“The troops behaved very handsomely”: John’s Island Operations – July 3-11, 1864

At this time 150 years ago, as I’ve alluded to in earlier posts, Major-General John Foster’s July operations in the field fizzled as he refocused his attention on Fort Sumter in the form of a heavy bombardment.  One might say Foster’s offensive was a flat failure.  But on the other hand, his stated objective – at least the one he related to his superiors – was simply to demonstrate in front of Charleston.  Before I discuss and assess Foster’s offensive, I must briefly summarize the operations on John’s Island, having neglected those somewhat.  Brigadier-General John Hatch’s command there operated on the west side of the Stono River with the original objective of the railroad bridge at Rantowles.  Generally the advance would have looked something like this:

JohnsIslandOrigPlan

But from the start, Hatch ran into delays just getting men ashore.  Then his advance slowed due to the heat and rains.  With reinforcements, Hatch’s command now numbered over 5,000 men.  On July 5, Hatch’s lead elements moved up from Huntscum’s corner (where a roads connected Legareville with the main part of John’s Island) and advanced in the direction of the Stono River.  Opposing this advance was Major John Jenkins, 3rd South Carolina Cavalry, with small force of cavalry and a battery of artillery.   At first Jenkins attempted to cut behind Hatch.  But seeing that as futile, he then moved on a parallel road, moving some eleven miles, to get in front of the Federals.  (The map below generally summarizes the movements from July 5 to 9, 1864)

JohnsIslandJuly1864

Jenkins was unable to prevent Hatch from securing passage to a plantation home known as Waterloo Place, owned by J. Grimball, but he had prevented any further movement towards Rantowles.

On July 6, both sides skirmished around Waterloo Place.  The Federals attempted to gain ground to fire in flank on Battery Pringle, but found no suitable location for artillery.  Foster, who had moved onto John’s Island to direct operations, put Hatch temporarily in overall command of operations against Charleston on that day.  In turn Hatch elevated Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton to command the operations on John’s Island.

Saxton, now charged with finding some means to flank Battery Pringle, looked down the road for a good artillery position.  Although north of Waterloo Place the ground was predominately marsh, just past, on the Grevias’ plantation was a spot of high ground which might serve the purpose.  To reach that position, the Federals had to pass a causeway leading to the Burden plantation.  On July 7th, Saxton pushed out to occupy that ground, as reported later by Hatch:

General Saxton this day attacked the enemy’s line of rifle-pits with the Twenty-sixth U.S. Colored Troops.  The troops behaved very handsomely, advancing steadily in open ground, under a heavy fire, and driving the enemy from the line.  Had the advance been supported, the enemy’s artillery would have been captured; as it was, both artillery and infantry were driven from the field.

The 26th USCT captured several buildings on the Grevais’ plantation that morning, but were driven back.  Later that day, the Federals again pressed forward, gaining some ground.  But the steady work of Confederate field artillery kept them in check.  Fire from Battery Pringle’s heavy guns seemed to have drawn Federal attention away from the action at Grevais’ and, as Hatch mentioned, left the USCT unsupported in their advance.

Showing that the Federals were not alone with respect to slow advances, Brigadier-General Beverly Robertson moved from Adams’ Run on the afternoon of July 7 with the intent of driving back Hatch’s force.  Robertson intended to attack at Grevais’ by morning of July 8, but miss routed supply wagons prevented an attack that day.  Not until the morning of July 9 was Robertson in position.  The force consisted of the 1st Georgia Regulars Battalion, a dismounted detachment from the 4th Georgia Cavalry, and three companies of the 32nd Georgia Infantry.  An attack at 5:45 a.m. succeeded in driving in Federal pickets, but little else.  A second attack roughly an hour later gained more ground.  But six well placed Federal Napoleon guns blocked any further advance.  Roberston was able to report, however, “Our occupation of his front line completely thwarted the enemy’s plans, as it secured to us the elevated ground between Burden’s Causeway and Grevais’ house….”  From the open ground there, the Federals could have enfiladed Battery Pringle (though there is little indication that was a properly developed scheme on the part of the Federals).

