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.
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.”
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