- The Washington Times - Friday, January 27, 2006

At 5 on Tuesday morning Oct. 29, 1861, a single gun on Commodore Samuel F. DuPont’s flagship, the Wabash, signaled what was then the greatest armada ever assembled in America to hoist anchor and steam slowly out of port at Hampton Roads, Va., until each vessel found its position in echelons of inverted V’s.

One by one, an expedition of about 75 ships with more than 12,000 soldiers aboard — three brigades of 14 regiments under the command of Brig. Gen. Thomas W. Sherman — departed the harbor, its destination known to just a top few officers.

This powerful fleet of warships carried a total of 155 guns, 1,500 tons of ordnance, 1,500 horses, 8,000 bags of oats, 2,000 bushels of coal, wheelbarrows, shovels, picks, cement, lumber, saws, transport wagons and drivers, and enough food and water to last men and animals 15 days. Scattered among the craft were 500 surfboats for landing troops, along with coastal seamen to man them, and 1,000 contraband blacks to labor on fortifications.

The destination, guarded by each captain in sealed orders, had been agreed upon a month earlier at a meeting in Secretary of State William H. Seward’s house. Inevitably, however, the plans for this joint Army-Navy operation leaked.

Just as the fleet was leaving Hampton Roads, Confederate Acting Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin sent a telegram from Richmond to Savannah: “I have just received information which I consider entirely reliable that the enemy’s expedition is intended for Port Royal.”

Just days after the surrender of Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C., President Lincoln had ordered a blockade of all Southern ports. This was an ambitious edict: The Navy had just 42 ships in commission (just three were available for blockade duty) and there were nearly 3,000 miles of coastline to secure.

New steam technology presented problems as well as opportunities. Though no longer dependent upon favorable tides and winds, steamships required coaling stations and maintenance facilities to keep a blockade fleet on the ready. The South clearly had the advantage: Just Hampton Roads and Key West, Fla., were in Union hands.

The North set up a Strategy Board to find solutions — one of which was to identify certain South Carolina and Georgia coastal targets. Initially, DuPont, the naval representative on the board, did not favor an assault on Port Royal, S.C., although he recognized its political and geographical significance.

The port was protected by prewar fortifications, naval forces and a standing army, and it had good inland communications. Also, an amphibious assault (then known as a combined operation) was risky and had not been tried before, at least not to the degree necessary to take Port Royal.

Unlike ground operations, which provided fewer problems of transport and supply, an army invasion would be poorly supported with cavalry and artillery once the troops went ashore. Also, of course, horses and mules take poorly to ships.

Another problem: Interservice operations were rare during the war, and with the force needed to stage a successful assault of Port Royal, the challenges to a unified command were formidable.

Once under way, the fleet ran into gale winds and high seas at Cape Hatteras and was scattered. “As darkness settled over a stormy sea,” Lt. Daniel Ammen, aboard the gunboat Seneca, remembered, “the driven drops of rain struck the face roughly as pellets.”

By noon on Nov. 1, seeing that the smaller transports could not keep up, DuPont signaled for all ships to continue independently.

The Governor, a troop transport with 600 Marines aboard, sank. The sailing frigate Sabine, on her way to blockade duty, saw the distress signals and passed a hawser and chain to the Governor, lowered its boats and tried to maneuver alongside so the men could jump from ship to ship. Exhausted after two days of standing at ropes and passing buckets of water to keep the ship afloat, the Marines jumped into the sea, and all but seven were hauled in.

Other vessels had been blown dangerously close to shoals, and smallpox broke out in one of the crowded transports, the Vanderbilt. At dawn following the start of the gale, DuPont could see only one other ship from the deck of the Wabash, but eventually most of the fleet gathered, and the conditions were right to cross the bar at Port Royal Sound on Nov. 7.

The entrance to the harbor at Port Royal is bracketed by Fort Beauregard on St. Phillips Island to the north and Fort Walker, about 21/2 miles across the sound on Hilton Head Island to the south.

Defense of Hilton Head and its earthwork fort was entrusted to Gen. Thomas Drayton, whose family plantation was only a mile from the fort. His brother Percival commanded the Pocahontas, an attacking gunboat.

Flag Officer Josiah Tattnall, a Georgian assigned to defend the South Carolina and Georgia coastlines, gathered his fleet, a makeshift collection of four vessels, and headed for Port Royal aboard his flagship, Savannah. Anticipating the worst, Tattnall scribbled a note to a friend: “The alarm was given to us this morning that there were fifty thousand Federals left the Yankee nation a few days ago to attack this point.”

Once anchored, Union forces could see troop encampments along the shoreline on either side of the sound. Towering on points right and left were the forts. On the north side, Fort Beauregard had 13 cannons, but only one, a 6-inch Brooks rifle, could reach across the 21/2-mile-wide Broad River. On the south, at Hilton Head, Fort Walker was more formidable; it had 23 guns.

A circular was passed around the Union flotilla that, in words perhaps suggested by Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, added to the drama: “Soldiers! You are contending against an enemy who depreciates your manhood, who denies that your prowess is equal to his. Belie this sentiment, or you will disgrace yourselves and your nativity.”

When Tattnall arrived, his four smaller ships were run back under the shelter of the batteries, and DuPont took advantage of his steam-powered vessels. Union warships ran between the two forts, first engaging Fort Beauregard and then, with eight heavily armed warships, Fort Walker. Together, DuPont mounted 123 guns.

Steaming in half circles in the channel, the warships kept both forts under continuous fire while the remaining nine ships positioned themselves north of the primary action to enfilade the undefended north face of Fort Walker, thus keeping Tattnall’s four boats from doing any harm.

The sound of cascading explosions could be heard as far away as Florida, 70 miles to the south. Inside Fort Walker, Confederate Col. John A. Wagenor later remembered that “shell after shell [fell] with the precision of target practice, which did us the greatest damage, dismounting our guns and killing and wounding numbers of our men.”

On board the Mercury, about 500 yards from the beach, Beverly S. Osborn, a reporter for the New York Herald, wrote: “The noise was terrific, while bursting of the shells was terrible as it was destructive. I counted no less than forty shells bursting at one time and that into the battery and the woods.”

The attack on Fort Walker overwhelmed the Confederates. They abandoned the fort. DuPont sent a landing party ashore and called for the transports to come up. While Sherman’s troops went ashore to occupy Fort Walker, the fleet turned to Fort Beauregard, which also fell in the face of the powerful Navy guns.

By early afternoon Nov. 7, the Battle of Port Royal Sound was over, and to the contemporary observer, it must seem anticlimactic. That night, after the expected counterattack never materialized, DuPont wrote to his wife: “It is not my temper to rejoice over fallen foes, but this must be a gloomy night in Charleston.”

When the surfboats were lowered and the soldiers came ashore, they found a frightful carnage. No Union ships had been sunk. As the Army moved inland, all that remained were the abandoned plantations, and the waterway at Port Royal was converted quickly into the major logistics and repair depot for the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

Ken Kryvoruka is a Washington lawyer who also teaches writing at George Washington University Law School.

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