Secessionville, S.C. becomes battle site

Submitted by C.J. Johnson

While the three day ride of General Stuart and his cavalry around the Army of the Potomac in mid-June was not of critical importance as a stand-alone action, it provided significant information to General Lee for his battle plans. More importantly, perhaps, was the fact that Stuart’s taunting McClellan provided inspiration and boosted the morale of Southern troops and citizens. Of course, it was a humiliating event as far as McClelland was concerned.

Rebel aggravation continued. As reported in a June 14, 1862 Associated Press report, “…a small group of Confederate troops have struck at Union forces in an area of the Pamunkey River in Virginia — firing on them and reminding the enemy that they will resist all enemy efforts. ‘The rebels … burnt two schooners, some wagons, and drove off the mules’…”

Down in South Carolina, Union soldiers attempted to capture Charleston. In late 1861, Port Royal, S. C. (located between Charleston and Savannah, Georgia) had been captured by Union ships. As a result, Federal forces gained an important base for operations aimed at the southern coastline. Charleston was under threat from that time.

Union General Henry W. Benham and his 7,000 men arrived on James Island on June 10th, and were continually bombarded by Confederate artillery at a fort just outside Secessionville, located south of Charleston. Benham’s commander (General David Hunter) had ordered him, “to 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.” Despite his orders to remain entrenched at their position, Benham began planning to attack the fort.

In the pre-dawn hours of June 16, Union troops again tried to claim Charleston, but were stopped at Secessionville. Troops commanded by General Benham rushed forward from their trenches at Grimball’s Landing on the south end of James Island, and attacked the small Confederate force protected by significant fortifications at Fort Lamar.

The location of the fort gave the Rebels the upper hand. It was located on a small strip of solid ground, surrounded by mostly marshes. Originally only 500 Confederate troops were inside the fort, but 1,500 more soon joined them, as Benham continued to attack three separate times. Casualties for both sides totaled just under 1,000 men, with only 200 of those being Confederate.

The Rebels had clearly defeated Benham, denying victory all three times. Benham, according to some sources, would not admit there was a battle at all. Regardless, Major General David Hunter relieved Benham of his command for disobeying orders.