Category Archives: South Carolina

Federals Shift Their Focus to Charleston

February 18, 1863 – General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate defenses in South Carolina and Georgia, issued a proclamation warning citizens that a Federal attack on either Charleston or Savannah was imminent.

Following the destruction of the U.S.S. Monitor in late December, the Federal Navy Department shifted its focus from attacking Wilmington, North Carolina, to Charleston, South Carolina. In January, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles informed Admiral Samuel F. Du Pont, heading 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: Flickr.com

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, instead requesting 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 Confederate 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 the 15th between President Abraham Lincoln, Welles, Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, and 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: Wikispaces.com

At Charleston, Beauregard 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.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 260-61; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 224; 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), p. 180

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Confederates Break the Charleston Blockade

January 31, 1863 – Two new Confederate ironclad rams attempted to break the Federal blockade of Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, by attacking a portion of the blockading fleet.

Confederates had continuously sought ways to break the Charleston blockade as soon as it had begun. The Federals had captured several blockade runners, including the British merchant steamer Princess Royal on the 29th, which was run aground near Rattlesnake Channel by the Federal gunboat U.S.S. Unadilla. Federals confiscated six rifled cannons, 930 armor-piercing shells, 600 barrels of gunpowder, and two engines for ironclad vessels. The cargo totaled nearly $500,000 and was the blockading fleet’s largest capture of the war.

The next day, Confederate shore batteries opened a crossfire on the Federal gunboat U.S.S. Isaac Smith as she tried reconnoitering up the Stono River. The fire ran the ship aground, and the captain surrendered after losing 25 men (eight killed and 17 wounded). Confederates later renamed the Isaac Smith the Stono.

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

General P.G.T. Beauregard, now commanding the Confederate defenses in South Carolina after recovering from illness, directed Flag Officer Duncan N. Ingraham, the Confederate naval commander at Charleston, to confront the Federal blockading vessels with his two new rams, the C.S.S. Chicora under Commander John R. Tucker and Palmetto State under Lieutenant John Rutledge, along with three tenders.

In the predawn fog of the 31st, the Chicora fired on the U.S.S. Keystone State, hitting the ship’s boilers several times. Twenty-five Federals were killed; many were scalded to death. Meanwhile, the Palmetto State rammed the converted merchant ship U.S.S. Mercedita and left her when the Federals reported that she would soon sink. The rams returned to their base, where the Confederate crewmen reported destroying two Federal vessels and burning four others.

However, the Confederates had not destroyed any vessels; the U.S.S. Memphis rescued the Keystone State, and the Mercedita was not sinking as the Federals claimed. Both ships were towed to Port Royal for repairs and were soon back on active duty. All other Federal ships continued their blockade as normal, unharmed.

Even so, Beauregard interpreted the exaggerated news of the Isaac Smith’s capture and the destruction of blockaders to announce that the blockade of Charleston had been broken. Beauregard escorted the French and Spanish consuls to the waterfront to show them that “the outer harbor remained in the full possession of the two Confederate rams. Not a Federal sail was visible, even with spyglasses.”

Beauregard argued that since the blockade had been broken, the Federals could not reinstate it without first giving the Confederates a 60-day notice in accordance with international law. Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, ignored Beauregard’s claim and resumed the blockade immediately.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 113; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 139, 555-56; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 258; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 222-24; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 259-60; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 316-17; 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), p. 124-25; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 571

The Battle of Secessionville

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I am proud to announce that this is my 500th post on the Civil War Months blog! Thanks to all of you for your continued support on this project!

June 16, 1862 – Federal forces under Brigadier General Henry W. Benham attacked strong Confederate defenses near the town of Secessionville on James Island, just south of Charleston, South Carolina.

Between 2 and 3:30 a.m., Benham directed his two divisions under Brigadier Generals Isaac I. Stevens and Horatio G. Wright to advance on Confederate fortifications outside Secessionville, commanded by Colonel Thomas G. Lamar. Lamar notified his superior, Brigadier General Nathan G. “Shanks” Evans, who readied his batteries and sent reinforcements to the fort. Lamar had just 500 men, but another 1,500 were on the way.

