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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Rebel Shore

by
James M. Merrill


published by
Little, Brown and Company
Boston • Toronto
1957

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

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Chapter 2
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p3  Chapter I

Uncle Gideon Ups Anchor

Thayer's Note: For following the geography in the text, the map provided on the book's endpages may be useful; it opens in a separate window.

The White House watchman shook the President from a sound sleep. Lincoln, wide-awake, without bothering to put on a robe, ran down the dark halls, entered the Cabinet Room, and shook hands with Gus Fox, who had just arrived from the Navy Department. After an excited exchange, the President suddenly grasped his adviser, jumping around the room in his nightshirt and dancing a jig. Naval gunboats had just won the first Union victory of the Civil War. Across town bleary-eyed editors cleared the front pages and telegraph operators drummed out the official report: Federal triumph at Hatteras Inlet, North Carolina, many captured, 30 cannon, a brig, sloop, schooner, 150 bags of coffee, whiskey, and quantities of onions.

The next morning, 1 September 1861, two months after the blood-spattered headlines had reported the Yankee disaster at Bull Run, the shouts of newsboys hawking extras pierced the gloom of Northerners. In Boston, the Journal dubbed the victory an entering wedge. In Washington, amid bands blaring "Hail to the Chief," massive Ben Butler, his eighteen brass buttons glittering in the torchlight, strutted to the National  p4 Hotel, where he babbled to the cheering crowd: "Oh, it was glorious to see . . . the arm of the Union stretched out against its rebellious children."

Across the Potomac River behind Southern lines, street-corner orators yelled until they were red in the face, denouncing the Hatteras fiasco; officials, state and national, scrambled to deflect blame; panicky residents along the Carolina coast stuffed valuables into saddle bags and hurried inland to safety, a few not stopping until they reached Kentucky. Citizens of Beaufort County verbally castigated the Confederate Government and threatened revolt. Raleigh was plunged into confusion. At New Orleans, a wild-eyed editor scared the daylights out of readers by warning: "Our coasts to be ravaged . . . defenseless women and children to be murdered." The Confederacy's Secretary of the Navy suffered a sick stomach when he heard the news. An irate Congress demanded intelligence on the collapse of the forts.

The huzzahs, the temporary blasts, the red, white, and blue bunting which engulfed the North after this first conquest relieved Lincoln and his Administration from the increasing pressure of whispers, rumors, and criticism. Only five months before, the American nation, rocked by the slavery controversy, had blundered into a civil war when Confederacy artillery in Charleston Harbor forced the Union garrison inside Fort Sumter to hoist the surrender flag.

Shortly after Lincoln had been elected President of the United States in November 1861, South Carolina had cleared out of the Union, pulling Florida, Georgia,  p5 Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana after her. Meeting at Montgomery, Alabama, delegates from the six states hatched a provisional constitution for the Confederate States of America and pushed Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jefferson Davis of Mississippi into the executive chair. This government promptly pounced on Federal arsenals, forts, and installations in the South, including the navy yard at Pensacola. When Lincoln announced on 6 April 1861 that Union naval forces would relieve Fort Sumter, the Confederate Government ordered the guns leveled and fired.

At 5 P.M. on 12 April the telegraph wires crackled with news from Charleston Harbor. The war had begun! It was quiet at the Navy Department that afternoon. On the second floor of this unpretentious brick building, Secretary Gideon Welles, rifling through official correspondence, shivered a little at what he read. The sea arm of the Union was flabby. Welles counted a total of ninety vessels. Fifty were sailing ships — frigates, sloops, and brigs — which, splendid vessels in their day, were now obsolete in the age of steam. Gunboats rotted in navy yards. Many were too worm-eaten to get under way. Rigged for peacetime pursuits, the thirty-eight-ship steam fleet was in deplorable condition. The engines of five were so decrepit that black gangs were unable to turn them over. The side-wheeler Michigan patrolled in the Great Lakes. Three steamers were unserviceable. The Union's five frigates, Merrimac, Wabash, Minnesota, Roanoke, and Colorado, ships which formed the main element of American naval strength, were laid up in ordinary.

