By Syd Overall
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2014, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from a presentation made by the author to the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable on February 12, 2014.
The Union Blockade
The Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter was a 33-hour, one-sided ordeal which triggered the War of the Rebellion. Within a week, the basic policies of the war were determined. Two days after the surrender of the fort, President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteer troops from loyal states to preserve the Union against the insurrection of seven Deep South States organized as the Confederate States of America. Four Upper South slave states then declared for secession. Two days later, Confederate President Jefferson Davis proclaimed the issuance of letters of marque to private ship owners to be Confederate privateers to attack United States non-combatant ship owners following the American practice in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Lincoln then proclaimed a blockade of the Confederacy. Three weeks after the insurrection at Charleston, on May 6, the Confederate Congress formally declared war on the United States.
In the early months of the war, General in Chief Winfield Scott advocated a plan to defeat the Confederacy derided by Union newspapers as the Anaconda Plan. With a blockade imposed on the Confederacy, operating like an anaconda snake to strangle its economy, Scott projected amphibious army-navy operations down the Mississippi River to capture New Orleans and to divide the Confederacy. The Lincoln administration did not formally accept the Anaconda Plan but it was well publicized and followed.
Following the presidential order for a blockade, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles suspended the operations of seven overseas squadrons. These warships had drafts of 22 feet and had to be positioned considerably offshore from Confederate seaports but were still able to capture blockade runners. Less than a month after the insurrection, on May 11, the U. S. Navy implemented the blockade with 11 warships. Congress over four years provided for an immense increase in naval warships and a modest increase in manpower. Indeed, there were soon ample warships on blockade patrol to navigate the coastal waters of the Confederacy. The Navy bought 418 steam-propelled ships with shallow drafts for conversion into warships during the war and contracted for the construction of 208 warships (James M. McPherson, War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865, p. 224). By January 1865, 471 warships served in four blockade squadrons with 2,455 guns, an average of 5.2 guns per warship, emplying many small warships (Allan Nevins, The War for the Union, Vol. 3: The Organized War, 1863-1864, p. 285). Union naval officers, sailors, and marines were five percent of all Union military personnel and fewer in the Confederate Navy (James M. McPherson, War on the Waters, p. 8). The annual Union Navy expenditures increased ten-fold during the war, from $12 million to $123 million (Spencer C. Tucker, Blue & Gray Navies: The Civil War Afloat, p. 1).
The Navy had many wartime assignments. The Navy was very successful with its prime task to blockade the Confederacy, initially forcing blockade runners after one year of war to weigh anchor at night. The Navy became the second largest navy in the world, imposing an increasingly effective but never an airtight blockade. The Navy contended with few Confederate privateers. Confederate ship owners soon abandoned privateering to profit more from blockade running. The Navy aided in some fifty combined operations with the Army, mostly on or near the Mississippi River. But the two Naval Battles of Charleston on April 7 and September 7-8, 1863 were utter defeats. A related lapse in strategy at Charleston also did not disrupt the momentum of the Union Navy. For reference, the Union had 5.5 million tons of shipping compared to barely half a million tons for the Confederacy. But the Union Navy did not convoy American merchant ships on the high seas (William N. Still, Jr., The Confederate Navy: The Ships, Men and Organization, 1861-1865, p. 7).
Upon formal notification of a blockade, the British government declared neutrality, and never wavered from that decision. Britain expected international law to be upheld and so the Royal Navy would not convoy British merchant ships to Confederate ports as Confederate leaders had hoped. Other European nations followed suit. Britain and the other European nations denied Confederate commerce raiders to sell seized merchant ships in their ports, denying a windfall to the Confederacy. On declaring neutrality, Her Majesty’s government encouraged individual Britons to be neutral. However, many British businessmen traded in contraband goods and many Royal Navy officers, soon on leave and using fictitious names, commanded many blockade runners. If captured, international law provided for their quick release from custody.
One month after the insurrection, the USS Niagara inaugurated the blockade, appearing off Charleston, South Carolina. Four days later, the Niagara left station for coal. To have steamers on station longer, the Navy promoted amphibious operations in late 1861 to have two supply sites on the Confederate Atlantic coast. The Navy gained a lodgment on the Outer Banks of North Carolina in August, and a lodgment at Port Royal Sound, South Carolina, in November. The Confederacy soon concluded the lodgments were not launching sites into the Confederate interior and placed state militia to guard nearby. In the Gulf of Mexico, a combined operation in September reclaimed Ship Island, 12 miles off the coast of Mississippi, to be the supply base for the West Gulf Blockading Squadron.
For the blockade, the Navy extensively patrolled at seven seaports, each having a railroad link to the interior: Norfolk, Virginia; Wilmington, North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; Pensacola, Florida; Mobile, Alabama; and New Orleans, Louisiana. After a year of war, the Confederacy had only three seaports open: Wilmington, North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina; and Mobile, Alabama. The Confederacy imported and exported from Matamoras, Mexico, on the upper Rio Grande River.
The Union blockade was very effective. Considering Confederate port activity, the “total number of ships trading in or out of Confederate ports declined to roughly a third of prewar levels” (Craig L. Symonds, Lincoln and His Admirals, p. 48). The service life of blockade runners was an average of “just over four runs, or two round trips” (Stephen R. Wise, Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running During the Civil War, p. 221). Confederate shipments of cotton during the war declined to perhaps 25 percent of the prewar level, very harmful to the Confederate economy. British statistics on cotton imports were more revealing: “In 1860, the United States supplied 77 percent of cotton for Britain’s mills; in 1864, the figure was 8 percent” (Lance E. Davis and Stanley L. Engerman, Naval Blockades in Peace and War: An Economic History Since 1750, p. 146). The blockade constricted the Confederate economy except for key military imports: “On blockade runners came 60 percent of the South’s arms; one-third of its lead for bullets, ingredients for three-fourths of its powder, nearly all of its paper for cartridges, and the majority of its cloth and leather for uniforms and accoutrements” (Stephen R. Wise, Lifeline of the Confederacy, p. 7).
