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.
It was a bright morning in Charleston. Officers and correspondents at Mills House cluttered the barroom, drinking whiskey punch, and awaited the first roar of cannon from the Yankee iron monsters. Thousands squatted on steeples and roofs, clawing and elbowing for a better view. A long line of ambulances stood ready in East Bay Street to receive the wounded. One Negro woman whispered, "Lor‑a‑mussy, boss! Is dem cussed bobolitionists gwine to shoot dar big guns mongst us woman folk?" The listener pointed reassuringly to Fort Sumter. The old woman nodded and remarked: "Yes, sar. Ours is de boys dat can gib dem fits! De cussed bobolitionists will all be sunk, praise de Lard."
A battalion of upcountry Carolinians full of spirit paraded at the citadel green. "We want to get a squint at that Fort Sumter," declared a wide-eyed farm lad. He meandered down to the harbor, looked through a spyglass, and burst out: "Good Lord, what a gun! D'ye see that gun? What an almighty thing! I'll be damned if I ever put my head in front of it!"
Out in the harbor, officers at Fort Sumter dined at p134 2 P.M. The shouts from sentries announced the advance of the Union monitors. The commander jumped from the table, dashed to the parapets, judged there was still time for dinner, dispatched a telegram, sat down again, and polished off his meal with champagne. The long roll was drummed. Johnnies, yelling and screaming, rushed to the guns. The regimental band struck up "Dixie."
News flashed in the city. "The turrets are coming! The turrets are coming!" Charlestonians streamed from their houses, hotels, and barrooms to witness the historic fight. Somewhere on the outskirts, a woman penned:
Shall the foot of the demon soon press the green sod
Where sleeps our Calhoun? Never! So help us God.
Lincoln in Washington was nervous despite the promptings of naval experts that the fall of Charleston was certain. One officer put up $5000 that Sumter would fall. Too edgy to stay in Washington, a weary Lincoln went to the Virginia front to hear the first news.
Plans for a naval assault on Charleston had not been contrived overnight. Since the surrender of Fort Sumter in April 1861, Northerners had craved its recapture. "Why don't you send a big expedition and give Charleston hell!!" stormed a Kentuckian. It was at Charleston that the first proclamation of secession was published. It was at Charleston that the first blow of secession was struck. "What do we all want to see?" raved the pastor of the Church of Unity. "We want to see . . . the hot p135 bed of treachery laid in ashes . . . and we want her ground plowed up and sowed with salt."
The scheme for taking Charleston by the Navy originated with Gus Fox. Ambitious, distressed by the attention showered on the Army prima donnas, this little bald man was haunted by one idea. The Navy must play first fiddle. If the Navy, and the Navy alone, could collapse this infernal rebellion, it would be cured of the inferiority complex from which it had suffered since 1812. Fox saw the Navy's job as twofold: to torpedo the South and to sink the Army blue.
The historic battle at Hampton Roads between Monitor and Virginia (ex‑Merrimac) in March 1862 infected the North with iron fever. The man in the street believed that one ironclad could level Gibraltar. To batter down the Confederacy and Army prestige, Fox rushed the construction of iron ships. He boasted to a congressional committee that the commanders would have no hesitation in taking the monitors right into Charleston Harbor. The Navy Department, wasting no time, leaped into a gigantic building program without waiting or caring to test further the offensive power of the iron ships. Hampton Roads was enough! John Ericsson, inventor of Monitor, received contracts for six more; other builders started pounding into shape twenty‑one single- and double-turreted monitors; plans were blueprinted for seagoing ironclads; Roanoke, sister ship of Merrimac, was iron plated and equipped with turrets.
Courtesy Huntington Library
Union monitor Nantucket after the wara
Immediately the Navy Department laid plans to p136 flatten Charleston with these steel-corseted craft. Fox sounded out Frank Du Pont of the South Atlantic Squadron. "The crowning act of this war ought to be the Navy . . . the 'Monitor' can go all over. . . . Our summer's work must be Charleston by the Navy," he urged, tingling with excitement. "What do you say to it?" Du Pont, admiral of the wooden Navy, the do‑nothing Navy of the Mexican War, hemmed and hawed.
