History of James Island: July 1863 Fireworks at Fort Johnson

by Paul Hedden

Alexander Schimmelfennig, "Forty-Eighter" and later Union General during the civil war.
Alexander Schimmelfennig, “Forty-Eighter” and later Union General during the civil war. (This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.)

Since early April in 1863 the Federal Army had again held command of Folly Island and the southern reaches of James Island. Just prior to Independence Day in 1864, the Federal Armies on Folly Island launched simultaneous attacks on James Island, Fort Johnson, Johns Island and Church Flats.

The attacks were spread over a five day period lasting from the first to the fifth of July. This is the story of events on James Island during this failed attempt to weaken Charleston’s defenses.

2,000 infantry on southern James Island

On July first Brigadier-General Schimmelfennig, in Command of the Department of the South with Headquarters on Folly Island, advanced with a force of about 2,000 infantry onto southern James Island extending from Rivers to Grimballs Causeways, with their line of skirmishers in front. The Federals assaulted and carried one of the enemy’s batteries, capturing two 24-pound howitzers.

This Rebel battery was directly in front and within grape-shot range of all the batteries in the first line of the James Island defenses, extending from Secessionville to Fort Pringle (today referred to as the “New Lines”). The General established his command a short distance to the rear, retiring after securing the captured guns.

A nighttime assault from Paine’s Dock

As this operation was underway another assault, on the evening of July 2 under the overall command of Col. William Gurney, was waged against Fort Johnson and Battery Simkins. The Fifty-second Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, led by Colonel Hoyt, and the One hundred and twenty- seventh New York Volunteer Infantry, Major Little in command, departed from Pioneer Landing on Morris Island for James Island.

Fort Johnson Water Battery, public domain This image is available from the United States Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division under the digital ID 1s02576v. No known copyright restrictions.
Fort Johnson Water Battery, public domain This image is available from the United States Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division under the digital ID 1s02576v. No known copyright restrictions.

Three detachments of 20 men each from the Third Rhode Island Volunteer Artillery accompanied them. Two detachments were attached to the Fifty-second Pennsylvania and one to the One-hundred and twenty-seventh New York. The men embarked immediately after dark and proceeded to Paines Dock on James Island. The low stage of the tide caused the boats to run aground, producing some delay.

The boats started their final assault from Paine’s Dock in single file, with the Fifty-second Pennsylvania leading. They were to cross the harbor until opposite the beach between Battery Simkins and Fort Johnson. Then each boat’s crew was to pull vigorously towards the landing site and assault with bayonets, with the Fifty-second Pennsylvania attacking Fort Johnson and the One hundred twenty seventh New York attacking Simkins. Any signal of retreat was to be sounded on a bugle in possession of Colonel Hoyt.

The best laid plans

However, the best laid plans…the pilot, Sergeant Bennett of the One Hundred and twenty-seventh New York, failed to find the passage through the bar near Fort Johnson. If the boats had been steered and rowed by seamen much of the grounding and fouling which delayed the progress of the expedition might have been avoided. Nevertheless all of the Fifty-second Pennsylvania, with Lieutenant-Colonel Cunningham, Captain Camp, Lieutenant Stevens, and Lieutenant Evans, got to the shore successfully with Adjutant Bunyan (afterward killed) and 135 men.

They overran a water battery, and pushed toward Fort Johnson. As a result of the exercise of Murphy’s Law resulting in lack of support from the New York regiment, the Fifty-second Pennsylvania was unable to take the Fort. They had to surrender to a force estimated at 150 men when the attack commenced and 300 at the time of his surrender.

In addition to the surrender of 5 officers and 132 men, the failed attempt cost 7 lives. 16 men were wounded.

Paul Hedden has been a resident of James Island for over two decades. He is the author of more than forty articles about the amazing history of James Island, most concerning the Civil War on James Island, which appeared in the James Island Messenger. Paul is an avid researcher and writer about the history and geography of South Carolina’s Lowcountry. His interests have brought him to participation nationally with the Civil War Preservation Trust and notice by the National Trust for Historic Preservation through his work with the Seashore Farmers Lodge on Sol Legare Road. Paul was one of five members of the Concerned Citizens of Sol Legare (pronounced Sol Legree) Seashore Farmers Lodge Museum and Cultural Center restoration committee, which traveled to Buffalo, N.Y. in October of 2011 to accept an honor award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation at its annual preservation conference. He is Chairman Town of James Island History Commission (2015 – present) and a member of Friends of the Old Exchange, the S.C. Historical Society, the Charleston Library Society, Friends of McLeod Plantation, and the Slave Dwelling Project.

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