Civil War Naval History
1 As the new year opened, General Robert E. Lee clung doggedly to his position defending Richmond, conscious that world opinion had come to regard the fate of the Confederacy as inseparable from that of its capital city. Equally determined that Richmond should fall, General Ulysses S. Grant, with great superiority in numbers, pressed against Petersburg, the key to the capital's southern defense line. Grant also sought to break through to the westward, encircling Lee and Richmond, and cutting the Weldon, Southside (Lynchburg), and Danville railroads by which the city and the soldiers were supplied.
That Grant lay in front of Petersburg and less than 20 miles from Richmond was wholly due to Federal naval control of the James and Potomac Rivers. His waterborne line of supply ex-tended up the James to City Point, only seven miles from Petersburg. From this principal base at City Point, Grant coordinated the joint movements of the Army of the Potomac and the Army of the James.
In Richmond, the prospect of a naval attack was so threatening that the government assembled for the city's defense the strongest naval force it ever placed under one command. The James River Squadron, commanded by Flag Officer John K. Mitchell, consisted of three ironclads, seven gunboats, and two torpedo boats. In addition to its defensive functions, Mitchell's squadron also constituted a potentially formidable threat to the security of the vital City Point base. It operated behind a protective minefield at Chaffin's Bluff, some 35 miles upriver from City Point.
To counter Mitchell's warships and protect Grant's waterborne supply line, the Fifth Divi-sion of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron lay on the James guarding the sunken hulk obstruction line at Trent's Reach and the pontoon crossings of the James and Appomattox Rivers and protecting supply vessels against sharpshooters and hidden batteries on shore. Normally the Fifth Division consisted of five monitors and some 25 gunboats. However, in January four of the monitors and a number of the gunboats were away from the James with the fleet being assem-bled by Rear Admiral David D. Porter for the second attack on Fort Fisher. Hence the Confeder-ate squadron above City Point enjoyed an unprecedented opportunity for offensive operations on which it sought to capitalize before the month ended.
Receiving General Grant's 30 December notification of a renewed Army assault by sea on Fort Fisher with an "increased force and without the former commander [General Benjamin F. Butler]", Rear Admiral Porter acted vigorously to set up a massive and overwhelming attack behind the fleet's heavy guns. He directed that his 43 warships concentrated at Beaufort, North Carolina, and the 23 on station off the Cape Fear River send in their operations charts for corrections and on-load "every shell that can he carried" for shore bombardment. Porter replied immediately to the Army commander-in-chief: ". . . thank God we are not to leave here with so easy a victory at hand. . . ." He assured his old Vicksburg colleague that he would "work day and night to be ready." At Fort Fisher, mindful of General Lee's message that the work must be held at all costs or the Army of Northern Virginia could not be supplied, Colonel William Lamb and his garrison readied themselves for the further attacks forecast by the sizeable Federal naval force which had remained off the Cape Fear River entrances since the first attempt to take the fort had been broken off.
On the James River, Commander William A. Parker, commanding the double-turreted monitor Onondaga, reported that 12,000 pounds of gunpowder had been detonated in an effort to remove the end barriers of the canal excavation at Dutch Gap, Virginia. "The earth was thrown up into the air about 40 or 50 feet," he noted, "and immediately fell back into its original place. This earth will have to be removed to render the canal passable for vessels." Major General Butler had begun the canal in 1864 with a view to passing Confederate obstructions above Trent's Reach. If the passage had been effected, Butler's Army of the James could have bypassed key positions in Richmond's southern defense system and moved on the city in a diversionary threat aimed at reducing General Lee's resistance to the main Union thrust under General Grant.
U.S.S. San Jacinto, Captain Richard W. Meade, ran on a reef at Green Turtle Cay, Abaco, in the Bahamas. She was found to be seriously bilged and was abandoned without loss of life. Meade was able to salvage the armament, ammunition, rigging, cables, and much of the ship's copper. At an early period of the war, San Jacinto had gained fame when her commanding officer, Captain Charles Wilkes, stopped the British ship Trent and removed Confederate commissioners James M. Mason and John Slidell (see 8 November 1861).
2 In September 1864, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles had discussed with Vice Admiral Farragut the importance of seizing Wilmington to cut General Lee's vital link with Europe and to stop the Confederacy's credit-producing cotton shipments abroad. He now called Secretary of War Stan-ton's attention to the present "fit opportunity to undertake such an operation." Pointing to the availability of troops, "as the armies are mostly going into winter quarters," he urged on Stanton a proposal of Rear Admiral porter to land an assault force at Fort Caswell, guarding the west entrance to the Cape Fear River, and stressed that the naval blockaders, which thus would be able to lie inside the river, would close Wilmington, "the only port by which any supplies whatever reach the rebels."
Rear Admiral Dahlgren returned to Savannah after a brief visit to Charleston where he had gone because of the threat of a breakout by the Confederate ironclads. He had wanted to be on hand to help check them from a foray against Savannah and to insure "the perfect security of General Sherman's base." After stationing a force of seven monitors there, sufficient to meet such an emergency, "and not perceiving any sign of the expected raid, I returned to Savannah to keep in communication with General Sherman and be ready to render any assistance that might be desired.
"General Sherman has fully informed me of his plans, and so far as my means permit, they shall not lack assistance by water. . . .
"The general route of the army will be northward, but the exact direction must be decided more or less by circumstances which it may not be possible to foresee.
"My cooperation will be confined to assistance in attacking Charleston or in establishing communication at Georgetown in case the army pushes on without attacking Charleston, and time alone will show which of these will eventuate.
