Published on February 5, 2021

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Courage on Deadly Ground: United State Colored Troops and Landmines in the Civil War

By Dr. Kenneth R. Rutherford

This article was originally featured in the Winter 2020-2021 edition of Shenandoah At War magazine.  To see a PDF of that article, click here.

Following the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.) were created throughout the country.  Eventually comprising 163 U.S.C.T units, an estimated 40,000 Black soldiers died during the war.[1] Many were injured or killed by landmines, an innovative explosive weapon that was used for the first-time on a widespread basis in the world’s history.[2]

Composed mostly of men that had escaped from slavery, the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guard were some of the earliest U.S.C.T. units formed. They had their first chance at combat at Port Hudson, Louisiana, on May 27, 1863, as part of Union Gen. Nathaniel Banks’s Army of the Gulf’s major offensive to control the Mississippi River.

Attack of the 2nd Louisiana USCT at Port Hudson

The U.S.C.T. soldiers charged over deadly ground infested with landmines to attack the enemy-held Fort Desperate position at Port Hudson.  Although relatively isolated and rather small, the Confederate garrison augmented the natural features with extensive field works including earthen parapets, breastworks, and landmines.[3] The landmines were constructed from repurposed Union unexploded 8-, 10-, and 13-inch mortar shells. Confederate engineer officers could detonate the mines, which were connected by wires running back to Fort Desperate, by merely pulling on the wires.[4]

As the U.S.C.T men courageously charged through the abyss, heavy fire from within the fortifications, coupled with pulls on the landmine wires, inflicted significant casualties. Attacks against other points in the line were also launched, and the fighting lasted throughout the day, to little effect. At 3:30 the following morning, another Union assault struck Fort Desperate. Over the course of four hours, the repeated assaults were turned back with heavy losses.

The U.S.C.T. troops’ bloody experience with landmines was to be replicated several months later on a sandy island southwest of Charleston, South Carolina.

The attack on Battery Wagner. Map by Hal Jespersen.

Located on the southern side of the Charleston harbor, Battery Wagner on Morris Island was central to the defense of both the harbor and the city. It was a stronghold defended by the largest formal landmine field in the world up to that time.[5]  Its location was ideal. The beach sand easily concealed the landmines, including converted water keg Naval mines, and because each end of the defensive position terminated at seawater, the Federals had no openings to use in order to skirt the fortification. Moreover, the landmines provided an ideal substitute for a lack of material fortifications.[6]

At dusk, on July 18, 1863, Union Brig. Gen. Quincy Adams Gillmore, commander of the Department of the South, ordered the 54th Massachusetts of the U.S.C.T to lead the assault, backed by brigades of white soldiers.  About 7:45 p.m., the 54th Massachusetts marched at “quick time” until it neared the glacis—the gently sloping bank near Battery Wagner – and they broke into a full run.

Boom . . . Boom . . . Boom!

The buried landmines delivered their intended lethal effects. Soldiers flew into the air, some suffering gruesome wounds. Combined with Confederate small arms and artillery firing canister, the Black troops were mowed down in minutes. “More than half their number lay dead upon the ground,” an account noted, with “their bodies ghastly mutilated & torn to pieces piled upon the glacis.” [7]

The outnumbered 54th Massachusetts and other Union soldiers climbed Wagner’s parapet, where intense hand-to-hand fighting erupted. The defenders beat back the attackers and held Wagner. Of the 600 black troops who charged the fort, 272 were killed, wounded, or captured. In an account that expressed the sentiments of many on the Union side, New York Tribune reporter Edward L. Pierce wrote, “The Fifty-fourth did well and nobly. . . . They moved up as gallantly as any troops could, and with their enthusiasm they deserved a better fate.” Robert Gould Shaw, the colonel of the 54th Massachusetts, was among the dead and was buried in a common grave with his men.[8]

Sergeant William Harvey Carney of the 54th Massachusetts was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for saving the regimental colors during the attack on Battery Wagner.

A few weeks after the failed assault, the U.S.C.T. soldiers again were on the front lines to capture Battery Wagner. As Federal sappers advanced toward, a U.S.C.T. corporal on fatigue duty was killed by a landmine. The blast had torn his clothes from his body, and one of his arms was resting on the plunger of another landmine. The soldier’s death fed rumors that he was tied to the landmine by the enemy.

On April 9, 1865, the same day that Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was surrendering at Appomattox,  the 47th, 20th and 51st U.S.C.T regiments attacked Fort Blakeley (Alabama) as part of a sixteen thousand Federal troop surge.  With red cloths tied to their muskets as a symbol of revenge, the U.S.C.T. men shouted “Fort Pillow!” during their advance—a reference to what many believed had been a massacre of surrendered black troops at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, on April 12, 1864.

