Category Archives: American Civil War

“At least four iron-clads should be retained”: Foster and Dahlgren consult over naval redutions at Charleston

Earlier posts this summer discussed the reduction in Federal land forces, specifically two brigades, in the Department of the South during August 1864.  With operations at Charleston reduced to daily bombardments, the Navy also looked to reduce its commitment on the South Carolina coast.  While the Army measured such things in brigades, the Navy weighed the number of ironclads.  In mid-August, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren requested input from Major-General John Foster in regard to naval plans and commitments.  Foster responded on August 19, 1864.  The questions posed were:

First. Can “any of the monitors attached to your fleet be withdrawn, having due regard to the exigencies of the public service within the limits of your command?”

Second. Are they (the monitors) “absolutely essential to the holding possession of the Southern coast?”

Third. Can “the blockade of Charleston be maintained without them?”

Fourth. Can “Morris Island be held by the military forces, protected by wooden vessels, in case all or part of the monitors shall be withdrawn?”

Foster prefaced his response with some high level considerations influencing his thoughts on the matter.  The primary of which was the need to retain control of the footholds along the South Carolina and Georgia coastlines.  As Foster said:

Charleston and Savannah should always be regarded as being sooner or later necessary objects of attack. Their value as bases from which to strike at the interior lines of the Confederacy is self-evident. I believe that both or either of these places can be taken whenever as large an army can again be sent here from points which are just now more vital as Major-General [Quincy] Gillmore had when he left this department.

But, as Foster added, he did not have, as of that August, sufficient forces to make such “aggressive movements.” As such, his overall response to the Navy was:

I am inclined to the opinion that the naval force can be judiciously reduced to whatever point is consistent with a sure maintenance of the blockade and the undisturbed occupancy of our present position on the coast.

To more detail, he addressed the enumerated questions and defined to some degree what “judiciously reduced” might be.  Though he did caveat his response in that the actual reductions should be “purely naval” in detail.  To the first question he responded:

…in answer to the first inquiry of the honorable Secretary, I would respectfully suggest that should you advise any reduction of the monitors in your squadron at least four iron-clads should be retained. This number would allow two for Charleston Harbor and one for Ossabaw Sound, with an extra one to relieve either of the others in case of any accident.

The four monitors would be the minimum needed to counter any sortie by Confederate ironclads then at Savannah and Charleston.

To the second question, Foster wrote:

In reply to the second question I would state that, in my judgment, serviceable iron-clads are in the present reduced condition of my army essential to holding possession of the Southern coast.

Those ironclads were Foster’s seaward flank defense at Charleston.  Likewise Foster felt the blockade depended upon the ironclads:

Third. I think it doubtful whether the blockade of Charleston can be maintained without iron-clads; but in this connection I beg to refer to my answer to the next and last inquiry.

And leading into the answer of that last question:

Fourth. In case of the removal of all the monitors Morris Island can certainly be held by the military forces, protected by wooden vessels, provided that such wooden vessels are numerous and strong enough to prevent the rebel iron-clads from coming outside of Charleston bar. Should the wooden vessels be unable to prevent the rebel iron-clads from proceeding to sea I still think that my forces could occupy Morris Island until re-enforcements could be obtained, but I should apprehend the danger of a successful attack upon such of our positions as are undefended by regular and strong fortifications, as, for example, Beaufort and the naval and army store-houses and shops at Saint Helena, as I do not regard the fortifications at the entrance of this harbor as sufficient to prevent the passage of iron-clads.

From Foster’s point of view, the monitors were needed off Charleston, and Savannah for good measure, to counter the Confederate ironclads, which were threats to both the land forces and successful maintenance of the blockade.  But if pressed, Foster felt wooden vessels could meet the needs – but with some risk.

There is a twist here to consider.  In August 1864, the Federals were looking to reallocate naval forces away from Charleston in order to support operations elsewhere – but chiefly Wilmington, North Carolina. Yet, on the Confederate side, all observers expected the Federals to bring substantial naval resources from Mobile to Charleston for a crushing blow.  The different players had opposite views of the chess board.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 250-1.)

