Defending Port Royal Sound: Garrisons at Hilton Head, Beaufort, Fort Pulaski, and St. Helena Island

As Major-General Quincy Gillmore departed the Department of the South in late April 1864, he left behind an assessment of the garrisons along the coast addressed to Brigadier-General John Hatch, his replacement.  In that assessment, Gillmore included a paragraph describing the needs to defend the vital anchorage at Port Royal Sound:

The district around Port Royal Harbor, including Port Royal Island and Fort Pulaski, our depots on Hilton Head Island, and machine-shops at Land’s End, Saint Helena Island. Five thousand men would be ample for the defense of this district. Between 6,000 and 7,000 men will be available for it without risking other points. The town of Beaufort and our depot at Hilton Head are both well fortified. A permanent garrison of 200 experienced artillerists is enough for Fort Pulaski. The orders are to keep both draw bridges raised during the night time. Big Tybee Island is occupied by a picket sent from Fort Pulaski. Ample naval cooperation has been afforded in this district. Hilton Head and Port Royal Islands are surrounded by deep water, navigable by gunboats. An armed transport has always been attached to the command on Port Royal Island, and another to the command on Hilton Head Island for patrolling the waters.

Slightly exceeding Gillmore’s estimate of strength, April returns indicated 3,171 men present at Port Royal Island and 5,015 present in the Hilton Head district. Though that number would be reduced by the summer months.  The Port Royal Island command, a brigade under Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton, included the 29th Connecticut (colored) Infantry, the 56th New York Infantry, 26th U.S.C.T., the 33rd U.S.C.T. (formerly the 1st South Carolina Volunteers), and Battery F, 3rd New York Light Artillery.

Separate from Saxton’s command was the Hilton Head District, consisting of garrisons on Hilton Head, Saint Helena Island, Seabrook Island, Fort Pulaski, and Tybee Island, under Colonel William W.H. Davis.  At Hilton Head itself, Davis retained two infantry regiments (the 52nd and 104th Pennsylvania) with a battery from the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery and a company of the 1st New York Engineers. The 25th Ohio garrisoned Seabrook Island, protecting a vital coal depot and signal station.  The Saint Helena Island garrison consisted of two USCT companies and an Invalid Detachment.  At the mouth of the Savannah River, four companies of the 3rd Rhode Island and a company from the 9th USCT defended Fort Pulaski and Tybee Island.  This left a battalion of the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry for patrols and a brigade of USCT (three regiments) under Colonel Thomas Bayley as maneuver elements.


Upon arriving at Port Royal, Hatch apparently required more information about the dispositions. Davis responded on this day (April 30):

Hdqrs. U.S. Forces, Hilton Head,
Fort Pulaski, Saint Helena, and Tybee Island,
Hilton Head, S.C., April 30, 1864.

Brig. Gen. John P. Hatch,
Comdg. Dept. of the South, Hilton Head, S.C.:

General: In answer to your verbal request that I report to you an estimate of the number of men required in this district for its proper defense, I have the honor to submit the following:

Post of Fort Pulaski and Tybee: Fort Pulaski, 250; Tybee Island, 50; total, 300. The defensive work on Tybee is a martello tower, armed with a 30-pounder Parrott and inclosed in an earthen parapet. This is more a picket of observation than for any other purpose, as the island can only be approached across wide marshes.

Hilton Head Island: Four regiments, with an aggregate strength of not less than 3,000 men, one-half of which at least should be white troops. Of these one regiment, say 800 to 1,000 men, will be required for the picket-line from Drayton’s plantation to Braddock’s Point, two-thirds of whom should be whites. One regiment should be within the intrenchments and two close at hand outside ready for any purpose whatever. The most important point on the picket-line is Seabrook, which by reason of its being the coal depot invites attack. Any serious defense required must be made at the line of intrenchments, hence the necessity of the main force being stationed near them. I do not believe the enemy will attempt anything beyond raids, but there should be preparations for a more serious attack. The picket-boats will enable the island to be held with a less force than would be otherwise required.