That evening, sensing little else could be accomplished on John’s Island without applying more resources than Foster was willing to commit, preparations began for a withdrawal.  The Federals left John’s Island by way of Legareville.  Thus ended Hatch’s portion of Foster’s July opertions.  The actions at Waterloo Place and Burden’s Causeway (Grevias’ Plantation) were but small skirmishes in context of other major battles occurring in other theaters.  Hatch reported the loss of 11 killed and 71 wounded during the entire time on John’s Island (but alluded to a small number of missing, presumed captured).  Robertson reported 37 killed and 91 wounded.

Perhaps, with a bit more drive and support, the Federals might have gained a significant lodgement on John’s Island.  At the same time, the Confederates demonstrated the ability to hamper any advance up the narrow corridors in the marshes and swamps of John’s Island.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 85 and 142-3.)

“The small number of artillerists now in the department”: The artillery of the Department of the South, Spring 1864

Major-General John G. Foster assumed command of the Department of the South on May 26, 1864.  Foster served at Charleston (specifically Fort Moultrie) before the war, had been second in command at Fort Sumter when the war started, but spent much of the next two years in North Carolina.  Foster was familiar with Charleston… and with making do with small garrison forces along the coast.

Among the first actions Foster took was an inquiry about the status of artillery within the department, with a focus on the field artillery.  On this day (May 29) in 1864, Foster’s Chief of Artillery, Colonel Charles R. Brayton of the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery, provided a report:

Sir: In accordance with instructions of yesterday from department headquarters, I have the honor to submit the following report of the condition of my department and the requirements necessary to make the same effective.

The effective light artillery within the department consists of three batteries, stationed, equipped, and armed as follows:

LtArtyDeptSouthMay64

Batteries B and F, Third New York Artillery, have sufficient men for six pieces, to which number it is intended to increase them when horses can be obtained. Company G, Second U. S. Colored Artillery, is recruiting at Hilton Head and numbers upwards of 110 men. It is intended to arm this battery with six 12-pounder howitzers. In the manner above mentioned it is intended to increase the light artillery within the department to twenty-four pieces, which will allow a six-gun battery for each district. Required to horse the different batteries, each increased to six pieces, 250 horses suitable for artillery purposes. The remaining necessary material can be obtained from the ordnance department when required.

The light batteries served in the shadow, you might say, of the larger guns on Morris Island.  But as chronicled last year, the light guns provided support during operations on Morris Island.

After the siege, the batteries played a prominent role in the Florida Expedition in the winter of 1864.  But with the departure of the Tenth Corps, just three batteries remained.  At strength, but in need of horses. These were important assets for the department, providing mobile support for threatened points and any expedition inland.

The weapons listed – two 3-inch Ordnance Rifles, four Napoleons, four Wiard rifles, and four 12-pdr howitzers – is not complete, I think.  There is ample evidence a large number of light field guns and howitzers remained either in the fortifications or in storage.  One indicator of these “extra” weapons is the plan to outfit Company G, 2nd USCT with six howitzers.  And if I may, does that not say something about the acceptance of the USCT in the department?  Manning artillery, particularly field artillery, was judged a complex, mentally demanding job.  Recall the “smart ones” from West Point usually got into the artillery.

Brayton continued, reporting on the status of the heavy artillery at different locations in the command:

The heavy artillery forces within the department consist of ten companies of the Third Rhode Island Artillery, with an aggregate strength of 800 men. Five companies are stationed on Morris Island, in charge of the important forts and batteries, assisted by sufficient details from the infantry to serve the offensive guns constantly when required, and the defensive ones in case of an attack.  The mortar batteries on Morris Island are necessarily without full reliefs on account of the small force on the island. The batteries on Folly Island, which are purely defensive, are served by details from the infantry, instructed by non-commissioned officers from the artillery.

