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 battle for Port Royal was exciting and spectacular. As Unionists huzzahed and waved streamers to the strains of patriotic airs, a general in the quiet of the Carolina countryside grasped the real significance of Union seapower. A troubled yet alert Lee recognized that the weakly defended coastal positions could never withstand the sledge-hammer blows of the Yankee frigates. The towering, mobile squadron bobbing at anchor at Port Royal could rapidly be thrown against one, two, or a half dozen places simultaneously, striking with a force mightier than the Rebels could afford to station at each exposed point. The South must fight the North on Rebel terms, on inland battlefields away from the blazing muzzles of Union gunboats. Every hamlet, creek, sand dune, and swamp could not be protected by Confederate regiments. Resources were restricted. Batteries guarding lonely islands and foot soldiers patrolling deserted beaches could offer effective resistance only if they were concentrated in vital sectors, like Charleston and Savannah, and readied to battle the invader's advance inland. "There are so many points of attack," Lee wrote dejectedly, "and so little means to meet them on water, that there is but little rest."
p45 Faced with the stern necessity of withdrawing its lines to within more defensible limits, Lee and Richmond prepared to sacrifice Florida's Atlantic coast. The nearness of Du Pont's ships and the South's reverses in the West forced the Confederacy to abandon lesser positions and order the evacuation of Florida's coastal forts except those surrounding Fernandina.
Florida was almost defenseless. "As sure as the sun rises, unless cannon, powder &c, be sent . . . Florida will become a Yankee province," moaned a general, ignorant of Richmond's decision. Governor John Milton complained that to get aid from President Davis was like asking assistance from the Emperor of China. Fort Clinch near Fernandina had only four guns with no ammunition. The governor of Georgia, Joe Brown, himself facing the fearful prospect of a Yankee attack, balked at his neighbor's request for men and cannon. The general commanding the area conservatively estimated that it would take 7000 soldiers to repel the Yankee fleet and, with only 4000 in the whole state under arms, he high-tailed it inland to bolster up the state capital. Floridians cowered and waited their fate.
Autumn passed, winter came. Fernandina continued to deal briskly in the blockade traffic. On an arm of the sea which separated Amelia Island from the mainland, this town of two thousand was the closest port of any significance to the West Indies and was the eastern terminus of the Cedar Keys Railroad, which sprawled westward across the state to the Gulf of Mexico. Freighters darted into Fernandina and, after discharging a few p46 supplies, maneuvered •seventy miles up the inland passage to Savannah.
While British and Confederate runners nimbly evaded Federal cruisers and Du Pont surveyed the glories of Port Royal, the Navy Department in Washington toyed with a new system of blockade, a system which, if successful, would bottle up Southern harbors for good. Naval experts conjured up the idea of sinking ships loaded with stone at the entrances of all Rebel ports. If the channels were choked up, how could runners and privateers enter or leave? To officials in Washington, the answer seemed obvious.
Suggestions for closing the harbors with stone-laden vessels piled up in the Navy Department. As early as April 1861, three days after Lincoln announced his Blockade Proclamation, a New Yorker had whispered that a cheap, easy, and feasible method of blockading Charleston, Savannah, and mobile was to sink worn‑out schooners at the entrances. Another man hinted that hulls loaded with sand would be less expensive and more effective than the squadrons. A Pennsylvanian urged similar operations and added that after the war the obstructions could be hauled away at the Southerners' expense.
The Department's Blockade Board spent hours mulling over these suggestions and recommended sealing up the port of Savannah and numerous North Carolina inlets. The board was delighted with Gus Fox's idea of damming up Charleston in the same way. Excited and confident, Secretary Welles concluded that this would prove the most economical method of halting the blockade p47 traffic into Atlantic and Gulf ports. Not all seagoing officers were seduced by this theory of blockading made easy, but their counsels were carefully filed away at the Department and forgotten.
Welles ordered his purchasing agent to secure twenty-four decrepit vessels of not less than 250 tons each, sell all gear on board, and load each ship with blocks of granite. The naval agent quickly garnered the required number of schooners and anchored them at New Bedford and other New England coastal communities. Carpenters clambered on board to rig valves and screws which, when properly turned, would sink the Rathole Squadron. An inquiring reporter from the New York Evening Post, rummaging through the ships, mostly old whalers, described them as a hard-looking set and estimated that for the best of the bunch the government paid $6000.
