“I at once determined not to follow them”: John’s Island demonstration, Part 3

Though he probably didn’t know it, as the sun rose on February 11, 1864 Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig’s demonstration on John’s Island had achieved its goal.  After sharp fighting through the previous day, both sides had retired to positions roughly three miles apart.  The Federals maintained a “bridgehead” with parts of three brigades on the John’s Island side of Overhaul Cut.  The Confederates concentrated most of Brigadier-General Henry Wise’s brigade at a crossroads further inland, awaiting the arrival of Brigadier-General Alfred Colquitt’s brigade.  The presence of Colquitt on the island, instead of making way to Savannah, meant that Schimmelfennig had indeed distracted the Confederates, at least temporarily, from Federal operations in Florida.

Both sides skirmished and probed through the morning and into the afternoon.  But just after noon, the Federals once again pushed out from their bridgehead.  Colonel Philip Brown, 157th New York, recorded his regiment was ordered,

… with the One hundred and seventh Ohio Volunteers and Seventy-fifth Ohio, to advance in support of columns already advanced.  Marching by the flank, this force, under the direction of General [Adelbert] Ames, proceeded along the left of the forest to within supporting distance of the skirmishers and batteries previously sent out.

This move by the Federals caught Wise realigning his lines just after the arrival of Colquitt’s Brigade.

I placed my right on the Bohicket River, across the Bohicket road, and extended my line across the open field on a ditch back to the woods on my left, and through them to the Legareville road. I gave the command of the right to Colonel Page, with portions of the Twenty-sixth, Forty-sixth, Fifty-ninth, and Fourth Virginia Volunteers, and the left to General Colquitt, with his regiment of 900 Georgians. Lieutenant-Colonel Kemper commanded the artillery. I placed one section of Charles’ battery on the right between the Bohicket road and river, the Marion Battery in front immediately on the left of the road, and the other section of Charles’ battery to protect the rear and left flank.

Wise’s position sealed off any line of advance for the Federals.  But there’s no indication Ames intended to press the matter beyond just the prescribed demonstration.

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Wise’s report of the action indicates his artillery was heavily engaged in this action:

… the Marion Battery at 3.20 p.m. opened upon them at about 1,200 yards distance, when they fell back to the woods, at about 1,500 yards distance. The artillery practice was very efficient in everything except the friction primers. Three-fourths of them at first failed. The enemy soon replied with (I thought) three pieces only, but one of their positions was concealed by a hedge-row, and after their retreat I found they had two positions for field pieces-one on the right and the other on the left of the road. A section of Charles’ battery also opened from our right, and was very effectively served.

All this activity kept General P.G.T. Beauregard focused on John’s Island.  He ordered another battery from the South Carolina Siege Trains to prepare for movement to John’s Island.

And he also worked out plans for a demonstration of his own – to distract the Federals from the distraction.  To Wise, he wrote, “All the guns on James and Sullivan’s Islands will open at 2 o’clock tonight on Morris Island to create a diversion in your front.” Orders went out to all commanders in the defenses around Charleston.  Additional instructions called for signal rockets to coordinate the start of firing. The guns on James Island were later directed to focus on the Black Island batteries to their front.

But while Beauregard planned, the Federals were again moving.  Wise noted the slackening of fires by mid-afternoon.  “By 5 p.m. their fire ceased.”  By dusk, the Federals pulled back and established a line of pickets around their original bridgehead.  Brown recorded, “This was executed as speedily as possible, a line of about forty-five posts of 3 men each being established at intervals of 15 paces in favorable positions, and a reserve of 30 kept in the rear.”

Wise, however, failed to offer pursuit.  “We were 4 miles from the haulover.  They had about 1 ½ miles the start of us, and i at once determined not to follow them….”  Wise offered no fewer than twelve (!) justifications for the decision not to pursue.  These ranged from a shortage of artillery ammunition (a claim that was later in dispute) to the need to get Colquitt’s brigade back on the trains.

The Federals withdrew completely across Overhaul Cut that night.  The USS Nipsic and USS Iris provided cover for the movement. By the following afternoon, they were back in the camps on Morris Island.  Wise did not detect the withdrawal until the next morning. He reported seventeen casualties from incomplete reports. Federal casualties were not reported in detail, but were likely just as light.

With that, the demonstration was over.  And a successful demonstration it was, from the standpoint of delaying the movement of Colquitt’s brigade and distracting Beauregard’s attention.  However, any gain achieved by blood and sweat on John’s Island was forfeited over the following week.  Instead of pressing forward on the Florida expedition, Major-General Quincy Gillmore and Brigadier-General Truman Seymour debated over their options.  That allowed time for Colquitt to complete his assigned movement.  Had there been unity of minds, perhaps Olustee would have occurred with one less Confederate brigade on the field.

