Battle of Secessionville, June 16, 1862
158th Anniversary Commemoration Address by Gene Kizer, Jr.
[Publisher’s Note: It is a great honor to give the address for the Battle of Secessionville Commemoration each year on the battle site at Fort Lamar Heritage Preserve on James Island, between Folly Beach and Charleston, South Carolina. In 2020, because of COVID, the Commemoration was held November 21st rather than in June, close to the battle date, and this worked out well.
What is so impressive about our Confederate ancestors in this battle is that they were greatly outnumbered and outgunned, as they were throughout the War Between the States, so to win, they had to outthink and outsmart the enemy, and they did, regularly.
Fort Lamar, initially called Tower Battery, was built in a strategic location on James Island on the narrowest part of a peninsula that is shaped like an oblong hourglass. Tower Battery itself was only 125 yards across, with saltwater creeks and pluff mud on both sides. WE knew Yankees would not be able to walk through any pluff mud, but they didn’t. So we were able to concentrate our strengths where we needed them.
There were two separate, small batteries, one, a mile away, and both laid down an enfilading fire on the front of the fort that was devastating to the attacking enemy in the battle.
Even the defense of Charleston, which had been set up by Gen. Robert E. Lee when he was in charge down here, is something to be greatly admired in the annals of war. The Charleston and Savannah Railroad ran 100 miles between Charleston and Savannah, and whichever city needed troops, the other was to send them on the Charleston and Savannah Railroad. Confederates successfully defended 100 miles of railroad the entire war.
A footbridge capable of men and horses was built a mile across the marsh and over that footbridge came the reinforcements including the Fourth Louisiana that turned the tide in the Battle of Secessionville.
Of course, a huge ditch out in the field in front of the fort that forced attacking Yankees to bunch up together, where they were then wiped out by grape and canister from the fort, was unquestionably a strategic move that worked brilliantly.
As I said, Confederates were greatly outnumbered and outgunned, so they had to outsmart the enemy to win, and they did, regularly.
The bottom line is that Confederates in Charleston were never beaten in the War Between the States. Yankees wanted to destroy Charleston worst than any other city yet on the day in early 1865 that Confederates were ordered to evacuate in order to continue the war elsewhere, Yankees were denied a military surrender such as Union Maj. Robert Anderson had done four years earlier at Fort Sumter. Charleston was, instead, turned over to the enemy by a city alderman, unbeaten and unbowed, with much of the city in smoldering ruins after one of the longest sieges in military history.
This is the copy I spoke from so I did not add footnotes but people I quoted are noted in the text and all statements by anybody else have quotation marks around them.
A short, select bibliography includes: E. Milby Burton, The Siege of Charleston, 1861-1865 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1970); W. Chris Phelps, Charlestonians in War, The Charleston Battalion (Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing Company, 2004); Warren Ripley, ed., Siege Train, The Journal of a Confederate Artilleryman in the Defense of Charleston (Published for the Charleston Library Society by the University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, 1986); John Johnson, The Defense of Charleston Harbor, 1863-1865 (Charleston: Walker, Evans & Cogswell Co., Publishers, 1890; reprint, Germantown, Tennessee: Guild Bindery Press, 1994); Samuel Jones, Formerly Major-General C.S.A., The Siege of Charleston, and the Operations on the South Atlantic Coast in the War Among the States (New York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1911); numerous maps, and articles by veterans of the Battle of Secessionville such as “In the Battle of Secessionville” by R. De T. Lawrence, Marietta, Georgia, in Confederate Veteran, Vol. XXX, Nov., 1922; also by R. De T. Lawrence, “Signal Corps in Defense of Charleston” in Confederate Veteran, Vol. XXVIII, July, 1920; “The Fourth Louisiana Battalion at the Battle of Secessionville, S.C.” by H. J. Lea, Winnsboro, Louisiana, in Confederate Veteran, Vol. XXXI, January, 1923; “The Battle of Secessionville” in Confederate Veteran, Vol. XXX, Oct., 1922; and “Three Vital Episodes in the Attacks on Charleston” by Robert W. Barnwell, Sr., Florence, S.C. in Confederate Veteran, Vol. XXXVIII, Dec., 1930.]
