In early July,1864, 5,000 Union troops landed on Seabrook Island and marched up Johns Island in an effort to flank Confederate forces on James Island and help in the capture of Charleston. By the evening of July 4th, after two days of hard marching in the Lowcountry’s sweltering heat, they were camped around Brickhouse Plantation at the intersection of River Rd and Legareville Rd. (near today’s Bryans Dairy Rd.)


Opening Skirmish

On the morning of July 5, 1864, the Union forces on Johns Island were in an excellent position. They had established a supply base and line of retreat at Legareville on the Stono River. River Rd was open for many miles east and north where they could secure the west bank of the Stono River and threaten the Confederate forces across the river on James Island. However, Confederate reinforcements had begun to arrive on the north end of Johns Island and, as importantly, Major John Jenkins the commander of Confederate forces on the Island had returned from leave with his family. A native of Edisto Island, Jenkins had commanded the Confederate forces during the vigorous defense at Haulover Cut in February when, outnumbered, they had repulsed a Union force of 4,000 troops during three days of battle.


On Tuesday morning the 5th, Major Jenkins sent scouts down River Rd to determine the disposition and intent of the enemy. When he learned that the Federals under the command Brigadier General John P. Hatch were advancing up River Rd. he sent part of his forces to delay their advance. The much larger Federal force consisted of two brigades, one under the command Colonel William Davis of the 104th Pennsylvania Regiment and the other under Brigadier General Rufus Saxton. At the same time Jenkins took command of the recently arrived 1st Georgia regiment, including some artillery, and marched down Bohicket Rd from Maybank Highway, known then as Fenwick Rd. The Confederates turned left on Edenvale Rd. and came up on the Federal’s flank and rear at the intersection with River Rd, called Huntscum’s Corner at the time.     There they surprised and routed two companies of the 26th New York Colored Infantry who retreated back southwest to Brickhouse Plantation. By this time the larger Union force of two brigades had advanced up River Rd. almost to Plow Ground Rd. Jenkins action had theoretically cut them off from their supply line at Legareville.


Their rear under threat, the Union troops halted at Burdens Creek just below Plow Ground Rd. and sent Saxton’s Brigade to repel Jenkins and relieve the 26th regiment. Jenkins realized that his small contingent could never prevail squeezed against the large force to his north and the remainder of the 26th New York to his south. He reversed his route and retreated back up Edenvale and Bohicket. He had accomplished his purpose of diverting and delaying the main Union advance.


The Battleground Set

Meanwhile Confederate troops from the 2nd South Carolina and 32nd Georgia regiments had arrived around Waterloo Plantation north of Plow Ground Rd. Federal Brigadier Hatch, unsure of what he faced on his front, entrenched in a strong position at Burdens Causeway with the creek and marsh on his front, the Stono on his right and thick Lowcountry “jungle” on his left. This is as far as the Union forces would get. By nightfall on the 5th there were hundreds of Confederate troops and 4 pieces of artillery blocking their way.


Wednesday morning, July 6th, found the Confederates entrenched in the field north of, and parallel to, Plow Ground Rd, The Rebels were about a half mile from the Union lines along the woods just north of Burden’s Creek along the road. General Saxton’s brigade was still returning from their chase of Major Jenkins at Huntscums Coner the previous day. By then Major Jenkins had circled around up Bohicket Rd and down Maybank Highway to take command on the front. He began actively shelling the Union forces with his few artillery pieces. Federal General Hatch had troops reconnoitering the Rebel batteries across the Stono River on James Island. His intent was to establish batteries on Johns Island to fire on them across the river. He also sent a few companies of African American troops forward to test the Confederate defenses. They were driven back by the hot fire of the Confederate batteries and troops.


The most notable event of the day was the wounding of Colonel Davis who had been in tactical command of the Union forces. He had gone forward to view the Confederate defenses and while looking through his telescope observed a Confederate artillery piece load, aim and fire directly towards his party. Though he ducked behind a small tree he was seriously wounded in his right hand and arm requiring his evacuation to medical facilities in the rear. The overall commander, General Hatch also retired to a more central position of command from the relative safety of a Federal ship in the Stono River. This left Brigadier Saxton in command.


