Ever since Federals began building river obstructions in the Stono River at the end of November, General P.G.T. Beauregard saw an opportunity to repeat the insult inflicted earlier in the year with the ambush of the USS Isaac Smith. Orders cut on December 17 sent several batteries of artillery, about a regiment’s worth of infantry, and cavalry scouts to enact just such an ambush.
As instructed, the Confederates completed preparations for the ambush to include a series of concealed battery positions on the island overlooking the marshes south of Legareville. Major Edward Manigault, commanding the South Carolina Siege Train batteries (but was not actually on James Island himself), provided the most detailed descriptions of the battery positions. There were five distinct positions, as indicated here:
Manigault’s description varies slightly from the orders issued for the operation, so I’ll run through those details:
- Upper Battery (1) was a sunken work on the peninsula about ¾ a mile southwest of Legareville. Captain Benjamin C. Webb, Company A, South Carolina Siege Trains, commanded two 30-pdr Parrotts here, to target the steamers.
- Upper Battery (2) was another sunken work about 50 to 75 yards to the right of the first battery. Lieutenant Ralph Nesbit, Company B of the siege trains, had two 8-inch siege howitzers positioned to fire on the steamers.
- The Lower Battery on a raised platform about 250 to 300 yards on another peninsula further southwest. Captain Frederick C. Schultz, Company F, Palmetto Artillery, commanded two 3.5-inch Blakely rifles, one 10-pdr Parrott, along with an 8-inch howitzer from Nesbit’s Battery targeted the steamers.
- A battery platform on the road leading to Legareville. There Lieutenant John P. Strohecker of the Marion Light Artillery lead a section of two Napoleons reinforced with the fourth of Nesbit’s 8-inch howitzers. These cannons were aimed at the infantry in Legareville.
- A position between the Upper Battery and Legareville for Captain William E. Charles’ Battery D, 2nd South Carolina Artillery with two 3.5-inch Blakely rifles in position to fire on the town or the steamers as needed. Charles’ two 12-pdr howitzers stood ready to advance with the infantry towards Legareville. (This position is referred to as the “Hedge Battery” by some accounts.)
Because of the elevated and exposed positions of the Lower Battery and Charles’s Battery, those positions were not completed, with the guns in position, until the night of December 24.
Colonel P.R. Page commanded two companies of his own 26th Virginia Infantry and five from the 59th Virginia, constituting the infantry force to move down the road to Legareville and capture the Federals there. While Page technically had overall command of the operation, he was not in a position to direct the guns of the Upper and Lower battery positions under Lieutenant-Colonel Del. Kemper. This proved to be a gap in control which hindered the Confederates when the ambush sprang.
A detachment of infantry, roughly 200 in number, from Brigadier-General George Gordon’s division occupied a small spit just outside of Legareville on the night of December 24. The USS Marblehead, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Richard Meade (yes nephew of Major General George Meade), was laying in the Stono River, anchored just south of the town. This 90-day gunboat mounted a XI-inch Dahlgren guns, two 24-pdr smoothbore guns, and one 20-pdr rifle.
Down closer to Stono Inlet the USS Pawnee lay in the Kiawah River, with Commander George Balch in charge. Balch was a veteran of these waters, seeing earlier actions on the Stono with the Pawnee. The Pawnee mounted eight IX-inch Dahlgens, one 100-pdr Parrott Rifle, one 50-pdr Dahlgren Rifle, and two 12-pdr boat howitzers. Further downstream the mortar schooner USS C.P. Williams lay off Cole’s Island.
Confederate scouts reported these dispositions on Christmas Eve, though did not detail the exact locations of the Pawnee and Williams. Around that time, Page opted for a slight modification in plans. He would open the engagement with fire from the Upper Battery (2) and the Lower Battery against the Marblehead. The other batteries would fire on the Federals near Legaresville. While this gave plenty of firepower to cover the infantry advance, it pitted 8-inch howitzers and field gun caliber rifles against the gunboat. But, as Page would later report, the intent was for the siege guns to distract and destroy the Marblehead while the infantry rushed into Legareville. Kemper, on the other hand, felt the plan was for the infantry to distract the Marblehead, leaving his guns to destroy the gunboat. And neither officer mentioned any plans to deal with the other Federal ships laying nearby (possibly because of the limited information about those vessels).
So as Christmas morning dawned at Charleston, a brisk bombardment was already underway. On the Stono River, the action was just about to start.
On that note, please allow me to pause for the moment, and pick up the narrative later today. There are a lot of connections and cross connections to discuss. Not the least of which involves this man:
And of course an inscription on the back of a cannon:
Just a couple of many stories from 150 years ago this Christmas Day.
(Sources: Edward Manigault, Siege Train: The Journal of a Confederate Artilleryman in the Defense of Charleston, edited by Warren Ripley, Charleston: University of South Carolina Press, 1986, pages 100-102; OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 747-50; ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 188-209.)