Tag Archives: Rufus Saxton

Defending Port Royal Sound: Garrisons at Hilton Head, Beaufort, Fort Pulaski, and St. Helena Island

As Major-General Quincy Gillmore departed the Department of the South in late April 1864, he left behind an assessment of the garrisons along the coast addressed to Brigadier-General John Hatch, his replacement.  In that assessment, Gillmore included a paragraph describing the needs to defend the vital anchorage at Port Royal Sound:

The district around Port Royal Harbor, including Port Royal Island and Fort Pulaski, our depots on Hilton Head Island, and machine-shops at Land’s End, Saint Helena Island. Five thousand men would be ample for the defense of this district. Between 6,000 and 7,000 men will be available for it without risking other points. The town of Beaufort and our depot at Hilton Head are both well fortified. A permanent garrison of 200 experienced artillerists is enough for Fort Pulaski. The orders are to keep both draw bridges raised during the night time. Big Tybee Island is occupied by a picket sent from Fort Pulaski. Ample naval cooperation has been afforded in this district. Hilton Head and Port Royal Islands are surrounded by deep water, navigable by gunboats. An armed transport has always been attached to the command on Port Royal Island, and another to the command on Hilton Head Island for patrolling the waters.

Slightly exceeding Gillmore’s estimate of strength, April returns indicated 3,171 men present at Port Royal Island and 5,015 present in the Hilton Head district. Though that number would be reduced by the summer months.  The Port Royal Island command, a brigade under Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton, included the 29th Connecticut (colored) Infantry, the 56th New York Infantry, 26th U.S.C.T., the 33rd U.S.C.T. (formerly the 1st South Carolina Volunteers), and Battery F, 3rd New York Light Artillery.

Separate from Saxton’s command was the Hilton Head District, consisting of garrisons on Hilton Head, Saint Helena Island, Seabrook Island, Fort Pulaski, and Tybee Island, under Colonel William W.H. Davis.  At Hilton Head itself, Davis retained two infantry regiments (the 52nd and 104th Pennsylvania) with a battery from the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery and a company of the 1st New York Engineers. The 25th Ohio garrisoned Seabrook Island, protecting a vital coal depot and signal station.  The Saint Helena Island garrison consisted of two USCT companies and an Invalid Detachment.  At the mouth of the Savannah River, four companies of the 3rd Rhode Island and a company from the 9th USCT defended Fort Pulaski and Tybee Island.  This left a battalion of the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry for patrols and a brigade of USCT (three regiments) under Colonel Thomas Bayley as maneuver elements.

HiltonHeadDistrictApril64

Upon arriving at Port Royal, Hatch apparently required more information about the dispositions. Davis responded on this day (April 30):

Hdqrs. U.S. Forces, Hilton Head,
Fort Pulaski, Saint Helena, and Tybee Island,
Hilton Head, S.C., April 30, 1864.

Brig. Gen. John P. Hatch,
Comdg. Dept. of the South, Hilton Head, S.C.:

General: In answer to your verbal request that I report to you an estimate of the number of men required in this district for its proper defense, I have the honor to submit the following:

Post of Fort Pulaski and Tybee: Fort Pulaski, 250; Tybee Island, 50; total, 300. The defensive work on Tybee is a martello tower, armed with a 30-pounder Parrott and inclosed in an earthen parapet. This is more a picket of observation than for any other purpose, as the island can only be approached across wide marshes.

Hilton Head Island: Four regiments, with an aggregate strength of not less than 3,000 men, one-half of which at least should be white troops. Of these one regiment, say 800 to 1,000 men, will be required for the picket-line from Drayton’s plantation to Braddock’s Point, two-thirds of whom should be whites. One regiment should be within the intrenchments and two close at hand outside ready for any purpose whatever. The most important point on the picket-line is Seabrook, which by reason of its being the coal depot invites attack. Any serious defense required must be made at the line of intrenchments, hence the necessity of the main force being stationed near them. I do not believe the enemy will attempt anything beyond raids, but there should be preparations for a more serious attack. The picket-boats will enable the island to be held with a less force than would be otherwise required.

