Captain Samuel F. Du Pont, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, considered various locales to establish a refueling and servicing port for his Federal naval fleet. After weighing the options, Du Pont informed Navy Secretary Gideon Welles that Port Royal would be the most useful site for that purpose. Located between Charleston and Savannah, Port Royal was the best natural harbor on the Confederate coast, guarding the important harbor of Beaufort, South Carolina, and possessing formidable defenses.
After months of planning, the Federals organized a joint expedition. Du Pont assembled an attack fleet in New York, while Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman gathered 13,000 troops in three brigades at Annapolis, Maryland. These troops included the 79th New York, which had been transferred from Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. McClellan protested having the troops taken from him:
“I will not consent to one other man being detached from this army for that expedition. I need far more than I now have to save this country and cannot spare any disciplined regiment. Instead of diminishing this army, true policy would dictate its immediate increase to a large extent. It is the task of the Army of the Potomac to decide the question at issue. No outside expedition can effect the result. I hope I will not again be asked to detach anybody.”
The combined forces of Du Pont and Sherman left Annapolis on October 21. Storms forced the fleet to dock at Hampton Roads, Virginia. This actually helped the commanders because it gave them more time to plan and prepare.
The armada consisted of 19 warships with 157 guns, 25 supply vessels, and 33 transports. It was the largest joint operation ever attempted up to that time, even though several ships were not suited for oceanic navigation. President Abraham Lincoln had promoted Du Pont to flag officer, which equaled a major general in the army, so he would outrank Sherman. However, neither commander could “assume any direct command, independent of consent, over an officer of the other service.”
No one but Du Pont and Sherman knew that Port Royal was the ultimate destination. As the fleet left Hampton Roads on the 29th, the captain of each ship held sealed orders from Du Pont revealing the objective, to be opened only if the fleet became separated at sea.
Captain Charles H. Davis, secretary of the Blockade Board and Du Pont’s fleet captain and chief of staff, wrote that “the sea is covered with lights at every point of the horizon… I think of similar expeditions that have figured in history… and as I looked abroad on the ocean covered with our ships and transports… I participated in the glow and ardor and elation of heart inspired, no doubt, by the armada of Spain.”
A lieutenant aboard the U.S.S. Wabash noted, “Never did such a heterogeneous squadron venture upon the waters, nondescripts ad infinitum; vessels without shape before known to the maritime world… Had some homeward bound vessel haplessly got within our lines, surely would the bewildered skipper have imagined that ‘Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane’ had come against him.” Although the Confederates were not yet aware where the fleet was headed, they alerted all coastal defenders that the ships had departed.
By early morning on the 31st, Du Pont’s fleet began rounding Cape Hatteras in warm waters. When a troop transport ran aground on the shoals, the rest of the fleet adjusted their course by moving further out to sea. This dissatisfied Flag Officer Du Pont, who felt that the Cape could be rounded closer if navigated properly. He later wrote that the land was “too close for careless, stupid skippers or second-and-third class merchantmen.”
Heavy gales would soon turn the sea violent as the armada progressed down the coast.
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