Whitworth Riflemen at Fort Wagner

Nathan Stuart

Apr 14, 2020
Whitworth sharpshooters were effectively employed at the approaches to Charleston Harbor in the Confederate defense of Fort Wagner, Morris Island, SC, during 1863. Two unsuccessful Union land assaults were launched on Fort Wagner on July 7 and July 18 (the subject of the final scene in the film, 'Glory'). After the second Federal assault, the small Confederate garrison at Battery Wagner was under siege until it evacuated the position to Sullivan's Island on September 6-7, 1863.

For the defense of Morris Island, a separate corps of whitworth sharpshooters was organized mainly from selected marksmen in the Charleston Battalion, 8 NC and 20 SC. Eighteen imported whitworth rifles, most with telescopic sights, arrived from the C.S. Arsenal, Augusta, Georgia, at Fort Wagner during mid-July, 1863. Possibly another six whitworths were imported direct from England and received around the time for use by the defenders too. Both shipments were arranged by Captain Ashe, Ordnance officer, on Morris Island. The detachment of whitworth sharpshooters were deployed by rotating shifts in dug pits on sand ridges about 250 yards in front of the constructed earthwork fortifications of Battery Wagner. They maintained a continuous fire, inflicting heavy casualties on Federal infantry and artillery. Throughout the siege, the whitworth marksmen were a major factor in repelling Union attacks on Battery Wagner until its abandonment. Command of the whitworth sharpshooters alternated between Lt. J. E. Dugger (8 NC) and Lt. W. D. Woodbery.

The number of whitworths used on Morris Island are supported by daily reports (see OR: Series 1 – Volume XXVIII – Part 1 – Reports) of the effective strength of the detached sharpshooter unit:


August 12 20

August 13 20

August 14 20

August 15 20

August 21 14

August 27 13

August 29 13

August 30 18

August 31 16

September 1 16

September 2 25

The whitworth sharpshooters on Morris Island suffered minimal casualties after the Federal assaults and bombardments during the siege. This was largely due to their protective sandbagged entrenchments built in the sand ridges.

Following the evacuation of Battery Wagner, a few (some writers say, four) whitworth riflemen were transferred to Fort Sumter. These whitworth sharpshooters performed an important role in helping the fort's defenders prevent any successful Union landing there. They also maintained a continuous fire on the Federals who now occupied the old Confederate positions on Morris Island and caused numerous casualties. Fort Sumter was held by the Confederates until abandoned by them on February 17, 1865.

Towards the end of 1863, the Confederate units withdrawn from Morrison Island, redeployed for service with the Army of Northern Virginia. The Charleston Battalion (merged into the 27 SC on September 30), the 20 SC and the 8 NC all moved to Virginia and fought at the battle of Cold Harbor as well as participated in the siege of Petersburg, before returning to the Carolinas either at the end of 1864 or start of 1865. Presumably, most of the whitworth riflemen that defended Fort Wagner followed their units to the Virginian battlefields after evacuating the Charleston defenses. Their presence in the eastern Virginia theater would have virtually doubled the number of whitworths in Lee's Army during 1864.