Category Archives: Charleston SC

A demonstration “to cut the Charleston and Savannah Railroad”: Plans leading to Honey Hill

Give or take a day, 150 years ago at this time Major-General John Foster received a letter sent on November 13, 1864 by Major-General Henry Halleck in Washington.  For the most part, the letter told Foster what he already knew:

Major-General Sherman expects to leave Atlanta on the 16th instant for the interior of Georgia or Alabama, as circumstances may seem to require, and may come out either on the Atlantic coast or the Gulf. If the former, it will probably be at Savannah, Ossabaw Sound, Darien, or Fernandina. Supplies are being collected at Hilton Head, with transports to convey them to the point required. Supplies are also collected at Pensacola Bay, to be transported to any point he may require on the Gulf. Should Sherman come to the Atlantic coast, which I think most probable, he expects to reach there the early part of December, and wishes you, if possible, to cut the Charleston and Savannah Railroad near Pocotaligo about that time. At all events a demonstration on that road will be of advantage. You will be able undoubtedly to learn his movements through rebel sources much earlier than from these headquarters, and will shape your action accordingly.

By the last days of November, Foster, like everyone else from Atlanta to Charleston, knew Sherman was on the march.  And it was clear Sherman was not going to a Gulf Coast port.  But where on the Atlantic?

What’s important here is the chain of events.  Foster had already started planning to meet this request even before receiving it.  He had solicited a proposal from Brigadier-General John Hatch for an operation up the Broad River towards Grahamville  – receiving that on November 21 at the latest.  On the 22nd, Foster received Halleck’s order.  On the same day, Foster issued orders to implement Hatch’s proposal.  Then on November 25, Foster replied that he’d received Halleck’s order and was executing.

Halleck’s orders were not restrictive to a simple demonstration.  He set an objective – cut the railroad.  Hatch’s proposal, likewise, had an objective – gain the railroad.  The main difference between those objectives was the actions proposed after gaining possession of the railroad.  Halleck wanted a demonstration that impeded Confederate movement.  Hatch looked to create a beachhead that could use the railroad to support future operations.  To say the two were one and the same would be a misstatement.

The orders Foster issued on November 22, to Hatch and to Brigadier-General E. P. Scammon (commanding in Florida), contained lengthy details.  He specified the number of troops, to be drawn from strong, seasoned regiments.  He specified each man would carry “his blanket, overcoat, rubber blanket or shelter-half, and one extra pair of good socks.”  Foster specified each man would carry 20 rounds with another 100 rounds per man brought along in crates.  The force would have a battery of artillery in support.  Plus he wanted as many mounted men as possible brought along.

The operation would draw from Morris Island, Hilton Head, and Florida all the troops not absolutely necessary for manning the lines.  This was a reach for a department already strapped for resources.  But a gamble worth taking considering the Confederate forces in theater would be drawn inland to face Sherman.

But the one thing lacking in all of Foster’s details was the objective.  To Hatch, he simply said, “fully concur with you in your views as to the point of attack.”  To Scammon, he simply said, “I am, therefore, getting ready to make an attack upon some point of the enemy’s line, so as to aid [Sherman].”  To Halleck, he responded, “I am preparing to carry out your instructions.”  At no point, in the written record, did Foster reconcile any differences between Halleck’s objective and that proposed by Hatch.

Foster did set a date for execution – November 27.  Later this backed off to the 28th.  While the objective might be ill-defined, the operation would go forward.  If it succeeded, the Federals would finally cut the railroad connecting Charleston and Savannah.  Since mid-1862 the Federals had attempted, without success, to do just that.  Such would limit the Confederates’ ability to shift troops in defense of threatened sectors.

But was this a realistic objective?  Could the forces at hand reach the railroad? Hold the railroad? And, that accomplished, would it aid Sherman’s advance?

All good questions that queue up some more blog posts.

At the same time Foster’s response was leaving Hilton Head for Washington, Halleck penned another order for the Department of the South.  The order issued on November 23rd would not arrive for another ten days:

Lieutenant-General Grant directs that the expenditure of ammunition upon Charleston and Fort Sumter be discontinued, except so far as may be necessary to prevent the enemy from establishing new batteries at the latter place. This is not intended to prohibit the throwing of occasional shell into Charleston, if circumstances should require. The object is to economize ordnance stores.

