Prologue Magazine

Defunct Strategy and Divergent Goals

The Role of the United States Navy along the Eastern Seaboard during the Civil War

Fall 2001, Vol. 33, No. 3

By Robert M. Browning, Jr.

© 2001 by Robert M. Browning, Jr.

Monitor and Virinia battle in Hampton Roads
The Monitor and the Virginia battle at Hampton Roads, Virginia, March 9, 1862. (NARA, 64-C-63)

In August 1863, two years into the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln wrote to his friend James Conkling, "Nor must Uncle Sam's web feet be forgotten. At all the watery margins they have been present. Not only on the deep sea, the broad bay, and the rapid river, but . . . wherever the ground was a little damp, they have been, and made their tracks."1

Lincoln's call for a blockade of Southern ports, which created the need for a large navy, may have been one of his wisest wartime decisions.2 During the conflict the navy demonstrated that it could do much more than maintain a blockade— its most important task— but this vast sea power advantage was underutilized.

The blockade of more than 3,500 miles of Southern coastline consumed most of the navy's assets, and army-navy rivalries prevented joint operations that might have brought crucial victories. Furthermore, the Union leadership failed to develop any continuing strategy for the war, squandering the advantage the superior Union navy had over the Confederate naval forces— an advantage that, if properly used, might have shortened the war.

After several months of implementing the blockade, however, it was clearly understood that the job at hand was larger than anyone perceived, and the navy needed some direction. In an attempt to devise an initial strategy and to anticipate future service needs, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles created a Commission of Conference, also called the Blockade Strategy Board.3 The Blockade Strategy Board met at the Smithsonian Institution from July to September of 1861 and prepared ten reports. Its members developed strategies and devised methods to render the blockade more effective. The board also accumulated the information necessary to establish logistical bases and recommended points to be seized as coaling stations and naval bases. The board also prepared a general guide for all blockading operations, which the Navy Department followed closely throughout the war.4

The insights of the board laid out an important framework for the early strategy of the navy. It was, in fact, the only wartime board that resembled a general staff.5 Yet, after discussing the most important and pressing issues facing the navy in 1861, the board never met again and therefore future strategy was never broached.

The members of the Blockade Strategy Board suggested that the blockade would become more effective if the navy captured points along the coast. Seizing ports denied their use to privateers and blockade-runners and would serve the navy's logistical needs. Following the board's recommendations, the department instructed Flag Officer Silas Stringham, the commander of the Atlantic Blockading Squadron, to assemble a fleet to capture Hatteras Inlet, North Carolina. Gideon Welles also ordered Capt. Samuel Francis Du Pont to New York to begin preparing and organizing an expedition to capture two ports farther south.

At the end of August 1861, Stringham delivered the United States its first victory of the war by forcing the Confederate forts at Hatteras Inlet to surrender. This victory only made Lincoln more anxious for an immediate follow-up and encouraged him to become involved in other naval affairs. Once the President began to ask questions of his naval leaders, he learned that there were delays in the Du Pont expedition. Lincoln fretted over these delays and told Welles that Du Pont must be ready to move by the first of October or shortly thereafter.6

The growing concern about the Du Pont expedition prompted a meeting of the Union leadership. In this meeting attended by the secretaries of both the Navy and the War Departments, as well as the naval and military leaders involved with Union strategy, a problem came to light. Lincoln's eagerness to launch the next naval expedition prompted the disclosure that the army, independently and without coordinating with the navy, had plans for a military strike into the sounds of North Carolina to follow up the victory at Hatteras Inlet. Gustavus Vasa Fox, the assistant secretary of the navy, feared that Lincoln would now cancel Du Pont's South Atlantic expedition. Fox, an outspoken advocate of naval affairs, asked that the group immediately settle this issue with the President.7

During the deliberations, Fox staunchly supported the South Atlantic expedition and asked for details about the impending amphibious campaign into North Carolina. Brig. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, the commanding officer of the North Carolina expedition, insisted that he proceed despite the fact that it directly competed for the resources of the combined army-navy operation farther south. Lincoln became exasperated with the army leaders who had failed to inform him earlier about the Burnside project. Clearly neither of the services had formulated any advance strategy, and Lincoln chastised all those present for the lack of coordination. After much debate, they decided to put Burnside's North Carolina expedition second. In the "haste of ignorance," however, the group decided that Du Pont should leave in four days.8

Du Pont would not only lead the naval portion of the South Atlantic expedition but he would also have command of his own squadron. Since July the Blockade Strategy Board had urged that the Gulf and Atlantic Coast Blockading squadrons be divided into four squadrons. The navy's tremendous growth and the inherent responsibilities spawned by these large commands made this division necessary. Stringham conveniently resigned shortly after his victory at Hatteras, and Welles chose two younger and more energetic men to command the newly divided Atlantic Coast Squadron. Louis M. Goldsborough assumed command of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, and Du Pont took command of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. The dividing line between these two squadrons was the boundary between North and South Carolina.

