Three days after the surrender of Fort Sumter and the beginning of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln declared a naval blockade of all Southern ports. Lincoln’s goal was inspired by the Anaconda Plan, a scheme devised by General Winfield Scott to strangle the Confederacy economically by restricting commerce with foreign nations.
In November 1861, a Union naval squadron commanded by Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont overpowered two Confederate forts at the mouth of Port Royal Sound. Du Pont’s victory at the Battle of Port Royal enabled Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman to land a 12,000-man federal invasion force and take control of Hilton Head Island between the Confederacy’s two foremost Atlantic ports—Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia.
On March 15, 1862, the U.S. War Department issued General Orders, No. 26 announcing the creation of the Department of the South commanded by Major General David Hunter. After establishing his headquarters on Hilton Head Island, Hunter placed Brigadier General Henry Washington Benham in charge of the Northern District of his new department on March 21. Three weeks later, under the direction of Captain Quincy A. Gillmore, Union forces used long-range rifled artillery to capture Fort Pulaski and practically close the port of Savannah. Hunter next turned his attention to Charleston.
Bounded on the east by the Ashley River, on the west by the Stono River, on the north by Wappoo Creek, and on the south by the Atlantic Ocean, James Island is one of the larger coastal islands in South Carolina. The southeast waterfront of the City of Charleston sits on the banks of the Ashley River directly across from the confluence of the Ashley River and Wappoo Creek.
Cole’s (aka Cole and Coles) Island is a small barrier island on the southern tip of James Island. In 1861, the Confederacy erected seven batteries on Cole’s Island, to deter a Union landing on James Island. In March 1862, General John C. Pemberton abandoned those batteries, moving his artillery to Charleston and out of the range of federal gunboats.
Originally named Riversville, the Village of Secessionville is on a peninsula near the middle of James Island, about five miles southwest of old Charleston. Wealthy planters founded the community before the Civil War as a retreat from malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases prevalent during the summer in South Carolina’s Lowcountry. Reportedly, the town earned its name because of the inhabitants’ attempts to isolate themselves from Charleston proper.
Fort Lamar (aka Tower Battery)
Confederate troops constructed Tower Battery between the Stono and Ashley rivers near Secessionville. The defensive structure received its name because of its seventy-five-foot-tall reconnaissance tower. The fortification sat on the neck of a peninsula bounded on each side by marshlands. After its construction, Rebels re-named the battery for Colonel Thomas G. Lamar, who commanded Confederate troops at the fort during the Battle of Secessionville. At the time of the engagement, a garrison of 750 Confederate soldiers manned one large-caliber, smoothbore, muzzle-loading cannon, two 24-lb rifled artillery pieces, and several 18-lb guns.
Federal Expedition Against Charleson
In early May 1862, Robert Smalls, an escaped slave, informed General Hunter that Confederate forces had abandoned Cole’s Island. The Rebel withdrawal enabled Union gunboats to navigate up the Stono River and shell Confederate defenses on James Island in late May as Hunter prepared to mount an overland assault against Charleston.
From his headquarters at Hilton Head Island, Hunter assembled a 6,500-man expeditionary unit to strike Charleston. Under the overall command of General Benham, Hunter’s force was made up of a division under the command of Brigadier General Horatio G. Wright, and a division under the command of Brigadier General Henry Benham. Wright had 3,300 men and Benham had 3,200.
On June 2, 1862, naval vessels transported the vanguard of Benham’s force up the Stono River to Grimball’s Landing where the Yankees disembarked and entrenched. After a few days of skirmishing, the Federals established a foothold on James Island and landed the rest of Benham’s soldiers, accompanied by Hunter.
Although meeting only light resistance as his troops moved inward, Hunter became convinced that the Confederate defenders outnumbered him. He returned to Hilton Head to round up more men. Before departing, on June 10, Hunter sent Benham written instructions stating that
in any arrangements that you may make for the disposition of your forces now in this vicinity, you will make no attempt to advance on Charleston or to attack Fort Johnson until largely re-enforced or until you received specific instructions from these headquarters to that effect.
