Tag Archives: Port Royal

The End of 1861

December 31, 1861 – The year closed with southerners optimistic about gaining independence and northerners pessimistic about preserving the Union.

Union Flag | Image Credit: etseq.law.harvard.edu

Union Flag | Image Credit: etseq.law.harvard.edu

Confederate prospects were promising going into 1862. They had won impressive military victories at Big Bethel, Bull Run, Lexington, Wilson’s Creek, and Ball’s Bluff. Independence seemed likely, as the correspondent for the London Times reported from Washington that “the Union is broken for ever, and the independence of the South virtually established.”

For the Federals, they had won significant naval victories, capturing Hatteras Inlet, Ship Island, and Port Royal. They had also won minor land victories at Philippi and, more recently, Dranesville. They controlled western Virginia and were dominant in Kentucky and Missouri. Their blockade was also growing stronger, and they were beginning to drain labor from the South by confiscating slaves.

The 1st Confederate National Flag | Image Credit: RussellHarrison.com

The 1st Confederate National Flag | Image Credit: RussellHarrison.com

However, a supposed diplomatic victory turned into a setback of sorts in the Trent affair. The Federal armies, though numerically superior to their adversaries, remained stagnant in all theaters of operation, with General-in-Chief George B. McClellan seriously ill with typhoid and unable to command.

Perhaps most importantly, the U.S. was facing a financial crisis, as many northern banks suspended specie payments. The war cost northerners an exorbitant sum with no results to justify such a high amount. For this reason alone, prospects for the Federals seemed dim going into next year.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 64-65; 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. 367

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Lee Takes Coastal Command

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

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

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

Lee arrived at Savannah on November 8 and assumed command of the new department. His primary responsibility was to protect coastal defenses, but after learning of the Federal capture of Port Royal, he called this “another forlorn hope expedition–worse than West Virginia.”

There was little manpower to defend the coast, and the superior Federal navy could strike wherever it pleased. Thus, Lee abandoned most of the coastline to focus more on key defensive points such as Fort Pulaski, guarding Savannah. A South Carolina woman wrote about Lee in her diary: “Preux chevalier, booted and bridled and gallant rode he, but so far his bonnie face had only brought us ill luck.”

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

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

fortpulaski

Neither Lee nor Brigadier General Alexander Lawton (commanding the District of Georgia in Lee’s department) could prevent the island’s capture, and the Federals scored another victory along the coast. Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, reported: “This abandonment of Tybee Island is due to the terror inspired by the bombardment of Forts Walker and Beauregard, and is a direct fruit of the victory of the 7th (capture of Port Royal).”

Lee met with Colonel Charles Olmstead, commanding the Confederate garrison at Fort Pulaski to assess the Federal threat from Tybee Island about a mile south. Lee informed Olmstead that if the Federals posted artillery on the island, “they will make it pretty hot for you with shells, but they cannot breach your walls at that distance.” The Federals soon targeted Fort Pulaski and other coastal points as Lee continued struggling to find the resources needed to defend them.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 46; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 94, 97; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 129; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 81, 85; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3032; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 137-38, 143; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 303-04; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 371; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 43

The Fall of Port Royal

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

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

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

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

The crew of the Isaac Smith had to dump their artillery to keep from sinking. The transport steamer Governor went under, with the Smith and the U.S.S. Sabine rescuing all but seven of the 300 Marines on board. The U.S.S. Mohican rescued all but 26 from the sinking transport Peerless. Several other vessels foundered, losing large amounts of munitions.

Small steamers to be used for landing troops had to turn back, thus canceling the original plan for army troops to land and seize the two forts protecting the entrance to Port Royal Sound. The navy would have to take Port Royal alone, just like at Hatteras Inlet and Ship Island. For now, Du Pont struggled to reassemble his scattered fleet.

Meanwhile, Confederates had discovered the Federals’ secret objective, with newspapers warning of a Federal invasion “somewhere” south of North Carolina. Learning more specifics, Confederate Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin telegraphed Confederate forces that “The enemy’s expedition is intended for Port Royal.”

Still unable to sight most of his ships, Du Pont proceeded southward anyway aboard his flagship, the U.S.S. Wabash, and arrived off the bar at Port Royal Sound on the 4th. He was joined by 25 ships of his fleet, with the rest of the surviving vessels on their way.

