When South Carolinian forces fired on Fort Sumter at the entrance to Charleston Harbor on 12 April 1861, they inaugurated a war that found the U.S. Navy completely unprepared to fight back. Nevertheless, within seven months, the Navy struck an important blow to restore the Union when it seized Port Royal, South Carolina. That expedition, led by Captain Samuel Francis Du Pont, marked the Union’s grandest success in 1861 after the disastrous defeats of Federal armies at First Manassas and Ball’s Bluff, Virginia, and Wilson’s Creek, Missouri. For Captain Du Pont, success at Port Royal marked the high point of a long career dedicated to serving his nation and the Navy. It also set the stage for his bitter dismissal as commander of the southern division of the Atlantic Blockading Squadron following a failed attack on Charleston itself in April 1863.
At the onset of the Civil War, the U.S. Navy was ill- suited to wage war against a Confederacy of nine million people and more than 3,000 miles of coastline. Of the 90 ships on Federal lists, 21 were classed as unserviceable, and only 42 were in commission. Just three ships were available for immediate work along the U.S. coast.1 The U.S. Naval Academy had been formally established as a four- year institution in 1850, but officers benefiting from its education were still very junior in the ranks. The Navy possessed no system for retiring elderly officers. Consequently, the cadre was top-heavy with officers no longer fit for sea service. Congress attempted to address the problem in 1855 by creating a retirement board, which counted Du Pont among its members. Unfortunately, the board’s recommendation to retire 201 senior captains raised such a political outcry that Congress voided the exercise. Du Pont was attacked in the U.S. Senate for his role on the board, and he feared retribution from those officers he had recommended for retirement and their political allies.2
President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a blockade of Confederate ports on 17 April 1861. Doing so implicitly recognized the South and its belligerency, since a formal blockade was an act of war, not one taken to suppress rebellion. Lincoln could have declared Southern ports closed or stationed ships outside them to collect tariffs and assert Federal control, but the Europeans made it clear they would honor only a formal blockade. Thus, President Lincoln’s proclamation not only strengthened the European predisposition to recognize Southern independence but also presented an unprepared Navy with the need to impose and enforce the blockade, lest it fail tests of international law.3
Navy Secretary Gideon Welles and his assistant, Gustavus V. Fox, spent May dispatching ships to Southern ports as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, Union warships could do little more than officially inform Southern authorities that their ports were blockaded and then try to catch any Confederate ships that slipped by. Unlike their predecessors in the age of sail, steam-powered ships in port were not limited to fortuitous winds in choosing the times of their departures. Consequently, blockaders kept their steam up to pursue blockade runners at all times, quickly consuming vast amounts of coal. The only forward bases available to the Federal Navy were Hampton Roads and Key West, both too far away to resupply blockaders rapidly emptying their bunkers. The Navy Department soon realized it needed forward coaling bases.
Conveniently, Professor Alexander Bache, Chief of the U.S. Coastal Survey, proposed that Fox convene a strategy board with Du Pont as a member. Fox agreed and invited Du Pont to help “condense all the vast information ... for the use of the blockading squadron.” Du Pont believed that the board was intended to raise the Coastal Survey’s profile, but agreed anyway.4 The strategy board became more than the information collector that Fox implied; it eventually recommended a course of action the Navy followed closely in the war’s first year. The strategy board produced five reports. The first, submitted 5 July, recommended two simultaneous expeditions to seize two ports on the Atlantic coast, including Fernandina, Florida, and one of more “purely military” significance. The two ports were intended as coaling stations; no one expected Federal forces to press inland.5 The board’s second report concentrated on the South Carolina coast, identifying three possible targets for attack: Bull’s Bay, just north of Charleston; St. Helena Sound, midway between Charleston and Savannah; and Port Royal, just north of Savannah. Of the three, Port Royal was thought to be too heavily defended to make it a likely target.6 The next report, released 16 July, concentrated on the North Carolina coast. North Carolina’s extensive inland waterways and barrier islands presented a real problem to the blockading ships. Confederate blockade runners and privateers could emerge from any number of inlets miles away from a blockaded port. Hatteras Inlet proved particularly troubling, and the board recommended closing it as quickly as possible. The Navy was to close other inlets by sinking stone-laden hulks in their channels. Noting the different nature of the North and South Carolina shores, the board also recommended splitting responsibility for the blockade into two commands divided by the North Carolina-South Carolina border.7 The fourth report revisited the Atlantic coast, paying special attention to Georgia, and the final report concentrated on the Gulf Coast.