I was introduced by Gene Patrick, President of Confederate Heritage Trust.
Thank you, Gene.
It is a tremendous honor to stand on this sacred ground and speak to you this morning as we commemorate one of the most important battles of the War Between the States: the Battle of Secessionville.
There had not been that much immigration into the South in the antebellum days. The Confederates of 1861 were largely the same blood as the patriots who fought the British in 1776.
They had the same strong feelings about liberty and self-government.
Indeed, the most widely quoted phrase of the secession debate in the South during the year leading up to South Carolina’s secession came from the Declaration of Independence:
Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The country was not centralized in those days. Each state was sovereign and independent, like the countries of Europe. King George III agreed to the Treaty of Paris, September 3, 1783 which listed EACH American state then proclaimed them all QUOTE “to be free, sovereign and independent states . . . “.
No state ever rescinded its sovereignty or gave up its independence.
In fact, three states INSISTED, before they would join the new Union, that they could secede from it if it became tyrannical in their eyes. Those states were New York, Rhode Island and Virginia.
Because all the states were admitted to the Union as equals, the acceptance of the right of secession demanded by New York, Rhode Island and Virginia, gave that right to all the other states as well.
The Battle of Secessionville took place one hundred and fifty eight years and five months ago—on Monday, June 16, 1862—before dawn on a dark, drizzly morning fourteen months into the war.
If this battle had been lost, Charleston would have been lost, then soon, the war.
Charleston was a HUGE symbol for both sides.
Charleston is where the Confederacy began when South Carolinians met here December 20, 1860 in a convention of the people and voted unanimously, 169 to 0, to secede from the Union.
Charleston is where the war began 16 weeks later, on April 12, 1861, after Abraham Lincoln refused to remove his troops from sovereign South Carolina soil.
Instead, he lied to the Southerners. He promised to remove the Fort Sumter garrison, but secretly ordered it reinforced.
He knew full well that would start the war.
When Major Anderson, Union commander inside Fort Sumter, received notification that he would be resupplied and possibly reinforced, Anderson responded with a letter on April 8th that stated in part:
. . . a movement made now when the South has been erroneously informed that none such will be attempted, would produce most disastrous results throughout our country. . . . We shall strive to do our duty, though I frankly say that my heart is not in the war which I see is to be thus commenced . . .
Major Anderson SEES that the war is to be “Thus commenced” by Abraham Lincoln.
The importance of holding Charleston can not be overstated.
Gen. Robert E. Lee wrote to Gen. Pemberton and said: “The loss of Charleston would cut us off almost entirely from communications with the rest of the world and close the only channel through which we can expect to get supplies from abroad, now almost our only dependence.”
Gen. Lee added that Charleston was “to be fought street by street and house by house as long as we have a foot of ground to stand upon.”
A resolution stated the same thing:
Resolved, That the governor and Executive Council concur in opinion with the people of South Carolina, assembled in Convention, that Charleston should be defended at any cost of life or property, and that in their deliberate judgment they would prefer a repulse of the enemy with the entire city in ruins to an evacuation or surrender on any terms whatever.
The North wanted to destroy Charleston as badly as we wanted to protect her.
Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune on June 9, 1862, one week before the Battle of Secessionville, stated:
‘Doom’ hangs over wicked Charleston. That viper’s nest and breeding place of rebellion is, ere this time, invested by Union Armsperhaps already in our hands. If there is any city deserving of holocaustic infamy, it is Charleston. . . .
This is the same Horace Greeley who believed in the right of secession and stated it proudly—let our erring sisters go—until he realized it would affect his money. Then he wanted war as did the whole North.
Southern secession had triggered the beginning of an economic collapse in the North. Northerners had not realized that their economy was largely based on manufacturing for the South and shipping Southern cotton. Cotton alone was 60% of US exports in 1860.
