September 28, 1864: Beauregard heading back to Charleston

On September 28, 1864, Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton passed along two intercepted messages from the Confederate lines at Charleston.  The second of these, from Beach Inlet to Battery Bee, read:

Captain Smith requests that you will let us know when General Beauregard crossed the bridge.

With this bit of information, Saxton asked his superior, Major-General John Foster, for a special liberty:

I propose to give General Beauregard a salute in Charleston this evening from my 200-pounders.

Was General P.G.T. Beauregard returning to command at Charleston?  No, but in a round-about… sort of.  After serving through the summer months in command at Petersburg, Beauregard grew tired of living in General Robert E. Lee’s shadow. And at the same time, the creole’s performance in August left authorities in the War Department looking for a way to ease him out of Virginia.

The visit to Charleston was not, however, a move to resume his old command.  Rather he arrived to investigate the conduct of Brigadier-General Roswell Ripley and to handle some administrative tasks, as Beauregard related to Major-General Samuel Jones on September 25:

The president has ordered me (verbally) to repair to Charleston and await further orders, meanwhile to inquire into the difficulty between yourself and Brigadier-General Ripley, and to examine the condition of the defenses and troops at and about Charleston, assisted by my chief engineer, Col. D.B. Harris, and chief inspector, Lieut. Col. A. Roman.  The former is then to remain on duty with you until further orders as inspector of fortifications and adviser in that branch of the service.

The problems with Ripley came to a head during the long summer months.  And these problems came out of a bottle.  During one of the general alarms sounded in July, in response to Federal activity, aides suspected he was drunk.  Then on September 17, he had a loud argument with the department quartermaster, in which several witnesses claimed he was drunk.  After just a day investigating the matter, Beauregard reached a conclusion:

It is evident from the within communications that Brig. Gen. R.S. Ripley cannot be intrusted at this critical time with so important a command as the First Military District of this department (comprising of the city and harbor of Charleston), which offers such great temptations and facilities for indulging in his irregular habits.  The past efficient services of Brigadier-General Ripley may entitle him still to some consideration at your hands. I therefore respectfully recommend that he may be ordered to active service in the field where time, reflection, and a stricter discipline may have their favorable influences over him.

Everyone from Charleston to Richmond agreed that Ripley should be relieved.  But none outside of Beauregard felt Ripley needed a second chance, especially at Petersburg.  But with all the other concerns of the time, Ripley remained in command pending further deliberation, though reassigned to Sullivan’s Island by the end of the month.  On balance, perhaps the return of Harris to his engineering duties was a fair trade?

September 28 saw another Confederate general receive orders to make way to Charleston.  General John B. Hood’s Special Orders No. 5 as commander of the Department of Tennessee and Georgia:

By direction of the President, Lieut. Gen. W. J. Hardee is relieved from duty in the Army of Tennessee, and will proceed at once to Charleston, S.C., and assume command of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

With this, Brigadier-General Samuel Jones stepped down from department command and assumed command of the District of South Carolina (the state minus the Third Military District).

For what it was worth, Beauregard was heading the opposite direction after his stay in Charleston.  He’d accepted a command in charge of the “west,” where his responsibilities were largely administrative, though including those areas where Hood and Hardee now operated.

Thus the Confederate command responsible for the defenses of Savannah and Charleston shuffled around in the early fall of 1864.  Before the winter season arrived, those commands would face a Federal threat unlike that seen earlier in the war.   A storm was coming to the coast.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Serial 66, pages 304, 630, 632-3, and 635.)

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“To those who doubt whether the negro soldiers will fight…”: Skirmish on the Pocotaligo

Raids from Port Royal into the coastal plantations of South Carolina and Georgia were commonplace by the fall of 1863.  Starting early that year, these raids focused on something more than simple harassment of Confederate posts.  As seen with the St. Mary’s River expedition,the Combahee Raid, and later Edisto River operation, Federal forces engaged in what I’d cite as the active component of the Emancipation Proclamation.   Another of those type operations took place on November 23-24, 1863.

Tipped that a group of thirty slaves were gathering in the vicinity of Pocotalio, South Carolina, Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton in Port Royal dispatched a small force to that vicinity.  Captain John E. Bryant, of the 8th Maine Infantry, lead this force, consisting of sixty men of Companies E and K, 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry (soon to be the 33rd US Colored Troops).  Bryant had already established a reputation as a scout in the swamps and marshes.  Captain Alexander Heasley, of Company E, and Captain Henry Whitney, of Company K, commanded their respective detachments under Bryant.

