December 9, 1864: Another attempt at the Charleston & Savannah Railroad falls yards short

Earlier I mentioned the operation launched by Major-General John Foster to gain the Charleston & Savannah Railroad by an attack near Coosawhatchie, South Carolina.  Again, this was an effort to support Major-General William T. Sherman’s march to the sea by cutting the rail link between Savannah and Charleston.  Earlier efforts failed to break the rail line due to Confederate defenses at Honey Hill.  But not throwing in the towel, Foster launched several expeditions, leading up to a landing on the peninsula between Coosawhatchie River and Tulifinny Creek.  By December 7, Foster could report a lodgement three-quarters of a mile from the railroad (the closest of any of the various attempts over the last three years had reached to this railroad, mind you!).

On December 9, word passed down from Foster to Brigadier-General Edward Potter (commanding the troops on the ground) that one more “go” at the railroad was required.  For this, Potter ordered a “skirmish brigade” formed that would advance toward the railroad and feel out the Confederate defenses.  The hope was that would find an unguarded point, at which the break could be achieved.  Colonel William Silliman, detached from his regiment, the 26th USCT, commanded an ad-hoc formation consisting of the US Marine Battalion, the 127th New York and 157th New York.  The formation had the Marines on the right, with the 157th in the center and the 127th on the left.  Of the movement, Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart Woodford, of the 127th New York reported:

We formed in front of the rifle-pits in the open field, at 9.10 a.m., in one rank–the marines having the right, the One hundred and fifty-seventh New York Volunteers the center, and the One hundred and twenty-seventh New York Volunteers the left. The men were deployed at a distance of two places from each other, and one company of the One hundred and twenty-seventh was formed as flankers on the left. The line covered a front of near three-quarters of a mile, reaching from a point 100 yards to the left of the dirt road that runs into the Coosawhatchie turnpike. We advanced under cover of a heavy artillery fire, moving almost due north. The line was maintained with great regularity, and struck the rebel pickets about 350 yards from the railroad. These, after a few shots, fell rapidly back upon their reserves. These reserves, opposite our center and right, retired upon their main line, which immediately opened a heavy fire, both with musketry, grape, and canister. The rebel pickets upon our left appeared to rally upon their reserves, which were near their line, and these being sheltered by a heavy growth of young pines, main-rained for some time a sharp and well-directed fire, which enfiladed our left.

With the initial success, the Federals rolled back the Confederate line to within a couple hundred yards of the railroad.  Robert Sneden later penned this depiction (oh, you know I hesitate to say “map”) of the action from descriptions:

TilifinnyCr2

Notice the position designations listed for the 127th New York.  He didn’t show the 157th or Marines on the map.  But the gist of the movement is there, with the Federals crossing some low ground in front of the railroad to press the defenses on the railroad.

Just as the skirmish line reached the Confederate entrenchments, Silliman was hit in the leg.  For the second time in four days, Woodford assumed tactical command of an operation under such circumstances.  And he continued to press the advance:

The skirmish line pushed steadily forward, pressing the place occupied by the rebel pickets, and took up position within about 200 yards of the railroad. The marines upon the right, under command of First Lieutenant [George] Stoddard, U.S. Marine Corps, approached quite close to the rebel battery and made a gallant attempt to flank and charge it. They were exposed to a very severe fire; became entangled in a dense thicket between the forks of a creek upon the right, and were compelled to fall back. They retired upon the reserves, where they reformed and again moved to the front.

The Marines had hit a portion of the line held by the cadets from the South Carolina Military Academy, the Citadel.  The entire student body was in the field that morning, manning the works (the only time an entire college body has fought as a unit).  So this brings a bit of notability to this otherwise small action – one of the few times the US Marine Corps operated at more than a company strength during the Civil War, and they happen to run against the Citadel cadets.  And as Woodford indicates, the Marines got the worst end of the deal.  At that point, the attack began to break up.

The two New York regiments remained in their advance positions for much of the day.  Around 2:30 that afternoon, the regiments began to retire.  As they did, the Confederates sortied and attempted a flank attack on the left.  This was repulsed.  Both sides finally retired completely at dark.

In the action, the Marines suffered eleven casualties.  The 157th reported the same number of wounded from their rolls.  The 127th suffered much worse with 8 killed and 51 wounded.  Brigadier-General Beverly H. Robertson, Confederate commander in the sector, reported 52 casualties.  However those numbers do not include any mention of casualties the cadets may have suffered.

Assessing this action, if at all, most sources draw attention to Foster’s failure, again, to break the Charleston & Savannah Railroad. This is cited as the reason the Confederates were able to resupply Savannah and later retreat. So the failure is reflected as a strategic blunder to close those last few hundred yards on December 9, 1864.

But let’s talk about the nuts and bolts of reality here.  Consider the “big map” again (for simplicity, I’ve left out the Federal coastal garrisons and the Confederate defensive positions confronting Hilton Head, but factor those in.)

Dec9Situation

Sherman’s left most columns were but twenty-five miles or so from the site of Woodford’s skirmish. Likely they even heard some of the firing.  As the sun sat on December 9, the Twentieth Corps had leading regiments within an easy morning march from the railroad, just outside Savannah.  So close were the Federals at that point, General P.G.T. Beauregard, who was visiting Savannah to consult with Lieutenant-General William Hardee, opted to take a ferry over the Savannah River that afternoon instead of risking the train.  For all practical purposes, the railroad was cut even while Woodford pulled his men back.  From that, there are some grand points to consider… but I’ll save that for the moment.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 441-2.)

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