Civil War Marines: Four Frustrating Years, Part I

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By Col Joseph H. Alexander, USMC (Ret) - Originally published in November 2007

The Civil War had erupted with South Carolinians capturing Fort Sumter, the Federal citadel in Charleston harbor. The North sought revenge, but by the late summer of 1863 the Charleston defenses had thwarted each Union offensive.

RADM John A. Dahlgren replaced Du Pont in command of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

Dahlgren proposed a joint Navy-Army-Marine assault to seize outlying Morris Island and then Fort Sumter. Dahlgren asked Secretary Welles for a battalion of Marines to be combined with a provisional battalion assembled from the fleet to form a regiment. Welles told Col Harris to comply. Harris assembled a hodgepodge of troops-recruiters, transients, recovering casualties-and placed Maj Jacob Zeilin in command.

RADM Dahlgren and his Army counterpart, Brigadier General Quincy A. Gillmore, agreed to begin the campaign by seizing Fort Wagner on Morris Island. Dahlgren landed Gillmore's soldiers safely on the far side of the island, but the subsequent overland attack on the fort met with a bloody repulse. Gillmore ordered his engineers to dig zigzag approach trenches. Dahlgren, chafing at the delay, planned for the squadron to land Zeilin's Marines in an attack from the sea while the soldiers supported from inland.

To RADM Dahlgren's astonishment, Maj Zeilin recommended his Marines not be used to assault Fort Wagner from the sea. His force of Marines was "incompetent to the duty assigned it," he said, adding, "Sufficient sacrifice of life has already been made during this war, in unsuccessful storming parties, to make me anxious at least to remove responsibility from myself." Zeilin complained that many of his Marines were raw recruits who lacked training in battalion drill, that it was too hot on Morris Island to train, "and no duty which they could be called upon to perform requires such perfect discipline and drill as landing under fire."

RADM Dahlgren canceled the Marine landing, recording his anger in his diary: "The Commander of Marines reports against risking his men in attacking [enemy] works. ... What are Marines for?"

Jacob Zeilin would become Commandant 10 months later, but this interlude represented a low point in his career. Civil War historian David M. Sullivan has challenged Zeilin's claim that many of his men were "raw recruits." Where most of the Manassas battalion had been Marines for just three weeks, a study of the muster rolls reveals that 60 percent of the Charleston Marine battalion and 90 percent of the fleet Marines had at least one year of experience. The 4th Brigade of Marines landed in France in World War I with significantly lower experience ratios.

Zeilin became sick, and Harris replaced him with the old warhorse, Lieutenant Colonel George Reynolds. In the interim, Capt Edward M. Reynolds, the senior captain and as strict a disciplinarian as his father, took command of the battalion. Dahlgren, glad to have a warrior and surprised by the Confederates' sudden evacuation of Fort Wagner, moved swiftly to assault Fort Sumter.

Dahlgren ordered an immediate attack on the fort on the night of 8 Sept. by 500 Marines and sailors in 25 small boats, led by Commander Thomas H. Stevens, USN.

Night amphibious attacks are notoriously difficult, and everything that could go wrong, did so that night at Fort Sumter. RADM Dahlgren learned at the last moment that BGen Gillmore was planning a separate boat attack on the fort that same night. Attempts to consolidate the attacks foundered on the issue of whether an Amy officer or Navy officer would exercise command.

The hasty plan allowed no time for a rehearsal. Reconnaissance by telescope failed to reveal that the rubble below the blasted ramparts would require scaling ladders to traverse. Operational security failed. The Confederates, having captured a Union codebook, deciphered Dahlgren's wigwag signals and learned the attack was coming that night. The surrounding forts and batteries trained their guns on Sumter's seaward approaches; the Confederate ironclad Chicora eased into the shadows behind the fort after dark.

Capt Charles G. McCawley, the senior Marine in the night assault and another future Commandant, expressed his frustration after the short battle: "After much delay the boats were cast off [from the steam tug] and in great confusion; the strong tide separated them, and I found it quite impossible to get all my boats together."

Alert Confederate sentries fired a signal rocket, at which all the batteries in the harbor opened fire. Only 11 of the 25 boats landed on the rocks beneath the fort; the others were sunk by enemy fire or became lost in the darkness. McCawley's boat never landed. One Marine officer who got ashore was 2dLt Robert L. Meade, a 21-year-old Tennessean seeing his first combat, who recorded in his diary, "My men suffer[ed] from the musketry fire and the bricks, hand grenades, and fireballs thrown from the parapet."

The assault sputtered to a halt in 20 minutes. Unable to reach the parapets, suffering a galling crossfire, and seeing their boats in splinters, the surviving 105 invaders surrendered. Lt Meade would spend the next 13 months of his life as a prisoner of war in Columbia, S.C. He was lucky to survive. Twenty-one enlisted Marines died in captivity in Andersonville, Ga.

It was a discouraging defeat. The war seemed endless in spite of the North's midsummer victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. The advent of 1864 brought the prospect of an acrimonious U.S. presidential election that would become a referendum on continuing the war. The troops sensed a long road ahead. Marine Pvt Robert Galbraith wrote his mother in New York from outside Charleston in late 1863, "I don't expect to get North this winter."