“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.)


“… for the purpose of destroying our Davids”: Federal actions to block the Stono River, June 1864

I pass this particular episode along, not as it is an important event in the siege of Charleston, but as a good demonstration of how different first-hand accounts work in conjunction for the historian.

In his journal for June 25, 1864, Major Edward Manigault, in charge of the South Carolina siege train artillery and a portion of the James Island defenses, described at length some Federal activity which he observed occurring on the Stono River that day:

About 10 O’Clock A.M. rode down to the Front.  Got up into an Oak Tree to observe any Movements of the enemy which might take place. About 11:30 a large Yawl or Ship’s boat with 6 Men in it came sailing up the Stono and landed on Horse Island to S.W. of the Battery.

About 12 M. She Commenced towing a floating object about 100 yards. long towards the piles which are driven below Battery Island. At the end of this object was a barrel and the intermediate points were supported by floats.  A large Skiff, probably 30 ft. long, Came to their assistance (Containing 8 men).  Apparently they made their Tow fast to the piles and then hauled back a Cable to Horse Island near the Battery.

I could not of course tell the object or purpose of their movements, but thought it possible that they might be attaching Torpedoes to the Row of piles, for the purpose of destroying our “Davids” should they venture down. I got back to Camp at 3 P.M. quite fatigued, as remaining for 3 or 3½ hours in a Constrained position in a Tree top is very trying.

Indeed, though it sounds fun to the inner-boy in me, I can sympathize with Manigault in regard to remaining atop a tree for extended periods of time.  But what he observed was not distinctly clear to him at the time.  And his mention of torpedoes is just speculation.  Clearly the Federals were doing some work at the pilings (those placed in December the previous year).


What were the Federals doing on the Stono?  In his regular report of the week’s activity posted on June 28, 1864, Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig included one short paragraph which describes those activities:

The boom across Stono River was laid, but sunk, through miscalculations on the part of the captain of engineers; it will be relaid by to-morrow night.

So, it was not torpedoes, as Manigualt speculated, but rather a boom in front of the pilings.  Though a boom at that location would effectively serve the same purpose – keeping the Davids bottled up – and additionally work to defeat any floating torpedoes sent down by the Confederates.  Likely what Manigault saw were the Federals working on the boom (on June 25), then calling on additional assistance when things failed.  And later on June 29, Manigualt noted a lot of activity on Horse Island (which the Federals labeled “Dog Island” on their maps).  Apparently the boom recovery operation went forward as planned.

Looking at the two reports, a better, if not perfectly clear, accounting for events emerge – the Federals were indeed improving the obstacles on the Stono River, but not with torpedoes.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, page 67; Edward Manigault, Siege Train: The Journal of a Confederate Artilleryman in the Defense of Charleston, edited by Warren Ripley, Charleston: University of South Carolina Press, 1986, page 186.)

Robert Blake: Slave, Contraband, Sailor, and Hero

One of several interesting facets to the Christmas Day fighting at Legareville is the Medal of Honor awarded to Robert Blake.  The particulars for that Medal of Honor read:

Rank and organization: Contraband, U.S. Navy.

Entered service at: Virginia.

G.O. No.: 32, 16 April 1864.

Accredited to: Virginia.

Citation: On board the U.S. Steam Gunboat Marblehead off Legareville, Stono River, 25 December 1863, in an engagement with the enemy on John’s Island. Serving the rifle gun, Blake, an escaped slave, carried out his duties bravely throughout the engagement which resulted in the enemy’s abandonment of positions, leaving a caisson and one gun behind.

As mentioned yesterday, Blake’s was one of four awarded to crew-members of the USS Marblehead for actions on that day.  All four were issued under the same general orders.  While the other three citations indicate rank and assigned post, Blake’s identification was simply “contraband.”


The timing of the orders meant Blake was not only the first African-American to receive the Navy’s version of the Medal of Honor, but also the first African-American to receive the award in any service.  Sergent William H. Harney, 54th Massachusetts, is often cited as the first such award, for his actions during the July 18, 1863 in the assault on Fort Wagner.  However, Harney’s Medal of Honor was not approved until 1900 – a gap of 37 years.  Blake’s was awarded a short four months after the action.

But while much is known of Harney and his life, we have precious few leads on Robert Blake.  We can trace Robert Blake back to an incident in June 1862.  A naval force under the command of Commander George Prentiss worked up the Santee River with the aim to destroy railroad bridges upstream.  Heading up the river, the expedition passed the plantation of Aurthur  M. Blake without incident (red arrow on the map below). The Confederates had used the plantation as a base for patrols on the Santee and forces protecting the blockade runners using the river.  But apparently any garrison there retreated when the gunboats arrived.  Finding the river upstream too shallow for the ships to reach the targeted railroad bridge, Prentiss returned.


