“The plan is well worth considering”: Another Dahlgren plan to take Charleston

The summer months of 1864 marked a full year for Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren in command of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.  Originally his assignment was to command the monitors operating against Charleston, with the objective to redeem some of the Navy’s prestige lost with the failed ironclad attack on Fort Sumter (in April 1863).  With the death of Rear-Admiral Andrew H. Foote, before either man arrived in the department, Dahlgren instead took command of the squadron. But Dahlgren’s objective remained – Fort Sumter thence Charleston.

Through the long summer campaign that followed and the fall bombardments, Dahlgren’s objective stared back defiantly.  Through the winter months, around the interruption due to his son’s death, Dahlgren offered several plans to gain Charleston, to no avail.  To gain Charleston either Dahlgren had to risk the monitors or support an Army offensive to bypass the Confederate harbor defenses.  He avoided the former, but continued to propose the later.  And in the Army’s view, the route to Charleston promised to be a risky and prolonged campaign.  So every time Dahlgren proposed an advance across James Island, the Army’s response relied on the Army’s information on the subject.  Dahlgren could not offer a rebuttal.   That changed in July 1864, as Dahlgren went ashore on James Island during Major-General John Foster’s operations there.  And he came back with what he felt was proof his plan would work.  In a report to the Secretary of Navy, Guideon Wells, he put down details of this plan on August 1, 1864.  This report was, in part, a summary of operations in July to include naval support of Foster’s operations.  But most of the text focused on this plan to turn the Confederates out of Charleston.

On further consideration, I believe that with 10,000 good soldiers added to the present force we could turn the rebel defense on James Island and reach Charleston, and I observe from the rebel papers that the idea was apprehended by them.

If, during the lull before Richmond, General Grant could spare the men for three weeks, I feel sure that the rebels could be so disturbed here as to assist him and General Sherman by dragging off force from Richmond.

This sketch will explain: “P-S” is the rebel line of works extending from the Stono River to the marsh separating James Island from Folly Island.  Battery Pringle (“P”) is a regular earthwork of 8 guns, with bombproofs and full traverses.  A little farther is battery Tynes, with 5 guns, both carefully built.  Secessionville is on the left; its strength was tried by General Benham in 1862; there are intermediate works.  “A” is our advanced position from Folly Island. The ground between is controlled and picketed by the rebels, but not held in force, and they (on it) fall back to the lines when pushed vigorously. “B” was the position of our left under General Hatch.


The fleet held the river and connected our right and left; it was in fact the center of operation; the channel is very narrow and has just water to pass a monitor.

“C” is the extreme of a narrow belt of woods extending from Mr. Paul Grimball’s house below the bend.  Here I offered to plant a battery of ten 100-pounders or XI-inch guns, which could be done unperceived under cover of the woods, and silence Pringle and Tynes (distant 1,700 yards); this done two monitors would move up and enfilade the line.

It was indispensable, however, that the position at “B” should be held securely, or the naval battery at “C” would be lost; the monitors once above Pringle would sweep the ground in front of “B.”

Ten thousand men could be moved without baggage in three days by water from Fortress Monroe, and the blow struck quick as lightning.

Pringle and Tynes once treated as designed, the troops could cross from “B” to their rear and render the rebel lines useless.

I have seen nothing that promises so well with so small a force, and the rebels are unprepared for such an exigency; they certainly were so when we held the ground as indicated.  As it was, General Hatch did actually reach “B,” but as he moved obliquely across John’s Island from the Edisto, the rebels used the time to collect and were in force, so that after two or three conflicts it was deemed best to retire, which was done to an engineer’s wharf in the rear of the fleet; the men were embarked without a shot fired at them. I held position until the next day. General Schimmelfennig had advanced from “A” and drove the rebels vigorously before him, seizing two cannon; the ground between his front and the rebel line being swept continually by the guns of the fleet, he was not disturbed.

The land movements proposed were largely repeats of previous operations on John’s Island.  The geography of that island made direct movements exposed to Confederate flank attacks, while constraining Federal movements to narrow corridors.

The plan is well worth considering, and if undertaken by a column of good troops, will, I feel sure, endanger Charleston and produce corresponding effect. General Foster does not consider it feasible with the small force he has.  I feel sure of my part.

By the time this report reached Washington, D.C. the Army was in the process of reducing the troops in the department, not increasing.  The presence of Confederates in the lower Shenandoah was at that moment in time the pressing concern.  As Chambersburg burned, Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant was less interested in opportunities – fleeting opportunities – outside Charleston.  Grant had already weighed in on the issue months before.  Foster was to demonstrate and remain active, but not take up major offensive operations.

