Storming Hell : 13th Indiana & Fort Wagner

Storming Hell : 13th Indiana & Fort Wagner

US Civil War

Model of Fort Wagner

Hades Opened Wide: Taking Battery Wagner with the 13th Indiana

In early September 1863, the Union army under General Quincy Gillmore closed in on the capture of Battery Wagner outside of Charleston, South Carolina. The army tried taking the fort by assault back on July 18th and suffered a bloody repulsed as graphically depicted in the movie Glory.

The subsequent siege of the fort lasted through the hottest months of the South Carolina summer, a time characterized by constant shelling, deadly sharpshooters, and the dangers of Confederate torpedoes spread all along the approaches to the fort. On top of the man-made dangers, the men struggled with heat, thirst, and rapacious insects such as mosquitoes and sand fleas. Sergeant James Brice of the 13th Indiana remembered a particularly grisly discovery made by one of his comrades as the parallels crept closer to the fort.

Major-General Quincy Adams Gillmore. Library of Congress description: “Portrait of Capt. Quincy A. Gillmore, officer of the Federal Army (Maj. Gen. from July 10, 1863)”

          “Some of the boys in the company while digging out a place of safety wherein they could lie down and sleep, cut into some of our poor fellows who had been killed in the assault on Wagner. The miners and sappers struck in among them every few minutes. Trenches seem to have been dug and these cut-throat butternuts threw the bodies of our men in any shape or manner that came handiest. One of the Negroes, seeing a good boot apparently lying on the ground, caught hold of it and pulled up part of a man’s leg with it. This man was buried standing on his head! That is, he had been pitched headlong into the ditch and covered up that way. Several parallels, after considerable work, had to be abandoned and new one’s built owing to their running into too many of our dead or the Rebel torpedoes,” he recalled.

          The following account Brice wrote to his father captures the final days of the Battery Wagner siege and at the end records the seizure of the shattered fort by Federal forces. Brice’s letter was published in subsequent issues of the Randolph Journal of Winchester, Indiana.

This image dating from April 1865 shows a collection of Confederate ordnance including a torpedo at left center standing upright. Dozens of these crude but deadly devices were planted on the approaches to Battery Wagner and caused the Federals no end of trouble as Sergeant Brice describes in his account. 

Folly Island, South Carolina

September 7, 1863

Dear father,

          Foster’s brigade returned at 12 o’clock last night from Morris Island. We started from camp at 3 p.m. on the 5th and a little after dark went into the trenches. As usual, the 13th Indiana was placed in the extreme front, Cos. A, B, and G acting as sharpshooters. When we first entered the trenches, we found that our closest parallel was within 60 yards of Wagner. The sappers and miners were hard at work making many devious turnings, but surely and rapidly approaching a connection of our works with those of the enemy.

A 10-inch (300-pounder) Parrott Rifle on Morris Island

          All night long, our 10-, 13-, and 15-inch mortars accompanied by our heavy Parrott guns rained shot and shell into luckless Wagner. A large light, I suppose something like those used on a locomotive only more powerful, was placed in position so as to throw its light on Fort Wagner. In this manner, we were enabled to see that fort almost as plainly as if it were broad daylight, but the Rebels were so much dazzled by the light that it would have been impossible for them to have done any accurate shooting even had they possessed any serviceable guns. All the guns of the fort had been dismounted or disabled the day before. Now and then a shot from some sharpshooter was the only sign of life in the place.

I shall not attempt a description of the grandeur of this night bombardment. It is useless-I have neither the words nor ready pen to give it expression. I took my position on top of a parallel within 50 yards of Wagner and sat up the entire night watching with intense interest the brilliant scene presented to our gaze. A continuous stream of fire poured around and over us. The air was made hideous, unearthly, with shrieking monsters and with the stench of the bodies of disinterred soldiers. Hades seemed to have opened wide its yawning mouth and showered upon us its burning elements of fire and brimstone.  Horrible, sudden death was around you everywhere; at any moment you were liable to fall mangled and bleeding.

