Gillmore’s Line of Earthworks in Front of Fort Wagner, Morris Island, SC, July 1863

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Robert Knox Sneden, Genl. Q. A., Gillmore’s Line of Earthworks in Front of Fort Wagner, Morris Island, SC, July 1863, 1863–1865. Virginia Historical Society, Richmond

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Built before the Civil War, Fort Wagner stood on Morris Island protecting the southern approach to the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina. It was one of many federal defenses along the Atlantic coastline designed to guard against foreign raiders. When hostilities broke out between the American North and South at Fort Sumter—in the middle of Charleston’s harbor—both sides fought to occupy nearby Forts Wagner and Gregg, along with other strategic defenses along the southern waterways. Control of the Charleston harbor meant control of the city—as well as its economy and resources, vast railroad network, and opportunities to launch (or prevent) military strikes by land.

This map, drawn by Robert Knox Sneden, depicts Union Major General Quincy A. Gillmore’s military installations on Morris Island. The terrain is carefully labeled for marshes, swamps, sand, and quicksand. It shows the Union army’s line of defensive earthworks with artillery and trenches, or “parallels.” The 54th and other units built these defenses in the weeks after the ill-fated attack on Fort Wagner. Notations indicate Wagner’s weaponry (“17 guns”) and the water-filled ditch protecting the fort.

The map’s upper left shows a gun battery, strategically sited to shell the city of Charleston, located about four miles to the north. Nicknamed “The Swamp Angel,” this new, cannonlike gun could fire a 200-pound shot a distance of just over five miles—farther than any previous artillery. Its presence was intended to pressure Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard into evacuating Morris Island and surrendering Charleston. When the intimidation tactic failed, the city was shelled for two hours in the early morning of August 22, 1863. Many civilians fled in the aftermath, but the Confederacy refused to yield the city or its defenses on Morris Island.

These efforts to take Charleston followed the failed Union assaults on Fort Wagner the month before: the first took place on July 11, and the second—led by the 54th Massachusetts—on July 18. For the second, now-famous offensive, Gillmore brought in the U.S. Monitor fleet, indicated along the Island’s Atlantic coastline. Beginning at noon that day, the warships shelled the fort for hours in an attempt to make it easier for the infantry, which began its attack at dusk.

The 600 men of the 54th Massachusetts (in a Union offensive totaling 6,000), led the assault. As required by the terrain, they approached Fort Wagner from the south along a narrow strip of beach. The battle left thirty men of the 54th dead, including Shaw and seven of his officers. Twenty-four of the regiment’s men later died of their wounds, fifty-two went missing and were presumed dead, and fifteen were taken prisoner. Another 149 were wounded but survived. Subsequent analysis showed that the 54th’s attack was based on flawed intelligence and was inadequately supported by other Union regiments because of poor communication.

Union forces were not successful in taking Fort Wagner until early September 1863, when Confederate troops, under siege, abandoned the site. Similarly, Confederate forces relinquished Charleston only at the end of the war when Sherman threatened to raze the city on his “March to the Sea.”

Robert Knox Sneden (1832–1918), a private in the Union army, trained as an engineer and architect. While serving with the 40th New York Volunteer Regiment and later incarcerated at Andersonville Prison in Georgia, he sketched, made maps, and kept notes on his wartime experiences, a selection of which were later published as Eye of the Storm: A Civil War Odyssey (2000).