On a broader scale, the similarity of objectives, proximity in time, and, to a lesser extent, the level of effort expended offer an opportunity to compare two “demonstrations” conducted in February 1864 – Morton’s Ford and John’s Island.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 33, Part I, Serial 65, pages 107, 144-5 and 599.)

“Attacked the enemy at night and stunned him to a pause”: John’s Island demonstration, Part 2

In the first post on the John’s Island demonstration of February 1864, I discussed the reason for the operation and Federal movements to John’s Island.  I left off with Colonel Philip Brown’s account of the initial skirmishing on February 10, 1864.  Now I’ll turn to the initial Confederate reaction.

Pickets from the 3rd South Carolina Cavalry, under Major John Jenkins, picked up the movement onto Kiawah Island and tracked the Federal advance on February 9.  To contest the advance, Jenkins had at his disposal 150 cavalry, a company from the 59th Virginia Infantry, and a section of the Marion Artillery.

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Jenkins reported this to Brigadier-General Henry Wise, commanding the Sixth Military District of South Carolina headquartered at Adams’ Run.  But Wise would not receive notice until 12:30 p.m. on February 9.  Wise assumed the Federals were moving up to destroy a battery then under construction along the Stono River, on John’s Island opposite Grimball’s Landing. Though incorrectly guessing the objective, Wise immediately issued orders for reinforcements to block the advance.  Colonel William Tabb, with a battalion of the 59th Virginia and another section of the Marion Artillery, moved over from Church Flats.  Colonel P.R. Page lead another column from John’s Island Ferry consisting of five companies of the 26th Virginia. In addition, Wise ordered up Charles’ Battery (Battery D, 2nd South Carolina Heavy Artillery) and a company of cavalry.  But none of these would arrive on John’s Island until the next day.

Wise himself met up with Jenkins around 11 a.m. on February 10, arriving in time to see “the enemy in line of battle on the Bohicket road, just below Dr. W. Jenkins’, about a mile above the Haulover.”  Charles’ Battery and Page’s infantry arrived around noon to reinforce Jenkins.  At that time, Wise had but 200 cavalry, 550 infantry, a section of the Marion artillery, and Charles’ Battery to confront what he estimated was 2,000 Federals.  Wise determined the best option was to fall back in order, and wait for reinforcement:

Before I had time to reconnoiter or make any observations, the enemy were reported to be flanking us on the left. They were distinctly seen deploying their infantry in a heavy forest on a line with our left, while shelling with two pieces on our right and four on the left in front. I instantly ordered my forces to fall back to a triangle in the roads called the Cocked Hat. Above that point took position and sent back for all my reserve at Adams’ Run, for three more companies of the Fourth[*], and for the working parties at Pineberry and Willstown. The companies of the Fourth and Forty-sixth Regiments Virginia Volunteers vied with each other in the rapidity and promptitude of their marches, and they reached me, to their honor, hours before I expected them; but they were much rest-broken and fatigued from night marches and without any rations except a short supply of bread. The men of Major Jenkins also were severely worn from fighting and marching two days and nights.

The Confederate force, though fatigued, conducted a fighting withdrawal roughly 3 miles up the Bohicket Road.

On the Federal side, Colonel Philip P. Brown of the 157th New York recorded his regiment moved up to the site of that morning’s skirmish and, after a short pause, moved up Bohicket Road behind a skirmish line.  There the Federals formed a line of battle.  “The line having advanced in this order over two wide fields, it was checked upon entering the third by a fire from the rebel skirmishers, who were strongly intrenched.”

The accounts differ on exactly what happened next.  Brown indicates when Brigadier-General Adelbert Ames was informed of the Confederate position, he “ordered a cessation of the advance, and afterward the withdrawal of the line.”  And Brown added the withdrawal was in good order. On the other hand, Wise contended that Jenkins held the line until dusk and “attacked the enemy at night and stunned him to a pause, capturing 4 prisoners almost within his line of encampment.”

No matter who’s account is correct, the result was the same.  The Federals withdrew to positions at Haulover Cut, prepared defenses, and waited.  The Confederates, with Tabb’s reinforcements on the scene, likewise fortified their hold at the Cocked Hat intersection.

Though conceding the field, Ames’ push had made an impression.  At the time of the fighting Brigadier-General Alfred Colquitt’s brigade was on trains moving from Charleston to Savannah, with orders to prepare for follow on movement to Florida.  After a flurry of dispatches, those orders were countermanded and Cloquitt’s brigade moved to John’s Island to reinforce Wise.  In that respect, Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig orders to “distract the enemy’s attention” was accomplished.

Both sides picked up skirmishing on the morning of February 11.  But that afternoon, the action would pick up again.  I’ll turn to that in the next post.

Note: The 4th Virginia Heavy Artillery, which Wise shortens to 4th Virginia Volunteers, was converted to infantry in May 1862 and in March 1864 became the 34th Virginia Infantry.  So don’t let the designation fool you.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 33, Part I, Serial 65, pages 107 and 144-5.)