Battle Looms on the Peninsula

June 24, 1862 – General Robert E. Lee issued written orders for his new Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to launch an attack on Major General George B. McClellan’s right flank on June 26.

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Lee set up headquarters at the Dabbs’ House, a mile and a half northeast of Richmond, where he held a council of war at 3 p.m. Attendees included Major Generals James Longstreet, A.P. Hill, and D.H. Hill. Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, having ridden 52 miles on relays of commandeered horses, also attended, to the surprise of the others who thought he was still in the Shenandoah Valley.

Lee announced that after assessing the conditions and positions of both armies, he had come to several conclusions:

  • Richmond could not withstand a siege, therefore the Confederate army had to take the offensive
  • The Confederates could not attack frontally due to their lack of experience and superior Federal numbers, therefore they had to try turning the enemy’s flank
  • McClellan had the bulk of his army on the south side of the Chickahominy River, therefore the Federals north of the river should be targeted for attack
  • Lee needed to attack with the bulk of his army if he hoped to turn the Federal right, which could either drive the Federals north or force them to set up a new supply base on the James River.

Thus, the Confederates would target General Fitz John Porter’s 30,000-man V Corps, north of the Chickahominy. According to Lee’s plan:

  • Jackson would begin the assault by moving south and attacking Porter’s right and rear.
  • A.P. Hill would cross to the north side of the Chickahominy and clear the bridge at Mechanicsville for Longstreet and D.H. Hill to cross and join the attack.
  • The 56,000 Confederates would “sweep down the Chickahominy and endeavor to drive the enemy from his position… They will then press forward toward the York River Railroad, closing upon the enemy’s rear and forcing him down the Chickahominy.”
  • The rest of the Confederate army under Generals John B. Magruder, Benjamin Huger, and Theophilus H. Holmes would guard Richmond from a counterattack.

Because the movement of such a massive amount of troops involved leaving the road to Richmond open, Lee stressed the need for secrecy. The plan also relied on all its parts (and commanders) working in concert, especially Jackson, who had to start the attack for the others to follow. The commanders agreed that the attack would begin on June 26.

When the general plan was decided upon, Lee left the room to allow his subordinates to work out the details. This was the first and last time that Lee would do this. The commanders returned to their men after the meeting; Jackson rode back to rejoin his three divisions on their way from the west. The next day, Lee drafted the results of the meeting into written orders and distributed them to the commanders.

Meanwhile, McClellan wrote his wife that Confederate activity seemed “mysterious.” The uncomfortably hot, wet weather was improving, and McClellan hoped “to be able to take a decisive step in advance (the) day after tomorrow.” McClellan envisioned a scenario where “the operations would resolve themselves into a series of partial attacks, rather than a general battle.” McClellan added, “I have a kind of presentiment that tomorrow will bring forth something–what I do not know–we will see when the time arrives.”

Deserters and fugitive slaves informed McClellan that Jackson intended to attack his right. He responded by sending Federals to obstruct the roads that Jackson would use to get there. He also continued inching closer to Richmond, with skirmishing taking place around Mechanicsville.

Initiating his “series of partial attacks,” McClellan directed Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman’s III Corps south of the Chickahominy to advance on the Williamsburg road and seize an unoccupied area between the armies on the edge of White Oak Swamp. This would set the stage for a general advance by the entire army, as McClellan intended to attack before Jackson arrived.

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 476; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 171; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3710-21, 3743; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 229; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 465; Time-Life Editors, Lee Takes Command: From Seven Days to Second Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 30-31; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 541

Bragg Takes Command in Mississippi

June 23, 1862 – General Braxton Bragg announced that he would lead his new army from Tupelo, Mississippi, into eastern Tennessee to join forces with Major General Edmund Kirby Smith’s Confederates defending Chattanooga.

General Braxton Bragg | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Bragg had 34,000 men in his Army of Mississippi, which he inherited from General P.G.T. Beauregard. If he linked with Smith, the combined forces would total 54,000. This, along with the effective cavalry commands under Nathan Bedford Forrest and John Hunt Morgan, would make the Confederates strong enough to confront Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio threatening Chattanooga from northern Alabama.

