May 4, 1865: “The rebel ram Stonewall” on the loose

On May 4, 1865, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren forwarded a copy of orders, posted the previous day to the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, to Major-General Quincy Gillmore.  The copy was in part a courtesy to the Army commander, to let him know of the Navy’s operational matters.  But at the same time was a warning that despite the surrender of Confederate forces, there were many loose ends left untied… and one of those was a rather important, advanced warship sailing on the high seas – the CSS Stonewall.

The Stonewall was an advanced vessel for her time.  And she entered the stage from a backdrop of intrigue and secrecy… of the type novelists love to use.  The ship was laid down at Bordeaux, France in 1863.  Designed by Lucien Arman as an ocean-going ironclad, the Stonewall boasted a 4 ½ inch armor belt along the waterline and a 5 ½ armored pilot’s compartment.  Her offensive power was one 300-pdr (10-inch) and two 150-pdr (8-inch) Armstrong rifles (and there is some indication that at least one 70-pdr (6.4-inch) rifle was also on board when she sailed from Europe).  Add to that firepower the “ram bow” for use in close combat.  And to make that ram even more useful, the Stonewall featured twin screws and rudders, affording greater maneuverability than most vessels of her time.

The Stonewall was one of five “blue water” ironclads ordered from European shipyards by Confederate agents. Two “Laird Rams” were built in England under the cover of an Egyptian customer name.  But those were seized by the British government in the fall of 1863 and then served for the Royal Navy as coast defense vessels.  An armored frigate named Santa Maria, with an impressive twelve 8-inch rifles, was started in the yards of J.L. Thompson and Sons in 1863.  But once the true nature of the work was discovered, the Santa Maria became the Danish Danmark.

In France, Confederate agents contracted for the Stonewall and a sister ship under the cover names Sphinx and Cheops, respectively.  Despite the legal setbacks in England, the work in France continued into 1864.  The intrigue pitted the French Emperor, Napoleon III, against his own government in an effort to see the vessels delivered to the Confederates.  But that was foiled by a leak of information to the US consulate.  As result, the Sphinx was sold to Denmark as the Stærkodder, and her incomplete sister ship to Prussia as the SMS Prinz Adalbert.  Though the Stærkodder received a Danish crew, the shipbuilder and the Danes failed to finalize the deal.  In the confusion, Arman completed a deal with the Confederates.  On January 6, 1865, a Confederate crew went on board the ironclad then in Copenhagen.

With several US cruisers keeping pace, the Stonewall went to sea only to spring a leak and seek a Spanish port.  After repairs, Captain T.J. Page took the Stonewall to sea, only to watch the Federal cruisers run off instead of offering battle.  Page then put in to Lisbon for provisions and fuel in preparation for a trans-Atlantic run.  Not until late April was she ready for sea.  But when she put to sea, the Federals still lacked a vessel capable of intercepting and engaging the Stonewall.  So she posed a significant threat on the high seas during the opening days of May, 1865.

Dahlgren’s copy of General Orders No. 48, forwarded to Gillmore, carried this cover:

General: I am informed by the Navy Department that the rebel ram Stonewall has left Teneriffe, and “her destination is believed to be some point on our coast.” Several vessels of the squadron are cruising along this coast and other orders have been issued.

The referenced orders included notices from the Navy Department, which not only called attention to the movements of the Stonewall, but also the flight of President Jefferson F. Davis. The two seemed connected at the time.  And was not far out of the question for Davis to flee to Cuba using the Stonewall as some executive escape vessel.  Dahlgren’s standing orders were:

The commanders of vessels stationed along the coast will use every means in their power to communicate to the iron-clads at Port Royal and Charleston the earliest intelligence of any vessel approaching the coast resembling the Stonewall, and to prevent the escape of the rebel leader and his accomplices. It is difficult to fix upon any precise point where this vessel might be expected; but once seen every effort should be made to spread the information among the squadron, and to bring the monitors within range of her, particularly to keep sight of her, so as to retain a knowledge of her locality. The Canonicus and Nantucket are at Port Royal: the Passaic and Catskill at Charleston.