On June 26, 1862, when passing the Blake Plantation the second time, his ships took fire.  In response Prentiss returned fire and landed a party to chase away the Confederates contesting passage.  Considering the plantation a legitimate military target, due to the use of the buildings by Confederates, Prentiss had the house and mill burned.  His landing party brought back 100,000 bushels of rice.  And… important to the story of Robert Blake… some 400 slaves made their escape to the steamers.

Arthur Blake, of course, was none too happy about the destruction of his plantation and loss of his slaves.  The 1860 census indicated he owned $150,000 in real estate and $350,000 in personal property.  In May 1863, Arthur issued a claim against the Confederate government for damages totaling $288,375.


Arthur offered a full list of the 402 slaves he recorded as “lost” due to the action.  Among those was a 28 year old “Robert” valued at $1,100.  (And for what it is worth, in 1871 Arthur submitted a nearly identical list along with a claim to the U.S. government for the loss of slaves and other possessions during the war.  That claim was denied.)

Page 22b

Prentiss indicated he landed the escaped slaves, now contrabands, on North Island, between the sea and Winyah Bay, outside Georgetown, South Carolina.  The contraband camp established there soon grew in number as more escaped slaves joined the 400.  Fearing a Confederate raid, the Navy relocated the camp, which had grown to nearly 2,000, to Hilton Head in March 1863.

There’s no clear record of Robert Blake enlisting in the Navy.  I suspect sometime prior to the relocation of the contraband camp he signed on to serve on one of the ships operating off the South Carolina coast.  I’ve yet to locate any papers showing his enlistment.  And maybe he didn’t enlist, but rather volunteered to work as a servant.  After all, that was his station on Christmas Day 1863 off Legareville in the Stono River.

Consider the places I’ve mentioned within the narrative thus far.  The Blake Plantation, though some fifty miles north of Charleston, was in Charleston County.  And Legareville, some twenty miles south, is likewise in Charleston County.  Robert Blake was fighting within the county from which he’d escaped as a slave.  Certainly a “legality” which would not escape notice if the Marblehead‘s crew been captured.  And perhaps a little extra motivation for Robert Blake that morning.

Within four months of that incident, Robert Blake’s military career reach its high point.  He was ranked a seaman.  What’s more, a seaman with the nation’s highest military award.  Sadly, I find no record of Blake’s subsequent service and eventual fate.  But I can say the details we know of his life speak to a broad spectrum of experience – from slave, to contraband, to sailor, to hero.

Christmas Morning ambush at Legareville, Part 2

In part one of this set, I discussed the lead-up to the Christmas Day ambush on the Stono River, December 25, 1863.  With the guns in place, and the USS Marblehead in their sights, the Confederates planned to start the action at dawn.


Shortly after 6 a.m. in the gathering light of Christmas morning, Lieutenant-Colonel Del Kemper opened the engagement with shots from Lieutenant Ralph Nesbit’s howitzers, in what I earlier identified as the Upper Battery (2) position.  The guns of the Lower Battery soon joined in.  But their fires were ineffective.  The range reported at the time was around 1,200 yards.  Nesbit reported starting with 8-second fuses then moving to 5-second fuses.  He claimed to have hit the Marblehead on several occasions, but without effect.  Confederate observers at the time contended the gunners failed to hit their target.

On the Marblehead, Lieutenant-Commander Richard W. Meade came on deck wearing his night clothes, ordering his men to respond.


At the time the Confederates opened fire, the Marblehead had steam in one of two boilers.  However, with a falling tide, Meade ordered the anchor slipped so the gunboat could maneuver downstream.  While the ship turned, Meade – still in his robe – ordered his gunners to return fire on the Confederate batteries.  Despite the Confederate fire and casualties among the gun crew, Boatswain’s Mate William Farley, captain of the XI-inch pivot gun, got off the Marblehead‘s response.  Acting Ensign George F. Winslow rallied the ship’s crew to the to her guns.

Meade’s servant, Robert Blake, rushed on deck to offer his commander a coat and uniform more befitting the action.  But when he saw one of the crew struck down, Blake began running powder between the magazine and the guns.

One Confederate shell burst and threw fragments hitting landsman Charles Moore.  Though bleeding profusely, Moore resumed his duties until forced below to see the surgeon.  Yet, Moore slipped back on deck and again resumed his duties until growing faint from the loss of blood.

