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Chapter 9: operations of Admiral Dupont's squadron in the sounds of South Carolina.

  • Arduous duties performed by Dupont's officers.
  • -- various expeditions. -- expeditions. -- valuable services of Capt. Boutelle and officers of coast Survey. -- Com. C. R. P. Rodgers makes reconnoissance of Warsaw Inlet. -- Lieutenant Barnes invades forts. -- Commander Drayton goes up the North Edisto River. -- object of the expeditions. -- difficulties in the way of gunboats. -- Ogeechee Sound and the great Ogeechee River examined. -- a second reconnoissance to Saint Helena Sound. -- gunboats annoying Confederate troops. -- the torch plays a prominent part. -- desolation. -- friendship of the blacks for the Union cause. -- expeditions to various points. -- Admiral Dupont consults with Gen. Thomas W. Sherman. -- a joint expedition. -- engagement at Port Royal and Seabrook Ferry. -- Confederates dispersed. -- effect of co-operation of the Army and Navy. -- reports of officers of the fleet. -- expedition of fleet -- Captain C. H. Davis to Warsaw Sound. -- regiments accompanying expedition. -- Tatnall's gunboats open fire on Union fleet and get worsted. -- excitement in savannah. -- officers who were conspicuous. -- patriotism of colored people. -- courageous and heroic act of Robert Smalls, a colored man. -- capturing the steamer Planter. -- great services of Dupont along coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

Short references have been made to the various duties performed by Admiral Dupont's officers on the coast and in the Sounds of South Carolina, the writer not deeming that the limits of this work would permit of a more extended account of the operations of the South Atlantic Squadron.

These operations show not only a desire to meet the enemy on all occasions, but a wise forethought on the part of Admiral Dupont regarding the ultimate use which the possession of certain points would be to the government in the future. He saw that the enemy was daily exhibiting more energy and an astonishing amount of resources, with a fixed determination to carry on the war as long as they could muster a regiment or obtain powder to fire a gun.

The accounts of the various expeditions fitted out cannot be narrated in order, as the reports came in irregularly; but they will be sufficiently so to enable the reader to judge of the important services rendered from time to time.

The enemy were continually erecting batteries, and they moved about from point to point with a rapidity that was marvelous, and embarrassing enough to test the highest qualities of a commander-in-chief to meet the various movements of so active an adversary.

The soldiers of South Carolina seemed determined that the Northerners should not plant their feet on Southern soil, if they could keep them out by earnest watching and fighting; and it is safe to say that this untiring energy was met by equal energy and perseverance on the Union side; and if the latter did not actually occupy all the points held by the Confederates, they rendered them so ineffectual to do harm that they might just as well have been taken possession of.

The coast of South Carolina is indented with many sounds, bays and inlets, most of [81] them accessible to small light-draft blockade runners. It required some time to become acquainted with the topography and hydrography of these places, as no charts gave an exactly fair representation of many of them; and it was to close up all these gaps in the line of blockade that the smaller vessels were employed in constant reconnoissances and skirmishes, some of which were full of danger and required nerve and daring to execute.

It must have been surprising at times to the people residing along these narrow inlets, to see good-sized gun-boats ploughing their way at full speed through t h e i r tortuous and shallow channels,where the keel of a war vessel had never before passed. It was gall and wormwood to them to witness these excursions of floating batteries, against which they soon found that their flying artillery was of no mortal use.

Rear-Admiral C. R. P. Rodgers, (from photograph taken in 1885.)

Admiral Dupont had in his squadron a corps of officers belonging to the coast survey, under the immediate direction of Captain Boutelle, First Assistant. The Coast Survey office had abandoned its legitimate duties at the commencement of the war, and now furnished most valuable aid by sending its officers to any squadron requiring them. Captain Boutelle was invaluable to Admiral Dupont, and frequent mention is made of the honorable service he performed in piloting vessels through these intricate inlets.

The reconnoissance in St. Helena Sound, by Commander Drayton, has been already referred to. This bay was considered invaluable for a harbor, owing to its proximity to Charleston. By its occupation the Federals would be drawing the net close around that pugnacious fort; and by cutting off all communication with the interior of the State, through the large rivers that communicated with it, with a few gunboats would remain masters of the situation.

