A Firefight in a Salt Marsh

by Phil Spaugy

"Blue Jackets" of the U.S. Navy. Courtesy of the LOC

“Blue Jackets” of the U.S. Navy. Courtesy of the LOC

This past Sunday, I read with interest my good friend Craig Swain’s post on his “To the Sound of the Guns” blog about a raid by a landing party of  approximately 75  U.S. Navy sailors upon a salt works complex northwest of Brunswick, Georgia.

You can see his post here: http://markerhunter.wordpress.com/2014/08/03/summer-raids-ga-coast-pt-1/

One of the things that intrigued me about the post was Acting Lt. Swann’s glowing recommendation on the value and effectiveness of the Spencer rifle in getting his command out of a rather “tight spot” and safely back to their ship, the U.S.S.Potomska. Craig and I traded some text messages about the use of the Spencer rifles, and as Craig is wont to do, he “encouraged” me to write a post about the Spencer and its use in this particular engagement.

The story of the raid and the use of the Spencer rifles becomes more interesting when considering that it was due to the influence of Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles. Welles, a good friend of the Cheney brothers (the primary financial backers of  the arms inventor Christopher Spencer), arranged the first field test of the Spencer rifle that was held on June 8, 1861. This test was conducted for the U.S Navy by the famed naval ordnance inventor and head of the Naval Ordnance Department, Commander John Dahlgren.  Interestingly, three years later as a Rear Admiral, Dahlgren would head the South Atlantic Naval Squadron, and both the Potomska and Acting Lt. Swann would fall under his command.

After conducting a two-day field test, Commander Dahlgren wrote:

“The mechanism is compact and strong. The piece was fired five hundred times in succession; partly divided between two mornings. There was but one failure to fire, supposed to be due to the absence of fulminate. In every other instance the operation was complete. The mechanism was not cleaned, and yet worked well throughout as at first. Not the least fouling on the outside and very little within. The least time of firing seven rounds was ten seconds.”

Spencer Naval Rifle

Spencer Naval Rifle. Note the sword bayonet attachment lug under the barrel.

Obviously Commander Dahlgren was impressed, and an order was immediately placed for 700 Spencer rifles, to be fitted with sword bayonets. However, due to production delays and the filling of orders for the U.S Army [which took precedence], delivery of the Navy’s order did not take place until  February of 1863.

Rear Admiral John Dahlgren. Courtesy of the LOC

Now, let’s fast forward three years from the date of the initial test and approval of the Spencers, to the firefight in the marsh. The firefight is best described by now Rear Admiral Dahlgren’s report of the action to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, which included Lt. Swann’s report of the action as an enclosure:

Report of Rear-Admiral Dahlgren, U. S. Navy, transmitting report of Acting Volunteer Lieutenant Swann, U.S. Navy, commanding U.S.S. Potomska.

Flag-steamer Philadelphia,

Port Royal Harbor, S. C, August 8, 1864

Sir: I enclose herewith a report from Captain Swann, commanding the U. S. S. Potomska, giving an account of a raid in which he succeeded in destroying an extensive rebel salt work, in the course of which his small force had a sharp skirmish with the rebels,in which he lost 1 man killed and 4 wounded

The object of the expedition was, however, entirely accomplished, and there is every reason to believe that the rebels were punished severely by the fire from our boats.

Captain Swann speaks very highly of the Spencer rifles with which his men were armed.

I sent a steamer to bring up the wounded, and commended Captain Swann for the handsome manner in which the affair was executed.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

J. A. Dahlgren, Rear-Admiral, Comdg. South Atlantic Blockdg. Squadron.

Hon. Gideon Welles,

Secretary of the Navy.

