January 14, 1865: Blair’s move on Pocotaligo forces a Confederate withdrawal

For Major-General Oliver O. Howard’s Army of the Tennessee, or Right Wing of Major-General William T. Sherman’s armies, the march through South Carolina started on the wrong foot on January 13-14, 1865.  Sherman’s plans called for both corps of the army – the Fifteenth and Seventeenth – to move by water to Port Royal Sound, with the Seventeenth taking the lead.  From there, the Right Wing would move up from the established Federal bases to move inland.  Sherman’s intent was to have the two wings drive into South Carolina from separate points, and thus spread the Confederates thin in their defense.

SCMarch_Jan2_Plan

Within days of putting that plan to paper, Sherman made some small modifications.  One of which had the Right Wing moving to Beaufort, where port facilities were better, across Port Royal Island, and thence onto the mainland by way of Port Royal Ferry.   Keeping to the proposed start date for the offensive, the Seventeenth Corps, under Major-General Frank P. Blair, Jr., began movement from the docks at Thunderbolt to Beaufort on January 4.

But that movement was slow due to the lack of suitable transport vessels.  Yet, on January 11, Howard issued orders for Seventeenth Corps to “make every preparation to cross the Whale Branch of Coosaw River at Port Royal Ferry at daylight on Friday morning, the 13th instant.”  Howard’s orders called for a pontoon bridge spanning to the mainland, from which the corps would build a bridgehead.  From that purchase, Blair would “push on and secure Pocotaligo.”  The Fifteenth Corps would follow as it arrived.

At that time, the troops of the Seventeenth Corps were on Port Royal Island.  But their trains, artillery, and horses were delayed in transit.  On January 12, Lieutenant-Colonel Greensbury L. Fort, Chief Quartermaster of the Fifteenth Corps, reporting the delays at Thunderbolt.  He counted a total of 103 wagons and 1,745 animals remaining from the Seventeenth Corps awaiting transport.

I am advised by officers of the Seventeenth Army Corps, now here, that at the average rate of shipment they will not all embark before to-morrow night or next day morning, after which we can commence on the transportation of the First Division of our corps….  Hardly any of these vessels but would carry a brigade of men after all transportation is on board.  The great trouble is to store the animals on these little boats.

Fort was sure he could get the First Division (Major-General Charles Woods) out on the 13th.  But the Second Division (Major-General William Hazen) could not move until the 15th at the earliest.

Due to the delays, Blair held the movements of his lead divisions – Third and Fourth Divisions under Brigadier-Generals Mortimer Leggett and Giles Smith, respectively – until the afternoon of January 13.  First Division, under Major-General Joseph Mower remained in camp until the bridgehead was established.  At the tactical level, Blair’s plan was for a small force under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Dennis T. Kirby, Blair’s Chief Picket Officer, to cross Whale Branch on small boats that evening.  Once across, a portion of Leggett’s division would follow to secure a bridgehead.  If all went well, “The bridge will then be laid and the command crossed over and placed in camp until daylight… when the forward movement on Pocotaligo will be commenced.”

Jan14_64

At the prescribed time, Kirby led the first boats to effect a landing.  Shortly after that, details from Third Division followed.  But the bridging would have to wait.

Whale Branch, unlike some of the inland rivers that the engineers crossed in Georgia, was a tidal feeder.  It featured a long flat on either bank.  Its channel was about 100 yards at low tide.  While a bit more difficult than a normal river crossing, still within the capabilities of the engineers.  However that task was made more difficult by the number of pontoon boats with rotted canvas.  While enough serviceable boats were on hand to make one span, Howard had to draw additional pontoons from Major-General John Foster’s command at Hilton Head.

Jan14_64_Pocotaligo

Leggett’s command finally moved across Port Royal Ferry (Point A on the map above) at daylight, followed shortly after by Smith’s division and Mower’s.  According to Blair’s report, “The enemy, consisting of one regiment of cavalry and three pieces of artillery, was first encountered at a small stream about five miles from the ferry, in a strongly intrenched position.”  Colonel Charles Colcock commanded the Confederate cavalry, numbering only 150, contesting Blair’s advance.  Leggett easily outflanked Colcock’s first positions, just outside Garden’s Corners.  Then Colcock fell back the bridge over Horspa Creek (Point B on the map).  At 9:30 a.m., Colcock reported:

We have checked thus far skirmishing.  Now his advance has appeared in front of the bridge.  Take care of our rear and we will try to hold the position as long as the general wishes.

