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[75]

Chapter 8: capture of Fernandina and the coast South of Georgia.


As soon as Flag-officer Dupont could find the time, he sent the smaller gunboats in different directions to reconnoitre the enemy's positions up the river and along the coast. The larger vessels were sent to perform blockade duty, which at that moment, owing to the paucity of vessels, was very arduous.

Commander John Rodgers was sent with the Seneca and Paulina to examine the enemy's defences on Tybee Island, in the Savannah River, and ascertained that all the works in that quarter had been abandoned, except those at Stono Inlet.

Commander Drayton, in the Pawnee, accompanied by one or two gunboats, entered St. Helena Sound and found on the point of Otter island some heavy fortifications; but the magazine had been blown up and the armament removed.

At the same time Commander C. R. P. Rodgers made a reconnoissance of Warsaw Sound, and found the fort on Warsaw Island dismantled and the magazine destroyed. An examination of Wilmington River showed heavy works still occupied by the enemy. On the Ogeechee and Vernon rivers heavy earth-works were being erected by the Confederates.

Commander Drayton crossed the North Edisto Bar, and found an abandoned earthwork, intended to mount ten guns. In fact, there had been a stampede all along the coast, which indicated the moral effect of Dupont's victory on the Southern people. Had a suitable body of troops been landed on the coast at the time, Charleston and Savannah would have fallen into our possession, and have been held throughout the war, to the great detriment of the Confederates, who depended on these ports as bases of supplies. The government, however, failed at that period to take in the situation, and our statesmen were quite paralyzed with the difficulties which threatened the Union cause. The superannuated army officers, called by the administration to its councils, were altogether unequal to the emergency, and they led the government into many difficulties.

When General W. T. Sherman declared that an army of two hundred thousand men was required to put down the rebellion, he [76] was thought to be crazy; but the President's advisers discovered, ere the war had lasted a year, that Sherman had in no way exaggerated the difficulties of the situation.

Whatever may have been the reason of the failure to send a larger army to occupy the Southern coast as soon as the necessary gunboats could be improvised to penetrate the inlets of that region, it is certain the movement was not made until too late, and the principal theatre of war had been transferred to other points, around which the contending forces gathered, leaving the coast to be taken care of by the Navy; a duty which, we think it will be admitted, the Navy performed with great credit to themselves and to the satisfaction of the country.

From the first the Navy had to contend with the indisposition of the War Department to co-operate with it in getting up combined expeditions against the enemy. Until the battle of Cape Hatteras and Port Royal occurred, it was not supposed that the Navy would take such a prominent part in the war. It was supposed our gunboats would be barred out of the Southern ports, which the large ships could not enter, owing to their great draft of water; and, apparently, no one considered the great advance which the Navy had made in ordnance, having at that time the most powerful shells and shell guns that had ever been known. These guns, as they were used at Port Royal, gave an example of the manner in which our heavily-armed gunboats could deal with earth-works; for it was here proven that the defenders of a fortification would all be killed if they attempted to stand to their guns in the face of such a fire as could be poured into them from naval vessels.

It was conclusively shown that our wooden steamers, armed with nine and eleven-inch Dahlgren guns, could engage the most formidable batteries on shore, with a good prospect of success.

In those days gunboats were improvised by the hundred, and if the government had been so minded, all the smaller earth-works along the Southern coast could have been easily made to yield to the Dahlgren guns.

One result of the victory at Port Royal was our obtaining possession of the famous “sea islands,” which, through slave labor, had so enriched their proprietors; and it was upon these planters that the greatest injury was inflicted, as our gunboats penetrated the network of inlets along the coast, and the rich cotton harvests lay at their mercy.

The slaves took advantage of the panic, and fled with their families to seek the protection of the Union flag. A large number of them congregated at Hilton Head, and about a thousand picked up by the vessels of war were located on the southeast end of Edisto Island, where a gunboat was stationed for their maintenance and protection. Most of these negroes were given employment and served the Union during the remainder of the war. Others found homes on the “sea islands,” within Union protection, where they raised corn and sweet potatoes sufficient to satisfy their simple needs; and if they sometimes suffered from the want of clothing, food and shelter, yet they exhibited a striking example of how dear is liberty to man in whatever position of life, and how much he will undergo to secure it.

