Originally set to start on the evening of June 30, 1864, Major-General John Foster’s offensive against Charleston, and specifically the railroad connecting it to Savannah, got off to a late start the following evening. The delay allowed Foster to collect all the forces intended for the operation. It also allowed the Navy time to position support.
Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren faced several competing requirements at this point – the blockade, the force pressuring Charleston (mostly a counter-force to the Confederate ironclads there), and refit of ships after a season of hard use. And of course, he’d recently lost key elements of the fleet, to include the USS New Ironsides. But Dahlgren “pitched in” to support Foster’s operation. Though this mainly came at the expense of direct pressure on Charleston.
Foster and Dahlgren conferred at least once between June 20 and 25. Dahlgren indicated the purpose was to devise a plan to spoil a rumored Confederate attack. There is little indication from Foster that such was considered a major threat. And Confederate accounts do not suggest any planned operation. What eve the motive, both agreed to plans for limited offensive operations. In his after action report, Dahlgren offered his version of the agreed upon plan, without noting the date of conception:
General Schimmelfennig will land at Legaréville with 1,000 men Friday night, 1st July, and will also land 2,000 men on Cole’s Island on the same night and front Secessionville.
General Hatch will land at Seabrook at the same time with 4,000 men and will be at the ferry near Rantowle’s Bridge on Saturday night to demonstrate against the city and Fort Pemberton on Sunday, and perhaps Monday.
General Birney will go into North Edisto and as high as possible to destroy railroad.
The navy will enter Stono Saturday morning and previous night to cooperate with General Schimmelfennig as far as line from Battery Pringle to Secessionville.
One or two gunboats will ascend North Edisto and cooperate with General Birney, to ensure his landing.
This is a demonstration only, but may be converted into a real attack after consultation between General Foster and Admiral Dahlgren.
If General Schimmelfennig notifies the naval officer in Stono that he intends to assault the works in front of him, all the disposable naval force is to assist him and as often as he repeats the assault.
I would first point out this plan differs in detail to those sent by Foster to Major-General Henry Halleck on June 30. But the opening sentance may explain this. Foster recorded an intended start time for the evening of July 1, as opposed to the original plan for the evening of June 30. This is, therefore, likely a modification of the original plan, and that enacted on July 1. An important detail of the execution moved Birney’s column from the Ashepoo River to the North Edisto. And the point of attack on the railroad was therefore different. Jacksonboro was the objective, with Ashepoo Ferry a follow on if possible. The modified plan, still wide ranging, looked like this on the map:
Such changes allow me to zoom in closer on the map, but the military details are the point here. While I don’t see a written artifact to state such, I believe the change for Birney’s route was due to the limited number of gunboats Dahlgren could send in support. On the map, this gives the appearance of columns within supporting distance. The reality, in the marshes of coastal South Carolina, is those columns might as well been fifty or 100 miles apart. What would make this plan worked, in either the original or modified form, was timing. If all columns hit at roughly the same instant, some point – if not several points – would be overwhelmed.
Dahlgren’s version of the plan also seems to indicate Schimmelfennig’s force became the “main” effort while Hatch’s and Birney’s were downgraded. Foster’s records do not support such an assessment. Likely Dahlgren simply recorded the three columns of action working from the Stono River then to the west in order. But what cannot be explained are the troop figures provided by Dahlgren, which are much higher than what Foster reported to Halleck on June 30.
To support the army, Dahlgren repositioned gunboats and monitors. The monitors USS Lehigh and USS Montauk moved into Stono Inlet along with the gunboats USS Pawnee, and USS McDonough, and the mortar schooners USS Para and USS Racer. Dahglren sent the USS Dai Ching, USS Wamsutta, and USS Geranium to the North Edisto (the USS Memphis remained on blockade station at that inlet). Inside the Charleston bar the monitors USS Sangamon (a new arrival), USS Catskill, USS Nahant, and USS Nantucket remained. Perhaps another indicator of how quickly this operation was thrown together, the Dai Ching conducted mine-sweeping in the Stono River on July 1, to clear the way for the force ascending there, before moving over to the North Edisto River.
The closing paragraphs of Dahlgren’s version of the plan remained true to Foster’s vision. This operation was in essence a large demonstration. Both commanders hoped it could be developed, at one or more of the points of demonstration, into a full assault to gain a purchase. Should that happen, the entire coast of South Carolina, and possibly Georgia, might be threatened.
These operations kicked off 150 years ago last night (July 1). With the morning of July 2, Federal troops were landing and manuvering at several points opposite James and John’s Islands and flotillas were operating up the North Edisto and Stono Rivers. What Confederate leaders in Charleston feared worst – a renewed Federal offensive – seemed to emerge from the mists. I’ll turn to the successes and failures of those opening moves in the next post.
(Citation from ORN, Series I, Volume 15, page 554.)