The Du Pont Expedition

It took a month for Du Pont to ready his force, and in late October he sailed with the largest fleet of American warships ever assembled. The goal of the combined expedition was to capture two anchorages as bases for future operations. The Navy and War Departments left the specific points to be captured to the discretion of the expedition's commanding officers. After a great deal of discussion between Du Pont and Brig. Gen. Thomas W. Sherman, his army counterpart, they decided to attack Port Royal, South Carolina. On November 7, the naval force attacked the Confederate forts there. The tremendous firepower of the fleet easily forced the Confederates to abandon their works. The victory was quick, complete, relatively bloodless, and solely a naval affair.

Despite the fact that an army force of twelve thousand troops accompanied the expedition, the Federal forces were not prepared to follow up this quick victory. Because they had expected a greater challenge from the Confederates, they had no continuing strategy. The Confederates along the entire South Atlantic coast lacked resources and preparation; a quick strike by the superior Union forces at this time might have led to the capture of either Savannah or Charleston and left almost the entire coastline of this three-state area in Union hands.

After the capture of Port Royal, Du Pont and Sherman did discuss the capture of a second port, which had been part of the original instructions. They believed that an attack on Fernandina, Florida, might succeed, and Du Pont was particularly anxious to attack Fernandina just after the fall of Port Royal. The Confederates' virtual abandonment of the coast between Charleston and Savannah, however, changed Du Pont's and Sherman's strategic outlook. Prudence suggested that the Union forces should occupy this broader area rather than push on farther south. The lack of a unified command, however, assured that nothing would be done quickly. Had either Du Pont or Sherman had sole responsibility for the joint operations, they would have accomplished more.9

Sherman and Du Pont also discussed a surprise attack on Savannah. Sherman, however, could not readily move his men because he never received the light-draft steam transports the War Department promised him. Instead, these assets were diverted for the Burnside Expedition in the sounds of North Carolina. This lack of transport constrained all of the general's possible movements along the South Atlantic seaboard. The dearth of light-draft steamers and boats to land troops and supplies was an obstacle too great, at least in Du Pont's mind, to overcome. The absence of these resources and the tremendous blockading responsibilities of the squadron ended all plans for a quick strike on Savannah.10

While the navy actively probed all the major waterways between Charleston and the Georgia border, the army remained idle in Port Royal, waiting for word from Washington concerning future operations. Sherman had earlier suggested to the War Department attacks on either Savannah or Fort Pulaski, which guarded the mouth of the Savannah River. During a long-term illness, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan did not read any of Sherman's dispatches. When he finally did, he had large commitments of troops in the western theater and had additional troops and assets tied up in the operations in North Carolina. He eventually suggested that Sherman plan to reduce Fort Pulaski by bombardment. The War Department did not consider the city of Savannah to be worth putting under siege and instructed Sherman to concentrate his forces either on Fort Pulaski, Fernandina, or maybe St. Augustine. In February, three months after the capture of Port Royal, he promised to send a siege train of heavy guns to accomplish the reduction of Fort Pulaski.11

In April 1862, after a short siege, the Confederates surrendered Fort Pulaski. The fall of the fort opened the Savannah River to the navy. Despite the fact that the river now served as a thoroughfare directly to the city of Savannah, the Union forces did not push up the river. The army still did not have the appropriate transports, and the city was better defended after the two-month delay.

The Confederates now realized they could not hold their isolated seacoast positions and ordered their forces to withdraw to more defendable positions inland. In March, Du Pont took advantage of this withdrawal to capture Fernandina, Jacksonville, and St. Augustine, Florida, and Brunswick, Georgia. Du Pont, however, could not go farther, and the Union forces later had to abandon Jacksonville.

The Union Forces Open New Fronts

One of the principal reasons operations along the South Atlantic coast stalled in the spring of 1862 was the Burnside Expedition. To stage this expedition, the army and navy had to amass a large amount of resources, to the detriment of other ongoing military operations. In mid-January 1862, a force of about one hundred vessels sailed for the sounds of North Carolina. This campaign faced problems similar to the Port Royal expedition and was somewhat mismanaged because the army and navy continued to retain control of their own forces. Nevertheless, this overwhelming force successfully exploited a weak point in the Confederate defenses. The naval force and the accompanying fifteen thousand troops easily captured Roanoke Island, New Bern, Washington, and Plymouth and controlled the waters of the North Carolina sounds.