Saint Helena Island: Four companies, with an aggregate of 300 men, will be sufficient for this island, and I think it will be safe to place black troops there, for there is not much probability of the enemy landing while we have a gun-boat in Saint Helena Sound. As this island covers Bay Point the force now there, 25 men, I think sufficient for that point. For the district: Post of Pulaski and Tybee, 300; Hilton Head Island, 3,000; Saint Helena and Bay Point, 325: total force, 3,625.

I deem the above the maximum force that will be required for the defense of the district under any contingency likely to arise.

I remain, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
W. W. H. Davis,
Colonel 104th Pennsylvania Vols., Comdg. Post.

Davis and Saxton held small commands in the scope of the larger war effort in the spring of 1864.  However their forces defended the important naval anchorage of Port Royal Sound.  Without that harbor, the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron could not maintain the blockade.  Two or three brigades worth of infantry, depending on the measure, for that duty.  Hard to say those troops would have been better employed elsewhere, given the importance of the blockade.  But those were 8,000 or so were there to enable particular strategic objectives.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 74, 76-77.)

“To those who doubt whether the negro soldiers will fight…”: Skirmish on the Pocotaligo

Raids from Port Royal into the coastal plantations of South Carolina and Georgia were commonplace by the fall of 1863.  Starting early that year, these raids focused on something more than simple harassment of Confederate posts.  As seen with the St. Mary’s River expedition,the Combahee Raid, and later Edisto River operation, Federal forces engaged in what I’d cite as the active component of the Emancipation Proclamation.   Another of those type operations took place on November 23-24, 1863.

Tipped that a group of thirty slaves were gathering in the vicinity of Pocotalio, South Carolina, Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton in Port Royal dispatched a small force to that vicinity.  Captain John E. Bryant, of the 8th Maine Infantry, lead this force, consisting of sixty men of Companies E and K, 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry (soon to be the 33rd US Colored Troops).  Bryant had already established a reputation as a scout in the swamps and marshes.  Captain Alexander Heasley, of Company E, and Captain Henry Whitney, of Company K, commanded their respective detachments under Bryant.

CunninghamsBluff

The raiders would advance by way of ships up the Broad River to the Pocotalio River. There they would move by boats through the marshes to a landing and proceed on foot to the designated rendezvous point. Along the way, they had to capture a known Confederate picket post along the Broad River in order to keep the movement secret.

Execution of the first phases of the raid fell not to a white officer, but to a black sergeant in the ranks of Company K, as Saxton reported:

The pickets, 2 in number, with their horses, were captured. Sergt. Harry Williams, of Company K, went with a party and liberated 27 slaves on the Heyward plantation, 6 miles in advance of our force and within 4 miles of the enemy’s headquarters. Great credit is due this dusky warrior for the skill with which he managed his part of the affair.

HarryWilliams

Sergeant Harry Williams

Coming back with the freed slaves, the party ran into fog that prevented their return to the boats. The raiding party, escaped slaves, and Heasley’s covering force waited in the fog for the boats. Meanwhile, according to a report filed by Brigadier General William S. Walker, Confederate commander of the Third Military District, a rebel detachment responded to alarms sent from Heyward’s plantation.

They were closely pursued by Captain [J. T.] Foster, with 25 men of Rutledge’s regiment of cavalry. The negroes took shelter in a very dense thicket near Cunningham’s Bluff (opposite Hall’s Island). Captain Foster dismounted his command and charged them, in skirmishing order.

In Foster’s party were a group of men in charge of bloodhounds.  Walker described the pursuit as a “fox chase.” Heasley waited until the dogs were practically upon the force before ordering bayonets against the dogs, followed by a volley against the Confederates. This killed three of the dogs and drove off Foster’s men for the moment.   Other Confederate forces under Colonel B.H. Rutledge arrived, but were unable to get at the Federal party due to the marshes.