In November 1861 the squadron sailed southward from New England. At Port Royal, Frank Du Pont, sizing up this new assignment, believed that if Charleston could be closed permanently, his worries would end. The stone fleet arrived off Federal-held Tybee Island, near the mouth of the Savannah River, in early December. While approaching the anchorage, two whalers sank immediately and another, foundering in the waves, was towed to Tybee to be employed as a breakwater.
With the Federal occupation of Tybee Island and other entrances around Savannah, the Admiral decided to concentrate this motley fleet at Charleston. For four days the men off the blockaders scuttled sixteen granite-filled whalers in the main ship channel. To finish off p48 Charleston, Federals sank another batch of schooners a month later.
When news of this operation reached Richmond, high-ranking Confederates pointed accusing fingers at Washington and verbally castigated the North for using atrocious, diabolical tactics. General Robert E. Lee labeled the action as an abortive expression of malice and revenge. A British admiral called it an indelible blot, a national shame.
The uproar abated. The Rathole Squadron proved a miserable failure. Tides and currents washed equally good channels around the sides of the sunken hulls and blockade-runners continued to slip safely by the cordon of Federal vessels on station off Charleston. The new pattern for the blockade ended ingloriously. Gunboats were still compelled to patrol the seas outside the major ports of the Confederacy.
While this time-consuming operation was under way, Du Pont and his slow-witted friend, Tim Sherman,º watched their men loafing, frolicking in the sands of Port Royal. "It is a pity," an officer wrote while observing the idle Sherman, "that we cannot learn by experience the importance of time in military operations." Leaving the supervision of scuttling the whalers to others, Du Pont sifted intelligence reports. He recalled from discussions with Welles that the Navy Department considered Fernandina the most important harbor on the east coast of Florida. The commander of the blockade Keystone State reported that his ship became lost in the fog off that port, ran in too close, and was fired upon by Rebel shore guns. A sailor on board another p49 vessel boasted that he could capture Fernandina without the loss of a man. A hobbling old Negro told Union naval officers that the cannons in and around Fernandina were so worn out that the Federals would have an easy time.
Reassured, Du Pont called a halt to the Port Royal holiday and decided to move. Sherman was petrified. If the expedition moved south and if the enemy struck Port Royal, he worried that his 13,000 men would be insufficient. Du Pont was adamant. Sherman dispatched the necessary orders. The commanders, fearful that the main ship channel into Fernandina was impregnable, decided to enter another inlet and pass down Cumberland Sound to the target.
In clear weather the flotilla of gunboats and army transports took departure from Port Royal and plowed the Atlantic toward the east coast of Florida. The fleet, expecting a bloody fight, churned and chuffed into St. Andrew Sound, dropped anchor in Cumberland Sound, and waited.
Fernandina panicked. The gunboats were sighted. Batteries were abandoned. The military, 1500 strong, gathered up their belongings, broke camp, and ran for the interior and safety. Told to clear out of town, citizens stampeded the railroad station.
Out in the sound, Du Pont questioned a Negro who revealed that the Rebel positions lay deserted. Immediately the Admiral dispatched his gunboats. Seneca, Huron, Pembina, Isaac Smith, Penguin, Potomska, and Ellen plus three military launches slid down Cumberland Sound and grounded in the treacherous water. p50 Only Ottawa, her crew drummed to battle quarters, nosed toward Fernandina. A few rifle shots rang out from the bushes and from the railroad train, just lumbering out of the depot, headed inland. Ottawa's skipper rang "Full speed" to the engine room, and a •two‑mile running skirmish commenced between Union gunboat and Rebel train. The railroad cars were stuffed with wild, screaming passengers. Soldiers leaned out the windows, took careful aim, and fired at the onrushing Ottawa. Not to be outdone, the Yankee gun crew leveled their 6‑pounder at the flatcar loaded with furniture and pulled the lanyard. One shell smashed and burst, scattering chairs, tables, and beds to kingdom come. A second shell instantly killed two Fernandina shoe clerks who had been sitting on the sofa. The train ground to a halt. Several citizens, including an ex‑United States senator, hastily jumped off and scampered into the woods. Belching black smoke, its bells clanging, the train successful made the bridge and was lost in the forest.
