Tag Archives: Atlantic Coast

From Amos Steere, 25th Massachusetts

Letter from Private Amos Steere, 25th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, to his sister.

New Bern, N.C.

May 2, 1862

Massachusetts state flag | Image Credit: all-flagsworld.com

Dear Sister Lucy:

… In one of your letters written to me I believe you wrote asking of me to give you some information in regard to a person’s feeling when upon the battlefield. I can only speak for one, but have heard the remarks of a great number and their feelings are as different as their minds are at home or upon any subject.

As for my own, when we were marching along (on our march up the river road to New Bern) the next morning (after encamping out all night in the rain without any covering) up the road in front of the enemy’s works, I was startled by the sound of a cannon directly ahead of us, the Regt. having just turned in to the right along the woods, we being in the rear of the Regt. They had just got past the turn of the road, which left us in front, then the 27th (regiment), being the next in advance.

The instant I heard the report, whiz and spat came the ball. I struck in the road about ten feet from me, spattering the mud into some of the boys’ faces. At that time I thought it best to get out of the range of that gun and acted accordingly. I crossed the road into an open field, with two or three buildings upon it. There we established our hospital, or at least were to do so, but before we had got halfway across, the fire had begun to be terrible. I did not expect to get to the buildings without being hit, but fortunately there was not one of us hurt through the engagement.

After crossing the field and arriving at those houses, we found we were in more danger than before, for we were directly in front of their field pieces. The distance was short of a half mile and only but a trifle farther from their water battery–of which four of their heavy guns could be brought to bear upon us. I believe there was only three or four shots fired from that battery, as they were waiting to get a larger haul but was whipped before they were aware of it. As I said before, when we were at those houses the cannon balls, shells and bullets in abundance were flying all around us.

To add to our misery, one of our gun boats opened fire, intending to throw the shells over in amongst us. One burst in the ground just seven rods from where we stood. The next burst over the house. Then we thought best to make our quarters somewhere else, so we did, but how we got out of it without one of us being wounded is a mystery to me.

I felt the need of religion then if I ever did, and wished that I might be a Christian so that I shall in time of battle and at all other times be prepared to meet my God in peace. I have met with no change of heart as yet, but long for the time to come when it will be as easy for me to do right as it is for me to do wrong. Others say that they had not the least feelings of fear from the beginning and others say that they began to think they were cowards, and others something else.

I think as a general thing those at home that are naturally timid are the ones here that have the least fear. For a sample, I will give Patrick Cronan, Co. E, 25th Mass. He was a sort of street bully as they term it at home and has fought one prize fight here at New Bern. He skulked out of the fight and afterwards was court marshaled and sentenced to wear at guard mounting and through the day a wide board on the back with the word coward with capital letters marked on it for five days, then to have his head shaved, the buttons cut from his coat and drummed out of the service. All of that was executed.

Others that it was thought would not fight at all fought the best…

I have no particular news to write except our Fort is nearly completed just outside of the city, of which I will give you a plan. Give my love to Mary if you see her, and all the rest of my friends.

From your brother,

AMOS STEERE

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The Fall of Fort Macon

April 26, 1862 – A formal surrender ceremony took place after the Confederates gave up a formidable stronghold on the North Carolina coast.

Gen. Ambrose Burnside | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Gen. Ambrose Burnside | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Federal forces led by Major General Ambrose E. Burnside had established footholds at various points on the North Carolina coast since the beginning of the year. These points included New Bern, which isolated the Confederate garrison at Fort Macon.

Located on Bogue Banks in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Fort Macon was one of the strongest and most strategically positioned works in the state. It guarded the water approaches to Morehead City (terminus of the Atlantic & North Carolina Railroad), as well as Beaufort.

Burnside directed a brigade of 3,000 men under Brigadier General John G. Parke to capture Fort Macon. In late March, Parke laid the groundwork by seizing both Beaufort and Morehead City, thus cutting the fort off from communications with other nearby Confederates. Parke’s Federals then occupied Bogue Banks, but the fort commander, Colonel Moses J. White, refused to surrender. Parke resolved to lay siege rather than directly attack.

Parke and Burnside spent the first two and a half weeks of April gathering and positioning heavy artillery to bombard the fort. By April 17, Burnside reported to the War Department, “I hope to reduce the fort within ten days.” Burnside repeated Parke’s demand to surrender on the 23rd, but despite having just 300 effectives, White refused once more.

