“A good effect in worrying the enemy”: Demonstrations on the Stono and Edisto Rivers, January 1865

Earlier this week I mentioned several demonstrations that took place along the coast of South Carolina in the last days of January 1865.  One of these demonstrations lead to the loss of the USS Dai Ching.  Less costly, and more important to the overall Federal efforts, were two demonstrations which for all practical purposes were “showings.”  The operations on the Stono and Edisto Rivers were indeed “demonstrations” in every sense of the word.

The Stono River demonstration evolved from a request by Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig.  Throughout January the Federal outposts behind Morris Island reported increased Confederate activity.  The fear was the Confederates were setting up new batteries on James Island.  Due to Schimmelfennig’s reduced garrison manpower, he requested a gunboat venture up the Stono River.  The first attempt, on January 24, failed outright, as “the permission to do so having been sent by Admiral [John] Dahlgren through the signal corps in the common code, the enemy was informed of our intention….” Though enough information was gleaned to verify no new batteries were in place, the Federals felt the need to put more pressure on the Confederates on James Island.


On January 28, the gunboat USS Commodore McDonough tried the Stono again.  Lieutenant-Commander Alex F. Crosman, commanding, reported:

… I went up the river as far as the point of woods about 3,000 yards from Fort Pringle, with which work I exchanged numerous shots.

Most of my shell fell inside of the work, and Pringle replied with but two heavy guns, which I am confident were smoothbore.  Not a shell exploded near me, but though some of the enemy’s shot were very fairly directed. They were all, I think, solid shot.

Feeling the woods occasionally as I moved up with shell and grape, I sent the boat’s crew ashore and burned successively the Legaré’s house and the house and outbuildings on the wooded points in whose vicinity the Pawnee lay last July.

Crosman remained at arm’s length from the Confederate batteries.  The houses on James Island again suffered (nearby Legareville being burnt the previous summer).  He reported expending twelve IX-inch shells, thirteen 6.4-inch Parrott rounds (shell and case shot), twenty-four 50-pdr Dahlgren shells, two stands of IX-inch grapeshot, one 6.4-inch canister, and one 24-pdr howitzer canister.  The use of grape, canister, and case shot to “feel” the woods near the shore was a standard tactic for the gunboats when in close proximity to Confederate lines.  Summing up his activities, Crosman noted:

I am convinced there are no new works on John’s Island, and also that Fort Pringle is not so formidable as it was in July last.  No torpedoes are in the river yet, as I went up purposely at dead low water to endeavor to discover them.

While Crosman probed the Stono, further to the west on Edisto Island, another expedition, this one a joint Army-Navy operation, tested Confederate defenses in that sector.  Major-General John Foster ordered Brigadier-General Edward E. Potter “… to proceed to Edisto Island, and with the Thirty-second U.S. Colored Troops, already landed there, to make a strong demonstration towards Willstown, on the South Edisto River….”   Knowing the Confederates retained significant garrisons guarding the railroad and roads between Willstown and Adams’ Run, Foster hoped this would distract from the Salkehatchie.  Major-General William T. Sherman would approve and add that the demonstration should look as “a lodgement seemingly to cover the disembarkation of a large body.”

Unlike the demonstration mounted in July 1864 in the same area, Potter was directed to move by way of Jehossee Island.


However, when he arrived at Edisto Island, Potter had second thoughts about that route.  Instead, after conferring with Commander George B. Balch, commanding the naval forces operating in the North Edisto, Potter decided to move by way of White Point Landing. This, of course, put Potter’s force directly against some of the Confederate defenses which stalled Federal advances the previous July.  So on the evening of January 29, the 32nd USCT moved up river to that place under cover of the USS Sonoma, USS Pawnee, and USS Daffodil.  Reporting on January 30, Balch wrote:

At 8 a.m. this morning, at General Potter’s request, we opened fire for an hour, at the expiration of which time his troops advanced, accompanied by a light 12-pounder of the Sonoma.  There has been occasional firing from the howitzer and the infantry, but not heavy enough to lead one to suppose that the enemy is in strong force.

Potter simply intended to get the attention of the Confederates then fall back to White Point.  After advancing a short distance, they ran up against a well positioned battery.  By 7 p.m. the force was back at the landing and embarking back on the ships.  To cover the activity on land, Balch sent the tug Daffodil up Dawho Creek.  He’d also posted the Sonoma upriver.   “I believe this movement of General Potter will have a good effect in worrying the enemy,” Balch reported.

Potter’s force remained on Edisto Island the next few days.  A provisional brigade of around 1,400 in number formed under Potter.  Two other regiments, the 55th Massachusetts and 144th New York, joined  the 32nd USCT.  Over the next few days these troops would make the impression desired – of an advanced covering force preceding a landing.

But for all the fluster, these demonstrations appear to have little impact on the Confederates.  Instead it was the crossing of the Savannah River at Sister’s Ferry that had their attention.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, page 1013; Part II, Serial 99, pages 140 and 151; ORN, Series I, Volume 16, pages 204 and 206.)