Saint Helena Island: Four companies, with an aggregate of 300 men, will be sufficient for this island, and I think it will be safe to place black troops there, for there is not much probability of the enemy landing while we have a gun-boat in Saint Helena Sound. As this island covers Bay Point the force now there, 25 men, I think sufficient for that point. For the district: Post of Pulaski and Tybee, 300; Hilton Head Island, 3,000; Saint Helena and Bay Point, 325: total force, 3,625.

I deem the above the maximum force that will be required for the defense of the district under any contingency likely to arise.

I remain, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
W. W. H. Davis,
Colonel 104th Pennsylvania Vols., Comdg. Post.

Davis and Saxton held small commands in the scope of the larger war effort in the spring of 1864.  However their forces defended the important naval anchorage of Port Royal Sound.  Without that harbor, the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron could not maintain the blockade.  Two or three brigades worth of infantry, depending on the measure, for that duty.  Hard to say those troops would have been better employed elsewhere, given the importance of the blockade.  But those were 8,000 or so were there to enable particular strategic objectives.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 74, 76-77.)

Federal Forts and Batteries on Morris Island, Spring 1864

After the fall of Battery Wagner in September 1863, records of Federal works on Morris Island lack the superb documentation seen throughout the summer siege operations.  In stark contrast to the detailed engineering reports and diagrams, far fewer maps, profiles, or descriptions exist for the fortifications re-purposed for the longer operations from October 1863 to the end of the war.  One of the few descriptions passed by way of official reports came into the record on April 6, 1864.  In a very lengthy report from Colonel William W. H. Davis, commanding on Morris Island, several paragraphs enumerated the fortifications on the island and explained the work done to maintain and improve those works.  As for the works, Davis covered all those on Morris Island and behind it in the marsh:

On Morris Island, including the little work on Black Island, there are ten forts and batteries, namely:

No. 1. Fort Strong, mounting twenty-one guns and mortars, ranging from 12-pounder field pieces to the 200-pounder Parrott, with a garrison of 4 officers and 132 men.

No. 2. Fort Putnam, mounting ten guns, ranging from a 12-pounder howitzer to a 200-pounder Parrott, with a garrison of 5 officers and 100 men.

No. 3. Battery Chatfield and 10-inch columbiad battery, the former mounting two 100-pounder and one 300-pounder Parrotts and the latter four 10-inch sea-coast mortars and two 10-inch columbiads.

No. 4. Battery Seymour, Battery Barton, and 13-inch mortar battery, the former mounting four 10-inch sea-coast mortars, the second the same as the first, and the third two 13-inch mortars. The garrison is composed of 2 officers and 39 men.

No. 5. Fort Shaw, mounting two 10-inch siege mortars and two 8inch sea-coast howitzers, with a garrison of 3 officers and 159 men.

No. 6. Battery Purviance, mounting two 42-pounders smooth-bore and two 30-pounder Parrotts, with a garrison of 1 officer and 49 men.

No. 7. On Black Island there are mounted on the little work one 12-pounder Wiard gun and one 12-pounder howitzer, with 1 officer and a detachment of 10 men to take charge of the guns.

On the map, those forts and batteries appear so:


Battery Chatfield often appears as “Fort Chatfield” on wartime maps.  And like many of the Federal works, the new owners often referred to the old Confederate names in correspondence.  The Confederates, of course, continued to prefer those old names.

Also notice the mix of weapons in those forts – heavy Parrotts, columbiads (some no doubt captured Confederate types), smaller Parrotts, seacoast guns, and mortars.  The guns on Black Island served only for defense by this stage, with the heavy guns aimed at Charleston long since removed. The Wiard rifle could, if needed, reach the Confederate lines on James Island, however.

