Published 1883, 1885




Condition of the Navy at the Beginning of the War.


Political events of great gravity occurring in Kansas, which grew out of the repeal of the “Missouri Compromise," and later, the “John Brown raid" at Harper's Ferry in October, 1860, had familiarized the people of the United States with sectional hostility and bloodshed. The centers of direction of aggressive action were in the South, and of defense against them in the North. South Carolina had vauntingly sent her uniformed company "to defend her rights" far away from her own soil, and the North had sent arms and men to resist force by force.

The violent unquiet element of the South had fully de­termined that the election of Mr. Lincoln to the Presidency was in itself a cause of war, and it had so organized and armed its forces as to bear down any reasonable consideration of the differences between the two sections; nay, more, it had, aided by the demagogues of that section, constrained the men of thought and of character to accept the action of these men as embodying their own ideas. In coming centu­ries the remarkable address of Alexander H. Stephens at Milledgeville, Ga., on the 14th of November, 1860, will be read as a clear exposition of the actual political differences that were magnified by demagogues into what were urged as monstrous wrongs, and abuses that war only could terminate.

After the election of Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Buchanan, in his last message to Congress, favored, as far as he could, the attempted separation of the States, by denying "the right of coercion" to the general Government. During the re­mainder of his administration the heads of the Departments generally so disposed the officers, war material, and the naval vessels in commission, as to best serve the Confederates when hostilities became an actuality.

The unhappy days rolled on, and at length Mr. Lincoln was inaugurated. State after State passed acts of secession, and others that were actually prepared to follow, cried "no coercion" or "neutrality" as the price of remaining in the Union.

At Cummings Point, the nearest land to Fort Sumter at the entrance to Charleston harbor, a battery had been erected during February and March, for the avowed purpose of reducing that work. When the attack was made, or rather after Fort Sumter had fallen, on the 13th of April, 1861, the President called on the different States to furnish 75,000 men for a period of three months. This was met by scorn and derision in all the bordering slave States, and Virginia at once passed her act of secession. Then it was, that the mask that had not concealed, and yet had been re­spected by the general Government, was thrown off by the conspirators. A prominent Navy officer then on duty at Washington said to those under him, even before this event, The Government is virtually dissolved; there is the semblance of one, nothing more. Disorder reigns everywhere, except in the South, where a stable Government is already established, which will ere long receive acquisitions of membership in the States to which you belong. Mr. Lincoln will hardly attempt coercion, it would be unconstitu­tional. Would you meanly serve another people when your States have gone, even though no war grows out of the separation, or would you be base enough, for your selfish ends to do so, were there a war against the people from whom you have sprung, to whom you are allied, and whom you can now serve so well? "

For days and even weeks the Government at Washington gave no sign nor token, and when at last it did, insidious spe­ciousness of presentation had done sad work. Many able and unselfish officers, without a thought of treason, or without desire to do wrong or to do violence to the Government, found themselves, rather unwittingly than venally, in the toils of the enemy. These conditions prevailed at Washing­ton and Southward, both in the army and the navy. Those officers who were deemed most likely to be influenced to suit the ends of the conspirators, had been placed, as said before, within favoring districts.


On the 4th of March, 1861, Isaac Toucey of Connecticut, who had been Secretary of the Navy for the four previous years, was succeeded by Gideon Welles, of the same State. He remained in that position for the eight years following. At that date the chiefs of Bureaus were as follows: Of Yards and Docks, Captain Joseph Smith; of Construction, John Lenthal; of, Provisions and Clothing, Horatio Bridge, of Ordnance and Hydrography, Captain George W. Magruder; of Medicine, Surgeon William Whelan. These officers had been incumbents for years, and remained throughout the Civil War, with the exception of Captain Magruder, a Virginian, who remained in office, loyally serving the pur­poses of the inchoate Confederacy, until the seizure of the Norfolk Navy Yard, when he tendered his resignation, and was dismissed by the President as a recognition of unfaithful service.