Port Royal Sound stood halfway between Charleston and Savannah, guarding a rich agricultural region known for producing long-staple cotton. Its defenses included the 600-man garrisons at Fort Beauregard at Bay Point to the north and Fort Walker on Hilton Head to the south; these forts mounted 43 total guns. In addition, a small naval squadron under Commodore Josiah Tatnall consisted of his flagship Savannah and three converted tugboats. Even with 1,000 reinforcements on their way, these defenders were hardly expected to withstand such oncoming Federal power, with or without bad weather.

The Federals surveyed the coast, taking depth readings and identifying the channels the warships could use to enter the sound. Tatnall fired on the U.S.S. Ottawa, Pembina, and Seneca, but superior Federal firepower drove Tatnall’s little fleet back into the harbor under the protection of Forts Beauregard and Walker. The Federal ships were undamaged. The next day, Federal ships continued assembling, with some crossing the bar to test the forts’ strength. Tatnall attacked again and was again forced to withdraw. The Federals then fired on Fort Beauregard, sparking a massive explosion by hitting an artillery caisson.

Du Pont held a council of war that afternoon, where he determined to attack the forts. Without landing craft, the army troops under Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman could not launch their planned attack and would instead serve to take the forts after the naval forces pounded them into submission. A navy lieutenant wrote, “General Sherman says in my hearing that: ‘These ships can’t take the forts without cooperation with the troops.’ I hope we will show him differently.”

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

On the morning of November 7, the flagship Wabash led 14 Federal warships into Port Royal Sound and opened fire on Forts Beauregard and Walker. Du Pont employed a tactic suggested by Flag Captain Charles H. Davis by moving the ships in a large oval pattern while firing. This allowed each ship to bear all her guns on the forts and deprived Confederate artillerists of fixed targets. Most of the inferior Confederate artillery could not reach the attacking ships. Tatnall’s Confederate fleet, too small to intervene, dipped its pennants and fell back up the Beaufort River.

Federal Warships Attack | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Federal Warships Attack | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

A correspondent witnessing the bombardment reported that “the rising of the dust on shore in perpendicular columns looked as if we had suddenly raised… a grove of poplars.” General Thomas F. Drayton, commanding the Confederate defenses, watched this “magnificent armada… vomit forth its iron hail, with all the spiteful energy of long-suppressed rage and conscious strength.” Drayton’s brother, Percival, commanded the U.S.S. Pocahontas within the attack fleet.

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

The Wabash landed Marines to take Fort Walker, and army forces took over Fort Beauregard. Commander John Rodgers, acting as Du Pont’s aide, obtained the formal surrender of both forts. At 2:20 p.m., he received the honor of raising the U.S. flag over Fort Walker, the first U.S. flag to be hoisted on South Carolina soil since the state seceded.

General Robert E. Lee arrived from Richmond that evening and conferred with General Roswell S. Ripley, commander of the former Department of South Carolina. The men could do nothing except move their forces farther inland and try strengthening the defenses of Charleston and Savannah. Lee sadly noted, “There are so many points to attack, and so little means to meet them on the water, that there is but little rest.”

The Federals sustained just 31 casualties (eight killed and 23 wounded) in securing the best natural harbor on the Confederate coast. This was the greatest Federal victory of the war to date, and it greatly boosted sagging northern morale.

Federal occupation forces at Port Royal and Hilton Head rounded up the abandoned slaves and put them to work as servants and laborers. They all worked to make the site a prime base for refueling, supplying, and servicing the blockading squadron. It also provided an excellent staging area for an attack on Charleston, one of the Lincoln administration’s prime targets. Du Pont wrote, “It is not my temper to rejoice over fallen foes, but this must be a gloomy night in Charleston.”

Sherman’s troops advanced from Hilton Head toward Beaufort the next morning, as residents of Charleston and Savannah received the tragic news that Port Royal had fallen. Many people packed their belongings and fled inland. Percival Drayton, a former resident of the area, wrote, “Such a panic as seems to have existed through the low country can scarcely be described.”

An editorial in the Charleston Mercury defiantly exclaimed, “Let the invaders come, ‘tis the unanimous feeling of our people. Our Yankee enemies will, sooner or later, learn to their cost the difference between invaders for spoils and power, and defenders of their liberties, their native land.”

