Orders, the Brooklyn, and the Bar

On Friday, I cross posted a short piece on the USS Brooklyn and the mission to deliver a message in early January 1861.  Some writers have considered Captain William Walker’s mission as if escorting or directly assisting the Star of the West.  In some regards, the misinterpretation is due to the sequencing of orders from the War and Navy Departments.  But to really understand the orders, I feel it important to review the specifics of the orders with an eye to the map.

Lieutenant-General Winfield Scott first mentions the Brooklyn in regard to operations at Charleston in orders to Colonel Justin Dimick at Fort Monroe on December 31, 1860.  Scott instructed Dimick to prepare 200 men, extra muskets, 90-days rations, and other supplies for transport to Fort Sumter via the Brooklyn.  Scott added, “Manage everything as secretly and confidently as possible.  Look to this.” (emphasis in original) [Note 1] Concurrently, Secretary of the Navy Issac Toucey ordered Commodore Charles McCauley, commanding Norfolk Navy Yard, to ready the Brooklyn for sea. [Note 2] But plans to relieve Fort Sumter took a different direction.  (The original preparatory order, however, left the Brooklyn directly linked to the relief operation in some minds.)

Instead of pulling troops from Fort Monroe, the War Department ordered raw recruits dispatched from New York.  To accomplish this transit, the Army contracted the Star of the West.  Using a commercial vessel, it seemed, would be less suspicious and confrontational.  But in spite of precautions, knowledge of the ship’s mission leaked.  Thus alerted, Scott attempted to recall the Star to avoid disaster.

Failing to stop the Star before sailing, Scott called upon the Navy to reach the steamer at sea.  Secretary Toucey summarized the events in his orders to Captain Walker, then specified:

Immediately upon receipt of this you will proceed with the Brooklyn with all speed to the bar off Charleston Harbor, and if the reinforcement shall not have landed at Fort Sumter, deliver the accompanying letter to the commanding officer of the detachment, and render such aid and assistance as may be required by the Star of the West.

After doing this, or if the troops on your arrival have landed, you will return immediately to Hampton Roads.

It is not considered expedient that you should attempt to cross the bar with the Brooklyn.

In the letter for Lieutenant Charles Wood, commanding the troops on board the Star, reiterated the Brooklyn‘s mission:

His mission is  twofold: First, to afford aid and succor in case your ship be shattered or injured; second, to convey this order of recall for your detachment in case it can not land at Fort Sumter, to proceed to Fort Monroe, Hampton Roads, and there await orders. [Note 3]

Two points stand out. First orders to Walker do not call for him to escort the Star.   Naval doctrine is explicit in regard to the terminology used for orders.  In this case, the Brooklyn was not called to shield, guide, or protect the Star.  In modern terms, the rules of engagement did not afford the option to fire upon the South Carolina shore.  Second, Walker was not to cross the Charleston bar.  Which begs the question – where was the harbor’s bar?

Wartime charts of Charleston (from the Coast Survey Historical map collection now hosted on the NOAA website) depict the harbor after hostilities began.  But the locations of channels and the bar likely did not vary much between 1861 and 1865.  I’ve indicated several key points in red for emphasis.

Click to Enlarge

The chart depicts the bar as laying about 3 1/2 to 4 statue miles off Morris Island, to the lower right of this snip.  Note the line at the bottom of this view indicating the navigation channel over the bar, with a lightship indicating the entrance (which was extinguished by January 9, 1861).  That lead to the main ship channel, which of course passed in front of the batteries on Morris Island to Fort Sumter.   Three other channels passed through a more direct route, but were shallower and less well-defined.

So if Captain Walker kept to his orders, and the bar was some 3 1/2 miles off shore, how much “aid and succor” could the Brooklyn provide?  Recall the Brooklyn carried twenty-two IX-inch Dahlgren guns.[Note 4] Those guns ranged 3400 yards, or just under 2 miles.  So the Brooklyn could not range the militia batteries, even if called upon.   Of course this should not come as a surprise considering the difficulties encountered by the Navy during bombardments of Fort Sumter in 1863-4.

But what if Captain Walker crossed the bar, perhaps to engage the Morris Island batteries?  Questions of Walker’s spirit of initiative and loyalty aside, the real question would be IF the Brooklyn could cross the bar?  The sloop drew 16 feet of water, under normal load.   Wartime sounding charts indicate the waters around Fort Sumter and Morris Island presented challenges.

Soundings (Click to Enlarge)

Any deep draft ship, such as the Brooklyn, needed a pilot and navigation aids to safely pass inshore.   Of course, neither were available, for the Brooklyn.  In fact, every warship then in US waters faced the same issue passing over the bar.   Only well into the war years did the Navy possess steamers capable of working over the bar.

I think we can assume those facts were at the fingertips of the men in the Navy Department.  Wording of orders to Captain Walker prevented him from putting his ship in harm’s way.  Now was that strictly due to political concerns and the need to proceed cautiously?  I’d submit the Navy planners were just as concerned about the Brooklyn running aground – an embarrassing incident in good times, but doubly so with rebellion in the air.

The Brooklyn was certainly not the right ship to operate off Charleston at that time.  Much like the Army, the Navy lacked even contingency plans to deal with a rebellious state.  Orders given to Captain Walker demonstrate how unprepared the navy, and the military in general, was for the Civil War.   In the event, the Brooklyn arrived too late assist the Star of the West.  And even if the sloop had arrived on January 9, there is little in the way of “aid and succor” the warship might have offered.


Notes (The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies is referenced as “OR.”  That of the navies is referenced as “ORN.”):

  1. Orders from Headquarters of the Army to Dimick dated December 31, 1860.  OR, Series I, Serial I, Volume I, page 118.
  2. Orders from Department of Navy to Commander Norfolk Navy Yard, December 31, 1860.  ORN, Series I, Volume 4, Page 219.
  3. Orders from Secretary of Navy to Commander USS Brooklyn, January 7, 1861.  ORN, Series I, Volume 4, Page 220.
  4. Some sources indicate the Brooklyn carried sixteen IX-inch and two X-inch Dahlgrens.  I’ve used the armament indicated as carried at the start of the war in ORN, Series 2, Volume 1, page 48.  In either case, the range of the X-inch cited in the Naval Ordnance manuals is not significantly greater.

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