The focus of operations in the Department of the South was changing.  Savannah and Charleston were still prizes.  But those would be gained from the land side.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, page 328; Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 525-6, 535, and 547.)

“How near can you put a shot to St. Michael’s church?”: Charleston bombardment continues

Activity on Morris Island during the middle days of November 1864 reflected stalemate that had existed practically since September 7 of the previous year.  The Federal batteries threw shells into Charleston in order to maintain the appearance of pressure on the city.  And as result  the heavy guns “skirmished” with each other across Charleston harbor.  Entries in the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery regimental history offer some of vignettes for the bombardments on November 14 and 15, 1864.  These indicate the daily affairs on Morris Island had evolved almost into a “sporting” air in spite of the dangers:

Nov. 14. Chaplain Hudson (New York Engineers), and friends from Beaufort, visited the front, and asked the privilege of pulling the lanyard of one of the guns firing on Charleston.  Of course such favors were granted. Naturally enough some of the ladies dodged a little as they let loose the thunder. When all had fired, Captain Barker said to Lieutenant Burroughs, “I’ve never fired myself; I think I’ll try it, that I may say as much as our visitors.”  Said the Lieutenant, “I’m afraid you will burst the gun.” “We’ll risk that,” answered the Captain. The gun was loaded. The Captain pulled, and, strangely enough, the gun flew in pieces, and also tore into splinters the gun-carriage, but fortunately inflicted no injury upon him or the bystanders.

The entry for November 14 continues with another story, which while not directly attributed to that date, likely happened around the time:

We must give another incident of expert gunning. General Foster came into Fort Putnam on an inspecting tour, and, while there, said to Sergt. George E. Hazen (Company M): “How near can you put a shot to St. Michael’s church? I should like to see you make a trial.” The sergeant said he thought he could come somewhere near it, and loaded, trained, and fired his piece.  Happily enough the shot went direct to its target, and struck the face of the town clock, cutting out the figure six. We therefore voted six for our gunner. We ought to add that this might not be done every time, and that all our gunners were superior in their work.

St. Michael’s, being a centerpiece of downt0wn Charleston, received a lot of attention from photographers and artists during the war.  Since the first time I read this passage, I’ve looked at photos taken after the fall of Charleston for corroborating evidence of this “expert gunning.”

From at least two different angles, no shot through the six appears.  Though we cannot see the other two faces in these views.

Recalling another visit from General Foster, the regimental history has this entry for the next day:

Nov. 15. Still fell the heavy strokes in front of Charleston. Generals Foster, Potter, and others, with visiting ladies, in two large ambulances, rode up to Strong and Putnam. As they neared the latter fort, the rebels, with ten-inch columbiads, opened from Moultrie, and one shot passed under one of the ambulances.  The tour of inspection was thus hastened and shortened. General Foster, in an irate mood, halted at Fort Strong and ordered Captain Barker to open all his heavy guns bearing on Moultrie, and send the ungallant rebels his warm compliments. The order was obeyed to the General’s satisfaction, for the gunners made splendid shots, cutting away the Confederate flag, and killing and wounding, as we afterwards learned, a number of the enemy; yet we burst two guns in the firing. Said the General: “That is the best firing I ever saw in my life.”

So over two days in a relatively inactive front, the Federals expended a large amount of ordnance and burst three guns.  Exhibitions of splendid gunnery, perhaps, but nothing more than skirmishing to ensure the Confederates would not further weaken Charleston’s defenses to aid other pressed sectors.

(Citation from Frederic Denison, Shot and Shell: The Third Rhode Island Heavy Artillery Regiment in the Rebellion, 1861-1865, Providence, R.I.: Third Rhode Island Artillery Veterans Association, 1879, pages 282-3.)

“A few days must lead to the possession of the city”: Dahlgren advances another plan to capture Charleston

If I were to count the number of plans to capture Charleston, limiting only to those submitted by senior officers, during the Civil War, I’d quickly run out of fingers and toes.  Add to that tally one from Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren, submitted on this day (November 10) in 1864. So just another plan, what’s the big deal?  Well consider the particulars and, more so, the situational assessment offered by Dahlgren.

