From the very beginning everyone knew that if Richmond and Charleston could be taken, and the Mississippi be freed from the control of the Confederates, the war would be at an end. The Mississippi was already free, and it seemed high time that something be done towards taking Richmond and Charleston.
Charleston is a sea-port on the coast of South Carolina. It has a fine harbor, just outside of which are many small islands. The Confederates knew this was one of their strong-holds, and they had taken great pains, therefore, to guard it. On each of these little islands was a fort; and right in the middle of the entrance to the harbor stood old Fort Sumter, its Confederate flag flying, as proud and grand as you please. This fort, you remember, had been taken by the Confederates at the very beginning of the war.
You can see how impossible it would be to enter that harbor, with all its forts ready to aim their guns upon any vessel that should dare attempt it. Indeed, one might as well have tried to enter a hornet's nest as to enter this harbor with any common kind of vessels.
It has always been a wonder to me that after that little Yankee cheese-box did such wonderful work, there weren't twenty more of them built and sent straight down to this harbor. But all this time nothing of very much importance had been done, and Charleston had good reason to suppose that it would not be taken.
Early in this year of 1863, an attempt was made to enter this harbor. Commodore Dupont, with five gun-boats and nine "Monitors," steamed in between two of these islands, and began pouring their fire upon Fort Sumter. But with all these forts filled with soldiers and guns as they were now, it is hardly to be wondered at that the attack was a failure. Even the nine little Monitors steamed back out of the harbor as fast as ever they could, while the Charleston people from the tops of their houses looked on with delight at the whole proceeding. They were sure their harbor could not be taken now!
Later, another attack upon the city was made. This time with double forces. While a fleet was to attack them from the waterside, land forces were to attack them from the rear. On Morris Island was Fort Wagner, one of the strongest of the Charleston forts. Here a force of two thousand landed, and quietly creeping toward the fort, made an attack upon it. They were driven back; and, hiding in the swamps, waited for more troops to come. A few days later, another attack was made. This time, six regiments went against the fort—among them this first colored regiment, with brave Robert Shaw as its leader.
"Now, my good men," said he to his colored soldiers, "now has come a time for you to prove that freedom is worth the price we pay for it."
On the half-run these regiments advanced. Out came a volume of deadly fire upon them from the fort. On they pressed, leaping the ditches, until at last, scaling the walls, the "Stars and Stripes" were placed upon the ramparts. But only for a second did they stand; the storming column of men fell back, dead; and into the ditch below, fell, too, the flag.
Colonel Shaw had fallen close under the walls; and, when the Union soldiers had all been driven back, and the Confederates came out to bury the dead, they found his body covered over by the dead bodies of his brave colored soldiers whom he had loved so well.
The Confederates boasted that they had "buried him in a ditch under his own niggers;" but no ditch was deep enough to bury the memory of this brave young hero.
This unfortunate attack had proved that Fort Wagner was not to be taken in this manner. The only way now was to try to bombard the fort. But where should they set their cannon, you will ask? Surely not in the water, in front of the fort; and it seemed almost impossible to think of setting up cannon in such a swamp as that in the rear. In a swamp, where, before their eyes, many a workman had sunk out of sight in the slimy mud, seemed hardly a place to plant a cannon.
Still, this they tried to do. Night after night they worked, digging here, and piling up there, until at last they had advanced close upon the fort. Here they drove piles one on top of the other, until a place was made so firm and strong, that a cannon could stand with safety. Upon this firm floor, they built ramparts, and set up their cannon.
The soldiers called this their "swamp angel." Bombardment began, and on the 8th of September this plucky little band of workers marched into the fort and set up the Union flag. One fort in Charleston harbor was ours; one step had been taken towards entering the city.