Throughout the summer of 1864, Major-General John Foster chaffed at the restrictions placed on him as commander of the Department of the South. Nearly every correspondence with Washington included some dangling proposition to move on Charleston or Savannah, if only authorized, approved, and supported. He recognized the Confederates lacked the resources to resist a serious attempt at either – or both – cities. But he also acknowledged his own role in the overall strategy. Charged with simply demonstrating to tie down Confederate forces in the Low Country, Foster also lacked resources.
Earlier posts have discussed the troops transferred out of the department to Virginia. Another resource Foster lacked, and which was very important for both offensive and defensive purposes, was shipping. He’d already received a rebuke from Quartermaster-General Major-General Montgomery C. Meigs in regard to certain practices with shipping. Foster continued to press Meigs for more watercraft to support his operations. Much like operations along the Mississippi, the “hold what we have for now” posture along the southern coastline depended upon the ability to rapidly move troops to threatened points. Thus, Foster had a legitimate reason to ask for more steamers.
But another vessel that Foster requested were light draft boats for use in the shallow coastal waterways. Two of the types desired were described in correspondence to Major-General Henry Halleck on August 8, 1864:
These will be simply modern row galleys, fifty oars on a side; will draw 26 inches of water when loaded with 1,000 men; will have elevated towers for sharpshooters, and an assaulting ladder or gang-plank of 51 feet in length, operated by machinery. These will be very useful anywhere, in assaulting a fort or landing troops in shoal water. I propose also to build a light-draught iron-clad, and have written to General Meigs to ascertain if I can have the railroad iron, obtained from Florida, rolled into plates without delay; or if he can have an exchange made for 2-inch or 4-inch plates at once.
Reading the description provided (and lamenting that diagrams for such were not included in the Official Records), these appear quite similar in function, if not appearance, to landing craft developed for World War II. Foster went into more detail of these craft, which he called “assaulting arks,” in a letter written to Meigs, also on August 8:
I am now commencing the building of two “assaulting arks” at the yard here. These are to carry 1,000 men each, and are to be propelled by oars.
Requisitions for 3/8-inch iron as musket-proof protection for the sides will be sent on, together with plans, as soon as they can be copied. I also propose to build a light-draught iron-clad, and plans are now preparing. This is absolutely required for a particular service where the navy iron-clads cannot go, even if they were willing, on account of their draught of water. I shall obtain the iron from the Lake City railroad, in Florida. I wish to know if you cannot have these rolled out into 2-inch plates for me, or exchange them for either 2 or 4 inch plates. Time is a consideration, and unless the exchange or the rolling out can be done without delay I will use the rails as they are.
I would assume, from the context provided in this letter, that the ironclad versions were powered, armed vessels. Rather resource-wise, Foster proposed acquiring his own iron in sort of an ersatz manner like many Confederate ironclad projects. And again, consider the similarity in function, if not appearance, to specialized World War II landing support vessels. Foster’s proposed ironclads were light-draft, in-shore fire support vessels.
Had these been completed, Foster would have a set of formidable craft that could ply the backwaters in support of “demonstrations.” Or should those in Washington agree, he could finally launch an assault on Fort Sumter or Charleston.
But that was not to be. On this day (August 27) in 1864, Meigs wrote to Foster on this matter:
Your letter of the 17th instant, inclosing drawings of an “assaulting galley” which you propose to build, and a requisition from J. H. Moore, assistant quartermaster, for quartermaster’s stores (iron), were referred to Major-General Halleck, Chief of Staff, who returned them with the following indorsement:
August 26, 1864.
By direction of General Grant, General Foster has been repeatedly ordered to confine himself strictly to the defensive, and to send north all troops not required for holding his present position without offensive operations.
H. W. Halleck, Major-General and Chief of Staff
Very rsepectfully, your obedient servant,
M.C. Meigs, Quartermaster-General and Brevet Major-General.
Perhaps that is a shame, for Foster’s “assaulting galleys” or “arks” might have advanced amphibious warfare techniques by some fifty years. But then again, there was a war to be won and Foster had no business assaulting Fort Sumter, arks or no arks.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, page 21; Part II, Serial 66, pages 225 and 259-60.)