The steamer Darlington, bulging with men, women, children, mules, and household goods, tried to escape up a narrow creek. Ottawa fired wildly at the fleeing vessel. Women on bended knee shouted to Darlington's captain: "For God's sake, surrender!" Amid screeching women, overturned furniture, and bursting shells, the skipper hoisted the white flag.
With the arrival of Pawnee and Huron, sailors and marines, swearing at the heat and mosquitoes, occupied Fernandina. The town was abandoned except for a few frightened whites, who touched their hats and bowed p51 as the Federals passed. One resident informed a Union officer that the people of Florida were sick of war.
The main fleet hove into sight on 4 March and anchored off the town. The military disembarked and garrisoned Fernandina. Surveying Fort Clinch, Du Pont was astonished that the defenses had been voluntarily deserted. Even the men in the forecastle were puzzled. These Northerners were surprised that their victory at Fernandina had been bloodless. Unhampered by a shortage of manpower, it was hard for them to appreciate the dilemma which confronted the South. "Why, the places they have deserted in this neighborhood, if occupied by men," noted a bewildered officer, "might have defied the navies of the world." They believed that the Confederates, lacking a navy, generally distrusted their powers and were beginning to labor under an inferiority complex.
Quickly Du Pont made plans for his fleet to spread out and occupy the surrounding towns and hamlets, sounds and inlets. Mohican, Pocahontas, and Potomska sallied into St. Simons Sound and ran up the Stars and Stripes over Brunswick, the watering spa for wealthy Savannahans. Wabash, anchoring off St. Augustine on 11 March, met with similar success. Landing at the wharf without resistance, the Federals, accompanied by the mayor, Old Bravo, marched to the city hall. To assembled, silent citizenry, a Northern colonel declared that the town was restored to the authority of the United States, his forces would respect property rights, and business would go on as usual. The men of the town acquiesced, but the ladies, angered by the lack of spirit p52 displayed by these pantywaists, chopped down all the flagstaffs to prevent them from flying the Union ensign. A few women walked haughtily down the streets with Confederate flags pinned to their bosoms. One reported bitterly: "The object . . . of the invaders is to subjugate us, to exterminate us, to starve us even, into submission." Not all the female population was so high and mighty. One seaman confessed that he hated to leave town because he and his mates were fast becoming acquainted with the half-Spanish señoritas.
Ottawa, Seneca, Pembina, Isaac Smith, and Ellen pushed up the St. Johns River toward Jacksonville. Men on board noticed the men and women, black and white, lining the riverbanks, cheering, waving, and hollering, and the smoldering ruins of ten sawmills, five private buildings, and a gunboat on the stocks. Houses displayed white flags. At Jacksonville, the city council, jabbering excitedly with the military, announced that it was foolhardy to resist. The town readied for surrender.
Civil authorities marched to the wharf with the flag of truce. As Union sailors moved in, they saw weeds growing rank in the streets, the shuttered houses, and the dearth of white citizens. Diehard secessionists who escaped to safety harassed the outlying district. One evening fifty Rebels attacked Federal pickets, killing one soldier, wounding another, and capturing three.
Floridans seethed with anger. Richmond had sold them out. The east coast was in enemy hands. "But, sir," stormed Governor Milton, "we do not wish to give up p53 our personal rights without striking a blow . . . and we are destitute of arms." At Tallahassee, the executive council signed resolution after resolution, demanding that Milton plead with President Davis, the Secretary of War, and General Lee to prevent a Florida cavalry unit ticketed for Tennessee from leaving the state. The regiment mutinied and refused to move until it was satisfied that sufficient troops were in the state. Richmond no longer claimed the Floridans' loyalty.
By mid‑March the Atlantic coast of Florida from St. Augustine north was in Federal control. Small contingents of dog‑tired, hungry Rebel troops and large portions of the civilian population fell back •thirty miles from the beaches. The Confederate military steadily moved out for Tennessee.
