The Civil War Ghosts of Morris Island
This one is for my fellow ghost writer Raymond Benson who was once a Yankee, but now a Southerner? Raymond, you may have already seen Morris Island Lighthouse living down in Charleston, it is located several hundred feet offshore on the north end of Folly Beach. Since the beginning of the island’s recorded history, events have unfolded on this local beach that are shrouded in mystery and tragedy and that give it the perfect ingredients for paranormal activity.
Morris Island Lighthouse was the site of two American Civil War battles, in the campaign known as Operations Against the Defenses of Charleston in 1863. Fort Wagner or Battery Wagner was a beachhead fortification on Morris Island, named after deceased Lt. Col. Thomas M. Wagner, (c. 1824 – July 17, 1862) who was a lieutenant colonel in the Confederate Army. It covered the southern approach to Charleston Harbor and was considered one of the toughest beachhead defenses constructed by the Confederate Army.
The First Battle of Fort Wagner was an attempt by the Union Army to capture Fort Wagner. Gen. George C. Strong’s brigade attacked on July 11, 1863, at dawn, advancing through a thick fog, attempting to seize Fort Wagner. Although the men of the 7th Connecticut Infantry overran a line of rifle pits, they were repulsed by the 1,770-man force under Confederate Col. Robert F. Graham. Union casualties were 339 (49 killed, 123 wounded, 167 missing), while the Confederate was 12.
The Second Battle, better known, was only a week later on July 18, 1863. It was led by the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first major American military units made up of black soldiers. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw led the 54th Infantry and was killed while leading his men to the parapet of the Confederate-held fort. Although the regiment was overwhelmed by firing from the defenses and driven back, suffering many casualties, Shaw’s leadership and the regiment became legendary. They inspired hundreds of thousands more African Americans to enlist additional recruitment that gave the Union Army a further numerical advantage in troops over the South.
By August 25, Union entrenchments were close enough to attempt an assault, but the attempt was defeated. A second attempt on August 26 was successful, after enduring almost 60 days of heavy U.S. shelling, the Confederates abandoned it on the night of September 6–7, 1863, while withdrawing all operable cannons and the garrison.
William Carney, an African American and a sergeant with the 54th, is considered the first black recipient of the Medal of Honor for his actions at Fort Wagner in recovering and returning the unit’s American flag to Union lines. After the battle, the Confederates buried the regiment’s commanding officer, Colonel Shaw, in an unmarked mass grave with the African-American soldiers of his regiment as an insult to him. Instead, his family considered it an honor to bury Shaw with his men.
Morris Island is now smaller than 1,000 acres and even less at high tide. Its proximity makes it subject to extensive erosion and much of what is left of Fort Wagner has eroded away. This includes the place where the Union soldiers had been buried. It was presumed that shortly after the end of the Civil War, the soldiers’ remains were disinterred and reburied, at the Beaufort National Cemetery, in gravestones marked as “unknown.” However over the years, hurricanes and heavy storms uncovered some of these unmarked graves, and even as late as 1987, the remains of 14 unknown soldiers were uncovered on the western side of the island. Spookiest of all: 12 of these bodies were missing their skulls and other body parts!
Today, some residents on the western side of the island have reported strange phenomena, like hearing voices in their homes and yards and even smelling burning flesh in their kitchens. One resident described an experience in the middle of the night, where she felt like a small child was jumping on her bed.
Was this the 1st Black regimen?
The 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment was the second African-American regiment, following the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment, that served extensively in the Union Army during the American Civil War. Authorized by the Emancipation Proclamation, the regiment consisted of African-American enlisted men commanded by white officers.
The unit began recruiting in Boston in 1863. Prominent abolitionists were active in the recruitment efforts, and actually Frederick Douglass’s two sons were among the first to enlist. The Governor of Massachusetts John Albion Andrew had pressured the U.S. Department of War for recruiting African-Americans and placed a high priority on the formation of the 54th Massachusetts. Governor Andrew is responsible for appointing Robert Gould Shaw to command the regiment as Colonel. The free black community in Boston was also instrumental in the recruiting efforts beyond Massachusetts and even into the southern states to attract soldiers and fill out the ranks.
The Regiment trained at Camp Meigs near Boston. While there they received considerable moral support from abolitionists in Massachusetts, and material support which included warm clothing items, battle flags and $500 contributed for the equipping and training of a regimental band, it became evident that many more recruits were coming forward than were needed. The medical exam to enlist for the 54th was considered very “rigid and thorough”. This resulted in “a more robust, strong and healthy set of men were never mustered into the service of the United States,” according to the Massachussetts General. Despite this, as was common in the Civil War, a few men died of disease prior to the 54th’s departure South.
One thing worth mentioning is that the enlisted men of the 54th were recruited on the promise of equal pay and allowances to their white counterparts of $13 a month. Instead, they were informed upon arriving in South Carolina, that the Department of the South would pay them only $7 per month ($10 with $3 withheld for clothing, while white soldiers did not pay for clothing at all.) Colonel Shaw and many others immediately began protesting the measure. Although the state of Massachusetts offered to make up the difference in pay, on principle, a regiment-wide boycott of the pay tables on paydays became the norm and refusing their reduced pay became a point of honor for the men of the 54th.
Although the regiment suffered many casualties during the Battle of Fort Wagner with Shaw’s leadership the regiment became legendary and inspired hundreds of thousands more African Americans to enlist for additional recruitment that gave the Union Army a further numerical advantage to troops over the South.
If you are in Boston be sure to see the monument constructed in 1884–1898 by Augustus Saint-Gaudens to Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts regiment is part of the Boston Black Heritage Trail located in Boston Common.