Gaining a Foothold on Morris Island – July 10-11, 1863 Part 2

by Dan O'Connell on June 5, 2013 · 0 comments

“The Very Boldness of the Project”

Vigorous preparations were made during the short window of time available. Troops from BG George C. Strong’s Brigade were designated as the spearhead. Three days of rations were prepared and final inspections conducted.  Because the assault was planned as a night attack, a band of white flannel was sewn or tied onto the left sleeve of the uniforms as a precaution against friendly fire. Medical teams, headed by Surgeon John J. Craven, established a field hospital on Folly Island. Their efforts were bolstered by the arrival of Clara Barton and the additional supplies she could provide. As darkness fell the troops were marched to the embarkation point on Folly Island Creek only to find no boats.

With everything else in place the one unmanageable variable had intervened. Heavy weather prevented the launches from arriving at the rendezvous point at the appointed time. Even had they done so it was also discovered that the engineers had not yet completed clearing obstacles from the mouth of Folly River.

The job of removing the obstructions was an incredibly difficult task and was probably not allotted enough time to be completed. Again to prevent early detection of activity that might signal the coming attack the work was not begun until the morning of July 8th. COL Edward Serrell, commander of the 1st New York Engineers, described the task;

July 8th – Arrived in Folly River at 10 a.m. Orders were received to remove as many of the piles in the Folly River, as would admit the passage of the largest launches and the large scows. This was done the same night, by sawing them off underwater at a depth of 8 feet below low tide. 

A special saw bent in an arc was developed that allowed the work to progress rapidly. The process worked as described by Serrell;

The saw is worked by boring a hole in the pile to be sawed off. At the proper height above water and in this hole, an iron pin is inserted, upon which the saw-frame vibrates. Ropes from the rings at either end of the saw are taken to boats properly anchored, or held, as they were in this case, by sharp pointed poles thrust into the sand at the bottom of the river. At a given signal the ropes are pulled alternately and the saw vibrates. In this way, a pile 10 or 12 inches in diameter was cut off in an average time of from six to seven minutes; including the change from one pile to another, about ten minutes were occupied.

Despite their proficiency not enough piles could be removed in the available time. Gillmore was forced to issue new orders. True to his instructions of the 8th the night time attack was scrapped in new instructions issued to his leaders.

The attack on Morris Island, ordered for this morning, but postponed in consequence of the inclemency of the weather and other unfavorable circumstances, will take place tomorrow morning at break of day, by opening our batteries at the north end of Folly Island.

Gen. Strong’s brigade, or so much of it as the small boats can accommodate, will embark tonight and hold itself in Folly Island Creek, ready to move forward and at the proper time occupy the south end of Morris Island.

 Lieut. Commander Francis W. Bunce, U. S. Navy, with four navy howitzer launches, will approach Light-House Inlet at daybreak by way of Folly Island Creek, and engage the enemy’s rifle-pits and batteries on Morris Island in flank and reverse, choosing his own position. He will cover Gen. Strong’s landing.

 Two regiments of infantry, a battery of light artillery and five Requa rifled batteries will be held in readiness to reinforce Gen. Strong promptly. Brig. Gen. Seymour will arrange and order all details.

Despite the difficulty with the primary assault the diversionary attack by BG Terry’s forces moved up the Stono River to Sol Legare Island. Elements of the 104th and 52nd Pennsylvania stormed the island and seized the connecting causeways to James Island.

At 2100 on the 9th preparations for the revised assault began. BG Strong marched his brigade back to the embarkation point on the north side of the island.  The loading commenced with four companies (A, B, I, and K) of the 7th Connecticut manning the lead boats. The 6th Connecticut trailed followed, in turn, by the remainder of the brigade. By one count 80 boats were loaded but by some miscalculation or shortage the final regiment, 48th New York, could load only four companies (A, C, D, and F).  With orders for strict silence the armada of boats pushed off, escorted by Bunce’s armed launches. The boats weaved their way through a maze of back channels until they neared the mouth of the stream at Lighthouse Inlet. There they found the engineers still removing piles to widen the access way.  They started the long wait for the signal to begin “under the cover of the tall marsh grasses along the shore.” The boats were so well hidden that one member of the 3rd New Hampshire noted that a peek over the grass revealed “the batteries on Morris Island and the rebel sentinels walking their beats as though no enemy was near.”

