Category Archives: Charleston SC

150 years ago: Grant rejects any further offensive against Charleston

On April 21, 1864, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren passed a summary report to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells.  As Dahlgren had at other occasions since September of the previous year, the commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron offered operational options to employ the forces then outside Charleston, South Carolina (and note that Dahlgren was in Washington at the time, and not with the fleet off South Carolina):

Sir: As the demands of the public service elsewhere will prevent the detail of more iron-clads for service at Charleston, which will necessarily postpone any serious attack on the interior defenses of the harbor, I directed combined operations to would suggest that be the occupation of Long Island, with the view of an attack on the works of Sullivan’s Island, to be prosecuted as far as the force ashore and afloat may permit. If Sullivan’s Island can be occupied, it would enable the iron-clads to maintain position in the harbor permanently, and in the end to drive the rebels from Charleston.

And for emphasis, Dahlgren’s suggestion to operate against Sullivan’s Island was not a new proposal.  Dahlgren had pressed for such since the fall of Morris Island.  But nothing so concrete as to commit a plan to paper.

As with other similar suggestions, Wells referred the matter over to the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, for comment.  In those earlier events, Stanton had turned to Major General Henry Halleck for a response.  And Halleck had, like Dahlgren, remained non-committal.  And neither Halleck or Dahlgren would leave any remark which the opposite branch of service might interpret as a reluctance to support further operations.

But this was April 1864.  Stanton did not turn to Halleck, but rather to Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant.  For his response, on April 24, Grant requested direct input from Major-General Quincy Gillmore, who was at that time preparing to leave Charleston.

General: Herewith I send you copy of letter from Admiral Dahlgren to the Secretary of the Navy, and from the latter to the military authorities, recommending certain movements near Charleston, S.C. The letters explain themselves. Please read them and send me your views on the proposed movements. Not knowing the situation of affairs about Charleston, and particularly since the withdrawal of so many of your forces, I can give no specific directions. I would state, however, that it will be of great advantage to us if the force at Charleston can be safely employed in keeping up a demonstration that will force the enemy to keep large numbers there to watch their movements.

While giving some consideration to resuming some operations against Charleston, Grant’s mind seemed fixed.  Charleston was not on his list of objectives.  There was no room offered for Gillmore to even suggest more troops. In Grant’s view, any operations would remain limited to demonstrations.  And, reading between the lines, the reason for Gillmore’s input was to qualify, and quantify, the response back to the Navy.

Grant was not in favor of non-specific plans against elusive goals.  Nor was Grant willing to curtail or compromise his larger scheme of operations for the chance to settle a score at Charleston.  The cradle of secession was no longer a top objective.

For what it was worth, Halleck offered his opinion on the matter:

If the iron-clads and the large number of troops off Charleston for the last year could not take and hold Sullivan’s Island, how can they expect to do it with forces diminished more than one-half? Moreover, if taken, it would simply result in the loss from active service of 5,000 troops to garrison it, without any influence upon the coming campaign. It will require 60,000 men three months to take Charleston. The capture of Sullivan’s Island would not have much influence upon the siege of that place, as it can be conducted with greater advantage from other points. I am satisfied that Admiral Dahlgren’s letter was intended simply as an excuse in advance for the inability of the iron-clads to accomplish anything against Charleston.

Give Halleck credit, as he appeared to best characterize the nature of Dahlgren’s original letter starting this chain. With no ironclad reinforcements, Dahlgren was not ready to “damn the torpedoes.”

But at this point, I have to ask why Halleck had not expressed this view five months earlier?

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 64, 67-8.)

150 years ago: Beauregard leaves Charleston and heads north

Back in the fall of 1862, when General P.G.T. Beauregard arrived in Charleston to command the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, he saw the promise to lead in an active theater of war, with the expectation of Federal attack growing by the day.  After just over eighteen months, give or take, the situation changed to revert Charleston and the rest of the department to backwater status.  The Federals, having sent ironclads, shovels, and 200-pdr Parrott shells against Charleston, reduced their strength.  Beauregard’s primary adversary, Major-General Quincy Gillmore, had orders sending him and a corps-worth of men to Virginia.

While Beauregard could reflect with pride upon his defense of Charleston, and defense of other sectors of his command, he desired active field command.  Compounding this situation, the creole was still mourning the loss of his wife, Caroline, who had died in early march behind Federal lines in New Orleans.

But Beauregard was not long for the doldrums that had beset Charleston.  On April 15, 1864, he received orders sending him to Weldon, North Carolina.  Beauregard would receive a new command.  On April 20, he bid farewell to his old command:

Hdqrs. Dept. of S. Carolina, Georgia, and Florida,
Charleston, S.C., April 20, 1864.
Officers and Soldiers:

By an order of His Excellency the President I am relieved temporarily from the command of the department by Maj. Gen. Samuel Jones, to be assigned to another important command. I leave with the assurance that you will transfer to my successor, a meritorious officer of the armies of Virginia and Tennessee, that confidence and spirit of prompt obedience to orders which have contributed so much to your success heretofore. Should you ever become discouraged remember that a people from whom have sprung such soldiers as those who defended Wagner and Sumter can never be subjugated in a war of independence.