Within a few days after the attack on Fort Sumter, of the 78 captains on the active list, 12 resigned or were dismissed; of 114 commanders, 39; of 321 lieutenants, 73.[1]

The Confederates had been organizing their forces for months, and menaced Washington, Fortress. Monroe, and Norfolk Navy Yard. It was absolutely a matter of doubt under the actual circumstances whether they might not ac­complish the possession of all of these places. It was of the utmost importance to the inchoate Confederacy to get pos­session of the Norfolk Navy Yard and secure the large amount of ordnance stored there and to establish a good line of defense.

Nothing could more effectually serve their purpose than the pretended loyalty of the officers remaining attached to the Navy Yard who effectively cajoled the Commandant, who was old and feeble, and actually distracted by reason of the turmoil. At the final moment he was left alone, without one officer, and with but 40 marines attached to the Yard to sup­port his authority.

The attack on Fort Sumter and its surrender affected the people of the North and of the South quite differently; while those who captured the fort boasted that they had "finished the war," the people of the North awoke to a painful realiza­tion of the fact that a war existed that must be fought to the end, and they girded up their loins as best they could; but he North was long in attaining that intensity of purpose that is so potent when untrained bodies of troops meet in conflict. Fort Sumter was regarded in the public mind, North and South, as the citadel of the fortress, the incarnation of rebellion, and as such it was attacked and defended.

Failing in the fleet attack, with grim satisfaction, after a time the men of the North saw its walls crumble and fall from the fire of guns four thousand yards away, until from their point of view, it had no longer shape nor semblance of a fort, nor was a single piece of ordnance permitted to stand upon what had once been its walls; but the satisfaction of the North was not complete until, in the most formal manner, the flag that had been hauled down, four years to the day and hour from that event, again floated over the mass of ruins known as Fort Sumter.

In the confusion at the North, growing out of numerous resignations hastily sent in, abandonment of duty on the part of others, and in some cases of treachery, it is not to be wondered that the Norfolk Navy Yard fell into the hands of the Confederates, with its three thousand cannon, its fine dry dock, numerous well-appointed workshops, material, and small arms. It is not too much to say now, that it should have been held at any cost of life, long enough at least to have destroyed the cannon, workshops, and ships.

There is an extenuating fact that may be stated as a partial justification of officers who were recreant. For half a century perhaps, there had existed a kind of culture of fealty to a State, instead of to the Government which they served; it was paraded as a dogma, and was in a degree acknowledged by some officers from the South in the military service of the Government, more than half of whom, prior to the Civil War, either came from the slave States or had married within them. Able and educated men, acknowledging this "doctrine," thought they had only to resign to hopelessly em­barrass the Government. There was certainly for a time great confusion, and in the case of the Norfolk Yard, great loss. The difficulties are very properly stated in the Report of the Secretary of the Navy, before referred to. "With so few vessels in commission on our coast, and our crews in distant seas, the Department was very indifferently pre­pared to meet the exigency that was rising. Every moment was closely watched by the disaffected, and threatened to precipitate measures that the country seemed anxious to avoid. Demoralization prevailed among the officers, many of whom, occupying the most responsible positions, betrayed symptoms of that infidelity that has dishonored the service."

Turning to the vessels of the navy in commission, we find that they had been placed as far as possible in positions to render them least available. On the 4th of March the home squadron consisted of twelve vessels, and of these only four were in Northern ports; two of these were small steamers, a third a sailing store-ship. The fourth had only a month be­fore entered a Northern port; the commander, a South Caro­linian, had loitered off the coast apparently undecided. After reaching port he remarked to an officer of the vessel that he had hesitated whether to obey his orders or go to Charleston, and was quite thunderstruck when told that his hesitation had been observed and he would have been put in irons had he made the attempt. Several of the vessels in Southern ports or at Vera Cruz were commanded by Southern officers, who it was supposed would deliver their vessels into the hands of the Confederates, but principle or policy was sufficient to spare such an attempted national disgrace.

The sailing frigate Sabine, 50 guns, the sailing sloop St. Louis, 20, and the steamers Brooklyn, 25, and Wyandotte, 5, were at Pensacola; and the sailing vessels Macedonian, 24, Cumberland, 24, and the steamers Pocahontas, 5, and Powhatan, 11, were returning from Vera Cruz.