At the same time 150 years ago, the Stonewall was nearing Nassau.  She would reach that port on May 6.  Unsure of the situation, Page would then make for Havana, Cuba.  There word of the Confederate surrenders caught up with the Stonewall.  Page opted to “sell” his vessel to Spanish authorities there.  Weeks later, US officials purchased the Stonewall from the Spanish and sailed her to the Washington Navy Yard.  There she studied in detail but generally found to be unsuitable to the needs of the post-war navy. But this did allow for some interesting photos with the Stonewall anchored near some of the Federal monitors for comparison.

The Stonewall‘s mission, when the Confederates first took possession of the ship, was to break the blockade.  She might have raided Port Royal and disrupted the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.  Had she arrived in late January, Page might have even stalled Sherman’s march through South Carolina for a while.  But by itself, the Stonewall was simply not enough to do more than play the fly to the Federal elephant’s advance.  She might have made headlines, but could not have done anything substantial  (as by that time the Confederates had no ports to open!).  As events unfolded, the legal and logistic snags ensured the Stonewall was late even for that minor role.

But the “What if” question remains for us to play around with.  Was the Stonewall, on paper a superior ship to the monitors, a potential game changer?  Well, speaking to the negative of that question, her sister ship in Prussian service was found to leak badly and was deemed a poor handling ship on the seaways.  The Prussians refitted the ship, adding better structures, armor, and Krupp cannons.  Still she was destined to play no role in two wars (Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian) fought during her service period.  The Prinz Adalbert was broken up in 1878.

However, on the positive side of that question, the Stonewall herself went on to a successful career, of sorts, under a different flag in a different kind of civil war.  In 1867, the Stonewall was sold to the Tokugawa Shogunate (for a substantial profit, by the way) and sent off for Japan.  Before arriving, the Shogunate lost ground and the Americans took control of the vessel when it arrived in Yokahama (April 24, 1868).   A deal with the Meiji government delivered the ironclad, then renamed Kōtetsu.  Over the following years, the Kōtetsu fought in several engagements as part of the Boshin War between Shogunate and the Imperial Court.   The most important of which was the battle of Hakodate in May 1869 (but four years removed from her last Confederate days).

There, the Kōtetsu dominated a force of unarmored ships.  That episode might provide some insight into what “might have been” at Port Royal.  Though the Kōtetsu appears to have remained in the coastal waters of Japan throughout these operations, never testing her ability to fight on ocean waters.

The French built ex-Danish, ex-Confederate, ex-American, ex-Shogunate Japanese ironclad was renamed Azuma in 1871 and rated coast-defense battleship.  She was finally stricken in 1888 and used as an accommodation hulk.  But, looking many decades into the future at that time, the former CSS Stonewall was the first rated “battleship” used by the Imperial Japanese Navy.  Many decades later the Azuma‘s descendants would contest an ocean with the descendants of the American monitors, in some of history’s largest naval battles.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part III, Serial 100, pages 299-300.)

“Portion of this island will be required hereafter for permanent fortifications”: War transforms Hilton Head

In 1860, as the secession crisis began, Hilton Head Island, just as most of the barrier islands from the Chesapeake to the toe of Florida, lacked any military presence. The infrastructure on the island differed little from that depicted on an 1825 map:

HiltonHeadIsland1830s

Although Port Royal offered good anchorage, the lack of major port facilities diminished its importance to military authorities who had prioritized coastal defense projects.  Instead Charleston received the lion’s share of the attention… and funding.

At the start of the war, the Federals needed anchorages in order to maintain the blockade.  Thus Port Royal was posted high on the list of objectives. And at the same time the Confederates recognized the vulnerability of Port Royal and fortified Hilton Head and Phillip’s Island across the sound.

HiltonHead1862

In November 1862, Federal actions demonstrated those defenses were not complete, especially against steam powered navies.  With Port Royal in Federal hands, Hilton Head became an important base.  The island became a sprawling “city” within the span of a year.  By mid-war, outposts and fortifications extended out from Hilton Head to protect Port Royal and approaches.

