“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 ).


Marching Through Georgia, December 10, 1864: “The last five of our 300 mile march”

On this day in 1864, Major-General William T. Sherman’s columns reached the main line of defenses outside Savannah.  For the most part, I’ve been able to use large scale maps to provide a general description of the movements of the columns during the march.  For December 10th, that map would look like this:


The general plan of movement is there.  But as we follow along the march in the closing phase (as in the last “hours” of the march, as we might think of it), the narrative needs to focus down to the tactical level.  The large scale map doesn’t show the Confederate defenses or the extent of marshes, swamps, and rice fields which lay in the path of the Federals.  For that, let me turn again to Captain Orlando Poe’s map (Oh… by the way… 150 years ago today his survey teams were starting work on said map).  Looking to the western approaches I’ve highlighted the major avenues of approach:


Broad brush, there were two main corridors.  First corridor was due west of the city. On the Federal left, the Augusta Road and Charleston & Savannah Railroad joined near Monteith Station and followed parallel paths toward the city.  Those routes joined the Georgia Central and Louisville Road.  From there, crossing a couple of important creeks and the Savannah-Ogeechee Canal, the route led directly to Savannah.  Corridor two was southwest of the city and included the Ogeechee Road (to King’s Bridge) and the Savannah & Gulf Railroad.

Overlay on top of that the Confederate dispositions:


Major-General Gustavus W. Smith had his Georgia militia, roughly 2,000 strong, on the right flank close to the river.  Smith’s line covered the first corridor. Recall these were troops who’d defended Macon, then traveled by rail to Savannah (some fighting at Honey Hill). They were supported by twenty cannons:

MarchDec10CSDef - Smith

Major-General Lafayette McLaws’ Division covered from the Canal to the Ogeechee Road.  The 4,000 men of McLaws’ command included a North Carolina brigade, rushed from the Wilmington defenses, and the famous Kentucky Orphan Brigade.  McLaws also had a formidable arrangement of 29 cannons:

MarchDec10CSDef - McLaws

To the left of McLaws, the division of Major-General Ambrose R. Wright covered the approaches down to the Little Ogeechee River and Middle Marsh.  Wright commanded a varied force of state troops – militia, home guard, and reserves, bolstered with artillery. Looking close at the snip below, you’ll notice Poe’s terrain annotations indicating the terrain advantage:


The square-hatched areas were rice fields.  The marshes are shown with dash-hatched areas.  Notice how Wright’s left, though hanging out in the air on the “big” map, was actually anchored on a vast expanse of marsh.  Likewise to get at Wright’s front, Federals had to cross rice fields and marshes.  Just “getting at” the defenses would be a chore into itself.

To the left of Wright, Major Alfred Hartridge’s battalion held a series of outposts against any attempt to cross the series of tidal rivers to the south (chiefly the Little Ogeechee and Vernon rivers).

Sherman’s orders for the day stressed the need to close up to the main Confederate defensive line, but without becoming too heavily engaged.  He wanted to consolidate his armies in front of those lines.  He, and many of his men, had experienced sieges of Vicksburg and Atlanta.  Everyone knew well the need to find weaknesses in the line before committing to the positions for siege.  This was a day of “feeling” for the enemy’s works.

On the left flank and center of the advance, three corps approached the first corridor from different directions:


The Seventeenth Corps approached, as they had been for well over a week, down the Georgia Central Railroad.  Advancing from Pooler that morning, the Corps soon encountered Confederate artillery at McBeth Battery.

The Twentieth Corps march took the road from Monteith. The 1st and 3rd Divisions bypassed the railroad station and proceeded up the Charleston & Savannah Railroad.  The 2nd Division marched with the corps’ wagons to Monteith Station and then picked up the rear of the march.

The Fourteenth Corps, still lagging behind after delays in the swamps, paused when reaching the railroad to allow Twentieth Corps to pass.  Third Division, under Brigadier-General Absolam Baird, moved to the left and proceeded to destroy the railroad back to and including the bridge over the Savannah River.