Near 4 a.m., Stevens’s 3,500 Federals quietly captured the Confederate pickets and crept within range of the Confederates at Secessionville. Stevens led the assault’s first wave, supported by Federal gunboats on the Stono River. Struggling through brush on the left and right, Federals emerged on a narrow passage in the center and were met by Confederate grapeshot from 700 yards. The Federals continued advancing as the Confederates began firing canister that inflicted even more casualties. Within 15 minutes, Stevens saw the attack was futile and ordered a withdrawal to await reinforcements.

The Battle of Secessionville | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Evans arrived with his Confederates to bolster Lamar’s defenses. Benham led Wright’s Federals in an attack on the enemy right, where the Federals were partially hidden by hedgerows. But they were quickly caught in a Confederate crossfire. They silenced the Confederates on their far left and reached the fort’s parapets, but the Confederates ultimately drove them off.

Meanwhile, the Confederate gunners in the fort continued pounding the Federals in their front, making a charge against such strong works over such a narrow strip of ground suicidal. Benham ordered a withdrawal around 9:30 a.m., with the Federals gathering as many of their dead and wounded comrades as they could before falling back.

Benham, who had been ordered by Major General David Hunter not to bring on a general engagement, refused to acknowledge that this was a battle in his report. He wrote that “the main object of the reconnaissance was accomplished in ascertaining the nature of the fort…”

The alarming number of casualties indicated that this was much more than just a reconnaissance. The Federals lost 683 men (107 killed, 487 wounded, and 89 missing) out of about 6,600 on the island, setting back progress in trying to capture Charleston Harbor. The Confederates lost 204 (52 killed, 144 wounded, and eight missing). Evans commended Lamar for the Confederate victory, naming the fortifications Fort Lamar in his honor.

Hunter learned about the fight two days later at his Hilton Head headquarters. He quickly removed Benham from command for “disobeying positive orders and clear instructions.” After Benham argued vehemently in his own defense, Hunter read aloud his June 10 order to Benham:

“In leaving the Stono River to return to Hilton Head I desire, in any arrangements that you may make for the disposition of your forces now in this vicinity, you will make no attempt to advance on Charleston or to attack Fort Johnson until largely re-enforced or until you receive specific instructions from these headquarters to that effect.”

Benham was detained, and President Abraham Lincoln revoked his brigadier general’s commission. Stevens and Wright testified to the War Department that they had both warned Benham he was violating orders not to bring on a battle at their council of war on June 15. Stevens sent a letter to the New York Times claiming that Wright had told Benham that his orders during that council “were, in fact, orders to fight a battle.”

Wright assumed command of Benham’s forces on James Island, with orders from Hunter: “You will not attempt to advance toward Charleston or Fort Johnson till largely re-enforced and until you receive express orders from these headquarters.” If Wright could not hold the position, he was to “make all the necessary dispositions for abandoning James Island and John’s Island, sending off in the first place all your sick and all your stores.”

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 111; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 183; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 168-70; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 227; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 699; 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), p. 139; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 427; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 664

Federals Threaten Charleston

June 15, 1862 – Federal Brigadier General Henry W. Benham planned to attack Confederate positions on James Island, south of Charleston Harbor.

By June 2, Federal gunboats had bombarded Confederate batteries on the Stono River for two weeks, silencing many of them. This enabled Major General David Hunter, commanding the Federal Department of the South, to go ahead with his plan to capture Fort Johnson on the north end of James Island. Escaped slave Robert Smalls, pilot of the C.S.S. Planter, had provided the Federals with valuable information enabling them to establish this foothold.

Gen Henry Benham | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Two infantry divisions totaling 9,000 Federals landed on the southern end of James Island under gunboat cover. Brigadier Generals Isaac I. Stevens and Horatio G. Wright led the divisions and were under the overall command of Benham, an accomplished engineer. Hunter allowed Benham to set up a battery to counter a floating Confederate battery near the hamlet of Secessionville.

