Continuing on with Major-General John Foster’s July 1864 operations in front of Charleston, having discussed Foster’s plan, coordination with the Navy, and the failures with columns striking for the Charleston & Savannah Railroad, let me turn to the concurrent actions on James Island. I’m a bit out of the 150th time line here. The actions described below occurred “yesterday 150 years ago” from this posting.
Under Foster’s plan, Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig was to press a demonstration in front of James Island for the purpose of drawing troops there. Foster hoped this would distract from the other, main effort, operations against the railroad and possibly uncover some of the Confederate defenses elsewhere. Schimmelfennig put Colonel Alfred Hartwell in charge of the demonstration, consisting of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts, 103rd New York, and 33rd USCT. The infantry were supported by This force moved in two columns. One column including the 54th Massachusetts moved by way of the repaired causeway from Cole’s Island, through Battery Island, to Sol Legare. The other, led by the 103rd New York, crossed over from Long Island to Sol Legare from the east. From there the two columns would merge and move over to James Island by way of Rivers’ Causeway.
For the men of the 54th Massachusetts, this was familiar ground where they had fought just over a year earlier. Furthermore the Federals conducted numerous patrols in the area over the winter and spring months. The crossing points and landing areas were well known. But the Federals had failed to appreciate the Confederate units posted, in rotations, at the crossing points from Sol Legare.
As with the other Federal operations, this movement was scheduled for the morning of July 1. The 24-hour delay meant Major Joseph Morrison’s men of the 103rd New York spent much time counter-marching and rowing. Likewise the men of the other column, moving by the causeway, spent considerable time exposed to the heat in light marching order. But despite the fatigue, both columns went forward on the morning of July 2.
In his journal, Confederate Major Edward Manigault wrote:
At daylight the Yankees appeared suddenly at the East End of James Island. Lieut. [Thomas] DeLorme, who had his horses all hitched in, gallopped down to River’s Causeway. The Enemy advanced at first in Column (or probably by a flank 4 deep) along the back beach of James Island from the East. Lieut. DeLorme immediately opened fire upon them at first with Shell & Case Shot and afterwards with Canister.
DeLorme had with him a section of Battery A, 1st South Carolina (Blake’s Battery), consisting of two 12-pdr Napoleons. They were reinforcing the fifteen man picket normally stationed at the crossing. In the action, DeLorme’s gunners would fire 54 rounds. And with telling effect, as Morrison recounted:
The first fire of the enemy killed 7 of my men and wounded many others, and as my regiment was taken completely by surprise and in no position to charge the battery, I was compelled to fall back a few rods and reform behind a strong rifle-pit, running in front of the enemy’s works.
Eventually, though, the Federal numbers pressed the Confederate defense. The 33rd USCT were able to provide covering fire as the 55th Massachusetts moved forward to occupy the earthworks defending the crossing. The 55th captured the guns, though at a cost of seven killed and 21 wounded. The road was now open, but the Confederates were well alarmed to the Federal advance.
Hartwell now ordered a general advance onto James Island and formed a battle line from near Grimball’s Landing over to the approaches to Secessionville.
Moving up to support Hartwell’s four regiments were the Rocket Battery and a section of Battery B, 3rd New York Artillery. The gunboat USS Commodore McDonough moved up the Stono River to cover the Federal left flank. Opposing the advance, Manigault had only 449 men. But the Confederates were behind works with heavy artillery commanding the approaches.
They threw a picket line forward of the defenses to keep the Federals at arms length.
Furthermore, the heat of the day began to take a toll heavier than bullets and shells on both sides. Manigault wrote, “In some of the Commands nearly one fourth were reported incapacitated.” He also added, “I remember my intense Thurst.” On the other side of the line, Luis Emilio of the 54th Massachusetts later recalled:
Throughout that whole day, with a temperature at 110º, offices and men on James Island, both Union and Confederate, were succumbing to the heat of the sun. More than fifty men of the Fifty-fourth were affected to a greater or lesser degree…. Captain Jones, commanding the skirmishers, was compelled to retire, and was taken to the rear delirious. He suffered all his life thereafter in head and brain, and died from the effects in 1886. Lieut. Chas. Jewett, Jr., was seriously injured from the same cause, and died from it in 1890…. It was not possible to send a relieving force without sustaining heavy casualties, so stretchers were taken out, and upon them a number of men were brought back.
As the day wore on, both sides continued to spar between picket lines. The Federals began constructing breastworks behind their advanced lines, in many cases converting captured Confederate works. Their presence and indications they intended to stay cause great alarm in Charleston. Over 500 men shifted from other points around the harbor to reinforce James Island. And within the James Island garrison, Brigadier-General William Taliaferro shifted troops out of Fort Johnson and surrounding works to help hold the west end of his line.
By nightfall, the Federals quietly retired to that new line and prepared for the next day. The demonstration, costly in lives and fatiguing many more, did serve its purpose. In reaction to this strong show of force, the Confederates had weakened a significant portion of their lines. The Federals knew this and were prepared to exploit.
(Sources and citations from: OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 76-7; Luis Fenollosa Emilio, History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865, Boston: Boston Book Company, 1894, pages 199-206; Edward Manigault, Siege Train: The Journal of a Confederate Artilleryman in the Defense of Charleston, edited by Warren Ripley, Charleston: University of South Carolina Press, 1986, pages 191-5.)