Naval Witnesses to the July 18, 1863, Battery Wagner Assault

At dusk on July 18, 1863, a division of the United States X Corps spearheaded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw’s 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment advanced up Morris Island to assault Battery Wagner. This was the second assault on Wagner, with another smaller attack failing on July 11, but hopes of closing Charleston to blockade runners and flying the US flag over Fort Sumter and Charleston were at stake. For the 54th it was also their proving ground, where they would showcase African American soldiers could and would fight tenaciously. Ultimately, the Confederacy drove back the charge, inflicting frightful casualties, but proving Shaw’s men would fight in the process. Thanks to the 1989 film Glory this story is one well-known, but often overlooked is the US Navy’s role in the assault.

1865 Photograph of the main parapet of Battery Wagner, where the 54th Massachusetts assaulted on July 18, 1863, and where U.S. ironclads targeted earlier in the day. (2018671280, Library of Congress)

Following the failed July 11 assault, both Confederate defenders and US Major General Quincy Gillmore’s soldiers knew another would come. Confederate signal officers intercepted and decoded messages between Gillmore and Rear Admiral John Dahlgren, commanding supporting naval forces, where Dahlgren asked “when will the assault be made?”[1] Originally scheduled for July 16, this second assault was delayed, first because “shore batteries were not ready” and then by heavy rains.[2] It thus occurred on July 18, 1863.

The assault was scheduled for dusk and all through that afternoon, Dahlgren’s ironclads bombarded Battery Wagner with a vengeance. At 12:30 pm, The admiral closed Morris Island with the Passaic-class monitors Montauk, Catskill, Nantucket, Weehawken, and Patapsco. During a flood tide that allowed them close Wagner, they each fired their pairs of heavy guns. By 4:30 pm, they were 300 yards from Wagner. Typical of the efforts that day was Commander George W. Rodgers’s ironclad Catskill, which fired 124 heavy shells “rapidly into the Fort.”[3]

United States ironclads bombard Battery Wagner. (Harper’s Weekly, August 29, 1863)

Other US warships joined the fray. The massive ironclad frigate New Ironsides could not close Wagner as much but fired 805 shells into Wagner. Most of Wagner’s counterbattery fire concentrated on the frigate “with furious force.”[4] The wooden war-steamers Paul Jones, Ottawa, Seneca, Chippewa, and Wissahickon joined in, firing their guns “with effect at long range” all while General Gillmore’s land batteries bombarded Wagner “very deliberately and steadily.”[5]

Thanks to the distance and iron plating protecting Dahlgren’s warships, they suffered few casualties that day, though the conditions on the ironclads deteriorated as the day wore on. On USS New Ironsides, “the deck was filled with smoke, and the paint-work and white-wash turned a dead black from its effect. The lee ports were kept open, but despite that ventilation, the heat and sulphurous odor became well-nigh unbearable.”[6]

The heavy naval bombardment had some effect on Wagner. Confederate defenders took refuge from Dahlgren’s guns in Wagner’s bombproof, something the admiral personally witnessed. While standing atop USS Montauk’s turret, Dahlgren observed how “the rebels left their guns and ceased to fire” as “not a head was to be seen” in Wagner.[7] Lieutenant Commander George E. Belknap, on USS New Ironsides, remembered the bombardment’s effectiveness as well. “The bursting shells from the ships threw up clouds of sand and if the 15-inch projectiles from the Monitors, with their greater explosive force, threw up the biggest masses, the fire of the frigate, with its uninterrupted storm of missiles, kept the sand flying all the while.”[8]

USS New Ironsides was the largest ironclad warship participating in the bombardments of Battery Wagner on July 18, 1863. (NH 95018, Naval History and Heritage Command)

As dusk approached, Brigadier General Truman Seymour’s division, three brigades led by Brigadier General George Strong, Colonel H.S. Putnam, and Brigadier General Thomas G. Stevenson, prepared to assault. Colonel Shaw’s 54th Massachusetts took the vanguard. Offshore, the blockade’s sailors observed the troops gathering to charge. Israel E. Vail on USS Unadilla remembered it was “about sunset when the battalions of soldiers could be seen from the fleet advancing along the beach.”[9] On USS Nahant, Ship’s Boy Alvah Hunter observed the assault force “formed on and near the beach … The captain handed me a field glass to watch them and told me the soldiers were going to assault Fort Wagner.”[10] Admiral Dahlgren knew the assault was at hand, having received a note from Gillmore to “husband your ammunition” as “an assault is ordered at dusk” – a communique intercepted and decrypted by Wagner’s defenders.[11]

As the sailors saw Shaw’s regiment “advancing along the beach” as the sun fell, the admiral ordered his ironclads to cease fire. Nightfall quickly made it “impossible to distinguish” whether fire “took effect on friend or foe.”[12] The ironclad sailors thus shifted from active participants to witnesses.

