Tuesday, May 01, 2007

South Atlantic Coast, 1861

Dates: 27 August to 7 November, 1861


Union: Commodore Silas Stringham (Naval) and Brigadier General Benjamin Butler (Army) for the Fort Clark/Fort Hatteras operation. Commodore Samuel DuPont (Naval) and Brigadier General Thomas Sherman (Army) for the Port Royal, SC operation.

Confederate: Commodore Samuel Barron, commanding Fort Hatteras. Unknown on who commanded Confederate forces at Port Royal.

Prelude: As the Union was gearing up for war, a major concern was that for the recently proposed blockade of the entire Confederate coast. Not only would hundreds of ships be needed, but those used would have to be supplied, as well as remaining ready to respond to threats from the coast. Already, Confederate vessels were striking Federal shipping from coves and inlets along the South Atlantic coast. Their anchorages were protected by fortifications, mostly earthen walled forts that can take a lot of fire. Any such fort attacked could not be taken alone by artillery fire, it would also take an infantry assault to neutralize the fort. A plan for such an operation was presented to US President Abraham Lincoln, who was beset by the recent defeat of his army at Manassas, VA as well as an ongoing situation in Missouri. Lincoln was convinced and approved the operation.

The plan was this; land an infantry force near the fort, then use the gunboats to shell the fort while the infantry made the assault. The target chosen was Ocracoke Inlet, at Cape Hatteras. This area was guarded by two forts, Clark and Hatteras.

Forts Clark and Hatteras were located on the southern tip of Gull Island in an area known as Hatteras Point. The forts were located next to each other so they could support each other in a fight. The artillery covered not only the approaches from the Atlantic Ocean, but also Pamlico Sound. Elimination of these forts could go a long way to relieve the pressure on the now growing blockade.

It was decided that an infantry force of 1000 was needed to assault the forts. They would be transported on either Navy vessels to the area. All the elements needed were already at Hampton Roads, VA, a days sailing away, so time would not be wasted. Stringham would be in overall command while Butler would command the infantry, taken from the 9th, 20th, and 99th New York Regiments.

26 August, 1861: The joint Union Army/Navy force sets sail from Hampton Roads.

27 August, 1861: The Federal force arrives off Cape Hatteras. There is heavy seas, which hamper landing operations.

8:45 a.m.: Butler begins landing his troops three miles north of Fort Clark. The heavy seas encountered led to only 300 being landed, enough for a blockade but not an assault.

10:00 a.m.: Stringham orders his vessels to circle off Fort Clark, allowing each ship to fire a broadside into the fort. This continues for the next two hours.

12:30 p.m.: Fort Clark is ordered abandoned and the troops taken into Fort Hatteras.

Things seemed to go well except for two factors; all the Confederate defenders in fort Hatteras still had teeth, as evident by the USS Monticello almost being taken out by artillery, and the weather was getting worse. Stringham was forced to pull his ships out to sea, stranding the Union troops ashore.

29 August, 1861: With the dawn, Stringham was ready to try for Fort Hatteras.

5:30 a.m.: With his vessels back in a circle, Stringham orders Fort Hatteras bombarded.

11: 30 a.m.: After six hours of bombardment, there is a signal from the fort’s commander, Commodore Samuel Barron, that the Confederates were ready to discuss terms. Soon Barron, Butler, and Stringham met. Barron offered to surrender if they were allowed to withdraw with full honors. Butler countered that only an unconditional surrender would be accepted. Stringham was ready to resume the bombardment at any time, so the Union did have the upper hand. Barron reluctantly agreed to surrender and allowed himself to be taken into captivity.

In one of the ironies of the Civil War, one of the ships that was involved in the bombardment was the USS Wabash. Six month previous, Barron was a US Navy Lieutenant who commanded the Wabash.

While this was a Union victory, the infantry was not a factor in it, having been stuck on the beach. Butler covered for his error by suggesting that the forts could be used as a base of operations along the Confederate Atlantic coast. This despite his original orders to destroy the forts and withdraw.

The method of joint Army/Navy operations seemed sound, but needed some work.

In order to strengthen the blockade, the Federals needed another base to work from. Port Royal Sound, southwest of Charleston, SC was selected. This time the time was taken to assemble a large enough force: 77 vessels under Du Pont and about 12,000 under Tom Sherman (no relation to William Sherman) would be used in this assault.

Port Royal had two forts to cover the area, Forts Walker and Beauregard. They covered the junction of three rivers and several land formations; Hilton Head Island, Daw Island, Paris Island (future site of a US Marine Corps Basic Training Center), and St. Helena Island. If the forts were neutralized, the whole area would fall into Union hands.

29 October, 1861: The Port Royal fleet departs Hampton Roads under observation of Confederate spies, who report that they must be headed for Charleston. Truth was, not even the soldiers and sailors did not know where they were going. The ship’s commanders had sealed orders that were opened when they were out to sea.

As the fleet turned south, they encountered gales which were common in the Cape Hatteras area.

1 November, 1861: Storms forced the fleet to scatter, with some ship’s crews forced to jettison equipment. During the night the USS Sabine was lost.

4 November, 1861: The fleet forms off the South Carolina coast near Port Royal. With some of the ships damaged, it was decided to wait a few days and adjust the plan.

7 November, 1861: 7:00 a.m.: Du Pont sends thirteen ships into Port Royal Sound and began bombarding the two forts. The Federals were able to deliver accurate fire with their broadside weapons.

11:00 a.m.: Fort Beauregard is silenced, additional fire shifted to Fort Walker.

12:00 noon: Fort Walker is silenced.

Sherman’s troops are then sent ashore and the two forts are secured.

This turned out to be a model that the Union would use in future operations.

Stringham would become a Rear Admiral and command the north Atlantic Blockading Squadron for most of the war. He died in 1876.

Barron would serve the Confederacy as commander of CS Naval forces in Virginia before reassignment to the CSA’s efforts to buy vessels from England and France. He died in 1888.

Du Pont was promoted to Rear Admiral and became the first US Navy officer to command a fleet of ironclad ships. After three engagements, two of which were failures, Du Pont resigned his command in 1863 and served on a naval promotions board. He died in 1865, just after the end of the war.

Butler would go on to other commands, such as New Orleans, LA and Bermuda Hundred, VA before his eventual removal from command.

Sherman would hold commands in the West until wounded at Port Hudson, LA in 1863, resulting in him losing a leg. He stayed in administrative posts for the remainder of the war, retires from Active Duty in 1870 and died in 1879.

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