The siege of Charleston

During July 1863, Maj Zeilen, by then post commander at Brooklyn Marine Barracks, was ordered to recruit a Marine battalion to assist Rear Adm John A.Dahlgren and the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron in the siege operations against Charleston, South Carolina. The 276-strong battalion arrived at Morris Island, SC, on August 6. With those already taken from the vessels of his squadron Dahlgren now had at his disposal about 540 Marines, who were formed into 1 a four-company battalion. By September 4, Zeilen had been taken I ill and replaced in command by LtCol John Reynolds.

Men from the Marine battalion, under Capt Charles G.McCawley, joined a volunteer force of sailors, plus Marines from ships' guards which conducted a disastrous assault on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on September 8. This attack was prompted by the Confederate refusal to surrender Charleston following the Federal capture of Morris Island the day before. Due to a remarkable lack of communication between the Army and the Navy, Gen Quincy A.Gilmore, commander of the Department of the South, also J planned for the Army to mount a boat attack on the fort on J September 8. When he discovered the Navy plan Gilmore suggested that an Army officer assume overall responsibility for a combined operation; but Dahlgren declined to place his naval forces under Army control. The two boat attacks proceeded independently, although the Army attack was cancelled once the alarm had been raised following the failure of the Navy operation.

Arriving at the flag-steamer Philadelphia from Light House Inlet aboard the side-wheel tug Daffodil late in the afternoon of September 8, McCawley's Marines transferred to several large launches and waited for darkness. They then took their place among 25 boats containing naval personnel towed by the Daffodil. When they reached the fort the Marines were to give covering fire while the sailors landed, and were then to go in with the bayonet. Acting Master John P.Carr, commanding

Lt Andrew W.Ward was one of a battalion of 136 US Marines under Maj Addison Garland aboard the USS Ariel who were captured by the Confederate commerce raider Alabama on December 7, 1362. (National Archives photo 127-N-515334)

Confederate MarinesBattle Charleston Harbor

A Marine battalion commanded by Capt Charles G.McCawley took part in the unsuccessful boat attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on September 8, 1863 - see Plate C. (Battles & Leaders)

the Daffodil, took the boats as close in as possible, nearly running his vessel aground, and then cast them off a quarter of a mile from Fort Sumter. In the confusion that followed, LtCdr Edward P.Williams hastily formed five boats into the first division, and ordered the crews to "lay on their oars" in silence while the tide swept them towards the fort.

Unknown to the assault force, the Confederates had captured and deciphered a Federal signal book and knew that an attack was imminent. Spotting the cutter commanded by Williams in the gloom, a Confederate challenged it twice, without a response. Finally, Williams replied, "Passing!" Not deceived, the sentry fired, alerting the garrison. Private Charles Leaman, one of the Marines in the boat commanded by Lt Horatio B.Lowry, recalled, "We waited there for a few minutes and then moved up, our boat being ordered up on the left... and just as we got our position, the sentry fired." A rocket then signaled the harbor batteries to open fire. Leaman continued: "In a minute we heard the guns from Moultrie, Johnson and the batteries on Sullivan's Island, and Sumter was playing with musketiy and hand grenades as fast as she could." Confederate Marines aboard the nearby ironclad CSS Chicora, under 2nd Lt Henry Melville Doak, also joined the fray, pouring volleys of musketry into the Federal boats as the attackers clambered on to the rubble at the shoreline.

Williams' cutter beached and his party of seamen dashed for the walls, where they were pinned down beneath a protrusion of masonry level with the second tier of casemates, and could advance no further. A second boatload of sailors managed to land, only to find themselves in the same predicament. A cutter from the USS Pmuhatan, containing 15 Marines, also attempted to land, but its commander lost his nerve and

A Marine battalion commanded by Capt Charles G.McCawley took part in the unsuccessful boat attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on September 8, 1863 - see Plate C. (Battles & Leaders)

ordered his oarsmen to pull away ■ leaving only one Marine, Cpl Thomas Calley, and a Navy boatswain's mate, stranded ashore. Meanwhile, the Marines in the boats off shore commenced giving covering fire as ordered. Lieutenant Robert L.Meade recalled:

"I opened fire and kept it up for a short while when I heard a voice ashore (that of Lieutenant Commander Williams) to 'stop firing and land,' which I did as well as possible; my men suffering from the musketry fire and the bricks, hand grenades and fireballs thrown from the parapet. Immediately on striking the beach, I gave orders to land and find cover, which the men lost no time in executing." Meade's boat was the exception. Upon hearing orders to cease fire, all of the vessels containing Marines turned about and pulled away, joining diose from the other divisions that had failed to land.

Meanwhile, the men ashore remained pinned down by a galling fire from the ramparts and loopholes. Scattered around the base of the fort, and unable to gather together, they began to surrender; in pairs and squads they descended the slope of rubble, and were ordered to march to the south face, where they climbed the debris to the parapet. On his way round, Lt William Remey found Lt Charles H.Bradford lying seriously wounded in the groin; he was carried into the fort, but died 15 days later.

