Tag Archives: Gideon Welles

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

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Charleston: The Bombardment Winds Down

August 23, 1863 – The Federal bombardment of Fort Sumter and Batteries Wagner and Gregg in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, temporarily halted.

The Confederates still held their defenses despite enduring an unprecedented artillery bombardment. The garrisons at Forts Sumter, Moultrie, Ripley, and Johnson held firm, and the Confederate vessels C.S.S. Charleston, Chicora, and Palmetto State remained intact. Federal ships still could not enter Charleston Harbor, which was filled with obstructions such as piles, ropes, chains, and anchored torpedoes (i.e., mines).

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

By this time, the South Carolina summer began taking its toll on Federals unaccustomed to the draining heat and humidity. The most prominent officer to fall ill was Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. He wrote in his diary, “My debility increases, so that to-day it is an exertion to sit in a chair. I feel like lying down. My head is light. How strange–no pain, but it feels like gliding away to death.”

In the Stono River, several torpedoes exploded and barely missed destroying the U.S.S. Pawnee. Dahlgren responded by directing men to string nets across Stono Inlet to prevent torpedoes from floating downriver and threatening Federal vessels.

At Charleston, a Confederate officer announced that John Fraser & Company would offer a $100,000 reward to anyone who destroyed the ironclad U.S.S. New Ironsides or the wooden gunboat U.S.S. Wabash. On the 21st, a Confederate torpedo boat led by Pilot James Carlin attempted to collect the purse by targeting the New Ironsides near Morris Island.

As Carlin approached, he turned his engines off so he could quietly drift up and detonate his torpedo beside the ship. However, the current placed his vessel alongside the New Ironsides instead. Carlin had trouble restarting the boat, and the Federals could not depress their guns low enough to fire on him. He finally got the boat started and hurried away, avoiding two Federal shots as he escaped.

On the 22nd, Dahlgren, believing the bombardment left Fort Sumter vulnerable, ordered a pre-dawn attack. However, the U.S.S. Passaic ran aground, and by the time she was freed, the sun had come up and the attack was called off. Dahlgren resumed his attack the next day, targeting both Forts Sumter and Moultrie. However, a heavy fog rendered the Federals unable to cite their targets, and the ships withdrew.

The Federal bombardment halted for the time being. Artillerists had fired 5,909 rounds at Fort Sumter, leaving it in ruins. Even a hurricane sweeping through Charleston in late August could not stop the Federal fire. Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the Federal Department of the South, announced:

“I have the honor to report the practical demolition of Fort Sumter as the result of our seven days’ bombardment of that work, including two days of which a powerful northeasterly storm most seriously diminished the accuracy and effect of our fire. Fort Sumter is today a shapeless and harmless mass of ruins.”

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

General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Charleston defenses, sent his chief engineer, Colonel Jeremy Gilmer, to inspect the damage at Sumter and confer with the garrison commander, Colonel Alfred Rhett. Gilmer concluded that of the “very limited” heavy artillery, one gun was “capable of being fired with advantage,” while others were at a “disadvantage, in consequence of shattered condition of parapet.”

Rhett recommended only using the one effective gun, while another officer reported, “The offensive condition of the fort is nearly destroyed.” Rhett stated, “The eastern wall is much shattered by the fire of 7th of April, and has never been repaired.” It had “also been seriously damaged by fire from the land batteries on Morris Island.”

Rhett guessed that any more than another three hours of bombardment “would destroy the integrity of the wall, if it did not bring it down.” Moreover, “The fort wall adjoining the pier of the upper magazine has been completely shot away, and I think a concentrated fire of two hours on the junction of the upper and lower magazines would render the magazine unsafe.” The north wall could sustain only “a few shots.”

Nevertheless, the Confederates reported, “We beg leave to state, that, in our opinion, it is not advisable to abandon the fort at this time. On the contrary, we think it should be held to the last extremity.” Beauregard reported, “Not a single gun remained in barbette, and but a single smooth-bore 32-pounder in the west face could be fired.” Beauregard removed all the functioning guns except one, but the defenders refused to surrender.

