Capturing Charleston is Imperative

Following the destruction of the U.S.S. Monitor in late December, the Federal Navy Department shifted its priority from attacking Wilmington, North Carolina, to Charleston, South Carolina. In January, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles informed Admiral Samuel F. Du Pont, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, that five new ironclads would be coming for him “to enter the harbor of Charleston and demand the surrender of all the defenses or suffer the consequences of the refusal.”

Adm S.F. Du Pont | Image Credit:

Du Pont was not as sold on the effectiveness of ironclads as others in the Federal navy, especially when trying to reduce strong fortifications such as those in Charleston Harbor. When Du Pont voiced his concerns, Welles left it up to him whether to attack, but he called Charleston’s capture “imperative.” Welles also pledged that the Navy Department would “share the responsibility imposed upon the commanders who make the attempt.” Du Pont opted not to attack, and instead requested two more ironclads that would not be ready for another six months.

In the meantime, Du Pont worked with Major-General David Hunter to adopt the Army Signal Codes for ironclads. Using navy signals relied on running banners up and down the masts, which was a problem for ironclads because they had no masts. Using the Army Signal Codes not only solved the problem, but it facilitated better communication between the army and navy during joint operations.

Du Pont also reported on chronic supply shortages: “Our requisitions for general stores, I have reason to believe, are immediately attended to by the bureaus in the Department… but there seem to be unaccountable obstacles to our receiving them… We have been out of oil for machinery. Coal is not more essential… My commanding officers complain their wants are not supplied…” Maintaining the blockade was also troublesome for Du Pont:

“No vessel has ever attempted to run the blockade except by stealth at night–which fully established internationally the effectiveness of the blockade–but it is not sufficient for our purpose, to keep out arms and keep in cotton–unfortunately our people have considered a total exclusion possible and the government at one time seemed to think so… If I had not induced the Department to establish a floating machine shop, which I had seen the French have in China, the blockade would have been a total failure…”

However, Du Pont refused to stray from the rules of civilized warfare. He condemned the Confederates’ use of torpedoes in Charleston Harbor, adding, “Nothing could induce me to allow a single one in the squadron for the destruction of human life. I think that Indian scalping, or any other barbarism, is no worse.”

A meeting took place on the morning of Sunday, February 15 between President Abraham Lincoln, Welles, Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, and Major-General John G. Foster, commanding Federal forces on the North Carolina coast. They all agreed that Charleston must be captured, but they could not agree on a plan.

When Foster suggested landing troops with naval support, Fox called it “so insignificant and characteristic of the army.” Fox urged sending in all the vessels to seize the harbor, which would isolate the forts and force their surrender. Ultimately, Fox directed Du Pont to “go in and demand a surrender of the forts or the alternative of destruction to their city.”

Gen P.G.T. Beauregard | Image Credit:

General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate defenses at Charleston and vicinity, had previously announced that the blockade had been broken, but by the 13th he reported that eight Federal vessels had returned. He informed his superiors, “Everything indicates an early attack on Charleston or Savannah, probably former. Enemy is accumulating a large force at Port Royal (South Carolina) several iron-clads are there.”

On the 18th, Beauregard issued a proclamation to Charlestonians:

“It has become my solemn duty to inform the authorities and citizens of Charleston and Savannah that the movements of the enemy’s fleet indicate an early land and naval attack on one or both of these cities, and to urge that all persons unable to take an active part in the struggle shall retire.

“It is hoped that this temporary separation of some of you from your homes will be made without alarm or undue haste, thus showing that the only feeling that animates you in this hour of supreme trial is the regret of being unable to participate in the defense of your homes, your altars, and the graves of your kindred.

“Carolinians and Georgians! the hour is at hand to prove your devotion to your country’s cause. Let all able-bodied men, from the seaboard to the mountains, rush to arms. Be not exacting in the choice of weapons; pikes and scythes will do for exterminating your enemies, spades and shovels for protecting your friends.

“To arms, fellow citizens! Come to share with us our dangers, our brilliant success, or our glorious death.”

Beauregard also asked local slave owners to donate their slaves for building more defenses in the harbor. His fears proved unfounded, however, as the Federal high command still had not agreed on a plan of attack.


  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
  • 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.

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