Enclosure

 U. S. S. Potomska, July 30, 1864.

Sir: I have the honor to report the destruction of two salt works on a creek leading out of Back River, (6 miles from its mouth. One of the works contained twelve pans and the other six. The pans were the largest I have ever seen and the masonry very substantial. I started from the ship at 2 this a. m. and landed at the first work just before daylight. I destroyed the pans so effectually that not one of them will hold water. I burned all the buildings, destroyed 150 bushels of salt, and broke up all the wagons. I took six contrabands employed in the works. The pans were three-fourths of an inch thick, and it took me so long to destroy them that I was not ready to return to the ship until 9: 30 a. m. The water in the creek was then very low, and the swamp was from 5 to 6 feet above the gunwales of the boats, the creek at the time not being more than 10 feet wide and the water so shoal that in places we were forced to drag the boats through. At 10 a. m., when we had proceeded 1 1/2 miles, we were fired on by the enemy from the marsh bordering the creek and at the distance of about 10 yards. I had my first and third cutters, commanding the expedition myself in the third cutter, with a crew of six men. I was followed by the first cutter, commanded by my executive officer,  Acting Ensign Andrew Curtis, with 11 men. Their first volley was most effective, wounding 3 men in my boat, 1 mortally (since died) and 2 severely. There were 2 wounded by the same volley in the first cutter. Our arms, the Spencer rifles, saved us all from destruction, as the rapidity with which we fired caused the enemy to lie low, and their firing was after the first volley very wild. The sails of the first cutter were pierced by fourteen balls, and there are five in her hull. The third cutter was struck in hull and sails several times.

We fought them three-fourths of an hour, some of the time up to our knees in mud, trying to land and capture them, and some of the time in the water with the boats for a breastwork. The mud was so soft that we found it impossible to land and fight them, but the raking fire we kept up on them, firing at the smoke of their guns, drove them off. We could hear the cries of their wounded, and several were shot while retreating. None of our wounded made any noise. I can not sufficiently commend the conduct of my executive officer, Andrew Curtis, and his coolness and bravery under the galling fire to which we were subjected deserve the notice of the Department. The men behaved beautifully, and one of them in my boat, Charles Sylvester, when wounded severely, the ball entering his shoulder and coming out of his back, said it was nothing but a flesh wound, and fought until we had driven the enemy back, he bleeding profusely all the while. Mr. Curtis speaks very highly of the conduct of Luther M. Millington, paymaster’s steward. All the wounded are doing well, and the damage done to the enemy will more than compensate for our loss. I enclose a list of casualties. We expended 200 rounds of ammunition. I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

 R. P. Swann,

 Acting Volunteer Lieutenant, Comdg. U. S. S. Potomoska

 Rear-Admiral John A. Dahlgren,

 Commanding South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

Note that Acting Lt. Swann states the ambush took place in a narrow tidal creek channel, and the “Johnnies” who were hidden in the tall marsh grasses opened fire at the range of 10 yards! Now, imagine if you will, that if  Swann’s “Bluejacket” raiding party been armed with muzzle-loading rifles or rifle muskets, the difficulty they would have had standing in “knee-deep in water and swamp mud while trying to load and return fire. Instead, they were able to keep up a concentrated volume of “raking’ fire at a very short-range which enabled then to make their escape back to the Potomska with few casualties. [I will have more on the casualties in a future post.]

As for the gallant Acting Lt. Swann, the following General Order was prepared by Rear Admiral Dahlgren, to be read to the fleet:

General order of Rear-Admiral Dahlgren, U.S.Navy.

Flag-steamer Philadelphia,

Port Royal Harbor, S. C, August 17, 1864.

On the 30th of July Acting Volunteer Lieutenant R. P. Swann, commanding U. S. S. Potomska, penetrated with his boats in the vicinity of Darien, Ga., and destroyed several extensive saltworks.

In the course of the operation a sharp skirmish ensued with the rebels, who, as usual, secreted themselves in the bushes and fired upon our men, of whom 1 was killed and 4 wounded.

The enemy was promptly repulsed by the fire from the Potomska boats; and there is reason to believe he was severely punished.

The affair was creditably managed; for which my thanks are due to Acting Volunteer Lieutenant Swann, the officers, and men engaged in the expedition.

Commanders of vessels will have this order read on the quarterdeck to the ship’s company the day after its reception.

John A. Dahlgren, Rear-Admiral, Comdg. South Atlantic Blockdg. Squadron.

One has to wonder what thoughts went through the minds of both Rear Admiral Dahlgren and Secretary of the Navy Welles as they read the reports of this obscure action. Perhaps they enjoyed a brief moment of satisfaction knowing that they had played a rather large role in putting the modern firearms technology in the form of the rapid-firing Spencer rifles into the hands of Swann’s raiding party. Arms that in the end proved the difference between life, death or imprisonment for the “Bluecoats”, either in the salt marshes of southeastern Georgia, or perhaps in that particular hell known as Andersonville.

Sources:

Citation from ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 584-5

McAulay, John D., Civil War Breechloading Rifles, Andrew Mowbray, Lincoln Rhode Island

To the Sound of the Guns-blog by Craig Swain.

 

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