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.
Welles, haggard and restless, suffering from acute indigestion after a dinner of soup, fish, mutton, beef, and birds, peered up from his charts, glanced out the window at the wind and rain, and began pacing the floor of the Navy Department. The storm screeching outside in Washington intensified the Secretary's torment. Nearby, Gus Fox, chasing down liver lozenges with glasses of Congress water, grumbled over the gale and his diarrhea. On 29 October 1861 the cream of the Navy, Old Abe's Armada of seventy-five ships and 13,000 men, had sailed out of Hampton Roads into a hurricane.
Large quantities of ink, pencil, and paper had gone into the initial draft, formation, and eventual sailing of this Yankee expedition now floundering off the Carolina coast. Throughout the summer of 1861 the Blockade Board, the high-policy boys of the Navy, considered the problems of supplying the blockaders at sea and, finding no solution, recommended an immediate land‑sea assault against the South Carolina coast to seize well-protected harbors for naval stations. The board drew up the blueprints and hustled them down to the Navy Department, p27 where naval and military chiefs red‑penciled them and forwarded copies to the Cabinet. There was no haggling. Old Winfield Scott, the General in Chief, was pleased. Welles emphasized that such harbors, once secured, would be staging areas for offensive operations into the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. Attorney General Edward Bates, inexperienced in such matters but, for a moment at least, grasping the significance of naval power, underscored that such thrusts would harass and alarm the enemy, restore and strengthen a then sagging public credit, and revive Northern spirits from the depressing influence of Union inactivity.
Not far from the White House, McClellan's Army of the Potomac, still licking its wounds from Bull Run, was stalled in the dust with drill. When it moved, it moved only to the parade ground. This army, formed to take Richmond, squatted around campfires and protected the capital from a Rebel force operating from Manassas, Virginia. In the West the Union military played hide-and‑seek with an equally unenterprising enemy and won no stirring victories. In New York, trading was listless on the stock exchange and subscriptions to government bonds had slumped. In Washington, one resident inquired: "When, oh when, will we deal blows?"
One sultry morning in August 1861, Samuel Francis Du Pont, United States Navy, thought he had an answer as he lumbered down from a coach and registered at the Astor House in New York. Tall, dignified, wealthy, and aristocratic, this newly appointed commodore with brass buttons and glittering epaulets was from the old Navy, p28 a comic-opera Navy of bewhiskered officers, of stately frigates under full sail, of wardroom receptions with imported champagne and gay ladies. Frank Du Pont was an authentic gentleman, a good party man, a politicker oozing with social charm. Everyone liked him. He looked every inch an officer with his side whiskers, bushy eyebrows, expensively tailored uniform, and friendly smile. This Mexican War veteran boasted, to the delight of his Navy friends, that he knew more about blockades than anyone in the Department.
Courtesy Huntington Library
Samuel Francis Du Pont
In his second-floor suite the Commodore unpacked, and reread a dispatch from Welles, ordering him to create a South Atlantic Blockading Squadron and to co‑operate with the Army in invading the beaches of South Carolina. The squadron existed only on paper. Ships were still scarce in August 1861. Preparations inched forward in the sweltering New York heat. It to time for Du Pont, accustomed to the niceties of the wardroom, to side-step messy gear in the shipyards and supervise and prod the workers, who pounded together the new 90‑day gunboats and refitted transports, ferryboats, and tugboats into fighting trim.
Northward, a perspiring Thomas West Sherman, a brigadier general with saucerlike eyes, a receding chin, and cowlick, a military man with little experience in big operations, confronted a similar problem as he plodded up the steps of the red‑brick capitol building at Providence, Rhode Island. Du Pont had received a squadron without ships; Sherman commanded an army without troops. Ordered by the War Department to prepare a Southern expedition, Timº Sherman beat the recruiting p29 drum around the New England countryside and pleaded with state and local executives for soldiers. But gathering men, transports, coal, ordnance, water, and food was arduous and slow business. The sweating Sherman loaded, unloaded, and reloaded his training-camp props, his war paraphernalia, his fuzzy-cheeked farm boys and shuttled them from Long Island across New Jersey to Washington, finally to dump the whole kit and caboodle in a deserted graveyard at Annapolis, Maryland. Here, his 13,000 men were screened, divided into brigades, and taught close-order drill and how to fire muskets. The task was Herculean and they failed to measure up to Sherman's "perfect standard."
