A demonstration “to cut the Charleston and Savannah Railroad”: Plans leading to Honey Hill

Give or take a day, 150 years ago at this time Major-General John Foster received a letter sent on November 13, 1864 by Major-General Henry Halleck in Washington.  For the most part, the letter told Foster what he already knew:

Major-General Sherman expects to leave Atlanta on the 16th instant for the interior of Georgia or Alabama, as circumstances may seem to require, and may come out either on the Atlantic coast or the Gulf. If the former, it will probably be at Savannah, Ossabaw Sound, Darien, or Fernandina. Supplies are being collected at Hilton Head, with transports to convey them to the point required. Supplies are also collected at Pensacola Bay, to be transported to any point he may require on the Gulf. Should Sherman come to the Atlantic coast, which I think most probable, he expects to reach there the early part of December, and wishes you, if possible, to cut the Charleston and Savannah Railroad near Pocotaligo about that time. At all events a demonstration on that road will be of advantage. You will be able undoubtedly to learn his movements through rebel sources much earlier than from these headquarters, and will shape your action accordingly.

By the last days of November, Foster, like everyone else from Atlanta to Charleston, knew Sherman was on the march.  And it was clear Sherman was not going to a Gulf Coast port.  But where on the Atlantic?

What’s important here is the chain of events.  Foster had already started planning to meet this request even before receiving it.  He had solicited a proposal from Brigadier-General John Hatch for an operation up the Broad River towards Grahamville  – receiving that on November 21 at the latest.  On the 22nd, Foster received Halleck’s order.  On the same day, Foster issued orders to implement Hatch’s proposal.  Then on November 25, Foster replied that he’d received Halleck’s order and was executing.

Halleck’s orders were not restrictive to a simple demonstration.  He set an objective – cut the railroad.  Hatch’s proposal, likewise, had an objective – gain the railroad.  The main difference between those objectives was the actions proposed after gaining possession of the railroad.  Halleck wanted a demonstration that impeded Confederate movement.  Hatch looked to create a beachhead that could use the railroad to support future operations.  To say the two were one and the same would be a misstatement.

The orders Foster issued on November 22, to Hatch and to Brigadier-General E. P. Scammon (commanding in Florida), contained lengthy details.  He specified the number of troops, to be drawn from strong, seasoned regiments.  He specified each man would carry “his blanket, overcoat, rubber blanket or shelter-half, and one extra pair of good socks.”  Foster specified each man would carry 20 rounds with another 100 rounds per man brought along in crates.  The force would have a battery of artillery in support.  Plus he wanted as many mounted men as possible brought along.

The operation would draw from Morris Island, Hilton Head, and Florida all the troops not absolutely necessary for manning the lines.  This was a reach for a department already strapped for resources.  But a gamble worth taking considering the Confederate forces in theater would be drawn inland to face Sherman.

But the one thing lacking in all of Foster’s details was the objective.  To Hatch, he simply said, “fully concur with you in your views as to the point of attack.”  To Scammon, he simply said, “I am, therefore, getting ready to make an attack upon some point of the enemy’s line, so as to aid [Sherman].”  To Halleck, he responded, “I am preparing to carry out your instructions.”  At no point, in the written record, did Foster reconcile any differences between Halleck’s objective and that proposed by Hatch.

Foster did set a date for execution – November 27.  Later this backed off to the 28th.  While the objective might be ill-defined, the operation would go forward.  If it succeeded, the Federals would finally cut the railroad connecting Charleston and Savannah.  Since mid-1862 the Federals had attempted, without success, to do just that.  Such would limit the Confederates’ ability to shift troops in defense of threatened sectors.

But was this a realistic objective?  Could the forces at hand reach the railroad? Hold the railroad? And, that accomplished, would it aid Sherman’s advance?

All good questions that queue up some more blog posts.

At the same time Foster’s response was leaving Hilton Head for Washington, Halleck penned another order for the Department of the South.  The order issued on November 23rd would not arrive for another ten days:

Lieutenant-General Grant directs that the expenditure of ammunition upon Charleston and Fort Sumter be discontinued, except so far as may be necessary to prevent the enemy from establishing new batteries at the latter place. This is not intended to prohibit the throwing of occasional shell into Charleston, if circumstances should require. The object is to economize ordnance stores.

The focus of operations in the Department of the South was changing.  Savannah and Charleston were still prizes.  But those would be gained from the land side.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, page 328; Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 525-6, 535, and 547.)

“I desire to call your attention to the following points”: Foster’s instructions to Scammon, October 1864

When he first took command of the Department of the South in the spring of 1864, Major-General John Foster inherited the veteran Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig in command of Federal forces on Folly and Morris Islands – officially the Northern District, but the Charleston Front, if I may.  When Schimmelfenning departed on leave, for health reasons, Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton filled in for the month of September.  On October 3, 1864, Brigadier-General Eliakim P. Scammon received orders to replace Saxton in command of the Northern District.  Previous to this assignment, Scammon had served mostly in West Virginia, but had led a brigade at Antietam in 1862 as part of the Ninth Corps.  He fell into Confederate hands in February 1864 and was was among the fifty officers held in Charleston later that year. After his exchange and brief leave, he was assigned to the Department of the South.

