Expedition of Dahlgren's Marine Battalions up the Broad River, S.C.

Copyright Regimental Studies, Inc. 1996
Electronic text prepared by Gary W. Myers

The Battles of Honey Hill and Tullifinny Crossroads from the Naval Perspective

The unhappy results of the Fort Sumter episode did not diminish Dahlgren's interest in naval field forces. In late 1864, the admiral formed a new Naval Brigade, alternately referred to as the "Fleet Brigade," to participate in operations intended to complement the march of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman's armies from Atlanta to the sea. This new brigade was organized following a request for cooperation from Maj. Gen. John G. Foster, whose army forces were preparing for an expedition up the Broad River at Port Royal, South Carolina. Their goal was to sever the Charleston and Savannah Railroad, the main supply artery connecting Savannah to the remainder of the Confederacy to the north. The railroad passed to within a few miles of the proposed landing site of the joint expedition. Foster expected that the Rebel railroad defenses would be weakened by the withdrawal of troops to meet Sherman's advance and would therefore be particularly ripe for a successful attack. The hastily assembled "Coast Division" numbered over 5,000 men: two army brigades, the Fleet Brigade and elements of three army batteries. Unlike the admiral's previous brigade, this smaller formation was drawn entirely from within the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

The marine component of Admiral Dahlgren's second Naval Brigade was entrusted to 1st Lt. George G. Stoddard, who was detached from service aboard the USS New Hampshire for that purpose. Stoddard received word of his assignment on November 24, 1864, the same day that the admiral directed Capt. Joseph F. Green, senior officer of of the Charleston blockade, to send all available marines from the vessels under his command to Port Royal; Dahlgren himself was already stripping the vessels off Port Royal of their own ships' guards. The Charleston marines were dispatched aboard the sidewheel gunboat Pontiac and headed for the assembly area at Bay Point on Phillip's Island, Port Royal Bay. Stoddard was charged with seeing that the marines were instructed in battalion drill and equipped for service in the field. A levy of "contrabands" was detailed to perform the cooking and fatigue duties of the assembling Fleet Brigade, so that they might not be distracted from their drill. The marines were intended to make up one third of the new brigade, a similar organizational framework to Dahlgren's previous formation. They were to fill the role of infantry, while one battalion of "sailor infantry" operated as skirmishers and another formed an artillery component. This artillery unit was made up largely of sailors drawn from the naval battery at Morris Island, since Dahlgren lacked experienced men at Port Royal. Command of the brigade devolved onto Cmdr. George H. Preble, USN, a veteran of almost thirty years in the service. Preble hoped to redeem his reputation in this expedition, since it remained tarnished after he had allowed the Confederate raider CSS Florida to run the blockade at Mobile in late 1862.

The admiral stressed to his battalion commanders that the drill utilized should be as simple as possible, indicating that "the evolutions (should) be simply from the order of march to action, and the reverse." It was expected, therefore, that the marines would operate in skirmish order and would in battle protect the two four-gun batteries of naval howitzers. With an anticipated date of movement four days from the organization's inception, accomplishment of even this limited a command of battlefield maneuver was difficult. Lieutenant Stoddard's task was not made any easier by the fact that he was the only marine officer assigned to the brigade. Indeed, he was the only marine officer in the squadron at that time. The other officers with the marine battalion were Acting Ensign Woodward Carter, like Stoddard detached from the New Hampshire, and admiral's clerk J. R. Stanley, who served as battalion adjutant. A marine sergeant filled the role of captain for each small company. Since the last of the ships' guards did not arrive at the Bay Point assembly area until the evening of November 27, Stoddard's 157-man battalion did not get to begin practicing their drill evolutions until the 28th. That very evening they embarked on the USS Sonoma for the trip up the Broad River.

Battle of Honey Hill

Some of the expedition's vessels went up the wrong river, some grounded, and it was the Naval Brigade that first arrived intact at the landing site. Stoddard had divided his command into three lettered companies (A, B and C). At daylight on November 29, Company A went ashore in ship's boats at Boyd's Landing, on Boyd's Creek, off the Broad River. The other elements of the Naval Brigade, which numbered just under 500 men, soon followed, and at 7:30 a.m. the marines began their advance, driving back Rebel pickets along the way. When the Boyd's Landing Road reached a dead end at the Coosawhatchie-Savannah Road, Preble chose to follow the right hand route, thereby taking the Naval Brigade north and away from the Grahamville Road, which was his objective. The brigade marched three miles before realizing the error, and was compelled to counter march four miles before at last reaching the Grahamville Road. By this time it had joined up with the army contingent of the expedition under the command of Brig. Gen. John P. Hatch. The counter-marching was especially hard on the naval batteries, which, aided by the "sailor infantry," were obliged to haul their own guns with tow-ropes since they lacked the requisite horses. While the tired Naval Brigade rested, the army column continued on; unfortunately, they too took a wrong road and returned to their starting point. The next morning, November 30, the advance on the Charleston and Savannah Railroad began again, minus two of the lightest howitzers from the naval batteries, which had been detached in order to stay behind and guard the Union rear. The Naval Brigade was posted in the rear of the Union line of march.

