79th at Secessionville, SC

The 8th Michigan and 79th New York at Tower Battery         newyork
By
John P. D’Innocenzi

On the morning of June 16, 1862, the weather on
James Island, just southeast and across the harbor from Charleston, South
Carolina, was cool and drizzly. The weather was probably the last thing on the
minds of the Union soldiers who belonged to Brigadier-General Isaac Stevens’
Second Division, part of the Northern District of the Department of the
South.
General Stevens’ men were about to take part in one of the few
land assaults against Charleston during the Civil War. Against direct orders,
Northern District Commander Brigadier-General Henry Benham ordered the 2nd
Division to execute a frontal attack against a Confederate earthen fort called
Tower Battery, part of Charleston’s outer defenses on James Island. The
formidable work – built in the shape of the letter M and flanked on both sides
by muddy, impassable marshlands – had walls as high as 16 feet with a fronting
ditch. Eight hundred yards to the rear of the fort was the summer hamlet of
Secessionville. The front of the fortification faced west. The Federals would
have no choice but to attack head-on, beginning their assault from half a mile
away. As they approached from the west, the open ground – bordered on each side
by marshland – narrowed to a mere 175 feet, the length of the front wall of the
work. The men of the 2nd Division would be forced to advance into a “funnel of
death” as they weathered the lethal artillery storm of shotgun-type canister and
shell. The Confederate battery included two 24-lb. rifled cannons, several
18-lb. guns and a giant 8-in. Columbiad cannon.
At around 4:30 AM the
first of Stevens’ division began advancing towards the Confederate fort, just
visible in the dim light of the low, gray morning sky. The 8th Michigan,
commanded by Lt. Colonel Frank Graves, led the attack across the uneven terrain
of cotton rows. Leading the regiment of Midwesterners were companies C and H.
Their orders were to charge the fort with the bayonet, and hold the enemies
attention long enough for the full weight of the division’s 1st Brigade to reach
the fortification. Soldiers who were given this unenviable assignment were
commonly referred to as the “forlorn hope.” As the Michigan men advanced some
reported hearing “the long roll in the enemy’s camp”- hopes of a surprise attack
were dashed. With a loud, ringing cheer the 8th pressed their
assault.

In the pre-dawn gloom a Confederate sentinel noticed movement
in the fields west of the battery. Shortly after, he saw the Federals forming
for attack a half mile away, and another smaller group already charging across
the open ground. The sentinel quickly woke Colonel Thomas Lamar Commander of the
1st South Carolina Artillery. Lamar immediately called for Confederate infantry
camped near Secessionville to come forward in support of the battery. Within
seconds a 24-lb. artillery piece followed by the giant Columbiad were the first
to roar into action, sending a nightmare of canister and shell into the
advancing 8th Michigan. The center of the main Michigan line simply melted
away.

As the Union assault progressed many from the “forlorn hope”
companies made it to the fort and scaled the right wall of the parapet (the
fort’s left flank). Some stood atop the earthwork and fired their rifles while
others tumbled into the fortification and engaged in hand-to-hand combat,
desperately attempting to quiet the deadly Rebel artillery. Their efforts were
sorely needed; Confederate cannon fire was devastating the remaining Michigan
companies advancing in the open field. As the center of their battle line began
to vaporize in the storm of shot and shell, many of the Michiganders decided
enough was enough, and broke right and left for the cover of bushes lining the
field. Others continued on through the bloody storm, struck the left flank of
the Rebel work, and joined their “forlorn hope” fellows in the
fort.

Private Benjamin Pease of Co. G was grazed by a bullet as he made
it to the ditch fronting the battery. Once in the trench he noticed none of his
comrades were with him; looking back over his shoulder he could see them heading
for the cover of myrtle bushes and logs along the edge of the swamp, on the
north side of the field. The young man from Michigan decided he’d better stick
with his comrades. With blood running down his face and into his eyes, Pease ran
back to the northern edge of the open terrain, and eventually came across his
captain lying face down behind some bushes. The private asked the officer if he
was hurt. The captain said he was not and then, glued to the ground with his own
head down, told Pease to keep him informed of how the battle was progressing.
Pease obediently complied.

