Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 01/February/Seacoast Defences of South Carolina and Georgia
Seacoast Defences of South Carolina and Georgia.
By General A. L. Long, Chief of Artillery.
The seacoast defences occupied the attention of the Confederate Government as soon as it became apparent that the war was inevitable. The line of coast extending from the entrance of the Chesapeake bay to the mouth of the Rio Grande presented innumerable bays, inlets and harbors, into which vessels could run either for predatory excursions or with the intention of actual invasion. The Federals having the command of the sea, it was certain that they would take advantage of this open condition of the coast to employ their naval force as soon as it could be collected, not only to enforce the blockade which had been declared, but also for making inroads along our unprotected coast.
That the system of defence adopted may be understood, I will describe a little in detail the topography of the coast. On the coast of North Carolina are Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, penetrating far into the interior; then the Cape Fear river, connecting with the ocean by two channels, the southwest channel being defended by a small inclosed fort and a water battery. On the coast of South Carolina are Georgetown and Charleston harbors. A succession of islands along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia, separated from the main land by a channel, which is navigable for vessels of moderate draft from Charleston to Fernandina, Florida. There are fewer assailable points on the Gulf than on the Atlantic. Pensacola, Mobile, and the mouth of the Mississippi were defended by works that had hitherto been regarded as sufficiently strong to repulse any naval attack that might be made upon them. Immediately after the bombardment and capture of Fort Sumter, the work of sea coast defence was begun and carried forward as rapidly as the limited means of the Confederacy would permit. Roanoke Island and other points on Albemarle and Pamlico sounds were fortified. Batteries were established on the southeast entrance of Cape Fear river, and the works on the southwest entrance of that river were strengthened. Defences were constructed at Georgetown, and at all assailable points on the northeast coast of South Carolina. The works of Charleston harbor were greatly strengthened by earthworks and floating batteries. The defences from Charleston down the coast of South Carolina and Georgia were confined chiefly to the islands and salient points bearing upon the channels leading inland. Defensive works were erected at all important points along the coast. Many of the defences, being injudiciously located and hastily erected, offered but little resistance to the enemy when attacked. These defects were not surprising, when we take into consideration the inexperience of the engineers, and the long line of seacoast to be defended. As soon as a sufficient naval force had been collected, an expedition under the command of General Butler was sent to the coast of North Carolina, and captured several important points. A second expedition, under Admiral Dupont and General Sherman, was sent to make a descent on the coast of South Carolina. On the 27th of November, Dupont attacked the batteries that were designed to defend Port Royal harbor, and almost without resistance carried them and gained possession of Port Royal. This is the best harbor in South Carolina, and is the strategic key to all the south Atlantic coast. Later, Burnside captured Roanoke Island, and established himself in eastern North Carolina without resistance. The rapid fall of Roanoke Island and Port Royal harbor struck consternation into the hearts of the inhabitants along the entire coast. The capture of Port Royal gave the Federals the entire possession of Beaufort island, which afforded a secure place of rest for the army, while the harbor gave a safe anchorage for the fleet. Beaufort island almost fills a deep indenture in the main shore, being separated the greater part of its extent by a narrow channel, which is navigable its entire circuit. Its northern extremity extends to within a few miles of the Charleston and Savannah Railroad. The main road from Port Royal to Pocotaligo crosses the channel at this point. The evacuation of Hilton Head, on the southwestern extremity of Beaufort island, followed the capture of Port Royal. This exposed Savannah, only about twenty-five miles distant, to an attack from that direction. At the same time, the Federals having command of Helena bay, Charleston was liable to be assailed from north Edisto or Stono inlet, and the railroad could have been reached without opposition by the road from Port Royal to Pocotaligo.
