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[432]

Chapter 36: operations of the South Atlantic Squadron under Rear-Admiral Dahlgren, 1863.--operations in Charleston harbor, etc.


Rear-Admiral Dahlgren succeeded Rear-Admiral DuPont, at Port Royal, on July 4th, 1863, the latter having been relieved at his own request, owing to a difference of opinion between himself and the Secretary of the Navy in regard to the operations before Charleston and the attempt to take the Confederate works with the Monitors.

Dahlgren had a difficult task before him. In the first place, he had relieved an officer who maintained as high a prestige as any in the Navy, at home and abroad, for skill and bravery. The attack upon and capture of Port Royal had given DuPont a foreign reputation in addition to that he bore at home, and European officers of distinguished merit did not hesitate to say that the battle of Port Royal was one of the best exhibitions of naval tactical skill that had been seen for years. Compare it, even now, with the late English attack in Egypt, with their heavy iron-clads and monstrous guns, and note the rapidity with which DuPont's squadron captured the works at Hilton Head, etc., in comparison with the long-drawn-out battle at Alexandria against forts only a trifle superior to those at Port Royal. and the palm will be given to the American squadron as an exhibition of skill. That affair did a great deal to impress foreign Governments with the power of our guns, and the indomitable energy of our officers and seamen; and though Great Britain, about that time, or shortly after, did threaten us in a manner that was anything but agreeable to the American people, yet that Government would have entered upon the fulfillment of their threats with misgivings — the growth of former disappointments in the War of 1812. Aside from his recently acquired renown, there was no officer in the United States Navy better [433] known abroad than Rear-Admiral DuPont. Many years of his life had been passed in the Mediterranean Squadron, where he traveled and made many European friends. He had commanded one of our best squadrons in China and Japan, and his bland manners, high standing as an officer, general knowledge on all subjects, in and out of his profession, made him an authority to whom foreign officers deferred. He was as well posted in all naval matters as any officer at home or abroad, and his opinions, which did not in 1863 run in accord with those of the Navy Department, were adopted by his friends and acquaintances in every quarter. DuPont had said that the forts in Charleston harbor could not be taken by the force with which he had attacked them, and his opinion was accepted as that of an expert who had tried the matter to satisfy the Navy Department, and had failed, and who considered that to attempt it again, under the same circumstances, with the same force, would only entail a loss of men and material, if not a loss of naval prestige. The victory at Port Royal had settled the question of the future usefulness of Charleston and Savannah to the Confederates, for it offered the means, if we had properly used them, of sealing up those two harbors as effectually as if we had actual possession of them, which we now know fully. The capture of Port Royal included in its direct consequences all that was essential to the occupation of adjacent places — as far as their value to the Confederate cause was concerned, they could be rendered useless if the proper steps were taken, without leading to a loss of vessels and men, a sacrifice not at all called for by the circumstances of the case.

Rear-Admiral John A. Dahlgren.

Therefore, when Rear-Admiral Dahlgren entered upon his command, it must have been with the consciousness that he had a difficult task before him, and that he could scarcely hope to succeed with the force that had been so unmercifully tried by DuPont.

Dahlgren had no sooner taken command than he received a letter from Brigadier-General Gillmore, informing him that he (Gillmore) was about to commence military operations against Morris Island, and looked for naval co-operation.

This should have been the first step taken at Charleston on the arrival of the Monitors, and the operations carried on should have been by an able and hearty co-operation of the Army and Navy, with well-digested plans drawn up, and an exact knowledge of the difficulties to be encountered and overcome. The capture of Charleston necessitated a somewhat long and patient siege by naval and military forces, as was the case during the war with places superior in strength to Charleston. In such cases, the Confederates had to succumb, owing to the greater resources of the Federal Government; for the well-known advantage besiegers in force have over a beleaguered place is that the latter must eventually fall under the accumulated power that is concentrated against it.

Rear-Admiral Dahlgren must have congratulated himself when he saw that the Army was at once coming to his aid, and that he would not be obliged to repeat the attack made by DuPont upon the uninjured forts in Charleston harbor, with the same Monitors that had failed so badly, and left one of their number resting on the bottom.

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