How to Get the Troops You Need to Attack Charleston

August 6, 1863 (Thursday)

Gillmore: My dear tall horse, how will I ever find the troops I need?
Gillmore: My dear tall horse, how will I ever find the troops I need?

Following the Union defeat at Battery Wagner, guarding the entrance to Charleston Harbor, there had been much debate. General Quincy Adams Gillmore wanted, of course, to take another crack at it, but his force had been reduced, via battle and illness, to a mere 6,000. He had called for reinforcements, asking General-in-Chief Henry Halleck in Washington to send upwards of 10,000 veteran troops. Gillmore believed that the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg would free up enough men to take Battery Wagner and seize the birth city of secession.

Fearing that he would get no help from Washington (and that perhaps the whole campaign would be called off), Gillmore wanted to make sure he had an ally. If the army could not supply the troops, perhaps the Navy could. Gillmore turned to Admiral John Dalgren, commanding the gunboats in the vicinity. Dahlgren had aided Gillmore the best he could during the initial assault, and might again be of some service.

Both Gillmore and Dahlgren agreed that it would be suicidal to launch another attack without additional troops. Together, they tried to work out different plans of attack and ways of subduing Battery Wagner. At first, Gillmore hoped that the Navy could supply enough Marines to add the needed weight to the land attack. Dalgren, however, didn’t even have 300 men.

What he did have, however, was the ear of Naval Secretary Gideon Welles. Without asking Secretary Welles to do the bidding of an Admiral, Dahlgren simply brought the matter to his attention. Though the Rebels were digging in and improving their defenses, 20,000 men, all told, might just win the day. Dahlgren, of course, understood that this matter should have been brought up to the War Department, but also figured that Welles might be interested to know as well, since it was a joint operation.

Welles was indeed interested. As soon as he received Dahlgren’s letter (on the 26th of July), he sent the Assistant Secretary, Gustavus Fox, to General Halleck’s office. Halleck, however, rebuffed him, telling Fox that Gillmore had never asked for reinforcements, and that he would see to the Army if Fox and Welles would see to the Navy.

The mail arriving from the Carolina Coast was apparently slow and random. Both Gillmore and Dahlgren wrote Halleck and Welles, respectively, on July 21st. Welles received Dahlgren’s on the 26th, but Halleck claims not to have received Gillmore’s until two days later.

Dahlgren: Let me see what I can do. I know a guy.
Dahlgren: Let me see what I can do. I know a guy.

General Halleck was in no way at all prepared to send reinforcements to Gillmore. “You were distinctly informed that you could not have any additional troops,” wrote Halleck in reply, “and it was only on the understand that none would be required that I consented to your undertaking operations on Morris Island [against Battery Wagner]. Had it been supposed that you would require more troops, the operations would not have been attempted with my consent or that of the Secretary of War.”

Halleck insisted that “every man that we could possibly rake and scrape together is in the field in face of the enemy.” If he took troops from the Army of the Potomac, he feared that the Confederate Cavalry would raid northward. If troops were taken from any of the major cities, the draft could not be protected and would have to be abandoned.

Neither could help come from the West. Nathaniel Banks’ Army of the Gulf was depleted, and Grant’s was already being stripped and sent to Burnside and Rosecrans. In fact, General Halleck ran down a list of every single army in the field, explaining why none could spare even a regiment to take Charleston. “And now,” he concluded, “at this critical junction, comes your urgent but unexpected application for 8,000 additional troops for Morris Island. It is, to say the least, seriously embarrassing.”

Welles: By my fuzzy face, I'll get you your troops!
Welles: By my fuzzy face, I’ll get you your troops!

Halleck, apparently, did not wish to seem uncaring to Gillmore’s plight, and ordered a brigade of black soldiers, 2,000-strong, to be shifted from North Carolina to South Carolina. These were untested troops and far too little.

Shortly after Halleck wrote Gillmore, he was paid a visit by Secretary Welles and President Lincoln. Wells approached Lincoln, and showed him Dahlgren’s message, telling him that Gillmore needed reinforcements if they wished to capture Charleston. Such a mission ought not to fail. Fortunately for Welles, Dahlgren and Gillmore, the President fully agreed.

From where the troops might be plucked was still a looming question. The most opportune basket appeared to be the Army of the Potomac. According to Welles, Lincoln had lost faith that General Meade would ever attack General Lee (this was before Lincoln called off the pursuit). With that more or less agreed upon, they met with General Halleck. It should be noted that Secretary Welles really really disliked Henry Halleck. He did so, however, in some very colorful ways.

Welles referred to Halleck in his diary as a man “who lacks power, sagacity, ability, comprehension, and foresight to devise, propose, plan, and direct great operations.” He continued, writing that Halleck, when hearing that troops were needed, “will not strengthen it, or move, till calamity overtakes it, or he is himself ordered to do his duty. Halleck originates nothing, anticipates nothing, to assist others; takes no responsibility, plans nothing, suggests nothing, is good for nothing. His being at Headquarters is a national misfortune.”

Halleck: I'm a national misfortune!
Halleck: I’m a national misfortune!

With such scornful words, one might easily believe that President Lincoln had been convinced by General Halleck that Gideon Welles was a madman and the entire campaign against Charleston had been called off. But such was not the case. In two day’s time, Lincoln ordered the War Department to furnish troops. Counting the brigade already promised, they rounded up 5,000 men with the addition of two additional brigades from the Army of the Potomac. The brigades came from the XI Corps. Specifically, the division of General George Gordon, who had replaced Alexander Schimmelfennig, would be soon heading to South Carolina. Gordon would receive notice on August 7, and would move out soon after. The black brigade, by this point, had already arrived.

On this day, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had a few things to say about Charleston as well. He had recently sent heavy artillery and more than a brigade of infantry to the besieged city, but also wanted to send along some reassurance. “Be assured,” he wrote to South Carolina’s Governor M.L. Bonham, “the executive branch of the Government will continue to do all that is possible for the safety and relief of the city, which we pray will never be polluted by the footsteps of a lustful, inhuman foe. It must never pass to the even temporary subjection of the mean and cruel enemy.”1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 28, Part 2, p23-24, 226, 29, 30, 39; Vol. 53, p293-294; Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 14, p380-382, 401; Diary, Vol. 1 by Gideon Welles; Gate of Hell by Stephen R. Wise. []
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