"The weather of the winter, first, and the condition of the ground in the spring, would permit little advantage to be derived from the presence of the army at Richmond until the middle of May. So that General Sherman has no reason to move in haste, but can choose such objects as he prefers, and take as much time as their attainment may demand."
3 U.S.S. Harvest Moon, Acting Master John K. Crosby, transported the first group of men from Major General William T. Sherman's army from Savannah, Georgia, to Beaufort, South Caro-lina, below Charleston. Sherman had marched across Georgia from Atlanta to the sea where he knew the Navy would be able to supply and support his troops.
General Grant ordered Major General Alfred H. Terry to command the troops intended for the second attack on Fort Fisher. "I have served with Admiral Porter," he wrote, "and know that you can rely on his judgment and his nerve to undertake what he proposes. I would, therefore, defer to him as much as is consistent with your own responsibilities." The same day Grant wrote Porter that he was sending Terry to work with him and wished the Admiral "all sorts of good weather and success. . . ."
4 Rear Admiral Porter, laying meticulous plans for the second Fort Fisher attack, ordered each of his commanding officers to "detail as many of his men as he can spare from the guns as a landing party." Armed with cutlasses and revolvers, the sailors and Marines were to hit the beach when the assault signal was made "and board the fort in a seaman-like way. The marines will form in the rear and cover the sailors. While the soldiers are going over the parapets in front, the sailors will take the sea face of Fort Fisher."
The impact of Union sea power throughout the war strongly influenced the views of Confederate naval commanders as to their own capabilities. This date, Flag Officer Mitchell, commanding the South's James River Squadron, expressed his estimate of the military situation on the river below Richmond: "The enemy, with his large naval establishment and unlimited transportation, has, in all his expeditions against us, appeared in such overwhelming force as to render a successful re-sistance on the part of ours utterly out of the question, as witness his operations on the Mississippi from New Orleans up, and more recently at Mobile. Would he be likely to do less on the James in any naval enterprise he undertakes against us? Surely not, and we can never hope to encounter him on anything like equal terms, except by accident. It behooves us, therefore, to bring to our aid all the means in our power to oppose his monitors in any advance they may attempt up the river." Mitchell recommended the placing of additional obstructions and torpedoes as the most reliable means of preventing a waterborne movement on Richmond. However, he added that his own squadron, which was the largest assembled at one point by the South, "will be expected to take a part, not only in opposing the advance of the enemy, but held in readiness to move and act in any direction whenever an opportunity offers to strike a blow." Mitchell would have this opportunity three weeks later.
A landing party under Acting Master James C. Tole from U.S.S. Don captured several torpedoes and powder on the right bank of the Rappahannock River about six miles from its mouth. The success of Confederate torpedo warfare beginning with the destruction of U.S.S. Cairo (see 12 December 1862) had led to increased efforts in this new area of war at sea, first under the genius of Commander Matthew Fontaine Maury, then under Commander Hunter Davidson. Throughout the remaining months of the war--and for some time thereafter Southern torpedoes (or mines) would take a heavy toll of Union shipping.
5 A boat expedition under Acting Ensign Michael Murphy from U.S.S. Winnebago seized copper kettles used for distilling turpentine, 1300 pounds of copper pipes, and four sloop-rigged boats at Bon Secours Bay, Alabama.
Acting Lieutenant James Lansing succeeded in refloating U.S.S. Indianola in the Mississippi River. Indianola had been sunk by the Confederates almost two years before (see 24 February 1863) and the Union had been attempting to float her ever since. Rear Admiral Porter, who, as commander of the Mississippi Squadron, had been particularly interested in salvaging the ironclad, warmly congratulated Lansing on his success: "There are triumphs of skill such as you have displayed as glorious as if the result were from combat, and as such you have my highest commendations." Indianola was taken upriver to Mound City, Illinois.
7 Secretary Welles and Vice Admiral Farragut visited President Lincoln in the White House. The three discussed the capture of Mobile Bay which the Admiral had effected the previous August.
General Sherman wrote something of his plans to Rear Admiral Dahlgren, revealing his under-standing of the importance of sea communications and the support of concentrated naval gun-fire where possible:
"The letter you send me is from Admiral Porter, at Beaufort, N.C. I am not certain that there is a vessel in Port Royal from Admiral Porter, or I would write him. If there be one to return to him I beg you to send this, with a request that I be advised as early as possible as to the condition of the railroad from Beaufort, N.C., back to New Berne, and so on, toward Goldsboro; also all maps and information of the country above New Berne; how many cars and locomotives are available to us on that road; whether there is good navigation from Beaufort, N.C., via Pamlico Sound, up Neuse River, etc. I want Admiral Porter to know that I expect to be ready to move about the 15th; that I have one head of column across Savannah River at this point; will soon have another at Port Royal Ferry and expect to make another crossing at Sister's Ferry. I still adhere to my plan submitted to General Grant, and only await provisions and forage.
"The more I think of the affair at Wilmington the more I feel ashamed of the army there; but Butler is at fault, and he alone. Admiral Porter fulfilled his share to admiration. I think the admiral will feel more confidence in my troops, as he saw us carry points on the Mississippi where he had silenced the fire. All will turn out for the best yet."
8 Commander James D. Bulloch, Confederate naval agent in England, ordered Lieutenant John Low, who had previously served on board C.S.S. Alabama and as captain of C.S.S. Tuscaloosa, to assume command of the twin screw steamer Ajax upon her arrival in Nassau. Scheduled to sail from Glasgow on 12 January, Ajax had been built in Scotland under a contract of 14 September 1864 and had been designated a tug boat "to deceive Federal spies". Minor alterations were planned to make her and her sister ship Hercules useful in the defense of Wilmington. However, Ajax never reached the Confederacy, and Hercules was never completed. On 1 March Secretary Mallory wrote Bulloch: "A notice of the arrival of the Ajax at a port in Ireland has reached me through the United States papers, but no further advices as to her or the Hercules or other vessels have come to hand."
