“First of my new exeditions”: Foster launches a round offensive operations in July 1864

On the first day of July 1864, Major-General John Foster was but a little over a month into his command of the Department of the South.  And he was about to launch a series of very bold offensives which – if executed with rapidity – could break open the stalemate in front of Charleston.  On June 30, 1864, Foster recorded his plans in a letter to Major-General Henry Halleck in Washington, D.C:

I shall start on the first of my expeditions to-night, if General Birney arrives from Florida with his detachment in time. I shall land on Seabrook Island and march with the main body to the upper end, where I hope to seize the ferry by parties sent in advance. I shall then cross over, and, while demonstrating against Charleston, destroy the railroad. For this purpose a heavy party, under General Birney, will sweep down the road to the Ashepoo Ferry, if possible. In the mean time if the gun-boats can be got through Wadmalaw River, we will try the strength of Fort Pemberton. Another party, aided by gun-boats and iron-clads, will be ready on the Stono to take advantage of any weakening of the line from Secessionville across to the river. My definite object is to destroy the railroad, and this, I think, we shall accomplish. But, in addition, we shall worry the enemy, and may possibly find a weak spot by which we may penetrate. If so, we shall not fail to profit by it. If none are found on the west side, I may, possibly, before retiring, attempt to take Fort Johnson by boats.

My goodness, what a plan!  Here’s what that looks like on a map (very generally on a map, I would add):


Yea… you might need to click on that to see the details.  And I did that on purpose to demonstrate a point.  This was a wide ranging, intricate operation with a lot of moving parts.  The primary objective was to break up the Charleston & Savannah Railroad.  For those not following Foster, here’s the main portions of this offensive (keyed to points on the map):

  1. Brigaider-General John Hatch with a column landing on Seabrook Island would advance across John’s Island to reach Rantowles Bridge.
  2. Brigadier-General William Birney leading a column up the Ashepoo River against Ashepoo Ferry.
  3. Gunboats to attempt passage up the North Edisto River and gain the upper Stono River.  There possibly threaten Fort Pemberton.
  4. Demonstrations in front of James Island west of Secessionville under Brigadier-General Alexander Schemmelfinnig (and more than the usual stuff, mind you).
  5. An attempt on the eastern end of the James Island lines aimed at Fort Johnson.

In essence, a main effort (Hatch) with a secondary effort (Birney) to cut the railroad.  These, with the demonstrations against James Island, Foster hoped would stretch the Confederates to a breaking point.  If so, then as he said some opportunity might open.  Nothing this complex had been attempted in the Department since the previous July.  And keep in mind the 1863 operation met with some initial success simply because of timing – indeed stretching Confederate forces across South Carolina.  But to do this, Foster employed only 5000 infantry, 100 cavalry, and a half dozen artillery pieces with the main forces (Hatch and Birney).  He also used some 2,000 infantry from Schemmelfinnig’s command on Folly and Morris Islands.  Foster was committing his reserves in this effort.

Risky?  Well Foster saw opportunity even if these efforts failed:

If all these fail, I shall turn right about and try Savannah, where I think we can make a “ten strike.” I am not so sanguine as I would be if I had my old North Carolina troops and proper arrangements of light-draught steamers for landing in shoal waters, as we had in North Carolina. However, we will do the best we can, and after a few trials may become proficient in attempts of this kind. I am quite sure that, with proper arrangements, Fort Sumter can be taken at any time.

On that last note, something that perhaps Foster didn’t know at the time, authorities in Washington had already deemed Fort Sumter as a lesser objective not worth the effort.  Responding to Foster’s letter of June 22, Halleck wrote on June 29 (a message that Foster would not receive for several days) about Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant’s desires with respect to South Carolina:

What I understand General Grant wishes you to do is precisely what in one of your former dispatches you proposed doing, i.e., make raids on the enemy’s lines of communication, destroy as much of them as possible, and keep as many of his troops occupied at the south as you can. He has given no special instructions, but leaves the matter entirely to your judgment and discretion.

Now, we might say that five part scheme of operations outlined in Foster’s letter fit within that discretionary guidance.  A large raid… maybe?

Within hours of closing the letter, Foster’s plans received an initial setback.  Due to problems getting all the forces in place at Hilton Head, instead of moving on the evening of June 30, he would delay the start for twenty-four hours.

During the wait, one other matter of recurring business came to the fore.  Foster closed his letter to Halleck referencing the “human shield” retaliatory efforts:

I have received the prisoners, and the vessel is anchored under the guns of the Wabash, where she will remain until the prisons are prepared. These will be located in the most exposed position near Fort Gregg.

While Foster positioned his troops and waited to launch his expeditions, from Charleston came another message from Major-General Samuel Jones in regard to the status of the prisoners.

For a backwater theater, Charleston was about to see a lot of action.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 156-8).

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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