Through much of the Civil War, Skull Creek was the perimeter line for the Federal base on Hilton Head Island. The creek connects Broad River with Calibogue River, thus creating the waterway separating the island. The marshes and brackish water creeks provided a buffer between the Federal positions and Confederate posts further inland. But occasionally patrols brushed against pickets. So the sound of the war often echoed across the tidal flats.
In the fall of 1863, Confederates looked for ways to harass Federal outposts in order to relieve some of the pressure on Charleston. A September 23 order called for a detachment of artillery to occupy Buckingham Ferry, near the western mouth of Skull Creek, “for the purpose of annoying the enemy’s communication between Fort Pulaski and Hilton Head.” But such preparations moved slowly.
On November 7, a Confederate party crossed over to Bull Island, one of the outlying points of Hilton Head and burned a dock. Though the Federals reported no activity from Pinckney Island to the north, they were alerted to increased activity in the sector. So in the last week of November, the garrison at Hilton Head organized a joint Army-Navy expedition along Skull Creek with the aim to drive off any Confederate pickets or posts. Lieutenant-Commander Thomas C. Harris, commanding the USS Chippewa, would accompany a couple of Army steamers with a detachment of men from the 48th New York under Colonel William Barton, along Skull Creek. The expedition set out on the morning of November 28. Harris provided a brief report:
… I got underway at 6:20 a.m. and proceeded up Skull Creek as far as Fort Michel, at which place I anchored. At 8:45 I again got underway, and in company with the army transport steamer Monohassett, with a detachment of 100 men from the Forty-eighth New York, under the command of Colonel Barton, and armed transport-steamer Mayflower, steamed through Skull Creek in the direction of Calibogue River. On reaching Pinckney Point I opened fire with canister for the purpose of clearing the woods, there being at that locality a dense clump of palmetto trees, from which the enemy’s sharpshooters have been constantly annoying the army transports, and, from the tortuous channel, I as obliged to run within pistol range. As soon as I passed Pinckney Point and discovered the rebel station at Buckingham Ferry, at once opened fire upon the enemy at a distance of 1,500 yards, being unable to approach closer, having at that distance but 12 fet of water. For some forty minutes kept up a rapid fire without eliciting any response; this was a matter of some surprise, for I had been informed by Colonel Barton that the enemy were erecting earthworks and had already guns in position. At 10:30 ceased firing, the troops being ready to land, which they did without opposition. Although the enemy were protected by rifle pits, they fled without firing a gun.
I’ve depicted the general route, with approximate locations of the Confederate positions, below:
Harris added that, “The object of the expedition was fully accomplished, and the reconnoissance was complete.” The troops of the 48th New York failed to locate any fortifications larger than rifle pits. By noon the troops returned to the transports and the expedition returned to the anchorage in Port Royal sound by way of Calibogue Sound.
Harris closed his report noting the performance of his XI-inch Dahlgren gun. “The accuracy and precision with which the shells were planted were all that I could wish; the practice was perfect.” However, he found the 30-pdr Dahlgren rifle shells wanting. “I am of the opinion that the Schenkle shell as a projectile from the 30-pounder Dahlgren rifle ought to be discontinued.” Despite following instructions to grease the base of the projectile, the rounds tumbled. Harris also found the 20-pdr Parrott shells unsatisfactory, though presumably with Parrott projectiles.
For the Federals, the expedition provided little action and less information. On the Confederate side, department headquarters recorded on November 29:
Yesterday about noon four gunboats with several barges appeared opposite Buckingham’s Ferry, and, after shelling the pickets from that post, landed about 200 men from the barges and advanced about one-fourth of a mile from the landing. Coming in site, however, of a few of our troops, the enemy retired, and embarked without firing a shot.
Such was another day’s activity in the sparring over the marshes along the South Carolina coast. Some days, the mosquitoes drew more blood than the combatants.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, page 172; Part II, Serial 47, page 375; ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 138-9.)