February 15, 1863 (Sunday)
Even before Confederate gunboats “broke” the Union blockade at Charleston, South Carolina, Gustavus Fox, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, wanted to punish this hotbed of secession. After all, it was in Charleston that the war started. The fiasco at the end of January was merely the dot upon the “i” of a string of military mishaps, misfortunes, and outright devastations that had plagued Federal forces in the East.
Prior to the embarrassment in Charleston, an attack upon Wilmington, North Carolina, upon Cape Fear, was the primary focus. The plan was all set, but the USS Monitor, brought in to level the playing field, was simply not seaworthy. She foundered off the coast of Cape Hatteras on December 31st, 1862. From there, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles switched focus to Charleston.
At the beginning of January, Rear Admiral Samuel Du Pont, in command of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, was promised five newly-completed ironclads with a stern suggestion that they be used in a shortly-coming attack upon Charleston.
Specifically, Welles wanted Du Pont “to enter the harbor of Charleston and demand the surrender of all the defenses or suffer the consequences of the refusal.” This was all well and good, of course, but Du Pont didn’t trust the new ironclads. He had witnessed for himself their poor performances against fortifications, and claimed that Gustavus Fox “overrates the monitors as much as he underrates the defenses.”
While Du Pont had written freely with Fox about his doubts, they had grown close and one trusted the other. In a letter written during the planning of the Charleston assault, Du Pont aired his laundry list of complaints, keeping them unofficial: “I am growly today, so I let off to you privately, for I think it mean to be complaining officially, when I know the Department is not only doing its best, but doing so much.”
But, he never breathed a word of this to Secretary Welles until January 24th, when he let loose as if Welles had been in the know all along. Du Pont doubted the attack upon Charleston could succeed. The defenses were too strong and the ironclad monitors too weak. A week or so later, a rather surprised Gideon Welles replied, giving Du Pont permission to call off the attack if he wanted, but also called the capture of Charleston “imperative.”
Du Pont had requested two additional ironclads, but Welles couldn’t deliver them – they simply wouldn’t be ready for another six months. With Du Pont’s doubts even higher, Welles promised that the Naval Department would “share the responsibility imposed upon the commanders who make the attempt.” Basically, if the attack failed, Welles would stand behind him.
For a time, Du Pont focused mostly on the “you don’t have to attack if you don’t want to” bits. But following the January 31st debacle, all bets were off. He knew that Gustavus Fox and Gideon Welles would get their way. All he had to do was wait for the orders and suffer the inevitable failure.
Two weeks later, on this date, things began to come to a head. A meeting was held in the morning with Gideon Welles and Gustavus Fox joined by President Lincoln, General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, and General John Foster, Army commander of the Department of North Carolina.
All agreed that Charleston had to fall, but few could agree how. General Foster naturally wanted to land troops and wanted the Navy to support him. He would erect batteries on nearby islands to reduce Fort Sumter. Fox, however, wanted nothing to do with the infantry, calling Foster’s plan “so insignificant and characteristic of the army.”
Fox wanted to run the gauntlet and demand the surrender. Lincoln, who had always thought that was the plan anyway, was a bit taken by Foster’s new idea. The plan to attack Charleston had evolved from a show a strength and demand of surrender to an all out siege. For starters, it would take too long and Congress needed a victory before it adjourned.
But what need was there to attack the forts at all, thought Fox, posing the question first to General-in-Chief Halleck. The overall army commander admitted that if the Federal ships got into the harbor, all bets were off for the forts. Finally, Fox got Foster to admit that there was really no good reason to land troops at all. If the ironclads could control the harbor, nearby James Island would be evacuated by the Rebels and the forts would be cut off.
Lincoln wanted Fox to go down south and talk to Du Pont personally about this. The President did not want a siege and wanted to get Du Pont on the same page as everyone else. Secretary Welles, however, didn’t think that was such a good idea. He didn’t want to muddy the already murky waters between them. Privately, he believed that Du Pont shirked responsibility and dreaded conflict.
Fox, meanwhile, did his best to convince Du Pont to completely ignore any offered help from the army. All he wanted was for Du Pont to “go in and demand a surrender of the forts or the alternative of destruction to their city.”
While all this was being sorted out, Fox would continue to act as a sort of buffer between Welles and Du Pont. This may have seemed like a good idea, but mostly it just made each of them more unaware of the other’s ideas for attacking Charleston. To Fox, the only ideas that mattered were his own, and the only branch of the service that could bring Charleston to its knees was the Navy.1
- Sources: Success is All that Was Expected by Robert M. Browning Jr; Correspondence of Gustavus Vasa Fox, Vol. 1. [↩]