The tenth of October was the estimated time of departure for the expedition. When it dawned, cold and gray, Du Pont was still moving paper ships in his hotel bathtub; at Annapolis, Sherman, inspecting everything from soup kettles to latrines, watched his troops pass by in review. The Administration demanded action. Alex Bache, the brains of the Navy's Blockade Board, was hopping mad. Du Pont was ordered to the capital. A troubled Lincoln needled Welles and expressed faint hope for the expedition's success.
The suave Du Pont, indignant at Welles's rebukes, compared the task of converting ferryboats into men-of‑war to that of vests into shirts and returned to New York in a huff. A week later, 16 October, a flotilla of gunboats hauled up anchor off the Battery, slid down the channel, exchanged signals, and moved out to sea. Army transports had already arrived at Annapolis. Singing Methodist hymns, Sherman's tenderfoot army, burdened p30 with weapons and knapsacks, stumbled over mules, horses, and camp gear and struggled up the gangways into waiting troopships. Sailors, loitering on the decks, snickered at the blasted landlubbers. Piled thick with their living freight, regimental flags flying, bands playing, the ships departed from Annapolis on 21 October and steamed into Hampton Roads the next day for their rendezvous with the Navy.
Where were they headed? "God and General Sherman only know," answered a soldier, "and perhaps General Sherman isn't sure." Rumors scurried like rats. In both North and South, editors of every big‑city daily and small-town weekly consulted atlases and placed their bets on the destination of this gigantic armada, now fitting out at Hampton Roads. The Richmond Enquirer chose Charleston; the Charleston Courier, New Orleans; the New Bern Progress, New Bern. The New York papers all speculated on the chances of Mobile, New Orleans, Savannah, Charleston, and Wilmington. Someone picked Port Royal, South Carolina, but a newsman pointed out that it showed up "very small" on a map. Sorting fact from fancy, the London Times concluded that American journals were all up in the air. So was Washington.
Since August the Lincoln Administration had judged and calculated the risk involved in each Confederate harbor. Grossly ignorant of the enemy, it pushed aside Charleston, Savannah, and Wilmington, fearing such ports were too heavily fortified. Members of the Blockade Board considered smaller pickings: Fernandina on the east coast of Florida, Bulls Bay and Port Royal in p31 South Carolina. They left final responsibility with Du Pont and Sherman.
As the Commodore and the General debated over targets, finally selecting Port Royal, weeks slipped by at Hampton Roads.
The ships were there, the men were there, but, during the last weeks of October, winds, squalls, and choppy seas delayed departure. Too rough even to preach, and no chance for a prayer meeting, lamented a chaplain. Food on board the transports dwindled; a water panic threatened; cooped up for weeks, restless infantrymen damned the stuffy quarters, the inaction, and the moldy beans. "Ye Gods!" cried a man when he learned that the officers' mess included ginger pudding. "Back we go to our salt horse à la mode."
A break came in the weather. On 29 October 1861 captains and privates, lieutenants and seamen sighed in relief as Old Abe's Armada, numbering seventeen armed ships and thirty-three transports, slowly made its way seaward from Hampton Roads. Southward one Georgia newspaper warned: "Look Out for Our Coast! . . . Let every man and every gun be ready."
