At dawn on July 2, 1864, Major-General John Foster’s July offensive was well under way. A force of 5,000 infantry, 100 cavalry, and two sections of artillery afloat on transports, personally directed by Foster, entered the North Edisto River as the sun rose over the South Carolina coast. Foster first saw to putting Brigadier-General John Hatch’s forces ashore at Seabrook Island. With the transports secure and the landings beginning, Foster proceeded further up the river with Brigadier-General William Birney’s column. Originally Foster intended to land Birney on the Ashepoo River, further down the coast. But modifications to his plan had Birney leading 1,200 men landing at White Point on the North Edisto.
Birney’s infantry consisted of 532 men of the 7th USCT, 370 men from the 34th USCT, 241 men from the 35th USCT, and 35 men from the 75th Ohio. A supporting detachment of thirty marines with two boat howitzers accompanied the column. In addition a company of engineers were attached.
Birney’s were to march inland towards Jacksonboro, destroy the railroad bridge there, and, if the situation allowed, continue down the railroad to Ashepoo Ferry, likewise destroying the railroad bridge there.
Plan looked fairly sound on the map until considering the Confederate defenses. Birney’s march took his column directly into the Sixth Military District of South Carolina, under the command of Brigadier-General Beverly Robertson. Earlier that winter, Robertson’s predecessor, Brigadier-General Henry Wise, had voiced concern about Federal approaches on that particular line of march. In January, Wise proposed to construct a line of works:
… north of the Wadmalaw and Edisto from Meggett’s to Young’s Island; thence,to Torgoodoo Neck; thence to forks of Torgoodoo; thence to Ashe’s; thence to Little Brittain, to Tom’s Point, to Slann’s Island Creek defile, to Pineberry, at the house point and in the marshes, and thence to Willstown, where I would recommend strong combined field and heavy works.
Generally (very, generally due to the map scale), those lines appear in dashed red, with key points as red boxes, on the map. The terrain in that area features several natural causeways, and Wise recognized if well positioned even a small force could block a major advance. Wise was able to construct some of the proposed works, in particular a work near the Slann’s (sometimes Slan’s) Island Creek defile.
Marching up from White Point, Birney’s column had to cross Slann’s Island and run up against the Confederate defenses mentioned in Wise’s plans.
At 5.15 a.m., we began our march. We had gone about half a mile when our scouts were fired upon by the rebel skirmishers. Our skirmishers advanced steadily, supported by the column, and drove before them the small rebel force for about 3 miles, when it passed over a creek, taking up the bridge behind it. A rebel battery opened immediately. Knowing they would shell the main road, I moved my command to the right and continued my advance under cover of the woods. The road we had left was shelled with great precision.
At around that time, Robertson reported the Federal advance. Down the telegraph from Charleston came the reply:
No troops can be sent to re-enforce you, as the enemy is making a heavy demonstration on James Island. Must drive them off first.
Foster’s scheme to press the Confederates at several points appeared to be working. But confronted by a creek, well positioned artillery, and Confederate skirmishers, Birney’s part in the plan stalled.
I reconnoitered the creek and swamp on both sides of the bridge and found them impassable. The swamp was miry and deep, and swept by the guns of a rebel fort near the Dawho, and also by the guns of the battery and earth-works. The creek was a salt-water one, deep, and bordered by a miry marsh on each side. The narrowest water I could find, except at the bridge, was about 37 yards, running between marshy borders, each about 50 yards wide. The place where the bridge had been was narrower, but was swept by both a raking and flanking fire of the enemy’s cannon.
Foster brought up two gunboats up to provide flanking fire on the Confederate position and ordered Birney to attempt crossing in a boat. But Birney reported he was unable to make the crossing. With that, Birney withdrew, putting a good spin on the failure, recording “The affair was an excellent drill for them preparatory to real fighting.” He recorded six wounded in the “drill.”
On Seabrook Island, Hatch was likewise having problems. His command consisted of three regiments Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton’s brigade of three regiments, Colonel W. W. H. Davis’ brigade also with three regiments, and two companies of the 4th Massachusetts. Since their area of operations was the same as the February 1864 demonstration, I’ll reuse a map depicting the key places:
The lead regiment in the landing was Colonel W.J. Slidell’s 144th New York, of Davis’ brigade. Although Slidell managed to cross Seabrook Island and gain Haulover Cut, the rest of Hatch’s force was slow to follow. Hatch explained:
Owing to the shallowness of water at the dock and unexpected difficulties in landing, we were unable to complete the disembarkation until the morning of the 3d instant…. The remainder of Davis’ brigade, with a few cavalry, were sent to [Slidell’s] support as soon as possible, and a good bridge over the cut, capable of passing artillery, completed before night. As soon as landed Saxton’s command and the cavalry were pushed forward to Haulover Cut, where the last of the command arrived about 10 a.m. on the 3d.
So Hatch’s movements would be a full day behind schedule.
With those two setbacks, both the primary and secondary aims of Foster’s offensive were stymied. Any hope of reaching the railroad was gone. And with the railroad secure, Confederates retained the ability to shift troops from Savannah to reinforce threatened points. Success of the operation now fell to Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig and the forces operating in front of James Island. His morning movements had actually produced meager results… for a demonstration.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 84, 408-9, 528; Part II, Serial 66, page 551.)