The Federals opened a heavy bombardment on the morning of the 25th. The Confederates fired back but could do no damage because sand dunes protected the Federal cannon. The Confederates were also at a disadvantage because the fort had been designed to withstand attacks from the sea, not inland.

Federal attack on Fort Macon | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Federal attack on Fort Macon | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Commander Samuel Lockwood’s nearby Federal naval squadron–consisting of the steamers U.S.S. Chippewa, Delaware, and State of Georgia, and the bark Gemsbok–responded to the sound of gunfire by joining the fight on the fort’s sea side. However, the ships were forced to retire after an hour due to high winds and strong waves. The naval fire served mostly as a diversion from the main firing.

By late afternoon, the Federal gunners had become tremendously accurate, disabling 19 the fort’s 56 guns. Colonel White, fearing that his magazine would soon be exposed to fire, ordered the white flag raised at 4:30. He lost 25 men killed or wounded. The Federals had fired 1,150 rounds at the fort, with about half hitting their targets.

White sent two officers to ask the Federals for terms, and when they came back and told him that the surrender must be unconditional, he withdrew his capitulation. The next day, Burnside relented and offered to parole the men until formally exchanged, allowing them to take all their personal property with them. White accepted, and a formal surrender ceremony took place on April 26, the same day that the fort changed hands.

The capture of Fort Macon, combined with those of Roanoke Island, Elizabeth City, and New Bern, gave the Federals virtual control of the entire North Carolina coast. This helped strengthen the Federal blockade and opened a path for an inland thrust toward either Richmond to the north or Charleston to the south.

Federal forces soon took over many nearby towns and ports along the Pamlico and Albemarle sounds, and the navy quickly established a coaling station for the North Atlantic Blockade Squadron at Beaufort.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 172; Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 37; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (25 Apr 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 164; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 142-43; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 203-04; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 275-76; 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), p. 53-54; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 295-96

The Fall of Fort Pulaski

April 11, 1862 – Federal forces on the Atlantic coast targeted a key fort guarding the entrance to Savannah Harbor, near the South Carolina-Georgia border.

Following their victory at Port Royal last November, Federal forces had expanded their occupation zone southward down the coast. That zone stopped at Savannah, which remained a Confederate stronghold guarded by Fort Pulaski, a five-sided brick fortress 14 miles down the Savannah River on Cockspur Island. The fort commanded both channels leading to Savannah, and its 11-foot-thick walls were believed to be impervious to artillery bombardment. It also included 48 cannon and a garrison of 385 men under Colonel Charles H. Olmstead.

When General Robert E. Lee took command of the Confederate Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida last November, he figured that any Federal attack on the fort would have to come from Tybee Island, across the southern channel of the Savannah, which the Federals had occupied. Lee assured Olmstead, “Colonel, they will make it pretty warm for you here with shells, but they cannot breach your walls at that distance.”

Gen Q.A. Gillmore | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Gen Q.A. Gillmore | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Lee was initially correct. The Federal guns on Tybee Island were a mile away, which was too far to be effective. Also, Federal gunboats could not take the fort because they could not withstand the fort’s 48 guns. And Federal troops could not be landed on Cockspur Island because the ground was mainly marsh. However, the Federal commander in the region, Brigadier General Quincy A. Gillmore, believed that the fort could be taken using the new and more powerful rifled artillery.

A former engineer, Gillmore directed the placement of 11 batteries on the northern end of Tybee Island throughout the winter of 1861-62. These batteries included 36 siege guns and mortars, and new James and Parrott rifles. The gun distance from the fort ranged from 1,650 to 3,400 yards.

All the guns were in place by early April, ready to bombard Fort Pulaski. Gillmore issued specific orders to each battery on when to attack and what types of fuses and ammunition to use. At the request of Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, crewmen from the U.S.S. Wabash were permitted to man one of the rifled artillery batteries.

Gillmore’s superior, Major General David Hunter, sent a message to Colonel Olmstead demanding “the immediate surrender and restoration of Fort Pulaski to the authority and possession of the United States. The number, caliber, and completeness of the batteries surrounding you leave no doubt as to what must result in case of your refusal, and as the defense, however obstinate, must eventually succumb to the assailing force at my disposal, it is hoped you may see fit to avert the useless waste of life.”