With regard to the manning of these batteries, keep the distinction in mind between the “offensive” batteries on Morris Island’s north end and the “defensive” batteries further south, down to Folly Island.  As reported, many of the latter were manned by infantry.  But it was the “offensive” batteries which seemed to have all the action:

Thirty shells are thrown into Charleston daily from the Morris Island batteries, directed at different portions of the city, and a slow mortar fire at different times opened on Sumter, with a view to prevent the mounting of mortars on the terre-plein. The armament of the different works in the Northern District are in good condition, and those on Morris Island ready at a moment’s notice for offensive or defensive operations. Weekly reports of all firing, changes in garrisons, bursting of guns, with full history of same, together with accounts of the firing of the rebels, are required from the chief of artillery of this district.

Further down the coast, Beaufort, Hilton Head, and Fort Pulaski also had heavy artillery mounted, but lightly manned:

The different forts and batteries at Beaufort are in charge of companies of the Twenty-sixth U. S. Colored Troops, under the instruction of non-commissioned officers from the artillery. The armaments of these works are well cared for and ready for defensive purposes.

Four companies of heavy artillery are stationed at Fort Pulaski and one at Hilton Head; the latter company is now instructing the First Michigan Colored Volunteers in artillery with a view to have them serve such works in Hilton Head District which cannot be manned by the artillery.

The armaments of the works in this district are well taken care of. The details to serve as artillery from the infantry have not such opportunities for drill as I desire on account of heavy fatigue work now going on. Detachments from the artillery at Pulaski are serving on the armed transports May Flower, Thomas Foulkes, Plato, and Croton.

Yes… the Army had some gunners trained to fire from ships.

Rounding out the department’s artillery, Brayton discussed the garrisons in Florida:

Fort Clinch, at Fernandina, is garrisoned by companies of the One hundred and fifty-seventh New York; the forts at Saint Augustine by detachments from the Seventeenth Connecticut Volunteers; the different batteries at Jacksonville by details from the Third U. S. Colored Troops.

Again, details from the infantry, including USCT, filled in where the Army lacked artillerists.  And this overall shortage of gunners factored into Brayton’s conclusions and recommendations:

The departure of the Tenth Army Corps left us with infantry garrisons, many of which were wholly ignorant of their duties as artillerists; non-commissioned officers and privates from the artillery have, however, been distributed as instructors, so that the different garrisons are in fair condition as regards drill. Copies of General Orders, No. 88, from War Department, relative to the care of field-works and their armaments, have been distributed to the different officers in charge of forts and batteries and provisions of the order required to be observed. The small number of artillerists now in the department renders it necessary that every available man should be on duty with his special arm, and as many are detailed as clerks, orderlies, teamsters, boatmen, bakers, and attendants in hospitals, I would respectfully request that all detailed men from the light and heavy artillery be ordered to join their companies, and that no details for any purpose, other than in the line of their duty, be made from the artillery.

Brayton did not mention, however, the employment of rockets and boat howitzers which had been of particular use in front of James Island.  Those weapons were, as with other artillery weapons in the department, manned by infantry.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 105-6.)

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.)

Wainwright’s Diary, March 10, 1864, Part II: USCT, General Grant, and consolidation

Picking up on the later portions of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright’s lengthy diary entry for March 10, 1864, the subject turned to the US Colored Troops.  Though these troops were not at that time assigned to the Army of the Potomac, Wainwright did have observations based on newspaper reports:

My copy of the Herald the last week has been like a daily edition of Punch to me.  Each number has had some very clever articles on the negro regiment which the Union League in New York have been getting up; and each night as I read them I have roared with laughter.  The hits on ex-Governor [John A.] King “the pink of propriety” and “flower of aristocracy,” were capital.  As it has been decided to employ [negroes] as soldiers, do it by all means; but why make more fuss over them than if they were white? No regiment leaving New York since the spring of 1861 has had such an ovation.  Really respectable ladies presented the colours, and threw bouquets to great buck [negroes]. William saw the regiment marching down Broadway, and says that had they been white men under the same length of drill, they would have been thought to march badly; being black, the Times and Tribune say they surpassed the Seventh.  For my part, I wish all the negroes in the country were safely back in Africa.

