Category Archives: American Civil War

September 28, 1864: Beauregard heading back to Charleston

On September 28, 1864, Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton passed along two intercepted messages from the Confederate lines at Charleston.  The second of these, from Beach Inlet to Battery Bee, read:

Captain Smith requests that you will let us know when General Beauregard crossed the bridge.

With this bit of information, Saxton asked his superior, Major-General John Foster, for a special liberty:

I propose to give General Beauregard a salute in Charleston this evening from my 200-pounders.

Was General P.G.T. Beauregard returning to command at Charleston?  No, but in a round-about… sort of.  After serving through the summer months in command at Petersburg, Beauregard grew tired of living in General Robert E. Lee’s shadow. And at the same time, the creole’s performance in August left authorities in the War Department looking for a way to ease him out of Virginia.

The visit to Charleston was not, however, a move to resume his old command.  Rather he arrived to investigate the conduct of Brigadier-General Roswell Ripley and to handle some administrative tasks, as Beauregard related to Major-General Samuel Jones on September 25:

The president has ordered me (verbally) to repair to Charleston and await further orders, meanwhile to inquire into the difficulty between yourself and Brigadier-General Ripley, and to examine the condition of the defenses and troops at and about Charleston, assisted by my chief engineer, Col. D.B. Harris, and chief inspector, Lieut. Col. A. Roman.  The former is then to remain on duty with you until further orders as inspector of fortifications and adviser in that branch of the service.

The problems with Ripley came to a head during the long summer months.  And these problems came out of a bottle.  During one of the general alarms sounded in July, in response to Federal activity, aides suspected he was drunk.  Then on September 17, he had a loud argument with the department quartermaster, in which several witnesses claimed he was drunk.  After just a day investigating the matter, Beauregard reached a conclusion:

It is evident from the within communications that Brig. Gen. R.S. Ripley cannot be intrusted at this critical time with so important a command as the First Military District of this department (comprising of the city and harbor of Charleston), which offers such great temptations and facilities for indulging in his irregular habits.  The past efficient services of Brigadier-General Ripley may entitle him still to some consideration at your hands. I therefore respectfully recommend that he may be ordered to active service in the field where time, reflection, and a stricter discipline may have their favorable influences over him.

Everyone from Charleston to Richmond agreed that Ripley should be relieved.  But none outside of Beauregard felt Ripley needed a second chance, especially at Petersburg.  But with all the other concerns of the time, Ripley remained in command pending further deliberation, though reassigned to Sullivan’s Island by the end of the month.  On balance, perhaps the return of Harris to his engineering duties was a fair trade?

September 28 saw another Confederate general receive orders to make way to Charleston.  General John B. Hood’s Special Orders No. 5 as commander of the Department of Tennessee and Georgia:

By direction of the President, Lieut. Gen. W. J. Hardee is relieved from duty in the Army of Tennessee, and will proceed at once to Charleston, S.C., and assume command of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

With this, Brigadier-General Samuel Jones stepped down from department command and assumed command of the District of South Carolina (the state minus the Third Military District).

For what it was worth, Beauregard was heading the opposite direction after his stay in Charleston.  He’d accepted a command in charge of the “west,” where his responsibilities were largely administrative, though including those areas where Hood and Hardee now operated.

Thus the Confederate command responsible for the defenses of Savannah and Charleston shuffled around in the early fall of 1864.  Before the winter season arrived, those commands would face a Federal threat unlike that seen earlier in the war.   A storm was coming to the coast.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Serial 66, pages 304, 630, 632-3, and 635.)

150 Years Ago: A battle at Pilot Knob, Missouri

I like to dart around the Civil War map in search of good sesquicentennial topics.  So from the coast of South Carolina, let us turn to the “far west” and look at what was happening 150 years ago in Missouri.  Today I will follow up on my earlier post and recall Major-General Sterling Price’s 1864 Missouri Campaign. On this day (September 27) in 1864, Price fought the first major engagement of the campaign.  The place was the town of Pilot Knob in the Arcadia Valley.  There a garrison of approximately 1,500 under Brigadier-General Thomas Ewing stood in the path of Price’s 12,000 (though the Confederates engaged there were likely less – perhaps 7,000 armed troops at most).

I’ll not detail all the events of September 27, 1864 here, as the Battle of Fort Davidson deserves more space than I have for a single post.  For those who would like a good account of the action, and the campaign overall, I recommend Mark Lause’s Price’s Lost Campaign: The 1864 Invasion of Missouri.  However, one failing of the book is the lack of maps (Publishers: Explain how one can have a campaign study without campaign maps?  This puzzles me, please explain.)

So let me offer the campaign map from the Official Records so we have some point of reference:

PlateXLVII_1

Yes, that is a big map to consider.  You may want to click and zoom in on the file to see the details.  Or I’ll cut a snip out to show Price’s march during this phase of the campaign:

Price_Campaign_to_PK

Fort Davidson was the primary defense of Pilot Knob.  Ewing could have run and I doubt history would have charged him with any neglect.  But he didn’t.  In his report on the campaign, Ewing rationalized his stand,

…the advantages of delaying the enemy two or three days in his march northward and of making a stubborn fight before retreating were so great, even though the defense should be unsuccessful and much of the garrison be lost, that I resolved to stand fast and take the chances.

