THE BATTLE OF HONEY HILL
by Kathy Dhalle
The November 30, 1864 battle of Honey Hill, S.C. is virtually unnamed in most histories of the war. From all standpoints, it was a terrible blunder and a comparatively unimportant expedition on the sea coast, overshadowed by the wondrous movement of the armies under Thomas, Sherman and Grant. Had this battle been successful, the Charleston and Savannah Railroad would have fallen to the North and an immediate evacuation of Savannah would have occurred, followed soon after by the fall of Charleston and perhaps, an early end to the war.
The expedition, organized by General John G. Foster began as an attempt to support the troop movements of General Sherman. Orders were to proceed from Hilton Head, S.C., up the Broad River, land at Boyd's Neck, march to Grahamville and take control of the Charleston and Savannah Railroad. All hopes for success of this expedition seemed imminent as the bulk of the Confederate troops had been sent into the interior to oppose General Sherman. The only force stationed at Grahamville was part of a squadron of the 3rd S.C. Cavalry.
In order to accomplish these results, General John P. Hatch, serving in the field in Foster's place, ordered two brigades to be formed for this expedition: the first composed of the 56th New York under Lt. Colonel Tyler; 127th New York under Colonel Gurney; 144th New York under Colonel Lewis; the 57th New York under Lt. Colonel Carmichael; 25th Ohio under Lt. Colonel Houghton; 32nd USCT under Colonel Baird; and the 35th USCT under Colonel Beecher, all being commanded by General E.E. Potter.
The second brigade consisted of 8 companies of the 54th Massacusetts under Lt. Colonel Hooper; 8 companies of the 55th Massachusetts under Lt. Colonel Fox; 26th USCT under Colonel Silliman; 102nd USCT under Colonel Chipman, all under the command of Colonel A. S. Hartwell of the 55th Massachusetts.
The artillery included one section of Co. A, of the 3rd Rhode Island Artillery (which did not go into action); two sections (4 guns, light 12-pound Napoleons) of Captain Mercereau's Battery (B) of the 3rd New York Artillery, and two sections (4 guns, also light 12-pound Napoleons) of Battery F of the same regiment commanded by Lieutenant Titus. They were all under the command of Lt. Colonel Ames of the 3rd Rhode Island Artillery. Two squadrons of the First Massachusetts Cavalry also accompanied the expedition. Besides all these other regiments, Rear Admiral Dahlgren assisted in the land operations by gathering a naval brigade of gunboats and transports from his fleet and blockading vessels.
On November 29th, 1864 at half-past two in the morning, the signal to sail from Hilton Head was given. While they were weighing anchors, a thick fog settled over the harbor, rendering any concerted movement impossible. After a delay of two hours, Admiral Dahlgran decided to feel his way up the Broad River. Travel was slow as the fog was still so thick that the shore was only visible when the vessels were close upon it. Although they tried to keep together, the transport ships ended up losing their way; some being grounded on the shoals and could not be floated off until the noon of that day. As well, the ships carrying the engineers and materials to build necessary landings were lost up the Chechesser River. While the transports were thus scattered, the Navy vessels kept well together and came to anchor in the creek off Boyd's Landing at about 8 in the morning of the 29th. Shortly after General Hatch's transport arrived and at approximately 11 a.m., sailors, marines, and howitzers were landed and advanced in skirmishing lines.
The debarkation was necessarily slow. Troops were taken ashore on small boats to scramble up the muddy banks. Horses were thrown overboard and swam ashore. Instead of getting ashore early in the morning, as had been planned, the troops were thus landing all day and through the evening of the 29th. General Potter arrived with part of his brigade around noon and General Hartwell shortly after.
The Naval Brigade was sent forward in the afternoon to occupy the fork where the Coosawatchie Road diverged from the road to Grahamville. They had no guide and their map perplexed them by showing roads where there were none and by magnifying bi-ways and cart paths into roads. Instead of stopping at the cross roads, they pushed on to the right, away from Grahamville, toward Coosawatchie.
