It’s the greatest Lowcountry Civil War story you’ve never heard.
Five federal troops won the Medal of Honor in a single engagement way up the Ashepoo River in Colleton County.
This Saturday — 153 years later — that heroism will be recognized with the dedication of an historical marker near the scene, on today’s Bennetts Point Road off U.S. 17 in Green Pond.
The story shows white troops rescuing black troops behind enemy lines in the Deep South. And this week a group of mostly white Southerners will honor the heroism of those Northerners.
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“We know that courage is color-blind and the bravery of these men and this battle should not be forgotten,” said Dewey Wise of the Bennetts Point area, who led the charge to get the historical marker in place.
The story is Lowcountry to the bone because it involves something as common as a boat stuck on a sandbar.
But in this case it was a large paddle-wheel steamer called the Boston, laden as it left Hilton Head Island with some 300 federal troops and 80 horses. In May 1864, it was part of a larger mission to cut the vital railroad line connecting Savannah to Charleston where it crossed the Ashepoo.
The vessel was under orders to follow a smaller boat into the dark night and swirling currents. But it missed its turn off the Ashepoo into Mosquito Creek at Bennetts Point. And even though someone on board the Boston knew the turn was missed, it followed orders, and soon found itself stuck on a sandbar. The sandbar was the center of dark confusion that night, but it is cleearly visible today from the nearby Frank E. Baldwin Jr. Bridge on Bennetts Point Road.
By 1 a.m., the small number of Confederate troops in the area had dashed to a place on the Ashepoo called Chapman’s Fort with artillery.
“When dawn came up and the heavy fog lifted, there, right in front of them, was this huge Yankee steamer,” Wise said.
“It was a sitting duck. It was a stranded whale.”
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About 100 shots from two Confederate six-pounder cannons struck the vessel, taking a larger toll on the horses than the men.
“Many men, stripping off their equipment and in some cases their clothes, jumped into the water and bogged down in the marsh as they made for the river’s eastern shore,” writes Stephen R. Wise, no relation to Dewey Wise, in the second volume of Beaufort County history called “Rebellion, Reconstruction and Redemption, 1861-1893.”
“The Boston’s crew tossed spars, boxes, and other equipment into the water to assist the floundering men. Those who could swim helped other comrades. Sgt. Gabriel Turner of the 34th U.S. Colored Troops, one of the slaves who with Robert Smalls had taken the Planter (steamship) out of Charleston, constantly rescued men who sank into the water.”
U.S. Army 1st Lt. George Washington Brush, leader of a unit of the 34th U.S. Colored Troops, hopped into one of the Boston’s smaller boats and, “while under enemy fire, carried a large number of the men from the vessel to the nearby shore,” Stephen Wise writes.
For their bravery, Brush and four enlisted privates with the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry were later awarded the Medal of Honor: William Downey, John Duffy, David L. Gifford, and Patrick Scanlan.
Some of them had been born in Ireland. Brush went on to become a doctor and state senator in New York.
Thirteen federal troops died, mostly by drowning. The Confederates suffered no losses in what was a blundering military failure by the Union. The entire mission was called off after the debacle at Chapman’s Fort.
The strategic railroad was not cut until U.S. Army Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s troops came through near the end of the war, twisting rail lines into “Sherman bow ties.”
Dewey Wise, a Citadel graduate and retired attorney who served in the state senate from 1972 to 1984, stumbled upon the tale of heroism while working on a history of Bennetts Point. He read about it in the new history book by Wise and Larry Rowland, and started the long slog to get a state-verified historical marker last year.
Bennetts Point residents helped pay for it, contributing money raised at their annual St. Paddy’s Parade and festival created largely to support the volunteer fire department.
The dedication ceremony will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, May 13, at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources field station at Bennetts Point, a quiet, rural village in the ACE Basin between Beaufort and Charleston.
Stephen Wise will tell the full story.
And retired Marine Maj. Gen. James E. Livingston, a Medal of Honor recipient from the Vietnam War, will speak.
He is expected to focus on how the nation’s highest award for combat valor is color-blind, even in the Civil War.
He has been quoted as saying:
“I always believed in what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said . . . that a man ‘should be judged by the content of his character and not by the color of his skin.’ This was never truer than on the field of battle, and it is one of the great hallmarks of our beloved Marine Corps.”