The Sorrows of an Ill-Spent Day: A Wolverine at Secessionville

    The following letter was written by Captain George Proudfit of Co. K of the 8th Michigan Volunteer Infantry to his father John Proudfit in Stanley Corners, New York in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Secessionville, South Carolina. This small battle took place on James Island south of Charleston, South Carolina on June 16, 1862 and was a disastrous affair for the 8th Michigan; as Captain Proudfit reports, the regiment went into action with 500 men and 22 officers and lost a total of 214, 46 of the men being killed in action and another dozen dying of wounds within days of this tragic if little-remembered engagement. The 8th Michigan won praise from its superiors for its bold bayonet charge upon the Confederate works, the regiment reserving its fire until they reached the parapet. The enemy fire was so heavy, however, that the only Wolverines to get into the works went in as prisoners. "We feel injured, for we feel that we were led up to the cannon's mouth to swallow its indigestible food unnecessarily," Captain Proudfit lamented. "It will take but a single repetition of this day's work to leave the 8th Michigan strong only in the memory of its friends and a sacrifice to the folly of men."
    The 8th Michigan hailed from the central portion of the state (Captain Proudfit's company coming from the area around Jackson) and entered service in 1861. Proudfit was practicing law in Jackson and enrolled his company during a rally held at his law office; fittingly, he was elected captain. The Michiganders were assigned to duty along the Atlantic coast in the Department of the South and had already fought four engagements in South Carolina prior to Secessionville.  The regiment was certainly well-traveled; it later served with the 9th Army Corps at South Mountain, Antietam, the siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi, the operations near Knoxville, Tennessee, and then re-enlisted for three more years and after their furlough rejoined the Army of the Potomac for the remainder of the war, seeing action through Appomattox. 

    Captain Proudfit's account saw publication in the July 4, 1862 issue of the Geneva Daily Gazette of Geneva, New York. 

Detail from a late war national flag of the 8th Michigan Infantry highlighting the June 16, 1862 battle known as either Secessionville or, as is depicted on this flag, the Battle of James Island. 
(Michigan Capitol Battleflag Collection)

Headquarters, 8th Michigan Regiment
James Island, South Carolina, June 16, 1862

Dear Father,
    The news of today has been solemnized by the precious lives of hundreds of brave men, and the hand of the just historian will have just cause to tremble as it records the history of the Battle of James Island that is so indelibly written in the sacred blood of our brothers and sisters. In my tears of sorrow, I can but rejoice and bless God that I yet remain to tell the tale of woe. While I write, my eyes are filled with the cries and moans of men in agonizing pain. May a peaceful future reward these, their days of sorrow. 

    I wrote you a short time since that our forces were advancing on Charleston and had landed on James Island. We occupy nearly one half of the Island, the Rebels occupy the other half. Our nearest point is within five or six miles of Charleston. Near the center of the Island at a place called Secessionville there is a fort or battery mounting five or six guns and as near as we can learn they have of men equal if not superior to ours. The portion of the Island occupied by them is well-defended by an innumerable amounts of forts, batteries, rifle pits, trenches, and fortifications and these continually molest our pickets with shot and shell. Not a day has passed since we landed on this island that we have not lost more or less from such barbarous warfare, hence it was inevitably necessary that something must be done to rid ourselves from such wanton cruelty and that as soon as practicable. We need to obtain full possession of the island to more towards the accomplishment of our intended purpose- the taking of Charleston. They are not at all misapprehensive of our intentions and will contest every foot of ground regardless of either life or expense. We are equally well-determined to travel on if we have to pave the road with human bones and the work has commenced.

Map depicting the actions of the 8th Michigan Infantry at Secessionville courtesy of the American Battlefield Trust. Captain Proudfit complained that the supporting 28th Massachusetts bolted the field after coming under artillery fire and the attack of the 7th Connecticut "did nothing of much account." The bulk of the losses at Secessionville consequently fell upon his regiment and the 79th New York. 

