REPORT UPON THE JAMES ISLAND AFFAIR,
JUNE 16, 1862
COLONEL JOSEPH HOLT
From the Washington Chronicle of February 20, 1864
REPORT UPON THE JAMES ISLAND AFFAIR
of June 16th, 1862
JUDGE ADVOCATE GENERAL, U.S.A.
It will be recollected that some twenty months since, in July, 1862, while
General Hunter commanded the Department of the South and General Benham the district now under Colonel Gillmore, an expedition
was planned against Charleston, which landed at James Island.
Within a few days after this landing General Hunter returned to Hilton
Head, leaving General Benham in command, with directions to :secure" his encampment, but not to advance on Charleston. As
these encampments were covered by the fire of a rebel battery at Seccesionville, General Benham deamed it indispencsable for
holding his position, (and to be entirely justified by the order of General Hunter) to attempt to reduce this battery. He
therefore directed the assault upon the morning of the 16th of June.
This attack was ordered to be made at the earliest daylight, but did not
actually take place til after sunrise; and to this delay General Benham attributed the repulse which followed.
General Hunter, however, dissatisfied with the loss which had occured,
arrested General Benham, and sent him out of the department, though, as he repeatedly stated, and as was the fact, without
preferring and charges against him. But it is presumed that the fact of this arrest, with the newspaper comments and other
publications of those ignorant of the circumstances, were the cause, that, after a few weeks, general Benham's appointment
as a General of Volunteers was revoked, and he was returned to his duties as a field officer of engineers, though there was
no trial or even notice given him of any charges.
After some five or six months -- in January, 1863 -- the President was
induced to direct an examination of the case by Colonel Holt, the Judge Advocate
General of the Army. The result was a most cpmlete exhoneration of General
Benham from all blame in relation to that affair, and the immediate restoration to his rank, and his assignment to the command
of the engineer brigade in the Army of the Potomac, on which duty he has continued since that time.
As this report, however, was not given to the public, and General Benham
has himself abstained from publishing any account of the affair, the assumed histories of this action --- by Headly Abbot,
and others -- made up apparently from the newspaper statements of the time, have done such great injustice to General Benham,
that when the President's attention was called to them, he at once authorized the publication of Colonel Holt's report, herewith
placed before the public, to the complete vindication of that officer; showing, as it fully does, that this assault appeared
most fully justified by the orders of General Hunter, that it was a "military necessity," was well planned and that "it failed
from no faults of General Benham."
Before proceeding to this report it may be well to exemplify "the truth
of history" as we find it in ?Headly's book, at least, by stating that in two important actions, when General Benham was undeniably
the sole commander of the troops engaged, his name has not been mentioned at all, and in a third action it is only named in
connection with a statement absolutely incorrect.
At Correck's Ford, where Garnett was killed and his train captured, as
General Harris' letters and orders abundantly testify, he commended all the troops engaged, having led the skirmishes in that
pursuit and given all the orders in that action, General Morris being several miles in rear, advancing with the main columns.
At Fort Polaski, he commanded all the troops engaged, and was the senior
officer who gave any orders at the bombardment being night and day under fire in the batteries, fully as much so as Captain
Gillmore himself, who was then Benham's chief engineers, having no higher appointment beyond what had been given him by General
Benham's predecessor. Yet, neither in connection with this affair, does General Benham's name appear in Headley.
And at Carnifax Ferry it is stated the Benham, with his brigade, was permitted
to "make a bold reconnoissance, nothing more." This is absolutely incorrect. The Commanding General ordered a reconnoissance
of one regiment at near 11 o'clock in the morning, and countermended that order in a very few minutes, before the regiment
had moved, and about four hours after, he ordered Benham forward on the enemy, and authorised him to "use his discretion,"
as was published at that time by one who witnessed it, then acting as aid to Commanding General.
At this battle of Carnifax Ferry, General Benham commanded the landing,
not to say the only, brigade engaged.