Despite the Southerners’ best efforts, the
8th Michigan men who had scaled the parapet were driving the Confederates from
the fortification. Suddenly a wall of musket fire from the rear of the battery
tore into the exposed Federals. Swirling into the fort and firing on the run was
the 9th South Carolina Battalion, also known as the Pee Dee Battalion, the first
of the infantry support Colonel Lamar had called for when the attack began.
While the men of the 9th South Carolina were concentrating their efforts on the
left side of the fort, Confederate gunners on the right were taking a terrible
beating until the 1st South Carolina Battalion arrived on the scene. They were
directed to the center and right flank of the parapet where they joined the
battle. Fighting with the 1st South Carolina was Confederate Scotsman Lt. James
Campbell. He was frantically looking for a weapon; in the rush to reach the fort
he had forgotten his rifle. Campbell suddenly saw a group of Federals scaling
the wall and about to storm his position. He still hadn’t found a rifle, but he
did find a log on top of the parapet and sent it rolling down on the hapless
group of Billy Yanks, inflicting considerable hurt on the boys in
blue.

The next regiment from Stevens’ division to assault the fort was
the 7th Connecticut. Unfortunately, the Connecticut Federals were unaware of the
narrowing “funnel shape” of the ground. They pushed left in an effort to align
with the 8th Michigan and nearly half the regiment, in the confusion of battle
and the dim morning light, marched through the bushes lining the north marshland
and right into the thick, sticky mud – all the while being blown apart by
canister and grapeshot. Efforts to extricate and realign the mud-cursed
Connecticut companies came to a slimy halt when the Irish of the 28th
Massachusetts, the next regiment following on the heels of the 7th, also plunged
into the quagmire. The 28th had very little combat experience and immediately
their effectiveness as a unit, for this fight anyway, was over. Many of the
Massachusetts men who were not mired in the mud laid low in the cotton furrows
of the field to avoid the deadly artillery fire.

By now Confederate
reinforcements in the fort were forcing the Michigan men to retreat back over
the earthen walls where they were in danger of being hit by friendly fire. The
men of the 8th looked for the other regiments in their brigade – where was their
support?

The commander of the 7th Connecticut Lt. Colonel Joseph Hawely
frantically worked to reorganize his men. The air was thick with Rebel lead as
he began to form a new line with the remaining half of the regiment. Hawely then
led his men to the right of the field directly behind the 8th Michigan who were
still on the walls of the fort fighting for their lives. With the regiment
reformed it seemed as if the 7th had finally gotten their act together. Just
then without warning a charging mass of blue heading for the Confederate rampart
hit them from behind – plowing into and through their newly formed line. Once
again the Connecticut Federals were in disarray. To say the least, the men of
the 7th were having a bad day.

Who were these charging men in blue who
plowed through the Connecticut men?

The 79th New York Highlanders was a
volunteer regiment from New York City composed mostly of men of Scottish decent.
The 2nd Division Commander Isaac Stevens was once their Colonel and had molded
them into a first-rate unit that “was always ready for a fight.” The 79th
referred to Stevens as “our friend and our counselor.”

The men of the
79th New York arrived on the scene this day eager to join the fight. They formed
their battle line in full view of General Stevens, but the presence of their
beloved general wasn’t what motivated the Highlanders on this fateful morning.
Looking east towards the Confederate work, the lead companies of the 79th could
easily see the 8th Michigan’s trail of broken and dead bodies.

While
serving together in the 2nd Division the men from New York and Michigan had
developed a very close friendship. Earlier in May part of the 8th became
involved in a particularly nasty skirmish in which 11 Michiganders were killed
and 33 wounded. In response, the 79th gave a concert for the benefit of the
families of those who had been lost in battle. Now their close friends were
involved in fitful hand-to-hand combat, and it seemed to the Highlanders that
the Connecticut and Massachusetts men were doing precious little to help their
Michigan comrades.

