In the great struggle with Secession certain conditions that had existed in our wars with England were reversed. The odds were as decidedly in favor of the United States Navy as earlier they had been against it. Yet the varied duty that fell to the navy was full of hazard and difficulty, and often involved extreme tests of endurance.
It was not merely that the South showed daring and brilliancy in the few single-ship actions, and, by developing the idea of the ironclad, threatened destruction to whole squadrons of wooden vessels; the National Navy had also to fight against powerful forts guarding the harbors and the rivers; it had to blockade a coast •over 3000 miles in length; and with the army it was assigned the task of opening the vast system of waterways comprised in the Mississippi and its tributaries.
Here were difficulties for any navy, and they were more formidable because of the wretched condition of the National Navy at the outbreak of the war. On March 4, 1861, when President Lincoln took his oath of office, there were in commission, including supply ships and tenders, forty‑two vessels, of which there were only twenty-three propelled by steam that might be called efficient. On that day but four of the twelve ships constituting the home squadron were in Northern ports, available for service;1 the other squadrons were in the Mediterranean, p239Pacific, and off Brazil, the East Indies, and Africa. With the time necessary for the transmission of orders and for the return voyage, it was several months before these squadrons could be utilized. Threats of war had been heard long before fighting began; why then, when the crisis came, was the navy so utterly unprepared?
First, President Buchanan (1857‑1861) was the victim of his environment; three of his Cabinet members were, to say the least, lukewarm in their allegiance to the Union; and a fourth, Mr. Toucey, the Secretary of the Navy, although from Connecticut, was so strong in his Southern sympathies, that he had earlier failed of re‑election to the Senate. Secondly, Congress had by its indifference and blindness disorganized the navy quite as much as had the administration. Because of the wide-spread financial disaster, beginning in 1857, the national revenue had fallen off, and Congress, in attempting to economize, had severely crippled the navy.
Opposition to building or even repairing ships came from Northern as well as Southern sources. Congressmen from Ohio and Illinois led in the attack on the navy and the naval appropriation bill. Congress as a whole was apathetic. Strange as it may seem, even a few months before the hostilities began, the Northern members had no real apprehension of the titanic struggle at hand. Outside of Congress such a clear-sighted observer as James Russell Lowell, writing on the eve of Lincoln's election, made light of the threats of secession.
When Lincoln was elected and secession had been accomplished, President Buchanan still remained inactive; thus no preparation was made to meet the great emergency. Admiral Chadwick ably remarks on the state of affairs at the time: "The whole Government was in a state of sad flabbiness. There was but a nucleus of an army; the navy was moribund; there was a captain afloat p240in command nearly seventy years of age; the commandant of the Norfolk Navy Yard was sixty-eight; the commandant at Pensacola, sixty-seven. The general-in‑chief of the army was seventy-four. There was no settled belief or opinion. The New York Tribune, which held the position of leadership among Republican journals, and which was a power throughout the North, was proclaiming that 'if the Cotton States shall become satisfied that they can do better out of the Union than in it, we insist on letting them go in peace'; and, again, that 'five millions of people, more than half of them of the dominant race, of whom at least half a million are able and willing to shoulder muskets, can never be subdued while fighting around and over their own hearthstones' — expressions which had a powerful effect for ill throughout the South."2 The opinion that the South could never be subdued was freely uttered in the North, and universally believed in Europe.
With the firing on Fort Sumter, April 12, 1861, war began, and the new and efficient Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, took vigorous hold of affairs. He had an invaluable helper in the Assistant Secretary, Gustavus V. Fox. Mr. Fox had had eighteen years' experience in the navy, resigning to enter business in 1856, the year he was commissioned lieutenant. His training and rare ability made him just the man for the position. The assistant secretaryship was a new office felt to be necessary in order to introduce harmony in the various bureaus of the Department. Fox was the professional adviser, and was given the greatest responsibility in planning operations, choosing leaders, and removing superannuated and p241inefficient officers. The last was the weakest point of the navy at the beginning of the war. One of Lincoln's Cabinet characterized Fox as "the able man of the administration."
