Account of the Battle Of Port Royal, an eastern theater Civil War Battle during the American Civil War
Battle Of Port Royal Summary
Port Royal Sound, South Carolina
November 3–7, 1861
Generals / Commanders
Union: Samuel F. Du Pont
Confederate: Thomas F. Drayton
Union Army: 12,600
Confederate Army: 3,000
Three days after the fall of Fort Sumter in April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a blockade of all Southern ports. While that decree had an unintended political impact–the tacit recognition of the Confederacy as a belligerent–it was nevertheless an essential action on his part. The European nations had already determined that they would not recognize or honor a Union declaration that the Southern ports were closed to trade. In order to ensure the de facto closing of the ports, the Union had to assert control over the various waterways and coastlines of the Confederacy.
The blockade proposed by Lincoln was part of an overall strategy championed by General-in-Chief Winfield Scott that was derisively given the nickname ‘Anaconda’ by the press and political opponents of the administration. Scott believed that, given the temperament of the Southern people and their deep love for the Union, in time they would realize the error of their ways and return to the fold. His theory required a strategy that did not rest on battles and invasions but on the ability of the Union to slowly strangle the South into submission.
Scott’s plan boiled down to establishing a deep-water blockade of the entire Confederate coast to prevent the South from doing business with European countries. To efficiently administer the blockade, he divided it into four regions: the North and South Atlantic Blockading squadrons, responsible for watching the eastern sea-board, and the East and West Gulf Blockading squadrons, which kept an eye on the Gulf of Mexico. In addition, a 60,000-man army supported by gunboats would be sent down the Mississippi River to New Orleans in order to split the Confederacy in half and cut off the shipment of resources from the west to the east. In the end, he believed, the rebellion would be choked to death by internal and external economic strangulation. Scott’s insightful strategy took advantage of the North’s strengths, including the U.S. Navy, but was ridiculed by many who called for a quick battlefield victory to end the war.
As vessels of various kinds were pressed into service on blockade duty, a new issue presented itself. In order to be in a position to respond to the elusive nature of Southern blockade runners and to be able to interdict ‘illegal’ shipping without regard to the arbitrary nature of winds and tides, the Federal blockading fleets would have to rely on steam power and coal. For a flotilla to remain on station, coaling stations and maintenance facilities would be needed.
Initially, the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron operated out of the ports of Hampton Roads, Va., and Key West, Fla. Those bases, however, were far from the primary Confederate ports of Charleston, S.C., Savannah, Ga., and New Orleans. Blockading ships thus spent as much time getting to their operational stations from the bases as they did on duty. In addition, the coasts of the Carolinas and Georgia were filled with dozens of minor inlets and natural harbors that could provide safe haven to blockade runners. The Union naval force, therefore, would have to be exceptionally large to watch over the long stretch of coastline, thereby requiring even more extensive base facilities. To have any chance for success, the Union needed a new strategic approach.
Ultimately, the Federal strategy along the Confederate coast was based upon the findings and reports of an ad hoc strategy board convened by Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and consisting of Captain Samuel Francis Du Pont, superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey, Major J.G. Garnard of the U.S. Engineers and Commander Charles H. Davis of the U.S. Navy.
Among its many duties, the Blockade Strategy Board was charged with finding suitable coaling stations along the Southern coast. At its first meeting, however, the members determined that such depots might be used for other purposes as well, including storing provisions and serving as refuges or headquarters for the forces along that part of the coast. The board also looked at the development of the depots as support bases for inland military expeditions.
Consequently, Du Pont and his colleagues issued six primary and four supplemental reports detailing the Confederate coast and the significant rivers, harbors and inlets along it. They determined which areas could be blocked and which could be turned into bases for the fleet in order to enhance the Navy’s ability to shut off access to ports. The panel described the water, the land, the population and the value of landing points along the Confederacy’s coast. Their report formed the basis for future strategic naval actions and amphibious operations against the Confederates.
The first Northern success resulting from the recommendations of the board was the assault and capture of Cape Hatteras, N.C., on April 27, 1861. Seven warships, under the command of Flag Officer Silas H. Stringham, shelled the two forts protecting Hatteras Inlet into submission. Major General Benjamin Butler’s 900 soldiers then occupied the works. That action was followed two weeks later by the U.S. Navy’s seizure of Ship Island off Biloxi, Miss.
