“Foster… was frustrated in his grand stab at Charleston.” – Separating supposition from reliable fact

Over the holiday break, I took to reading H. David Stone’s Vital Rails: The Charleston & Savannah Railroad and the Civil War in Coastal South Carolina.  I’d picked up the book shortly after publication.  But until last month had confined my use of the work to select passages as I “blogged” through the 150ths of the war.  It is a good study of the vital railroad link, which I’ve mentioned on no small number of occasions.  I’d recommend Stone’s book for anyone serious about study of the South Carolina-Georgia Coast theater.

While I think Stone’s study of the railroad is outstanding, as with any historical study there is always some passage or paragraph that a discerning reader will take exception.  Criticism, that is, taken to examination of the logical presentation, consideration of source material cited in support, and thence analysis of the conclusion.  I call it good critical thought… you know, critical as in the sense of “an analysis of the merits and faults” and not the street connotation of being dismissive.

The passage that raised my attention came within a chapter discussing the operations in front of Charleston in the summer of 1864.  As I’ve blogged those activities to length in earlier posts, I’ll cut to the chase here. Major-General John Foster arrived to assume command in the Department of the South in June 1864.  After assessing the situation and considering his orders from Washington, Foster promptly organized an offensive.  Before detailing Foster’s plan, Stone writes:

Well aware of the city’s vulnerability, Foster decided on a decisive assault on Charleston.  He expected at the very least to destroy the railroad connection between the Broad River and Charleston, and he hoped to find a weak point in the line of defense through which he could penetrate and gain the city itself.

That is a loose, but fair, interpretation of Foster’s intent.  A paragraph before, Stone alluded to Foster’s orders from Washington.  Those being “… to tie up any Confederate reserves that might potentially be sent to aid Lee or Johnston.”  And Foster was to remain defensive in stance, with offensive operations limited to raids.   At the end of the chapter, Stone summarizes the operation:

Foster had begun his tenure with high aspirations but was frustrated in his grand stab at Charleston. Coastal topography, oppressive midsummer heat, and inefficient subordinates had doomed the operation; however, the ability of the Confederate troops to concentrate troops from remote areas by rail could not be discounted. Toward the end of the campaign Foster unleashed what became a protracted bombardment of Fort Sumter, but it did not change the fact that his superior force failed to meet its goal….

This is where I turn on the critical eye.  Foster’s goal… what was it?

To answer that, we have to keep in context where Foster fit into the military command structure.  He was a department commander in an Army in the “big army” sense.  So he was a subordinate to Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant.  And as Grant was removed from Washington at the time in question… you know… pressing Bobby Lee in Virginia, the official correspondence between Washington and Foster came from Major-General Henry Halleck. There is a letter written on June 29 by Halleck which summarizes what Grant wanted Foster to do (and in context here, Halleck is responding to Foster’s appeal for more troops and boats to make a push on Fort Sumter and other objectives):

What I understand General Grant wishes you to do is precisely what in one of your former dispatches you proposed doing, i.e., make raids on the enemy’s lines of communication, destroy as much of them as possible, and keep as many of his troops occupied at the south as you can.  He has given no special instructions, but leaves the matter entirely to your judgement and discretion. In a recent dispatch he remarked that in your present condition of the Southern coast, stripped as it was of rebel troops, your forces might effect an important diversion.

Clearly Halleck, and Grant for good measure, did not consider Charleston to be Foster’s main objective.  The date of this letter is important, but more so is the length of time taken for this message to get into Foster’s hands.  Halleck’s letter would have arrived at Hilton Head sometime after the first week of July.   And that was after Foster had launched his offensive.  So did Foster place Charleston as an objective above those given by his superiors?  Did Foster extend the “judgement and discretion” to assume an objective beyond what Grant directed?

Evidence points to “no.”  Throughout June, Foster wrote at length to Halleck in regard to operations.  Though he did pester for more resources (particularly light-draft ships), these must be considered in context – a commander asking for additions in order to accomplish just that little bit more than possible with the existing resources.  Without those, Foster appeared content to remain within Grant’s wishes.  On June 23, Foster provided an update on planned operations, discussing his intent… and how that fit within the context of Grant’s wishes:

I shall be ready to commence operations in about one week, with a force of 5,000 men, which is all that can be collected of the reliable men.  I propose, first, to destroy the Charleston and Savannah Railroad, and then to make a sudden attack, either upon some of the defenses of Charleston or of Savannah.  If I fail in one I will try the other….

No where in that message does Foster seem fixated on Charleston.  It was an objective, to be sure.  But it was an objective reserved for follow through, after the primary goals were met.  Furthermore, Foster gave it as much importance as he did Savannah. This was further underscored in a dispatch to Halleck written on June 30 (and thus crossing, in transit, the Halleck letter of June 29).  I quoted that dispatch extensively in an earlier post, but for emphasis would mention this passage:

My definite object is to destroy the railroad, and this, I think, we shall accomplish. But, in addition, we shall worry the enemy, and may possibly find a weak spot by which we may penetrate. If so, we shall not fail to profit by it. If none are found on the west side, I may, possibly, before retiring, attempt to take Fort Johnson by boats.

Again, Foster’s focus was not specifically Charleston, rather was in line with Grant’s instructions – demonstrate and annoy with the aim to fix Confederate forces.   Foster did leave open the hope the situation might deliver some great prize.  But he confined that hope, at least in writing.

