“The position itself is a strong one…”: A call to improve the defenses of Georgetown, SC

By the winter of 1864, Georgetown was the only seaport of significance on the South Carolina coast that didn’t have Federal land batteries directly impeding blockade-runner access.  Winyah Bay offered refuge for blockade-runners, even if Georgetown had no direct rail links to the interior.  And upstream from Georgetown was a Confederate Navy Yard at Mars Bluff.

WinyahBay

But remarkably, the Federals and Confederates had paid this sector very little attention.  Blockaders patrolled the approaches to Winyah Bay.  And a few Confederate defenses, none with more than a 32-pdr gun, protected the channels.  But Brigadier-General James Trapier, commanding South Carolina’s Fourth Military District, wanted to change that.  Writing on January 26, 1864, he cited the growing importance of Georgetown, Winyah Bay, and the Mars Bluff yard to the Confederate war effort:

Hdqrs. Fourth Military Dist. of South Carolina,
Georgetown, January 26, 1864.
Brig. Gen. Thomas Jordan,
Chief of Staff, &c., Charleston, S.C.:

General: The Confederate navy-yard at Mars Bluff, Peedee River, is assuming daily greater and greater importance.

Already has there been nearly completed there a vessel of war of some magnitude, which it is computed will be ready for sea in about two months. It is contemplated, as I learn, to build others, and it seems probable that important additions to our Navy will continue to be supplied from this yard as long as the war may last.

The President alludes to it in his annual message, and its growing importance will naturally attract the attention of the enemy.

It is my duty, therefore, to invite attention to the fact that the only defense for this navy-yard consists in the battery (White) which guards the entrance to Winyah (upper) Bay, and such a defense as might be extemporized by riflemen and field batteries upon the banks of the river. I need not refer to the armament of Battery White; the commanding general of course is aware of its weakness. The position itself is a strong one, and with a proper artillery and a sufficient infantry support might be rendered almost, if not absolutely, impregnable.

In view of the fact that it covers a naval establishment of growing importance, and the additional fact that this may become a harbor of resort for steamers running the blockade and possibly the only one that may some day be left to the Confederacy–and that the Waccamaw, Peedee, Black, and Santee Rivers (all of which are also covered by Battery White) will, if adequately protected, yield an amount of subsistence sufficient for the support of 50,000 men, I hope I shall not be considered importunate in thus again inviting the attention of the commanding general to the subject. To me it seems one of no mean importance.

I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
J. H. Trapier,
Brigadier-General, Commanding.

Trapier made a strong case for reinforcing this key defense within his district.  (And I’m playing a little loose here with the title of the post, but figured “Georgetown, SC” is more easily recognized by the reader than “Mars Bluff Navy Yard,” “Peedee River,” or “Winyah Bay”.)  Battery White, which he referred to, stood at a narrow point at the upper end of Winyah Bay (lower part of the map below).

BatteryWhiteLocation

The layout and profile of the battery was impressive (and remains so even today).

White Battery 5 May 10 363
Ditch in front of Battery White

The work directly covered the channel.

White Battery 5 May 10 354
Winyah Bay from Battery White

Though with only a handful of cannons, some of which carried Royal markings of colonial-era weapons, the battery was not armed to contest any serious Federal effort.

Georgetown 2 May 10 310
British 32-pdr gun from Battery White, now in Georgetown

Unfortunately, General P.G.T. Beauregard could only endorse the request, with his approval, pending some quantity of guns to go around:

Inform General Trapier that the views expressed in this letter meet with my entire approval, but I regret that I have neither the force nor the guns to send at present for the defense of that important point of the department. If some Brooke guns could be obtained from the Navy Department, I would be happy to put them in position, but the effort to obtain some for the defense of Charleston from the comparatively useless gun-boats in that harbor has so signally failed that I consider it useless to make another attempt for Winyah Bay.

In short, if the Confederate Navy thinks their yard and the harbor at Georgetown is important, they needed to mind its defenses…. and worry less about the leaky ironclads at Charleston.

Eventually, Trapier would get some attention on this matter. A couple of 10-inch Columbiads would arrive to bolster the defenses.

White Battery 5 May 10 382
10-inch Confederate Columbiad at Battery White

But that was months away.  In the interim, Winyah Bay, Georgetown, and the navy yard at Mars Bluff, remained exposed.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 546-7.)

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