Brigadier General Truman Seymour’s Report on the Assault on Fort Wagner, July 18th, 1863
The July 16th, 1863 assault on Fort Wagner on Morris Island, South Carolina, was one of the more famous actions of the Civil War involving African American troops. As depicted in the 1989 motion picture Glory, the assault was led by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, which also suffered the largest number of casualties in the battle, with 272 killed, wounded, and missing. I have previously posted Lieutenant Colonel Edward Hallowell’s report on the 54th Massachusetts at Fort Wagner as well as an account of the attack by the regiment’s Captain Garth W. James. There was a total of 10 infantry regiments from Connecticut, New York, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts that participated in the assault, from two brigades of Brigadier General Truman Seymour’s division. Major General Quincy Gillmore was the Department of the South commander, and was in overall charge of the Union forces in the region.
Neither of Seymour’s brigade commanders survived. Colonel Haldimand S. Putnam was killed, and Brigadier General George C. Strong (commander of the 54th Massachusetts’ brigade) was mortally
wounded. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw of the 54th was one of two regimental commanders killed; the other was Colonel John Chatfield of the 6th Connecticut Infantry. Seymour himself was wounded.
General Seymour filed this after action report on his division’s action in the assault on Fort Wagner:
Folly Island, S. C,
November 10, 1863.
General: I have the honor to submit the following report of the
operations of my command on Morris Island from July 10 to July
18, more particularly as connected with the assault of Fort Wagner
on the last-named day. The rendering of this report has been unavoidably
delayed by the difficulty of procuring those of subordinate
commanders, not a few of whom fell in the assault, and of obtaining
such detailed information as was essential. Even now, some regimental
reports have not been received.
On the morning of July 10, Morris Island, up to the very ditch of
Fort Wagner, had fallen under our command. Pickets had been
established at 600 yards from the work, and a rifle-pit constructed
during the evening, for their shelter, by Lieutenant Michie, U. S.
Engineers, at a point extremely favorable for the complete command
of the intervening ground, and for the establishment of batteries
against the fort. Before daylight on the 11th, an assault had been
made by Brigadier-General Strong, with his brigade, in accordance
with instructions given to him directly by Brigadier-General Gillmore,
which attack failed, from the complete preparation of the
enemy, due to his pickets having been drive in an hour previous to
the attempted surprise. It only remained, then, to make a more
powerful effort, after a concentration of all the artillery that the land
or naval forces could bring to bear, or to undertake a siege by regular
The guns and material at the north end of Folly were transferred
to Morris Island. At points selected by Brigadier-General Gillmore,
and distant 1,300 and 1,700 yards from Fort Wagner, two grand batteries
were constructed, under the active supervision of Colonel Serrell,
First New York Engineers, and Major Brooks, of General Gillmore’s
staff, and by the night of July 17, in seven days, twenty-five
rifled guns (10, 20, and 30 pounders) and fifteen siege mortars, with
the large supplies required for their service, were placed in position.
This labor was performed under highly disadvantageous circumstances,
under a broiling sun, with frequent heavy rains at night,
under constant fire from the enemy’s batteries, and at all times with
very insufficient means of transportation. These difficulties were
overcome by the cheerful constancy of the command. To Brig.
Gen. I. Vogdes, for prompt and skillful superintendence of the
transfer of material from Folly Island; to Capt. L. L. Langdon,
First Artillery, for his energetic exertions in getting the artillery to
its place, and to the indefatigable Captain Mordecai, U. S. Ordnance,
for his perfect preparation and systematizing of the complicated ordnance
supplies, much praise is due, and they are, therefore, strongly
commended to the favorable notice of the brigadier-general commanding
On July I8, the batteries on the right (Reynolds and Weed) were
commanded by Capt. L. L. Langdon, and consisted of Captain Brayton’s
Third Rhode Island Battery, six field rifles; Battery E, Third
U. S. Artillery, six 10-pounder Parrotts, under Lieutenant Myrick,
Third Artillery; two 30-pounder Parrotts, under Lieut. G. V. Henry,
First Artillery; five S-inch siege mortars, under Lieutenant Holbrook.
Third Rhode Island Artillery, and five 10-inch siege mortars,
under Captain Comstock, Third Rhode Island Artillery. The batteries
on the left (Hays and O’Rorke) were commanded by Lieut.
Col. R. H. Jackson, captain First Artillery, and contained seven
30-pounder and four 20-pounder Parrots, served by Captains Shaw’s
and Strahan’s companies of the Third Rhode Island Artillery, and a
portion of the Sixth [Seventh] Connecticut, under Captain Gray,
and five 10-inch siege mortars, served by Captain Greene’s company of the
Third Rhode Island Artillery.
