On this day, a Union attempt to capture Charleston, South Carolina, is thwarted when the Confederates turn back an attack at Secessionville, just south of the city on James Island.
In November 1861, Union ships captured Port Royal, South Carolina, which lay about halfway between Charleston and Savannah, Georgia. This gave the Federals an important base from which to mount operations along the southern coast.
Before dawn on June 16, Yankee General Henry W. Benham led 9,000 troops onto James Island. Benham had a checkered career as a commander. He helped clear western Virginia of Confederates in the summer of 1861 but was ordered arrested by General William Rosecrans for “unofficer-like neglect of duty” because he was headstrong and critical of leadership. Eventually, he and Rosecrans made amends, and in the spring of 1862 Benham was sent to Port Royal to command the northern district of General David Hunter’s Department of the South.
Benham decided to attack the strong fortifications that protected Confederates under the command of General Nathan “Shanks” Evans. But the Rebels’ fortifications were nearly impenetrable. The approach to the fort was across a strip of firm ground bracketed by marshes, which narrowed the ground that the Confederate artillery needed to cover. Only 500 Confederates were inside, but another 1,500 rushed in from Charleston. Benham staged three attacks against the fort, but each failed. The Federals lost nearly 800 men, while the Southerners suffered only 200 losses.
After the disastrous battle, Union officials began pointing fingers, and Benham was arrested three days later. His superior, Hunter, had ordered no assault without permission. There was disagreement between Benham and his three subordinates over plans to attack. The three later said they had presented objections on the eve of the battle, but an aide to Benham said there had been no such discussion. Benham blamed one of his commanders, Isaac Stephens, for the botched charge.
The Judge Advocate General’s Office recommended revocation of Benham’s commission. But the aggressiveness he possessed was in short supply among Union generals in 1862, and the Lincoln administration rescinded the revocation. Benham joined Ulysses S. Grant for the Vicksburg campaign, and he commanded the Army of the Potomac’s engineering brigade during Grant’s Virginia campaign against Robert E. Lee in 1864.