The Deplorible Condition of General Shields’ Command; Federals Near Charleston!

June 10, 1862 (Tuesday)

The beaten and used Federal division under General James Shields was in a sorry, wretched state. Though only two of the four brigades had seen any action since arriving in the Shenandoah Valley, the torturous marches, inundating rains, and a complete breakdown in the supply line left the 10,000 troops thoroughly whipped.

Even prior to fighting the previous day’s battle, orders had been sent for General Shields to withdraw his division away from the Rebels under Stonewall Jackson. (Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 1, p541-542.)) The overall plan was for General Irvin McDowell’s entire First Corps, including Shields, to regroup at Catlett’s Station on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the proceed to Fredericksburg to be used as reinforcements for General McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, outside of Richmond.

This morning, sodden with the rains, found his division marching to Luray, where he was to remain until General Nathaniel Banks could move his force from Winchester to Front Royal. Once Banks arrived, Shields was to leave the Shenandoah Valley.

Before any of Shields’ men could move out, however, they would need to be resupplied. First on the General’s mind was shoes. One-third of his command was barefoot. He requested 12,000. They would also need “4,000 blankets, 9,200 caps… 20,000 socks, 12,000 pants, 10,000 blouses, 12,000 shirts, 12,000 drawers, 5,000 haversacks, 6,100 canteens, 1,600 shelter-tents, 3,500 rubber blankets, 60 drums, 6 bugles, 300 pants (re-enforced), 300 artillery jackets.” He also requested 80,000 rounds of ammunition.

Huge map of the situation in Virginia.

Though this must have seemed like a bit of General Shields’ famous exaggeration, according to General McDowell’s chief of staff, it was troublingly accurate. In all likelihood, none of McDowell’s First Corps would be ready to take the field in less than two weeks. 1

McDowell had been in Washington for the past several days, trying to convince President Lincoln to allow his Corps to rejoin McClellan on the Virginia Peninsula. Lincoln finally relented, but before McDowell was made aware just how tattered his command really was, he promised McClellan that his 40,000 or so men would be within his (McClellan’s) reach in ten days.2

Along with the order for General Shields to withdraw was a similar order for General John C. Fremont, whose force had been beaten and then dodged at Cross Keys over the previous two days. Before the order reached Fremont, however, he was already making his withdraw.

It would take him the better part of the day to move the thirteen miles from Port Republic to Harrisonburg. When he arrived, Lincoln’s message ordering him to hold at Harrisonburg caught up with him. Fremont had retreated from Port Republic as he felt he was in too isolated of a position since Shields had left. At Harrisonburg, he felt much the same way.

General John C. Fremont

“Harrisonburg, however strong in a strategical point of view for an army of larger proportions,” reasoned Fremont, “was to my small command dangerous in the extreme.” Fremont had roughly 14,000 men, about the same number as Stonewall Jackson. Each army was cut off from the other by the South Branch of the Shenandoah River, flooded by rains and bereft of usable bridges. Since Harrisonburg was too much for Fremont, he decided to move another twenty-five miles north to Mount Jackson.3

Fremont claimed that Jackson had been reinforced by General James Longstreet and now numbered up to 35,000 men. If true (it wasn’t), he would be greatly outnumbered and in need of a fine defensive position. All the while, however, Fremont was bragging that he had whipped Jackson twice, once on the 8th, and again on the 9th. On the 8th, his force was soundly defeated at the Battle of Cross Keys. On the 9th, he faced down one small Rebel brigade, which willingly retreated from the field, escaping across the Shenandoah and burning the bridge behind them.4


Federals Edge Closer to Charleston, South Carolina

Escaped slave, Robert Smalls, had stolen the CSS Planter and sailed through Charleston Harbor to the Federal forces forming the blockade. Not only did he offer his skills as a pilot, but he also delivered information on the Confederate defenses of the city.

This intelligence gave General David Hunter, commanding the Union infantry, what he was looking for: a spot to land his troops. On June 2nd, he landed two divisions under General Henry W. Benham, a man known for his skills as an engineer, on the southern end of James Island, just south of the city.

In the ensuing week, he skirmished with Confederates under General John Pemberton, as he moved his 6,500 men up the Stono River. In direct command of the Rebel infantry was General Nathan “Shanks” Evans, the victorious commander at Ball’s Bluff. Evans had placed Colonel T. G. Lamar, and 750 men, at Tower Battery near the town of Secessionville, in the center of the island. The defenses consisted of nine pieces of heavy artillery. Nearby were encamped 2,000 additional infantry troops, manning the defenses blocking the way to Charleston, but ready to fall in at a moment’s notice for a quick march to the battery, which had been renamed Fort Lamar. At the northern end of the island was Fort Johnston, a former United States fort, that was Hunter’s main objective.

Spring rains had slowed the Federal advance as the Rebels contested the movement, often with the heavy artillery. On the 9th, General Evans marched his command across the island. The Federals had build entrenchments a bit inland from Grimball’s Landing (known as Grimball’s Farm), and to contest these works, General Pemberton placed a battery in an isolated position near a Presbyterian Church.

A Confederate infantry brigade was moved to support the battery and to make an assault upon the Federal positions. At first, the Rebels gained ground through the surrounding woods, as Union skirmishers fell back to their main position. Feeling emboldened, the Confederates upped their pace to a charge, which was met by a deadly volley from the Federal rifle pits. The Rebels surged forward, coming to within ten paces of the Union works, but could go no farther.

To add to the fodder, a Pennsylvania regiment had gotten upon the Confederate left flank and poured round after round into them, cutting the attackers down, before the assault was broken.

General Benham is ready!

Twenty minutes later, the Rebels had regrouped and were making a second go at it, but the Federal line had been bolstered by field artillery and shells from the naval gunboats. Both sides pounded away at each other for two hours. It then became clear that any further fighting would be pointless. The Rebels broke off the attack, but not before losing as many as seventy dead and wounded.

This small skirmish had been a decided Union victory. It sent shockwaves through Charleston, as General Pemberton wired Richmond for reinforcements, as he recalled the infantry to their works closer to the city. The skirmish also placed the Federals in a holding pattern.5

“In leaving the Stono River to return to Hilton Head,” wrote General Hunter to General Benham, left in command of the infantry, “I desire, in any arrangements that you may make for the disposition of your forces now in this vicinity, you will make no attempt to advance on Charleston or to attack Fort Johnson until largely re-enforced or until you receive specific instructions from these headquarters to that effect.”

His Federal troops had made a landing, a foothold, and he was more or less satisfied. Benham was ordered to improve his works, see to his men and then return to Hilton Head, leaving the two division under the command General Isaac Stevens.6

This was a direct order from General Hunter not to attack.

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p367-368. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 1, p288. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 1, p24. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p372-373. This dispatch from General Banks is dated 1:30am on the 12th, but it’s safe to assume that Fremont was saying such things on the 10th. []
  5. Sessionville by Patrick Brennan, Savas, 1996. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 14, p46. []
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The Deplorible Condition of General Shields’ Command; Federals Near Charleston! by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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