Diagram of Honey Hill Battle
The Battle of Honey Hill - Naval Perspective

The Federal troops had advanced no more than five or six miles when they collided with squadrons of Col. Charles J. Colcock's 3rd South Carolina Cavalry and mixed units of Georgia Militia under Gen. Gustavus W. Smith. Smith's Georgians, veterans of the fighting at Griswoldville, had just arrived the night before on the Charleston and Savannah Railroad after being rerouted from Savannah by Maj. Gen. William J. Hardee. At about 9:15 a.m., the first artillery shell exploded among the advancing Federals, precipitating the Battle of Honey Hill. The Union column pushed back the advanced Confederate detachments for over three miles, until it developed the main Rebel line at about 11:00 a.m. Through Colcock's delaying actions, the Confederates were able to complete a mile-long line of rifle-pits and trenches, bolstered by artillery redoubts on either side of the Grahamville Road. Facing a continuous storm of musketry fire and inhospitable terrain, the Federals were unable to close with the Confederate line, and in the seeming absence of any tactical battle plans from General Hatch, the Union assault remained sporadic and fragmented all along the front.

The marines were initially kept in reserve, but about two hours into the engagement Stoddard's battalion was ordered forward along with the 55th Massachusetts, relieving the 144th New York on the right of the Union line. The marines advanced slowly through nearly a mile of thick woods and swamp before going into line of battle on the double-quick. After this formation change, they exchanged fire with Confederate infantry and artillery for about three hours. The battalion's acting quartermaster-sergeant, J. Cogley, braved heavy Confederate fire to keep his marines supplied with ammunition from the rear. Around 2:00 p.m., Ensign Carter took 20 marines and attempted to feel out the Confederate left flank. Unfortunately, after moving some 200 yards without finding the flank, and likely feeling uncomfortable about his separation from the main line, Carter led his detachment back to its starting point. Stoddard's marines could see only a small portion of the battlefield, but it was evident that the attempt to push through to the railroad was proving unsuccessful. Unable to break through the entrenched Confederates, the marines withdrew with the rest of the Federal troops that evening.

Stoddard's battalion helped cover the withdrawal and established itself near its original position, where the marines prepared defenses and performed picket duty. Despite the length of the engagement at Honey Hill, the day's fighting had left but one marine killed, six wounded and one missing. The marines were posted on the left of the naval batteries, whose march to and from the Honey Hill battlefield had been eased by the charitable loan of some artillery horses from the army. For the next few days Stoddard took advantage of the lull to drill his marines. They had performed better than reasonably could have been expected during the fighting at Honey Hill, and the opportunity for drill could serve only to enhance their unit cohesion and ability to function creditably in battle.

Battle of Tullifinny Crossroads

Rebuffed in the attempt to break the railroad, Admiral Dahlgren and General Foster decided to try a different approach. Late on the night of December 5, the Naval Brigade set off for its embarkation point once more, this time to board the flag-steamer Philadelphia for another assault against the railroad. The latest attempt would be launched further north by way of the Tullifinny River. Lieutenant Stoddard had managed to squeeze in just three days of drill between the actions. This time Brig. Gen. Edward E. Potter's 1st Brigade landed first and moved inland toward the Charleston & Savannah Railroad bridge across the Tullifinny River. The Federals quickly came into contact with a motley assemblage of Confederate state militia and South Carolina military academy cadets, but once again failed to punch through to their objective. The marines, advancing on the right of the naval batteries, did not come under fire until about 11:00 a.m., two hours after the Battle of Tullifinny Crossroads had begun. The Naval Brigade had been unavoidably delayed when their landing site turned out to be tangled and marshy, requiring construction of a temporary log road to move the howitzers.

The marines were shifted about from one flank to the other during the day's engagement, finally ending up in support of an army battery in the center. Company C was under Acting Ensign Carter, on whom Stoddard conferred the dignity of "acting major" of marines while serving with the battalion, and was on picket during the night at the extreme left of the Union line, away from the rest of the battalion. The marines had left behind their blankets and overcoats before entering battle, and that night they slept in the open under a heavy rain.

At daylight the next morning the Confederates counterattacked, driving back the troops on Company C's right, effectively cutting them off from the rest of the Federal force. Carter's marines maintained their discipline and organization, however, and he managed to extricate them from their uncomfortable position with the loss of only one man wounded. The Confederate assault sputtered out about midday, and the Union troops fell to fortifying their position and preparing to make another assault on the Rebels on December 9. On December 8 the battalion, which had lost almost a dozen of its number since setting out, received a welcome reinforcement of twenty-five men from the ships' guards of the Cimarron and the Donegal. They had been forwarded by the admiral once the losses from the Honey Hill battle had become known.