G. T. Beauregard,
General Commanding.

Three days later, Beauregard posted orders assuming his new command:

Pursuant to instructions from the War Department, I assume command of the Departments of North Carolina and the Cape Fear. The two departments thus consolidated will be known as the Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia, and will embrace that portion of the State of North Carolina east of the mountains and that section of the State of Virginia south of the James and Appomattox Rivers. A prompt obedience of orders, a mutual good understanding, and a cordial support of one another are enjoined on both officers and men as indispensable to success. Violations of regulations and orders must be promptly reported in order that discipline, so necessary, may be maintained.

Beauregard inherited command in a theater fresh from the promising victory at Plymouth, North Carolina.  And the CSS Albemarle gave the Confederates some tactical alternatives beyond just waiting for a Federal offense.  But Beauregard once again had command of a broad theater with far few men to defend it.  His primary responsibility was not to reject the Federals occupying the coastal regions, but to defend the railroads feeding supplies to Richmond, Virginia and General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.  Not exactly the “field command” which Beauregard preferred.

Beauregard mentioned the defense of Battery Wagner and Fort Sumter in his farewell on April 20.  I’ve always found interesting that many of the defenders of Morris Island later found themselves defending Petersburg, Virginia in 1864 – From Beauregard down to the ranks.  Likewise, Gillmore and many of the Federal veterans from Morris Island operations were once again opposing them in what would evolved into yet another siege.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 33, Serial 60, pages 1307-8; Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 444-5.)

 

Update: More news on the steamer Planter

An update on a story I first posted earlier this month, from the Greenville [S.C.] News:

Clues found about Civil War ship commandeered by slave on S.C. coast

Greenville — The remains of a ship that was commandeered in Charleston harbor by an enslaved black man during the Civil War and used as an escape vehicle may have been discovered off the South Carolina coast, according to a historian with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Officials are not releasing details, but NOAA plans to issue a report and unveil historical markers on May 12, the 152nd anniversary of the little-known episode.

They said they don’t want to announce the location because it’s in an environmentally sensitive area.

But “we can say we’re pretty sure we know where it is,” said Bruce Terrell, senior historian and archeologist for the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries’ Maritime Heritage Program and lead author of the report.

The ship, called the Planter, sunk off Cape Romain in northern Charleston County on March 25, 1876, nearly 14 years after a slave named Robert Smalls absconded with it, Terrell said.

Gordon Watts of North Carolina-based Tidewater Atlantic Research Inc., working with NOAA on the project, said he found the likely remains of Planter using a scanning sonar and a magnetometer.

Unfortunately, it’s buried under 10-12 feet of sand and an equal amount of water, he said.

“We have probed down. We know there’s wood there and we know there’s metal there, but we don’t know absolutely whether it is or is not the Planter,” he said.

It would take finding some specific parts of the ship or other artifacts to make a positive identification, he said.

The South Carolina Institute of Archeology and Anthropology is responsible for shipwrecks and other underwater archaeological sites in state waters, according to Jim Spirek, state underwater archaeologist.

Because of the expensive “industrial-style” work that would be required to excavate it, the institute doesn’t have any immediate plans to dig, unless the site is threatened by environmental degregation, he said. But it plans to monitor it because of the potential historical significance, he said.

“The Planter is emblematic of the efforts by enslaved African Americans to not only escape slavery, but also to pay for this freedom by joining the fight against the Confederacy, much like the Planter was turned against its former owners and transformed into a Union gunboat,” Spirek said.

NOAA hopes the find will spark an interest in history and archeology among young African Americans as part of a project called Voyage to Discovery.

The story of Smalls’ daring deed is inspirational in itself, Terrell said. In the early morning hours of May 13, 1862, Smalls, then 23, took control of the transport steamer with a few other black crewmembers. He put his wife and children aboard and headed out to sea, according to the Voyage to Discovery account.

Smalls, already skilled as a pilot, guided the craft safely through Confederate defenses and made it to the Union blockade. There, he surrendered the vessel and gave valuable intelligence about the rebel military plans, codes and fortifications.

He was hailed as a hero in the Northern press. He became a militia general and captain of the ship he had escaped in — and went on to serve five terms in Congress. After all of that, he returned to his hometown of Beaufort, S.C., and bought the house that had been owned by his former master, where he lived out his years. And his story — like the ship he commandeered — quietly slipped into obscurity. (Original article here)

I remain optimistic but guarded.   There are a lot of shipwrecks off the South Carolina coast. As Mr. Terrell points out, absolute proof requires identification by way of artifacts or such.  But given the authorities who are backing this claim, pretty good chance that is the Planter.  And what a find that would be.