The Federals spent the next week building defenses and placing batteries inland from Grimball’s Landing. The troops moved north up the Stono River until their path was blocked by 750 Confederates under Colonel Thomas G. Lamar at Tower Battery, in the middle of James Island near Secessionville. Another 2,000 Confederates blocked the path to Charleston, with Brigadier General Nathan G. “Shanks” Evans the overall commander of the Second Military District of South Carolina.

Confederates attacked the Federal line at Grimball’s Landing on the 10th, pushing advance elements back to the main defenses. The Federals emerged from their rifle pits and severely repelled the attackers with both direct and enfilade fire. The Confederates prepared to charge again, but by that time the Federals had brought up artillery and gunboat support. Both sides traded cannon fire for two hours before the Confederates withdrew.

The Confederates pulled back to stronger defenses closer to Charleston and called for reinforcements. This resounding Federal victory horrified Charlestonians because it proved the city’s vulnerability from the south. But the Federals could not immediately follow up on their success, as Hunter wrote to Benham before returning to headquarters:

“In leaving the Stono River to return to Hilton Head, I desire, in any arrangements that you may make for the disposition of your forces now in this vicinity, you will make no attempt to advance on Charleston or to attack Fort Johnson until largely re-enforced or until you receive specific instructions from these headquarters to that effect.”

Confederate artillerists from Secessionville continuously shelled the Federal positions along the Stono River near Grimball’s Landing for the next five days. When Benham received word that one of the shells had almost reached the Federal camps, he resolved to protect his men from the bombardment by attacking. This was in spite of Hunter’s order to conduct no offensive operations and Stevens’s report that the enemy guns could only reach the pickets.

On the night of the 15th, Benham met with Stevens and Wright aboard the U.S.S. Delaware. Benham directed the Federals to mobilize at 2 a.m. the next morning, with Stevens leading an assault on the Confederate works at 4 and Wright coming up in support.

Stevens wrote his wife that evening, “We are now attempting an enterprise for which our force is entirely inadequate. The want of a proper commander is fearful. We shall try to prevent any disaster occurring. This is all I can say at present.”

Meanwhile, Colonel Lamar, commanding the Confederates around Secessionville and Fort Johnson, reported increased Federal activity to his superior, Evans. This indicated that an attack would be coming either that night or next morning. The Confederates would be ready whenever it came.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 166; 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), p. 139; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 664

Surrendering the C.S.S. Planter

May 13, 1862 – A slave handed over a Confederate vessel to the Federal blockade fleet off South Carolina, along with key information about Confederate positions around Charleston.

Robert Smalls | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Robert Smalls | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The C.S.S. Planter was a transport and dispatch steamer that operated in Charleston Harbor. The ship’s pilot was Robert Smalls, a 23-year-old slave. When the Planter docked for the night of May 12 and the white crewmen went ashore (against orders to stay aboard), Smalls and eight black crewmen smuggled several other slaves aboard, including the families of Smalls and his brother. In the predawn darkness, Smalls steered the ship out of the harbor, carrying four heavy cannon along with the human cargo.

As the Planter steamed past the harbor fortifications, her familiarity among the Confederate defenders enabled her to pass without notice. Needing permission from the Fort Sumter garrison to pass, Smalls dipped his colors and sounded the regular signal with a captain’s hat on and his back turned so the Confederates could not identify him.

The fort signaled its permission, and the Planter left the harbor. Smalls quickly raised a white flag and went full speed toward the Federal blockading ships. Lieutenant J.F. Nickels of the U.S.S. Onward reported the Planter approaching his vessel at sunrise:

“I immediately beat to quarters and sprung the ship around so as to enable me to bring her broadsides to bear, and had so far succeeded as to bring the port guns to bear, when I discovered that the steamer, now rapidly approaching, had a white flag set at the fore.”

Approaching the Onward, Smalls saluted and hollered to the watch officer, “Good morning, sir! I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!” Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont, commanding the Federal South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, later reported:

“At 4 in the morning she (the Planter) left her wharf close to the Government office and headquarters, with palmetto and Confederate flag flying, passed the successive forts, saluting as usual by blowing her steam whistle. After getting beyond the range of the last gun she quickly hauled down the rebel flags and hoisted a white one…The steamer is quite a valuable acquisition…”

A Federal officer later reported that Smalls had stolen the Planter because of “the cruel treatment his wife received” as a slave. Of the slaves aboard the Planter, the officer remarked, “They all express their firm determination not to be taken alive after leaving the wharf, and if fired into to sink rather than stop the vessel well knowing what their fate would be if taken.”

