Tag Archives: Samuel F. Du Pont

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

Federals Invade Charleston Harbor

April 7, 1863 – Federal ironclads launched a doomed attack on the Confederate forts guarding Charleston Harbor.

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

The Lincoln administration had pressured Rear Admiral Samuel F. Du Pont, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, to capture the forts in Charleston Harbor, which would lead to the fall of Charleston itself. Charleston, site of Fort Sumter, was more of a symbolic than a strategic objective for the Federal high command.

Du Pont had been reluctant to attack the forts ringing the harbor because he doubted the new ironclads had the power to reduce such strong fortifications. He also could not rely on army support, as Major General David Hunter (commanding the Federal Department of the South) had no intention of attacking such a strong position.

Unable to put it off any longer, Du Pont dispatched the ironclads U.S.S. Keokuk, Montauk, Passaic, and Patapsco to the North Edisto River and positioned other gunboats in preparation for the impending assault on the 1st. Du Pont arrived at Edisto Island the next night and issued orders to his ship commanders on the 4th:

“… The Squadron will pass up the main channel without returning the fire of the batteries on Morris Island, unless signal should be made to commence action. The ships will open fire on Fort Sumter when within easy range, and will take up position to the northward and westward of that fortification, engaging its left or northeast face at a distance of from 600 to 800 yards firing low and aiming at the center embrasure… After the reduction of Fort Sumter it is probable that the next point of attack will be the batteries on Morris Island. The order of battle will be line ahead…”

Du Pont assembled his ironclad fleet on the afternoon of April 5. Federals had placed buoys in the channel off the Stono bar to mark the safe passage, with the gunboats U.S.S. Catskill and Patapsco guarding the buoys. Du Pont assigned steamers to tow off any vessels that might be disabled in the impending assault.

The attack fleet consisted of nine ironclads: the U.S.S. Weehawken, Passaic, Montauk, Patapsco, New Ironsides (Du Pont’s flagship), Catskill, Nantucket, Nahant, and Keokuk. The ships had 32 15-inch guns to face 76 guns in the harbor forts. The ships crossed the Charleston bar and prepared to attack, but hazy weather rendered pilots unable to judge the ranges, so it was postponed for a day. The ships anchored just outside the harbor that night.

The tides delayed the attack on the 7th until around noon. The fleet began advancing toward the main channel leading into the harbor single-file, with the Weehawken under Captain John Rodgers leading the way. But the raft that the Weehawken was pushing to offset Confederate torpedoes got tangled with the main ship, causing another delay. The advance finally got under way in earnest around 3 p.m.

This was the largest naval attack of the war. The Confederates knew the attack was coming, and Charleston residents lined the shore to watch the action. As the fleet headed for Fort Sumter, the Confederate garrison there raised their flag and fired a salute to the Confederacy while a band played “Dixie.”

Federal attack on Charleston | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

The Federal ships struggled to get past the obstructions and over the sandbars. Confederates had also placed markers in the water to guide the range of their guns. Federal captains had trouble navigating the strong flood tide sweeping into the harbor as they came under fire.

Intense fire opened from Fort Sumter and nearby Sullivan’s and Morris islands. The Federals returned fire, but the ironclads’ slow guns could not match the enemy’s cannonade. A witness called the Confederate cannonade, “Sublime, infernal, it seemed as if the fires of hell were turned upon the Union fleet.” A naval officer said, “Such a fire I never saw. Nothing could be heard but the whistling of shot.”

The Federal ships fired 154 rounds, hitting Fort Sumter 55 times. But the Confederates fired 2,209 rounds and scored over 400 direct hits that destroyed decks, riddled smokestacks, penetrated armor, and disabled guns. The Weehawken took 53 hits and struck a torpedo. The Passaic took 35 hits and had her main gun turret disabled. The Montauk under Captain John L. Worden took 47 hits, as did the Patapsco. The New Ironsides was disabled and sat helpless above a 2,000-pound torpedo. Confederates tried detonating the torpedo, but a faulty wire saved the ship and crew, including Du Pont.