The Department early made plans for an immense naval armament. The annual appropriation made by the previous Congress for the navy of about $13,000,000 was increased to $43,500,000. As Mr. Welles outlined in his report of December, 1861, three lines of operation had been determined on: 1. The naval occupation of the Potomac, and the blockade of all Southern ports. 2. The organization of combined naval and military expeditions against various points on the Southern coast and along the Mississippi. 3. The active pursuit of Confederate cruisers and privateers.
The Northern navy yards, in which work had been almost entirely suspended during the years preceding, became scenes of great animation. Within a few months after the firing on Sumter, the North had 11,000 men engaged in fitting out the old ships that had been dismantled, in overhauling those returned from foreign waters, and in building new ships especially adapted to the service for which they were required. At the same time the Navy Department, drawing from every source, was purchasing and making over ships from the merchant service.
The added ships required crews to man them, and before the year was ended the number of seamen had grown from 7600 to 22,000. Meanwhile, one‑fifth of all the officers in the old navy (322, if all grades and corps are included) had joined fortunes with the seceded States.3 To meet the emergency, the upper classes at the Naval Academy were given active duty; and promotion was so p242rapid that many midshipmen became lieutenants before they had reached the age of nineteen. Volunteer officers were also called for, and 7500 of them received appointments during the war.
President Lincoln, by official proclamation on April 19 and 27, declared his intention to blockade all the Southern coast. But according to international law, as formulated in the Declaration of Paris, 1856, "a blockade in order to be binding must be effectual, that is to say, maintained by a force, sufficient in reality to prevent access to the coast of the enemy." For the Union Navy at once to blockade the coast from Alexandria, Virginia, to the Rio Grande, •3549 statute miles, with 189 harbor or river openings, was discovered to be an impossible task. It could not be accomplished in a month nor in several months; but the beginning was made at Hampton Roads shortly after the proclamation, and as ship after ship, purchased or built, was fitted out, it was assigned its place in the long line.
Washington, both because of its being the national capital and because of its proximity to the Confederate lines, became an important centre of operations. And when at the outbreak of the war the loyalty of Maryland, the nearest State, seemed to be wavering, it caused the greatest concern. The people of Baltimore attempted to prevent the Northern troops from passing through the city, though it was known that those troops were indispensable to the protection of the national capital. Thus, for various reasons, it was highly important that the Union forces should control the Potomac and maintain Washington's communications by water.
For this service Commander J. H. Ward organized a small flotilla in May, 1861. Already the buoys had been p243largely removed from the Potomac by the Confederates, and men and supplies were being constantly ferried across from Maryland into Virginia. Then, too, the Confederates had begun to fortify the heights near Aquia Creek. Ward bombarded them without much result on May 31 and June 1. This was the first naval engagement of the war.
The flotilla was active and efficient, but its duties, as the year advanced, became increasingly difficult. Buoys that had been replaced were again removed; light-house keepers were intimidated into extinguishing their lights; and so many were the convenient points for crossing the river that it was impossible to stop more than a part of the men and supplies entering Virginia. Finally, the Confederates, having come into possession of large guns by the capture of the Norfolk Navy Yard, made fortifications along the river of such strength that they were more than a match for the ill‑protected paddle-wheel steamers of the flotilla. On October 15, Commander T. T. Craven had to report that in spite of the utmost efforts of the flotilla the navigation of the river was practically closed. In the following spring, however, the operations of the Army of the Potomac against Richmond compelled the Confederates to contract their lines and abandon the fortifications on the Potomac.
Naval stations and harbors convenient for refuge from the heavy storms common to the South Atlantic coast were, as the Department saw, indispensable for carrying on hostilities and maintaining a blockade. Accordingly, a board was appointed, consisting of Captain Samuel F. DuPont and Commander Charles H. Davis of the navy, and Major John G. Barnard of the Coast Survey, to make "a thorough investigation of the coast and harbors, their p244access and defenses," and recommend a plan of immediate action. As a result, two combined naval and military expeditions were organized in the late summer and fall of 1861.
