Charleston at War: Greater Charleston becomes a battleground
The blockade runner was hugging the shore of Dewees Island, trying to sneak into Charleston Harbor before first light.
But the Nellie wouldn't make it.
The steamer had sailed from Nassau with hopes of slipping past the gunboats and selling its cargo of medicine and general supplies in the city. It was a tempting prospect, one that would reap ample reward for the crew's risk -- if they survived.
The blockade had cut off Charleston's biggest trade line and supplies in the city were running low. Any ship that could make it into port was assured a handsome profit,
selling whatever it had at black-market rates.
On a weekly basis, the newspapers reported how much locals would have to pay for these supplies, usually without comment -- zinc nails, 17 cents per pound; Imperial tea, $6 per pound; carbonate of ammonia, $1.75 per pound. It was just another cost of war.
The Nellie was wise to avoid the most popular route into the city, sailing past the city far out to sea, then back-tracking along the coast north of the city. But as dawn broke over the Atlantic on Sunday, May 25, 1862, the ship lost its cover before reaching the harbor. The Nellie was quickly spotted by an errant schooner. Other blockaders were alerted and the chase was on.
Soon, Charleston would once again awake to the sound of cannon fire.
Capt. Moore, commander of the Nellie, ordered his crew to speed up. But the Union Navy was apparently more than a match for the unarmed steamship. Several ships blocked the Nellie's path, cutting off its only chance to get safely between Forts Sumter and Moultrie.
The Union boats opened fire in unison, a barrage that unnerved the Nellie's crew. The ship was trapped between the sea islands and a line of warships. With no other choice, Moore ran the boat aground on the beach at Long Island (modern-day Isle of Palms).
Throughout the day, crews worked to unload ship's cargo, both to save the merchandise and lighten the Nellie's load. While they worked, Confederate batteries on the island provided a covering fire. They would not be able to save the ship, however. That night, heavy seas pushed the ship farther ashore. By Monday, the Yankee ships were using it for target practice.
Another blockade runner out of business.
The incident was yet another reminder of Charleston's precarious situation. The blockade had bottled up the harbor, there were reports that Yankee gunboats were in Georgetown, and Union troops out of Port Royal had been spotted at a plantation on the Combahee River. On May 29, Confederates engaged some of those troops at Pocotaligo.
It was quickly becoming clear that the city was surrounded.
"The Yankees hereabouts are becoming bolder every day," The Mercury lamented.
'Day of trial at hand'
The showdown was inevitable.
Union troops had been making their way north from Port Royal since the winter, moving from one island to the next. The ultimate destination -- and prize -- was Charleston, of course, but there seemed to be no hurry in their movements until May.
Just weeks after Robert Smalls, who delivered the Confederate steamer Planter to the U.S. Navy, revealed weaknesses in the South's defense of the Stono River, the Yankees decided to test that intelligence.
On June 2, Union gunboats sailed into the river between Folly and Kiawah and began firing shells in the vicinity of the Lamar Battery, which stood at Secessionville, a James Island neighborhood named for earlier efforts by those residents to secede. The following day, Union troops went ashore.
The fighting began almost immediately. On June 3, the sound of gunfire could be heard in downtown Charleston as the two forces clashed below Secessionville, a fight that took place in a continuous rain that left the entire island in a heavy mist.
Eventually the Southerners pushed the Yankees back to the river, and the Irish Volunteers captured 20 Union soldiers near "Mr. Legare's house."
That was far from the end. The next day, The Charleston Mercury declared "Our Day of Trial at Hand."
The paper reported rumors that the Burnside Fleet was massing offshore, but predicted that "unless they have a number of Monitors," they would pay dearly for trying to run the Confederate gantlet.
"Our people are calm, and prepared for desperate resistance," the paper reported. "We have everything at stake in the struggle, and little to hope in case of failure."
The fighting mostly subsided until the weekend, when Col. Dunnovant encountered a "force of Yankee marauders" on Johns Island.
The Confederates attacked, driving the Union troops across Haulover bridge and even taking the bags of supplies dropped by the retreating Yanks. On Saturday night, some local troops captured a Union picket on James Island.
By Sunday afternoon, Northern soldiers infiltrated the island's interior deep enough to attack Confederate pickets on the road between Fort Johnson and Fort Pemberton. There, the Union soldiers were repelled by the Confederates, who killed a number of the attackers.
The night was not a total success for the South, as at least four privates on picket duty were taken prisoner.
Still, it could have turned out far worse for the Confederates. More than 6,000 Union troops -- two divisions -- had landed on James Island and were encamped near Grimball Plantation.
They outnumbered the Southern troops on the island by roughly three-to-one, but the impressive resistance of the Confederates had persuaded the North to proceed cautiously. Maj. Gen. David Hunter told Brig. Gen. Henry Benham not to attack without further orders.
On June 10, cannonading from James Island rattled downtown Charleston for most of the afternoon. The Confederate forts on the island were shelling the Yankee troops on the island and their gunboats in the Stono.
Prisoners captured by the Southerners had revealed the daunting force descending on the island -- 16 regiments, with more expected to arrive every day.
It seemed that this would be the battle for Charleston, and the South meant to get a jump on the fight.
At 3:30 that afternoon, Hagood's regiment attacked the Union troops at Grimball Plantation. It had been an ordeal just to take position. Hagood's men had to trudge through nearly a mile of pluff mud and swamp.
But once they emerged from the marsh, they showed no sign of fatigue. The regiment pushed the superior Union forces backward about 300 yards, almost to the banks of the river.