The Catskill was next in line, sustaining 20 hits and taking in water. The Nantucket took 51 hits that disabled her turret. The Nahant was crippled by 36 hits. The Keokuk got within 600 yards of Fort Sumter but sustained 90 hits, 18 of which penetrated the iron near the waterline. “Riddled like a colander,” the ship fell back toward Morris Island and sank later that night. Confederates later recovered the Keokuk’s signal books and learned all the Federals’ naval codes.

In addition, two Confederate spar-torpedo boats (oar-driven vessels with mines attached to a spar to ram enemy ships) went to confront the Federal ships still inside the Stono bar, but the Federals withdrew before they arrived.

The Federals sustained 23 casualties (one killed and 22 wounded), and the Confederates lost 14 (four killed and 10 wounded). Du Pont’s flagship signaled a withdrawal around 5 p.m., as the sun began setting. The harbor proved to be “a circle of fire not to be passed.” A Charleston resident wrote of the Federal ships, “It was a most signal defeat for them. We did not use half of our guns and had no recourse to rams, torpedoes, etc.” His “only regret is that the fleet did not make more of a fight so as to be more badly damaged.”

Du Pont planned to renew the assault the next morning until he received the damage reports from his commanders. Five ships were heavily damaged. Du Pont held a council of war and announced, “We have met with a sad repulse. I shall not turn it into a great disaster.” Du Pont reported to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “I determined not to renew the attack, for, in my judgment, it would have converted a failure into a disaster.” Every captain agreed, confident that naval force alone could not take the harbor.

Du Pont wrote to Hunter the next day that his suspicions about the ironclads’ abilities had been confirmed: “I attempted to take the bull by the horns. but he was too much for us. These monitors are miserable failures where forts are concerned.” Du Pont urged Welles to publicly acknowledge that the failed assault was due to the ironclads being unfit for the purpose, but Welles refused.

Lincoln was greatly disappointed by the defeat, and he ordered Du Pont, “Hold your position inside the bar near Charleston, or, if you shall have left it, return to it, and hold it till further orders.” Lincoln hoped the Federal presence would keep the Confederates anxious and prevent them from building more defenses.

News of this defeat brought tremendous criticism upon Du Pont. Charles C. Fulton, who had witnessed the battle, wrote a damning article in the Baltimore American titled, “A Disgraceful Result.” Fulton claimed the ships could have taken Fort Sumter if they were given more time before withdrawing. Fulton wrote, “Oh, that we had a (Admiral David) Farragut here to take command at once, and do what has been so weakly attempted by Admiral Du Pont.”

Du Pont blamed Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox for allowing such an article to be published because Fox had assigned Fulton to witness the battle. Welles concluded that the captains who agreed with Du Pont’s decision to withdraw would not have done so had they not been part of Du Pont’s inner circle.

Welles refused to publish any reports about the ironclads’ weaknesses because “there was no necessity for us to proclaim that weakness to our enemies… Du Pont is morbidly sensitive, and to vindicate himself wants to publish every defect and weakness of the ironclads and to disparage them, regardless of its effect in inspiring the Rebels to resist them, and impairing the confidence of our own men.” Welles and the Federal high command began seeing Du Pont as the main impediment to capturing Charleston.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 191; Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 115-18; 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. 270-74; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9225; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 224, 226-30, 232; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 278, 280; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 335-38; 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. 645-46; 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. 146-48; Melton, Maurice, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 131; 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

Federals Shift Their Focus to Charleston

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

Following the destruction of the U.S.S. Monitor in late December, the Federal Navy Department shifted its focus from attacking Wilmington, North Carolina, to Charleston, South Carolina. In January, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles informed Admiral Samuel F. Du Pont, heading the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, that five new ironclads would be coming for him “to enter the harbor of Charleston and demand the surrender of all the defenses or suffer the consequences of the refusal.”

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

Du Pont was not as sold on the effectiveness of ironclads as others in the Federal navy, especially when trying to reduce strong fortifications such as those in Charleston Harbor. When Du Pont voiced his concerns, Welles left it up to him whether to attack, but he called Charleston’s capture “imperative.” Welles also pledged that the Navy Department would “share the responsibility imposed upon the commanders who make the attempt.” Du Pont opted not to attack, instead requesting two more ironclads that would not be ready for another six months.

