A massive Federal naval fleet assembled off Port Royal Sound, South Carolina, on November 5. Port Royal was defended by Fort Beauregard to the north and Fort Walker to the south. Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont, commanding the Federal expedition, planned for his warships to attack Beauregard first to prevent the garrison from being reinforced from Charleston. Much of the army personnel and supplies had not arrived due to the gales at Cape Hatteras, but the troops that were available, commanded by Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman, were to land and seize the forts once they were bombarded into submission by the naval guns.
The warships steamed toward Fort Beauregard around 3:30 p.m. But as they passed over the sandbar, Du Pont’s flagship and the U.S.S. Susquehanna became grounded. It was nearly nightfall when they were finally freed, so Du Pont postponed the attack until the next day. However, Du Pont postponed the attack again because high winds made it “too fresh” to attack.
The morning of November 7 dawned sunny and calm, and the flagship U.S.S. Wabash led 14 warships into Port Royal Sound. By this time, Du Pont had changed his plan; he would instead attack both Forts Beauregard and Walker at the same time. As the vessels opened fire, Du Pont employed a tactic suggested by Flag Captain Charles H. Davis by moving the ships in a large oval pattern while firing. This allowed each ship to bear all her guns on the forts and deprived Confederate artillerists of fixed targets. The latter proved insignificant however, because most of the inferior Confederate artillery could not reach the attacking ships. Commodore Josiah Tatnall’s Confederate naval fleet was too small to intervene; the ships dipped their pennants and withdrew up the Beaufort River.
A correspondent witnessing the bombardment reported that “the rising of the dust on shore in perpendicular columns looked as if we had suddenly raised… a grove of poplars.” Brigadier General Thomas F. Drayton, commanding the Confederates at Fort Walker, watched this “magnificent armada… vomit forth its iron hail, with all the spiteful energy of long-suppressed rage and conscious strength.” The general’s brother, Commander Percival Drayton, headed the U.S.S. Pocahontas within the attack fleet.
Confederate soldiers began running out of the forts and heading for the mainland. They were joined by local residents, many of whom were plantation owners in the sea island chain. They hurried off “quite as though fire and sword awaited them had they remained.” They left behind some 10,000 slaves.
Federal gunboats enfiladed Fort Walker, methodically disabling its guns while firing an average of 60 shells over the defenders per minute. The Confederates in Walker finally began evacuating around 2 p.m., aided by Tatnall’s ships. Federals aboard the ships could see the Confederates running out. Fort Beauregard was abandoned 90 minutes later. The Confederates sustained 62 casualties (11 killed, 47 wounded, and four missing). The Federals lost just 31 men (eight killed and 23 wounded) in securing the best natural harbor on the Confederate coast. This was the greatest Federal victory of the war to date, and it greatly boosted sagging northern morale.
U.S. Marines landed to take Fort Walker, and army forces took Fort Beauregard. Commander John Rodgers, acting as Du Pont’s aide, obtained the formal surrender of both forts. At 2:20 p.m., he received the honor of raising the U.S. flag over Fort Walker, the first U.S. flag to fly over South Carolina since her secession. Rodgers announced that he was the “first to take possession, in the majesty of the United States, of the rebel soil of South Carolina.” Officers and crew aboard the ships cheered as bands played “The Star-Spangled Banner.” A correspondent traveling with the Federal fleet wrote, “I felt an enthusiasm, a faith in the might and the power of the Government to vindicate itself… such as I never before experienced.”
Federal occupation forces at Port Royal and Hilton Head rounded up the abandoned slaves and put them to work as servants and laborers. They all worked to make the site a prime base for refueling, supplying, and servicing the blockading squadron. It also provided an excellent staging area for an attack on Charleston, the birthplace of secession and one of the Lincoln administration’s prime targets. Du Pont wrote, “It is not my temper to rejoice over fallen foes, but this must be a gloomy night in Charleston.”
Early next morning, Sherman’s Federals moved out from Hilton Head toward Beaufort, as residents of Charleston and Savannah learned the horrifying news that Port Royal had fallen. Many packed their belongings and fled inland for safety. Percival Drayton, a former resident of the area, wrote, “Such a panic as seems to have existed through the low country can scarcely be described.” But the Charleston Mercury remained defiant: “Let the invaders come, ‘tis the unanimous feeling of our people. Our Yankee enemies will, sooner or later, learn to their cost the difference between invaders for spoils and power, and defenders of their liberties, their native land.”
General Robert E. Lee arrived at Savannah that same day and assumed command of the Confederate Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and East Florida. 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.
Lee conferred with General Roswell S. Ripley, the former department commander. They agreed that nothing could be done except move their forces farther inland and try to strengthen the defenses of Charleston and Savannah. Besides those two vital points, most of the coastline was abandoned while Lee focused on key defensive points such as Fort Pulaski, Georgia. Lee sadly noted, “There are so many points to attack, and so little means to meet them on the water, that there is but little rest.”
Lee reported to Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin from his new headquarters at Coosawhatchie, South Carolina:
“The enemy having complete possession of the water and inland navigation, commands all the islands on the coast and threatens both Savannah and Charleston, and can come in his boats, within 4 miles of this place… We have no guns that can resist their batteries, and have no resources to meet them in the field… The garrisons of the forts at Charleston and Savannah and on the coast cannot be removed from the batteries while ignorant of the designs of the enemy.”
Lee met with South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens, and it was agreed that Pickens would arm the equivalent of two regiments of men to serve for the war’s duration, and Lee would issue 2,500 rifles shipped aboard the Fingal to South Carolina units that also pledged to serve for the duration.
Meanwhile, Federal gunboats and Sherman’s infantry captured Beaufort on the Broad River. This effectively cut off the flow of communications and supplies via water between Charleston and Savannah. The Federals also expanded their control of the Port Royal region by advancing to Braddock’s Point. Federal forces received orders to use slaves to confiscate all crops in the Port Royal Sound vicinity, as well as to help build defensive fortifications. Farmers in the region between Charleston and Savannah began burning their crops to prevent Federal forces from confiscating them. The Charleston Mercury declared, “Let the torch be applied whenever the invader pollutes our soil.”
Confederates abandoned Tybee Island, south of Port Royal on the Savannah River. In late November, a Federal naval squadron led by Commander Rodgers landed troops on the island, which controlled the entrance to Savannah Harbor. From there, the Federals could attack Fort Pulaski, one of Savannah’s prime defense points. Du Pont 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 could do nothing to bolster the fort’s defenses. He lamented, “The strength of the enemy, as far as I am able to judge, exceeds the whole force that we have in the state; it can be thrown with great celerity against any point, and far outnumbers any force we can bring against it in the field.”
Lee met with Colonel Charles Olmstead, commanding the garrison at Fort Pulaski. Lee had surveyed the site prior to the fort’s construction as a second lieutenant in 1829. Olmstead estimated the Federal threat from Tybee Island, which could be seen about a mile south. Lee notified 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.”
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