New Orleans Falls
With the blockade underway, after seven months of war, upon the urging of Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox, Lincoln authorized a combined army-navy operation from the Gulf of Mexico to capture New Orleans. New Orleans was the largest Confederate city and a major shipbuilding center. Nearby Ship Island was the staging site for Flag Officer David G. Farragut and the West Gulf Blockading Squadron to capture that city after one year of war. From extensive publication of the Anaconda Plan in Union newspapers, Jefferson Davis erroneously held that an attack on New Orleans would only be from the upper Mississippi River. For the prospective Battle of Shiloh in southwest Tennessee, he greatly reduced army defenses at New Orleans by sending many regiments to the staging site of Corinth, Mississippi, a rail conjunction.
After the ineffective two-day bombardment by 13-inch mortars at Forts Jackson and St. Philip, the main defense of New Orleans 65 miles south of New Orleans, Farragut ran the gauntlet just after the Battle of Shiloh. He anchored seventeen warships by the city docks on April 25 and demanded the surrender of the city. A timely Confederate mutiny at Forts Jackson and St. Philip allowed General Benjamin Butler and his 10,000 troops to occupy New Orleans on May 1, a week after Farragut demanded the surrender of the city. Congress awarded Farragut and his men the formal Thanks of Congress.
Several days after New Orleans was occupied, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells ordered Flag Officer Samuel Du Pont, commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, to capture Charleston. Charleston was the second busiest seaport of the Confederacy and remembered vividly in the Union as the cradle of secession. Du Pont attacked eleven months later. A second attack five months later led by Du Pont’s relief, Rear Admiral John Dahlgren, also failed.
All warships but one in the Naval Battles of Charleston were monitors, unique steam-powered ironclads. Congress had been slow to accept the steam technology for warships. By 1850, the British Royal Navy had 150 steam-powered warships, the French had 70, while the United States had only six. France commissioned the first ironclad, La Gloire, in 1859. It had 4½ inches of iron over a wooden frame several inches below the waterline. In this Age of Pax Britannia, Britain responded the next year by commissioning the iron warship HMS Warrior. In several years, Britain commissioned many more iron warships to offset a threat of the French Navy in the English Channel and on the high seas.
France declined to sell La Gloire to the Confederacy. Without La Gloire, three months into the war, Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory ordered the reworking of the USS Merrimack, captured at the Norfolk Yard when the war began. One year later, the Confederacy had its first commissioned ironclad, CSS Virginia.
Mallory forced Welles to acquire ironclad warships. Welles tracked the construction of the Virginia from Confederate newspaper articles. Spy reports followed when the Confederacy imposed secrecy. As Welles sought, Congress initially budgeted to construct three ironclad warships. Five months into the war, engineer John Ericsson, a former Swede, won a verbal contract to build an iron warship in 90 days with paperwork to follow. Two other contracts were awarded. USS Galena was like the French La Gloire and USS New Ironsides was similar to the British Warrior.
After eight months of war, Welles received a copy of the Confederate Navy recommendations for ironclad construction. Welles reacted by asking Congress to budget for twenty ironclads, pledging to reduce all Confederate harbor forts for capture by Union armies (Stephen Howarth, To Shining Sea: A History of the United States Navy, 1775-1998, p. 185; William H. Roberts, Civil War Ironclads: The U.S. Navy and Industrial Mobilization, p. 32). The new policy was: if you could blockade a seaport, you could capture it.
Ericsson constructed the first Union iron warship with the least possible target area and to carry large guns, a turret of two 11-inch guns. The ship design sacrificed freeboard height, habitation room, and room to repair guns and machinery. For speedy construction, he substituted six one-inch armor plates rather than wait for thicker armor plates. Production troubles delayed the commissioning for 42 days beyond the stipulated 90 days. Ericsson was allowed to name the warship and he chose the name Monitor. The warship rode one foot above sea level with a draft of 10½ feet, a speed of 6 knots, displacing 987 tons for 10 officers and 48 sailors to experience forced draft ventilation. Ericsson met most contract provisions. Notably, the Navy accepted a unique warship without the expected sails.
Ironclads Monitor and Virginia battled at Hampton Roads where three Virginia rivers meet. The two-gun USS Monitor fought the ten-gun CSS Virginia to a draw. The warships circled each other for three and one-half hours at close range, apart by a few yards to over 100 yards. Monitor registered twenty minor hits but it failed to shoot at the waterline of the Virginia. Monitor tried to hit the enemy’s exposed propeller and rudder. Crew members of the Monitor held hand grenades ready to stop boarding by the crew of the larger Virginia. While a draw, Monitor was the real victor – it neutralized the Virginia, saved the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron from destruction, and allowed General George McClellan to proceed confidently with his Peninsula Campaign launched that month.