As was the case during the Du Pont Expedition, the Confederate government did not have the men and the resources to defend a large area. The overwhelming Union naval force gave the army mobility that the Confederates could not match. Divided commands, confusion, and the Confederates' failure to assign this area a high priority all made the Union offensive efforts successful.

Yet the Yankees' North Carolina expedition came to a halt. By March 1862 McClellan was committed to his campaign on the Virginia Peninsula. When the Union forces opened this new front, it forced Burnside to be cautious because he could not expect reinforcements. This caution consumed much of the ardor of Burnside's campaign. McClellan eventually ordered Burnside to transfer men from the sounds. When Burnside dispatched nearly eight thousand men from New Bern on July 6, 1862, it ended the major offensive operations in North Carolina and put the troops there on the defensive for the rest of the war.12

On the East Coast, the navy was now committed in three major areas: the South Atlantic coast, the North Carolina sounds, and Virginia. The War Department's main concern was capturing the Confederate capital of Richmond. This focus would not change during the war, despite the other strategic commitments along the Atlantic coast from North Carolina to Florida. When McClellan requested all the available naval force that could be spared, he committed the navy as well as his own forces because the success of the Peninsular Campaign depended on control of the water.

The importance of the naval forces to McClellan's campaign is borne out in the March 1862 battle between the Virginia and Monitor. The Monitor's failure to defeat the Virginia stalled any naval movement up the James River and constrained army movements. This changed in April, when the Confederates destroyed the Virginia after Union forces captured the ironclad's base at Norfolk. Now the James River became a liability for the Confederacy. It gave the Union forces a direct route to the heart of the Confederate capital. Thoughts of a naval move up the James River to Richmond ended in May 1862, when the Confederates repulsed Union warships at Drewry's Bluff. Despite this setback, Welles was determined to maintain control of the waters around the Peninsula in order to support McClellan and his army. The absorption of large numbers of the navy's resources in Virginia halted any further naval and combined operations along the entire South Atlantic coast.13

Despite this commitment, the Navy Department continued to look ahead to the next project. Thinking that McClellan's campaign might end in a quick Union victory, navy leaders began to think about future strategy and discussed a possible attack on Wilmington, North Carolina. This port had become an important commercial center for the blockade-runners. Hoping to use the ironclad Monitor, the department made plans to close the Cape Fear River by attacking Fort Fisher or Fort Caswell at the river's mouth. This operation, however, depended on the fall of Richmond, which would free the necessary troops and gunboats.14

Quick victory never came, and the navy remained committed to supporting the military operations in Virginia. The Union navy cooperated in skirmishes, provided important fire support, kept communications open, protected the army when it was backed against the river, and facilitated its retreat. The navy consequently made the whole campaign possible. McClellan's slow-developing operations, however, never used the navy as an offensive force. McClellan's failure to understand the advantages that the navy provided him probably contributed as much to his unsuccessful attempt to capture Richmond as any other single cause.

The Plans to Strike at Charleston

By the fall of 1862, the Union war effort had not enjoyed abundant success. The withdrawal of Union forces from the Peninsula in August seemed to encapsulate the character of the military operations for the Union in the eastern theater. Now, nearly eighteen months into the conflict, the North craved a victory. On August 29 the army suffered a crushing defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run, and Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg's move into Kentucky threatened Louisville. Yet fortunes shifted quickly after Lincoln restored McClellan to command. He defeated Lee at Antietam that September, and Bragg's forces retreated to southeastern Tennessee. With these army successes stealing the headlines, Gideon Welles and Gustavus Fox both felt that a naval victory at Wilmington or Charleston would give the service the prestige that it once had and that it deserved.

By December 1862 all the Union armies began moving in unison in order to exert pressure on the Southern forces. At Fredericksburg, the Confederates badly defeated Burnside's Army of the Potomac. This motivated Washington and the Navy Department to again push for an attack on the forts at the Cape Fear and then to move south and attack Charleston. The Northern leaders believed that a victory at Wilmington would offset the recent debacle at Fredericksburg. Rear Adm. Samuel Du Pont believed that this plan "was one of those chaotic conceptions, produced by the desire of the President and others 'to strike a blow' somewhere."15

At the end of December the department ordered the Monitor and two other ironclads to go to Beaufort, North Carolina, the staging area for a possible attack on the Confederate forts guarding the Cape Fear River. The army also committed an additional twelve thousand men for this project. A successful attack would close Wilmington and deny the Confederacy its most important port. There were, however, no discussions by the Navy or War Departments for any follow-up. The naval attack on Wilmington relied on passing into the Cape Fear River and striking the forts from the rear. The plan had many obstacles to overcome, the most serious being the shallow water and the lack of knowledge of the bars there. Rear Adm. Samuel Phillips Lee, the commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, did not actively seek any solutions, and his officers never could gather definitive soundings that would guarantee that the monitors could get into the river.