At other times during the war, a small force such as Colcock’s had stopped large forces attempting to move out of the narrow corridors through the marshes.  However, in this case Leggett had two roads to use and did not delay.  Sending one of his brigades on the Sheldon Road (Point C) towards Pocotaligo, Leggett had rendered Colcock’s position untenable.  Using his full force, he pressed the Confederates at all points.  At 3:15 p.m., Colcock reported:

The enemy having flanked me by the Sheldon road and driven in my cavalry there, I am falling back to Old Pocotaligo.  I could not hold the position at Stony Creek because the enemy were on the other road also.

Leggett’s skirmishers pursued Colcock right up to the works at Pocotaligo (Point D).  Blair summarized the closing actions on the 14th:

The skirmishers moved forward through an almost impassable swamp or flooded rice-field to within musket-range of his works.  About this time it became so dark that further movements were impossible.

These movements prompted a flurry of activity on the Confederate side.  At first, Major-General Lafayette McLaws, commanding the sector, called upon Major-General Joseph Wheeler to reinforce Colcock.  But later that evening, as the situation became clear, McLaws countermanded his earlier request.  “The enemy are immediately in front here at Pocotaligo.  I will try and withdraw to-night, the movement commencing from the right.”  This triggered the contingency plan laid out by Lieutenant-General William Hardee (and approved by no less than President Jefferson Davis himself) to fall back on the Combahee-Salkehatchie River line.

Though the Seventeenth Corps’ start was delayed by transportation problems and delays, as the sun sat on January 14 they were well into South Carolina.  The next phase of Sherman’s march was on.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 374-5; Part II, Serial 99, pages 35, 43, 48, 1011, and 1013.)

November 30, 1864: A forgotten action at Honey Hill, South Carolina

I’ve often said that Honey Hill is relegated to footnote status in our histories of the war because of the contrasts.  At the same time Brigadier-General John Hatch’s men struggled against Confederate works along Euhaw Creek, a larger assault was made against Federal lines outside Franklin, Tennessee.  The actions in South Carolina pale in most comparisons a student may draw…  save perhaps that of valor where, all things considered, there is equity.

There is an excellent resource website covering the Battle of Honey Hill in detail, maintained by Gary W. Myers.  So allow me to briefly discuss the battle before touching upon a few points that factor into the March to the Sea and other threads I discuss here on this blog.

In yesterday’s post discussing the initial landings and movements, we saw that due to several issues Hatch had only reached an intersection about a third of the way to Grahamville on November 29.  On the morning of the 30th, he initially split his force.  One detail was to establish a perimeter around the crossroads and secure the route back to Boyd’s Neck.  This proved a valuable decision, as soon Confederate cavalry began probing down the road from Bee’s Creek (Point #1 on the map).

HoneyHillNov30

The other part of Hatch’s command resumed the march towards Grahamville that morning, but not starting until around 9 a.m.  From the start, Confederate cavalry skirmished and delayed the march.  At around 9:30 that morning the scouting elements of the Federal column reached Euhaw Creek and encountered a Confederate battery (Point #2). These were part of a defensive line originally setup in 1862 (which were, by the way, abandoned by General Robert E. Lee).  Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Colcock, in command of the local military district, selected this point as the best place to make a stand.  Standing about 15 feet in elevation above the creek, Honey Hill was not much of a hill.  But in the marshes of coastal South Carolina, those 15 feet might as well have been Marye’s Heights.

While the artillery further delayed the Federal deployment, Confederate reinforcements filed down from the railroad station.  The first regiments of Major-General Gustavus W. Smith’s Georgia troops had arrived at the station around 8 a.m.  Deferring to Colcock, Smith ordered his men into the trenches to support the artillery already in place. The first Georgians reached the fortifications around the same time the artillery fired on the Federal scouts. Colonel Ambrosio J. Gonzales, District Artillery Chief, arrived to assume direction of the artillery.

At that point, the battle was for all practical purposes decided.  The Confederates held good ground.  To assail that position, the Federals had to traverse a marshy creek while braving artillery fire.  But Hatch had his lead brigade, under Brigadier-General Edward Potter, deploy to develop the position.  Colonel Alfred Harwell’s brigade then attempted to deploy to the right of Potter.  The difficult terrain and Confederate artillery slowed these deployments.  Not until noon was the line properly developed.

A series of attacks started around noon.  First the 35th USCT made a charge up the road.  Later Potter’s Brigade, with companies from the 54th and 55th Massachusetts attached, made a go at the Confederate right and were repulsed with heavy loss.  Then to relieve pressure on that side of the line, part of Hartwell’s Brigade, reinforced with the Marine Battalion, attacked the Confederate left.  By mid-afternoon, the battle became more of an artillery duel.  The Federal batteries, already at disadvantage due to the terrain, began running low on ammunition.  By 4 p.m. only the boat howitzers from the Naval Brigade remained to compete with the Confederates.