The first was directed against Hatteras Inlet. This position was important as the key to Pamlico Sound, and here the Confederates had created two defenses, Forts Clark and Hatteras. On August 26, an expedition of fourteen vessels under Flag-Officer Silas H. Stringham, accompanied by Major-General Benjamin F. Butler with 800 troops, sailed from Hampton Roads. The resistance made by the forts was rather weak, and after a two days' bombardment the Confederates surrendered; the captured numbered 615 officers and men, including Samuel Barron, flag-officer of the Confederate Navy, who for nearly fifty years previous had served in the National Navy. Not a man in the Union Navy was killed during the engagement, an immunity due in part to Stringham's clever maneuvering of his ships when near the forts; he passed and repassed the forts, varying his course so as to prevent their securing the range.
For the second point of attack, the Department decided on Port Royal, S. C., and made Captain Samuel F. DuPont, lately appointed flag-officer of the South Atlantic blockading squadron, leader of the expedition. Port Royal was by inland routes •thirty miles from Savannah and •fifty from Charleston. Though somewhat neglected, it was the finest natural harbor on the Southern coast.
On October 29, the fleet of fifty vessels (including army-transports carrying nearly 13,000 troops under Brigadier-General Thomas W. Sherman) left Hampton Roads. Great pains had been taken to conceal their p245destination, but without success. The Confederates heard of the plans even earlier than most of the officers of the fleet.4
The weather, which had promised well as they started, changed to a gale off Hatteras, and for a while its violence approached that of a hurricane. The fleet was utterly dispersed and on November 2 but one sail was to be seen from the deck of the Wabash. Some of the ships that had been purchased or chartered because of the great need were quite unfit to encounter such a wind and sea. Thus two were lost — the men being saved with great difficulty — and a third had to throw her battery overboard to keep from foundering. However, as the severity of the gale abated, prospects brightened and on the morning of the 4th, DuPont, with twenty-five of his vessels, anchored off the bar of Port Royal, while others were appearing on the horizon.
The buoys that marked the channel across the long bar before Port Royal had been removed. But they were replaced by Commander Davis, the fleet-captain, and Mr. Boutelle, of the Coast Survey, so that the gunboats and lighter transports could enter the roadstead that evening. DuPont had grave fears in crossing the bar with his flagship, the Wabash, for with her deep draft there would be but •a foot or two to spare. But on making the attempt next morning, he succeeded, and was soon followed by the frigate Susquehanna and the large transports.
The entrance to Port Royal was guarded by two strongly built fortifications, •two and five‑eighths miles p246apart, Fort Beauregard, mounting twenty guns on Bay Point, the northern side, and Fort Walker, mounting twenty-three guns on Hilton Head, the southern side. To reduce these forts with wooden ships was what Flag-Officer DuPont had decided on. The 13,000 troops accompanying the expedition had no part in the attack on the forts. This change in plans was due to the fact that the greater part of the means for disembarkation had been lost in the storm, and that the only convenient place for the troops to land p247was •five or six miles from the anchorage of the transports. It was therefore decided to reduce the forts by the naval force alone.
Battle of Port Royal
Calling his captains on board the Wabash, DuPont explained the strength and the weakness of the enemy's position, and then carefully outlined his plan of attack and order of battle. The fleet was to divide, "a main squadron to be ranged in a line ahead, and a flanking squadron which was to be thrown off on the northern section of the harbor to engage the enemy's flotilla, and prevent their raking the rear ships of the main line when it turned to the southward, or cutting off a disabled vessel."5 The main squadron, consisting of nine of the heaviest frigates, sloops, and gunboats, was led by DuPont's flagship, the Wabash; and the flanking squadron of five gunboats was led by the Bienville.
