“A Blundering Affair”: Action at Murrell’s Inlet on December 5, 1863

As Federal activity kept blockade runners away from Charleston harbor through the summer and fall of 1863, the smaller harbors along the coast took on greater importance as a means to skirt the blockade.  One of those was Murrell’s Inlet, about half way between Georgetown and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.  Murrell’s Inlet lacked a substantial harbor or port facilities.  In fact, the inlet’s channel was too shallow for most ocean going vessels.  But what Murrell’s Inlet offered was a network of creeks through the tidal marsh in which small ships could lay outside the reach of the Federal ships.

MurrellInlet

The South Atlantic Blockading Squadron normally posted at least one vessel to guard Murrell’s Inlet.  On several occasions those vessels landed parties onto the beach with an aim to destroy Confederate ships seen in the creeks.  In mid-October, the blockade runner Rover ran aground attempting to make the inlet.  The Confederates managed to land the cargo before the vessel burned (both sides claiming credit).  Later a party from the USS T.A. Ward landed nearby in a search for fresh water and to conduct a general reconnaissance.  That party found the schooner Cecilia, fitting out for a run.  And the party also found Company B, 21st Georgia Cavalry and were soon captured.

The presence of the Cecilia and the embarrassment of the lost landing party lead to the next action at Murrell’s Inlet.  On December 5, Acting Master Samuel Gregory, commanding the USS Perry, set ashore a party of men with the aim to destroy the Cecilia.

A vessel being fitted up for the purpose of running the blockade, and fearing that she might escape in the night and avoid me by hugging the beach in shoal water, I determined to destroy her, if I could. I dispatched two boats for that purpose. After shelling around the schooner, I ordered them to the beach under the cover of our guns; instructed [Acting Ensign William] Arrants, acting ensign, to send one person to see if the way was clear, and if so, to forward one or two more to set fire to her and the rest to remain in the boats to afford a retreat for the two or three on shore….

Acting Ensign George Anderson commanded the landing party.  His version of events was not reported until October 1864, and differed in some details from his commander’s:

… I landed on Magnolia Beach, near Murrell’s Inlet, South Carolina, with two boats and 22 men… accompanied by Acting Ensign W.B. Arrants, Acting Assistant Paymaster George W. Burkett, and Master’s Mate Thomas H. McDonald…. Before leaving the ship we received verbal orders from Acting Master Sam B. Gregory… to take with us George Brimsmaid (colored landsman) to land on Magnolia Beach, and to send him ahead unarmed, as a scout. If no rebels were reported in the vicinity, to proceed across to Murrell’s Inlet, leaving the boats in charge of Acting Master’s Mate Thomas H. McDonald, to set fire to the schooner Cecilia, of Nassau, New Providence, and to destroy all picket stations that we might come across.  We were further instructed to signalize the Perry, in the case we were attacked by the enemy, in order that she might cooperate with, and cover us by, her guns.  After landing on the beach and forming my men, we proceeded to some high drifts, within sight of the ship and boats on the beach, where I posted landsman Sam B. Gregory, jr., with the signal flag, and instructed him how and when to use it.

And yes, Junior was the son of the Perry‘s commander.

As soon as Anderson headed out for the Cecilia, Junior came running to him pointing out the arrival of Confederate cavalry.  This was Captain H.K. Harrison with about 60 men from Company B, 21st Georgia Cavalry.  In the words of Brigadier-General J.H. Trapier, commanding the Fourth Military District of South Carolina, Harrison’s men attacked “promptly and vigorously.”  Anderson, seeing his force cut off from the boats, attempted to signal the Perry, without luck.  Although Gregory later claimed to have fired one shell among the Confederates, no other account supports that claim.  Anderson’s party made a brief fight of it in the sand dunes, but were soon surrounded and surrendered.

In the action, the Confederates lost one killed and 2-3 wounded.  Of the captured Federals, three were severely wounded.  Apparently, Thomas McDonnald and at least one of the boats made it back to the Perry.  That left fourteen Federals captured on the spot.

The humiliation of another failed raid at Murrell’s Inlet would have been enough.  But a couple of incidents with the prisoners elevated the failure out of proportion of number of men involved.  In his report, Anderson recalled that after their surrender, Coxswain John Pinkham “still laying on the ground, unable to rise, from the effects of his wounds, was ordered by one of the rebel captains to get up.”  When Pinkham said he could not rise, “the captain shot him with his revolver, inflicting a wound from which he died a short time after.”

The second incident occurred after the prisoners were moved to the Confederate camp.

… George Brimsmaid (colored landsman) was taken from our party by two of the rebel cavalrymen and a man in citizen’s dress.  One of the rebels was seen to strike Brimsmaid over the head with his saber as they were taking him through the camp.  A few minutes later we heard a loud yell and immediately after the reports of two guns.  Two rebels who took Brimsmaid soon returned, and stated that they had hung and then shot him.  This fact was afterwards affirmed to us by several officers of the command, which consisted of two companies of the Fifth and Twenty-first Georgia Cavalry….

According to a statement provided by Gregory, Brimsmaid was a resident of New London, Connecticut.  Brimsmaid joined the navy during the summer and indicated he’d never been a slave.

Rumors of Brimsmaid’s death soon came to the fleet.  Rear-Admiral John Dalhgren indicated these originated with “contrabands” picked up near Murrell’s Inlet.  So in addition to the military need to close Murrell’s Inlet, Dahlgren saw pressure to avenge the loss.  On December 23, he ordered a substantial expedition to “administer some corrective to the small parties of rebels who infest that vicinity.”  (But I’m getting ahead in the story here.  That part of the story has it’s own sesquicentennial date.)

Dahlgren summed up the incident of December 5, 1863, in a report to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells, stating that “Under the circumstances it was a blundering affair, without judgement on the part of the commanding officer and aggravated by the alleged disobedience of the officer sent ashore in charge of the party.” Gregory lost his command.  Anderson and the others remained in prison for several months.

Dahlgren dismissed the alleged murder Brimsmaid, waiting to hear from the captured men.  “If such an outrage has been perpetrated it will be known satisfactorily from some of the boat’s crew captured, and suitable measures taken to punish it.”  Anderson, upon his exchange, would report the two incidents.  But by that then, the distance of time had allowed any desire for retaliation to dissipate.

Perhaps, from the broader perspective, the most important aspect of the Murrell’s Inlet incident of December 5 was that it held Dahlgren’s attention through December.  The Admiral planned and plotted a strike against the Confederates in response to the “blundering.”  And with that broader perspective in mind, another disastrous incident, in the waters off Morris Island, would occur the following day which would also distract the Admiral from the intended push into Charleston harbor.  That’s tomorrow’s post.

(Citations from the reports of the incident at Murrell’s Inlet, ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 152-61.)

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