Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 01/June/Seacoast Defences—Letter from General Thos. Jordan

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Southern Historical Society Papers: Volume 1, Number 6  (1876)  by Thomas Jordan
Seacoast Defences—Letter from General Thos. Jordan
Southern Historical Society Papers, June 1876
Response to “Seacoast Defences of South Carolina and Georgia,” in the Southern Historical Society Papers Volume 1, February 1876

SOUTHERN HISTORICAL SOCIETY PAPERS,



Vol. I.
No. 6.
Richmond, Va., June, 1876.


 

Seacoast Defences of South Carolina and Georgia.

To Rev. J. William Jones, D. D.,

Secretary Southern Historical Society:

Dear Sir—General Long's sketch in the February number of the "Southern Historical Papers," under the pregnant title "Seacoast Defences of South Carolina and Georgia," seems to call for some notice at my hands as Chief of Staff, for nearly two years, of the forces that successfully held those defences against all assailants by sea or land, during that period. The whole drift or reach of that sketch is so clearly indicated in the concluding paragraphs that I shall here reproduce them.

"General Lee received an order about the middle of March (1862), assigning him to duty in Richmond, in obedience to which he soon after repaired to that place. The works that he had so skillfully planned were now near completion. In three months he had established a line of defence from Winyan bay on the northeast coast of South Carolina, to the mouth of Saint Mary's river in Georgia, a distance of more than two hundred miles. This line not only served for a present defence, but offered an impenetrable barrier to the combined Federal forces operating on the coast, until they were carried by General Sherman in his unopposed march through Georgia and South Carolina, near the close of the war.

"That the importance of these works may be properly understood, it will be necessary to know what they accomplished. In the first place, they protected the most important agricultural section of the Confederacy from the incursions of the enemy, and covered the most important line of communication between the Mississippi and the Potomac.[1] Besides these material advantages, it produced great moral effect in giving the inhabitants of the Southern States a feeling of security and confidence.

"We perceive in this campaign of General Lee in Georgia and South Carolina results achieved by a single genius equal to those which could have been accomplished by an incalculable force."

General Long, as he says, was on the staff of General Lee during the time in question, but was not in the Department of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, subsequently, when it was the theatre of great combined naval and land hostile operations. This entire want of personal knowledge of the actual events of that defence, together with engrossing occupations elsewhere, may supply the explanation why he could fall into the wholly erroneous, and I must add, wrongful conclusions which I have cited, that the historical results of the defence of the coast of South Carolina and Georgia were but consequences of premises which he had witnessed and noted. But to accept his conclusions were to blot out of history nearly two years of skillful and courageous achievements, for the right measurement of which must be taken into consideration not only the vast resources of every description of our adversary, and the consummate ability, as well as untiring determination, with which those resources were hostilely handled, but the constant dearth of defensive resources in which that widely extended and most important department was left, and which made its successful defence, for so long a period, in the strictest sense of the words, the creation and work of the engineer and soldier who commanded the department from October, 1862, to May, 1864—General Beauregard.

The story of that brilliant defence I do not propose to relate, but I must assure General Long and his readers, of what can be readily substantiated, that the works and seacoast defences to which he has assigned so all-embracing an importance, absolutely entered, in no material degree, into the defence of South Carolina and Georgia after October, 1862.

That what General Lee did was in character with the ability of that distinguished man, I do not question for an instant; nor may I doubt that he made all proper dispositions to meet and baffle the comparatively small Federal naval and military forces present, in menace, on the coast when he commanded in that quarter. But the truth of history obliges me to state that the defensive resources which Beauregard (relieving Pemberton) found in the department when he entered upon command, instead of being that "impenetrable barrier" which General Long supposes—opposed to the mighty naval forces of Dupont and Dahlgren, acting in co-operation with the large army commanded by such an engineer as Gillmore, they would have proved almost as slight an obstacle as if they had been built of lath and plaster, and garnished with "culverins."

Pemberton, as I have always understood, had materially departed from General Lee's plan of defensive works for the department. Be that so or not, the system which Beauregard found established upon the approaches to Charleston and Savannah, he radically changed with all possible energy. One material vice of the system was an extension of the lines beyond all possibility of having a force disposable at all adequate to their defence. These lines consequently were reduced and arranged upon a wholly different plan, both at Charleston and Savannah. And so comprehensive were these changes, that had General Long chanced to visit those two places and the intermediate lines about the first day of July, 1863 he would have been sorely puzzled to point out in all the results of defensive engineering skill, which must have met and pleased his eyes in the department, any trace of what he had left there something more than one year before.