"The plan of attack was to pass up midway between Forts Walker and Beauregard, receiving and returning the fire of both, to a certain distance •about two and a half miles north of the latter. At that point the line was to turn to the south, round by the west, and close in with Fort Walker, encountering it on its weakest flank, and at the same time enfilading, in nearly a direct line, its two water faces. . . . When abreast of the fort the engine was to be slowed and the movement reduced to only just as much as would be just sufficient to overcome the tide, to preserve the order of battle by passing the batteries in slow succession, and to avoid becoming a fixed mark for the enemy's fire. On reaching the extremity of Hilton Head . . . the line was to turn to the north and east, and, passing to the northward, to engage Fort Walker with the port battery nearer than when first on the same course. These evolutions were to be repeated."
Captain DuPont had worked out an unusually skilful p248plan, which was executed with faultless precision. At eight A.M., November 7, the commander made signal to get under way. A half hour later the two columns were headed in for the forts, the flanking squadron to the right; and soon the ships, decreasing the intervals, came into close order. At 9.26 there was a flash and a roar from Fort Walker, and another immediately followed from Fort Beauregard. The challenge was taken up by the Wabash, and the other ships followed with their fire as their guns bore. At ten o'clock the head of the main squadron had reached the point two and a half miles above the forts; then as the ships turned, they changed the course so that when abreast of Fort Walker they should be only 800 yards distant; and in this closer formation they steamed with great deliberation southward.
From a reconnoissance DuPont had learned of the weakness of the northern flank of Fort Walker, and on this point each ship opened with her forward pivot as soon as she came in range. The Confederates, unprepared for an attack on this quarter, suffered from the enfilading fire, which dismounted a few of the guns and greatly annoyed the defenders. And their confusion increased when in addition to the enfilading fire, still kept up by the rear of the Union line, full broadsides swept the parapets from the leading ships, now abreast of the fort.
Meanwhile, a small Confederate squadron of four gunboats under Commodore Tattnall came down the river and endeavored to make its presence known. Tattnall was a cool and daring officer who had served long in the old navy, and when the Union columns had first moved against the forts he had advanced as if to give battle to the entire fleet. Taking a raking position he fired several ineffectual broadsides at the Wabash. But as that ship came within range, he wisely retreated in haste up Skull Creek; there he was out of the fight, yet still showed his spirit by p249dipping his blue flaga three times, "regretting his inability to return the high-flown compliments of Flag-Officer DuPont in a more satisfactory manner."6 The flanking squadron, by remaining at the northern end of the loop, prevented Tattnall's emerging from Skull Creek, and also kept up point enfilading fire on Walker.
The main squadron reached its starting place at 11 A.M. and then proceeded to execute another ellipse; but this time the ships as they turned to southward moved still nearer to Fort Walker, taking a course less than 600 yards distant.
The forts were considered strong and well equipped, yet the defense crumbled under the fire of the fleet. The commanding officers gave various explanations in their reports to Richmond: only a part of the guns could be used against the ships, many of the shells would not fit the guns and were useless, ammunition was insufficient, and gun crews became exhausted — all of which indicated lack of preparation and discipline. Yet, had the forts been fully manned and equipped, the slight losses sustained by the fleet give reason for believing that it might still have been successful. More troops and ammunition would not have made up for the defects in the construction of the forts. The batteries were arranged to command the sea‑front; but against an attack from inside the sound they had no defense. The guns were nearly all mounted en barbette, that is, above a parapet, thus affording the advantage of wide range, but with the disadvantage of little protection to the gunners. Consequently, although it was estimated at this time that one gun on shore was equal to four on ship, the superiority of the land batteries was lost almost the moment the ships took the enfilading position. For though the fire of the fleet did not do great p250damage to the guns themselves, it drove the gunners to shelter.
