Tag Archives: Fort Sumter

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  And that information governed the Federal movements of the day… even though the Confederates had already withdrawn the evening prior: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.)

 

“The Yankees have done no work to-day… because of our sharpshooters”: A real skirmish at Fort Sumter

Most of the time, when I discuss the fighting around Charleston harbor during the Civil War, the actions involved very large caliber artillery – indeed the largest weapons of the war.  I have referred to it as skirmishing with Parrotts, columbiads, and mortars.  But on September 17, 1864, the “skirmishing” involved weapons most often seen on other battlefields – rifled muskets.

Two reports from Captain Thomas Huguenin point to the musketry exchanged between the opposing forces at the mouth of Charleston harbor that day.  The first came that morning:

Enemy keeps up a brisk fire with small-arms in answer to ours.

Then later at 6:40 p.m.:

The Yankees have done no work to-day at Gregg because of our sharpshooters.  Forty-four shots fired to-day at fort (18 missed), mostly from small rifle guns. No casualties.

On the Federal side, Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton reported:

Within the last two days the work on this battery (naval battery) has been greatly interfered with by a corps of sharpshooters which the enemy has stationed on Fort Sumter. The bullets came in very thick when I was at the front this morning.  I hope if there are any telescopic rifles in the department or any can be procured they may be sent to me at once. I think I can use them to great advantage.

Keep in mind the situation here. The heavy guns of Fort Sumter no longer faced Morris Island.  Two three gun batteries were built and partially armed.  But those were setup to fire on the channel and not Morris Island.  The only other artillery in the fort were mountain howitzers for defense against landing parties and the saluting gun.  So the Confederates had nothing at Sumter to contest the construction of new batteries.  And the long range fires from James and Sullivan’s Islands were not sufficiently accurate to seriously interfere with such work.  So the most important weapons in Fort Sumter at that time were small arms.  Recall the range from Fort Sumter to Morris Island was around 1400 to 1500 yards.  Long range indeed for small arms, but within the ballistic limits for such weapons – certainly for those equipped with telescopic sights.

On the Federal side, the biggest problem was a shortage of powder and shells.  One of the reasons for the naval battery was to employ guns for which the department could obtain more projectiles (from the Navy’s stocks).  But to get those XI-inch Dahlgrens in place, the work crews needed a break from those sharpshooters.

Consider the nature of the Federal fires, as reported by Huguenin.  The shells fired that day were mostly light Parrotts – 20-pdr or 30-pdr.  Those weapons were favored to counter Confederate fires.  Imagine them as large caliber “snipers” used by the Federal artillerists.  From many long months of firing on Fort Sumter, the Federal gunners had refined calculations so as to put their rounds on specific parts of the rubble pile – for instance where they’d seen evidence of a Confederate sharpshooter.

But those sharpshooters would often select positions on the flanks of the rubble pile so as to get a good angle against the Federal positions.  For the Parrott gunners firing at them, this posed a “point” target.  Such shots were at the mercy of winds or variations in powder.  That might explain why over a third of the shots missed.

For all the heavy guns at Charleston firing on a daily basis, the siege could and did fall down to a simple exchange of small arms fires.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, page 242; Part II, Serial 66, page 296.)

“A minor bombardment, the eighth and last of all”: More shells against Fort Sumter

Writing after the war, Captain John Johnson, Confederate engineer and historian, wrote this of the bombardment of Fort Sumter in September 1864:

The bombardment which had begun on the 7th of July, and continued with varying intensity, but without any real intermission, day and night through July, August, and the first week in September, is recorded as having lasted sixty days.  A minor bombardment, the eighth and last of all, ensued for a week longer…. It can, therefore, be truly said that the military interest of the Confederate defense of Fort Sumter came to its end with the close of this third grand bombardment.  No firing upon the fort but such as may be termed desultory occurred after September, 1864.

Before discussing the reasons Federals shifted attention away from Fort Sumter, let us consider the nature of this Eighth Minor Bombardment.  Captain Thomas A. Huguenin, commanding the fort, reported some 35 shells fired at the fort on the night of September 3-4.  After that no shells came at the fort until the night of September 6-7.   So a two day “pause” before resumption of fires.  In the morning of September 7, Huguenin reported, “Twenty-eight Parrott shells fired at fort last night, 7 missed.”  From there until the 22nd, he tallied the Federal fires:

  • Night of September 7-8 – 28 Parrott shells fired, 8 missed.
  • September 8 (day) – 25 Parrott shells fired, 8 missed.
  • September 11 – 140 Parrott shells fired, 28 missed.
  • September 16 – 36 Parrott shells and one mortar shell fired at the fort. Seven Parrott shells missed.
  • September 17 – 44 shots fired, 18 missed.
  • September 19 – 15 shots (from the Marsh Battery), all missed.
  • September 20 – 13 shots (again from the Marsh Battery), one hit.
  • September 21 – 70 shots fired, 15 missed.
  • September 22 – 15 Parrott shells fired, 9 missed.

During this period, Huguenin reported one private wounded, two negroes killed, and three negroes wounded – all on September 16.  We see again the heaviest loss among the garrison was to those laboring to repair the fort, and not among the soldiers defending it.  Statistically, this “minor bombardment” seemed loosely defined.  Assuming Huguenin’s reports were complete (and none were misplaced along the way), there were several pauses during September.

But, broadening the focus, there was a lot more big gun activity around Charleston harbor which was not focused narrowly at Fort Sumter.  Sullivan’s Island was an occasional target of Federal fires.  On September 6, Colonel Alfred Rhett, commanding the batteries there, reported 15 shots fired at Fort Moultrie. The Federals fired another ten on September 8.  Then on September 9, the Federals fired 127 shots at Sullivan’s Island, which elicited 51 shots in return from the Confederate batteries.

On the other side of the harbor, at Fort Johnson, Colonel John Black reported firing “Twenty-eight mortar and 24 columbiad shells” at the Marsh Battery on September 10.  In return the Federals fired 45 Parrott shells and six mortars at Battery Simkins and Fort Johnson that day.  September 11 also saw heavy firing in that sector with 28 Federal shots incoming and 32 Confederate shots outgoing.  The shots exchanged between Morris Island and James Island batteries continued through the month, but began to slacken.

So while the Federal fires did slacken all around, the “pauses” in fires at Fort Sumter were in part due to emphasis placed on other points around Charleston harbor.  Subjectively, I would re-assess the “Eighth Minor Bombardment” of Fort Sumter as more of a general engagement around Charleston.

(Sources – OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 241-3, 252-3, and 256-7; John Johnson, The Defense of Charleston Harbor: Including Fort Sumter and the Adjacent Islands, 1863-1865, Walker, Evans & Cogswell Company, 1890, page 235.)