Olmstead was given 30 minutes to answer. He quickly shot back, “In reply I can only say that I am here to defend the Fort, not to surrender it.” After receiving Olmstead’s refusal, the bombardment began at 8:15 on the morning of April 10.

Each gun opened on the fort in succession, with all of them firing within a half-hour. The recoil on three Federal Columbiads blew the guns off their carriages, permanently disabling one of them. In addition, Gillmore was informed that the mortar shells could not reach the fort’s interior as hoped.

Reduction of Fort Pulaski | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Reduction of Fort Pulaski | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

But observing through a telescope, Gillmore could see that the rifled guns were blasting holes two feet deep into Fort Pulaski’s masonry, just as he thought they would. The James rifle proved particularly effective, hurling 84-pound solid shot. Even with the mortars rendered ineffective, the fort was slowly being reduced.

In 10 hours, the Federals hurled 3,000 rounds totaling 110,643 pounds of shot and shell. The fort’s southeastern corner was penetrated by nightfall, with the casemates blasted open. Sporadic return fire did no damage. Three Federal mortars and a Parrott rifle continued firing through the night to prevent the Confederates from repairing the breach, and the Federals hoped to capitalize on their gains the next morning.

Heavy firing resumed from both sides at dawn on the 11th. The Confederates’ aim improved, but the Federals maintained the edge in accuracy. Their guns continued pounding the southeastern breach, expanding it and opening new holes elsewhere. The entire southeastern wall eventually collapsed, along with an adjoining wall. This enabled the Federal gunners to fire directly into the fort. They soon blew open the fort’s magazine, exposing the 400 kegs of gunpowder inside that could destroy the fort if detonated.

The Federals prepared boats and scaling ladders for an infantry charge into the southeastern hole, but Gillmore had planned to bombard the fort another two days before deploying troops. This became a moot point when a white flag appeared over Fort Pulaski’s parapet at 2 p.m. Gillmore was taken by boat to accept the fort’s unconditional surrender.

Under the surrender terms, the Confederate officers would go north as prisoners of war, keeping their personal effects except for side arms. The 360 soldiers were paroled and sent home with orders not to take up arms again until properly exchanged for Federal parolees. The Federals took the fort’s 47 remaining guns, along with 40,000 barrels of gunpowder and large quantities of other supplies.

Four Confederates were wounded in the bombardment, and one was killed. One Federal soldier was also killed. The Federals had fired 5,275 rounds into Fort Pulaski. The structure, which Confederates thought to be invulnerable, was taken in only 30 hours. The rifled battery manned by the naval crew played a key role in reducing the fort.

Many on both sides expressed surprise that the fort had fallen so quickly. This marked the first time that long-range rifled artillery was used to reduce a fortification, thus beginning a new era of warfare. In his report, Gillmore stated that “the eight weeks of laborious preparation for its reduction could have been curtailed to one week, as heavy mortars and columbiads would have been omitted from the armament of the batteries as unsuitable for breaching at long ranges.”

Federals quickly occupied Fort Pulaski and closed Savannah Harbor to Confederate business for the rest of the war. This enabled gunboats to block both the main channel and the back channels of Wassaw and Ossabaw sounds. Controlling the entrance to Savannah helped strengthen the Federals’ coastal blockade. However, no immediate attempts were made to go 14 miles upriver and capture Savannah.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 46-47-49; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 148, 159; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 131, 136-37; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 197-99; 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), p. 43; Melton, Maurice, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 278; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 295

The Fall of New Bern

March 14, 1862 – Federals occupying points on the North Carolina coast advanced to the mainland in hopes of capturing one of the state’s largest cities.

Gen. Ambrose Burnside | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Gen. Ambrose Burnside | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Since the Federal capture of Roanoke Island the previous month, Brigadier General Ambrose E. Burnside and Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough had expanded their control of the North Carolina sounds and connecting waterways. They now set their sights on the state’s mainland, primarily New Bern, North Carolina’s colonial capital, on the Neuse River. New Bern was the state’s second largest city and an important railroad center.

