Prologue Magazine

Defunct Strategy and Divergent Goals, Part 2

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.

 On April 7, 1863, nine ironclads advanced into Charleston Harbor. After enduring a volume of fire that no other group of ships faced during the entire war, the monitors withdrew in defeat. (Naval Historical Center)

A Lack of Continuing Strategy

In late May, Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore visited Washington and stopped by the Navy Department to discuss future operations along the South Atlantic coast. He set forth a plan similar to the one proposed in February to destroy Fort Sumter and capture Charleston by siege. Fox abandoned his hope of an all-naval victory and consented to this joint operation because of his desire to capture the cradle of secession.28

Gillmore, however, was speaking without any backing from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Stanton never envisioned committing any army resources for a siege at Charleston. With the Army of the Potomac in active operations against Lee, and the Union army besieging Vicksburg, the War Department could not readily spare troops for an attack on Charleston. In fact, it held that the troops currently at Charleston were there merely to support naval operations.29

Gillmore's plan included an attack by way of Morris Island on the south side of Charleston Harbor. Gillmore proposed first to take possession of the southern end of the island and then lay siege to and reduce Battery Wagner on the northern third of the island. The general would move up his artillery and build breaching batteries to destroy Fort Sumter. The last phase was considered a naval affair. With Fort Sumter silenced, the fleet could then take the initiative and remove the obstructions blocking the mouth of the harbor at its leisure. With the obstructions removed, the warships could run past the defensive works into the harbor and force the city to surrender.30

Since this plan did not require a large number of troops, the War Department eventually assented, and the Navy Department granted its approval for naval cooperation. During the summer of 1863, the army and Du Pont's replacement, Rear Adm. John A. Dahlgren, worked closely with Gillmore to capture Morris Island and reduce Fort Sumter. This campaign, however, did not leave the Union forces in a much stronger position. They occupied Morris Island, controlled half of the entrance to Charleston Harbor, and after weeks of tremendous bombardment, reduced Fort Sumter to rubble. Despite the fact that the navy allowed the army to land troops and supplies "as if the enemy were not in sight," Gillmore eventually captured the enemy works on Morris Island not by overwhelming the garrison but by threatening to cut off his retreat.31

The capture of Morris Island, however, failed to give the Union forces a real advantage. The lengthy operation that ended in fall 1863 allowed the Confederates time to withdraw the guns from Fort Sumter and strengthen the batteries in Charleston Harbor, thereby giving the Union naval forces little or no advantage. The Union forces controlled half of the entrance to Charleston Harbor, but both the army and naval forces were deadlocked over the last part of the program. The army held the navy accountable for not striking into the harbor. Dahlgren pointed out that the Confederate defenses were not appreciably weakened. The enemy had just repositioned its guns protecting the harbor.32

With no other large combined operation on the East Coast pending or even planned, Fox, through the autumn of 1863, held steadfastly to his desire to capture Charleston. This ambitious design, however, became more doubtful as each month passed. A naval attack still depended on the defense-oriented monitors passing into the harbor. The navy had under contract a third generation of monitor to carry out its program of attacking the Southern harbors. However, severe delays in the completion of the Canonicus monitors, an improvement over the Passaic class, set the navy's timetable back. None of the third generation would be completed before April 1864. By the beginning of 1864, even Fox began to have doubts over the Charleston attack. He wrote that the "work at Charleston is done," yet he felt "politically and morally, we ought to enter far enough to burn the city by naval fire and accomplish the destruction of their naval force." Fox, however, advised Dahlgren not to attempt anything unless he could guarantee success.33

The Navy Department began building a fourth class of monitors, specifically designed for river work. The twenty Casco-class monitors, once complete, would allow closer cooperation with army movements into the interior. These warships, because of ill-advised design changes and modifications to the original design, were never completed as monitors and remained unavailable for the war effort. The failure to complete the Casco-class monitors critically damaged the Navy Department's ironclad strategy for combined operations and the capture of Southern ports.

