General David Hunter, commander of the Department of the South, headquartered on Hilton Head, South Carolina, had left strict orders for General Henry Benham to keep his 6,600 men in their entrenchments and to not attack to enemy on James Island, south of Charleston. Following the Union defeat at Secessionville, brought about by General Benham marching his men from their entrenchments to attack the enemy, a report of the “reconnaissance” penned by Benham’s hand, made its way to Hunter. Upon reading Benham’s version of events, it was clear that a "reconnaissance" that resulted in well over 600 casualties was not a reconnaissance at all, but a pitched battle.
On June 19, Hunter took action. He immediately removed Benham from command, placing General Horatio Wright in in his stead:
.................................................. ............................................HEADQUARTERS DEPARTMENT OF THE SOUTH,
.................................................. ............................................Hilton Head, S. C., June 19, 1862.
Brigadier General HORATIO G. WRIGHT,
U. S. Army, James Island, S. C.:
SIR: You are assigned to the command of all the troops on James Island and at Legareville. You will not attempt to advance toward Charleston or Fort Johnson till largely re-enforced and until you receive express orders from these headquarters.
You will select a neck of land a short distance in advance of the old battery, where you can have a flanking fire from the gunboats in the Stono and on the creek and fortify it strongly. You will repair the causeway to Cole's Island, and shelter your stores and men as far as practicable by houses taken from any of the plantations on the Stono. You will make seasonable requisitions on the quartermaster, commissary, medical director, and ordnance officer at Hilton Head for all necessary supplies, and report to these headquarters the state of your command by every opportunity.
Should you deem your present position untenable you will immediately make all the necessary dispositions for abandoning James Island and John's Island, sending off in the first place all your sick and all your stores.
Your front being completely covered by the gunboats of the Navy, you can make the retrograde movement, should you deem it necessary, without losing a man or a pound of supplies. As soon as the stores are removed all the troops not sailing in the first detachment of transports should be at once removed to the west bank of the Stono, at Legareville. Should you determine to abandon the Stono you will have one regiment at North Edisto, and you will immediately inform me of your decision, that I may send you all the transportation in my power.
Very respectfully, your most obedient servant,
General Benham, unaware that he had been relieved, spent the morning shoring up his defenses, as 300 wounded were transported off the island, headed for Hilton Head.
A steamer coming from Hilton Head docked at James Island on the afternoon of the 19th. General Hunter had given the order to Samuel Stockton, his nephew, and sent him to James Island to deliver it. Upon arrival, Stockton found Benham and delivered the news. Whatever message that Hunter had written or verbally related has been lost, but it was clear, General Benham was being relieved, as Hunter would write in his final report, for “disobeying positive orders and clear instructions.”
By evening, Benham arrived on Hilton Head, making directly for Hunter’s headquarters. After whatever formalities were exchanged, Benham launched into a defense of his “reconnaissance.” During what was little more than a paraphrasing of Benham's own report, Hunter sat there and simply listened. He asked no questions and made no comment. When Benham was finally through, Hunter called for his order book and read aloud his June 10th order:
“In leaving the Stono River to return to Hilton Head I desire, in any arrangements that you may make for the disposition of your forces now in this vicinity, you will make no attempt to advance on Charleston or to attack Fort Johnson until largely re-enforced or until you receive specific instructions from these headquarters to that effect.”When Hunter finished with the reading, he turned to Benham and said, “General, I put you under arrest.”
Henry Benham’s career in the infantry was over. Later in the war, however, he would serve as a commander of the engineers of the Army of the Potomac, a position much more consistent with his abilities.
Secessionville, by Patrick Brennan.
Official Records, Series I, Vol. 14, Ch. XXVI, p. 42, 46, 355.