"Something must be done, and that, too, quickly, or
in a few days we shall have the whole army in Virginia upon us," said an officer high
in command. "We must storm the fort to-night, and carry it at the point of the
In a few moments signals are made from the top of the
look-out, and soon generals and colonels commanding divisions and brigades were seen
galloping to the head-quarters of the commanding general. A few words in consultation, and
Generals Seymour, Strong, Stevenson, and Colonels Putnam and Montgomery are seen hastening
back to their respective commands. Officers shout, bugles sound, the word of command is
given, and soon the soldiers around, upon, and under the sand-hills of Morris Island
spring from their hiding-places, fall into line, march to the beach, are organized into
new brigades, and in solid column stand ready to move to the deadly assault.
Not in widely-extended battle line, with cavalry and
artillery at supporting distances, but in solid regimental column, on the hard ocean
beach, for half a mile before reaching the fort, in plain sight of the enemy, did these
three brigades move to their appointed work.
General Strong, who has so frequently since his arrival in
this Department braved death in its many forms of attack, was assigned to the command of
the 1st Brigade. Colonel Putnam, of the 7th New Hampshire, who,
although of the regular army, and considered one of the best officers in the Department,
had never led his men into battle nor been under fire, took command of the 2d, and General
Stevenson the 3d, constituting the reserve. The 54th Massachusetts (colored
regiment), Colonel Shaw, was the advanced regiment in the 1st Brigade, and the
2d South Carolina (negro), Colonel Montgomery, was the last regiment of the reserve.
These brigades, as I have remarked before, were formed for
this express duty. Many of the regiments had never seen their brigade commanders before;
some of them had never been under fire; and, with exception of three regiments in the 1st
Brigade, none of them had ever been engaged in this form of attack. All had fresh in their
memories the severe repulse we had met on the morning of the 11th inst. For two
years the Department of the South had been in existence, and until the storming of the
batteries on the south end of Morris Island, the army had won no victory fairly
acknowledged by the enemy.
Just as darkness began to close in upon the scene of the
afternoon and the evening, General Strong rode to the front and ordered his brigade,
consisting of the 54th Massachusetts, Colonel Shaw (colored regiment); the 6th
Connecticut, Colonel Chatfield; the 48th New York, Colonel Barton; the 3d New
Hampshire, Colonel Jackson; the 76th Pennsylvania, and the 9th
Maine, Colonel Emery, to advance to the assault. At the instant the line was seen slowly
advancing in the dusk toward the fort, and before a double-quick had been ordered, a
tremendous fire from the barbette guns on Fort Sumter, from the batteries on
Cummings Point, and from all the guns on Fort Wagner, opened upon it. The guns from
Wagner swept the beach, and those from Sumter and Cummings Point enfiladed it on the
left. In the midst of this terrible shower of shot and shell they pushed their way,
reached the fort, portions of the 54th Massachusetts, the 6th
Connecticut, and the 48th New York dashed through the ditches, gained the
parapet, and engaged in a hand-to-hand fight with the enemy, and for nearly half an hour
held their ground, and did not fall back until nearly every commissioned officer was shot
down. As on the morning of the assault of the 11th inst., these brave men were
exposed to a most galling fire of grape and canister, from howitzers, raking the ditches
from the bastions of the fort, from hand-grenades and from almost every other modern
implement of warfare. The rebels fought with the utmost desperation, and so did the larger
portion of General Strongs brigade, as long as there was an officer to command it.
When the brigade made the assault General Strong gallantly
rode at its head. When it fell back, broken, torn, and bleeding, Major Plimpton of the 3d
New Hampshire was the highest commissioned officer to command it. General Strong, Colonel
Shaw, Colonel Chatfield, Colonel Barton, Colonel Green, Colonel Jackson, all had fallen.
The 54th Massachusetts (negro), whom Copperhead officers would have called
cowardly if they had stormed and carried the gates of hell, went boldly into battle, for
the second time, commanded by their brave Colonel, but came out of it led by no higher
officer than the boy, Lieutenant Higginson.
The 1st Brigade, under the lead of General
Strong, failed to take the fort. It was now the turn of Colonel Putnam, commanding the 2d
Brigade, composed of the 7th New Hampshire, the 62d Ohio, Colonel Steele, the
67th Ohio, Colonel Vorhees, and the 100th New York, Colonel Danely,
to make the attempt. But, alas! the task was too much for him. Through the same terrible
fire he led his men to, over, and into the fort, and for an hour held one-half of it,
fighting every moment of that time with the utmost desperation, and, as with the 1st
Brigade, it was not until he himself fell killed, and nearly all his officers wounded, and
no reinforcements arriving, that his men fell back, and the rebel shout and cheer of
victory was heard above the roar of Sumter and the guns from Cummings Point.
In this second assault by Colonel Putnams brigade,
Colonel Turner, of General Gilmores staff, stood at the side of Colonel Putnam when
he fell, and with his voice and sword urged on the thinned ranks to the final charge. But
it was too late. The 3d brigade, General Stevensons, was not on hand. It was madness
for the 2d to remain longer under so deadly a fire, and the thought of surrendering in a
body to the enemy could not for a moment be entertained. To fight their way back to the
intrenchments was all that could be don, and in this retreat many a poor fellow fell,
never to rise again.
Without a doubt, many of our men fell from our own fire.
The darkness was so intense, the roar of artillery so loud, the flight of grape and
canister shot so rapid and destructive, that it was absolutely impossible to preserve
order in the ranks of individual companies, to say nothing of the regiments.
More than half the time we were in the fort the fight was
simply a hand-to-hand one, as the wounds received by many clearly indicate. Some have
sword-thrusts, some are hacked on the head, some are stabbed with bayonets, and a few were
knocked down with the butt-end of muskets, but recovered in time to get away with swollen
heads. There was terrible fighting to get into the fort, and terrible fighting to get out
of it. The cowardly stood no better chance for their lives than the fearless. Even if they
surrendered, the shell of Sumter were thickly falling around them in the darkness, and, as
prisoners, they could not be safe until victory, decisive and unquestioned, rested with
one or the other belligerent.
The battle is over; it is midnight; the ocean beach is
crowded with the dead, the dying, and the wounded. It is with difficulty you can urge your
horse through to Light-house Inlet. Faint lights are glimmering in the sand-holes and
rifle-pits to the right as you pass down the beach. In these holes many a poor wounded and
bleeding soldier has laid down to his last sleep. Friends are bending over them to stanch
their wounds, or bind up their shattered limbs; but the deathly glare from sunken eyes
tells that their kind services are all in vain.