“No private property… was burned or pillaged.”: Higginson’s Edisto expedition

Thus far in discussing Brigadier-General Quincy Gillmore’s campaign against Charleston, I’ve focused on Morris Island. Recall a few days ago the mention of two diversions launched at the same time – one up the Stono River to James Island and another expedition up the Edisto River (or as it is known to some, the Pon-Pon River). Working somewhat from left to right, let me turn to the Edisto River expedition.

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Colonel Thomas W. Higginson, of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers (or Colored Troops, as it is also called in the reports), commanded that expedition. Higginson and his regiment were no strangers to such operations, being active since the first of the year. Their objective was the railroad bridge over the Edisto at Jacksonborough.

Higginson left Hilton Head on the afternoon of July 9 with 250 men of his regiment along with a section from the 1st Connecticut Battery. The force used the Army steamer John Adams, the transport Enoch Dean, and a tug named Governor Milton. At night, the expedition entered the St. Helena Sound and then the South Edisto River.

By 4 a.m. the next morning, Higginson’s force reached the village of Willstown, just past the split of the North and South Edisto. As the sun rose, Higginson sent a landing party of 30 men under Lieutenant James B. West to secure the town and nearby bluffs. He also prepared to clear obstacles in the river that blocked the course upstream. On the shore were some 200 slaves who’d gotten word of the expedition, by way of Harriet Tubman’s network, and now waited their passage to freedom.

EdistoExpd

A two gun section of the Chesnut Artillery under Lieutenant Thomas G. White guarded Willston. White sent one of his guns out to fire on the Federals. (Marked as position 1 on the map.) Opening at 4:45, White fired only a few rounds before a broken friction-primer disabled the gun. His other gun was likewise disabled when the crew shoved a ball into the bore without a cartridge! Without infantry or cavalry support, White withdrew his section for repairs.

Clearing a path through the river obstacles took three hours. And then Higginson waited until noon for the tide to run up the Edisto. Even then the Milton briefly ran aground.

While the Federals struggled in the river, Colonel H.K. Aiken, 6th South Carolina Cavalry, with 100 troopers arrived to command the Confederate reaction. He sent troopers to regain Willstown and directed White’s battery to the river (generally at position 2 on the map). The cavalry ran into West’s men, starting a brisk skirmish that continued most of the day. White arrived at about the same time the Milton came off her first grounding. Federal fire kept White’s guns out of range and the expedition passed beyond Morris’ Mill. But not too far before the boats again ran aground. After waiting another hour for the rising tide current, the boats proceeded further upriver.

About three miles from their objective, the Dean ran aground. The Milton proceeded further, but was soon stopped by heavy fire from a section of the Washington (South Carolina) Artillery under Captain George Walter, posted near the Dr. Glover Plantation (position 3 on the map). After an hour spent exchanging shots, the Federals retired downstream.

As the Federals retired, they ran into White’s gunners (still around position 2 on the map) and reinforcements in the form of a section from the Marion Artillery under Lieutenant Robert Murdoch. The Confederate gunners scored hits on the Federals and hastened the withdrawal to Willstown. While attempting passage back through the river obstacles, the Milton ran afoul them. All attempts to pull the tug off failed. So the Federals set the vessel on fire before abandoning her. Left in the burning hulk were two bronze 6-pdr guns.

Meanwhile Aiken, attempting to catch the Federals before they could get away, sent his troopers into Willstown only to find the Federal pickets withdrawn and the gunboats passing downriver. Save a few shots at the boats, the expedition was over.

Gillmore considered the expedition a failure. The raid did not distract Confederates from Charleston, nor did it break the railroad to Savannah. Higginson recorded capture of two prisoners, freeing 200 contrabands, and making off with 6 bales of “cotton of the best quality.” His losses were two killed. Not often you can show some record of all those killed in a particular action. But here I can. Matching Higginson’s report are the certificates for Private July Green…

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… and Private William S. Verdier.

William Verdier

On the Confederate side, Aiken reported only one wounded. However he was most angered by the damage left behind:

The enemy burned the mill of Colonel Morris, and in their despoliation upon the residences at Willstown left unmistakable evidences of their despicable character as a set of thieves and marauders. They took off about 120 to 130 negroes, all of whom evidently had been informed of this intended raid, as the sound of the first gun seemed a signal for them to assemble on board of the transport, where they were taken soon after daylight, and moved down South Edisto.

However, Higginson insisted otherwise:

For what of transportation, we left behind a number of fine horses; we destroyed large quantities of rice by burning the houses, and cut the dams of the rice-fields. No private property, not amenable to military rules, was burned or pillaged, though there was abundant opportunity for so doing.

There you have, 150 years ago, contrasting versions of the actions that echo through our collective memories of the events today. Were these despoliations on the Edisto? Or simply destruction of legitimate military targets?

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 195 and 186.)

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