Rear Admiral Dahlgren advised Secretary Welles: "Among the articles found here [Savannah] after our troops entered was a torpedo boat, which I have received from General Sherman and sent to Port Royal. As yet it is only the unfinished wooden shell; no machinery was found about the place, but may be among some that was thrown overboard.
"There is also another torpedo boat in the yard of the builder, not finished, which I may be able to secure."
9 Secretary Welles notified Commander F.A. Parker, commanding the Potomac Flotilla, of intelli-gence received that Confederate agents enroute Richmond were crossing the Potomac River by India rubber boats at night in the vicinity of Port Tobacco, Maryland. "These messengers, the report warned, "wear metal buttons, upon the inside of which dispatches are most minutely photographed, not perceptible to the naked eye, but are easily read by the aid of a powerful lens."
Lieutenant Commander Earl English, U.S.S. Wyalusing, reported the capture of schooner Triumph at the mouth of the Perquimans River, North Carolina, with cargo including large quantity of salt.
10 Commander Bulloch wrote Secretary Mallory that he had obtained one of the French ironclads which Louis Napoleon, unwilling to provoke the United States government, had previously refused to release to the South. The ironclad had been sold to Denmark for the Schleswig-Holstein War, but when that conflict ended abruptly before the ship could be delivered, the Danes refused to accept her, and she was sold secretly to the Confederacy. Captain Thomas Jefferson Page took command of her in Copenhagen. "I have requested Captain Page," Bulloch wrote, to name the ironclad Stonewall, an appellation not inconsistent with her character, and one which will appeal to the feelings and sympathies of our people at home." Stonewall, with a temporary crew and under another name (Sphinx) to divert suspicion as to her real ownership, had departed Copenhagen on 7 January.
Bulloch wrote Commander Hunter Davidson, one of the South's ablest naval officers who had directed the Torpedo Service and was now captain of the blockade runner City of Richmond, regarding an anticipated rendezvous between her and Stonewall at Belle Ile, Quiberon Bay, France. City of Richmond carried officers and men as well as supplies for the ironclad. It was hoped that Stonewall could break the blockade off Wilmington and then attack New England shipping.
U.S.S. Valley City, Acting Master John A. J. Brooks, seized steamer Philadelphia in the Chowan River, North Carolina, with cargo including tobacco and cotton.
12 "The great armada," as Colonel Lamb described Rear Admiral Porter's fleet, got underway from Beaufort, North Carolina, where a rendezvous had been made with 8,000 Union troops under the command of Major General Terry. The fleet, up to that time the largest American force to be assembled under one command, proceeded along the Carolina coast northeast of Wilmington and arrived off Fort Fisher the same night. Preparations were made for commencing a naval bombardment the following morning and for the amphibious landing of 10,000 soldiers, sailors, and Marines.
The new and formidable Confederate ram Columbia, ready for service, grounded while coming out of her dock at Charleston. Extensive efforts to refloat her failed and she was abandoned when Charleston was evacuated in mid-February. Columbia was saved by Union forces after much effort and was floated on 26 April. Rear Admiral Dahlgren described the ram: 'she is 209 feet long (extreme), beam 49 feet, has a casemate 65 feet long, pierced for six guns, one on each side and one at each of the four corners, pivots to point ahead or astern and to the side. She has two engines, high pressure, and [is] plated on the casemates with 6 inches of iron in thickness, quite equal, it is believed, to the best of the kind built by the rebels."
James M. Mason, Confederate Commissioner in England, reported to Secretary of Stare Judah P Benjamin, that France had proposed to Great Britain that each power permit Confederate prizes, having cargo in whole or in part claimed by English or French citizens, to be taken for adjudica-tion into the ports of either nation.
13 Lieutenant Commander Stephen B. Luce, U.S.S. Pontiac, was ordered to report for duty with General W.T. Sherman. Pontiac steamed 40 miles up the Savannah River to protect the left wing of Sherman's army which was crossing the river at Sister's Ferry, Georgia, and cover its initial movements by water on the march north that would soon cause the fall of Charleston. Luce later credited his meeting with General Sherman as the beginning of his thinking which eventually resulted in the founding of the Naval War College. He said: "After hearing General Sherman's clear exposition of the military situation, the scales seemed to fall from my eyes. It dawned on me that there were certain fundamental principles underlying military opera-tions, . . . principles of general application whether the operations were on land or at sea."
13-15 Early on the morning of the 13th, the second amphibious assault on Fort Fisher was begun. Rear Admiral Porter took some 59 warships into action; Major General Terry commanded 8,000 soldiers. The naval landing party of 2,000 sailors and Marines would raise the assaulting force to 10,000. Colonel Lamb's valiant defender in the fort numbered 1,500.
U.S.S. New Ironsides, Commodore William Radford, led monitors Saugus, Canonicus, Monad-nock, and Mahopac to within 1000 yards of Fort Fisher and opened on the batteries. A spirited engagement ensued. Porter wrote to Secretary Welles: "It was soon quite apparent that the iron vessels had the best of it; traverses began to disappear and the southern angle of Fort Fisher commenced to look very dilapidated." U.S.S. Brooklyn, Captain Alden, and U.S.S. Colorado, Commodore Thatcher, led the heavy wooden warships into battle and the Federal fleet maintained a devastating bombardment throughout the day until after dark. In the meantime, Gen-eral Terry selected a beachhead out of the fort's gun range and made naturally defensible on the northern side by a line of swamps and woods extending across the peninsula where he landed his 8000 troops unopposed. By daybreak on the 14th he had thrown up a line of defensive breast-works facing Wilmington in order to protect his rear from possible attack by the 6000 troops stationed in that city under the command of General Bragg. Porter wrote to Secretary Welles: We have a respectable force landed on a strip of land, which our naval guns completely command, and a place of defense which would enable us to hold on against a very large army."