Each year, tens of millions of dollars flowed out of the South and into the North because of tariffs, bounties, subsidies, and monopolies for Northern businesses.
Southerners were producing the wealth of the nation as the most esteemed economist of the time, Thomas Prentice Kettle, wrote in his famous book: Southern Wealth and Northern Profits.
Southerners were paying most of the nation’s taxes, yet, outrageously, three-fourths of the tax money was being spent in the North.
Georgia Senator Robert Toombs called it a suction pump sucking wealth out of the South and depositing it in the North.
Henry L. Benning, one of Gen. Lee’s most able brigadier generals and for whom Fort Benning, Georgia is named, said $85,000,000, a gargantuan sum in those days, was the amount flowing CONTINUALLY through Robert Toombs’s suction pump.
The prescient Benning also said:
The North cut off from Southern cotton, rice, tobacco, and other Southern products would lose three fourths of her commerce, and a very large proportion of her manufactures. And thus those great fountains of finance would sink very low. . . . Would the North in such a condition as that declare war against the South?
Without the North, the South was in great shape with 100% control of the most demanded commodity on the planet: cotton.
Without the South, the North was DEAD.
Both sides realized that James Island was the key to taking Charleston and despite problems, . . . the defenses of Charleston were BRILLIANT. The Confederates defenders, most of whom were native Charlestonians, were fearless, and they knew the terrain.
A member of the 1st South Carolina Regiment who was in action in Charleston, B. A. O. Norris, of Graham Texas, stated after the war:
I think I am right when I state that this was the only place besieged that did not yield to the forces besieging it. It was stronger and abler to repel any attack on the day that it was evacuated than ever before.
The defensive perimeter around Charleston extended from Christ Church parish in Mt. Pleasant, to the Wando River then across Charleston Neck to the Ashley River, through St. Andrew’s parish to the Stono, and on across James Island to Secessionville.
Because Charleston had been taken by the British in the Revolutionary War from the neck area, “A strong line of fortifications was built across the peninsula from river to river . . . the whole system could be flanked by fire from gunboats” in either the Ashley or Cooper River. . . .
A strong cremalliere line [JAGGED] was constructed across James Island from Fort Pemberton on Wappoo Creek in Riverland Terrace to right here where we are standing. That line was a mile in advance of the regular Confederate line. This was done January to February, 1862, nine months into the war.
If you look at an aerial map of the Secessionville peninsula, it is shaped like an oblong hourglass and right here is the narrowest part across the peninsula.
It was Col. L. M. Hatch’s idea. He constructed the priest-cap work across the neck, built a strong bridge a mile long to connect Secessionville with the main island, and erected an observatory which commanded an extensive view of the approaches to Charleston.
The priest-cap design was two reDANS, side by side, so, together, they looked like the letter M. That design allowed troops inside to shoot an enfilading fire on anybody attacking the front. The whole front was approximately 125 yards across.
The footbridge was capable of men AND horses so Tower Battery could be reinforced.
The tower was 75 feet high and a lookout with field glasses could see all over James Island including the Yankee positions at the mouth of the Stono in the area where Folly Beach County Park is today.
They also built two small flanking batteries, each a mile away, to lay down enfilading fire on anybody attacking the front of the fort.
Milby Burton, in The Siege of Charleston, 1861-1865, writes that “On June 2, 1862, General Pemberton wired Jefferson Davis that there were 20 vessels in the Stono Inlet.”
“On June 8, Pemberton informed W. J. Magrath, president of the Charleston and Savannah Railroad, that ‘the enemy in large force is preparing to attack Charleston—Probably through James and John’s Island.’ He requested Magrath have several trains ready to move at a moment’s notice.”
On June 9, Union General Wright’s division crossed the Stono “and took position on Thomas Grimble’s plantation. The Confederates immediately opened fire of solid shot and shell, which fell into, around, and over General Wright’s camp and among the gunboats in the Stono. This quickly convinced Union commander General Benham that their main camps and landings were untenable while exposed to Confederate fire. He would have to abandon James Island or silence the Confederate batteries.”