Outside of the listing cited above, Davis mentioned the old Marsh Battery, where remains of the Swamp Angel were still laying about:

I should have mentioned at the proper place that the Swamp Angel was dismantled during the month of March and the two 10-inch mortars in position there were removed. The ordnance officer is now engaged removing the pieces of the 200-pounder Parrott which burst in that battery during the bombardment last summer.

In addition to the fortifications, the garrison of Morris Island maintained pickets and made boat patrols to prevent any raids or surprises.

A close watch is kept on the movements of the enemy on the neighboring islands and in Charleston, and I receive a report at night of what has taken place during the day. Five hundred men, with the proper number of commissioned and non-commissioned officers, are sent to the front every evening at sundown and remain on duty for the night under the direction of a general officer of the day and a field officer of the trenches. They are posted at Strong, the batteries above (both sides of the island being picketed between Strong and Putnam), and at the left batteries. I have also placed sentries on the eastern beach as low down as the Beacon House, where a constant guard is maintained day and night. In addition to this the boat infantry, in thirteen picket-boats, sentinel the harbor of Charleston every night. With this precaution it seems impossible for an enemy to approach without our getting notice in time to prepare to repel him. I believe the night duty, both on land and water, to be performed with commendable vigilance. The picket-boats are also stationed between Black Island and Secessionville, and there is one on duty every night in the creek 500 yards in advance of the Swamp Angel, toward Battery Simkins, on James Island.

Backing up a bit, before listing the fortifications, Davis provided details of the work done in the previous month to both repair and improve the works on Morris Island:

The officer in charge of the engineers reports the following amount of engineer work done on the forts and batteries on Morris Island, during the month of March’ At Fort Putnam about 30 yards of palisading, washed away by the high tides, have been reset and the damage done by the enemy’s fire to the slopes and magazines repaired. At Battery Chatfield the inclosure of palisading has been completed and the gates put up; revetment around magazine to the 300-pounder and mortar batteries has been repaired; sand ridge in front of gun No. 2 has been graded and a flag-staff has been put up. The embrasure of gun No. 2 has been enlarged so as to allow it to fire on Moultrie; a platform for morter shells has been laid; the platform to 100-pounder has been raised and leveled; the embrasure of the 300-pounder has been enlarged so as to enable it to fire on Sumter and timbers have been put under them.

At Fort Shaw the slopes have been graded and dressed with manure; two gates have been put up and the sand ridge north of the fort has been graded.

The work on Fort Putnam and Battery Chatfield is now completed. A number of stockades are still to be set at Fort Shaw and the grading of the sand ridge north of it completed. The stockades are cut at Kiawah Island and await transportation.

I’m sure the defenders of Fort Shaw enjoyed the manure used to dress the slopes there.

Even as the Federals transitioned to a defensive posture across the Department of the South, plenty of offensive firepower remained on Morris Island in the spring of 1864.  And the Federals would send ample reminders over towards Fort Sumter and Charleston throughout the year.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 41-3.)

“The vessel is a complete wreck”: The end of the Presto on the beach of Sullivan’s Island

Let me pick up where I left off about the demise of the blockade-runner Presto.  Bound in from Nassau on the morning of February 2, 1864, she’d managed to elude the blockaders by working in from the northeast approaches to Charleston harbor.  All that was left was a fast run along the beach through Maffitt’s Channel.


Nearly gaining the harbor, the Presto struck the wreck of the blockade runner Minho, which had run aground on Bowman’s Jetty in October 1862.  After backing off the wreck, water came in through a hole in the hull.  So the Presto‘s captain ran her towards the beach.

As dawn broke, everyone around the harbor entrance had a view of the stranded steamer.  Admiral John Dahlgren, who’d spent the night afloat, was starting his customary trip inshore when, “my attention was drawn to a very handsome steamer close under the batteries of Moultrie…. She showed a fine, very low, and long hull, with two short funnels, painted white.”  Wasting no time, Dahlgren ordered the four monitors on duty forward to shell the Presto.