The monitors had maintained an harassing fire during the night of the 13th; then at daylight of the second day of the attack the fleet's big guns reopened the bombardment in full fury. General W. H. C. Whiting who had come to "counsel" with Colonel Lamb and share his fate inside the fort, remarked: "It was beyond description, no language can describe that terrific bombardment." The Confederates were hardly able to bury their dead, much less repair the works, as the fleet poured in, according to one estimate, 100 shells a minute. The defenders suffered some 300 casualties from the naval bombardment and had but one gun on the land face of the fort still serviceable. During the day C.S.S. Chickamauga fired on the recently landed Union troops from her position in the Cape Fear River, but on the 15th U.S.S. Monticello, Lieutenant Commander William B. Cushing, drove the former Confederate raider out of range.
On the evening of the 14th General Terry visited Porter on the flagship Malvern, and the two planned the timing of the next day's operations. The fleet would maintain the bombardment until the moment of attack in mid-afternoon Then half of the 8000 soldiers would assault the land face on the western front of the fort and the 2000 sailors and Marines from the ships would attack the "northeast bastion". The remaining troops would hold the defensive line against a possible attack from Wilmington.
At 3 p.m. on the 15th the signal to cease firing was sent to the fleet, and the soldiers, sailors, and Marines ashore charged the Confederate fortifications. Because the Army advanced through a wooded area while the Naval Brigade dashed across an open beach, the defenders opened a con-centrated fire at point blank range on the naval attack, "ploughing lanes in the ranks." Leading the assault, Lieutenant Samuel W. Preston, one of the war's ablest young naval officers, and Lieutenant Benjamin H. Porter, commanding officer of the flagship U.S.S. Malvern, were among those killed. Unchecked, however, the assaulting force under the command of Lieutenant Commander K. Randolph Breese pressed forward. Ensign Robley D. Evans later to become a Rear Admiral with the well-earned sobriquet "Fighting Bob" suffered four wounds, two crippling his legs. He later vividly described the naval assault: "About five hundred yards, from the fort the head of the column suddenly stopped, and, as if by magic, the whole mass of men went down like a row of falling bricks. . . . The officers called on the men, and they responded instantly, starting for-ward as fast as they could go. At about three hundred yards they again went down, this time under the effect of canister added to the rifle fire. Again we rallied them, and once more started to the front under a perfect hail of lead, with men dropping rapidly in every direction." Some 60 men under Lieutenant Commander Thomas O. Selfridge reached and broke through the palisade, but it was the high water mark of the charge. They were hurled back and others recoiled under the withering fire after approaching the stockade and the base of the parapets. "All the officers," Evans wrote, "in their anxiety to be the first into the fort, had advanced to the heads of the col-umns, leaving no one to steady the men in behind; and it was in this way we were defeated, by the men breaking from the rear." The significance of the naval assault was perceived by Colonel Lamb when he wrote that "their gallant attempt enabled the army to enter and obtain a foothold, which they otherwise could not have done."
Cries of victory rose from the brave defenders, who thought they had beaten back the main attack, but their exultation was short lived. For General Terry's troops had meanwhile taken the western end of the parapet. The Confederates at once launched a counter-attack, and desperate hand-to-hand fighting followed.
Now the naval shore bombardment intervened decisively. The guns of Porter's assembled ships–firing at right angles to the direction of the Union charge– opened with "deadly precision" into the Confederate ranks. Other ships lifted their fire to neutralize the river bank behind the fort and prevent the dispatch of reinforcements. Lamb later recorded that "as the tide of the battle seemed to have turned in our favor, the remorseless fleet came to the rescue of the faltering Federals."
General Whiting was mortally wounded during the engagement and Colonel Lamb was felled with a bullet in his hip. Major James Reilly assumed command and fought "from traverse to traverse before finally being forced to retreat from the fort. He and his men surrendered later that night. "Fort Fisher," Porter wired Welles, "is ours.
It had not been taken without considerable losses. The Union forces– Army and Navy– sustained some 1000 casualties, more than twice as many as the defenders suffered. Porter wrote: "Men, it seems, must die that this Union may live, and the Constitution under which we have gained our prosperity must be maintained."
More than 35 sailors and Marines were awarded the Medal of Honor for their heroism in this action that closed the Confederacy's last supply line from Europe.
The second Federal assault on Fort Fisher revealed again the inherent ability of a fleet– supported amphibious force to capitalize on the superior mobility conferred by command of the sea, forcing the defenders to spread their forces thinly in a vain effort to be strong at all threatened points simultaneously. This operation also provided dramatic demonstration of a fleet's ability to mass superior firepower at any point of a shore defense position. Fear of concentrated naval gunfire forced inaction on General Hoke's Confederate division stationed between the fort and Wilmington, forestalling any interference with the landing of the Federal expeditionary force and enabling General Terry to split the Confederate defense forces.