As dusk settled, Hatch withdrew to the crossroads.  The attack had failed, in his assessment, due to the formidable nature of the defensive position and for want of more ammunition.   Hatch reported 746 casualties (89 killed, 629 wounded, and 28 missing).  Total Confederate casualties were less than 100.

The tactical assessment of Hatch’s failure has focused on maneuver options.  Typical of the criticism was question made by Major-General William T. Sherman, while touring the battlefield just over a month later  – “Hatch, why didn’t you flank them on the right?”  While that was, and still is, valid criticism, the situation was not so simple as that.  Hatch might have moved by way of a series of roads on the left to flank the Confederate position (Point #3 on my first map above).  But that would have taken hours, and in which time the Confederates certainly would have reacted.  Likewise, to use Sherman’s observations, Hatch might have moved by way of roads on the right (Point #4).  But recall the Confederate cavalry was already posted there.  Where Sherman’s response is valid, however, is that Hatch appeared to do nothing towards fully developing the Confederate position.  Had he done something akin to what the Federals did at Ball’s Ferry on the Oconee a few days earlier, perhaps Hatch would have found a weak point in the defense.   But on whole, that would be conjecture against the facts of the matter.

There is much to criticism, however, with Hatch’s delays getting to Honey Hill.  We might point to problems on November 29 or the late march on November 30.  Had any of these delays turned otherwise, Hatch arguably would have achieved his objective.

At the strategic level, most authorities cite this defeat as a lost opportunity for the Federals.  Again, I think reality is too complex to allow that to stand unsupported.  Hatch had on hand all of the forces the Department of the South could spare.  Had the situation on November 30 played out otherwise, Hatch certainly would have gained the Charleston & Savannah Railroad.  However there were no more brigades to send for reinforcement.  At best, he would have a small perimeter astride the route between the two key cities.  He was not in position to sortie and further isolate Savannah.  At best, a victory might have prompted discussions about abandoning Savannah among the Confederate high command.  To say it would have precipitated a complete withdrawal at that point in time would argue against several statements made in public and private by those same leaders.  In short, success at Grahamville would have helped Sherman and would have hindered the Confederates, but it would not have been the deciding factor.  I can think of other places along the coast that would have served the purpose better.

But while Honey Hill was a disaster, it did lay the groundwork for several other operations.  Glossed over even more than Honey Hill, the Department of the South engaged in several other operations in support of Sherman’s investment of Savannah.  Those would turn out to be less bloody and generally more successful.  (And I’ll give them attention in due time.)

Another factor to consider when assessing Honey Hill is the use of USCT.  At other battles in which Federal forces had met failure while employing the USCT, Confederate papers were quick to make light of such.  Yet, over the following days the Charleston papers only mentioned the use of USCT in passing while lauding the “gallant Georgians.”  Though within a week, the South Carolina General Assembly passed a resolution thanking Smith and the Georgians “in repulsing the Yankee invaders and their negro allies….” Almost as if by December 1864 the presence of armed black troops in the deep south was commonplace.

Lastly, in regard to Honey Hill, I’d call attention to this map:

This colorful map from Robert Knox Sneden is often used as the key illustration for describing Honey Hill.  At the time of the battle Sneden was still a prisoner.  He was exchanged at Charleston on December 11th.  After that exchange, Sneden began making drawings of places associated with military activities in Georgia and South Carolina.  I won’t say his maps are the most accurate or the most detailed.  But they do add a lot of color.

 

November 29, 1864: Delays at Boyd’s Neck; Prelude to disaster at Honey Hill

While Major-General William T. Sherman’s armies made their way through Georgia in the closing days of November 1864, operations far away from his columns reflected the ripples caused by the March to the Sea.   In central Tennessee, actions at Spring Hill and Franklin by Lieutenant-General John B. Hood were in part justified as an effort to cause Sherman pause, if not recall.  As we well know, and other correspondents will likely discuss in detail, Hood’s operation failed at many levels. And along the South Carolina coast, an operation born of Sherman’s request turned into a disaster for the Department of the South.

As mentioned earlier, Major-General John Foster sent an operation up the Broad River out of Hilton Head. However, while the expedition would proceed towards the Charleston & Savannah Railroad, Foster had not detailed the objective of the mission.  Was the operation just a demonstration, or something more?

To accomplish this vaguely defined operation, Foster assigned two brigades to Brigadier-General John Hatch, the most experienced commander in theater at that time.  The order of battle was:

  • Brigadier-General Edward Potter’s brigade consisted of the 25th Ohio; 56th, 127th, 144th and 157th New York; and  32nd and 35th USCT.  Total of over 3,000 men.
  • Colonel Alfred Harwell’s brigade with the 54th and 55th Massachusetts; and 26th, 34th, and 102nd USCT.  Total of just over 1,000 men.
  • Fleet Brigade under Commander George Preble with a battalion of sailors and another of Marines (total of 360 men), supported by a battery of eight 12-pounder boat howitzers.
  • Artillery Brigade under Lieutenant-Colonel William Ames with Batteries B and F, 3rd New York and Battery A, 3rd Rhode Island, bringing eight 12-pdr Napoleons and three 10-pdr Parrott rifles.
  • A company from the 1st New York Engineer Battalion and a company of the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry.

