Tag Archives: Gideon Welles

The Virginia Peninsula: The Army of the James

April 28, 1864 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant ordered Major General Benjamin F. Butler and his new Federal army to begin moving up the Virginia Peninsula from Fort Monroe by May 5.

Maj Gen B.F. Butler | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Grant’s idea of having all major Federal armies launch simultaneous offensives included mobilizing the forces on the peninsula between the York and James rivers. These troops were organized into the Army of the James, a force of about 33,000 men led by Butler. The army consisted of two wings:

  • Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith led XVIII Corps, or Butler’s right wing. Smith had come east with Grant from Chattanooga, having impressed Grant with his engineering prowess in opening the “cracker line.”
  • Major General Quincy A. Gillmore led X Corps, or Butler’s left wing. Gillmore and his troops had been transferred from the Department of the South after several failed attempts to capture Fort Sumter and Charleston.

On a visit to Butler’s headquarters at Fort Monroe in early April, Grant directed him, “When you are notified to move, take City Point with as much force as possible. Fortify, or rather intrench, at once, and concentrate all your troops for the field there as rapidly as you can.” Grant stated “that Richmond is to be your objective point, and that there is to be cooperation between your force and the Army of the Potomac.”

Grant notified Butler on the 28th, “If no unforeseen accident prevents, I will move from here on Wednesday, the 4th of May. Start your forces on the night of the 4th, so as to be as far up the James River as you can get by daylight the morning of the 5th, and push from that time with all your might for the accomplishment of the object before you.” Hoping to eventually link the Armies of the Potomac and the James for a drive on Richmond or Petersburg, Grant wrote:

“Could I be certain that you will be able to invest Richmond on the south side, so as to have your left resting on the James above the city, I would form the junction there. Circumstances may make this course advisable anyhow. I would say, therefore, use every exertion to secure footing as far up the south side of the river as you can, as soon as possible.”

If Confederates blocked his way, Butler was to “attack vigorously” to either capture Richmond or “at least detain as large a force there as possible.” Grant hoped that Butler could keep the Confederates in the area occupied so they could not reinforce General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, currently camped on the south bank of the Rapidan River.

Butler consulted with Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Butler wanted Lee’s vessels to transport troops up the James and Appomattox rivers and provide gunboat support. However, Lee told Butler that the ironclads could not move as far up the James as Butler needed because of shallow water, and the Appomattox could only support wooden ships. Nevertheless, Lee pledged “intelligent and hearty co-operation” wherever possible.

S.P. Lee informed Navy Secretary Gideon Welles that Butler expected him to assemble a fleet in four days, which was virtually impossible. Lee also explained that the Confederates had mined both rivers with torpedoes that could easily destroy the Federal ships. Welles wrote in his diary that Butler’s “scheme is not practical, yet it has the sanction of General Grant. It must, however, be a blind, intended to deceive the enemy, and to do this effectually he must first deceive our own people.” Welles continued:

“A somewhat formidable force has been gathered in General Butler’s department, and there is no doubt but that General B. himself fully believes he is to make a demonstration up James River. It may be that this is General Grant’s intention also, but if it is, I shall be likely to have my faith in him impaired. Certainly there have been no sufficient preparations for such a demonstration and the call upon the Navy is unreasonable.”

Navy officials were not the only ones doubting Butler’s probability for success. “Baldy” Smith distrusted Butler as army commander and persuaded Grant to install a staff officer to watch over Butler’s preparations. But Smith wrote disappointedly that the appointed officer “is very fixed in letting Butler have his own way with all minutia.”

Smith also wrote Major General William B. Franklin, a corps commander in the Army of the Gulf, complaining that Butler would make the upcoming campaign “full of unnecessary risks and of the kind that may produce the most terrible disaster.” Despite the negativity among the Federal high command regarding this campaign, Butler notified Grant that it would begin on schedule and in accordance with Grant’s instructions.

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

Meanwhile, Confederate officials assigned General P.G.T. Beauregard to command the new Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia. Beauregard had formerly commanded the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, which mainly consisted of defending Charleston Harbor. The department, formerly commanded by Major General George Pickett, had just 10,000 men to stop the Army of the James.