Except for Georgia and the Carolinas, the remainder of the South was unconcerned over Florida's fate. The governor of South Carolina was uneasy. Confederate forces might be withdrawn from his state at any moment. He promised Richmond all his powers and resources if the Army would not pull out of Charleston until they had fought it out in the harbor and in the streets.
The South Atlantic Squadron's work was far from over. Rebels had to be flushed out from minor batteries; rivers cleared of obstructions and navigated; creeks and sounds secured. The Confederate Government had made secret arrangements in January 1862 to have arms and ammunition run into Mosquito Inlet, Florida, •twenty miles south of St. Augustine. General Lee described this traffic as valuable and vital. When Yankee forces p54 occupied St. Augustine, Du Pont learned that at least 800 Rebels had fortified New Smyrna near Mosquito Inlet, an important point for the introduction of cannon from the Bahamas.
The Admiral dispatched Henry Andrews to report to Acting Lieutenant T. A. Budd in Penguin stationed off Mosquito Inlet with orders to buoy out the channel, conduct reconnaissance, cross the bar and blockade inside the inlet, and pick off Confederate steamers. On Henry Andrews's arrival, Lieutenant Budd organized a forty-three‑man expedition and moved southward in five armed launches through a winding island passage leading to Mosquito Lagoon. They steamed •eighteen miles through scraggly wilderness without incident. Sailors jumped ashore to inspect an abandoned earthwork near a dense grove of live oak. Suddenly, Rebel rifles cracked. Two Federal officers and five enlisted men lay horribly mangled. The Union launches out in the stream scurried in all directions, seeking cover on shore, and, as night fell, reported back to Henry Andrews and Penguin.
Northward from Mosquito Inlet a small flotilla occupied the St. Johns River, constantly engaging Rebel guerrillas on the riverbanks. In one rough melee, a naval lieutenant was blown to pieces and the palatial yacht America, winner of the Queen's Cup, was sunk in a neighboring creek. An escaped slave reported to the vessels off the St. Johns River that 500 Johnnies had placed heavy artillery at St. Johns Bluff. That same evening Uncas steamed upriver, anchored about 500 yards from the bluff, and fired warning shots without p55 response. The next morning, bursts of flame erupted from Rebel batteries. Pummeling the bluff with her guns, Uncas silenced one cannon, but the barrage from the others cuffed the gunboat severely, forcing her to slip anchor and drift out of range.
The harried officer commanding the force off the St. Johns River ordered Paul Jones, Cimarron, E. B. Hale, and Patroon to demolish the Rebels' position. The blasting lasted two hours. The batteries on the bluff still stood. A month later, gunboats, this time backed up by military support, finally secured and occupied the area.
Other skirmishes broke out in the creeks and rivers of South Carolina. Blockaders constantly searched out pockets of resistance along the North and South Edisto rivers, the Stono, and the coast. Isaac Smith conducted her usual reconnaissance up the Stono River. Passing •two miles beyond the hamlet of Leagarville without noticing anything untoward, she turned and retraced her course. At a bend of the river, cannon hidden behind the foliage opened fire at point-blank range. One shot tore into Smith' stack, stopping the engines. With no wind, little tide, and the lifeboats riddled with shot, the commanding officer surrendered. Eight Union sailors were killed, seventeen wounded, and ninety-four clapped into prison.
As the Navy hunted for nests of Rebels, the Army, at Port Royal under a new commander, captured and garrisoned Fort Pulaski, guarding the river approaches to Savannah, in April 1862. Savannah was sealed to blockade-runners for the duration of the war. At Wilmington, North Carolina, a Confederate general stated p56 that with the Yankee occupation of the fort, Savannah had no strategic importance.
Day in and day out Du Pont's men went about their business of clearing out Confederates. Tucked away in the back pages of the city dailies was the news of these unspectacular minor operations which were vital to the major amphibious assaults and to final success. This task was laborious and dangerous. The skirmishes, taken singly, were of little significance, and yet it was a process in which daily progress was made in weakening the rebellion, physically and psychologically, and in recovering the territory of the United States from the Confederacy.