Just when the Southerners thought they had won the battle, however, Union gunboats in the Stono began to fire in concert with Yankee batteries on the island.
"The concentrated fire of the enemy's batteries, gunboat and musketry were so murderous that our little handful of men, unsupported, were compelled to retire, after having suffered a heavy loss," The Mercury reported.
Confederate military officials would estimate that the South suffered about 50 casualties from the engagement, but they had been forced backward by the heavy shelling. The only good news for Charleston, according to the newspaper, was that "The enemy's loss is believed to be heavier than our own."
For the moment, the two sides were at a standstill, merely swapping blows. The real battle was yet to come.
For the next week, the two sides fought intermittently across James Island. Minor skirmishes would break out, followed by long periods of nervous quiet. The fighting rarely amounted to much or lasted very long. It seemed clear these engagements were merely prelude to the real battle.
On Sunday, June 15, the Confederates discovered that the Yankees had planted a small battery of Parrott guns on the edge of the woods, a spot the 47th Georgia had defended only a few days earlier. The North opened fire on one of Lamar's batteries from that spot, a barrage of shells that eventually resulted in one casualty, Private John H. Andrews.
That night, sometime between 9 and 10 p.m., locals spotted a bright glare coming from the direction of Dill's Bluff. The Confederates had burned Dill's house, presumably to keep it out of enemy hands. Before night's end they would take further precautions, which turned out to be a smart move.
The Union troops were antsy, and Benham felt he had waited long enough for orders; he decided to attack. He sent his troops into the interior of James Island during the early hours of June 16. He meant to end the battle once and for all.
But Benham would soon discover that the Confederates had anticipated his next move.
The Southern troops had spent much of the night preparing for the pending Union assault. About 500 troops at Fort Lamar worked into the morning at Secessionville, building an additional battery to defend the M-shaped fort.
Many of those fatigued troops were camped in fields behind the fort around 4:30 that morning when the fort's namesake, Col. T.G. Lamar, was awakened by one of his pickets. The pickets claimed they had been overrun by a huge number of Yankees headed their way.
The Union troops had set out at 2 a.m. There were two divisions, each numbering more than 3,000 men. Many of them carried unloaded guns, and were under orders to remain silent and attack the fort with bayonets. As soon as they reached the field in front of the fort, they were less than a half mile away.
That's when the Confederates spotted them.
Lamar had ordered his junior officers to awaken the men before he looked out for himself. It was an awesome, and scary, sight -- a horde of soldiers running toward the fort, bayonets fixed. He estimated they were about 400 yards away. When he saw the sheer number of the men in blue, he sent men to Fort Johnson, about five miles away, to get reinforcements.
Lamar meant to fire the first shot in this battle. He aimed an 8-inch Columbiad at the men, but before he could fire he heard the report of a 24-pounder. The Battle of Secessionville had begun.
It all happened so quickly. Lamar's men began "pouring grape and canister against the rapidly approaching enemy," The Mercury would report the next day. "At each discharge, great gaps were visible in the Yankee ranks, but still they came on, without firing a single volley."
Lamar first assumed the men were simply out of ammunition; it would be much later before he learned that many of the soldiers he fired on had meant to sneak up and attack with bayonet.
For a while the men kept coming, but eventually the fire was "too severe for their nerves" and they fled in disorder. But it would not be that simple.
Shortly after the first wave, the Union troops re-grouped and charged again, this time reinforced by infantry and artillery. This attack brought "heavy volleys" against the Lamar batteries, but soon the Southerners had the advantage once again, mowing down the advancing men.
The third wave fared just as poorly, although some of the Northern troops reached a ditch near the battery. But when they came up on the near side of the fort, The Mercury reported, they paid for those efforts with their lives.
Before it was over, the Confederates and Yankees fell into hand-to-hand combat, a bloody exercise in mutual destruction. The brutal scene, and determination of the Union troops, even earned a measure of respect from locals.
"Our men all bear witness to the obstinate bravery of the enemy on this occasion," The Mercury's editor, Robert Barnwell Rhett Jr., wrote.
As the fort repelled the ground attack, federal gunboats in the Stono fired at Lamar while federal flanking columns formed in a last effort to take Secessionville.
The Union forces fired across the marshland to the right of the fort. Those troops might have made the difference, but at that moment the 4th Louisiana Battalion, which had been camped two miles away, arrived and quickly took advantage.
Hours of gunshot and cannon fire left James Island awash in smoke. And then, just after 9 a.m., the battlefield fell silent.
The Yankees were retreating.
A collection of little more than 2,000 Confederate troops had fought off more than 6,000 Union soldiers. No one would ever get an accurate count on the number of men who died. The South lost about 50, and the North claimed little more than 100 killed in action, a number Lamar would dispute.
Secessionville would never be considered a major battle, although it certainly would have qualified for that distinction had it gone the other way. If the Union had taken Secessionville, the rest of the war might have unfolded differently.
Instead, it was a disaster for the Union Army. Benham was arrested three days after the battle, charged with attacking without orders. He blamed it on another officer. Ultimately, he was relieved of his command.
Charleston would bask in the glow of victory for weeks. After months of worry about a pending Yankee assault, the local troops had risen to the challenge.
"It seems that the Yankees no longer rest under the hallucination that Charleston, like Nashville and New Orleans, is to fall into their hands without a desperate struggle," Rhett wrote in the June 25 edition of The Mercury.
For the first time in months, Charleston had some good news.
Next: The ironclad Palmetto State