HiltonHeadDistrictApril64

But with the close of the war, the military would not need Port Royal, and thereby Hilton Head would fall back down the list of priorities for post-war coastal defense appropriations.  However, military minds had reason to rethink that prioritization given the experience of the Civil War.  If the Federals could use Port Royal as a base and lodgement, then a foreign power might also.  That in mind, On April 29, 1865, Major-General Quincy Gillmore sent a letter to the Army’s Adjutant-General, Brigadier-General Lorenzo Thomas, in Washington:

General: I have the honor to call your attention to the following statement in relation to the north end of Hilton Head Island, S. C., bordering upon Port Royal Harbor. This, in common with some other portions of the island, has been reserved by the United States Government for military purposes during the war. The fact that it is the headquarters of the department, and its occupation by troops, has drawn thither a large number of sutlers, army followers, and others, until quite a city has grown up. Most of the buildings erected thus far are owned and occupied by the parties above mentioned and have been put up only on condition of their removal at any time when, in the judgment of the military authorities, the interests of the public service demand it. But the impression is gaining ground that after the war this property will no longer be needed for public purposes and that a city will be located here. In my opinion this portion of the island will be required hereafter for permanent fortifications. Therefore, that this may be understood, I desire the authority of the War Department to announce officially that all the lands now reserved at this post for military purposes will be permanently occupied by the Government. Such announcement will remove all grounds for damages in case at any time it should become necessary to require the removal of the buildings. I have the honor to request that this matter may receive your early attention.

Some of the buildings in question were quarters inhabited by former contrabands… a term being discarded in the correspondence with “refugee” or “freedmen.”

Despite Gillmore’s urgings, the War Department would make no significant efforts to maintain or improve the fortifications left behind on Hilton Head.  In the decades that followed, one experimental battery was placed on Hilton Head Island.  But that was more so to provide trials for new weapons than any scheme of defense.  Changes in military technology allowed for different arrangements than that employed during the Civil War.  In 1898, construction began on Fort Fremont featuring a battery of 10-inch disappearing guns on Saint Helena Island.  Those heavy guns could cover the sound, entrance channel, and Hilton Head with ease.  (Earlier in that decade, a coaling station was established on Paris Island.  And that post eventually grew into a substantial military presence around Port Royal by the early 20th century.)

But the US Government retained control of significant portions of Hilton Head Island after the Civil War.  Some of the pre-war plantation owners returned and reclaimed property.  Portions of the lands held by the Government were passed to the freedmen or sold to speculators.  But the War Department still held significant holdings on the island as the century closed.  And those holdings were used again during World War I and World War II as the military again saw the need to garrison Hilton Head.

However, the most significant change would occur in the decades after World War II.  A highway bridge and other improvements transformed the once sparsely populated island where Gullah lived, and occasionally the military garrisoned, into a resort community.  In the span of 100 years, Hilton Head went from being a major military base, to a small community living on the margins of the land and society, and then finally to a place of leisure and luxury.

Such is the passing of history.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part III, Serial 100, page 351.)

 

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.)

“The railroad is less than three-quarters of a mile from our front”: Foster’s attempt to isolate Savannah

With his forces stopped at Honey Hill on November 30, 1864, Major-General John Foster turned to other courses in order to accomplished his supporting task for Major-General William T. Sherman – that of attaining the Charleston & Savannah Railroad.  On December 6, Foster landed a force under Brigadier-General Edward Potter at Gregory’s Plantation.  The intent was to move up that neck between the Coosawhatchie River and Tulifinny Creek to the town of Coosawhatchie where the rail line passed.

The force consisted of the 56th, 127th, and 157th New York Infantry, the 25th Ohio Infantry, and the Naval Landing Brigade.  This brigade-sized element landed between 9 and 11 a.m. on December 6 at Gregory’s.  And, contrary to what modern readers might assume, it was the 127th New York that made the initial landings, and not the Marines.  Foster provided a brief overview of the movement towards the railroad in a report sent to Washington that day:

General Potter pushed immediately forward, and about one miles and a half out met the enemy, whom he forced rapidly back to the spot where the road up the peninsula between Coosawhatchie and Tullifinny meets the road running across from one river to the other.  Here the rebels, being re-enforced from the south side of the Coosawhatchie, made a stand and attacked our left vigorously, but our men repulsed them handsomely, capturing a battle-flag and some prisoners, and got possession of the crossing, which we now firmly hold.  A detachment sent to the right destroyed the road bridge over Tullifinny.  Our loss on the whole affair was about 5 killed and 50 wounded.

