While Major-General William T. Sherman worked his wide-spaced wings into position to start the invasion of South Carolina during the latter half of January 1865, the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron launched several forays up the rivers along the South Carolina coast. In part these were to test the Confederate defenses. But Sherman and Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren, commanding the squadron, hoped these efforts would convince the Confederates that Charleston remained the next objective. For the most convincing act, Sherman requested a move on the Edisto or Stono Rivers.
Writing to authorities in Washington on January 24, 1865, Dahlgren summed up the dispositions for these operations:
I have the Dai Ching and a tug in the Combahee to assist the move at that ferry.
The Sonoma is in the North Edisto, and the Pawnee leaves at early light with a tug for the Ashepoo, where a battery and obstructions are reported.
The orders of all are to drive the rebel pickets and knock down his batteries where they an be reached.
The Tuscarora, Mingoe, State of Georgia, and Nipsic are at Georgetown, with orders to prevent the erection there of any batteries.
The Pontiac is in the Savannah River, at Purysburg, advancing with General Sherman’s extreme left. The demonstration desired by General Sherman at Charleston may be said to be begun by the collection there of so many ironclads.
In addition to simply letting the monitors, including those recently arrived, Dahlgren prepared a demonstration on the Stono River. The USS St. Louis sent launches up the North Edisto River, reaching Togodo Creek, to map any obstructions and torpedoes. Later the USS Sonoma made her way up the North Edisto. The USS Wissahickon and USS Commodore McDonough let themselves be seen in the familiar waterways of the Stono River.
I’ve already discussed the operations of the USS Pontiac on the Savannah River. And operations closer to Charleston were more of “motions” to be seen. The interesting operations were on the Combahee and Ashepoo Rivers.
The USS Pawnee and tug USS Daffodil drew the assignment on the Ashepoo River. Although Federal patrols had probed the river on several occasions, the channel was far too shallow for any extensive operations. A small fort guarded the Ashepoo. But the Confederates either had already abandoned the work or remained quiet when the Daffodil fired “some twenty or thirty rounds” on January 26.
The USS Dai Ching and the tug USS Clover were to work up the Combahee River. Earlier the Dai Ching was operating in support of the Right Wing’s movements from Port Royal Island. On January 22, after a conference with Major-General Oliver O. Howard, the gunboat moved over to the Combahee. Acting Ensign Walter Walton recalled that Howard,
… informed me that the Dai Ching could not be of any possible service to him at Port Royal Ferry, but would be a great protection to his right flank, if the Dai Ching ascended the Combahee River as far as Combahee Ferry, as he intended sending troops there to prevent the rebels from crossing at that point.
At other places and times during the war, Dahlgren was somewhat sensitive about any army officer prompting changes to the dispositions of his ships. In this case, either the admiral acquiesced based on prior agreements, or was simply too involved with other matters to worry. No records of official requests to Dahlgren survive. However, as the message to Washington cited above implies, on January 24, Dahlgren was on board with the movement of the Dai Ching. In addition, at 4 p.m. on January 24, Dahlgren wrote to Sherman to verify, “The Dai Ching in the Combahee, with orders to annoy the rebels as much as possible, to land and drive in their pickets.” Yet, it is important to note that at no time leading up to the posting of the Dai Ching did Sherman or any other army officer give any indication of advancing across the Combahee or Salkehatchie until the Left Wing was in position.
The aggressive posting of the Dai Ching would lead to a setback for the Federals on January 26.
(ORN, Series I, Volume 16, page 187, 188, 195, and 196.)