Gillmore’s Plans for operations in the Department of the South: December 1863

By the middle of December, Major-General Quincy Gillmore’s plans to take Charleston, South Carolina had hit a dead end.  The Tenth Corps, Department of the South, had taken full possession of Morris Island and used it as an artillery platform to wreck Fort Sumter and smite Charleston itself.  But any further progress depended upon naval action.  And for several reasons Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren was not in position to trigger that action. (And I’ll examine those reasons a just airing in the near future.)  Gillmore had 33,000 troops present in the department, of which all but around 6,200 were outside Charleston.  That number of troops could not lay idle for long before Army command in Washington decided to reinforce other theaters.  So Gillmore laid out some options in a letter on December 15, 1863.

Gillmore began with a review of options for advances on Charleston.  The status quo was to wait for Dahlgren to push the ironclads into the harbor.  But Gillmore considered at least two lines of operations:

I feel myself tied to the original programme, however, although the conditions of the problem have undergone material modifications since the outer line of defenses was broken by the reduction of the works on Morris Island and the demolition of Fort Sumter. In order to co-operate with the fleet now, with a promise of success, I must work on James Island from the Stono, or on the mainland from Bull’s Bay, directly in the teeth of the enemy’s means of concentrating forces by railroad. No such operations were originally contemplated. Positions on the shore of the inner harbor that I could once have seized and held, after the iron-clads got secure possession of the inner waters, now bristle with guns, and I must approach them by land, by a siege of the outer line of land defenses.

In a separate letter sent two days later, Gillmore elaborated on his preference between these two lines of advance.  Bull’s Bay was out.  It offered poor landing sites.  And as the map below demonstrates (blue arrow on the right), there was a lot of ground to cover before reaching anything vital.


On the other hand, an advance on James Island (blue arrow on the left) would allow the garrison from Folly Island to support.  The Stono River offered good landing sites. Furthermore, Federals held positions on the southern end of James Island which would serve as launch points.  But Gillmore felt any such operation needed 10,000 to 12,000 reinforcements.  And not mentioned in Gillmore’s letter, but offered in earlier correspondence, an advance across James Island exposed the left flank to attack.  Recall too that Dahlgren had also dismissed similar lines of advance in October.

But, as one is apt to do in a course of action assessment, those two offered lines of advance were the “bad” options to contrast with other, more palatable, options.  The other two offered were actions against Savannah and into Florida:

(1) The capture of Savannah by surprising the enemy’s batteries on Saint Augustine Creek. The admiral will co-operate with me without instructions. I will not go into details. I would propose to take command in person. Should the surprise fail, I would not push the attack against a concentrating enemy, and no serious loss need be feared. I would then take a portion of the force prepared against Savannah, and with it (2) operate in Florida and recover all the most valuable portion of that State, cut off a rich source of the enemy’s supplies, and increase the number of my colored troops, I will not go into detail.

In almost the same breath, Gillmore began to downplay any chance of success against Savannah.  He cited reports that Fort Jackson, on the Savannah River, was strengthened against land attack.  And let me dust off one of my maps of the Savannah defenses:


St. Augustine Creek runs between Whitemarsh Island and the mainland (on the left).  By December 1863, the Confederates had strengthened that line.  And they were maintaining an active picket line across Whitemarsh Island.  Gillmore probably knew this line of advance offered no quick turns.  A “maybe” option to be entertained.

But the Florida expedition?  Gillmore sent Colonel Milton Littlefield, of the then forming 4th South Carolina Volunteers (Colored), to Washington with information about that proposed action.  Gillmore had all but given up on any ideas of taking Charleston by spring, particularly if the navy didn’t break into the harbor and no reinforcements were forthcomming.  In Florida, however, he saw opportunity.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part II, Serial 47, pages 129-30.)

“Every vestige of the prejudice and ill feeling… has disappeared”: Gillmore on the USCT

By December 1863, Major-General Quincy Gillmore had commanded the Department of the South, and more specifically the Tenth Corps, for seven months.  In that time, his command took possession of Morris Island, but only through an active, vigorous campaign of three months.  The follow up was a prolonged bombardment of Fort Sumter, with occasional prods at the other Confederate defenses and Charleston itself.

In that time, several regiments of US Colored Troops played a prominent role in operations.  Grimball’s Landing, the second failed assault on Battery Wagner, the long siege of Battery Wagner – all actions in with colored troops at the fore. And after those active operations on Morris Island, the colored troops continued, like all the infantry formations, to support the artillery operations and garrison the island footholds on the South Carolina coast.  Meanwhile, other colored troops in the department engaged in raids into the low country.  Up to this time in the Civil War, the department boasted the most active employment of the USCT.

