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Doc. 14.-operations in South-Carolina.

Defence of General Benham.1

after the fall of Fort Pulaski, in April, 1862, for the rest of the month it appeared impossible to effect any thing against the enemy with the few troops then available in this district, stretching along nearly two hundred miles of coast, from St. Augustine, Florida, to North-Edisto River, South-Carolina.

These troops did not consist of more than about fifteen thousand effective men.

At the close of April, the barge crew of General Ripley escaped from Charleston and were brought to Port Royal. They represented the troops and defences of Charleston to be very weak, comprising not more than five or six thousand men altogether, and those for a large portion raw troops or boys; so that General Benham then conceived a plan for attacking that city, which was at once informally laid before General Hunter, Commodore Du Pont, and others, and appeared to meet their cordial concurrence. This plan was to add to the force of some three thousand five hundred men, then at North-Edisto, by a well-concerted and simultaneous movement of our steamers, all the other disposable force in the district, to make some ten thousand in all; and by rapidly ferrying them across the North-Edisto River, to John's and Wadnelow Island, to march them in two columns, one on each side the Bohickee Creek to the dry landings at the Grimballs on either side of the Stono River, to take the rebel batteries at its mouth in the rear; and after thus opening the river to our gunboats, to dash across the lower part of James Island to Fort Johnson, from which point or from Lanton's Place, one or two miles west, Charleston could be shelled at short-range, and Cummings Point, on the right, could afterward be secured for breaching Fort Sumter. This plan General Hunter delayed from day to day, not authorizing its execution, although at first he told General Benham “to get ready for it.” But when General Benham proposed to send, as part of the preparation, the cavalry and artillery horses to Edisto, (the great cause of delay at any time,) General Hunter would not consent to it, and the proposition was still left in abeyance, with this obstacle existing whenever it should be determined upon. For which latter object, if found practicable, Morris Island was to be seized by a dash with two or three regiments and a battery of field-artillery under the fire of our gunboats. About the thirteenth of May, the steamer Planter, seized by slaves, came from Charleston. They brought the news that the Stono River was open and the rebel batteries dismantled there, and corroborated the previous information. And on the sixteenth, five deserters from Fort Sumter, by way of Morris Island, corroborated the above, with the further statement that they could see no batteries in passing the length of Morris Island. With all these facts before General Hunter, which showed him that had he authorized General Benham at first, it would have been met by a most fortuitous concurrence of circumstances, such as would probably have insured its easy accomplishment, the General finally concluded, on the evening of the sixteenth, to let General Benham make preparations for carrying out his plan for the occupation of James Island. But he directed him, at the same time, to inform the junior Generals, Wright and Stevens, that while pushing forward every thing to be ready for the march at the earliest day possible, they were to be ready [238] to he held up or countermanded at an hour's notice. By this time, however, of the eight ocean steamers that we had had, and could have relied upon, up to the tenth of May, the six largest (one only being wrecked) had been discharged or detained by the Quartermaster's Department at the North; and but two or three of the smallest, one only of them efficiently managed, remained to transport the one thousand horses--seventy to eighty at a time only--the ten guns, and the six to seven thousand men, to the Edisto and the Stono River. These boats were, however, pushed to the uttermost; one of them making daily trips for several days to the Edisto, unloading at night upon a muffled wharf, for secrecy from the pickets of the enemy within rifle range opposite; precautions ordered by General Benham, and which effectually concealed the massing of these troops, horses, and guns, at the Edisto, up to the latest moment, as was eventually shown.

This force which General Wright had stated he expected to be able to ferry across the Edisto in twenty-four hours, was intended to move thence by one night's march, (some twelve to fifteen miles,) on the east side of Bohickee Creek, across John's Island to Legareville, and there meet the balance of the available force, (all that there were vessels to move at once,) which was to arrive at the Stono by starting some twenty-four hours after the orders to move had been sent to General Wright. It being a part of General Benham's plan to divert the attention of the enemy, and obstruct the railroad between Savannah and Charleston, he had previously arranged with General Stevens for this. Stevens stated that it could be done at any time when ordered. This was ordered on the twenty-ninth, and although General Stevens sent out about eight hundred infantry, a squadron of cavalry, and two pieces of artillery, to cut the railroad about fifteen miles above Beaufort, from the Salkehatchie to the Coosahatchie Rivers, the whole movement proved a miserable failure, without cooperation of the different arms; and after being kept at bay for two or three hours, as the rebel accounts state, (and we have no knowledge to the contrary,) by ninety cavalry only, the expedition returned to Beaufort without having effected any thing, though it approached, as was stated, within one fourth of a mile of the railroad.