On the coast of Africa were the sailing sloops Constellation and Portsmouth, 22 guns each, the store-ship Relief, 2 guns, and the steamers Mohican, 6, Mystic, 5, Sumter, 5, and San Jacinto, 13. The steam frigate Niagara, 20, was returning from Japan, and arrived at Boston April 20th.

No one versed in naval matters can read the above disposi­tion of force without feeling indignant at the fact that it was so placed solely to favor the conspirators. Those on the coast of Africa were out of the way of the receipt of orders, as is apparent from the fact that they were issued as soon as possible after the 4th of March, and it was not until the 15th of September that the first of these vessels reached the coast of the United States.

To the vessels in the Mediterranean the mails were more accessible; the last of the three steam vessels there reached home July 3, 1861. The Richmond, 16, Susquehanna, 15, and Iroquois, 6 guns, were then available. The sailing frigate Congress, 50 guns, and the steamer Seminole came from the coast of Brazil, the last-named arriving home August 12th. From the East Indies, on December 30, 1861, the steamers Hartford, 16, Dacotah, 6, and sail sloop John Adams were en route. The steamers Pensacola, 19, fitting out at Washing­ton, and Mississippi, 11 guns, at Boston, should be added as available. There were some old sailing vessels that might have been put in commission, but those in service were found of so little use that they were laid aside as steam vessels could be obtained. In rather indifferent condition in the Northern navy yards were the steam frigates Wabash, Minnesota, Colorado, and Roanoke, of 40 guns each. These last-named at as early a date as possible were put in commis­sion and sent as a supporting force to vessels blockading from Cape Hatteras to the Rio Grande, the far-off boundary with Mexico. To maintain even the appearance of a block­ade over the harbors, sounds, and numberless inlets required the purchase of every vessel under the flag that had possi­bilities of usefulness.

At New York and Boston Navy Yards there were dry docks, and at each several ways for building ships, and at Portsmouth, N. H., and Philadelphia more limited facilities for construction. To supply the needs and waste of war required the employment of every shipbuilding yard in the land. The personnel of the "old navy," as it was called, depleted as above described, was quite insufficient to meet the exigen­cies of the Civil War; instead of 5,000 men afloat, as before that event, no less than 50,000 were required. To officer these men, intelligent officers and seamen from the merchant service were sought, who, after passing examinations to es­tablish their professional fitness, were given acting appoint­ments in various grades. It is proper to add that as a whole they fairly fulfilled reasonable expectations, and after the war was over and passing other examinations, more than fifty of these volunteer officers, many of whom would do honor to any navy, entered the regular service under provisions of law.

Just previous to the Civil War our naval vessels were as well supplied with smooth-bore shell guns and with boat howit­zers as any service afloat; this was effected with considerable difficulty by the late Rear-Admiral Dahlgren when in an in­ferior grade. The special value of rifled ordnance under, certain conditions had not yet been properly established, and there were but few pieces afloat, but they soon formed a part of the battery of every vessel.

In pages that follow, the inferiority for service of vessels "improvised" for war purposes will become painfully apparent. The machinery of steamers built for commercial pur­poses is far more exposed than of vessels designed to carry guns; the question of war is simply one of relative strength and preparation of the combatants; in that respect the Na­tional vessels in commission, as a whole, were immensely superior to those of the Confederates, or any that could be built and fitted for service within the limits of the Confederacy. The difference between a very vulnerable naval force and another still more so, was not only regarded with gratulation, but in sheer ignorance and vanity was magnified and expressed in the grandiloquent phrase that " the United States had the strongest navy in the world," when nine­-tenths of the vessels bearing guns under the National flag would have been quite powerless to meet vessels of war of the same tonnage of any civilized nation. Toward the close of the war we had several double-turreted vessels of an improved Monitor type that were in their day by all odds the strongest vessels then afloat, yet at the present time they would be but "paper ships" under the fire of many vessels of nearly all of the navies of the world.