Commander C. R. P. Rodgers was employed to make a reconnoissance of Warsaw Inlet, in order to ascertain the position and force of the enemy's battery there, which information was desired by the Commanding-General of our military forces, in anticipation of landing troops on Tybee Island.

On approaching within a mile of the fort, and seeing neither men nor guns, Lieutenant Barnes was sent up with a flag of truce to examine the place, and found it evacuated.

It was a heavy work,with platforms for eight guns. But the guns had been removed, the platforms cut and the magazine blown up.

The expedition (consisting of the gun-boats the Ottawa, Seneca, and Pembina) then pushed on to Cabbage Island, where another battery was expected to be found. The vessels went to the mouth of the creek, through the Romilly marsh, and to the mouth of Wilmington River — abewildering cruise among a network of shoals, inlets and marshes, enough to test the patience of officers of the most energetic type. But these men's minds were bent on fathoming the intricacies of southern navigation, and they succeeded in obtaining their object, and before they had been three months on the southern coast every sound and inlet was as familiar to our officers as to the Southern pilots.

This expedition brought back valuable information, ascertaining the position of [82] forts, making reconnoissances on shore with the marines of the Savannah, until their progress was stopped by an unfordable stream and nothing more could be accomplished.

On the 16th of December, 1861, Commander Percival Drayton was sent on a reconnoissance of the North Edisto river, in the steamer Pawnee, accompanied by the Seneca, Lieutenant-commander Ammen, and the Coast Survey steamer Vixen, Captain Boutelle, who was generally the pioneer in these expeditions and whose knowledge of the hydrography of the country gave much valuable assistance.

While Captain Drayton was examining into the condition of some works (which proved to be deserted), Lieutenant Ammen proceeded with the Seneca five miles up the river and burned some cotton houses and out-buildings.

A landing was made at the small town of Rockville in hopes of surprising a large body of the enemy's infantry, but they decamped in a great hurry, leaving in Commander Drayton's hands a sloop, loaded with cotton and provisions, large quantities of commissary stores, consisting of rice, sugar, bacon, corn, etc., which were removed to the Vixen.

An encampment a mile from the water was visited and broken up, all the tents and stores being removed to the boats.

The smaller gunboats pushed on until they ran aground and could go no further. They burnt one sloop, which had been run on shore by the enemy and which could not be gotten off.

A large number of the negroes in that section greatly feared that the whites would retaliate upon them for the pleasure they had shown when the Union gunboats arrived, and now most of them claimed and obtained the protection of the Union flag.

The sentiment which pervaded the minds of naval officers in the early part of the rebellion, that the negroes were the sacred property of the Southern planters, not to be touched under any circumstances, evaporated a short time after operations had begun, and when the Southern soldiers compelled the negroes to throw up their earthworks, dig their ditches and haul their loads. while they enjoyed what comfort they could get from camp life. The Federal officers determined to remove as far as they possibly could this important factor of war from their masters, and give them that liberty to which all men are entitled. Hundreds of these negroes were removed in the gunboats and finally located on Hilton Head Island.

This expedition found the fortifications on Edisto Island entirely deserted and partially destroyed, though on these occasions the rebels always managed to carry off the guns. Having obtained all the necessary information the vessels returned to Port Royal.

Another expedition, under Commander C. R. P. Rodgers, left Tybee Roads on the 11th of December, 1861, with the Ottawa, Pembina, Seneca and Henry Andrew.

Entering and passing up Vernon River, they discovered a fort on the eastern end of Green Island, mounting eight guns, apparently of heavy calibre, and near it an encampment of 75 tents.

The fort was advantageously placed, and its approaches landward were well protected by marshes. It commanded not only Vernon River, but the Little Ogeechee, and Hell Gate, the passage from Vernon River into the Great Ogeechee.

The reader should have a good map of the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia by him, in order to obtain some idea of the immense net of natural defences on which the Southern engineers had erected fortifications with great skill and judgment.

These expeditions may appear to some readers to be of very little importance, but if they will carefully examine the map they will see for themselves how difficult it was. for our gunboats to reach these places, which were important military points and convenient refuges for light-draft blockade runners.

