“I at once determined not to follow them”: John’s Island demonstration, Part 3

Though he probably didn’t know it, as the sun rose on February 11, 1864 Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig’s demonstration on John’s Island had achieved its goal.  After sharp fighting through the previous day, both sides had retired to positions roughly three miles apart.  The Federals maintained a “bridgehead” with parts of three brigades on the John’s Island side of Overhaul Cut.  The Confederates concentrated most of Brigadier-General Henry Wise’s brigade at a crossroads further inland, awaiting the arrival of Brigadier-General Alfred Colquitt’s brigade.  The presence of Colquitt on the island, instead of making way to Savannah, meant that Schimmelfennig had indeed distracted the Confederates, at least temporarily, from Federal operations in Florida.

Both sides skirmished and probed through the morning and into the afternoon.  But just after noon, the Federals once again pushed out from their bridgehead.  Colonel Philip Brown, 157th New York, recorded his regiment was ordered,

… with the One hundred and seventh Ohio Volunteers and Seventy-fifth Ohio, to advance in support of columns already advanced.  Marching by the flank, this force, under the direction of General [Adelbert] Ames, proceeded along the left of the forest to within supporting distance of the skirmishers and batteries previously sent out.

This move by the Federals caught Wise realigning his lines just after the arrival of Colquitt’s Brigade.

I placed my right on the Bohicket River, across the Bohicket road, and extended my line across the open field on a ditch back to the woods on my left, and through them to the Legareville road. I gave the command of the right to Colonel Page, with portions of the Twenty-sixth, Forty-sixth, Fifty-ninth, and Fourth Virginia Volunteers, and the left to General Colquitt, with his regiment of 900 Georgians. Lieutenant-Colonel Kemper commanded the artillery. I placed one section of Charles’ battery on the right between the Bohicket road and river, the Marion Battery in front immediately on the left of the road, and the other section of Charles’ battery to protect the rear and left flank.

Wise’s position sealed off any line of advance for the Federals.  But there’s no indication Ames intended to press the matter beyond just the prescribed demonstration.

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Wise’s report of the action indicates his artillery was heavily engaged in this action:

… the Marion Battery at 3.20 p.m. opened upon them at about 1,200 yards distance, when they fell back to the woods, at about 1,500 yards distance. The artillery practice was very efficient in everything except the friction primers. Three-fourths of them at first failed. The enemy soon replied with (I thought) three pieces only, but one of their positions was concealed by a hedge-row, and after their retreat I found they had two positions for field pieces-one on the right and the other on the left of the road. A section of Charles’ battery also opened from our right, and was very effectively served.

All this activity kept General P.G.T. Beauregard focused on John’s Island.  He ordered another battery from the South Carolina Siege Trains to prepare for movement to John’s Island.

And he also worked out plans for a demonstration of his own – to distract the Federals from the distraction.  To Wise, he wrote, “All the guns on James and Sullivan’s Islands will open at 2 o’clock tonight on Morris Island to create a diversion in your front.” Orders went out to all commanders in the defenses around Charleston.  Additional instructions called for signal rockets to coordinate the start of firing. The guns on James Island were later directed to focus on the Black Island batteries to their front.

But while Beauregard planned, the Federals were again moving.  Wise noted the slackening of fires by mid-afternoon.  “By 5 p.m. their fire ceased.”  By dusk, the Federals pulled back and established a line of pickets around their original bridgehead.  Brown recorded, “This was executed as speedily as possible, a line of about forty-five posts of 3 men each being established at intervals of 15 paces in favorable positions, and a reserve of 30 kept in the rear.”

Wise, however, failed to offer pursuit.  “We were 4 miles from the haulover.  They had about 1 ½ miles the start of us, and i at once determined not to follow them….”  Wise offered no fewer than twelve (!) justifications for the decision not to pursue.  These ranged from a shortage of artillery ammunition (a claim that was later in dispute) to the need to get Colquitt’s brigade back on the trains.

The Federals withdrew completely across Overhaul Cut that night.  The USS Nipsic and USS Iris provided cover for the movement. By the following afternoon, they were back in the camps on Morris Island.  Wise did not detect the withdrawal until the next morning. He reported seventeen casualties from incomplete reports. Federal casualties were not reported in detail, but were likely just as light.

With that, the demonstration was over.  And a successful demonstration it was, from the standpoint of delaying the movement of Colquitt’s brigade and distracting Beauregard’s attention.  However, any gain achieved by blood and sweat on John’s Island was forfeited over the following week.  Instead of pressing forward on the Florida expedition, Major-General Quincy Gillmore and Brigadier-General Truman Seymour debated over their options.  That allowed time for Colquitt to complete his assigned movement.  Had there been unity of minds, perhaps Olustee would have occurred with one less Confederate brigade on the field.

On a broader scale, the similarity of objectives, proximity in time, and, to a lesser extent, the level of effort expended offer an opportunity to compare two “demonstrations” conducted in February 1864 – Morton’s Ford and John’s Island.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 33, Part I, Serial 65, pages 107, 144-5 and 599.)

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