Less than a week after the Battle of Hampton Roads, Ericsson received a verbal order to build six improved monitors for blockade duty. Warship displacement doubled for the improved version. Assistant Secretary of the Union Navy Gustavus Fox had witnessed the entire battle of the ironclads. He visited Ericsson in New York City to have future monitors equipped with 15-inch guns. Fox was so enamored with the Monitor that he pressed, and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles agreed, for an order for two ocean-going ironclads in June 1862, to match the British HMS Warrior. Ericsson designed the USS Dictator, commissioned in 1864 with two 15-inch guns, and USS Puritan, launched but never commissioned, to have 20-inch guns. The Navy ordered seven classes of monitors during the war, six classes were ever larger monitors. Of the 84 Union ironclad warships launched, 64 were of the monitor design. The twenty non-monitor ironclads were flat-bottomed gunboats serving mostly in the Western Theater.
CSS Virginia was the prototype for 22 ironclads commissioned by the Confederate Navy. This ironclad had the profile of a house roof because the Confederacy lacked the ability to roll curved armor. The ironclad delivered traditional broadsides. Iron plating consisted of two layers of two-inch thick plates. The Confederate Navy tried to build a one turret-type monitor in 1863, mounting two 11-inch guns, but construction was suspended in 1865. Of the 22 Confederate ironclads, five were designed to break the Union blockade. Other ironclads were smaller, tasked for river and harbor defense. All Confederate ironclads had mechanical problems. They lacked speed, were difficult to handle, and were frequently inoperable. In handling, the Virginia took thirty to forty minutes just to turn around.
Independently, the U. S. Army aimed to capture Charleston in July 1862. Major General David Hunter, commander of the Department of the South, knew a weakness in the land defenses and put troops on James Island only to quickly retreat. Faulty intelligence was corrected, revealing he faced too many Confederate soldiers. The Confederates then deployed 17,000 troops on James Island to foil another attack on Charleston. Over time, fewer thousands of Confederate troops defended Charleston.
Upset at McClellan’s failures in the Peninsula Campaign in July and Pope’s defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run in late August, Secretary of State William Seward suggested in the next month that the Navy join in an attack at Charleston (Ari Hoogenboom, Gustavus Vasa Fox of the Union Navy: A Biography, p. 168). Major General John Foster, previously a junior officer at the bombardment of Fort Sumter, was transferred from North Carolina with 10,000 troops to act on Seward’s suggestion. Five months after that suggestion, on February 15, 1863, Foster presented a plan to Lincoln, Stanton, Halleck, and Fox, seeking authorization for a combined operation. Foster aimed to capture Morris Island, adjacent to James Island, to place heavy artillery to neutralize Fort Sumter and to fire on Charleston. Foster wanted the Navy to provide monitors for covering gunfire in his capture of Morris Island.
In that February meeting at the White House, Fox countered Foster’s plan by suggesting a naval operation. Monitors would sail past the harbor forts and obstacles to weigh anchor at the docks to demand the surrender of the city. Intensely opposed to a siege, remembering McClellan at Richmond, Lincoln wanted Fox to examine Charleston’s defenses with Foster and to discuss the matter with Du Pont (Ari Hoogenboom, Gustavus Vasa Fox of the Union Navy: A Biography, p. 171). Fox made no reconnaissance as Welles interceded to retain him in Washington. There was no competent reconnaissance of the harbor and the civilian naval leadership remained determined for an all-Navy attack to capture Charleston. What Farragut did at New Orleans, Du Pont could do at Charleston.
Assistant Secretary of the Navy Fox was the architect of the Naval Battles of Charleston. Fox served eighteen years in the Navy, appropriately promoted to lieutenant. Fox had authored and implemented a plan accepted by Lincoln to replenish Fort Sumter by sea at night. In that relief expedition, he led five ships, arriving on the early morning of April 12 at the entrance of the harbor of Charleston to witness the Confederate bombardment. He retrieved the small garrison and returned to New York City. Two months after the Battle of Hampton Roads, Fox urged monitors to attack Charleston. He appreciated that public opinion was crucial for a democracy at war, recognizing that impressive naval victories built service and public morale and induced large appropriations from Congress for the Navy (Ari Hoogenboom, Gustavus Vasa Fox of the Union Navy: A Biography, p. 125). But Fox’s three letters to Du Pont over his new assignment revealed a strong psychological emphasis to punish the cradle of secession. Further, in his third letter of June 3, 1862, he wrote: “I feel that my duties are twofold; first, to beat our southern friends; second, to beat the Army” (Robert Means Thompson and Richard Wainwright, editors, Confidential Correspondence of Gustavus Vasa Fox, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, 1861-1865, Vol. II, p. 126).
Secretary of the Navy Welles strongly supported a naval attack on Charleston. He craved a Union victory to offset those two recent significant army defeats in the Eastern Theater and wanted the seizure of the seat of evil. Welles and Fox became a proficient executive team. Welles was considered “knowledgeable and shrewd and Fox was impulsive, energetic, enthusiastic, and gregarious” (Ari Hoogenboom, Gustavus Vasa Fox of the Union Navy: A Biography, p. 312).
The Charleston Defenses
For coastal defense, the Confederacy inherited Union harbor fortifications. Following the War of 1812, the national defense of the United States was harbor fortifications with Regular Army soldiers and state militia rallying at threatened seaports. In a revised prewar plan, the Army indicated 126 harbors to have coastal fortifications. Over decades, construction of fortifications greatly lagged, evident at Charleston. The key to the defense of Charleston harbor was Fort Sumter at the entrance, towering 50 feet above water level. The construction of the fort began in 1829 for 135 guns on three levels. In 1861, only ten guns were mounted with a garrison of 80 officers and soldiers.
Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard was the architect of the Union defeat in the naval battles at Charleston. There was no secrecy over a pending Union Navy attack, as northern newspapers had printed for several weeks articles of an ironclad fleet soon to destroy Charleston. Beauregard arranged 385 artillery guns in three fire zones in the four-mile long harbor. He added guns to Fort Sumter and placed range buoys at the inlet.
