A Government of Men Episode 14: Keeping the home fires burning

  • Wednesday, April 25, 2012

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article may include historical materials that could contain offensive language or negative stereotypes. Such materials must be viewed in the context of the relevant time period. The Georgetown Times does not endorse the views expressed in such materials.

By Tom Rubillo

Thanks to the very thorough research of local historian and scholar Rod Gragg of Horry County, events in Georgetown County during the war have been clearly, accurately and meticulously chronicled and preserved. His typewritten treatise can be found in the local history room of the library in town under the title The Forgotten Front: A Military History of Georgetown County in the Civil War, 1861-1865. It provides the following actual history of the area during those years of fratricide and worse.

South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860. Ten days later, Governor F.W. Pickens (the guy who, readers may recall, swore to the gods of war saying he preferred ruin to submission) asked plantation owners for slaves to build gun batteries to protect Winyah Bay. “Life and honor will be at stake if we suffer marauding bands to enter our ports,” he said. As a result, slaves from the area’s plantations dug entrenchments and constructed earthen forts on each side of the bay’s channel. At war’s end, officers of the occupying army praised the quality of both the design and construction of these redoubts.

Within a month, the Georgetown Rifle Guards were organized and requisitioned artillery pieces for the new barricades. Having wined and dined everyone, purchased Enfield rifles, uniforms, knapsacks and other equipment, as well as having furnished four young slaves-one who played the fife and three who were drummers-and four older slaves (with picks, spades and shovels) to clear marching routes, local planter C. Plowden Weston of Hagley Plantation (among other holdings) was elected as Captain of Company A by his new comrades in arms.

Rumors circulated of an impending invasion. White people were “greatly alarmed” for their own safety and the safety of their property. Slaves viewed the news differently.

Early in 1861, the local barricades were manned by the assembled squads of the Georgetown Rifle Guards, with Major Richard G. White, a Citadel graduate, commanding.

In April, 1861, Fort Sumter was bombarded. Shortly thereafter, replacement troops arrived at Georgetown, relieving the Rifle Guards at the defensive earthworks then still under construction. While awaiting new orders, the Rifle Guards did a lot of marching around the parade ground in uniform while cheered on as heroes by their wives, sweethearts, and children standing on the sidelines. They would earn all that admiration and affection and more on the bloody battlefields that lay ahead.

In July, the Rifle Guards were ordered to become part of the 10th Regiment, South Carolina Volunteers. That regiment’s 10 companies saw and suffered more carnage and anguish than can be imagined today while sitting comfortably while reading, a century and a half later and with no war just outside the door. The 10th Regiment’s casualty rate numbered among the highest of all units on both sides of the grim violence of the Civil War.

Back in Georgetown, in November 1861, Robert E. Lee inspected the coastal defenses. Fortifications on South Island and Cat Island had 11 artillery pieces, six on one side of the water and five on the other. The barracks there were “comfortable.” The problem Lee found on his tour was that a lot of the men stationed at the forts were sick with measles, mumps, typhoid fever and dysentery. There were 31 deaths from disease around this time.

Also in November, the U.S.S. James Adger and the U.S.S. Gem of the Sea arrived and set up a blockade of Winyah Bay. This sparked a reassignment of the 10th Regiment, South Carolina Volunteers (including the Georgetown Rifle Guards) back to defend against the much feared invasion. By this time, the 10th Regiment had 12 full companies of infantrymen, two troops of cavalry, a unit of mounted rifles and an artillery company. When everything was in place, there were 925 men stationed in defense of Georgetown.

Paranoia diminished

By March 1862, invasion paranoia had diminished. The 10th South Carolina Volunteers (including the Georgetown Rifle Guards) were transferred back to the front of battle. A cadre of 400 was left behind to man gun emplacements and patrol the beaches.

In April 1862, the U.S.S. Keystone State joined the flotilla, along with the U.S.S. James Adger and the U.S.S. Gem of the Sea, performing blockade duties. Around this time, the Ward family, owners of large plantations and 1,000+ slaves, sponsored formation of the Waccamaw Light Artillery. With Captain Joshua Ward elected as commanding, that company took up patrol duties along the coast. Two younger Ward brothers were also elected as officers.

