Early in the Civil War, it was possible for commanders in the far flung theaters of war to operate with some degree of separation from the advances or setbacks in other sectors. By the summer of 1864, that was simply not possible. Partly by way of Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant’s approach to the war, the theaters of war were connected as resources shifted in accordance with priorities. In August 1864, the pressing priority was not Charleston, or Savannah. Rather, due to the actions of Confederate Major-General Jubal Early, top on the list was the Shenandoah Valley.
As such, orders came from Washington for Major-General John Foster to forward any troops that might be spared from the Department of the South. On August 15, Foster wrote to Major-General Henry Halleck acknowledging the orders, noting he had already sent a brigade under Brigadier-General William Birney:
I had already sent Brigadier-General Birney’s brigade, which I thought was all that I could safely spare, but being desirous to carry out my orders to the very letter, and to meet the wishes of the commanding general, I have so arranged, since the receipt of your telegram, as to send three or four white regiments in addition. Although this will leave me too weak in some points, especially as I have to provide for the security of the prisoners of war that are to be sent here, yet I believe I can so arrange, by the rapid transfer of troops from one point to another in case of attack, as to meet any emergency that is likely to occur. I trust it will not be longer than the return of cold weather before a sufficient force can be given me to enable me to operate successfully against the enemy in this department.
On August 18, Foster reported progress in the transfers and identified specific regiments going north:
I am sending every man that can possibly be spared. This will leave me very weak, but I can take care of the department with what remains, and if the rebels attack us, which I consider out of the question, I will show them a revised edition of Little Washington. I have thought it my duty to send good and tried regiments. Those sent in this second brigade are all whites and old, well-tried troops, most of them veterans. I hope my active efforts to meet General Grant’s wishes at this time may be effective in securing me, as soon as cold and healthy weather sets in, a sufficient force to take Charleston and Savannah. I am sure that this can be done at any time that the Government orders it.
The regiments sent now–four in number–report as follows, very nearly, viz:
- 41st New York Volunteers – 400 men, 300 effectives.
- 103d New York Volunteers – 500 men, 370 effectives.
- 74th Pennsylvania Volunteers – 500 men, 350 effectives.
- White regiment from Florida – ?
Later the 104th Pennsylvania became the “to be determined” regiment from Florida. This effectively stripped the Department of any offensive capability by land, short of a risky reallocation of defenses. The “Little Washington” alluded to was of course a reference to Fort Stevens and the fight there in July of that year. Foster did not believe the Confederates could muster more than a demonstration. The three identified regiments were on transports heading north that day, as Foster noted in a follow up report:
I sent this day, per steamers Arago and Cosmopolitan, two old regiments, the One hundred and third New York Volunteers and the Seventy-fourth Pennsylvania Volunteers, with orders to the commanding officers to stop at Fort Monroe, Va., and telegraph from that place their arrival en route to Washington. These regiments number in the aggregate some 1,100 men, but in the effective about 680. Still they are old and well-seasoned troops and well officered. I feel confident that they will accomplish as much as new regiments of much larger size. The Forty-first New York Volunteers left here last night in steamer John Rice, with orders similar to those given to Colonel Heine.
Important to note, Foster was sending units that, while veteran, had significant numbers near to mustering out. To some degree this was a practical matter, as those men would have been shipped north anyway. For example, the 74th Pennsylvania lost nearly half of its number as veterans mustered out later in September. Later, with reenlistments and recruits, the regiment garrisoned West Virginia to the close of the war. What remained of the 41st New York and the 103rd New York, along with a battalion from the 104th Pennsylvania, were part of Colonel J. Howard Kitching’s provisional brigade, and would see active service with the Army of the Shenandoah that fall and later on the siege lines in front of Richmond-Petersburg. So we cannot simply dismiss these units as “nearly end of service.” Clearly enough men were available at roll-call to matter.
Foster continued to remind Washington that Charleston and Savannah were practical objectives, for what it was worth. And indeed sixth months would prove him correct… though from a direction not foreseen in the summer of 1864.
The second half of Foster’s August 18 report to Halleck concerns the prisoner of war situation. I will look at those details in the next post.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 234-5, 247, and 248.)