Even with the failures and setbacks of July 2, 1864, Major-General John Foster still had a good opportunity to crack the Confederate lines. His stated primary objective -the rail lines between Charleston and Savannah – was out of reach. But the Confederate lines directly in front of Charleston were seriously weakened state. The fifth portion of Foster’s plan called for a force to assault the area around Fort Johnson by boat on the night of July 2, reasoning the Confederates would have to weaken that portion of the line when threatened elsewhere. His reasoning was correct. But the execution of the assault left much to be desired.
Under this leg of Foster’s plan, Colonel William Gurney of the 127th New York would command the force moving across the backwaters between Morris Island and James Island to assault Fort Johnson and Battery Simkins. Gurney’s force included a portion of his regiment under Major Edward Little; the 52nd Pennsylvania, under Colonel Henry Hoyt; and an 80 man detachment from the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery. This was a sizable force for a simple raiding party. Hoyt reported taking into the action some 500 men in twenty boats. Gurney would remain at Paine’s Dock with Hoyt in tactical command of the attacking force.
At Fort Johnson, Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph A. Yates, 1st South Carolina Artillery, had but 100 men. He had an additional thirty men guarding Battery Simkins. The remainder of his command, and nearby garrisons, were pulled towards the west end of James Island to block the Federal forces there. Most of the guns in the fort were heavy weapons mounted to fire on the harbor. But a pair of 30-pdr Parrotts and field howitzers were in place on the parapets. Even with that, the attacking force held a significant advantage in numbers, and the cover of night.
Initially the boats were to take a route well into the harbor channel to avoid low water. But shortly before launching, a decision was made, to reduce the possibility of detection, to use a course closer to the marsh. A new pilot, a sergeant from the 127th New York, was said to know a channel deep enough to allow boats to pass. Apparently, the pilot failed to take into account the tides, which were falling when the expedition left Paine’s Dock around 2 a.m. For several hours the flotilla bumbled through the flats. Boats grounded and ran afoul of each other. Multiple times the boat line stopped to re-align.
Finally, just before daybreak, Hoyt took control of the piloting himself. Roughly 1000 yards from Fort Johnson, he pressed on despite the growing light and found channels to shore:
From this point there was no obstacle to encounter except the enemy. It was becoming daylight and the designated point of landing was in view. The first gun was fired as the leading boat rounded a small sandspit running out from Simkins toward the Brooke gun battery, and about 100 yards from it.
Perhaps because the boats were so close to shore, Hoyt reported most of the cannon fire passed over the heads of the men. Pressing on:
A landing was immediately and successfully effected by the leading boats at the Brooke gun battery, which was readily carried, and no halt whatever occurred at it. Five boats were now ashore … being a total of 6 officers and 135 men, all of the Fifty-second Pennsylvania Volunteers. It was now apparent that not only were no other boats landing but that the entire expedition were retreating in the boats, not only without orders, but in disobedience to the most explicit orders to the contrary. Neither then nor since have I been able to arrive at any satisfactory knowledge of the causes and facts connected with their failure to land.
Major Thomas Jayne, with the third division of boats, later claimed he wanted to land but could not sort out the confusion with the boats preceding his. Little, with the 127th New York’s boats, likewise fell back with Jayne. But Hoyt was ashore and had little other choice but to press the matter:
So much of the expedition as disembarked pushed with all the vigor possible upon Fort Johnson and its connected line of high earthen parapets. The parapet was entered near the main fort with a brisk movement of about 30 in the advance, who exchanged shots within the work, but were compelled to retire. The whole of our force was then conducted along the entire line from the rebel left to the right, with repeated efforts to enter it, until at the extreme right another assault was attempted. It was only partially successful and resulted in the capture of most of the troops who joined the attempt.
At this time my forces were very largely outnumbered; the controversy was prolonged some little time, but in a feeble and desultory manner, and the undertaking was abandoned. The entire party was taken prisoners.
Hoyt reported seven killed in his command. About 140 were captured, including Hoyt. The fifth part of Foster’s offensive had failed but within arms reach of its goal.
In a formal inquiry into this failure, filed the following October, Major John Gray, Judge-Advocate, rebuked Gurney for not commanding from a forward position. Gray also cited several officers “most wanting in decision and power of command.” But he was quick to laud the bravery of those who prosecuted the attack. Concluding, Gray wrote:
The expedition was well planned, and notwithstanding hinderances and delays would have succeeded had it not been for the absence of the commanding officer and the want of spirit and energy on the part of many of his subordinates.
With respect to Gray’s conclusions, one still must ask what could the Federals have done even with Fort Johnson in their hands that morning? There were no reinforcements prepared for crossing to Hoyt’s aid. The closest forces would be those on the west end of James Island, confronting entrenched Confederates.
But Foster had not shot his wad. Not hardly. He was still in possession of parts of John’s and James Islands. And he still had all those heavy guns on Morris Island. His ultimate orders from Washington had been to harass the Confederates and pin down as many around Charleston as possible. If he could not crack the defenses or sever the railroad, at least he would force the Confederates to commit resources. For the next two months, Foster would make noise around Charleston.
(Sources: OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 16-17, 39-41, 86-103, and 166; John Johnson, The Defense of Charleston Harbor: Including Fort Sumter and the Adjacent Islands, 1863-1865, Walker, Evans & Cogswell Company, 1890, pages 216-8; Frederic Denison, Shot and Shell: The Third Rhode Island Heavy Artillery Regiment in the Rebellion, 1861-1865, Providence, R.I.: Third Rhode Island Artillery Veterans Association, 1879, pages 256-9.)