“On June 10, Pemberton ordered the Confederate lines to advance in order to establish a battery of heavy guns on the edge of Grimball’s plantation with a view to driving the gunboats from the immediate area and make landing hazardous.” There was sharp fighting and Confederates lost 60 to 70 men.
On June 14, Emma Holmes in her diary wrote “Skirmishes of almost daily occurrences on James Island.”
On June 15, “General Pemberton wrote Governor Pickens that he had on James Island only 6,500 effective men.”
Sunrise on Monday, June 16, 1862, was 5:14 a.m. but three hours earlier, at 2 a.m., 35 hundred Federal troops formed the first of two columns, and 31 hundred formed the second.
Milby Burton writes that “The assaulting group was to advance in silence and make the attack at ‘first light’ with the bayonet. The large number of Federal troops should have been more than sufficient to surprise and crush a garrison of 500 men.
“In spite of feverish activity, the breastwork was incomplete at the time of the attack. Col. Thomas G. Lamar, who was in command, had pushed his men to the point of exhaustion. Finally, at 3 a.m. on the morning of June 16, he allowed his worn-out men to sleep.”
One of the things they had been doing was transferring guns from an old gunboat into Tower Battery.
The Southerners were barely asleep when the assault began. Burton writes: “Lamar rushed to one of the big guns, already loaded with grape, and pulled the lanyard. The roar of the gun aroused the troops, and grape tore into the oncoming ranks.”
This was around 4:30 a.m., and the Battle of Secessionville was on.
“Confederate troops rushed to the aid of Colonel Lamar’s defenders as they were aroused. Those of the assaulting troops who had reached the parapet were either killed or repulsed. The Eighth Michigan fell back and re-formed; around 5:10 with the aid of the Second Brigade they charged under fire for 1000 yards, assaulted the works, and again gained a foothold. After more fierce hand-to-hand fighting, they were again pushed back.”
The Yankee perspective tells us a lot about the effectiveness of our Confederate boys. Gen. Samuel Jones, in his book, The Siege of Charleston, quotes a Union officer:
It had been reported to General Benham some days before that from the masthead of a naval vessel in the Stono, several long trains of cars loaded with troops had been seen pouring into Charleston over the road which Colonel Christ’s expedition had failed to break.
Colonel Christ’s expedition was an attack on the Charleston and Savannah Railroad, a critical part of coastal defenses. Whichever city needed troops, the other was to send them on the Charleston and Savannah Railroad. It’s defenses were put in place by Gen. Robert E. Lee who had his headquarters along the railroad line at Coosawhatchie, SC, half way between Charleston and Savannah, from November, 1861, to March, 1862, when he was in charge down here. There were numerous attacks by Union troops to break the railroad but they were always defeated by tenacious Confederates. Our West Ashley Greenway that you can access from South Windermere Shopping Center was where the tracks of the Charleston and Savannah Railroad ran.
“The regiments of the leading Union brigade went forward into line in double-quick time when a storm of grape and canister from the Confederate guns crashed through the center of the line and continued tearing through the ranks with great rapidity, severing the line, one part crowding toward the right, the other to the left.”
“They kept moving fast leaving the ground in their rear strewn with their dead and wounded. They did not stop until they gained the parapet and delivered their fire upon the enemy in his works. But being entirely unsupported for a considerable time, they fell back slowly, contesting every inch of ground . . . .”.
“When within two or three hundred yards of the Confederate works the Seventh Connecticut ‘came obliquely upon an unforeseen ditch and morass,’ crowding and doubling up the regiment toward the center. At this moment a terrific fire of grape and musketry swept through the ranks. ‘The line was inevitably broken.'”
I’ll guarantee you that ditch was planned.
While the First Brigade was being cut up, the Seventy-ninth Highlanders, leading the Second Brigade, was ordered to attack, and they made it to the parapet.