Colonel Lamb, the fort's gallant commandant, later recorded: "For the first time in the history of sieges the land defenses of the works were destroyed, not by any act of the besieging army, but by the concentrated fire, direct and enfilading, of an immense fleet poured into them without intermission, until torpedo wires were cut, palisades breached so that they actually afforded cover for assailants, and the slopes of the work were rendered practicable for assault " The second attack became a classic example of complete Army-Navy coordination. In his telegram to Secretary Welles announcing the capture of the fort, Porter stated: "General Terry is entitled to the highest praise and the gratitude of his country for the manner in which he has conducted his part of the operations. . . . Our cooperation has been most cordial. The result is victory, which will always be ours when the Army and the Navy go hand in hand." Terry began his own report: "I should signally fail to do my duty were I to omit to speak in terms of the highest admiration of the part borne by the Navy in our operations. In all ranks, from Admiral Porter to his seamen, there was the utmost desire not only to do their proper work, but to facilitate in every manner the operations of the land forces."
14 Blockade runner Lelia foundered off the mouth of the Mersey River, England. Flag Officer Samuel Barron wrote Secretary Mallory from Paris: "The melancholy duty devolves on me of reporting the death on the 14th instant, by drowning of Commander Arthur Sinclair, C. S. Navy, and Gunner P. C. Cuddy, late of the Alabama." Commander Hunter Davidson, learning of the accident while in Funchal, Madeira, early in February, commented: "What an awful thing the loss of the Lelia. To death in battle we become reconciled, for it is not unexpected and leave its reward; but such a death for poor Sinclair, after forty-two years" service. . . .!"
U.S.S. Seminole, Commander Albert G. Clary, captured schooner Josephine bound from Galveston to Matamoras with cargo of cotton.
15 At the request of Major General William T. Sherman, Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, issued orders to prepare for a combined naval and military demonstration before Charleston in order to draw attention from General Sherman's march to the north. Before making the demonstration, it was necessary to locate and mark the numerous obstructions in the channel of Charleston harbor. Accordingly, this date orders were issued charging the commanders of the monitors with this duty. That evening, while searching for the Confederate obstructions, U.S.S. Patapsco, Lieutenant Commander Stephen P. Quackenbush, struck a torpedo (mine) near the entrance of the lower harbor and sank instantly with the loss of 64 officers and men, more than half her crew. She was the fourth monitor lost in the war, the second due to enemy torpedoes. Thereafter, only small boats and tugs were used in the search for obstructions and the objective of the joint expedition was changed to Bull's Bay, a few miles northeast of Charleston.
16 With Fort Fisher lost and foreseeing that the Union fleet's entrance into the Cape Fear River would cut the waterborne communications system, General Bragg ordered the evacuation of the remaining Confederate positions at the mouth of the river. At 7 a.m. Forts Caswell and Camp-bell were abandoned and destroyed. Fort Holmes on Smith's Island and Fort Johnson at Smith-ville were likewise destroyed by the retreating garrisons, which fell back on Fort Anderson, on the west bank of the Cape Fear River between Fort Fisher and Wilmington. "The Yankees," wrote one Confederate, not perceiving the full import of the fateful results, "have made a barren capture. . . ." In fact, however, Wilmington, the last major port open to blockade runners, was now effectively sealed and General Lee was cut off from his only remaining supply line from Europe. Rear Admiral Porter recognized the implications of the Union victory more clearly. He wrote Captain Godon: . . . the death knell of another fort is booming in the distance. Fort Caswell with its powerful batteries is in flames and being blown up, and thus is sealed the door through which this rebellion is fed."
Seeking to take advantage of the reduced Union naval strength in the James River, Secretary Mallory wrote Flag Officer Mitchell to encourage him to pass the obstructions at Trent's Reach and attack General Grant's base of operations at City Point. "From Lieutenant Read," Mallory noted, "I learn that the hulk which lay across the channel [at Trent's Reach] and the net also have been washed away, and I think it probable that there is a passage through the obstructions. I deem the opportunity a favorable one for striking a blow at the enemy, if we are able to do so.
In a short time many of his vessels will have returned to the river from Wilmington and he will again perfect his obstructions. If we can block the river at or below City Point, Grant might be compelled to evacuate his position." City Point was essential to Grant's anticipated movement on Richmond. The supplies to the Union soldiers on the Petersburg front reached City Point by water, assured of free passage by the Navy, and then were sent to the front by rail. If the North were forced to abandon the base at City Point, it might also have to abandon a spring offensive against the Confederate capital. Mallory added: "I regard an attack upon the enemy and the obstructions of the river at City Point, to cut off Grant's supplies, as a movement of the first importance to the country and one which should be accomplished if possible." Mitchell replied that he was having the obstructions examined to ensure that Read's report was correct. 'should information be obtained that the passage of these obstructions is practicable," the flag officer wrote, "I shall gladly incur all the other hazards that may attend the proposed enterprise that promises, if successful, such bright results to our cause.
The Twenty-Third Army Corps, Major General John M. Schofield, commenced embarking on transports at Clifton, Tennessee. The corps was being ordered by General Grant to move by water and rail to Washington, D.C.– Annapolis area and thence by water south for further operations. These troops assaulted Wilmington and formed a juncture with General Sherman's northward moving army.
17 Delayed in departure from Savannah, General Sherman wrote Rear Admiral Dahlgren: "When we are known to be in rear of Charleston, about Branchville and Orangeburg, it will be well to watch if the enemy lets go of Charleston, in which case Foster will occupy it, otherwise the feint should be about Bull's Bay. We will need no cover about Port Royal; nothing but the usual guard ships. I think that you will concur with me that, in anticipation of the movement of my army to the rear of the coast, it will be unwise to subject your ships to the heavy artillery of the enemy or to his sunken torpedoes. I will instruct Foster, when he knows I have got near Branchville, to make a landing of a small force at Bull's Bay, to threaten, and it may be occupy, the road from Mount Pleasant to Georgetown. This will make the enemy believe I design to turn down against Charleston and give me a good offing for Wilmington. I will write you again fully on the eve of starting in person.
