On November 2, 1864, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren sent a confidential message to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, outlining a possibility for action on the South Carolina coast:
Sir: This will be handed to the Department by Mr. Ward, who has very recently fled from his home in South Carolina. He represents to me that he lived at Kingstree (Williamsburg County), on the Northeastern Railroad, leading north from Charleston, and has considerable property there in land and otherwise; states that he has always been a Union man and has now abandoned home and property rather than serve in the rebel Army, which was about to be forced on him by conscription. He has taken the oath of allegiance, and his acquaintance with the country where he resided may be turned to good account if the Government is disposed to the undertaking. Mr. Ward states that the rebel armies derive large supplies from his neighborhood in cattle and other food. It is notorious that Georgetown is a principal rice district, and the crop is yet on the ground. Quite recently the boats of the Potomska destroyed a large quantity in the stack on the Santee.
I’ve chased some leads to identify Mr. Ward. The best I can offer is a 28-year-old W.W. Ward in the county for the 1860 census. He was a merchant with some property of moderate value. The “full story” remains on my “research needed” list. But for now, I’ll take Dahlgren’s introduction at face. So what did Dahlgren propose to do with this information?
By passing up the Santee the [Northeastern] Railroad, which crosses it, can be severed, for which boats will be chiefly used in connection with a small party of cavalry ascending the Pedee and its banks with a mixed force. The [Wilmington, Columbia and Augusta] Railroad, leading to Wilmington, is to be cut at Mars Bluff, [S.C.].
These movements, executed rapidly, will prevent all aid from Charleston or Wilmington and permit the occupation of the territory between the two rivers, which may serve as a base for further operations. The Santee is open. To enter the Pedee, Georgetown will first be occupied, which can certainly be done without incurring much detention, its channel being defended by a battery of ten guns, to of which are X-inch.
This I can venture an opinion upon, having already given it much attention and had a reconnoissance made with the view chiefly to destroy the gunboat said to be building up the Peedee, as well as to ascertain how Florence could be reached in case the Government had any idea of making an attempt to release the Union soldiers held their as prisoners.
And, yes, I have a map for that:
You might “click to embiggen”. I’ve highlighted the Santee and PeDee (or nowdays, Pee Dee) Rivers and indicated the place names mentioned in Dahlgren’s letter. Also note the railroads (blue labels).
The navy had already operated in the Santee and extensively in Winyah Bay outside Georgetown. There’s a lot of ground to cover if one travels from Georgetown to Mars Bluff. But that said, the Confederate garrison in that sector was not terribly strong. Still not something that could be handled by a small raiding party.
As for the prospects for success:
Mr. Ward’s familiarity with the country and its roads offers an unexpected facility which might be turned to good account at this season, and, if successful, might develop even better results than those which appear at first sight.
One thing I would urge earnestly – that entire secrecy be observed. It may be set down as equal to half the force necessary otherwise. I believe all the information that regards roads is in possession of Mr. Ward, and I have what is required to enter the Santee and Georgetown.
The season is propitious if the action is prompt. I give Mr. Ward a few lines of introduction merely….
For a 150-years later assessment, any chance of success for movement on the Santee/Pedee would require the Major-General John Foster’s involvement. And during the fall of 1864, Foster didn’t have a lot of additional manpower at his disposal. However, a point to keep in mind here – the railroad lines through South Carolina and into Georgia were critical to the Confederate war effort at that time. Not only for bringing supplies north to Virginia, but also moving troops around to meet emerging threats. In the closing months of the year, those railroads near the coast line enabled the Confederates to get in front of a major Federal offensive (you know, lead by some guy with the initials W.T.S.). I can see where thoughts of severing railroads would gain favor in Washington … and at least one did gain approval, as I’ll relate at the end of next month.
(Citation from ORN, Series I, Volume 16, pages 39-40.)