Many of the men had severe doubts about crossing open water in fragile craft with the distinct possibility of being engaged by the Confederate artillery and pickets. One member of the7th Connecticut revealed that “when I learned what we were to do my knees shook so that I thought I should drop.” The battalion of the 48th New York feared the passage of the river more than the fight on the other side. Writing in the unit history they remarked;

“We all feared a deal more that we might be drowned in the inlet, than any danger we should meet from the batteries when once our feet were on shore.”

The silent wait magnified the tension. To be discovered at this point would ruin the entire operation. Absolute quiet was the order.

At sea Dahlgren was preparing his vessels for their role in supporting the assault. He would be leading four monitors; Catskill, Nahant, Montauk, and Weehawken into action. The Catskill, serving as flagship, had under gone an overhaul to upgrade the armor plating on the deck and turret. The other vessels were in various stages of upgrade but to be safe Dahlgren ordered the other boats to lay off at a distance. Only the completely improved Catskill would be permitted to engage the Confederate batteries in close. Like the infantry laden boats across Lighthouse Inlet they waited for Gillmore’s signal gun

On Folly Island Gillmore waited until the last possible moment to order the unmasking of the Federal batteries. Calculating the time needed to clear the fronts of the batteries with the anticipated sunrise the order to begin the work was issued at 0415. In a flurry of action with axes and shovels the work progressed rapidly. As the sun started over the horizon the batteries were clear. At 0508 Gillmore ordered his guns to open fire. The sudden barrage caught the Confederate defenders from the 1st and 21st South Carolina Infantry completely by surprise. Some were so unprepared that they rushed to their positions shirtless. After an hour long bombardment, that seem much longer to the men waiting in the boats, BG Strong roared out;

“Forward! Pull, you oarsmen, pull for your lives!”

The preliminary bombardment had fully alerted the Confederate defenders. The boats were caught in open water with the element of surprise gone. Although severely outgunned the Confederate batteries and infantry did their best to respond to the situation. “We then received special notice and their whizzing shot and bursting shell were hurled into our midst.” With grim determination the men at the oars redoubled their effort. For most of the boats the crossing took only about twenty minutes, but a harrowing time it was. One boat (6th Connecticut) was overturned by a shell spewing the human cargo as a “struggling mass” into the water that was “reddened with the blood of the dead and wounded.” Under the onslaught the courage of a few became infectious. In the 3rd New Hampshire boats one officer who had been declared “a martinet” stood firm on the bow of his boat. Others followed his lead and the men rallied to stand “rifles firmly grasped” to form “one solid, courageous unit.”

It is doubtful that the new found fortitude made the rapidly approaching landing site any less gratifying. Some of the men could not wait and jumped from the boats early and into waist deep water. A close blast of artillery caused BG Strong to be one the early departures. He disappeared momentarily causing some concerned as only his floating hat marked the area. He reemerged and waded to shore. One of his boots had been sucked from his foot by the mud of the river bottom. He removed the other and in his stocking feet moved inland waving his sword and shouting “come on brigade.” The 7th Connecticut sprang from their boats eager to engage the enemy batteries that were proving a serious annoyance. The first line of rifle pits was seized almost immediately. Companies B and I were advanced while A and K held the works and provided a base of fire. The forward companies entered into a short but vicious fight for the next set of works. Confederate infantry there, led by CPT Charles Haskell of the 1st South Carolina Infantry, fought the invaders hand to hand until Haskell went down mortally wounded. Suddenly the defenses collapsed and began a mad rush rearward toward Battery Gregg.

The suddenness of the Confederate departure was a result of not only the loss of their leader but the appearance of Union soldiers at their flank and rear.  Colonel John Chatfield, of the 6th Connecticut, apparently operating on his own initiative did not land his boats at the designated site. Instead, realizing that the enemy guns could not be depressed enough to engage them he had his men pull for the open ocean. At the mouth of Lighthouse Inlet they beached on the southeast corner of the island. The combination of loss of the leadership, fire from the monitors and the unexpected appearance of enemy troops in their rear proved too much; the defenders fled. The Confederate flag bearer was ordered to halt but did not. Unfortunately he could not out run the bullet of PVT Roper Houslow, of Co. D., who dropped him with a bullet to the head and captured the flag which was inscribed “Pocotaligo, Oct. 22, 1862.”  The rout was complete.

Gaining a Foothold on Morris Island (Campaign Series)

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