June 16, 1862 (Monday)
Before dawn, the division under Union General Isaac Stevens was within rifle range of the Confederate positions on James Island, just south of Charleston, South Carolina. They had moved swiftly and undetected several miles through the dark from their camps and fortifications. The overall Federal commander, General Henry Benham, had been ordered by department commander, General David Hunter, to keep his 6,600 men behind their embrasures. Instead, on this overcast morning, he was drawn up to assail Fort Lamar, an “M” shaped earthwork, fortified with 2,000 or so Rebel infantry and artillery under General “Shanks” Evans.
They attacked at 4am, storming out of the woods, which had hid them from the Rebel fort. Men from Massachusetts, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, led by two regiments from New York and Michigan, paced wild through the narrow ground leading towards the unsuspecting Rebels, driving in or capturing pickets as they went.1
The pickets that alluded arrest alerted Col. Thomas Lamar, in command of the fort bearing his own name. He sent word to General Evans, in camp a mile or so distant, and prepared his batteries to meet the invaders. Lamar leaped upon a large, 8-inch columbiad and aimed it himself at the Union line, now advancing at the double-quick and only 700 yards distant. With grapeshot, the guns from the fort exploded upon the center of the enemy’s line, splitting it to the left and right, throwing bodies like dolls, and buying time for his infantry to take their places. The Rebels then unleashed cannister upon their hurrying foes.2
Though the hail and blood, a Michigan regiment had scaled the parapets and were firing into the Confederate works, just occupied by fresh infantry, which fought back with savage ferocity. Seeing the Michiganders wavering, the New York Highlanders surged forward on their right, clambered up the embankment and fired down upon the Rebel gunners, killing them at their posts.
As Confederate reinforcements fleshed out their works, General Stevens pushed forward a Connecticut regiment into the thin passage. The Michigan troops were mauled, and the New Yorkers were fairing little better. Soon after ordering the Pennsylvania and Massachusetts units to join the fray, Stevens realized that it wasn’t working, and ordered his command to fall back to the woods to await reinforcements.
As his men were reforming, on his left, he saw troops under Col. Robert Williams moving to his aid. Behind was an entire the entire division of General Horatio Wright. With them was General Benham, arriving to direct the battle. These men would more than double the attacking force.3
Several regiments from Williams’ command moved in on Stevens’ left, but were caught in a crossfire from Rebels at the fort and a detachment of infantry and artillery even farther to their left. While his brigades were forming line of battle, General Wright ordered a battery of field artillery to fire upon the Rebel detachment and soon was able to silence their guns.4
The remaining regiments of Stevens’ Division, as well as the troops from Williams’ Brigade fired at long range upon the Rebel fort, which replied with volley after volley of artillery. To storm the works, across the narrow stretch of ground commanded so completely by the Confederate guns would have been pointlessly futile. General Benham, at 9am, ordered a withdraw. Gathering as many dead and wounded as they could, the Federal troops retired back to their camps, several miles away.
Though clearly a defeat, General Benham refused to even acknowledge the affair as a battle. In his report, he asserted that “the main object of the reconnaissance was accomplished in ascertaining the nature of the fort….”5
For merely a reconnaissance, the casualties were shocking. Federal losses numbered 107 killed, 487 wounded and 89 missing. The Confederates lost 52 killed, 144 wounded and 8 missing.6
Department commander, General Hunter, headquartered at Hilton Head, would not learn of Benham’s insubordination and defeat for another two days.
Lee Orders Jackson to Leave the Valley
In the Shenandoah Valley, General Stonewall Jackson awaited the return of his envoy from Richmond, Congressman Alexander Boteler. Jackson had sent him to request reinforcements from General Robert E. Lee, so he (Jackson) could launch a campaign into Pennsylvania.
Boteler returned to Jackson’s army, near Port Republic, with a verbal message from Lee. The invasion into Pennsylvania would take more troops than could be spared from the Army of Northern Virginia. In all probability, Jackson and his army, newly reinforced to 18,000, was about to be called to Richmond.
Later that day, a written message from Lee arrived. “The present seems to be favorable for a junction of your army and this,” suggested Lee. “If you agree with me, the sooner you can make arrangements to do so, the better.”
Correctly surmising the two forces that had opposed Jackson, Lee continued: “Fremont and Shields are apparently retrograding. If this is so, the sooner you can reunite with this army the better…. Unless McClellan can be driven out of his entrenchments, he will move by positions under cover of his heavy guns within shelling distance of Richmond.”
“I know of no surer way of thwarting him than that proposed,” offered Lee. “I should like to have the advantage of your views and be able to confer with you. Will meet you at some point on your approach to the Chickahominy.”7
Though worded as a mere suggestion to be undertaken should Jackson agree, it was, in reality, an order. Jackson was to bring his 18,000 men across the Blue Ridge to Richmond. As Jackson prepared his men to move out, he kept Lee’s order a secret, not even telling the officers under him.
The Federal troops under Generals Fremont and Shields had indeed retrograded. Fremont was still at Mount Jackson, while Shields had retreated all the way back to Front Royal. General Irvin McDowell’s First Corps, including Shields’ and Ord’s Divisions, was being moved from the Valley to join McClellan’s Army of the Potomac before Richmond. Holding their own against what they suspected were great multitudes of Rebels under Stonewall Jackson, were Generals Fremont and Banks, the latter moving south from Winchester to take the place of McDowell’s transient troops.
If he moved quickly enough, Jackson, with a shorter distance to Richmond, would arrive well before McDowell.8
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 14, p59. Stevens’ Report. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 14, p94. Lamar’s Report. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 14, p59-60. Stevens’ Report. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 14, p55. Wright’s Report. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 14, p53. Benham’s Report. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 14, p51, 90. Casualty Reports. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p913. [↩]
- Shenandoah 1862 by Peter Cozzens, University of North Carolina, 2008. [↩]