Five months after ordering the attack, in October 1862, Welles and Du Pont discussed the pending operation. Du Pont requested more ironclads, accepting the premise of battle, and Welles obliged. The Department sent him all but one of the improved ironclads. At that time, Flag Officer Samuel Lee, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, wanted monitors to attack the outer defenses of the harbor of Wilmington, North Carolina, and Flag Officer David Farragut, commanding the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, wanted monitors to capture Mobile, Alabama. Farragut received four monitors and after a firefight, he closed Mobile Bay in August 1864. Farragut had exclaimed: “Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead.” Only in early 1865 were those two seaports captured with monitors leading the attacks.
The First Union Attempt to Take Charleston
As Du Pont hesitated to attack, Confederates at Charleston attempted to break the Union blockade. Four months before Du Pont’s attack at Charleston, before daylight on January 30, 1863, Confederate ironclads Palmetto State and Chicora attacked the inner formation of the blockade of ten wooden steamers just outside Charleston harbor. Local Confederate leaders concluded Union ironclads had probably sailed to Port Royal for repairs (Spencer C. Tucker, Blue & Gray Navies, p. 240; T. Harry Williams, P.G.T. Beauregard: Napoleon in Gray, p. 173). The Union wooden steamers were dispersed; one warship was sunk; another partially disabled. Beauregard in command at Charleston declared the blockade broken. If true, this would require the United States to re-impose a blockade, providing an open harbor for perhaps six weeks. But other Union blockade warships had attempted to join the fray and the two Confederate ironclads returned to harbor (William N. Still, Jr., Iron Afloat: The Story of the Confederate Armorclads, pp. 117, 119-123). British, French, and Spanish consuls at Charleston sailed outside the harbor to observe if the blockade had been raised and reported the station had not been abandoned (William N. Still, Jr., Iron Afloat, p. 124).
Almost five months after his meeting with Welles, Du Pont thought the method of Farragut at New Orleans would be futile at Charleston. Du Pont tested the firepower of monitors in four operations to impress Welles and Fox of that futility. Du Pont chose attacks on Fort McAllister at Savannah, Georgia. Firstly, USS Montauk on February 1 battled four hours without effect, sailing as close as 600 yards, taking 48 hits. A month later, on March 3, in the last test, three monitors fired on Fort McAllister. The damage was slight – nothing that could not be repaired overnight. Du Pont’s report failed to impress Welles and Fox. A frustrated Welles wrote in his diary on March 12: “’Du Pont is getting as prudent as McClellan.’” (Howard J. Fuller, Clad in Iron: The American Civil War and the Challenge of British Naval Power, p. 244). This entry was not a compliment.
Eleven months after Welles issued the order, the first attack occurred on April 7, 1863. Du Pont ordered nine warships to enter the harbor of Charleston by the main channel in single file 200 yards apart. Eight monitors had two heavy guns and the armored frigate New Ironsides had a broadside capability of twenty guns. Du Pont ordered an attack firstly on Fort Sumter just past the inlet of the harbor to silence those guns and secondly to attack Fort Moultrie opposite Fort Sumter. Du Pont was aboard USS New Ironsides, the largest warship with a tall mast for signaling but located fifth in line. The deep draft of New Ironsides restricted it to the main entrance channel. From his location, Du Pont was unable to dash ahead like Farragut did past the two forts south of New Orleans. Du Pont relied on the captain of the first warship in the line to lead the warships into battle.
The battle began in the early afternoon of April 7, delayed to better spot for obstructions at the inlet. Du Pont had made an inadequate surveillance of the obstacles. But Ericson had provided four rafts about 50 feet long for four monitors to push ahead to fire off Confederate torpedoes (as water mines were called at that time). On arrival, three rafts were immediately lost. The fourth raft on the lead warship fouled on the anchor chain on the day of the attack and with another complication, it was cut away. The monitor captains had not practiced with the new devices.
At 1:15 p.m., Captain John Rodgers, commander of USS Weehawken, led the slow-moving warships into the harbor entrance. Rodgers spotted many Confederate obstructions and judged them too formidable. He immediately stopped, fearful that his and the other warships would have their propellers entangled in the obstructions. The other warships stopped. Then all warships spread in an arc perhaps one-eighth of a mile inside the harbor entrance. Du Pont had failed to reconnoiter the Confederate defenses to indicate channels to sail and he had failed to order his captains to run the gauntlet. The Confederate obstacles had been effective. In turn, the Union Navy’s 36 guns were little match for the 76 Confederate cannons in the first fire zone. The Confederates fired 2,209 shots and the Union warships slowly returned 151 shots, a ratio of over 14 to 1. The Union warships directed most gunfire on Fort Sumter but made no effort to pass the rope obstruction. The battle continued for nearly two hours at ranges of 550 to 800 yards from Fort Sumter.
The Confederacy achieved a spectacular victory at Charleston by repulsing the nine Union warships on April 7. The nine Union warships endured a total of 408 hits, but Confederate artillery had disabled five monitors and two monitors had to be taken under tow. USS Keokuk, with thinner armor plating, sailed within 550 yards of Fort Sumter and took many hits below the waterline. It sank the next day in 18 feet of water at high tide off Morris Island. To add insult to injury, the Confederates retrieved the Keokuk’s two 11-inch guns by silent, laborious night work over many weeks. Local newspapers remained silent until the guns were obtained. Welles gave Du Pont a letter of censure for carelessness on this incident.