A naval triumph at Fort Sumter in the summer of 1862 would have jacked up the North's sputtering war machine. It had backfired at the Seven Days' Battles on the Yorktown peninsula, been thrown into reverse at the Second Battle of Bull Run. The North was shocked by its performance. "I tell you, sir, that . . . if something is not done and that at once all is lost," a friend wrote dejectedly to Welles. An extreme example of this attitude occurred when an expensively dressed lady in a Washington store clambered up on the showcases and screamed at all within earshot: "Every member of the Cabinet should be hung!" The Union victory at Antietam in September hardly compensated for the behemoth's earlier failures. The conviction grew that the titanic efforts of the North in lavishly supplying the means to conduct the war had been ill repaid in feeble fashion. Treasury notes depreciated. There was an anti-Administration landslide in the fall elections.
To quell criticism, Fox, the self-appointed machinist, first class, for the war engine, guaranteed that the invincible iron navy would capture Charleston by Christmas. p137 In a state of euphoria, Welles considered that the ironclads might as well take Richmond as a preliminary to Charleston. His confidant, Secretary Chase, was electrified with a spiritualist's prediction that General George Washington and the inhabitants of the sixth and other spheres had divined the fall of Richmond on 25 December.
Du Pont at Port Royal urged Fox not to go it half cocked. Recalled to Washington for preliminary discussions, the old Navy skipper had already concluded that Charleston must be taken by amphibious assault. But at the conference table Fox did all the talking. The Secretary swore that the ironclads were invincible, impregnable. Why use soldiers when one monitor could destroy Charleston? The iron bug had unbalanced Fox and Welles. To throw away amphibious assaults for untested ironclads was foolhardy. To put in command an officer to whom the monitors were anathema was folly. Du Pont's silence deceived the Department into believing that his views coincided with their own. The meetings broke up. The Secretaries patted the Admiral on the back, pumped his hand, and predicted that when he next returned, he would be loaded down with medals justly due the avenger of Sumter.
Fox and Welles ignored Charleston's natural defensive advantages. To reach the city from the sea, a ship had to steam •seven miles in a winding channel lined on each side by dangerous shoals. Before the war the city was lightly defended by Fort Moultrie on Sullivans Island; massive Fort Sumter, erected upon artificial foundations in the harbor; and Castle Pinckney, an old‑fashioned p138 brickwork languishing •a mile east of Charleston on Folly Island.
Confederates quickly strengthened defenses. Engineers built earthworks on Morris and Sullivans islands at the seaward entrance, refortified a tottering Fort Johnson on James Island, and planted batteries along the beaches. To hurl back Lincoln's armadas, Richmond rigged torpedo mines in Southern harbors.
At the time Fox was formulating his scheme, General Beauregard, a top field commander with battle scars from Bull Run and Shiloh, was taking a quick look at the harbor defenses. They were wretched. He had more mines dumped, ropes stretched across the channel, and poles driven into the water. He hoped that Yankee gunboats would become so entangled in this mess that his forts would have time to take careful aim and concentrate their fire. Batteries sprang up in all directions. Along the coasts, the General established a continuous line of signal stations. Residents volunteered for duty in the Tigers, a unit prepared to throw explosives down the smokestacks of the monitors. The Ladies' Gunboat Fair proved popular. South Carolina donated $50,000 for a submersible torpedo ram.
Behind the Charleston Post Office carpenters and mechanics had worked all year building an ironclad fleet. Flag Officer Duncan Ingraham, appointed to command the naval forces in South Carolina, had arrived in town early in 1862 to superintend the construction of the government's armored ram, Palmetto State, whose plans called for four‑inch-thick iron plating and an armament of one 80‑pounder aft and one 8‑inch p139 shell gun on each broadside. In March, two months after shipbuilders laid the keel of Palmetto State, the South Carolina legislature appropriated $300,000 for another ironclad ram, Chicora. Encased in two layers of iron and armed with two 9‑inch smoothbores and four rifled 32‑pounders, the pride of Charleston measured •150 feet in length, 35 in breadth.