While the ship maneuvered, Quartermaster James Miller stepped up to the foredeck and cast the lead to determine the depth of the channel.  Miller sat at an exposed position, but was performing a task more vital as the gunners.  Had the Marblehead run aground at that time, the situation might have turned in favor of the Confederates.  However, with room to maneuver, the Marblehead closed the range to the Confederate batteries and began firing shell, grape and canister.

When the howitzers and field guns opened fire on the Marblehead, the remaining guns in the Upper Battery and those of Charles’ Battery opened on Legareville.  Colonel P.R. Page did not advance his infantry, and instead waited to see the gunboat disabled.  He intended to advance a couple of 12-pdr howitzers to induce the Federal detachment to surrender.  But with the Marblehead remaining in action, Page suspended all movements.


Meanwhile, further downstream Commander George Balch brought the USS Pawnee into action.  By 6:35 a.m. that sloop was in position to fire across the marshes and enfilade the Confederate batteries.  By 7 a.m. Acting Master S.N. Freeman skippered the USS C.P. Williams, under sail, up the Stono to a position to engage.  The weight of this fire completely disrupted the Confederate gunners.  Kemper decided to withdraw just as the Williams opened fire.  Likewise, Page ordered a general withdrawal of the force.  Around 7:30 a.m., the Confederates ceased all firing.  The Federals likewise stopped shortly afterwards.

In the action, the Confederates suffered three killed and eight wounded.  They also had a dozen horses killed and lost five sets of harnesses.  This lost mobility forced Kemper to leave behind two 8-inch howitzers and an ammunition chest.  After withdrawing behind Abbapoola Creek, running north of Legareville, the Confederates setup a defensive position and waited for an opportunity to recover the lost material.  However, through the remainder of the morning, the C.P. Williams fired some twenty 13-inch mortar shells in that direction to keep the Confederates at bay.

Assessing the failure, Page cited the poor gunnery and execution by the siege howitzers.  Defending his men, Kemper countered that the howitzers were ill-suited for work at the range the Marblehead was engaged. He also voiced concern the infantry never advanced, and his guns thus received all the Federal attention.  General P.G.T. Beauregard took into account both accounts within his endorsement of reports:

The failure to destroy or drive away the Marblehead is due to the inefficiency of the artillery through bad ammunition, fuzes, and primers, and bad service of the guns.  The 8-inch howitzers, objected to by Lieutenant-Colonel Kemper, were intended to be employed in case the enemy’s gunboats took position to throw grape and to shoot our gunners with Enfield rifles.

Yes, those 30-pdr Parrotts were supposed to fire upon the gunboat, supported by the howitzers.  Not the other way around.  Beauregard went on to say the enfilading fire from the Pawnee should not have had a great effect on the Confederate gunners.

Unknown to the Confederates at the time, their gunners had fired with some degree of accuracy.  The Marblehead recorded 30 hits. “We have one 30-pounder shell which lodged in the steerage and did not explode….”  Meade recorded two other unexploded shells lodged in the ship.  Overall Meade reported extensive, but largely superficial, damage. The Marblehead suffered three killed and four wounded.

Charleston 4 May 10 264
Stono River, near the site of the engagement, in 2010

Closing his report of the action, Meade lauded the behavior of Winslow, Farley, Miller, and Blake – going as far to recommend Farley for the Medal of Honor. Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren responded:

It is not in my power to promote Acting Ensign Winslow… but if you consider Farley and Miller suitable for appointments as master’s mates, I will transmit them.  Blake may be rated as seaman.

Dahlgren would go on to recommend to the Department of the Navy that Winslow and Acting Ensign George Harriman be promoted to acting masters for their conduct.   Eventually, Farley, Miller, Blake, and Moore (who was not mentioned in Meade’s recommendations) received the Medal of Honor for their actions on Christmas Day 1863.

(Sources:  Edward Manigault, Siege Train: The Journal of a Confederate Artilleryman in the Defense of Charleston, edited by Warren Ripley, Charleston: University of South Carolina Press, 1986, pages 100-102; Walter F. Beyer, Volume 2 of Deeds of Valor: How America’s Heroes Won the Medal of Honor, Detroit: The Perrien-Keydel Company, 1902, pages 50-52; OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 747-50; ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 188-209.)

Christmas Morning ambush at Legareville, Part 1

Ever since Federals began building river obstructions in the Stono River at the end of November, General P.G.T. Beauregard saw an opportunity to repeat the insult inflicted earlier in the year with the ambush of the USS Isaac Smith.   Orders cut on December 17 sent several batteries of artillery, about a regiment’s worth of infantry, and cavalry scouts to enact just such an ambush.

