“delay is annoying, failure would be more so.”: Secretary Wells weighs in on Charleston

November 2, 1863 was an active day around Charleston by any measure.  The Confederate President gave a speech in the city.  The Federals continued their bombardment of Fort Sumter.  One of the Navy’s ironclads suffered a premature explosion during the bombardment.  And just into the evening, a naval officer made a small reconnaissance of Fort Sumter, resulting in the rattle of muskets in the dark … and little else.

And while all that was going on, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren and Major-General Quincy Gillmore conferred on the north end of Morris Island.  Gillmore had hailed Dahlgren around mid-morning as the army commander was on the way to observe Fort Sumter from the batteries on Morris Island.  The two then met Brigadier-General Truman Seymour, commanding the batteries then engaged.  After observing the fires, the three went to Seymour’s tent where they discussed options for future operations.  Dahlgren recorded in his journal:

Seymour was up and down against attacking the city or going farther. Gillmore was not so positive, but could not see what was to be gained.  Could not muster more than 10,000 men, which would not hold the ground west of Johnson.  I said I could go in with seven monitors when read, which would be about the 15th, or with eleven monitors about the 10th of December. The former was a risk, the latter was not.  Gillmore was doubtful about an assault; might be repulsed, and finally concluded to pound away for a day or two.  The guns nearly used up.  Was going to mount one or two smoothbores at Gregg.

The same day Dahlgren and Gillmore passed around suggestions, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells addressed a response to Dahlgren’s earlier dispatchs.  The dispatch, along with details of a counsel of captains, was carried to Washington by Commander Daniel Ammen.  And Ammen would now carry the response back.  The Secretary acknowledged receipt of Dahlgren’s reports, summary of the consultation with the captains, and other documents.  He repeated the list of obstructions enumerated by Dahlgren: rope obstruction line, torpedoes, inclined timbers, and Confederate ironclads.  From that the Secretary responded:

… So far as your information extends, or that of your officers, including also that received from General Terry and Colonel Hawley, these comprise all the water defenses of Charleston. There is little doubt that the hawsers can be easily removed.

The torpedoes hitherto encountered during the war have not proved dangerous or serious preventatives to naval operations.

The ironclads of the rebels are so much inferior to our own that there is reasonable ground to believe they would be disabled before they could close.

The preparation of timber, inclined downstream and sunk across the channel, seems the most formidable obstacle to an advance upon the city.  If this work of the enemy is already established, and can not to some extent be removed or overcome by the means which you possess, or the ingenuity or skill of yourself or your command, it would be unwise and dangerous to press the monitors against it.  These iron-bottomed vessels are not fit to run at or upon fixed obstacles under water.

The Department has sent you a side-wheel wooden steamer to be used at your discretion, pioneering the way and overcoming any of these obstacles.  Not improbably this vessel may be damaged or destroyed in this attempt, but the sacrifice of one or more vessels must not stand in the way of accomplishing a great result.

It is believed that if you can secure a position for the ironclads near the city, the exterior seaward defenses will be evacuated. You will consult with the general commanding, show him this dispatch, and ask him if he concurs in this opinion.  To go up to the city at great risk to vessels, whose loss can not easily nor immediately be supplied, even were there no personal casualties, for the mere purpose of firing into it and then immediately retiring, would not accomplish the object and purpose of the Government.

If you do not consider there are reasonable hopes of success with your present force, the Onondaga, the Canonicus, and the Tecumseh are promised us in six weeks and will, with the Sangamon, now at Hampton Roads, be sent to you.

Although delay is annoying, failure would be more so.  Success is the great paramount consideration, and the Department will acquiesce in any reasonable delay to insure it.

Wells thus came off short of ordering any naval assault, but framed the response to demonstrate what was expected. This response assured Dahlgren he had room, waiting for the perfect, or nearly perfect, situation. But to setup that perfect situation, the Federals could not repeat the respite given in September-October. They had to keep pressure on Fort Sumter. With many heavy guns wearing out, Gillmore turned to captured columbiads to throw shells at the Rebel bastion. So the bombardment would continue into December.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 85-86, 96-97.)

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