In the predawn hours of June 16, Brigadier General Henry W. Benham directed his two Federal divisions under Brigadier Generals Isaac I. Stevens and Horatio G. Wright to advance on Confederate fortifications near Secessionville on James Island, just south of Charleston, South Carolina. Colonel Thomas G. Lamar, commanding the Confederates, notified his superior, Brigadier General Nathan G. “Shanks” Evans, of the impending attack. Evans readied his batteries and sent reinforcements to the fort. Lamar had just 500 men, but another 1,500 were on the way. The Federals would have to advance over marshy terrain in open view of the enemy guns.
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. A Federal officer reported that the lead regiment, the 8th Michigan, was “mowed down in swaths” by “a shower of musket balls and discharges of grape and canister.” Within 15 minutes, Stevens saw the attack was futile and ordered a withdrawal until reinforcements could come up.
Evans arrived with his Confederates to bolster Lamar’s defenses. Benham led Wright’s Federals in an attack on the enemy right, where the attackers were partially hidden by hedgerows. But they were quickly caught in a Confederate crossfire. They silenced the Confederates on the enemy’s far right 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…”
But 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, thus 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 and named 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.” In 1863, the judge advocate general of the U.S. Army exonerated Benham, but he would never again hold a field command.
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.” The Federals abandoned James Island in early July.
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- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Longacre, Edward G. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- 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.
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- Stanchak, John E. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.