As instructed, the Confederates completed preparations for the ambush to include a series of concealed battery positions on the island overlooking the marshes south of Legareville.  Major Edward Manigault, commanding the South Carolina Siege Train batteries (but was not actually on James Island himself), provided the most detailed descriptions of the battery positions.  There were five distinct positions, as indicated here:


Manigault’s description varies slightly from the orders issued for the operation, so I’ll run through those details:

  • Upper Battery (1) was a sunken work on the peninsula about ¾ a mile southwest of Legareville.   Captain Benjamin C. Webb, Company A, South Carolina Siege Trains, commanded two 30-pdr Parrotts here, to target the steamers.
  • Upper Battery (2) was another sunken work about 50 to 75 yards to the right of the first battery.  Lieutenant Ralph Nesbit, Company B of the siege trains, had two 8-inch siege howitzers positioned to fire on the steamers.
  • The Lower Battery on a raised platform about 250 to 300 yards on another peninsula further southwest.  Captain Frederick C. Schultz, Company F, Palmetto Artillery, commanded two 3.5-inch Blakely rifles, one 10-pdr Parrott, along with an 8-inch howitzer from Nesbit’s Battery targeted the steamers.
  • A battery platform on the road leading to Legareville.  There Lieutenant John P. Strohecker of the Marion Light Artillery lead a section of two Napoleons reinforced with the fourth of Nesbit’s 8-inch howitzers.  These cannons were aimed at the infantry in Legareville.
  • A position between the Upper Battery and Legareville for Captain William E. Charles’ Battery D, 2nd South Carolina Artillery with two 3.5-inch Blakely rifles in position to fire on the town or the steamers as needed.  Charles’ two 12-pdr howitzers stood ready to advance with the infantry towards Legareville.  (This position is referred to as the “Hedge Battery” by some accounts.)

Because of the elevated and exposed positions of the Lower Battery and Charles’s Battery, those positions were not completed, with the guns in position, until the night of December 24.

Colonel P.R. Page commanded two companies of his own 26th Virginia Infantry and five from the 59th Virginia, constituting the infantry force to move down the road to Legareville and capture the Federals there.  While Page technically had overall command of the operation, he was not in a position to direct the guns of the Upper and Lower battery positions under Lieutenant-Colonel Del. Kemper.  This proved to be a gap in control which hindered the Confederates when the ambush sprang.

A detachment of infantry, roughly 200 in number, from Brigadier-General George Gordon’s division occupied a small spit just outside of Legareville on the night of December 24.  The USS Marblehead, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Richard Meade (yes nephew of Major General George Meade), was laying in the Stono River, anchored just south of the town.  This 90-day gunboat mounted a XI-inch Dahlgren guns, two 24-pdr smoothbore guns, and one 20-pdr rifle.

Down closer to Stono Inlet the USS Pawnee lay in the Kiawah River, with Commander George Balch in charge.  Balch was a veteran of these waters, seeing earlier actions on the Stono with the Pawnee.  The Pawnee mounted eight IX-inch Dahlgens, one 100-pdr Parrott Rifle, one 50-pdr Dahlgren Rifle, and two 12-pdr boat howitzers.  Further downstream the mortar schooner USS C.P. Williams lay off Cole’s Island.

Confederate scouts reported these dispositions on Christmas Eve, though did not detail the exact locations of the Pawnee and Williams.  Around that time, Page opted for a slight modification in plans.  He would open the engagement with fire from the Upper Battery (2) and the Lower Battery against the Marblehead.  The other batteries would fire on the Federals near Legaresville.  While this gave plenty of firepower to cover the infantry advance, it pitted 8-inch howitzers and field gun caliber rifles against the gunboat.  But, as Page would later report, the intent was for the siege guns to distract and destroy the Marblehead while the infantry rushed into Legareville.  Kemper, on the other hand, felt the plan was for the infantry to distract the Marblehead, leaving his guns to destroy the gunboat.   And neither officer mentioned any plans to deal with the other Federal ships laying nearby (possibly because of the limited information about those vessels).

So as Christmas morning dawned at Charleston, a brisk bombardment was already underway.  On the Stono River, the action was just about to start.

On that note, please allow me to pause for the moment, and pick up the narrative later today. There are a lot of connections and cross connections to discuss.  Not the least of which involves this man:

And of course an inscription on the back of a cannon:

WNY 10 Apr 10 543

Just a couple of many stories from 150 years ago this Christmas Day.

(Sources:  Edward Manigault, Siege Train: The Journal of a Confederate Artilleryman in the Defense of Charleston, edited by Warren Ripley, Charleston: University of South Carolina Press, 1986, pages 100-102; OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 747-50; ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 188-209.)