Union Lt. Colonel Morrison said “‘As I mounted the parapet, I received a wound in the head, which, though slight, stunned me for the time being; but still I was able to retain command. With me, many mounted the works, but only to fall or to receive their wounds from the enemy posted in rifle-pits in rear of the fort . . . . From the ramparts I had a full view of their works. They were entrenched in a position well selected for defensive purposes and upon which our artillery seemed to have little effect, save driving them into their retreats, and in attempting to dislodge them we were met with a fierce and determined opposition, . . . “.
“The Seventy-Ninth continued their attack and when about three hundred yards from the Confederate works ‘We entered the range of a perfect storm of grape, canister, nails, broken glass, and pieces of chains, fired from three very large pieces on the fort, which completely swept every foot of ground within the range and either cut the men down or drove them to the shelter of the ravine on the left. I now turned to see the One Hundredth Pennsylvania Regiment just entering the fatal line of fire which completely cut it in two. Some reached the foot of the embankment and a few climbed it . . .”.
Around 5:25 across the creek “The Third New Hampshire and Third Rhode Island approached to within forty yards of the fort and opened fire. Colonel Jackson, commanding the regiment, reports that he found no artillery on that part of the Confederate works and that he could easily have gone into the fort.”
“‘IF,’ he adds, ‘I could have crossed a stream between me and the earthworks about twenty yards in width with apparently four or five feet of water, and the mud very soft; the men therefore could not cross. The enemy soon opened on me from a battery about two hundred yards in our rear, throwing grape in to the ranks, from which we suffered severely. In a short time they opened fire with rifles and infantry. At the same time a battery about a mile north of us opened on us with shot and shell.'”
The Third Rhode Island penetrated the brushwood to dislodge the Confederate sharpshooters, but did not succeed. They withdrew.
Here’s what the Charleston Battalion had to say about it from Charlestonians in War:
One hundred and twenty-five yards across the marsh that was protecting the Confederate right flank, the rattle of musketry was heard followed in a split second by a shower of bullets and booming artillery fire from an undetected Federal force. . . . These fresh Union troops, namely the Third New Hampshire Infantry and Third Rhode Island Heavy Artillery, were pouring a ‘continuous and deadly fire. Many of our men fell at the guns and along the line.’ These New Englanders had managed to reach a point behind the Confederate right flank where they could fire into the unprotected rear of the battery and resultantly the few remaining Confederate artillerists were compelled to abandon their guns and take cover while the infantry desperately returned the enemy fire.
“Due to loss of blood from his neck wound, Lieutenant Colonel Lamar now passed command of the entire battery to Lieutenant Colonel Gaillard, who himself was soon severely wounded in the knee. Without hesitation, Gaillard moved some of his men down the bank of the marsh, where they stood opposite their foe and exchanged rifle shot for rifle shot in a slugging match of endurance. . . . On the field arrived the Fourth Louisiana Battalion . . . ” and “Twenty-fourth South Carolina Infantry and Eutaw Battalion, who both had rapidly advanced from their camps several miles to the battlefield.” This was around 5:30.
After Lieutenant Colonel Gaillard was wounded in the knee, he turned command over to Lt. Col. T. M. Wagner, for whom Battery Wagner on Morris Island was named a month later, after Wagner was killed at Fort Moultrie.
To sum it up:
It was 66 hundred Federals against 500 Confederates who were reinforced by around 750 more Confederates, so 66 hundred against 12 hundred and fifty.
The Yankees had almost 700 casualties with 107 dead.
“Confederates lost 204 with 52 dead, most of them the troops who defended the Secessionville batteries. The struggle for the parapet had been fierce. Muskets were clubbed and Lieutenant Campbell and Mr. Tennant, of the Charleston Battalion, in default of better weapons, seized handspikes and wielded them with effect.”
Yankees learned their lesson and left James Island.
Milby Burton writes:
“Two things helped turn the battle in the battery’s favor.” One was “two small field guns at two different locations, one manned by Lieutenant Jeter, the other by Lt. Col. Ellison Capers” later known as Battery Reed, whose purpose was to enfilade an enemy attack on the breastwork at Secessionville from a mile away.” . . . . “Both men fired their guns with excellent effect into the Third New Hampshire and helped to hasten their withdrawal” as the hand-to-hand fighting had continued until the “assaulting troops were again repulsed.”