At length, on May thirty-first, General Hunter authorized the starting of the expedition with the object of entering the Stono, and then acting as might seem best under the circumstances ; either by moving toward Fort Johnson, attempting to seize Morris Island, or simply holding the firm landing on James Island for future use against Charleston. The rear column of the expedition with one field-battery and over three thousand men, except some thirteen companies in the present sent by mistake to Edisto, left Hilton Head on the morning of the second of June, General Wright's orders having been duly despatched to him the previous day.

As the flag-boat, with Generals Hunter and Benham on board, was passing the Edisto, about noon of the second, a steamer came out with a letter from General Wright, saying that he expected to be coming in to Legareville, on the Stono, soon after light on the following morning. The troops on the transports continued on to the Stono, and entering that river, the greater portion landed that afternoon, Monday, June second, at the lower old battery landing, and in placing their pickets about one mile in advance, were at once engaged with the enemy in a smart skirmish, where some six or eight men were killed and wounded.

During this skirmish General Benham placed some two hundred and fifty men at Legareville to protect the buildings for Wright's column from their destruction, as feared by the rebels; instructing the officers in person, in order to avoid collision with Wright's forces, expected to arrive early next morning. The rear of the transport ships from Hilton Head arrived, and the troops were discharged on James Island on Tuesday, and another skirmish occurred in which we lost twenty-two prisoners, and two or three more severely wounded; capturing, however, a battery of three or four navy guns, taking one wounded lieutenant as prisoner. Yet although we learned on the next day that three thousand men could have swept James Island to Fort Johnson, still the column of General Wright, nearly six thousand strong, did not make its appearance, and only began to come slowly into Legareville on the afternoon of Thursday, the fifth, delayed by broken bridges and other impediments, and so worn out by marches in a violent rain for the greater part of the previous thirty-six hours, that it had not finally crossed over the Stono to Grimball's till Monday evening, the ninth of June.

On the tenth, immediately after the establishment of Wright's camp at the best landing at Grimball's, two miles above Stevens, at the old battery, the enemy commenced a fire of shot and shell into, around, and over the camp and hospitals, and among our gunboats in the Stono. This at once showed that the main camp and landing would be untenable; and as there was not dry land enough on James Island for the encampment of our troops, out of the range of this battery, it was evident that we should be driven from this island, the key to Charleston, unless this battery was silenced or taken. In consequence, after a consultation with General Hunter, a strong reconnoitring or attacking force was arranged, to consist altogether of five regiments and four pieces of artillery, to start in the night or early morning of June eleventh. The rough draft of the order was read to and approved by General Hunter before it was copied for the other generals. It states explicitly that, “It being deemed important that the batteries of the enemy which have borne upon our camp at Thomas Grimball's to-day should be closely reconnoitred or broken up if possible at the earliest possible moment,” “a rush will be made upon and toward it between half-past 3 o'clock and the earliest daylight.” And General Hunter, who had ordered the steamer to leave at [239] sunrise of the eleventh, to take him to Hilton Head, was requested by General Benham to delay his departure for a few hours to hear the result of the reconnoissance, and, as is well known, General Hunter delayed his departure until the twelfth. During the evening of the tenth, General Hunter prepared and furnished to General Benham his final orders preparatory to leaving the Stono, in which he stated: “I desire in any arrangement you may make for the disposition of your forces in this vicinity, you will make no attempt to advance on Charleston or to attack Fort Johnson. You will, however, provide for a secure intrenched encampment.” Later in that evening a letter came from General Wright to General Benham, which stated that in consequence of the attack of the enemy upon his lines that afternoon, his men would be too much fatigued for the movement ordered next day. No attack was therefore made on the eleventh, during which day the shells still fell in our camps; and in the evening, in the latter part of the last interview with General Hunter, General Benham showed him a map with the line which he had drawn on it, from near a church on our left and front for about one and a half miles extending south-east to the front or beyond the battery of the enemy at the Secessionville tower. This line was about one mile in advance of our then line of pickets, and reduced our line of defence nearly one half in length, and secured our camps for a distance of full cannon-range from the enemy. And General Benham stated to General Hunter, that he considered it indispensable to hold it if we would not be driven from the Stono. General Hunter, greatly to the satisfaction of General Benham, fully assented to the proposition. About this time General Stevens reported to General Benham that he had commenced a battery on the point beyond his camp to bear upon the rebel battery, although General Benham had directed his engineer officer, Lieutenant O'Rourke, to select the location, who had decided that it should be upon the extreme point. General Stevens, according to his own report, intrusted the fixing of the position to a volunteer officer, who placed it, as Lieutenant O'Rourke reported, three eighths of a mile within that point, and at that much farther, or nearly a mile and three eighths distance altogether, from the rebel fort. The best of the ordnance that battered the wall of Fort Pulaski was then landed, and the heaviest guns placed in this battery, without much hope of its effectiveness against the earth-works of the enemy, as the whole power of the twenty to thirty heavy guns of Fort Pulaski within one mile or less of distance did not have the slightest effect upon our parapets of earth, while our guns there, the same now used, were hourly breaching its walls of masonry. After two days ineffectual firing upon this fort, two deserters came in on the fourteenth, who reported being at the Secessionville fort on the twelfth.

