Monday, June 11, 2012

The Battle of Secessionville: Defense in depth and a failure of reconnaissance

By 1st Lt. William Carraway
Media Relations Officer, Public Affairs Office
June 11, 2012

In June 1862, Charleston S.C. was a prime target, both symbolically and strategically. With Forts Sumter, Moultrie, and others guarding the water approach, the Union Army would have to negotiate a network of Confederate earthworks if they were to attempt to seize Charleston by land. 

Major General David Hunter, a 35-year veteran, had served in the Second Seminole War and the Mexican-American War. Emboldened by his success at Ft. Pulaski, where rifled cannons had overwhelmed the fort’s masonry structure, Hunter landed two Union divisions on the southern tip of James Island south of Charleston. Hunter planned to move north, flank the harbor defenses, and sever the railroad west of Charleston, the town’s sole remaining supply line. If successful, the Union would have a base of operations to launch strikes into the heart of the Confederacy.

In response to Hunter’s landing, Confederate Maj. Gen. John Pemberton dispatched reinforcements to James Island and ordered the construction of a network of earthen fortifications. One of the fortifications was an “M” shaped fort guarding the approaches to the town of Secessionville. The fort’s shape provided converging fields of fire. With its flanks anchored by marsh, an attacking force would be gradually telescoped into the fort’s kill zone. Col. Thomas Lamar commanded the 500-man garrison which bristled with artillery pieces. 

Despite light resistance to his June 2 landing, Hunter was convinced that he was outnumbered and surrounded. On June 10, his trepidation was justified by the 47th Georgia Infantry, which engaged his forces in a sharp skirmish near his encampments. Hunter departed for his headquarters at Hilton Head to analyze the invasion plans and seek reinforcements. He left Brig. Gen. Henry Benham in charge, telling him to make no attempt to advance on Charleston or to attack the Confederates until reinforced. 

Despite his orders, Benham resolved to make a reconnaissance-in-force on the morning of June 16. He planned a pre-dawn frontal assault in which he would send the 8th Michigan forward at the double-quick to gain the walls of the fort and fix the enemy long enough for his following regiments to overwhelm the fort. 

Map provided by Civil War Preservation Trust
Despite poor terrain and darkness, Union forces moved silently until lead elements of the 8th Michigan overran a Confederate picket post 1 mile south of the fort. The pickets got off two shots that wounded five union troops. 

Sentinels in the fort heard the shots and awoke the garrison. From the parapet, Col. Lamar could see Union forces massed a half mile away and a smaller formation of Union Infantry sprinting for the fort. Lamar ordered the recall of the 9th South Carolina battalion from their Secessionville camp. With the elements of the 1st South Carolina Battalion and 150 artillerymen present in the fort, Lamar was outnumbered six to one.

Lamar’s cannons opened fire on the 8th Michigan from a distance of perhaps 200 yards. The Union center was devastated with grapeshot and canister. Confederate gunners dispatched their artillery pieces with great effect but the Union attackers continued forward. The 8th Michigan crested the walls and poured into the fort.  As hand-to-hand combat raged, the 9th South Carolina Battalion arrived at the fort and charged the attackers with fixed bayonets. The Michiganders were driven from the fort where they and the follow-on regiments were subjected to withering converging fire. Confederate Infantry pinned the lead regiments to the fort walls while artillerymen kept reinforcements at bay.  

Those Federals who were able fell back to the protection of hedgerows. Benham reformed his lines and launched two more unsuccessful frontal assaults and a flanking attack before ordering a withdrawal from the field. 

In the brief but violent action, the Federals suffered nearly 700 casualties while Confederates sustained approximately 200. 

For his insubordination, Benham was relieved of command. Hunter would largely escape blame and would achieve larger notice after the war as president of the military commission that tried the Lincoln assassination conspirators. 

The 9th South Carolina Battalion Soldiers would fight from Mississippi to Virginia where they would again face the 8th Michigan at the trenches of Petersburg. Fewer than 80 of the 1,000 men would remain to surrender at Appomattox in 1865. 

The 47th Georgia would defend her home state at Chickamauga and Kennesaw Mountain. A remnant of the 47th would surrender at Durham, N.C. April 26, 1865.

The Battle of Secessionville was the largest land battle fought in South Carolina. Had the Union taken the fort, they would have had an open water route bypassing Ft. Sumter and rendered the Confederate defenses on James Island untenable. Had Charleston fallen, the war might have ended two-years earlier, and Georgia might have been spared the effects of Sherman’s March to the Sea.  

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