“She is too expensive and valuable for a yacht.”: Rebuke in return for Foster’s plea for steamers

Almost from the day he took command of the Department of the South, Major-General John Foster had pressed Washington for more light draft steamers to support operations in the coastal waters of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.  Truth be known, the department had lost a number of such craft in the Florida operations that winter, so were down in number somewhat.  But that shouldn’t have been a concern in this theater of lesser importance.

After several months of correspondence, Major-General Montgomery Meigs, Quatermaster-General and the officer who managed the Army’s substantial fleet of transports, responded curtly to Foster on July 28, 1864.  Meigs began with an enumeration of the vessels en-route to the department at that time:

I have examined the report of Capt. John H. Moore of the 16th instant, with your indorsement, asking for six light-draught steamers, and reporting the condition of the steamers on duty in the Department of the South. The Delaware sailed from New York on the 26th instant. The Rescue sails from Baltimore to-day. The Island City will be ready to sail on the 31st instant. The Planter and Philadelphia will be ready in a few days and will be sent to you.

So five vessels heading south, or due to head south over the next week.  One of these was the Planter, which retained its connection with Charleston and the Department of the South.  And there was another vessel completing repairs, due to head south.  But Meigs had something to say about that:

The Ben De Ford has been under repair. She is expected to be ready by August 6. She is a large vessel,burning much coal, and requires an expensive crew. She is a powerful and excellent steamer, capable of rendering most valuable service–one of the best in our service. I hesitate to send her back to the Department of the South, where I understand she has been idle for months with fires banked, burning out her boilers and doing nothing, kept in waiting for the movements of the commanding general. She is too expensive and valuable for a yacht. A much smaller and less costly steamer ought to serve for the purpose of transportation of a general commanding from place to place. The De Ford costs the United States, besides coal, $500 a day–S15,000 per month; at which rate each trip of a General officer costs the United States about $20,000.

That’s Brevet Major-General Montgomery Meigs, by the way.

Meigs carried his examination of the watercraft in the department further:

I find by Captain Moore’s report that there are twenty-eight steamers owned and chartered in the service of the United States in the Department of the South, and of these he reports only six available for outside work, and nearly all in bad condition. I trust that under your management of the affairs of the Department of the South no such discreditable condition of things will be allowed. If these vessels had been properly repaired, with the appliances so liberally provided by the quartermaster’s department at Hilton Head, and when subject to injuries which the shops at that place could not repair, had been sent promptly North, they could have been kept in serviceable condition and would have been promptly returned. This report shows a shiftless management which is most discreditable. I hope you will enforce a better rule.

Foster’s reply, coming later in August, would serve to deflect criticism and at the same time correct some of the misconceptions Meigs had.  But in the exchange of letters, the problem remained – Foster needed shallow draft steamers for particular duties along the coast.  In an attempt to resolve that shortfall, Foster would attempt to build some watercraft of his own.

And in the meantime, no Foster was not trolling around the South Carolina coast in his own private yacht.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, page 196.)

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