Tulifinny1

To an observer on the ground, Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart Woodford, 127th New York, the action was worth a few more sentences:

The rebel pickets were soon met and driven back. Their skirmishers were encountered at about a quarter of a mile south of the turnpike. The center of our line of battle was on the dirt road; the right wing extended into an open field at right angles to this road and parallel to the turnpike; the left wing was refused and lay about forty-five degrees from northeast to southwest. The four companies of the One hundred and twenty-seventh New York Volunteers held the right center of the line; Company I soon came up, and was ordered in on the left,; the remaining five companies came promptly up as soon as we landed, and were also subsequently sent in upon the left of the line of battle. The severe fighting was nearly over when these latter got into position. Soon after the firing became general, the rebels advanced the left of their line–which lay upon the turnpike, sheltered by the forest on the north and a heavy skirting of trees and hedge on the south–into the field, and endeavored to charge and break our right. The naval infantry, which lay immediately to the right of our regiment, were forced back about 100 or 150 yards, leaving our right uncovered.

Of course, writing his report, Commander George Preble emphasized that his boat howitzer battery saved the Army’s line providing timely support.  No mention of the naval infantry falling back.  At around the same time, the 127th’s commander, Colonel William Gurney, was hit in the arm.  Woodford then took command of the regiment.

With the four companies of my command which were with me I immediately charged the rebel line, but before we reached them they broke and retired. Part of them fell back into the woods north of the turnpike, and part moved west on the turnpike, under cover of their artillery, to their intrenchments near the railroad. Just before we charged we fired by rank, and under this discharge the flag of the regiment in our front–the Fifth Georgia Reserves–fell.

The battle-flag, mentioned by Foster in his dispatch, was contested by the 127th and 56th New York… and Preble would claim it was his naval infantry which had delivered the killing shot to the color bearer.  Regardless, the 127th received the captured honor after the skirmish was over.   By nightfall, Foster had about 2,000 men on the neck.

The Federal landings caught the Confederates off-balance, but not off-guard.  Major-General Samuel Jones had arrived at Pocotaligo the night prior with orders to assume command of the sector.  But Jones walked into a cloud of confusion.  The 5th Georgia men encountered were but a battalion (of around 150 men) guarding the neck.  Of the other forces at Jones’ disposal, 32nd Georgia, a section of artillery, and the South Carolina Cadets from the Citadel were on hand to throw against the threat.  Overnight, Jones collected other elements – to include part of the 47th Georgia and a North Carolina reserve battalion – at the threatened point.  All told about 800 men, counting the cadets.  Colonel Aaron Edwards, 47th Georgia, was ordered to attack the Federal position at daylight.  Jones expected to use the sound of that attack to trigger a bombardment of the Federal positions from a battery on the west side of the Coosawhatchie.

So on the morning of December 7, Edwards sallied forward with his scratch force.  Perhaps being generous, Edwards claimed this force met initial success, but then faltered:

Our skirmishers drove the enemy vigorously until the right of the line became engaged with the enemy’s line of battle, our left at the same time overlapping his right. This position was maintained until after Colonel Daniel’s demonstration on my right, when the enemy made new dispositions on and extending beyond my left. It becoming apparent that the enemy’s force considerably outnumbered mine, which consisted largely of raw troops, it was deemed impracticable to attack him in force, without which it was impossible to drive him from his position. I therefore withdrew in good order, unpursued by the enemy, to my present position. The troops engaged, which were my skirmishers only, behaved with great gallantry.

Jones later claimed that Edwards failed to make the attack “with any spirit.”  But in all truth, his force was outnumbered.  The failure did leave the Federals in possession of the cross roads and within a mile of the railroad, as Foster was quick to claim in his report to Washington:

The railroad is less than three-quarters of a mile from our front separated by a dense wood, through which is only a bridle path, and in the skirt of which are our pickets. I have ordered nearly all the force from Boyd’s Neck to this position, and also some 30-pounder Parrotts, with which we can reach the railroad, even should our men not succeed in gaining it, as I hope they may, as also the road bridge over the Coosawhatchie. Our position is strong, the spirit of the troops excellent, and the landings and means of communication good.