Smith had pleaded for reinforcements ever since Federals began approaching Chattanooga, notifying the Confederate War Department, “If the Government wishes Chattanooga secured, a reinforcement of at least 2,000 armed men must be immediately sent there and an officer of ability assigned to the command.” President Jefferson Davis responded by sending 6,000 reinforcements under Brigadier General Henry Heth.

Despite this, Smith called on the governor of Georgia to provide militia because “My force is not sufficient to defend this department.” Smith also wired General Robert E. Lee on the Virginia Peninsula, informing him that reinforcements had to be rushed to Chattanooga to save the city from Federal conquest. Then Smith notified Bragg that Buell’s Federals were coming, and “I have no force to repel such an attack.”

Bragg, still in the process of reorganizing his army, dispatched Major General John P. McCown’s 3,000-man division by railroad. Bragg noted the quickness and efficiency of sending troops by rail for future operations. Meanwhile, Smith wrote the War Department again: “Large reinforcements speedily forwarded can alone save Chattanooga.”

Secretary of War George W. Randolph informed Bragg his department had been “extended so as to embrace that part of Louisiana east of the Mississippi, the entire states of Mississippi and Alabama, and the portion of Georgia and Florida west of the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers.” Randolph added, “Strike the moment an opportunity offers.”

Bragg planned to do so. But first he issued a proclamation to his men as their new commander:

“I enter hopefully on my duties. But, soldiers, to secure the legitimate results of all your heavy sacrifices which have brought this army together, to infuse that unity and cohesion essential for a resolute resistance to the wicked invasion of our country, and to give to serried ranks force, impetus, and direction for driving the invader beyond our borders, be assured discipline at all times and obedience to the orders of your officers on all points, as a sacred duty, an act of patriotism, is an absolute necessity. A few more days of needful preparation and organization and I shall give your banners to the breeze… with the confident trust that you will gain additional honors to those you have already won on other fields. But be prepared to undergo privation and labor with cheerfulness and alacrity.”

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 231-32; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 567-68; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 174; Street, Jr., James, The Struggle for Tennessee: Tupelo to Stones River (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 15, 41

“Stonewall” Jackson Moves East

June 20, 1862 – Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederates headed east to reinforce General Robert E. Lee on the Peninsula, while Federals in the Shenandoah Valley still did not know where Jackson was.

Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson | Image Credit: Bing public domain

Screened by Colonel Thomas T. Munford’s cavalry, Jackson’s men moved across the Blue Ridge on the 19th and left the Shenandoah Valley. That same day, Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, whose Federal Army of the Shenandoah was stationed near Front Royal, expressed fears to his superiors that Jackson might attack him, especially now that only the commands of Banks and Major General John C. Fremont still remained in the Valley.

In a message to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Banks questioned why Brigadier General James Shields was leaving the Valley to help reinforce Federals on the Peninsula: “He (Shields) ought not to move until the purpose of the enemy are more fully developed. There can be no doubt whatever that another immediate movement down the valley, is intended with a force of 30,000 or more.”

The next day, Banks repeated his fears of being shorthanded in the face of a possible Confederate attack, at the same time acknowledging “nothing new to report of the enemy.” Banks again argued against Shields leaving the Valley, stating that since Confederates posed no threat to Shields at Front Royal, then there was no reason for him to leave. But Shields’s superior, Major General Irvin McDowell, reversed this logic by arguing to Stanton that if Shields had no threat facing him, then there was no reason to stay.

The exchange was rendered pointless when Shields’s Federals left the Valley on the 21st and began arriving at Bristoe Station. As they prepared to join the rest of McDowell’s force, McDowell reported that Shields’s ranks were riddled with “officers resigning and even men deserting.” To McDowell, this was all the more reason to keep Shields under his watch rather than leaving him in the Valley.

On the Peninsula, Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac now numbered 105,825 officers and men present for duty, with a grand total of 156,838. The addition of McDowell’s force would give McClellan nearly 130,000 effectives, but McClellan still believed he was outnumbered, as he wrote his wife about the Confederates, “The rascals are very strong & outnumber me very considerably, but I will yet succeed notwithstanding all they do & leave undone in Washington to prevent it.”