Two days later, Beauregard wrote, “Fort Sumter must be held to the last extremity, not surrendered until it becomes impossible to hold it longer without an unnecessary sacrifice of human life. Evacuation of the fort must not be contemplated one instant without positive orders from these headquarters.” He told President Jefferson Davis that Sumter, “even in ruins,” would be held, “if necessary, with musket and bayonet.” Davis approved, writing in response, “By using debris of fort, assisted by sand-bags, it is hoped effective guns can be maintained in position.”

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

By late August, Gillmore was satisfied with the damage he caused, but he was frustrated that he had not compelled any of the Confederate defenders at Fort Sumter or Batteries Wagner or Gregg to surrender. He needed Dahlgren’s help to capture Fort Sumter, but Dahlgren’s vessels could not navigate past the torpedoes in the harbor. Gillmore contemplated landing an infantry force to take Sumter, but this would do no good while Batteries Wagner and Gregg remained in Confederate hands.

Federal troops had slowly inched up Morris Island toward Wagner, but they had to be careful not to advance too far or else they would be vulnerable to Confederate cannon on James Island to the west. By the 25th, the closest Federal entrenchments were within 150 yards of Wagner’s outer rifle pits. Major Thomas Brooks directed an artillery barrage, followed by an infantry charge on the pits, but the infantry never got moving. Brooks later reported that the men “do not yet take much interest in the operations against Wagner.”

Gillmore planned another assault on the rifle pits the next day, with the troops strapping spades to their backs to dig stronger defenses after taking the Confederate embrasure. At 6 p.m., Federal artillery preceded the advance. The troops surged forward, quickly overtaking the 100 Confederates in the outer pits. This line of rifle pits became the Federals’ fifth trench line on Morris Island, putting them within 250 yards of Battery Wagner itself.

However, both sides were stalemated once more. The Federals on Morris Island could advance no further without severe losses, Wagner was impervious to bombardment, Confederates at Fort Sumter refused to surrender, and Dahlgren’s ships could not approach Sumter without removing the harbor torpedoes.

Near the end of August, Dahlgren finally directed his men to begin removing the torpedoes, but near-hurricane storms impeded their progress. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles asked Dahlgren to send him weekly reports and sketches of the damage Confederate artillery was doing to the Federal ironclads:

“These reports and sketches are important to the Bureau and others concerned to enable them to understand correctly and provide promptly for repairing the damages; and frequently measures for improving the ironclads are suggested by them.”

By month’s end, Federal batteries on Morris Island continued their bombardment of Fort Sumter as Confederates at the fort began transferring their cannon to Charleston. Elsewhere in the harbor, Confederate batteries at Fort Moultrie accidentally sank the steamer C.S.S. Sumter after mistaking it for a Federal vessel.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 130-31; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 315-20; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 340, 342-45; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 400-01; 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. 175-76

Post-Vicksburg: Grant’s Army Reduced

August 3, 1863 – Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal Army of the Tennessee underwent vast reductions following its capture of Vicksburg.

Maj Gen U.S. Grant | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

By this month, Grant’s Federals were performing occupation duty at Vicksburg and other points in Mississippi and western Tennessee. After borrowing IX Corps to help conquer Vicksburg, Grant returned those troops to Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s Army of the Ohio, which was poised to invade eastern Tennessee.

Grant proposed joining forces with Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Army of the Gulf to capture Mobile, Alabama. This plan was backed by both Banks and Rear Admiral David G. Farragut, whose naval force would be needed to attack the city from the Gulf of Mexico. But General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck rejected the idea and instead urged Banks to invade eastern Texas while Grant continued managing occupation forces.

Halleck informed Grant on the 6th, “There are important reasons why our flag should be restored to some part of Texas with the least possible delay.” Halleck did not explain those reasons, but President Abraham Lincoln did in a letter to Grant three days later:

“I see by a dispatch of yours that you incline strongly toward an expedition against Mobile. This would appear tempting to me also, were it not that, in view of recent events in Mexico, I am greatly impressed with the importance of re-establishing the national authority in Western Texas as soon as possible.”

