Du Pont Storms Charleston


Rear Admiral Samuel Du Pont had the flag. It was he who, back in early November of 1861, had conceived and executed the elliptical attack on Port Royal, thereby giving the North its first substantial victory of the war, and it was hoped by the Federal Navy Department that he would repeat the triumph here in Charleston Harbor. Son of a wealthy New York importer and nephew of an even wealthier Delaware powder-maker, the Admiral was approaching sixty, a hale, well-set-up aristocrat with a dignified but genial manner and a growth of luxuriant whiskers describing a bushy U about his chops and under his clean-shaven mouth and chin, all of which combined to give at least one journalist the impression that he was “one of the stateliest, handsomest, and most polished gentlemen I have ever seen.”

Gideon Welles admired him, too, up to a point. “He is a skillful and accomplished officer,” the Secretary of the Navy confided in his diary. “Has a fine address, [but] is a courtier with perhaps too much finesse and management.” This edge of mistrust was returned by the man who was its object. It seemed to Du Pont, whose enthusiasm had been tempered by close association, that the Navy Department was suffering from an affliction described as “ironclads on the brain.”

This had not always been the case, particularly in lire days when John Ericsson was trying to persuade the brass to give him authority for construction of the Monitor . Grudgingly and over grave misgivings, they had finally let him go ahead with a contract which stipulated that he would not be reimbursed in case of failure. But after Hampton Roads and the drawn engagement that put an end to the depredations of the Merrimack , the department not only reversed itself but went all out in the opposite direction. Ericsson received an order for half a dozen sister ships to the prototype already delivered, and other builders were engaged for the construction of twenty-one more, of various shapes and sizes.

Assistant Secretary Gustavus Vasa Fox was especially enthusiastic, informing Du Pont that after he had used the monitors to reduce Charleston, he was to move on Savannah, then send them down to the Gulf to give Mobile the same treatment. Ironclads were trumps, according to Fox. He told Ericsson he had not “a shadow of a doubt as to our success, and this confidence arises from a study of your marvelous vessels.” The Swede was less positive. “The most I dare hope is that the contest will end without the loss of that prestige which your ironclads have conferred u])on the nation abroad,” he replied, adding the reminder that “a single shot may sink a ship, while a hundred rounds cannot silence a fort.”

Unwilling to have his confidence undermined or his ebullience lessened, Fox assured a congressional committee that the monitors could steam into Southern harbors, flatten the defenses, and emerge unscathed. His only caution was addressed to Du Pont. “I beg of you,” he pleaded, “not to let the Army spoil it.” He wanted the show to be all Navy, with the landsmen merely standing by to be ferried in to pick up the pieces when the smoke cleared. In late March he informed Du Pont that it was up to him to make up for reverses lately suffered in the west: “Farragut has had a setback at Port Hudson and lost the noble old Mississippi . It finally devolves upon you by great good fortune to avert the series of disasters that have fallen upon our Navy. That you will do it most gloriously I have no misgivings whatever.”

In point of fact, Du Pont by this time had misgivings enough for them both. What was more, they were shared by a majority of his ironclad skippers- and with cause. Near the mouth of the Ogeechee River, just beyond the Georgia line, the Confederates had constructed as part of the Savannah defenses a nine-gun earthwork called Fort Mc Allister, which Du Pont decided to use as a sort of test range to determine how well the ironclads would do, offensively and defensively, under fire. He gave the assignment to the Montauk , which meant that he was giving the best he had; for her captain was Commander John L. Worden, who had skippered the Monitor in her fight with the Merrimack .

Worden made his first attack on January 27. After expending all his ammunition in a four-hour bombardment, he withdrew undamaged despite repeated hits scored by the guns of the fort, which was not silenced. Returning February i, he tried again, with like results. Neither the ship nor the fort had done much damage to the other, aside from the concussive strain on the eardrums of the Montauk ’s crew as a result of the forty-six hits taken on her iron decks and turret. A third attack, February 27, was more fruitful, although not in the way intended. Finding the Confederate cruiser Nashville aground beyond Fort McAllister, Worden took her under long-range fire with his big guns, set her afire, and had the satisfaction of watching her destruction when her magazine exploded.

Struck only five times by the guns of the fort, the ironclad pulled back without replying, well satisfied with her morning’s work, only to run upon a torpedo which blew such a hole in her bottom that she had to be beached in the mud. While she was undergoing repairs that soon restored her to full efficiency, three more monitors came down from Port Royal and tried their hand at reducing the fort, with similar results. Neither silenced or seriously damaged the other, and the ironclads withdrew, to try no more.