Union Fleet off of Port Royal, SC! Can R.E. Lee Visit His Wife and Save the Port?

November 5, 1861 (Tuesday)

As the sun lit up the Atlantic sky over Port Royal, South Carolina, the masts of the Union Naval fleet under Flag Officer Du Pont appeared like a forest growing out of the sea. Two Rebel forts, Beauregard and Walker, guarded the inlet. The Union wanted a port on the Southern coast for the purposes of refueling the ships blockading the Confederacy. If Port Royal was to be taken, those forts had to fall.

Also guarding the port was a four ship fleet under Confederate Flag Officer Josiah Tattnall. Three of the ships had attacked part of the Union fleet, thinned out a bit by a treacherous storm a few days previous, but still far outnumbering the Rebels.

In the morning, the Union gunboat Ottawa again ventured towards the inlet, trying to draw fire from the forts to reveal their strength. General Horatio Wright accompanied the ship. It was his infantry that would be making the amphibious assault. The Ottawa was also accompanied by five other gunboats, including the Pawnee. This movement drew the attention of Flag Officer Tattnall’s fleet, which attacked. After an hour and a half, however, the Rebels again withdrew into the sound.

Unlike the previous evening, the Union vessels pursued the Rebel fleet, coming under the fire of the forts. The ships focused upon Fort Beauregard on Bay Point, opposite Hilton Head. They put round after round into it, once striking an artillery caisson, exploding it in a great plume of white smoke.

At noon, Tattnall’s fleet ventured out once more, but a shot well-placed near the starboard wheelhouse of the flag ship Savannah, sent them scurrying back to safety.

All skirmishing aside, the reason for the expedition was to take the forts and the harbor. That afternoon, Du Pont called for a council of war aboard the flagship Wabash. It was decided that the entire fleet should be used, attacking Fort Beauregard first and then Fort Walker. With Fort Beauregard out of the way, communications with Charleston would be severed and a Rebel retreat would be nearly impossible.

It was widely held that naval force could take a fort without the use of infantry. However, due to the storm, the smaller steamers that were to be used to land the troops had to return north. In a bizarre case of bad planning, someone decided that the ammunition for the landing was best stored in the belly of several ships, under everything else. It would require the ships to be entirely unloaded to reach it. Other ships carrying infantry ammunition had been delayed by the storm and wouldn’t arrive until well after the scheduled time for the attack.

General Thomas Sherman, commanding all of the infantry, at first refused to land his troops at all and it appeared as if the entire expedition would be a failure. Du Pont, a navy man, suggested that the bayonet be used instead. Finally Sherman agreed. The attack would begin the next day, but the navy would be responsible for doing most of the work. The infantry was now just the clean up crew.

It was decided. At 3:30pm, the fleet formed for attack. As the Wabash moved closer, she became grounded. Two hours were spent freeing the flag ship and another ship, the Susquehanna. With dusk quickly approaching, Du Pont called off the attack until the next day.1


Another Chance for General Lee

Since arriving in Richmond on the 31st of October, Lee had been trying to meet up with his wife, staying at Shirley on the James River. He tried to leave on the 2nd, but Secretary Benjamin held him up until 11pm, probably discussing Port Royal. By then, all the boats had gone and it was too late to go by horse.

Writing to his wife on this date, he gave no impression at all that he knew he was leaving for the Southern coast. Lee attempted to visit her again on this day, but Davis needed him in Richmond, so Lee could not go. “I must see what can be done to-morrow,” wrote Lee, promising that he “will come, however, wherever you are … as soon as possible, and if not sooner, Saturday at all events.”2

By this time, Richmond was well aware of the Union advance upon Port Royal. Confederate Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin actually knew of the expedition on November 1st, and was sure that Port Royal was the target. This created quite a problem. If Port Royal fell, not only would it give the North a refueling station, it would probably lead to the capture of Savannah and Charleston, as well as cut a vital rail line. Port Royal had to be held.3

In its current condition, under its current leadership, that was probably impossible. In an attempt to make the impossible possible, Secretary Benjamin established a military department embracing the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and eastern Florida. General Robert E. Lee was assigned to its command.4

Lee, having been thoroughly defeated in Western Virginia, and bemoaned in the press as “Granny Lee,” was yet trusted by President Davis. General Lee would quietly leave Richmond the next morning.

  1. Success is All that was Expected: the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron by Robert M. Browning. []
  2. Letter from Robert E. Lee to Mary Lee, November 5, 1861, as printed in Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee, Volume 3 edited by his son, Captain Robert E. Lee. []
  3. Robert E. Lee: a Biography by Emory M. Thomas, W. W. Norton & Company, 1997. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol 6, p309. []
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Union Fleet off of Port Royal, SC! Can R.E. Lee Visit His Wife and Save the Port? by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International
  1. “. . .someone decided that the ammunition for the landing was best stored in the belly of several ships, under everything else.”
    The early months of the war are filled with blunders like this. It seems everyone was unsure how to fight a war and was just making it up as they went along. these things happened later in the war too, and then it was less excusable.
    Interesting too that Lee, Sherman, and Grant were all looked down upon at the beginning of the war.