Lincoln was referring to Mexico falling under the rule of Maximilian I, a puppet dictator installed by Emperor Napoleon III of France. European interference in the affairs of a Western Hemisphere nation violated the Monroe Doctrine. Even worse, Napoleon had hinted at the possibility of allying with the Confederacy, and the administration feared that the Confederates could start receiving military and financial support from French-occupied Mexico.

Thus, much of Grant’s army was broken up, with Major General E.O.C. Ord’s XIII Corps going to reinforce Banks at New Orleans and Major General William T. Sherman’s XV Corps performing garrison duty in Louisiana. The rest of Grant’s forces held points along the Mississippi River in western Tennessee and Mississippi.

Meanwhile, Lincoln tried convincing Grant of the effectiveness of black troops. Lincoln wrote on the 9th that black troops were “a resource which, if vigorously applied now, will soon close the contest.” However, Sherman wrote his wife Ellen doubting the ability of blacks in the military and stating, “… I cannot trust them yet.” Consequently, Sherman did little to alleviate the problem of freed slaves scouring the region and resorting to robbery for food and shelter.

Major General John A. McClernand, who had caused Grant so much trouble until Grant relieved him of corps command during the Vicksburg campaign, had his military career effectively ended when Lincoln declined assigning him to a new command.

On the 17th, elements of Sherman’s infantry from Vicksburg and Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut’s cavalry from Memphis raided Grenada, Mississippi, south of the Yalobusha River, where Confederates had gathered supplies from the Mississippi Central Railroad. Those supplies were guarded by a token force while the main body of Confederates evacuated Jackson and burned the bridge over the Pearl River in May.

The Federal forces drove the Confederate guards off and seized 57 locomotives, destroyed over 400 railcars, and burned buildings containing vast amounts of commissary and ordnance supplies. This was one of the most destructive raids of the war, with damage estimated at $4 million.

In late August, Grant attended a banquet in his honor at the Gayoso House in Memphis. A pyramid in front of his place at the table listed all his battles, beginning with Belmont. He was toasted as “your Grant and my Grant,” and his feat of opening the Mississippi River was compared to the feats of Hernando de Soto and Robert Fulton. Grant delivered a two-sentence speech to the 200 guests, thanking them and pledging to do what he could to maintain their prosperity.

On the water, Rear Admiral David D. Porter formally took command of all Federal naval forces and operations on the Mississippi River, replacing Farragut. Porter’s main goal was to suppress Confederate raids on Federal shipping while promoting river commerce.

Recalling the terrible problems the navy had in trying to navigate the Yazoo River before the fall of Vicksburg, Porter reported to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “There are no more steamers on the Yazoo. The large fleet that sought refuge there, as the safest place in rebeldom, have all been destroyed.”

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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. 314-16; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 770-73; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 337, 339, 345; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 393-94, 396-97; 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. 167, 170-71; Pritchard, Russ A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 178

Charleston: Federals Plan Another Attack

August 1, 1863 – Federal army-navy forces continued working to capture Morris Island at the southern entrance to Charleston Harbor, South Carolina.

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

As August began, Confederates still held Batteries Wagner and Gregg on Morris Island, along with James Island to the west and Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. The Federals had unsuccessfully attacked Battery Wagner twice in July, and now Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the Department of the South, awaited reinforcements to besiege the Confederate works.

Gillmore’s Federals entrenched themselves in the southern section of Morris Island, facing Wagner, Gregg, and Sumter to the north. Gillmore, a former engineer, worked with his army engineers to carefully emplace a powerful artillery battery on the island’s swampy ground. This work was done under heavy fire from the Confederates on James Island.

On the 5th, a detachment of U.S. Marines arrived at Charleston Harbor, sent by Navy Secretary Gideon Welles to support Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren’s South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. The Marines joined their comrades from the naval fleet at Charleston and Port Royal under the command of Major Jacob Zeilin, U.S.M.C. They were deployed on Morris Island as reinforcements.