However advanced Foster’s position, he was up against the same tactical limitations which prevented the Department of the South from achieving a break of the railroad over the past two years.  Arrayed on a small, narrow peninsula, with no maneuver space, Foster could only push directly forward.  Even with a small force, the Confederates held the advantage of position.  And though Foster outnumbered his opponent at the point of attack, he was short on infantrymen.  Requests to Washington, though made, would not meet the immediate need.  Foster pressed his subordinates for 1,000 more men from Morris Island and Florida.

In the mean time, the railroad was, as Foster indicated, within range of the Parrott rifles.  All this action taking place, hopefully, to benefit Sherman’s force… which was at the time of the action on December 7, was only some 30 miles away as the crow flies, but on the other side of the Savannah River.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 420-1, 438-9, 448.)

December 5, 1864: Sixty miles from Sherman’s march, Foster makes “several demonstrations”

Following the disaster at Honey Hill on November 30, 1864, the Federal forces under Brigadier-General John Hatch fell back to their position at Boyd’s Neck.  Instead of withdrawing back to Hilton Head, Major-General John Foster ordered Hatch to continue to look for a way to accomplish the objectives (which were or were not stated clearly, for what it is worth). Rumors about Major-General William T. Sherman’s advance were just as wild on the Federal side as they were for the Confederates.  Some had Sherman on the outskirts of Savannah on December 5.  Others had him crossing the Savannah River into South Carolina.  But with the clear perspective that history allows, we know that Sherman was still 40 miles from Savannah, and some 60 miles (give or take) from Hatch’s position on Boyd’s Neck:

Dec5Situation
However, the Savannah River, its swampy bottoms, and a sizable Confederate force separated the two Federal units.  Not to mention, there was no communication, much less a common plan of operations, between the two commands.

In his report of the campaign, Foster related:

From November 30 to December 5, while keeping the greater part of the force at Boyd’s Neck, I made at different points, with the assistance of the navy, several demonstrations – in one of which the Twenty-fifth Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry marched six miles into the interior toward Pocotaligo and captured two pieces of artillery at Church Bridge, near Gardner’s Corners, one of which the men dragged off by hand.

Based on the one expedition Foster discussed in that passage and a couple of other dispatches, we can plot two of these “several demonstrations” on the map:

HoneyHill_Dec5

On December 4th, Foster alerted the Navy to a move by Hatch in the direction of Bee’s Creek.  That apparently did little more than verify the Confederate presence in that quarter.  The 25th Ohio’s excursion was undated in Foster’s report, but I have always figured it happened on the 5th.  If anything, this demonstrated that away from the main defensive belt along the railroad, the Confederates were thin.  If he kept probing, there was a chance Foster would find a weak spot to exploit.  Adding pressure to his operation, interrogation of a deserting Confederate officer indicated, “that General Sherman is within sight of Savannah, and that all the women and children were sent out of the city last night.”  Perhaps with that information urging him to more action, Foster passed an order to Hatch:

You will have all the white regiments of Brigadier-General Potter’s command prepare at once two days’ rations (cooked if time permits), and twenty extra rounds of ammunition in pockets, and move to the landing to-night as early as possible, for embarkation on transports.

Hatch was instructed to have a battery of artillery prepared for movement in the morning.  (And the Naval Brigade was relieved from duty at the same time, to report back to Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren.)  Foster put the infantry in motion that night:

On the night of December 5 I embarked a force under command of Brigadier-General Potter.  From Boyd’s Neck proceeded, at daylight, to Tullifinny Creek, and landed the men at James Gregory’s plantation, on the right bank, in pontoons and launches.

Once again, Foster had a force of infantry pressing toward the Charleston & Savannah Railroad.  And once again he hoped to sever the line in order to aid Sherman’s operations… of which Foster knew less than he did of the Confederate dispositions!  I’ll turn to the Tullifinny Creek operation in a post tomorrow.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 420 and 635-6.)

