Category Archives: Charleston SC

Marching Through Georgia, December 5, 1864: Drama at Ogeechee Creek ends with a fizzle

Let me get all “science-y” on you to start today and talk about soils and vegetation.  As Major-General William T. Sherman’s armies marched today they crossed an important line, but one not marked on their maps.  Forward elements passed into the “Atlantic Coast Flatwoods” soil province:

OK, big deal?  As far as the army is concerned, soil is what they march over or dig in, right?  Well two points for consideration.  First, as the march transited from the Piedmont, over the sand hills and fall line, to the coastal plan areas, there was less and less of the famous “Georgia clay.”  Sand is the predominate soil type, but that is not to say it is not fertile.  Indeed, the area was good pasture-land and root crops.  But less so for grains.  That has, of course, some implications for an army foraging its way along.

Second change due to the soil type is the natural vegetation.  The soldiers’ diaries began to mention a lot of pine trees and different kind of grass.  Let me borrow an image from the University of Florida:

Aristida stricta… Wiregrass.  OK, but the army was not there to cultivate natural grasses.  So what is the big deal?  Well look at the line, “blooms only after a growing-season burn.”  The eco-system of the “Atlantic Coast Flatwoods”, or shall we call it “Pine Barrens,” depended upon a cycle of wild-fires.  Now with an army that is – shall we say – pre-disposed to the use of matches passing through, wild-fires were commonplace.  Fires marked the path of the army. And a haze of smoke covered it.  In short, soil types are important to armies, and even to historians.

The reason I am able to allocate space to talking about sand and grass is the “fizzle” to the drama that was expected on December 5, 1864.  The movements of Sherman’s force centered on one critical objective – Train Station 4½, where Ogeechee Creek gave the Confederates a good defensive position to block the march.  On December 4, scouts from the Seventeenth Corps reported defenders well entrenched there.  And that information governed the Federal movements of the day… even though the Confederates had already withdrawn the evening prior:

MarchDec5

Sherman’s plan was to have Seventeenth Corps confront the Confederate positions in front, while the Twentieth Corps moved up on the left, and behind the Confederate line.  The Fifteenth Corps, with its pontoon train, would threaten a crossing of the Ogeechee River downstream, if necessary.

With the First Division under Major General Joseph Mower at the point, the  Seventeenth Corps advanced toward Station 4½ that morning. Behind a screen of mounted men was a pioneer section, followed by Second Brigade of Brigadier-General John Sprague.  Supporting that lead brigade was a battery of artillery and the corps’ pontoon train.  The formation was configured to secure and improve the approaches to the creek, assuming the need to “develop” the position while other forces maneuvered on the flanks.  But as the scouts approached the site of skirmishing on the previous day, they encountered no Confederates.  While the train bridge over Ogeechee Creek was destroyed, a wagon bridge would allow passage of at least the vanguard.  The engineers promptly went to work laying a better bridge.

Sherman, moving with the Seventeenth Corps, came forward later in the day the station.  In a dispatch to Major-General Oliver O. Howard, commanding the Right Wing, he provided his assessment of the situation and amended guidance for movements to follow:

Since sending the messenger to you this morning General Blair has entered this place almost unopposed. Some field works are fresh, and, so far as I have examined, would be such as would be thrown up by 5,000 inexperienced hands. General Slocum reports he will be to-night at the point where his road next north of this intersects the one from here to Poor Robin, but he has not heard from Generals Davis and Kilpatrick since he heard their firing yesterday morning. Davis has orders to move from the point where he separated from Slocum, viz, Buck Head Church, to Halley’s Ferry, abreast of this on the Savannah, via Sylvania. I have sent a courier to General Slocum, to communicate with General Davis at once and report to me at what moment he will be ready to move on. You will observe that, with Davis at Halley’s, we threaten South Carolina, and to that extent will confuse our enemy; but I will not lose a moment, only we must move in concert, or else will get lost. You may make all the dispositions to cross at 3, but the point 2 is the true one, unless modified by local geography. I will disturb the railroad but little south of this, as we may have use for it out this far. Still, Blair can burn the bridges and culverts, and also enough cotton-gins and barns to mark the progress of his head of column. I don’t want him to start till I know Davis is abreast.

Sherman wanted to setup the next move by closing, compacting his columns.  Take note here.  We often read about battles in which commanders commit their forces piecemeal, or “what ifs” that center on the late or tardy arrival of formations to the battlefield.  What Sherman did on December 5 is an example of how to avoid those problems.  And even though the most obtuse observer could see his objective was Savannah, Sherman kept options open with threats to Charleston.

Sherman sent orders for Major-General Henry Slocum to hurry the Left Wing forward, particularly bringing the Fourteenth Corps, under Major-General Jefferson C. Davis, to close up the gap.  For the day’s march, Davis recorded:

The 5th, after a hard day’s march over country roads which required much repairing, the whole corps, with Kilpatrick’s cavalry, encamped in the vicinity of Jacksonborough, the advance at Buck Creek Post-Office.

To facilitate the linkup of Brigadier-General Absalom Baird’s division and the cavalry, the engineers repaired a bridge over Beaverdam Creek during the night.  And verbally orders passed down to once again pull the bridge up after the last military units crossed, in an effort to discourage the growing number of former slaves who were following the corps.

The Twentieth Corps, just to the south, also closed up its formation that day.  The lead division marched only a few miles before halting.  But the trail divisions labored forward on bad roads.  Brigadier-General John Geary recorded:

December 5, moved at 6.30 a.m. Crossed during the day Little Horse Creek, south fork of Little Ogeechee, destroying all bridges after crossing. Much of the route to-day was through swamps, which had to be corduroyed for my trains. At the south fork of Little Ogeechee I destroyed a large saw-mill. Here we heard what the inhabitants stated to be cannon in Charleston Harbor, about 100 miles distant.  Weather pleasant; country poor. Distance t0-day, twelve miles.

The next day, the Charleston Courier ran this update for the “Five Hundred and Fifteenth Day” of the siege of the city:

The agreement … for a suspension of all firing in the harbor and upon the city during the continuance of the exchange of prisoners at this point, was unintentionally violated by a sharpshooter at Fort Sumter Monday…. One of our men observing a body of men at [Battery] Gregg, fired his rifle, the ball taking effect upon one of the party and, it is believed, killing him.  The enemy thereupon opened all their batteries upon Fort Sumter, and kept up a heavy fire for about an hour, firing twenty-six shots.

Soon afterward an apology silenced the guns, allowing Charlestonians, and Geary in Georgia, a quiet evening.

At Ogeechee Creek, staff-officer Major Henry Hitchcock accompanied Sherman forward.  Waiting their turn to cross the creek, Sherman remarked, “This is better than having to fight those fellows in the bushes, ain’t it?”  Later, as he explained how the abandoned line changed the situation, Sherman explained the military maneuvers to Hitchcock, “Now you understand what a flank movement means.”  In conclusion, Hitchcock would add in his diary, “Flanking is good – very.”

Following the march by markers, today you would look again at the marker located in modern day Oliver and one where the town of Jacksonboro once stood.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 165, 275, and 628; Charleston Courier, December 6, 1864, page 1, column 3; Henry Hitchcock, Marching with Sherman: passages from the letters and campaign diaries of Henry Hitchcock, Yale University Press, 1927, pages 145-8.)

 

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.)