While the Navy Department waited for the Canonicus-class ironclads to be completed, the army showed no desire to press the Confederate army after Gettysburg. For six months, from the fall of 1863 until spring 1864, little naval activity occurred on the East Coast. During this time, however, the navy was hard-pressed to do anything because it was critically short of men. The three-year enlistments were ending, and the department's shortage of crews was so severe that the navy had enough ships lying idle to create another squadron. To fill ships, they transferred men from the army and even used Confederate prisoners of war to operate the ships. By March 1864 the navy, relieved somewhat of its manpower problems, again considered operations at Charleston. Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's proposed campaign in eastern Virginia, however, took precedence over a Charleston attack, and the navy completely "abandoned" the idea of an attack on Charleston.34

On May 4, 1864, General Grant moved the Army of the Potomac across the Rapidan River, ending its inactivity since Gettysburg. The Army of Northern Virginia blocked this movement with several bloody encounters in the Wilderness near Fredericksburg. Contrary to every Union commander since McClellan, Grant maneuvered along lines that allowed him to use the navy. The Union navy kept Grant's communications open to his supply base at City Point, and it made possible the safe movement of troops along the rivers. The navy negated the Confederacy's advantage of interior lines, and Lee found it difficult to defend both Petersburg and Richmond. Once Grant shifted south of the James River, he was entirely dependent on the navy to maintain his position.

With little happening south of Virginia, the Navy Department again began to consider an attack on Wilmington, North Carolina. The navy had shown intermittent interest in this project for two years. Nevertheless, the capture of the port was never viable until its acquisition became beneficial to the War Department. Welles wrote in his diary, "I have been urging a conjoint attack upon Wilmington for months. . . . But the War Department hangs fire, and the President, whilst agreeing . . . dislikes to press matters when the military leaders are reluctant to move."35

This situation changed in the fall of 1864. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who captured Atlanta on September 2, rested his army for ten weeks and planned to march from his base at Atlanta to the sea and then northward. Wilmington now became an important part of the upcoming campaign. Possession of this port city would allow communication with Sherman's army, and the War Department now showed a great deal of interest for a combined operation.36

The Navy and War Departments determined to capture Wilmington and began to garner the resources for an attack. In December 1864, a large but poorly organized combined operation failed to take Fort Fisher, North Carolina, at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. But in January 1865, the army and naval forces returned. This operation featured the greatest naval bombardment in U.S. history and preceded the landing of eight thousand troops and sixteen hundred sailors and marines. By the end of the day on January 15, the Confederacy's major port of entry was closed for business. Combined operations such as this would have greatly benefited the Union's early war goals, but this was instead the last major combined operation of the Civil War.

Defunct Strategy and Divergent Goals

It is interesting to reflect how the war might have changed had the US Navy successfully implemented the naval strategy it formulated around its ironclad warships. Using its ironclads to capture Confederate ports and project power inland, the Union forces might have ended the war much sooner. While the Union forces operated along the East Coast with superior forces both ashore and afloat, their overwhelming superiority, and the great mobility offered by the navy, went largely unused, untried, or ignored. After the combined Union forces began the conflict with sweeping successes in the coastal areas of North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, the progress virtually came to a halt. It is as if the captures were made with no apparent goal other than to deprive the Confederacy of territory. After these successes, the Union forces lost direction and purpose. The navy made a single effort to force its way into Charleston. After this failure, the Union forces south of Virginia made few attempts to project its superior power by moving into the interior to disrupt Confederate activities, logistical bases, railroads, or any other communications. The army seemed content to garrison towns along the coast and merely deny the Confederates their use. The demands of keeping idle garrisons along the coast denied a larger fighting force to the Union war effort.

The polarized goals of the Navy and War Departments hurt overall Union strategy. The Navy Department's quixotic vision of taking Charleston was particularly harmful to naval operations. The army, on the other hand, persistently campaigned to capture Richmond. With each service having different goals and the army forces in Virginia engaged along lines that could not utilize naval support, major combined operations languished for about two years.

Gustavus Fox's single-minded goal of capturing Charleston left no ironclads for other potential operations. Once the monitors sent to Charleston failed to breech the harbor defenses, the department never developed a comprehensive strategy to make use of them elsewhere. The setback at Charleston caused the Navy Department to become more cautious in the use of these warships. They could not afford another embarrassment with the ironclads.