Finding time to keep up with the latest gossip from Washington provided by intelligence chief Allan Pinkerton, McClellan passed along to his wife: “McDowell has deserted his friend C (Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase) & taken to S (Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton)!!” While Secretary of State William H. Seward and Postmaster General Montgomery Blair continued to “stand firmly by me–Honest A (President Lincoln) has again fallen into the hands of my enemies & is no longer a cordial friend of mine!”

McClellan continued:

“I am anxious as any human being can be to finish this war, yet when I see such insane folly behind me (in Washington) I feel that the final salvation of the country demands the utmost prudence on my part & that I must not run the slightest risk of disaster, for if anything happened to this army our cause would be lost. I feel too that I must not unnecessarily risk my life, for the fate of my army depends upon me & they all know it.”

By the 21st, most of Jackson’s Confederates had left the Shenandoah Valley and headed east to reinforce Lee on the Peninsula. They marched to Gordonsville and awaited train service to Richmond. A day later, Major General John E. Wool, commanding the Federal garrison at Fort Monroe, reported to Stanton rumors from Major General Franz Sigel in the Valley “that Jackson had 40,000 to 60,000 men and 70 pieces of artillery.”

Wool conceded that this was “probably exaggerated,” but he learned from a “person considered reliable that Jackson will in a short time attack Banks and his forces. If Jackson has the number of troops reported, I think we ought to be looking after Washington.”

Major General John C. Fremont, whose Federals were at Strasburg in the Valley, heard rumors that 4,000 Confederates under Major General Richard Ewell were advancing on his right flank toward Moorefield. Fremont stated, “These reports were most probably exaggerations, but it would be well to guard against the chance of their being true.”

While the Federal high command got bogged down with speculation, Jackson and Ewell were actually heading toward Richmond, with their men between Gordonsville and Fredericks Hall. Jackson attended Sunday church services at Fredericks Hall, and then waited until 1 a.m. on the 23rd (after the Sabbath ended) to ride ahead of his men to meet with Lee. Jackson rode on horseback rather than a train, and he removed all indications of his rank from his uniform so he would not be recognized.

Outside Richmond, Lee wrote privately, “Our enemy is quietly working within his lines, and collecting additional forces to drive us from our capital. I hope we shall be able yet to disappoint him, and drive him back to his own country.”

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13765; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 184; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 474; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 170-71; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3698; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 229

Slavery Abolished in the Territories

June 19, 1862 – The Republican Party upheld a campaign pledge to stop the expansion of slavery by banning the institution in U.S. territories.

President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill into law for present and future, which stated in part:

“There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the Territories of the United States now existing, or which may at any time hereafter be formed or acquired by the United States, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes…”

This law renounced the Supreme Court ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) stating that Congress had no right to regulate slavery anywhere in the U.S. It also rejected the Democratic concept of “popular sovereignty,” under which the people of each territory had the right to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery. In effect, this law took the administration of territories from the states and placed it into the hands of the Federal government.

More importantly, the law paved the way toward ending slavery in the South, as some Republicans argued that those states, by seceding from the Union, no longer held statehood status but should instead be considered conquered territories that could be regulated by Congress.

In another step toward racial equality this month, Lincoln signed a bill into law formally recognizing the nations of Haiti and Liberia, and authorizing the president to appoint diplomatic envoys to those nations. This marked the first time the U.S. extended diplomatic recognition to predominantly black nations.

—–

References

Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 14820-28; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 184; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 536; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 163, 170; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 222, 228; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 150; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q262

Running the Vicksburg Batteries

June 18, 1862 – Flag Officer David G. Farragut began assembling a Federal naval squadron to run past Vicksburg, one of the last major Confederate strongholds on the Mississippi River.