They stated what was afterward confirmed by prisoners and our own officers, that the Fort had six large, mounted guns, and that it was a common earth-work, without stockade or abattis, and with only two battalions as its garrison; also that the enemy had seven other heavy guns ready to mount upon the fort.

To this was added the knowledge of our own observation, that the enemy were at work night and day to strengthen this work, the possession or destruction of which was of vital importance to us, to enable us to hold this key to Charleston, placed as it was one and a half miles or more in front of the other works of the rebels, and covering nearly all our possible camping-ground. In accordance, therefore, with the previous order of reconnoissance approved by General Hunter, with the line proposed as “indispensable,” and approved by him on the eleventh, as also with his written order, “to provide a secure intrenched encampment,” General Benham decided that it was necessary to seize this fort by a night assault at the earliest possible moment, and arranged it for the morning of the sixteenth.

On the evening of the fifteenth, General Benham called the principal officers together, Generals Wright and Stevens, and Colonel Williams, Captain Drayton, senior naval officer, also present, explained his plan for the attack, and the reasons which made it important that it should be done without delay.

This plan was, that General Stevens, with nearly all his force, which was over four thousand men, should be in position at our outer pickets within one and a quarter miles of the Fort, at between two and three o'clock A. M., and at half-past 3 o'clock, or the earliest daylight, to rush upon and seize the Fort by storm or assault, the men to have their muskets loaded, but not capped. That Generals Benham and Wright, and Colonel Williams, with about three thousand men, should advance on Stevens's left from our outer pickets the moment his fire was heard, and be ready to guard against a main attack from our left, or to assist, if the struggle was protracted, at the Fort. General Wright asked General Stevens if the fire of his battery had any effect upon the Fort, and if he expected it would have any. General Stevens replied in the negative to both of these questions. Not the slightest objection was made to the movement by any of the officers or the slightest doubt expressed as to its success, General Wright even remarking: “We can take the Fort.” This is proven by a letter of Captain Drayton to General Benham, where he states that if they were opposed to it, “no one said as much as this,” and that he “recollects no opposition to the plan,” except as to the time, which General Stevens proposed to delay to afternoon. This delay was positively negatived by General Benham, who told General Stevens that his “men would be cut to pieces if they went up in daylight ;” as was also General Stevens's proposition to send his men to the assault with unloaded muskets.

General Benham in response to this, twice ordered General Stevens to have his muskets loaded, but for the night assault not capped. The written orders of General Hunter had been made known to both Generals Wright and Stevens, and [240] neither of them referred to this movement as disobedience of those orders; in fact, on the day after the action, General Stevens expressly stated to General Benham that it was a movement to which he was perfectly competent, and in his power to direct. It may be mentioned here, that some twenty or thirty steel spikes had been prepared and handed to Generals Wright and Stevens, by General Benham's orders, expressly to disable the cannon if taken and we were temporarily repulsed. On the morning of the sixteenth, in clouded moonlight, the supporting column was in its position before four o'clock, as directed, at our outer pickets, but it waited there over one hour, till broad daylight and sunrise, or fully five o'clock, to the often expressed astonsihment of Generals Benham and Wright, before the opening fire was heard from Stevens's command, which was to start from a point scarcely half a mile distant. When this fire was heard the rear column moved rapidly forward to Stevens's support. But, as all the after accounts showed, by the time this column could get into position, the main slaughter and repulse had occurred, as stated by General Stevens to have happened within the first fifteen or twenty minutes. And all because General, Stevnes delayed until nearly daylight before he started. Captain Doyle, of the Eighth Michigan, his leading captain, stated that “it was good light to aim” when the first picket of the enemy was met; because, contrary to orders, the muskets of a part of his regiment at least were not loaded, and they were halted to load them under this terrible fire; but principally because the regiments were not pushed forward by any officer to the support of the companies who had already gained and held the parapet of the fort. Only the First and a part of the Fourth regiments reached the Fort in order. The Second, Third, Fifth, and Sixth appear by the reports to have wavered, or not to have gone beyond the point at which the severest fire of grape was felt. The first despatch of General Stevens to General Wright written on the field, states: “You must push to my assistance. I am close to the work, but can't get men up.” General Wright was pushed forward. The second despatch to General Benham stated: “The advance company mounted the parapet, but the support did not follow close enough.” The third says: “My troops cannot stand up to the terrible fire of the enemy; an entire brigade can alone secure the day.” General Benham at once ordered Colonel Williams with his brigade to report to General Stevens; afterward one or two regiments of Wright's command were sent; or fully two thirds of the supporting column which still had to guard our left in front and rear. Colonel Williams did not take the route to the right direct to General Stevens, as was expected, and when this was discovered his men were too far advanced to recall. And as General Stevens afterward professed himself fully satisfied with the support thus rendered him by Colonel Williams, the matter was not followed up by General Benham. After the engagement had continued at field, cannon, and rifle-range for an hour or more, General Stevens sent to say that he was forming his men for a charge if he could be supported. General Benham replied that if General Stevens ceuld take his men up under cover or without being cut to pieces, he should be supported by the whole force except one or two regiments and two guns needed to guard our left, and General Stevens was directed to reply whether or not he could make the charge safely.

