Preservation or Development at Morris Island?

On this site where the nation’s legendary African-American fighting force proved its valor in the Civil War, a housing development ignited a debate

54th Mass Morris Island charge
The fate of the Civil War hinged on the battle at South Carolina's Morris Island. If Union forces captured Fort Wagner they could control access to the harbor. Bettmann / Corbis

UPDATE, March 25, 2011: As part of Smithsonian magazine's commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, we have updated this story to reflect what has happened to  plans for commercial development on Morris Island since this story was written in 2005.

As a crimson sunset spread over a darkening Atlantic Ocean on July 18, 1863, African-American soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers, 650 in all, stood on the shore of South Carolina’s Morris Island “like giant statues of marble,” an eyewitness remembered. Behind them, five more Yankee regiments stood at the ready. For hours, Union ironclads had shelled the Confederate garrison of Fort Wagner, half a mile away.

Around 7:30 p.m., 25-year-old Col. Robert Gould Shaw of Boston addressed the men of the 54th. “We shall take the fort or die there!” he told them. “Now I want you to prove yourselves men!” As depicted in the 1989 film Glory, the two long blue ranks began to move forward across the sand.

The fate of the Civil War hinged on the battle that would follow. Capturing Charleston—the South’s major port and the symbolic birthplace of Secession—would drive a fatal spike into the heart of the Confederacy. The defensive linchpin was Fort Sumter, where the war’s first shots had been fired against its then-Federal defenders in April 1861. Sumter now bristled with Confederate cannon. If Union forces could recapture it, they could penetrate the harbor, seize the city and strike inland.

“Fort Wagner was the key to Morris Island, and Morris Island was the key to Fort Sumter,” says Stephen R. Wise, director of the Parris Island Marine Corps Museum and author of Gate of Hell: Campaign for CharlestonHarbor, 1863. “Once the North captured it, they could place batteries there and destroy Fort Sumter, which controlled access to the harbor.”

Less than a decade ago, Morris Island once again became a battleground, when private developers acquired 128 acres of the island that were privately owned (the rest of the island is owned by the State of South Carolina, which leases it to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.) They sought to erect more than a score of luxury homes. The proposed development incldued the land near Battery Gregg, a Confederate emplacement to the north of Fort Wagner and now underater. Preservationists were dismayed to see newspaper ads offering oceanfront properties with 360-degree views at $500,000 an acre.

Critics of the proposed development said it would destroy the island’s splendid isolation and wreak havoc on the vestiges of the Civil War battlefield underwater just offshore.

The effort to stop residential development on the island brought together preservationists, historians and ecologists, as well as Civil War buffs of all stripes. “This isn’t a Confederate versus Union issue,” said Jeff Antley, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of those who fought for the South, in 2005. “We should protect the island because of the sacrifices of all the men who died there. It doesn’t matter who shot who anymore.” Joseph McGill Jr., a Charleston-based program officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation and an African-American, agrees. “We and the keepers of the Confederate flame disagree on more than we agree on,” he says. “But one thing we do agree on is the preservation of Morris Island.”

“That island is hallowed ground,” said Blake Hallman, a native Charlestonian and business instructor at the Culinary Institute of Charleston, who leads the coalition to save the island. “Southern soldiers were fighting for their families, their country and an economic way of life. Black troops wanted to prove themselves just as good as the whites. Young New Englanders who fought and died there made a sacrifice for the nation, for their beliefs, for the U.S. Constitution. This story deserves to be told, and it can be told only if the island is protected from development. Morris Island is an incredible jewel. The threat to it is serious and immediate.”

Under cover of darkness that summer evening in 1863, the 54th Massachusetts now marched with quickening tread along a narrow beach road. The South was already reeling. Just two weeks earlier, Union forces had hurled Robert E. Lee’s army back at Gettysburg, and more than 1,000 miles away, Ulysses S. Grant captured Vicksburg, effectively cutting the Confederacy in two.