David G. Farragut | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Farragut received orders from Washington to assemble a flotilla of gunboats and mortars that could bypass the Confederate batteries at Vicksburg and link with the Federal Western Flotilla at Memphis. Although he doubted that ships could get past Vicksburg’s heavy guns without being destroyed, he began organizing a squadron downriver at Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

By this time, Major General Earl Van Dorn, the new Confederate commander in the region, had assembled 10,000 troops to defend Vicksburg. Recent Federal successes on the Mississippi had prompted soldiers and residents to strengthen the city’s defenses, which included building fortifications and placing more batteries on the bluffs overlooking the river to prevent Federal naval passage.

On June 20, a 3,000-man Federal detachment from Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s New Orleans occupation force under Brigadier General Thomas Williams boarded transports to join Farragut’s fleet upriver to Vicksburg. Their mission was to set up a base across the river from the city at Swampy Toe, and then dig a canal to allow Federal vessels to bypass a bend in the river and move upriver, beyond Vicksburg’s cannon range.

As the Federals approached, the Confederates’ rush to finish Vicksburg’s defenses accelerated. The steep bluffs on the riverbank, along with Van Dorn’s superior numbers, made an infantry attack impossible. But many worried that the Federals’ naval firepower could overwhelm the defenders. President Jefferson Davis wrote to Van Dorn, “The people will sustain you in your heroic determination, and may God bless you with success.”

The Federal troops began landing on the 24th. Unaccustomed to the southern climate, they fell ill from diseases such as dysentery, malaria, and typhoid, and many died as a result. In addition, Farragut worried that the summer drought would lower the river and strand his deep-draft vessels. Nevertheless, the mortar boats began firing on the Vicksburg defenses as the Federal troops started digging the canal.

After two days of bombardment, Farragut resolved to try moving his gunboats past Vicksburg, just as he had bypassed Forts Jackson and St. Philip in April. Nighttime navigation on the river was too difficult, so Farragut had to make the attempt at dawn. As Commander David D. Porter’s mortar fleet continued shelling the town, the gunboats began upriver. The Confederates immediately began firing down on them from the bluffs, with the ships answering with broadsides. A sailor aboard Farragut’s flagship, the U.S.S. Hartford, wrote:

“The whole fleet moved up to the attack. The shells from the mortars were being hurled right over our heads, and as (enemy) battery after battery was unmasked from every conceivable position, the ridge of the bluff was one sheet of fire. The big ships sent in their broadsides, the mortars scores of shells, and all combined to make up a grand display and terrible conflict.”

Ultimately, eight vessels made it past the batteries and three had to turn back. The Hartford made it through, even though she was “riddled from stem to stern.” A shot nearly killed Farragut, hitting the ship’s rigging just above where he stood. He wrote his wife, “The same shot cut the halyard that hoisted my flag, which dropped to half-mast without being perceived by us. This circumstance caused the other vessels to think that I was killed.”

Federal fire killed 22 soldiers and two civilians (a man and a woman). The Federals suffered 10 killed. Farragut succeeded in getting most of his fleet past Vicksburg, thus demonstrating the ability of gunboats to bypass stationary batteries. But the Confederate defenders still commanded the river, and Farragut noted that as soon as Federal fire drove Confederate artillerists from their guns, they “return to them as soon as we have passed and rake us.”

Vicksburg could not be captured by naval firepower alone, leading Farragut to write to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, “I am satisfied that it is not possible for us to take Vicksburg without an army force of twelve to fifteen thousand men.” A long, brutal campaign to take this Confederate bastion had just begun.

—–

References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 184-86; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 169-72, 174-75; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 784; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 24-26; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 228-33; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 420-21; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 89-91; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 429; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 846

Bragg Replaces Beauregard

June 17, 1862 – General P.G.T. Beauregard left his Confederate Army of Mississippi due to illness, causing controversy over whether he had gone absent without leave.

Gen P.G.T. Beauregard | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

President Jefferson Davis had struggled to get along with Beauregard ever since the general had been stationed in Virginia. These difficulties intensified when Davis learned that Beauregard had given up Corinth without a fight; Davis disagreed with Beauregard’s assessment that Corinth’s evacuation had been necessary. Just over a week after losing that town, the Confederacy lost both Fort Pillow and Memphis as well.