Such was the state of affairs when General Lee reached Charleston, about the first of December, 1861, to assume the command of the departments ofCarolina, Georgia and Florida. His vigorous mind at once comprehended the situation, and with his accustomed energy he met the difficulties that presented themselves. Directing fortifications to be constructed on the Stono and the Edisto and the Combahee, he fixed his headquarters at Coosawhatchie, the point most threatened, and directed defences to be erected opposite Hilton Head, and on the Broad and Saltcatchie, to cover Savannah. These were the points requiring immediate attention. He superintended in person the works overlooking the approach to the railroad from Port Royal, and soon infused into his troops a part of his own energy. The works he had planned rose with magical rapidity. A few days after his arrival at Coosawhatchie, Dupont and Sherman sent their first reconnoissance in that direction, which was met and repulsed by shot from the newly erected batteries, and now, whether the Federals advanced towards the railroad or turned in the direction of Charleston or Savannah, they were arrested by the Confederate batteries. The people, seeing the Federals repulsed at every point, regained their confidence, and with it their energy.
Having received orders to report to General Lee, I joined him in December, a few days after he had assumed command of the Department, and was assigned the duty of Chief of Artillery and Ordnance.
The most important points being now secured against immediate attack, the General proceeded to organize a system of seacoast defence different from that which had previously been adopted. He withdrew the troops and material from those works which had been established on the islands and salient points which he could not defend, to a strong interior line, where the effect of the Federal naval force would be neutralized. After a careful reconnoissance of the coast, he designated such points as he considered it necessary to fortify. The most important positions on this extensive line were Georgetown, Charleston, Pocotaligo, Coosawhatchie and Savannah. Coosawhatchie being central, could communicate with either Charleston or Savannah in two or three hours by railroad; so in case of an attack, they could support each other. The positions between Coosawhatchie and Savannah, and those between Charleston and Coosawhatchie, could be reinforced from the positions contiguous to them. There was thus a defensive relation throughout the entire line.
At this time there was a great want of guns suitable for seacoast defence. Those in use had been on the coast for more than thirty years, and were of too light a calibre to cope with the powerful ordnance that had been introduced into the Federal navy. It was, therefore, desirable to arm the batteries now constructed with heavy guns. The Ordnance Department being prepared to cast guns of the heaviest calibre, requisitions were made for eight and ten-inch columbiads for the batteries bearing on the channels that would be entered by gunboats. The heavy smooth bore guns were preferred to the rifle cannons for fixed batteries, as experiments had shown that the crushing effect of the solid round shot was more destructive than the small breach and deeper penetration of the rifle bolts. The difference of range was not important, as beyond a certain distance the aim could not be accurate. By the last of December many batteries had been completed, and other works were being rapidly constructed. When the new year of 1862 opened, there was a greater feeling of security among the people of South Carolina and Georgia than had been felt for several months.
The information received from every quarter led to the belief that the Federal Government was making preparations for a powerful attack upon either Charleston or Savannah. In anticipation of this attack, every effort was made to strengthen these places. General Ripley, who commanded at Charleston, and General Lawton, the commander at Savannah, ably seconded General Lee in the execution of his plans, while Generals Evans, Drayton and Mercer assisted him at other points. The Ordnance Department, under the direction of its energetic chief, Colonel Gorgas, filled with wonderful promptitude the various demands made upon it. This greatly facilitated the completion of the defences.
The Federal troops on Beaufort island were inactive during the months of December, January and February, and the fleet was in the offing, blockading Charleston and Savannah. About the first of March the Federal gunboats entered the Savannah river by way of the channel leading from Hilton Head. The small Confederate fleet was too weak to engage them, so they retained undisputed possession of the river. They then established batteries to intercept the communication between Fort Pulaski and the city of Savannah. This fort commands the entrance to the Savannah river, twelve miles below the city.
A few days after getting possession of the river the Federals landed a force, under General Gilmore, on the opposite side of the fort. General Gilmore, having completed his batteries, opened fire about the first of April. Having no hope of succor, Fort Pulaski, after striking a blow for honor, surrendered with about five hundred men.
General Lee received an order about the middle of March assigning him to duty in Richmond, in obedience to which he soon after repaired to that place. The works that he had so skilfully planned were now near completion. In three months he had established a line of defence from Wingaw 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. 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.