Defending Port Royal Sound: Garrisons at Hilton Head, Beaufort, Fort Pulaski, and St. Helena Island

As Major-General Quincy Gillmore departed the Department of the South in late April 1864, he left behind an assessment of the garrisons along the coast addressed to Brigadier-General John Hatch, his replacement.  In that assessment, Gillmore included a paragraph describing the needs to defend the vital anchorage at Port Royal Sound:

The district around Port Royal Harbor, including Port Royal Island and Fort Pulaski, our depots on Hilton Head Island, and machine-shops at Land’s End, Saint Helena Island. Five thousand men would be ample for the defense of this district. Between 6,000 and 7,000 men will be available for it without risking other points. The town of Beaufort and our depot at Hilton Head are both well fortified. A permanent garrison of 200 experienced artillerists is enough for Fort Pulaski. The orders are to keep both draw bridges raised during the night time. Big Tybee Island is occupied by a picket sent from Fort Pulaski. Ample naval cooperation has been afforded in this district. Hilton Head and Port Royal Islands are surrounded by deep water, navigable by gunboats. An armed transport has always been attached to the command on Port Royal Island, and another to the command on Hilton Head Island for patrolling the waters.

Slightly exceeding Gillmore’s estimate of strength, April returns indicated 3,171 men present at Port Royal Island and 5,015 present in the Hilton Head district. Though that number would be reduced by the summer months.  The Port Royal Island command, a brigade under Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton, included the 29th Connecticut (colored) Infantry, the 56th New York Infantry, 26th U.S.C.T., the 33rd U.S.C.T. (formerly the 1st South Carolina Volunteers), and Battery F, 3rd New York Light Artillery.

Separate from Saxton’s command was the Hilton Head District, consisting of garrisons on Hilton Head, Saint Helena Island, Seabrook Island, Fort Pulaski, and Tybee Island, under Colonel William W.H. Davis.  At Hilton Head itself, Davis retained two infantry regiments (the 52nd and 104th Pennsylvania) with a battery from the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery and a company of the 1st New York Engineers. The 25th Ohio garrisoned Seabrook Island, protecting a vital coal depot and signal station.  The Saint Helena Island garrison consisted of two USCT companies and an Invalid Detachment.  At the mouth of the Savannah River, four companies of the 3rd Rhode Island and a company from the 9th USCT defended Fort Pulaski and Tybee Island.  This left a battalion of the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry for patrols and a brigade of USCT (three regiments) under Colonel Thomas Bayley as maneuver elements.

HiltonHeadDistrictApril64

Upon arriving at Port Royal, Hatch apparently required more information about the dispositions. Davis responded on this day (April 30):

Hdqrs. U.S. Forces, Hilton Head,
Fort Pulaski, Saint Helena, and Tybee Island,
Hilton Head, S.C., April 30, 1864.

Brig. Gen. John P. Hatch,
Comdg. Dept. of the South, Hilton Head, S.C.:

General: In answer to your verbal request that I report to you an estimate of the number of men required in this district for its proper defense, I have the honor to submit the following:

Post of Fort Pulaski and Tybee: Fort Pulaski, 250; Tybee Island, 50; total, 300. The defensive work on Tybee is a martello tower, armed with a 30-pounder Parrott and inclosed in an earthen parapet. This is more a picket of observation than for any other purpose, as the island can only be approached across wide marshes.

Hilton Head Island: Four regiments, with an aggregate strength of not less than 3,000 men, one-half of which at least should be white troops. Of these one regiment, say 800 to 1,000 men, will be required for the picket-line from Drayton’s plantation to Braddock’s Point, two-thirds of whom should be whites. One regiment should be within the intrenchments and two close at hand outside ready for any purpose whatever. The most important point on the picket-line is Seabrook, which by reason of its being the coal depot invites attack. Any serious defense required must be made at the line of intrenchments, hence the necessity of the main force being stationed near them. I do not believe the enemy will attempt anything beyond raids, but there should be preparations for a more serious attack. The picket-boats will enable the island to be held with a less force than would be otherwise required.