When Beauregard arrived in late April, he was told that the new Federal army on the Peninsula was led by Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, not Butler. Guessing that the Federals would target the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad south of the James River, Beauregard notified his superiors, “Every indication is that Burnside will attack Richmond via Petersburg. Are we prepared to resist him in that direction? Can the forces of this Department be concentrated in time? are questions worthy of immediate consideration by the War Department?”

If Beauregard could be reinforced, he asked, “could I not strike Burnside in rear from Petersburg, if he advanced on Richmond from Yorktown?” President Jefferson Davis urged Beauregard to place more emphasis on North Carolina: “The capture of Newbern, and the possession of the (Pamlico) Sound by our vessels, increased as they may be by the addition of others, will relieve the necessity for guarding the whole line of the railroad as proposed.”

Beauregard’s scouts reported that 60,000 Federals were on the Peninsula, and Pickett added that “50,000 are at Yorktown and Baltimore, 10,000 of whom are negroes. All or most of the troops reported at Portsmouth have gone to Yorktown. There are moving and landing troops at night… the enemy will either advance up the Peninsula or will move by transports down river to the James.”

On the 28th, Pickett passed along more accurate intelligence stating that the force numbered about 30,000 men and was led not by Burnside, but by “Baldy” Smith. Beauregard went to oversee operations in North Carolina, and Pickett was directed to reconnoiter around Suffolk and Portsmouth to gather more information about the impending Federal advance.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 2678-98; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 420; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 486-87; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 704, 788; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 177

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Red River: Porter in Grave Danger

April 27, 1864 – Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s Federal naval flotilla reached Alexandria, Louisiana, but it was still faced potential destruction as the Red River continued falling.

Federal crewmen had worked tirelessly to rescue the gunboat U.S.S. Eastport after she hit a torpedo. But the vessel had grounded several times over the next five days, and, on the 26th, she grounded for the last time on the Alexandria rapids. Porter had no choice but to order the crew to destroy their ship. They used 3,000 pounds of gunpowder to blow the Eastport up before transferring to the U.S.S. Fort Hindman.

During this action, Confederate shore batteries and snipers attacked other nearby gunboats, in keeping with Lieutenant General Richard Taylor’s goal to “keep up a constant fight with the gunboats, following them with sharpshooters and killing every man who exposes himself.” Confederate forces tried boarding Porter’s flagship, the U.S.S. Cricket, but were beaten back.

As the Federal ships continued downriver, they came under artillery and rifle fire near the mouth of the Cane River (a tributary of the Red). The Champion No. 5, a transport carrying slaves to freedom, sustained a shot through her boiler that burned 100 slaves to death. The wooden gunboat Juliet was disabled but towed to safety by the Champion No. 3, also damaged.

Rear Adm D.D. Porter | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Fighting resumed the next day, as the Confederate guns disabled the Fort Hindman and sent her drifting downstream. The Champion No. 5 was grounded and burned, and the Juliet sustained more damage. The heavy ironclad U.S.S. Neosho tried leading the other ships to safety under what Porter called “the heaviest fire I ever witnessed.”

Porter reached Alexandria later that day, where he met up with Major General Nathaniel P. Banks and the Army of the Gulf. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant had long sought for Banks to turn east and advance on Mobile, Alabama, and Banks had just received a message from Grant instructing him not to be “detained one day after the 1st of May in commencing your movement east of the Mississippi. No matter what you may have in contemplation, commence your concentration, to be followed without delay by your advance on Mobile.”

However, most of Porter’s fleet was still above the Alexandria rapids, which were becoming more impassable by the day. Banks assured Porter that he would not start his move on Mobile until Porter’s fleet had safely evacuated the Red River. Porter sent a pessimistic report to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles:

“… I find myself blockaded by the fall of three feet of water, three feet four inches being the amount now on the falls; seven feet being required to get over; no amount of lightening will accomplish the object… In the meantime, the enemy are splitting up into parties of 2,000 and bringing in the artillery… to blockade points below here…”

Porter acknowledged that he may have to scuttle his entire fleet to prevent it from falling into Confederate hands and wrote that “you may judge my feelings at having to perform so painful a duty.” He then offered a scathing account of the Red River campaign thus far:

