As November began, a Federal armada of 77 warships, transports, and supply vessels was heading down the Atlantic coast in an effort to capture Port Royal Sound, South Carolina. Port Royal was strategically located between Charleston and Savannah, and it could potentially serve as both a refueling station for the blockade fleet and a staging area for other coastal operations. The Federal fleet, commanded by Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont, carried 13,000 army soldiers led by Brigadier General Thomas Sherman. This was the largest joint army-navy expedition ever attempted in U.S. history.
As the fleet rounded Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, the easterly winds shifted southeast, producing what an officer aboard the flagship U.S.S. Wabash called “one of the severest gales I have ever experienced.” The captains of each ship had sealed orders; Du Pont signaled them to fend for themselves and unseal the orders to see where the meeting place would be should they become scattered.
The crew of the Isaac Smith had to dump their artillery to keep from sinking. The transport steamer Governor went under, with the Smith and the U.S.S. Sabine rescuing all but seven of the 300 Marines on board. The U.S.S. Mohican rescued all but 26 from the sinking transport Peerless. Several other vessels foundered, and large amounts of munitions were lost. Small steamers to be used for landing troops had to turn back, thus canceling the original plan for army troops to land and seize the two forts protecting the entrance to Port Royal Sound. The navy would have to take Port Royal alone, just like at Hatteras Inlet and Ship Island. But for now, Du Pont’s priority was just to keep his fleet intact.
Meanwhile, Confederates had discovered the Federals’ secret objective, with newspapers warning of a Federal invasion “somewhere” south of North Carolina. Learning more specifics, Confederate Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin telegraphed Confederate forces that “The enemy’s expedition is intended for Port Royal.” This caused grave concern because the defenses at Port Royal were very weak.
As the gale subsided on November 2, Du Pont was still unable to sight most of his ships. Nevertheless, he continued southward aboard the Wabash, and arrived off the bar at Port Royal on the 4th. He was joined by 25 ships of his fleet, with the rest of the surviving vessels on their way.
Port Royal Sound guarded a rich agricultural region known for producing long-staple cotton. Its defenses included the 600-man garrisons in Fort Beauregard at Bay Point to the north and Fort Walker on Hilton Head to the south. Separated by a two-mile channel, the forts mounted 43 total guns. They were augmented by a small naval squadron under Commodore Josiah Tatnall, which consisted of his flagship Savannah and three converted tugboats. Even with 1,000 reinforcements on their way, these defenders were hardly expected to withstand such oncoming Federal power, with or without bad weather.
The Federals surveyed the coast, taking depth readings and identifying the channels the warships could use to enter the sound. Tatnall fired on the U.S.S. Ottawa, Pembina, and Seneca, but superior Federal firepower drove Tatnall’s little fleet back into the harbor under the protection of Forts Beauregard and Walker. The Federal ships were undamaged. The next day, Federal ships continued assembling, with some crossing the bar to test the forts’ strength. Tatnall attacked again and was again forced to withdraw. The Federals then fired on Fort Beauregard; a shot hit an artillery caisson and caused a massive explosion.
Du Pont held a council of war that afternoon, where he determined to attack the forts. Without landing craft, the army troops under Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman could not launch their planned attack and would instead be used to take the forts after the naval forces pounded them into submission. A navy lieutenant wrote, “General Sherman says in my hearing that: ‘These ships can’t take the forts without cooperation with the troops.’ I hope we will show him differently.”
Meanwhile, Confederate officials at Richmond scrambled to do something to save Port Royal. President Jefferson Davis and Secretary of War Benjamin created the military Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and East Florida. This combined all departments already within that area into six military districts. Five were in South Carolina, and the sixth, the District of Georgia, covered both Georgia and eastern Florida.
Davis summoned General Robert E. Lee to a meeting on the morning of the 5th. Although “Granny” Lee’s reputation had been tarnished by his less than stellar performance in western Virginia, Davis informed him that he would command the new department with full administration support. The department’s new jurisdiction would, according to Benjamin, “enable him (Lee) to concentrate all our forces at any point that might be attacked.” Lee left Richmond the next morning.
Opposition to Lee coming to command was so great that Davis had to write to Governors Francis W. Pickens of South Carolina and Joseph E. Brown of Georgia assuring them that Lee was the best commander available. But by this time, there was little that Lee or anybody else could do. Port Royal was about to come under attack by an overwhelming force.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Terrible Swift Sword: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 2. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1963.
- Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes. Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee. Scribner, (Kindle Edition), 2008.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Longacre, Edward G. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- 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.
- McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865. Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press (Kindle Edition), 2012.
- United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1 – Vol. 5. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1880-1902.