In the months that followed, slaves began deserting local plantations and making their way to U.S. Navy vessels prowling the coastline. Valuable intelligence about local defenses was gathered from these fugitives. As a result, the U.S.S. Albatross was summoned to steam into Winyah Bay to test its defenses. Scouting parties dispatched to the strangely silent forts found those had been abandoned. They were armed only with “Quaker guns” - tree trunks sawed off to look like cannons from a distance.

Having no resistance in the bay, the U.S.S. Albatross steamed into the Sampit River and cruised along the town’s wharves with its guns trained at ante-bellum Georgetown’s buildings. Several local women defiantly spread a Confederate flag across the town clock. The Albatross sailed away.

The report of Commander George Prentiss, USN reads “The rebels are just now very much frightened and are leaving their plantations in every direction, driving their slaves before them.” It also notes: “I have seen no part of the South that equals it [the local estuaries] in beauty and fruitfulness ....,” praise given without any encouragement by the Visitor’s Bureau at the Chamber of Commerce.

The next Union local foray here occurred in the middle of June 1862 when the U.S.S. Gem of the Sea entered Winyah Bay and landed at South Island. They discovered that fortification there had been deserted.

Shortly thereafter, four gunboats — U.S.S. Albatross, the Hale, the Western World and the Andrews steamed up the Santee, firing on plantations along the way. Marines were landed and there was a skirmish with local defenders. One Marine was shot in the leg.

By July 1862, 700 deserting slaves had been picked up by naval personnel. They were shipped to Port Royal, SC which, by then, had fallen into Union hands. In the months that followed, there were many more raids by the Navy and Marines. Barns were burned, slaves were freed and rice, basic tools, property and other provisions were expropriated without compensation - stolen.

Defended by only the newly formed Waccamaw Light Artillery and five companies of calvary, all of which were poorly armed, Georgetown County was basically defenseless against the looting.

In August 1862, the U.S.S. Pocahontas and the armed tugboat Treaty steamed into the bay looking for the blockade runner Nina. Not finding her, the Treaty steamed 20 miles inland on the Black River. The Waccamaw Light Artillery arrived, set up and exchanged fire with the Pocahontas. Cavalry reinforcements arrived and engaged the landing party from the ship in a firefight. Locals outmaneuvered the sailors, catching the seamen in a crossfire. The landing party retreated.

During the excitement, the U.S.S. Pocahontas ran aground and had to be freed by the tugboat Treaty. The two vessels then fled under fire. The assistant engineer on the tug was shot in the stomach with a mini ball.

Battery White

Slave labor completed the fortifications at Battery White and Fraser’s Point in October or early November 1862. The central earthen redoubt facing the bay at Battery White was flanked by smaller gun emplacements. The earthen magazine was behind the main battery. Barracks and cavalry stables were in the rear, with a moat behind those. Additional earthworks faced South Island Road to defend against an attack from the rear. The Waccamaw Light Artillery, along with an additional artillery company from elsewhere, one additional company of cavalry, and a detachment of reservists serving a 90 day enlistment manned these defense.

When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, there were 477 regular troops and 500 reservists defending Georgetown County. Most of those defenders were sick (and/or hung over from New Year’s Eve). Only 55 could report for duty that day.

In February, the U.S.S. Quaker City captured a detachment of the Waccamaw Light Infantry in a skirmish on the Santee River. The infantrymen were sent to New York City as prisoners of war.

Sometime during this same period, 152 cavalrymen were divided into two groups. They were designated “A” Troop and “F” Troop. Their commanders were chosen by higher authorities rather than by popular election to avoid “incompetent” elected leadership. When that new, chosen commander arrived, he reported “In my opinion, there are many such [incompetents] in this command.”

In April, 1863, the gunboats U.S.S. Monticello and U.S.S. Matthew Vasser spotted and shelled five blockade runners entering Murrells Inlet. The blockade runner Golden Liner was set ablaze. It was loaded with coffee, sugar, flour and brandy to swap for a load of cotton. One navy seaman was captured.

In May, 1863, the gunboats U.S.S. Chocura and Monticello steamed into Murrells Inlet and shelled the blockade runners moored there. A landing party was dispatched. One sailor was killed and three were badly wounded. A few days later, the same gunboats returned and shelled five schooners and set 100 bales of cotton ablaze.