While the army can be faulted for underutilizing its troops, the navy specifically failed to utilize the monitors for full-scale offensive movements. The monitors were the most powerful warships in the navy and represented the greatest expenditure by the department during the war, and yet, after the autumn of 1863, most of the monitor force lay idle off Charleston. In a combined operation, the navy might have used them earlier to attack any of the Gulf ports or Wilmington to end the war more quickly. These same monitors might have been used in a combined operation to move up the James River. The capture of Richmond, however, was the army's main goal and would not have given the navy any accolades. More important, Fox and the department had made a political and military commitment at Charleston from which they could not retreat. This situation, especially, points to a lack of a comprehensive strategy to use these warships.

Charleston clearly became a political goal for the Navy Department, and the capture of Richmond served the same purpose for the army. Neither branch of the service found it useful to work closely together to project a long-term strategy that would win the war more quickly.

Although most of the Atlantic coastline was in Union hands by spring 1862, Charleston, Wilmington, and Savannah did not fall until the last months of the war. One might note that during the entire war in the eastern theater, the naval forces virtually defined the reach of the Federal forces. The United States' military forces in the eastern theater traded control of interior and the destruction of the Confederacy's infrastructure for an investment of the southern coastal areas. Other than to deny territory to the Confederacy and aid the blockade, it did nothing appreciably to boost the war effort.

The navy indeed provided Uncle Sam with what Lincoln called "web feet." But "Uncle Sam's web feet" were in some ways "forgotten" because the Union leadership failed to formulate a continuing strategy. With some semblance of a progressive military strategy, the greatly superior naval forces could have made a quicker and more substantial contribution to Confederate defeat.

Defunct Strategy and Divergent Goals, Part 1


1 Abraham Lincoln to James C. Conkling, Aug. 26, 1863, as cited in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler (1953 - 1955), 6: 409 - 410.

2 The first proclamation included all the Southern states except North Carolina and Virginia. The proclamation on April 27 placed those two under blockade. Abraham Lincoln to William Seward, Apr. 19, 27, 1861, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (ORN), 30 vols. (1894 - 1922), 5: 620 - 621.

3 Samuel Francis Du Pont to Sophie Du Pont, June 28, 1861, John D. Hayes ed., Samuel Francis Du Pont: A Selection from His Civil War Letters, 3 vols. (1969) 1: 85 - 86, hereinafter cited as Du Pont, Letters.

4 Blockade Strategy Board Minutes, Subject File ON, Entry 464, Record Group (RG) 45, National Archives Building (NAB), Washington, DC.

5 Stephen B. Luce, "Naval Administration II," Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute 27 (December 1902): 843.

6 Lincoln to Gideon Welles, Sept. 18, 1861, ORN, 12: 208.

7 Du Pont to Henry Winter Davis, Oct. 8, 1861, Du Pont, Letters, 1: 162 - 163.

8 Ibid.

9 Du Pont to Welles, Feb. 8, 1862, in Samuel F. Du Pont, Official Dispatches and Letters of Rear Admiral Du Pont, US Navy, 1846 - 48, 1861 - 63 (1883), pp. 98 - 99; John Rodgers to Du Pont, Jan. 18, 1862, ORN, 12: 492 - 493; T. W. Sherman to George B. McClellan, Dec. 27, 1861, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (ORA), 128 vols. (1880 - 1901), series 1, 6: 214; Quincy A. Gillmore to Sherman, Dec. 30, 1861, Confidential Correspondence of Gustavus Vasa Fox, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, 1861 - 1865, ed. Robert Means Thompson and Richard Wainwright, 2 vols. (1918), 1: 92 - 93 (hereinafter cited as Fox Correspondence); Du Pont to Fox, Nov. 11, 1861, ibid.; testimony of T. W. Sherman, US Congress, Senate Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, S. Rept. 108, 37th Cong., 3rd sess., 1863, 3: 306, hereinafter cited as Conduct of War.