My instructions from Brigadier-General Gillmore were to open
fire at daybreak, but an excessively heavy rain had fallen during
the preceding night, so flooding the works and deranging our affairs
generally that it could not be commenced until after 9 o’clock. A
deliberate experimental fire was first directed, which gradually became
as rapid as accuracy would allow. The monitors, the Ironsides,
and other vessels, moved up, and from about noon until
nightfall the fort was subjected to such a weight of artillery as had
probably never before been turned upon a single point. The garrison
remained closely under shelter, returning only an occasional
gun, and there was no evidence, from close personal observation,
that any material damage had been done to the artillery of the fort.
Our own guns were, in fact, too far distant for accurate dismounting
fire, and a portion of the right battery was so far useless, from improper
location, that its gunners could not even see the object at
which they fired. Nevertheless, it was presumed that, under such intense fire,
some demoralization must have been effected within.
About an hour before sunset, I received instructions from Brigadier-
General Gillmore to arrange for an assault. It was suggested
to me that the brigade of General Strong would suffice, but it was
finally understood that all the force of my command should be held
ready for the work. The division was accordingly formed on the
beach and moved to the front. It consisted of three fine brigades.
The First, under Brigadier-General Strong, was composed of the
Forty-eighth New York, Colonel Barton; Seventy-sixth Pennsylvania.
Capt. J. S. Littell; Third New Hampshire, Colonel Jackson;
Sixth Connecticut, Colonel Chatfield: Ninth Maine, Colonel Emery;
And, temporarily, the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, Colonel Shaw.
The Second Brigade, under Colonel Putnam, Seventh New Hampshire,
consisted of the Seventh New Hampshire, Lieutenant-Colonel
Abbott; One hundredth Now York, Colonel Dandy; Sixty-second
Ohio, Colonel Pond; and Sixty-seventh Ohio, Colonel Voris.
The Third Brigade was commanded by Brigadier-General Stevenson and
consisted of four excellent regiments.
General Strong was to take the advance. I had informed him that
he should be promptly supported if it were necessary. Colonel Putnam
was instructed to keep his brigade ready for following up the
First, while General Stevenson was held in reserve.
That moment was chosen for moving forward when the dusk of
the evening still permitted the troops to see plainly the way, already
well known to the First and Second Brigades, but was yet sufficiently
indistinct to prevent accurate firing by the enemy. Our troops were
to use the bayonet alone.
Half the ground to be passed over was undulating, from small
sand-hills, affording some shelter, but not so rough as to prevent free
movement of troops. That part of it next the fort was quite smooth
and unobstructed to the very ditch.
The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, a colored regiment of excellent
character, well officered, with full ranks, and that had conducted
itself commendably a few days previously on James Island, was
placed in front.
Brigade commanders were advised to form in column of deployed
regiments. The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts only being too large to
admit this development, was in two lines.
Once in advance of our batteries, a few encouraging words were
given to the men and the First Brigade launched forward. It had
not moved far before the fort, liberated somewhat from the pressure
of our fire, opened with rapid discharges of grape and canister, and
its parapet was lit by a living line of musketry. More than half the
distance was well passed, when, present myself with the column, I
saw that to overcome such resistance, overpowering force must be
employed. Major Plimpton, Third New Hampshire, my assistant
inspector-general, was sent to order the Second Brigade forward at
once. To my surprise this officer returned from Colonel Putnam,
stating that he positively refused to move, with the explanation from
Colonel Putnam that he had received orders from General Gillmore
to remain where he was. At this moment the wounded, and many
unhurt also, were coming thickly from the front, along the beach.
General Strong had urged his command on with great spirit and gallantry,
but his losses had been so severe that his regiments were
much shaken, and the consequent confusion was much heightened
by the yielding of the leading regiment, large portions of which fell
harshly upon those in their rear. Fragments of each regiment,
however—brave men, bravely led—went eagerly over the ditch,
mounted the parapet and struggled with the foe inside. But these
efforts were too feeble to affect the contest materially. Prompt support
was not at hand, and the First Brigade, as a mass, had already
retired, although detached portions principally from the Forty-eighth
New York and Sixth Connecticut, with the colors of those
regiments, still clung to the fort.
