Confederate Sharpshooters or Skirmishers
Plan of Fort Wagner, with overlay showing armament.
In the wake of the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Union Major General Quincy Gillmore wanted to add Charleston to the growing laurels of victory and take his place alongside Meade and Grant as a national hero. Since David Hunter’s June 1862 attempt to capture Charleston and Du Pont’s monitor attack had failed, no progress had been made against the hotbed of secession. Enter the conqueror of Fort Pulaski, Quincy Gillmore, who proposed a plan to capture it. Summoned to Washington, Gillmore outlined his four-part plan to capture Charleston. Gillmore pointed out that guarding Charleston Bay was Fort Sumter and if Fort Sumter fell, then Charleston would follow. First he would land men at the southern end of Morris Island. Second he would capture Battery Wagner and Battery Gregg, which guarded Fort Sumter’s vulnerable southern wall. Third, he would capture Sumter itself and last, have the navy sail in and bombard or cower Charleston into submission. His plan was approved and Gillmore relieved David Hunter.
Gillmore’s men landed on July 10 and easily drove the Confederates away from their rifle pits. Wagner’s garrison was too small to counterattack but reinforcements were rushed to bolster it. They came in handy the next day when Gillmore attempted to capture Wagner by coup de main.
A more carefully planned assault was needed and Gillmore began emplacing artillery that could shell the fort. His attack was launched on July 18 and was led by the 54th Massachusetts. It failed with heavy casualties and Gillmore resorted to a siege. Observing that Gillmore forsook blood for shovels and sweat, the Confederates brought English-made scoped Whitworth rifles to the island. Lieutenant W. D. Woodbery led a detail of twenty-one men who trained on nearby Sullivan Island. Their presence was noted almost immediately when Union sappers were struck at 1,300 yards distance. With Woodbery’s Whitworth-armed sharpshooters present, only light work could be performed somewhat safely during the day and any heavy work would have to wait for night. Long summer days meant progress slowed considerably.
Because the Whitworth fired a smaller diameter projectile than the standard .578 minié ball, its superior ballistic coefficient gave it greater range and penetrative power. The 6-inch-thick rope mantlets that had once protected the Union artillerymen were easily pierced by the Whitworth. This necessitated Gillmore’s engineers to fashion boiler plates around the embrasures.
Since Union pickets were unequal to the task of neutralizing Woodbery’s sharpshooters, better marksmen were needed than the pickets who had been relied upon to sharpshoot. Tests were held and the top fifty marksmen identified. They were detailed to an ad hoc sharpshooter company led by Captain Richard Ela and Lieutenant Albert Clay Jewett, 3rd New Hampshire. To select the gun for the ad hoc company, various rifles that were available on the island were tested and the most accurate one was the humble Springfield rifle musket. Placed in a separate camp, the men trained and when ready, took to the trenches with Captain Ela leading half one day and Lieutenant Jewett the other half the next. Each man carried 100 rounds of ammunition and his rations when he positioned himself in the advanced trenches. At day’s end when they returned to camp, both rations and ammunition were exhausted.
While the Springfield is accurate out to 500 yards, the Whitworth far exceeded it, so the Union sharpshooters were disadvantaged until the distance was closed. To accommodate their sharpshooters, Union sappers left 2-inch loopholes between sandbags “at the proper distances” as they built the siege works. Like the Confederates, the men learned to darken the holes so as to keep their opponents from guessing whether a loophole was being used or not. Stepping up to a lighted loophole told the other side to fire a shot.
As the Union sappers worked their way forward, Woodbery’s men were relieved by another ad hoc sharpshooter detail led by Lieutenant John E. Dugger, 8th North Carolina. Like Ela’s men, for the duration of the siege, Woodbery and Dugger would rotate their sharpshooters on Morris Island, resting somewhere for a few days before returning to duty.
Even with the Union sharpshooters, the Confederate threat was not neutralized and one Union captain had all the fingers of his right hand cut off while installing a gabion. Another Whitworth sharpshooter twice shot the telegraph line that connected the front trench with Gillmore’s headquarters. The Union suffered losses daily because of sharpshooting and to suppress the sharpshooters, Gillmore had his artillery bombard Wagner. Barrages became so heavy that most Confederates remained sheltered in the bombproof [shelter] and the only men who didn’t were the Whitworth sharpshooters.
Confederate sharpshooting became so intense that a frustrated Gillmore pleaded with the blockading squadron’s Admiral Dahlgren to have his monitors’ guns bear on Battery Wagner to suppress them. When they tried, a saucy Confederate even shot at the gunports of the Union monitors as they rotated their turrets to fire. Gillmore finally resorted to a massive bombardment under which his engineers could work.
One particular Confederate sharpshooter earned the enmity of his Union counterparts and both Union Brigadier General George H. Gordon and Lieutenant Albert Clay Jewett mentioned him in their memoirs. Jewett wrote:
while connected with the sharpshooters, I had many and various experiences and among them will mention a few. Not the least in interest were the exploits of one of the Confederates, a remarkable marksman, located somewhere about Fort Wagner. For some reason this man went by the name of the “n*****” sharpshooter. It may be he was one, but I always suspected that he might be a dark skinned southerner or perhaps a mulatto. This man was more to be dreaded than almost everything else opposed to us, for his aim seemed as unerring as fate, anywhere within the range of his rifle. His arm must have been some kind of heavy sporting rifle, as it was of quite large caliber and of astonishing range. He could hit the arms of cannoneers a half a mile or more distant if they exposed them in loading their pieces, and if any poor soldier revealed himself at any exposed point, certain death was his portion if the “n*****” was on duty.
The Confederates were not immune from sharpshooting and one Confederate picket received a ball down his barrel—the Yankee who fired it was that good! Despite their best efforts, Ela’s men were incapable of silencing the Confederates. Another solution was tried and Gillmore brought in the extremely accurate Parrot guns that shelled and destroyed many of the sandbags behind which the Confederate sharpshooters had shielded themselves. The destruction of the sandbags was highly demoralizing too. As the Union lines approached closer, double barrel shotguns were retrieved from the Charleston Armory and issued to the sharpshooters. One was used once to kill one Yankee who got too close.
After fifty-five days, the sappers reached Wagner’s moat. Gillmore’s men were now positioned to storm Wagner in one rush and the date was set for September 7. When the first Union soldiers scaled Wagner’s walls, they expected to be slaughtered like their brethren had been on July 18. Instead of carnage, they found Wagner had been abandoned only moments before. While evacuating Wagner, the Confederates had attempted to blow it up but the fuse failed. The Union soldiers rushed to Battery Gregg, which they also found abandoned.
They arrived in time to see the last boatload of Confederates attempting to evacuate the island. Firing upon it, they convinced the Confederates to roll back to shore and to surrender. Among them were several blacks and it required a lot of effort by the officers to prevent their men from killing them. While elated, Gillmore still needed to capture Fort Sumter before the navy could sail in to bombard the city. Sumter held on and Dahlgren, citing the torpedoes (mines) that could be activated from Sumter, refused to sail past the fort to bombard Charleston. Dahlgren had already lost the semi-ironclad Keokuk to a mine and declined exposing his remaining vessels to harm. Defending Wagner gave the Confederates time to improve Charleston’s defenses. Gillmore for his part became fixated on his plan, wasted time and resources in a lengthy siege and was ultimately stalemated. Sumter and Charleston would not fall until 1865. Between Sherman’s army marching up from Georgia, and Gillmore landing north of Charleston at Bull’s Bay to attack it from the land, the Confederates abandoned Sumter and Charleston to the Union.