Many of these regiments were veteran units, having served long in the department.  However, they had rarely operated in the field as part of a brigade or larger formation.  For most, the operations the previous July were the last such field movements.

In addition to the landing brigade, the Navy provided the steamers USS Mingoe, USS Pontiac, USS Sonoma, USS Harvest Moon, USS Pawnee, USS Winona, and USS Wissahickon.  Supporting were the tugs USS Pettit and USS Daffodil.  (This drew a significant number of vessels off the blockade of Charleston, which correspondingly gave opening to increased activity by blockade runners.)  Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren himself would lead the naval force.

The tactical plan was very much straight forward, and along the lines of Hatch’s original plan.  The force would move by boat to Boyd’s Neck.  Engineers would build a dock to allow disembarkation of the artillery and horses.  From there the expedition would move inland towards Grahamville and thence to the railroad.

HoneyHill_NavMovement

Foster wanted to start this operation on November 27.  But logistics and other factors delayed the launch until the evening of November 28.  The troops boarded the vessels under cover of darkness.  At 2:30 a.m. on November 29, the ships proceeded into Port Royal Sound.  Almost from the start, problems arose.  The Wissahickon ran aground in the sound.  A dense fog rolled in to cover the waters.  Despite a detailed signal plan from Dahlgren, the fog prevented the ships from maintaining contact.  In the confusion, several army steamers ventured up the Chechesse River (dashed line on map above).  When Dahlgren arrived at the designated landing point at 8 a.m. (#1 on the map below), he had only five of his six steamers and none of the troop transports.  Slowly the other vessels trickled into position.

HoneyHill1

The Naval Brigade landed at 9 a.m. and secured the immediate area.  Hatch did not arrive at Boyd’s Neck until well after sunrise.  At 11 a.m. the Army’s landings commenced. Just happened that one of the last ships to arrive had on board the engineer detachment assigned to build the dock.  Not until 2 p.m. was the dock in place to land artillery and horses.  Around that time, Foster arrived to check the progress.  But within two hours both he and Dahlgren departed for Hilton Head, leaving Hatch to his tasks.

While waiting for the Army’s troops to disembark, Preble began moving his detachment inland to secure a cross roads (Point #2 on the map).  When he arrived, Preble took a road to the right, thinking that the direct route to Grahamville.  Along the way, the Naval Brigade encountered Confederate skirmishers, driving them along towards Bee’s Creek (Point #3).

The Confederates in sector were part of the 3rd Military District of South Carolina under Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Colcock.  The skirmishers encountered by Preble were from the 3rd South Carolina Cavalry, and were practically the only mobile force available in the sector (Colcock had under his command several fixed batteries closer to the railroad, but no infantry).  But the skirmishers had served their purpose.  As had happened on several occasions during the fighting along the South Carolina Coast, an alert from the advanced pickets allowed the Confederates time to move reinforcements by train.  At that time, Major-General Gustavus W. Smith with around 1,800 of the Georgia troops shifted from Macon, was just arriving in Savannah.  When Lieutenant-General William Hardee explained the situation to Smith, the Georgia officer agreed to continue his trains on to the threatened sector.

Meanwhile, once ashore, Potter’s Brigade moved to support Preble’s forces. Not until around dusk did Potter realize the mistaken route taken.  At that time he recalled his brigade and the naval forces. Returning to the intersection, the Federals again took the wrong road.  This time taking the left road past Bolan’s Church, Potter marched into the evening with designs on Grahamville.  Realizing this second misdirection, Hatch now recalled the men (Point #4).  Not until 2 a.m. the next morning did the Federals go into bivouac back near the cross roads.

November 29th was a story of bad luck and miscues for the Federals.  With over 5,000 men in position to move directly on the railroad, fog, delays, and misdirected marches contributed to a net advance of only a few miles.  The railroad remained in Confederate hands.  For perhaps the one time since the start of Sherman’s march, Confederate leaders were reacting directly to a threat.  Unlike the defenses elsewhere which lacked coordination and central control, on the evening of November 29th just north of Savannah, the defense of the railroad was falling into place.

Hatch, not knowing of Smith’s move to reinforce, looked forward to an advance of seven miles to the railroad on November 30.  In between Hatch and his objective was a low ridge called Honey Hill.