General P.G.T. Beauregard long sought to repeat the success achieved with the ambush of the USS Isaac Smith in January 1863. Various schemes, such as the Christmas Day ambush at Legareville, to capture or destroy a gunboat in the waters around Charleston came to naught. Up January 1864, the promising torpedo boats had not brought success. But the setbacks didn’t keep the Confederates from trying other schemes. One of those played out, quietly, through the later half of January 1864.
The plan was to draw a gunboat up the Stono River to her doom by way of a field of torpedoes. Normally, the gunboats remained well downstream of Battery Island, where the Federals placed obstructions in late November. The Confederate plan was to lure the gunboat upstream with a false battery constructed on John’s Island. The presence of such a battery would indicate the Confederates were pushing out their defensive line, thus sure to draw a Federal response. Torpedoes, laid in the channel, would then sink the gunboats sent out to reconnoiter the new battery. All of the activity to produce this trap was, of course, conducted in secrecy. While not stated definitively, I believe the false battery stood upstream of Battery Island on the opposite bank of the Stono River.
The task of building the false battery went to Captain John B.L. Walpole, of the Stono Scouts operating at that time on John’s Island. On January 20, Walpole reported his project:
I applied, as per confidential correspondence, to Lieutenant-Colonel Jones for men and tools, and received a detail of 90 men, under charge of Lieutenants Talley and Moore, and 45 shovels, but there having been some delay for want of transportation for the tools and scarcity of rations for the men, we did not arrive at our destination until late last evening. The men being weary, I allowed them to rest until 4 o’clock this morning, when I commenced operations, and at sundown this evening M. A. Moore, a private of my company, acting engineer, reports the battery nearly completed; it is about 100 feet long, including the curtins on each end, and 30 feet deep. W.E. Fripp, another private of the scouts, has already constructed four Quaker guns with carriages, ready for mounting. They will be painted, &c. The battery was partially unmasked to-day to allow the enemy a glimpse of it, but they have not up to sunset taken any notice of it. The Pawnee came up as far as our batteries at Ladies Island, but did not proceed any farther up the river. I would respectfully suggest that the battery be allowed to remain in barbette until we ascertain that they have noticed us, and let them see the wheels of our Quakers. I will then slowly convert it into an embrasure battery to-morrow. I will mount a sentinel on the parapet who may attract attention by the glitter of his gun. Should that fail, with your permission I will take down one of the field pieces, put her in position between the Quakers, and open fire on the pickets at the point of Horse Island. The battery is built so as to be of actual use if necessary.
The problem was, as Walpole indicated, the Federals just didn’t appear to take the bait. The following day the USS Pawnee made what appeared to be a routine patrol. However, as Walpole reported, the Federals cast out some barges:
The Pawnee came up the Stono early this morning and anchored off the Battery at Lady’s Island where she remained until about sunset, firing two shells on the Legareville Peninsula and then returned to the usual position. Two barges were sent up the river from the Pawnee which returned to the vessel in about two hours…
So why didn’t the Federals take the bait? A deserter from the Confederate side tipped off the Federals. Brigadier-General Alfred H. Colquitt reported on January 22:
The work on sham battery was continued for several days. The object being merely to make a show of work to entice the enemy up the river it was deemed a compliance with orders to discontinue it after a fair experiment had been made.
A deserter, too, who was with the party that placed the torpedoes escaped from Battery Pringle by boat to the enemy, and it was supposed would give information that would defeat our object. This, too, was the opinion of the engineer who had the work in charge, and first suggested to me its discontinuance.
Commander George Balch of the USS Pawnee corroborated Colquitt’s supposition in a report to Rear-Admiral Dahlgren on the same day:
I have the honor to report that the ship has in the last two days fished up two more torpedoes in the Stono River. They were anchored directly in the channel, and from their position I think it very probable that this ship passed over them during her last reconoissance, as also the Cimarron. Although ingeniously made, they were found to have the powder injured by letting in water through the packing of the plungers. The report in relation to the torpedoes by the three deserters which I took up to you a few days since was exact, and I have no doubt of their good faith.
Likely the barges that Walpole reported were used to retrieve the torpedoes mentioned by Balch. Brigadier-General Thomas Jordon, Beauregard’s Chief of Staff, summarized the result succinctly: “These traitorous scoundrels defeat the best of schemes.”
With this plan to capture or destroy a gunboat foiled, Confederate officers turned again to consider torpedo boats or floating torpedoes to damage the blockading fleet off Charleston.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 535 and 538-9; ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 249-50.)