It was to obtain possession of all the prominent positions held by the enemy that Admiral Dupont sent out these expeditions, and he desired to accomplish the work with as little loss as possible.

It may be asked why this last expedition did not attempt to capture the enemy's works.

In the first place, the expedition was simply a reconnoissance, and he is an unwise officer who goes to fighting and risks the object in view. In the second place, the vessels could not approach the fort nearer than two miles, which was beyond the reach of their guns.

The enemy fired at the Pembina with a heavy smooth-bore gun, but the shot fell far short, and the commander of the expedition did not think it well, under the circumstances, to return the fire, and give the enemy the opportunity of reporting an engagement with and the repulse of Yankee gun-boats.

Ogeechee Sound and the Great Ogeechee River were examined and no batteries found. A full reconnoissance was accomplished, by which the Commander--in chief was placed in possession of information that would much facilitate any operations of the Army and Navy which might be decided on in the future. [83]

On December 5th Commander Drayton again proceeded on a reconnoissance to Saint Helena Sound in the Pawnee, accompanied by the gunboats Unadilla, Commander N. Collins, Isaac Smith, Lieut. Commander J. W. Nicholson, and Coast Survey steamer Vixen, Captain Boutelle.

He reached the anchorage off the fort on Otter Island at mid-day; pushed on up Mosquito Creek (no doubt appropriately named), but found no traces of white people, except some burning buildings on Hutchison's Island. Very little was effected to repay this expedition, yet what fine harbors were found for blockade runners, what places of safety for our fleets to lie in during winter storms, and what vigilance would be required to keep these retreats from being made useful by an enemy so quick to take advantage as were the soldiers of the South!

Whenever the enemy's troops appeared they were reminded by a bursting shell that the annoying gunboat was at their heels, and would follow and harass them until they retreated from the coast.

On landing at Hutchison's Island, they found that two days before all the negroes' houses, overseer's house, and out-buildings, together with the picked cotton, had been burned.

Thus early in the war did the torch begin to play that prominent part by which hundreds were driven from their homes, and by which the Southern soldiers in their folly thought to defeat the Federals in their cherished object of securing plunder.

This system led to retaliation, which in the end impoverished the Southern people from Cape Hatteras to Florida.

An attempt had been made on the approach of the gunboats to drive off the negroes and prevent their escaping, A great many did escape, however, though some of the number were shot in the back in the attempt.

The scene of complete desolation which on this occasion met the eyes of our officers beggars description; the negroes cowering amid the smoking ruins of their homes would have touched the hardest heart. These poor creatures still clung in despair to the spot where their houses once stood, but where they could no longer find shelter, and here they bewailed in piteous accents the loss of what was once the only Paradise they had on earth. In one moment they had seen all that was most precious to them reduced to ashes; but they preferred to remain near the place where their homes once stood, in the hope of obtaining comparative liberty, rather than to follow the fortunes of their masters and remain in bondage.

The most painful spectacle of all was that of old and decrepit men and women wandering about in search of the places where they were wont to dwell, and searching with bleared eyes in the hot ashes for any little memento of by-gone days that might cheer them in the few years they had yet to live.

Little children crawled around at the risk of falling into the burning embers, while their heart-broken mothers sat alone and gazed with despair at the wreck of all they once owned-though they had only owned it at the will and pleasure of their masters.

Much sympathy was felt for these poor creatures; but it was not entirely deserved, for the gunboats had hardly dropped down the creek for the night (which they did as a matter of precaution) before signal lights were made at the very spot they had left, to inform the enemy of their departure. It could only have been done by the negroes, for there was not a white man within a mile of the plantation. This might appear like treachery on the part of the blacks, but it was only for fear of further punishment that they pretended an interest in the cause of their masters.

That strange infatuation which possessed some of the cabinet of Mr. Lincoln, that by the Constitution the negroes were the goods and chattels of the South and could not be liberated until that clause in the Constitution was annulled, did much towards bringing desolation upon these poor people, who having formed some indefinite idea of freedom, would escape to the Union lines, in the hope of receiving protection; but they were often disappointed, for though they were kindly treated they were not protected in the full sense of the word. They were allowed to hang around the camps and naval stations, and live upon the debris of the soldiers' and sailors' rations, but it cannot be said that they were actually taken care of. They were allowed to till the land around them, put up cottages of brush and straw, and eke out an existence scarcely superior to that of an animal, and that was called philanthropy.