The Yankee victory at Hatteras Inlet in August had stirred Southerners, especially coastal residents, to improve defenses. Vulnerable points were hastily fortified. The governors of Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana demanded more troops, ammunition, guns, anything that would halt the land‑sea invader. The South Carolina legislature quit arming troops for Confederate service, earmarked $300,000 for self-protection, and mustered two regiments for p32 beach patrol. Southward at Savannah, Joe Brown, the bombastic, energetic governor, shut off the flow of arms to the Army of Northern Virginia, handed them over to his state, then recruiting for home use, and bellowed against Richmond's tactics of draining the states dry to protect more favored points. But Southern strategy dictated that all troops remain in the Army of Northern Virginia to defend the Confederate capital from the boot of the Yankee invader. And President Davis meant to increase that army. As a sop, a trickle of guns moved southward, but, in November 1861, seaboard fortifications were still flimsy and impotent. Outraged by such official unconcern, a soldier in South Carolina wrote his representative at Richmond: "Do for God's sake insist on our claims."
At Washington, Federal leaders were panicky when their ferryboat armada sailed straight into a hurricane on 29 October. Slashed by rain, buffeted by winds, laboring heavily in the sea, the Yankee squadron was in real trouble off the Carolina coast. The side-wheeler Governor, with 300 men on board, her rudder gone, smoke-stack overboard, decks crowded with soldiers "too seasick to care," rolled, pitched, swayed, sank. The storm subsided on 2 November and Du Pont, still afloat, discovered that three cargo ships and one transport had gone to the bottom with ten men.
On 5 November the remainder, badly bruised, straggled into Port Royal and dropped anchor a safe distance from the enemy's shore installations. Once a luxurious watering spa for rich planters and, in 1861, vital to the defense of South Carolina, 1 Port Royal lay along the coast p33 in the heart of the sea‑island district. Two navigable rivers flowed lazily into the harbor. A light-drafted steamer could cruise •thirty miles up the Broad River to 2 Coosawhatchie, a main junction of the Charleston and Savannah Railroad, or •ten miles up the Beaufort River, pass 3 the town of the same name, and continue •forty miles via a maze of small rivers and inlets to Charleston. Down the coast in the other direction lay 4 Savannah, less than a day's voyage. This lush region of South Carolina was the agricultural heart of the state with a population of forty thousand, mostly slaves, and had a productive value of $3,000,000 a year in sea‑island cotton.
Courtesy Library of Congress
When Du Pont's fleet hove into sight at Port Royal, towns, hamlets, and crossroad corners to the north, south, and west experienced panic. Premature firing shook houses and rattled tin pans in Beaufort, ten miles away. A Negro came shuffling into town and told citizens that "the big steamers got the devil from master's battery." Men and women screaming: "Great God! Great God! Great God! The Yankees are coming," ran to the wharf and boarded a river steamer crammed with valuables and freight bound for safety.
In Charleston newspapers dismissed the rumble of guns as just a "salute or something of that sort." "I tell you," one planter declared, "God Almighty cannot take that fort!"
"But, massa," answered an insubordinate slave, "the Yankees are coming with God Almighty."
Across Charleston at military headquarters, the telegraph clattered with alarm. Troops in Wilmington, p34 North Carolina, clambered on a rickety train headed south; soldiers in Savannah boarded an island steamer headed north. The Confederate War Department in Richmond unified the south Atlantic coast into one military district and placed in command General Robert E. Lee — Evacuation Lee, who, after campaigning in western Virginia, regarded this new assignment as a forlorn-hope expedition.a
In Port Royal on 5 and 6 November there was preliminary skirmishing between a handful of Rebel steamers, the forts, and Federal reconnaissance vessels. The passage from the open roadstead, where Du Pont's squadron was anchored, into Port Royal Harbor was a narrow channel, running in a northeasterly direction. On the eastern side of this channel on Hilton Head Island was sixteen‑gun Fort Walker, garrisoned with 1000 men, while to the westward on St. Helena Island stood Fort Beauregard, supported by 19 cannons and 150 soldiers.
On board the flagship Wabash, naval and military commanders looked at a chart spread out on a table in Du Pont's cabin and planned, first, to smash the forts by naval gunfire and, second, to secure the islands with infantry. The Commodore ordered the gunboats to steer a northwesterly course midway in the channel between Forts Walker and Beauregard, where, once inside the harbor, they were to execute a snakelike turn and run southeast close toward Fort Walker. Such tactics were to be repeated until that bastion surrendered. A mediocre tactician, Du Pont recognized that it was easier to hit p35 a stationary object than a moving one. By maneuvering his gunboats, keeping them in constant motion, past the stationary forts, he would keep the Rebels off balance.