The officers of the Navy may be said to have first erected the Freedman's Bureau, and given an asylum to those poor creatures who, with all their ignorance, had still sufficient manhood to appreciate the boon of freedom, which perhaps some of them had once enjoyed on the wild shores of their native Africa.

While the Navy had been busy in penetrating the numerous inlets of the vicinity, General T. W. Sherman had constructed large and strong entrenchments on Hilton Head, outside of Fort Walker. The Army had also occupied Beaufort, a pleasant village near Port Royal, where many wealthy land-holders resided during the hot season. Posts were also established on Tybee and other islands.

The enemy gradually recovered from the panic which had seized them at the battle of Port Royal, and seemed disposed to commence offensive operations against our forces, and re-occupy the works they had so precipitately abandoned. Upon this an expedition was fitted out under General Stevens and Commander C. R. P. Rodgers, which resulted in the abandonment of any attempt of the enemy to plant batteries within range of the gunboats, whose farreaching shells committed some havoc among them on this occasion; nor did they ever attempt to obtain a lodgment on Port Royal Island, which remained in possession of the government during the war.

A reconnoissance up the Tybee River was made by Captain C. H. Davis and Commander C. R. P. Rodgers with the Ottawa, Seneca, Ellen, Western World, and the armed launches of the Wabash, accompanied by three transports, having on board 2,400 troops, commanded by Brigadier General H. G. Wright. The expedition crossed the bar, and reached a point nearest Fort Pulaski on its land side. No shots were fired at the vessels, as the enemy had no rifle guns mounted in that quarter, so that the expedition was enabled to accomplish its object without difficulty, and return unmolested.

Several similar expeditions were sent out under Commander John Rodgers and others, [77] which served to keep the enemy in a continual state of uneasiness and made our officers acquainted with all the surrounding land and water.

Having done all that was necessary in the vicinity of Port Royal, Flag Officer Dupont turned his attention towards Fernandina in Florida, twenty-five miles north of the St. John's River. On the second of March, 1862, the Wabash, and what other vessels could be spared from blockading duty, anchored off St. Andrew's Island, twenty miles north of the entrance to Fernandina.

Hoisting his flag temporarily on board the Mohican, Commander S. W. Godon, Dupont's squadron entered Fernandina in the following order: Ottawa, Mohican, Ellen, Seminole, Pawnee, Pocahontas, James Adger, Bienville, Alabama, Keystone State, Seneca, Huron, Paulina, Isaac Smith, Penguin, Potomska, armed cutter; McClellan, armed transport, with a battalion of marines under Major Reynolds, and six transports containing a brigade under command of Brigadier General Wright.

The vessels anchored at 10:30 A. M. on the second of March, to examine the channel and wait for the tide. Here the Flagofficer learned from residents of Cumberland Island, that the Confederates had hastily abandoned the defences of Fernandina, and were at that moment in full retreat, carrying with them such of their munitions of war as their precipitate flight would allow.

Such was the moral effect of the Port Royal victory, that there seemed to be a stampede all along the coast as soon as our naval vessels made their appearance.

The object of taking the vessels through Cumberland Sound was to turn the heavy works on Cumberland and Amelia Islands; but on receiving intelligence that the enemy had abandoned their works, Dupont detached the light gun-boats and light draft steamers from the main line under Commander Drayton, and ordered that officer to push through the Sound with the utmost dispatch to try and save the public and private property from destruction, and to prevent those outrages, by the perpetration of which the leaders of the rebellion hoped to exasperate their deluded followers.

While this expedition was on its way through the narrow inlets, Flag-officer Dupont proceeded by sea to the main entrance of the harbor.

On entering Fernandina Harbor, Commander Drayton sent an officer to hoist a white flag on Fort Clinch, the first of the national forts on which the ensign of the Union had resumed its proper place since the first proclamation of President Lincoln was issued.

A few scattering musket shots were fired by the enemy and that was all the defence made by them. A railway train left the town as the gun-boat arrived. Commander Drayton in the Ottawa gave chase to it along the river and fired several shells at the locomotive, it is said, with some damage to the train.

Commander C. R. P. Rodgers pushed ahead with the steam launches and captured the steamer Darlington containing military stores, and fortunately secured and held the draw-bridge of the railroad.

The same night Commander C. R. P. Rodgers ascended the St. Mary's River in the Ottawa, and driving away the enemy's pickets, took possession of the town of St. Mary's, while a force of seamen and marines, under Lieut. Miller, was sent to hold Fort Clinch.