 p6  These were a new class of frigates built in the 1850s. Their hulls were long in proportion to their breadth; their bows were sharp; sterns were rounded. Typical of this class, Minnesota measured 269 feet in length, 51 in breadth, and was armed, in 1863, with one 150‑pounder rifled cannon, four 100‑pounder rifles, one 11‑inch rifle, and forty‑two 9‑inch rifles. Most formidable frigates afloat, these American warships could have far outmatched a British ship of the same class.

The Navy Department soon discovered that the rivers, sounds, and inlets along the Southern coast and inland waters were too shallow, too tortuous to admit these massive vessels. None of them was to perform any service in the Civil War proportionate to its size and strength except in coastal bombardments.

The twenty-four steamers in commission were scattered across the Seven Seas on foreign stations. The 4500‑ton, heavily armed sloop-of‑war Niagara was somewhere in the Pacific, returning to New York from Japan. The five first‑class screw sloops, San Jacinto, Lancaster, Brooklyn, Hartford, and Richmond; the side-wheel steamers, Susquehanna, Powhatan, Saranac, Pulaski, and Saginaw; the eight second-class screw sloops, Mohican, Narragansett, Iroquois, Wyoming, Dacotah, Pocahontas, Seminole, and Pawnee; and the third‑class screw steamers Mystic and Sumter were cruising on station in Mediterranean, African, South American, Pacific, and Gulf waters. Only three steamers and twenty‑one guns of the home squadron were ready to fight a war in the Atlantic and blockade more than thirty-five hundred miles of enemy coast: the third-class  p7 screw steamers Mohawk and Crusader in New York, and the screw sloop Pawnee in Washington.

The naval establishment was snafued. Secretary Welles totaled only 207 enlisted men in all the ports and receiving ships on the Atlantic coast. Naval bureaus in Washington were hopelessly bogged down in wartime red tape. Officers, sympathetic to the Rebel cause, were entrenched at the Bureau of Ordnance and at the Naval Observatory. Many resigned. Welles could not tell friend from foe. The handful of officers who remained — "worn‑out men without brains," one lieutenant described them — most of them pigheaded and top‑heavy with gold braid, clogged the higher echelons of the Navy and demanded top commands at sea.

The arrangement of the Navy List failed to meet the essential conditions of readiness. The long years of peace, the unbroken course of seniority promotion filled the top grades with gallant but sluggish veterans, unfit for active service afloat. Alert, able commanders and lieutenants stagnated in subordinate positions. The vicious system of promotion by seniority permitted every officer who lived long enough, unless a fool or degenerate, to go to the top of the list. As promotion never varied, there was no inducement to effort. Officers grown old by inaction exercised little, if any, volition. The tendency of the Navy in 1861 was to preserve tradition, to repress individuality. Men thought alike, talked alike, acted alike, and in a few instances, looked alike.

The Navy was unprepared for its task. The Union  p8 was unprepared to use naval superiority. This was a new generation in 1861, weaned on a marching army, a generation that witnessed the Army conquering Mexico, the Army shooting down Indians and winning the American West; a generation which, by avoiding entangling alliances, had scant need for a Navy. Northerners and Southerners hardly noticed that they had already swapped sail for steam, side-wheelers for screw propellers, and soon would replace wooden with iron ships, and smoothbores with rifled guns.

Naval architecture and ordnance had undergone little change during the century preceding 1840. With only a few refinements, men-of‑war differed little in appearance, structure, propulsion, rigging, and armament from those of a hundred years before. The massive two‑and three‑decked sailing warships were the symbols of sea power, strong and awe‑inspiring. Smoothbore cannon and solid shot prevailed in ordnance.