On the map, Fort Davidson was not exactly a Thermopylae affording secure flanks and a prime defensive position.  The fort served its intended purpose protecting the industrial community from the occasional raider.  But against a large Confederate force?  In Ewing’s own words, “The fort was always conceded to be indefensible against any large army having serviceable artillery.”  High ground dominated the fort:

For Price, this appeared fruit ripe for the picking.  What worked against him was a Federal garrison which made the most of what it had and which took advantage of the sluggish movement of the Confederate force.  The slopes of the surrounding hills were cleared to give the Federal artillery clear lines of fire.  The range to any of the summits overlooking Fort Davidson was 1,200 yards or less. So any direct attack by the Confederates was done under fire.  So severe was the Federal fire that on several occasions the Confederates resorted to using a flag of truce as cover to get their formations in position.  So Fort Davidson became a tough nut to crack, from the tactical perspective.

In the face of this tactical dilemma, the Confederates didn’t offer their best effort.  Price failed to bring the weight of his artillery to bear on the fort.  Two 12-pdr Napoleons did get into a good position to fire on the Federal rifle pits. But on the other side, the guns of Battery H, 2nd Missouri Artillery, under Captain William Montgomery, along with the fort’s 32-pdr siege guns and 24-pdr howitzers did most of the “booming.”  Price also to seal off all routes into and out of Fort Davidson.  So not only was the garrison permitted an unmolested rear flank, they were also granted an escape route.

Price planned on massive assault.  But as these things are apt to play out, the attack was done piecemeal.  Federal gunners could focus on one advancing formation at a time and thus blunt the wave.  But the fighting did reach the parapets of the fort.  So close in fact that Federal soldiers used hand-grenades to repel the assault.

After midnight on September 27, Ewing started a quiet withdrawal from Fort Davidson.  After sparring with some Confederate advance guards of Brigadier-General Joe Shelby’s command (which were maneuvering to assault the fort at dawn), the garrison slipped out of the valley.  A slow match in the fort’s magazine touched off a large explosion around 4 a.m.  Yet, the Confederates did not see that as a queue.

The next morning, Price had his prize but at a cost.  Estimates of the Confederate casualties in the battle vary, but the most credible put the loss at 200 killed and around 600 wounded. Ewing had indeed delayed the march while receiving just under 100 casualties (and just over 100 captured between the fort and the retreat).

In his report on the action, in the usual “thanks” to his subordinates who had performed well, Ewing mentioned several local citizens who took up arms and joined the Federal ranks during the emergency.  In particular, “A colored man named Charles Thurston, organized and commanded a company of negroes, who eagerly bore their share of labor and danger.”  I have long suspected that Thurston and his company were largely composed of laborers from local lead industry (the town sits in the middle of Missouri’s Old Lead Belt).  If so, these men were likely not escaped or freed slaves from some plantation, but rather working-class citizens.  They could have fled, or even stayed quietly at their jobs.  They chose instead to defend their homes and country.

No assessment of the action at Pilot Knob is complete without considering the “strategic” impact.  Set in the fall of 1864, with all the air of an election cycle, this action could have been another “Harpers Ferry” (referring to the 1862 battle, just over two years earlier).  Yet Ewing’s stand was celebrated in newspapers throughout the mid-west as positive war news.  The Daily Illinois State Journal ran this lead-in on September 30, 1864:

DailyIllStJourn_Sept_30_64

Not a route or delaying action, but a defeat of the rebels.  In the northern press, Ewing had won the battle and lived to fight another day.  After September 27, 1864, anything Price might accomplish in Missouri which might affect the presidential elections had to overcome this spin.  And, as later events would show, Price was never able to overcome the setback at Pilot Knob – either on the battlefield or in the eyes of northern voters.  In short, this battle at Fort Davidson deserves a place alongside Mobile Bay, Atlanta, and Cedar Creek as actions which factored into Lincoln’s re-election.

“Directions and signals for vessels composing the inner and outer blockade off Charleston”

I’ve written quite a bit about signals intelligence (SIGINT) and attempts to block that gathering in the context of the war at Charleston.  Stretching the definition a bit, we might also consider Emissions Intelligence (EMINT) in context of the blockade operations (and I’m probably bending the modern definition a bit, as EMINT specifically involves collecting sensor and other forms of electronic transmissions… but in the Civil War sense, can we include “lights”?).  During operations the blockaders used running lights,  signal lights or flares, and similar means of passing messages visually.  The meaning of these was, as one might expect, something the Confederates sought to understand.  So the Federals adopted some rather complex systems to keep the Confederates out of the loop.  On September 23, 1864, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren issued a set of instructions detailing the use of ships lights and signals at Charleston.  Long read, but allow me to submit it into the “register” here for reference:

The following running lights, specified for each day of the month, are to be hoisted when in chase or approaching the limits of the blockade after an absence from it.