When the rams were launched, engineers discovered serious defects. They were too heavy, too clumsy, too slow. Inadequate as they were, Beauregard ordered the ironclads to attack the wooden blockaders off the harbor. Before daylight on 31 January 1863 Palmetto State and Chicora, followed by three steam tenders, were well over the Charleston bar and standing toward the nearest cruiser in the mists of early dawn.
On board Mercedita an excited officer, seeing the faint outline of a ram, frantically burst out: "She has black smoke! Watch, man the guns, spring the rattle, call all hands to quarters!"
Hearing the racket on deck, the skipper, clad only in a pea jacket, ran from his cabin and climbed the poop ladder, bellowing, "Steamer, ahoy! Stand clear of us and heave to! What steamer is that?"
There was dead silence.
"Fire on him!" ordered Mercedita's captain. "You will be into us!" he shouted through cupped hands. "What steamer is that?"
"Halloo!" came the reply.
Instantly, Palmetto State plunged her ram deep into the quarter of Mercedita. Rebel guns rattled. A shell plowed through Mercedita's boiler and exploded. p140 Flames licked the rigging. Two men lay on the deck, dead. Escaping steam scalded six firemen trapped in the engine room. Rumors spread that Mercedita was sinking.
The Confederate captain hollered: "Surrender, or I'll sink you!"
There was no answer. Volumes of smoke rose from Mercedita.
"Do you surrender?"
"I can make no resistance; my boiler is destroyed!"
"Then do you surrender?"
Palmetto State backed her engines, changed course, and headed seaward, where Chicora, after crippling Quaker City, was slugging it out with Keystone State. Chicora drove an incendiary shell through the blockader just forward of the wheelhouse, killing twenty men. Riddled with shot, aflame, her engines disabled, Keystone State hauled down her flag, signaled surrender, and latched onto Memphis, who towed her to safety. The fire of Augusta and Quaker City distracted the Rebel rams. By daylight Mercedita and Keystone State were out of commission and the ironclads headed back toward Charleston, their mission accomplished.
The ironclad exploit fell like a thunderclap on the North. News extras raved hysterically that two tiny rams had smashed the blockade and played havoc with Lincoln's invincible armada. Furious at the stupid New York press, Welles minimized the Confederate attack and promptly told the world that the Union's stranglehold was as powerful as ever. At Charleston, Beauregard p141 insisted that the blockade was smashed and notified European consular representatives. Citizens celebrated the victory at St. Philip's Church, where the "Te Deum" was sung and officers and crews of the ironclads were feted. The cheers quickly dwindled. The British Government refused to believe that the Federal cordon had been severed. The Charleston brass discovered that the blockaders were now alerted, and that the unwieldy rams were better defensive than offensive weapons.
Carolinians were sure that the hour was close at hand for the Yankee strike against Charleston. Intelligence reported a heavy concentration of men-of‑war at Port Royal. "Carolinians and Georgians!" Beauregard demanded. "Be not exacting in the choice of weapons; picks and scythes will do for exterminating your enemies." The governors of South Carolina and Georgia ordered state reserves into the field.
Meanwhile the Yankee military effort had slumped. General Burnside's army met bloody defeat at Fredericksburg in December 1862. Attempts to capture Vicksburg on the Mississippi broke down. The iron sea monsters were in Northern shipyards. Reverses, warned Harper's Weekly, were rapidly filling the heart of the North with sickness, disgust, and despair. Defeatism mounted.
The Navy Department was in a stew to get the monitors under way. Cabinet members, congressmen, naval officers, and editors descended upon New York and Washington shipyards to see the tests. One reporter described the trial run of Passaic. "The writer," he p142 said, "held a glass full of water in his hand, while white caps were breaking over the deck, and a particle of liquid never trembled." Another proclaimed: "Charleston, Savannah, and Mobile will probably hear of them before Christmas."