It is certain that such a charge might have been attempted at that time with our whole force; although, considering the number lost or demoralized by the first repulse, it would scarcely have been stronger than the original column of attack. It is possible that it might have succeeded, but it could only have been successful by immense additional loss in the more advanced daylight, and with the reinforcements the enemy must be supposed to have had. Further, such an advance against a fort in open daylight would have been in violation of General Benham's own principles, and orders to General Stevens, already disregarded once that morning. And at this time it happened that our gunboats firing, by the direction given and the request of General Wright, were not reaching the Fort, but throwing their shells very thickly into our own regiments and artillery. Upon this, the first retiring was ordered by General Benham to avoid our own shells, when afterward, hearing no word from General Stevens as to his proposed attack, and without a suspicion that our loss was one tenth of what it proved to be, he at length directed the withdrawal of all the troops, with the intention of another and different attack upon the Fort. After this return General Benham at once made his preliminary report of this reconnaissance, the other commanders neglecting or avoiding to make their written reports until after General Benham left the Stono, at noon on the nineteenth of June.

This report, though correct and satisfactory to General Wright and Colonel Williams, appeared not to be so to General Stevens, to whom it was also shown for further information. And when General Benham stated to General Stevens how inexplicable his report and want of success with his large force had been, General Stevens made certain explanations and statements verbally, but opposed the mention of his name as authority for them. On which General Benham in his report gave him the praise for good conduct which he had so much desired to do. One of these statements was, that the men had loaded muskets, as General Benham ordered. Another, that his regiments were all well closed up; and another, as to the time and darkness at starting. Of all of which General Benham since had sufficient evidence from General Stevens himself, and from other officers to believe them wholly incorrect. He even has Captain Doyle's testimony that General Stevens neglected to give him the spikes, which, if they had been used, as the evidence shows there was opportunity, would have made the second attack quite safe. And every thing tends to the irresistible conclusion that the neglect of duty of General Stevens, (which was not [241] fully ascertained at first,) in carrying out, wilfully or otherwise, his original proposition in council, of an attack by daylight with unloaded muskets, (against the express orders of General Benham,) caused the failure of this attack. That our men were unnecessarily slaughtered in open daylight; and that by the consequent withdrawal of the troops from James Island by General Hunter, we have given up the only sure hold we had upon the city of Charleston, and of which three times the number of men cannot now obtain possession. It only remains to be seen, whether the unfounded assertion of General Hunter, who acts from the impulse of the moment only, that his order had been disobeyed by an officer with whom he had the most cordial relations up to that moment, and who had concurred most fully in these orders, who claims a threefold previous approval of that movement by General Hunter; or if the positive disobedience of that officer's orders of a junior, by which a well-laid plan for a vital object has miscarried; shall destroy an experienced officer who has commanded in the greater portion of five or six important actions, (beside many skirmishes,) and previously always successful; or whether all our other generals are to be warned by his fate, that they must always wait for the most positive orders, wait for an attack, and do the least possible with the troops that are intrusted to their command. Or whether an enthusiastic, daring officer is to be encouraged in his earnest efforts to make the most efficient use of his troops toward the termination of this terrible war.

1 see the reduction of Fort Pulaski, Vol. IV. rebellion record.

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