During this time, Davis was dealing with another problem, as South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens expressed dissatisfaction with the department commander in his state, General John C. Pemberton. Davis tried solving both problems at once by asking Pickens if he would be willing to allow Beauregard, the hero of Fort Sumter, to replace Pemberton. Knowing Beauregard had been ill for several months, Davis explained that the sea air might help him recover.

Pickens agreed and wrote to Beauregard asking him to come east, enjoy the sea air, and “fight our batteries again.” Beauregard initially resisted, replying from his Tupelo, Mississippi, headquarters, “Would be happy to do so, but my presence absolutely required here at present. My health still bad. No doubt sea-air would restore it, but have no time to restore it.”

Beauregard’s deterioration began accelerating, and when doctors urged him to take a rest, he finally consented. Meanwhile, Davis dispatched Colonel William P. Johnston, son of the late General Albert Sidney Johnston, to ask Beauregard a series of questions about the health of his army, his plans to regain Nashville, why he hadn’t done more to save Memphis, and what resources he had lost during his retreat.

General Braxton Bragg | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Davis also sidestepped military protocol by directly ordering Major General Braxton Bragg, Beauregard’s subordinate, to report to Jackson, Mississippi, and take command of the military department under General Mansfield Lovell. This included the former New Orleans garrison and the Vicksburg defenses. Davis wrote, “After General (John B.) Magruder joins, your further services there may be dispensed with. The necessity is urgent and absolute.”

Bragg, adhering to the chain of command, forwarded the message to Beauregard, who replied to Davis that Bragg’s “presence here I consider indispensable at this moment, especially as I am leaving for a while on surgeon’s certificate… My health does not permit me to remain in charge alone here… I must have a short rest.” Beauregard then sent the endorsement of two physicians:

“We certify that, after attendance on General Beauregard for the past four months, and treatment of his case, in our professional opinion he is incapacitated physically for the arduous duties of his present command, and we urgently recommend rest and recreation.”

Without authorization from Richmond, Beauregard transferred his command to Bragg and left Tupelo for the health spas at Bladen Springs near Mobile, Alabama. Beauregard felt he had done everything possible to notify his superiors that he was leaving, and they knew where to find him. Davis felt that Beauregard was absent without permission.

Beauregard had once been hailed as the hero of Fort Sumter and Bull Run. But after questionable performances at Shiloh and Corinth, Davis was fed up with him, and now Davis had the chance he needed to get rid of him permanently.

Davis temporarily placed Bragg in command of the Confederate “Western Department,” or Department No. 2. This included the area from the Alleghenies to the Mississippi River, but it mostly pertained to the Army of Mississippi at Tupelo. Major General Earl Van Dorn was assigned to the command at Jackson and Vicksburg instead of Bragg. Davis made the moves permanent in a message to Bragg on June 20:

“You are assigned permanently to the command of the department, as will be more formally notified to you by the Secretary of War. You will correspond directly and receive orders and instructions from the Government in relation to your future operations.”

This was Bragg’s first assignment to full army command. He was an excellent strategist and logistician, but he lacked decisiveness, and his nasty disposition alienated everyone around him. Many of his officers and men openly detested him.

Meanwhile, W.P. Johnston met with Beauregard at Mobile and learned of the army’s condition as Davis had requested. Beauregard rejected rumors that he had lost large amounts of men and supplies. He also did not know that he had been permanently replaced by Bragg; he only thought he was going to the spa for a week to 10 days before returning to command. But Davis did not want him back.

Davis left it to Bragg to tell Beauregard that he had been removed from army command. On the 21st, Bragg wrote him, “I have a dispatch, from the President direct, to relieve you permanently in command of this department… I envy you, and am almost in despair.”

Beauregard, knowing that the decision had been Davis’s and not Bragg’s, replied, “I cannot congratulate you, but am happy for the change. It will take me some time to recuperate. I will leave my Staff with you until required by me. You will find it very useful.”

Part of the reason Beauregard could not congratulate Bragg was because Federal forces were slowly closing in on the army at Tupelo. In spite of this, Davis directed Bragg to regain the initiative by moving north, breaking through Major General Henry W. Halleck’s spread-out army, and liberating Nashville.