If the battle for Fort Wagner meant life or death for the Confederacy, it also represented a signal opportunity for black Americans. The 54th was no ordinary regiment. It was the first African-American unit recruited in the North and the first black outfit selected to lead a major attack. With it marched the hopes of countless African-Americans, free and slave. “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States,” the charismatic black orator Frederick Douglass had proclaimed. Two of his sons, Charles and Lewis, were among the first volunteers for the 54th.

Many whites were skeptical that former slaves, or even free blacks, had the wherewithal to face battle. Earlier in the war, President Lincoln had also worried that arming blacks would push slave-owning border states, such as Kentucky, into the Rebel camp. By 1862, however, faltering white enlistments impelled Lincoln to recalibrate his concerns. Yankee officers praised the 54th’s discipline, but no one knew how it would fight. “The eyes of the nation were on them,” says Wise. For decades, Morris Island was barely a footnote to the grand narratives of Civil War history. That changed with the release, in 1989, of Glory, recounting the 54th’s story (with Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington and Matthew Broderick). “The film showed me for the first time that we had a say in the outcome of the Civil War,” says McGill. “There are very few places where African-Americans can experience in a positive way what their ancestors did. Morris Island shows how we got out of slavery and started to move forward. African-American Civil War reenactors often ask me to bring them back sand from Morris morriIsland when I go out there.”

“The significance of the 54th’s attack on Fort Wagner was enormous,” says PrincetonUniversity historian James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, a single-volume survey of the war. “Its sacrifice became the war’s dominant positive symbol of black courage. It was the most publicized single example of blacks in combat during the war, and it gave the final impetus to the Lincoln administration’s commitment to recruiting large numbers of black soldiers. In 1864, Lincoln publicly said that the Union cause could not prevail without the contribution of the more than 100,000 black soldiers then in uniform.”

But Morris Island’s historical importance lies not only in the 54th’s assault on Fort Wagner. The battle for the island, and for Charleston, also introduced several military innovations, including trench warfare; long-range artillery; a forerunner of the machine gun; the use of wire entanglements and searchlights; and even aerial reconnaissance. “World War I was foreshadowed here,” says Wise.

“Morris Island is the best Civil War site there is in Charleston, if not South Carolina,” says Civil War historian Gordon C. Rhea, author of Carrying the Flag, the story of Confederate soldier Charles Whilden. “The thought of it being turned into a subdivision makes me cry. Once you destroy it, you can’t ever get it back again.”

The modern battle for Morris Island climaxed in May 2008, when a coalition of public and private donors under the auspices of the non-profit Trust for Public Land raised $3 million to purchase the last privately held land on Morris Island from Ginn Resorts. (Key partneres in the effort were the South Carolina Development Bank, the South Carolina State Ports Authority and the City of Charleston.)

"A national treasure preserved!" proclaimed the Charleston Post and Courier. A master plan for the island recommends that it be left essentially as it is, in pristine solitude, with no public dock, boardwalk or other facilities. However, an interpretive center may eventually be built on nearby Folly Island, which is accesible by car.

As the blue-clad soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts neared Fort Wagner that night in July, the naval guns fell silent. Smoke hung over the fort’s sloping, shell-pocked earthen rampart. Nothing seemed to move. In all, 5,000 men would eventually be committed to the assault. The Federal command was counting on sheer numbers and its artillery to overwhelm the enemy. Some believed the fort to be defended by as few as 300 men. However, the Confederates had broken the Union’s secret code and knew almost precisely when the assault was to begin. Reinforcements, moved into the fort under cover of darkness, had strengthened the garrison to more than 1,600 men. Most had barely slept for days, and they had spent the past eight hours concealed and suffocating in the fort’s bunker. “They were exhausted,” says Rhea. “But they had an excellent defensive position. And they certainly were not prepared to surrender to black troops.”