“It has delayed 10,000 troops of Gen. (William T.) Sherman, on which he depended to open the State of Mississippi; it has drawn Gen. (Frederick) Steele from Arkansas and already given the rebels a foothold in that country; it has forced me to withdraw many light-draft vessels from points on the Mississippi to protect this army…”

A ray of hope appeared on the 29th when Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bailey, an engineer with XIX Corps (and former Wisconsin lumberjack), proposed building a dam across the rapids to raise the water level to the required seven feet. Then, the dam would be opened and the vessels would ride the high current over the jagged rocks, past the rapids to safety. Porter later wrote:

“This proposition looked like madness, and the best engineers ridiculed it, but Col. Bailey was so sanguine of success that I requested Gen. Banks to have it done… two or three regiments of Maine men were set to work felling trees… every man seemed to be working with a vigor seldom seen equaled… These falls are about a mile in length, filled with rugged rocks, over which at the present stage of water it seemed to be impossible to make a channel.”

Work began on the 30th, as 3,000 Federals started building a dam of logs, rocks, and dirt spanning the 758-foot-wide Red River. The Federals also sunk four barges filled with stones to raise levels. The work continued into May, as Porter relied on this desperate engineering effort to save his naval flotilla.

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References

Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20649; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 619-20; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 396-97; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 1247-57, 1276-96, 1629-49; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 424-26; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 68; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 488-89; 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. 194; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 292

Grant Arrives in Washington

March 8, 1864 – Ulysses S. Grant arrived in Washington to accept his promotion to lieutenant general, making him commander of all Federal armies in the field.

Federal General U.S. Grant | Image Credit: Wikispaces.org

As March began, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill into law reviving the army rank of lieutenant general. Only two men in U.S. history had ever held such a rank: George Washington and Winfield Scott (brevet only). The bill had been introduced by Congressman Elihu Washburne from Grant’s home district of Galena, Illinois, and those voting in favor clearly had Grant in mind for the post.

Lincoln had long been a Grant supporter, not only because of his success in the field, but also because he hailed from Lincoln’s home state. But this was an election year, and Lincoln was troubled by rumors that Grant had become so successful that he might run for president against him in the fall. Lincoln directed various aides to investigate these rumors, and when he was assured they were false, he put his complete support behind the measure.

Lincoln nominated Grant for the new post the next day, and the Senate quickly confirmed him. On the 3rd, Grant received orders at his Nashville headquarters from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to report to Washington immediately. Lincoln, who had never met Grant before, wanted to present the commission to him in person. Before leaving, Grant wrote his close friend, Major General William T. Sherman:

“The bill reviving the grade of lieutenant general in the army has become a law, and my name has been sent to the Senate for the place. I now receive orders to report to Washington immediately, in person, which indicates a confirmation or a likelihood of confirmation… What I want is to express my thanks to you and (James B.) McPherson as the men to whom, above all others, I feel indebted for whatever I have had of success…”

Sherman received the letter a few days later and thanked Grant on both his and McPherson’s behalf. He added:

“You do yourself injustice and us too much honor in assigning us so large a share of the merits which have led to your high advancement… My only points of doubt were as to your knowledge of grand strategy and of books of science and history, but I confess your common-sense seems to have supplied all this.”

Grant spent the next four days traveling to the capital with a small group that included his 13-year-old son Fred. Large crowds greeted Grant at every train stop, but nobody greeted him when his train arrived at Washington on Tuesday the 8th.

Grant and Fred entered the Willard Hotel unrecognized, and the clerk told them that he could only give them a small room in the attic. But when Grant signed the registry, “U.S. Grant and Son, Galena, Illinois,” the clerk quickly gave him Parlor 6, the same room that Lincoln had stayed in before his inauguration three years ago. A journalist in the hotel lobby wrote of Grant:

“He gets over the ground queerly. He does not march, nor quite walk, but pitches along as if the next step would bring him on his nose. But his face looks firm and hard, and his eye is clear and resolute, and he is certainly natural and clear of all appearance and self-consciousness.”