On 7 November the sun shone brightly and the sea was smooth. Federal ships bustled with activity on the morning watch. Tars sanded down the decks in high spirits, put out the fires, and rigged the pumps; barefoot powder monkeys lugged ammunition to the guns; surgeons spread out their instruments; old salts eyed the Confederate forts, rolling up their sleeves to "give them Hatteras."
Off in the harbor, Southern steamers trimmed with decorative bunting and overflowing with frolicking sight-seers, equipped with picnic hampers and flasks of bourbon to witness the fight, maneuvered, blew whistles, and inched closer for a better view. Toward the ocean the decks of the Federal troopships were packed with soldiers and sailors, who grabbed available spyglasses and focused them on Du Pont's force.
Promptly at 8 A.M., the signalmen hoisted the "Get under way" flags on Wabash's halyards and, forward on the deck, men at the capstan bars worked methodically to the tune of the fifer. Once under way, helmsmen steered for positions in the battle line. The main attack squadron, led by the "destroying angel" Wabash, was followed closely by the steamer Susquehanna and a mixture of Massa Linkum's gunboats and sloops. Close aboard to starboard, a flanking squadron of five vessels sheered off from the main force and headed into the p36 northern section of the harbor to engage any Rebel vessels lurking up the rivers and to cut off possible reinforcements from Savannah.
Behind the parapet of Fort Walker drums rolled and the men leaped to their guns with cheers. "Patriot yeoman! Crush the foeman!" sounded the "Palmetto Song of Battle." "Courage! Buckle on your armor, Carolinians, to the strife." Gunners tensely watched the steamers and trained their guns to bear on the advancing Wabash. When she came within full range, guns thundered. The gunnery officer on board the frigate shouted: "Cock your lock, blow your match, stand by, ready, fire." Cannon flashed. Gunners rammed in more ammunition, ran out the guns, fired again. Above the din, the commander of Susquehanna, trying to steady his men, yelled out: "Keep perfectly cool, do your duty and trust in God." The water heaved, the earth shook, spouting fountains of slush and iron. Salvoes plowed up the embankments of the forts, burying Rebel gunners in showers of sand and mud.
The first run past the forts completed, Wabash and Susquehanna turned slowly in the harbor and swept down-channel again, while the gunboats, keeping in constant motion, steered various courses near the fort and fired. Closing the range to Fort Walker, Wabash's starboard guns fired. On the transport Atlantic, anchored out of range, veterans judged that life inside the forts was hell upon earth.
It was. The Confederates, "fighting like tigers," were alarmed. Despite their salvoes, Wabash and Susquehanna passed and repassed seemingly unharmed. "No p37 sooner did we obtain his range when it would be changed," declared an officer, "and time after time rechanged, while the deep water permitted him to choose his position and fire shot after shot . . . with the precision of target practice." The prevailing opinion in 1861 was that one gun on land was the equal of five or ten on shipboard. The theory collapsed in early afternoon. With its defenses ripped up and only three guns working, Fort Walker weakened.
The racket of gunfire was deafening, the air thick with smoke and dust. Wabash was struck in all directions and her rigging was much cut up. Ten hits on Susquehanna slashed away iron stays, ropes and rigging, and heavy shrouds. Pawnee was struck four times and lost frame timbers, launches, guns, a wardroom bulkhead, and an iron safe. Du Pont closed the gap to Fort Walker on successive runs. The Rebel guns could not bear at close range, while those of Beauregard were too distant to inflict damage.
The steamers swung around and headed northward for the start of their fifth run. Obviously, remarked a sailor, "these eleven-inch pills don't agree very well with their digestive organs." From Wabash signals were seen at 1:15 P.M. from the gunboat Ottawa and, beyond, at Fort Walker, Rebels streamed out and fled into the woods like quicksilver. Fort Beauregard was abandoned. The Federals, hesitant, failed to cut off this retreat. By 2:30 P.M. the Union ensign floated over the soil of South Carolina.