The monitor Passaic was completed in November, but due to errors in mathematics, Naval Ordnance could not bolt down her guns. Fox confidently rummaged through the vessel, telling friends that officers were as proud of their craft as a young mother of her first-born. The commanding officer detested his baby. He cursed Passaic's breakdowns, the test runs, the discomforts, the lack of fighting power, the public clamor for monitors, and predicted that enemy forts would make short work of her. "I begin to rue the day when I got into the iron clad business," he noted privately.
The seamen griped too. Their quarters were damp, dark, and dingy. In hot climates the monitors were impossible to live in. Condensed moisture ran in streams from the bulkheads. In fact, an officer observed, you could write your name with your finger on the bulkheads of the cabin. Temperatures below decks were intolerable. In cold weather it was like living in a well. "Give me an oyster-scow!" cried one seaman on a test run. "Anything! — only let it be of wood, and something that will float over, instead of under the water!"
Others shared the same opinion. Builders of wooden ships ridiculed those damned iron boxes and hinted that the Department was building too many. A Philadelphia correspondent reported that a majority of naval p143 commanders regarded the attack on Charleston as preposterous. Even the big Swede, John Ericsson, tried to prevent the silly scheme.
Fox was oblivious. He stayed up nights poking around dusty files for scraps of information. With eyes which looked as if they had been fished from a New England boiled dinner, the Secretary contemplated the channel obstructions. He was sure that the Union Navy could plow right through those rows of beer barrels with an iron raft pushed by a monitor. He hired two torpedo men to construct rams especially for "infernal machine" work. Southward at Port Royal, Du Pont was definitely worried about this morbid appetite for Charleston.
In January 1863 the iron gunboats were in Northern ports miles from South Carolina. Fox, still enraptured, reasoned that his invincible ironclads could reduce Wilmington on their way to Charleston. An informant reported that the golden moment had arrived. Yellow fever raged in Wilmington; the defenders were exhausted; transportation was uncertain. Fox sounded out the new commander of the North Atlantic Squadron, Acting Admiral Samuel Phillips Lee.
Old Triplicate, an expert in making excuses, was ordered to move against Wilmington with the famed Monitor and the newly launched Passaic and Montauk. Concerned lest they tarnish their professional reputations, Sam Lee and the monitor captains complained that three ironclads were insufficient to capture the rumored 5200 men and 150 cannons guarding the approaches to Wilmington. While Old Triplicate's knees p144 quivered, the Rebel commander, knowing that nothing could stop the Union monitors, inspected his pitiable defenses.
Disaster suddenly saved Lee from action. On the passage from Hampton Roads Monitor, towed by Rhode Island, sank with the loss of twenty‑six men. With this news the Department decided to junk the Wilmington expedition and to push on for Charleston.
New Ironsides, the colossus of the Navy, and the monitors, buffeted by winds and rough seas, began dribbling into Port Royal to Du Pont in February 1863. Ten thousand federal troops operating in North Carolina were sent to Port Royal, but the Admiral was warned that the capture of Charleston rested solely upon the Navy. When that city fell, Du Pont was to mop up Savannah and then dispatch the monitors to the Gulf.
The Admiral squirmed at the thought. To multiply his worries, information leaked into Port Royal about the mines, the Confederate ironclads, the 140 channel guns, and the well-muscled fortifications in and around Charleston. Fighting 140 cannons with the monitors' 32 struck Du Pont as asinine.
He became even more harried as his squadron disintegrated, physically and psychologically. Gunboats on patrol for months needed repairs. Men required rest. Sailors on Huron were laid low with fever. Those on Patroon swore that their quarters were unlivable. A near mutiny broke out on this ship when the crew pilfered liquor and rioted on the berth deck. Seamen p145 on Western World grudgingly returned to duty only after the captain threatened to shoot them all dead. Mutinous spirit raged on board Gem of the Sea, Onward, and Uncas. A boat crew from Georgia deserted. Unadilla piled up in the Stono River.