Again as to a fourth affair; The rout of Floyd through Fayette County,Va.
about the middle of November, 1861, there Benham commanded, in a pursuit of four or five days, through rain and mud and snow,
until ordered to return, and where the rebel accounts, as published in a Richmond paper and reprinted in the New York Herald
of december 24, 1861, assert, "it was the most dissrespectful rout that out (their) enemies have suffered during the war,"
and "made the ill-fated campaign, in Western Virginia, in a blaze of glory for the Yankees." The "History" of Headley makes
not the slightest ellusion at all to this rout, or to the commander.
REPORT OF JUDGE ADVOCATE, GENERAL HOLT.
Judge Advacate General's Office, january 26, 1863,
To His Excellency, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States:
Sir: - In compliance with your written direction, under date of ?? instant,
I have carefully examined the case of Major Benham, and now have the honor to submit this following report:-
The appointment of Major Benham as brigadier general of volunteers was
by your order revoked on the 7th of August last, on the recommondation of Major General Wallock of same date, approved by
the Secretary officer. While in command at James Island, South Carolina a short time previously, he had directed an attack
on an earthwork near Seccessionville, in which his troops had been repulsed. In a communication addressed to the Secretary of War by Major general Hunter, on the 27th of June, enclosing
letters from Brigadier General Wright and Stevens, explanatory of this attack and repulse, is found the following language:--
"You will see from the letter of General Wright and General Stevens, that
in a council of war, held on the evening previous to the attack, these officers, together with Colonel Williams, commandingg
a brigade, "remonstrated strongly and emphatically with General Benham, and warned him that he was about to fight a battle
in violation of orders."
This warning is spoken of in the letter of General Stevens to major general
Hunter, on the 8th of July, and is thus refered to:-
"General Wright, moreover, warned general Benham that his orders were,
in fact, orders to fight a battle. In this General Williams and myself in express terms concurred."
It will be observed that there is nothing said in this wraning as to any
"violation of orders." General Hunter -- an interpretation which could be a total departure from the fact, as we clearly ascertain
by recurring to the words of General Stevens.
Upon this emphetic decleration of general Hunter, without, probably examining
the letter of General Stevens to see how far it was justified, General Benham's appointment was no doubt revoked. Strange
to say, this paragraph in the letter of General Stevens was printed in the New York Times in precisely the sence in which
General Hunter had edited it, though in different language. It reads, as published in that journal, thus:--
"General Wright, moreover, warned General Benham that his orders were in
fact orders not to fight a battle. In this General Williams and myself, in express terms concurred."
It will be seen that, by the introduction of the word not, the meaning
of the sentence was totally changed and revered. This publication having met the eye of General Stevens, he, on the 10th of
July, addressed a note to the editor of the New York Times --- the
original of which is now before me -- in which he says: " I desire to correct an error, either of the printer or copyist,
in my official report to general Hunter. In the copy, as printed in your issue of the 16th instant, it is stated, " General
Wright warned General Benham that his orders were in fact orders not to fight a battle." It should read, "General Wright
warned General Benham that his orders were in fact orders to fight a battle," meaning thereby, General Benham's own orders
to his subordinates in relation to the operations of the morrow, and that a battle must inevitably result from them, and
not General Hunter's orders to General Benham which were not a matter brought before the conference." It thus appears
that the principel ground on which General Benham was dismissed from the volunteer service was a total misapprehension, and
has been completely swept away by the frank and emphetic testimony of General Stevens.
The question still remains to be determined, whether the attack on the
earthwork was in fact a violation of general Hunter's order to General Benham. This order, the only one issued on the subject,
bears date, "On board U.S. Transport Delaware, Stone River, S.C., June 10, 1863, and is in these words:--
"In leaving the Stone River to return to Hilton Head, I desire, in any
arrangement that you may make for the disposition of your forces now in this vicinity, you will make no attempt to advance
on Charleston or attack Fort Johnson, until largely reinforced, or until you receive specific instructions from these headquarters
to that effect.
