Blasting Fort Wagner Into Sand Heaps

Ron Coddington
Nov 1, 2014 · 5 min read
Detail of a carte de visite by Janson & Adams of Santiago, Chile, about 1867. Author’s collection.

Hours before the 54th Massachusetts Infantry and other federal infantry assaulted Fort Wagner, S.C., on July 18, 1863, the Union navy launched a furious bombardment. Six ironclads steamed to within 1,200 yards of the fort and unleashed hell on the garrison. Shell after shell belched from the fiery mouths of the big guns in the turrets of the metal monsters to soften the position, which was critical to the rebel defenses of Charleston. [1]

The ironclads did not operate alone. They were joined by shore batteries and six wooden gunboats, which blazed away from long range. For the crew of one of the gunboats, the Chippewa, the day would be remembered as a defining moment in her service. “The Chippewa has gained great credit for going nearer than any other of the gunboats, and firing faster and making the best shots, and for answering signals, &c.,” one officer declared. He added, “In fact, the ship had got something of a name at last.” [2]

Carte de visite by Janson & Adams of Santiago, Chile, about 1867. Author’s collection.

One of the crew members present that day was Albert J. Kenyon, and he served as third assistant engineer. The eldest of four children born and raised in Owego, N.Y., Kenyon grew up along the Susquehanna River. He and his father worked in a local machine shop, where Kenyon received a practical education about engines and other equipment. [3]

On September 21, 1861, the eve of Kenyon’s twentieth birthday, he joined the navy and became an original member of the crew of the Chippewa. She had been launched just a week earlier at New York Harbor. Constructed of white oak, yellow pine and larch in less than 75 days, the Chippewa was one of six screw-propelled gunboats built under a government contract that summer. [4]

The Chippewa was assigned to the South Atlantic Blockade Squadron, and patrolled the coast with the exception of a stint in late 1862 and early 1863 when she joined other Union vessels in a fruitless search for the Confederate raider Florida.

The events that led to the Chippewa’s distinguished performance at Fort Wagner occurred during the week leading up to the July 18 assault. She and the other five gunboats shelled the Confederates regularly each day. One sailor aboard the monitor Montauk observed the Chippewa and the other vessels send “some magnificent shots into and beyond Wagner” on the afternoon of July 14. [5]

A view of Charleston, S.C., from Fort Wagner shows Confederate flags flying over the city docks. Library of Congress.

Kenyon and his fellow engineers did their part in keeping the machinery in working order so that they could respond quickly and efficiently to orders.

About 8 o’clock in the morning of July 18, a steam tug pulled up alongside the Chippewa with orders to resume firing at Fort Wagner. She responded an hour later, and dropped 30 shells by noon. Then the ironclads moved in, and the Chippewa and other gunboats followed at a distance. Over the next seven hours, the fleet blasted Fort Wagner with heavy metal. The Chippewa and her crew followed the monitors and, at 1 p.m., went into close range — about a thousand yards — and fired 47 shells in 48 minutes. It was during this brief period that the Chippewa received her greatest recognition.

The Chippewa fired another 19 shots that afternoon for a grand total of 96. The navy guns fell silent about 6:30 p.m., and soon after the crew of the Chippewa watched the 54th Massachusetts Infantry and other troops advance along the narrow strip of beach and storm Fort Wagner. [6]

“We then found to our sorrow,” noted a reporter from the New-York Tribune, that the bombardment had little effect on the garrison of Fort Wagner. “Only the parapets of the fort had been knocked into sand heaps.” [7]

Still, the crew of the Chippewa could be proud of its achievement. Kenyon received a promotion to second assistant engineer two weeks after the assault. [8]

Meanwhile the federals renewed their efforts against the fort and other Confederate positions on Morris Island, and this time they were successful. Union troops occupied Fort Wagner on September 7, 1863, after the rebel garrison was forced to evacuate it.

About this time Kenyon received orders to report to the 21-gun steam sloop Richmond. The 259-man crew of the wooden warship had seen plenty of action in Louisiana and Mississippi, including New Orleans, Vicksburg and Port Hudson. Kenyon and his new shipmates would go on the fight in the Battle of Mobile Bay on August 5, 1864, and other operations through the end of the war.

A postwar view of the Richmond. Collecció Antoni Blasi, via Camil Busquets and Fabio Peña via NavSource.

Kenyon continued on in the navy, and spent the majority of his service on a variety of assignments and vessels that took him across the globe. He advanced in rank to first assistant engineer in 1866, and chief engineer in 1884. Four years later he died of kidney disease while awaiting orders at home in Owego. He was 47 and single. His parents and two younger sisters survived him. [9]

[1] Report and diary extracts of Rear Adm. John A. Dahlgren of the attack on Fort Wagner. ORN I, 14, pp. 359–368.

[2] New-York Daily Reformer (Watertown, New York), July 30, 1863.

[3] 1860 census.

[4] Morrison, History of New York Ship Yards, p. 157.

[5] Boston Evening Transcript, July 25, 1863.

[6] Report and diary extracts of Rear Adm. John A. Dahlgren of the attack on Fort Wagner. ORN I, 14, pp. 359–368.

[7] New-York Tribune, July 27, 1863.

[8] Albert J. Kenyon pension file, NARS.

[9] Ibid.

Ron Coddington is a collector of Civil War era images, and the editor and publisher of Military Images magazine. He is the author of three books, and a contributing author to the New York Times series Disunion. His next book will profile men who served in the Union and Confederate navies. Visit facesofwar.com for more information and a complete index of past columns. Follow Ron on Facebook and Twitter.

This profile originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of the Civil War News.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store