On shore, the men on Morris Island also noticed the Presto.  According to Colonel William W.H. Davis, 104th Pennsylvania Volunteers, the Army’s guns were soon in action:

She was discovered to be aground at reveille on the morning of the 2d, when the three 30-pounder Parrotts in Fort Putnam were immediately opened upon her. The first 3 shells (time fuse) burst over her, driving away the men who were engaged in discharging the cargo. At 8 a.m., the 300-pounder Parrott in Battery Chatfield was opened upon the steamer with good effect, 1 shell striking the furnaces. About this time two monitors moved up and commenced firing at long range, most of their shots passing over or falling short. Fort Strong opened soon after, firing a shell every fifteen minutes from the 200-pounder Parrott until 7 p.m.

Davis indicated the ranges to the Presto were 3,600 yards from Fort Strong (old Battery Wagner); 2,700 yards from Battery Chatfield; and 2,600 yards from Fort Putnam (old Battery Gregg).


The USS Lehigh, USS Passaic, USS Nahant, and USS Catskill moved up that morning and engaged.   Commander Andrew Bryson indicated the Lehigh fired forty-two 8-inch Parrott rounds, with nine scoring hits.  On the Passaic, Lieutenant-Commander Edward Simpson fired sixty-eight rounds during the day at the range of 2,350 yards.  Many of the Navy’s shots went high of the target.  With good adjustment to fuses, the shells burst over the Presto to interrupt any attempt at salvage.

However the Nahant and Catskill were unable to get into a good position to contribute.  And Dahlgren did not allow the monitors to move closer to the Confederate guns on Sullivan’s Island.  Mid-morning, Commander John Cornwell slipped the Nahant back down the channel to pick up two 12-pdr rifled boat howitzers.  With those guns on deck, the Nahant returned to position and fired 135 shells at the range of 2,200 yards.

In response to all this activity, the Confederates responded with counter-battery fire.  At Fort Sumter, Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Elliot observed, “… Sullivan’s Island replied, exploding some shells so near the monitor that the fragments struck her and caused a very perceptible decrease in the activity of the field-gun detachments.”

The Federals did not let up, as Davis related,

A 100-pounder Parrott at Strong was opened at noon and continued to fire until daylight the next morning. The fire of this gun, with that of the two 30-pounders in Putnam, prevented the rebels from getting any of her cargo during the night.

The next morning (February 3), the Navy resumed shelling the wreck. The Lehigh fired a total of twenty-six 8-inch Parrott shells, producing only four hits.  The Passaic fired 35 shells, with no effect recorded.  Both the Lehigh and Nahant fired boat howitzers from their decks. Two 12-pdr rifled boat howitzers on the Lehigh fired seventy-four projectiles, scoring only eight hits, at a distance between 2,400 to 2,500 yards.  Likewise, Davis’ guns on Morris Island picked up their work on the morning of the 3rd.  One 8-inch Parrott in Fort Strong fired fifteen shells, with five hits.  Twice the Presto caught fire during the day, and was reported as on fire as darkness fell.

Firing on the wreck continued, though at a lower rate. Through the night of February 3 and into the morning of February 4, Federal gunners on Morris Island continued their fires with 30-pdr Parrotts.  At dawn, again the monitors resumed firing.  The Nahant fired fifteen XV-inch shells and thirty-nine XI-inch shells that day.  The practice was better that day with twenty-seven hits recorded.  On the morning of the 5th Federal observers noticed a foot bridge from Sullivan’s Island out to the wreck.  This of course brought more fires from Morris Island.  But by that time, all observers agreed the wreck was broken up sufficiently to prevent salvage of the vessel.  Still, Davis ordered “a shell to be fired at intervals to prevent their obtaining any of her cargo or other articles which may not have been destroyed.”

