Grape, Canister, Shot, and Shell
As in any such tumultuous event, accounts of the battle at Secessionville on 16 June 1862 differ according to the position and emotional involvement of the observer. In the ensuing days, each officer submitted to his immediate superior a report of the actions of the men under his command. Understandably, these accounts tended to emphasize the hardships faced by each unit and the courage with which the men met their particular challenge. The Confederates, for example, reported three distinct assaults; the Union commanders regarded it as one sustained attack that came in waves only because the front was too narrow to allow simultaneous troop movements. When one reads all of the official reports, however, certain points become clear.
The Union forces obeyed orders to form their lines in silence during the night. Each man was to carry sixty rounds of ammunition but to advance with fixed bayonets and unloaded rifles, since surprise was the key to a successful attack. The regiments lined up in this order: the Eighth Michigan, the Seventh Connecticut, the Twenety-Eighth Massachusetts, the Seventy-ninth New York, the Hundredth Pennsylvania, and the Forty-Sixth New York. General Wright's division was on the left to protect the leading troops from a flank attack. They were ordered to remain one-half mile to the rear and to provide support. The troops assembled at various times between 1:00 A.M. and 3:30 A.M. They were to move at daybreak.
A major discrepancy in the accounts concerned the time at which the attack actually began. General Stevens reported that they moved before dawn. "It was," he said, "a very dark and cloudy morning. I moved at 4 o'clock. It was so dark that one man could not follow another except at very short intervals, it was much darker than on usual starlight nights." Colonel Joseph R. Hawley, Seventh Connecticut Infantry, whose men were near the forefront of the advance, maintained that he was able to see clearly for a distance of over 75 yards when the attack began. Most accounts place the time of the attack between 4:00 A.M. and 5:00 A.M.; observers variously described the morning as overcast, cloudy, or foggy. The question of available light became important in later attempts to understand what went wrong with the attack, for surprise was only possible if the approach were made under cover of darkness. On 16 June 1862, at latitude 33 degrees, sunrise occurred at 4:51 A.M. More significant, the beginning of morning nautical twilight, which permits observation of objects on the ground at 400 yards, came at 3:45 A.M. It seems evident that the approaching forces would have been easily visible from the fort.
The Union forces faced a march of two miles. The front was approximately 200 yards wide, narrowing to some thirty yards in front of the earthworks. The ground was sandy and ridged by old cotton furrows and stubble. Trisecting the field over which the Union army had to march were two ditches lined with hedgerows that provided some meager cover. On either side of the approach to Battery Lamar (Tower Fort), pluff mud and salt marshes lined the narrow finger of navigable ground.
General Isaac Stevens described it this way: "The front on which the attack occurred was narrow, not over 200 yards in extent, stretching from the marsh on the one side to the marsh on the other. It was at the saddle of the peninsula, the ground narrowing very suddenly at this point from our advance. On either hand were bushes on the edge of the marsh for some little distance. The whole space at the saddle was occupied by the enemy's work, impracticable abatis on either hand, with carefully prepared torus de-loup on our left and in front a ditch 7 feet deep, with a parapet of hard-packed earth, having a relief of some 9 feet above the general surface of the ground. On the fort were mounted six guns, covering the field of our approach. The whole interior of the work was swept by fire from the rifle pits and defenses in the rear, and the flanks of the work itself and the bushes lining the marsh on either hand were under the fire of riflemen and sharpshooters stationed in the woods and defenses lying between the work and the village of Secessionville."
Although technically outnumbered, the Confederate troops possessed a tactical advantage by virtue of their strongly entrenched position. The Confederates themselves, however, were not at all sure that their defenses would prove adequate. Although they were aware that attack was imminent from their observations of Union troop movements, they were not yet fully prepared for battle. On the night of 15 June, they had stationed pickets 800 yards in front of the earthworks to alert them to any advance. Most of the rebel soldiers had worked through the night on the entrenchments. They had not fallen asleep until 3:00 A.M. Then, at 4:00 A.M., the pickets were captured, and the defenders found themselves rudely awakened and plummeted into battle. The Union army had begun their attack in what should have been an opportune moment when the Confederates were still sleep-logged. The Eighth Michigan under William Fenton was first out, designated, according to Patrick Brennan's study of the battle, to serve as "bait" in the "forlorn hope" that they might attempt such a daring assault and live to tell about it.
The original 500 men stationed on the earthworks were armed with an eight-inch Columbiad loaded with grape and canister, two rifled 24-pounders, two 18-pounders, and a mortar. Defensive forces were not complete until the arrival of General Evans, leading the Pee Dee Battalion, the Charleston Battalion, and the Louisiana Battalion. These troops had not moved until alerted by the first sounds of gunfire; encounters with their own troops further delayed the Eutaw Battalion along the way.