"You will, however, provide for a secure entrenched encampment,
where your front can be covered by the fire of our gunboats from the Stone on the left, and the creek from ?olly river on
the right." A glance at the map which accompanies the papers makes it perfectly clear, in my opinion, that the attempt made
to capture the earthwork at Seccessionville was not "an advance on Charleston," distant ten, nor "an attack on Fort Johnson,"
distant seven miles.
General Benham had located his entrenched encampment so as to meet
the conditions of the order, by placing it within the protection of the gunboats from
the Stone on the left, and from teh creek of ?olly river on the right. He found, however, that it was covered by the fire
of the earthwork at Secessionville, immediately in his front, from which shot and shell were thrown into the camps both of
Stevens and Wright. To render his encampment, therefore, in the language of the order, "secure", and, indeed, to enable him
to continue its occupation, it was absolutely indispensable that the earthwork should be taken. The enterprise was not deemed
difficult, or its success at all doubtful.
It was believed by General Benham then, and is believed by him now, that
the movement was not only not a violation of general Hunter's order, but that it was in strict compliance with it, and was
indeed, under all circumstances in which he was placed, a military necessity. It must be admitted at least that the order
was susceptable of the interpretation he gave it, and for following the sincere conviction of his judgement he should not
be summarily dismissed and degraded.
General Hunter has preferred no charges against Benham because of this
attack on the earthwork, though it appears from a single expression in one of his letters to the Secretary of War that he
regarded the movement as a violation of his order. It must be inferred that it was in opposition to some plan or purpose actually
entertained by him; but that it was a violation of any purpose or wish disclosed by him in the order to General Benham can
not successfully be maintained.
The question of disobedience of the order mentioned being thus disposed
of, it remains to inquire whether the attack itself evidenced such rashness of incapacity as justified the Government in stripping
General Benham of his commission. Nothing is found in the record which would warrant an affirmative responce to this inquiry.
The earthwork was defended by about six hundred men. General Benham had some fifteen regiments and two batteries with which
to assault it, and the knowledge he had that the work was being rapidly strengthened, urged him to prompt action. The plan
and all the arrangements for the movement, though bold, appear to have been well ??tured. and justified this confident expectations
of a favorable (Whole line missing here on the page)
Staement of Colonel Rowley (x), who commanded a brigade on the occasion,
and was in the front. His detailed explanation, which are illustrated by a map, leave no reason to doubt but that, had the
officer charged with conducting the assault arrived, as it was intended he should, earlier, and directed personally and in
proper order the march of the troops in their advance, and had he not ordered the troops in their advance, and had he not
ordered the troops under Colonel Howley to fall back, the attack would have been successful. When this order to retreat was
given, our troops, though "suffering severely, were advancing steadily, and were within one hundred yards of the work." General
Stevens and Wright allege that, in the council which was held the evening before, they expressed openly their opposition to
the attack being made. General Stevens certainly preferred that it should be made in open daylight, and both he and General
Wright may have felt the opposition announced after the disaster occurred; but Captain Dreyton of the United States Navy,
who was present, describes their bearing and conversation in the following words: "In the meeting referred to, I cannot recollect
any opposition to your proposed advance on Succesionville the following morning, exceptas regarded the time you had fixed
on Brigadier General Stevens being in favor of deferring it until the afternoon. Although, however, no direct objections were
made, I judge from a series of questions which were put to general Stevens by Gen'l Wright, in regard to the effect produced,
or likely to be produced, on the enemy's works by the battery of the latter, (former) that he was not in favor of a forward
movement at the present time.
*Captain Lawler, Twenty-eighth Massachusetts, and Lieut. Jackson, ?.?.
and ??? of the Seventh Connecticut, wounded and taken prisoners there, both state the numbers in the battery at 350, and that
the rebels asserted that, if the attack had continued five to ten minutes longer, they should have surrendered.
x Col. Rawley started with the brigade, but Col. Fenton, 8th Michigan,
arose from a sick bed to join and command his brigade
The impression was made on me, by the general tone of the conversation,
that while expressing every desire to further your views to the utmost of their po?er. the three officers above named (General
Stevens and Wright and Colonel Williams) were scarcely in favor of that movement. None of them, however, said as much as
this, and General Wright did observe that we could take the battery, he thought."