On the day he assigned Scammon to command, Foster provided a set of detailed instructions in regard to operations against Charleston.  Those  instructions offer insight into Foster’s intent for operations in the theater.  Prefacing the message, Foster asked Scammon to visit each battery in the Federal defenses and consult with the officers then serving in the sector.  Scammon was “to obtain a perfect knowledge of their condition and position.”  After that, he was to follow Foster’s instructions, arranged in six points:

 First. To build a new palisading all around Fort Putnam, including the recent addition of the six-gun naval battery; to complete this battery and to provide proper flanking defense for its face, bomb-proofs, &c. The reverse of this battery is to have a stockade with loop-holes for infantry. As many more 200-pounders as room can be found for will also be placed in this battery, for the treble object of firing on the city, Fort Sumter, and Sullivan’s Island.

Attention to the palisading was with the aim to improve defenses against Confederates raids.  And the 200-pdr (8-inch) Parrotts were the preferred weapons for work against Fort Sumter or Charleston.  As a refresher, to support the details of this “point” and those that follow, recall the locations of these Federal batteries:


Second. To renew or repair the palisading around Batteries Chatfield and Seymour so as to connect the two. More guns and mortars are also to be placed in these batteries where room can be found by connecting the two. The most important part in regard to these batteries at present is to have the palisading around them made so strong and perfect as to prevent the possibility of the enemy taking these batteries by a surprise or boat attack. The objects of the fire of these batteries at the front are, generally, Fort Sumter, the channel, or rather such blockade-runners which may attempt to run hi or out, and the city. Occasionally a few shots will be fired at the enemy’s batteries on Sullivan’s Island, when the fire of the enemy’s batteries becomes too annoying. Generally, however, these batteries at the extreme front are to be husbanded for future work, and therefore placed and maintained in perfect repair and efficiency. Generally, Fort Strong will return the fire from the enemy, gun for gun, from 100-pounder Parrotts.

Third. Fort Strong. This is regarded as the citadel of the works on the upper end of Morris Island. It is strongly armed and will be so maintained and also strongly manned. Care must always be taken that its palisading round it is kept in perfect repair, and that its garrison is good, well instructed, and vigilant.

Again, Foster placed emphasis on physical security of the batteries and attention to the palisading around the works. The batteries mentioned here, those behind Fort Putnam, were a reserve of sort.  But were to be maintained and ready for action.  Fort Strong, formerly Confederate Battery Wagner, occupied a key position on the island and thus received due attention in Foster’s instructions.

As to the other batteries:

Fourth. The remaining batteries on Morris Island and the other islands have all peculiar duties, but do not require general directions except the general one that the garrisons must be kept in good condition and well instructed. The forts at Light-House Inlet have orders to return the fire from the forts of Secessionville gun for gun. Here it is necessary to make a general remark. The forts and batteries must have as experienced artillerists as it is possible to obtain, but as the artillery force proper is very small and diminishing very fast by the expiration of the term of enlistments of the men it is necessary to use infantry for this duty. Great care must be taken to select the best regiments and best men and officers for this duty, and when infantry thus selected become good artillerists they must be continued on that duty as long as their conduct is satisfactory.

Vigilance and proficiency were needed in those batteries.

Scammon, having spent time as a prisoner in Charleston, had a personal knowledge of the prisoner issue as it related to the command.  Perhaps Foster felt that was sufficient in regard to care of the 600 Confederate prisoners, so he focused his instructions on one particular concern:

Fifth. The rebel prisoners of war in the palisades will require the utmost care and attention as regards their security; the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteers are now guarding them and I recommend that they be retained on that duty so long as their conduct is satisfactory. I have written General Saxton full instructions as to the necessity of having detailed instructions given as to the duties of each regiment and detachment in case an attempt be made by the enemy to escape, or by their friends to rescue them. I believe General Saxton has given all the orders necessary for the present, but constant vigilance will be necessary on your part to see that they are obeyed. Modifications will be necessary from time to time in accordance with the circumstances. In order to give all opportunity to have the camps searched from time to time two schooners are anchored in Light-House Inlet, to which the prisoners may be moved when necessary. While upon these schooners increased vigilance should be used to prevent the escape of the men by their jumping overboard and swimming to the shore. For this purpose, in addition to the guards on board, boats well armed must row guard all night long around the vessels. A vigilant guard will be kept on each shore near the vessels, and a good watch kept from the fort on each side the anchorage, and the guns kept charged with grape. A cable must be kept on each vessel, and all the steamers in the inlet must have a sufficient guard on board to prevent any possibility of their being captured by a boat attack by the enemy having for its object the rescue of the prisoners. All row-boats not needed by the boat infantry for night service as picket-boats or ferriage across the inlet must be taken to the lower end of Folly Island and placed in a secure position, if it has not already been done. In fine, every means must be taken to provide for every emergency and to insure perfect safety.

Yes, more than half of this paragraph related details about handling prisoners between the camp and temporary holding on schooners.

