On July 10, 1863, Union troops seized the southern tip of Morris Island. The island was crucial to the defense of Charleston Harbor. General Beauregard, commanding the port city’s defenses, made a frantic call for reinforcements. Clingman’s Brigade was ordered to proceed to Charleston immediately.
The 51st North Carolina was the first of Clingman’s regiments to arrive in Charleston. Upon his arrival, Colonel McKethan sent a dispatch to Brigadier General Thomas Jordan, Beauregard’s Chief of Staff:
Charleston, SC July 12th/63, 7 AM
Genl Jordan, Chief of Staff
I have the honor to report to you with Five Hundred & Fifty men, a portion of Fifty-first Regt, Clingmans Brigade. I have also about Fifty men of the 31st Regt with me. I am expecting the Genl and the ballance [sic] of his Brigade hourly, unless I receive orders to the contrary, I will remain at the Depot until Genl Clingman arrives. The other Regiments were ready to start when we left Wilmington.
H. McKethan, Col 51st Regt N. C. Troops
The Fifty-First was sent to Morris Island that night. Company E, which had been delayed leaving Wilmington, arrived in Charleston a few days later. The company was transported to Battery Wagner the same day it arrived.
On July 18, the Union launched a fierce assault on Battery Wagner. The Confederates held out and inflicted severe casualties on the assaulting Yankees. Colonel McKethan’s official report of the battle is contained in the Official Records, Vol. 28, part 1, pages 524-526. But McKethan’s NARA records contain a preliminary report the colonel wrote on July 19:
Hd Qrs 51st Regt N. C. T., Sullivans Island July 19/63
I have the honor to report the following list of casualties in my regiment in the action at “Battery Wagner” on the 18th inst.
Killed Wounded Missing
Comd officers 1 5 0
Enlisted men 15 47 6
Total 16 52 6
My men had been on heavy duty and slept but little for six nights and were completely worn down with fatigue, many of them fainting from excessive heat in the bomb proof during the day.
The right of my line rested near the sally port and my left extended nearly to the bomb proof and immediately in front of the Commissary building. This line was unbroken during the entire fight, no yankee having succeeded in mounting my part of the parapets.
You will remember that before the enemy were near enough to be fired on by the infantry that I called your attention to the fact that I had examined the full length of my line and found them ready and in proper position. They were the first infantry to fire on the enemy.
The shelling was most terific [sic] at the time the order was given for 15 men from each company to occupy the lines, full that number from each company obeyed the order promptly, and in many cases the entire company went.
Considering the extent of my line (more than one third the whole) I am of opinion that my men fought well, certainly as successfully as any other portion of the line. I had 687 men in the engagement.
I am Captain Very Respectfully, Your Obt Sevt
H M McKethan, Col Comdg
The enemy made three assaults upon my front but with assistance of the Artillery were driven back, some where [sic] killed in ditch but none crossed it. We had 40 rounds in boxes when fight began, all which were fired, & more distributed during the fight.
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