Toward the mid‑nineteenth century the substitution of steam for sail marked the beginning of a new era, an era of rapid far‑reaching developments. The sailing frigate, her mission accomplished, gave way first to the paddle-wheeler, then to propeller-driven vessels. Gunnery experts exchanged shot for shell, increased calibers, and adopted rifling and breech-loading. Despite this revolution in naval ordnance, the Union Navy during the Civil War depended chiefly upon the 9‑, 10, and 11‑inch smoothbore, muzzle-loading Dahlgren guns.

Naval power was little understood by Americans. At a Washington dinner party, the dapper new Secretary  p9 of State, William Seward, shocked a British correspondent when he whispered that none of the Cabinet knew anything about a navy. To blockade the South, Simon Cameron, the wizened, white-haired chief of the War Department, advised Lincoln that he needed only a few coasting vessels armed with pop guns. New York shipping bosses estimated that thirty sailing schooners would do the trick. The old fogies of the Navy, remembering the glorious days of 1812, visualized fleet collisions and men battling hand-to‑hand on the open decks. Change was ignored by those marine fossils, the Navy brass, who toasted the Good Old Days with champagne and claimed that wooden ships and sail were good enough. Northerners, finding no precedents, no landmarks to consult, had no clear idea of what was necessary to fight a war at sea.

Ignorant of naval principles, its ships deteriorating at the wharves, the nation launched a spending spree to collect all craft that floated. First-class steamers, Staten Island ferryboats, "floating barns," whalers, yachts, coal barges, garbage scows, tugs, fishing smacks, and rowboats were stamped "U. S. Navy" and towed off to shipyards for overhaul. From these sources the Navy Department established the blockade of the Southern coast and met the vast demands of the Army for troop transportation. Once converted, many of these steamers, some armed with eight 9‑inch guns, others with a 100‑pounder rifle, proved formidable warships.

When Secretary Welles set out to build a steam navy, he faced obstacles. The two dozen machine shops from  p10 Maine to Maryland lacked the tools and skilled workmen requisite for the production of marine machinery. The War Department drew heavily upon these resources. The locomotive and tool-making shops found it impossible to meet the demands. Raw materials were scarce. Iron, copper, tin, and coal had to be mined and manufactured. The nation called for hundreds of steamers and locomotives, shops full of tools, and tons of material. Nothing on hand answered the call. Inexperienced labor could not be converted into highly trained mechanics overnight.

Despite such handicaps, the Navy Department contracted builders to fabricate twenty-three 90‑day gunboats for work in the shallow waters of Southern rivers and sounds. These 500‑ton, schooner-rigged vessels had a maximum speed of nine knots and carried one 11‑inch pivot gun and three 24‑pounder howitzers.

Once these gunboats were launched, the Department ordered the construction of sloops-of‑war, efficient ocean cruisers of about 1000 tons each, armed with two 11‑inch guns and four 32‑pounder smoothbores. These were designed to chase and capture the nimble Confederate privateers and blockade-runners.

Experiments proved that the screw steamers were worthless in the crooked channels of Confederate rivers. They could not back, go ahead, and retire in the same line. To withdraw, these single-screws had to turn, which was impossible in the narrow channels. The Department ordered twelve 850‑ton side-wheelers. Under fire, these craft failed to live up to expectations. Welles then contracted for twenty-seven double-enders,  p11 whose wheels and engines were in such a position that the crafts backed and went ahead with equal facility.

While beefing up the fleet with steamships, the Secretary changed the unrealistic system of officer promotion and, by acts of Congress, gradually retired all officers at the age of sixty‑two, created the rank of Rear Admiral, and promoted promising officers. But the habits of forty years could not easily be altered.

To lure more officers into the sea service, the Department watered down the course at the Naval Academy and pledged fancy bonuses to merchant skippers, if they exchanged freighters for fighting ships. The Navy dug deep to find enlisted personnel. State and local authorities paid huge bounties for enlistment in the Army. Transfers between the two services were not authorized by law. To meet the competition and recruit seamen, the Department offered monetary inducements which ran as high as $1000.

