On November 23, 1863, Confederate observers posted on the Stono River reported Federal activity to obstruct the channel. The journal entry on November 24 from the headquarters in Charleston read, “General [Johnson] Hagood reports that since yesterday the enemy have been repairing the wharf at Legareville, and are now at work with a pile driver at Battery Island, apparently building a similar structure there.” The following day, the journal mentioned a report from Colonel Charles Simonton noting continued activity of the pile driver. Simonton saw piles extending a quarter of the way across the river, but “rather too far for a wharf.” By the 27th, Confederate observers finally determined the purpose of the pile driver – to obstruct the river channel.
The pile driving continued on for a couple of weeks. Troops from Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig’s brigade landed at Legarville on the west side of the Stono. The Federals began stripping buildings for lumber. In addition, the USS Marblehead and USS Pawnee moved up to Legareville to support the pile driving and troop activities. The Federals remained there well into December. In fact the gunboats exhibited a lazy presence.
So why were these obstructions on the Stono worth mentioning? Well for starters, consider this chart showing the channel of Stono Inlet:
The coastal survey notes on the lower right read, “The entrance buoy (black) is placed in 13 feet of water in mid-channel…. 6 ½ feet was the least water found at the entrance at mean low water in June 1862.” Once inside the inlet, depths varied between 20 and 40 feet. Plenty of depths for some of the large Federal supply vessels to find safe anchorage. And with careful piloting, the monitors could make their way into the inlet. For the Federals, Stono Inlet was an important base of operations supporting the troops on Folly, Kiawah, and Morris Islands.
This was not lost on Confederate authorities. Garrisons on Cole’s Island inside the inlet had covered the anchorage. But in the spring of 1862, those were driven off by Federal gunboats. Federals later used Stono Inlet in the offensive which unraveled in defeat at Secessionville in June 1862. The Federals maintained an intermittent presence at Stono Inlet after that. Gunboats occasionally patrolled far up Stono River (and the USS Isaac Smith was captured due to the lax attitude on her patrols up the river). In April 1863 the Federals finally came to stay. With Folly Island occupied by a strong garrison and pickets posted around Kiawah and Cole’s Island, Federal ships could lay at anchor in relative security.
In July, troop transports and gunboats advanced up the Stono River as part of a diversionary effort covering the attack on Morris Island. But after that, the Stono became a quiet sector while the main focus was on Battery Wagner. On September 7, 1863, a Confederate force attacked Federal pickets on Battery Island in an effort to distract from the withdrawal from Morris Island.
Despite the relative inactivity on the Stono, both sides were sensitive to this flank. Confederates built up strong defensive works on James Island to stop any gunboat-infantry movement up the Stono.
The Federals kept around 11,000 men on Folly Island, and typically posted at least two gunboats at Stono Inlet.
To further secure this valuable waterway, the Federals began building the obstructions mentioned above in late November. Those would obstruct the river channel in the vicinity of Battery Island, where Federals maintained a picket (general area depicted with blue Xs on the map):
The placement of those obstructions would help secure Stono Inlet. Particularly from the feared “Davids” and the new “submarine” known to be in Charleston. But on the other hand, the location of those pilings meant the Federals conceded an avenue of approach to James Island. An avenue they had twice used with substantial forces. So to some degree, the obstructions represented a shift in Federal activity – from offensive to more passive defense.
And when one side in a military contest shifts to a passive stance, the other side gains some initiative and openings for action. The routine of the pile driver, troops stripping Legareville’s buildings, and the gunboats laying in the river now presented the Confederates an opportunity. Weeks of careful observation would breed a daring plan aimed to capture, or destroy, one of the gunboats. General P.G.T. Beauregard saw an opening that might bolster sagging morale.
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