Saint Helena Island: Four companies, with an aggregate of 300 men, will be sufficient for this island, and I think it will be safe to place black troops there, for there is not much probability of the enemy landing while we have a gun-boat in Saint Helena Sound. As this island covers Bay Point the force now there, 25 men, I think sufficient for that point. For the district: Post of Pulaski and Tybee, 300; Hilton Head Island, 3,000; Saint Helena and Bay Point, 325: total force, 3,625.

I deem the above the maximum force that will be required for the defense of the district under any contingency likely to arise.

I remain, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
W. W. H. Davis,
Colonel 104th Pennsylvania Vols., Comdg. Post.

Davis and Saxton held small commands in the scope of the larger war effort in the spring of 1864.  However their forces defended the important naval anchorage of Port Royal Sound.  Without that harbor, the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron could not maintain the blockade.  Two or three brigades worth of infantry, depending on the measure, for that duty.  Hard to say those troops would have been better employed elsewhere, given the importance of the blockade.  But those were 8,000 or so were there to enable particular strategic objectives.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 74, 76-77.)

Confederate raid on Port Royal Island foiled by “contretemps”

I’ve mentioned Captain J.J. Magee, of the 7th South Carolina Cavalry (the Rutledge Mounted Rifles), as one of the more effective Confederate scouts in South Carolina.  One of his last actions in South Carolina, before transferred to Virginia later that spring, was an attempted raid on Port Royal Island.  His commander, Brigadier General William S. Walker, related the details in a report posted on March 14, 1864:

A boat expedition of 120 men was organized under the command of Captain Magee to attack the headquarters of the enemy’s outposts on Broad River on the 11th instant. The ground was thoroughly scouted.  No reserves or gun-boats within reach. There was every chance of success; no element that I could see of failure. Owing to the rawness of some of the oarsmen and some other contretemps, the expedition did not arrive at the east side of Broad River until 4:30 a.m.   Tide too low for the heavier boats to land and daylight too near for the requisite secrecy.  The expedition returned. It is doubtful whether the enemy heard us or not.  There was some talking when the boats got aground.  Upon a given signal by Captain Magee (firing of a rocket to be carried round to Port Royal Ferry, by discharge of fire-arms), a feint was to be made of an attack at Port Royal Ferry by Captain Bachman with his battery of artillery. By some mistake the signal was supposed to have been made, and Captain Bachman opened upon the enemy’s pickets between 12 and 1 o’clock at night. The visit of the gun-boats was no doubt caused by this demonstration.

From what I can learn along my line I do not believe the enemy are in any force.  They are comparatively weak and disposed to be on the defensive. I will endeavor to keep up the appearance of strength by availing myself of such opportunities of attack as my scouts may develop. As you are aware, however, it is very difficult to get at them, with their command of the water, with the certainty of getting off.

On the other side of Broad River, the Federals were on alert following this attempt.  But at the same time, the Federals didn’t have sufficient gunboats to patrol the waters (and hence have true “command of the water” as Walker stated).  In a report to his superior on March 16, Commander William Reynolds, senior officer at Port Royal, related both the weakness of the Federal forces and the level of alarm resulting from the Confederate attempt:

I have received your letter of March 14, authorizing me to send the [USS] Hale to St. Helena Bay, as suggested in my letter of the 8th instant, and she will accordingly be sent there as soon as her repairs are completed, which, however, will not be for three weeks yet.

In the meanwhile these approaches to this bay will be unguarded.  The [USS] Chippewa is the only vessel of war at Port Royal able to move for the protection of this bay, and she requires repairs, as I have before advised.

Colonel [Joshua B.] Howell, commanding the district, was on board yesterday to borrow a 24-pounder howitzer, which I have agreed to lend him, there being five on hand.

He told me that the rebels had come down to Port Royal Ferry the other night and fired on his pickets, and I have learned to-day that there was an alarm at Beaufort last night and the troops were under arms. I have again made the signal to vessels now in port, “Enemy is threatening Beaufort, S.C.  Be prepared night or day for attack or defense.”

Both sides had stripped the defenses around Port Royal Sound thin due to pressing needs elsewhere, mostly in Florida. And sort of a bluff running on both sides of the marshes, hoping the other would not determine the real weakness.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 357-8; ORN, Series I, Volume 15, page 368.)