By the time Grant and his son unpacked and went downstairs to the dining room, everyone in the hotel knew who he was. The diners cheered him as he entered; Grant seemed uncomfortable with such attention as he acknowledged them with a bow. Word of Grant’s presence quickly reached the White House, where Lincoln sent a courier requesting that Grant come meet him that night.

Having lost the key to his trunk, Grant only had his traveling uniform to wear. But he did not want to decline a request from the commander-in-chief on his first day in town, so Grant put his son to bed and walked the two blocks to the White House. The weekly public reception was underway, and the president was greeting people in the Blue Room when Grant entered around 9:30 p.m.

Lincoln meets Grant | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Lincoln heard the commotion outside the room and deduced that Grant had arrived. He quickly identified the general from his photographs and walked over to greet him: “This is General Grant, is it?” Grant replied, “Yes it is.” Lincoln exclaimed, “Well, this is a great pleasure, I assure you.”

Lincoln introduced Grant to Secretary of State William H. Seward, who presented the general to First Lady Mary Lincoln and then led him into the larger East Room. The guests hurrying to meet Grant almost caused a stampede; Navy Secretary Gideon Welles called the scene “rowdy and unseemly.” Seward persuaded Grant to stand on a sofa, where he spent the next hour greeting the admiring throng.

Noting Grant’s reluctance to garner attention, a journalist reported, “The little, scared-looking man who stood on the crimson-covered sofa was the idol of the hour.” Another contended that the general “blushed like a schoolgirl.” And another remarked, “For once, at least, the President of the United States was not the chief figure in the picture.”

Later that night, Seward introduced Grant to Welles; Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton was also present, but he had already met Grant last November. They brought Grant back into the Blue Room to see Lincoln once more. The president told him, “Tomorrow, at such time as you may arrange with the Secretary of War, I desire to make to you a formal presentation of your commission as Lieutenant-General.”

Lincoln explained that he would deliver a brief speech, and he wanted Grant to make one of his own that included two points: “First, to say something which shall prevent or obviate any jealousy of you from any of the other generals in the service, and secondly, something which shall put you on as good terms as possible with the Army of the Potomac.” Grant asked if he would be expected to oversee this army, and Lincoln said probably yes.

Grant returned to the Willard Hotel to write a speech that consisted of just a few sentences. The ceremony was scheduled for 1 p.m. the next day.

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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. 440; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 165-66; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 380-81, 383; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10457; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 962, 964-66; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 75-85, 96-125; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 404-07; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 614-16; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 22-26, 37; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 471-73

The Hunley Attack

February 17, 1864 – One of the first submarine attacks in history occurred when a “submersible” Confederate vessel confronted a Federal warship on blockade duty at Charleston Harbor.

The C.S.S. H.L. Hunley was a forerunner to the modern submarine. It had sunk in two previous test runs, killing both crews, including inventor Horace L. Hunley himself in the second run. Both times the Confederate navy salvaged the Hunley and restored her for service. Built from a boiler cylinder, the hand-cranked, cigar-shaped craft was nicknamed “the peripatetic coffin.”

The H.L. Hunley | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the Federal South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, had received intelligence that Confederates were experimenting with submersible ships to attack the Federal blockaders. He had been aware of “semi-submersible” vessels ever since the David’s attack on the U.S.S. New Ironsides last October, and he knew that new technology was being attempted to make the vessels even harder to see on the water.

Navy Secretary Gideon Welles warned Dahlgren that Confederates were developing a type of “submarine machine.” Dahlgren passed this information to his fleet commanders, instructing them to look out for a ship “of another kind, which is nearly submerged and can be entirely so. It is intended to go under the bottoms of vessels and there operate.”

A Confederate deserter informed the Federals that a vessel had been developed that could “stay underwater 10 minutes each time, and would come up 75 to 80 yards from where she went down.” Dahlgren reported, “When she does not dive, she only shows two heads above the water about the size of a man’s head. He (the deserter) thinks she is about 20 feet long and the manholes are about eight feet apart. She is made of iron.” Dahlgren stated that because he had “every reason to expect a visit from some or all of these torpedoes, the greatest vigilance will be needed to guard against them.”