Meanwhile, President Jefferson Davis wrote South Carolina Governor Milledge L. Bonham:

“Be assured the executive branch of the Government will continue to do all that is possible for the safety and relief of the city, which we pray will never be polluted by the footsteps of a lustful, inhuman foe. It must never pass to the even temporary subjection of the mean and cruel enemy.”

As Federal reinforcements arrived on Morris Island, they began fatigue duty, which consisted of digging trenches and building earthworks in the harsh summer heat. The black troops did most of the heavy labor. By this time, the Federals had constructed three parallel lines of batteries and earthworks, with the third line just over 500 yards from Battery Wagner.

The troops worked almost around the clock, with calcium lights illuminating their work at night. They were under constant bombardment from Batteries Wagner and Gregg, as well as from James Island and Fort Sumter. A furious Confederate barrage opened on the 11th which temporarily halted the Federal work details.

Before dawn the next day, Federal artillerists began testing their newly installed heavy-caliber Parrott guns. This “test” did much to silence the guns at Wagner and Gregg, and blow large holes in the brick walls of Sumter. Colonel Alfred Rhett, commanding the Confederates at Fort Sumter, reported that a Federal shot had destroyed the bakery oven and compelled him to shift his guns to prevent their destruction.

Gillmore planned to open a bombardment from all his guns on the 14th, but it was delayed three days due to defective powder. During that time, the sporadic Federal target practice continued.

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

General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate forces defending Charleston, had just 6,000 men. He had to hold Battery Wagner, or else Battery Gregg would fall and with it all of Morris Island. From there, the Federals could attack Fort Sumter to the north or invade James Island to the west. Either move would put them within easy striking distance of Charleston.

Governor Bonham wrote Beauregard urging him to evacuate non-combatants from the city while holding it at all costs. Beauregard agreed, writing that he would act in accordance with a state convention resolution “that Charleston should be defended at any cost of life or property,” with delegates preferring “a repulse of the enemy with the entire city in ruins, to an evacuation or surrender on any terms whatever.”

Beauregard cited the recommendation of General Robert E. Lee, who had “directed that Charleston should be defended to the last extremity, and if necessary the fight should be made from street to street and from house to house.” Beauregard assured Bonham, “You are entirely right in your belief that I propose to defend the city to the last extremity, in accordance with the patriotic wishes of the people of South Carolina, and the instructions of my superiors.”

Around this time, Confederate Congressman William Porcher Miles wrote Secretary of War James A. Seddon, asking him to send reinforcements to defend Charleston. Miles wrote, “We have every reason to believe that General Gillmore will be speedily re-enforced, when he may attempt by an overwhelming force, to seize James Island. Should he succeed in this, Charleston will be in his power, for it can be battered down from James Island.”

Miles specifically asked Seddon to send Brigadier General Micah Jenkins’s brigade of South Carolinians from the Army of Northern Virginia. He wrote, “In this, our greatest hour of trial, it seems hard that South Carolina cannot have some of her own veteran troops (who have been fighting so long outside of her borders) to strike a blow for their own homes upon their native soil.” Acknowledging that such a move would require sacrifice, Miles stated:

“But, really, if Charleston is to be defended with anything like the energy and tenacity with which Richmond has been, it seems absolutely necessary that something of ‘an army’ should be, so far as possible, concentrated for its defense, even at the expense of great risk and hazard to other places. This is a moral element that high statesmanship will not only refuse to ignore, but will eagerly avail itself of.”

Meanwhile, Beauregard scrambled to defend all points against the Federal assault that was sure to come.

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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. 314-16; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 738; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 697-98; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 337, 339; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 393-96

Federals Regroup on Morris Island

July 31, 1863 – President Abraham Lincoln approved reinforcing the Department of the South to bolster the Federals on Morris Island who were trying to capture not only the island but the city of Charleston, South Carolina.

Federal forces remained on the southern part of Morris Island after sustaining another defeat at Battery Wagner on the 18th. With his force reduced to 6,000 men due to combat and illness, Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the department, wrote General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck requesting reinforcements. Gillmore asked for 8,000 veterans that he assumed would be freed up after the victories at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Port Hudson, and Tullahoma.