In the meantime, Du Pont worked with Major General David Hunter to adopt the Army Signal Codes for ironclads. Using navy signals relied on running banners up and down the masts, which was a problem for ironclads because they had no masts. Using the Army Signal Codes not only solved the problem, but it facilitated better communication between the army and navy during joint operations.

Du Pont also reported on chronic supply shortages:

“Our requisitions for general stores, I have reason to believe, are immediately attended to by the bureaus in the Department… but there seem to be unaccountable obstacles to our receiving them… We have been out of oil for machinery. Coal is not more essential… My commanding officers complain their wants are not supplied…”

Maintaining the blockade was also troublesome for Du Pont:

“No vessel has ever attempted to run the blockade except by stealth at night–which fully established internationally the effectiveness of the blockade–but it is not sufficient for our purpose, to keep out arms and keep in cotton–unfortunately our people have considered a total exclusion possible and the government at one time seemed to think so… If I had not induced the Department to establish a floating machine shop, which I had seen the French have in China, the blockade would have been a total failure…”

However, Du Pont refused to stray from the rules of civilized warfare. He condemned Confederate use of torpedoes in Charleston Harbor, adding, “Nothing could induce me to allow a single one in the squadron for the destruction of human life. I think that Indian scalping, or any other barbarism, is no worse.”

A meeting took place on the morning of Sunday the 15th between President Abraham Lincoln, Welles, Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, and General John G. Foster, commanding Federal forces on the North Carolina coast. They all agreed that Charleston must be captured, but they could not agree on a plan.

When Foster suggested landing troops with naval support, Fox called it “so insignificant and characteristic of the army.” Fox urged sending in all the vessels to seize the harbor, which would isolate the forts and force their surrender. Ultimately, Fox directed Du Pont to “go in and demand a surrender of the forts or the alternative of destruction to their city.”

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

At Charleston, Beauregard had previously announced that the blockade had been broken, but by the 13th he reported that eight Federal vessels had returned. He informed his superiors, “Everything indicates an early attack on Charleston or Savannah, probably former. Enemy is accumulating a large force at Port Royal (South Carolina) several iron-clads are there.”

On the 18th, Beauregard issued a proclamation to Charlestonians:

“It has become my solemn duty to inform the authorities and citizens of Charleston and Savannah that the movements of the enemy’s fleet indicate an early land and naval attack on one or both of these cities, and to urge that all persons unable to take an active part in the struggle shall retire.

“It is hoped that this temporary separation of some of you from your homes will be made without alarm or undue haste, thus showing that the only feeling that animates you in this hour of supreme trial is the regret of being unable to participate in the defense of your homes, your altars, and the graves of your kindred.

“Carolinians and Georgians! the hour is at hand to prove your devotion to your country’s cause. Let all able-bodied men, from the seaboard to the mountains, rush to arms. Be not exacting in the choice of weapons; pikes and scythes will do for exterminating your enemies, spades and shovels for protecting your friends.

“To arms, fellow citizens! Come to share with us our dangers, our brilliant success, or our glorious death.”

Beauregard also asked local slave owners to donate their slaves for building more defenses in the harbor. His fears proved unfounded, however, as the Federal high command still had not agreed on a plan of attack.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 260-61; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 224; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 180

Confederates Break the Charleston Blockade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 113; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 139, 555-56; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 258; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 222-24; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 259-60; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 316-17; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 124-25; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 571

Surrendering the C.S.S. Planter

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

Robert Smalls | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Robert Smalls | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (13 May 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 169-70, 173; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 152, 154; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 211; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 563; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 138-39

The Federal Blockade Tightens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References

Channing, Steven A., Confederate Ordeal: The Southern Home Front (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 113; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 98, 104-05; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 87-88, 90, 93-94; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 145-46, 149; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition), p. 47; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 330

The Stone Fleet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 268; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 720; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 102-03; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 91-92; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3056; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 149-150; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition), p. 48