About 4 p.m., General Hatch decided to push forward in an attempt to seize the railroad. General Potter in advance, came upon the Naval Brigade and it was here discovered that they were all on the wrong road. They retraced their steps to the first cross road where the Naval Brigade, thoroughly worn out with the labor of dragging their eight howitzers by hand over the sandy roads, were left for the night. Meanwhile Generals Hatch and Potter, with the other troops, took the road to the left, on which the advance should have been made at the outset. Upon reaching Bolan's Church, where the Grahamville Road turns to the right and encountering enemy pickets, the guide for this group persisted in following the direct road toward Savannah. They proceeded down this road for approximately four miles and when they hadn't met any opposition, determined that they had again gone the wrong way. They countermarched to Bolan's Church, which they reached at 2 a.m. of the 30th, so weary with the night march of fifteen miles that the troops gladly went into bivouac.
Meanwhile, the Confederates had not been idle. The companies of cavalry which were picketing the coast were called together at Grahamville. General Gustavus Smith arrived at Grahamville at 8 a.m. on the 30th, the day of the battle. Colonel Charles Jones Colcock led the Confederate First Brigade from Grahamville toward Bolan's Church. Finding that the enemy had occupied this piece of ground before him, he changed in position and posted his army at works constructed two years before at Honey Hill. In order to delay Hatch's advance until his troops could be placed in position, Colonel Colcock pushed forward with Co. K of the 3rd S.C. Cavalry. While they held the whole Federal column in check, General Smith hastened forward the rest of his brigade and made his dispositions for the defense of Honey Hill.
The situation was an excellent one to repel an attack in front, though weak on the flanks. A substantial open earthwork, pierced for four guns, extended two hundred feet on each side of the road. The ground immediately in front of the entrenchments was comparatively open, but at the distance of about one hundred and fifty yards, a shallow and sluggish stream, expanding into a swamp, with a heavy growth of trees and dense underbrush, ran along the whole Confederate front. The only practicable approach was by a narrow road, which made so sharp a turn as it passed through the swamp that the earthwork was invisible to a force approaching by the road until they were close upon it.
The morning of the battle found the troops still at the landing under the command of General Hartwell. Before daybreak, he had sent the 56th New York, the 35th U.S.C.T., and part of the 33rd U.S.C.T. to join the first brigade at Bolan's Church. Leaving the 34th U.S.C.T. at the Neck, he marched at daylight with 3 companies of the 54th Massachusetts, and two batteries of artillery. The 26th and 102nd
U.S.C.T., composing the rest of the 2nd brigade, had not yet arrived.
At the Coosewatchie cross roads, the Naval Brigade joined up with the 3 companies of the 54th Massachusetts under Captain George Pope. Shortly after a column had gone on, a force of Confederate cavalry came down the Coosawatchie Road and attacked
Pope's detachment. Two rifled howitzers of the Naval Brigade, which had been sent back from the church to his support, arrived just in time, and coming noiselessly (being drawn by hand), opened on the enemy and they retired in haste.
At Bolan's Church, Potter's Brigade had been under orders to march before daylight. But for some reason, perhaps because the men were worn out with their night march, perhaps because General Hatch was waiting for the artillery and the Second Brigade, the start was not actually made until nearly nine o'clock, when the 127th New York was sent forward to skirmish.
The first skirmish began at 9:15 a.m., half a mile from the church as the leading regiments proceeded by flank down the narrow road. On the right was a large, open field; on the left, for a quarter of a mile from the church, woods with a dense jungle of vines and undergrowth which covered most of the battlefield of Honey Hill. Beyond was a cotton field and then a wooded swamp, which crossed the road and impeded their progress on each flank. The Confederate cannon was placed on a rising ground some distance beyond, commanding the narrow causeway which was the only avenue of approach.
The 144th and 157th New York were advanced and deployed in line as support for the 127th. A section of Battery B, 3rd New York Artillery, under Lieutenant Wildt advanced to the edge of the swamp and opened fire on the enemy. The cavalry was sent around the right of the swamp to take the enemy flank but all were temporarily held in check. Once an advance was ordered however, the Confederates fell back.