Major Huger, C. S. A., one of the defenders of Fort Walker, recognized its weakness, as in his official report he said:
"Three of them [the Union ships] took position to enfilade our batteries from our northwest flank, while others which had not yet got into action assumed direction opposite our southeast front, and their largest ship [the Wabash] . . . returned down our front, delivering a beautifully accurate fire at short range, supported at rather longer range by the fire of two other large ships of war. So soon as these positions had become established, the fort was fought simply as a point of honor, for, from that moment, we were defeated, except perhaps by providential interference."7
When the main squadron had reached the northern end of the ellipse for the third time and was about to begin another bombardment on the southern course, the Ottawa signaled that the works at Hilton Head had been abandoned. Commander John Rodgers was sent ashore with a flag of truce, and, finding that the fort was indeed deserted, at 2.20 P.M. raised the flag of the Union. The transports now came up, and before night troops had landed and occupied the works. At sunset it was discovered that Fort Beauregard was no longer flying the Confederate flag, and early next morning that defense also was occupied by Union points.
The victory was extremely important. It created alarm in South Carolina, and caused troops about to leave for Virginia to be retained for the protection of their own State. It gave the Union an excellent harbor, of the greatest advantage for fitting out expeditions against the strongholds along the coast, and for protecting the blockade. Incidentally, the engagement demonstrated the value of steam power, and showed that ships could used even p251in attacking strongly armed forts. Finally, the victory, coming in the latter part of 1861, when a gloom was overhanging the North from the many disasters on land, brought cheer and encouragement. A stronghold had been seized in South Carolina, the State that had been first to secede.
On the same day the Union flag was raised over Fort Beauregard there occurred elsewhere an event which at first was hailed as a great achievement on the part of the navy, but which soon proved a grave menace, for it involved the United States almost in a European war. It was the "Trent affair."
The Confederacy had early sought recognition from the leading European states, but although their representatives were given a friendly reception in England and elsewhere, they were received merely as private citizens. President Davis then resolved to send commissioners of the highest ability to England and France, hoping that they might succeed where the others had failed; he accordingly selected James M. Mason of Virginia and John Slidell of Louisiana, with J. E. Macfarland and George Eustis as their secretaries; both Mr. Mason and Mr. Slidell were United States senators when their States seceded, and both had earlier held important posts in the diplomatic service. Eluding the blockade, they sailed from Charleston to Nassau and then to Cardenas, Cuba; on November 7 they took passage on the British mail-steamer Trent, Havana to St. Thomas, on their way to England. It was the seizing of the commissioners on the Trent by an armed United States ship that so violently aroused all Europe and America.
Captain Charles Wilkes, commanding the San Jacinto in West Indian waters, who had earlier distinguished p252himself in Antarctic exploration, resolved to intercept the Confederate commissioners. As they made no effort to maintain secrecy after arriving in Cuba, Captain Wilkes learned of their intended departure on the Trent, and took up his station in the Old Bahama Channel. At 11.40 A.M., November 8, the smoke of a steamer was reported, which was rightly guessed to be the Trent. What followed Captain Wilkes states in his official report.8
"We were all prepared for her, beat to quarters, and orders were given to Lieutenant D. M. Fairfax to have two boats manned and armed to board her and make Messrs. Slidell, Mason, Eustis, and Macfarland prisoners, and send them immediately on board. . . .
"The steamer approached and hoisted English colors. Our ensign was hoisted, and a shot was fired across her bow; she maintained her speed and showed no disposition to heave to; then a shell was fired across her bow, which brought her to. I hailed that I intended to send a boat on board, and Lieutenant Fairfax, with the second cutter of this ship, was dispatched. He met with some difficulty, and remaining on board the steamer with a part of the boat's crew, sent the boat back for more assistance. The captain of the steamer having declined to show his papers and passenger list, a force became necessary to search her. Lieutenant James A. Greer was at once dispatched in the third cutter, also manned and armed.