Any prospect of an attack on Wilmington ended when the ironclad Monitor sank on its way to Beaufort. Fox commented on the sinking, "We gave him [Lee] the Passaic and the old Monitor, which unfortunately sank, breaking up the whole affair." An attack at Fort Caswell was likewise now weakened, and Welles wrote in his diary, "It is best, therefore, to push on to Charleston and strengthen Du Pont." More important, Gustavus Fox saw this as an opportunity to strike at the cradle of secession. Without further thought about Wilmington, the Navy Department shifted its attention almost exclusively to Charleston.16

The new year seemed to strengthen the resolve of the leaders in Washington who still sought a political victory as well as a military success to bolster public opinion. To achieve both, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Fox initiated an unrelenting personal campaign for a naval attack on Charleston. In his mind, the fall of Charleston was "the fall of Satan's Kingdom." Fox abhorred combined operations because of his complete disdain for the army. He wrote to Du Pont, "The crowning act of this war ought to be [carried out] by the Navy. I feel that my duties are twofold: first to beat our Southern friends; second to beat the Army."17

Fox was convinced that heavily armored ironclads could enter Charleston Harbor and force the Confederates to surrender. The Navy Department's focus on Charleston was extremely important and would be the turning point in the war in the South Atlantic Theater of operations. This goal caused the navy to redirect its resources and change both the navy's and the Union's strategy for the remainder of the war.18

By the beginning of 1863, the Confederates had turned Charleston Harbor into the most heavily defended port in the Western Hemisphere. Wooden ships could not survive long under the guns that protected this harbor. Since Fox denigrated a combined operation, an attack on Charleston therefore depended entirely on the use of ironclads to force their way into the harbor. The next generation of these warships, the improved Passaic class, with heavier armor, heavier armament, and other improvements, however, would not be complete for some months.19

Fox became obsessed with this project and believed the capture of Charleston would be retribution to the South. In 1861, with marked impatience, he frequently urged Du Pont to continue his preparations to attack the city. Fox became completely fixated with the idea of the navy making the attack alone. Du Pont believed that only a combined operation could succeed and repeatedly cautioned Fox not to underrate the defensive works. He warned the assistant secretary, "Do no go in half cocked about Charleston— it is a bigger job than Port Royal. . . . Loss of life is nothing, but failure now at Charleston is ten times the failure elsewhere— ."20

Without a combined operation, success depended solely on the monitors, but the attack could not proceed until they arrived. The operation slipped farther back on the calendar because shortages of materials, striking workers, and the inability of contractors to finish the new class of monitors added months to their completion dates. The delay had a tremendous impact on the strategic situation at Charleston. Every week that passed, the Confederates improved the defenses of the harbor and made victory less certain in Du Pont's mind.

The Navy Department maintained its resolve. It continued to push the contractors to have the new Passaic-class ironclads completed. Fox, meanwhile, also kept the Mississippi Squadron's commander, Rear Adm. David Dixon Porter, believing that his operations took precedence over those in the east, even above Charleston. The assistant secretary, however, never lost sight of his pet Charleston project.21

Fox indicated to Du Pont that after he captured Charleston, the monitors were to be used at other Confederate ports. The department's notice that they would be available only for a limited time also came with language from Gideon Welles that must have given Du Pont even more concern. Welles wrote that the ironclads would enable him "to enter the harbor of Charleston and demand the surrender of all the defenses or [the Confederates would] suffer the consequences of the refusal." Du Pont was told that the capture of this city rested "solely upon the success of the naval force." It was abundantly clear to Du Pont that he was expected to go in with a naval force only, force the city to surrender, and be ready to quickly send his ironclad warships off to attack another city.22

In February this issue became more complicated. The army pitched a plan to President Lincoln to capture Charleston by landing troops on Morris Island under the protection of the ironclads. The army proposed to erect siege batteries and reduce Fort Sumter. Fox, however, could not endure the thought of sharing a victory with the army and belittled the idea. He afterwards wrote Du Pont that "such an idea was so insignificant and so characteristic of the army that I could not help expressing myself to that effect." Politics also entered the equation. During the discussion, the President expressed to the military leaders that a siege would take too long and that the politicians needed a victory before Congress adjourned so that they could "shape legislation."23

