“I shall commence to make offensive movements….”: Foster feeling agressive at Charleston

Shortly after assuming command of the Department of the South, Major-General John Foster began weighing options and looking for opportunities in his new command.  Major-General Quincy Gillmore, and likewise interim commander Brigadier-General John Hatch, downplayed the options available in the spring of 1864.  Hatch, in particular, felt the forces at hand were barely enough to hold on.  But as the summer broke, Foster was optimistic.  Throughout the war, Foster demonstrated an “itch” to be active and was often proposing operations which some might say were outside the limits of the resources he had at hand.  On June 11, 1864, Army Chief of Staff Major-General Henry Halleck wrote to Foster inquiring if more men might be spared from the Department, given the movement of significant Confederate forces out of Georgia and South Carolina.  Foster responded back on June 21:

I am now drilling the new negro regiments in hopes of making them effective for service in two or three months, and at the same time gathering into this place and Morris and Folly Islands the best white regiments, so as to obtain a small force of really effective men with which to attempt some promising operation against the enemy. Considerable preparation has to be made to replace the operating engineer and quartermaster material, of which so large an amount was taken away by General Gillmore, and as soon as these are completed I shall commence to make offensive movements against the enemy. I shall continue these until I succeed at some one of them. I shall not risk much; at the same time, if chance favors, I shall attempt a good deal. This supposes that no further draft be made upon this command.

That last sentence was the “bone” Foster had to pick, specifically with Gillmore.  When Halleck wrote earlier in the month, Gillmore had suggested pulling 5,000 men from the Department of the South.  Since he commanded there for over ten months, his word carried weight.  Of course as things were by late June, Gilmore was missing quite a bit of “ego weight,” having been relieved for failures in front of Petersburg.  But Foster didn’t know much of this when he was writing.  So his response focused on what was needed to accomplish his mission:

The entire force left was 15,000 effectives, of which one-fourth was required in Florida to hold the country in which the citizens had been required to take the oath of allegiance or leave, and thus made dependent upon the good faith of the Government for protection.

Reduction in forces would also jeopardize the freedmen establishments around Port Royal.  But, if needed, Foster said he could run risks.  He did understand the “big picture.”

I am, however, perfectly willing to send 5,000 men, if they are ordered, and will send the best that remain, and will do this with zeal and cheerfulness, for I fully recognize the fact that the great struggle of the war is in progress in Virginia, the conquest of which would fully compensate for any losses in this section.

That said, Foster made his pitch to keep his current troop strength, and proposed doing something with that force:

All that I wish to present for consideration is whether that small force will not be more useful here, inasmuch as it will enable me to harass the enemy continually, and to call to our front a corresponding force of rebels, and to be prepared to meet the attack of a superior force in case the rebel armies are forced to fall back into this State and North Carolina.

And as a addendum to this correspondence to Halleck, the next day – 150 years ago this day (June 22) – Foster dangled once again that big prize that lay outside Charleston:

I have carefully considered the different plans for taking Fort Sumter, and have come to the conclusion that the fort may be taken at any time you order, provided I have at least six assaulting rafts or boats, each provided with a very large scaling ladder, to be lowered upon the top of the wall, so that 5,000 men can scale the walls at the same time.

At my request Mr. Wiard, of New York, has prepared, with as much secrecy as possible, plans for the construction of boats suitable for the purpose. I have just received these, and inclose them to you. I would like three of each kind. The boats with steam are much the best in every respect, as they can always be made useful in transporting troops and making landings in creeks and shoal waters. It will, however, take more time to build them.

If you think well of the project, I respectfully ask that you will obtain the necessary sanction of the Secretary of War, and order the boats at once. I would respectfully suggest that the contract specify a certain definite time for the delivery of these boats, after the expiration of which it shall be optional with the United States whether or not to receive them.

Optimistic and opportunistic to say the least. Though I would point out that Gillmore had always felt Fort Sumter could be taken, accepting risk and heavy loss of life, but considered the return of little value.  However, in that message Foster put details behind the notion and indicated at least some thought towards planning the operation.  Far more than either Gillmore or Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren had come in the previous six months.

Foster closed his June 21 letter simply requesting instructions,  “… I beg leave to say that as soon as I know the wishes of the General-in-Chief I will carry them out with alacrity.”  As thing stood, at that moment 150 years ago, Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant expected demonstrations and raids with a mind to tie down Confederate forces.  Foster understood that, and was indeed ready to do that.  He was about to turn the Charleston sector “active” for another summer.  Though not to the scale seen in 1863… but needless to say, the US Government would get their money’s worth out of the Department of the South.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 142-3, 144.)