleston harbor runs within easy gunshot of Morris Island from one end of it to the other, then crosses to the northward and passes between Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island, and Fort Sumter, built upon a shoal about midway between the two islands.

From this rapid sketch, reference being had to the map, it will be [122] readily appreciated that from the base held by the enemy, a front attack upon Charleston could begin here and nowhere else; and that, as the defences of the inner harbor were at that time imperfect, the immediate fall of Wagner would gravely impair the safety of Charleston also. But that little mound of sand had its history to make, a story that will ever bring a flush of honest pride to the face of every man who participated in the long defence.

As soon as we had reported to Colonel Graham, the troops were put into position, the Eighteenth battalion in the salient, the Twelfth upon its right, and the First Georgia on the left, occupying the flanking curtain and the sea face, to which allusion has been made. The guns were all manned by South Carolina artillery and the right and centre of the fort were held by infantry from the same State. The men were cautioned that an attack was expected at daylight, and then, tired out, they slept on their arms upon the ramp, ready at a moment's call for action. Captain C. Werner, of the German Volunteers, was appointed officer of the night, and in a few minutes every sound was hushed save the swash of the waves upon the beach, and the occasional challege of a sentinel from his post.

My own resting place was upon the parapet, and looking up to the cloudless heavens above, the solemn glory of the night impressed itself upon my last waking thoughts.

At the first peep of dawn, on the 11th, we were wakened by a few straggling shots in our front, followed by a ringing cheer and three distinct volleys of musketry from our picket line. The anticipated assault was upon us. In an instant, the garrison was aroused, and as the men had slept in position they had only to spring to their feet, and we were ready. Now we could see our pickets, their duty having been faithfully performed, retiring rapidly towards our right, in accordance with the instructions they had received, so as to uncover the advancing columns of the enemy. And, then, through the dim, gray light of the morning we could distinguish a dark, blue mass of men moving up the beach towards us, at the double quick, cheering as they came.

Then came the thunder of our first gun (what old soldier is there who does not recall its startling effect), then another and another, then the deafening rattle of small arms, mingled with yells and cheers, and we were fairly in the midst of battle. The issue was never doubtful for a moment. The attacking column attempted to deploy after passing the narrow neck in front, but entirely failed to do so; while the dense formation rendered it an easy mark for both infantry and [123] artillery. Still it pressed gallantly on, and some few of the foremost men reached the scarp of the work, only to find themselves unsupported by their comrades, and with no alternative than to yield themselves prisoners. One brave fellow I saw, however, who had not the thought of yielding in him. Alone he reached the top of the parapet, immediately in front of a 32-pounder, double charged with grape shot. The officer in command (Lieutenant Gilchrist, of South Carolina, if memory serves me), struck by his bearing, called to him to come in before the gun was fired. His only reply was to put his musket to his shoulder, and a bullet whizzed by Gilchrist's head. The explosion of the gun followed, and a blue and mangled body, all that remained of a brave man and a good soldier, was hurled across the ditch.

The engagement was of short duration; the attack had failed, and soon the broken column was in full retreat, rapidly, and without any semblance of order, leaving some hundreds of their number, stretched dead and wounded on the sands, or prisoners in the fort.

Our own loss was insignificant in numbers, but the First regiment was sorely bereaved in the death of Captain Werner. This gallant officer was slain early in the fight. He died in the discharge of duty, nobly battling for the land of his adoption. His voice, calling his comrades to arms, had been the first to greet our ears as the morning broke, and now it was hushed forever. Modest, simple, and unpretending in his manners, he had won a warm place in the affections of the command, while his perfect reliability under all circumstances enforced the respect and admiration of all who knew him. Savannah was called upon to mourn the loss of many sons in those terrible years, but none of them had taken up arms in her defense sooner, none suffered privation and imprisonment for her more patiently, and none died more gallantly than Claus Werner.

The loss in the Eighteenth Georgia was heavier than in any other organization, as it had occupied the salient, against which the assault was principally directed.

Lieutenant Frederick Tupper was severely wounded, and among the killed was young Edward Postell, who now sleeps in Laurel Grove, side by side with a noble brother, who, like himself, as the marble record testifies, ‘died in battle.’

Immediately after the action, a singular instance of the ups and downs and uncertainties of warfare, was brought to our attention. Among the first troops to enter Fort Pulaski, at its capture in the previous year, was the Seventh Connecticut regiment, then [124] commanded by Colonel Alfred H. Terry (subsequently MajorGen-eral). Both officers and men had behaved towards us with great kindness during the few days that we remained at the fort after its capture and we had become personally acquainted with quite a number of them. Now, we were the victors, and among the prisoners brought in at our end of the line, were many of our old friends of the Seventh Connecticut, who recognized and called us by name.

The news of the attack created much excitement in Charleston, and during the morning many visitors, both military and civilian, came to the island, some to assure themselves of the continued strength of our position; others to gratify a pardonable curiosity. Among the former was Brigadier-General Ripley, the district commander, who was much elated at the successful issue of the fight, and who wished to examine, personally, the ground in front of the fort.

Now, at one point in our front, torpedoes had been planted the day before, and to prevent any of the garrison from treading upon them, a sentinel was placed to warn them off. At that time the man who held this post was private Donnolly, of Company G, First Georgia, a native of the Emerald Isle, as his name would indicate, and a true son of his mother. Of any knowledge of ordinary military manoeuvres he was calmly innocent. On one occasion a Lieutenant of the company asked him, impatiently:

Donnolly, why don't you keep step? All the men are complaining about you.’ And received the reply:

‘Faith, its divil a one of 'em can kape shtep wid me!’

Past this hero General Ripley spurred his horse, and was riding straight for the dangerous ground, when he was suddenly brought to a halt by a loud ‘Shtop!’ uttered in the most emphatic tone, and the emphasis receiving additional point from Donnolly's attitude, as he stood with his musket at full cock, at the shoulder, and squinted along the barrel, taking dead aim at the General. For a moment there was strong probability of a vacancy among the Brigadiers of the Confederate army, but an officer rushed forward, struck up the gun, and explained to General Ripley the reason for his being halted.

Subsequently, our sentinel was asked:

Donnolly, what were you going to do?’

‘I was going to shot him.’

‘And why?’

‘To kape him from being blown up with the saltpaters, to be sure.’ Donnolly's comrades, in view of his little infirmities of drill, had [125] always insisted upon his having a place in the rear rank, but on this day he was heard to say, with much satisfaction:

‘There's moighty little throuble getting in the front rank now.’

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