This activity caused some changes in attitudes among the Federal command and ranks.  (And it caused no small discomfort on the Confederate side.) Gillmore twice issued general orders to ensure the USCT, as regiments, were treated as the white troops.  And on December 14, 1863, Gillmore sent forward some recommendations about the USCT to Major-General Henry Halleck in Washington, D.C. The note began with Gillmore’s assessment of the use of USCT in the department:

I desire to urge upon the attention of the Government certain simple measures for bettering the condition of the colored people of this department, colored soldiers in particular.

The policy of the Government in organizing regiments of colored troops upon this coast, and the value and general efficiency of that class of soldiers, has had a fair trial and a successful issue under my own eye. The wisdom of the course pursued (under my uniform rule to treat the white and the colored soldier alike) has been fully vindicated upon the field of battle and in the trenches. Every vestige of the prejudice and ill feeling which existed between the white and the colored troops of this command, during a period of inactivity, has disappeared under the excitements of an active campaign, of which the labors and dangers were shared alike by both classes.

Gillmore’s assessment of race relations must have the caveat here.  The orders were specific to work assigned to the troops.  There was nothing in those orders to change the attitudes and behavior of individuals.  It was a policy with respect to assignments of regiments.  The USCT would not get menial details.  Gillmore attributes the change in attitude to the performance of the USCT under fire.

As he continued, Gillmore made five recommendations (one of which was detailed separately in a letter to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton).   The first was to re-designate the existing regiments officially as US Colored Troops.  Their original designation of South Carolina Volunteer Infantry set them apart from fellow colored troops.  “This would materially simplify the organizations and increase their efficiency.”  The second recommendation was to maintain a promotion board within the Department of the South to review candidates for commissions in those regiments.  Both were more administrative changes and easily implemented.

The third recommendation read:

The pay of the white soldier and of the colored soldier should be the same. All distinctions calculated to raise in the mind of the colored man a suspicion that he is regarded as an inferior being, should be scrupulously avoided. Every dictate of sound policy suggests this course, even if we regard the matter as still all experiment of doubtful results, which it is not.

The pay difference had long been a point of contention, if you recall the history of the 54th Massachusetts.  Now the highest level of command recognized the impact of inequalities of pay… be that some administrative glitch or not.  Still this would require congressional action.

The fourth recommendation alluded to a unique situation among those who’d just escaped slavery.  All well and good to emancipate, but what after that?

The families of colored soldiers should be provided for by allowing them to locate upon and cultivate land in advance of the regular survey and sale thereof. This is important as a military measure by making the soldier contented with his lot, by securing to him a home for his family during the war and for himself when the war is over.

Not quite an explicit “forty acres and a mule” but the concept was growing in the minds of those at the front of the issue.  Contraband camps around Port Royal had grown into full fledged villages.  And not confining ourselves to South Carolina, places like Island No. 10 in the Mississippi River were now allocated for use by freed slaves.  The question of ownership of the land and resources, however, lingered.

Lastly, Gillmore proposed consolidation of several South Carolina Volunteer regiments:

There are now nominally five regiments of South Carolina colored troops, only one of which, the First South Carolina Volunteers, Col. T. W. Higginson, has ever reached the minimum number of men required by law. The others are as follows: Second South Carolina Volunteers, Col. James Montgomery, about 540 men; Third South Carolina Volunteers, Lieut. Col. A. G. Bennett, about 300 men, organized by Major-General Hunter for labor in the quartermaster’s department, for which they have been used until quite recently; Fourth South Carolina Volunteers, Col. M. S. Littlefield, about 150 men; Fifth South Carolina Volunteers, organization just commenced.

Gillmore wanted to break up the 3rd South Carolina to provide troops to the 2nd and 4th (which would become the 3rd South Carolina, if not directly a USCT numbered regiment).

Shortly after this letter to Halleck, Gillmore received authorization to form officer boards for the USCT regiments.  The reorganization requested was worked out.  And the regiments were officially renumbered as US regiments.

I would point out that all of Gillmore’s justifications, to include those for the general orders issued earlier, were based on practical experience.  Operational needs placed the USCT at the front lines.  And that experience brought out the need to change policies.  Often when studying the story of the USCT involvement in operations against Charleston, the narrative begins and ends with the charge of the 54th Massachusetts on July 18, 1863.  But I contend we need to look at the whole experience to better understand this important thread in our history.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part II, Serial 47, pages 127-8.)