    We received orders at 10 o'clock last night to have our men in readiness to march at 1 o'clock this morning with 60 rounds of cartridges and 24 hours' rations. At 1 o'clock we formed our line soon were on the move. Our intention was to take them by surprise and at the point of the bayonet. We had about three miles to march and over very bad roads. It was very dark and rained quite hard until morning. When we arrived, we were within nearly a half mile of the fort and surprised a picket post of three privates and an officer who fired on us, killing two of our men and then they ran but were soon overtaken. Only the most peremptory orders could prohibit our men from making pincushions of their bodies with our bayonets for their cowardly assault on our men. As soon as they were taken, they claimed they were Union men that had been pressed into the service. That story is played out. We have seen enough of that class of Union men. It is a pretext used by all prisoners taken by us, but it has lost its charm.

Captain Gilbert E. Pratt, Co. B, 8th Michigan
Captured at Secessionville, he was later exchanged and promoted to lieutenant colonel of the 23rd Michigan which served in the western theater. He was accidentally killed after being thrown from his horse at Bowling Green, Kentucky on April 10, 1863. 

    We stayed our march but a moment here for we were now nearing our object and morning was close at hand. We took the double quick and soon were in sight of the fort when we were thrown into a line of battle and continued our march at the double quick. Many of the men now began to fall behind, some dropping to the ground exhausted and fainting. Nothing but the excitement and determination kept me up. As we came in sight of the fort, not a man was to be seen; all was quiet. We were led to believe that they had either fled or were unaware of our approach, but this was not true; they were ready and waiting for us. 
"The storming party in front was crowding in and we were ordered to face to the left and rush to the fort where the Yankees were scrambling for the top of the parapets, crowding forward in great numbers with a desperate determination to capture the fort. We arrived just at the critical moment. They were repulsed, routed, and fled in the same quick time they came with the rifles and artillery playing on them to the extreme range. It seemed that every man there in the defense of the fort felt as though the whole responsibility for holding the fort rested on him." ~ Corporal H.J. Lea, Co. F, 4th Louisiana Battalion

    The command was given to charge bayonet and rush on the fort, holding our fire until the last. Our men flew to the work of death with a will- the Rebels keeping out of our sight and holding their fire until we were within seven or eight rods [40 yards] of the fort. They then opened a tremendous fire of shot, grape, canister, and a continued volley of musketry. Many a poor fellow fell around me there, some wounded and some fell without a murmur. I was struck in the thigh by a spent ball which rendered me inactive for a few moments, but I was soon at work again. Our men fought bravely and desperately, many of them mounting the parapets of the fort and shooting the devils in their den. 

Captain William E. Lewis
Co. I, 8th Michigan
Wounded at Secessionville
Killed at Cold Harbor

    We had fought but a few moments when the 28th Massachusetts came up to our support. We felt cheered as we saw them approaching and believed victory yet must be ours. But alas men are not all iron-clad, and weigh their own value in different scales. When the 28th Massachusetts came up within about 20 rods [110 yards] of the fort, they received a charge of grape and canister that left its mark in their ranks, and they broke and commenced to retreat. Their officers tried to hold them to their places and bring them forward but without effect. After retreating a short distance, they rallied and again came up but received the second charge of shells, they broke in utter confusion and retreated back to a hedge some 80 or 100 yards distant. That was the last we saw of the 28th Massachusetts.

    The 79th New York then came up to our support on the right and fought nobly. They are second to none in the service. The 7th Connecticut followed but did nothing of much account. How long we fought there I know not but it was probably one hour when we received the order to retire which from the gloomy aspect before us, we willingly obeyed. Our regiment was then rallied for the second attack, but we were unable to assemble but 105 officers and men. After resting a few moments, we advanced to a trench within about 40 rods of the fort and remained under cover while our batteries poured shot and shell into the fort. This lasted about 45 minutes when we were again ordered to retire, leaving many of our dead and wounded on the field. Our success was then discovered impracticable and we were ordered to our camps to mourn the sorrows of an ill-spent day. 
First Lt. Richard N. Doyle
Co. H, 8th Michigan
Severely wounded in left elbow 
at Secessionville
Ended war as Lt. Col. of regiment

    While we were engaging the fort as above described, General Wright with his brigade was engaging the enemy at our left as they attempted to flank us and cut off our retreat, but they were thwarted in their plan. Our retreats were all made in common tome and in good order. Our brigade was commanded by General Isaac Stevens. Our brigade consisted of the 8th Michigan, 28th Massachusetts, and 46th New York under command of Colonel [William Matthew] Fenton of the 8th Michigan, the 8th being under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Frank Graves, all being under the command of General Henry Benham. I have stated the above facts as known from personal observation. Our regiment led the attack and covered the final retreat.