After the Confederate shelling, a review of the warships revealed jammed turrets, misaligned gun carriages, and broken bolt heads and nuts holding the laminated armor plates. USS Nantucket had a disabled shutter that prevented the firing of its 15-inch guns.
Captain Alexander Rhind, commander of the sunken Keokuk, represented Du Pont for an after-action report to Welles and Fox, with Lincoln present. Rhind spoke of the ordeal of the battle. In hindsight, the civilian leaders of the Navy had ignored the slow speed of the monitors, the greater rate of Confederate artillery gunfire, a harbor four miles long, and the slow firing rate of Union monitor guns ranging from 7 to 10 minutes. Rhind did not answer the key question of why there was no running of the gauntlet. Rhind did not mention that Du Pont’s orders excluded that prospect. Welles, in particular, could not understand why the monitors continued to shell Fort Sumter and had not sailed into the inner harbor (Stephen R. Taaffe, Commanding Lincoln’s Navy: Union Naval Leadership During the Civil War, p. 139). Then Welles learned several days later that the New Ironsides saw little action, a warship with a broadside capability (Stephen R. Taaffe, Commanding Lincoln’s Navy, p. 139). Both Welles and Fox concluded there was poor handling of the attack.
Lincoln intervened to have the monitors remain on station to keep pressure on the Confederacy, aware that Hooker planned to advance on Richmond. Hooker’s campaign ended later that month in defeat at the Battle of Chancellorsville. (Robert M. Browning, Jr., Success Is All That Was Expected: The South Atlantic Blockading Squadron During the Civil War, p.187). The continued retention of the monitors at Charleston was a strategic lapse.
After the repulse, Navy Chief Engineer Alban Stimers reported his examination of the monitors to Welles: there were no penetrations through the iron plating despite the harsh hammering, and there were no structural failures (Howard J. Fuller, Clad in Iron, p. 249). An aroused Stimers told a reporter of the Baltimore Sun that the operation was handled by “’incompetent hands’” and the newspaper published an article to that effect (Craig L. Symonds, The Civil War at Sea (Reflections on the Civil War Era), p. 133). Du Pont learned Stimers influenced the article and had Stimers arrested. Welles squashed the arrest and ordered a Court of Inquiry. After five months of testimony, there were no grounds for a court martial as Stimers’ comments to the newspaper were mostly true. This was all very embarrassing to Du Pont.
In his final report of the engagement, Du Pont had a harsh analysis of what he considered to be the structural defects of the monitors based on his captains’ reports (John Niven, Gideon Welles: Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy, pp. 435-437). Du Pont pressed for his report to be made public to explain the repulse and to bolster his honor discredited by Union newspaper coverage. Du Pont called upon his friends with political influence to support him (Stephen R. Wise, Gate of Hell: Campaign for Charleston Harbor, 1863, p. 32). Welles denied this request. Du Pont failed to realize that disclosure of this report would have two grave consequences: the Confederacy would be well-informed of the many weaknesses of monitors, and a political squabble in Congress would follow over many millions of dollars spent for warships deemed essential but now shown to be a failure in an offensive operation.
Welles tried to be conciliatory to Du Pont but they never met again. Du Pont judged that the Navy Department was “conspiring to destroy his reputation and honor” (Stephen R. Taaffe, Commanding Lincoln’s Navy, p. 140). Welles came to regard Du Pont as having a clique within the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron “more loyal to him than to the Navy as a whole” (Stephen R. Taaffe, Commanding Lincoln’s Navy, p. 147). Welles and Fox broke up this clique by transferring many officers to avoid any prospective criticism of the Department leadership (Stephen R. Taaffe, Commanding Lincoln’s Navy, p. 147).
The Second Union Attempt to Take Charleston
Almost two months after the first Naval Battle of Charleston, on June 3, Du Pont was relieved for failing to renew an attack on Charleston or to suggest operations against it. He died two years later, June 1865. Rear Admiral Andrew Foote replaced Du Pont, but he died three weeks later from war injuries in the Western Theater. Captain John Dahlgren actively sought this command and he became commander of the South Atlantic Blockade Squadron on July 6. Lincoln lobbied for his friend Dahlgren to be promoted, a rare instance of a political interest in Navy promotions. Dahlgren had been the commandant of the Washington Navy Yard. Previously he was the Chief of the Ordnance Bureau, the designer of 9-, 11-, and 15-inch Dahlgren guns. To the chagrin of many competent officers, Dahlgren lacked service at sea.
From the gloomy Union newspaper articles on the repulse at Charleston, the Confederate Navy concluded the Union Navy had inadequate monitors. Nearly two months after the April battle, ironclad CSS Atlanta sailed from Savannah, Georgia, to capture the Union lodgment at Port Royal Sound and to scatter the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron (Howard J. Fuller, Clad in Iron, p. 258). The Atlanta met two Union monitors on patrol on the lower Savannah River. USS Weehawken fired five times at the Atlanta, discharging 15-inch 400-pound projectiles at ranges of 300 to 400 yards. The second shot destroyed the pilot house (Robert Bruce Murray, Legal Cases of Civil War, p. 45). CSS Atlanta soon sank. Captain John Rodgers earned the formal Thanks of Congress. The Atlanta was raised, repaired, and added to the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron as USS Atlanta. (Spencer C. Tucker, Blue & Gray Navies, p. 251). Union monitors were designed for blockade encounters, ship-to-ship firefights.
