Friday, May 10, 2013

Caught sleeping on Pinckney Island

Although I haven’t read all the Official Records of the Civil War, I have read many, and I have yet to see a regimental commander hang a subordinate officer out to dry the way Col. John H. Jackson did in the summer of 1862. A dead subordinate officer at that.

Slaves and soldiers on a S.C. cotton plantation (Henry P. Moore photo)
Pinckney Island (see map here) is just north of Hilton Head, where the 3rd New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry was headquartered. Along with the 4th and 7th New Hampshire, this regiment served in the  Union Army’s Department of the South along the South Carolina coast southwest of Charleston. Henry P. Moore, a Concord photographer, camped with the regiment in the spring of 1862 and chronicled its life there.

I happened upon Col. Jackson’s report while researching for a talk the other night at the Bedford Public Library. I was looking for information about the fate of soldiers from Bedford, particularly those from the 3rd who were at Pinckney Island, S.C., during the wee hours of Aug. 21, 1862.

After Union troops occupied Hilton Head and Port Royal to the north in late 1861, many former slaves were left behind when their owners fled. Some were put to work on the cotton plantations on Pinckney Island. Company H of the 3rd New Hampshire, under Joseph C. Wiggin, a 32-year-old lieutenant from Sandwich, N.H., was sent to the island’s eastern end to guard against Confederate attacks.

Sure enough, before daylight on Aug. 21, six boatloads of rebel soldiers landed. Apparently unimpeded, the raiders marched on Company H’s camp. Lt. Wiggin heard the gunfire and went out to see what was happening. The next volley was aimed at him. He was later found dead near his tent with eight or nine bullet holes in his body.

Four privates were also killed and several men wounded in the attack. Thirty-six were taken prisoner. Some of the casualties were probably shot by comrades firing in the dark. Among the dead was George Adams, a 20-year-old private from Bedford. Thomas Adams, possibly George’s brother, was captured, along with William Butterfield and John Lockling, two Bedford teenagers. William Nichols, another Bedford private, was severely wounded and had to leave the regiment.

Josiah Plimpton (center) of the 3rd New Hampshire Volunteers. Plimpton investigated the ambush of
Company H on Pinckney Island. His colonel's scathing report was based on his findings. (Henry P. Moore photo).  
The 3rd New Hampshire’s colonel, Enoch Q. Fellows, had resigned early that summer and had just taken command of the Ninth New Hampshire, which he was about to lead to South Mountain and Antietam. It fell to the 3rd's John H. Jackson, who was promoted to colonel to replace Fellows, to determine and report how the rebel ambush had caught Company H sleeping. He sent his major, Josiah I. Plimpton of Milford, to Pinckney Island to investigate.

Based on Plimpton's probe, Jackson contributed the bottom line to the following string of official correspondence about the incident. I wonder how Jackson's report might have read if Lt. Wiggin had lived to tell his side of the story.
Maj. Gen. David Hunter, commander of the Department of the South, to Rear Adm. Samuel F. Dn Pont:

Hilton Head, Port Royal, S. C., August 21, 1862.

ADMIRAL: The enclosed report has just been received. Can you spare a gunboat to go round the island and if possible cut off the retreat of the enemy?

Enclosure: From Col. John H. Jackson to Hunter from Grahams Plantation at Hilton Head:

Headquarters, 3rd New Hampshire, August 21, 1862; 7:30 a. m.

Col. John H. Jackson
SIR: I have just received reports from Pinckney Island that the company posted on the eastern end of the
island were surprised this morning by apparently three companies of the rebels. The lieutenant in command was taken prisoner and about 40 men. One sergeant and 5 privates escaped, and are reported on their way to these headquarters. They report the rebels at 6 o’clock this morning on the island in some force and wearing a blue uniform similar to our own. I have notified all my officers to have all their commands in readiness to move on to Pinckney Island. As you have been notified from Seabrook, I wait further orders, thinking you may think proper to send a gunboat to cut off the retreat of the rebels.