CunninghamsBluff

The raiders would advance by way of ships up the Broad River to the Pocotalio River. There they would move by boats through the marshes to a landing and proceed on foot to the designated rendezvous point. Along the way, they had to capture a known Confederate picket post along the Broad River in order to keep the movement secret.

Execution of the first phases of the raid fell not to a white officer, but to a black sergeant in the ranks of Company K, as Saxton reported:

The pickets, 2 in number, with their horses, were captured. Sergt. Harry Williams, of Company K, went with a party and liberated 27 slaves on the Heyward plantation, 6 miles in advance of our force and within 4 miles of the enemy’s headquarters. Great credit is due this dusky warrior for the skill with which he managed his part of the affair.

HarryWilliams
Sergeant Harry Williams

Coming back with the freed slaves, the party ran into fog that prevented their return to the boats. The raiding party, escaped slaves, and Heasley’s covering force waited in the fog for the boats. Meanwhile, according to a report filed by Brigadier General William S. Walker, Confederate commander of the Third Military District, a rebel detachment responded to alarms sent from Heyward’s plantation.

They were closely pursued by Captain [J. T.] Foster, with 25 men of Rutledge’s regiment of cavalry. The negroes took shelter in a very dense thicket near Cunningham’s Bluff (opposite Hall’s Island). Captain Foster dismounted his command and charged them, in skirmishing order.

In Foster’s party were a group of men in charge of bloodhounds.  Walker described the pursuit as a “fox chase.” Heasley waited until the dogs were practically upon the force before ordering bayonets against the dogs, followed by a volley against the Confederates. This killed three of the dogs and drove off Foster’s men for the moment.   Other Confederate forces under Colonel B.H. Rutledge arrived, but were unable to get at the Federal party due to the marshes.

As the Federal force withdrew further, the Confederates continued to press them.  Whitney’s detachment, which was positioned to guard the bluffs, then ambushed the pursuers. Saxton wrote, “he opened fire upon them, killing, among others, the commander of the company and the remaining bloodhounds.”  Saxton added:

To those who doubt whether the negro soldiers will fight, this daring act of Captain Whitney and his little band of 10, opening fire unhesitatingly upon a full company, not less than 100 of the enemy’s cavalry, and repulsing them, this will be a startling fact.

With that, the raiding force returned to the boats and departed for Port Royal Sound.

Federal reports mentioned seven wounded, though none seriously.  But Rufus claimed five Confederate killed and many more wounded, out of an estimated 1,000 (!) sent in pursuit.  On the other hand, Walker reported only three wounded, none seriously.  One of the two captured pickets later escaped.  Walker added, “this is the first time the men of this portion of the command have been under fire.”

Both accounts emphasized the employment of the dogs in the pursuit.  In Army Life in a Black Regiment, Colonel Thomas Higginson added some perspective:

The whole command was attacked by a rebel force, which turned out to be what was called in those regions a “dog-company,” consisting of mounted riflemen with half a dozen trained bloodhounds.  The men met these dogs with their bayonets, killed four or five of their old tormentors with great relish, and brought away the carcass of one.  I had the creature skinned, and sent the skin to New York to be stuffed and mounted, meaning to exhibit it at the Sanitary Commission Fair in Boston; but it spoiled on the passage. These quadruped allies were not originally intended as “dogs of war,” but simply to detect fugitive slaves, and the men were delighted at this confirmation of their tales of dog-companies, which some of the officers had always disbelieved.

To some degree these raiding actions were simply wide scale slave escapes, now encouraged by forces which only years earlier had been legally bound against such activity.  However, in the broader context of the Civil War, these raids were sapping away the labor force on which the Confederacy depended.  At the same time, raids such as that conducted on the Pocotaligo 150 years ago were manifestations of a war policy set forward with the Emancipation Proclamation, and reiterated only days earlier at Gettysburg.  The best counter to the “dog-companies” was an armed U.S Colored Troops detachment.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 745-6; Thomas W. Higginson, Army Life in a Black Regiment, Oxford University, 1870, pages 230-1.)