Rear Admiral Porter wrote Secretary Welles regarding Fort Fisher: "I have since visited Fort Fisher and the adjoining works, and find their strength greatly beyond what I had conceived; an engineer might be excusable in saying they could not be captured except by regular siege. I wonder even now how it was done. The work . . . is really stronger than the Malakoff Tower, which defied so long the combined power of France and England, and yet it is captured by a handful of men under the fire of the guns of the fleet, and in seven hours after the attack commenced in earnest." He concluded his report by proclaiming that Wilmington was hermetically sealed against blockade runners, "and no Alabamas or Floridas, Chickamaugas or Tallahassees will ever fit out again from this port, and our merchant vessels very soon, I hope, will be enabled to pursue in safety their avocation."
News of the capture of Fort Fisher reached Washington and talk of the Army-Navy success dominated President Lincoln's cabinet meeting Secretary Welles noted in his diary, "The President was happy."
Knowing that many blockade runners, unaware of Fort Fisher's fall, would attempt to run in to Wilmington, Porter ordered the signal lights on the Mound "properly trimmed and lighted, as has been the custom with the rebels during the blockade." He added: "Have the lights lighted to-night and see that no vessel inside displays a light, and be ready to grab anyone that enters. Three days later the Admiral's resourcefulness paid dividends with the capture of two runners (see 20 January).
Naval forces, commanded by Lieutenant Moreau Forrest of the Mississippi Squadron, cooperated with Army cavalry in a successful attack on the town of Somerville, Alabama. The expedition resulted in the capture of 90 prisoners, 150 horses and one piece of artillery.
Two armed boats from U.S.S. Honeysuckle, Acting Master James J. Russell, captured the British schooner Augusta at the mouth of the Suwannee River as she attempted to run the blockade with cargo of pig lead, flour, gunny cloth and coffee.
17-19 Confederate steamers Granite City and Wave (ex-U.S. Navy ships, see 6 May 1864) eluded block-ading ship U.S.S. Chocura, Lieutenant Commander Richard W. Meade, Jr., on a "dark, foggy, and rainy" night and escaped from Calcasieu Pass, Louisiana. Granite City was reported to carry no cargo but Wave had a load of lumber for the Rio Grande. Meade gave chase for 60 miles, "but our boilers being in a disabled condition, and leaking badly, the speed of the ship was so much reduced that I reluctantly gave up the hope of overtaking the Granite City before she could make a port.
18 J. B. Jones, a clerk in the Confederate War Department, wrote in his diary: "No war news. But blockade-running at Wilmington has ceased; and common calico, now at $25 per yard, will soon be $50. . . . Flour is $1250 per barrel, to-day." Only five days before he had recorded: "Beef (what little there is in market) sells to-day at $6 per pound; meal, $80 per bushel; white beans, $5 per quart, or $160 per bushel." These figures bore eloquent witness to the decisive role played by Federal seapower in the collapse of the Confederacy. A giant amphibious assault had closed Wilmington, General Lee's last hope for sufficient supplies to sustain his soldiers. Control of the Mississippi River and the western tributaries by omnipresent Union warships, coupled with the destruction of the South's weak railway system, prevented the transfer of men and supplies to strengthen the crumbling military situation in the East. Thus, blockade of the coasts and continuing attack from afloat as well as on land surrounded and divided the South and hastened its economic, financial, and psychological deterioration. Just as civilians lived in deep privation, so, too, were the armies of the Confederacy gravely weakened from a shortage of munitions, equipment, clothing, and food.
Lieutenant Commander William B. Cushing, commanding U.S.S. Monticello, landed at Fort Caswell, hoisted the Stars and Stripes, and took possession for the United States.
19 Blockade runner Chameleon (formerly C.S.S. Tallahassee), Lieutenant John Wilkinson, put to sea from Bermuda loaded to the rails with commissary stores and provisions for General Lee's hard-pressed, ill supplied army. Wilkinson had departed Cape Fear on this special blockade running mission on 24 December 1864 in the aftermath of the first Fort Fisher campaign. Upon his return, he successfully ran the blockade (as he had done on 21 separate occasions during 1863 with Robert E. Lee) and had entered the harbor before learning that Union forces had captured Fort Fisher during his absence. Chameleon reversed course and safely dashed to sea. Wilkinson later said that he had been able to escape only because of the ship's twin screws, which "enabled our steamer to turn as if on a pivot in the narrow channel between the bar and the rip." After an unsuccessful attempt to enter Charleston and in the absence of orders from Secretary Mallory, Wilkinson took Chameleon to Liverpool and turned the ship over to Commander Bulloch, the Confederate naval agent. Ironically, he arrived on 9 April, the same day that Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox.
In orders to U.S.S. Canonicus, Mahopac, and Monadnock, having arrived to join the Charleston blockaders, Rear Admiral Dahlgren showed his concern for the threat of Confederate torpedoes: "You will lose no time in securing the Canonicus against the possible action of the rebel torpedo boats; temporary fenders must be used until permanent fixtures can be provided. Boat patrol must be used with vigilance, and such other measures resorted to as are in common practice here."
20 Flag Officer Mitchell wrote Major James F. Milligan of the Confederate signal corps seeking information "as to the number and disposition of the enemy's ironclads, gunboats, armed trans-ports, torpedo boats, and vessels generally on the James. . . . The commander of the South's James River Squadron was readying his ships for a thrust downriver at the major Union supply base, City Point. It was hoped that a successful attack on General Grant's supply base would force him to withdraw and abandon his plans for a spring offensive against Richmond.
