The Magazine

The Civil War at Sea

How the Navy came of age in the War Between the States.

Dec 3, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 12 • By JOSEPH F. CALLO
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This buildup of what was by 1865 the world’s largest navy was an extraordinary achievement, for which Gideon Welles deserves much of the credit. An excellent administrator who put in long hours at his desk, Welles endured recriminations by merchants whose ships and cargoes fell victims to the [Confederate commerce raider] Alabama or other raiders and indictments by the press for the escape of runners through the blockade. Welles eschewed public responses to these accusations, confining his comments to his diary and retaining the full confidence of President Lincoln.

Interestingly, this description of Welles puts one in mind of William Jones, secretary of the Navy during the War of 1812. Jones served in that job from January 1813 to December 1814 and, as was the case with Welles, his administrative skills were an essential part of the Navy’s successes during wartime. Neither man was charismatic or a great strategic thinker; both were, however, exceptional managers, and they brought what turned out to be essential skills to their job. In the process, they also helped shape the job description for naval secretaries to come.

As an extension of his attention to the principal players of the war, McPherson weaves such details as political infighting within the Union Navy into his work. At one point, for example, he describes the internal disputes surrounding the ineffective leadership of Rear Admiral Samuel Francis Du Pont while that officer led attacks against Charleston. Following extended infighting, Du Pont was eventually replaced by Rear Admiral Andrew H. Foote, who early in the war had led a successful gunboat attack against Fort Henry on the Tennessee River.

As part of his emphasis on persons and personalities, McPherson also includes instances of Army-Navy discord, which was a constant in the conflict. A noteworthy example involved the Union’s attempts to take Charleston in July 1863. At the time, Rear Admiral John Dahlgren was the newly appointed commander of the Union’s South Atlantic Squadron. Dahlgren immediately began planning a joint Army-Navy operation against Charleston with Major General Quincy Gillmore, and their cooperation was initially exemplary.

The first phase of the Charleston operation involved landing troops at the south end of Morris Island and then moving north against two artillery fortifications, Battery Wagner and Battery Gregg, both of which overlooked the outer Charleston Harbor entrance. The Army troops were supported by fire from the guns of four Navy ironclads, and when the initial assault against the two batteries was repulsed, the attack evolved into a siege. After weeks of hammering by Dahlgren’s naval gunfire, the defenders eventually evacuated the batteries and the positions were taken by General Gillmore’s troops. It was a significant Army-Navy operation that, for all practical purposes, closed the port of Charleston. It was also an example of how a joint Army-Navy operation could (and should) be run, while co-incidentally demonstrating the effective use of naval gunfire support for an Army ground operation.

The logical next phase at Charleston was an attack on Fort Sumter, and that turned out to be a different story. Independently, Dahlgren and Gillmore planned amphibious assaults against the fort on the night of September 8. When each learned of the other’s plan just hours before the attacks were to begin, there was a serious lack of the cooperation that had marked the Morris Island operation. 

The argument was based on whether the assault would be led by the Army or Navy. The dispute was not resolved, and the Navy attacked first with a combination of sailors and Marines; it was repulsed. Observing the Navy’s failed effort, Gillmore called off the Army assault. There were no further major attempts to capture Charleston, and as it turned out, none was necessary. The port had been effectively closed to blockade runners by the previous Army-Navy actions. As McPherson puts it, “the capture of the city would be merely symbolic and not worth the cost.”

Following the Union Navy’s successes at the Battle of Mobile Bay—known for Admiral Farragut’s order from his flagship USS Hartford, “Damn the torpedoes [the term used at that time for mines]. Full speed ahead!”—the naval component of the Civil War drifted to an end. The Union Navy’s work was, overall, well done: Despite the fact that more than 90 percent of the Confederate blockade runners’ efforts were successful, the Union Navy had maintained a blockade of the Confederacy that was effective enough to cripple the South’s war effort. The war on the Mississippi and other rivers was also an overall success for the Union Navy, which became the enabler afloat for the Union Army.