Also in May, Confederate Sgt. J. M. Nelson called his commanders “damned rascals” and “g.d.s.o.b.’s” and was reduced in rank for expressing his opinion.

In early June, the U.S.S. Comech sailed into Winyah Bay, dispatching a landing party to burn a bridge under construction at South Island. It also fired on the Cat Island fortification.

This activity caused fear to spread among owners (and hope among slaves) that more raids would soon be conducted directly against plantations. Everyone would have to wait a while before any of that would start.

The autumn harvest of 1863 resulted in lots of cotton being shipped from Murrells Inlet by blockade runners in exchange for all sorts of trade goods. On October 19, the blockade runner Rover ran aground and was unloaded by its crew and then burned. A curious Captain aboard the gunboat U.S.S. T.A. Ward sent a 17-sailor patrol ashore. It was ambushed by the local cavalry. Seven members of the landing party escaped in boats, two of whom were wounded. The remaining 10 (9 seamen and 1 officer) were captured and have been missing without any written trace yet discovered.

In December, the U.S.S. Perry shelled the Cecilia out of Nassau near the entrance to Murrells Inlet. A 22-man party boarded the Cecilia and set her afire. There was hand-to-hand combat which the Confederates won. They captured 12 seamen. Seaman John Pickham was wounded and unable to get up. Confederate Capt. H. K. Harrison shot and killed — murdered, really — the otherwise disabled prisoner of war. Two of the surviving captured sailors later died in Andersonville Prison, the camp with the infamous “dead line” that was fatal to cross. (Its German-born Commandant would be, at war’s end, the first person in the history of the world to be convicted of war crimes. He was executed by hanging.)

Capt. Harrison and his men marched their captives back to Harrison’s encampment. Once there, United States Navy Seaman George Brimsmaid was separated from the others, taken into the woods by two boys from Georgia and murdered because his skin was brown. By this time, Jefferson Davis had ordered that all people in uniform with dark skin were to be killed rather than captured. He initiated a program of ethnic cleansing of prisoners of war. Today, this order would be called both a war crime and a crime against humanity.

Because of this incident Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren, Commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, issued an order forbidding landing parties in Murrells Inlet. A retaliatory raid of 350 soldiers, sailors and Marines was ordered. The U.S.S. Nipsic, Sanford, Daffodil, Geranium, Ethan Allen and George Mangham steamed to Murrells Inlet on December 30 in preparation for a raid on New Year’s eve. It was canceled when a violent northeastern storm struck.

On January 7, 1864, a blockade runner ran aground at DeBordieu Beach. The Union gunboat sent 27 sailors to board it. A large wave capsized their boat. Three sailors drowned. The remainder waded ashore. They surrendered to three Confederates awaiting them.

Union reinforcements

The war was going badly for the South. Union forces were constantly being reinforced by newly arriving Irish immigrants who were promised citizenship in exchange for their military service. They died in droves and were replaced by even newer arrivals as quickly as they fell. The draft age was expanded in both directions in the South, pulling in both younger and younger replacements as well as increasingly older ones. While the pool of potential draftees widened, so did the loopholes available to the well connected to qualify for a deferment or otherwise dodge the draft.

By March 1864, Georgetown’s defenses were cannibalized for arms and ammunition. The seven cavalry companies and two artillery companies that remained were bled for reinforcements for General Joe Johnston who was defending Richmond. Basic supplies like ammunition and clothing ran short. Morale sagged. Desertion, always a problem, became a much bigger one, including some who joined the other side.

Rice and salt

On April 20, 1864, the U.S.S. Cimarron sent a raiding party ashore in search for rice. The party found and destroyed 5,000 bushels. This landing seems to be contrary to Adm. Dahlgren’s order to not disembark from the gunboats around Georgetown.

About the same time, the U.S.S. Ethan Allen located a huge salt works near Murrells Inlet. A patrol of 13 seamen laded, found and burned 20 buildings and spread 2,000 bushels of salt along the beach.

On July 18, 1864, Capt. Joshua Ward of the Waccamaw Light Artillery resigned his commission and command. He had been absent so often that men in his company filed charges. He got a note from his doctor saying he was ill and sailed for Europe. One of Ward’s younger brothers was appointed in his place. By this time, there were only 150 men left in the unit, with only 56 of them being present.

