Seldom in the experience of Maine soldiers had such idiocy been demanded of them.
On Feb. 14, 1862, Lt. Col. Ephraim Woodman and five companies of the 8th Maine Infantry Regiment reported to U.S. Army engineer Egbert Viele on Daufuskie Island, about 5 miles from Fort Pulaski on the Savannah River in Georgia.
Viele was charged with building artillery batteries on the river to prevent supplies and troops from reaching Confederate-held Pulaski, located on Cockspur Island. Flowing toward the sea, the Savannah River splits into two channels, north and south, at Elba Island, upriver from Cockspur.
Between Elba and Cockspur lay Bird Island and Long Island, plus several small mud flats that essentially passed for islands when exposed at low tide.
Across the North Channel lay Jones Island and Turtle Island, formed by the tidal Mud, Wright, and New rivers; the last meandering waterway separated Daufuskie Island from Turtle Island.
Unfortunately, as Viele subsequently noted, “these islands, as well as all others in the river, are merely deposits of soft mud on sand shoals, always covered at high tide and overgrown with rank grasses.”
His commander, Army engineer Capt. Quincy A. Gillmore, had reconnoitered the islands and had determined that Venus Point on Jones Island “and the upper end of Long Island” were “the most feasible locations to be occupied” by artillery batteries.
Working amidst storm-driven rain, wind, and high tides, soldiers dragged “five Parrott guns and an 8 inch siege howitzer” on portable tramways across Jones Island to Venus Point. Constructing a parapet-protected gun platform, the soldiers finished the battery by mid-February.
On Wednesday, February 19, Gillmore ordered “that a battery should be placed on the north end of Bird Island,” noted Lt. Patrick H. O’Rorke, destined to meet his fate at Little Round Top.
Eighth Maine soldiers helped O’Rorke stake out the battery site on February 20. That night, with either sailors or soldiers straining at the oars, rowboats towed flat boats laden with cannons, shells, gunpowder, and building materials across the river to Bird Island.
Known as Battery Hamilton, the post would mount “one 8-inch siege howitzer, one 30-pounder Parrott, one 20-pounder Parrott, and three 12-pounder James rifles,” according to Gillmore.
These were big guns.
The next day, 8th Maine lads helped build the gun platforms and mount the cannons on them. Incoming tides swirled into the battery; sinking into the glutinous mud as they worked, the Maine soldiers erected with the soupy material a levee that defied formation.
Finally the levee at least partially blocked the tide water.
Working conditions were horrendous on Bird Island, like Jones Island formed from material “of the most unfavorable description,” Viele said. When the firing platforms atop Bird Island started sinking into the mud beneath the cannons’ weight, the 8th Maine lads rebuilt the platforms.
Viele praised the “great labor and perseverance of the troops under most trying circumstances, the fatigue parties always standing in water” 24 hours a day.
“Twice each day these islands were covered with water,” said an 8th Maine veteran. “Although the men sank deep into mud and water, the work progressed, and was completed.
“But the sufferings of the soldiers … employed upon the work were almost unendurable,” he noted.
One cold night in late February, Capt. John E. Bryant of Co. C sent three privates — Lindsey O. Goff of Gray, Samuel Holt of Turner, and Maurice Woodbury of Buckfield — to picket an island (likely Bird). The men were “instructed under no circumstances to leave their post.”
Goff was a 28-year-old shoemaker from Gray when he joined the 1st Maine Infantry in May 1861. Mustered out with that regiment that August, he signed up with the 8th Maine a month later.
Standing 5-10, Goff had blue eyes, brown hair, and a light complexion.
Samuel Holt, a 20-year-old “stitcher” from North Turner, mustered with Co. C on September 7, 1861. Also 5-10 in height, he had brown eyes and brown hair and a dark complexion.
Like Goff, Maurice Woodbury was a shoemaker, albeit in Buckfield. He stood 5-11 and had blue eyes, “light” hair, and a light complexion.
Perhaps Bryant selected the three men for picket duty based on their height.
The incoming tide “came up slowly around them, rising nearly to their breasts” and causing the men to hold their weapons and ammunition pouches above their heads. The tide “as slowly ebbed away; and yet those faithful sentinels obeyed their instructions.”
Afterwards the exhausted men struggled to the company’s camp and fell sick. “Broken down in health,” Goff shipped north to Maine “and soon after died.” Holt, too, died “from the effects of the night’s exposure.”
Only Woodbury survived.
Next week: Part III – The 8th Maine lads take a crash course in gunnery. Part I is available at The 8th Maine arrives opposite Fort Pulaski
Sources: Brig. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore, OR, Series 1, Vol. 6, Chapter XV, No. 3 and No. 5; Lt. Patrick H. O’Rorke, OR, Series 1, Vol. 6, Chapter XV, No. 4; Brig. Gen. Egbert L. Viele, OR, Series 1, Vol. 6, Chapter XV, No. 3; Return of Company C, Eighth Regiment Infantry, 1861 Maine Adjutant General’s Report; William E.S. Whitman and Charles H. True, Maine in the War for the Union: A History of the Part Borne by Maine Troops, Nelson Dingley & Co., Lewiston, 1865
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.