On 21 July, as the strategy board completed work on its last two reports, the Union Army suffered its worst disaster to date at Bull Run, just outside Manassas, Virginia. Welles and Fox, eager to assert a more prominent role for the Navy, began pressing their case for a major naval expedition to seize a southern port. A series of meetings with the cabinet and senior Army leaders in late July and early August confirmed the political desirability of scoring such a major victory against the Confederacy.8 Secretary of War Simon Cameron quickly appointed General Thomas W. Sherman to command the Army’s contribution to a joint expedition against Fernandina, Bull’s Bay, and St. Helena. Welles followed up on 5 August, ordering Du Pont to lead a naval expedition for “the invasion and occupation of the sea coasts of the states in rebellion.’”
On 10 August, the Union Army suffered its second major defeat, at Wilson’s Creek, Missouri. For the second time in less than three weeks, Washington needed a victory to restore its flagging war effort. The U.S. Navy answered Wilson’s Creek by seizing Hatteras Inlet, as the strategy board had recommended. Between 26-28 August, seven ships commanded by Commodore Silas Stringham and embarking 860 troops under Major General Benjamin Butler pounded Forts Clark and Hatteras into submission. This event focused attention on the Navy’s offensive capabilities and renewed enthusiasm for Du Pont’s expedition against as-yet undetermined targets on the South Carolina coast.10 Unfortunately, Stringham’s success nearly proved to be Du Pont’s undoing. Butler and Stringham began expanding their foothold and called on Washington for more troops. General Winfield Scott, commanding the Union Army, ordered Sherman’s troops, intended for Du Pont’s expedition, to Washington to replace garrison troops sent south to strengthen Butler." Du Pont, already frustrated with Washington’s habit of assigning him forces only to take them away shortly thereafter, complained that Stringham had his priorities wrong. Expanding the Hatteras foothold was all well and good, but Stringham was paying precious little attention to the Confederacy’s Atlantic ports themselves, which were the key to maintaining the blockade’s legal authority.12
Lincoln himself put an end to the issue by canceling Scott’s order to Sherman, telling Welles that nothing must interfere with Du Pont’s expedition against a major Confederate port. That same day, 18 September, Welles formally split the Atlantic Blockading Squadron into northern and southern divisions, with their responsibilities divided by the North Carolina-South Carolina border. Du Pont took command of the southern division and left for New York to organize his fleet.13 In New York, Du Pont concentrated on getting his fleet into shape and acquiring surf boats for Sherman’s troops to land directly on the beach. Meanwhile, expectations for Du Pont’s expedition continued to grow in Washington. Even as Du Pont struggled to incorporate numerous ship types, often with civilian captains and inexperienced crews, into a fleet capable of conducting coordinated operations, officials in Washington remained in somewhat of a quandary. Clearly, Lincoln, his cabinet, and especially Welles and Fox expected a great victory from Du Pont. Fernandina, Bull’s Bay, and St. Helena did not fit that bill, yet no one ordered Du Pont specifically to attack a more prominent target, such as Port Royal, if not Charleston itself. On 15 October, the day before his fleet was scheduled to depart New York, Du Pont confided to his brother Henry, “This expedition has grown like a mushroom, much beyond the original intentions and therefore raising undue expectations—so that the points originally intended will seem insignificant, 1 fear, to the proportions it has assumed.”14 Yet, when the fleet sailed for Hampton Roads to rendezvous with Sherman’s 12,000 troops, it was divided into two squadrons ostensibly intended to attack Fernandina and Bull’s Bay. Welles left the choice of targets up to Du Pont and Sherman, but Fox pressed Du Pont to select Port Royal.15
