While Major-General William T. Sherman’s armies made their way through Georgia in the closing days of November 1864, operations far away from his columns reflected the ripples caused by the March to the Sea. In central Tennessee, actions at Spring Hill and Franklin by Lieutenant-General John B. Hood were in part justified as an effort to cause Sherman pause, if not recall. As we well know, and other correspondents will likely discuss in detail, Hood’s operation failed at many levels. And along the South Carolina coast, an operation born of Sherman’s request turned into a disaster for the Department of the South.
As mentioned earlier, Major-General John Foster sent an operation up the Broad River out of Hilton Head. However, while the expedition would proceed towards the Charleston & Savannah Railroad, Foster had not detailed the objective of the mission. Was the operation just a demonstration, or something more?
To accomplish this vaguely defined operation, Foster assigned two brigades to Brigadier-General John Hatch, the most experienced commander in theater at that time. The order of battle was:
- Brigadier-General Edward Potter’s brigade consisted of the 25th Ohio; 56th, 127th, 144th and 157th New York; and 32nd and 35th USCT. Total of over 3,000 men.
- Colonel Alfred Harwell’s brigade with the 54th and 55th Massachusetts; and 26th, 34th, and 102nd USCT. Total of just over 1,000 men.
- Fleet Brigade under Commander George Preble with a battalion of sailors and another of Marines (total of 360 men), supported by a battery of eight 12-pounder boat howitzers.
- Artillery Brigade under Lieutenant-Colonel William Ames with Batteries B and F, 3rd New York and Battery A, 3rd Rhode Island, bringing eight 12-pdr Napoleons and three 10-pdr Parrott rifles.
- A company from the 1st New York Engineer Battalion and a company of the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry.
Many of these regiments were veteran units, having served long in the department. However, they had rarely operated in the field as part of a brigade or larger formation. For most, the operations the previous July were the last such field movements.
In addition to the landing brigade, the Navy provided the steamers USS Mingoe, USS Pontiac, USS Sonoma, USS Harvest Moon, USS Pawnee, USS Winona, and USS Wissahickon. Supporting were the tugs USS Pettit and USS Daffodil. (This drew a significant number of vessels off the blockade of Charleston, which correspondingly gave opening to increased activity by blockade runners.) Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren himself would lead the naval force.
The tactical plan was very much straight forward, and along the lines of Hatch’s original plan. The force would move by boat to Boyd’s Neck. Engineers would build a dock to allow disembarkation of the artillery and horses. From there the expedition would move inland towards Grahamville and thence to the railroad.
Foster wanted to start this operation on November 27. But logistics and other factors delayed the launch until the evening of November 28. The troops boarded the vessels under cover of darkness. At 2:30 a.m. on November 29, the ships proceeded into Port Royal Sound. Almost from the start, problems arose. The Wissahickon ran aground in the sound. A dense fog rolled in to cover the waters. Despite a detailed signal plan from Dahlgren, the fog prevented the ships from maintaining contact. In the confusion, several army steamers ventured up the Chechesse River (dashed line on map above). When Dahlgren arrived at the designated landing point at 8 a.m. (#1 on the map below), he had only five of his six steamers and none of the troop transports. Slowly the other vessels trickled into position.
The Naval Brigade landed at 9 a.m. and secured the immediate area. Hatch did not arrive at Boyd’s Neck until well after sunrise. At 11 a.m. the Army’s landings commenced. Just happened that one of the last ships to arrive had on board the engineer detachment assigned to build the dock. Not until 2 p.m. was the dock in place to land artillery and horses. Around that time, Foster arrived to check the progress. But within two hours both he and Dahlgren departed for Hilton Head, leaving Hatch to his tasks.
While waiting for the Army’s troops to disembark, Preble began moving his detachment inland to secure a cross roads (Point #2 on the map). When he arrived, Preble took a road to the right, thinking that the direct route to Grahamville. Along the way, the Naval Brigade encountered Confederate skirmishers, driving them along towards Bee’s Creek (Point #3).
The Confederates in sector were part of the 3rd Military District of South Carolina under Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Colcock. The skirmishers encountered by Preble were from the 3rd South Carolina Cavalry, and were practically the only mobile force available in the sector (Colcock had under his command several fixed batteries closer to the railroad, but no infantry). But the skirmishers had served their purpose. As had happened on several occasions during the fighting along the South Carolina Coast, an alert from the advanced pickets allowed the Confederates time to move reinforcements by train. At that time, Major-General Gustavus W. Smith with around 1,800 of the Georgia troops shifted from Macon, was just arriving in Savannah. When Lieutenant-General William Hardee explained the situation to Smith, the Georgia officer agreed to continue his trains on to the threatened sector.
Meanwhile, once ashore, Potter’s Brigade moved to support Preble’s forces. Not until around dusk did Potter realize the mistaken route taken. At that time he recalled his brigade and the naval forces. Returning to the intersection, the Federals again took the wrong road. This time taking the left road past Bolan’s Church, Potter marched into the evening with designs on Grahamville. Realizing this second misdirection, Hatch now recalled the men (Point #4). Not until 2 a.m. the next morning did the Federals go into bivouac back near the cross roads.
November 29th was a story of bad luck and miscues for the Federals. With over 5,000 men in position to move directly on the railroad, fog, delays, and misdirected marches contributed to a net advance of only a few miles. The railroad remained in Confederate hands. For perhaps the one time since the start of Sherman’s march, Confederate leaders were reacting directly to a threat. Unlike the defenses elsewhere which lacked coordination and central control, on the evening of November 29th just north of Savannah, the defense of the railroad was falling into place.
Hatch, not knowing of Smith’s move to reinforce, looked forward to an advance of seven miles to the railroad on November 30. In between Hatch and his objective was a low ridge called Honey Hill.