The regiment mentioned here was the 20th USCT.  That regiment, along with the 26th and 31st USCT were organized in New York.  I’ve modified a couple of Wainwright’s words here.  I’m not so concerned with blog statistics to invite visitors just looking for salacious wording in the wartime accounts.  If one wishes to discuss Wainwright’s prejudices, I prefer to start the conversation at a more productive level than a subjective judgment on right and wrong.

For the troops in Culpeper County that March, two other events dominated the “army news” – the arrival of Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant and reorganization of the Army of the Potomac.  In the next paragraph, Wainwright made light of Grant’s coming east:

It is now certain that Grant is to have the new post of lieutenant-general, just created by act of Congress. This marks him officially as our major-general “most distinguished for courage, skill, and ability.” I trust that he may prove himself so, and not only that, but equal in all respects to the greatest generals of history.  But it is hard for those who knew him when formerly in the army to believe that he is a great man; then he was only distinguished for the mediocrity of his mind, his great good nature, and his insatiable love of whiskey.  He will doubtless now be placed in supreme control of all the armies; and as the radicals must see that they have nothing more to gain by prolonging the war, we shall probably have matters pushed with great energy the coming campaign.

Again, there is somewhat a salacious side to the story.  And one discussed here before.  If you carefully read Wainwright here, it’s clear he had no first hand, intimate knowledge of Grant at that point in the war.  Much of what is said in the paragraph was from “those who knew him when…” and there were certainly many of Grant’s acquaintances from the old army days for Wainwright to gather an opinion.

But what Wainwright relates here stands in contrast with a Cattonesque (If I may… And I don’t mean that as direct criticism of Bruce Catton.  Rather at those who’ve presumed a lot from bits and pieces from those still very pertinent trilogies….) notion that Grant showed up in the east and magically everything started turning upright.  When Grant accepted his new post that spring, he did bring an air of success.  But he also lacked experience commanding at the level.  We might work back from Appomattox to measure Grant as the commander of armies. But I’d say the better measure is to work forward from Culpeper.

As to the reorganization, Meade had already submitted his plan. But that was not yet on the streets of camp, pending approval.

We are all agog now with regard to consolidation; the order carrying it out was expected today for certain.  The division generals and all staff officers are shaking in their shoes for fear that they will be dropped from their present high estate.  It is certain that this and the Third Corps will be sunk, but whether they will be absorbed bodily or broken into fragments is not known.  My good friend Dr. [E.E.]  Heard will certainly lose his position as he is junior corps medical director in the army.  I shall be sorry to be separated from him, but there is not another member of the corps staff who could not easily be improved upon.  For myself, it is a mere choice of commanders. At present I lean towards Hancock and the Second Corps, though when the time comes I shall probably leave it to chance to decide for me.  I intended riding up to see [Brigadier-General Henry] Hunt about it today, but the rain has prevented….

Certainly there were many misgivings within the ranks about this consolidation. Many will argue this reorganization hurt the morale of the army by ripping units out of their proud legions into unfamiliar formations.  Some would say the poor performance of the army, at the regimental and brigade levels, was directly due to this reorganization.  I don’t set great stock by that line.  Instead, I’d argue the change was a healthy evolution of the command.  If you wish to argue the famous Iron Brigade was worsted by the reorganization, then you must make the argument it was better led in a small corps under Major-General John Newton.

Closing, Wainwright wrote:

Congress has again extended the time for paying the extra bounties to the first of April. All ladies are ordered home out of camp: the first step towards activity.

Activity that was but weeks away in those closing days of winter 1864.

(Citations from Charles S. Wainwright, A Diary of Battle: The Personal Journals of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, 1861-1865, edited by Allan Nevins, New York: Da Capo Press, 1998, pages 328-9.)