Hold Folly Island without attracting attention: The stalemate of April outside Charleston, Part 1

After the Ironclad attack of April 7, 1863, major activity around Charleston slowed. Several reasons for this. Admiral Samuel DuPont was, naturally, reluctant to expose the ironclads again. General David Hunter was content to leave the status quo. On the Confederate side, in spite of the pleas of General P.G.T. Beauregard, the focus shifted to other threatened theaters. Troops, cannons, and other resources were dispatched or diverted to Vicksburg and Virginia.

But that is not to say there was no activity. To understand the next round of operations at Charleston we must consider the actions taken to improve positions by both sides of the contest through April and into May. Turning again to the wartime maps, let me offer a rough depiction of the dispositions towards the end of April:


At the time of the Ironclad attack, the Federal troops on Folly Island prepared to dash over Light House Inlet and onto Morris Island. But with the withdraw of the ironclads, Hunter – with no great reluctance – ordered the troops to stand down. All indications are, had that assault taken place, it would have overwhelmed the southern end of Morris Island. But I won’t speculate (here at least) about the potential to capture Battery Wagner.

Those troops remained on Folly Island and extended the “beachhead” out to nearby Coles Island and Long Island. Recall back in March Confederate commanders desired those same islands as leverage to close off any access to James Island. The very presence of Federal picket lines at those points touched on a sore point in the Confederate defenses. This left the Stono River open for Federal gunboats (with some risk of course).

But the Federals did not press any advantages there. Brigadier-General Israel Vogdes commanded just 4,200 troops on Folly Island. While he had an interesting array of field artillery (Wiard rifles and boat howitzers included in the mix), he was not allowed to place any heavy guns. Further down the coast, Briadier General T.G. Stevenson commanded another 3,200 troops on Seabrook Island. Vogdes’ troops occasionally exchanged shots with the Confederates. The biggest skirmish occurred on the night of April 10. But generally both sides were content to simply observe each other. Vogdes’ reports contain several mention of Confederate works and artillery seen on Morris Island.

Despite detailed requests to improve the defenses of Folly Island and even erect heavy guns, Vogdes received no encouragement. His superior, Brigadier-General Truman Seymour, concluded, “A work at the mouth of Folly River seems undesirable just now. The object is to simply hold Folly Island, without attracting too much attention to it, until projected operations can be recommenced.”

And what was recommenced? Mostly just posturing. Hunter did make a proposal for what might be called a “reverse March to the Sea” to take 10,000 troops “through counties in which, as shown by the census, the slave population is 75 per cent of the inhabitants.” Proposing the operation to Lincoln, Hunter added, “Nothing is truer, sir, than that this rebellion has left the Southern States a mere hollow shell.” Perhaps a winning strategy, but some eighteen months too early.

At the end of the month, Vogdes became convinced an opportunity existed to his front. On April 29 he reported, “I have been reconnoitering pretty carefully, and putting everything together have come to the conclusion that most of the enemy’s force have been withdrawn from Charleston.” Vogdes mentioned a disappearance of Confederate troops and newspapers passed between the lines. Vogdes desired a fortification on the north end of Folly Island. As he saw it, if the next operation was defensive, then such works would firmly secure the island from attack. But if the next phase was offensive, then Vogdes wanted overwhelming firepower to suppress any Confederate defenses on Morris Island. In all, the theater commander seemed oblivious to any opportunity that existed between Folly and Morris Islands.

Another point which Federal commanders overlooked was the wreck of the USS Keokuk. When the ironclad sank in shallow waters on April 8, the Federals made a few abortive attempts to destroy the vessel. Both sides paid visits to the wreck afterwards. The Federals felt salvage operations were not feasible, particularly in close proximity to the Confederate guns. On the other hand, Confederate engineers saw the two XI-inch Dahlgrens in the Keokuk as prizes for the taking.

I’ll look at the Confederate activity in the next part.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, pages 446-57.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

2 thoughts on “Hold Folly Island without attracting attention: The stalemate of April outside Charleston, Part 1

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