Hiding out

The newly appointed younger brother promptly went on leave to visit with his family. During his absence, 20 of the family’s 1,000 slaves had fled to waiting naval patrol boats, so the family had moved inland with 360 slaves to serve them. Many years later, then 99-year-old Ellen Godfrey spoke of these times with a writer working for the Great Depression Era WPA. “Massa ben hide. Been in swamp,” she said.

One hundred-plus year old Ben Horry, born into slavery, provided a little more detail. “Old Marsh Jose and all the white buckra gone to Marlboro County to hide in a boat by name Pilot Boy. Take Colonel Ward and all the cap’n to hide from gun boat till peace declare.”

In mid September, the remnants of the Waccamaw Light Artillery were temporarily transferred from Georgetown to guard several thousand prisoners of war being moved from the death camp at Andersonville, Georgia to a new stockade in Florence, South Carolina. By the time the unit came back, many of its members had deserted. Some who surrendered offered to be turncoats. They were taken into custody and shipped on the U.S.S. Fulton to New York City. There, they reportedly pledged allegiance to the United States of America and were set free.

In November, 1864, Abraham Lincoln was, against all odds, reelected. By this time, there were no more than 165 men assigned to defend Georgetown. Most of those defenders were stationed at Battery White overlooking Winyah Bay from a very well fortified (if not well armed) redoubt.

Within less than 3 months, on February 17, 1865, the port city of Charleston would be evacuated for fear of General William T. Sherman’s march through Georgia would turn and come its way. On the same day that Charleston was abandoned, Capt. Henry Stellwagen of the U.S.S. Pawnee issued an order to seize the town of Georgetown. His gun boat was accompanied by the U.S.S. Nipsic and the U.S.S. Mingoe.

Once in Winyah Bay, the flotilla steamed to, and shelled, fortifications at Battery White. The U.S.S. Mingoe led the way. Curious at the absence of return fire, a patrol was dispatched to find out what was going on. The patrol found the gun positions had been abandoned and 15 deserters there were waiting so they could surrender.

Georgetown surrenders

On February 24, 1865, two gun ships of the United States Navy steamed into the Sampit River. They were the U.S.S. Mingoe and the U.S.S. Catalpa. Ensign Allen K. Noles was in command. The ships aimed their guns on the town as they passed after navigating a difficult winding course that existed at the time.

Seamanship aside, Noles then dispatched a 10-man party to go ashore and demand that the town surrender. Town officials agreed. The Stars and Stripes was raised on the town clock. There were three cheers (presumably with varying levels of enthusiasm) and a volley of rifle fire to mark the event. At this point, the Civil War is officially over in Georgetown. Peace had arrived?

The volley of rifle fire was the signal (according to the Hollywood version) which started Confederate Captain and accomplished horseman Thomas Daggett of Kingstree galloping on his steed down Front Street, firing his pistols at the assembled sailors. While doing so, he snatched up Seaman Morris Sullivan, U.S.N. and carried Sullivan off to an unknown fate. His gesture resulted in six companies of U.S. Marines being sent ashore to maintain order. The next day, the U.S.S. Harvest Moon struck a floating mine and, within minutes, sunk to the bottom of Winyah Bay. Seaman John Hazzard of the United States Navy died. His body was retrieved the following day. He had drowned, pinned under a bulkhead blown loose by the explosion. Seaman Hazzard’s body was taken ashore and buried a day or two later. He rests at Belle Isle, one of the last seamen to die in the war.

On February 28, 1865, martial law was declared in Georgetown by officers of the United States Navy. An order was issued declaring that all slaves were to be freed and provided with 60 days’ rations by their former owners. Other communities have different days, but Georgetown’s Emancipation Day is February 28.

Turned out, emancipation did not mean freedom. Slaves were freed from bondage. They were not free to do very much about it. They were to be given 60 days’ rations, but after that, they were on their own. As required by law, slaves had been kept illiterate, undereducated and largely unarmed. They owned no land. They had no money. No one would lend them any. They owned no tools. They were suddenly homeless and unemployed if they walked away from where they were the day before. Free? No. Emancipated, nothing more. Change would come very slowly.

Tom Rubillo used to practice law, but is now retired. He has held public office, taught government, ethics and law at area colleges and has published several books. The episodes written in connection with this project will be, at its conclusion, available in one volume, or at least that is his best laid plan.

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