Country bumpkins and hardened mariners, hotel clerks and river boatmen, the honest and dishonest joined up. At stations scattered throughout the East, recruits underwent a quick medical examination, pocketed 3¢‑per‑mile travel money, made out allotments for families, and learned that their pay was $12 a month for three years. At the receiving ship, North Carolina, the decrepit wooden two‑decker moored at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, storekeepers handed the new seaman a pea jacket, blue cloth trousers, flannel shirts, woolen drawers, a mattress, two blankets, a seamless cap, and a black handkerchief. The recruits, 2000 p12strong on North Carolina, sometimes waited months for assignments to the squadrons.

Night after night Welles toiled at the Navy Department, his flat-topped desk littered with papers and charts. Neptune Welles, the Old Man of the Sea, chief of the bureau of Provisions and Clothing in the 1840s, had little tactical know‑how, still less of over‑all naval strategy. As a sop to New England, Lincoln had appointed the ex‑Democrat, small-town politician, and editor from Hartford to his inner circle. Welles looked more like a weather-beaten Santa Claus than a Cabinet officer. With his flowing gray-white beard, his unkempt but massive toupee, and his iron-rimmed spectacles, Grandfather Welles appeared much older than his fifty-nine years. Cautious and methodical, irritable and critical, an indefatigable worker who thrived on red tape, this Connecticut Yankee had qualities that attracted respect if not much personal popularity.

Another New Englander, Gustavus Vasa Fox, son-in‑law of Lincoln's Postmaster General, Montgomery Blair, was appointed Assistant Secretary. Well connected, "smart as Hell" on naval matters, he offset Welles's limitations. This little man — "about five feet nothing" — with balding head and a tattoo was a real seaman. Gus Fox had served eighteen years in the Navy, surveying American coasts, commanding mail steamers in the West Indies, blockading in Mexican waters, and witnessing British naval operations in the Mediterranean. He had turned in his one stripe to become a cotton-mill executive in Massachusetts. He planned rather than executed, always ready to chuck  p13 timeworn tactics for novel schemes, always ready to postpone action, to put off operations until the last possible moment. Aggressive, endowed with excessive energy, he was utterly unable to sit long at his desk. As the war progressed, he took to drinking large quantities of whiskey punch, which put bags under his eyes and gave him a pasty-faced, dissipated appearance. These two men, Welles and Fox, piloted the destiny of the Yankee Navy.

The rickety and barnacle-encrusted Union fleet was opposed by a few privateers, merchantmen, and the Confederate Navy Department in Richmond. Added strains rupture the belligerent which flounders on the seas. To keep armies in the field, arms and ammunition must be produced or imported. The Southerners with only a phantom navy lacked capital, labor, and facilities to turn out war essentials and relied on England to clear the sea lanes. "Why, creation!" a North Carolinian boasted to an English reporter. "If you let the Yankees shut up our ports, the whole of your darned ships will go to rot."

To protect vast reaches of Rebel coast from an aggressive sea power would have drained men and guns from the battlefields to coastal zones. The Confederates were impaled on the horns of a dilemma: pull out troops from in front of Federal armies or expose the seaboard. If they stripped the shores of protection, state governors, unwilling to trust the "common defense" and fearing repercussions from an angry citizenry, might defy the over‑all war effort and reroute state troops from the Virginia firing line to their own  p14 beaches; cotton- and food-producing areas might be occupied by Union troops; Confederates on the far‑flung battlefronts might focus attention on the defense of their home shores.

Blissfully ignorant, Lincoln and his Cabinet were unaware of their potential naval advantage, the South's Achilles' heel, and British amphibious precedent. They failed to realize that a nation, by bossing the sea, can not only clamp an iron band of ships around hostile ports and sever them from the outside world, but also transport armies unmolested to enemy beaches, generate a shock effect, and establish a second front. Executed with daring and frequency, such actions could have dramatically altered the tide of war and, perhaps, finished off the Confederates in short order. Amphibious attacks were not new. For centuries England's Army and Navy had co‑operated in landings on hostile shores, frequently changing the complexion of an entire campaign.

