“To those who doubt whether the negro soldiers will fight…”: Skirmish on the Pocotaligo

Raids from Port Royal into the coastal plantations of South Carolina and Georgia were commonplace by the fall of 1863.  Starting early that year, these raids focused on something more than simple harassment of Confederate posts.  As seen with the St. Mary’s River expedition,the Combahee Raid, and later Edisto River operation, Federal forces engaged in what I’d cite as the active component of the Emancipation Proclamation.   Another of those type operations took place on November 23-24, 1863.

Tipped that a group of thirty slaves were gathering in the vicinity of Pocotalio, South Carolina, Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton in Port Royal dispatched a small force to that vicinity.  Captain John E. Bryant, of the 8th Maine Infantry, lead this force, consisting of sixty men of Companies E and K, 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry (soon to be the 33rd US Colored Troops).  Bryant had already established a reputation as a scout in the swamps and marshes.  Captain Alexander Heasley, of Company E, and Captain Henry Whitney, of Company K, commanded their respective detachments under Bryant.

CunninghamsBluff

The raiders would advance by way of ships up the Broad River to the Pocotalio River. There they would move by boats through the marshes to a landing and proceed on foot to the designated rendezvous point. Along the way, they had to capture a known Confederate picket post along the Broad River in order to keep the movement secret.

Execution of the first phases of the raid fell not to a white officer, but to a black sergeant in the ranks of Company K, as Saxton reported:

The pickets, 2 in number, with their horses, were captured. Sergt. Harry Williams, of Company K, went with a party and liberated 27 slaves on the Heyward plantation, 6 miles in advance of our force and within 4 miles of the enemy’s headquarters. Great credit is due this dusky warrior for the skill with which he managed his part of the affair.

HarryWilliams

Sergeant Harry Williams

Coming back with the freed slaves, the party ran into fog that prevented their return to the boats. The raiding party, escaped slaves, and Heasley’s covering force waited in the fog for the boats. Meanwhile, according to a report filed by Brigadier General William S. Walker, Confederate commander of the Third Military District, a rebel detachment responded to alarms sent from Heyward’s plantation.

They were closely pursued by Captain [J. T.] Foster, with 25 men of Rutledge’s regiment of cavalry. The negroes took shelter in a very dense thicket near Cunningham’s Bluff (opposite Hall’s Island). Captain Foster dismounted his command and charged them, in skirmishing order.

In Foster’s party were a group of men in charge of bloodhounds.  Walker described the pursuit as a “fox chase.” Heasley waited until the dogs were practically upon the force before ordering bayonets against the dogs, followed by a volley against the Confederates. This killed three of the dogs and drove off Foster’s men for the moment.   Other Confederate forces under Colonel B.H. Rutledge arrived, but were unable to get at the Federal party due to the marshes.

As the Federal force withdrew further, the Confederates continued to press them.  Whitney’s detachment, which was positioned to guard the bluffs, then ambushed the pursuers. Saxton wrote, “he opened fire upon them, killing, among others, the commander of the company and the remaining bloodhounds.”  Saxton added:

To those who doubt whether the negro soldiers will fight, this daring act of Captain Whitney and his little band of 10, opening fire unhesitatingly upon a full company, not less than 100 of the enemy’s cavalry, and repulsing them, this will be a startling fact.

With that, the raiding force returned to the boats and departed for Port Royal Sound.

Federal reports mentioned seven wounded, though none seriously.  But Rufus claimed five Confederate killed and many more wounded, out of an estimated 1,000 (!) sent in pursuit.  On the other hand, Walker reported only three wounded, none seriously.  One of the two captured pickets later escaped.  Walker added, “this is the first time the men of this portion of the command have been under fire.”

Both accounts emphasized the employment of the dogs in the pursuit.  In Army Life in a Black Regiment, Colonel Thomas Higginson added some perspective:

The whole command was attacked by a rebel force, which turned out to be what was called in those regions a “dog-company,” consisting of mounted riflemen with half a dozen trained bloodhounds.  The men met these dogs with their bayonets, killed four or five of their old tormentors with great relish, and brought away the carcass of one.  I had the creature skinned, and sent the skin to New York to be stuffed and mounted, meaning to exhibit it at the Sanitary Commission Fair in Boston; but it spoiled on the passage. These quadruped allies were not originally intended as “dogs of war,” but simply to detect fugitive slaves, and the men were delighted at this confirmation of their tales of dog-companies, which some of the officers had always disbelieved.

To some degree these raiding actions were simply wide scale slave escapes, now encouraged by forces which only years earlier had been legally bound against such activity.  However, in the broader context of the Civil War, these raids were sapping away the labor force on which the Confederacy depended.  At the same time, raids such as that conducted on the Pocotaligo 150 years ago were manifestations of a war policy set forward with the Emancipation Proclamation, and reiterated only days earlier at Gettysburg.  The best counter to the “dog-companies” was an armed U.S Colored Troops detachment.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 745-6; Thomas W. Higginson, Army Life in a Black Regiment, Oxford University, 1870, pages 230-1.)

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2 responses to ““To those who doubt whether the negro soldiers will fight…”: Skirmish on the Pocotaligo

  1. Pingback: 4,041 negroes at work on Charleston defenses on November 25, 1863 | To the Sound of the Guns

  2. Pingback: “Every vestige of the prejudice and ill feeling… has disappeared”: Gillmore on the USCT | To the Sound of the Guns

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