While waiting for Halleck’s response, Gillmore worked with Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, on a new plan of attack. The two commanders agreed that reinforcements were needed before any offensive operations could be resumed, but Dahlgren had none to offer.

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

Dahlgren contacted Navy Secretary Gideon Welles and suggested that 20,000 reinforcements could take Morris Island and put the Federals in position to attack Charleston. When Welles received Dahlgren’s message, he sent Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox to discuss the matter with Halleck. Halleck claimed that he had received no request for reinforcements from Gillmore; that message would not reach him until the 28th. When Halleck read it, he immediately replied:

“You were distinctly informed that you could not have any additional troops, and it was only on the understanding that none would be required that I consented to your undertaking operations on Morris Island. Had it been supposed that you would require more troops, the operations would not have been attempted with my consent or that of the Secretary of War.”

Halleck explained that “every man that we could possibly rake and scrape together is in the field in face of the enemy… And now, at this critical junction, comes your urgent but unexpected application for 8,000 additional troops for Morris Island. It is, to say the least, seriously embarrassing.” Halleck ultimately dispatched 2,000 black troops from North Carolina, but they were untested and too few for Gillmore to proceed.

Lincoln and Welles then met with Halleck and agreed that since Major General George G. Meade would not be launching another offensive in northern Virginia any time soon, troops could be pulled from the Army of the Potomac to reinforce Gillmore. Lincoln directed the War Department to send 5,000 additional troops from XI Corps to Morris Island.

By month’s end, Gillmore had begun preparing to besiege Batteries Wagner and Gregg on Morris Island, as well as Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

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References

Official Naval Records (Series 1, Vol. 14), p. 380-82, 401; Official Records (Series 1, Vol. 28, Part 2), p. 23-24, 26, 29, 30, 39; Official Records (Series 1, Vol 53), p. 293-94; Welles, Gideon, Diary (Vol. 1); Wise, Stephen R., Gate of Hell

Charleston: Federals Invade Morris Island

July 6, 1863 – Federal army-navy forces stepped up efforts to capture the vital port of Charleston, South Carolina, by focusing on the Confederate batteries on the islands south of the harbor.

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

The South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, commanded by Rear Admiral Samuel F. Du Pont, had been enforcing the Federal blockade of Charleston throughout most of the war. However, Du Pont had drawn the ire of the Lincoln administration for his failure to seize the forts guarding Charleston Harbor, and his lack of aggression ever since.

Du Pont resented taking the blame for the failed attack on the Charleston forts and wanted the administration to officially acknowledge that the ironclads used in the assault were too weak to capture such strong fortifications. Both President Abraham Lincoln and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles refused because it would reveal this naval weakness to the enemy. Du Pont finally asked to be removed from command, and the administration obliged, replacing him with Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren.

Welles had initially chosen Rear Admiral Andrew H. Foote to replace Du Pont, but Foote died before he could take command. Dahlgren was an ordnance expert and inventor of the bottle-shaped “Dahlgren” gun; he had formerly been the commandant of the Washington Navy Yard. He arrived outside Charleston on July 6, where he inherited about 70 warships of various types.

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

Dahlgren was expected to use every resource at his disposal to force the surrender of Charleston. He immediately began working with Major General Quincy Adams Gillmore, the conqueror of Fort Pulaski and the new commander of the Department of the South, to launch a joint army-navy expedition against the “cradle of the Confederacy.”

The Confederates, led by General P.G.T. Beauregard, had batteries posted on both Morris and James islands, south of the Charleston Harbor inlet. Beauregard expected Federals to target James Island, which was closer to Charleston. As such, he left the two batteries on Morris Island lightly guarded. Battery Wagner was garrisoned by about 300 Confederates, while Battery Gregg, farther north at Cumming’s Point, was held by only 30.