Was it not a time for serious thought? Instead, witty expressions, the jest, lively repartee, laughter, and horrible imprecations. A closer shot than usual, a narrow escape from a piece of shell, causing one to start and dodge would “set the table in a roar!” And this dodging business, I can tell you, is not confined to your coward alone. From the General down to the lowest private, I have seen them all guilty alike. “Self-preservation is the first law of nature.” You hear this infernal thing coming seemingly right in a line with your head. Oh, that sound! It takes hold of you irresistibly after the danger has passed, bob, goes your head, and you straighten up, looking and feeling very foolish.

General Robert S. Foster
Former colonel of the 13th Indiana

At daylight, all the infantry with the exception our company and Co. G was taken back in the rear of our works out of danger, it being a needless exposure of life to keep them under the fire of the Rebel batteries on James and Sullivan islands. The Rebels would not dare charge our works in the light of day when our gunboats and land batteries would have fair play upon their columns. And another thing; they had placed it beyond their power to attempt an assault on our works. The interminable torpedoes that were planted between the two contesting parties would have operated as fearfully against them as upon our own forces had they attempted it. There was scarcely a rod of ground free from these dastardly, cowardly weapons of destruction.

Federal battery with 13-inch seacoast mortars

Kegs of all shapes and sizes filled with powder and entirely buried under the sand with the exception of an inch or two of the cap or fuse by which it was to be exploded. Generally, a small board was laid over this cap which the weight of a couple ounces would explode; and then goodbye to the unlucky wight who had pressed the weight. Interspersed with these torpedoes were large 13-inch shells , capped and primed and ready to explode at the least pressure. Oh, these Rebels are a heathenish set! The chivalry won’t even fight in a decent and civilized manner after all their braggadocio. I ran round over ground that night which the next day was found quite a number of torpedoes while engaged in widening the trench. It was certainly kind providence that I was not blown to atoms or sky high!

At daylight on the 6th, our parallels were within 20 yards of Wagner, the stars and stripes waving proudly within that distance of the fort. By 10 a.m., the ironclads moved up as close as possible to Wagner, assisting the land batteries in their work of destruction. Shattered gun carriages and timbers used in the fort were ripped up and scattered high in the air. The splinter-proof on the magazine went flying in every direction. Great clouds of sand would rise 30 feet in the air as the huge shells would burst among their sandbags. By far the strongest fort which the enemy has here was thus being torn to pieces and leveled to the ground.

View of Forts Wagner

Our parallels were approaching close every hour and we were in more danger of being hit by our own shells than those of the enemy. It was useless to record the many narrow escapes from wounds and death. I had made some coffee and Alf and I were sitting down quietly enjoying our dinner when dash, came a shower of sand which covered our faces and filled our mouths while it spoiled our pieces of bread covered with currant jelly. I tell you, we felt gritty for a short time. This occurred several times during our stay. I picked up a large piece of shell that came very close to me and used it as a plug to stop up my porthole whenever I got tired of watching and firing at Rebel sharpshooters. It seems almost incredible what a small loss of life there is when I think of how the air was literally alive with those missiles. However, we were tolerably well protected by our breastworks.

Some of the boys in the company while digging out a place of safety wherein they could lie down and sleep, cut into some of our poor fellows who had been killed in the assault on Wagner. The miners and sappers struck in among them every few minutes. Trenches seem to have been dug and these cut-throat butternuts threw the bodies of our men in any shape or manner that came handiest. One of the Negroes, seeing a good boot apparently lying on the ground, caught hold of it and pulled up part of a man’s leg with it. This man was buried standing on his head! That is, he had been pitched headlong into the ditch and covered up that way. Several parallels, after considerable work, had to be abandoned and new one’s built owing to their running into too many of our dead or the Rebel torpedoes.

Some of Brice’s opponents at Battery Wagner were Confederates like these photographed at a picket post near Charleston in 1861. Two black camp cooks are on the left and Brice reported in his account taking aim at a black Confederate sharpshooter. 