Bienville, Florida, Alabama, Cimarron, Wamsutta, Restless, and E. B. Hale were in Northern dockyards. Ottawa broke down completely. Mohawk, Madgie, Potomska, Quaker City, Water Witch, and Norwich experienced mechanical failures. Mercedita and Keystone State had been knocked out of commission by two Rebel rams operating from Charleston. The oil supply was exhausted. A Port Royal steamer sent north for urgent supplies returned with only bread. Three ships were without sugar, coffee, flour, beans, and dried fruit. The standard of officers ordered to Port Royal became lower and lower. The optimistic Fox in Washington shunted these details aside and triumphantly told Du Pont: "If we can take Charleston, Savannah, Wilmington, Mobile . . . the Navy . . . has finished its hard work."
One question was uppermost in the minds of everyone. How would the monitors respond under fire? Du Pont decided to test them against small Rebel batteries. The monitor Montauk and four wooden vessels pushed up the Great Ogeechee River in Georgia toward Fort McAllister and fired. The nine‑gun sand fort quickly retaliated. Four hours later the vessels stood down-river. Neither fort nor ship had been injured. A valuable lesson for the Union should have been learned. The Admiral pointed this out to the Department. p146 Montauk was impregnable but displayed no corresponding quality of destructiveness. The experiment convinced Du Pont that Charleston could never be taken by monitors alone. Military support was urgently needed. Welles and Fox did not care to learn. "I beg of you," Fox pleaded with Du Pont, "not to let the Army spoil it."
Fort McAllister became a thorn in Du Pont's flesh. Four more attempts were made to level the battery. Four more times the monitors failed. On these practice runs two ironclads went aground; two had their concussion boxes injured; one had her gun carriage shattered; one hit a mine. One naval officer predicted that the fort would never be reduced no matter how many monitors were in the river.
Doubts gripped the monitor captains. Dissatisfaction was manifest. If Georgia's miserable sand battery could withstand monitor guns, Charleston's forts, cannon, and mines would blast them out of the water. "I think the attempt on Charleston will fail!" spouted a captain. An officer on board Du Pont's flagship was certain that the Admiral was already beaten. After dining with the bigwigs of the monitors, Florida's commander came away feeling that the capture of Charleston was problematical. The skipper of the monitor Weehawken, washing his oysters down with claret, spoke his mind: "I do not feel as sure as I could wish." Other captains did not consider the monitors yet perfected. The commander of New Ironsides confessed to Fox that he was by no means confident. To a man, these wooden-hulled skippers had lost faith in the iron contraptions. p147 The correspondents covering the squadron doubted too. The editor of the Baltimore American was convinced that the operation was entrusted to nincompoops.
Courtesy Huntington Library
Union monitor Weehawken buffeted by galeb
In Washington, Welles couldn't sleep. Why didn't Du Pont strike? Lincoln diagnosed the Admiral's condition as "the slows" and questioned that he could ever take Charleston. The junior Secretary, Fox, never wavered; Charleston will get it soon, the nest of traitors will be roasted out!
A New York reporter wandered around the deck of Du Pont's flagship, New Ironsides, anchored off the entrance to Charleston. It was evening. Groups of sailors sang, swapped jokes, and played poker. Aft, one bluejacket pessimistically speculated that if the ship were struck by a mine, she would sink like stone and they would all be drowned like rats. Men on duty hoisted untanned hides and sandbags into place and slopped grease on the ship's sides to lessen the bite of enemy projectiles.
Off in the haze other Union crews readied their monitors for action. Commanding officers dropped into small boats and rowed to New Ironsides for last-minute instructions. Swaying up the Jacob's ladder of the flagship, they cussed as they slid over the grease. When they stepped to the quarter-deck, the hides "smelt to heaven." In his cabin Admiral Du Pont, the circles under his eyes more pronounced, sketched out attack plans. The seven monitors and New Ironsides, with their thirty‑two guns, were to pass up the channel, open fire on Fort Sumter, and then proceed to the city, training p148 their guns on harbor installations and demanding surrender. The Federal assault against Charleston was to commence the next day, 7 April 1863.