Out in the roads where the troopships lay anchored, soldiers danced wildly on decks, clapped hands, and p38 shouted "Glory! Glory!" or stood around in small groups singing hymns. Bands struck up "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Courtesy Huntington Library
Federal troops invade Port Royal
Getting under way, the transports steamed upchannel and anchored a few hundred yards off the beach. A brigade laboriously disembarked into surf boats to the tune of "Yankee Doodle" and steered toward the forts to occupy the captured ground. The officer casualty lists included thirty-five Federal dead and wounded and sixty‑six Confederates, although Union soldiers counted an additional twenty or thirty Rebel bodies in and around the forts. Infantrymen rapidly constructed their camp amidst cotton, palmettoes, and mules, while the triumphant Sherman, grinning like a Gila monster, moved into a spacious plantation house, unpacked, and set up headquarters.
That evening, 7 November 1861, the harbor was illuminated by the campfires from the beach and by the red, white, and blue lanterns from the gunboats. Sailors chorused:
All hail! The victory's won!
The day's ours, the work is done;
Columbia's ships and Union men
Have conquered, as they will again.
News of the defeat exploded throughout the south Atlantic states. The editor of the Sumter Watchman mourned: "The hour has arrived." Sea‑island residents, convulsed with panic, burned cotton, abandoned plantations without even a change of clothing, and hurried off to the mainland.
p39 Charleston reverberated with the rumor that Du Pont's true objective was to burn the city. Business stood still. The Courier urged readers to offer up prayers on their knees, and a minister besought: "Stir up Thy strength, O Lord, and come and help us." More confidently, Negroes working on fortifications startled a passer‑by with the remark: "We could whip the Yankees with shovels."
Residents armed. Cavalry, artillery, and infantry units — the South Carolina Rangers, Sumter Guards, Charleston Light Dragoons, and Hibernian Guards — bugled, drummed, and drilled. One outfit, convalescing from measles in Columbia and destined for the Northern front, received permission to march for the coast.
Savannah despaired. Thousands stood idle in the streets. Women and children were shipped out by the night train. Whole neighborhoods were abandoned. "You would be surprised," declared one resident, "to see how deserted our town is. The church today looked as it does in yellow fever time."
Politicians, shaking with anger, sprayed front‑row colleagues in the state legislatures with resolutions and spat epithets at Richmond. Georgia's governor snarled his demand that the brigade, two regiments, and battalion in Virginia be ordered home for coastal defense. Florida's chief executive predicted that his state would be lost to the Confederacy. The Gulf states were jittery. The board of aldermen at New Orleans, the state legislature of Alabama, and the Confederate Congress in Richmond ladled out money for the construction of gunboats and steel rams. President Davis observed p40 that affairs on the coast were unsatisfactory; Vice-President Stephens, having serious apprehensions for the fate of Savannah, told a friend that the South was in a precarious condition.
Northerners relished the rumors that Charleston was in flames and Savannah had surrendered. Running along Pennsylvania Avenue, dirty little newsboys enthusiastically shouted: "Glorious Union victory! Charleston taken!" At his office Secretary Welles, ragged from worry, grumpily declared that the news was satisfactory. Southward at Hampton Roads, Bienville, Du Pont's dispatch steamer, maneuvered to her anchorage on 13 November.
New York was electrified to see the war carried into the South. The cry "On to Charleston! On to Charleston!" voiced popular feeling. To celebrate, the bell ringer at Trinity Church played "The Star-Spangled Banner," "Hail Columbia," "Yankee Doodle," and "The Last Rose of Summer." In Wall Street the market leaped upward and the sale of government securities was brisk. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, successfully negotiating another $50,000,000 loan with hitherto doubting, wavering bankers, announced with a smack of his lips that Uncle Sam was about out of the woods. On Sunday a minister blessed Commodore Du Pont and had to restrain his congregation from giving three cheers and a tiger. Welles calculated that Union guns had ripped the vitals out of the rebellion; a naval officer whooped: "We'll drive the insurgents to the moon." The old pride in the Navy was restored.