The New York Herald published a lengthy eyewitness version of the battle, which the New Castle Courant later reprinted. Their correspondent wrote: "The forces of General Stevens were formed in perfect quiet at his outer pickets at 2 1⁄2 yesterday morning. The men fell promptly into line, having been at that hour first apprised of the movement they were to undertake. The morning was cold, and the entire sky was overcast with black, heavy clouds, so that in the darkness the task of maintaining silence and avoiding confusion was one of no little difficulty. We moved at half past four, no accident occurring to interrupt our progress. Colonel Fenton's brigade consisting of the Eighth Michigan Volunteers, under Lieutenant Colonel Graves; the Seventh Connecticut, under Colonel Hawley, and the Twenty-eighth Massachusetts, under Lieutenant Colonel Moore—was in the advance.—Colonel Leasure's brigade comprising the Seventy-ninth Highlanders, under Lieutenant Colonel Morrison, the Hundredth Pennsylvania, under Major Leckey, and the 46th New York, Colonel Rosa—was in support, together with Rockwell's Connecticut Battery, Captain Sears' company of Volunteer Engineers, and Captain Sargeant's company of Massachusetts cavalry. A storming party consisting of two companies of the Eighth Michigan, led by Lieutenant Lyons, Aid-de-Camp to General Stevens, with a negro guide was in the extreme advance."
General Stevens led his forces very quietly as far as Rivers Causeway, where he stopped to let stragglers catch up. Shortly thereafter, they ran into Confederate pickets from the Charleston Light Infantry. The Charleston paper the next morning reported, "The enemy, about daylight Monday morning, made a sudden move upon them, capturing some three or four and driving in the remainder. The alarm was immediately given, but the enemy had also pushed rapidly forward and had got within three hundred yards of the battery . . ."
The New York Herald correspondent made the encounter sound more dramatic: "Our route lay over an extensive cotton field, or rather a succession of cotton fields separated from each other by hedges and ditches. The ground was broken by these ridges peculiar to the plantations in this vicinity, and the passage over the uneven, billowy surface, marching as we were upon the 'double quick' was excessively fatiguing; yet we moved forward very rapidly. Although our line was formed within rifle shot of the enemy's pickets so quietly were the troops maneuvered that they were ignorant of it, and a rebel lieutenant and four privates were surprised and captured.—Orders had been given to move forward by the flank, regiment following regiment. In no event were we to fire, but to press on and forward into line by regiments. When the enemy should open upon us, we were to use the bayonet on him and endeavor if possible to gain possession of the works.
"These orders were faithfully executed. Reaching the open fields about a mile from the rebel fortifications, Fenton's brigade directed its attack against the right, and Leasure's against the left of the work. These two brigades now pushed forward with great rapidity, the regiments keeping within supporting distance of each other and the Michigan regiment keeping close to the storming party.
"Inside the fort, confusion reigned for a few minutes as sleeping Confederate soldiers came awake to the reality of a battle already in progress. Captain R. L. Crawford, of the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, described the scene: "I suppose by the time you get this, you will have seen an account of the battle day before yesterday. We had a hot time of it for about 3 or 4 hours. The battle commenced about 5 oclock in the morning and lasted until 9. The enemy had for nearly two days and a night been fighting our batteries at Secession Ville. Finding that they could not silence them, they finally concluded to take them by storm. They ceased firing about 8 oclock at night. When the firing stopped, Col Lamar ordered his men, who wer nearly exhausted from the long continued fight, to go into the rat holes and rest. Pickets wer then thrown out, and every thing thought to be secure.
"Next morning however they were completely surprised. The enemy passed our pickets and advanced under cover of a thick skirt of woods, and when the sentinel at the Fort discovered them they wer not more than a hundred yards off, he fired his gun and gave the alarm. Capt Reid [sic] who was in command of one of the companies ran out, and to his utter surprise found the enemy in strong force about forty yds from the fort, he immediately leveled our piece and fired into them. By this time one of the sergeants had got to another gun, but was unable to sight it, he called to Capt Reid to send some one to sight his gun, he jumped to the gun saying he would do it himself, just as he was getting the piece into position, he was shot through the head, the sergeant was also severely wounded. By this time Col Lamar had got to another gun and fired it with his own hands, he too was wounded in the face and back of the neck. The whole command was now in the fort but as they had no small arms and the Yankees had begun to come up the breast works their condition was truly critical. Determined however not to give up their works they gathered the large sticks they use to put their pieces in position, and succeeded in clubbing them back as they would come up. they must have done good work from the quantity of brains which I saw on the breast works."
Confederate guns on either side of the breastworks fired down the center of the field, causing the Yankees to veer both left and right. The New York Herald described the design of Confederate defenses: "When within about four hundred yards of the fort a terrific fire of grape and canister was opened on our columns from the work, and from the woods, abattis and rifle pits on our right. Four heavy guns on the enemy's parapet sent their murderous charges through the files of our brave men; masked batteries, of whose existence we had no knowledge, poured their terrible missles against us; sharp-shooters stationed all along the rebel line selected our officers for targets, and many a gallant leader fell at their first volley, while the men in the ranks dropped by scores."