Six hundred yards from the fort, Colonel Shaw ordered the 54th to fix bayonets. At 200 yards, Confederate fire opened up. At 100 yards or so, Shaw gave the order to charge; the men broke into a run. At 80 yards, Confederate infantrymen suddenly appeared on the parapet. “The silent and shattered walls of Wagner all at once burst forth into a blinding sheet of vivid light,” a Yankee observer recorded. Grapeshot tore through the 54th’s ranks. “Our men fell like grass before a sickle,” a survivor later recalled.

Undaunted, the attacking troops plunged into the fort’s foot-deep moat. The men swarmed up the sloping earthen rampart, clambered over the bodies of the fallen and leapt down among the cannon. Miraculously, Shaw himself managed to reach the parapet. “Onward, boys!” he shouted. “Forward, Fifty-Fourth!” He raised his sword, then toppled forward, shot dead. The Southerners fought with brutal ferocity. In the darkness made red by gunfire, men hacked at each other with bayonets and swords, and hammered with musket butts, gun rammers and hand spikes.

Gradually, the Confederate defenders gained the upper hand. “Men fell all around me,” Frederick Douglass’ son Lewis would recall. “A shell would explode and clear a space of twenty feet, our men would close up again, but it was no use—we had to retreat.” The survivors edged back over the parapet onto the fort’s outer slope, where they hung on tenaciously against all odds. Confederate howitzers posted in the sand dunes now swept the front wall of the fort with a devastating crossfire, while the fort’s defenders rolled hand grenades and lighted shells down among the Union regiment. In the words of one Confederate officer, the Southerners “drove back the enemy . . . with frightful slaughter.” Capt. Luis Emilio, among a handful of the 54th’s unwounded officers, ordered the survivors to withdraw.

Meanwhile, two additional Yankee regiments—the 6th Connecticut and the 48th New York, both composed of white soldiers—surged against the fort’s rampart, only to be beaten back. A third wave of attacking Federals managed to penetrate the fort on its seaward side, where many were trapped and captured. By 1:00 a.m. the battle was over. The 54th was the only Northern regiment to maintain discipline after the repulse, helping to allow Union troops to form a defensive line across the island, which enabled survivors from the other broken units to regroup without fear of a Confederate counterattack.

The dawn revealed a scene of stupefying carnage. White and black corpses lay entangled together, in some places three deep. One eyewitness never forgot the “pale beseeching faces” of the living “looking out from among the ghastly corpses with moans and cries for help and water, and dying gasps and death struggles.” Among them was the body of Colonel Shaw, which the Confederates—intending it as a disgrace— threw into a mass grave with his men. Of the 5,000 Federals who took part, 1,527 were casualties: 246 killed, 890 wounded and 391 captured. The 54th lost a stunning 42 percent of its men: 34 killed, 146 wounded and 92 missing and presumed captured. By comparison, the Confederates suffered a loss of just 222 men.

Despite the 54th’s terrible casualties, the battle of Fort Wagner was a watershed for the regiment. Not even Confederates could deny the bravery of the men. As Lt. Iredell Jones, a member of the fort’s garrison, reported, “The negroes fought gallantly, and were headed by as brave a colonel as ever lived.”

The courage of the 54th changed the face of the war. “The 54th Massachusetts proved that blacks would fight,” says Wise. “Their sacrifice sparked a huge recruitment drive of black Americans. It also allowed Lincoln to make the case to whites that the people the North was in the war to help would carry their own weight in battle.” Before the war had ended, nearly 180,000 African-Americans would wear Yankee blue, and at least another 20,000 would serve in the Federal Navy. Some 37,000 would die in the Union cause. A nation that had derided blacks as cowards when the “white man’s war” began would award 21 black soldiers and sailors the Medal of Honor by the time it ended.

