“The troops behaved very handsomely”: John’s Island Operations – July 3-11, 1864

At this time 150 years ago, as I’ve alluded to in earlier posts, Major-General John Foster’s July operations in the field fizzled as he refocused his attention on Fort Sumter in the form of a heavy bombardment.  One might say Foster’s offensive was a flat failure.  But on the other hand, his stated objective – at least the one he related to his superiors – was simply to demonstrate in front of Charleston.  Before I discuss and assess Foster’s offensive, I must briefly summarize the operations on John’s Island, having neglected those somewhat.  Brigadier-General John Hatch’s command there operated on the west side of the Stono River with the original objective of the railroad bridge at Rantowles.  Generally the advance would have looked something like this:

JohnsIslandOrigPlan

But from the start, Hatch ran into delays just getting men ashore.  Then his advance slowed due to the heat and rains.  With reinforcements, Hatch’s command now numbered over 5,000 men.  On July 5, Hatch’s lead elements moved up from Huntscum’s corner (where a roads connected Legareville with the main part of John’s Island) and advanced in the direction of the Stono River.  Opposing this advance was Major John Jenkins, 3rd South Carolina Cavalry, with small force of cavalry and a battery of artillery.   At first Jenkins attempted to cut behind Hatch.  But seeing that as futile, he then moved on a parallel road, moving some eleven miles, to get in front of the Federals.  (The map below generally summarizes the movements from July 5 to 9, 1864)

JohnsIslandJuly1864

Jenkins was unable to prevent Hatch from securing passage to a plantation home known as Waterloo Place, owned by J. Grimball, but he had prevented any further movement towards Rantowles.

On July 6, both sides skirmished around Waterloo Place.  The Federals attempted to gain ground to fire in flank on Battery Pringle, but found no suitable location for artillery.  Foster, who had moved onto John’s Island to direct operations, put Hatch temporarily in overall command of operations against Charleston on that day.  In turn Hatch elevated Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton to command the operations on John’s Island.

Saxton, now charged with finding some means to flank Battery Pringle, looked down the road for a good artillery position.  Although north of Waterloo Place the ground was predominately marsh, just past, on the Grevias’ plantation was a spot of high ground which might serve the purpose.  To reach that position, the Federals had to pass a causeway leading to the Burden plantation.  On July 7th, Saxton pushed out to occupy that ground, as reported later by Hatch:

General Saxton this day attacked the enemy’s line of rifle-pits with the Twenty-sixth U.S. Colored Troops.  The troops behaved very handsomely, advancing steadily in open ground, under a heavy fire, and driving the enemy from the line.  Had the advance been supported, the enemy’s artillery would have been captured; as it was, both artillery and infantry were driven from the field.

The 26th USCT captured several buildings on the Grevais’ plantation that morning, but were driven back.  Later that day, the Federals again pressed forward, gaining some ground.  But the steady work of Confederate field artillery kept them in check.  Fire from Battery Pringle’s heavy guns seemed to have drawn Federal attention away from the action at Grevais’ and, as Hatch mentioned, left the USCT unsupported in their advance.

Showing that the Federals were not alone with respect to slow advances, Brigadier-General Beverly Robertson moved from Adams’ Run on the afternoon of July 7 with the intent of driving back Hatch’s force.  Robertson intended to attack at Grevais’ by morning of July 8, but miss routed supply wagons prevented an attack that day.  Not until the morning of July 9 was Robertson in position.  The force consisted of the 1st Georgia Regulars Battalion, a dismounted detachment from the 4th Georgia Cavalry, and three companies of the 32nd Georgia Infantry.  An attack at 5:45 a.m. succeeded in driving in Federal pickets, but little else.  A second attack roughly an hour later gained more ground.  But six well placed Federal Napoleon guns blocked any further advance.  Roberston was able to report, however, “Our occupation of his front line completely thwarted the enemy’s plans, as it secured to us the elevated ground between Burden’s Causeway and Grevais’ house….”  From the open ground there, the Federals could have enfiladed Battery Pringle (though there is little indication that was a properly developed scheme on the part of the Federals).

That evening, sensing little else could be accomplished on John’s Island without applying more resources than Foster was willing to commit, preparations began for a withdrawal.  The Federals left John’s Island by way of Legareville.  Thus ended Hatch’s portion of Foster’s July opertions.  The actions at Waterloo Place and Burden’s Causeway (Grevias’ Plantation) were but small skirmishes in context of other major battles occurring in other theaters.  Hatch reported the loss of 11 killed and 71 wounded during the entire time on John’s Island (but alluded to a small number of missing, presumed captured).  Robertson reported 37 killed and 91 wounded.

Perhaps, with a bit more drive and support, the Federals might have gained a significant lodgement on John’s Island.  At the same time, the Confederates demonstrated the ability to hamper any advance up the narrow corridors in the marshes and swamps of John’s Island.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 85 and 142-3.)