From Jackson to Henry W. Carruthers, post adjutant:

Grahams Plantation, Hilton Head, S. C., Aug. 21, 1862 10:45

SIR: Yours in reply to my communication of this morning is received. After sending my report I learned from some of those who escaped from the island that Lieutenant Wiggin was left on the island either killed or wounded badly, and that a number of our men were left there either killed or wounded. Major Plimpton, with a detachment from each of the four companies on the river, immediately landed on Pinckney Island to investigate the whole affair as far as possible and to recover those of our men who were killed or wounded.

Lieutenant Wiggin and 1 private, killed in resisting the attack, have been sent to Seabrook’s Wharf with some wounded men, who need the attendance of a surgeon. I gave Captain Emmons orders to send to Hilton Head for a surgeon, which I suppose he has done ere this. I have a report at this moment from the captain commanding the picket on the western end of the island, who has visited his posts, and they report all quiet during the night; heard no guns, cries, or anything of the kind, and also report that the enemy’s pickets present no unusual appearance. They have fired however on our pickets a number of times this morning. I shall be able to send 40 men tonight to occupy Company H’s former position.

On Pinckney Island there are a large number of contrabands and several well-cultivated plantations. The contrabands need protection and the plantations are valuable for their produce. I have been all over the island lately, and came to the conclusion that it needs five or six companies on the island to prevent these raids on our pickets. Please inform me if I shall continue to post pickets on that end of the island.

From Jackson to Hunter:

Hilton Head, S.C., September 1, 1862.

GENERAL: I have the honor to present the following report respecting an attack on the picket of this regiment stationed on Pinckney Island. The attack took place just before daylight on the morning of Thursday, August 21.

The enemy landed on the island from six boats, five of them landing above the pickets, and approached the camp from the side where no guard was stationed and fired a volley before they were discovered. The other boat came around the point to where one of our pickets was stationed very near the camp. The sentinel challenged twice and the lieutenant stepped from his tent and approached him. He had gone but a short distance when a volley was fired from the enemy, they being then in the camp. Lieutenant Wiggin was found dead a short distance from his tent, with eight or nine wounds on his body. The rebels remained but a short time on the island, and took but little of the company property and did not destroy the tents. The enemy have presented no unusual appearance since the attack.

Our loss was: Killed, 1 lieutenant, 3 privates; total, 4. Wounded, 2 privates; total 2. Missing, 3 sergeants, 4 corporals, 29 privates; total, 36. One of the wounded men has since died, and the other was severely wounded and may not recover. A number of the rebels were either killed or wounded, according to the report of one of the corporals who was taken prisoner, but the squad having him in charge was fired upon, probably by their own men in the darkness, and the fire was returned. In the confusion the corporal escaped, the guard at his side being shot dead.

On the 6th of August 3 men of Company H deserted from Pinckney Island, and a new disposition of the pickets was immediately made and the utmost vigilance urged upon the lieutenant (Wiggin) commanding that post. At different times two detachments of fresh men were sent to Pinckney Island to prevent the old pickets from relaxing their vigilance from great fatigue. At the time when the last detachment was sent I accompanied it, and examined all the picket posts, and pointed out particularly the necessity of great vigilance at the very point where the enemy landed on the 21st ultimo, and called the particular attention of the lieutenant to the importance of the post.

Since the surprise of the company (H) I have learned that the lieutenant (most unaccountably to me) removed entirely the guard at that post and the patrol from that point along the road to their camp. Lieutenant Wiggin proved himself a brave man at the battle on James Island, June 16, and nothing previous to this unfortunate affair has ever happened to shake my confidence in his ability as an officer. It was a great lack of vigilance and judgment on his part, and his too strong sense of security cost him the loss of his life and the regiment the loss of nearly an entire company. Every precaution was taken on my part to prevent any surprise of that post.

With great respect, your obedient servant,

Colonel, Commanding Third New Hampshire Volunteers.

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