The report offered by Dahlgren on November 10 was a follow up to a previous report detailing the defenses of Charleston, as known by the Federals in October 1864.  Building upon that assessment, Dahlgren drew attention to the important line of defenses:

The city of Charleston is entirely under the control of James Island, which is not only fortified by water toward the harbor, but in all other directions is also strongly entrenched and garrisoned.

For this reason it was under consideration at one time by General Gillmore and myself to operate there, he moving from Morris Island against the nearest corner of the island, where is Fort Johnson, and the vessels cooperating on the same point. The possession of the works must have led to a gradual advance along the island.

I would point out this assessment of James Island is both in line with, but at the same time somewhat contradictory to, Dahlgren’s proposed plan to operate on the Stono River, filed earlier in the summer of 1864.  At that time, Dahlgren felt the way into James Island was an “end run” from John’s Island.  From the Army’s point of view, that would only open up another prolonged siege. Particularly after the Confederate started defensive works on John’s Island to protect the flanks.

But an attack is also feasible on the opposite side of the harbor. The occupation of Mount Pleasant by our forces would compel the abandonment of Sullivan’s Island by mere blockade, and would also command the site of the city more promptly than by an advance on James Island, because there are no works there except one toward Sullivan’s Island and another at Haddrell’s Point, both near the water and looking only that way, without any bearing inland at all.

With a moderate land force, only this last would be most advisable. Part of the troops could be landed at Bull’s Bay, whence there is a good road for some 15 miles; part would enter the inlet seaward of Sullivan’s Island, seize Long Island, and, with the aid of the navy, land in the rear of Sullivan’s Island, join the force coming from Bull’s Bay, and occupy Mount Pleasant.

This would cut off Sullivan’s Island by land. The ironclads would do the same by water, while the principal part of the land and naval force would advance toward the city, keeping them on that side of the harbor.

A few days must lead to the possession of the city, and then James Island being accessible at its narrowest part, by the Wappoo, both from the Ashley and Stono rivers, must sooner or later compel the retirement of the rebels from James Island, or else risk the loss of their troops, as well as of the island.

DahlgrenNov64Plan

This was not an altogether new approach.  Gillmore had offered essentially the same approach in December 1863.  And at that time, with the Federal forces around Charleston at their strongest, Gillmore had called for at least 12,000 more men.  Now the troops at Major-General John Foster’s disposal were far less (though the Confederates were likewise much reduced).  So how many men did Dahlgren think were needed?

The operation would require 30,000 to 50,000 good men, because it is reasonable to admit that the present small force of the rebels would receive large additions.

Looking big picture with 20/20 hindsight, that would not be unreasonable.  At this very time in the war, there were a few loose ends being tied up.  But at the same time, the emerging crisis in Tennessee would draw everyone’s attention… and thus reinforcements.  Just saying the request for troops would arrive at a time when options were available, unlike during the summer of 1864.

Still, we have the unquestionable advantage of being able to bring here additional forces more promptly in the present position of the main armies. Hood must pass around Sherman in order to give any aid, and General Grant equally obstructs the road from Richmond.

The present time is in every way favorable; and if the winter is to keep the men in the lines to the northward, it appears to me that no more judicious or effective campaign could be devised than might be carried on here, for its success would enter a wedge between the two extremes of what is left of the rebellion and develop possibilities that might be improved by General Sherman to a great advantage.

Limiting the view to Charleston, I feel confident that the result would be satisfactory, and would therefore advise the operation. What actions might afterwards be most advisable would appear subsequently.

In this last section, Dahlgren struck upon points that made this, though using a previously proposed route, a fresh proposal.  The strategic setting limited the Confederate response.  And the Federal operations brought major operations elsewhere in supporting distance… mainly Sherman in Georgia.

Worth noting, the plan Dahlgren proposed on this day was essentially that enacted in February 1865 to capture the city.  And indeed by that time the movements of Sherman’s army forced the Confederate hand.  The question, for us looking at the events of November-December 1864, is if an operation at Bull’s Bay that fall could have altered the course of operations in Georgia… or co-opted the need for a wasteful operation elsewhere in South Carolina?

(Citation from ORN, Series I, Volume 16, pages 49-50.)