The Navy Department promised to send at least four of the new Passaic-class monitors and the seagoing ironclad New Ironsides. In February the War Department agreed to transfer ten thousand men to the Department of the South to operate against Charleston. Despite the fact that Du Pont insisted on a combined operation, Fox remained preoccupied with the idea that the navy should make the attack alone.24

To Du Pont's dismay, a combined operation against Charleston never developed. Controversy and disharmony already widespread within the army's Department of the South reached a crescendo. One general left the department in disgust, and another was charged with insubordination. With the army command in complete disarray, Du Pont's chance to get army support for an attack appeared dim. This turn of events played right into Fox's hands.25

Du Pont delayed attacking Charleston and continued to insist on additional ironclads. Fox, meanwhile, gloated that the army would certainly be spectators. The admiral, under a great deal of pressure to begin the operation, knew the department was acting out of an "impatience of ignorance" and was essentially asking him to "relieve the national heart." The high political stakes of this operation compounded his personal dilemma.26

As Du Pont waited for more force and continued his preparations, both Fox and Welles persistently encouraged the flag officer to act. Hoping to move Du Pont, the Navy Department repeated its dire need to send the monitors to other ports. The admiral, however, maintained his need of more force. While waiting for the additional ironclads, Du Pont tested these warships against Fort McAllister on the Ogeechee River. He found that the monitors, while able to resist the enemy's gunfire, did not have sufficient firepower to silence a seven-gun earthwork. Du Pont now believed that the prospect of fighting over seventy guns in Charleston Harbor was not promising.

As far as the Navy Department was concerned, however, the Charleston attack was now set in stone. Nevertheless, it was like a crap game without the support of the army. The department, under Fox's lead, was playing to win all or nothing. Knowing the public wanted a victory, Welles reportedly said that "the attack must be made whether successful or not, the people would not stand it and would 'turn us all out'." Welles and Fox were planning to stake the reputation of the department on the success of the monitors.27

The attack on Charleston was supposed to showcase the strength of the monitors. It was also to prove that no Confederate port could withstand an attack by a fleet of these heavily armored warships. With this superior weapon, the Navy Department was shaping its naval policy and strategy. They hoped to sweep along the coast with an armada of ironclads and capture all the Confederate ports one by one. Nevertheless, the Navy Department, and Fox in particular, never heeded Du Pont's reservations; in carefully worded dispatches, the admiral laid out the limitations of an insufficient attacking force and the necessity of a combined operation. However, Fox's distaste for joint operations and his jealousy and suspicions of the army were only part of the problem. Fox had been the greatest promoter of the ironclads and had even convinced the cabinet members that they could steam unharmed into the harbor. He had staked his professional reputation on their impregnability and their ability to do the job at Charleston. Fox's single-mindedness and the need for a political victory overshadowed Du Pont's concerns.

The Navy Department did recognize the importance of the Charleston operation. Perhaps due to Du Pont's insistence, as well as the poor showing of the monitors at Fort McAllister, the department added four additional ironclads to Du Pont's command. Du Pont was still not satisfied with his attacking force but felt compelled to order an attack. It would be a test of the heavily armored but slow-firing monitors against well-defended and powerful batteries.

On April 7, 1863, nine ironclads advanced into Charleston Harbor. After a brief but decisive battle, the ironclads withdrew in defeat. The monitors were defeated because the Confederate guns maintained a volume of fire that no other group of ships faced during the entire war. The rebel batteries fired at a rate fourteen times greater than that of the Union ships. Clearly, the monitors could not mass enough firepower to destroy or disable the enemy's guns. Also important was the fact that the monitors were highly technical warships. During the battle, many of their guns were disabled, and the ships' armor sustained heavy damage. Some of the more severe damage could not be repaired for several weeks.

This defeat was a hard lesson for the Navy Department. It had formulated its naval strategy around these warships and planned to use the monitors to force each Southern port to surrender. The navy had believed they would be invincible against the Charleston forts. Clearly, the incredible pounding they took during this short battle showed that this strategy was no longer plausible.

Defunct Strategy and Divergent Goals, Part 2

Robert M. Browning, Jr., earned his Ph.D. at the University of Alabama and is the chief historian for the US Coast Guard. He is the author of From Cape Charles to Cape Fear: The North Atlantic Blockading Squadron during the Civil War and has recently completed a manuscript for a book on the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.