Saturday, June 16, 2012

Battle of Secessionville

David Hunter
While events were accelerating on the Peninsula a campaign was also advancing in South Carolina. Earlier this month two Union divisions from Major General David Hunter Department of the South under the direct command of Brigadier General Henry Benham were landed at James Island, South Carolina. These troops were intended to capture Charleston from the land side. However, Hunter ordered Benham not to advance until he was greatly reinforced. The Confederate commander of Charleston's defense was Major General John C. Pemberton, and he placed Brigadier General Nathan “Shank” Evans in command of the fortifications on James Island, including a fort at Secessionville. Although he had been ordered not to move on Charleston, Benham decided on June 15th to attack the fort at Secessionville the next morning. He would send in 3,500 troops before dawn in two waves, hoping to overrun the Confederates before they could put up a successful defense.
Map from Civil War Trust

As the Union forces advanced on the early morning of June 16th, 150 years ago today, they made slow going as they encountered difficult terrain which slowed and confused their advance. At 5:00 am they hit the Confederate pickets, alerting the defenders to the attack. Colonel T. G. Lamar, the fort's commander, instantly sent off a courier to Evans alerting him of the attack and brought up 1,500 reinforcements. Until those arrived they made the best defense with what they had. Lamar himself took command of one of the cannons, which opened at the Federal lines 200 yards away, tearing holes in their formations. The Federals, however, kept coming on and began climbing the face of the parapets, but Lamar brought up his infantry and threw them forward, driving back the Federal assault with heavy volleys. The Federals reformed and came on again twice more, but both attacks were driven back after coming within a few yards of the fort.

The battle was over by 9:00 am. The Federals had suffered 689 casualties, the Confederates only 207. If the Federals had successfully captured the fort, they might have forced the abandonment of Charleston, but, as it was, it was only yet another Federal disaster in the east. Hunter blamed the defeat on Benham, saying he attacked without permission. He was removed from command and his commission taken away. Lincoln, however, valued aggressiveness even when sometimes it was a little rash. He restored Benham's commission and sent him west to serve with Grant in the Vicksburg campaign.


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