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.)

July 1, 1864: Naval support behind Foster’s offensive

Originally set to start on the evening of June 30, 1864, Major-General John Foster’s offensive against Charleston, and specifically the railroad connecting it to Savannah, got off to a late start the following evening.  The delay allowed Foster to collect all the forces intended for the operation.  It also allowed the Navy time to position support.

Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren faced several competing requirements at this point – the blockade, the force pressuring Charleston (mostly a counter-force to the Confederate ironclads there), and refit of ships after a season of hard use.  And of course, he’d recently lost key elements of the fleet, to include the USS New Ironsides.  But Dahlgren “pitched in” to support Foster’s operation.  Though this mainly came at the expense of direct pressure on Charleston.

Foster and Dahlgren conferred at least once between June 20 and 25.  Dahlgren indicated the purpose was to devise a plan to spoil a rumored Confederate attack.  There is little indication from Foster that such was considered a major threat.  And Confederate accounts do not suggest any planned operation. What eve the motive, both agreed to plans for limited offensive operations.  In his after action report, Dahlgren offered his version of the agreed upon plan, without noting the date of conception:

General Schimmelfennig will land at Legaréville with 1,000 men Friday night, 1st July, and will also land 2,000 men on Cole’s Island on the same night and front Secessionville.

General Hatch will land at Seabrook at the same time with 4,000 men and will be at the ferry near Rantowle’s Bridge on Saturday night to demonstrate against the city and Fort Pemberton on Sunday, and perhaps Monday.

General Birney will go into North Edisto and as high as possible to destroy railroad.

The navy will enter Stono Saturday morning and previous night to cooperate with General Schimmelfennig as far as line from Battery Pringle to Secessionville.

One or two gunboats will ascend North Edisto and cooperate with General Birney, to ensure his landing.

This is a demonstration only, but may be converted into a real attack after consultation between General Foster and Admiral Dahlgren.

If General Schimmelfennig notifies the naval officer in Stono that he intends to assault the works in front of him, all the disposable naval force is to assist him and as often as he repeats the assault.

I would first point out this plan differs in detail to those sent by Foster to Major-General Henry Halleck on June 30.  But the opening sentance may explain this.  Foster recorded an intended start time for the evening of July 1, as opposed to the original plan for the evening of June 30.  This is, therefore, likely a modification of the original plan, and that enacted on July 1.  An important detail of the execution moved Birney’s column from the Ashepoo River to the North Edisto.  And the point of attack on the railroad was therefore different.  Jacksonboro was the objective, with Ashepoo Ferry a follow on if possible. The modified plan, still wide ranging, looked like this on the map:


Such changes allow me to zoom in closer on the map, but the military details are the point here.  While I don’t see a written artifact to state such, I believe the change for Birney’s route was due to the limited number of gunboats Dahlgren could send in support.  On the map, this gives the appearance of columns within supporting distance.  The reality, in the marshes of coastal South Carolina, is those columns might as well been fifty or 100 miles apart. What would make this plan worked, in either the original or modified form, was timing.  If all columns hit at roughly the same instant, some point – if not several points – would be overwhelmed.

Dahlgren’s version of the plan also seems to indicate Schimmelfennig’s force became the “main” effort while Hatch’s and Birney’s were downgraded.  Foster’s records do not support such an assessment.  Likely Dahlgren simply recorded the three columns of action working from the Stono River then to the west in order.  But what cannot be explained are the troop figures provided by Dahlgren, which are much higher than what Foster reported to Halleck on June 30.

To support the army, Dahlgren repositioned gunboats and monitors.  The monitors USS Lehigh and USS Montauk moved into Stono Inlet along with the gunboats USS Pawnee, and USS McDonough, and the mortar schooners USS Para and USS Racer.  Dahglren sent the USS Dai Ching, USS Wamsutta, and USS Geranium to the North Edisto (the USS Memphis remained on blockade station at that inlet). Inside the Charleston bar the monitors USS Sangamon (a new arrival), USS Catskill, USS Nahant, and USS Nantucket remained.  Perhaps another indicator of how quickly this operation was thrown together, the Dai Ching conducted mine-sweeping in the Stono River on July 1, to clear the way for the force ascending there, before moving over to the North Edisto River.

The closing paragraphs of Dahlgren’s version of the plan remained true to Foster’s vision.  This operation was in essence a large demonstration.  Both commanders hoped it could be developed, at one or more of the points of demonstration, into a full assault to gain a purchase.  Should that happen, the entire coast of South Carolina, and possibly Georgia, might be threatened.

These operations kicked off 150 years ago last night (July 1).  With the morning of July 2, Federal troops were landing and manuvering at several points opposite James and John’s Islands and flotillas were operating up the North Edisto and Stono Rivers.  What Confederate leaders in Charleston feared worst – a renewed Federal offensive – seemed to emerge from the mists.  I’ll turn to the successes and failures of those opening moves in the next post.

(Citation from ORN, Series I, Volume 15, page 554.)