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13260-73; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 183-84; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 390; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 169-70; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 227-28; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 416, 515; Street, Jr., James, The Struggle for Tennessee: Tupelo to Stones River (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 17; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 814

The Battle of Secessionville

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I am proud to announce that this is my 500th post on the Civil War Months blog! Thanks to all of you for your continued support on this project!

June 16, 1862 – Federal forces under Brigadier General Henry W. Benham attacked strong Confederate defenses near the town of Secessionville on James Island, just south of Charleston, South Carolina.

Between 2 and 3:30 a.m., Benham directed his two divisions under Brigadier Generals Isaac I. Stevens and Horatio G. Wright to advance on Confederate fortifications outside Secessionville, commanded by Colonel Thomas G. Lamar. Lamar notified his superior, Brigadier General Nathan G. “Shanks” Evans, who readied his batteries and sent reinforcements to the fort. Lamar had just 500 men, but another 1,500 were on the way.

Near 4 a.m., Stevens’s 3,500 Federals quietly captured the Confederate pickets and crept within range of the Confederates at Secessionville. Stevens led the assault’s first wave, supported by Federal gunboats on the Stono River. Struggling through brush on the left and right, Federals emerged on a narrow passage in the center and were met by Confederate grapeshot from 700 yards. The Federals continued advancing as the Confederates began firing canister that inflicted even more casualties. Within 15 minutes, Stevens saw the attack was futile and ordered a withdrawal to await reinforcements.

The Battle of Secessionville | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Evans arrived with his Confederates to bolster Lamar’s defenses. Benham led Wright’s Federals in an attack on the enemy right, where the Federals were partially hidden by hedgerows. But they were quickly caught in a Confederate crossfire. They silenced the Confederates on their far left and reached the fort’s parapets, but the Confederates ultimately drove them off.

Meanwhile, the Confederate gunners in the fort continued pounding the Federals in their front, making a charge against such strong works over such a narrow strip of ground suicidal. Benham ordered a withdrawal around 9:30 a.m., with the Federals gathering as many of their dead and wounded comrades as they could before falling back.

Benham, who had been ordered by Major General David Hunter not to bring on a general engagement, refused to acknowledge that this was a battle in his report. He wrote that “the main object of the reconnaissance was accomplished in ascertaining the nature of the fort…”

The alarming number of casualties indicated that this was much more than just a reconnaissance. The Federals lost 683 men (107 killed, 487 wounded, and 89 missing) out of about 6,600 on the island, setting back progress in trying to capture Charleston Harbor. The Confederates lost 204 (52 killed, 144 wounded, and eight missing). Evans commended Lamar for the Confederate victory, naming the fortifications Fort Lamar in his honor.

Hunter learned about the fight two days later at his Hilton Head headquarters. He quickly removed Benham from command for “disobeying positive orders and clear instructions.” After Benham argued vehemently in his own defense, Hunter read aloud his June 10 order to Benham:

“In leaving the Stono River to return to Hilton Head I desire, in any arrangements that you may make for the disposition of your forces now in this vicinity, you will make no attempt to advance on Charleston or to attack Fort Johnson until largely re-enforced or until you receive specific instructions from these headquarters to that effect.”

Benham was detained, and President Abraham Lincoln revoked his brigadier general’s commission. Stevens and Wright testified to the War Department that they had both warned Benham he was violating orders not to bring on a battle at their council of war on June 15. Stevens sent a letter to the New York Times claiming that Wright had told Benham that his orders during that council “were, in fact, orders to fight a battle.”

Wright assumed command of Benham’s forces on James Island, with orders from Hunter: “You will not attempt to advance toward Charleston or Fort Johnson till largely re-enforced and until you receive express orders from these headquarters.” If Wright could not hold the position, he was to “make all the necessary dispositions for abandoning James Island and John’s Island, sending off in the first place all your sick and all your stores.”

—–

References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 111; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 183; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 168-70; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 227; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 699; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 139; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 427; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 664