The Union then began planning another attack on the Confederacy’s South Atlantic coast. The exact point of attack was not specified during the planning stages, in keeping with the Blockade Board’s view that ‘the simple putting to sea of such a force, if it were only to return to its port, would cause general alarm, and the Gulf States could no longer permit their troops to swell the armies of Virginia. The force thus organized, after being, by frequent embarkations and disembarkations, used as a means of threat, and thus perfectly drilled to its intended service, might at last be permitted to strike its blow. Whether at New Orleans, or Mobile, or Pensacola, or Savannah, or Port Royal, or that focus of rebellion–the scene of the great indignity offered our flag–Charleston, might be decided at the last moment.’
In the late summer of 1861, Du Pont was given the title of flag officer and placed in command of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. An impressive and aloof 45-year-old veteran of the Mexican War, Du Pont had previously participated in long, drawn-out blockade actions off the California coast during that conflict and knew from personal experience how difficult they were to manage, coordinate and maintain. He was also well versed in the rigors of independent command.
Du Pont set about organizing an expedition to seize a harbor to use as a base for the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. The target of the expedition was to be either Bull’s Bay, S.C., or Fernandina, Fla. Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman was ordered to work with Du Pont and organize a 12,000-man infantry force that would take and hold the harbor’s points of land once its protecting forts had been reduced by naval gunfire.
At the start of the Civil War, the U.S. Navy stood in the doorway between two maritime eras–that of wood and sail, and that of iron and steam. The threshold was symbolized by Du Pont’s flagship, Wabash, whose combination of wooden sides, steam engine and 44-gun battery consisting of the most powerful rifled ordnance in history represented both the advantages and the weaknesses facing the Navy. Du Pont understood the need for new tactics. He was skeptical, however, regarding the concepts of ironclads and monitors. The upcoming operation would allow him to test modern naval tactics that took advantage of advanced weaponry and the increased maneuverability provided by steam power.
As indicated in an October letter to Henry Winter Davis, a longtime friend and mentor, Du Pont was concerned about the planning for the expedition. ‘I shall have some twenty men-of-war, small and weak some of them, but others very suitable, and if we could have commenced a couple of weeks earlier, I would have had an efficient squadron,’ he noted. ‘We will make it answer however. To form simple lines of sailing and to establish the proper signals with such a number of transports unused to these things, to avoid separation and collision, to see to the transshipment over the bays, and the landing of such a number of men under fire, in all probability, are matters which occupy me a good deal as you may suppose–but it must go right.’
On October 29, the Du Pont expedition departed from Hampton Roads, Va., with as much secrecy as possible. Not only was the force to conduct the largest joint Army-Navy operation of the war to date, but the flotilla was also the largest ever assembled in the United States. It consisted of 14 warships with 120 guns, 26 collier and supply ships and 25 transports for the 12,000 troops. In addition to the 44-gun flagship Wabash, the fleet included the steam sloops Susquehanna, Pawnee and Mohican; steamers Bienville, Seminole, Pocahontas and Augusta; and the sloop Vandalia. The size of the expedition was such that Bull’s Bay and Fernandina were deemed too small. Du Pont’s armada instead set a course for Port Royal, S.C., between Charleston and Savannah.
The Blockade Board had quickly recognized the value of Port Royal. The panel’s second report, issued on July 13, 1861, described Port Royal Sound as the ‘finest harbor south of Chesapeake Bay, which it resembles in capacity and extent. It is approached by three channels, the least of which has seventeen feet of water….Several of our screw frigates of the first class can pass the bar, and when the entrance is once made a whole navy can ride at anchor in the bay in uninterrupted health and security….The entrance is over two miles wide; there is fine anchorage under Bay Point; on the shore there is a number of roughhouses, the summer resort of planters. Water may be had at the Station Port Royal, Land’s End….Near this point may be constructed a wharf for a coaling station above the mouth of the little creek….Port Royal is one of the wealthiest of the Sea Islands, and is devoted to the culture of sea-island cotton.’
The Sea Islands of South Carolina were home to some of the wealthiest and most exclusive planters in the South. Beaufort, the only sizable town in the region, was the locus of some of South Carolina’s most ardent secessionists. The large mansions dotting the islands were the homes of the likes of Robert Barnwell Rhett, the fieriest of the Southern secessionists, and William J. Grayson, secessionist poet and champion of slavery.
Beaufort had a year-round white population of about 2,000. The number was nearly double that in the summer, when the wealthy planters left the cities for the finer weather of the islands. About 13,000 black slaves also permanently resided on the Sea Islands. Representing 83 percent of the population, the slaves ran the plantations, oversaw the cotton fields and tended the rice for which the area was famous. They lived, worked and suffered under repressive slave laws, completely isolated from the mainland.
