The vital Charleston and Savannah Railroad linked those cities and was a crucial supply and transportation line for the Confederate military. Cutting the railroad became an objective in 1862 for Union forces that had occupied the coast and sea islands of South Carolina.
Federal troops launched several strikes against the railroad, none of them successful. The first attack began in October, 1862 with troops based at the occupied areas of Port Royal and Beaufort, SC. Maj. Gen. Ormsby Mitchell commanded this force, and stated the target as the railroad bridge over the Pocotaligo River. The site was equally fifty miles from Charleston and from Savannah. It was an important link on the railroad line and its loss would be catastrophic.
Mitchell led 4,500 troops, each with 100 rounds of ammunition. Scouting the landing area and measuring the depth of the water, they used light draft transports to launch the invasion. Flat bottomed boats carried the artillery. Many of the pilots were African Americans, local men who knew the area and gladly assisted the navy ships. Among the ships of the expedition was the Planter, the ship stolen by former slave Robert Smalls from Charleston in May. It was gladly welcomed by the navy and assisted with operations in the area.
Defending this region was Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, who had troops positioned at key points along the railroad, as well as at Savannah and Charleston. The local commander, Col. William S. Walker, had a mixed force at his disposal: part of the 3rd South Carolina Cavalry, a detachment of the 11th South Carolina, part of the 1st South Carolina Sharpshooters, some partisan rangers, and two batteries of artillery.
Mitchell’s expedition set off on October 22, 1862, and at McKay’s point the Confederate pickets were easily captured. Yet the invasion was no longer a secret, and with Beauregard alerted, 2,000 reinforcements were on the way by rail from Charleston.
By 11:30 a.m. the Confederates managed to bring together fifty infantry, one hundred cavalry and two howitzers to make a stand just inland from the landing site. Gradually falling back, they made another stand an hour later at Frampton’s plantation, a local landmark near the stagecoach road and the rail line. Taking losses in men and horses, the defenders continued to fall back towards the railroad line and bridge. One gun crew, for example had only 17 of 45 horses left.
Albert Jones of the 4th New Hampshire wrote, “We were then marching over the ridges of a large sweet potato field, and it was hard work. I remember a good share of the soldiers threw away almost everything they had except guns and equipment, in order to keep in the ranks. Overcoats, blankets, etc., all went . . .”
The Charleston-Savannah Stagecoach Road (the main road running north to south along the coast) ran parallel to the tracks and both crossed the Pocotaligo river to the east of Frampton’s Plantation.
By 3:30 the Union troops were approaching the Pocotaligo Bridge. The Confederates had earthworks on the northern side, opposite from the Federals, and they tore up the bridge behind them. Only three of eight Confederate guns were still operational.
Mitchell’s artillery included parrot guns and naval howitzers, manned by sailors. Despite the artillery advantage, the Union forces used up their ammunition and took significant losses in horses. The Union troops deployed to assault the position. The 3rd New Hampshire and 7th Connecticut were on the right side of the road, with the 76th Pennsylvania on the left.
At this point one of the most unique events of the whole war took place: a railroad ambush. The stagecoach road ran parallel to the tracks, and a train approached from the south with reinforcements. Pulled by an engine, it consisted of six platform cars and two boxcars, loaded with men from the 11th South Carolina and Abney’s Sharpshooter Battalion (SC).
The 48th New York approached the tracks, saw the train coming, and lined up alongside, laying down. When the train came up, the federals rose up and fired, killing the engineer and many soldiers. It was a total surprise to the unfortunate riders of the train. The train sped past and brought the survivors to the Confederates defending the bridge. The New Yorkers proceeded to destroy as much track as they could.
Back at the bridge, things were at a stalemate. Hearing train whistles in the distance, Union troops knew that reinforcements were arriving. They also heard Confederates cheering. Losses were also mounting among the Federals and their attack was running out of steam. Battery E, 3rd US Artillery suffered severely. One gun had only four men left of its twelve-man crew, and half of its horses were down.
With no good way to force a crossing, the Union troops were stuck. Brig. Gen. John Brannan wrote that by five o’clock, “Night was now closing fast, and seeing the utter hopelessness of attempting anything further against the force which the enemy had concentrated at this point from Savannah and Charleston, with an army of much inferior force, unprovided with ammunition, and not having even sufficient transportation to remove the wounded, who were lying writhing along our entire route. I deemed it expedient to retire to Mackay’s Point . . .”
The 47th Pennsylvania and 7th Connecticut acted as the rear guard as the main force fell back. They reached MacKay’s Point at 3 am, exhausted. The next day, October 23rd, they disembarked for the return journey. Losses were 343 Federals and 163 Confederates. The raid was a good example of what a small but determined defending force could do.
Afterwards the Confederates quickly repaired damage done to the rail line. Although the raid was not a success, Mitchell was encouraged and determined to try again. Unfortunately he died of yellow fever in Beaufort on October 30. General David Hunter replaced him and intended to continue operations against the rail line, however Union efforts became focused on Charleston instead. It would be two years before they tried again.