On November 9, Sherman’s Federals and gunboats captured Beaufort on the Broad River, effectively cutting off the flow of communications and supplies via water between Charleston and Savannah. Lee wrote to Secretary of War Benjamin from his new headquarters at Coosawhatchie, South Carolina:

“The enemy having complete possession of the water and inland navigation, commands all the islands on the coast and threatens both Savannah and Charleston, and can come in his boats, within 4 miles of this place… We have no guns that can resist their batteries, and have no resources to meet them in the field.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 50-51; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 189; Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20, 110; Channing, Steven A., Confederate Ordeal: The Southern Home Front (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 133; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13314, 13339; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 91-94; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 116-17; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 77-81; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 2986; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 133-38; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 370-71; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 38-42; Melton, Maurice, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 597; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 217-18; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 640-41; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 703; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 31-32, 34

Lee Receives a New Assignment

November 5, 1861 – President Jefferson Davis reassigned General Robert E. Lee to command a new Confederate military department responsible for protecting the coastal regions of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

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

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

By this time, Confederate officials knew of the Federal armada headed to attack Port Royal. Hoping to prevent that vital point from falling, Davis and Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin created the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and East Florida. This combined all departments already within that area into six military districts. Five were in South Carolina, and the sixth, the District of Georgia, covered both Georgia and eastern Florida.

Davis summoned Lee to a meeting on the morning of the 5th. Although “Granny” Lee’s reputation had been tarnished by his less than stellar western Virginia campaign, Davis informed him that he would be the senior officer of the new department with full administration support. The department’s new jurisdiction would, according to Benjamin, “enable him (Lee) to concentrate all our forces at any point that might be attacked.”

Lee left Richmond the next morning. Opposition to Lee coming to command was so great that Davis had to write to Governors Francis W. Pickens of South Carolina and Joseph E. Brown of Georgia assuring them that Lee was the best commander available. By that time, the Federal fleet had assembled off Port Royal and prepared to attack.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (November 5); Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 2986, 2998; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 79; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 135; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 303-04, 704; 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), Q461

The Port Royal Campaign

October 29, 1861 – A massive Federal army-navy expedition left Hampton Roads to capture Port Royal, South Carolina, located between Charleston and Savannah.

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

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

Captain Samuel F. Du Pont, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, considered various locales to establish a refueling and servicing port for his Federal naval fleet. After weighing the options, Du Pont informed Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles that Port Royal would be the most useful site for that purpose. Port Royal was the best natural harbor on the Confederate coast, guarding the important harbor of Beaufort, South Carolina, and possessing formidable defenses.

After months of planning, the Federals organized a joint expedition. Du Pont assembled an attack fleet in New York, while Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman gathered 13,000 troops in three brigades at Annapolis. These combined army-navy forces arrived at Hampton Roads on October 21. Storms delayed the launch, which actually helped the commanders by giving them more time to plan and prepare.

The armada consisted of 19 warships with 157 guns, 25 supply vessels, and 33 transports. It was the largest joint operation ever attempted up to that time, even though several ships were not suited for oceanic navigation. President Lincoln had promoted Du Pont to flag officer, which equaled a major general in the army, so he would outrank Sherman. However, neither commander could “assume any direct command, independent of consent, over an officer of the other service.”

No one but Du Pont and Sherman knew that Port Royal was the ultimate destination. As the fleet left Hampton Roads on the 29th, the captain of each ship held sealed orders from Du Pont revealing the objective, to be opened only if the fleet became separated at sea.

Captain Charles H. Davis, secretary of the Blockade Board and Du Pont’s fleet captain and chief of staff, wrote that “the sea is covered with lights at every point of the horizon… I think of similar expeditions that have figured in history… and as I looked abroad on the ocean covered with our ships and transports… I participated in the glow and ardor and elation of heart inspired, no doubt, by the armada of Spain.”

A lieutenant aboard the U.S.S. Wabash noted, “Never did such a heterogeneous squadron venture upon the waters, nondescripts ad infinitum; vessels without shape before known to the maritime world… Had some homeward bound vessel haplessly got within our lines, surely would the bewildered skipper have imagined that ‘Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane’ had come against him.” Although the Confederates were not yet aware where the fleet was headed, they alerted all coastal defenders that the ships had departed.

By early morning on the 31st, Du Pont’s fleet began rounding Cape Hatteras in warm waters. When a troop transport ran aground on the shoals, the rest of the fleet adjusted their course by moving further out to sea. This dissatisfied Flag Officer Du Pont, who felt that the Cape could be rounded closer if navigated properly. He later wrote that the land was “too close for careless, stupid skippers or second-and-third class merchantmen.”

Heavy gales would soon turn the sea violent as the armada progressed down the coast.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 50-51; Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20, 110; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 90; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 116; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 77; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 127, 132; 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. 37-38; Melton, Maurice, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 597