In reality, Hunter was facing far fewer Rebels than he believed. Opposing the Yankee invaders, General Pemberton had roughly 2,000 Rebels on James Island, commanded by Brigadier General States Rights Gist. On June 14, 1862, Pemberton placed Brigadier General Nathan George “Shanks” Evans, in command of the James Island defenses.
The most troublesome of the Confederate battlements was Fort Lamar southwest of Secessionville. Rebel cannoneers firing heavy guns from that position threatened the security of Benham’s camps. Expecting the Yankees to attack the fort, Evans reinforced Lamar’s small force.
June 16, 1862: Clash at Secessionville
On June 16, Benham advised Hunter that it was “indispensable that we should destroy or capture the fort and floating battery of the enemy at Secessionville.” Seemingly disregarding Hunter’s directive to hold his ground until reinforcements arrived, Benham ordered what he later called a “reconnaissance . . . in force . . . with the object, if it were successful and the fort not too strong, of capturing and holding the same.”
At about 4 a.m., roughly 6,500 Yankees from the 3rd New Hampshire, 8th Michigan, 7th Connecticut, 28th Massachusetts, and 79th New York “Highlanders” infantry regiments advanced toward Charleston. By 5 a.m., they overran Benham’s advance pickets, alerting the Rebel defenders at Tower Battery. Realizing that the battle was on, Benham sent a message to Evans requesting reinforcements.
As the Federals approached the fort across a narrow strip of land surrounded by marshes, the Confederate defenders manned their posts. When the Yankees came within 200 yards, the Rebel artillerymen unleashed a salvo of grapeshot, nails, iron chain, and glass that ravaged the center of the federal line.
Despite the gaping hole in the middle of the line, men from the 8th Michigan, 7th Connecticut, and the 28th Massachusetts regiments nearly silenced the Rebel guns on the Union right by scaling the fort’s parapet. Confederate reinforcements arrived in time the nick of time to drive the Yankees back just as the Rebel neared collapsing.
Meanwhile, on the Union left the 79th New York Regiment had scaled the fort’s parapet and engaged the Rebel defenders in bloody hand-to-hand combat when they came under fire from their own artillery. The Union fusillade sent the Yankees scampering back to the safety of their lines. Their retreat hindered a second wave of advancing Federals.
While the action raged on both ends of the Union line, the 3rd New Hampshire attempted to flank the fort from the Union left. Water and impassable pluff mud hampered their advance long enough for Rebel artillerymen to unlimber their guns and force the Yankees to withdraw.
Benham attempted two more unsuccessful assaults before ordering a general retreat. By 9 a.m., the battle was over.
Casualty totals at the Battle of Secessionville favored the Confederacy. The Union lost 689 men, including 107 killed. The Rebels suffered 207 casualties, including fifty-two deaths.
Had the Yankees captured Fort Lamar they might have flanked Charleston’s harbor defenses, occupied the city, and cut the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, severing a vital supply line to Confederate troops in the East. Instead, Hunter ordered his troops to evacuate James Island on June 27, 1862. By July 7, all the Yankees had departed. The failed assault was the only federal attempt to seize Charleston by land during the war. Later Union efforts to capture the city would focus on the outer forts defending the harbor.
After the Confederate victory, Hunter relieved Benham of his command for disobeying his June 10 “make no attempt to advance on Charleston” until Hunter returned to James Island with reinforcements. On August 7, General-in-Chief Henry Halleck and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton revoked Benham’s appointment as a brigadier general in the volunteer army. On January 3, 1863. President Lincoln asked the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt to review Benham’s appeal of his demotion. Three weeks later, on January 26, Holt reported to Lincoln that “General Benham should not be condemned as incapable or unfaithful, precipitately or without a hearing. His restoration is respectfully recommended.”