For example, the Fort Sumter and works on Sullivan's Island, which fought and defeated the fleet of Admiral Dupont on the 6th of April, 1863, were, in nothing else scarcely than the terrain on which they stood, the same works that Beauregard had found constructed. As arranged by him, on that day they encountered a naval onset more formidable, from the character of the vessels engaged and greatness of calibre of the armaments, than any other fortifications have ever been subjected to; and in less than forty minutes five of the nine iron-armored vessels sent against them were placed hors de combat. The Battery Wagner, which, on the 18th of July and for fifty days thereafter, so successfully endured a combined naval and land attack of the magnitude that no other single work, of any size or armament, ever had brought to bear upon it, was, in no respect save the site, the same work which General Pemberton had left there. As Beauregard prepared it and the supporting batteries, it not only bore the brunt successfully, on the 18th of July, 1863, for eight hours without an instant of cessation, of the Iron Sides and of five or six monitors with their 11 and 15-inch guns and of five unarmored vessels, together with several land batteries, but remained in condition to inflict one of the bloodiest defeats known in history upon the powerful column that General Gillmore sent to storm it. Nor is this all: subjected to an incessant, daily bombardment from Dahlgren's fleet and Gillmore's breaching batteries and mortars for fifty days, or until the Federal troops had dug their way up to the glacis and planted their flag on the very verge of the counter scarps of that work, such was the system that the defence was crowned by an evacuation of Battery Wagner and of Morris' Island, which has no parallel in ancient or modern warfare for its skill. Moreover, the works on James' Island, which enabled Beauregard's small force on the 16th of July, 1863, to defeat so signally the strong column under General Terry, were parts of a wholly different system and of other description than those in existence upon the same island when the battle of Secessionville was fought on the 16th of June, 1862.

A like radical difference characterized the arrangements made for the defence of John's Island, and aided General Wise to inflict a handsome defeat upon the strong Federal column which was pushed out by that way in February, 1864, to strike and break Beauregard's communications with Savannah, and occupy his attention pending the descent of General Seymour's powerful military and political expedition into Florida; and when that skillfully planned expedition was brought to signal disaster at Olustee, on the 20th February, 1864, it was Colquit's brigade, whose opportune appearance on the field on John's Island had been so effective, which, by its precisely timed arrival, contributed even more decisively to the victory over Seymour.

It was under similarly changed or modified dispositions of the defensive resources (material and personnel) of the department, that Brannan's column of more than 4,000 infantry, with two sections of field artillery and a naval detachment with three boat howitzers, was badly defeated at Pocotaligo in October, 1862, by less than five hundred men and twelve pieces of field artillery. The same may be said of the works at Fort McAllister, when it beat the iron-clad Federal fleet so handsomely, and indeed of the whole defensive system around Savannah.

General Long observes that the Coosawhatchie was the centre of the defensive system of that department as planned by General Lee, who established his headquarters there. Geographically Coosawhatchie may have been the centre, but not in the military sense, which assuredly was that so occupied by Beauregard—the city of Charleston. Nevertheless, the matchless defence of that port, the most sailent feature of Confederate operations on that theatre of war in point of skill and the courage of the troops, was fully equalled at nearly every point in the department assailed.

There was to be defended from serious penetration a coast line of 350 to 400 miles, with such harbors as Bull's and Winyan bays, mouth of Stono river; Port Royal, mouth of Savannah river, and Brunswick—all in possession of the enemy, whose armed fleets and transports swarmed all the waters, while an army generally 20,000 strong could, at any time, with abundant means of water transportation at command, be thrown upon any point left vulnerable, from Georgetown, in South Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida, with all the material advantage given by the possession of the interior lines in military operations, superadded to freedom from observation, which, with the small force generally at his disposition, made it difficult for General Beauregard to secure the vital points of the long Confederate lines from sudden mortal attack. The successful defence, therefore, of that large department under such circumstances, is one of the most brilliant achievements in war, and must make it an admirable study of the art of defensive war reduced to perfect practice in all its ramifications and details, including a creative military administration.

General Lee's own reputation, which rests solidly upon his own resplendent deeds as commander of the superlative Army of Northern Virginia, cannot possibly be enhanced one particle by the attribution of things that do not belong to him. Were he alive, he would be the first to disclaim such credit for the defence of the seacoast of South Carolina and Georgia as is given by the article of General Long, I doubt not unconscious of the injustice thus done to General Beauregard.

Thomas Jordan.

 New York, May 1st, 1876.

  1. General Long omits from consideration the particularly great value of Charleston to the Confederate States as a port for the entry of military supplies from abroad, and of exportation of cotton.