About 11,000 Federal troops of Burnside’s Coastal Division boarded army transports at Roanoke Island to link with 13 gunboats near Hatteras Inlet. The gunboat fleet was led by Commander Stephen C. Rowan, who took over when Goldsborough was recalled to Hampton Roads after the attack by the C.S.S. Virginia. Burnside told his men that they would be part of a major offensive designed to support Major General George B. McClellan’s upcoming Peninsula campaign.

About 4,000 Confederates defended New Bern under Brigadier General Lawrence O. Branch, a lawyer and politician whose only military experience was in the Seminole Wars. Branch’s men were posted at the several earthworks below New Bern, including Fort Thompson, the strongest work, six miles south. A lack of slave labor in the area prevented Branch from bolstering the defenses.

On the 13th, the Federal gunboats covered Burnside’s three brigades as they debarked without resistance at Slocomb’s Creek, on the west bank of the Neuse, about 16 miles south of New Bern. As the troops advanced on land, the gunboats advanced on the river, shelling the five Confederate forts in the woods as they went. Rowan later reported:

“I commenced throwing 5, 10, 15 second shells inshore, and notwithstanding the risk, I determined to continue till the general sent me word. I know the persuasive power of a 9-inch (shell), and thought it better to kill a Union man or two than to lose the effect of my moral suasion.”

Learning of the Federal advance, Branch pulled his troops out of their first line of defenses and concentrated them in a front about six miles southeast of New Bern, near Fort Thompson. This inadequate force guarded the road that Branch suspected the Federals would take.

The Federal troops advanced to where it was believed Branch’s lines were, but the Confederates had already fallen back. The Federals continued advancing amid some skirmishing; driving rain and muddy roads not only made the march difficult, but they made it impossible for the Federals to bring up artillery. Nevertheless, Burnside planned to launch an assault the next day.

At dawn, Burnside ordered his brigades to advance up the muddy west bank of the Neuse with Brigadier Generals Jesse Reno, John G. Parke, and John G. Foster on the left, center, and right respectively. Branch’s defensive line extended from Fort Thompson on the Neuse to his left, a road leading west to his right, and the main road to New Bern in his center. Like at Roanoke Island, the Federals would have to cross a swamp to get to the Confederates.

As the Federals surged forward, the gunboats on the Neuse began bombarding Fort Thompson. The Confederates, outflanked and low on ammunition, held firm until a militia unit in the center of the line suddenly broke. The Federals exploited the gap and sent the enemy fleeing around 10:30 a.m.

Some Confederates on the right did not get the order to retreat and were captured. Those who got away crossed the Trent River into New Bern and burned the bridge behind them. But by this time, the Federal gunboats commanded the town. The Confederates set fire to New Bern without orders and continued fleeing. Branch arranged to withdraw his force by rail to Kinston, 35 miles west, but it took him nearly a week to reassemble all his remaining men.

Meanwhile, the Federals entered New Bern that afternoon and received a similar reception to the one at Winton: only blacks and poor whites celebrated their arrival. Panic spread among the other local residents, as people fled on trains to Goldsborough and other towns. Only 100 of the 1,200 New Bern residents remained when the Federals arrived.

The Federals sustained 471 casualties (90 killed and 381 wounded or missing). The Confederates lost 578 (64 killed, 101 wounded, and 413 captured or missing). In addition to capturing New Bern, the Federals also gained control of all the outlying forts along the river, including Fort Thompson. A landing party from Rowan’s fleet also seized two steamers, large quantities of cotton, and an artillery battery.

The fall of New Bern created another port and useful supply base for Federal inland expeditions. It also gave the Federals easy access to the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad. The Confederate government, realizing the importance of North Carolina too late, sent reinforcements that should have been sent months earlier.

With a foothold on the mainland, Burnside soon looked back to points on the Atlantic, particularly Fort Macon near Cape Lookout.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 33-37; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (14 Mar 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 141; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 121-23; Hubbell, John T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 524; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 184-85; 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. 51-53; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 294-95

The Roanoke Island Campaign

January 5, 1862 – Federal forces embarked on a joint army-navy operation to capture a key point on the North Carolina coast.

Gen. Ambrose Burnside | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Gen. Ambrose Burnside | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

President Abraham Lincoln, General-in-Chief George B. McClellan, and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles had approved a plan developed by Brigadier General Ambrose E. Burnside to load army troops onto navy transports and, with naval warship support, capture Roanoke Island. This guarded both Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, along with many rivers, canals, and railroads.