Commanding Rebel waters, the sea arm of the Union could have delivered major amphibious blows against enemy installations. Washington was unimaginatively preoccupied with recruiting gigantic armies. That was the way wars were won! Never, except during the Mexican conquest in the 1840s, had the United States fought a major conflict in which it commanded the sea. Never had the United States experimented with many land‑sea expeditions on a large scale. Transports in 1861 took departure from home ports without amphibious doctrine, without a strategic plan co‑ordinating the assaults, without ship-to‑shore communications,  p15 and without adequate supplies. Miscalculating its true strength, the Union plunged haphazardly into naval warfare. Lincoln's terrible swift sword rusted in its scabbard.

The President issued blockade proclamations in mid‑April 1861. As the Navy buckled under this Goliathlike enterprise, it was hampered by the loss of the Norfolk Navy Yard and its eleven ships, including the fifty‑gun Merrimac, to the Rebels on 20 April. Crawling out from beneath the avalanche of invectives which accompanied this debacle, Welles and Fox divvied up their gunboats between the Atlantic and Gulf blockading squadrons and dispatched them, seaworthy and unseaworthy, palatial yacht and marine freak, to Southern waters.

In April the sloop-of‑war Niagara, arriving from Japan, hurriedly took on stores and left for Charleston, and the newly commissioned frigate Minnesota reached Hampton Roads, Virginia, the chief base for the Atlantic Squadron. A month later the brig Perry took station off the east coast of Florida; the frigate Wabash, off Charleston; the steamer Union, off Savannah; and, in the Gulf, Brooklyn, Powhatan, and the recently purchased South Carolina patrolled off Mobile, New Orleans, and Galveston.

The Yankee police system was far from burglar-proof. British skippers, navigating the sea lanes from West Indian ports, especially Nassau, to the Confederacy, continued to slip through the Yankee net, sneak through the inlets miles from port, steam unperturbed along the sounds, rivers, channels, and canals, and fork  p16 over English cannon for Rebel cotton at their destination.

If gunboats fought on the side of the Federals, nature lined up with the Rebels. Welles, innocently dreaming of an easygoing campaign, now tossed and turned at night. He had discovered the unusual topography of the more than thirty-five hundred miles of Southern coast with its double shore line punctured by numerous inlets and estuaries. As he visualized what this meant, he encountered a fresh difficulty. How would his gunboats be supplied? The enemy controlled the shores. Frigates policing Carolina waters were forced to steam hundreds of miles northward to the Navy's major base, Hampton Roads, Virginia, for coal, water, ammunition, naval stores, and rest, while those operating in the Gulf were replenished at Key West. With the squadrons already operating at less than minimum efficiency, such comings and goings sapped the remaining strength of the blockade. To keep the Southern states sealed off, Welles had two alternatives: order the ships to every inlet, harbor, canal, and river's mouth and employ an extensive ship-to‑ship supply system or seize coastal areas by amphibious attack and construct bases.

While the Secretary unraveled this skein, Northern harbors went unprotected, Confederate sea raiders plundered the Union's merchant marine, and British freighters arrived in Southern ports. Merchants, ship-owners, editors, mayors of port cities, governors, and members of Congress flayed Welles's Navy. Complaints deluged the Department. The State Department hinted  p17 that the Rebels throve on the commerce in the North Carolina sounds; the Treasure Department pointed its finger at the depredations on Federal cargo ships; junior officers of the Navy needled Uncle Gideon with suggestions.