Beyond the swamp, on the left, extended heavy woods with tangled undergrowth. On the right was a large field which on their retreat, the Confederates had set fire to. A strong wind blew this fire down upon the Union skirmishers and they were thrown into temporary disorder, by which the enemy gained further time. Beyond this field were heavy woods on the right. For a mile the road corduroyed part of the way through a swamp and heavy woods and eventually, the skirmishers were withdrawn and the First brigade brought up in column on the road. At the end of the straight stretch of road, the rebels made a short stand with their piece of artillery. Battery B was moved up again and fired at the rebels who having sufficiently delayed the Union advance, soon retreated. These operations consumed nearly the whole morning. Meanwhile Confederate General Smith had arrived with his force from Grahamville and deployed them in position along the line previously described.
The advance Brigade marching in column down the road suddenly came to an abrupt bend and "unexpectedly" (as General Hatch states in his report) came upon the enemy position. Although the works were said to have been built two years earlier, their existence was until this moment unknown and unsuspected by the Union commanders.
According to the rebels" "Upon its appearance about one hundred and twenty yards in front of the works, in a curve of the road, the infantry and artillery opened a murderous fire on the head of the Federal column, before which it melted away. Staggered by this fire the enemy recoiled and some time elapsed before they deployed in line of battle."
At this point, it is unknown which regiment constituted the advance. The left of Potter's brigade was thrown into line to the left of the road, facing the enemy, along the edge of the swamp. The 127th was next to the road, then the 157th New York and 56th New York which held the extreme left. The attempt to deploy to the right was apparently hindered by the thick undergrowth and the regimental commander's ignorance of the situation of his own troops and those of the enemy. The 32nd U.S.C.T. seem to have formed in line and to have met an advanced line of the enemy that had been posted along an old dam, at right angles with the main road, which would form the Union line of defense later in the afternoon. The 32nd USCT wavered and the 25th Ohio behind them charged through the 32nd and a portion of the 144th New York and drove the enemy from their position.
A line was formed on the road which branched off from the Main Road, (Wood Road), parallel with the dam; the 32nd U.S. on the right, the 25th Ohio next and part of the 144th on the left towards the Grahamville Road. After sending a party forward to reconnoiter, Col. Houghton of the 25th Ohio led his regiment forward into the woods, changed front partially towards the left, and advanced to the edge of the swamp where he says, "a strong force of Confederates was met and a severe fight took place."
The 144th New York does not seem to have advanced at the same time and were considerably in the rear of the 25th Ohio. No further mention is made of them in the reports and accounts of the fight until the retreat in the evening. According to Capt. Soule of the 55th Mass., no general officers or aids appeared and no orders were received by the right wing while they were in this advanced position. Gen. Hatch says that he "ordered the right to press forward, swing around to the left and flank the enemy, but the dense undergrowth and deep swamp prevented it." But Soule begs to differ saying that the "undergrowth and swamp were entirely passable; what was lacking was orders and a commander."
Meanwhile, the section of Battery B, 3rd New York was moved to the intersection of the main and branch roads, the only place where artillery could be put. The forest was so thick that the enemy was invisible and the guns could only be sighted at the puffs of smoke which arose over the intervening branches.
The 35th USCT of the first brigade was ordered to charge up the road. They opened fire and attempted to advance; but the fire they encountered was so hot that they fell back to the rear of the artillery where they lay down in line and remained during the rest of the afternoon. In the advance, Col. Beecher was twice wounded, but refused to go to the rear. It was now somewhere past noon. The whole of the 1st Brigade, except the Naval Brigade, had already become engaged.
Confederate General Smith writes what came next: "In an hour, the enemy had so extended and developed their attack that it became absolutely necessary for me to place in my front line my last troops, the 47th Georgia." The noise of the battle at this time was terrific - the artillery crashing away while volley after volley of musketry ran down both lines and were reverberated from the surrounding forests.
At the time the first skirmish occurred, the 2nd Brigade was halted near Bolan's Church. When the first Brigade advanced, the Second followed marching by the flank in the road and leaving at the church as a guard, two companies of the 54th Mass. With his slender brigade, Col. Hartwell deployed in line in the first cottonfield on the left of the road, then passed the swamp by the flank and crossed the 2nd field (in which the grass was still burning fiercely) in column by company. The brigade was struggling through the dense woods, when orders came to Hartwell to double-quick to the front. Moving by flank to the road, which was so narrow and so thronged with cannon and caissons that the Brigade had to thread its way along the roadside and was strung out almost in single file. The Brigade passed General Potter who ordered Col. Hartwell to support the 127th New York and afterwards, Gen. Hatch directed him to support the 35th USCT.
