Advance of the Ironclads (part one)

Today we are pleased to welcome Eric Sterner. Eric is a national security and aerospace consultant in the Washington, DC area.  He held senior staff positions for the Committees on Armed Services and Science in the House of Representatives and served in the Department of Defense and as NASA.  He earned a BA at American University and two MAs from George Washington University.  He has written for a variety of publications, including Strategic Studies Quarterly, The Washington Post, and Naval History.  

Part one of a series.

The Federal Navy at New Orleans
The Federal Navy at New Orleans

When David Glasgow Farragut captured New Orleans in 1862, the Navy Department turned to Du Pont, a star since his capture of Port Royal, SC the previous year, to repeat the success in Charleston.  Du Pont resisted launching the all-Navy attack that the Navy Department wanted, having little faith in the offensive power of the Navy’s new ironclad monitors.  Eventually, the Admiral bowed to political pressure, launched the attack, and failed.  Navy Secretary Gideon Welles relieved him.  Historians accuse Welles of scapegoating Du Pont for the outcome, but the Rear Admiral authored his own fate.

At the outset of the Civil War, the Lincoln Administration proclaimed a blockade of the Confederate states.  By the summer of 1862, Rear Admiral Samuel Francis Du Pont and the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron had done an effective, if imperfect, job of imposing it from South Carolina’s northern border to Key West.  Du Pont had closed most Confederate ports by seizing them outright, beginning with Port Royal, South Carolina in November 1861. With the blockade firmly established, attention returned to Charleston, the last major port within Du Pont’s area of responsibility.[1]

The Rear Admiral, who joined the Navy in 1815 as a 12-year old midshipman, always thought a combined Army-Navy campaign would be needed to capture Charleston.[2] Du Pont and his Army counterpart attempted a combined approach in 1862.  Like the British, who captured Charleston in 1780, Du Pont seized control of the Stono River with an eye toward ascending it and advancing overland.  This would enable the Army to take the port’s seaward defenses from the rear.  Army forces landed on June 2nd and marched across James Island, but were repulsed at Secessionville. With that, Army forces withdrew at the beginning of July, leaving Du Pont to his own devices.[3]

Fleets Versus Forts and Monitor Mania:

Conventional wisdom held that ships were no match for coastal fortifications. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Vasa Fox, himself a former naval officer, did not agree, believing that steam propulsion changed the balance between ship and shore.[4]  In the war’s first months, the Navy seemed to confirm his instinct.  It defeated forts protecting Cape Hatteras in August 1861, followed by Du Pont’s own victory at Port Royal.  Additional successes in the spring of 1862, most notably David Glasgow Farragut’s successful run past New Orleans’ defenses and capture of that city, only cemented Fox’s view.  Freed from the constraints of wind and tide, heavily armed steamships could either batter defenses into submission, as at Hatteras and Port Royal, or simply bypass them, as Farragut did at New Orleans and then at Vicksburg.

Federal fleet in Charleston Harbor.
Federal fleet in Charleston Harbor.

Ironclads, which could more easily slough off artillery fire from shore batteries, only strengthened Fox’s conviction. After witnessing the Monitor’s duel with the Confederate ironclad Virginia at Hampton Roads in March, 1862, Fox concluded the revolutionary design was impregnable to traditional cannon fire.  Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, who had taken a chance on the ship, noticed a change in Washington, writing that the Monitor’s “success with the Merrimac [sic] when she was under a trial as an experiment made men wild.”[5]

Monitors, as the turreted ironclads were known generically, figured prominently in Fox’s concept for attacking Charleston.  He wanted to repeat Farragut’s success at New Orleans, run past the defensive fortifications, and move directly on the city.  There, the Navy would demand its surrender on pain of bombardment.  He set Du Pont’s sights on Charleston in April, 1862 and stressed the value of the ironclads in a June letter.

Look at the New Orleans affair.  It was like the Port Royal fight, the soldiers looked on and saw their forts knocked over, I know if it be possible, you will go on, and we will send you the “Monitor” and “Galena” and some double end boats…As I know your feelings are the same as my own, I can add nothing, except that the “Monitor” can go all over the harbor and return with impunity.  She is absolutely impregnable.”[6]

While official Washington embraced the new ships, Du Pont remained skeptical about the merits of an all-Navy attack on the city.  He stressed to Fox that Charleston’s defenses were formidable, particularly compared to those on the Mississippi, which were “the merest shams.”[7]  Instead of running past the coastal forts and shore batteries, “we go into a bag, no running past, for after we get up they can all play upon us.”[8]  Du Pont described it privately in June, 1862, “The truth is the harbor is a good deal like a porcupine’s hide and quills turned outside in and sewed up at one end.”[9]

As for the monitors, Du Pont noted that their limited armament was not suitable for reducing forts.  The Passaics, more powerful version of the famed Monitor, carried just two guns, an XI inch and a XV inch Dahlgren smoothbore designed as ship killers, both of which had a relatively slow rate of fire.  As they arrived at his base of operations in Port Royal in the fall and winter of 1862-1863, Du Pont sent them against Fort McAllister on the Ogeechee River. Their several attacks failed to silence the fort.[10]

Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles
Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles

When his formal reports seemed to have no impact on the Department’s commitment to an all-Navy attack on Charleston, he wrote Welles directly, “My own previous impressions of these vessels, frequently expressed to Assistant Secretary Fox, have been confirmed, vis: that whatever degree of impenetrability they might have, there was no corresponding quality of aggression or destructiveness against forts, the slowness of fire giving full time for the gunners in the fort to take shelter in the bombproofs.” [11]  Despite the Army’s failure in June, 1862, Du Pont still thought a combined Army-Navy operation was necessary, but he failed to convince his superiors at an October conference in Washington.  Fox and Welles still expected a Navy-only affair.  Fox remained the optimist, convinced the ironclads made it possible to run the forts and threaten the city and wrote Du Pont that winter:

I hope you will hold to the idea of carrying your flag supreme and superb, defiant and disdainful, silent amid the 200 guns until you arrive at the centre of this wicked rebellion and there demand the surrender of the Forts, or swift destruction.  The President and Mr. Welles are very much struck with this program and Halleck and Cullum, as I have written you, declare that all their defences must be evacuated if you pass the forts.  The sublimity of such a silent attack is beyond words to describe, and I beg of you not to let the Army spoil it.  The immortal wreath of laurel should cluster around your flag alone.”[12]

For his part, Welles thought all parties agreed that the Navy would attack Charleston on its own.  He dispatched more ironclads to Du Pont, “to enable you to enter the harbor of Charleston and demand the surrender of all its defenses or suffer the consequence of a refusal.”[13]  Though Du Pont still desired a combined Army-Navy campaign, he had no choice but to launch the all-Navy attack when the last of his monitors arrived.[14]


[1]           Stephen Taafe, Commanding Lincoln’s Navy: Union Naval Leadership During the Civil War, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2009), p. 44, Kindle Loc 1013.

[2]           Kevin J. Weddle, Lincoln’s Tragic Admiral: The Life of Samuel Francis Du Pont, (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2005), pp. 5-6; James M. Merrill, Du Pont: The Making of an Admiral, (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1986), pp. 3-4; To Mrs. Du Pont, Journal Letter No. 14, December 5, 1861, in Samuel Francis Du Pont, A Selection From His Civil War Letters, John D. Hayes, ed., (Ithaca, NH: Cornell University Press, 1969), Vol. 1, p. 272.  Hereafter SFDP Letters.  In other correspondence, Du Pont suggested 50,000 soldiers would be needed.  To James Wilson Grimes, December 2, 1861, in SFDP Letters, Vol. 1, op. cit., p. 269 and To Mrs. Du Pont, Journal Letter, Journal Letter No. 12, December 1, 1861, in SFDP Letters, Vol. 1, op. cit., p. 264.  The du Pont family emigrated from France in 1800, taking up residence in New Jersey.  Ironically, given his future, Du Pont’s father had been the French consul in Charleston, SC until 1798.  The family name underwent several iterations and contemporaries used multiple spellings.  Samuel Francis Du Pont’s preferred spelling is used here.

[3]           E. Milby Burton, The Siege of Charleston, 1861-1865, (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, , 1970), pp. 111-112.

[4]           Craig L. Symonds, Lincoln and His Admirals, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 8-9. Kindle loc 280.

[5]           Gideon Welles, The Civil War Diary of Gideon Welles: Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy, William E. Gienapp and Erica L. Gienapp, eds., (Chicago, IL: The University of Illinois Press, 2014), p. 118.  Hereafter, GW Diary.  The Confederates resurrected the poorly scuttled USS Merrimac and renamed her the CSS Virginia.

[6]           G.V. Fox to S.F. Dupont [sic], April 3, 1862 in Gustavus Vasa Fox, Confidential Correspondence of Gustavus Vasa Fox, Assistant Secretary of the Navy 1861-1865, Robert Means Thompson and Richard Wainwright, eds., (New York: The Naval History Society, 1918), pp. 114-115.  Reprinted by The BiblioLife Network.  Hereafter CCGVF.  G.V. Fox to S.F. Dupont, June 3, 1862, in CCGVF, Vol. 1, pp. 126-127.  Spelling and grammar errors retained from original.  Fox had great confidence in the monitors but did not view them as a necessary prerequisite to an attack.

[7]           S.F. Dupont to G.V. Fox, May 25, 1862, in CCGVF, Vol. 1, pp. 120-121.

[8]           S.F. Dupont to G.V. Fox, May 25, 1862 in CCGVF, Vol. 1, p. 120.

[9]           To Mrs. Du Pont, June 19, 1862, SFDP Letters, Vol. 2, p. 129.

[10]         Symonds, op. cit., p. 207, Kindle loc 3700.

[11]         To Gideon Welles, January 28, 1863, in SFDP Letters, Vol. II, p. 387.

[12]         G.V. Fox to S.F. Dupont, February 20, 1863, in CCGVF, Vol. 1, pp. 181-182.  The reference is to General Henry W. Halleck, General-in-Chief, and Brevet Brigadier General George W. Cullum, Halleck’s chief of staff.

[13]         From Gideon Welles, January 6, 1863, SFDP Letters, Vol. 2, p. 353.

[14]         To Mrs. Du Pont, October 20, 1862, SFDP Letters, Vol. 2, p. 251; To Mrs. Du Pont, October 21, 1862, Journal Letter No. 1, New Series, SFDP Letters, Vol. 2, p. 259; To Mrs. Du Pont, March 27, 1863, Journal Letter No. 46, SFDP Letters, Vol. 2, pp. 518-521.

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