Soon after taking command, Dahlgren aggressively positioned monitors nearer to the harbor entrance at night and Charleston ceased to be an active seaport. Blockade runners immediately weighed anchor at Wilmington, North Carolina. Dahlgren frequently employed monitors to provide coverage for Union Army units. For instance, monitors fired on Fort Wagner on Morris Island for a week prior to the celebrated attack on Fort Wagner spearheaded by the 54th Massachusetts on July 18. Almost two months later, the Confederates abandoned Morris Island.
Dahlgren ordered a second attack on Fort Sumter on September 7 by USS Weehawken but it soon ran aground. While no Confederate obstacles had been removed, for the defense of the Weehawken, six Union monitors joined the firefight. USS New Ironsides joined on the next day to fire broadsides with effect against Fort Moultrie. Weehawken was refloated and the battle ended (Spencer C. Tucker, Blue & Gray Navies, p. 254).
In this firefight, as Fort Sumter returned few shots, Dahlgren ordered 500 marines and sailors towed in 30 small boats to capture Fort Sumter on the next night. Independently, also noticing the same few shots from Fort Sumter, General Quincy Gillmore, the new army department commander, planned for two regiments to attack Fort Sumter. On learning of the other’s attack, these commanders did not join in a combined assault. They agreed only to land on different sectors of Fort Sumter. Cooperation between these two officers virtually ended as Dahlgren wanted an all-Navy attack. The army attack was delayed by a low tide. Monitors were not in position to aid. Having retrieved Keokuk’s signal book, Confederate officers learned of the attack and fended off the Union marines and sailors. On seeing the casualty toll in the navy assault, the army detachment withdrew. Attacks on Fort Sumter had failed and future cooperation between Army and Navy virtually ended (James M. McPherson, War on the Waters, 1861-1865, pp. 177-178).
The Navy Gives Up Its Plan to Take Charleston by Sea
Afterward, the Confederates then went on the offensive against the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron at Charleston. One night in October 1863, the 50-foot semi-submerged CSS David attached a 60-pound canister of powder to USS New Ironsides and blew a hole in the hull. New Ironsides remained on station but extensive repairs were made later. (James M. McPherson, War on the Waters, pp. 178-179). In reaction, Dahlgren ordered nets around each anchored warship. Much later, in February 1864, the Confederates dispatched the submarine H. L. Hunley, and it sunk the wooden USS Housatonic. The Hunley mysteriously sank immediately afterward.
Dahlgren requested additional monitors but a month after the second attack on Fort Sumter, Welles rejected the request. He noted that the port of Charleston was effectively closed. Interestingly, Welles requested Dahlgren to poll his officers on the strategic situation at Charleston. On October 22, 1863, after a long session, senior officers of the squadron concluded “that the naval force had no chance of success except in a combined operation” (Robert M. Browning, Jr., Success Is All That Was Expected, pp. 275-276). There was no combined operation at Charleston.
The failed Naval Battles of Charleston were the result of a poor appraisal of the offensive capabilities of monitors, poor planning of the attacks, and poor execution of the plans. There was plenty of blame to attach to the commanding Flag Officers at Charleston and the civilian leaders of the Navy Department. Continued retention of monitors at Charleston constituted a strategic lapse for the Union Navy but the Navy did not lose its momentum in the War of the Rebellion. As expected, the blockade was increasingly effective to strangle the Confederate economy racked with inflation.
The changing rules of naval warfare
The naval rules of war changed just before the Civil War. Immediately after the Crimean War of 1854-1856, from Britain instituting a blockade of Russia, European maritime nations defined the terms of a legal blockade and also declared the practice of letters of marque to be illegal by the resultant Treaty of Paris of 1856. The United States joined the negotiations but refused to ratify the treaty on losing its amendment to retain its heritage of maritime warfare by issuing letters of marque. By this treaty, Britain had stymied the United States in its prime mode of naval warfare. During the Civil War, the U. S. Navy enjoyed the key provisions of this treaty. Personnel of belligerent blockade warships were allowed to board neutral merchant ships to inspect for contraband or illegal goods. By that treaty, merchant ships were not to be armed, were restricted to fly only the flag of their home country, and were to avoid evasive actions.
The impact of the blockade
The Union blockade was very effective. Considering Confederate port activity, the “total number of ships trading in or out of Confederate ports declined to roughly a third of prewar levels” (Craig L. Symonds, Lincoln and His Admirals, p. 48). The service life of blockade runners was an average of “just over four runs, or two round trips” (Stephen R. Wise, Lifeline of the Confederacy, p. 221). Confederate shipments of cotton during the war declined to perhaps 25 percent of the prewar level, very harmful to the Confederate economy. British statistics on cotton imports were more revealing: “In 1860, the United States supplied 77 percent of cotton for Britain’s mills; in 1864, the figure was 8 percent” (Lance E. Davis and Stanley L. Engerman, Naval Blockades in Peace and War, p. 146). The blockade constricted the Confederate economy except for key military imports: “On blockade runners came 60 percent of the South’s arms; one-third of its lead for bullets, ingredients for three-fourths of its powder, nearly all of its paper for cartridges, and the majority of its cloth and leather for uniforms and accoutrements” (Stephen R. Wise, Lifeline of the Confederacy, p. 7).
The potentially disruptive Trent incident
There was the prospect of war between Britain and the United States over the Trent incident. Without orders, Captain Charles Wilkes, commanding USS San Jacinto, fired on the British packet ship Trent on the high seas and seized two Confederate envoys in November 1862. Apparently he knew their travel plans from waterfront gossip in Havana, Cuba. Wilkes was initially lionized in the Union for this feat. As the envoys James Mason and John Slidell had belligerent status, the British government demanded their release in accord with international law. Lincoln complied with an ultimatum but did not apologize. A threat of war ended as the Trent affair of six weeks was satisfactorily resolved. Britain wanted international law upheld. While the Confederacy hoped for war, the Confederate envoys spent three futile years trying to obtain diplomatic recognition from Britain and Europe (James M. McPherson, War on the Waters, pp. 44-46).