When the head of the column reached the crossroads, the 35th U.S. was in line obliquely across the road beyond, firing at will. The fire at this point was very hot. It was within close range of the enemy's guns and as the trees near the road were somewhat thinned out, it was more exposed than other points in the line to their infantry fire. Col. Hartwell directed the leading companies to file to the right down the cross road, from which the 25th Ohio had just advanced further to the right. His intention was to form the Brigade in line to support the 35th USCT. Before the 55th Mass. could be closed up and formed, the 35th had fallen to the rear and there was nothing to support. Col. Gurney of the 127th New York informed Hartwell that the left was hard pressed (which apparently was a mistake) and so, two companies of the 54th Mass. were sent to the left and front of the 127th. By this time the 55th was in line under a hot fire and it became a grave question what should be done.
Col. Gurney in his report says that Lt. Col. Woodford had reported to Gen. Potter that he would charge the front of the work if a simultaneous charge could be made on the road to his right. The 55th Mass. immediately came up and charged, but the difficulty of the ground, the swamp and thickets, which had already broken the ranks of the 32nd and 35th USCT's, allowed the regiment to go forward only two or three rods. The three right companies of the 55th in this advance got astray in the woods. Forming the other 3 companies as well as possible, in column by company on the road, Col. Hartwell again led them to the front until the enemy's guns met them at the turn of the road with such a fire of canister that they again fell back.
Hartwell rallied his men and charged a third time. This time they fairly turned the corner in the road and crossed the brook, where a crude bridge had been torn up by the Confederates and its planks staked down as an abattis. The shallow stream here spread up and down the road thirty or forty feet. As the little band of less than three hundred men stumbled through sand and water, the five guns of the fort were trained on them with spherical case and canister at one hundred and twenty yards range. All the infantry of the centre and flanks poured in a destructive fire across the comparatively open ground in front of the works, and upon the narrow gorge in the woods through which the road emerged.
Col. Hartwell had been wounded in the hand in the first advance. As he turned the corner, his horse was killed and fell on him in the road. Captain Crane, acting as an aide to Hartwell was killed by a charge of canister. Lt. Hill of the 55th was knocked from his horse by the explosion of a shell. Lt. Boynton, commanding the leading company of the 55th was shot in the leg, fell in the water, gained his feet and pressed forward, only to be killed by a canister as he reached the bridge. Color Sgt. King was killed by the explosion of a shell. Sgt. Mitchell and Sgt. Shorter (the latter having been commissioned, but not yet mustered as 2nd Lt.), were severely wounded and Sgt. Major Trotter was slightly wounded.
The repulse was instant and final. The five companies had lost over a hundred men killed and wounded in less than five minutes. The survivors fell back but rallied in the rear of the artillery. Col. Hartwell would have been left to fall into the hands of the enemy but for the bravery of Lt. Ellsworth who turned back, under that terrific fire, and with the assistance of one of his men who was killed the next moment, partly lifted the horse and thus released Hartwell. Ellsworth then dragged Col. Hartwell across the ditch into the woods and then to the rear. In thus leaving the field, Hartwell was hit twice more by minie balls. Ellsworth would later receive the Medal of Honor.
While the 55th was thus engaged, the 127th New York on the left side of the road in line across the swamp, proceeded nearly at right angles with the advance of the 55th. They advanced to within a hundred yards of the Confederate works and remained about ten minutes and then withdrawn. There is no record of any movements by the 56th and 157th New York on the left flank of the 2nd brigade and as their loss was light, it is probable that they simply held their ground during the afternoon.
Lt. Col. Hooper with the two companies of the 54th Mass. lay all the afternoon to the left and front of the 127th New York, his men lying down and reserving their fire. Although he had sent a note to Gen. Hatch that he believed the enemy could be easily flanked on the right, Hatch never took him up on the idea and so there they stayed.