It is so pleasant to deceive ourselves, that now, when our flag waves over a wide and broad land, with its fifty-two millions of inhabitants, some of our legislators insist that “no nation would dare attack us." Others speak of “appropriating liberally for the building up of a navy" and then gravely propose the munificent sum of $1,300,000 for the cruising navy and half that sum, more or less, to complete an improved Monitor. To the naval mind, or to the person who looks at forces relatively, there is something painfully ludicrous in such propositions. The men “who fought out the war" are rapidly passing away; their rude experiences, on both sides, now happily capable of serving a common and National purpose, will soon be wholly of the past. Then, in. wars that we invite, from a lack of preparation in what plight will we be on land or on the seas? To the old officer, whether of the land service or that of the sea, these are painful reflections; so far as he is individually concerned, for usefulness he has almost passed away; his experiences have taught him what a lack of practical experience and a want of preparation costs a nation in a struggle with another whose military and naval establishments are constant and trained to their duties.

Recognizing the necessity of professional education in the extremity of war, in May, 1861, the Secretary of the Navy applied for an assistant, and Gustavus V. Fox was appointed Assistant Secretary. He entered the naval service as mid­shipman in 1838, passed through the professional instruction existent, and the intervening grades, to that of lieutenant, and resigned in 1856 to engage in civil pursuits.

Abroad we had enemies who desired our downfall and aided it as far as could be done without openly declaring their hostility; so far as a lack of friendship was concerned, it applied quite as much to the South as to the North; nothing but probable complications nearer home, growing out of hostile interference, as well as the shame of attacking us without reasonable pretext, prevented "armed intervention," as it would have been called.

At home we had what were known as "sympathizers," spies, and even traitors in the civil services, who obtained the most accurate information of intended movements and gave it to the enemy. Certainly the skies were dark for years, yet through all the difficulties and shortcomings the nation supported its existence with fearful cost of life and treasure.

Beyond the Capes of Virginia and to Cape Florida, in re­lation to which this volume treats, a blockade, first of form and later of fact, was being established, but so far as hostile guns of opposing forces were concerned within this region they opened first at Hatteras Inlet, more than four months after the war had taken definite shape. The capture of Hat­teras Inlet seemed at first of little import to the military mind, but it grew in its proportions, and as will be seen by the following chapters, was no mean event, more important, too, from successive developments, for which it was the gateway.

From the time of the fall of Sumter vessels were prepared and dispatched to blockade Charleston, and opera­tions of this nature were extended as the means at hand permitted; it maybe readily supposed, however, that until the capture of Port Royal, at least, it was rather nominal than real. If vessels were captured, even in entering the principal ports, it was due rather to the stupidity of the persons attempting to run the blockade than to the effectiveness of the force employed to prevent it. Should a vessel of ordinary or light draught be desired to reach Charleston, she could be taken into Stono, or North Edisto Inlets, or into any of the channels of St. Helena, or into Port Royal Harbor, and from thence in a few hours find her way into Charleston; and if desired to reach Savannah, and fearing to approach Tybee Bar, she could enter either Warsaw or Ossabaw Sound, and find her way to her destination without dif­ficulty. To prevent all this, and eventually, effectively as far as possible, and for securing a military base of operations it was essential that a good port on the Southern coast should be seized and held, and for that purpose not one was more desirable in every point of view than Port Royal. As the Confederates had few vessels of war, and none when military operations began, the blockade of the coast, and effec­tive aid to the army in the capture of forts, was naturally regarded as the limit of usefulness of the navy, and when, at Port Royal, the guns of the navy alone secured the fall of the forts; then the army had to occupy and secure them against the attacks of the enemy, and naval guns then became subsidiary or auxiliary, within their power of action, to army operations, as well to strengthen military lines as to extend them as far as deemed practicable, to embarrass and hold in check as large a land force of the enemy as possible.


[1]After the 4th of March, 259 officers of the navy resigned their commissions or have been dismissed the service (Report Secretary Navy, July 4, 1861). Many others, belonging to States that had already seceded, had previously resigned

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