The Federals needed to take both islands and both batteries if they had any hope of capturing Charleston. Gillmore planned to land two forces on Morris Island–one on the southern end and one on the northern end–to capture Batteries Wagner and Gregg. Meanwhile, Federal artillery would bombard Fort Sumter in the harbor. Gillmore also tried diverting Confederate attention with two separate operations:

  • A force would invade James Island, west of Morris Island
  • A force would destroy the railroad bridge on the South Edisto River, below Morris Island

Once the islands and batteries were seized, the Federals would remove the obstructions in the channel, enabling the ironclads to enter the harbor and take part in the assault on Charleston itself. The Federals had been secretly working on this plan since June, moving troops to their starting point at nearby Folly Island at night to avoid detection. Heavy rain delayed the Morris Island invasions, but on the 9th, the Federal diversion against James Island took place. The Federals overwhelmed a small Confederate force and seized the island as planned.

The next morning, Federals moved to carry out the second diversion, but they encountered heavy Confederate resistance as they moved up the Edisto. The three ships grounded multiple times, leading the Federals to finally burn one near Willstown Bluff and withdraw with the other two before they could destroy the railroad bridge.

Meanwhile, Gillmore delayed his attack on Morris Island until naval support could get into position. During that time, the Confederates observed the Federal buildup on Folly Island and reported that they believed the main attack would come against Morris. Gillmore, worried that the Confederates knew about his two-pronged advance, changed his plan to land all troops on the southern end of Morris Island instead.

On the 10th, 47 Federal guns and mortars on Folly Island opened a two-hour bombardment to cover the troop landing. The ironclad monitors U.S.S. Catskill (Dahlgren’s flagship), Montauk, Nahant, and Weehawken also provided covering fire with their 11 and 15-inch Dahlgren guns.

Transports conveying a 3,000-man Federal brigade under Brigadier General George C. Strong crossed Lighthouse Inlet and began landing the troops; Strong nearly drowned during the landing. The Confederates, having been pummeled from land and water, quickly abandoned their first two lines of defense and fell back toward Battery Wagner.

The Federals moved up Morris Island, staying close to the shore and their naval support. Many succumbed to heatstroke in the sweltering heat. They quickly gained control of the island’s lower three-fourths, but Confederate reinforcements began arriving from James Island, and they stopped the Federal advance around 9 a.m. The Confederates, led by Colonel Robert Graham, assembled in the strong defenses of Batteries Wagner and Gregg, ready to meet the next Federal attack.

The first obstacle for Strong’s Federals was Battery Wagner, a partially open fortification made of sand and palmetto logs that was much stronger than it looked. As the Federals approached Wagner, the Confederates opened a punishing fire on the troops and the ironclads. The Catskill took 60 hits, the Nahant took six, and the Montauk took two.

None of the ships sustained serious damage, but Dahlgren was nearly killed when a shot sent a bolt past his head in the pilothouse. According to the Catskill’s executive officer, “Our attack on Sumter before is nothing to this. Thank God we have all come out safely, except two or three wounded on this vessel & several used up from exertion & the heat.”

The advance and the sweltering heat exhausted the Federals on the island, compelling Gillmore to suspend the attack on Battery Wagner until the next day. He was unaware that the Confederates in the defenses had been demoralized by the sudden, overwhelming assault; one more quick, all-out attack might have overrun them. The ironclads continued bombarding Wagner throughout the day.

The Federals sustained 106 casualties (15 killed and 91 wounded) in the assault. The Confederates lost 294 men and 11 guns. Graham, stunned by the sudden Federal attack, tried rallying his Confederates within Battery Wagner. President Jefferson Davis asked Governor Milledge L. Bonham to send state militia to help the Confederate defenders. Gillmore’s decision not to follow up until morning enabled more reinforcements to join Graham through the night.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 120-24; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 230; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 303, 308; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 696; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 325-27; Jones, Virgil Carrington, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 131-32; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 380, 382-83; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 727, 830; 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. 172-73; Simon, John Y., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 310-11; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 703; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 202

Port Hudson: Federals Close the Escape Route

May 21, 1863 – Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federal Army of the Gulf finally began advancing on Port Hudson, Louisiana, after conducting a series of ancillary operations.