Taking Roanoke Island, along with the Federal occupation of Hatteras Inlet, would enable the Federals to stop blockade-running in the waters of Pamlico Sound between the North Carolina coast and the Outer Banks. It would also gain them access to many of the waterways flowing from North Carolina’s interior, as well as the numerous Unionists said to reside in that area.

The 12,829 Federal troops of Burnside’s “Coast Division” consisted mostly of New Englanders accustomed to working on the water. Burnside had recruited the men himself, which were grouped into three brigades commanded by his West Point friends: Brigadier Generals John G. Foster, Jesse L. Reno, and John G. Parke. Bands played and snow fell as the troops boarded transports at Annapolis, Maryland, to embark on what became known as the “Burnside expedition.”

Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, led the naval armada. It included about 100 vessels varying from makeshift barges, coal steamers, steamboats, and warships. As they pulled out of Annapolis, Burnside later recalled, “The whole fleet seemed to be under a mixed influence of excitement and contentment.”

Both the northern and southern press speculated on the fleet’s secret destination, with the Richmond Dispatch correctly guessing that it was Pamlico Sound. However, the press greatly underestimated the size of the massive armada, which steamed south toward North Carolina on January 11.

Burnside set up headquarters on the Picket, one of the least seaworthy gunboats in the fleet, to show his men that he was with them. They all suffered through a ferocious two-day storm that featured severe winds and high waves off Cape Hatteras. Burnside noted that “the men, furniture, and crockery below decks were thrown about in a most promiscuous manner.”

Roanoke Island | Image Credit: nps.gov

Roanoke Island | Image Credit: nps.gov

The Federals finally arrived off Roanoke Island on the 13th. The smaller ships began entering Pamlico Sound that morning, and the Picket led the larger ships in around 12 p.m. However, rough waves and the shallow bar made it extremely difficult for these ships to pass. The Pocahontas was destroyed, losing 100 horses. The steamer City of New York foundered, losing over $200,000 worth of supplies and equipment. The captain and crew were rescued after lifeboats could finally be sent over the breakers; they had hung from the rigging for nearly two days.

Awaiting the Federals at Roanoke Island were just 1,400 “undrilled, unpaid, not sufficiently clothed and quartered, and miserably armed” Confederates according to their commander, Brigadier General Henry A. Wise. A “mosquito” fleet of seven gunboats under Flag Officer William F. Lynch also aided in defense. Wise notified Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin that the island was “utterly defenceless” and estimated that even without Burnside’s troops, the Federal armada was “amply sufficient to capture or pass Roanoke Island in any 12 hours.”

Wise called on his superior, Major General Benjamin Huger, for reinforcements and arms. Huger denied the request, even though he had 13,000 men standing by at nearby Norfolk. Huger instead recommended that Wise demand “hard work and coolness among the troops you have, instead of more men.” When Wise went to Richmond to personally request reinforcements, Benjamin peremptorily ordered him to return to his post and hold the island at all costs, despite being outnumbered almost nine-to-one.

Lynch reported to Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory that from the C.S.S. Sea Bird at Hatteras Inlet, he “saw a large fleet of steamers and transports.” Lynch reminded Mallory of Roanoke Island’s importance: “Here is the great thoroughfare from Albemarle Sound and its tributaries, and if the enemy obtain lodgements or succeed in passing here he will cut off a very rich country from the Norfolk market.”

Meanwhile, Goldsborough informed Welles of the ongoing difficulties in getting the fleet, particularly the troop transports, across the Pamlico Sound sandbar. The move took several weeks, during which time the Federals reconnoitered the Confederate positions on Roanoke Island and its surrounding forts. As the channel was deepened to enable the ships to enter the sound, the men remained aboard their vessels suffering from a growing lack of drinking water. The sound passage continued into February.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 17, 21-23; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 108, 111, 115, 117-18; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 226-28; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 96-98, 101-02; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 158-60, 163; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 536; 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. 372; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 238-39

The Federal Blockade Tightens

December 24, 1861 – The Federal blockade began tightening with the capture of more blockade runners along the coasts.

