Du Pont Storms Charleston


The first to approach was the Keokuk , limping badly. Last in and first out, she had ventured nearest to Sumter and she had the scars of 90 point-blank hits to prove it. She was “riddled like a collander,” a witness remarked, “the most severely mauled ship one ever saw,” and that night she keeled over and sank at her anchorage off Morris Island. Others also had been roughly handled: Weehawken had taken 53 hits; Nantucket , 51; Patapsco , 47; Nahant , 36; Passaic , 35; Catskill , 20; and Montauk , 14. In general, the damage suffered was in inverse ratio to the distance between them and the Rebel guns, and none had been elfter than six hundred yards.

The Admiral’s intention “to renew [the battle] early in the morning” was modified by the sight of his crippled monitors. Five of the eight were too badly damaged to be able to engage if ordered, and of these five, one would sink before the scheduled time for action. Equally conclusive were the reports and recommendations of the several captains when they came aboard the flagship that evening. “With your present means,” John Rodgers advised, “I could not, if I were asked, recommend a renewal of the attack.” The redoubtable Worden was no less emphatic. “After testing the weight of the enemy’s fire, and observing the obstructions,” he reported, “I am led to believe that Charleston cannot be taken by the naval force now present, and that had the attack been continued [today] it could not have failed to result in disaster.”

This gave Du Pont pause, and pausing, he reflected on the risks. Here was no New Orleans, where the problem had been to run the fleet through a brief, furious gantlet of fire in order to gain a safe haven above the forts and place a defenseless city under the muzzles of its guns; this was Charleston, whose harbor, in the words of his chief of staff, “was a cul-de-sac , a circle of fire not to be passed.” The deeper you penetrated the circle, the more you were exposed to destruction. Moreover, as the Admiral saw it, even if he pressed the attack, “in the end we shall retire, leaving some of our ironclads in the hands of the enemy, to be refitted and turned against our blockade with deplorable effect.” This last was unthinkable—though he thought about it in his cabin all night long. By daybreak he had made up his mind. “I have decided not to renew the attack,” he told his chief of staff. “We have met with a sad repulse; I shall not turn it into a great disaster.”

Next afternoon he recrossed the bar. “I attempted to take the bull by the horns, but he was too much for us,” he admitted to the army commander whose troops had been standing by to pick up the pieces. By the end of the week the flotilla again was riding at anchor inside Port Royal, swarmed over by armorers hammering the vessels back into shape. The Admiral knew the reaction in Washington would be severe, coming as it must on the heels of such great expectations, but he also knew he had the support of his monitor captains, who stood, as one of them said, “like a wall of iron” around his reputation, agreeing with the chief of staff’s opinion that “Admiral Du Pont never showed greater courage or patriotism than when he saved his ships and men, and sacrificed himself to the clamor and disappointment evoked by his defeat.”

In point of fact, however, part of the expressed disappointment, if not the clamor, occurred within the fleet itself. A chief engineer was clapped in arrest for complaining in his ship’s mess that the attack had not been pressed to the victory point, and at least one junior officer remarked wryly that “the grim sort of soul like Farragut was lacking.” Welles and Fox were reluctant to bring the matter out into the open with the publication of the adverse battle reports. After all, it was they—especially Fox—who had announced that the monitors were irresistible, and contracts already had been signed for the delivery of eighteen more of the expensive naval monsters. Two weeks after the repulse, Welles was attempting to shrug it off by telling his diary: “I am by no means confident that we are acting wisely in expending so much strength and effort on Charleston, a place of no strategic importance.”

The grapes had soured for him; but not for Beauregard. The Louisiana general’s only regrets were that the boiler-torpedo had not gone off and that the Yankees had slunk away without a renewal of the assault. In a congratulatory order to his troops, his enthusiasm knew no bounds; he spoke of “the stranded, riddled wreck” of the Keokuk , whose big guns now were part of the harbor defenses, and of the ignominious flight of “her baffled co-adjutors,” whose repulse had rein spired world-wide confidence in the ultimate and glorious triumph of the Confederate cause. In his official report to Richmond, though—for he confided to a friend that, from now on, he was adopting a more restrained style in his dispatches, in order to counteract a rumor that he was prone to exaggerate his accomplishments—the little Creole, with his bloodhound eyes and his hair brushed forward in lovelocks at the temples, contented himself for the most part with factual observations. “It may be accepted, as shown,” he wrote, “that these vaunted monitor batteries, though formidable engines of war, after all are not invulnerable or invincible, and may be destroyed or defeated by heavy ordnance, properly placed and skillfully handled.”