- Jun 2, 2017
"But love your enemies, help them, treat them well and do not cut off the hope of any person. Then you will have a great reward."
Love your enemy? Love your enemy in wartime? Judging by the strange and highly unusual relationship that developed between Confederate Colonel Charles H. Olmstead and his supposed northern enemy, the Seventh Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, you might say Colonel Olmstead, surely had paid close attention to his bible studies.
Born in Savannah, Georgia in April 1837, Olmstead was a graduate of Georgia Military Institute by the time the war started. Olmstead was appointed major of the 1st Georgia Volunteers in May 1861. By December he was a Colonel and was in command of newly captured Fort Pulaski in Savannah. Olmstead had an estimated 385 men and 48 cannon to defend the fort. After a siege and bombardment that lasted just two days, Olmstead surrendered the fortress on April 11, 1862. During the two-day battle, 5,275 shot and shell were fired against Fort Pulaski.
Given the honor by Union General Quincy Adams Gilmore, the first Union troops to enter the fort after it's surrender were several companies of the Seventh Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Olmstead and the Seventh Connecicut forged a lifelong friendship in the days following the surrender. In his memoirs written years later Olmstead recalled:
"Both officers and men (of the Seventh Connecticut) had behaved towards us with great kindness during the few days that we remained at the fort after its capture, and we had become personally acquainted with quite a number of them."
Fort Pulaski after the Bombardment
Olmstead and the fort's Confederate garrison, now POWs were shipped up to New York City's infamous prison on Governor's Island. In the summer of 1862 Col. Olmstead was transferred to the Union prison on Johnsons Island in Sandusky Bay, Lake Erie. In mid October Olmstead and other Confederate officers in captivity in Ohio were exchanged and sent by steamer ship back south.
Olmstead would spend the winter months and the first half of 1862 in his hometown of Savannah basically awaiting orders as to where he and his scattered companies of the First Georgia Volunteers were needed.
On July 9th the orders came. Major Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard ordered Georgia troops to immediately leave Savannah and rush without delay 110 miles north to help South Carolinians defend an inevitable attack on Battery Wagner, a strategic earthwork protecting Charleston harbor. Olmstead and his men slogged 8 miles through mud and a tremendous rainstorm to board the trains at Savannah. Arriving in Charleston early the next morning, by nighfall he and his troops were ferried over to Fort Wagner and with no time to spare were placed in line for the imminent attack.
At dawn on July 11th Union forces began the assault which lasted barely 30 minutes or so, ending in a Union disaster. Fourteen pieces of Confederate artillery supporting the musket work of 1500 infantry defenders turned back the Union troops spearheaded by none other than the Seventh Connecticut Volunteer Infantry.
Olmstead would later reminisce:
“Among the first troops to enter Fort Pulaski, at its capture in the previous year, was the 7th Connecticut Regiment. Now, we were the victors, and among the prisoners brought in at our end of the line, were many of our old friends of the 7th Connecticut, who recognized and called us by name.”
Olmstead was very aware of the honor and valor of the Seventh Connecticut regiment in leading the charge. He further recalled:
"A few of the 7th CT. reached our fort, only to find themselves unsupported by their comrades, and with no other alternative than to yield themselves prisoners. One brave fellow I saw, however, had not the thought of yielding in him. Alone he reached the top of the parapet, immediately in front of a 32-pound cannon, double charged with grape shot. The officer in command (Lieutenant Gilchrist, of South Carolina, if memory serves me,) struck by his bearing, called to the man to come in before the gun was fired. The soldier’s only reply was to put his musket to his shoulder, and a bullet whizzed by Gilchrist's head. The explosion of the gun followed, and a blue and mangled body, all that remained of a brave man and a good soldier, was hurled across the ditch.”
After the battle Olmstead peered out from the parapet of the fort and gazed at the Union dead, including members of the Seventh Connecticut whom he called his friends. Their bodies littered the sandy beach and the moat area immediately in front of Battery Wagner. What he saw haunted Olmstead for the rest of his life. He later wrote:
“It was a sight that moved my heart to a deep feeling of pity and to a sense of the awful horror of war….I often dream of it now after 49 years and the dream is always disturbed and unhappy."
One week later the 54th Massachusetts would lead the charge in the Second Battle of Battery Wagner. This assualt, too, would fail.
After the war Col. Olmstead moved north to New York City and worked in insurance, shipping and banking. But his association with the Seventh Connecticut was not over yet. The Seventh Connecticut veterans did not forget his kindness and friendship and in a controversial and unheard of gesture honored him by inviting Olmstead to their GAR reunion in 1887 in Lakeville, CT. Olmstead attended with his daughter Susan. Later he wrote:
“I met some of those men of the 7th CT. who were wounded at Fort Wagner. And found them genial, warm hearted men, just such as would make good neighbors and fine friends…”
Colonel Charles Hart Olmstead died at age 89 in 1926 in his beloved Savannah.
Just before his death he had written:
"I gratefully acknowledge that 'goodness and mercy' have followed me 'all the days of my life.'"
---All photos Lbrary of Congress
---Olmstead, Charles (1879) "Remniniscences of Service with the First Volunteer Regiment of Georgia, Charleston Harbor in 1863". Georgia Historical Society.
---"The Memoirs of Charles H. Olmstead"; edited by Lilla Mills Hawes, Savannah, Georgia 1964.
---Walkley, Stephen "History of the Seventh Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, Hawley's brigade, Terry's division, Tenth army corps, 1861-1865"; : Library of Congress, Photoduplication Service, 1988.
---Walker, Scott (2007). "Hell's Broke Loose in Georgia: Survival in a Civil War Regiment". University of Georgia Press.