Confederates had already recognized their geographic advantage. At Cape Hatteras, a long sand barrier off the North Carolina coast, about ninety miles by water to New Bern on the mainland, troops slapped mud, sand, and turf into two forts and boasted that no Yankee flotilla could bully its way through the inlet into Pamlico Sound. Five feet high with slanting sides, looking more like pigpens than bastions, Forts Hatteras and Clark were situated to catch enemy ships in a cross fire as they churned through Hatteras Inlet. A guardian of the inland waterways connecting the Carolina towns to Richmond and Norfolk, Hatteras was also a salvagers' paradise. Gales, high seas, and rains wrecked Union merchantmen along the beach, where Rebels rifled the cargoes and locked up the crews. In calm weather, privateers dashed out from behind Hatteras and bagged other hapless freighters. A week's catch in July 1861 netted Southerners 4 schooners, a brig, 600 bushels of salt, and tons of sugar and molasses.

One sultry day in August, a merchant sailor from the ill‑fated Sea Witch tramped into Philadelphia, fumed that he and his shipmates had been clamped into prison, starved, robbed, and finally released in a destitute condition, and demanded aid from the mayor. Why wasn't something being done?

One hundred miles away in Washington, naval officers  p18 created a Blockade Board to uncover new methods of tightening the cordon around the Confederacy. Four men, headed by the Director of the Coast Survey, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Alexander Bache, convened secretly at the Smithsonian Institution and, while drinking cupfuls of tea, studied charts, culled intelligence reports, and discovered that important harbors would remain open to British commerce until the Atlantic inlets to Pamlico and Albemarle sounds were slammed shut. Foreign and inland commerce flourished between the North Carolina sounds and the Confederate port cities, which transshipped the materials to armies in the field. The board's solution was to choke off the inlets, paralyze this flow of traffic, strangle the seaboard. To implement these findings, Fox immediately worked out plans for a joint Army-Navy blow at the South's most important inlet, Hatteras. The aging, gout-ridden Winfield Scott, General in Chief of the Union armies, gave his blessings but sent only 860 soldiers instead of the 25,000 requested.

Meanwhile, General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.McDowell, perspiring from the heat, to the din of "On to Richmond! On to Richmond!" marched his ill‑trained troops over the red clay roads of Virginia and into the jaws of Confederate guns at Bull Run. By late afternoon of 21 July 1861 the General saw his men, disintegrating, falling over the feet of interested spectators, scamper pell-mell back to Washington and safety. Gloom enveloped the North. The very foundations of the Lincoln Administration buckled. McDowell turned over command of the Army of the Potomac to the dazzling Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.George B. McClellan,  p19 the little Napoleon, fresh from campaigning in western Virginia.

Southward at the Union naval base, Hampton Roads, General Ben Butler waddled out from Fortress Monroe and up the gangway of a transport, followed by the Ninth and Twentieth New York Volunteers. Out in the stream, the Atlantic Blockading Squadron's chief, Silas Stringham, whined that the transports Adelaide and George Peabody were unseaworthy, paced the deck of his flagship, and inspected his motley force: steam frigates Minnesota and Wabash; gunboats Monticello and Lane; steam sloop Pawnee; tugboat Fanny; a retinue of antiques including a dismasted schooner, an iron boat, and fishing smacks. The sail sloop Cumberland was ordered to join the flotilla at sea.

Extremely thin, with sunken eyeballs, wearing a knee-length coat and high white collar, Si Stringham could have easily passed for a Holy Joe of the Chaplain Corps. He was one of those "can't do this, can't do that" commodores of the sailing ship days, a careerist with an unbrilliant naval dossier, too slow, too cautious, and too old. His Army counterpart, Benjamin F. Butler, was a potbellied, double-chinned military amateur who had forfeited a seat in Congress to wear the gold epaulets of a major general of the Massachusetts Volunteers. This loudmouth political comedian from Lynn, untrained in the arts of war, and a tired old man from Brooklyn were to lead the first land‑sea expedition of the war. Welles wrote his wife that the Hatteras operation gave him great anxiety.

