Thursday, December 26, 2013

For a colonel at Fort Wagner, 'distinction' came at a price

Col. Haldimand Sumner Putnam’s last letter to his father brims with confidence. He wrote it from Morris Island on the morning of July 18, 1863, as he prepared his brigade to storm Fort Wagner, a Confederate artillery battery on Charleston Bay. He told of the landing on Morris Island, site of the fort, on July 10 and of the failed assault on the fort on July 11. 

“You have no doubt before this seen by the prints that we crossed to this island on Friday last after an engagement of about three hours in which we were completely successful, capturing about two hundred prisoners and ten large cannons, driving the enemy to its stronghold Fort Wagner, directly under the guns of Fort Sumter,” Putnam wrote to John Putnam, a farmer and probate judge in Cornish, N.H., the colonel's native town. “Our loss was slight. The next morning at dawn an attempt was made to carry Fort Wagner by storm and we were repulsed with considerable loss.

Col. Haldimand S. Putnam
“Immediately after landing I was ordered to the front and held the position for two days, most of the time under a very severe fire of artillery from Forts Sumter & Wagner but made the men dig holes in the sand hills where they lay comparatively safe.”

Putnam had gone to West Point at the age of 16 and graduated with honors in 1857. He was serving as a lieutenant in an engineering unit when the Civil War broke out. In late 1861, he took command of the 7th New Hampshire Volunteers.

Like many other soldiers in the regiment, Sgt. Calvin Shedd of Enfield, N.H., liked Putnam’s hard drilling, strict discipline and profane tongue. In the spring of 1862, after the 7th was sent to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, Shedd commanded the color guard that welcomed Putnam. As the colonel entered the fort “through the Sally Port he raised his cap to us & looked Bully & pleased. The Regt think more of him than all the rest of the Officers.” Not long afterward, Putnam chastised his officers after a sloppy drill. “What the hell are you about?” he shouted,  “You don’t know as much as your men do.” “That suited the Boys,” Shedd wrote home.

The 7th  New Hampshire moved from Fort Jefferson up the Atlantic coast to Beaufort, S.C. From there Putnam privately expressed his displeasure at the too rapid pace of emancipation.

“The Abolitionists have sent down some men & women, who have been in a measure recognized by the government to take charge of the plantations & negroes & raise cotton & corn,” he wrote his father. “They devote themselves mostly to instructing the negroes that all men were born free & equal except negroes who were born a great deal better than white folks. The consequence is that the amount of work done by them is small.” He approved of “Honest Old Abe’s” countermanding an order by Gen. David Hunter to “liberate all the slaves in the country.”

Putnam longed for glory and did not expect to find it at Beaufort. “From all this you will see that my prospects for distinction are not much better than they were at Tortugas,” he wrote.

A year later, on Morris Island, Putnam’s regiment still had not seen battle. He was an acting general by then, leading a brigade that included the 7th New Hampshire, the 100th New York and two Ohio regiments, the 62nd and the 67th.

On July 18 federal artillery fired on Fort Wagner for hours, but, despite the Union soldiers’ wishful thinking, the barrage did little damage. Two brigades were assigned to attack and take the fort, with a third in reserve. George Strong’s brigade, led by the 54th Massachusetts, the African-American regiment under Col. Robert Gould Shaw, was to open the attack, followed by Putnam’s brigade.

Sgt. Ferdinand Davis
Because of the 1989 movie Glory!, the story of the 54th is well-known. The charge was brave but ill-conceived, and the men suffered huge losses.

The same fate awaited the 7th New Hampshire. I told this lesser-known story in Our War through the experience of Ferdinand Davis, a sergeant from Lebanon, N.H. He wrote that during the landing a week earlier two men spooked by the first shelling went to Putnam and asked if they could go to the rear. “To one he gave a kick under the coat tail so vigorous as to nearly lift the fellow off his feet,” Davis wrote.

When the men were ordered forward on July 18, the march to the fort across a narrow neck of sand seemed endless, even at the double-quick. Fort Wagner’s defenders fired solid shell, grapeshot, canister and minie balls at the approaching ranks. “The air was filled with horrors, and the conviction that the damned had broken loose and were holding high carnival on that fated plain was forced upon us,” Davis wrote.

The regiment made it to the fort, and most of Col Putnam's brigade scaled the sand walls. The colnel's horse had been shot out from other him during the advance, and he climbed into the fort with his men. He gathered a small force to lead a charge across the roof of the bombproof inside. In the darkness and confusion he was shot in the head and killed. He was 27 years old.

The 7th New Hampshire lost 41 killed, 119 wounded and 56 missing during the assault on Fort Wagner. Its casualties were similar to those of the 54th Massachusetts, which numbered 34 killed, 146 wounded and 92 captured or missing. This led some white soldiers to complain when the northern press singled out the bravery of the 54th. Calvin Shedd, who missed the battle because of illness, was among them.

Col. Shaw was famously buried with his African-American soldiers, but Putnam’s father wanted his son's body returned to Cornish. William W. Brown, the 59-year-old Manchester doctor who served as the 7th New Hampshire’s surgeon, described the effort to recover it.

“Could I have procured his body and sent it to you I should have felt better about it but that could not be done owing to the savage proclivities of the enemy we are fighting against,” Brown wrote John Putnam 3½ weeks after the battle. “He was buried with the others killed of our men. After his body was asked for under a flag of truce, they found one that resembled him and sent it to our Lt. Col. As such but on examination it was readily discovered to be that of another person and we were obliged to abandon the undertaking.”

[Haldimand S. Putnam's letters to his father are in the Rauner special collections at Dartmouth College. Calvin Shedd's letters are in libraries at the University of Miami and the University of South Carolina. Some of his papers are also at Rauner. The letters quoted here are from Miami digital collection, available online here. Ferdinand Davis's memoir and letters are at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan.]

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