We might liken Foster’s hope to that of a quarterback throwing a pass on third down and long yardage.  The objective might be to secure a first down.  But if a touchdown was the result, he’d take that gladly.   Everyone looking from Morris Island had eyes on the prize that was Charleston.  But that is not to say Foster or anyone else in June 1864 were engineering an offensive with a focused, deliberate objective of Charleston.  What we have is Foster’s words to Halleck that confine his goals to those suggested by Grant’s guidance.  To presume more, one would need get into Foster’s head and to his personal thoughts.  Nobody has cited any of Foster’s personal papers or letters home in evidence on this particular subject, for what it is worth.

So where does this notion about Foster’s goal (of capturing Charleston in July 1864) come from?  Stone does not offer footnotes linking sources for the passages quoted above.  To be fair, the first passage is fully supported by the content mentioned earlier in the paragraph, which is sourced.  The second passage, which is his conclusion, need not be directly sourced.  Being a conclusion, it is more so the duty of the writer to lead the reader to agree with a supposition.

In his book, The Siege of Charleston 1861-1865, E. Milby Burton opens the discussion of Foster’s offensive with a quote from the 11th Maine regimental history.  “To capture Richmond would be grand, but to capture Charleston would be glorious….”   A vivid quote, but unfortunately taken out of context, as it comes from a section detailing the regiment’s initial assignment to the Department of the South in January 1863.  From that misdirected opening, Burton proceeded to explain Foster’s offensive as one aimed at Charleston, with a secondary directive, “if possible, destroy the Charleston and Savannah Railroad….”  That said, Burton concluded the Confederate defenders had rallied in the face of superior forces to save Charleston in a near-run affair.

Burton drew from several sources to support this conclusion.  Some were Federal accounts – the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery regimental history, quotes from Admiral John Dahlgren, and northern newspapers for the most part.  None of which were able to definitively pin Foster to a goal.  Not even Dahlgren who, for all his close work with the General, did not fully measure the intent from Washington in his assessment.

Burton relied heavily upon the Confederate engineer John Johnson.  We might turn to The Defense of Charleston Harbor as the furthest point back in the history of the history … er… historiography… in which we hear Foster’s goal that July was Charleston:

With abundant transportation and the powerful support of the navy, Major-General Foster had at length resolved on a very serious attempt on Charleston itself.

Later, summarizing the operations, Johnson wrote:

The land and naval forces of the attack were strong enough, but they were not pushed with the vigor that characterized the fighting on Morris Island. Had they been, they might have achieved in one week what the toilsome and bloody campaign of Morris Island failed to accomplish after twelve months – viz. the capture of Charleston. …

Thus in the progress of the war Charleston had twice driven back the forces of the Federal navy under DuPont and Dahlgren in 1863, and twice the forces of the Federal army under Benham in 1862 and Foster in 1864.

Over the years, I’ve come to rely upon Johnson’s narrative to fill in many of the particulars missing in official accounts.  In particular he provided a wealth of first-hand details about operations.  However, I think in this case, while he made a very astute observation from his own experience, it was lacking in perspective. In short, Johnson did not know, could not know, and would not know (even later) that Foster’s orders limited him to demonstrations.  With that, we really cannot use Johnson as a source to pin Charleston as Foster’s goal.  And thus we find Burton’s, and to some degree Stone’s, suppositions somewhat shaky.

Again, please don’t take this critical essay as detracting from Stone’s good work.  I just think this is a salient point in the narrative of history where historians have generally not explored with the diligence that the subject requires.  We’ve long accepted what distant observers to the event (Johnson or newspapers or regimental histories) have to say.  We’ve not wrangled properly with the direct sources.  To say that Foster, for his July 1864 operations, intended to march into Charleston, one has to discredit what he wrote to Halleck.  I’ve yet to see that done.  (And before we toss this small point of history into the “It was a backwater of the war” dust-bin, remember that in the 1864 campaigns everything was related.  Foster’s operations were a part of a larger, complicated, and inter-dependent Federal operations that season.)

In the end, I’m left with an oft-repeated lesson from the study of history.  Never accept a premise or supposition without the strength of sources – no matter how small or obvious the point might be.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 146, 156, and 157; H. David Stone, Jr. Vital Rails: The Charleston & Savannah Railroad and the Civil War in Coastal South Carolina, Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2008, pages 191-2 and 199; The Story of One Regiment: The Eleventh Maine Infantry Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion, New York: J.J. Little & Co, 1896, page 109; E. Milby Burton, The Siege of Charleston 1861-1865, Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1970, pages 284-5;  John Johnson, The Defense of Charleston Harbor: Including Fort Sumter and the Adjacent Islands, 1863-1865, Walker, Evans & Cogswell Company, 1890, pages 215 and 223 ).

 

2 thoughts on ““Foster… was frustrated in his grand stab at Charleston.” – Separating supposition from reliable fact

  1. I suppose, with the naval blockade in effect, cutting of the rail line between Savannah and Charleston would have done a great deal toward reducing Charleston’s strategic importance without having to expend the manpower necessary for an invasion. Supplies could still have been moved from Columbia and Augusta, but it would have been much more difficult to move troops back and forth along the coast.

    • I think that would be a fair assessment of the railroad’s importance. However, I would go back to “what would Grant do” in this regard. Grant wanted Foster to demonstrate and, if possible, cut the railroad. He wanted Foster to be an annoyance. No better way than to press against the sensitive rail line. I would argue that later in the year (November-December 1864), the C&S RR was vital to the Confederates attempting to stop Sherman. That said, had Foster and Sherman been more synchronized in their operations, the better place to cut a railroad would be on the Altamaha or Ogeechee River in Georgia (that being the Gulf Railroad). Such a break would have first denied a significant transfer of reinforcements to Savannah (the Georgia state troops that showed up at Honey Hill, for instance). Furthermore, such an operation would have, by necessity, secured a port along the coast from which Sherman’s forces might later be resupplied. But that is a counter-factual of little value. The events didn’t play out that way.

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