“I shall never forget the sound of those locomotive whistles in my life.” - Captain Gobin, on hearing the arrival of Confederate reinforcements at the battle of Pocotaligo, SC
On the evening of Tuesday, October 21, 1862, Captain Charles Mickley of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment, commanding Company G, was writing home to a friend in the Lehigh Valley. He knew that they would be going into battle the next day and wanted him to take care of some money so that his wife would receive it:
“The Pay Master paid our Regt. yesterday & today at one o’clock our Reg. will Embark on the steamer Ben Deford to go an Expedition which our Reg is to take part in, but where we are going to we are as yet kept in the dark about it, if we return Safely I will let you know more about, with my best wishes for your health and happiness I remain Yours Truly Charles Mickley Co G 47 Reg. PV.”
It is not known when Mickley’s friend received this letter, but 24 hours after he sent it, his wife was a widow. According to one account his bloody sword was found later in the swamps of Pocotaligo, South Carolina.
It looked easy on the map, but before a battle it usually does. And the Civil War battle known as “Frampton and Pocotaligo Bridge,” or more simply the Battle of Pocotaligo, that took place on October 22, 1862 probably was like that. The battle’s primary purpose was to destroy the railroad bridges on the Charleston and Savannah Line, a major rail link between two Confederate cities.
“On a map it must have looked promising to the commanding Generals, “ noted the late Lewis G. Schmidt, in his history of the battle and the role played in it by the Lehigh Valley troops of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment. An amphibious assault by a large body of troops backed by a naval force of mobile artillery providing flank cover would move up the Pocotaligo and Tulifinny rivers and should easily outflank the Confederate forces, or so the planners reasoned. “Unfortunately,” Schmidt writes, “the reverse was true. The rivers and swamps restricted maneuver, and were largely un-navigable; and constricted any attacks to a direct frontal assault over a narrow area of operation…”
These facts were either unknown or simply ignored compared to what looked good on a map. And those planning the expedition did not seem to others like they had the highest possible motivations for it. Admiral Samuel Francis DuPont, who had won some significant victories, had little hope of its success. He noted once the troops got out of range of the gunboats that was no way they would win.
DuPont noted a certain General Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel (a professor of mathematics and astronomy who ordered the Civil War’s so-called Great Locomotive Chase) was pushing the operation. He was a grandstander, DuPont thought, who, “gasses and tells everything.” In fact, Mitchel caught yellow fever, was never able to join the expedition and died on October 30, 1862.
On October 21, 1862, a 42,000 man Union force under the command of Brigadier General John M. Brannan boarded troop ships under protection of a naval squadron at Hilton Head. Its 2nd Brigade was under the overall command of Brigadier General Alfred Terry. A part of that brigade, the 47th and 55th Pennsylvania were commanded by Colonel Tilghman Good of Allentown. Good was a popular figure in the community. At the outbreak of the war he formed the Allen Rifles, a local militia unit. The 47th suffered to a certain extent of the prejudice of Union officers who lumped them and all German speakers together as dumb Dutch. Now the 47th was headed toward the first real combat they had seen.
The 47th and 55th disembarked at Mackey Point (between the Pocotaligo and Coosawhatchie rivers) less than 10 miles from the bridge. They started around 8:00 a.m. The area was wooded and swampy, forcing the troops to lay corduroy roads (a road made of tree trunks) across the swampy ground in order to keep the artillery from sinking into the swampy soil. The Confederates were aware of their approach and allowed the Union troops to advance till they were well beyond the range of their gunboats. Writing in 1993, Schmidt noted that the land remained undeveloped, as it was in 1862. Good was commanding the advance. “After having advanced about two miles I discerned about thirty or forty of the enemy’s cavalry ahead. They fled as we advanced, “ he wrote in his report after the battle. Another officer, Captain Gobin, noted pickets ahead on the road, so they halted until the 55th Pennsylvania, the 6th Connecticut and Battery M of the 1st U.S. Artillery joined them.
Ordered forward once more, they encountered light fire from Rebel skirmishers who retreated as they advanced. “After three hours of marching,” Gobin continued, “we penetrated some five miles into the country, when upon emerging from a wood into an open space fire was opened upon the advance by a battery in a good position, and hidden by the tall rank grass which fringed the road.” The Union troops were now at Caston’s Plantation. “The main burden of the engagement,” writes Schmidt, “was the responsibility of the 47th who were in the lead.” Included in the action were the 55th Pennsylvania, 6th Connecticut and the 3rd U.S. Artillery. Gobin was so thirsty at this point he took a cupful of muddy swamp water, “and it tasted like nectar.”
The Rebel’s fire was now coming in, thick and fast. “The enemy made his first stand and a sharp fight followed in which the 47th suffered severely,” wrote Gobin. “It is no child’s play to go through the woods of South Carolina. They are one interminable growth of small shrubs, briars, and swamps. Our faces and hands were torn badly, in some cases, while our cloths suffered more. Again, we pushed forward through a field, with weeds higher than our heads. This terminated in a cotton field, where the riflemen of the enemy were posted and were flanked by another dense wood.”
Private Reuben Keim of the 47th offered the enlisted man’s perspective: ”As we did come about 5 miles the rebels was lying in the Brushes and in the woods and we did come up to them purty close Before we have seen them.”
The 47th discovered the battery that was firing at them and mounted a bayonet charge. But the Rebels withdrew, taking their cannon with them. After running about 80 to 100 yards, ripping up a small bridge as they went, they once more opened fire. But the 47th was not to be stopped while Good was leading them. “I moved forward on quick time and within about 500 yards of the woods the enemy opened a galling fire of infantry from it. I ordered ‘double quick,’ raised a cheer, and with a grand yell the officers and men moved forward in splendid order and a glorious determination, driving the enemy from the field.”
It was at Frampton’s Plantation that the fighting was the thickest. Here the 47th lost the largest number of its men. And it was here that Captain Mickley was killed leading a charge. The Confederate commander decided to move his men to the embankment around the railroad bridge, which offered the best defensive position. “The 47th Pennsylvania,” Good noted, “covered all or nearly all of the space that could be used for charging, between two creeks and swampy land. The charge was ordered, and we were met by a terrible fire of infantry and artillery, and for a short time were in a very hot place. Finally, we drove them out. At that point we sustained most of our regimental loss….and drove them back to the bridge.”
But the sound of railroad whistles told the Union troops what they feared most. Sixteen railroad cars loaded with rebel soldiers were seen getting off at the nearby station. Their sacrifice in lives and efforts had been in vain. As they were almost out of ammunition, General Brannan decided to order a retreat. And as the rest of the army headed back to the safety of their gunboats, he ordered the 47th to cover for them. Along the road as they retreated were the blue, uniformed bodies of their comrades. The 47th was under fire most of the time. It was not until after 4 a.m. on the 23rd that they were back at Mackay’s Point.
Once the Federals were under the protection of the gunboats the Confederate commanders knew that their combat with the Union Army was over. But they had driven off the enemy and the victory was theirs. It cost the 47th at least 116 casualties. On October 24, 1862, Captain Mickley’s body was carried north by ship and on October 30, 1862 was buried in the Lehigh Valley.