In the early morning mists, 27 August 1861, the Confederate  p20 operator at Norfolk, just across Hampton Roads from Fortress Monroe, telegraphed southward: enemy expedition under way, headed toward North Carolina. Out on the Atlantic, Stringham's force, colors spanking in the wind, cruising in a hodgepodge formation to keep pace with the fishing smacks, sighted Cape Hatteras Light and dropped anchor during the afternoon watch. Officers adjourned to Minnesota's wardroom and plotted attack plans through a haze of tobacco smoke. Gunboats would shell the Rebels from Forts Hatteras and Clark; the infantry would carry them with bayonets.

Across the water in a Confederate tent, a private stood before a court-martial for cat‑napping on watch. Officers quickly dropped the charges when sentries rushd in and reported a Union attack force off the coast. The commander, counting only 350 men, hurried a pilot boat to the mainland for reinforcements, while a lieutenant jotted a last note to his father: "Old Abe has waited long, but at last has come . . . with the determination to break up this 'hornet's nest' at Hatteras."

The assault started at daybreak the next day two miles up the beach from Fort Clark. Monticello, Harriet Lane, and Pawnee lurked along the shore covering the landing. Soldiers plagued with seasickness and faulty amphibious doctrine steered their surf boats erratically toward the beach. Breakers crashed. Boats capsized. Sputtering Federals scrambled through the surf to safety. Out on the transports, a second wave of men dropped into whaleboats and a wooden hulk and  p21 drifted toward land, returning quickly when seas became choppy and winds increased. Landing was impossible. In the warmth of his cabin, Ben Butler, his cross-eyes flashing, his double chin quivering, worried about the first 320 men washed up on the beach. They huddled and cursed, wet and soggy, around campfires, wishing they were back on the troopships.

From 10:10 A.M. until early afternoon, Stringham's ships, now joined by the side-wheeler Susquehanna, bombarded Fort Clark. Wabash, Minnesota, Cumberland, and Susquehanna, keeping out of Confederate range, belching round after round, passed and repassed the fort. Heavy shells rooted up the embankments, punishing the upper layers of turf and sand. The fort heaved. Brutally pasted, with Yankees landing two miles away, ammunition exhausted, a flood of shells pouring in, Confederate officers agreed to evacuate and fall back to nearby Fort Hatteras. Grasping valuables and spiking the guns, 55 men ran the mile amid the smoke and glare. Out in the inlet, Federal seamen yelled: "They're running. They're running," and silenced their guns when Rebels hauled down the Stars and Bars from Fort Hatteras. Officers in Minnesota's wardroom who that morning had worried the surgeon with questions about wounds and treatment slapped each other on the back. A Union victory! Congratulations, however, were premature.

To reconnoiter, General Butler at 4 P.M. ordered Monticello through the treacherous inlet into Pamlico Sound. As the gunboat crossed the bar, guns roared from Fort Hatteras. In peril of running aground, the  p22 target of a brisk fire, Monticello, declared her commander, was in a tight place. One shell tore away her boat davits, ramming fragments through the armory, pantry, and galley; another ripped up the main deck, slashed through the berthing compartment, the paint locker, and lodged in the port coal bunker.

This short-range blasting lasted fifty minutes until Minnesota, Wabash, and Susquehanna pummeled both forts with their starboard batteries. Monticello, viciously drubbed, escaped out of range. The handful of Federal troops on the beach without ship-to‑shore communications had, by this time, occupied Fort Clark, but speedily vacated the premises, dodging exploding shells from Stringham's frigates. During the second dogwatch the flotilla's guns ceased firing because of darkness, and the Commodore ordered his gunboats to withdraw out to sea.

Officers and men grumbled about the day's action, believing the Rebels could easily beat up the Union contingent on shore, reinforce the forts, repair the damage, and be back in the fight by daylight. Hungry and disgusted officers on board Minnesota sat down for their evening meal of beef and vegetables only to discover that someone had pilfered it from the galley.

Yankee soldiers near Fort Clark suffered greater discomfort. It rained hard. Capture appeared imminent. An officer and 28 men crept along the beach and regained Fort Clark, and another detachment occupied the shore near Fort Hatteras.

