“the Spencer rifles, saved us all from destruction”: Raid on Salt Works outside Brunswick, Georgia

As I try to keep with the 150th time line and highlight the “storyline” of activities in the South Carolina and Georgia, there are some points on the calendar where I just can’t keep up with my writing.  Such is the case of the days at the end of July and first weeks of August 1864.  With the Third Major Bombardment in full swing, the exchange of prisoners, movement of troops north to Virginia, and the normal blockade activities, there was a lot to record in that period.  With all that activity around Charleston, the Georgia coast was not exactly quiet.  With a couple of raids along the coast, the Federal Navy caused quite a stir among the Confederates in that district of the theater.

The first of these raids took place on July 30, 1864.  Acting Lieutenant Robert P. Swann, from the USS Potomska, led six boats from St. Simon’s Sound into the Back River, to the east of Brunswick, Georgia, that morning.  Working their way approximately six miles into the backwater, the expedition reached a pair of salt works.  “One of the works contained twelve pans and the other six.  The pans were the largest I have ever sen and the masonry very substantial,” as Swann described. (I’ve always thought these salt works were in the vicinity of the community of Belle Point, along US Highway 17, just north of Brunswick.)

1864BackRiverRaid3

By 9:30 a.m. the sailors had completed their work, destroying the pans and 150 bushels of salt.  They also took six contrabands who manned the salt works.  Low tide delayed Swann’s return.  A half hour later, while working their way back to the ship, they received a volley from a Confederate force laying in ambush on the bank.  The Confederate fire wounded five men, including one mortally.  But the sailors quickly returned fire:

Our arms, the Spencer rifles, saved us all from destruction, as the rapidity with which we fired caused the enemy to lie low, and their firing was after the first volley very wild.  The sails of the first cutter were pierced by fourteen balls, and there were five in her hull.  The third cutter was struck in the hull and sails several times.  We fought them three-fourths of an hour, some of the time up to our knees in mud, trying to land and capture them, and some of the time in the water with the boats for a breastwork.  The mud was so soft that we found it impossible to land and fight them, but the raking fire we kept up on them, firing at the smoke of their guns, drove them off.

In just under an hour of firing, the expedition expended some 200 rounds.

During the summer of 1864, a handful of casualties, twelve destroyed salt pots, 150 bushels of salt, and 200 rounds of Spencer ammunition were but a drop in the bucket.  So this raid was but a small occurrence.  However, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren made much of this raid, along with a raid which took place a few days later, in reports to the Navy Department. Indeed Swann received mention by name (not bad for an “Acting Lieutenant”).

To offer a geographic context, those raids took place well to the south of Savannah:

1864SummerRaidsAug

The raid on August 3, 1864 (which I’ll focus on in tomorrow’s post), took place in McIntosh County and involved the capture of 26 people who were meeting at Ebenezer Church (or meeting house). And there was a third raid, taking place at the end of August, which destroyed a turpentine distillery just southwest of Brunswick (of my map).

On the basis of these successful raids and other experiences, Dahlgren began forwarding his own assessments to authorities in Washington.  While he saw no opportunity to occupy coastal Georgia, given the limited manpower at hand for the Federals, these raids revealed an lack of manpower defending the coast.  “Rebeldom has exhausted its last resource; we have not touched ours.”

(Citation from ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 584-5.)

August 3, 1864: Exchange of prisoners at Charleston – 5 generals and 45 field officers

On August 3, 1864, for a short time period the guns around Charleston fell silent.  The reason for the pause in the Third Major Bombardment was a flag of truce to conduct the exchange of fifty prisoners.  Five generals and forty-five field officers held in Charleston since mid-June traded places with a like number of Confederate officers, which the Federals had planned – but not actually placed – adjacent to the batteries on Morris Island.  The 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery regimental history recalled the moment:

Aug. 3.  Under a flag of truce the siege ceased for a few hours, while a steamer from Charleston came down the harbor and met our steamer Cosmopolitan off Fort Strong, and exchanged about fifty general and field officers who had been in prison in Charleston, for the same number that were about to be put under the rebel fire on our front. The silence in the siege was strange and impressive to us; our ears had become accustomed to the ceaseless thunders of battle. But as soon as the steamers returned to their lines the great guns on both sides resumed their hoarse and hostile music.

To be clear about the status of Confederate prisoners, the structures in which the Federals planned to hold the officers was not completed at that time.  One of the pens was “smitten by the rebel cannon” and its remains pilfered by Federal troops (wood was a scarce commodity on the barrier island).

Both sides fired ceremonial salutes to their repatriated officers.  And initially both sides concluded the episode closed the book on these prisoner-related activities.  Concurrent to the exchange, three officers appeared on the Federal lines having escaped from a train from Andersonville to Charleston.  Instead of closing the books on this matter, the Confederates were escalating.  Writing to Washington two days after the exchange, Major-General John Foster related details of the Confederate prisoner operations throughout the south:

The information given by our prisoners of war, now liberated, and by deserters, also by the late rebel papers, represent that our soldiers now prisoners at Andersonville, Ga., are destitute of comforts and necessaries, and are rapidly dying. The number of deaths per day varies, according to reports, from 30 to 70. I do not know what the wishes of the Government may be, but if it desire that our imprisoned soldiers may be exchanged, so as to relieve them from their distress, I can easily have the matter arranged with the Confederate authorities so as to effect an exchange here. The exchange can be made by way of the Savannah River, and we can easily arrange to guard any number of prisoners on our islands here, and to supply them at least as bountifully as our men are supplied that are in the hands of the enemy.

The state of Andersonville was, by this point in the war, known to the Federal authorities.  And Foster clearly expressed a desire to relieve that suffering.  But on point here was the policy – the Confederate policy in regard to capture of USCT, and to be fair the Federal policy of suspending exchanges in response.  That should be remembered when weighing the story of prisons and POWs during this phase of the Civil War.  After all, the echoes of the Crater of Petersburg were just rolling out on August 3, 1864.

I think the Confederate authorities are very desirous to have an exchange effected, both of officers and of men. The insecure position in which our prisoners have been confined probably causes this desire. They have already been obliged to remove our officers from Macon, and 600 of them have already arrived in Charleston and the others are to follow; this from its being the only secure place and the hope that it may induce to a still further exchange.

And there we have the next page in this prisoner saga for the summer of 1864 – 600 Federal prisoners in Charleston to replace the fifty just exchanged.  Foster’s reaction was not so much retaliation, but to demonstrate Federal resolve in this regard:

I shall notify Maj. Gen. Samuel Jones that no more exchanges will be made through Charleston Harbor, and that if any are authorized by the Government they will be made by the Savannah River. The effect of this is to induce them to remove our officers from Charleston to Savannah, so that our fire may be continued on the city without the risk of hurting our friends. I have, however, taken pains to ascertain where our prisoners were confined so as to direct the fire to the other parts.

Later would come the Federal retaliation – in the form of the Immortal Six Hundred.  I am very often amazed with certain modern accounts of this episode –  particularly a CERTAIN account which contends to be authoritative on the subject – fail to fully recognize the back-and-forth play here.  The Confederates pushed this issue and to be certain held prisoners under the guns from mid-June.  The Federal retaliation, in all actuality, didn’t really play out until much later in the summer.

So on this day (August 3) in 1864, one group of prisoners were exchanged, but another group had arrived in Charleston.  The battle over prisoners escalated further.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, page 213; 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, page 262.)