Nothing major had been accomplished for the day except the reinforcement and strengthening of the Confederate line. On James Island the opposing forces had continued shelling and firing at each other with casualties but likewise, no significant change in their positions. The main lines on James Island ran east from Battery Pringle on the Stono River across from where the Executive Airport is today. The strong Union line on Johns Island was a bit north of this. The Federals had already flanked the Confederate positions on James Island and had full naval control of the Stono River.


Day of Fighting

On Thursday, July 7, the Union commander Saxton sent skirmishers out to test the Rebel lines and brought forward his artillery to begin shelling. But after a few hours the Federal fire slackened and the front was quite except for occasionally exchanges of gunfire. Major Jenkins was surprised that his opponents were not attacking more vigorously as he was outnumbered more than 5 to 1. Finally about 5 PM General Saxton ordered an advance. He sent a group of sharpshooters to engage and distract the enemy on his right while the 26th New York Colored Regiment was ordered forward on the left. The 26th had battled Major Jenkins at Hunstcums Corner two days earlier and had spent most of the next day marching up to the position at Burden’s Creek. They had been resting in the rear of the Federal lines on the morning of the 7th but were ordered forward through the lines to reach their jumping off point.


The 26th attacked across the field that is now in the north east corner of the intersection at River and Plow Ground roads. They succeeded in turning the Confederate line, and if supported properly, would have been able to flank and surround the entire Confederate position. General Saxton had several other fresh regiments readily available to support them but failed to send any forward. The Commander of the 26th, Colonel William Stillman, was also wounded just as they reached the Confederate lines further demoralizing the troops.


The Confederate troops put up a vigorous defense especially from the 2nd South Carolina Cavalry Regiment. Troops from the 1st Georgia Regulars were pulled from the center of the Confederate line and moved west to counterattack the 26th. The fighting between the Rebel troops and the African-American regiment was especially fierce because of the enmity between the two. Yet the Federal command continued to fail to press the attack with additional troops despite the weakened Confederate defenses. Finally the 157th New York was sent forward but only after the 26th had begun to retreat. Union Colonel Davis, who had been wounded and sent to the rear the previous day, noted “there was a lack of judgment in handling the troops”, a scathing observation by the overly polite standards of written commentary of the day.


An interesting side note for the 26th Regiment is that the actor and singer Vanessa Williams’ great-great-grandfather,  David Carll, served in the 26th and was very likely a participant in the battle of Burden’s Causeway.


Retreat From Victory

Friday, July 8th saw no change in the position of the opposing forces. Confederate forces continued to be reinforced and Brigadier General B.H. Robertson arrived to take command. He continued to rely on the expert advice of Major Jenkins and Captain John Basnett Legare Walpole of the Stono Scouts. The Federals also received reinforcements and General Hatch was ordered to return to the Island and take direct command of the troops. There were some active artillery exchanges in the morning but no significant fighting occurred that day as each side consolidated their positions.


General Robertson was determined to go on the offense on July 9th. He formed all of his troops into two lines, the first commanded by Colonel George Harrison of the 32nd Georgia, the second by Major Jenkins. At dawn, Colonel Harrison’s men advanced across the field to attack the Union front line along Plow Ground. Within a half hour he had driven back the Federals, across the bridge over Burdens Creek to their second line on the south side of the creek and marsh. Though Jenkins had been ordered to remain in reserve in case Harrison’s troops were repulsed, he nevertheless advanced in support. The full Confederate force including all their artillery pressed hard on the Union defenses across the creek. But being heavily outnumbered and attacking across the swampy ground against strong entrenchments the Confederates were unable to advance any further. General Robertson ordered Harrison and Jenkins to end the assault for the day and hold the ground they had gained.


Despite the setback, the Federals were in a good position. They defended a strong line with a creek and marsh at their front, river on one flank and impassable woods and swamp on the other. They heavily outnumbered the Confederates. They could have safely built batteries on Johns Island (near today’s executive airport) and shelled the Confederate defenses across the Stono on James Island. However, the Federals had had enough. On the night of the 9th they retreated back down River Rd. and out to Legareville were they boarded transports and left Johns Island, thereby snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.