As the Federal force withdrew further, the Confederates continued to press them.  Whitney’s detachment, which was positioned to guard the bluffs, then ambushed the pursuers. Saxton wrote, “he opened fire upon them, killing, among others, the commander of the company and the remaining bloodhounds.”  Saxton added:

To those who doubt whether the negro soldiers will fight, this daring act of Captain Whitney and his little band of 10, opening fire unhesitatingly upon a full company, not less than 100 of the enemy’s cavalry, and repulsing them, this will be a startling fact.

With that, the raiding force returned to the boats and departed for Port Royal Sound.

Federal reports mentioned seven wounded, though none seriously.  But Rufus claimed five Confederate killed and many more wounded, out of an estimated 1,000 (!) sent in pursuit.  On the other hand, Walker reported only three wounded, none seriously.  One of the two captured pickets later escaped.  Walker added, “this is the first time the men of this portion of the command have been under fire.”

Both accounts emphasized the employment of the dogs in the pursuit.  In Army Life in a Black Regiment, Colonel Thomas Higginson added some perspective:

The whole command was attacked by a rebel force, which turned out to be what was called in those regions a “dog-company,” consisting of mounted riflemen with half a dozen trained bloodhounds.  The men met these dogs with their bayonets, killed four or five of their old tormentors with great relish, and brought away the carcass of one.  I had the creature skinned, and sent the skin to New York to be stuffed and mounted, meaning to exhibit it at the Sanitary Commission Fair in Boston; but it spoiled on the passage. These quadruped allies were not originally intended as “dogs of war,” but simply to detect fugitive slaves, and the men were delighted at this confirmation of their tales of dog-companies, which some of the officers had always disbelieved.

To some degree these raiding actions were simply wide scale slave escapes, now encouraged by forces which only years earlier had been legally bound against such activity.  However, in the broader context of the Civil War, these raids were sapping away the labor force on which the Confederacy depended.  At the same time, raids such as that conducted on the Pocotaligo 150 years ago were manifestations of a war policy set forward with the Emancipation Proclamation, and reiterated only days earlier at Gettysburg.  The best counter to the “dog-companies” was an armed U.S Colored Troops detachment.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 745-6; Thomas W. Higginson, Army Life in a Black Regiment, Oxford University, 1870, pages 230-1.)

150 Years Ago: Bricks for Fort Clinch… gathered by the “Sable Arm”

I’m a bit early with this sesquicentennial themed post.  But there are several events “stacked up” at the end of this month, furthermore the topic goes well with today’s holiday – Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Fort Clinch, near Fernandina Beach, Florida, protected the entrance to St. Mary’s River, bordering Georgia and Florida.  The five-million or so bricks of Fort Clinch have captured my attention on each visit to the site.  Even a casual observer notes the distinct line of colors in the brickwork.

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Fort Clinch – looking to the west end of the gorge wall

Most of the lower, grayer bricks are from the initial construction period and were drawn from local sources.  Although started in 1847, work proceeded slowly.  Even when Federals occupied the fort in March 1862, the work was still far from complete.  Authorities felt, even though the fort was a backwater in a backwater theater, Fort Clinch should be completed in order to shore up defenses along the coast.   Such efforts required bricks… and labor.

Project engineer Captain Alfred F. Sears began contracting “contraband” labor in 1862.  But he was short of bricks, with no available source on the barrier island.  The brickyard which had supplied the fort’s builders before the war lay some thirty miles upstream on the St. Mary’s River, behind Confederate lines.  With Sears’ urgings, an expedition formed in mid-January 1863 with the aim to secure the bricks.  It is easy to overlook this activity with much larger events occurring in the major theaters of war at around the same time.  Call them “raids” or “expeditions,” such forays occurred with regularity along the coastlines during the war.  What draws my attention to this particular expedition are the troops employed – the First (US) South Carolina Infantry.