At first the officers of the Navy were afraid to take the responsibility of openly liberating the slaves, being held back by the old idea of the right of the white man to property in human flesh which was guaranteed to him by the Constitution.

The Cabinet would not for a time approach this subject, for some of its members still adhered to the delusion that the South would never come back into the Union if the subject of slavery was tampered with in any way.

If Abraham Lincoln's emancipation act had been promulgated the day Sumter was fired upon, the liberated slaves would have [84] flocked to the North, and thus have deprived the Southerners of that factor in the war (the slave labor) which built their forts, hauled their loads, worked their plantations, and furnished them with food while fighting. They even attended their masters on the battle field, carried off the wounded, drove teams, etc., and every negro thus employed saved a soldier to the Confederacy.

Instead of depriving the Confederates of their services, we avoided the expense of providing for them, and left them to take care of themselves. Hundreds died from neglect: they were a shiftless, lazy people and could not take care of themselves. Many in despair wandered back to their masters, who in fact treated them better than we did, hoping some day to make use of them again, when their cause was gained, and the negro once more regarded as a chattel.

Is it any wonder that they made signal lights to inform their masters that the gunboats had departed?

The slaves seemed on the whole to be embued with more liberal sentiments towards the white man of the North, than the latter held for them.

It is true that they had been removed from points where they were suffering to places of shelter, but not beyond the reach of the Southern fanatics, who shot at them as they would at dogs or cats.

This was done by men who would blow up light-houses, burn villages and destroy springs, so that those favorable to the Union cause might not enjoy a glass of fresh water.

In spite of our neglectful treatment of the blacks, they were always more than friendly to us. They would assist in destroying a fort, though it might bring them lashes or death; they would give information with regard to the movements of the enemy, and would hurrah when a Union shell burst in the midst of Confederate troops. But they did not receive that aid which would have kept them from starving, and so have prevented their old masters using them to build up forts to drive the Union people away.

On the above-mentioned occasion, Commander Drayton's policy was a generous one. A large number of the negroes had left Hutchison Island after they had been burned out, and now crowded upon the beach with what was left of their goods and chattels, and prayed to be removed to another island.

They were taken away by the gunboats, and if the expedition had accomplished nothing else, the Commander would have deserved credit for thus relieving suffering humanity.

Otter Island Fort and the adjacent waters were, on this occasion, placed in charge of Lieut.-Commanding Nicholson, who was directed to supply the negroes with food and do what he could for their comfort.

The attention of Admiral Dupont had, in January, been drawn to the fact that the enemy designed to shut up the troops on Port Royal Island, by placing obstructions in the Coosaw River and Whale Branch, by erecting batteries at Port Royal Ferry, at Seabrook, and at or near Boyd's Neck, and by accumulating troops in the vicinity in such a manner as to be able to throw a force of three thousand men upon any of these points at short notice.

On a consultation with General T. W. Sherman, it was determined to arrest the designs of the enemy and to do it in such a manner as to prevent any more attempts of the kind. A joint expedition was agreed upon, and a plan of conduct settled upon by the commanders of the Army and Navy. The first day of the year was selected for the attack.

Commander C. R. P. Rodgers was appointed to the command of the naval forces, consisting of the Ottawa, Lieut.-Commanding Stevens, Pembina, Lieut.-Commanding Bankhead, and four armed boats from the Wabash, carrying howitzers, under charge of Lieutenants Upshur, Luce and Irwin, and Acting Master Kempff, all of which were to enter the Coosaw by Beaufort river; the gun-boat Seneca, Lieut.-Com. Ammen, and the tug-boat Ellen, Acting-Master Budd, to participate, both of which were to move up Beaufort River and approach the batteries at Seabrook and Port Royal Ferry, by Whale Branch. The armed Tug Hale, Acting-Master Foster, was also ordered to report to the commander of the expedition.