Du Pont still had misgivings. He recognized Port Royal as politically more significant than Fernandina, Bull’s Bay, or St. Helena, and it was deeper that the other ports, to accommodate larger ships, but he was reluctant to let political rather than military necessity guide his choice.16 He also expected Port Royal to be more heavily defended, doubted the Army could contribute much to the attack on it, and had long wondered if the Navy possessed adequate firepower to defeat Forts Walker and Beauregard at the port’s entrance.17 By 21 October, after two days at Hampton Roads, Du Pont remained undecided, though he leaned toward Port Royal and felt that Sherman would have to go along with any decision that he, as fleet commander, made.18 Two events on 22 October settled the matter. First, Colonel Edward Baker, senator from Oregon and Lincoln’s close friend, was killed at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, just outside Leesburg, Virginia, on the Potomac River—the third defeat for Federal troops in as many months. Second, Fox paid a visit to Du Pont and Sherman at Hampton Roads to persuade the men to adopt the target of his choice. Port Royal it was.19
The target decided, Du Pont was eager to leave Hampton Roads, but he waited for the arrival of Charles Boutelle, a Coastal Survey expert on Port Royal. On 29 October, Du Pont led the largest U.S. battle fleet ever assembled to that date out of Hampton Roads and south toward Port Royal. Du Pont planned to have his 17 warships and 33 transports bear close to Cape Hatteras to pass inshore of the Gulf Stream, which would slow their progress. The fleet passed Hatteras on the night of the 31st but apparently closer than was wise. Several ships ran aground and signaled their distress, thoroughly disgusting Du Pont, who concluded their course was “too close for careless, stupid skippers or second- and third-class merchant captains.”20 Just when the fleet had passed what should have been the worst part of the journey, a terrible gale blew up from the southeast on 1 November and completely scattered Du Pont’s ships. The next morning, from his flagship, the Wabash, he spied nary a mast. When the Wabash finally arrived off Port Royal on 3 November, only seven vessels joined her.
Du Pont anchored off Port Royal awaiting the arrival of his scattered fleet and giving Boutelle time to survey the channel into Port Royal. The next afternoon, Du Pont dispatched his smaller ships across the bar outside Port Royal and ordered them to anchor in the sound beyond the range of Confederate guns. Confederate Commodore Josiah Tattnall sortied with his meager squadron of gunboats against the Federal fleet, but was quickly driven off. He made no move against the Federal armada after that.
On Tuesday, 5 November, Du Pont took the Wabash herself over the bar and into the sound, planning to lead the attack against Fort Walker on Hilton Head Island at the southern entrance to the channel. He attempted to attack Fort Walker that afternoon, hut the Wabash and the Susquehanna grounded and were stalled until dusk.21 Not all of his fleet had arrived, but reconnaissance of the Confederate defenses convinced Du Pont he could accomplish his mission with the forces on hand. In fact, only transports and cargo ships were destroyed in the storm with one turning back. Those lost included the Governor, which carried a battalion of Marines, the Union, and the Ocean Empress, which carried most of the Army’s artillery, contrary to Sherman’s foresight in ordering it distributed among the cargo vessels.22 Du Pont eventually dispatched several ships back outside the bar because of damage they had received during the storm—depriving Sherman of a regiment of regular troops and his best remaining batteries. The resulting decline of Army capabilities ensured that the Navy would have to take the port on its own.
Inclement weather returned on 6 November. A combination of tides and fresh winds from the southwest delayed the fleet’s ability to get into position for attack and would have forced Du Pont to turn twice under the guns of Fort Walker, so he delayed the attack a second time.23 After discussing affairs with Sherman that evening, Du Pont realized that the loss of the Army’s artillery left it virtually defenseless against counterattack. As a result, the Navy would have to linger in Port Royal to protect the Army’s positions ashore. Du Pont remarked, “I was so reminded of Captain Adams’ expression of what it was to have to protect soldiers—that it meant to do their work by day, and to put them to bed and tuck them in by night, and watch over them.”24
Port Royal’s defenses appeared forbidding at first. Fort Beauregard guarded the northern half of the port’s entrance from Bay Point. The fort boasted 13 cannon, but it possessed only one six-inch rifle that could reach across the water to support Fort Walker—two-and-a-half miles away on Hilton Head Island at the port’s southern reaches. Fort Walker was larger but was incomplete and had only 16 guns. Worse yet for the Confederates, traverses between gun positions were eliminated to accommodate additional ordnance that never arrived, making the fort vulnerable to enfilading fire.25