Over the days the Federals concentrated on the Presto, according to Davis the Confederates sent back over 400 shells as counter-fire.  Two of the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery were wounded, one mortally. Confederate casualties were likewise minimal.  One soldier was killed by a stray Federal shell during the action.   And returns failed to mention any wounded.

However, there may have been a missed opportunity for the Federals.  Months after the action, deserters mentioned something was indeed salvaged from the Presto.  Davis related,

… the troops on Sullivan’s Island got hold of the liquor on board of her and had a “grand drunk,” and it is alleged that 300 men at that time could have taken the island, but unfortunately it was not known until the opportunity had passed.

The land batteries fired a total of 769 projectiles.  The total included thirty-four 10-inch Parrott shells from Battery Chatfield.  The 3rd Rhode Island’s regimental history summed up the performance of that large gun in the action, indicating the Presto‘s “touching requiem was played by Captain [Augustus] Colwell’s 300-pounder Parrott.”

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 33, Part I, Serial 65, pages 104, 187; Part II, Serial 66, page 40; ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 263-6; Frederic Denison, Shot and Shell: The Third Rhode Island Heavy Artillery Regiment in the Rebellion, 1861-1865, Providence, R.I.: Third Rhode Island Artillery Veterans Association, 1879, page 234.)

150 years ago: Intelligence from a Confederate defector at Charleston

On this day (February 4) in 1864, Colonel William W. H. Davis, 104th Pennsylvania Volunteers, commanding the garrison on the north end of Morris Island, forwarded at report to Major-General Quincy Gillmore’s headquarters pertaining to a civilian who had entered the Federal lines:

I have the honor to submit, for the information of the Major-General commanding the department, the following facts, which I obtained from William Flynn, a citizen of Charleston, and one of a party of 8 picked up last night by one of the naval boats in the outer harbor. He is a carpenter by trade, and for some length of time has been working in the Engineer Department of the rebel Army. He has never been in their military service. …

I’ve not focused on the name of the defector in my previous readings of this report.  But with easy access to the Confederate Citizens Files, I have started looking for the William Flynn.  Although I have not confirmed, he appears to have done business with the commissary department in Charleston.  The closest census match I’ve found is a 45 year old William Flynn who lived with his wife, Rosanah, and nine other Flynns (ranging from seventeen to one in age), living in Greenville, South Carolina in 1860.

He states that there are two regiments on Sullivan’s Island, one of which is commanded by Colonel Keitt, but does not know the name of the commander of the other. Col. Alfred Rhett commands the artillery on Sullivan’s Island, James Island, &c. General Ripley is in command at Mount Pleasant. There are three brigades on James Island, viz, Hagood’s, Wise’s, and Colquitt’s. Walker is in command at Pocotaligo, with not a very heavy force. An attack is expected at Savannah, whither General Beauregard and staff have gone to look after matters. …

Flynn was apparently very familiar with the Confederate command arrangements around Charleston.  Though not fully accurate with respect to assignments and postings, he had the names right.

He says if our guns be trained on the steeple of the church on Citadel Green, or a little to the right of it, from Morris Island, our shells will be likely to make Beauregard’s quarters a very uncomfortable dwelling-place. I have caused them to be pointed in that direction. Our shells are now thrown too far toward Ashley River and many of them fall in the burnt district. The church spire alluded to is the tallest one toward the east and is painted brown. Few people have been killed, but many houses ruined. The other day a shell burst on the deck of their new ram, without doing her damage. Last Sunday night a shell went through the roof of a house, struck a chair at the foot of a bed in which a man and his wife were sleeping, and passed into the cellar without injuring either of them. Another shell struck a house in Calhoun street, went through the bed between a negro and his wife, and thence passed into the cellar, leaving both uninjured. …

Clearly after several hundred shells, the Federals had the range to Charleston.