The 79th advanced in line and were halted at a ditch
running across the length of the field. They begged their officers “to be
allowed to advance to the help of those in the fort.” William Todd wrote in his
regimental history: “At last the word was given, and over the ditch we went, on
the jump, and without waiting for any line formation, struck out on the run for
the fort… In our rush we encountered the right flank of the Seventh Connecticut,
whose center had been broken by the enemy’s fire, and whose commander was
endeavoring to re-form its line; we hurried past them in pell-mell, in our
eagerness to arrive at the fort and assist our storming party.”

As the
79th approached the fort, Confederate fire forced the left most companies
towards the right flank of the work. The commander of the 79th New York Lt.
Colonel David Morrison led the remaining companies up the parapet on the fort’s
south side (left flank). They were joined by men from the 8th Michigan who were
still able and willing to fight. Morrison was the first to gain the top and
emptied his pistol into the Southern defenders. The Tower Battery was again a
whirling horror of point blank firing and hand-to-hand combat. Southern rifle
fire was intense and many of the Highlanders were forced to hug the outside of
the walls. Morrison then ordered a bayonet charge. Over the top went the gallant
Highlanders doing considerable damage to the fort’s occupants, but Confederate
gunfire began to take its toll on the Scotsmen.

The last two regiments
of Stevens’ 2nd Division, the 100th Pennsylvania (known as the Roundheads) and
the 46th New York, joined the attack. The Pennsylvania men came within 30 yards
of the fort where Confederate canister and grapeshot brought them to a bloody
halt. The 46th New York advanced to about where the mud-stricken companies of
the 7th Connecticut and 28th Massachusetts were located. There many of the 46th
broke for the rear. Brigadier-General Horatio Wright’s 1st Division attempted an
attack on Tower Battery from the north but was unsuccessful. With his last two
regiments used up, Stevens ordered his forces to withdraw – the assault was
over.

Word of the retreat quickly spread to the men of the 79th who were
still on the earthworks of the fort. As one Highlander, Pvt. Van Horsen of Co.
E, began to fallback a Confederate soldier attempted to take him prisoner.
Instead, Van Horsen grabbed the hapless “prisoner-to-be” by the scalp and pulled
him down off the parapet. In the midst of the Union retreat Van Horsen’s new
prisoner was approached by Alexander Campbell, the color bearer for the 79th New
York. Campbell was looking for information about his brother, Lt. James Campbell
of the 1st South Carolina Battalion. Alexander wanted to know if his brother
James was fighting inside the breast work. The Rebel captive informed Alexander
that his Confederate brother was indeed inside the fort.

Two days after
the battle during a called truce Alexander received a note from his brother
James. The Confederate Campbell wrote, “I was in the Brest work during the whole
engagement doing my Best to Beat you, but I hope that you and I will never again
meet face to face Bitter enemies in the battlefield.” They never did, and both
brothers survived the war.

The Battle of Secessionville was an utter
defeat for the Federal forces belonging to the Department of the South (Northern
District). Tower Battery was renamed Fort Lamar and remained in southern control
until Sherman flanked Charleston from the rear in 1865. General Henry Benham was
relieved of command and put under arrest for disobeying orders.
Brigadier-General Isaac Stevens, who opposed the attack, was promoted to
Major-General. He was killed in Virginia on September 1, 1862 while personally
leading the 79th New York in a charge against Stonewall Jackson’s forces at the
Battle of Chantilly. Most of the regiments in the 2nd Division eventually became
part of General Ambrose Burnside’s 9th Corps; many fought in both the eastern
and western theaters. Later in the war the 28th Massachusetts served with honor
in the infamous Irish Brigade.

Sources: Secessionville Assault on
Charleston by Patrick Brennan; Campbell, California; Savas Publishing Co.;
1996
The Seventy-Ninth Highlanders, New York Volunteers in the War of
Rebellion, 1861-1865 by William Todd; Albany, NY; Press of Brandow, Barton &
Co.; 1886; Reprint (Salem, MA; Higginson Book Co.; 1998)
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