Shaw’s 54th Massachusetts suffered heaviest in the attack “The rebs withheld their fire until we reached within fifty yards of the work, when jets of flame darted forth from every corner and embrasure,” Private George Stephens of Shaw’s regiment recalled.[13] The 54th “pushed up to the work, down into the moat, and like demons ascended the parapet.”[14] Colonel Shaw was killed leading his men “through a deadly fire.”[15]

The famed Kurt & Allison painting of the July 18, 1863, assault on Battery Wagner. Note that five monitor ironclads are present observing the assault. (2012647346, Library of Congress)

The 54th Massachusetts battled on, opening the way for reinforcements. In the chaos, General strong fell mortally wounded and two other regimental commanders were hit. Colonel Putnam’s brigade closed, but Putnam was killed. Division commander Truman Seymour fell wounded. USS Unadilla’s sailors “waited in painful suspense” as “the sky was lighted by the flashes from a thousand muskets.”[16] Admiral Dahlgren remembered “the rattle of musketry” and “flashes of light artillery” which “continued without intermission till 9.30 P.M. gradually decreased, and then died away altogether.”[17] Young Alvah Hunter was most pained when USS Nahant’s captain announced the assault failed and “with a sigh, and after watching the shore … climbed down from the top of the pilot-house.”[18] Around 10:00 pm, Dahlgren’s ironclads “hauled off and the weary crews were allowed to rest as well as they could in the sweltering heat of a southern July night.”[19]

This second Battery Wagner assault failed, though definitive word of such did not reach the sailors until morning. US casualties were extreme: over 1,500. The Confederates lost perhaps 200. “In front of the fort, the scene of carnage is indescribable,” Wagner’s commander wrote. “The repulse was overwhelming.”[20]

While this assault, combined with the recent actions at Port Hudson and Milliken’s Bend along the Mississippi River, proved African Americans could tenaciously fight, it also showed that uncoordinated frontal assaults on coastal fortifications without proper naval gunfire support was folly. Perhaps if the attack had been launched an hour before dusk, then Dahlgren’s ironclads might have sustained a bombardment until Shaw’s soldiers crested Wagner’s parapet. Instead, the ceasing naval bombardment signaled the assault’s imminence providing enough time for Wagner’s garrison to leave their bombproofs and man their guns. The siege of Battery Wagner commenced the next day and US military-naval cooperation at Charleston had been shaken, but Shaw’s 54th Massachusetts proved themselves to the United States as a whole, General Gillmore, and Dahlgren’s watching sailors.



[1] Keitt to Nance, July 15, 1863, The War of the Rebellion: The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies [hereafter OR], Series 1, Vol 28, Part 1, 454.

[2] Dahlgren to Welles, July 17, 1863, Letters Received by the Secretary of the Navy from Commanding Officers of Squadrons, 1841-1886, Year Range 25 June 1863-30 Sep 1863, South Atlantic blockading Squadron [hereafter Squadron Letters], NARA Records Group 45, Publication Number M89, US National Archives.

[3] Rodgers to Dahlgren, July 18, 1863, Squadron Letters.

[4] George E. Belknap, “Reminiscent of the Siege of Charleston,” Papers of the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts, (Boston, Griffith-Stillings Press, 1902) Vol. 12, 178.

[5] Dahlgren to Welles, July 19, 1863, Squadron Letters.

[6] Belknap, “Reminiscent of the Siege of Charleston,” 179.

[7] Peter C. Luebke, The Autobiography of Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren, (Washington DC: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2018), 77.

[8] Belknap, “Reminiscent of the Siege of Charleston,” 179.

[9] Israel Everett Vail, Three Years on the Blockade: A Naval Service, (New York, Abbey Press, 1902), 130.

[10] Craig L. Symonds, ed., A Year on a Monitor and the Destruction of Fort Sumter, (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1987), 106.

[11] Millard to Nance, July 18, 1863, OR, Series 1, Vol 28, Part 2, 206; Keitt to Nance, July 18, 1863, OR, Series 1, Vol 28, Part 1, 454; Luebke, The Autobiography of Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren, 77.

[12] Dahlgren to Welles, July 19, 1863, Squadron Letters.

[13] Donald Yacovone, ed., A Voice of Thunder: The Civil War Letters of George E. Stephens, (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 245.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Virginia M Adams, ed., On the Altar of Freedom: A Black Soldier’s Civil War Letters from the Front, (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), 38.

[16] Vail, Three Years on the Blockade, 130.

[17] Dahlgren to Welles, July 19, 1863, Squadron Letters.

[18] Symonds, ed., A Year on a Monitor and the Destruction of Fort Sumter, 107.

[19] Luebke, The Autobiography of Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren, 77.

[20] Taliaferro to Nance, July 21, 1863, OR, Series 1, Vol 28, Part 1, 419.

3 Responses to Naval Witnesses to the July 18, 1863, Battery Wagner Assault

  1. Although the 54th Massachusetts suffered the largest number of casualties during the assault, it was a relatively large regiment and suffered approximately 42 percent casualties. Two Ohio regiments in the assault, the 62nd and 67th, were smaller have served since 1862, and suffered substantially higher percentage casualties–55 percent in the 62nd and 59 percent in the 67th. The officer ranks of both regiments were almost wiped out, with the 62nd suffering 85 percent casualties among its officers.

    This is not to denigrate the 54th, which obviously went above and beyond. It is just to give some much deserved recognition to regiments whose suffering has been eclipsed by the attention given to the 54th.

  2. The deeds of the Mass. 54th at this engagement would be printed and known as far away as Australia, such as the 30 October 1863, Sydney Morning Herald, colony of New South Wales.

  3. Interestingly, the above copy of the Sydney Morning Herald copied a tribute paid to the 54th that was originally printed in the Charleston Mercury, state of South Carolina-

    “…a small body of the enemy succeeded in gaining a lodgement in a salient…Here they maintained their position for more than an hour…it was not until a small force of Georgians had ascended the magazine…that the audacious Yankees surrendered.”

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