At noon, I stood in the outermost trench within six paces of the moat around Wagner. The moat is very wide and dilled with water, I know not to what depth. It must have been a fearful place to cross with the raking fire that the Rebels had upon it. As I was returning to my place, a corporal in Co. G was shot in the shoulder by a Rebel sharpshooter just as I was passing by him, which made rather an ugly wound. He had been standing head and shoulders above our works, recklessly exposing himself as our men usually do.

Indeed, half our losses here have been caused by needless and uncalled-for exposure of person to the enemy’s sharpshooters. This is one great difference between Union and Rebel soldiers. I don’t say but that a Southerner will fight just as bravely as a Northern man when called upon to do it, but he is very chary of needlessly exposing his person out of mere curiosity or to get a good shot or in the spirit of bravado. They always keep under cover as much as possible. But curiosity will get the better of Yankee discretion. He must stick his head up to see what is going on even at the risk of getting an extra hole through it.

Battery of 5-inch Whitworth rifles on Morris Island

Somewhere about 3 p.m. as I was looking through the sights of my rifle at a butternut (a Negro sharpshooter that the Rebels had in the fort), a most powerful explosion jarred the earth like an earthquake. Looking hastily up, I saw sand and pieces of wood flying in all directions. How are you, Mr. Torpedo says I as I saw several of the boys blowing like so many porpoises to clear their mouths and throats from the sand that had been knocked into them by the flying pieces. Hastening around to the other side of our parallel, I saw a couple of Negroes just picking themselves up out of the sand. They had been blown 30 yards, over a couple of parallels, and were considerably worse scared than hurt. They were looking almost white, covered with sand and presented a most woebegone appearance. Indeed, one of them was trying to cry, but the boys soon laughed him out of that.

An engineer was standing almost immediately over the torpedo when it exploded and was blown about the same distance as the Negroes and was instantly killed. All his clothes were blown off of him. It was a sad scene to witness. “In the midst of life, we are in death.” A couple of the Negroes had been literally buried alive in the sand and for a moment or two it was impossible to tell what had become of them. However, they were soon resurrected and went heartily at work again. These men had been engaged in taking up this torpedo and carelessly through several shovels full of sand on the cap which caused the explosion. The usual method of taking these devils our is to bore a hole in the keg and then pour water in on the powder. This renders them perfectly docile, and the smallest child can handle them with impunity.

Gillmore at Charleston Harbor, 1863

The workmen have now run the last parallel into the most of Fort Wagner. The boys were anxious and tried to get the permission of the officers to make a dash at the fort and capture it is possible. It was the general opinion that there was, but a small party left inside its shattered walls. But no, they would not allow it without the permission of General Gillmore. Forts Moultrie and Johnson were getting very careless as to how close to Wagner they exploded their missiles which looked rather suspicious as to its being occupied in any great force.

Interior view of Fort Wagner

I see that a great many of the Northern papers are complaining about the slowness of the movements in progress here. They seem to think we ought to take in a week or a month what the best engineers in the Rebel service have been for two years constructing. This is the strongest fortified position in the Confederacy and has been considered almost impregnable. They have a larger number of troops than we have; this is also a warm country, and this is the hottest season and sickliest time of the year. Have patience, good people. We are but human, give us a little time.

View from south parapet of Fort Wagner

I am just informed that we are in possession of Wagner and Battery Gregg, our men having taken possession last night. But few prisoners were taken as most of the Rebel force had quietly withdrawn.

James G. Brice was born October 5, 1840 in Athens, Ohio, moving to Marion County, Indiana before the war where he served with Co. A of the 13th Indiana Volunteer Infantry. He enlisted June 19, 1861 as a private, was later appointed sergeant, and mustered out July 1, 1864 at the expiration of his three-year term of service. After the war, he married Margaret Elizabeth Williams in Covington, Kentucky in 1869 and had three children. Brice moved west, later living in Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois before moving to Long Beach, California where he died October 26, 1929.

Written by Dan Masters

Dan Masters’ Civil War Chronicles

Sinking of USS Varuna

Bullets for the Union

Source:

Letter from Sergeant James G. Brice, Co. A, 13th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, Randolph Journal (Indiana), October 2 and 9, 1863, pg. 2

US Civil War

Storming Hell : 13th Indiana & Fort Wagner