And for what it was worth, Foster did not share Dahlgren’s optimism for operations on John’s Island.  Very unlikely for the Confederate batteries to fall after a short siege.  Nor for the Confederates to simply give up the approaches to Charleston.  There were, of course, a couple more belts of defenses between the lines mentioned by Dahlgren and the city.  If the plan were to go forward, Foster would need to feel sure of his part.  Clearly Foster had a better grasp of the situation.

(Citation from ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 591-2.)

“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:


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)


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.)

July 4, 1864: “The intense heat of the day prevented a longer march” by Hatch on John’s Island

By the Fourth of July, 1864, Major-General John Foster’s operations had met with, at best, marginal success.  A raid by Brigadier-General William Birney ended before it started.  Brigadier-General John Hatch’s advance on John’s Island got off to a sluggish start.  On James Island, Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig had captured some Confederate earthworks and demonstrated in front of their main line of resistance, but a July 3 morning assault on Fort Johnson was little short of a disaster (only because the loss of life was not higher).  Still, Foster was not ready to throw in the towel.

On the morning of July 3, Hatch continued his march inland on John’s Island.  After completing landings his force at around 10 a.m.,  Hatch pushed out Colonel W. W. H. Davis’ brigade:

Davis’ brigade, the [4th Massachusetts] cavalry, and a piece of artillery marched to Jenkins’ house, on Bohicket Creek, 4 miles in advance of the cut, on the morning of the 3d, and the whole command was consolidated at that point on the evening of the same day. From the moment of landing a small force of the enemy’s cavalry hovered around the advance, occasionally firing upon us, but rapidly falling back when pursued by our cavalry.

On July 4, Hatch continued the march, but ever slowly:

The command moved to a point on the Aberpoolie Creek, 3 miles from Legareville, where a detachment of 25 of the Fourth Massachusetts Cavalry and Wildt’s battery of the Third New York Artillery joined.  The intense heat of the day prevented a longer march that day, a large number of the command becoming exhausted.

While slow, this did put Hatch in a position to threaten several sensitive points on the Confederate line.  Foster deemed it best to have Hatch threaten the Confederate lines along the Stono River.  So marching orders for July 5 would put the column opposite Battery Pringle.


Along the Stono River, the Navy had moved up additional gunboats and monitors to support the line held on the west end of James Island.  USS Lehigh, USS Montauk, USS Pawnee, and USS McDonough, along with mortar schooners USS Para and USS Racer now all clustered in the narrow Stono River.  This force provided excellent cover for the infantry.  July 3rd passed relatively quietly compared to the previous day.  On July 4th, the navy dueled with Battery Pringle before a “refreshing rain with strong wind came in the afternoon.” After that rain, the Federals advanced a skirmish line from the 54th New York Infantry Battalion.  After meeting stiff musketry, the skirmishers fell back with two killed and six wounded.  One of the later lay between the lines, as witnessed by Captain Luis Emilio of the 54th Massachusetts:

After our force fell back, we could see a man of the Fifty-fourth New York lying on the open ground between the lines.  He was alive, for he would occasionally raise himself.  The enemy would not permit him to be brought in.  A gallant officer of the staff essayed the dangerous task, but was fired upon.  Our officers and men of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts were exasperated at this firing on men engaged in a humane act, and sharply replied to the enemy for an hour.  At dark a field-piece was brought near, and under cover of grape, a party of eight men from Company E with a stretcher went out to bring the poor fellow in.  He was found dead.

Along the remainder of the Charleston front, heavy guns skirmished, as was the usual practice, with batteries on Morris Island exchanging shots with Confederate gunners on Sullivan’s and James Island.  One burst Parrott cost a Rhode Island artillerist his sight.

This effort of July 2-4 had some effect on the Confederates.  Major-General Samuel Jones had already shifted around 500 men from Sullivan’s Island to shore up James Island.  He also pulled a battalion of cavalry and three more companies of dismounted cavalry to Charleston to reinforce the lines.  Even the cadets of the Citadel were called upon to guard Federal prisoners.  Jones requested troops from Major-General W.H.C. Whiting in Wilmington, North Carolina and General J.E. Johnston in northern Georgia.   Johnston, having just fallen back from the Kennesaw Line, now occupied another line (of less formidable nature) near Smyrna.  Jones desperately repeated his requests on July 4:

Have you received my telegram of the 2d instant asking for reinforcements.  The movements of the enemy in last three days place this city in great danger.  I think 3,000 additional men would make it secure against the force now operating against it. Can you send them to me for temporary service?

Johnston, of course, was not in a position to spare even a fraction of that number.  But he did respond, sending the 5th and 57th Georgia Infantry regiments – with a total strength of around 520 men.  Not the numbers Jones needed.

Likewise not exactly the great numbers Foster wanted to see diverted.  But Foster still had cards to play outside Charleston.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, page 84; Luis Fenollosa Emilio, History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865, Boston: Boston Book Company, 1894, pages 210.)