Dahlgren put all his ship captains on high alert, but he assured them that only in “smooth water, and when the tide is slack, that any danger is imminent.” The waters had been rough in Charleston harbor since the beginning of the year, and by the time calm finally came on the night of the 17th, the Federal crews had grown complacent.

Lieutenant George E. Dixon, commanding the Hunley, targeted the U.S.S. Housatonic, a 1,240-ton wooden sloop-of-war. Dixon and his six crewmen waited for a strong ebb tide and favorable winds to help maximize the Hunley’s top speed of four knots. Moving out on a foggy night, guided by a near-full moon, the vessel covered the 12 miles to her target, on blockade duty just outside Charleston Harbor.

At 8:45 p.m., Captain Charles W. Pickering, commanding the Housatonic, sighted a strange object floating in the water toward his ship and notified Acting Master John K. Crosby, the deck officer. Crosby later stated, “It… had the appearance of a plank moving in the water.” The Hunley was already within 100 yards when Crosby saw that it was an enemy vessel. He ordered the crew to slip the anchor cables and back the ship away, but by that time, the Hunley was upon them. None of the Housatonic’s 12 guns could be depressed low enough to fire on the attacker.

The Hunley’s crew detonated a torpedo attached to a spar against the Housatonic’s side. According to Crosby, “The torpedo struck forward of the mizzen mast, on the starboard side, in line with the magazine.” The torpedo held 90 pounds of gunpowder, and the Federal ship sank within five minutes after detonation. Because the water was just 27 feet deep, the Housatonic did not sink completely, allowing all but five of her crew to escape. The remaining 158 crewmen were rescued by the nearby U.S.S. Canandaigua.

The Hunley signaled her success to Confederates on Sullivan’s Island but then disappeared, believed to have been sunk by the blast. There were no survivors, and the craft was finally found in 1970. However, this was the first sinking of a ship by a submarine in history, and it served to put the Federal blockaders on full alert. According to the Charleston Daily Courier:

“The explosion made no noise, and the affair was not known among the fleet until daybreak, when the crew were discovered and released from their uneasy positions in the rigging. They had remained there all night. Two officers and three men were reported missing and were supposed to be drowned. The loss of the Housatonic caused great consternation in the fleet. All the wooden vessels are ordered to keep up steam and to go out to sea every night, not being allowed to anchor inside. The picket boats have been doubled and the force in each boat increased.”

Dahlgren directed his captains to launch patrols and put up netting to guard against similar type vessels. He also wrote Welles proposing a Federal reward of $20,000 to $30,000 for anyone seizing or destroying any vessel like the Hunley. Distressed by this surprise attack, Dahlgren wrote, “They are worth more to us than that.”

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 139-41; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 730-31; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 374; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 898; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 399-400; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 465; 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. 179; Melton, Maurice, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 363-64; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 371; Ward, Geoffrey, Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 325-26

The End of 1863

December 31, 1863 – With the coming of a new year, morale among southerners fell to an all-time low as prospects for a Federal victory seemed brighter than ever.

This year had begun inauspiciously for the Federals with defeats at Galveston, Charleston Harbor, and Chancellorsville, but they rebounded with historic victories at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Port Hudson, Tullahoma, Little Rock, and Knoxville. And although the Federals had suffered a resounding defeat at Chickamauga, they reversed the setback by driving most Confederate forces out of Tennessee.

U.S. Navy Secy Gideon Welles | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

As Navy Secretary Gideon Welles wrote in his diary, “The year closes more satisfactorily than it commenced. The war has been waged with success, although there have been in some instances errors and misfortunes. But the heart of the nation is sounder and its hopes higher.”

Southerners did not share this sentiment. An article in the Richmond Examiner, published on New Year’s Eve, spoke for most in the Confederacy when it declared:

“To-day closes the gloomiest year of our struggle. No sanguine hope of intervention buoys up the spirits of the confederate public as at the end of 1861. No brilliant victory like that of Fredericksburgh encourages us to look forward to a speedy and successful termination of the war, as in the last weeks of 1862.”

The writer discounted the recent minor Confederate victories at Mine Run and Bean’s Station: “(George G.) Meade’s advance was hardly meant in earnest, and Bean’s Station is a poor set-off to the loss of the gallant men who fell in the murderous assault on Knoxville.”

