“The enemy opened to-day on Secessionville”: Demonstrations in front of Charleston

While fighting continued at Spotsylvania, Virginia on May 10, 1864, a minor little bombardment took place outside Charleston, South Carolina.  Brigadier-General William Taliaferro reported:

Royall’s, May 10, 1864–9.25 p.m.
Capt. H. W. Feilden,  Assistant Adjutant-General:

Colonel Simonton reports that to-day two barges came from Folly Island with about 20 men, and landed them at the battery on Dixon’s Island near the observatory; the boats soon returned, taking off the same number. This appeared to be a relief for men in the battery, distinct from the usual picket relief, as the men in the battery were not relieved at the time the picket was; it has occurred before, but it is not a daily occurrence. The enemy opened to-day on Secessionville from a small island lying to southeast of Long Island, in the same creek, with two Parrott guns, apparently 20-pounders.

Wm. B. Taliaferro,

The fire came from an advanced position in the marshes between James and Folly Islands.


The following day, the Federals continued the fires on Secessionville, with the batteries on Morris Island joining in.  There were no reported casualties from either side.  For the Charleston front, this was a small expenditure of powder.  Fort Sumter’s garrison reported ten mortar shells and two Parrott shells fired at the fort on May 10.  But all was quiet on May 11.  Department commander Major-General Samuel Jones downplayed the Federal operations, but ordered additional measures to deter a Federal landing on James Island:

Charleston, S.C., May 11, 1864.
Brig. Gen. William B. Taliaferro,
Royall’s House, James Island:

I do not think the enemy will attempt to assault Secessionville. I have ordered Major Echols to use every exertion to complete the bridges with the least possible delay. Can you not to-night place a field battery under cover, and in position to aid in preventing the approach of parties in boats to Secessionville? Keep me informed. Do not relieve garrison at Sumter to-night.

Sam. Jones,

So were these small bombardments of any significance?  Maybe.  The last line from Jones’ response lends a thread to follow.  The rotation of Fort Sumter’s garrison involved replacing troops ordered to Virginia.  Based on orders received on May 3, Jones was in the process of sending two brigades (Wise’s and Colquitt’s) north to Virginia.  Some of Colquitt’s soldiers departed Fort Sumter on the early morning hours of May 9.

And those troops would not be the last to leave.  Warning Major General Patton Anderson, commanding the District of Florida, Jones wrote that he had “had been compelled under pressing orders from the War Department, to send to Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, nearly all the effective infantry in this department.”  (And Jones added a note about the capture of “General Seymour, the hero of Olustee” during the fighting at the Wilderness.)

On May 11, General J.E. Johnston inquired with Jones about a brigade needed in Georgia – “Has Jackson’s brigade been ordered to me? If not, when will it be? I want it very much.”

At first glance, the actions in front of Charleston seem minor and meaningless.  But take in the grand view of operations in the spring of 1864. The demonstration by bombardments on May 10-11 served to remind the Confederates in Charleston that a threat still existed. Wise’s and Colquitt’s lead units were already, by that date, employed in Virginia.  But some of their trail units were still on the railroads out of North Carolina.  Time was critical, and any hours lost while reacting to demonstrations was a strategic loss to the Confederates.  In that context, the demonstration in front of James Island that May was another part the Federal spring offensive, and helping to place pressure all across the Confederacy.

Every Confederate remaining – or even paused for an hour – at Charleston added weight to the “hasn’t army enough” strategy.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, part II, Serial 66, pages 479-80.)