Smalls met with Du Pont and shared his knowledge of Charleston Harbor. Du Pont called him “superior to any (slave) who has yet come into the lines, intelligent as many of them have been.” Regarding Smalls’s familiarity with the harbor, “His information is thorough and complete as to the whole defenses of Charleston.” Du Pont resolved to “continue to employ Robert as a pilot on board the Planter for the inland waters, with which he appears to be very familiar.”

The other black crewmen also became pilots in the Federal navy. According to Du Pont, they demonstrated “the utmost nautical skill in piloting the gunboats and this under fire too–generally smiling and showing their white teeth when a shell exploded over their heads, while many (white pilots) brought up to the business didn’t show their white teeth.”

The information that Smalls provided to the Federals included the fact that Confederates had abandoned the fort at the mouth of the Stono River. This opened a back door to Charleston. The Federal navy exploited this by moving up the Stono and attacking Confederates on Cole’s Island. The gunboats U.S.S. Unadilla, Pembina, and Ottawa bombarded the island and forced its evacuation, with the Federals establishing a base of their own there soon after.

Federal gunboats continued up the Stono, forcing planters to abandon their lands on James and John islands. The planters tried hurrying their slaves to the mainland, with Commander John Marchand of the U.S.S. James Adger reporting:

“About 4 o’clock in the afternoon we heard the most terrific screams ashore, the lookouts at the masthead having previously reported a stampede of slaves on the cotton and corn fields to the south of the river. A company of cavalry was then seen to emerge from the pines… charging at full speed among the flying slaves… (firing) their pistols on all sides amongst the Negroes… (S)o I directed the gunboats to open fire on the mounted men and a half dozen shells… (sent them) scampering in every direction.”

The Federals rescued 71 fugitive slaves and conveyed them to Port Royal to join the thousands of other contrabands who had escaped slavery since the Federal fleet’s arrival on the South Carolina coast last November.

At Du Pont’s recommendation, the Federal government rewarded Smalls and his crew by declaring the Planter a prize whose seizure qualified them for compensation. The ship was appraised at $9,168 (a value that some considered very low), of which Smalls received $1,500 and the crewmen $400 each. Another $484 was distributed among the remaining slaves taken aboard. Smalls eventually became captain of the Planter.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (13 May 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 169-70, 173; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 152, 154; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 211; 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), p. 563; 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), p. 138-39

Lee Takes Coastal Command

November 15, 1861 – One week after taking command of the Confederate Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and East Florida, General Robert E. Lee met with South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens to discuss the military situation along the coast.

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Lee arrived at Savannah on November 8 and assumed command of the new department. 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. Thus, Lee abandoned most of the coastline to focus more on key defensive points such as Fort Pulaski, guarding Savannah. A South Carolina woman wrote about Lee in her diary: “Preux chevalier, booted and bridled and gallant rode he, but so far his bonnie face had only brought us ill luck.”

Lee met with Pickens a week later. The men agreed that Pickens would arm enough men to fill two regiments, with the men serving for the war’s duration. Lee would issue 2,500 rifles shipped aboard the C.S.S. Fingal to South Carolina units that also pledged to serve for the duration.

As Lee hastened to strengthen defenses, a Federal naval squadron (U.S.S. Flag, August, Pocahontas, Savannah, and Seneca) led by Commander John Rodgers followed up their capture of Port Royal by landing troops on Tybee Island on Georgia’s Savannah River. This controlled the entrance to Savannah Harbor and established a base from which to attack Fort Pulaski.

fortpulaski

Neither Lee nor Brigadier General Alexander Lawton (commanding the District of Georgia in Lee’s department) could prevent the island’s capture, and the Federals scored another victory along the coast. Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, 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 met with Colonel Charles Olmstead, commanding the Confederate garrison at Fort Pulaski to assess the Federal threat from Tybee Island about a mile south. Lee informed 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.” The Federals soon targeted Fort Pulaski and other coastal points as Lee continued struggling to find the resources needed to defend them.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 46; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 94, 97; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 129; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 81, 85; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3032; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 137-38, 143; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 303-04; 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), p. 371; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 43

The Fall of Port Royal

November 7, 1861 – After struggling through a horrific storm on the Atlantic, the Federal naval squadron attacked and captured a vital Confederate port.

