Monday, June 18, 2012

Civil War Rewind, Part Eighteen: Fighting in the 29412

South Carolina Is Back in the Action As the Union Attacks James Island at the Battle of Secessionville...


     Once again, welcome back to our Civil War Rewind series, where we note significant and interesting events from The War Between the States... Even though the war started in South Carolina, many of the major battles were everywhere else but here early on.  How come? Well, Charleston was the most powerful city in the South (with perhaps the exception of Richmond, which is debatable), and after leaving Fort Sumter, the Union clamped down on commerce by blockading Charleston Harbor.  With the exception of Rhett Butler, not many boats got in and out of the area.


    However, as much power as the Union had on the sea, the land was still controlled by the Confederacy.  All of the forts were in Southern hands, and until they could get on land, the North would not be able to mount an assault.  Their first chance came in May, 1862 when a slave named Robert Smalls piloted a ship called the Planter out of the harbor and into Northern hands.  In addition to the ship, he had bigger news - that the South had abandoned Cole's Island and Battery Island.  This left the North with their first opportunity....



    They landed on the southeastern end of James Island June 2nd, and slowly advanced on their way to Charleston along the Stono River.  General John C. Pemberton saw the slow advance, and ordered that a series of earthworks be built along the route, one of which was in Secessionville.. Meanwhile, Union Major General David Hunter got what we call McClellan's Disease - that is, an irrational fear that your opponent has more troops that they actually do!  He wanted to reinforce the troop count, and gave Brig. General Henry Benham to NOT attack Charleston or Fort Johnson until instructed.  Benham was a bit more anxious....





Benham decided to attack before dawn with 3500 troops in two co-ordinated waves of attacks on the 750 man works under T.G. Lamar's command.  Like many Union movements, things did not go well....








     You see, the field facing Secessionville wasn't quite wide open.  There were two hedgerows to negotiate, and a cotton field that was knee deep in weeds. So, the double-quick advance in the dark got slowed down - so badly, that the second row of troops actually ran into the first.  A sort of Blue Chinese Fire Drill ensued.... The left flank got pushed wide, and ended up in the mud.  Still, the Union was able to advance up to the earthworks, when Lamar rained grapeshot, nails, iron chain and glass at the troops from Michigan, New York and New Hampshire.  If they had baseballs and rocks, they probably would have tossed them as well...


    The fire worked pretty well, but a new earthwork is not the most secure fort, and the Union did advance, and even got to one of the parapets, when the North messed up again.  The 79th New York made it there, when Union artilery was shot into the area, which basically attacked their own men, forcing them to retreat. Their best advance was thwarted by their own side....


   Two more assaults were attempted, but neither were as effective as the first.  The troops were getting tired, and the South had basically fortified itself.  By 900 am, the battle was over.  Like Buford 'Mad Dog' Tannen from Back to the Future III, they did their killing before breakfast.. In all, the North had 689 casualties, with 107 dead, and the South had 207 casualties, with only 52 dead.  Charleston was safe.....


    While it seems like a small battle, the victory for the South averted possibly the start of a tragic series that could have ended the war two years earlier.  By taking Secessionville, the Union would have flanked the harbor defenses, which could have caused the South to abandon the city, cut off the Atlantic Line railroad and set up an inland base dead center in the Confederacy to split the South.  But, it didn't happen, and the War went on.  No, not a big battle on paper, but anytime we can bring up South Carolina, we'll try to do it.. Thanks for reading our latest installment, and the next chapter should be in a week or so....


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2 comments:

Katherine said...

QUICK NOTE: Again, read it and liked it! Why didn't/don't you become a history instructor?

Mike Reino said...

After 5 years just to get my Bachelor's in Economics (I transferred twice), I was ready to finish and enter the wonderful Recession of 1991... I don't know all of these things I post on - I research and write some of them up - but The Civil War is a particular favorite of mine.