The gun-boats reached Beaufort on the 31st December, 1862, and in order not to give the enemy notice of their approach, they remained there until after dark, when they ascended the river to within two miles of the Coosaw. At 4 o'clock the next morning the gun-boats moved up and joined General Stevens at the appointed rendezvous. Here the troops embarked, crossed the Coosaw, and landed at Haywood's plantation, and with them went the two howitzers of the Wabash, to serve as a section of light artillery, under Lieutenant Irwin.

The troops and gun-boats engaged the enemy (who was on the alert) at Port Royal and Seabrook Ferries. The Confederates also appeared in force, in line of battle, on the right of the Federal troops, but were dispersed with some loss by the fire of the gun-boats, which was very galling.

At sunset the enemy sent in a flag of truce, asking permission to carry off their dead and wounded; just then the gun-boats [85] opened fire, and before General Stevens could send a messenger to stop it, the officer who brought the flag of truce galloped off.

The enemy again showed themselves in force the next morning, but the gunboats opened such a fire on them that they soon retired to a point where they could not be followed and made no more demonstrations.

The military portion of the expedition recrossed the Coosaw and started on their return march, while the gunboats, watching the tide and their opportunity, passed down the channel, leaving the enemy to understand that they would be chased up whenever they attempted to plant batteries on sounds, inlets or rivers.

The co-operation of the Army and Navy was very complete on this occasion. The services of the officers are highly spoken of by Commander Rodgers, particularly the work of Lieut.-Commander Ammen with the Seneca and Ellen at Seabrook.

The work was performed in very narrow and crooked rivers, but with care and skillful handling the gunboats (though often aground) were brought out with but little damage.

The reports of Lieuts.-Commanding Truxton and Nicholson, though not containing an account of severe service, are instructive as showing how each officer of the fleet was kept employed in chasing up the enemy, and how the latter kept on the move.

Admiral Dupont made it a rule (and it was a very good one) to give his staff officers an opportunity to distinguish themselves where opportunity offered, without taking away from others what they might consider theirs of right, namely, to do all the fighting while the staff were attending to what might be considered their legitimate duties.

Hence we find the Fleet-Captain, Charles H. Davis, getting underway on January 26, 1862, for an expedition into Warsaw Sound. He had under his command the gunboats Ottawa, Lieut.-Commanding Stevens; Seneca, Lieut.-Commanding Ammen, and the armed steamer, Isaac Smith, Lieut.-Commanding Nicholson; the Potomska, Lieut.-Commanding Watmough; the Ellen, Master Budd; Western World, Gregory, and the two armed launches of the Wabash, and having in company the transports “Cosmopolitan,” Delaware and Boston, on board of which were the 6th Connecticut, the 4th New Hampshire and the 97th Pennsylvania regiments, in all 2,400 men, commanded by Brig.-General H. G. Wright. Commander C. R. P. Rodgers accompanied the expedition.

The object of this move was to cut off the communication between Fort Pulaski and Savannah.

The vessels entered Little Tybee River, or Freeborn Cut, and passed Fort Pulaski, but were not fired into, as the fort was not prepared for an enemy on this side. Preparations were at once made, however, to receive the expedition warmly on its return. The distance was that of long-range guns.

The vessels were brought to a stop, after passing Wilmington Island, by heavy piles driven in a double row across the channel; they were anchored and a reconnoissance made, in boats, of the numerous creeks with which this country was intersected.

At 5 P. M. five Confederate steamers, one of them carrying a square flag at the fore (probably Commodore Tatnall's), anchored at the mouth of the creek. They had it in their power to choose their distance, and this led to an expectation of an attack, but the night passed quietly.

At 11:15 the five steamers composing Commodore Tatnall's squadron attempted to pass down the river with some scows in tow. Commander John Rodgers, who lay at anchor in Wright River, and Captain Davis opened fire upon them, which they returned with spirit. The result of the engagement, which lasted less than half an hour, was that Commodore Tatnall and one of his squadron were driven back; the other three vessels made good their passage down to Fort Pulaski, and afterwards passed up the river again to Savannah, where one of them sunk at the dock.

As a demonstration the appearance of the gun-boats was a success, as Savannah was thrown into a great state of excitement, and all the energies of the people were put forth to increase the military defences.

