Confederate raid on Port Royal Island foiled by “contretemps”

I’ve mentioned Captain J.J. Magee, of the 7th South Carolina Cavalry (the Rutledge Mounted Rifles), as one of the more effective Confederate scouts in South Carolina.  One of his last actions in South Carolina, before transferred to Virginia later that spring, was an attempted raid on Port Royal Island.  His commander, Brigadier General William S. Walker, related the details in a report posted on March 14, 1864:

A boat expedition of 120 men was organized under the command of Captain Magee to attack the headquarters of the enemy’s outposts on Broad River on the 11th instant. The ground was thoroughly scouted.  No reserves or gun-boats within reach. There was every chance of success; no element that I could see of failure. Owing to the rawness of some of the oarsmen and some other contretemps, the expedition did not arrive at the east side of Broad River until 4:30 a.m.   Tide too low for the heavier boats to land and daylight too near for the requisite secrecy.  The expedition returned. It is doubtful whether the enemy heard us or not.  There was some talking when the boats got aground.  Upon a given signal by Captain Magee (firing of a rocket to be carried round to Port Royal Ferry, by discharge of fire-arms), a feint was to be made of an attack at Port Royal Ferry by Captain Bachman with his battery of artillery. By some mistake the signal was supposed to have been made, and Captain Bachman opened upon the enemy’s pickets between 12 and 1 o’clock at night. The visit of the gun-boats was no doubt caused by this demonstration.

From what I can learn along my line I do not believe the enemy are in any force.  They are comparatively weak and disposed to be on the defensive. I will endeavor to keep up the appearance of strength by availing myself of such opportunities of attack as my scouts may develop. As you are aware, however, it is very difficult to get at them, with their command of the water, with the certainty of getting off.

On the other side of Broad River, the Federals were on alert following this attempt.  But at the same time, the Federals didn’t have sufficient gunboats to patrol the waters (and hence have true “command of the water” as Walker stated).  In a report to his superior on March 16, Commander William Reynolds, senior officer at Port Royal, related both the weakness of the Federal forces and the level of alarm resulting from the Confederate attempt:

I have received your letter of March 14, authorizing me to send the [USS] Hale to St. Helena Bay, as suggested in my letter of the 8th instant, and she will accordingly be sent there as soon as her repairs are completed, which, however, will not be for three weeks yet.

In the meanwhile these approaches to this bay will be unguarded.  The [USS] Chippewa is the only vessel of war at Port Royal able to move for the protection of this bay, and she requires repairs, as I have before advised.

Colonel [Joshua B.] Howell, commanding the district, was on board yesterday to borrow a 24-pounder howitzer, which I have agreed to lend him, there being five on hand.

He told me that the rebels had come down to Port Royal Ferry the other night and fired on his pickets, and I have learned to-day that there was an alarm at Beaufort last night and the troops were under arms. I have again made the signal to vessels now in port, “Enemy is threatening Beaufort, S.C.  Be prepared night or day for attack or defense.”

Both sides had stripped the defenses around Port Royal Sound thin due to pressing needs elsewhere, mostly in Florida. And sort of a bluff running on both sides of the marshes, hoping the other would not determine the real weakness.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 357-8; ORN, Series I, Volume 15, page 368.)