By June 2, Federal gunboats had bombarded Confederate batteries on James Island, south of Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, for two weeks. Many of the batteries had been silenced. This enabled Major General David Hunter, commanding the Federal Department of the South, to go ahead with his plan to capture Fort Johnson on the north end of James Island. Escaped slave Robert Smalls, pilot of the C.S.S. Planter, had provided the Federals with valuable information enabling them to establish this foothold.
Two infantry divisions totaling 9,000 Federals landed on the southern end of James Island under gunboat cover. Brigadier Generals Isaac I. Stevens and Horatio G. Wright led the divisions under the overall command of Brigadier General Henry W. Benham, an accomplished engineer. Hunter allowed Benham to set up a battery to counter a floating Confederate battery near the hamlet of Secessionville.
The Federals spent the next week building defenses and placing batteries inland from Grimball’s Landing. The troops moved north up the Stono River until their path was blocked by 750 Confederates under Colonel Thomas G. Lamar at Tower Battery, in the middle of James Island near Secessionville. Another 2,000 Confederates blocked the path to Charleston. Brigadier General Nathan G. “Shanks” Evans was the overall Confederate commander of the Second Military District of South Carolina.
Confederates attacked the Federal line at Grimball’s Landing on the 10th, pushing advance elements back to the main defenses. The Federals emerged from their rifle pits and severely repelled the attackers with both direct and enfilade fire. The Confederates prepared to charge again, but by this time the Federals had brought up artillery and gunboat support. Both sides traded cannon fire for two hours before the Confederates pulled back to stronger defenses closer to Charleston and called for reinforcements.
This resounding Federal victory horrified Charlestonians because it proved that the city was vulnerable from the south. But the Federals could not immediately follow up on their success, as Hunter wrote to Benham before returning to headquarters, “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.”
Confederate artillerists at Secessionville continuously shelled the Federal positions along the Stono River near Grimball’s Landing for the next five days. When Benham received word that one of the shells had almost reached the Federal camps, he resolved to protect his men from the bombardment by attacking. This was in spite of Hunter’s order to conduct no offensive operations and Stevens’s report that the enemy guns could only reach the pickets.
On the night of the 15th, Benham met with Stevens and Wright aboard the U.S.S. Delaware. Benham directed the Federals to mobilize at 2 a.m. the next morning, with Stevens leading an assault on the Confederate works at 4 and Wright coming up in support. Stevens wrote his wife that evening, “We are now attempting an enterprise for which our force is entirely inadequate. The want of a proper commander is fearful. We shall try to prevent any disaster occurring. This is all I can say at present.”
Meanwhile, Colonel Lamar, commanding the Confederates around Secessionville and Fort Johnson, reported increased Federal activity to his superior, Evans. This indicated that an attack would be coming either that night or next morning. The Confederates would be ready whenever it came.
- 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.
- Stanchak, John E. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.