The information required by this expedition was gained without loss of life or injury to the gun-boats.

Surveys and examinations were made up Wright and Mud Rivers by Commander John Rodgers, and a great amount of good service done. The officers and boats' crews were in continual danger from the fire of bush-whacking Confederates, who were always ready for a fight.

The names of Commanders John Rodgers, Drayton, C. R. P. Rodgers, Godon, Rhind, Stevens, Balch, Ammen, Truxton, Watmough, and Semmes, were conspicuous wherever a Confederate shot was heard, or wherever there was a chance to gain a point on the enemy.

Heavy knocks were received by our gunboats from Confederate flying batteries, which would often make desperate stands behind earthworks thrown up for the occasion. The long steel shot from their Whitworth guns would pass easily through the sides of our vessels and inflict death or injury on all around. These attacks were, in most instances, followed by summary punishment [86] from the heavy guns of the Federal vessels. Our officers and men had a most persistent enemy to deal with, but they never flinched from any kind of duty until the whole coast was under Federal control.

All along the coast and up the rivers, where gun-boats could reach, heavy earthworks were found abandoned, their magazines blown up, and their guns removed, evidently showing that the Confederates did not care to dispute with our gun-boats the occupancy of the soil. They would scarcely have finished many of their batteries before they would abandon them, and erect new works again at some other point.

A remarkable instance of patriotism on the part of the colored people was evinced in the bringing out of the armed steamer Planter from Charleston, and delivering her over to the naval officer blockading that port. Robert Small, who performed this courageous act, was employed on board the Planter, which was used as a dispatch and transportation steamer attached to the Engineer Department in Charleston, under Brigadier-General Ripley.

The taking out of the Planter would have done credit to anyone, but the cleverness with which the whole affair was conducted deserves more than a passing notice. Small was a very clever light mulatto who had been running this steamer for some time, and he had gained the confidence of his employers to that extent that, on the 13th of May, the Captain went on shore for the night and left Small in charge. He had made all his arrangements to carry off his family, and at 4 o'clock in the morning, left the wharf with the Palmetto and Confederate flags flying, passed the forts and saluted them as he went by, by blowing his steam whistle. After getting out of reach of the Confederate guns, he hauled down the flags and hoisted a white one at the fore. All this required the greatest heroism, for had he been caught while leaving the wharf, or stopped by the forts, he would have paid the penalty with his life.

The Planter mounted two guns of her own, and had lying upon her deck four guns intended for the forts, one a 7-inch rifle.

Small was the pilot of the boat, and had no difficulty in making his way through the obstructions placed in the channels. Besides the vessel and guns which he brought out, he gave much valuable information which only a man of his intelligence could impart. When he left Charleston he brought away with him eight men and five women.

Robert Small was an object of great interest in Dupont's fleet, not only for his courageous act, but for being the most intelligent slave that had yet been met with. He was one of the first, if not the first, colored man who was elected to Congress from Brunswick, S. C., and he held his own with white men who were far better educated than himself. It was not often that a negro was met with of such intelligence, from the fact that the system of slavery so tended to degrade the colored race that few, if any, could ever rise to superiority.

When Admiral Dupont gave up the command of the South Atlantic Squadron there was not much left for his successor to do in the way of gaining information along the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. The officers under Dupont's command had made themselves so well acquainted with the hydrography and topography of the country that they needed no pilots to point the way for them through any bay or inlet.

All the sounds or inlets where a blockade runner could get in or out were so closely watched, or hermetically sealed, that few vessels attempted to communicate with the Confederacy in that direction. As a rule they had abandoned their beats, and either kept to running into Charleston or Wilmington, or went to the coasts of Alabama and Texas, where their chances were better than in the South Atlantic.

The South Atlantic coast was throughout the war the favorite ground for blockade runners, and the hardest blockading duty was performed in that quarter. Rich prizes were sometimes taken, and watchful commanders often reaped uncommon rewards; but with it all there was a monotonous watchfulness that wore men out, and many officers after the war fell into bad health, if they did not altogether succumb to the influence of a climate which in winter or summer was not conducive to longevity.

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St. Helena Sound (South Carolina, United States) (3)
Seabrook Island (South Carolina, United States) (3)
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