The three right companies of the 55th Mass. advanced with the regiment in line from the branch road but did not hear the order to form column by company and continued on through the woods and swamp, diverging from the rest of the regiment which had turned to the left of the main road. The enemy was not in sight, but the air was full of bullets and of the noise of firing to the right and left. Without orders the men opened fire, and as their formation was much broken by the underbrush, the fire of those in the rear was so dangerous to their comrades in front that Col. Fox ordered the bugler to play "cease fire." The right company passed over the 144th New York which was lying down in line of battle and on reaching the stream, at a considerable distance from the main road, the 25th Ohio was found standing in line and firing excitedly at an unseen enemy; unseen, but not unfelt, however, as a storm of bullets from the left swept away the tops of the grasses and shrubs. There the companies of the 55th lay down without firing. It was an anxious and perplexing time, for they had entirely lost their bearings and in the thick woods could not tell if the firing on their left came from friend or foe.
A reconnoissance of the front developed no enemy, but there was no general officer nor aide present to give orders for an advance, and after remaining by the stream for nearly an hour the whole line - now including the battalion of marines and the 32nd USCT, to the right of the 25th Ohio - fell back to the branch road and took position behind the old dam, where the rebels had made a stand earlier in the day. Here they lay all the rest of the afternoon. Occasionally the enemy would creep down through the woods and open fire, to which the northern forces would vigorously respond. The Union's ammunition was nearly exhausted and the supplies which were sent up from the rear were so scant that the Federals were directed to reserve their fire except when thus attacked. The left of this flank, near the corner where the artillery was posted, was much exposed, being in the line of fire down the road from the rebel works. Here the 54th and 55th Mass. lay, losing many men and officers during the afternoon.
The 3rd New York Artillery was completely exhausted by 2 p.m. and Battery B was replaced by Battery F. At 4 p.m., this section, its ammunition being exhausted was withdrawn and its place taken by two howitzers of the Naval Brigade.
At dusk a retreat was commenced. The Naval Brigade was ordered to occupy the cross roads. The 127th New York and 102nd USCT , with one section of the Naval Battery, remained at the front, keeping up a slow artillery fire until 7:30 p.m. Meanwhile the wounded were all taken to the rear. The ambulances, which had just come up at dark from the landing were entirely insufficient for this purpose, so that the 54th and 55th Mass. were broken up into squads to carry the wounded back on stretchers extemporized from muskets and blankets.
The movement was effected without confusion, alarm, pursuit or loss. Not a wounded man was left on the field except those who fell directly under the fire of the enemy's works and no stores or equipments fell into the enemy's hands except the blankets and knapsacks which had been thrown aside by the men in their advance through the tangled weeds.
The last glimpse the forces had of the scene of the battle was at Bolan's Church on the way to the rendezvous at Boyd's Landing. On the advance in the morning the little white church, nestled among the moss-hung oaks, presented a beautiful and characteristic Southern picture. As the regiments returned in the evening, it wore a very different aspect. Huge fires of rails and brushwood threw a lurid light over the church and the forest behind it. The pews which had been torn out to transform it into a hospital and the stores that had been piled here as a depot were strewn around in wild disorder. Beside the church the surgeons had established their operating tables and the unconcealed traces of amputations were shocking to behold.
The losses on both sides: Union...Killed: 88; Wounded: 623; Missing: 43; Total: 754. Confederate...Killed: 4; Wounded: 40. This disparity is due to the fact that the Confederate force fought on the defensive, behind breastworks and concealed from the Federal forces in the woods, while the northern forces advanced across their front, over ground which the rebels knew thoroughly.
The behavior of the troops engaged on the Union side is praiseworthy. Even the few regiments which appear to have shown momentary disorder, remained in line and on the field under fire until ordered to retreat. According to Gen. Potter, "I can not close this report, without making honorable mention of the good conduct and steadiness displayed by the officers and men under the most trying circumstances. Exposed to a heavy fire from a concealed enemy who was strongly entrenched, and laboring under every disadvantage of ground, they maintained their position with the greatest tenacity and endurance. Nothing but the formidable character of the obstacles they encountered prevented them from achieving success."
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