When in chase, they will be shown occasionally for two or three minutes at a time, after the established signal for an attempt to run the blockade inward or outward has been made, to indicate the direction of the chase.

When returning to the limits of the blockade after an absence from it, the running lights are to be shown until the ship’s number or signal of recognition has been exchanged with one of the vessels on the blockade.

LightsRunning

A vessel discovering and desirous of ascertaining the character of another at night will show a light (signal lantern) of the same color as the upper light of the running lights designated for the night until answered by the vessel to which it is shown by a light corresponding with the lower light of the running lights designated for the night. Then the vessel which made the signal first will obscure her light, which is to be followed immediately by the vessel to which the signal was made obscuring hers.  The latter vessel will then flash twice with a light of a different color from that shown by her in answering, with an interval of five seconds between the flashes, which must be answered by the vessel which made the first signal by two flashes made in the same manner, with a light of a different color. The signal lights should be held, if practicable, in a position so that they may be seen only by the vessel to which the signal is made.

Got that?  To ensure no misunderstandings, Dahlgren offered some examples of this pattern:

Example, 1st day of the month:

A discovers B.

A shows a white light.

B answers with a red light.

B flashes twice with a white light.

A answers by flashing twice with red light.

Dahlgren went on to provide two more examples before relating general instructions about security of the light patterns.

A knowledge of the running lights is to be confined to commanding, executive, and signal officers. Officers in charge of the deck should only be informed of the running lights for the night at sunset, daily.  It is also desirable that a knowledge of the signal to ascertain character should be confined to officers alone, who should give the necessary directions to make them to quartermasters or persons detailed for that duty.

In the event of there being a doubt about the character of a vessel after the forgoing signals have been exchanged and repeated, fog signals of ship’s numbers may be exchanged.

And the instructions turned to fog signals next:

 Steamers will make fog signals with their whistles; sailing ships with their bells.

FogSignals

Then Dahlgren turned to “Special signals regarding rebel movement”:

Blockade runner going inward: Rocket and red light (Coston). Going outward: Rocket and white light. The vessel that discovers the stranger will fire on her while signaling.

This will be understood as a signal for the whole squadron to be on the alert; but no vessel will leave her particular station to chase unless she discovers the blockade runner or can steer a course understandingly to cut her off.

Rebel rams in sight and near: Rocket, red, white, red. When the signal is made, a single red light at the masthead of the vessel commanded by the senior officer present will indicate that all the heavy-built and armed vessels are to assemble near that vessel.

The light-built and armed vessels will be on the alert to discover and capture any vessels attempting to run the blockade, and render such other services as the occasion may suggest to their respective commanders.

Torpedo boats in sight and near: Rocket, white, red, green.

Enemy’s boats in sight: Green.

Vessel in danger from fire of another: Running lights.

Please note when Dahlgren referenced “Coston” he was referring to Coston’s night signals (also see here.)

Signals for “Assistance required”:

Show in a horizontal position, about 10 or 15 feet distant from each other, a red and white signal light (lantern) to be screened or held in a position, if possible, that it may not be read by the enemy; particularly if the vessel making the signal should be ashore or aground. This signal is to be answered by Coston’s “Answering.” [Red-White-Red flare]

Continuous and rapid firing of guns will be understood as a signal that assistance may be or is required by the vessel firing the guns, and the vessel nearest to the locality of firing will proceed to give assistance, but will not be absent from her station longer than is absolutely necessary.

The “Answering” (Coston) followed by “Preparatory” (Coston) will indicate that all of the vessels employed on the blockade are to repair to the locality where the signal is made.

Annulling signals:

Two perpendicular red lights (signal lanterns) shown at the masthead or yardarm will annul the signal last made

Strange vessels approaching the blockade in the daytime:

In the event of a strange vessel approaching the limits of the blockade during the daytime, as a general rule, the blockading vessel nearest to her will ascertain her character, etc., by boarding or speaking, and report to the senior officer present, by signal or otherwise. In communicating with a strange vessel, a blank cartridge is first to be fired, if necessary, as a summons to heave to, and a shot is not to be fired unless the summons by blank cartridge is unheeded. Vessels of doubtful character and foreign men-of-war are to be accompanied by the vessel communicating with them to, and outside of, the anchorage of the senior officer present.

Commanders of vessels composing the blockade are expected to observe and exact from officers under their respective commands the greatest vigilance, attention to, and promptness in making and answering signals, and to use the utmost care in not firing into a vessel until well satisfied she is attempting to violate the blockade.

As for other lights which might displayed:

No lights will be shown by the blockading vessels at night excepting for signal purposes.

All signals conflicting with the above are revoked.

A little lengthy, but these instructions provide another insight into the operations along the coast of South Carolina in the maintenance of the blockade.

(Citation from ORN Series I, Volume 15, pages 685-8.)