The captains left. A morose Du Pont returned to his writing. He anticipated the sacrifice of his crews to the blazing guns of Sumter. Across the bay telegraph wires hummed.
At noon Du Pont's flagship signaled the monitors to prepare to get underway. Drums beat for general muster on board New Ironsides. The Admiral and his officers, chiefs and ordinaries, cooks and powder boys all knelt as the chaplain intoned a short prayer. Near the stern, Du Pont's chief aide whispered to another that he would be agreeably surprised if the first fire of the enemy did not strip the plating from the ship.
Preliminary maneuvers were completed. The iron flotilla steamed into the channel toward towering Fort Sumter. A squadron of wooden vessels was held in reserve. At six bells shells began to hiss overhead. Seamen felt their ships vibrate as crews swung into action. Guns rattled. The Federal attempt to take Charleston by machinery had commenced.
The Admiral and his chiefs paced the bridge of New Ironsides. Only three officers could squirm into the wheelhouse. The pilot panicked as the cumbersome ship collided with a monitor, went aground, and anchored. This ship, the surgeon complained, was of no more use than if she had been at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.
Inside Fort Sumter, Rebel deserters under guard p149 screamed above the noise of the bombardment: "For God's sake, let us come out and go to the guns." At other Confederate batteries across the bay, half-stripped gunners, reeking with perspiration, plied rammer and sponge. A slave working on the battlements was scared out of his wits: "I seed a big smoke and den . . . she come right in and struck de sand, side de fort, den she busted! Great heavens, massa, you ought to see dem niggers git!"
Charleston Harbor was a seething cauldron. The monitors maneuvered to assigned stations, hammered at the fort at a range of 800 yards, tried to pass and head up to the city. The lead monitors discovered the channel obstructed by rows of casks and piles. Unable to blast through, Weehawken, Passaic, Nahant, and the others turned sharply, throwing the whole battle line into confusion. The monitors lay in a cross fire. Turrets and guns jammed. The shells whined, then suddenly howled and flashed terrifically. The channel shook, spouting fountains of water, debris, and iron.
The captain of Nahant hollered to an ensign in charge of the 15‑inch gun: "Mr. Clarke, you hav'n't hit anything yet!"
"We ain't near enough, Captain," he retorted.
"Not near enough," stormed the commander. "God damn it, I'll put you near enough! Starboard your helm, Quartermaster!" A shell exploded. Bolts, torn loose in the pilothouse, killed the quartermaster and knocked the pilot senseless. Alone with a defective steering gear, the captain ordered the ship to retire from action. Below in the wardroom, the surgeon, p150 cursing the shells and bolts which rattled like hail, shouted: "God, we are catching it now."
Other monitors were pummeled severely. Weehawken's deck was ripped up; Passaic's pilothouse was smashed in. Hit ninety times and completely shattered, Keokuk withdrew only to sink in the channel with no lives lost.
Courtesy Library of Congress
Deck of the Union monitor Catskillc
Sixty-five guns blazed from Forts Sumter and Moultrie. The eastern wall of Sumter was hammered by the erratic monitor fire, but it sustained no serious injury. Other harbor installations were unscathed.
On New Ironsides, struggling to maneuver into firing range, Du Pont noted that the monitors had made no impression upon the fort. With darkness fast approaching, he ran up the signal to withdraw from the action.
That evening the monitor captains climbed to the quarter-deck of New Ironsides and went aft to the large cabin where Du Pont sat at the head of the table. Each commander solemnly gave his battle report. "With our present means, I could not if I were asked," a captain exclaimed, "recommend a renewal of the attack." The commander of Weehawken, crushing a cigar between his teeth, declared that the junk in the channel, not the batteries, kept him from getting to Charleston. The two gun monitors were deficient in firepower. The Admiral sat silent. Once the reports were given and the meeting adjourned, Du Pont mumbled that Ericsson, when he built the ironclads, should also have invented iron men to fight them. He went to bed, but did not sleep.
p151 In the early morning hours Du Pont paced the quarter-deck with his friend and chief of staff, C. R. P. Rodgers. They conversed in low tones. The Admiral had engaged the forts, and his evaluation of the monitors, formed months before, had been confirmed. "We have met a sad repulse," he told the scraggly-bearded Rodgers, "and I shall not turn it into a great disaster." He blamed his ships, not his tactics.