"Messrs. Slidell, Mason, Eustis, and Macfarland were recognized and told they were required to go on board this ship; this they objected to, until an overpowering force compelled them. Much persuasion was used and a little force, and at about two o'clock they were brought on board this ship and received by me. Two other boats were then sent to expedite the removal of their baggage p253and some stores, when the steamer, which proved to be the Trent, was suffered to proceed on her route to the eastward, and at 3.30 P.M. we bore away to the northward and westward. The whole time employed was two hours, thirteen minutes.
"It was my determination to take possession of the Trent and send her to Key West as a prize, for resisting search and carrying these passengers, whose character and objects were well known to the captain, but the reduced number of my officers and crew, and the large number of passengers on board bound to Europe who would be put to great inconvenience, decided me to allow them to proceed."
The prisoners were taken to Boston and confined in Fort Warren. Captain Wilkes became at once a popular hero. He was given a grand ovation in Boston and New York, lauded by the public press, and thanked by a joint resolution of Congress. Even the Cabinet with one exception, the Postmaster-General, were delighted with the capture. But while the country was being thus swept by an outburst of enthusiasm, President Lincoln, with his rare discernment, perceived the complications that were soon to follow. He remarked: "I fear the traitors will prove to be white elephants. We must stick to American principles concerning the rights of neutrals. We fought Great Britain for insisting, by theory and practice, on the right to do exactly what Captain Wilkes has done. If Great Britain shall now protest against the act, and demand their release, we must give them up, apologize for the act as a violation of our doctrines, and thus forever bind her over to keep the peace in relation to neutrals, and so acknowledge that she has been wrong for sixty years."9
Great Britain did protest, and Lord Lyons, the British p254minister, was instructed, unless redress including the surrender of the commissioners was forthcoming within seven days, to depart with "the archives of the legation, and . . . repair immediately to London."10 Meanwhile, the British Government, without waiting for developments, embarked troops for Halifax, conveyed muskets from London Tower for shipment, and made ready all kinds of warlike munitions.
Although the matter primarily concerned only England, the Emperor of France, the King of Prussia, and the Emperor of Austria had within a month of the receipt of the news communicated with the Foreign Office, London, and their own diplomatic representatives in Washington, expressing their approval of England's attitude in the controversy. In short, just as emphatically as the United States had approved of Wilkes's act, Europe disapproved.
War was averted, however, by the United States' disavowing the act and surrendering the prisoners to English custody, January 1, 1862. As the affair involves such an important point in international law much has since been written on it. The best authorities of recent years agree in condemning the act of Captain Wilkes. While he had the right to stop the Trent and search her, he could not possess himself of any persons on her without taking the ship into port as a prize. Neither the commissioners nor their dispatches, being of a non‑military character, could be regarded as contraband of war, and therefore the ship was not liable to capture except on the ground of resistance to search. Since obstacles in the way of search were interposed by the captain of the Trent, Wilkes would have been justified in taking the ship into port, though whether a court would have considered the resistance as sufficient to condemn her is a matter of conjecture.11
1 Report of the Secretary of the Navy, 1861, p10.
2 Causes of the Civil War, p164.
3 Soley, The Blockade and the Cruisers, p8.
4 Although the ships were sailing under sealed orders, the following telegram was sent, on November 1, from Richmond, to Governor Pickens and Generals Drayton and Ripley of South Carolina: "I have just received information, which I consider entirely reliable, that the enemy's expedition is intended for Port Royal. J. P. Benjamin, Acting Secretary of War."
5 Naval War Records, XII, 262.
6 Savannah Republican, November 12, 1861, quoted in the Naval War Records, XII, 295.
7 Naval War Records, XII, 308.
8 Naval War Records, I, 130.
9 Lossing, History of the Civil War, II, 156.
10 Naval War Records, I, 161.
11 Harris, The Trent Affair, p264.
a Apparently the Bonnie Blue Flag, first seen as the flag of the Republic of West Florida: some details of its Confederate history are given in S. C. Arthur, The Story of the West Florida Rebellion, p153 f.
Images with borders lead to more information.
A Short History
of the U. S. Navy
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
Page updated: 12 Mar 13