Federal SIGINT efforts thwarted on the Combahee

A very small, miniscule, action occurred on the Combahee River 150 years ago today.  The event cannot hold a candle to the major battle brewing in Northern Georgia around this same time.  But I’ve found the details of this episode interesting, if for nothing else to demonstrate the advancement of intelligence gathering techniques employed during the war.

While Morris Island remained the active front in the theater, both sides patrolled the backwaters between there and Hilton Head.  One of the Federal patrols in mid-September, from the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry (soon to be the 33rd USCT), included a signal team with orders to tap into the telegraph which ran along the Charleston and Savannah Railroad.  However, the wire was attached with little concealment.  This drew the attention of those running the trains.   Lieutenant-Colonel William Stokes, 4th South Carolina Cavalry, Confederate commander the sub-district between the Combahee and Ashepoo Rivers,  received information about these activities on September 13:

On Saturday evening, a little after 3 o’clock, it was reported to me by Mr. [J. H.] Buckhalter, roadmaster, that there was a small force of the enemy about a mile south of [Green Pond], and that they had attached a wire to the telegraph line.

Yes, the Federals were intercepting Confederate signals by tapping into the telegraph lines.  Today we’d call this “Signals Intelligence” or SIGINT for short (or more specifically “Communications Intelligence” or COMINT).

I immediately ordered up Captain [W. P.] Appleby’s company, stationed 2 miles below here, which reported very promptly. I then ordered Captain Appleby to dismount 15 of his men and to proceed on the train, then at the depot, to the point at which the enemy had attached his wire for the purpose of intercepting dispatches from Charleston and Savannah, and to engage the enemy, if he found them; if not, to pursue them.

In addition, Stokes sent the rest of Appleby’s company to search the woods south of the railroad.  And he picketed the road to Combahee Ferry with another company of cavalry.  The map below is my “best guess” as to the location of the Federal detachment (blue dots) and the movements of the Confederates.


If this looks familiar, yes it is the same area raided in June by Colonel James Montgomery, guided by Harriet Tubman.

Stokes’ net had a hole in it:

Just at dark, Corporal [T.] Myers and 2 privates, of Company C, Eleventh Regiment Infantry, South Carolina Volunteers, stationed at the corner of Colonel Heyward’s fence, allowed the enemy (6 in number he states, but since ascertained to be 11) to pass them without either halting or firing on them. Had these pickets have done their duty, the whole party would certainly have been captured at this point, as Captain Appleby with his small detachment, that had pursued them for about 6 miles through dense swamps, lagoons, and rice-fields, were only about 200 yards behind them. When Captain Appleby came up to these pickets they acted so badly that he mistook them (owing to the darkness of the night) for the enemy, and ordered his men to fire on them, when they ran off. Fortunately, none of them were hit.

Stokes held off further pursuit that night, but picked up on the morning of the 14th.  His men had not gotten far when a gun stationed along the Combahee fired.  The gunners had noticed movement on the river bank and fired a few shells to pin down any Federals attempting to cross the river.

I ordered Lieutenant [F. R. M.] Sineath. Company C, with 6 men of Lieutenant Guerard’s section, to proceed to the mill, where the noise had been heard, and to investigate the cause, and Captain Appleby back, to follow out the trail with his detachment, which he did through the rice-field to the above-mentioned place. Lieutenant Sineath on arriving there found a small raft that the enemy had constructed of old planks to cross the river on, and which they had abandoned on his approach. He pursued them and soon caught the chaplain (who was in command of the party), first lieutenant, and a negro of the First South Carolina (Negro) Regiment, secreted in the marsh on the river.

But the pursuit was not over.  Stokes had used dogs to help locate the Federals in the marshes. And those dogs continued to sense other trails to follow.  “I again sent the dogs out on Monday morning and caught a negro of the party, the property of the late Col. William C. Heyward,” he wrote.  Based on information from the prisoners, Stokes found out the detachment had established a base of operations on nearby Williaman’s Island (which I’ve never been able to locate with certainty).  Stokes determined to take that base and capture any remaining members of the Federal detachment.

I made the necessary arrangements, and proceeded on the night of the 14th, with 30 men of my command and the 50 sent me by the brigadier-general commanding, from Pocotaligo, under Lieutenant [L. J.] Walker, of the Rutledge Mounted Rifles and Horse Artillery, for the purpose, and, with the assistance of Mr. Merwin as a guide, I arrived on the island, after a long and rugged march through the marsh, about daylight. I found evident signs of the island having been occupied by the enemy, and advanced upon the houses in which they were said to be quartered, and found that they had apparently abandoned the island only the day before. They had holes cut in the houses that they were quartered in, to shoot through, evidently expecting to be attacked if found out. Six of the negroes who accompanied the enemy’s telegraphic party have either made their escape or are still in the Combahee marshes, which I am still having hunted with negro dogs, although I must say that, owing to the dense growth of briars, &c., on the check-dams, it is next to an impossibility for man or dogs to get through.

In addition to the prisoners, Stokes’ men captured a mile of gutta percha coated field wire.

And in regard to the prisoners, in Army Life in a Black Regiment Colonel Thomas W. Higginson mentions this episode briefly.  This was, he indicated, the first time any of the 2nd South Carolina troops were captured.  At least one of the black soldiers of the 2nd South Carolina escaped custody within six months.  But the chaplain was held for a year, since his activities were considered belligerent in nature.

(Stokes report appears in OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 729-30.)


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