He enumerates the following guns in position in the city: The “big gun” is mounted on Frazer’s Wharf, next to the new customhouse. It is a 13-inch, is rifled, and the projectile weighs 700 pounds. It was cast in England. At White Point Garden, otherwise the Battery, are mounted four guns, viz, one 11-inch rifled, from the Keokuk, two 6-inch rifled, and one 10-inch; at the foot of Laurens street, two 8-inch columbiads and one 6-inch rifled; Half-Moon Battery, near the gas-house, about the foot of Calhoun street, two heavy guns; and two 10-inch columbiads at Chisolm’s rice mills, foot of Tradd street, on Ashley River. …

Flynn’s list of batteries and positions matches well to the known Confederate defenses at that time:


Though his description of the armament is acceptable for a non-military type.  The 13-inch gun, for instance, was the Blakely 12.75-inch.  Hard to say if Davis provided the origin of the 11-inch Dahlgren gun, or if Flynn knew the story of its recovery.

Everybody has left the city except the very poor people who cannot get away. All the necessaries of life are extravagantly high; flour from $130 to $150 per barrel; men’s shoes, $150 per pair; men’s calf-skin boots, $250 per pair. Rebel money has depreciated until it is worth only $22 for $1 in gold and $18 for $1 in silver. He states there is one wealthy Union man in Charleston who has expended a good deal of money quietly for the comfort of our prisoners. The remaining population are Union at heart. …

So there were unionists in the cradle of secession!

Flynn assessed the garrison and naval forces:

The city is garrisoned by one regiment of conscripts. The rebels are building three new iron-clads, one of which is 200 feet long, plated with 4-inch iron, and the others are the size of the Chicora. …

And he went on to detail the defenses of Fort Sumter:

They have put up three strong bomb-proofs in Sumter since the first bombardment. The garrison consists of not less than 300 or 400 men, but he does not know when they are relieved. Colonel Elliott still commands the fort. Hand grenades are ready on the parapet to throw down on an assaulting party, and the wharf is mined. They have made a “frise” to put out at night and take in before daylight. When they are being shelled cooked rations are taken down from Charleston in the night for the garrison. In Sumter there are three guns mounted in the lower casemates toward Sullivan’s Island. …

Again, with such details, I’m left to assume Flynn had a hand supplying or fabricating items for the fort.

The steamer which attempted to run in on the night of the 1st was the Presto, from Nassau, New Providence, loaded with blankets, shoes, and salt beef. She got aground on the old wreck between Beauregard and Moultrie, between 11 and 12 o’clock. The engineer told my informant that there are five or six steamers to run this blockade, of which this is the first. They come here because they consider it easier to enter Charleston than Wilmington. …

Yes I promised more details on the Presto.  Working on it.  But that last line has me puzzled.  Charleston was practically closed to the blockade runners from late summer right up to the first day of February.  And Wilmington was seeing the lion’s share of traffic.

The rebels expect an attack upon Mobile soon. He states that the negroes captured in Wagner on the 18th of July were not treated with cruelty; he saw them in Charleston. Torpedoes are sunk in the channel to blow up our vessels should they attempt to go in. There are two old boilers, one of which contains 3,000 pounds of powder, sunk in the harbor, and are arranged to be exploded from on shore by means of a wire.

Mention of Mobile was not too far off from Federal intentions.  Though that was some months away, and not of Gillmore’s concern.

Flynn had seen prisoners of the 54th Massachusetts in Charleston.  Such reminds me of another “sidebar” post that needs writing.  With the employment of USCT on Morris Island came some of the first black prisoners for the Confederates to deal with.

Lastly, Flynn provided some important particulars of the torpedoes used in the harbor.  The description, again, matches well to Confederate records.

The length and detail of this report leads one to believe William Flynn was held in confidence by someone high up in the Confederate command.  Or… perhaps Colonel Davis was very good at filling in details where given a morsel of information.  Of course, what did Flynn miss?  Yes, that submarine contraption.

(Source: OR, Series I, Volume 33, Part I, Serial 65, pages 466-8.)