Meanwhile the naval station at Port Royal was taking on the appearance of a bustling town. The widely scattered gunboats of the South Atlantic Squadron, searching the seas for Rebel blockade-runners, were now within easy reach of shore-based supplies and overhaul facilities.
Welles and Fox, after the blockade proclamation, had faced up to the vexing problem of supply, a problem which, if left unsolved, could have hampered the war at sea. Applications from private companies flooded into the Navy Department, requesting permission to dispatch their freighters laden with stores and comforts to the squadrons. Welles, lacking a sufficient number of naval vessels in the spring of 1861, granted New England companies the right to send their schooners into the war zone.
To augment these private trading vessels, the Department purchased or chartered merchantmen for this service. p57 In July 1861 the converted steamers Rhode Island and Connecticut inaugurated the beef-boat run to feed and coal the blockaders on duty with the Atlantic and Gulf squadrons. Loaded with fresh meat and vegetables, clothing, small stores, ice, and candles, Rhode Island got under way on 31 July from New York. She supplied the frigate Wabash south of the Cape Fear River on 3 August and pulled alongside the blockaders Roanoke, Vandalia, and Seminole off Charleston the next afternoon. She steamed near the Savannah River on 5 August, discharged provisions on board St. Lawrence, headed southward, and cargoed Jamestown off Fernandina. After her voyage into the Gulf, Rhode Island returned to Atlantic waters, arriving at the Savannah blockading station on 29 August, Charleston the next day, and in early September she nosed into New York Harbor and dropped anchor.
A week earlier, Connecticut had taken departure on the same circuit. By 1 January 1862 both ships had completed three round trips. The government soon acquired the steamer Massachusetts for the Atlantic, transferred Rhode Island and Connecticut to the Gulf run, and added Blackstone, Bermuda, Union, and Circassian.
The supply service was by no means perfect, but, from the outset, the efficiency of the blockade was never seriously threatened by inadequate provisions. The Department received numerous complaints from its commanders afloat. Admiral Du Pont groused that his small steamer Courier, dispatched northward for stores, had remained over a month and returned without the articles p58 ordered. Another command insisted that his squadron needed at least one supply steamer exclusively for its own use and complained that his blockaders fresh beef only once a month and that the stores were of poor quality.
To remedy such defects, the Department pressed more ships into service. In 1863 Massachusetts and Donegal were assigned to the South Atlantic Squadron, and Newberne to the North Atlantic Squadron. Massachusetts did not keep a rigid schedule of arrivals and departures, but an average run to and from New York lasted approximately fifteen days. Servicing the North Atlantic Squadron, Newberne left New York on the first and fifteenth of every month for Hampton Roads and the blockading station off Wilmington. During the later stages of the war, conveniences and niceties were added to the cargoes for the personnel of the fleet.
The supply steamers carried everything from wheelbarrows to toilet bowls. The government paid companies along the Atlantic seaboard one and one half cents per pound for fresh vegetables, eight cents per pound for fresh beef, and nine cents per gallon for vinegar. In December 1864 Newberne carried 500 pea jackets, 25 bales of clothing, an iron safe, yards of flannel, canvas, shoes, blankets, tobacco, soap, thread, black tape, knives, scissors, razors, brushes, whisk brooms, stoves, 400 barrels of potatoes, 100 barrels of onions, and 16,000 pounds of fresh beef. The schooner Somerset, chartered by the government for a run to Hampton Roads, was loaded with 45 barrels of beef, 232 barrels of p59 pork, pressed meats, flour, rice, sugar, butter, mixed vegetables, beans, vinegar, and tomatoes.
After the commissioning of the pork boats, the Department chartered coal and ammunition schooners from private companies. No major operation against Confederate-held forts bogged down for want of coal or ammunition, but frequent dispatches sent northward indicate that the squadron commanders quibbled over arrangements. The colliers' bills of lading specified that they should carry their freight to the main naval stations only, and their captains had to be bribed by $100 bonuses to go to other points along the coast. They were reluctant to run the risk of damage by enemy gunfire off Charleston. At Port Royal, as at the other Union naval stations along the Southern beaches, supply ships discharged provisions at the wharf, where sweaty dock workers piled them into tugs which distributed them to the blockaders of the squadron. This harbor was the Federal capital of the South, and regarded by seamen as the most desirable liberty port along the whole Rebel coast. For the officers and men, stationed for months on some lonely river or at sea, steaming for Port Royal was like heading for the big city from some barren desert.
