TACTICAL AT SECESSIONVILLE

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© Roger Hughes 1994.

Observations of Lt. Col. Arthur Fremantle at the Battle of Secessionville 1994.

 It occurred to me that it might be of interest to readers to receive a slightly different account of a recent engagement in which I, as a British observer, inadvertently became embroiled. It happened recently at the great encounter at Boone Hall, near Charleston, South Carolina.

Early in the morning, as I had barely emerged from my tent enjoying an Englishman's customary first cuppa', I beheld Union troops marching briskly down the tree lined avenue, which guard like sentinels the stately entrance to the mansion. Upon inquiring of an officer I discovered they were on their way to meet the foe in a tactical somewhere in the fields of the plantation. I determined to follow and observe the action.

After scrambling into uniform and boots I caught them up some way towards the entrance gate where they had halted, not as I had supposed, whilst a recognisance was undertaken or skirmishers deployed, but to have their photographs taken by a fellow perched upon a precarious platform which apparently permitted him to capture the whole assembly. Not wishing myself to be emulsified upon an image with Yankee troops - lest my own be tarnished in the eyes of my Southern friends - I determined, after obtaining the acquiescence of the Commanding Officer, to proceed ahead, down a track where I was told they expected to find the Confederates. It was my desire to locate a large tree on which to perch and view the action, much as I did at Gettysburg. However, after a lonely plod of some half mile down this densely wooded path I emerged upon a ploughed field with not a Confederate in sight. Through my glasses I did catch a fleeting glance of horsemen on the other side and decided to advance and investigate - under a makeshift flag of truce consisting of a white handkerchief tied to my sword, .

It must have been a very odd sight indeed for these Confederate Cavalry to encounter a solitary British Guards officer, stepping forward under a white flag, when they expected the whole Union Army. We exchanged a cordial good time of day, they permitting me to pass unhinded, but not without first inquiring if I knew the whereabouts of the enemy. This placed me in a somewhat invidious position since, being a neutral, I have always felt I should not disclose information of that sort to either side. However - and I hope this frank disclosure will not get me shot or cause a diplomatic incident - I did advise the Captain in charge that the Yankees would be somewhat delayed on account of their photographic adventure, no doubt the first for many of the rank and file. To my enquiry as to the whereabouts of his own army he was in no way as circumspect, confessing frankly that he had not the slightest idea. The brave fellow then determined to dismount his small force along a tree lined gully to delay the Union advance as best they could.

Not wishing to become embroiled in the skirmish which was clearly minutes away I continued on my trek for a further half mile amongst the wilderness of paths, looking for greybacks. At length I rounded a bend and spied, at the end of a dead straight track some half mile distant, a solitary twelve pounder, minus its cannoneers. Since it was highly unlikely the piece would discharge on its own I gingerly proceeded, hoping my flag would save my skin.

Suddenly, a head popped from behind a bush and to my intense relief it belonged to one who I have the honour to call friend, Commander Goodrich of the Milton Light, from Florida. Afterwards he joked that it was not my flag which had prevented him from ordering the lanyard pulled and evaporating my person, but the fact that I was wearing his overcoat, which he had kindly loaned me the day before on account of the exigencies of the weather - such are the fortunes of war.

Their scarce troop consisted of only three pieces, which was also, like the cavalry engagement now clearly to be heard, somewhat replete to check the Union onslaught. Likewise Goodrich had not the slightest notion where the infantry were, but determined to defend the lane to the last. The cannon was hurriedly wheeled back round the corner, leaving the path deserted. Within minutes the remnants of the gallant cavalry came thundering back, their horses lathering from the exertion. They were pursued by a hail of Minnie balls from the jubilant Yankees who had emerged into the lane and were marching triumphantly, yet unknowingly, forward in tight formation being constricted by the dense brambles on either side. All three cannon were quickly loaded with double shotted canister, then, as if wishing to see the colour of their eyes the gunners waited, every heart beating faster as the tramp of marching feet grew louder. At no more than one hundred paces the first piece was rapidly heaved into the path of the surprised and suddenly terror-stricken front line of blue, which, like the magicians proverbial rabbit immediately vanished into the surrounding undergrowth. The horrendous discharge echoed throughout the woods as a great plume of white smoke completely enveloped and presumably decimated the approaching hordes. However, there was no time to gloat as the second then the third piece was rolled out and fired at point blank range, the carnage hardly to be envisaged. As will be readily acknowledged by anyone who has experienced these encounters, the artillerymen naturally desired to view the destruction they had so obviously wrought and therefore desisted from further firing until the thick billows dispersed. As the smoke cleared, to everyone's surprise we were confronted by exactly the same faces and flag as had endured all three fusillades. Not one man had fallen, leading me to inquire with incredulity of a nearby fellow if, in their intense excitement, they had inadvertently omitted to actually shove anything down the barrels of the guns. His reply, barely audible above the general consternation, was not complimentary.

The Yankees were undoubtedly shaken, but clearly not down and stealthily advanced as a second dose of the same was quickly administered by the artillerymen - with precisely the same results - or rather lack thereof. The thought occurred to me that I should afterwards examine some of these dead chaps, assuming there were any, to see what exactly they had on under their blue uniforms. Evidently they were protected by some new and miraculous suit of armour, information upon which I was most desirous to carry back to England.

The extreme exigencies of the moment however allowed no such investigation, it becoming immediately apparent that this gallant band would be swiftly overrun. Not wishing to be captured I beat a hasty retreat in the direction of the Confederate camp, which I guessed to be nearby, intent upon at least warning them of the approaching, and patently unstoppable, juggernaut. I rounded a bend at full pelt and to my relief ran smack into an approaching column of grey, sauntering down the lane with gay abandon oblivious to the sound of gunfire in the distance.

I immediately remonstrated with the first officer I met, suggesting his men advance immediately, at the double-quick, to save their gallant comrades and perhaps the day. However, as I have often observed, a conference of officers must first be convened before such precipitous action may be mounted, but which I confess on this occasion allowed caution to play the wiser man than valour, and a different and diabolically cunning plot was quickly hatched. A company was indeed dispatched down the road, with instructions to save what they could then mount an organized swift withdrawal. The remainder were ordered to force their way into the dense undergrowth, whereupon, not ten feet into the brush they all promptly lay down and vanished from view, waiting.

As I supposed, it had taken but a moment for the small force to be overrun and the Yankees could be heard jubilantly advancing, undoubtedly with designs upon the Confederate camp. Little did they suspect they would soon be visiting it, but not as marauding invaders. They were preceded by the remnants of the battered artillery, including I was pleased to note, Commander Goodrich, who scurried past oblivious of the hammer blow about to fall upon the pursuers by those concealed in the bushes. Excitement and anticipation rose to fever pitch as the first columns of blue entered the snare and I shall forever marvel at the patience with which the Confederates waited for the whole lot to gleefully charge into the trap. Instantly the order was given and with one horrendous Rebel Yell they burst from the thickets and pounced on their bewildered foe, herding the Bluebellies into such a tight group that hardly a shot was able to be fired. Capitulation was the only option to certain death, this time from bayonets which one supposed could be skewered between the joints in their artillery armour. To a man the startled Yankees elected the former and were promptly marched off into the Confederate camp and an ignominious prison pen.

For my part I was soon back at the mansion, addressing the crowds of spectators flooding in hopeful of seeing the afternoon (scripted) battle of Secessionville. They will never know what they missed.

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