10 T. W. Sherman to McClellan, Mar. 26, 1862, ORA, ser. 1, 6: 253 - 254; Du Pont to Fox, Jan. 11, 1862, Fox Correspondence, 1: 100 - 101. Sherman, in his memoirs, laid the blame squarely on the navy for the failure. Sherman, "Succinct Military History," pp. 50 - 53, US Army General's Report of Civil War Service, 1864 - 1887, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's - 1917, RG 94, NAB; Sherman to D. Hunter, Mar. 31, 1862, ORA, ser. 1, 6: 257; Du Pont to Welles, Feb. 8, 1862, Du Pont Family Papers, Hagley Library and Museum, Wilmington, DE; testimony of Sherman, Conduct of War, 3: 296 - 300.

11 McClellan to T. W. Sherman, Feb. 12, 14, 1862, ORA, ser. 1, 6: 224 - 225; Fox to Du Pont, Jan. 4, 1862, Du Pont Papers, Hagley Museum.

12 McClellan to Ambrose E. Burnside, Apr. 2, 1862, ORA, ser. 1, 9: 374; Augustus Woodbury, "Ambrose Powell Burnside," Personal Narratives of Events In The War of the Rebellion, Being Papers Read Before the Rhode Island Soldiers & Sailors Historical Society, second series, No. 17 (1882), pp. 26 - 28; Burnside to E. M. Stanton, July 7, 1862, ORA, ser. 1, 9: 409; Foster to Stanton, July 8, 1862, ibid., p. 410.

13 L. M. Goldsborough to Welles, May 18, 1862, ORN, 7: 386; John Watters to A. L. Case, May 19, 1862, ibid., pp. 387 - 390; Welles to Goldsborough, May 20, 1862, ibid., p. 403; W. Smith to Goldsborough, May 20, 1862, ibid., p. 404; Goldsborough to Fox, May 21, 1862, Fox Correspondence, 1: 271. On May 10 McClellan wrote that if Norfolk was captured and the Virginia destroyed, he could change his base to the James River. Had he done so shortly after Norfolk was abandoned, he might have captured Richmond with the help of the navy. McClellan to Stanton, May 10, 1862, ORA, ser. 1, vol. 11, pt. 3, p. 160.

14 Welles to Goldsborough, May 11, 1862, ibid., 8: 341; Goldsborough to Welles, May 12, 1862, ibid., 7: 342; Goldsborough to Elizabeth Wirt Goldsborough, May 12, 1862, Louis M. Goldsborough Collection, Manuscript Collection, Library of Congress (LC), Washington, DC.

15 Samuel F. Du Pont to Sophie Du Pont, Jan. 25, 1863, Du Pont, Letters, 2: 379.

16 Lee to Welles, Dec. 24, 1862, Welles to Lee, Dec. 26, 1862, Gideon Welles Papers, Letterbook, LC; Joseph Lewis Stackpole, "The Department of North Carolina Under General Foster, July, 1862 to July, 1863," The Military Historical Society of Massachusetts, 14 vols., 9: 95; Fox to Du Pont, Mar. 11, 1863, Du Pont, Letters, 2: 486; Du Pont to Sophie Du Pont, Jan. 6, 1863, entry for Jan. 5, 1863, Diary of Gideon Welles (1911) 1: 216. Two years later, David Porter attempted to get his vessels over the bar after Fort Caswell was abandoned. It took three days to get the gunboats through the shallow water. A similar try in January 1863 might have ended in disaster for the navy. Porter to Welles, Jan. 22, 1865, ORN, 11: 269 - 270.

17 Fox to Du Pont, June 3, 1862, Gustavus Vasa Fox Papers, New-York Historical Society (NYHS).

18 Ibid.

19 Robert M. Browning Jr., From Cape Charles to Cape Fear, The North Atlantic Blockading Squadron during the Civil War (1993), pp. 275 - 283.

20 Fox remained sensitive about his failure to resupply Fort Sumter. Fox never forgot this failure, remained bitter about it, and let this disappointment distort his perspective concerning the navy strategy. Throughout the war, he actively promoted the capture of Charleston and sought retribution on those who he felt started the war. Du Pont to Fox, May 25, 31, Sept. 20, 1862, Fox Correspondence, I: 120, 122 - 123, 156; Charles Henry Davis, Life of Charles Henry Davis, Rear Admiral 1877 (1899), p. 133; Fox to Welles, Feb. 24, 1865, ORN, 4: 245.

