In April 1862 Union generals David Hunter and Henry Benham decided to assault Charleston by marching one wing across Johns Island and sailing another for Battery Island.
(June 16, 1862). In April 1862 Union generals David Hunter and Henry Benham decided to assault Charleston by marching one wing across Johns Island and sailing another for Battery Island. From there the combined columns would rush across James Island, establish batteries at Charleston harbor, and batter the city into submission.
Union forces occupied Battery Island and Johns Island during the first week of June, but they were surprised at the spirited resistance of Confederate forces. Before Hunter returned to Hilton Head on June 11, he warned Benham not to attack. Benham, however, used Hunter’s absence to organize an assault on the Confederate Tower Battery near the planter village of Secessionville, an operation he launched on the morning of June 16. One hundred infantrymen and two artillery companies under Colonel Thomas G. Lamar recoiled before the first Federal assault, but the battery’s defenders, supported by the timely arrival of reinforcements, threw back the Union troops in hand-to-hand fighting. A second Northern wave crashed against the battery’s left flank, but the Confederates again withstood the storm. Meanwhile, Lamar’s artillery turned the expanse west of the battery into a killing field.
Unbeknownst to the Northerners, the battery stood at the choke point of a telescoping peninsula. The marshy terrain forced the Federal attackers into the mouths of the Confederate guns, and the impassable “pluff mud” prevented Benham’s second wing from attacking the fort’s northern flank. These Federals established a firing line just 125 yards away, but Colonel Johnson Hagood directed a Confederate attack on the Union position from the north, while another Confederate battalion confronted the Federals from the south. Aided by nearby artillery, the Confederates repelled the Northerners with a ring of fire. After three frustrating hours, Benham withdrew his forces.
Of the 4,500 Federal attackers, nearly 700 became casualties. Confederate forces totaled only about 1,000, with a loss of fewer than 200 men. Secessionville blunted what proved to be the North’s best chance to capture Charleston. The Civil War may have produced larger engagements with heavier casualties, but the battle at Secessionville remains one of South Carolina’s most important.
Brennan, Patrick. Secessionville: Assault on Charleston. Campbell, Calif.: Savas, 1996.