Rear-Admiral Samuel F. Du Pont, commanding the Federal South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, suffered a sharp defeat when his fleet of ironclad warships was driven out of Charleston Harbor in South Carolina on April 7. Du Pont had little faith that the monitor-class ironclads could overpower heavily armed fortifications, and this defeat confirmed his fears.
Du Pont planned to renew the assault the next morning, but his captains soon came aboard his flagship and submitted their reports showing that the fleet had sustained serious damage. Du Pont therefore cancelled plans to attack again and announced, “We have met with a sad repulse. I shall not turn it into a great disaster.” He reported to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “I determined not to renew the attack, for, in my judgment, it would have converted a failure into a disaster.” Every captain agreed, confident that naval force alone could not take the harbor.
Captain John L. Worden, former commander of the first-ever U.S. ironclad (the U.S.S. Monitor) and current commander of the U.S.S. Montauk in Du Pont’s fleet, explained the limitations of the ironclads to Welles: “The punishment which the monitors are able to stand is wonderful, but it cannot be denied that their gun gear is more liable to accident than was foreseen. Battles are won by two qualities, ability to endure and ability to injure. The first we possess to an unrivalled degree–the latter one more sparingly.”
Du Pont wrote to Major-General David Hunter, commanding the Federal Department of the South, that his suspicions about the ironclads’ abilities had been confirmed: “I attempted to take the bull by the horns. but he was too much for us. These monitors are miserable failures where forts are concerned.” Du Pont urged Welles to publicly acknowledge that the failed assault was due to the ironclads being unfit for the purpose, but Welles refused.
President Abraham Lincoln was greatly disappointed when he learned of this defeat. He ordered Du Pont, “Hold your position inside the bar near Charleston, or, if you shall have left it, return to it, and hold it till further orders.” Lincoln hoped the Federal presence would keep the Confederates anxious and prevent them from building more defenses, particularly at Morris Island south of the harbor entrance. Lincoln added, “I do not, herein, order you to renew the general attack. That is to depend on your discretion, or a further order.”
Welles dispatched Chief Engineer Alban C. Stimers to inspect and report on the condition of the ironclads. Stimers was “agreeably disappointed” that he saw no penetration in the armor or turrets on any vessel. This led him to conclude that “the monitor vessels still retain sufficient enduring powers to enable them to pass all the forts and batteries.” Du Pont angrily refuted Stimers’s claims and accused him of conduct unbecoming an officer. But Welles sided with Stimers.
News of this defeat brought tremendous criticism upon Du Pont. Charles C. Fulton, who had witnessed the battle, wrote a damning article in the Baltimore American titled, “A Disgraceful Result.” Fulton claimed the ships could have taken Fort Sumter if they were given more time before withdrawing. Fulton wrote, “Oh, that we had a (Admiral David) Farragut here to take command at once, and do what has been so weakly attempted by Admiral Du Pont.”
Du Pont sent a 20-page letter to Welles railing against the article and blaming Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox for allowing it to be published since Fox had assigned Fulton to witness the battle. Welles wrote in his diary of Du Pont’s letter:
“The dispatch is no credit to Du Pont, who could be better employed. He is evidently thinking much more of Du Pont than of the service or the country. I fear he can be no longer useful in his present command, and am mortified and vexed that I did not earlier detect his vanity and weakness. They have lost us the opportunity to take Charleston, which a man of more daring energy and who had not a distinguished name to nurse and take care of would have improved. All Du Pont’s letters since the 8th show that he had no heart, no confidence, no zeal in his work; that he went into the fight with a predetermined conviction it would not be a success. He is prejudiced against the monitor class of vessels, and would attribute his failure to them, but it is evident he has no taste for rough, close fighting.”
Welles concluded that the captains who agreed with Du Pont’s decision to withdraw would not have done so had they not been part of Du Pont’s inner circle. He also refused to publish any reports about the ironclads’ weaknesses because “there was no necessity for us to proclaim that weakness to our enemies… Du Pont is morbidly sensitive, and to vindicate himself wants to publish every defect and weakness of the ironclads and to disparage them, regardless of its effect in inspiring the Rebels to resist them, and impairing the confidence of our own men.”
Du Pont insisted that Charleston could not be taken by the navy alone. Welles and the Federal high command began to see Du Pont as the main impediment to capturing Charleston.
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