    As to the wisdom of the plan and the generalship displayed, we have but to look at the figures and judge for ourselves. We had, all told, engaged on our side 6,000-7,000 men and we lost 700 killed, wounded, and missing. We do not know how large a force the enemy had, but we do know that we were defeated with heavy loss. Our regiment went in with about 500 men and 22 officers and came back with 297 men and 11 officers, making a total loss of killed, wounded, and missing of 203 men and 11 officers. We got off the field 113 men wounded and five officers; the rest are killed, wounded, or taken prisoners. I went in with 51 men and came out with 31, leaving 20 killed, wounded, and missing. Of those, we have seven wounded men saved from the enemy.

The gallant charge of the 8th Michigan as depicted by Harper's Weekly in 1862. Even though numerous Union guns could be brought to bear upon the position, General Benham elected to try and take the fort with infantry. "We feel injured for we feel we were led up to the cannon's mouth to swallow its indigestible food unnecessarily," Captain Proudfit stated. "The locality of Fort Ripley and its strength was well known to every man in our camp. Was it because victory is made honorable from its list of mortality?"

    It is not my place to dictate to my superiors, to censure, or even criticize their acts, but like all men I must indulge my feelings where the drapery of mourning is hung around my couch be it upon the acts of a superior or inferior. We feel injured, for we feel that we were led up to the cannon's mouth to swallow its indigestible food unnecessarily. The locality of Fort Ripley and its strength was well known to every man in our camp. We have some 12 or 14 gunboats that can bring their guns to bear directly upon the fort and some two or three batteries and 12 pieces of light artillery, all of which could play on that fort mounting but five or six guns with perfect ease and accuracy. Why was it not done? Was it because victory is made honorable from its list of mortality? Or did it arise from the petty jealousies existing between the army and navy? That too much of that feeling has existed here in this division we do know or least have good reason to believe. And we know further that we never can accomplish anything here with our present force unless there is concerted action by the army and navy.

    We are told to prepare ourselves for another fight soon. It will take but a single repetition of this day's work to leave the 8th Michigan strong only in the memory of its friends and a sacrifice to the folly of men. To speak of the personal valor of any that may have distinguished themselves upon this occasion would do injustice to many whose honor we could not seek to diminish. I therefore refrain from personalities leaving honor to whom honor is due to be given by men of merits.

    The weather is very warm and it is getting quite unhealthy here. My health, however, is improving. With kind wishes I remain your affectionate son, Captain George Proudfit, 8th Michigan Infantry

    The loathsome truth of being "a sacrifice to the folly of men" may have proved more than the captain could handle. He was discharged from the service on December 3, 1862 and returned to Jackson, Michigan. The once prominent attorney turned to drink and it consumed his life. The next mention of him is from his obituary in June 1880. "A former good citizen, a captain in the Union Army, circuit court commissioner, and for many years a member of the Jackson County Bar, but of late years a dissipated wreck, Captain George Proudfit died at the Central City Hotel near the depot Friday afternoon [June 18th]," it stated. "He had no relatives and about three months since stopped drinking entirely, refusing to take liquor even in medicine, but he was too far gone and the effects of a long course of debauchery culminated in death." Captain Proudfit has a government stone marking his grave at Mount Evergreen Cemetery in Jackson, Michigan. 

Letter from Captain George Proudfit, Co. K, 8th Michigan Volunteer Infantry, Geneva Daily Gazette (New York), July 4, 1862, pg. 3
"Death of George Proudfit," Jackson Citizen (Michigan), June 22, 1880
"The 4th Louisiana Battalion at the Battle of Secessionville, S.C.," H.J. Lea, Confederate Veteran, January 1923, pg. 14


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