Lee Takes Coastal Command

November 15, 1861 – One week after taking command of the Confederate Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and East Florida, General Robert E. Lee met with South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens to discuss the military situation along the coast.

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com
Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Lee arrived at Savannah on November 8 and assumed command of the new department. His primary responsibility was to protect coastal defenses, but after learning of the Federal capture of Port Royal, he called this “another forlorn hope expedition–worse than West Virginia.”

There was little manpower to defend the coast, and the superior Federal navy could strike wherever it pleased. Thus, Lee abandoned most of the coastline to focus more on key defensive points such as Fort Pulaski, guarding Savannah. A South Carolina woman wrote about Lee in her diary: “Preux chevalier, booted and bridled and gallant rode he, but so far his bonnie face had only brought us ill luck.”

Lee met with Pickens a week later. The men agreed that Pickens would arm enough men to fill two regiments, with the men serving for the war’s duration. Lee would issue 2,500 rifles shipped aboard the C.S.S. Fingal to South Carolina units that also pledged to serve for the duration.

As Lee hastened to strengthen defenses, a Federal naval squadron (U.S.S. Flag, August, Pocahontas, Savannah, and Seneca) led by Commander John Rodgers followed up their capture of Port Royal by landing troops on Tybee Island on Georgia’s Savannah River. This controlled the entrance to Savannah Harbor and established a base from which to attack Fort Pulaski.


Neither Lee nor Brigadier General Alexander Lawton (commanding the District of Georgia in Lee’s department) could prevent the island’s capture, and the Federals scored another victory along the coast. Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, reported: “This abandonment of Tybee Island is due to the terror inspired by the bombardment of Forts Walker and Beauregard, and is a direct fruit of the victory of the 7th (capture of Port Royal).”

Lee met with Colonel Charles Olmstead, commanding the Confederate garrison at Fort Pulaski to assess the Federal threat from Tybee Island about a mile south. Lee informed Olmstead that if the Federals posted artillery on the island, “they will make it pretty hot for you with shells, but they cannot breach your walls at that distance.” The Federals soon targeted Fort Pulaski and other coastal points as Lee continued struggling to find the resources needed to defend them.



Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 46; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 94, 97; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 129; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 81, 85; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3032; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 137-38, 143; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 303-04; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 371; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 43


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