The changes in high officer ranks in the U. S. Navy
Just after the war began, Lincoln created the rank of Flag Officer to be equivalent to a major general in the U. S. Army. He did not want Captain Samuel Du Pont, commander of the naval flotilla to capture Port Royal Sound, outranked by any naval or army officer (James M. McPherson, War on the Waters, p. 38). With a rapid expansion of the navy, Congress soon established the ranks of Flag Officer and Senior Flag Officer. In July 1862, Samuel Du Pont and David Farragut became Rear Admirals. Later in the war, Congress expanded the titles above Captain to be Commodore (one star), Rear Admiral (two stars), and Vice Admiral (three stars). David G. Farragut became the first Admiral (four stars) in 1866. In the Civil War, the U. S. Navy had 82 officers of flag rank (Spencer C. Tucker, Blue & Gray Navies, pp. 5-6).
Manpower problems for the U. S. Navy
The Union Navy had several manpower problems. With secession, the Navy lost almost one-half of the southern-born officers in the Navy. Welles immediately accepted the return of many resigned officers to the colors. Congress soon legislated for a volunteer officer corps but there were no political admirals. At the end of the war, 2,060 line officers, 1,805 engineers, 270 paymasters, and 245 surgeons had returned to the colors (Spencer C. Tucker, Blue & Gray Navies, p. 5). The Union Navy Department granted partial recognition of prior seniority to these 4,380 volunteer officers.
Manpower crises plagued the Union Navy. After two years of war, to remedy the need for officers in 1863, Secretary of the Navy Welles ordered “the upper three classes of the Naval Academy into active service, which produced nineteen-year-old lieutenants” (Robert M. Browning, Jr., From Cape Charles to Cape Fear: The North Atlantic Blockading Squadron During the Civil War, p. 204). After three years of war, the Secretary of the Navy asked for the immediate transfer of 12,000 army troops as thirty vessels were without crews. On April 1, 1864, Secretary of War Stanton agreed to this request. In July 1864, Congress eased the decline in naval enlistments by authorizing payment of bounties to naval recruits (Robert M. Browning, Jr., From Cape Charles to Cape Fear, p. 206).
Defending the home waters, a problem for Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, 1863
Confederate Lieutenant Charles W. Read, Naval Academy Class of 1860, exploited a Union vulnerability in 1863. He undertook commerce raiding in Union home waters. Welles speculated that Confederate captains might attack merchant ships in the coastal waters of the United States as the Confederate Navy now had more commerce raiders available. Welles’s instructions to Commodore Lardner to counter commerce raiders on the high seas included this prospect. In reaction to the recent maritime losses off Massachusetts, on April 27, 1863, John Andrew, Governor of Massachusetts, had written to Lincoln calling for a substantial naval defense of New England shipping in home waters. Merchant marine losses had indeed been numerous in two years of war and merchant ship owners wanted that to be curbed. Indeed, the Massachusetts Bay area was a fertile hunting ground for Confederate commerce raiders. Governor Andrew sought both a fast cruiser to patrol the coastal waters and an ironclad positioned at Boston harbor. On receipt of this letter, Lincoln quickly discussed the matter with Welles and wanted a solution to this vexing issue. Welles had held that primacy of the blockade was very important. Earlier, Welles had to deal with criticism from New York and Boston merchants over his emphasis on blockading the Confederacy. “Wealthy entrepreneurs through the New York Chamber of Commerce, and on their own, petitioned the mayor of New York, then the state governor, to pressure the secretary of the Navy to expand convoys for U.S.-flagged vessels beyond those already guarding ships laden with California gold and U. S. mail from the West Coast. Their counterparts in Boston did the same” (David W. Shaw, Sea Wolf of the Confederacy: The Daring Civil War Raids of Naval Lt. Charles W. Read, p. 21). But Welles, upon the complaint of Governor Andrew and Lincoln’s intervention, yielded somewhat, ordering a fast cruiser to northern waters, but not an ironclad, for the better defenses of New England shipping (David W. Shaw, Sea Wolf of the Confederacy, pp. 64-66, 68).
The monitors in the late 19th century
Monitors were novel warships but ignored by other navies. After the Civil War, the U. S. Navy remained committed to monitors, launching five large ones from 1876 to 1883. Many decades after the Civil War the Navy recognized monitors were not the essential warships. Major navies by then had steel warships with high freeboard and greater fuel capacity. The change in American warship design followed the U. S. Navy paying “$2,500 in 1886 for the latest British notions for their navy. … Secretary of the Navy William C. Whitney, typical of a bureaucrat from the Third World today, confessed that ‘our true policy is to borrow the ideas of our neighbors so far as they are thought to be in advance of our own’” (Rear Admiral R. W. King, U. S. Navy (Ret.), editor, Naval Engineering and American Sea Power, p. 24). This was before the retention of the Philippines from the Spanish War of 1898 that required larger, long-range warships. The New Navy of the early 20th century began in June 1890 with Congressional budgeting for newly designed ocean battleships, “the first ocean battleships since the big steam frigates of 1854” (Rear Admiral R. W. King, U. S. Navy (Ret.), editor, Naval Engineering and American Sea Power, pp. 25). By the late 1880s, “American industry had created a foundation strong” enough to implement the new naval technologies using steel (Rear Admiral R. W. King, U. S. Navy (Ret.), editor, Naval Engineering and American Sea Power, p. 26).
