“A few days must lead to the possession of the city”: Dahlgren advances another plan to capture Charleston

If I were to count the number of plans to capture Charleston, limiting only to those submitted by senior officers, during the Civil War, I’d quickly run out of fingers and toes.  Add to that tally one from Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren, submitted on this day (November 10) in 1864. So just another plan, what’s the big deal?  Well consider the particulars and, more so, the situational assessment offered by Dahlgren.

The report offered by Dahlgren on November 10 was a follow up to a previous report detailing the defenses of Charleston, as known by the Federals in October 1864.  Building upon that assessment, Dahlgren drew attention to the important line of defenses:

The city of Charleston is entirely under the control of James Island, which is not only fortified by water toward the harbor, but in all other directions is also strongly entrenched and garrisoned.

For this reason it was under consideration at one time by General Gillmore and myself to operate there, he moving from Morris Island against the nearest corner of the island, where is Fort Johnson, and the vessels cooperating on the same point. The possession of the works must have led to a gradual advance along the island.

I would point out this assessment of James Island is both in line with, but at the same time somewhat contradictory to, Dahlgren’s proposed plan to operate on the Stono River, filed earlier in the summer of 1864.  At that time, Dahlgren felt the way into James Island was an “end run” from John’s Island.  From the Army’s point of view, that would only open up another prolonged siege. Particularly after the Confederate started defensive works on John’s Island to protect the flanks.

But an attack is also feasible on the opposite side of the harbor. The occupation of Mount Pleasant by our forces would compel the abandonment of Sullivan’s Island by mere blockade, and would also command the site of the city more promptly than by an advance on James Island, because there are no works there except one toward Sullivan’s Island and another at Haddrell’s Point, both near the water and looking only that way, without any bearing inland at all.

With a moderate land force, only this last would be most advisable. Part of the troops could be landed at Bull’s Bay, whence there is a good road for some 15 miles; part would enter the inlet seaward of Sullivan’s Island, seize Long Island, and, with the aid of the navy, land in the rear of Sullivan’s Island, join the force coming from Bull’s Bay, and occupy Mount Pleasant.

This would cut off Sullivan’s Island by land. The ironclads would do the same by water, while the principal part of the land and naval force would advance toward the city, keeping them on that side of the harbor.

A few days must lead to the possession of the city, and then James Island being accessible at its narrowest part, by the Wappoo, both from the Ashley and Stono rivers, must sooner or later compel the retirement of the rebels from James Island, or else risk the loss of their troops, as well as of the island.

DahlgrenNov64Plan

This was not an altogether new approach.  Gillmore had offered essentially the same approach in December 1863.  And at that time, with the Federal forces around Charleston at their strongest, Gillmore had called for at least 12,000 more men.  Now the troops at Major-General John Foster’s disposal were far less (though the Confederates were likewise much reduced).  So how many men did Dahlgren think were needed?

The operation would require 30,000 to 50,000 good men, because it is reasonable to admit that the present small force of the rebels would receive large additions.

Looking big picture with 20/20 hindsight, that would not be unreasonable.  At this very time in the war, there were a few loose ends being tied up.  But at the same time, the emerging crisis in Tennessee would draw everyone’s attention… and thus reinforcements.  Just saying the request for troops would arrive at a time when options were available, unlike during the summer of 1864.

Still, we have the unquestionable advantage of being able to bring here additional forces more promptly in the present position of the main armies. Hood must pass around Sherman in order to give any aid, and General Grant equally obstructs the road from Richmond.

The present time is in every way favorable; and if the winter is to keep the men in the lines to the northward, it appears to me that no more judicious or effective campaign could be devised than might be carried on here, for its success would enter a wedge between the two extremes of what is left of the rebellion and develop possibilities that might be improved by General Sherman to a great advantage.

Limiting the view to Charleston, I feel confident that the result would be satisfactory, and would therefore advise the operation. What actions might afterwards be most advisable would appear subsequently.

In this last section, Dahlgren struck upon points that made this, though using a previously proposed route, a fresh proposal.  The strategic setting limited the Confederate response.  And the Federal operations brought major operations elsewhere in supporting distance… mainly Sherman in Georgia.

Worth noting, the plan Dahlgren proposed on this day was essentially that enacted in February 1865 to capture the city.  And indeed by that time the movements of Sherman’s army forced the Confederate hand.  The question, for us looking at the events of November-December 1864, is if an operation at Bull’s Bay that fall could have altered the course of operations in Georgia… or co-opted the need for a wasteful operation elsewhere in South Carolina?

(Citation from ORN, Series I, Volume 16, pages 49-50.)

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