Another major factor was “Lt. Col. J. McEnery, commanding a battalion of Louisiana troops, that had been aroused by Col. Hagood and sent to Secessionville. McEnery and his men “advanced to Secessionville over the bridge, nearly a mile long. They arrived on the run . . . and gave considerable assistance in repulsing the Third New Hampshire, which was pouring a deadly fire into the rear of the battery.”
Here is an account by a soldier IN that Louisiana battalion, H. J. Lea of Winnsboro, Louisiana:
I was a member of Capt. J. W. Walker’s company, which enlisted and went out from Monroe, Louisiana March 2, 1862. We went to Savannah, Ga. and there were attached to and made part of the 4th Louisiana Battalion, commanded by Col. John McEnery.
At the break of day on the morning of the 16th, firing was heard up in the front of the fort, the alarm given and the LONG ROLL BEAT. The line was quickly formed with orders to march in double-quick time. . . . Just before the head of our line reached the fort, the Yankee regiment, having formed on the opposite side of Lighthouse Creek, about one hundred yards distant, opened fire on us. We were ordered to halt, face to the right, and fire. This continued but a short time; the storming party in front was crowding in and we were ordered to face to the left and rush to the fort, where the Yankees were scrambling for the top of the parapets crowding forward in great numbers with a desperate determination to capture the fort. We arrived just at the critical moment; a few minutes later would have been too late. They were repulsed, routed, and fled in the same quick time that they came, with our rifles and artillery playing on them to the extreme range.
It seemed that every man there in defense of the fort felt as though the whole responsibility of holding the fort rested on him for it would have been impossible for any force of the same size to have done more. As soon as the storming party in front gave way and fled, the flanking party across the creek also fled hurriedly, for had they remained, even for a short time, they would have been cut off and captured or killed.
Another Confederate in the battle, R. De T. Lawrence of Marietta, Georgia, wrote:
Many years after, I met at the Confederate Home of Georgia, a Mr. Jordan, who had been in the engagement in the battery, and subsequently in a number of battles in Virginia, and he told me that the one at Secessionville was the closest and hardest fought of any.
Warren Ripley writes in the Introduction of Siege Train:
. . . just as the Southerners had discovered the power of the U.S. Navy at Port Royal, Fort Lamar taught the Yankees a valuable lesson — don’t tangle with the Confederate Army beyond protective range of the warships’ guns. These two principles were to color military thinking in the Charleston area for the remainder of the war.
Mary Boykin Chesnut in her famous diary wrote:
At Secessionville, . . . Henry King was killed. He died as a brave man would like to die. From all accounts, they say he had not found this world a bed of roses. . . . Dr. Tennent proved himself a crack shot. They handed him rifles, ready loaded, in rapid succession; and at the point he aimed were found thirty dead men. Scotchmen in a regiment of Federals at Secessionville were madly intoxicated. They had poured out whiskey for them like water.
Milby Burton writes:
“After the battle, Tower Battery was named Battery Lamar in honor of Confederate commander Col. Thomas G. Lamar.”
“When the news of the repulse of the Federal forces reached Charleston, the citizens were elated, but when the casualty list arrived including the names of many Charlestonians, one commentator wrote: ‘a Gloom has been cast over our City by the death of many fine young men.'”
“After the valiant defense of the battery, the Confederate Congress passed the following resolution: ‘That the thanks of Congress are due and are hereby tendered to Colonel Thomas G. Lamar and the officers and men engaged in the gallant and successful defense of Secessionville against the greatly superior numbers of the enemy on the 16th day of June, 1862.'”
Charleston was never conquered militarily or surrendered. When Confederate forces were ordered to evacuate at the end of the war to continue the fight elsewhere, the city was turned over to the Union Army by an alderman.
Confederate soldier R. De T. Lawrence also said after the battle:
The troops which had reinforced the command of General Gist on James Island were returned to their former stations on the coast and at Savannah, and the heroes of Secessionville were toasted on every hand.