150 Years Ago: Beauregard prepares for a coming storm

On February 17, 1863, General P.G.T. Beauregard felt it was time to ready his command and send the alarm to the cities of Charleston and Savannah.  His headquarters monitored Federal activity on ashore and afloat, indicating something was due to happen soon.  At least that’s the way Beauregard figured it.

In preparation, he ordered the recall of all troops on leave and put units at the ready. Brigadier-General T.L. Clingman’s brigade moved up to reinforce Brigadier-General Roswell Ripley’s division, which in turn sent two regiments to Brigadier-General W.S. Walker’s command.  A 10-inch columbiad, just arriving at Charleston, immediately went to Fort Johnson to defend the inner harbor there. Beauregard urged both South Carolina and Georgia to call out the state militias.

From returns posted on February 17, Beauregard had 21,732 men in his department.  Defending Charleston were 10,795 of that total.  At Savannah the count was 5,464.  The remainder covered lightly defended portions of the coast.

And he also issued this proclamation:

Headquarters. Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, Charleston, S.C., February 17, 1863.

It has become my solemn duty to inform the authorities and citizens of Charleston and Savannah that the movements of the enemy’s fleet indicate an early land and naval attack on one or both of these cities, and to urge that all persons unable to take an active part in the struggle should retire.

It is hoped that this temporary separation of some of you from your homes will be made without alarm or undue haste, thus showing that the only feeling that animates you in this hour of supreme trial is the regret of being unable to participate in the defense of your homes, you altars, and the graves of your kindred.

Carolinians and Georgians! The hour is at hand to prove your devotion to your country’s cause.  Let all able-bodied men, from the seaboard to the mountains, rush to arms. Be not exacting in the choice of weapons; pikes and scythes will do for exterminating your enemies, spades and shovels for protecting your friends.

To arms, fellow-citizens! Come to share with us our dangers, our brilliant success, or our glorious death.

Pikes and scythes, maybe… but it was the spades and shovels Beauregard desired most.  He backed that up with a circular directed to the planter class calling for the loan of laborers:

Circumstances have deprived the commanding general during the last forty days of the number of negro laborers necessary for the completion of the works for the defense of Charleston, in default of which I am now instructed to call on the planters of South Carolina, who have ever been found alive to the impulses of duty, to send to Charleston to Maj. D.B. Harris, chief engineer, with the utmost dispatch, at least 3,000 able-bodied laborers, with spades and shovels.  The negroes will be positively returned with their tools in thirty days; it is hoped sooner.

With troop numbers limited and other theaters unable to send reinforcements, Beauregard turned to defensive works to better his odds.  At Charleston, as was practice across the Confederacy, the call  went to the owners of the labor force – the slave-holders.   However, later records would demonstrate the planters responded to this call in a less than enthusiastic manner.  Figures submitted later in March serve to highlight a shortfall.

Meanwhile, on the Federal side… Major General David Hunter concluded that he could not work with Major General John Foster, which was good because Foster didn’t want to work with Hunter.  And the Navy was taking stock of lessons learned from recent excursions up the Ogeechee River.  Reinforcements had arrived, in the form of troops and ships. But it would be some time before anyone married those forces to a proper plan, much less embarked on operations aimed at the cities.

In short, Beauregard was preparing for a hurricane that was not going to make landfall.  Of course, the people of the Low Country knew well about preparing for storms which don’t blow in.