The 1st South Carolina first formed, by order of General David Hunter, in the spring of 1862 from contrabands at Hilton Head.  Under political pressure, the regiment was disbanded.  But by November the regiment reformed under Colonel Thomas W. Higginson.  Despite the state designation, the regiment consisted of a number of escaped slaves from Georgia and Florida.  That factor worked in favor of the expedition.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Despite the military air of his portrait, Higginson was not a military man by training.  A minister and ardent abolitionist, Higginson hailed from Massachusetts.  Before the war he’d supported John Brown, going as far to say that slavery had to end even if it meant war.  And when war came, Higginson went as a Captain of the 51st Massachusetts.  His beliefs and reputation, despite his lack of experience, led General Rufus Saxton to offer command the 1st South Carolina to Higginson.

Higginson’s expedition left Beaufort, South Carolina on January 23.  The 1st South Carolina, consisting of 462 officers and men, loaded into three steamers.  As reports go, Higginson’s was one of the worst in terms of formatting.  In reciting the details, he failed to provide any specifics as to the routes taken or even dates of activities (although he did offer a chapter length account of the expedition in Army Life in a Black Regiment, published in 1870).  By February 1, the expedition returned to South Carolina.  He could report accomplishment of his primary objective – “I have turned over to Captain Sears about 40,000 large-sized bricks, valued at about $1,000, in view of the present high freights.”  Higginson went into great detail about the stores and supplies acquired, and in some cases left behind due to lack of transport.

But in a broader perspective, one might say the 1st South Carolina took away some bricks, but left behind something more important.  The expedition was among the first, if not THE first, operation involving black troops after the effective date of the Emancipation Proclamation.  That fact was not lost on Higginson:

The expedition has carried the regimental flag and the President’s proclamation far into the interior of Georgia and Florida. The men have been repeatedly under fire; have had infantry, cavalry, and even artillery arrayed against them, and have in every instance come off not only with unblemished honor, but with undisputed triumph.

Higginson reported a few slave families returned with the expedition.  But he didn’t figure the count of freed slave to be the measure of success at this stage of the war:

No officer in this regiment now doubts that the key to the successful prosecution of this war lies in the unlimited employment of black troops. Their superiority lies simply in the fact that they know the country, while white troops do not, and, moreover, that they have peculiarities of temperament, position, and motive which belong to them alone. Instead of leaving their homes and families to fight they are fighting for their homes and families, and they show the resolution and the sagacity which a personal purpose gives. It would have been madness to attempt, with the bravest white troops what I have successfully accomplished with black ones. Everything, even to the piloting of the vessels and the selection of the proper points for cannonading, was done by my own soldiers. Indeed, the real conductor of the whole expedition up the Saint Mary’s was Corpl. Robert Sutton, of Company G, formerly a slave upon the Saint Mary’s River, a man of extraordinary qualities, who needs nothing but a knowledge of the alphabet to entitle him to the most signal promotion. In every instance when I followed his advice the predicted result followed, and I never departed from it, however slightly, without finding reason for subsequent regret.

We might write this off as Higginson championing his abolitionist aims. However, he was right in some regards.  The President’s proclamation, now a war aim, depended upon the Army and Navy for successful enforcement.  But likewise, the Army and Navy needed the “Sable Arm” in order to prosecute the war.  The Army needed more Corporal Suttons.

A year or so later the 1st South Carolina became the Thirty-third United States Colored Troops.  Such completed the transition of this pre-Emancipation Proclamation regiment.  But Fort Clinch remained incomplete, needing more bricks.  Eventually bricks shipped down from the north allowed the completion of the major portions of the wall. Their composition stood out as a distinct line compared to the locally produced bricks.

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Several colors of Bricks in the Fort Clinch Wall

But this came at a time when brick fortifications were just not worth maintaining.  After decades of neglect and intermittent military activity, the fort received the attention of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1934.  The CCC and later the State of Florida restored the brickwork, adding newer bricks where needed. The end result is a patchwork of colors in the wall.

Perhaps a standing, physical metaphor for us to consider?

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Interior of Fort Clinch

(Colonel Higginson’s report appears in OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, pages 195-198.)