One of the most startling military transformations this year involved the improvement of the Federal cavalry, which now nearly matched its declining Confederate counterpart. The article maintained that with the “deficiencies of our cavalry service, Lincoln’s squadrons of horses threaten to be as universal a terror, as pervasive a nuisance, as his squadrons of gun-boats were some months since.” The writer continued:

“The advantages gained at Chancellorsville and Chickamauga have had heavy counterpoises. The one victory led to the fall of (Thomas “Stonewall”) Jackson and the deposition of (Joseph) Hooker, the other led first to nothing and then to the indelible disgrace of Lookout Mountain. The Confederacy has been cut in twain along the line of the Mississippi, and our enemies are steadily pushing forward their plans for bisecting the eastern moiety.”

Regarding the southern way of life, “poverty has become penury, penury is lapsing into pauperism,” and there had been a “complete upturning of our social relations, the only happy people are those who have black hearts or black skins.” The editorial then lashed out at politicians, whose corruption was courting disaster:

“There is no forgiveness for political sins, and the results will as certainly follow as if there had been no repentance. As all sins are, in a higher sense, intellectual blunders, we must strain every fibre of the brain and every sinew of the will if we wish to repair the mischief which our folly and our corruption have wrought.”

Noting the constant sacrifices the people were making:

“We can no more avoid the loss of property than we can the shedding of blood. There is no family in the Confederacy that has not to mourn the fall of some member or some connection, and there is no family in the Confederacy which ought to expect to escape scathless in estate. The attempt is as useless, in most cases, as it is ignoble in all.”

The editorial concluded:

“We all have a heavy score to pay, and we know it. This may depress us, but our enemies need not be jubilant at our depression, for we are determined to meet our liabilities. Whatever number of men, or whatever amount of money shall be really wanting will be forthcoming. Whatever economy the straightening of our resources may require, we shall learn to exercise. We could only wish that Congress was not in such a feverish mood, and that the government would do something toward the establishment of a statistical bureau, or some other agency, by which we could approximately ascertain what we have to contribute, and to what extent we must husband our resources. Wise, cool, decided, prompt action would put us in good condition for the spring campaign of 1864, and the close of next year would furnish a more agreeable retrospect than the annus mirabilis of blunders which we now consign to the dead past.”

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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. 355; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 386-87; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 450; Perseus: The Richmond Examiner, 31 Dec 1863

Charleston: Another Federal Bombardment

October 31, 1863 – In a five-day span, Federal batteries fired 2,961 rounds into Fort Sumter, but the Confederate defenders still refused to surrender.

Federal army and navy forces had been unable to capture Sumter, the prime symbol of defiance in the South and of rebellion in the North. Federal gunners on Morris Island south of the fort concluded a six-day bombardment on October 3 after firing 560 rounds at their target. The Federal guns fell relatively silent for the next two weeks as the commanders pondered their next move.

Rear Adm J.A.B. Dahlgren – Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the Federal South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, reported to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles that since his operations against Charleston began in July, the naval vessels had fired over 8,000 rounds and sustained over 900 hits.

Dahlgren also assured Welles that naval support to the Federal force on Morris Island ensured that “its supplies were entirely covered; provisions, arms, cannon, ammunition… were landed as freely as if an enemy were not in sight, while by the same means the enemy was restricted to the least space and action…”

Despite this, the Federal high command continued pushing for Dahlgren to lead his naval force into Charleston Harbor and capture the city. But the Confederates at Fort Sumter and other batteries throughout the harbor, along with the vast number of obstructions and torpedoes, prevented Dahlgren from doing so. Also, several ironclads needed repairs. Frustrated, Dahlgren told Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox that “the public demand for instantly proceeding into Charleston is so persistent that I would rather go in at all risks than stand the incessant abuse lavished on me.”

On the 22nd, Dahlgren met with his eight ironclad captains and two staff officers in a council of war. Dahlgren asked whether they should invade the harbor as soon as the ironclads were repaired or wait until new ironclads arrived in the winter. The officers voted six-to-four in favor of waiting.