Capt S.F. Du Pont | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Capt S.F. Du Pont | Image Credit: Flickr.com

As November opened, Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont’s 77-ship Federal armada carrying 13,000 men continued its journey from Fort Monroe to Port Royal Sound. The weather suddenly turned ferocious as the fleet rounded Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, producing what an officer aboard the U.S.S. Wabash called “one of the severest gales I have ever experienced.”

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, losing large amounts of munitions.

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. For now, Du Pont struggled to reassemble his scattered fleet.

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.”

Still unable to sight most of his ships, Du Pont proceeded southward anyway aboard his flagship, the U.S.S. Wabash, and arrived off the bar at Port Royal Sound 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 stood halfway between Charleston and Savannah, guarding a rich agricultural region known for producing long-staple cotton. Its defenses included the 600-man garrisons at Fort Beauregard at Bay Point to the north and Fort Walker on Hilton Head to the south; these forts mounted 43 total guns. In addition, a small naval squadron under Commodore Josiah Tatnall 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, sparking a massive explosion by hitting an artillery caisson.

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 serve 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.”

The attack was postponed until the 6th when Du Pont’s flagship became grounded and needed help from the Susquehanna to be freed. The next morning, Du Pont postponed the attack another day because high winds made it “too fresh” to attack.

On the morning of November 7, the flagship Wabash led 14 Federal warships into Port Royal Sound and opened fire on Forts Beauregard and Walker. 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. Most of the inferior Confederate artillery could not reach the attacking ships. Tatnall’s Confederate fleet, too small to intervene, dipped its pennants and fell back up the Beaufort River.

Federal Warships Attack | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Federal Warships Attack | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

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.” General Thomas F. Drayton, commanding the Confederate defenses, watched this “magnificent armada… vomit forth its iron hail, with all the spiteful energy of long-suppressed rage and conscious strength.” Drayton’s brother, Percival, commanded the U.S.S. Pocahontas within the attack fleet.

Federal gunboats enfiladed Fort Walker, methodically disabling its guns and firing an average of 60 shells over the defenders per minute. The Confederates in the fort finally began evacuating around 2 p.m., aided by Tatnall’s ships. Fort Beauregard was abandoned 90 minutes later. The Confederates sustained 62 casualties (11 killed, 47 wounded, and four missing). White residents joined them in fleeing from the sea islands to the mainland, leaving behind some 10,000 slaves.

The Wabash landed Marines to take Fort Walker, and army forces took over 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 be hoisted on South Carolina soil since the state seceded.

General Robert E. Lee arrived from Richmond that evening and conferred with General Roswell S. Ripley, commander of the former Department of South Carolina. The men could do nothing except move their forces farther inland and try strengthening the defenses of Charleston and Savannah. 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.”

The Federals sustained just 31 casualties (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.

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, 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.”

Sherman’s troops advanced from Hilton Head toward Beaufort the next morning, as residents of Charleston and Savannah received the tragic news that Port Royal had fallen. Many people packed their belongings and fled inland. 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.”

An editorial in the Charleston Mercury defiantly exclaimed, “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.”

On November 9, Sherman’s Federals and gunboats captured Beaufort on the Broad River, effectively cutting off the flow of communications and supplies via water between Charleston and Savannah. Lee wrote to Secretary of War 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.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 50-51; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 189; Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20, 110; Channing, Steven A., Confederate Ordeal: The Southern Home Front (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 133; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13314, 13339; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 91-94; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 116-17; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 77-81; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 2986; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 133-38; 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), p. 370-71; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 38-42; Melton, Maurice, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 597; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 217-18; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 640-41; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 703; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 31-32, 34