150 Years Ago: Improving the James Island Forts defending Charleston

I’m a little behind on the exact sesquicentennial timing, so please forgive me being a few days off.  On March 3, 1863, Brigadier-General States Rights Gist – a Confederate who’s parents left no doubt as to their political leanings – filed a report on the defenses of James Island.

English: Photo of Confederate General States R...

Brig.Gen. S.R. Gist

Gist had recently returned to Charleston and had assumed command of forces on James Island and in Saint Andrew’s Parish.  Gist’s command covered the area south and southwest of Charleston, which was for all practical purposes the “right flank” of the city’s defense.  Consider the Charleston theater of operation:

SCCoast1a

To the northeast of the harbor, the barrier islands offered a few channels, but none leading deep inshore.  While this was a non-topographical map, the limited road network depicted alludes to the wide, impassable marshes.

On the other hand, to the south and southeast, Federal gunboats could, and often did, navigate up the Stono River (… at their own peril of course).  The network of islands that included James Island offered high ground, roads and causeways leading right to the inner harbor.  And just north of the island, within easy reach, was the vital Charleston & Savannah Railroad.

CharlestonDefGilmore1a

For the Federals, James Island offered a passageway to the birthplace of secession.  For the Confederate defenders, the island was a critical salient.  In June 1862, the Confederates thwarted an early attempt on James Island with a victory in the battle of Secessionville.  Not resting on a victory, the defenders expanded and improved the defenses.  However, after a September inspection tour, General P.G.T. Beauregard described the works as “not very properly arranged and located” and he directed additional work.

Upon receiving command of the sector on February 12, 1863, Gist began inspecting the defenses with an aim to complete the desired improvements.  His March 3 report indicated that the defenses were “not altogether in fighting condition in consequence of the want of necessary ordnance and ordnance stores…” From that overall assessment, Gist provided a detailed examination of the key defenses of his command.

JamesIslandDef2

On the harbor side of the island, Fort Johnson, Battery Glover, and Battery Means covered the South Channel and mouth of the Ashley River.  The armament of Fort Johnson included two 10-inch columbiads, a rifled 32-pdr gun, two 32-pdr smoothbores, and a 10-inch mortar.  Gist wanted to relocate the later guns, of little use against ironclads, to other points in the defenses.  In their place he requested more rifled guns.   Battery Glover contained a rifled 32-pdr and three smoothbore 32-pdrs, with an 8-inch shell gun waiting for a carriage.  Gist wanted to send the shell gun to Fort Lamar, in exchange for a rifled 24-pdr.  Battery Means, with only a pair of 8-inch shell guns, could only cover the entrance to Wappoo Creek (which provided passage between the Stono and Ashley Rivers).

The James Island Line (labeled “East James Island Line” on my map) consisted of a three mile front with “six redoubts, five redans, and one lunette.”   Defenders  manned 18 to 20 guns along that line.  The works lacked magazines and in some places ramps and firing platforms.  Engineers had already repositioned the works away from earlier infantry cremaillere lines.  But not all those old works were demolished, and obstructed the new lines.  Gist wanted the old lines cleared, completion of the artillery positions, and additional firing platforms for any reinforcing field artillery.

In front of that East James Line, Battery Reed with two 24-pdr siege guns covered the bridge to Secessionville and Light House Creek.  Gist felt that, although low in elevation, this work was an important link supporting the outer line.  He desired expansion to connect with the East James Line and to allow a couple more field pieces.

Charleston 4 May 10 251

Inside Fort Lamar Today

Fort (or Battery) Lamar was the main defense of Secessionville.  Earlier reports indicated the fort had two 8-inch guns, one rifled 32-pdr, six smoothbore 32-pdrs, two rifled 24-pdrs, and two 10-inch mortars.  Gist tallied thirteen guns without noting the particulars.  Construction on the fort was nearing completion, which would make it, in Gist’s estimate, “impregnable if defended by a proper garrison….”  To the north of Secessionville, a new two gun battery covered the bridge to the main island.  On Bridge Neck, infantry lines with provisioning for three field artillery pieces, also defended the bridge (some accounts refer to this as a causeway).

East of Secessionville and Fort Lamar, the Cross-Roads Line covered three roads providing access into James Island.  Gist had originally placed this line of works in an earlier tour of duty.  The 1,200 yard line was designed to block patrols and delay any force in strength.  The line consisted of hedge-rows, infantry entrenchments and field artillery firing positions.

Fort Pemberton anchored the defensive line to the Stono River.  The fort had fifteen guns and could handle ten more if reinforced.  Earlier reports stated the fort included two 10-inch columbiads, two 8-inch guns, two 42-pdr guns, two rifled 32-pdrs, four 32-pdr smoothbores, two 18-pdr guns, and two rifled 12-prs.  This appeared sufficient to keep gunboats at distance.  But Gist suggested an additional flanking exterior battery for a better angle down the river.

Behind Fort Pemberton, the West James Island Line was the last link in the chain of fortifications.  Gist described the works as “a continuous redan line” indicating the presence of several strong points along the 2,600 yard front.  Like the east line, the west side contained light artillery.

One important improvement, although not a fortification, suggested by Gist was placing a signal station behind the West James Island Line.  Not only would that improve communications across the island and to Charleston, but would also allow observation of potential landing sites along the Stono River.  You see, signal stations were not all about signals back in those days.  Gist also directed his engineers to construct better bridges and passages between James Island and Saint Andrew’s Parrish to the north.  This would allow for covered and concealed movement of troops to threatened positions.

Gist estimated the remaining work required “600 hands for six or eight weeks,” but he only had 130 (more on this in a later post).  Overall the military force on James Island included 1,735 artillerymen, 5,100 infantry, and 2,500 reserves.  Armament included 75 guns and three mortars.  Gist desired 120 guns.

Closing his report, Gist looked beyond James Island for the ultimate solution:

I will indulge the hope that the advance line of defense may be speedily re-established upon Cole’s Island and the Stono once again freed from Yankee gunboats.  This would of necessity reduce the garrison required for its defense to at least one-third the number at present called for.

But, as we know from the perspective of 150 years later, that ship had already sailed.  Cole’s Island, along with the marshes behind Folly and Morris Islands, were soon to be within the Federal advanced picket lines.  This prompted more improvements and additions to the works.  But the James Island defenses would serve their intended purpose.  The defenses of James Island held the Federals at bay until 1865.  As seen from the photo of Fort Lamar above, a few of these works stand today.

(Gist’s report appears in OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, pages 804-808.)

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8 responses to “150 Years Ago: Improving the James Island Forts defending Charleston

  1. The Charleston & Savannah Railroad was key to the defense of the South Carolina coast. It enabled Confederates to move soldiers and ordnance up or down the coast quickly to meet Federal threats, and the Federals tried on several occasions to cut the lines, but didn’t succeed until the end of the war.

    The Federals probably had more men in and around Hilton Head Island after November 1861 than the Confederates had guarding the entire S.C. coast, but the rail line, telegraph system and and pickets along the coast enabled the Southerners to respond quickly, helping at least partially offset their numerical disadvantage and forcing the Union to resort to naval attacks on Charleston.

    Also, I have read that S.R. Gist’s first name is actually “State” rather than “States,” but have never found any verification. “State Rights” just doesn’t sound as good, does it?

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