“The railroad is less than three-quarters of a mile from our front”: Foster’s attempt to isolate Savannah

With his forces stopped at Honey Hill on November 30, 1864, Major-General John Foster turned to other courses in order to accomplished his supporting task for Major-General William T. Sherman – that of attaining the Charleston & Savannah Railroad.  On December 6, Foster landed a force under Brigadier-General Edward Potter at Gregory’s Plantation.  The intent was to move up that neck between the Coosawhatchie River and Tulifinny Creek to the town of Coosawhatchie where the rail line passed.

The force consisted of the 56th, 127th, and 157th New York Infantry, the 25th Ohio Infantry, and the Naval Landing Brigade.  This brigade-sized element landed between 9 and 11 a.m. on December 6 at Gregory’s.  And, contrary to what modern readers might assume, it was the 127th New York that made the initial landings, and not the Marines.  Foster provided a brief overview of the movement towards the railroad in a report sent to Washington that day:

General Potter pushed immediately forward, and about one miles and a half out met the enemy, whom he forced rapidly back to the spot where the road up the peninsula between Coosawhatchie and Tullifinny meets the road running across from one river to the other.  Here the rebels, being re-enforced from the south side of the Coosawhatchie, made a stand and attacked our left vigorously, but our men repulsed them handsomely, capturing a battle-flag and some prisoners, and got possession of the crossing, which we now firmly hold.  A detachment sent to the right destroyed the road bridge over Tullifinny.  Our loss on the whole affair was about 5 killed and 50 wounded.


To an observer on the ground, Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart Woodford, 127th New York, the action was worth a few more sentences:

The rebel pickets were soon met and driven back. Their skirmishers were encountered at about a quarter of a mile south of the turnpike. The center of our line of battle was on the dirt road; the right wing extended into an open field at right angles to this road and parallel to the turnpike; the left wing was refused and lay about forty-five degrees from northeast to southwest. The four companies of the One hundred and twenty-seventh New York Volunteers held the right center of the line; Company I soon came up, and was ordered in on the left,; the remaining five companies came promptly up as soon as we landed, and were also subsequently sent in upon the left of the line of battle. The severe fighting was nearly over when these latter got into position. Soon after the firing became general, the rebels advanced the left of their line–which lay upon the turnpike, sheltered by the forest on the north and a heavy skirting of trees and hedge on the south–into the field, and endeavored to charge and break our right. The naval infantry, which lay immediately to the right of our regiment, were forced back about 100 or 150 yards, leaving our right uncovered.

Of course, writing his report, Commander George Preble emphasized that his boat howitzer battery saved the Army’s line providing timely support.  No mention of the naval infantry falling back.  At around the same time, the 127th’s commander, Colonel William Gurney, was hit in the arm.  Woodford then took command of the regiment.

With the four companies of my command which were with me I immediately charged the rebel line, but before we reached them they broke and retired. Part of them fell back into the woods north of the turnpike, and part moved west on the turnpike, under cover of their artillery, to their intrenchments near the railroad. Just before we charged we fired by rank, and under this discharge the flag of the regiment in our front–the Fifth Georgia Reserves–fell.

The battle-flag, mentioned by Foster in his dispatch, was contested by the 127th and 56th New York… and Preble would claim it was his naval infantry which had delivered the killing shot to the color bearer.  Regardless, the 127th received the captured honor after the skirmish was over.   By nightfall, Foster had about 2,000 men on the neck.

The Federal landings caught the Confederates off-balance, but not off-guard.  Major-General Samuel Jones had arrived at Pocotaligo the night prior with orders to assume command of the sector.  But Jones walked into a cloud of confusion.  The 5th Georgia men encountered were but a battalion (of around 150 men) guarding the neck.  Of the other forces at Jones’ disposal, 32nd Georgia, a section of artillery, and the South Carolina Cadets from the Citadel were on hand to throw against the threat.  Overnight, Jones collected other elements – to include part of the 47th Georgia and a North Carolina reserve battalion – at the threatened point.  All told about 800 men, counting the cadets.  Colonel Aaron Edwards, 47th Georgia, was ordered to attack the Federal position at daylight.  Jones expected to use the sound of that attack to trigger a bombardment of the Federal positions from a battery on the west side of the Coosawhatchie.

So on the morning of December 7, Edwards sallied forward with his scratch force.  Perhaps being generous, Edwards claimed this force met initial success, but then faltered:

Our skirmishers drove the enemy vigorously until the right of the line became engaged with the enemy’s line of battle, our left at the same time overlapping his right. This position was maintained until after Colonel Daniel’s demonstration on my right, when the enemy made new dispositions on and extending beyond my left. It becoming apparent that the enemy’s force considerably outnumbered mine, which consisted largely of raw troops, it was deemed impracticable to attack him in force, without which it was impossible to drive him from his position. I therefore withdrew in good order, unpursued by the enemy, to my present position. The troops engaged, which were my skirmishers only, behaved with great gallantry.

Jones later claimed that Edwards failed to make the attack “with any spirit.”  But in all truth, his force was outnumbered.  The failure did leave the Federals in possession of the cross roads and within a mile of the railroad, as Foster was quick to claim in his report to Washington:

The railroad is less than three-quarters of a mile from our front separated by a dense wood, through which is only a bridle path, and in the skirt of which are our pickets. I have ordered nearly all the force from Boyd’s Neck to this position, and also some 30-pounder Parrotts, with which we can reach the railroad, even should our men not succeed in gaining it, as I hope they may, as also the road bridge over the Coosawhatchie. Our position is strong, the spirit of the troops excellent, and the landings and means of communication good.

However advanced Foster’s position, he was up against the same tactical limitations which prevented the Department of the South from achieving a break of the railroad over the past two years.  Arrayed on a small, narrow peninsula, with no maneuver space, Foster could only push directly forward.  Even with a small force, the Confederates held the advantage of position.  And though Foster outnumbered his opponent at the point of attack, he was short on infantrymen.  Requests to Washington, though made, would not meet the immediate need.  Foster pressed his subordinates for 1,000 more men from Morris Island and Florida.

In the mean time, the railroad was, as Foster indicated, within range of the Parrott rifles.  All this action taking place, hopefully, to benefit Sherman’s force… which was at the time of the action on December 7, was only some 30 miles away as the crow flies, but on the other side of the Savannah River.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 420-1, 438-9, 448.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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