Often in the study of amphibious operations, we read about the difficulties gaining the last thousand yards or so where the ocean transitions to the land. Natural obstacles often pose more problems than anything man can devise. And thus much of the complication to simply landing a military force on a hostile shore. In February 1865, there were no “how to land on a barrier island” texts to study. The Federals, both the Army and the Navy, had gotten along with experiences – good and bad – through the war. What would happen at Bull’s Bay from February 12 to 18, 1865 would fit into the latter. At Bull’s Bay, those last thousand yards would prove rather difficult to gain, even with little to no opposition.
Bull’s Bay came up in several schemes to reach Charleston during the war. None of which acted out. The problem was the distance of approach to Charleston and the shallow draft of the bay. But despite that the Confederates were sensitive to the sector. Thus it made a good place to stage a diversion in February 1865. A little orientation:
Bull’s Bay is approximately twenty miles northeast of Fort Moultrie. The bay is a wide, but shallow, inlet between Bull’s Island, Cape Roman, and the mainland. The map above only shows the western half of the bay, which happens to be the part we are concerned with in regard to the operations in question here. A lighthouse stood on Bull’s Island to guide passing ships, but that was extinguished during the war. At the top of the bay, over quite a distance of flats, was Owendaw Creek. To the eastern side of the bay were several creeks running through the marshes. The largest of these were Van Ross, Sewee, and Bull Creeks. All lead into a “back bay” by the name Sewee Bay. At Sewee Bay, Vanderhorst’s Wharf, known as Andersonville in Confederate and US Navy dispatches, had a road leading into Christ Church Parrish and the mainland.
For much of the war, Confederates maintained only picket posts around Bull’s Bay. The main line of defense was across Christ Church, behind Sullivan’s Island. The positions at Bulls Bay included a picket post on Bull’s Island and a position for artillery at Andersonville. In that regard, Bull’s Bay made an inviting target for Federal operations.
After deciding to close the James Island demonstrations on February 10, Major-General Quincy Gillmore put Brigadier-General Edward Potter in charge of an expedition to Bull’s Bay. Potter’s force was Colonel Alfred S. Hartwell’s Brigade, consisting of the 144th New York, 32nd USCT, and 55th Massachusetts – all units just engaged on James Island. The intent was to put a force ashore at Owendaw Creek, and from there outflank any defenses. The aim, again, was a demonstration, and there appears to have been no serious thought as to reinforcing this brigade. There simply were no spare forces in theater to add to the meager force. The troops were transported on a set of Army transports. Potter referred to these as “tin-clads” indicating some additional bracing and hardening short of armor. These transports drew four feet of water.
The Navy added nine gunboats and four armed tugs. Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren hoped the light-draft gunboats could operate in the shallows of Bull’s Bay. However, of the ships assigned, only the USS Pawnee, USS Sonoma, USS Ottawa, USS Winona, USS Potomska, USS J.S. Chambers, and USS Wando, and three tugs were able to move into Bull’s Bay. Commander Fabus Stanly commanded the force.
Though it is rather hard to believe, given the intensity of operations around Charleston during the war, but up to February 12 there had been no detailed surveys of Bull’s Bay. Arriving that morning, Potter found “that nothing was known about the landing places or the best spots for disembarkation.” As luck turned, the tug with the topographical engineer was delayed due to a grounding. Potter made a reconnaissance by boat and quickly determined Owendaw Creek was not the prefect location for a landing. He considered passing up Sewee’s Creek to the Bay and thence onto Andersonville. But he had to wait until Stanly set buoys in the channels.
On the afternoon of the 12th, the Federal’s luck continued to trend bad. A storm blew up and made the surf too choppy for any landings on the 13th. The storm grew in intensity on the 14th. But Potter managed to land many of his troops on Bull’s Island to avoid keeping them on crowded transports another day (the Confederate pickets had cleared on the approach of the gunboats). The storm subsided on the 15th, and Potter once again tried the channel to Sewee Bay. “This attempt will be attended with considerable risk, and if the weather becomes bad or the boats get aground,” Potter cautioned, “it will be an unfortunate business.” He further added, “The great trouble has been the entire want of information with regard to this bay, its creeks and shores.”
But the force managed to gain entry into Sewee Bay. Stanly, who’d managed to get the Ottawa and Wando through the creeks, attempted to get in position to shell the Confederate batteries. “Finding it impossible to approach Andersonville in front, I left a strong force there, and half the army to keep up appearances, and dashed off with General Potter to the northwest shore of this (Bull’s) bay….” Stanly and Potter determined that from Sewee’s Bay the light draft transports and even the boats would have trouble passing over the oyster beds and flats to reach Andersonville. They looked again to Owendaw Creek.
So on February 17, they once gain made their way into Bull’s Bay to seek landing. As Potter recorded:
The spot selected for a landing was a sandy strip lying between Owendaw Creek and its branch on the left, which is known as Graham’s Creek. The enemy’s works and men could be seen at Buck Hall. The launches, six in number, went ahead, opening fire as they neared the beach, and the boats with troops followed. The boats were headed for Buck Hall and the direction afterward changed. The One hundred and forty-fourth New York, Colonel Lewis, landed on the beach without opposition, and marched across the marsh toward Graham’s Creek, while the launches went up the same stream.
At last ashore, Potter kept pressing forward. The advance ran into a line of earthworks and a battery position just past the mouth of the creek. The New Yorkers chased off a small Confederate force from the works and, after occupying, reformed the facings. By noon, Potter had the remainder of the infantry and a battery of boat howitzers in the perimeter. The Federals managed to destroy a salt-work and a bridge over the Owendaw as they felt out the position.
Potter’s plan for February 18 was to continue his advance and gain Andersonville. From there he could further threaten the Christ Church line. But events occurring in Charleston that day would change the nature of that proposed advance. The pickets driven off at Owendaw Creek were the rear guard of a withdrawal. By morning, Charleston was an open city.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 1021-24; ORN, Series I, Volume 16, page 240.)