Sailors looked up the government pier and saw the wind-swept palm trees and the plantation headquarters for the commanding general, long, low buildings, all sporting canvas roofing, clustered almost to the beach. The pier was cluttered with quartermaster and ordnance stores; stevedores loaded and unloaded cargo; steamers arrived and departed; teams of horses with "U. S." on p60 them in black letters waited their turn for loads of hay, army bread, or empty shell casings. Details of soldiers worked in the boiling heat or listlessly sat on barrels waiting for a breeze to spring up. Bareheaded ex‑slaves worked, shuffled, and sang weird plantation melodies. Officers bellowed orders.
Port Royal's little shops offered a countless variety of fancy goods to the sailor on liberty. Once ashore, the bluejackets usually went first to the Port Royal House for beer or ale and then walked to Bear and Company, a sutler's place, to buy needed articles or to have their pictures taken to send home. Sailors flocked to the tattooer's shack. The most popular designs included hearts, bridal wreaths, love knots, anchors, and the mysteries of religion. At the butcher shop, if the jolly red‑faced proprietor took a fancy to a seaman, he would ask him into the back room for a slug of good whiskey. If a liberty was long enough, the men might climb on board the cutter General Hunter and go upriver to Beaufort. The favorite hangout was a restaurant kept by a Negro who served dinners of spring chicken, green peas, and ham and eggs for eighty-five cents.
Admiral Du Pont abhorred the idea of sending his vessels to Northern shipyards for overhaul. He recalled that during the Crimean War, British and French schooners were converted into floating machine shops to repair gunboats and frigates. Two worn‑out whalers sent down from New York were lashed together with chains. On the deck of one, Edward, carpenters built an old‑fashioned Dutch house, equipped with machinery, shafting, wheels, gearing, lathes, furnaces, and forges. p61 The other ship alongside had several furnaces and was used as a storehouse and living quarters.
The storeship Vermont, converted into a hospital, tourist home, water tank, and jail, at Port Royal, was overcrowded with drafts of men, prisoners of war, refugees, and wounded sailors and soldiers. Provisions, small stores, and ammunition from the North were unloaded on board Vermont to be dispersed throughout the squadron. Towing coal barges, tugs replenished vessels in Wassaw, Ossabaw, St. Catherines, Sapelo, Doboy, St. Simons, and St. Andrew sounds, at Fernandina, and in the St. Johns River and Mosquito Inlet.
The happiest day of the seaman's life came when his ship was ordered to Philadelphia, New York, or Boston for extensive repairs. About to go home, one bluejacket counted his greenbacks and wrote to a cousin that he was going on a regular tear when his ship docked. In Northern ports, the sailors' expectations were frequently dashed. The captain of Wabash, which had just completed a long tour of duty, allowed the ship's company only six hours' liberty while the frigate repaired in the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Such actions had disastrous results. Many men deserted and general morale was weakened.
Across the docks, ships were readying for duty in Southern waters. Many men had joined up because the naval service was probably the least hazardous and easiest. One sailor described the enlisted men as "desperate nautical characters . . . mixed up with seedy representatives from the professions — even including God‑forsaken-looking ex‑ministers."
p62 On board Kensington in New York Harbor, a draft of men consisting of the scum of the merchant service arrived for transportation to the blockading squadrons. Rumors spread quickly that mutiny would break out if these men were compelled to go to sea. The revolt failed, but as Kensington moved down the East River for sea, ten men leaped overboard and escaped.
When returned ships entered Port Royal and other naval stations, the decks and wardrooms were filled with visiting gold braid and men inquiring about news from home and exchanging bits of gossip. Officers studied charts and orders, noting the lines of shoals, times of tides, and bearings. By the time dusk fell, the gunboats and frigates got under way, and as darkness increased, each ship gradually moved to her respective area. The master-at‑arms reported all lights out, and the word was passed for silence fore and aft. The dreary routine recommenced.
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