A mile away, Confederate spirits soared when, under cover of darkness, Commodore Samuel Barron, chief  p23 of the Rebel coastal defenses, and 230 reinforcements disembarked from the side-wheeler Winslow and joined the garrison.

Union seamen spent a restless night. At dawn Stringham hoisted the signal "Prepare to get under way" and the frigates, warned not to shell Fort Clark, steamed toward their target and opened up on Hatteras with deadly accuracy. The ineffective range of Rebel guns, the exhausted ammunition, the casualties convinced Barron that further resistance would only result in more bloodshed without damaging the enemy. As if to settle the hesitation, a shell fell down the ventilator shaft next to the principal magazine locker. Amid the flames and smoke, the Confederates ran up the white flag at 11:07 A.M.

That afternoon Butler and his men raised the Stars and Stripes over Fort Hatteras and took the formal surrender. Six hundred Johnnies along with thirty wounded were herded aboard army transports. In a nearby field seven privates were buried. The only permanent damage to the Federal forces was Harriet Lane, which had piled up on a sand bar and was still aground.

Butler and Stringham sat down for their whiskeys that night in the Commodore's cabin. The naval commander, lean, stern, clean-shaven, sat bolt upright in his chair and talked incessantly in close-clipped sentences. Across the table, slouched on the sofa, was the pudgy figure of Butler, speaking in his labored, hesitating way. The General had the fidgets. He continually rose, pulled down his vest, kicked out his feet to make  p24 his pants reach over his dirty spats. Amid such antics, Stringham and Butler reread their orders. Level the forts, block the channel, and withdraw. Should they grasp the initiative and invade the North Carolina coast? Fearful of tarnished records if they erred, the commanders read the orders again for hidden meanings. There were none. Hatteras's value as a depot for the blockading squadron could not be ignored. Thin man, fat man, blundering chiefs, they shrugged off this withdrawal clause, but refused to gamble their glory by attacking North Carolina's defenseless towns.

To hold the inlet, troops and four gunboats remained behind while Stringham's squadron headed northward toward Hampton Roads. Butler arrived in Washington late the same night, 30 August. He made his way through the silent streets to Gus Fox's house, hammered on the door, and awakened an astonished Assistant Secretary, who, thinking Butler should be on a troopship somewhere off Hatteras, blurted out: "What did you come back for?" Assured that this was a Union victory, Fox dressed hurriedly and went out into the night toward the White House to dance a jig with the President. Eight hours later the Administration concurred that Hatteras Inlet should be held.

Naval guns, catching enemy defenses unprepared, had gained a sand dune off North Carolina, smashed a privateers nest, shot up two cockroach-ridden forts, plugged up the most important rathole on the south Atlantic seaboard, put the fear of God into North Carolinians, who had once dreamed of sinking the Federal Navy with the state militia, and, more important,  p25 had given the Union a supply base on enemy shores. The Navy had taken its first step, a necessary step, in the recovery of the coast and harbors of the South. Runners sought other entrances, but, as Union squadrons closed channels, inlets, and canals, their chances of escape diminished and the task of the blockaders became easier.

The Southerner was noticeably shaken. The reverberations from Hatteras indicated to coastal governors for the first time that, as one state executive expressed it, "everybody thinks the principal danger is at his own door, and almost forgets his neighbors." The Savannah Republican clamored that the disaster should teach Georgians a lesson, and underscored that no artillery, no rifles, no ammunition, and no men should leave the state when Yankee armadas hovered in the vicinity.

The Union Navy Department, by perfectly timing naval gunfire off Hatteras, had given the success-starved north its first victory. Morale of Yankee troops in Virginia was bolstered. Merchants and insurance brokers expressed gratitude to Stringham. Secretary Welles, surveying the results of this first amphibious assault, triumphantly declared that the whole country desired more. That September day plans were well under way for a second attack against the Southern coast.


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