The affidavit of William O'Connor proves that on the night previous to
the attack, in reply to a question of General Benham, General Stevens expressed the opinion that they could succeed. Whatever
opposition, however, may have been felt or manifested by these officers, General Benham was not bound to yield to it. Military
men may, and often should, hear the opinions of their subordinates, but it is their privilege, and at times it becomes their
duty, to disregard them. I think I am justified in holding that the attack on the earthwork was not, in fact, and certainly
was not intended to be, a violation of orders; nor was it an "ill-digested or criminally rash movement, but one which was
made from a sense of duty, which should have succeeded, and which failed from no fault of General Benham, but from causes
which he could not control. There is a total absence of that clear proof of culpability which alone would justify the summery
proceeding which has been resorted to against him.
General Benham is a soldier by profession. He graduated at West Point in
1837, first in his class, and as an engineer has since adorned the highest walks of military science. he has now given some
twenty-five years of his life to his country, and it does seem to be dealing harshly and unjustly to thus strike him down
and dishonor him without a trial, even though the critisisms of men, it may be, more cautious than himself, should announce
his conduct in moving upon the enemy ill-considered and rash. Over-aggressivness has certainly not been as prevailing a vice
in the military service during the present war as to call for such an example as the sudden dismissal of this officer presents.
Rashness and over-eagerness to stile the enemy may certainly become culpable and be fraught with disaster but this inaction
of military men is often yet more to be deplored.
General Benham's record as a soldier is one of which he may well be proud;
it belongs to the country, and should not be hastily darkened by such a condemnation as that which now rests upon him. Had
he done nothing more than offer his life upon the field od buene Vista, where he fought brevely and was wounded, he would
have done much to entitle him to the kind consideration of his Government. General Wool, speaking of his conduct on that occasion,
says: "He was very gallant, zealous, and efficient at all times, night and day, in the performance of the important duties
with which he was charged." Lieutenant General ?????, referring to the same events, uses this emphatic language to the Secretary
of War: "There is much merrit in the services mentioned within, deserving, in my opinion of an additional brevet. Brevet Captain
Benham deserved that rank for his great services on the 22d of February, the first day of the battle of buene Vista, and the
brevet of Major for the next day."
His zeal, ability, and efficiency are yet further tested, and commended
in earnest terms, by some of the most accomplished officers connected with the civil and military administration, all of whom
speak of what they have personally known in their experience of his character and conduct, among whom may be mentioned:Commodore
Joseph Smith, of the Bureau of Yards and Docks, Brigadier General Totten, Professor Bache, and Brigadier General Morris.
Brigadier General Totten, after alluding to the various positions in which
he had known him, says: "In all these situations he has performed his duty to my entire satisfaction, always exhibiting the
strictest care of the public interests, excellent in judgement, great intelligence, persevering industry, and a stirring soul
that never allows itself to be tied down within the limits of my special trust."
Professor Bache holds this language in regard to him: "I would respectfully
commend him in the highest terms as a man of excellent judgement, or great kindness, and yet firnm in his dealings with his
subordinates, and discreet in his management officers and men, and with a fruitfulness, energy, and industry in the discharge
of his duty which cannot be exceeded. The loyalty of character and devotion which he shows to the service in which he is engaged
cannot be surpassed."
Brigadier General Morris, under date of July 18, 1861, alluded to his campaign
in Western Virginia, writes: "Captain Benham has been on service with my column ever since we have been in Virginia, and if
we have done anything that merits the approval of our friends, we owe to Captain Benham an enduring gratitude for the valuable
aid and councils offered us.
"I have on all occasions given the command of the attacking column to the
Captain, and his great energy, his superior skill, and indemitable courage have been fully appreciated by our men, and have
on every occasion led us to victory."
Surely, in the presence of such testimonials as these, General Benham should
not be condemned as incapable or unfaithful, precipitately, or without a hearing. His restoration is respectfully recommended.
J. HOLT, Judge Advocate General.