Du Pont’s plan of attack exploited the advantages of steam power. He intended to pass the fleet down the channel in the following order: the Wabash, the Susquehanna, the Mohican, the Seminole, the Pawnee, the Unadilla, the Ottawa, the Pembina, and the Vandalia, together mounting more than 123 guns and giving him a four-to-one advantage in firepower. After passing between both forts, the Wabash would turn southeast to close on Fort Walker. Du Pont intended the main column to steam in a counterclockwise ellipse behind the Wabash and pound Walker into submission before turning to the smaller Fort Beauregard. Du Pont stationed the gunboats Bienville, Seneca, Curlew, Penguin, and Augusta off the northern end of his ellipse, to guard his flank should Tattnall emerge from the Beaufort River behind Fort Beauregard. Du Pont’s plan took advantage of the rising tide, which flowed into the port during his attack. Its flow accelerated Du Pont’s passage past the point where his ships would be vulnerable to fire from both forts and retarded his southeasterly passage in front of Fort Walker, giving the ships more time to fire on their target before reaching the southern end of Du Pont’s ellipse.26
Du Pont’s attack got under way when the Wabash signaled the fleet to move out at 0800 on Thursday, 7 November. Fort Beauregard opened on the Federals first, but did little damage. All went well until the Wabash reached the northern end of the ellipse and prepared to turn on Fort Walker. Her officers noted that the fort’s northern flank was open to enfilade, and Du Pont signaled that fact to his ships. When the Wabash turned on a southeasterly course toward Fort Walker at about 1015, only the Susquehanna followed. The rest of the main column followed the Mohican and congregated off Fort Walker’s northern flank to enfilade it.27 As the Wabash and the Susquehanna described ellipses under Walker’s guns, Du Pont signaled repeatedly for the rest of the fleet to close formation.28 It did not, and Du Pont credited the Wabash and the Susquehanna with carrying out the bulk of the fighting.
Du Pont’s fleet and the forts exchanged fire for several hours. At one point, a rifled 80-pounder fouled on board the Wabash, and a crewman had to search Du Pont’s cabin to find the directions so the gun could be cleared.29 Despite Du Pont’s occasional jitters before the action, the duel between his fleet and Port Royal’s forts proved decidedly one-sided. Walker’s garrison abandoned the fort around noon. Fort Beauregard’s soon followed. Damage to the fleet was negligible: eight men killed and 23 wounded. The Wabash, the Susquehanna, and the Pawnee suffered minor damage.30 Suddenly, Du Pont found himself the victor of Port Royal and was as surprised as the Confederates. Writing his wife, Du Pont proclaimed, “The victory was complete and attended with circumstances which gave it a glare of brilliancy which I never looked forward to.”31 Similarly, he confessed to Fox, “It has been more complete and more brilliant than 1 ever could have believed.”32 So lopsided a victory coming close on the heels of the success at Hatteras reinforced the Navy Department’s belief in the unilateral striking power of fleets.33
Du Pont loitered in Port Royal while his transports landed the Army and expanded the foothold to nearby Beaufort and Tybee Island just off Savannah. Du Pont’s focus, however, remained on enforcing the blockade as envisioned by the strategy board. He made no move to exploit the victory beyond those steps taken to tighten the economic noose, yet those steps were not insignificant. Du Pont occupied St. Helena Sound, severed the inland waterway between Charleston and Savannah, posted additional ships off Southern ports, and attempted to close Savannah and Charleston by sinking stone-laden hulks in their passages.
Washington, however, wanted great victories—not the steady work of strengthening and enforcing a blockade that would wear down the Confederacy over time. The victories at Hatteras and Port Royal convinced Welles and Fox that the Navy could and should attempt to capture New Orleans. In April 1862, David Glasgow Farragut gave the Union, and the Navy, a grand victory when he took New Orleans without the Army. That same spring, the duel of the ironclads Monitor and Virginia convinced Welles and Fox that such ships were superweapons, impervious to fire. “Monitor fever” raced through Washington.34 If Du Pont could take Port Royal and Farragut New Orleans, then why could not the Navy take the seat of the rebellion itself, Charleston?