The Fifteenth Corps continued to advance in columns to close on the Confederate line:


Underscoring the need for improved maps, Major-General Oliver O. Howard’s orders for the 10th had the Third and Fourth Divisions moving against points which either did not exist or were unreachable without boat:

First, Major-General Osterhaus, commanding Fifteenth Army Corps, will direct Brig. Gen. J. E. Smith, commanding Third Division, to push his division forward toward a point marked on the map as Beverly, reconnoitering and feeling for the enemy by the plank and other roads leading into Savannah. Second, he will direct Brigadier-General Corse, commanding Fourth Division, to continue his reconnaissance toward a point marked Hermitage, carefully feeling toward Savannah by all the roads in his front leading thereto.

While “Beverly” and “Hermatige” appear on the large-scale map that Howard was using, these placenames were not included on Poe’s smaller scale map (finished after the campaign).  To reach the area of “Beverly” Smith’s division would need to traverse two major rice fields and a marsh while crossing Forest River (a tributary of the Little Ogeechee).  Corse would need to cross open water and marshes to reach “Hermitage” which was in the vicinity of Coffee Bluff.

Amid this mental fog (and there was a “real” fog that day coming off the marsh), Smith’s division moved by way of the canal tow-path to a point opposite McLaw’s line.  Corse made headway up the Ogeechee Road, but likewise found no way through the Confederate lines.

With contact established all along the Confederate front, the Federals quickly went about erecting their own fortifications.  Again, many of the men in the ranks had earlier experience in similar situations.  These veterans did not need orders to start erecting breastworks.  Long gone were the early days of the war when commander and private alike shunned the shovel.

Two episodes of note occurred during the movement up to the Confederate lines.  In Twentieth Corps sector, foragers fanned out down to the Savannah River that day.  One of those teams ran into the Confederate navy.  As reported by Colonel Ezra Carman, the brigade commander:

A forage party under command of Captain [H.A.] Gildersleeve, One hundred and fiftieth New York Volunteers, this day captured the rebel dispatch steamer Ida on the Savannah River, taking thirteen prisoners, among whom was Colonel Clinch, of General Hardee’s staff.  The steamer was burned by Captain Gildersleeve, he not being able to hold it on account of rebel gun-boats on the river.

With the railroads severed and the Federals along the river, the only way for communication (and resupply) of Savannah was by way of the Union Causeway, leading to the road to Hardeeville, South Carolina.

On the Seventeenth Corps sector, Sherman himself accompanied the march.  Major Henry Hitchcock, his aide, recorded a close call with Confederate artillery.  Sherman stopped at a frame farmhouse not far from the advance.  While the staff conducted business in the yard of the house, Sherman wandered off several times to observe or just to keep to himself.  At times Hitchcock went out to tend to the general, only to see him wander off again.

After twenty or thirty minutes saw General again quietly start off down the road along which troops had been steadily passing to the front and deploying on right of road and now [Brigadier-General Mortimer] Leggett’s division were coming up and deploying to the left of it.  Following him at once and before long overtook him, say 100 yards from the house.  Had hardly done so when – just after report of cannon ahead to which I had paid no attention though loud and near, certainly not over 800 yards off, – saw him stop quickly, look forward and upwards, and step one side; at same moment heard loud rush and wizzing in air over and in front of us, very like noise of a rocket, understood that easily, looked for the shell (as I supposed it) but “couldn’t see it” – saw, however, very decided and rapid movements of men near us in and on side of road,  – concluded to “git” myself, but no shelling was near, and so, expecting the shell to strike and burst concluded to risk its striking me, but to dodge the pieces if possible, and thereupon went down on the sand into a gracefully recumbent posture; the next moment heard the shot strike the ground heavily somewhere near, but “didn’t see it” still.

Hitchcock recovered and rejoined Sherman.  “As I joined him, he said quietly – ‘This place is not safe, they are firing down the road – we had better go back.’ So we went back….”  Hitchcock was convinced that Sherman had indeed dodged the projectile simply by gauging it’s flight.

For the day, Hitchcock recorded one other point in his diary:

Didn’t march our fifteen miles today, nor ten miles either – if we had, “Savannah serait prise.” How long will it take us to get the last five of our “300 mile march”?

Already in motion, Sherman had plans to achieve those last five miles.  Attention would turn to Fort McAllister on the Ogeechee.

For this installment, following the march to the sea, I’ll say there are no specific entries to cover the day’s activities.  But I’ll mention several of those around Savannah in the upcoming days.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 235 and 669; Henry Hitchcock, Marching with Sherman: passages from the letters and campaign diaries of Henry Hitchcock, Yale University Press, 1927, pages 169-70. )

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.


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.


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.