In the summer of 1861, Confederate Brig. Gen. Roswell S. Ripley, commander of the Department of South Carolina, designated a series of harbor-protection forts along the state’s coast. In support, South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens requested cannons from Richmond and bought powder from Connecticut with state funds. He also requested 1,800 men to staff the defensive positions proposed by Ripley.
By the fall of 1861, two forts built at the urging of General P.G.T. Beauregard had been established to protect Port Royal Sound. Construction engineers Major Francis D. Lee and Captain J.W. Gregory were obliged, however, to arm the batteries of the forts with such guns as the Confederate government could provide, even though more were called for and needed. The result was that the positions included the 20-gun Fort Beauregard, manned by 640 men along with a five-gun outer work on Bay Point that protected the left flank of the sound, while on Hilton Head Island, Fort Walker consisted of 23 guns and a one-gun outwork serviced by 622 soldiers. Just before the arrival of the Union fleet, another 1,000 men, along with two howitzers for Fort Walker, were transferred into the area. Brigadier General Thomas F. Drayton, overall commander of the Port Royal defenses and the brother of Commander Percival Drayton of USS Pocahontas, moved his headquarters from Beaufort to Hilton Head on November 6, 1861.
Despite these efforts, the two forts, which were separated by the three-mile-wide mouth of the sound, were not adequate to withstand the might of the U.S. Navy. A fleet could maneuver between the two positions and largely keep out of range of either. To be effective, the forts needed guns of longer range and larger caliber, which were unavailable so early in the war.
In addition to the forts, the sound was protected by a paltry Confederate naval flotilla under the command of Commodore Josiah Tatnall. The fleet was made up of three tugs and a converted river steamer, each of which had two or three guns.
The Union fleet left Hampton Roads on October 29 in a tight, well-disciplined formation. Du Pont was concerned about the hard-to-manage size of the flotilla and the various types of vessels and experience of the commanding officers. Nature conspired against the Union commander, for on November 1 the fleet encountered a hurricane-strength storm off Cape Hatteras that scattered the ships. That same day, Confederate Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin telegraphed Governor Pickens and General Drayton that an enemy fleet was headed for Port Royal. The point of attack was no longer a secret.
On November 2, Du Pont and Wabash arrived off Port Royal–alone. Now the worth of his detailed planning and preparation, as well as the training and professionalism of his ships’ commanders, showed their value. The fleet was largely able to reassemble off the inlet to Port Royal Sound in spite of the severity of the recent storm. By November 4 the flotilla had converged, and during the next few days the vessels prepared for combat and moved over the sound’s outer sandbar. At the same time, the coastal survey crew attached to the fleet repaired the marker buoys in the mouth of the sound.
As with all plans, some factors were beyond the control of even the best officers. Despite all the preparations, the army invasion force unwisely had placed all of its ordnance and ammunition aboard one ship, Ocean Express. Originally towed by Baltic until the gale, this was the one ship that did not rendezvous with the fleet and arrive off Port Royal. The soldiers would have to land with only 100 rounds each and no field guns. While Du Pont could supply small-arms ammunition from the fleet’s stocks, he could not provide the shells needed by the army’s field guns. The attack could not be a joint operation as originally envisioned. Gunfire from the ships would have to silence the forts before the troops could land.
Based on a reconnaissance of the forts protecting Port Royal conducted on November 5, Du Pont and his flag captain, C.H. Davis, developed and issued a novel attack plan that involved a double reduction. It was designed to take full advantage of the large expanse of water between the two defending forts, the mobility of steam vessels and the firepower of the vessels themselves, especially the 44-gun Wabash, as well as the continuity of fire provided by such a large fleet. Fort Walker, Du Pont surmised, was the stronger of the Confederate forts, and operations would initially focus on its reduction.
The plan called for two squadrons, or columns, of ships to move into the sound. The main column, made up of the heaviest ships, would move in a line-ahead formation, with Wabash in the van followed by the frigate Susquehanna, the sloops Mohican, Seminole and Pawnee, the gunboats Unadilla, Ottawa and Pembina and the sailing sloop Vandalia, towed by the steamer Isaac Smith, which had lost all of her guns in the storm. The ships would pass the forts, simultaneously firing on both strongholds.
When they were two miles into the sound, they would turn about to the west and south. As the vessels headed back out of the sound along a line taking them closer to Fort Walker, their guns would fire on that strongpoint’s weak northern side as well as enfilade its strongest positions facing the water. Already sailing against the incoming tide, Du Pont’s ships would slow to a crawl as they passed the fort. At the mouth of the sound they would turn about once more and retrace their previous path past the forts. This pattern would be maintained until the forts were reduced.
