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.)
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:
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.)