Although the top brass of the squadron unanimously concurred with their chief's position, there were dissenters in the forecastle. Seamen swore: Du Pont lacked nerve. A junior officer noticed that "the grim sort of soul like Farragut was lacking."
A comparison of the fall of New Orleans with the attempt against Charleston is revealing. Both commanders were confronted with similar problems. Farragut cut the river obstructions. With throttles wide open his wooden fleet swept past the forts while Porter's flotilla engaged the batteries. Du Pont made no effort to open the channel prior to the attack. During the monitor bombardment of Fort Sumter, his wooden gunboats lay idle, out of range. If they had run the gamut, leveling their guns on the city itself, the outcome of the engagement might have been dramatically altered.
Southerners took stock and chortled. The steel-corseted ships were humbugs. The Federal fleet had been repulsed by coastal batteries for the first time. "Like Salamis and Thermopylae, Sumter will become a household word," bragged an excited senator. Past defeats slipped from sight.
p152 The cities, towns, and hamlets of the North waited anxiously for news. "Mrs. General Anderson," wife of the defender of Fort Sumter in 1861, told a friend that if she died before the Union flag floated over that bastion, her ghost would walk the earth. In Washington, lights burned all night in news offices and at the Navy Department.
The New York Herald ran the rumor that Charleston had been bombarded and land forces had attacked the city. Charleston was in Federal hands! In anticipation of victory, New Yorkers held a monstrous Fort Sumter rally in Union Square. The mayor fully expected that while orators beat their chests and waved the flag, Lincoln would announce the fall of Charleston. Beneath the statue of George Washington, decorated with red, white, and blue streamers, a band played "Yankee Doodle" and General John C. Frémont crossed from the platform: "We are waiting to hear the guns that proclaim the flag has been avenged."
Definite news finally arrived. The steamer George Peabody pulled alongside a New York wharf, where the old man told dock officials that he saw Nahant with five holes in her stack. Keokuk had been sunk. At Washington, the steamer Flambeau nosed toward the dock. A disgusted and wholly upset officer scrambled over the side and arrived at Welles's house in mid‑afternoon.
The North, drunk on Fox's heady wine, awoke the next morning with a hang-over. One reporter groaned: "We are trying to forget Charleston as quickly as possible." Rumors scurried around Washington: Du Pont p153 was a coward; Welles would resign; Du Pont would be fired; Lincoln had lost his wits. Leaving the Navy Department downcast, the haggard Lincoln told reporters he was not pleased with the results. Du Pont had given up too quickly.
Newspapers across the land attacked the Administration. The cry "On to Charleston" boomeranged. "It is another failure and failures at this stage are little short of disaster," counseled an editor. The Chicago Times labeled the engagement a total, complete, and confessed failure. At the Capitol the Senate and House demanded to see all the dispatches relating to the actions of the ironclads. Welles and Fox delayed publishing the adverse battle reports because contracts were already signed for twenty additional monitors. They thought it inadvisable to discuss openly the condition of Du Pont's force, which had withdrawn to Port Royal.
Even iced champagne could not raise the spirits of the defeated Admiral. He thought it sheer folly to attack again with the miserable monitors. His captains deluged Welles with caustic letters. "If persons can be found who believe Charleston is to be taken by sea attack," said one commander, "just send them down here to attempt it." Ericsson was considered a fool. The iron coffins should have been tested in New York rather than in Charleston. "If the tools had been what they were supposed to be we should have taken Sumter . . . but they failed — and we failed," snarled Weehawken's skipper.