Of the 25 boats that set out, only 11 managed to land at Fort Sumter; the rest were driven off or, as in the case of that commanded by Marine Lt John Harris, simply got lost in the confusion and returned to the ships. Of the 133 Marines who volunteered to take part in this attack, two were killed, six were mortally wounded, and two more were wounded but withdrew and recovered fully. Of the 34 Marines who were

The Marine detachment aboard the USS Kearsarge, armed with M1855 Harper's Ferry .58 caliber rifle muskets. (National Archives 127-N-515390)

The Marine detachment aboard the USS Kearsarge, armed with M1855 Harper's Ferry .58 caliber rifle muskets. (National Archives 127-N-515390)

Marines Climb Aboard SloopThe Siege Charleston Outfits
Wearing full dress in this retouched portrait, Cpl Austin Quimby served aboard the Kearsarge, and provided a graphic account of the battle with the Alabama, June 19, 1864. (Naval Historical Center photo NH 42383)

captured, 16 were eventually paroled, while the remainder died as prisoners in Camp Sumter at AndcrsonviDe, Georgia.

Following this fiasco, Reynolds' Marine battalion went into camp on Folly Island and was broken up in late November 1863, its members being sent to garrison navy yards or to form much needed ships' guards.

The sinking of the Alabama

The Commandant of the US Marine Corps, the 73-year-old Col John Harris, died of fatigue and old age on May 12, 1864; and after a month of deliberation, Secretary Welles decided to retire all Marine officers past the legal age, and to recommend the appointment of Jacob Zeilin as Harris' replacement. By now recovered from his illness and serving as commanding officer of the barracks at Portsmouth, NH, Zeilin became the new Commandant on June 10, 1864. On the same date, Marines participated in one of the finest hours of the US Navy during the Civil War, when the guard aboard Capt John A.Winslow's screw sloop USS Kearsarge helped to sink the Confederate raider CSS Alabama off the coast of France.

Built secretly for the Confederacy by Laird & Company at Birkenhead, England, during 1862, and initially known only as "No.290," the Alabama spent 22 months on the high seas under the command of Capt Raphael Semmes, wreaking havoc among the Union merchant fleet. Having sunk, captured or bonded over 60 vessels, the raider was in need of repairs by March 1864, and made for the French port of Cherbourg to refit.

While off the English coast near Dover on June 12 the Kearsarge, which had been hunting for Confederate raiders in European waters for nearly two years, received word that the Alabama had arrived at Cherbourg. By dawn of June 14 the Federal sloop had taken up station off the port within sight of its quarry. Going ashore, Winslow received word from Semmes via the Confederate consul that he intended to fight as soon as the necessary arrangements were made; and five days later the Alabama steamed out of harbor to do battle. One of the Marine Guard aboard the Kearsarge, Cpl Austin Quimby, recorded in his journal:

"Soon we saw die Rebel Flag. We then knew it was the pirate. Then it was clear the ship for action." The crew of the Federal vessel was so depleted by desertion that the Marines were needed to man the forecastle pivot gun, which was completely exposed to enemy lire. Quimby recalled'. "When the battle first commenced, it made my hair stick right up straight but after we had got settled down to work and saw by their rapid and hapViazard fire that they were not doing us much damage we took it easy.., The Marines kept up a rapid fire with the rifle on the forecastle. As they would be clear of the smoke they would blaze away." After about an hour die Alabama hoisted a white flag, but then recommenced firing - much to the disgust of die Federal crew. "Fire away, boys!" ordered Capt Win slow and the Marines fired three more rounds from their rifles, while the rest of die batter)' fired twice. As a result, two llin shells entered the coal bunker of the Alabama, causing an explosion that reached the yardann. At this point die Confederates hoisted the white flag again, as their vessel began to sink.

While the Kearsarge prepared to lower its boats to save the survivors, LtCdr James S.Thornton noticed that the Alabama was attempting to rig a sail in an effort to get closer to the shoreline. He therefore ordered the Marines to aim a shot at those involved in the work; and seconds after they fired, a Confederate seaman trying to clear away the sail on the bowsprit was seen tumbling to the deck. Of the closing stages of the batde, Cpl Quimby wrote: "In just one hour and fifteen minutes from the time the Alabama fired her first shot the Notorious Pirate went to the bottom with her just deserts. After picking up the survivors and attending to their needs, our crew was piped to splice the main brace. After we had taken our drink some of our men went to see if the .Alabama's men could have some whiskey. The Captain gave permission and they all appreciated the kindness."

The Marines were warmly praised in reports of this action. Acting Master James R.Wheeler, USN, recorded: "The Marine Guard, stationed at the rifle gun openly exposed to the fire of the Alabama, showed great coolness and efficiency in the discharge of their duties." Tieutenant-Commander Thornton concluded, "The high reputation of their service was nobly sustained by the Marine Guard of this ship."

David Farragut Brooklyn

David Farragut's flagship, USS Hartford, at close quarters with the ironclad ram CSS Tennessee during the battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864. US Marines can be seen serving the "great gun" In the center of the painting. (Naval Historical Division photo NH 644Z3KN)

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  • Maarit
    How did quincy a. gilmore's army seal off charleston?
    8 years ago
  • James
    What they wore in the siege of charleston close up?
    8 years ago

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