Maine at War

Brave Union soldier wins the Medal of Honor at Fort Wagner: Part II

As Union infantrymen successfully scale the southeast bastion of Fort Wagner on Morris Island after dark on Saturday, July 18, 1863, a color bearer unfurls the American flag (right). Counterattacking Confederates swarm on the fort's parapets (center) and fire on the Union soldiers. Among the Federal regiments participating in the charge was the 9th Maine Infantry, commanded by Col. Sabine Emery. This lithograph adequately depicts the furious fighting that took place at Wagner that night; the attack ended in a Union defeat. Fort Wagner blocked Union access to Charleston, S.C.
Library of Congress
As Union infantrymen successfully scale the southeast bastion of Fort Wagner on Morris Island after dark on Saturday, July 18, 1863, a color bearer unfurls the American flag (right). Counterattacking Confederates swarm on the fort's parapets (center) and fire on the Union soldiers. Among the Federal regiments participating in the charge was the 9th Maine Infantry, commanded by Col. Sabine Emery. This lithograph adequately depicts the furious fighting that took place at Wagner that night; the attack ended in a Union defeat. Fort Wagner blocked Union access to Charleston, S.C.
Posted Aug. 27, 2013, at 4:27 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2014, at 10:33 a.m.
As his black soldiers from the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment scale the low parapet of Fort Wagner on Morris Island near Charleston, S.C., Col. Robert Gould Shaw thrusts his sword skyward as he is shot and killed beside the regimental flag bearer. The 9th Maine Infantry participated in the same assault. This fanciful lithograph contains several errors; the most egregious places the attack in the daytime. The actual assault took place after sunset.
Library of Congress
As his black soldiers from the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment scale the low parapet of Fort Wagner on Morris Island near Charleston, S.C., Col. Robert Gould Shaw thrusts his sword skyward as he is shot and killed beside the regimental flag bearer. The 9th Maine Infantry participated in the same assault. This fanciful lithograph contains several errors; the most egregious places the attack in the daytime. The actual assault took place after sunset.
In March 1865 George Barnard photographed the interior ruins of Fort Sumter at Charleston, S.C. He pointed his camera toward Charleston on the northern horizon.
Library of Congress
In March 1865 George Barnard photographed the interior ruins of Fort Sumter at Charleston, S.C. He pointed his camera toward Charleston on the northern horizon.

For the brave Union soldier who won the Medal of Honor at Fort Wagner, S.C., the day started off with a bang on Saturday, July 18, 1863.

Charles E. Smith of Bangor and his 9th Maine Infantry buddies listened all day as land- and sea-based Union artillery shelled Fort Wagner on the northern end of Morris Island. Union infantry would attack the fort at dusk.

Long before the attack, the 9th Maine’s brigade commander, Brig. Gen. George Crockett Strong, fielded a request made by a fellow officer whose regiment had just arrived on Morris Island. The 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment sought the honor of leading the Fort Wagner assault, said Col. Robert Gould Shaw.

His request presented Strong and ultimately division commander Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour with a ticklish situation. The 54th Massachusetts encompassed black enlisted soldiers led by white officers. Strong commanded five “white” regiments; he sent Shaw’s request up the line to Seymour.

He approved it.

The Union troops faced a daunting task in simply reaching their target. Morris Island narrowed to about 60 yards south of Fort Wagner; only one regiment could advance at a time, and the lead regiment could catch hell.

About 5 p.m. “the heavy sea fogs from the Atlantic” slid across Morris Island and obscured “the continuous flash of artillery directed against Fort Wagner,” recalled Capt. Garth James of Co. F, 54th Massachusetts.

About 6 p.m. “our line of battle stretched itself across the sandy beach, in column by division closed in mass,” James remembered. The regiments following the 54th Massachusetts were, in order, the 6th Connecticut, the 48th New York, the 3rd New Hampshire, the 76th Pennsylvania, and the 9th Maine. Following these regiments was a brigade commanded by Col. Haldimand S. Putnam.

The 1989 movie “Glory” depicts just one glaring error in the climactic assault on Fort Wagner. Played by Matthew Broderick, Robert Gould Shaw leads his men toward the fort (a reasonable facsimile of the original) with the Atlantic Ocean rolling ashore to their left.

Union infantry actually advanced with the ocean to their right.

Shaw and his men stepped off at approximately 7:45 p.m.; Charles E. Smith and the 9th Maine followed a short time later. The plans called for the 54th Massachusetts to strike the fort’s southeast bastion; Strong’s five remaining regiments and then Putnam’s four regiments would pile into the breaches carved by Shaw’s men.

“The bugle sounds the advance,” and James “turned to cheer the men.” Wagner gunners waited until the 54th Massachusetts reached a point about 150 yards from the fort’s south wall.

As “we reached the first obstruction to our passage, the first chevaux-de-frise,” enemy cannons “shotted with grape and canister” shredded Shaw’s men, James recalled. “Gathering together a knot of men” from the shattered ranks, “I waved my sword for a further charge toward the living line of fire above us.”

Suffering a foot wound, James did not reach the Wagner parapet. Other 54th Massachusetts boys did so and fought frenziedly with the opposing North Carolinians, as depicted in the savage fighting that occurs while “Charging Fort Wagner” resounds during “Glory.”