The next months witnessed charges and countercharges. p154 The Admiral insisted that he had never advised the attack on Charleston and criticized the Department for not authorizing an amphibious assault. Welles asserted that on no occasion, anywhere or at any time, did the Admiral protest about attacking Charleston. The Secretary noted privately that Du Pont had no taste for rough, close‑in fighting. He accused the Admiral of desiring to stay on the palace ship, Wabash, at Port Royal, instead of roughing it on board a gunboat off the port.
This mess undermined top‑level planning at Washington. General Halleck did not favor another attack; Fox wanted a renewed naval thrust; Secretary of War Stanton wished the matter prosecuted vigorously; Welles shook up command at Port Royal. Admiral John Dahlgren, who sat out the war at the Naval Ordnance Bureau, relieved a fagged‑out Du Pont.
The monitors recovered. The men did not. Cursing that hole Charleston, Dahlgren, wretched in health, dyspeptic, distraught, and overworked, lost caste with the sailors for being seasick. The Army, digging and dodging in wet ditches and baking in the hot sun, was utterly exhausted. Friction between the Army and Navy grew. The element of surprise in amphibious thrusts had been sacrificed.
The long series of military and naval attacks on Charleston during the remaining years of the war netted the Federals little. Not until General William T. Sherman, marching northward from Georgia, ravaged p155 the South Carolina countryside in the last days of the war could Dahlgren's men occupy the abandoned bastion.
The blame for the initial Union defeat can be divided between Admiral Du Pont and the Navy Department. A competent officer of the wooden Navy, the Admiral was too old, too inflexible to create assault plans combining the advantage of the monitors' defensive strength and the wooden frigates' fire power and maneuverability. Du Pont, like his captains, was humiliated to descend from the quarter-deck of a frigate to become a submarine captain of an iron canoe. Afraid of being branded a coward if he spoke his mind, Du Pont went through the motions of preparation and attack. Inhibited by fear, the brass-buttoned skippers quailed at the entrance to Charleston Harbor. Ignoring the tactical advantage of steamship maneuverability, they were cowed by the obstructions bobbing in the water, failed to advance, and became ideal targets for Rebel gunners.
As timid as the Admiral was, the major share of the responsibility for defeat rests with Fox and Welles. They believed that they were presenting the keys of Charleston to the Admiral when they handed over the untested monitors. The Department erred again when it scuttled the suggestion for an amphibious landing, and yet again when it failed to evaluate carefully Du Pont's reports prior to the attack. The Secretaries should have been cognizant of the Admiral's distaste for the Charleston maneuver, of the monitors' shortcomings, p156 and of the squadron's gradual deterioration.
Confederate cannon and Beauregard's military; know‑how had stopped the monitors in Charleston Harbor. The South in April 1863 was holding its own on the military fronts. General Lee would soon reach his high noon at Chancellorsville and, although Grant's forces in the West were closing in, Vicksburg still stood.
b The engraving is from Harper's Weekly, February 7, 1863, p92; where it is captioned The United States iron-clad monitor "Weehawken" in the storm of 20th January, and is meant to illustrate a brief news report on p95:
Fortress Monroe, January 22, 1863.
We have arrived safely, and all well. On Tuesday, about two P.M., had to cast off from the Boardman for her safety; weather very threatening. She ran back toward the Delaware Breakwater. Had a hard storm from the northeast on Tuesday night; waves •about thirty feet high. Vessel made excellent weather and very little motion. When the Boardman left I refused a tow from the Iroquois — I am now sure wisely. Yesterday, when the gale had abated, took a tow-line from the Iroquois. Deranged her machinery, cast off and came in alone. The Iroquois came in under steam, and is now here.
Captain iron clad Weehawken.
The wording of the telegram is confirmed, although with very different punctuation, by the text given in the Army and Navy Journal on Apr. 26, 1890, p654, where the anonymous author states they have the original of the telegram "in front of us".
c The Catskill is never mentioned in the book. It was one of the Federal monitors damaged in the April 7 attack on Sumter.
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