Confederate defenders had strengthened their positions by deploying hundreds of landmines, made from 10-, 12-, or 24-pound artillery shells, within rows of abatis and attached to sharpened branches woven together with wire that was attached to the plugs of the landmines. It was as ingenious as it was deadly. Simply moving through the obstructions was likely to detonate the shells.[9]

As the U.S.C.T and other Federal troops crossed a huge ravine, soldiers also began “calling out warnings of ‘torpedo!’ as they ran.” A captain’s leg was blown off below the knee, sending a portion of the appendage 50 feet in the air, recalled one of the attackers.[10]

U.S.C.T Colonel Hiram Schofield described the high spirits of the troops as they charged across the minefields toward the Confederate positions. The ground over which they advanced was flat, wet, and “very unfavorable for the health and comfort of the men,” explained the colonel. Schofield wrote, “the spirit and enthusiasm of the troops could not be excelled. Men actually wept that they were placed in reserve and could not go with their comrades into the thickest of the fight.” According to Schofield, “quite a number of men were killed or wounded by the explosion of torpedoes, which were exploded by stepping upon them.” A landmine killed one man and wounded 13, and another severely wounded six men in the 51st regiment.[11]

A water keg torpedo.

The attack on Fort Blakeley succeeded in less than 30 minutes.  After the fort’s capture, Confederate prisoners led the way through landmine fields as they were taken to a U.S.C.T. camp. One of their guards, Pvt. Josias Lewis of the 47th U.S.C.T., lost his leg to a landmine explosion near the camp.[12]

Despite their horrific casualties and deaths, the U.S.C.T. forces at Port Hudson, Battery Wagner and Fort Blakeley fought bravely. They had courageously charged across deadly ground seeded with landmines knowing that each step could be their last.

The charge of the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guards at Port Hudson broke new ground for the estimated 180,000 Black men that would eventually fight as U.S.C.T. soldiers for the Union during the Civil War.  They verified their valor, surged forward, and declined to give up even as landmines exploded underfoot and musket volleys smashed their ranks.  The deadly legacy of landmines continues today. They are the leading cause of American combat casualties, and continue to kill and main thousands every year.

Kenneth R. Rutherford is author of America’s Buried History: Landmines in the Civil War (Savas Beatie, April 2020) – see below for more information about the book. He is a trustee of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation and a Professor of Political Science at James Madison University. After losing his legs to a landmine in Somalia, he became a leader in the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which was awarded the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.

Footnotes

[1] https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/civil-war-facts#Were%20there%20black%20Confederate%20soldiers? American Battlefield Trust.  Accessed September 5, 2020.

[2] During the Civil War landmines were labeled as torpedoes, infernal devices, or sub-terras. Today many types of landmines are referred to as improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

[3] Association of Defenders of Port Hudson, “Fortification and Siege of Port Hudson,” Southern Historical Society Papers (January-December 1886), vol. 14, 334.

[4]  Ibid

[5] P. G. T. Beauregard, General, Commanding, to General Ripley, July 10, 1863, OR vol. 28, pt. 2, 186.

[6] Major Thomas Benton Brooks, Journal of Engineer Operations Executed Under His Direction on Morris Island, Between July 12 and September 7, 1863, as reported by Brig. Gen. Q. A. Gillmore, Commanding Department of the South, Headquarters Department of the South, Engineer’s Office, Morris Island, South Carolina, September 27, 1863, OR vol. 28, pt. 1, 296.

[7] W. Davis Waters, “Deception is the Art of War: Gabriel J. Rains, Torpedo Specialist of the Confederacy,” North Carolina Historical Review (1989), vol. 66, no. 1, 130-131.

[8] Garry Deal, “54th Massachusetts Ring,” North South Trader’s Civil War, vol. 27, no. 6,

[9] W. R. Eddington, Memoir, 46, unpublished manuscript at http://macoupinctygenealogy. org/war/edding/html, copy at Fort Blakeley State Park archives. Eddington served in the 97th Illinois, 2nd Brigade, 2nd Division, 13th Corps.

[10] Paul Brueske, The Last Siege: The Mobile Campaign, Alabama 1865 (Casemate, 2018). 21.

[11]  Report of Col. Hiram Schofield, Forty-Seventh, U.S. Colored Infantry, Commanding Second Brigade, of Operations, HDQRS, Second Brigade, First Div., U.S. Colored Troops, Blakely, Alabama, April 11, 1865, OR 45, pt. 1, 291-292.

[12] Ibid.

America’s Buried History: Landmines in the Civil War

Despite the thousands of books published on the American Civil War, one aspect that has never received the in-depth attention it deserves is the use of landmines and their effect on the war and beyond. Kenneth R. Rutherford rectifies this oversight with America’s Buried History: Landmines in the Civil War, the first book devoted to a comprehensive analysis and history of the fascinating and important topic of landmines.  Dr. Rutherford brings together primary and other research from archives, museums, and battlefields to demonstrate that the Civil War was the first military conflict in world history to see the widespread use of such weapons. America’s Buried History: Landmines in the Civil War can be purchased at the SVBF’s online store here.  For more information on the book, go to https://www.savasbeatie.com/americas-buried-history-landmines-in-the-civil-war/