The whole number of guns captured amounted to thirteen, among them one eighty-pounder and one one-hundred-and-twenty pounder rifle.

Fort Clinch and the earthworks thrown up by the enemy were found to be in condition for a most vigorous defence, and it is surprising that after making such formidable preparations, the Confederates should have left without attempting any resistance.

All the batteries were as perfect as art could make them--six of them were protected by sand hills, and were so covered by the growth of the country and so isolated from each other that striking them from the sea would have been almost a matter of chance.

These earthworks and the heavy guns of Fort Clinch commanded the main ship channel so as to rake an approaching foe. Besides these was a battery of four guns on the south end of Cumberland Island, the fire of which crossed the channel inside the bar. The crookedness of the channel and shoalness of the bar gave the Confederates a great advantage, for even after vessels had passed the outer defences they would have to encounter a well-constructed masked battery at the town, which commanded the anchorage.

General Lee had pronounced Fernandina perfectly defensible against a naval attack, but he did not appreciate the brave spirits that manned our ships or the power of 11-inch guns.

It was fortunate for the Union cause that Fort Clinch and its outlying batteries fell into our hands without resistance, as the Confederates might have made it warm work for the Navy; though the latter would doubtless have prevailed in the end, owing to good discipline and accurate gunnery. [78]

Thus, Flag Officer Dupont accomplished an important part of the plan he orginally proposed, viz.: to take and hold the whole line of the sea coast of Georgia, believing that the power controlling the sea coast controls the State, a proof of which was that the heavy works at St. Simms, armed with Columbiads, had been abandoned on hearing the news from Fort Royal, and on the approach of the fleet.

Thus was virtually placed in the hands of the government the fine harbor of Brunswick, the harbor and inlets of Fernandina, the town and river of St. Mary's, and the coast and inland waters from St. Simons northward. All these places, if left undisturbed, would have afforded a fine refuge for blockade runners, which must have supplied the Confederacy with any quantity of munitions of war, and much prolonged the conflict.

From what we have narrated it will be seen that while the North was not always successful in military operations, the Navy was doing good service by drawing tighter the coil around the Confederacy and depriving them of the means of carrying on the war. Even during the short time which had elapsed since our Navy had been placed upon a respectable footing, it held all the important approaches to the Southern States, from Cape Hatteras to Florida, with the exception of Charleston, Savannah and Wilmington, which places we were not yet quite in condition to assail, and which, for the want of a sufficient Navy on the part of the North at the commencement of the war, remained in possession of the enemy till nearly the close of hostilities.

Every effort was made by the Navy to capture these places, and much gallantry was displayed, which, though often without result, still showed the indomitable spirit of the service while contending against odds greater than they were able to overcome. History has not done justice to the hard work performed at Charleston, and slurs have been cast on gallant officers who deserved all the commendation a grateful country could bestow.

The Army remained in charge of the fortifications at Fernandina, and Flag Officer Dupont proceeded in the Wabash, accompanied by several gun-boats, and on the evening of March 8 anchored off St. Augustine, where the town and fort were quietly surrendered to the Union forces; Dupont assuring the inhabitants of kind treatment as long as they respected the government authority and acted in good faith, and that municipal authority would be left in the hands of the citizens.

Thus Dupont not only displayed the gallantry and energy of an able commander, but also the tact which he possessed in an eminent degree; for while he was determined to restore to the government the property which belonged to it, he felt it due to the deluded people to undeceive them, by kind treatment, of the numerous misrepresentations of the Southern leaders in relation to the designs of the Federal authorities.

The places that had so far been captured could be easily held by a few gun-boats; and although the Confederate Government realized the importance of attempting to recover what they had lost, they finally gave up the idea of holding these harbors and inlets and confined their operations to the interior, where the Navy could not follow them.

The harbor of St. John's was next visited by Dupont and the government authority established. The inhabitants were assured protection while they abstained from acts of hostility, and they more readily accepted these assurances as at night the whole heavens were illuminated by the burning saw mills, set on fire by the retreating enemy, in order to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Navy, forgetting that Dupont had promised at Fernandina to respect private property.

There were many interesting incidents connected with this naval campaign which the limits of this work will not allow us to narrate. Suffice it to say, Dupont's labors were entirely successful and quite up to the expectations of the Navy Department--not always profuse in praise of its officers.