At Confederate headquarters at Coosawhatchie, South p41Carolina, General Robert E. Lee brooded in his tent. He had galloped down the beaches from South Carolina to Florida and discovered only 7000 country yokels armed with squirrel rifles to halt the frigates, the gunboats, the sloops, and the 13,000 men of the enemy. "We have no guns that can resist their batteries," he told Richmond, and "I fear there are but few State troops ready for the field." To bolster his hapless infantry, the General received permission to employ the units then passing through Georgia and South Carolina on their way to other fronts. Richmond dispatched five regiments and one battalion. With no heavy guns to stop the gunboats, Lee erected crude river obstructions and prepared Charleston and Savannah for a far more ferocious bombardment than they had been built to sustain. By January 1862 a sense of security prevailed the people of the south Atlantic states. But the realistic Lee did not regard his superficial preparations as sufficient. "The strength of the enemy," he pointed out, ". . . can be thrown with great celerity against any point, and far outnumbers any force we can bring against it in the field." The General waited for the lightning to be loosed.
It did not strike. Du Pont and Sherman, suffering from a disease called apathy, allowed their follow‑up to peter out. Soldiers and sailors repaired damages, wrote letters about the wonders of South Carolina, went sight-seeing, and loafed. General Sherman, who never earned a merit badge for military science, pleaded for more cavalry, infantry, artillery, engineers, steamers, ferryboats, rowboats, and one p42 quartermaster officer. Worried about his professional reputation, he wrote in double talk about future operations and damned and God‑damned officers and men to their faces.
The forts had fallen too quickly, too easily. "I never thought I could carry it out so fast," confided the Commodore. The dawdling Sherman and the unimaginative Du Pont left Savannah, Charleston, Lee's army, and the important Charleston and Savannah Railroad unmolested. The golden opportunity, confessed an officer, was passed.
Du Pont's gunboats, bristling with cannon and fully expecting a sharp engagement, steamed up the river to seize Beaufort, but found it abandoned except for one drunk, who hiccuped a few indistinguishable remarks as the sailors moved in. A small expedition occupied the two entrances to the Savannah River, securing points of refuge for blockaders and aiding materially in sealing off Georgia's leading seaport. Northward from Port Royal, a force secured deserted St. Helena Sound — "the key to everything in this part of the country" — which commanded the inland route to Charleston. Finally on 6 December 1861 the Army, enervated by the South Carolina sunshine, dragged itself together and marched off to occupy Beaufort. Du Pont remarked sarcastically: "Beaufort is not Savannah, nor the way to get to it."
Like the Hatteras assault, the Port Royal expedition could have grabbed off much more. Du Pont, Sherman, and Washington officials, shortsighted, ignorant of Lee's inadequacy, failed to learn the lessons of Hatteras and p43 misjudged the potency of naval power. Had Welles's orders been explicit about mopping‑up operations, had the commanders been more audacious, the Union would have reaped a harvest, smashing into the Carolinas and, perhaps, making off with Savannah and Charleston as prizes.
The Port Royal assault, hatched in August 1861 and executed in November, accomplished its objective — the acquisition of a harbor on the south Atlantic coast. Strategically, this feat, coupled with the recovery of Hatteras Inlet in August, gave Lincoln's Navy command of nearly the whole coast line of the Carolinas and Georgia. By December 1861 pressure was being exercised against Savannah, where Federal troops occupying Tybee Island at the approach of the Savannah River seriously crippled blockade-running.
The victory not only kindled hope in the North, but it drastically altered naval strategy. Du Pont proved the falsity of the theory that one land gun was the equal to five or ten on shipboard. In the future, other points along the coast might be more difficult to seize, but no officer could decline to attack forts with his steam-driven, wooden-hulled frigates. In the wake of Port Royal, seapower, a previously inadequately appraised factor, came gradually to be understood by Southerners.
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