“In case of an alarm…”: Instructions for a Morris Island QRF in the event of Confederate attack

With the draw-down of forces on Morris Island in August 1864, the Federals assigned there assumed somewhat a “garrison” stance, but one in direct contact with Confederate forces.  In spite of living in well established camps, with accompanying liberties, the troops shared picket duties, supported the artillery, and guarded the 600 Confederate prisoners.  With that last assignment, the risk of a Confederate raid, aiming to free those men, was ever present.  So the garrison of Morris Island had to establish plans to react in that event.  On September 15, 1864, Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton issued General Orders No. 56 which outlined the contingency plan:

General instructions for the guidance of this command in case of an alarm:

In case of an alarm at this post, a rocket will be sent up from Fort Shaw and one gun fired from the same place. At this signal the long-roll will be sounded, and the entire command will be formed under arms at once.

Two rockets and two guns from Fort Shaw will be the signal for the command to assemble at the place of rendezvous, which is on the beach, in rear of Fort Shaw, fronting the water.

The regiments will move to the place of rendezvous at double-quick step, and will form in line of battle in the following order:  First, on the right, the Fifty-sixth New York Volunteers; second, the One hundred and twenty-seventh New York Volunteers; third, the Fifty-second Pennsylvania Volunteers; fourth, the Twenty-first U.S. Colored Troops.

The One hundred and twenty-seventh New York Volunteers will act as a reserve and hold Fort Shaw.

The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteers will join that portion of the regiment guarding the rebel prisoners.

The light battery will form in rear of the line of battle.

Each regimental commander will send an officer to report his command in line to the post commander, who will at once proceed to the place of rendezvous with his staff, to superintend the formation of the line.

At the first signal every officer and enlisted man in this command’, except the sick excused by the surgeon, will turn out under arms, and, if mounted, with his horse.

District staff officers will repair at once to the district headquarters and report to the brigadier-general commanding.

Post staff officers will, in like manner, report to the post commander. All mounted orderlies will report mounted. The quartermaster will see that all his means of transportation by land and water are ready to move at a moment’s notice, and the medical department will have its ambulances and other appliances for the sick in readiness.

The most prompt and thorough compliance with these instructions will be required, and no negligence or failure to respond to the above-mentioned signal call will be overlooked.

Modern day military professionals might compare these instructions to quick-reaction forces (QRF) established at forward bases.  Except that in the modern context, the QRF is a squad or platoon sized element in most occasions.  In 1864, the QRF was portions of four regiments with an artillery battery in support.

The important consideration with these instructions is not that Saxton outlined a strict response to Confederate attack.  Rather he provided a set of steps all men in the command would take if that attack came.  Detailed instructions, such as the line of attack, would follow as any situation warranted.  But at a minimum, the troops would be assembled for movement.  Momentum, you see, is a critical element in the reaction.

But while Saxton’s orders might be cited as a great example of QRF contingency planning, he did violate another consideration for base operations – operational security! Major-General John Foster addressed this on September 19:

I like your General Orders, No. 55, very much in itself, but very much fear that some one of the printed copies will find its way into the enemy’s camp. It should have been strictly confidential, and in such cases it [is] never safe to print. I have known for some time that we have spies among us, who have not as yet been detected, hence the necessity for extreme caution.

Whoops!  So the rebels might well have known the signals and intended actions, and thus adjusted any of their plans accordingly.

Foster went on to ask for similar detailed instructions for the other posts on Morris Island.  But he emphasized the general response over particulars:

The main and vital point in all the latter instructions will be to do the best under all circumstances, but under no circumstances to forget that their imperative duty is to hold their own work beyond peradventure.

Every officer and man in any work of ours who may be surprised or taken will be held in the lowest possible estimation thereafter, and will be condemned for extreme inefficiency or cowardice. These latter orders had better perhaps be given in manuscript.

So tell the men to man their posts with determination – and print that out.  But save the detailed instructions about signals, assemblies, and actions as closely guarded information.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, pages 289-90 and 296-7.)