The second column of five lighter gunboats–Bienville, Seneca, Curlew, Penguin and Augusta–would range to starboard, protecting the flank of the heavy column from attack by the Confederate naval squadron in the sound. Once past the forts, the light column would peel off and fire into their weaker side walls.
On November 6 the fleet prepared for action, taking down the topgallant masts and readying their armament. General Drayton, who was at Fort Walker, later wrote that ‘The morning of 7th of November was a still, clear, beautiful morning, not a ripple on the broad expanse of water to disturb the accuracy of fire from the broad decks of that magnificent armada…advancing in battle array.’
At 9 a.m., general quarters was sounded throughout the Union fleet, and at 9:17 the ships cleared for action and stood into the sound. Ten minutes later the forts opened fire, answered immediately by the bow swivel gun of Wabash, commanded by Lieutenant Roswell Lamson. Once engaged, the ship maintained a terrific and well-directed fire on the forts.
After a show of force, Tatnall’s small fleet of weak, makeshift warships was quickly bottled up near the mouth of Skull Creek, behind Hilton Head Island, by the squadron of Federal gunboats. These vessels then concentrated on bringing their guns to bear on the exposed left flank of Fort Walker.
Mounted atop a parapet for better range, Fort Walker’s cannons were exposed to enemy fire. In addition, the Confederates had made no provision to place artillery on the bluff overlooking the fort’s flank. With poorly sighted guns, crews that were incompletely trained and powder of an inferior quality, the defenders of Forts Walker and Beauregard were not prepared for a long duel. As the engagement continued, the inexperienced Southern gunners quickly tired.
Taking advantage of steam power, the heavy squadron did not stop, drop anchor and open fire from fixed positions, as wind-powered ships would have. The Navy gunners blasted away at the forts while their ships were moving, creating ranging and targeting problems for the Confederate artillerymen. The Union vessels continually shifted position, pounding both strongholds with almost mechanical precision at a rate of two dozen shells per minute.
The Southerners, at least initially, were able to score some hits. On the first pass of the heavy squadron, fire from Fort Beauregard hit most of the ships, causing casualties among the Union tars. At 10 a.m. the leading Federal ship turned about to the south. At this point, Du Pont’s plan broke down. Rather than the entire squadron following the flagship on the outward leg of the elliptical path, only Susquehanna and Bienville followed. As Wabash slowly passed Fort Walker, 800 yards away, Du Pont saw that the rest of the ships were not following. In spite of his signal to ‘close the order’ and ‘close action, follow the commander-in-chief,’ the remainder of the heavy squadron stayed inside the sound, providing enfilade fire on the forts, mainly Fort Beauregard. The ships’ effective fire dismounted the Confederate guns and scattered the crews, further degrading the ability of the forts to defend themselves.
‘On our second attack I can remember nothing in naval history that came to this ship in terrific repetitions of her broadsides,’ Du Pont reported. ‘The officers of the Army, who with 14,000 men were looking on, were filled with wonder and admiration.’ By the end of the second pass, Fort Walker had only three guns still operational. The Southerners’ defense was gallant but as the bombardment continued almost unceasingly, the morale of the defenders was broken, and they became increasingly unnerved. As soon as the larger vessels took flanking positions on the forts, the Confederates simply hoped to hold out as long as possible as a matter of honor.
By the start of the third leg of the heavy squadron, Du Pont received a signal from the commander of Ottawa that Fort Walker had been abandoned. Wabash stood within 500 yards of the fort and fired a broadside and both pivot guns into it, verifying that it was unmanned. Shortly after the fall of Fort Walker, Fort Beauregard was also abandoned. After enduring four hours of firing and three turns by the Union column, the Confederates had given up their defense.
By 4 p.m., the fleet secured from battle stations and the crews were sent to supper. More than 500 surfboats were then employed to bring the 12,000-man landing party ashore. Commander John Rogers, Du Pont’s aide, rowed to the fort and placed the national colors on the ramparts, after which Marines landed to assume control over the works. The Marines turned the fort over to Army Brig. Gen. Horatio Wright and his brigade for garrisoning, and by sundown on the 7th, both forts were in the hands of U.S. Army and Marine troops.
As the guns cooled, a battle damage assessment revealed that nearly all of the Union ships had sustained some hits, with six sailors killed and 20 wounded. Wabash had been struck from all directions, her mainmast shot through and her spars, rigging and hull hit. Inside the forts, 10 defenders had been killed and an additional 20 wounded.