The next day, in the third attempt to sever the railroad, the Federals again attacked at the Tullifinny River bridge, and later at nearby Coosawhatchie. The marines occupied the extreme right of the 600-man Federal "skirmish brigade." The renewed assault began at about 9:00 a.m., with the objective of clearing 100-foot wide lines of fire through the woods to allow Union artillery to shell the railroad, since it seemed impossible to break through the Confederate defenses. Stoddard's battalion was posted on the right of the line, the men in one rank and about two paces apart. Advancing against the Confederate position, the marines trudged doggedly through tangled swamp that was in some places waist-deep. The skirmish line was supported by another 1,000 Union troops, which, in turn, were followed by the ax-wielding 25th Ohio, felling trees to form the required lines of fire. Stoddard's battalion successfully advanced to within fifty yards of the Confederate defenders in an attempt to charge a Confederate battery, but it became entangled in a dense thicket and pulled back under a heavy shelling. When the order for the skirmishers to withdraw was given shortly thereafter, the marines did not receive it. The lieutenant, in fact, had been contemplating charging the Rebel lines once again, but with the retreat of the troops on their left, the marines found themselves isolated. The Confederates surged forward to pursue the withdrawing Federal line, and Stoddard pulled back and tried to extricate his endangered battalion.

In this instance, at least, the dense swamp served Stoddard's marines well, as they eluded Confederate pursuit and made their way back to the Tullifinny River.

From there, Stoddard slipped his battalion through Southern units looking for Union stragglers and at last made his way back to the original position. The heavy skirmishing continued, however, and the marines were assigned a new post on the Federal left. The Fleet Brigade helped to repel Rebel counterattacks throughout the afternoon while the work of cutting the fire lanes was being carried out. It was now the Confederates' turn to assault through the wooded swamp land, and they were no more successful than the exhausted Union troops had been. The Federal forces found the new objective of setting up artillery positions to bombard the railroad to be a more manageable task. After cutting the woods to permit a sufficient field of fire, they withdrew to their artillery positions at about 3:00 p.m., while beating off Rebel attacks until shortly after dark.

Thereafter, the operation took on the aspect of a stalemate, with the Confederate forces too weak to repulse the entrenched Federals and with the Federal forces too small to break through the Rebel defenders. There was to be no more serious fighting. The Federal troops established a number of batteries at varying ranges from the railroad in what were essentially siege operations. The marines provided support for the naval batteries when they participated several times in shelling the railroad, but most of their time was spent in duties about camp and in drill.

Foster was not pleased when the expedition sputtered to a halt. The goal had been to "prepare for the arrival of General Sherman," and with that officer's seizure of Savannah on December 21, coupled with the persistent heavy rains that inhibited operations, the continued presence of the Naval Brigade and its army associates was no longer a priority. On December 27, the Naval Brigade was transported to Bay Point, arriving on the morning of December 28. The sailor elements of the brigade were dispersed to their respective vessels, while the marines went into camp. On January 5, 1865, the Marine battalion was finally disbanded, the ship's guards returning to their posts.

Stoddard's battalion had lost 23 killed, wounded and missing during their six weeks of service. Admiral Dahlgren had described the Naval Brigade as being, upon its departure for battle, "as carefully drilled as the brief space of time allowed." Considering that the marines' battalion drill was the work of a single afternoon, and that the entire force was made up of tiny detachments from a dozen vessels throughout the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, its members performed far better than anyone had a right to expect. This is to say nothing of the fact that only one Marine officer, a junior lieutenant filling a field-grade command, was with the battalion throughout its operations. Both the admiral's clerk Stanley, who missed the Tullifinny Crossroads battles on account of illness, and especially Acting Ensign Carter, performed creditably. Preble's acting adjutant, Lt.-Cmdr. A. F. Crosman, joined the marines during both battles as a volunteer so as not to impinge upon Stoddard's authority, who was his junior in rank. Still, the marines earned the approval of the admiral for their good work, and Stoddard received a captain's brevet for his services.

The Broad River expedition represented the last Marine field operation of any size within the area of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. The focus of coastal action moved northward with Sherman's armies, and many of the marines who had gained experience by their participation in Admiral Dahlgren's Naval Brigades would go on to serve with the ill-fated naval column in the bloody assault on Fort Fisher, North Carolina in early 1865.

Excerpted with permission from pp. 100-107 of:
"To the Shores of Carolina:
Admiral John A. Dahlgren's Marine Battalions"
by Jeffrey T. Ryan
Civil War Regiments: A Journal of the American Civil War
Volume 5, No. 2
Published by Savas Publishing Company
1475 S. Bascom Ave., Suite 204, Campbell, CA 95008
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