Blockade runner City of Richmond, Commander Davidson, anchored in Quiberon Bay, France, to await the arrival of C.S.S. Stonewall. Davidson permitted no communication with the shore in order to preclude the possibility of others learning that the ironclad would rendezvous with him and effect a transfer of men and supplies. Flag Officer Barron described Stonewall as "a vessel more formidable than any we have yet afloat. . . ."
Flag Officer Barron reported to Secretary Mallory that lie had ordered Commanders James H North and G. T. Sinclair and Lieutenant Commander C. M. Morris, Confederate agents abroad, to return to the Confederacy,". . .there being in my judgement no prospect of any duty for them." Blockade runners Stag and Charlotte, unaware that Fort Fisher and the works at Cape Fear had fallen, anchored in the harbor at Smithville near U.S.S. Malvern, flagship of Rear Admiral Porter, and were captured. Porter wrote: I intrusted this duty to Lieutenant [Commander] Cushing, who performed it with his usual good luck and intelligence. They are very fast vessels and valuable prizes." Stag was commanded by Lieutenant Richard H. Gayle, CSN, who had pre-viously been captured while commanding blockade runner Cornubia (see 8 November 1863).
21 Secretary Mallory again wrote Flag Officer Mitchell urging an immediate movement by the James River Squadron past the obstructions at Trent's Reach and assault on General Grant's base of operations at City Point. "You have an opportunity, I am convinced, rarely presented to a naval officer, and one which may lead to the most glorious results to your country. The same day Mitchell sent a telegram to General Lee, whose troops depended heavily on a successful completion of the attack, informing him that the squadron would attempt to pass the obstructions on the 22nd.
I have not time to visit you," he wrote, "and would therefore be glad to meet on board of the flagship or at Drewry's Bluff any officer whom you could appoint to meet me, to give me your views and wishes as to my cooperation with the army down the river in the event of our being suc-cessful."
U.S.S. Penguin, Acting Lieutenant James R. Beers, chased steamer Granite City ashore off Velasco, Texas. The blockade runner was under the protection of Confederate shore batteries. Beers reported that, since he was "of the opinion that the steamer could not be got off, and would eventually go to pieces, as there was a heavy sea rolling in and continually breaking over her, I did not think it was prudent to remain longer under the enemy's fire, as their guns were of longer range than ours."
Elements of the Twenty-Third Army Corps, Major General Schofield, disembarked from transports at Cincinnati, Ohio, which they had reached in five days via the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers from Clifton, Tennessee. The troops entrained for Washington, D.C., Alexandria, Virginia, and Annapolis, Maryland, where the first echelon arrived 31 January.
22 Flag Officer Mitchell reported that he was unable to get underway to pass the obstructions at Trent's Reach as he had planned because of heavy fog. Mitchell had also received no report from Boatswain Thomas Gauley, whom he had dispatched on the 21st to remove a number of Con-federate torpedoes that had been placed in the channel near Howlett's Landing. He wrote Major General George Pickett: "Tomorrow night, if the weather is sufficiently clear for the pilots to see their way, our movement will be made, and I will be glad to have your cooperation as agreed upon for to-night." A successful downriver thrust by Mitchell's squadron could spell disaster for the Union cause as General Grant would be deprived of his great water-supplied base at City Point and his armies would be divided by Confederate control of the James River.
Rear Admiral Porter ordered Commander John Guest, U.S.S. Iosco, to "regulate the movements of the vessels in the Cape Fear River above Fort Fisher. . . . Porter sought to move the line of ships as near Fort Anderson, the position to which the Confederates had withdrawn following the fall of Fort Fisher and adjacent forts, "as is consistent with safety, and in doing so care must be taken of the torpedoes and other obstructions." The same day U.S.S. Pequot, Lieutenant Com-mander Daniel L. Braine, steamed upriver and opened on Fort Anderson to reconnoiter and test its defenses. The Confederates brought only two 'small rifle pieces" in action, but, Braine reported: "I observed 6 guns, evidently smoothbore, pointing down the river, protected by the ordinary sand traverses." Having sealed off Wilmington, the last major port in the South, the Union was now moving to occupy it.
A boat expedition from U.S.S. Chocura, Lieutenant Commander R. W. Meade, Jr., captured blockade running schooner Delphina by boarding in Calcasieu River, Louisiana. Delphina was carrying a cargo of cotton.
The steamer Ajax, with Lieutenant John Low, CSN, on board as a "passenger", put out of Dublin, Ireland, for Nassau. Ajax had been built for the Confederacy in Dumbarton, Scotland, for use in harbor defense. She had been detained in Dublin for more than a week because the U.S. Consul there suspected that the light-draft vessel was bound for the South. However, two inspections failed to substantiate this belief and the 340 ton would-be gunboat was released. Nevertheless, Charles F. Adams, the American Ambassador in England, and Secretary of State Seward prevailed upon British Foreign Minister Earl Russell to prevent the armament of Ajax in Halifax, Bermuda, or Nassau (see 4 May).
23 U.S.S. Fox, Acting Master Francis Burgess, seized British schooner Fannie McRae near the mouth of the Warrior River, Florida, where she was preparing to run the blockade.