In the aftermath of the battle, 80 black captured soldiers posed a dilemma for Confederate leaders: What were they to do with them? To acknowledge blacks as soldiers was to admit that they were equal to whites, which would undermine the whole rationale for slavery and much of the rationale for Secession. According to Confederate law, captured black soldiers were to be disposed of by state law: the punishment in almost all Southern states for “instigating slave rebellion” was either death or, for free blacks, enslavement.

Four prisoners from the 54th, all former slaves, were ordered to stand trial in Charleston at the beginning of September. Their fate seemed preordained. However, President Lincoln had warned that for every Union soldier executed— black or white—a rebel would be executed, and for any one enslaved, a Rebel prisoner would be put to hard labor.

Unexpectedly—probably under pressure from Confederate generals who feared the consequences of the anticipated executions for their own POWs in the North—the court caved in to Lincoln’s threat. It quietly ruled that it had no jurisdiction in the case, thus tacitly admitting that black soldiers were prisoners of war like any others and had to be treated accordingly. Confederate authorities never again put any black prisoners on trial; though, from then on, surrendering black soldiers were sometimes executed on the battlefield, notably at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, in 1864. In March 1865, however, just weeks before the surrender of Lee’s army in Virginia, a desperate Confederate Congress authorized Jefferson Davis to recruit black soldiers to the Confederate cause.

Meanwhile on Morris Island, the Union forces settled down to siege warfare. For besieged and besiegers alike, the island was a hellhole. The interior of the fort, in the words of Confederate Col. Charles C. Jones Jr., “was little else than a charnel house. Its polluted atmosphere almost refused to support life, and its galleries were filled with the groans of the wounded and dying.” Temperatures soared above 100 degrees. Sand sifted into men’s eyes and noses, their clothes, food and equipment. Mosquitoes swarmed everywhere. Fevers, scurvy and malaria took a growing toll. Day by day, Yankee trenches zigzagged closer to Fort Wagner, as ironclads shelled Confederate defenses with impunity. Federal gunners experimented with so-called Requa batteries, forerunners of the machine gun, which consisted of 25 rifles arranged horizontally that could fire up to 175 shots a minute. At night, engineers aimed huge lights at the fort to prevent the Confederates from rebuilding the day’s damage—one of the first uses of searchlights in military history. Eventually, some of the fort’s fixed guns were blown from their positions. Ultimately, Wagner’s defenders bowed to the inevitable; on the night of September 6 they fled to Charleston under cover of darkness. One Confederate was heard to say upon his safe arrival there that he wasn’t “afeared of hell no more—it can’t touch Wagner.”

Although the Confederates abandoned Morris Island, they had nonetheless gained what Wise calls “a morally uplifting, strategic victory.” For 58 days, a garrison that rarely numbered more than 1,000 men had held off a force of 11,000 armed with some of the heaviest artillery in existence and supported by a naval armada. And still Charleston held. Fort Wagner’s defenders had bought time enough for Confederates to construct new defenses. Charleston did not fall until February 1865, two months before the end of the war.

“The battles of Morris Island saved Charleston,” says Wise. “If [the South] had lost Charleston on the heels of their defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, it could have brought a rapid end to the war. The defense of Fort Wagner became a symbol of resistance. Had they lost there, Southern morale would have been deeply hurt, and foreign interest in the Confederacy would have been affected.”

After Federal forces consolidated their position on Morris Island, Charleston became the target of the heaviest and longest bombardment ever carried out in North America. Indeed, it was not surpassed until the German bombardment of Leningrad during World War II. In the course of 545 days, Yankee batteries on Morris Island hurled some 22,000 shells at the city, five miles away across the harbor. Their guns simultaneously rained shells on Fort Sumter, reducing it to a useless but unconquered heap of rubble. Casualties were slight: only five civilians were killed. But the lower part of the city was virtually abandoned, as residents fled for safety. Near the war’s end, Union general William Tecumseh Sherman reported that Charleston had become “a mere desolated wreck . . . hardly worth the time it would take to starve it out.”