Leaving a sufficient force of gun-boats to guard the harbors and inlets, Dupont returned to Port Royal in the Wabash.

Dupont found that during his absence from Port Royal, the Army had planted batteries of rifled guns and Columbiads on Tybee Island for the purpose of reducing Fort Pulaski: but as this was purely a military operation, the Flag Officer did not claim to interfere, although General Hunter permitted the Navy to take part in the bombardment, allowing a detachment of officers and seamen from the Wabash to serve one of the breaching batteries.

The detachment under Commander C. R. P. Rodgers reached Tybee Island on the 10th of April, just before the firing commenced, but too late to take part in it that day.

On the following morning the firing continued with excellent effect, the rifled shots boring through the brick work, while the shots from the Columbiads broke off great masses of masonry from the walls.

Four rifled guns in battery, about 1,600 yards distant from the fort, had been assigned to the detachment from the Wabash, and no doubt the most skillful gunners in the ship were assigned to the management of the guns. [79]

The Union batteries kept up a steady fire until the Confederate flag was hauled down.

Before the fort surrendered many of the barbette guns were dismounted and the fort breached in two places, so as to be quite practicable for a storming party. The garrison were convinced that it was useless to contend against the Federal batteries, as the rifled shots passed through the walls and threatened to destroy the magazine.

When General Totten, the chief of Engineers, built Fort Pulaski, it was deemed impregnable to the assault of a naval force armed with the heaviest guns then in use, 32-pounders, and he would have been astonished if he had been told that in a few years a rifled projectile would be invented that would bore through his walls and crumble them to pieces.

The guns used by the naval detachment were three 30-pounder Parrots and one 24-pounder James. Commander Rodgers speaks in high terms of the officers and men. Lieut. Irwin, Acting-Master Robinson and Midshipmen Johnson and Pearson, Lewis Brown, Captain of the Forecastle, and George H. Wood, Quartermaster.

There were many gallant affairs constantly occurring, in which reconnoitering parties from the Navy were concerned, and they gave the enemy no rest. In these affairs the Army participated whenever an opportunity offered; and here we would remark, that at no period during the war was there a more cordial co-operation between the Army and Navy than while Flag Officer Dupont commanded on the Southern coast. His courtesy to every one with whom he came in contact gained him hosts of friends, and his example was followed by his subordinates in their intercourse with the army officers; so that whatever combined enterprise was undertaken, it was vigorously executed with perfect accord on both sides.

Among the galaxy of bright spirits who served under Dupont in the early part of his campaign, there were many who have since passed away; but their names should not be forgotten. They were among the first to set the example of attacking heavy fortifications with light-built vessels; a departure from former usage that was first made in our civil war, and is now an established rule the world over.

A commander-in-chief, no matter how clever, does not stand much chance of success against the enemy unless he is well supported by his officers; and as Dupont up to this time had been everywhere successful, we must give a portion of the credit to those who served under his command.

That Dupont was fortunate in his selection, the names of Captain C. H. Davis, Commanders John Rodgers, Drayton, C. R. P. Rodgers, Godon, Parrott, Steedman, Gillis, Prentiss, Lieutenants-Commanding Balch, Stevens, Ammen, Nicholson, Truxton, Rhind, Bankhead, Conroy,Watmough, Budd, Semmes and Phoenix, in command of vessels,will show, besides the junior officers mentioned favorably by their commanding officers.

Nearly all the commanding officers reached high rank, and the youngest of them are now well up on the list of commodores and captains.

Eleven of them attained the rank of rear-admiral; and of these six are still living, have retired from active duty, and are reaping the reward of faithful service.

They will figure again in the course of this narrative, as their service continued throughout the war.

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Fernandina, Fla. (Florida, United States) (12)
Port Royal (South Carolina, United States) (8)
Amelia Island (Florida, United States) (8)
Tybee Island (Georgia, United States) (5)
Hilton Head (South Carolina, United States) (5)
Cumberland Island (Georgia, United States) (4)
Tybee River (Georgia, United States) (3)
Charleston (South Carolina, United States) (3)
Wilmington River (Georgia, United States) (2)
Warsaw Island (Georgia, United States) (2)
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Beaufort River (South Carolina, United States) (2)
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St. Helena Sound (South Carolina, United States) (1)
St. Andrew's Island (Florida, United States) (1)
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Ogeechee (Georgia, United States) (1)
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