November 30, 1864: A forgotten action at Honey Hill, South Carolina

I’ve often said that Honey Hill is relegated to footnote status in our histories of the war because of the contrasts.  At the same time Brigadier-General John Hatch’s men struggled against Confederate works along Euhaw Creek, a larger assault was made against Federal lines outside Franklin, Tennessee.  The actions in South Carolina pale in most comparisons a student may draw…  save perhaps that of valor where, all things considered, there is equity.

There is an excellent resource website covering the Battle of Honey Hill in detail, maintained by Gary W. Myers.  So allow me to briefly discuss the battle before touching upon a few points that factor into the March to the Sea and other threads I discuss here on this blog.

In yesterday’s post discussing the initial landings and movements, we saw that due to several issues Hatch had only reached an intersection about a third of the way to Grahamville on November 29.  On the morning of the 30th, he initially split his force.  One detail was to establish a perimeter around the crossroads and secure the route back to Boyd’s Neck.  This proved a valuable decision, as soon Confederate cavalry began probing down the road from Bee’s Creek (Point #1 on the map).

HoneyHillNov30

The other part of Hatch’s command resumed the march towards Grahamville that morning, but not starting until around 9 a.m.  From the start, Confederate cavalry skirmished and delayed the march.  At around 9:30 that morning the scouting elements of the Federal column reached Euhaw Creek and encountered a Confederate battery (Point #2). These were part of a defensive line originally setup in 1862 (which were, by the way, abandoned by General Robert E. Lee).  Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Colcock, in command of the local military district, selected this point as the best place to make a stand.  Standing about 15 feet in elevation above the creek, Honey Hill was not much of a hill.  But in the marshes of coastal South Carolina, those 15 feet might as well have been Marye’s Heights.

While the artillery further delayed the Federal deployment, Confederate reinforcements filed down from the railroad station.  The first regiments of Major-General Gustavus W. Smith’s Georgia troops had arrived at the station around 8 a.m.  Deferring to Colcock, Smith ordered his men into the trenches to support the artillery already in place. The first Georgians reached the fortifications around the same time the artillery fired on the Federal scouts. Colonel Ambrosio J. Gonzales, District Artillery Chief, arrived to assume direction of the artillery.

At that point, the battle was for all practical purposes decided.  The Confederates held good ground.  To assail that position, the Federals had to traverse a marshy creek while braving artillery fire.  But Hatch had his lead brigade, under Brigadier-General Edward Potter, deploy to develop the position.  Colonel Alfred Harwell’s brigade then attempted to deploy to the right of Potter.  The difficult terrain and Confederate artillery slowed these deployments.  Not until noon was the line properly developed.

A series of attacks started around noon.  First the 35th USCT made a charge up the road.  Later Potter’s Brigade, with companies from the 54th and 55th Massachusetts attached, made a go at the Confederate right and were repulsed with heavy loss.  Then to relieve pressure on that side of the line, part of Hartwell’s Brigade, reinforced with the Marine Battalion, attacked the Confederate left.  By mid-afternoon, the battle became more of an artillery duel.  The Federal batteries, already at disadvantage due to the terrain, began running low on ammunition.  By 4 p.m. only the boat howitzers from the Naval Brigade remained to compete with the Confederates.

As dusk settled, Hatch withdrew to the crossroads.  The attack had failed, in his assessment, due to the formidable nature of the defensive position and for want of more ammunition.   Hatch reported 746 casualties (89 killed, 629 wounded, and 28 missing).  Total Confederate casualties were less than 100.

The tactical assessment of Hatch’s failure has focused on maneuver options.  Typical of the criticism was question made by Major-General William T. Sherman, while touring the battlefield just over a month later  – “Hatch, why didn’t you flank them on the right?”  While that was, and still is, valid criticism, the situation was not so simple as that.  Hatch might have moved by way of a series of roads on the left to flank the Confederate position (Point #3 on my first map above).  But that would have taken hours, and in which time the Confederates certainly would have reacted.  Likewise, to use Sherman’s observations, Hatch might have moved by way of roads on the right (Point #4).  But recall the Confederate cavalry was already posted there.  Where Sherman’s response is valid, however, is that Hatch appeared to do nothing towards fully developing the Confederate position.  Had he done something akin to what the Federals did at Ball’s Ferry on the Oconee a few days earlier, perhaps Hatch would have found a weak point in the defense.   But on whole, that would be conjecture against the facts of the matter.

There is much to criticism, however, with Hatch’s delays getting to Honey Hill.  We might point to problems on November 29 or the late march on November 30.  Had any of these delays turned otherwise, Hatch arguably would have achieved his objective.

At the strategic level, most authorities cite this defeat as a lost opportunity for the Federals.  Again, I think reality is too complex to allow that to stand unsupported.  Hatch had on hand all of the forces the Department of the South could spare.  Had the situation on November 30 played out otherwise, Hatch certainly would have gained the Charleston & Savannah Railroad.  However there were no more brigades to send for reinforcement.  At best, he would have a small perimeter astride the route between the two key cities.  He was not in position to sortie and further isolate Savannah.  At best, a victory might have prompted discussions about abandoning Savannah among the Confederate high command.  To say it would have precipitated a complete withdrawal at that point in time would argue against several statements made in public and private by those same leaders.  In short, success at Grahamville would have helped Sherman and would have hindered the Confederates, but it would not have been the deciding factor.  I can think of other places along the coast that would have served the purpose better.

But while Honey Hill was a disaster, it did lay the groundwork for several other operations.  Glossed over even more than Honey Hill, the Department of the South engaged in several other operations in support of Sherman’s investment of Savannah.  Those would turn out to be less bloody and generally more successful.  (And I’ll give them attention in due time.)

Another factor to consider when assessing Honey Hill is the use of USCT.  At other battles in which Federal forces had met failure while employing the USCT, Confederate papers were quick to make light of such.  Yet, over the following days the Charleston papers only mentioned the use of USCT in passing while lauding the “gallant Georgians.”  Though within a week, the South Carolina General Assembly passed a resolution thanking Smith and the Georgians “in repulsing the Yankee invaders and their negro allies….” Almost as if by December 1864 the presence of armed black troops in the deep south was commonplace.

Lastly, in regard to Honey Hill, I’d call attention to this map:

This colorful map from Robert Knox Sneden is often used as the key illustration for describing Honey Hill.  At the time of the battle Sneden was still a prisoner.  He was exchanged at Charleston on December 11th.  After that exchange, Sneden began making drawings of places associated with military activities in Georgia and South Carolina.  I won’t say his maps are the most accurate or the most detailed.  But they do add a lot of color.

 

5 thoughts on “November 30, 1864: A forgotten action at Honey Hill, South Carolina

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