After a painful and unnecessary interval, Colonel Putnam, knowing
that I had expected him to come up closely and to take an energetic
share in the assault, had without further orders moved his command
forward. This gallant brigade went steadily on, in spite of
much loss and not a little falling to the rear, and, clearing rapidly
the intervening space, came to the aid of the noble fellows still battling on
By a combined and determined rush over the
southeast angle of the fort, the enemy was driven from that portion
of the work. Some hundred men were now inside, with Colonel
Putnam at their head. The bastion-like space between the bomb-
proof and the parapet was fully in our possession. Some of our officers
and men mounted the bomb-proof itself, which completely commanded
the interior of the fort. Strong efforts were made by the
enemy to drive our brave fellows out, but unsuccessfully, and rebel
officers and men were captured and sent to the rear. For more than
an hour this position was maintained by Colonel Putnam, assisted
by Colonel Dandy, One hundredth New York; Major Butler, Sixty seventh
Ohio; Major Coan, Forty-eighth New York; Captain Klein,
Sixth Connecticut, and a number of other very brave and devoted
officers. And now Colonel Putnam, while waiting patiently for expected
succor, and urging his men to maintain the advantage that
had been gained, was shot, dead, on the parapet, as brave a soldier,
as courteous a gentleman, as true a man as ever walked beneath the
Stars and Stripe.General Strong had long since been wounded. Colonel Chatfield,
Sixth Connecticut; Colonel Barton, Forty-eighth New York; and
Colonel Shaw, Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, had fallen, after the most
gallant efforts, in front of their commands; and during the advance
of the Second Brigade I had been struck by a grape-shot and was
compelled to retire. But I had previously sent Major Plimpton to
order up General Stevenson’s brigade, which order was reiterated
after my being hurt. You were sent by General Gillmore to take
further command, and the Third Brigade had no part in the attack.
Finally despairing, after long waiting, of further assistance, the
senior officers at the fort withdrew our men (with exception of about
100, who could not be reached, and who were soon after captured),
and what had been so dearly bought was abandoned to the enemy.
And the failure must be ascribed solely to the unfortunate delay
that hindered Colonel Putnam from moving promptly in obedience
to my orders, and to his not being supported after he had essentially
succeeded in the assault.
Unsuccessful as we were, the highest praise is due to those noble
men who did their full duty that night. Who can forget, while courage
and generosity are admired by man. That glorious soldier. Strong,
or the heroic Putnam, or Chatfield, the beloved, or Shaw, faithful and
devoted unto death. Many more than these deserve lasting record,
of the rank and file as well as of officers, but the loss of those of
high command, and the scattering of the many wounded who were
prominent actors in this scene, with the difficulty of procuring sufficient
information otherwise, compel me to but a meager outline. On
every inch of the sands in front of Fort Wagner will be forever
traced in undying glory the story of the determination and courage
of these men.I cannot close without thanking Lieutenant-Colonel Jackson and
Captain Langdon, First Artillery, with the other officers of that arm,
for their efficient and valuable services during the day. Major Plimpton,
Third New Hampshire, rendered me the most energetic assistance.
Lieutenant Stevens, Sixth Connecticut, one of my aides, a
young man of great promise, was killed at my side. To Captain
[Peter R.] Chadwick, assistant adjutant-general, Lieutenant [Charles
N.] Jackson and Lieutenant Holt, my aides, my thanks are also due,
for good conduct and prompt action at all times. Nor can I fail to
call the attention of General Gillmore to the merits of Lieutenant
Michie, U. S. Engineers, who labored early and late, with untiring
zeal, in the preparations for this assault.
Such reports as I have been able to obtain are herewith inclosed.
And I am, general, respectfully, your obedient servant,
Brigadier-General, U. S. Volunteers.
Brig. Gen. J. W. Turner,
Chief of Staff, Department of the South.
Brigadier General Roswell S. Ripley, Confederate commander of forces in South Carolina had this to say in his report about the 54th Massachusetts in the assault:
The carnage of the enemy in the confined space in front of Battery
Wagner was extreme. The ditch and glacis were encumbered with
the slain of all ranks and colors, for the enemy had put the poor
negroes, whom they had forced into an unnatural service, in front,
to be, as they were, slaughtered indiscriminately. The white colonel
who commanded them fell, with many officers of the regiment (the
Fifty-fourth Massachusetts), and the colors under which they were
sent to butchery by hypocrisy and inhumanity fell, draggled in
blood and sand, in the ditch, a mournful memorial of the waste of
Brigadier General William B. Taliaferro, commanding the Confederates in Fort Wagner, made this matter of fact statement about the 54th in his after action report: “The assailants consisted of troops from Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Ohio, and New York, and the Fifty-fourth
Massachusetts (negro) Regiment (under Colonel [R. G.] Shaw, who was killed), under the command of Brigadier-General Strong. The supports were commanded by Brigadier-General Terry.” Taliaferro made no other comments about the 54th or any other Union regiments.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XXVII, Part 1.
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