In his last point of instruction, Foster turned at last to the offensive operations:

Sixth. As to the rate of firing, that upon the city is usually on an average of I every fifteen minutes, but this maybe varied according to circumstances. The firing on Fort Sumter is very slow at present, owing to a want of ammunition, but when a sufficient supply arrives, a slow fire, principally shells from mortars, will be kept up whenever there is an appearance of working parties being engaged. The Marsh Angel will fire dark nights all night long at irregular intervals, and upon light nights sufficiently to prevent their landing supplies on the dock on the left flank. All details connected with your command will be obtained from the file of orders from these headquarters in the adjutant-general’s office of the Northern District. Soon as you send a list of maps in the office the duplicates of those we have will be sent you to complete your list. The commanding general, having great confidence in your judgment and ability, leaves much to your discretion, feeling confident that everything will receive your prompt and careful consideration.

The ammunition shortage continued to restrain Foster’s operations.  But the City of Charleston was not spared.

Scammon went about his duties that October.  But he was not long for the post.  By the end of the month he was ill and replaced.  Yes, it seemed disease loomed as the greater threat around Charleston than those large caliber cannons in the fall of 1864.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 308-10.)



“They seem the most worthless and unreliable fellows in their whole lot”: The 600 prisoners on Morris Island

On October 4, 1864, Major-General John Foster provided a routine report to Army Headquarters in Washington, describing events in the Department of the South, but focused on affairs at Charleston, South Carolina.  He began describing continued “skirmishing” with the heavy artillery:

I have the honor to report that nothing of importance has occurred in this department since the date of my last report. In the Northern District the usual firing on the city has been kept up. Sharp firing has at times taken place between our batteries and the enemy’s batteries on James and Sullivan’s Islands. Sufficient fire is kept up to interfere with the landing of supplies at their wharf, situated on the left flank. The work upon the repairs and enlargement of the front batteries on Cumming’s Point is pushed as vigorously as the force will admit. I am surrounding these batteries by a new and strong palisading in the place of the old and flimsy one, so as to effectually secure them against a surprise attack of the enemy in boats. Proper arrangements for close defense and flanking of these batteries are also being made.

Note again the desired target in Charleston, described here by Foster – the wharfs. If the Navy could not stop the blockade runners, then perhaps the Army could stop the transfer of cargo.

Foster acknowledged the arrival of Brigadier-General Eliakim P. Scammon, replacing Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton, who’d been the temporary replacement for Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig.  But most of the report focused on the ongoing prisoner issue at Charleston.  First the status of 600 Confederate prisoners held on Morris Island:

The condition of the rebel prisoners in the stockade on Morris Island is generally good. Some of them are sickening on their scant fare, and I has died. I have not yet allowed the 6 rebel officers to take the oath of allegiance, as authorized by the honorable Secretary of War. I am not satisfied that they are worthy of that favor. They seem to be the most worthless and unreliable fellows in the whole lot. If I had known this at the time of forwarding their application I should have disapproved it. The prisoners have made several feeble and ineffectual attempts to escape by tunneling, &c., but against all such attempts on the part of the prisoners or of their friends to rescue them the precautions taken seem to be adequate. I permit the prisoners to receive private stores from their friends in the precise proportion of the stores actually delivered to our officers, prisoners in Charleston.

Foster compared the conditions on Morris Island to what he knew of Federal prisoners in Charleston:

I hear that the private contributions sent to our privates, now prisoners, were of great service, the condition of our men being deplorable. Many of them were naked; many had only a blouse or shirt to cover their nakedness; and still many that had only some rags tied about the middle to serve as a breech clout. I am able to report from positive information that many of the people of Charleston exerted themselves in every way to relieve the necessities of our men, and freely, as far as their means would allow, made contributions of food and clothing. The effect, however, upon our men, as far as their military status is concerned, has been very bad, inasmuch as 389 of them have been induced to take the oath of allegiance to the Confederate States, and to go to work in the shops in Charleston. This is in addition to the number that I reported in my last letter as having gone to work on the fortifications of Mount Pleasant and Sullivan’s Island.

One portion of this story which I’ve never been able to sufficiently document is that 389 number.  We hear about the “Galvanized Yankees” from time to time – Confederates who agreed to serve in the Federal ranks.  But references to Federals who did the opposite are few (someone will remind me, in due course, of “Big Yankee Ames” who rode with Mosby).

Foster continued:

The yellow fever is now prevailing in Charleston, but to what extent I am not informed. I have in consequence instituted a strict quarantine.

Yellow Fever was among the most feared epidemic diseases during the Civil War.  Jim Schmidt mentioned another 150th associated with that disease just the other day.  So even as the temperatures turned cool with the arrival of fall, the threat of yellow fever remained present.  Yet, at that time no authority could pinpoint how the disease was spread.  Such would require decades more research and military necessity during another war.

Foster insisted the fire on Charleston remained effective, claiming, “Our shells reach the arsenal and the whole upper part of the city.” And the health of the men was improving with the cooler weather of fall.  In the previous year, the onset of fall brought expanded military operations.  But now both sides seemed handicapped by resource limits.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 24-5.)