Port Hudson, the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi besides Vicksburg, was located on a sharp bend in the river about 147 miles above New Orleans and 22 miles above Baton Rouge. The heavy guns defending Port Hudson had nearly destroyed Rear Admiral David G. Farragut’s Federal warships as they tried passing the stronghold.

Major General Nathaniel P. Banks | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Since then, Banks had turned away from Port Hudson and instead tried gaining control of the Red River, the principal waterway that Confederates used to transport supplies from the west. Federal General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck called these movements of “secondary importance,” and the Lincoln administration had been pressuring Banks to turn his attention back to Port Hudson.

Banks argued that he could not advance on the stronghold until he received the reinforcements that Major General Ulysses S. Grant had promised him. But now that Grant had invested Vicksburg, he could not send Banks any men. Banks finally began arranging to confront Port Hudson when he received word that the Confederate garrison had been weakened by the transfer of some troops to Vicksburg.

Federal mortars began bombarding Port Hudson on May 8. Five days later, Banks requested that the gunboats stay above Port Hudson to support his army. Banks feared that without the gunboats, Confederate supplies would continue flowing west from the Red River, across the Mississippi, to Vicksburg.

Banks sent 2,000 wagons filled with captured supplies south and began moving out of Alexandria on the 14th. The 3rd Louisiana Native Guards, a black regiment, began building bridges for the Federals. Banks planned a two-pronged advance on Port Hudson, with two divisions approaching from Baton Rouge to the south and three divisions approaching from Bayou Sara to the northwest.

As Banks prepared to move, Confederate cavalry raided Federals on the west bank of the Mississippi, taking prisoners and large amounts of supplies that Banks planned to use for his campaign. Banks continued preparing nonetheless. Farragut, commanding the Federal naval forces supporting Banks, wrote to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles:

“We are again about to attack Port Hudson. General Banks, supported by the Hartford, Albatross and some of the small gunboats, will attack from above, landing probably at Bayou Sara, while General (Christopher) Augur will march up from Baton Rouge and will attack the place from below… my vessels are pretty well used up, but they must work as long as they can.”

Meanwhile, General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Western Department, saw that the Confederate armies defending Vicksburg and Port Hudson were in danger of being destroyed by the Federals approaching them. Johnston sent an urgent message to Major General Franklin Gardner, commanding the Confederates at Port Hudson, on the 19th:

“Evacuate Port Hudson forthwith, and move with your troops toward Jackson to join other troops which I am uniting. Bring all the fieldpieces that you have, with their ammunition and means of transportation. Heavy guns and their ammunition had better be destroyed, as well as the other property you may be unable to remove.”

In the two days it took Johnston’s message to reach him, Gardner reported that he had an “aggregate present” of 5,715 in three brigades, as well as roughly 1,000 artillerymen, to face Banks’s 30,000 Federals. Gardner positioned his men behind defensive works and fortifications. Three Confederate batteries lined a bluff along the river. Above them was a marsh providing a natural defense, and Confederates lined the land side with four and a half miles of entrenchments and rifle pits.

Gardner dispatched part of his force to stop the Federal advance from Bayou Sara, and then another part to stop Augur’s advance from Baton Rouge. But after a heavy skirmish with Augur’s Federals, the Confederates had to retreat due to low ammunition. A running fight ensued, with the Federals chasing the Confederates back to Port Hudson and clearing the road for the rest of Banks’s men to arrive. Gardner’s last escape route was closed.

Gardner strengthened defenses at Port Hudson as he told his men, “The enemy are coming, but mark you, many a one will get to hell before he does to Port Hudson.” He finally received Johnston’s order to evacuate and recalled that the last time Johnston ordered him to leave, President Jefferson Davis ordered him to “return to Port Hudson with 2,000 troops and hold it to the last.”

And now, with Banks approaching, Gardner could not leave even if he wanted. He replied, “Positive information that the enemy has a large force, and is moving down to cross at Bayou Sara against this place. His whole force from Baton Rouge is in my front. I am very weak and should be rapidly re-enforced.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18700; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 283-86; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 394, 396; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 294, 296-98, 300; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 101-05; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 353, 355-56