July 12, 1864: Foster considers “the demonstration… perfectly successful in one respect.”

On July 12, 1864, Major-General John Foster provided an update to Major-General Henry Halleck, Army Chief of Staff in Washington, with regard to operations outside Charleston.  By that date, Federals troops had withdrawn from James and John’s Island.  With that, Foster’s July offensive was closed – every column sent forth had returned, for better or worse.

Foster summarized the closing actions on John’s Island, noting the arrival of Confederate troops out of Atlanta to reinforce Charleston.  He explained the decision to withdraw in military terms:

Having ascertained by reconnaissance that the establishment of enfilading batteries on the south side of the Stono would be of little effect against the well-traversed batteries of the enemy on the north side, and that to venture a general assault would be to incur a certain heavy loss, with doubtful results, I decided to re-embark at once, and after giving the men a few days’ rest to try the enemy at another point. The demonstration had proved perfectly successful in one respect, viz, impressing the enemy with alarm as to our purposes, and in forcing him to accumulate a large force to meet us. The troops were re-embarked (unmolested) on Saturday night and Sunday morning, and returned to their stations.

Indeed, Foster did not have the manpower for a prolonged siege akin to what took place the previous year on Morris Island. However, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren was somewhat dismayed that Foster did not maintain pressure on James Island.  Foster reported the loss of “33 killed, 133 wounded, 143 missing, 3 sunstruck, and 18 drowned by the upsetting of a boat.”  Most of the missing men were from the ill-fated July 3 attack on Fort Johnson.

Foster could, at one level, call the operation a success.  He had forced the Confederates to pull resources from Sullivan’s Island, Savannah, and Atlanta – small in number, however – to Charleston.  And, after all, he was only supposed to engage in raids and demonstrations, according to guidance from Washington.  He was not supposed to actually capture Charleston, at this time.  And, as Foster went on to discuss, he still had plenty of initiative to spend.  In addition to maintaining a steady bombardment of Fort Sumter, Foster planned to wreck the fort entirely with rafts filled with powder.  Furthermore, as he had alluded to in his original plan, he looked to Savannah as a stage for another demonstration.  Lastly, he was still after the railroad:

I am now collecting the four companies of cavalry, all the cavalry that remains in the department, for the purpose of a raid on the railroad. As the weather is too hot for infantry to march any distance, I propose to land the infantry and cavalry together, and push forward the latter to do its work, while the former holds the landing and advances as far as possible to give support.

Closing, Foster expressed overall satisfaction with his command:

The general health of the command is good. The late movements have had a decidedly beneficial effect on the troops, both white and black. The latter, especially, improved every day that they were out, and. I am happy to say, toward the last evinced a considerable degree of pluck and good fighting qualities. I am now relieved of apprehension as to this class of troops, and believe, with active service and drill, they can be made thorough soldiers.

The Confederate assessment of the actions on during the first days of July 1864 were somewhat different.  Writing years after the war, Captain John Johnson considered the outcome with some pride at having deflected another Federal attempt to gain Charleston:

Although removed from Fort Sumter, this fighting on the adjacent islands, and particularly at Fort Johnson, involved the safety of the whole harbor, for it was imperiling the communications and threatening to turn or take in reverse all the principal fortifications of the Confederates.  The land and naval forces of the attack were strong enough, but they were not pushed with the vigor that characterized the fighting on Morris Island. Had they been, they might have achieved in one week what the toilsome and bloody campaign of Morris Island failed to accomplish after twelve months – viz. the capture of Charleston.  On the other hand, the Confederates, though thinly scattered over an extended coast deeply indented with navigable tideways, were ever on the alert, ever ready to contest the advance of their enemy, and did successfully repel all his attacks.  This was done by the prompt concentration and placing of troops under Major-General Sam Jones, commanding the department, and by their admirable fighting under their respective commanders.

Thus in the progress of the war Charleston had twice driven back the forces of the Federal navy under DuPont and Dahlgren in 1863, and twice the forces of the Federal army under Benham in 1862 and Foster in 1864. The latter general was next to essay, with enormous expenditure of ammunition, the vain task of destroying Fort Sumter.

I think that when assessing Foster’s July operation, many historians give Johnson’s view a lot of weight. Perhaps unjustly, some have tipped the scales against Foster.

There is no doubt several opportunities arose during the period of July 2-10, 1864 in which, if exploited perfectly, might have lead to the capture of Charleston.  But in all fairness, perfect exploitation is a rare occurrence on the battlefield. What would Foster have done with possession of Fort Johnson, held by a few hundred men, on July 3? Reinforce, with what?  Likewise, had his later maneuvers turned Battery Pringle, did he have the forces to turn the next line (or two) required to gain the harbor?

In context of the moment that was July 1864, Foster commanded a supporting theater.  His job was to simply maintain the status quo.  He was to engage and pin down Confederate forces, without becoming so heavily engaged as to pull Federal forces into a greater engagement.  With that in mind, regardless of how disgusted Dahlgren was in his diary, Foster’s decision not to press on with vigor was the right choice.  At least Foster’s operation didn’t lead to another Red River – which was just the sort of distraction Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant wanted to avoid.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, pages 16-17; John Johnson, The Defense of Charleston Harbor: Including Fort Sumter and the Adjacent Islands, 1863-1865, Walker, Evans & Cogswell Company, 1890, page 223.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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