Union Naval manpower
Confederate naval manpower
The Confederacy had a maximum of 753 officers and 4,450 men with 749 marine officers and men in 1864 [Grand total: 5,952] (source: William N. Still, Jr., The Confederate Navy, 1861-1865, p. 39).
An example of a Confederate success in evading the blockade
“[Confederate Ordnance Chief] Gorgas reported the first arrival of [small arms] on September 28, 1861. From that date until August 16, 1862, just over 63,000 small arms arrived in the Confederacy (only 15,000 through January 1862); 113,500 more arrived between September 30, 1862 and September 30, 1863. The quality of these imports was generally pretty high. … Indeed General Grant found the weapons captured at Vicksburg to be so superior to the ones carried by his troops that he issued the weapons to his men” (source: David G. Surdam, Northern Naval Superiority and the Economics of the American Civil War, p. 87).
An example of blockade running profits
The proclamation of neutrality by Queen Victoria failed to stop either British companies or individual Britons from aiding the Confederacy for their economic gain. Many British companies and individuals were willing to take risks making shipments to the Confederacy. As the war continued, from the profits of blockade running, the number of firms employing one or two ships decreased as larger companies having numerous ships prevailed in blockade running. One executive of a British ship company noted: “Even if half the fleet of a company were captured, the profits earned by the other half would more than counterbalance the loss entailed by failure” (Hamilton Cochran, Blockade Runners of the Confederacy, p. 87).
The Domestic Impact of the Blockade
Ericsson on the prospective monitor attack at Charleston, South Carolina
Ericsson wrote Fox, “’Your confidence in the great naval attack astounds me – you have not turrets enough … you have not guns enough’” (Robert M. Browning, Jr., Success Is All That Was Expected, pp. 164-165) Ericsson knew that the naval 11- and 15-inch guns lacked a rapid rate of fire.
Confederate success at the First Naval Battle of Charleston, 1863
Confederate gunners disabled five monitors, causing two to be taken under tow, and USS Keokuk sank the next day. Many of the shots at the Keokuk were below the waterline. It sailed as close as 550 yards from Fort Sumter. After two hours, the squadron retreated. The Confederacy had achieved a spectacular victory over the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron (sources: Howard J. Fuller, Clad in Iron, p. 245; Jack D. Coombe, Gunsmoke Over the Atlantic: First Naval Actions of the Civil War, p.143; William C. Davis, The Cause Lost: Myths and Realities of the Confederacy, p. 61).
The Confederate Artillery Success at Charleston, April 1863
Sequel to the Naval Battles of Charleston, 1864-1865
The Army continued to shell Charleston from Morris Island but it ceased to be a strategic military target with its harbor blocked. General in Chief Grant transferred Major General Quincy Gillmore, commander of the Department of the South, and Gillmore’s X Corps to the Army of the James near City Point, Virginia on May 4, 1864. Accordingly, many Union troops left the Department of the South. Sherman, in his march through the Carolinas in February and March 1865, avoided Charleston, aiming for the state capital. On realizing Sherman’s target, on February 18, 1865, Confederate troops withdrew from Charleston and the mayor surrendered the city to the remaining Union army command. Dahlgren then sailed many of his warships to the docks of Charleston and the U. S. Navy ended the longest naval campaign of the Civil War. Lee surrendered two months later at Appomattox and other Confederate armies quickly capitulated to end the War of the Rebellion.
References (Click the book title to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)
Michael J. Bennett, Union Jacks: Yankee Sailors in the Civil War.
Robert M. Browning, Jr., From Cape Charles to Cape Fear: The North Atlantic Blockading Squadron During the Civil War.
Robert M. Browning, Jr., Success Is All That Was Expected: The South Atlantic Blockading Squadron During the Civil War.
Hamilton Cochran, Blockade Runners of the Confederacy.
Jack D. Coombe, Gunsmoke Over the Atlantic: First Naval Actions of the Civil War.
Lance E. Davis and Stanley L. Engerman, Naval Blockades in Peace and War: An Economic History Since 1750.
William C. Davis, The Cause Lost: Myths and Realities of the Confederacy.
Ari Hoogenboom, Gustavus Vasa Fox of the Union Navy: A Biography.
Stephen Howarth, To Shining Sea: A History of the United States Navy, 1775-1998.
James M. McPherson, War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865.
Robert Bruce Murray, Legal Cases of Civil War.
Allan Nevins, The War for the Union, Vol. 3: The Organized War, 1863-1864.
John Niven, Gideon Welles: Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy.
William H. Roberts, Civil War Ironclads: The U.S. Navy and Industrial Mobilization.
William N. Still, Jr., Iron Afloat: The Story of the Confederate Armorclads.
William N. Still, Jr., The Confederate Navy: The Ships, Men and Organization, 1861-1865.
David G. Surdam, Northern Naval Superiority and the Economics of the American Civil War.
Craig L. Symonds, Lincoln and His Admirals.
Craig L. Symonds, The Civil War at Sea (Reflections on the Civil War Era).
Stephen R. Taaffe, Commanding Lincoln’s Navy: Union Naval Leadership During the Civil War.
Robert Means Thompson and Richard Wainwright, editors, Confidential Correspondence of Gustavus Vasa Fox, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, 1861-1865.
Spencer C. Tucker, Blue & Gray Navies: The Civil War Afloat.
Harry Williams, P.G.T. Beauregard: Napoleon in Gray.
Stephen R. Wise, Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running During the Civil War.