While Major-General William T. Sherman’s forces in the interior of South Carolina were working across the South Fork of the Edisto River on February 10, 1865, outside Charleston, a small Federal force was mounting one of the many demonstrations directed to keep Confederate forces pinned to the coast. The demonstration was, to say the least, uninspired.
Almost like a thread that keeps being pulled, the operation called for a Federal force to work its way across Sol Legare against Confederate pickets on the southwestern end of James Island. This approach was used before the battle of Grimball’s Landing in July 1863, then again during the operations of July 1864, and also for several minor operations conducted during the second half of the war.
The approach put Federal troops in front of a well designed belt of defensive works, which could be held by a small Confederate force. Out in front of the line of works was a picket line, with its own earthworks, covering Grimball’s and Rivers’ Causeways leading off Sol Legare. Since the Federals had often used those causeways to threaten James Island, the Confederates had fully developed the positions to allow a small force to defend against a much larger force. And that, in a nutshell, is the story of the Battle of Grimball’s Causeway.
On the night of February 9, Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig had a small brigade, roughly 1,200 men, move onto Sol Legare, by way of landing on Front Cole’s Island. The force consisted of the 54th and 144th New York Infantry, 32nd and 33rd USCT, and the 55th Massachusetts. Supporting this movement, the Navy provided two gunboats, a tug, and two mortar schooners to support the demonstration. On the Stono River, Lieutenant-Commander A.W. Johnson lead the USS Wissahickon and mortar schooner USS C.P. Williams. On the Folly River, the USS Commodore McDonough and mortar schooner USS Dan Smith, under Lieutenant-Commander A.F. Crosman, covered the right flank of the Federal advance. At the Army’s request, two monitors came over the bar into the Stono. Only the USS Lehigh moved up the river to engage, however. Lieutenant-Commander Alexander A. Semmes, on the Lehigh, was in overall command of the naval forces.
The landings went off well on the morning of the 10th. At around 9 a.m. the mortar schooners commenced firing on the Confederate picket line. The gunboats and monitor joined in with direct fire. This had the desired effect of getting the attention of the Confederate pickets. Meanwhile Hartwell had the two New York regiments maneuver and counter-march on Sol Legare to directly threaten the pickets.
On the Confederate lines, Major Edward Manigault, commanding the right end of the Confederate line on James Island, came up to the picket line in response to reports of activity. On the line were, according to Manigault’s recollections, 100 men of the 2nd South Carolina Heavy Artillery and 20 cavalrymen. Reinforcements came in the form of a three companies from the Palmetto Guards and a detachment of dismounted cavalry, amounting to 188 men. Distributing this force, Manigault had 160 men at Grimball’s Causeway and 48 at River’s Causeway. The remainder were held in reserve or on the picket line between those two points.
The demonstration remained distant gunboat fire and show until around 5 p.m. Hartwell pressed the two New York regiments against Grimball’s Causeway with rush. This pushed in the Confederate skirmishers and might have dislodged the position if continued. Having gained the outer rifle pits, however, the Federals were content to hold what they had.
Among the casualties on the Confederate side was Manigault himself. Struck near the spine with a wound considered mortal, he lay in the line of rifle pits overtaken by the Federals along with a soldier from the Palmetto Guard who stayed, tending to the officer. Manigault later recalled:
Immediately after, 6 men of the 54th N.Y. (with unmistakable brogue) came up and took [the soldier] prisoner, and then took me. I was in a moment despoiled of my watch, sword, pistol, and field glass and, shortly after, taken on a blanket to Grimball’s Causeway where Capt. [Gustav] Blau, 54th New York, was in command of our men’s rifle pits, or earthwork, which we had just abandoned.
Manigault survived the wound and the war. Writing in 1902, he recalled the South Carolinians lost seven or eight killed or wounded, with 17 captured. Other sources put the number at 20 killed and 70 wounded. The Federals suffered a like number of casualties.
For the Navy, the only tense moment came in regard to the gunboat McDonough, which suffered boiler trouble. While never under fire, the vessel had to wait until a tow could be arranged to get to safety downriver.
With darkness, both sides settled in. The Navy continued firing through the night at fifteen minute intervals. Batteries on Morris Island resumed bombarding Charleston. The Federals retained their lodgement until the night of February 11. Major-General Quincy Gillmore had decided to switch the focus of demonstrations to Bull’s Bay. So the forces on Sol Legare were needed elsewhere.
To keep up the “show” and maintain pressure on James Island, Schimmelfennig mounted a feint against Battery Simkins and Fort Sumter on the night of February 11. Major John A. Hennessy, 52nd Pennsylvania, lead a boat demonstration out into Charleston Harbor. “The enemy opened a lively artillery fire from Simkins and Sullivan’s Island and a musketry fire from Simkins and Sumter,” reported Schimmelfennig. The actions of February 10-11 did force the Confederates to reallocate troops from Sullivan’s Island to James Island. Otherwise, the demonstrations had little effect on events to follow.
One more operation was mounted in front of James Island before Charleston fell. Sensing from intercepted dispatches that the Confederates were shifting troops back to Sullivan’s Island, and wishing to keep those troops distracted from the landings at Bull’s Bay, Schimmelfennig moved a force under Colonel Eugene Kozlay, 54th New York, onto Sol Legare (again!) on February 13-14. Covering the maneuvers, the Navy’s gunboats fired a few more shots into the Confederate lines… perhaps the last such fired at James Island during the war. The Federal force retired on the night of February 14.
Designed to keep the Confederates distracted and focused on James Island, these operations were more like a soft punch landed against a recoiling opponent. Even as Schimmelfennig made his last demonstration, the Confederates had orders cut for the evacuation of Charleston. Gillmore, content to make a demonstration at Bull’s Bay, which he hoped might catch the Confederates off guard. But before I move to the discussion of Bull’s Bay and pesky issues like tides and the draft of ships, allow me to review the particulars of the Confederate withdrawal from Charleston.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, page 1017; Manigault’s, and much of the information accounting for the battle of Grimball’s Landing, from Edward Manigault, Siege Train: The Journal of a Confederate Artilleryman in the Defense of Charleston, edited by Warren Ripley, Charleston: University of South Carolina Press, 1986, pages 243-7.)