21 Fox to Porter, Oct. 14, 1862, Fox Correspondence, 2: 138 - 139; Welles Diary, Sept. 26, 1862, I: 153; Du Pont to Sophie Du Pont, Jan. 25, 1863, Du Pont, Letters, 2: 379.

22 Fox to Du Pont, Jan. 23, 1863, Du Pont Papers, Hagley Museum; Fox to Du Pont, Jan. 6, 1863, Fox Papers, NYHS; Welles Diary, Jan. 6, 1863, I: 217; Welles to Du Pont, Jan. 6, 1863, Du Pont Papers, Hagley Museum.

23 Foster's plan was later implemented after April 1863. Fox to Du Pont, Feb. 16, 1863, Fox Papers, NYHS.

24 Hunter to H. W. Halleck, Feb. 7, 1863, ORA, ser. 1, 14: 394.

25 Hunter to Halleck, Feb. 11, 1863, ORA, ser. 1, 14: 396 - passim; Henry M. Naglee to Charles G. Halpine, Mar. 1, 1863, ibid., 415 - 416.

26 Du Pont to Biddle, Du Pont Papers, Hagley Museum; Du Pont to Fox, Feb. 25, 1862, ibid.; Welles to Du Pont, Mar. 6, 1863, ORN, 13: 736 - 737; Fox to Du Pont, Mar. 6, Mar. 11, Apr. 2, 1863, Fox Papers, NYHS; Du Pont to Fox, Mar. 2, 1863, ibid.; Du Pont to Sophie, Mar. 10, 1863, Du Pont, Letters, 2: 484.

27 Du Pont to Sophie Du Pont, Mar. 27, 1863, Du Pont, Letters, 2: 519.

28 Quincy A. Gillmore, "The Army Before Charleston in 1863," Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, ed. Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel, 4 vols. (1956), 4: 54 - 55; Gillmore, Engineer and Artillery Operations Against the Defenses of Charleston Harbor in 1863 (1865), pp. 12 - 13.

29 Gillmore, Engineer and Artillery Operations, pp. 7, 16 - 17; Gillmore, "The Army Before Charleston," Battles and Leaders, 4: 54 - 55; W.W.H. Davis, "The Siege of Morris Island," The Annals of the War Written by Leading Participants North and South (1879), p. 95.

30 Gillmore, Engineer and Artillery Operations, pp. 16 - 17; John A. Dahlgren to Welles, Oct. 16, 1865, John A. Dahlgren Papers, LC.

31 Dahlgren was critical of Gillmore. He maintained that if a sufficient number of men had initially assaulted Battery Wagner on July 11, that Forts Greg and Sumter would have fallen as a "matter of course." This would have allowed the ironclads to attack into the harbor against imperfect defenses instead of receiving two months of battering. Dahlgren to Welles, Jan. 28, 1864, and Oct. 18, 1863, Dahlgren Papers, LC; Report of the Firing by USS New Ironsides, Quarter ending Sept. 30, 1863, ibid.; Opinion of John Rodgers given before the Committee of the United States Senate, Feb. 3, 1864, as cited in Johnson, Defense of Charleston, appendix F, pp. clii - cliii.

32 Fox to Dahlgren, Jan. 12, 1864, Fox Papers, NYHS. Designer John Ericsson had suggested that a 13-inch gun be placed in a monitor that could fire into Charleston from the mouth of the harbor. Ericsson to Fox, Oct. 3, 1863, Ericsson Papers, American Swedish Historical Museum, Philadelphia, PA.

33 Fox to Dahlgren, Jan. 12, 1864, Fox Papers, NYHS.

34 Mar. 25 - 29, 1864, Dahlgren, Memoirs, pp. 447 - 448; memorandum, March (n.d.) 1864, Dahlgren Papers, LC; Dahlgren to Welles, Apr. 21, 1864, ORN, 15: 409.

35 Entry for Aug. 30, 1864, Welles Diary, 2: 127.

36 Ibid.; David Dixon Porter Papers, Journal I: 881, LC.

Robert M. Browning, Jr., earned his Ph.D. at the University of Alabama and is the chief historian for the U.S. 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.