Dahlgren’s unease: “Work performed is neither known nor appreciated”

Yesterday’s post concluded that Rear-Admiral Dahlgren, while citing the torpedoes in Charleston harbor, considered the greatest risk to be the loss of a monitor.  That potential risk weighed heavily on both the military and political scales.  However, the admiral faced a dilemma.  His predecessor fell into disfavor due to a failed assault on the same defenses.  Yet, perceived inaction or reluctance on his part might also bring disfavor.  He felt the public – and leaders in Washington – were unaware of Navy’s involvement in the Morris Island Campaign.  So in the same report to the Secretary of the Navy, Dahlgren took time to describe his support of the campaign against Charleston:

Will the Department permit me to add that i apprehend the work performed by the Navy in cooperating against Morris island is neither known nor appreciated by the public at large, and that great injustice is thus done to the severe labor which all shared in, and to the present inaction, which is, in fact, entirely due to the repairs rendered necessary by the incessant battering from the heaviest cannon through a course of sixty days.  in that time the ironclads fired more than 8,000 shot and shells and were hit 882 times, the greatest number received being 164, by the Ironsides…

By the presence and action of the vessels the right flank of our army and its supplies were entirely covered; provisions, arms, cannon, ammunition, etc., were landed as freely as if an enemy were not in sight, while by the same means the enemy was restricted to the least space and action.  Indeed, it was only by night, and in the line from Sumter, that food, powder, or relief could be introduced, and that very sparingly. The works of the enemy were also flanked by our guns, so that he was confined to his works and his fire quelled whenever it became too serious….

Dahlgren went on to enumerate eleven separate requests for support by Major-General Quincy Gillmore for fire support, ammunition, and fresh guns, spanning the time from July 30 to August 27.  In every case, Dahlgren responded with support, be that moving up monitors or offering the requested ordnance.

Dahlgren continued with mention to the Navy’s boat support in the initial landings, use of picket boats throughout the summer, and manning of a complete four gun battery ashore.  Furthermore, the presence of the ironclads, in Dahlgren’s estimate, was critical:

There were, moreover, important occasions in which the whole force was brought to bear and when every gun in Wagner was invariably silenced.  Reverse this.  Suppose us destitute of an ironclad squadron and the enemy’s three at liberty to flank our troops.

But Dahlgren did not wish to diminish the credit given to the Army’s batteries or increase the friction with Gillmore.  Although, he wrote, “there are some miserable creatures who seem bent on such mischief.”   The inactivity since early September, in Dahlgren’s view, was entirely due to the need for the Army to refortify (reorient batteries that is) Morris Island and the need for his squadron to refit and repair the ironclads.

Meanwhile, Gillmore offered his observations with Major-General Henry Halleck in Washington.  In line with previous correspondence, Gillmore pushed the question to the Navy:

I consider the naval commander here the proper person to judge of the practicability of accomplishing the work which the monitors will have to do in order to get inside and stay there. Every day’s delay is strengthening the enemy’s works inside, and the question now is, whether to attempt to enter with the present monitor force, or await the arrival of the new ones. The navy commander here is the proper person to judge of this. General Terry was the bearer of a verbal message to you on the subject of an attempt against the Wilmington defenses.

In addition to the written messages Brigadier-General Alfred Terry brought to Washington, he carried a message best left to verbal exchanges.  While meeting with authorities, to include the Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Terry questioned Dahlgren’s fitness for command.*  For his part, Welles appreciated Dahlgren’s efforts but was not entirely convinced the admiral was innocent in the growing inter-service disagreement:

His cold, selfish, and ambitious nature has been wounded, but he is neither a fool or insane as those military gentlemen represent and believe.  Both Dahlgren and Gillmore are out of place; they are both intelligent, but can better acquit themselves as ordnance officers than in active command.

In spite of this friction, the question remained – what to do next at Charleston?

*This exchange is briefly discussed by Robert M. Browning, Jr. in Success is All That Was Expected (Washington: Brassey’s Inc., 2002), pages 274-5.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 54-5; OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part II, Serial 47, page 111; Diary of Gideon Welles, Volume I, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911, page 475.)

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