Drayton’s Confederate forces did not surrender. After abandoning the forts, they successfully withdrew to the mainland. Over the next few days, the victors rowed up rivers and inlets and occupied the colonial towns of Port Royal and Beaufort, as well as the fine old plantations along the sound. The Union forces also took possession of the entire string of coastal islands from Savannah almost to Charleston.
Du Pont’s successful attack against Port Royal’s strong shore defenses helped revive the flagging spirits of the North, which had slumped since Bull Run. The victory also mandated a revision in the tactical theories held at the start of the war. Improvements in naval ordnance and the advent of steam-powered vessels had changed the U.S. military’s perception that one infantry gun was worth four sea guns. The engagement at Port Royal initiated a new phase of naval warfare by proving that warships with steam power and well-served ordnance were fully equal to forts and land-based guns.
The victory at Port Royal also inaugurated a revolution in naval tactics. The Navy no longer had to depend on tide and wind, and with the new weaponry available, forts could be challenged with a greater degree of confidence. Ships could run past forts and–given speed and room to maneuver–pound them into dust.
In some ways, however, the Union was unprepared to follow up on the initial success it enjoyed at Port Royal. From the start, all preparations had centered on attacking and seizing the forts and the sound. The Federal forces around Port Royal consolidated their holdings and then continued the stated mission of the South Atlantic fleet–to enforce the blockade and to establish a strong base at Port Royal Sound. Over the next few months, amphibious expeditions seized coastal ports as far south as St. Augustine, Fla. Fort Pulaski, Ga., was shelled and captured in April 1862.
Militarily and politically, the success at Port Royal was far beyond Union expectations, and the leadership of the Navy, as well as the North, did not know how to follow it up. As a result, the strategic potential of the plans developed by the Blockade Board was never realized. This lack of strategic vision meant that except for the attack on Port Royal and the later attack on New Orleans, there would be few joint operations against key Confederate ports, many of which remained open until late in the war. The last harbor open to blockade runners, Wilmington, N.C., did not capitulate until February 1865.
Because of his success at Port Royal, Du Pont was promoted to rear admiral in July 1862. He led a flotilla against Charleston in April 1863. The composition of that fleet was entirely different from his Port Royal force. Instead of wooden steamers, the admiral commanded a squadron of seven monitors, an armored gunboat and the metal-sheathed steamer New Ironsides. The armored force, however, proved no match for Charleston’s strong defenses. Du Pont, who had been wary monitors’ chances of success, resigned from the navy after the defeat.
The attack on Port Royal had a major impact on General Robert E. Lee, who took command of the Confederate Department of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida on November 8, 1861. As a result of his observations of the potential of the Union naval forces, Lee determined that the dispersed garrisons and forts that protected the widely scattered inlets and rivers could not be strengthened enough to defeat Union naval forces.
Accordingly, he concentrated the South’s coastal guns at Charleston and Savannah. Making use of the Confederacy’s interior lines of communication, Lee developed quick-reaction forces that could move along the coastal railroads to prevent a Union breakthrough.
The Confederate defeat also had a major impact on the local white population of the Port Royal Sound area, as the majority of Southern whites fled inland from the Union invaders abandoning their property and their slaves. ‘You can form no idea of the terror,’ Du Pont reported. ‘Beaufort is deserted…the enemy flew in panic leaving public and private property, letters, portfolios, all their regimental archives, clothes, arms, etc.–they were grandly supplied…. The contrabands are wild and sacking Beaufort, in return for being shot down because they would not leave with their masters.’
Also left behind was a political, social and economic vacuum into which stepped the Union military forces. The Port Royal experiment, as abolitionists called it, became a dress rehearsal for Reconstruction. After the military victory, there was a problem defining the status of the refugee black population–they were neither slaves nor freemen.
In March 1862, Gideon missionaries arrived in Port Royal to establish schools and a hospital. In the interim, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase developed a plan that allowed the freedmen to operate the plantations as their own, while the profit gained from the crops was given over to the Department of the Treasury.
In the final analysis, the attack on Port Royal resulted in sweeping changes never envisioned by the Blockade Board. The aftermath of the Union victory led to the first black recruits for a Union regiment, the first schools exclusively established for former slaves and the start of a black political history.
This article was written by William C. Lowe and originally appeared in the January 2001 issue of America’s Civil War. For more great articles be sure to pick up your copy of America’s Civil War.