The month began with the capture of the Albion and the Lida along the Atlantic Coast. The Albion, taken off Charleston, had cargo that included arms, ammunition, tin, copper, salt, and cavalry equipment such as saddles and bridles valued at $100,000. The Lida carried sugar, coffee, and lead.

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

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

Off North Carolina, Federal blockaders seized the Charity, the sloop Havelock, the schooner William H. Northrup, and a Confederate vessel converted into a gunboat. Off South Carolina, blockaders captured the British ship Prince of Wales and the schooner Island Belle. However, finding and taking these vessels still proved very difficult. According to Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron:

“The vessels that lie in wait to run the blockade, having skillful pilots, and being desperate in their attempts, can not but sometimes succeed under favor of fog or darkness… In the heavy easterly gales (our) steamers must run off or be wrecked on the enemy’s coast, giving the opportunity to vessels to run out.”

Federal landing parties made some gains this month. Lieutenant James W.A. Nicholson of U.S.S. Isaac Smith led Marines in capturing an abandoned Confederate fort on Otter Island in the Ashepoo River of South Carolina. This enabled the Federals to expand their base at Port Royal.

Federal soldiers and sailors also dispersed Confederates trying to build shore batteries at Port Royal Ferry and on the Coosaw River. This spoiled Confederate plans to use the artillery to isolate Federals on Port Royal Island. The Federal attack force, led by Commander C.R.P. Rodgers, included the Federal gunboats U.S.S. Ottawa, Pembina, and Seneca, accompanied by four boats bearing howitzers.

Confederates scored a minor victory when Commodore Josiah Tattnall led a Confederate naval squadron consisting of Savannah, Resolute, Sampson, Ida, and Barton out of the Savannah River to temporarily push Federal blockaders back into deeper waters.

Along the Gulf Coast, Federal forces from the U.S.S. Water Witch, Henry Lewis, and New London seized Biloxi, Mississippi. They also strengthened their force at Ship Island, Mississippi, with the arrival of two infantry regiments under Major General Benjamin F. Butler. The island became a staging area for a future attack on New Orleans.

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References

Channing, Steven A., Confederate Ordeal: The Southern Home Front (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 113; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 98, 104-05; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 87-88, 90, 93-94; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 145-46, 149; 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), p. 47; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 330

The Stone Fleet

December 20, 1861 – Federal Flag Officer Samuel H. Du Pont directed Captain Charles H. Davis to sink vessels filled with stones to obstruct Confederate blockade runners from entering Charleston Harbor’s main ship channel.

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

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

Du Pont, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, had initially resisted an idea from Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox to sink “stone fleets” in Confederate ports. Du Pont wrote that he had “a special disgust for this business… the maggot, however, had got into Fox’s brain.” Thus, Du Pont complied with orders, targeting Charleston and Savannah.

Federals sunk seven “stone fleet” vessels, consisting of old wooden sailing ships, at the entrance to Savannah Harbor on the 17th. Three days later, on the anniversary of South Carolina’s secession from the Union, Davis sunk 16 whaling vessels in Charleston Harbor.

The sinking of the “stone fleet” outraged Confederates because the vessels could have permanently halted shipping from those ports, thus severely crippling the southern economy even after the war. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate defenses along the coast, wrote to Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin, “This achievement, so unworthy of any nation, is the abortive expression of the malice & revenge of a people which they wish to perpetuate by rendering more memorable a day hateful in their calendar (the South Carolina secession).”

However, the Confederates had sunk hulks in their own harbors to obstruct them before the war. Du Pont noted this when he wrote:

“I should probably not have recommended such a measure had I been consulted, but that we had not the right is simply absurd. So it is all right for the rebels to obstruct, but it is dreadful for us. Then the idea of pretending to believe that these are permanent obstructions shows great ignorance of the nature of outside bars forced by the sea action.”

Du Pont wrote that if the obstructions remained effective until spring, “it will be worth all the trouble.”

Ultimately, the sea water eroded the vessels and reopened the ports for shipping much sooner than anticipated. Moreover, the “stone fleet” only closed one of Charleston’s three channels, and it revealed that the Federals had no plan to attack the city; they merely sought to close the city’s access to trade. Nevertheless, Lee continued building defenses just in case.

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 268; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 720; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 102-03; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 91-92; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3056; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 149-150; 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), p. 48