Du Pont did not share the Navy Department’s faith in monitors and believed that Charleston could be taken only by joint operations from land and sea. Nevertheless, after a year of pressure from Washington, on 7 April 1863, Du Pont led a force of monitors against Charleston and was repulsed. Losing one ship without visibly weakening the port’s defenses, Du Pont decided not to renew the attack. Welles was exasperated. It had taken a year to convince Du Pont to launch the attack, and he seemed unwilling to have another go at Charleston defenses. Confiding to his diary, Welles wrote, “I fear he [Du Pont] can no longer be useful in his present command, and am mortified and vexed that I did not earlier detect his vanity and weakness.”35 Welles had Du Pont relieved on 3 June.
If Du Pont’s relief seemed somewhat capricious, then he was partly responsible. Welles’s letters to Du Pont suggest that Du Pont failed to communicate his doubts about the Charleston expedition. While it is possible that Welles attempted to shift the blame for an improper attack from himself to Du Pont, it seems doubtful. Welles at first considered the attack on Charleston a success and certainly never seemed to accept the loss of a single ship as the sure indicator of defeat. The fact that he wanted Du Pont’s successor to renew the attack suggests this was the case.36
In either event, Du Pont’s relief had its roots in Washington’s rising expectations for its field commanders—expectations that Du Pont had feared during the Port Royal expedition but that his success there ironically affirmed. In the end, when Du Pont failed to live up to those expectations at Charleston, he paid the price for the ease of his victory over Forts Walker and Beauregard.
1. Bern Anderson, By Sea and By River: The Naval History of the Civil War (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1989), pp. 9-10, 35; James M. Merrill, Du Pont: The Making of an Admiral (New York: Dodd, Mead, & Company, Inc., 1986), p. 257; E. B. Potter and Chester W. Nimitz, eds., Sea Power (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1960), p. 251.
2. Merrill, op. cit., p. 217-225, 232; J. D. Hayes, ed., Samuel Francis Du Pont: A Selection from His Civil War Letters, 3 vols. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1969) p. 161.
3. Anderson, op. cit., p. 34.
4. Fox letter to Du Pont in Hayes, ed., op. cit., p. 71. Du Pont’s opinion of the hoard follows on pp. 86, 89.
5. Rowena Reed, Combined Operations in the Civil War (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1993— reprint of 1978 edition), p. 8.; Anderson, op. cit., p. 39.
6. William M. Fowler, Jr., Under Two Flags: The American Navy in the Civil War (New York: Avon Books, 1990), p. 55; Anderson, op. cit., p. 39; Reed, op. cit., p. 9.
7. Anderson, op. cit., p. 39.
8. Reed, op. cit., p. 10; Merrill, op. cit., p. 260; Anderson, op. cit., p. 40.
9.Welles letter to Du Pont in Hayes, op. cit., p. 126.
10. Potter and Nimitz, op. cit., p. 252; Reed, op. cit., p. 15.
11. Reed, op. cit., p. 22.
12. Hayes, ed., op. cit., p. 149.
13. Reed, op. cit., p. 22 for Lincoln’s decision; other events are taken from Du Pont’s personal letters in Hayes, ed., op. cit., pp. 147-159.
14. Hayes, ed., op. cit., p. 165.
15. Merrill, op. cit., p. 264.
16. Hayes, ed., op. cit., pp. 170-171.
17. Ibid.; Reed, op. cit., p. 23.
18. Hayes, ed., op. cit., pp. 170-171.
19. Ibid., p. 171, note 7, and pp. 179-182; see also p. 241.
20. Ibid., p. 203; Fowler, op. cit., p. 73.
21. Hayes, ed., op. cit., p. 216.
22. Reed, op. cit., p. 28.
23. Hayes, ed., op. cit., pp. 219-220.
24, Ibid., p. 221.
25. Reed, op. cit., pp. 26-27; Fowler, op. cit., p. 74.
26. Fowler, op. cit., p. 75; Reed, op. cit., p. 29; Merrill, op. cit., p. 266.
27. Reed, op. cit., p. 30.
28. Hayes, ed., op. cit., pp. 222-224, note 1; see also p. 239, note 13.
29. Ibid., p. 230.
30. Fowler, op. cit., p. 76; Merrill, op. cit., p. 266.
31. Hayes, ed., op. cit., pp. 222-223.
32. Ibid., p. 230.
33. Fowler, op. cit., p. 103.
34. Ibid., pp. 103-105, 253.; Merrill, op. cit., p. 279.
35. Merrill, op. cit., p. 297.
36. Anderson, op. cit., pp. 168-172.