The 54th Massachusetts remained part of Fort Wagner’s garrison until January 1864. It was then redeployed to a series of posts along the coast, serving with distinction in the battles of Olustee, in Florida, and JamesIsland and Honey Hill, in South Carolina. After the city’s surrender in 1865, in an ironic postscript that galled Charlestonians, the 54th was billeted in the Citadel, the military academy housed in a building that was originally an arsenal constructed in the early 1830s to fortify local defenses after an 1822 slave revolt. As for the regiment’s dead, they were left buried in the sands of Morris Island, close by the bodies of Confederate soldiers who also died for what they believed. Whether they will remain there undisturbed depends a great deal on Blake Hallman.

Hallman first learned of the development threat to Morris Island in his capacity as a board member of the nonprofit South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust. “When I found out the island was in danger, it galvanized me,” he says. He had watched unchecked development devour the other barrier islands around Charleston. “No one was standing up for the island. I said to myself, don’t just get angry—do something. I want to see the island preserved in its natural state for future Americans, so we can tell the story of these brave Americans, both white and black.”

One recent afternoon, Hallman, a member of the Charleston City Council since 2010, took me to Morris Island in a 23-foot fishing boat, My Girl. As a child growing up on nearby JamesIsland, Hallman had explored the harbor’s marshy islands and inlets in his own small catamaran. “The solitude of Morris Island always attracted me,” he told me. “I feel there that I’m a small part of history.”

We sailed along the waterfront, past rows of imposing residences, some new, some dating to the 1930s, then past the Battery at the tip of the peninsula, still spiky with antique cannon, and eventually out beyond the low, gray stone walls of Fort Sumter, now a national park. Finally Morris Island came into focus: a low shelf of sand speckled with scrub, marsh grass, palmettos and windblown pines.

Hallman ran the vessel close in to shore. I jumped onto the wet beach and dug one of the anchors into the sand while he heaved the other offshore. As we walked along the beach, Hallman told me that although the shoreline of Morris Island has shifted because of erosion, the beach’s appearance remains close to what the opposing armies saw in 1863. Most of the area where fighting took place actually lies slightly offshore, making the site, curiously enough, possibly the only underwater infantry battlefield in North America—if not the world. “This is where we think Fort Wagner used to be,” Hallman said, drawing an imaginary line with his hand from the surf to a low ridge of sand crowned by some spiky palmettos and clumps of yellow grass. “There are some who think one end of the wall is underneath that sand. There has never been any systematic excavation done here.”

Hallman bent down and plucked from the sand a seashell-encrusted lump of iron, a fragment of a cannonball. “Sometimes, the sea uncovers a whole field of debris,” he says. “Sometimes you can see lumps like this everywhere around you.” Recently, Hallman discovered the distinctive oval embankments of a Yankee artillery emplacement, hidden in the jungle of vines and fallen trees that occupies most of the interior of the island. “People say there’s nothing here. But they’re wrong.”

Some archaeologists worry that the island may never be excavated. “We believe there are cultural remains on the island, including the remains of Northern and Southern soldiers,” the National Park Service’s John Tucker, superintendent of the Fort Sumter National Monument, had told me. “Archaeology should have been done long ago.” Tucker believes that in order to prevent future development, the ideal solution would be to place the island in protective ownership.

Walking along Morris Island, it was hard to believe that Charleston, a city of 100,000 people, lay barely 20 minutes away by boat. Cream-colored terns swooped overhead. Just offshore, the fin of a dolphin or shark sliced the water. Farther out, a freighter breasted the waves where the Yankee ironclads, the doomsday machines of their day, once hovered in flotillas, hammering Fort Wagner with shrapnel and grapeshot. The zigzagging trenches, the wire entanglements, the roar of cannon, the flags snapping in the breeze, the shouts and cries were long gone. The only sound was the rhythmic beat of the waves, like the inexorable tread of marching feet. “This island,” said Hallman, “is hallowed ground.”

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