“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 Can “any of the monitors attached to your fleet be withdrawn, having due regard to the exigencies of the public service within the limits of your command?”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Island be held by the military forces, protected by wooden vessels, in case all or part of the monitors shall be withdrawn?”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.)

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