August 21, 1864: Grant weighs in on the Charleston prisoner issue – “no exchanges”

On August 21, 1864 in his headquarters at City Point, Virginia, Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant performed the normal task of a commanding general in charge of an army at war – reading through messages and dispatches from the various subordinate commands.  One of these caught his attention, and sparked an immediate reply:

Please inform Maj. Gen. J. G. Foster that in no circumstances will he be authorized to make exchange of prisoners of war. Exchanges simply re-enforce the enemy at once, whilst we do not get the benefit of those received for two or three months, and lose the majority entirely. I telegraph this from just hearing that some 500 or 600 more prisoners had been sent to Major-General Foster.

With that order, any door which might have been slightly cracked with respect to another prisoner exchange at Charleston was closed.  There would be exchanges before the war’s end.  But those would be much later in the fall.   For the summer of 1864, there would be no exchanges at Charleston.

These three sentences from Grant set the course for the next round of events regarding the prisoners in Charleston, and those soon to arrive at Morris Island.  Unlike the fifty Confederate officers held earlier in the summer, who never actually made it to Morris Island, the 600 prisoners would soon find themselves confined here:

In a stockade adjacent to the Federal batteries.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, page 254.)

“With twenty more 10-inch and rifle guns… Charleston could resist any fleet….”: Jones requests more guns

The day after complaining to General Braxton Bragg that he had more guns than crews to man them, Major-General Samuel Jones inquired about getting some more guns for Charleston.  By way of his Adjutant, Captain Henry Wemyss Feilden, Jones sent this inquiry to Colonel Josiah Gorgas at the Confederate Ordnance Bureau:

It is extremely probable that the fleet now attacking Mobile under Admiral Farragut may, during the fall, be brought to operate against the fortifications and city of Charleston combined with the fleet now here under the command of Admiral Dahlgren. I am led to this supposition from two reasons: If the enemy fails in his present operations against Mobile, Farragut’s fleet would be uselessly employed in the harbor of that place, now that the Tennessee and others of our vessels are destroyed, three or four monitors and a few light-draught gun-boats will effectually blockade the city of Mobile. If, on the other hand, Mobile falls, Farragut’s fleet would be set at liberty for operations on the eastern coast, and there can be little doubt that Charleston would be the first place assailed. My conviction is that an iron-clad fleet, as numerous as these combined ones would be, could under resolute commander pass between our batteries on Sullivan’s Island and Fort Sumter with more or less loss. If the interior harbor of Charleston was properly armed with guns of heavy caliber I should have no fear of the ultimate result; as it is, our interior defenses are very inadequately armed. In consequence of the enemy’s daily increase of fire on our outworks, I have had from time to time to remove guns from the inner to the outer defenses, and their places have not been refilled. I do sincerely hope you will use every exertion to supply me with more heavy guns. With twenty more 10-inch and rifle guns I believe Charleston could resist any fleet that the Federal Government might send against it; in our present position, I feel deeply apprehensive as to the result of a grand naval attack.

If there is any doubt as to the shock felt throughout the Confederacy after Rear-Admiral David G. Farragut ran into Mobile Bay, here is ample evidence.  More than just a morale boost to the northern population, “damn the torpedoes” indicated the Federals could force their way into any harbor of the Confederacy if desired.  And, as seen at Mobile, once they were in the bay, the only chance to resist the the ironclads was inner harbor defenses (slim though that might be).

During his tenure, General P.G.T. Beauregard constructed an inner ring of defenses for Charleston harbor with just this in mind.  Granted, those defenses were weakened in order to bolster areas directly threatened outside Charleston.  But more to the point, Beauregard had never gotten the number of guns he felt were needed in the first place. Now Jones asked for just 20 more of those big columbiads or rifles.

Consider that Tredegar cast only nineteen 10-inch Columbiads and twenty-one Brookes (rifled and smoothbore) between January 1864 and the end of the war.  On the other hand, Brigadier-General George Ramsay at the Federal Ordnance Department complained that 174 guns – 8-, 10-, and 15-inch Rodmans – delivered in the first half of 1864 was insufficient!

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, page 615.)