Confederate artillery just to the east on Wagner’s walls fired almost point blank into the attacking white regiments. Some soldiers, especially from the 6th Connecticut and 48th New York, reached the southeast bastion’s parapets.

Behind them Strong’s three remaining regiments went belly to beach where a slight sandy ridge provided scant protection against canister and grapeshot. Strong organized a desperate charge and suffered a mortal wound for his effort. Putnam and his regiments swept across that sandy ridge (and apparently took some 9th Maine boys with them) and reached Wagner’s southeast bastion.

Confederate infantry counterattacked at least twice; Putnam was shot dead, Shaw died climbing the steep wall in Wagner’s midsection, and the 6th Connecticut lost Col. John Chatfield to a mortal wound.

The gallant attack ultimately failed, and Union casualties totaled an estimated 1,515 men killed, wounded, captured, or missing. Confederate casualties amounted to 174 men.

The 9th Maine paid dearly for participating in both assaults on Fort Wagner. “The entire loss to the Regiment in killed and wounded in the capture of the [Morris] Island and the assaults on Wagner will not be far from two hundred,” Col. Sabine Emery wrote Maine Gov. Abner Coburn on Aug. 10.

Shelled almost constantly for 8½ weeks, Confederate defenders abandoned Wagner on Monday, Sept. 7. Union troops quickly advanced to attack Battery Gregg; according to his Aug. 9, 1912 obituary in the Bangor Daily News, Charles E. Smith “was in the charge upon Fort Gregg and it was in front of Gregg that Capt. Scolly D. Baker of Co. I was killed.”

He “was a Bangor man,” the Bangor Daily News reported. Smith “was beside Capt. Baker when he fell, almost cut in two by a shell.”

After the 9th Maine shifted north to Virginia in 1864, Smith “was … wounded in the breast at Petersburg” during the July 30 Battle of the Crater. Sent home to recover, Smith returned to the 9th Maine in mid-October and “mustered out as orderly sergeant … at Raleigh, N.C.” in mid-July 1865. He lived in Bangor until his death on Aug. 8, 1912.

According to his obituary, “it was in this [Fort Wagner] charge that Col. Shaw was killed and it was in this charge, too, that Mr. Smith had won his medal of honor.” The obituary clearly stated elsewhere that Smith had been “awarded the Congressional medal [of honor] for bravery.”

“The 54th Massachusetts was cut up and put to flight when his (Shaw’s) regimental flag went down. Mr. Smith picked it up and carried it through the battle, finally bringing it to camp safely after the charge,” the Bangor Daily News reported.

“Col. Quincy A. Gilmore (sic) … was the corps commander on this day,” the paper told readers. “He happened to see the brave act of Smith in getting the flag and defending it with his life. It was he (Gillmore) who recommended to Congress that a medal of honor be given to Mr. Smith.”

The actual medal in Smith’s (and now his survivors’) possession “is made from a bit of captured bronze [Confederate] cannon, as all Civil War medals are,” the paper’s reporter wrote.

“On one side appears Fort Sumter in relief, with the words, ‘Fort Sumter as it looked in August, 1863’ and on the reverse, ‘For gallant and meritorious conduct in front of the enemy,’” the reporter detailed Smith’s Medal of Honor.

For years after the war Smith likely wore his medal when attending meetings of the Beale Post, Grand Army of the Republic. But there was a problem.

When Confederate ordnance struck down the 54th Massachusetts’ flag bearer on Wagner’s ramparts, Sgt. William Harvey Carney picked up the flag and thrust its staff deeply into the sand. There the flag stood while fighting raged around it.

As Confederates ejected their black enemies from Wagner, Carney “wound the colors round the staff and made my way down the parapet into the ditch … now filled with water that came up to my waist,” he later wrote. Bleeding from head, hip, and right leg wounds, he reached Union lines.

Carney became the first black soldier to win the Medal of Honor — and he did so for his heroism at Fort Wagner.

So Charles E. Smith of Bangor did not win the Medal of Honor there, as his obituary reported.

But “it will be remembered that after the reduction of Fort Wagner and the demolition of Fort Sumter, last Fall, Gen. GILLMORE announced that medals of honor would be presented to such enlisted men as had especially distinguished themselves by gallant conduct during the [1863] siege” of Charleston, the New York Times (citing the Palmetto Herald) reported on March 30, 1864.

The “size of the silver dollar,” the bronze Gillmore Medal was engraved in front with “a very accurate representation of Fort Sumter … with the legend ‘Fort Sumter, Aug. 23, 1863’” and in back with the inscription “ ‘For gallant and meritorious service. Presented by Q.A. Gillmore, Major-General.”

Only “about five hundred candidates” were eligible to receive the Gillmore medal of honor — and its recipients clearly understood it to be a medal of honor, according to the NYT.

Charles E. Smith was among those 500 heroes.

So for his incredible bravery during the “Glory” assault on Fort Wagner near Charleston, S.C., this Union foot soldier did win the medal of honor, just not the Congressional version.

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net or visit his blog at http:maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.

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