23-24 Flag Officer Mitchell's James River Squadron launched its downstream assault with high hopes in Richmond that victory afloat would turn the tide ashore. The Union squadron defending Major General W.T. Sherman commenced his march to the north from Savannah while the ships of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron operated in the rivers in the proximity of his army. These naval operations served to protect Sherman's army and simultaneously forced the Confederate commanders to spread thin their remaining forces. Rear Admiral Dahlgren reported to Secretary Welles the deployment of the naval vessels supporting the advance of Sherman's men: "I have the Dai Ching and a tug in the Combahee to assist the move at that ferry. The Sonoma is in the North Edisto, and the Pawnee leaves at early light with a tug for the Ashepoo, where a battery and obstructions are reported. The orders of all are to drive in the rebel pickets and knock down his batteries where they can be reached. The Tuscarora, Mingoe, State of Georgia, and Nipsic are at Georgetown, with orders to prevent the erection there of any batteries. The Pontiac is in the Savannah River at Purysburg, advancing with General Sherman's extreme left. The demonstra-tions desired by General Sherman at Charleston may be said to be begun by the collection there of so many ironclads."
25 C.S.S. Shenandoah, Lieutenant Waddell, put into Melbourne for repairs and provisions 108 days out of England. Although the cruiser had taken no prizes for four weeks and remained consider-ably undermanned Waddell reported that the berthing spaces would accommodate 150 men comfortably but that he had only 51 crew men on board-the Lieutenant promptly wrote Flag Officer Barton in Paris: "I am getting along boldly and cheerfully," To Secretary Mallory he reported; . . . when I have done all that which you have directed me to do I shall be better able to decide what ought to be done with the Shenandoah. I shall keep her afloat as long as she is, in my opinion, serviceable." Without the dry docking and machinery repairs accomplished at Melbourne, Waddell would not have been able to carry out his mission against American whalers in the Pacific.
Captain T.J. Page reported that C.S.S. Stonewall was now at sea off the coast of France and wrote Secretary Mallory: "You must not expect too much of me; I fear that the power and effect of this vessel have been too much exaggerated. We will do our best."
Shortly after dawn, a boarding party from U.S.S. Tristram Shandy, Acting Lieutenant Francis M. Green, seized blockade running steamer Blenheim just inside the bar at New Inlet, North Carolina. Blenheim had run into the approach to Wilmington unaware that Federal forces now controlled the area and anchored off the Mound battery. "At the time of boarding," Green reported, "they were endeavoring to get the vessel underway." Blenheim was the third prize to be lured into Union hands by the Confederate range lights at the Mound which Rear Admiral Porter had kept burning.
26 Confederate picket boat Hornet was sunk and Lieutenant Aeneas Armstrong, CSN, was drowned as a result of the collision between Hornet and the steamer Allison on the James River.
U.S.S. Dai Ching, Lieutenant Commander James C. Chaplin, operating, on the right flank of General W. T. Sherman's army in the Combahee River, ran aground while engaging Confederate batteries. After a 7 hour battle, and only after all her guns were out of operation, Dai Ching was abandoned and fired by her crew. The tug U.S.S. Clover, Acting Ensign Franklin S. Leach, which had been in company with Dai Ching, captured blockade running schooner Coquette with cargo of cotton.
27 After dark, a launch commanded by Acting Ensign Thomas Morgan from U.S.S. Eutaw proceeded up the James River past the obstructions at Trent's Reach and captured C.S.S. Scorpion. The torpedo boat had run aground during the Confederate attempt to steam downriver on the 23rd and 24th and had been abandoned after Union mortar fire destroyed C.S.S. Drewry which was similarly stranded nearby. Morgan reported: "Finding her hard aground, I immediately pro-ceeded to get her afloat and succeeded in doing so, and repassed the obstruction on my return to the fleet about 10:30 p.m." Scorpion was found to be little damaged by the explosion of Drewry, contrary to Confederate estimates, and Chief Engineer Alexander Henderson, who examined her, reported approvingly: 'she has fair speed for a boat of her kind, and is well adapted for the purpose for which she was built." Scorpion was reported to be 46 feet in length, 6 feet 3 inches beam, and 3 feet 9 inches in depth.
28 Confederate torpedo boat St. Patrick, Lieutenant John T. Walker, struck U.S.S. Octorara, Lieutenant Commander William W. Low, off Mobile Bay but her spar torpedo failed to explode. Although attacked by ship guns and small arms, Walker was able to bring St. Patrick safely back under the Mobile batteries.
U.S.S. Mattabesett, Commander John C. Febiger, dispatched U.S.S. Valley City to Colerain, North Carolina, on the Chowan River to protect an encampment of Union troops there.
30 Returning from an afternoon reconnaissance of King's Creek, Virginia, Acting Ensign James H. Kerens U.S.S. Henry Brinker, and his two boat crews "discovered 5 men, who, upon seeing us, immediately fled." His suspicions aroused, Kerens determined to return under cover of darkness to search the vicinity. That night he and two boat crews returned to the mouth of King's Creek and, after more than an hour of careful searching, found "two very suspicious looking mounds. . . . Removing the earth Kerens found two galvanic batteries and torpedoes, each containing some 150 pounds of powder. Acting Third Assistant Engineer Henry M. Hutchinson and Landsman John McKenna cut the connections from the batteries to the torpedoes and the weapons were safely removed and taken on board Henry Brinker. Risk of life in little heralded acts such as this happened throughout the war.
U.S.S. Cherokee, Acting Lieutenant William E. Dennison, exchanged gunfire with Confederate troops at Half Moon Battery, Cape Fear, North Carolina. Earlier in the month, 19 January, U.S.S. Governor Buckingham, Acting Lieutenant John MacDiarmid, opened on the battery in support of Army efforts ashore to clear the area of Confederates following the fall of Fort Fisher.