A demonstration “to cut the Charleston and Savannah Railroad”: Plans leading to Honey Hill

Give or take a day, 150 years ago at this time Major-General John Foster received a letter sent on November 13, 1864 by Major-General Henry Halleck in Washington.  For the most part, the letter told Foster what he already knew:

Major-General Sherman expects to leave Atlanta on the 16th instant for the interior of Georgia or Alabama, as circumstances may seem to require, and may come out either on the Atlantic coast or the Gulf. If the former, it will probably be at Savannah, Ossabaw Sound, Darien, or Fernandina. Supplies are being collected at Hilton Head, with transports to convey them to the point required. Supplies are also collected at Pensacola Bay, to be transported to any point he may require on the Gulf. Should Sherman come to the Atlantic coast, which I think most probable, he expects to reach there the early part of December, and wishes you, if possible, to cut the Charleston and Savannah Railroad near Pocotaligo about that time. At all events a demonstration on that road will be of advantage. You will be able undoubtedly to learn his movements through rebel sources much earlier than from these headquarters, and will shape your action accordingly.

By the last days of November, Foster, like everyone else from Atlanta to Charleston, knew Sherman was on the march.  And it was clear Sherman was not going to a Gulf Coast port.  But where on the Atlantic?

What’s important here is the chain of events.  Foster had already started planning to meet this request even before receiving it.  He had solicited a proposal from Brigadier-General John Hatch for an operation up the Broad River towards Grahamville  – receiving that on November 21 at the latest.  On the 22nd, Foster received Halleck’s order.  On the same day, Foster issued orders to implement Hatch’s proposal.  Then on November 25, Foster replied that he’d received Halleck’s order and was executing.

Halleck’s orders were not restrictive to a simple demonstration.  He set an objective – cut the railroad.  Hatch’s proposal, likewise, had an objective – gain the railroad.  The main difference between those objectives was the actions proposed after gaining possession of the railroad.  Halleck wanted a demonstration that impeded Confederate movement.  Hatch looked to create a beachhead that could use the railroad to support future operations.  To say the two were one and the same would be a misstatement.

The orders Foster issued on November 22, to Hatch and to Brigadier-General E. P. Scammon (commanding in Florida), contained lengthy details.  He specified the number of troops, to be drawn from strong, seasoned regiments.  He specified each man would carry “his blanket, overcoat, rubber blanket or shelter-half, and one extra pair of good socks.”  Foster specified each man would carry 20 rounds with another 100 rounds per man brought along in crates.  The force would have a battery of artillery in support.  Plus he wanted as many mounted men as possible brought along.

The operation would draw from Morris Island, Hilton Head, and Florida all the troops not absolutely necessary for manning the lines.  This was a reach for a department already strapped for resources.  But a gamble worth taking considering the Confederate forces in theater would be drawn inland to face Sherman.

But the one thing lacking in all of Foster’s details was the objective.  To Hatch, he simply said, “fully concur with you in your views as to the point of attack.”  To Scammon, he simply said, “I am, therefore, getting ready to make an attack upon some point of the enemy’s line, so as to aid [Sherman].”  To Halleck, he responded, “I am preparing to carry out your instructions.”  At no point, in the written record, did Foster reconcile any differences between Halleck’s objective and that proposed by Hatch.

Foster did set a date for execution – November 27.  Later this backed off to the 28th.  While the objective might be ill-defined, the operation would go forward.  If it succeeded, the Federals would finally cut the railroad connecting Charleston and Savannah.  Since mid-1862 the Federals had attempted, without success, to do just that.  Such would limit the Confederates’ ability to shift troops in defense of threatened sectors.

But was this a realistic objective?  Could the forces at hand reach the railroad? Hold the railroad? And, that accomplished, would it aid Sherman’s advance?

All good questions that queue up some more blog posts.

At the same time Foster’s response was leaving Hilton Head for Washington, Halleck penned another order for the Department of the South.  The order issued on November 23rd would not arrive for another ten days:

Lieutenant-General Grant directs that the expenditure of ammunition upon Charleston and Fort Sumter be discontinued, except so far as may be necessary to prevent the enemy from establishing new batteries at the latter place. This is not intended to prohibit the throwing of occasional shell into Charleston, if circumstances should require. The object is to economize ordnance stores.

The focus of operations in the Department of the South was changing.  Savannah and Charleston were still prizes.  But those would be gained from the land side.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, page 328; Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 525-6, 535, and 547.)

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