Welles indicated that he did not oppose waiting; he told Dahlgren, “While there is an intense feeling pervading the country in regard to the fate of Charleston, the Department is disinclined to have its only ironclad squadron incur extreme risks when the substantial advantages have already been gained.”

But Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the Federal army forces on Morris Island, would not sit idle while waiting for Dahlgren’s help. From Cummings Point on the island’s northern tip, Gillmore opened a massive bombardment on Fort Sumter on the 26th, which would continue almost non-stop for the next 41 days. The bombardment did little damage since the fort’s walls were already almost completely crumbled.

Federal gunners hurled 625 rounds into Sumter on the 26th. The captain of the U.S.S. Patapsco reported that the fire was “hardly describable, throwing bricks and mortar, gun carriages and timber in every direction and high into the air.”

By the end of October, the Federals had fired 2,961 rounds in the heaviest bombardment of the war. The Confederates held firm for the time being, but the artillery barrage continued into November.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 134; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 334-37; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 823; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 356, 364-65; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 417, 426-27; 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. 179-80; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q463

David v. New Ironsides

October 5, 1863 – A small torpedo boat named the C.S.S. David detonated a mine against the Federal ironclad U.S.S. New Ironsides outside Charleston Harbor, South Carolina.

The Federal bombardment of Fort Sumter continued sporadically after Federal forces had failed to capture either Sumter or Charleston by direct assault. Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the Federal South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, shifted his main focus from bombarding the fort to blockading the harbor. During this time, General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate defenses in the harbor, directed a new type of naval vessel to attack.

The David was a steam-powered, semi-submersible ship whose construction had been funded by donations from Charleston residents. The David sat just above the waterline, making her nearly invisible to the blockade fleet. A 10-foot spar at the end of the David’s bow held an explosive device (i.e., a torpedo). This device had four percussion caps primed to detonate a gunpowder-filled canister on contact.

The torpedo boat headed out on the night of the 5th to destroy the hated 3,486-ton iron frigate U.S.S. New Ironsides. The David was led by Lieutenant William T. Glassell, and his three-man crew consisted of Pilot Walker Cannon, Assistant Engineer James H. Tomb, and Seaman James Sullivan (fireman). They had spent the past week testing the vessel, and Glassell pronounced them ready for action.

The David passed Fort Sumter around 9 p.m. About an hour later, the deck officer of the New Ironsides sighted the cigar-shaped craft approaching from 50 yards. He hollered, “What boat is that?” Glassell, hoping to cause confusion among the enemy crew, emerged from the David and killed the man with a shotgun blast. The David’s engines then turned off and she drifted toward the New Ironsides.

David approaching New Ironsides | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The Federals opened fire, but it was too late. The David surged forward and rammed the ironclad’s starboard quarter, detonating 60 pounds of gunpowder six feet below her waterline.

The blast was not strong enough to sink the New Ironsides, but it extinguished the David’s boilers. Glassell ordered the crew to abandon ship, and three of the four men began swimming to shore. Cannon stayed aboard because he could not swim, so Tomb returned and the men tried restarting the David. Tomb finally relit the boilers, and he and Cannon escaped. Charleston residents welcomed them back to shore as heroes.

Federals captured Glassell and Sullivan as they tried swimming ashore. They were shipped north to face charges of using an uncivilized weapon, but no trial was held and they were later exchanged as prisoners of war. The New Ironsides went to the repair yard at Port Royal, where workmen discovered the blast had caused more damage than initially thought. She remained under repair for the next eight months.

Dahlgren wrote Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “How far the enemy may seem encouraged I do not know, but I think it will be well to be prepared against a considerable issue of these small craft.” Dahlgren informed Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox, “By all means let us have a quantity of these torpedoes, and thus turn them against the enemy. We can make them faster than they can.”

The explosion terrified the Federal crew and prompted the Federal naval command to develop a defense to this new type of warfare. Dahlgren issued orders for ironclads to have escorts while on patrol, and to be fitted with protective outrigging and netting while anchored.

Meanwhile, the Confederates scrambled to construct more David-like ships with larger torpedoes to attack the Federal fleet at Charleston.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 139; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 205; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 331; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 824; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 357; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 418; 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. 178; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 525