Ripley’s Plan to recapture Morris Island

In October 1864, Brigadier-General Roswell Ripley was beyond “fallen into disfavor.” Even General P.G.T. Beauregard recommended his relief.  But Ripley was not one to sit aside waiting for letters in the mail.  Perhaps looking for a way out of the “dog house,” on October 25, 1864, Ripley send forward a memorandum outlining a plan to retake Morris Island:

To recapture and occupy Morris Island the operation must take the nature of a surprise. The mechanical appliances of the enemy, his means of transportation, and vigilance, as well as the nature of the position, forbid any attempt at regular attack. The latter would certainly involve a greater loss of life and expenditure of material, even if successful, than a surprise would risk, and the chances of success are much in favor of the latter method. I would propose that in a period when high water is, at about 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, after the setting of the moon, the attempt should be made. A few days previous to it a demonstration of collecting troops at Bluffton should take place and strong reconnaissance of the vicinity of Hilton Head and Port Royal should be made by boats and any means in our power. The effect of this movement could be ascertained by watching the enemy’s fleet off Charleston; probably by his signals and the movements of the garrison of Morris Island. It would probably attract his attention, for the passage of Scull Creek from the main is quite easy, and the positions at Hilton Head and Beaufort, under present circumstances, are quite weakly garrisoned, and must remain so until the main operations in the field are over, or their localities changed.

For a conceptual plan, this is not too much of a reach – catch the tides right and make a diversionary move.  As for the Federal defenses, Ripley figured a garrison of only 2,500 on Morris Island, with Fort Shaw and the works on Cumming’s Point being the main strong points.

The main force called for in Ripley’s plan was some 3,000 men loaded on board “three light-draught and tolerably swift-running steamers from the blockade-runners….” These would carry boat howitzers, gang-planks, and other equipments to facilitate rapid debarkation.  Ripley wanted these vessels staged behind Battery Marshall on the northern end of Sullivan’s Island.  And…

On each boat there should be a naval detachment of sailors, under competent and cool officers, for handling the rigging of the planks and other duties of seamanship, and the captains, and engineers and pilots should be selected for their skill, coolness, and intrepidity.

Supporting the main effort would be several diversionary forces.  From Secessionville and Battery Haskell, detachments of 100 to 150 men in boats would mount demonstrations against Black Island.  Another force of 500 troops on boats at Charleston or staged behind Fort Johnson to appear poised in an attack on Cumming’s Point.  A cavalry force would appear on John’s Island to threaten the Stono Inlet anchorage.  And in the harbor, the gunboats and ironclads would make their presence known.    To facilitate coordination, Ripley wanted a telegraph run as a “hot loop” putting all commanders in direct contact.

On the appointed evening, two hours before the steamers left Breach Inlet, the boat forces would demonstrate against Black Island followed shortly after with actions towards Cummng’s Point.  All the batteries around the harbor would also open up on Morris Island.  The object was to draw forces away from Fort Shaw and the garrison camps to the north end of Morris Island and Black Island.  Ripley felt this would also pull the inner blockaders towards Cumming’s Point and open a path for his three steamers.

The two first steamers to run nearly together and to make with all speed for the southern extremity of Morris Island and run stem on shore, high and dry if possible. Gang-planks to be dropped at once and the men, rushing ashore over the bows, deploy forward advancing and move at a charging pace against Fort Shaw, which is about 100 yards from the shore and easily accessible. Axes and hatchets must be carried to cut away chevaux-de-frise if met with, but it is believed that this fort is unprovided. This fact can easily be ascertained. The fort being once occupied the boat howitzers must be brought in to increase the armament, cover taken against Folly Island, fire opened upon transports in the inlet, and a party sent down to drive the guard from the battery at Oyster Point. These duties will occupy at least half the force. The garrison of Fort Shaw is not very large, the main body being encamped to its north. The remainder of the troops must form across the island and advance at once toward Wagner, driving any troops which may be in the camp before them or taking them prisoners. While this progresses the commander of the third steamer diverges from the two first and runs his vessel on shore at Battery Wagner, striving to strike at the southeast angle, lands as at Battery Shaw, and storms the work while attention of the enemy is directed to Gregg. The party from Shaw re-enforces him, the guns of Wagner are opened upon the fleet and on the middle battery and Gregg. Our fleet and boats retire while all our batteries keep up their fire on Gregg, the middle battery and Black Island.

Ripley expected the Federals on Black Island and any isolated pockets on Morris Island to surrender.  Furthermore, the blockaders would have to pull back outside the bar.  Such would roll the situation at Charleston back and erase fifteen months of Federal progress.

A very complicated plan to say the least.  Just to give you a visual, I’ve dropped my interpretation of Ripley’s plan on a map of the Charleston area:

Ripley_Plan_Oct64

I’ve given my best guess as to the route for Ripley’s steamers to take.  I figure the steamers had to use dangerous Maffitt’s Channel for the move.  Otherwise the shoals required a long transit out and back through the outer blockade. And for all of this to work the Federals had to act in a very predictable pattern responding to the demonstrations.

Recognizing the complication and risk, Ripley submitted:

This appears, somewhat complicated as a measure of attack, but after a full consideration, I do not think any other promises so well. It depends upon secrecy and boldness of execution as well as careful judgment on such information as we can obtain. It ruins three steam-boats certainly, and if it fails, loses some 3,000 men. The advantages of success it is hardly necessary to speak of. We have often risked more on quite as hazardous expeditions, where less was to have been gained.

Considering Ripley’s plan, keep in mind three were only around 4,800 Confederates in the vicinity of Charleston.  Lieutenant-General William Hardee could call upon 12,446 effectives in all of Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida.  So to implement Ripley’s plan, reinforcements were needed.  And if successful, and the odds were long on that, the Confederates would only succeed in making Charleston a little more open to blockade runners.  By October 1864, 3,000 men was a rather large portion of the remaining chips to bet on a long shot.

On the other had, if this plan received at least some consideration, it would serve the purpose intended – giving Ripley some favorable attention.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 640-643.)

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