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You have already heard, no doubt, that another expedition has been sent…In this department, the object of which Is to Interrupt the Savannah and Charleston railroad, and, if possible, destroy It altogether….In this affair the 102d covered themselves with glory….Many who were wounded quite severely refused to go to the rear, but kept on fighting….
-Newspaper correspondent with Union forces at the Battle of Honey Hill
During the last days of November 1864, General William Tecumseh Sherman was nearing the end of his epic march across Georgia to the sea. As he approached Savanah, Sherman requested that Union forces stationed at Hilton Head, South Carolina be dispatched to assist him by cutting the Charleston & Savannah Railroad near Pocotaligo. Cutting this railroad would prevent Confederate reinforcements from beefing up Savanah’s defenses before Sherman’s arrival.
“…a rocky ridge that blocked the road…”
On November 28, an expedition of 5,500 Union soldiers, sailors and marines sailed for the Broad River. Among them were the 102nd U.S. Colored Troops (originally the First Michigan Colored Infantry). There were delays, as fog and poor navigation sent some ships up the wrong stream. The troops were again delayed after disembarking from their ships at Boyd’s Landing, as they took the wrong road and had to backtrack. While Union forces marched and countermarched, Confederates dug into their earth and log fortifications on Honey Hill, a rocky ridge that blocked the road on which the expedition needed to travel.
“…going to be a tough battle…”
When Union troops finally arrived in front of the Confederate fort, they could find no way around it. As Northern commanders marched their men forward into thick pine woods, they observed that their soldiers would have to charge over ground with only scattered pine scrub for shelter, and then cross a creek, where Confederates had destroyed the bridge. It soon became clear to all that Honey Hill was going to be a tough battle, as Rebel cannons on the hill began to shower the Federals with canister, and riflemen in trenches began to pick off those Yankees that they could spot through the trees. According to one Union sergeant, “two or three vomited from sheer fright,” at the thought of attacking the hill, “while all, even the old veterans, looked very solemn.” Left little choice, Union commanders ordered their soldiers forward to charge through the woods and towards the hill.
“…carnage before them…”
The 102nd arrived at Boyd’s Landing at 11 a.m. and marched to the battlefield to find carnage before them. Part of the unit was stationed behind the front lines to stop any Union soldiers attempting to straggle away to escape the fighting. As the assault stalled, and with Northern troops pinned down and running low on ammunition, the order was given to retreat. One battery of Union cannons had nearly been wiped out in the attack. The battery had “lost two of its officers and most of its horses and cannoneers; two of the ammunition-chests on the limbers were blown up.”
“…in the coolest and most gallant manner…”
The 102nd was ordered forward into the storm of Confederate fire to pull the cannons back to prevent their capture. Each cannon weighed around 2,600 pounds, and, with their ammunition and equipment, was normally pulled by a team of six horses. The commander of the expedition, General John Hatch, describes the repeated attempts of the officers and men of the 102nd to pull the cannons back to Union lines:
A detail of a company from the One hundred and second U.S. Colored Troops was ordered to bring off the guns. Capt. A. E. Lindsay, commanding the company, was killed, and Lieut. H. H. Alvord was severely wounded. The command of the company devolved upon a sergeant, who did not understand the object of the advance, and failed to accomplish it. First Lieut. O. W. Bennett, One hundred and second U.S. Colored Troops, with thirty men was detached for the same purpose, and executed it in the coolest and most gallant manner.
Colonel Henry Chapman, commander of the 102nd, also singled out Lieutenant Bennett in his report of the action:
First Lieut. O. W. Bennett was sent with his company to endeavor, if possible, to save the guns. Lieutenant Bennett, with thirty men, went forward fully 100 yards in advance of our first line, and succeeded in bringing away the three guns. Too high praise cannot be awarded to Lieutenant Bennett for the gallant manner in which he led his men in that perilous enterprise, nor to his men who so faithfully followed their leader.
The 102nd stayed on the battlefield until 7.30 p.m., when they fell back with the rest of the army to their landing place. Bennett who – like all the officers of the 102nd – was white, received the Medal of Honor for his courage at the Battle of Honey Hill. None of his men were even considered for the honor, though their undeniable bravery was memorialized in army reports and newspapers. A correspondent who witnessed the 102nd in battle wrote, “after having been three and a half years in the field and participated In sixteen different engagements, I never before saw men exhibit such unyielding bravery In battle.”
Conceived in Liberty
For more on Michigan’s Civil War experiences, come visit “Conceived in Liberty,” a new special exhibit at the Michigan Historical Museum. “Conceived in Liberty” caps the Michigan Historical Center’s commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
“Canister” refers to tin canisters filled with lead musket pellets, packed in sawdust. When fired from cannon, they burst in the air, producing a hail of shot.