The Capture of Port Royal, November 1861

Confederate Military History, Vol. 5
AFFAIRS ON THE COAST–LOSS OF PORT ROYAL HARBOROn the first day of November, the governor received the following dispatch from the acting secretary of war: “I have just received information which I consider entirely reliable, that the enemy’s expedition is intended for Port Royal.” Governor Pickens answered: “Please telegraph General Anderson at Wilmington, and General Lawton at Savannah, to send what forces they can spare, as the difficulty with us is as to arms.” Ripley replied, “Will act at once. A fine, strong, southeast gale blowing, which will keep him off for a day or so.” The fleet sailed from Hampton Roads on the 29th of October, and on the 4th of November the leading vessels that had withstood the gale appeared off Port Royal harbor. The storm had wrecked several of the transports, and the whole fleet suffered and was delayed until the 7th, before Admiral DuPont was ready to move in to the attack of the forts defending this great harbor.

Port Royal harbor was defended by two forts, Walker and Beauregard, the former on Hilton Head island, and the latter on Bay point opposite. The distance across the harbor, from fort to fort, is nearly 3 miles, the harbor ample and deep, and the water on the bar allowing the largest vessels to enter without risk. A fleet of 100 sail could maneuver between Forts Walker and Beauregard and keep out of range of all but their heaviest guns. To defend such a point required guns of the longest range and the heaviest weight of metal.

In planning the defense of Port Royal, General Beauregard designed that batteries of 10-inch columbiads and rifled guns should be placed on the water fronts of both forts, and so directed; but the guns were not to be had, and the engineers, Maj. Francis D. Lee and Capt. J. W. Gregory, were obliged to mount the batteries of the forts with such guns as the Confederate government and the governor of South Carolina could command. The forts were admirably planned and built, the planters in the vicinity of the forts supplying all the labor necessary, so that by September 1, 1861, they were ready for the guns.

Fort Walker mounted twenty guns and Fort Beauregard nineteen, but of this armament Walker could use but thirteen, and Beauregard but seven against a fleet attacking from the front. The rest of the guns were placed for defense against attack by land, or were too light to be of any use. The twenty guns of Walker and Beauregard that were used in the battle with the fleet, were wholly insufficient, both in weight of metal and number. The heaviest of the guns in Walker were two columbiads, 10-inch and 8-inch, and a 9-inch rifled Dahlgren. The rest of the thirteen were 42, 32 and 24 pounders. Of the seven guns in Beauregard, one was a 10-inch columbiad, and one a 24-pounder, rifled. The rest were 42 and 32 pounders; one of the latter fired hot shot.

Col. William C. Heyward, Eleventh South Carolina volunteers, commanded at Fort Walker, and Col. R. G. M. Dunovant, of the Twelfth, commanded at Fort Beauregard. The guns at Walker were manned by Companies A and B, of the German Flying Artillery, Capts. D. Werner and H. Harms; Company C, Eleventh volunteers, Capt. Josiah Bedon, and detachments from the Eleventh under Capt. D. S. Canaday. Maj. Arthur M. Huger, of the Charleston artillery battalion, was in command of the front batteries, and of the whole fort after Col. John A. Wagener was disabled. The guns in Fort Beauregard were manned by the Beaufort artillery; Company A, Eleventh volunteers, Capt. Stephen Elliott, and Company D, Eleventh volunteers, Capt. J. J. Harrison; Captain Elliott directing the firing. The infantry support at Walker was composed of three companies of the Eleventh and four companies of the Twelfth, and a company of mounted men under Capt. I. H. Screven. The fighting force of Fort Walker then, on the morning of the 7th of November, preparing to cope with the great fleet about to attack, was represented by thirteen guns, manned and supported by 622 men. The infantry support at Fort Beauregard was composed of six companies of the Twelfth, the whole force at Beauregard, under Colonel Dunovant, amounting to 640 men and seven guns.

Brig.-Gen. Thomas F. Drayton, with headquarters at Beaufort, commanded the defenses at Port Royal harbor and vicinity. He removed his headquarters to Hilton Head on the 5th, and pushed forward every preparation in his power for the impending battle. The remote position of Fort Beauregard and the interposition of the fleet, lying just out of range, made it impossible to reinforce that point. An attempt made early on the morning of the 7th, supported by the gallant Commodore Tattnall, <cmh5_33>was prevented by the actual intervention of the leading battleships of the enemy. Fort Walker, however, received just before the engagement, a reinforcement of the Fifteenth volunteers, Colonel DeSaussure, 650 strong; Captain Read’s battery of two 12-pounder howitzers, 50 men and 450 Georgia infantry, under Capt. T. J. Berry.

The morning of the 7th of November was a still, clear, beautiful morning, “not a ripple,” wrote General Drayton, “upon the broad expanse of water to disturb the accuracy of fire from the broad decks of that magnificent armada, about advancing in battle array.” The attack came about 9 o’clock, nineteen of the battleships moving up and following each other in close order, firing upon Fort Beauregard as they passed, then turning to the left and south, passing in range of Walker, and pouring broadside after broadside into that fort. Captain Elliott reports: “This circuit was performed three times, after which they remained out of reach of any except our heaviest guns.” From this position the heavy metal and long range guns of nineteen batteries poured forth a ceaseless bombardment of both Beauregard and Walker, but paying most attention to the latter.

Both forts replied with determination, the gunners standing faithfully to their guns, but the vastly superior weight of metal and the number of the Federal batteries, and the distance of their positions from the forts (never less than 2,500 yards from Beauregard and 2,000 from Walker), made the contest hopeless for the Confederates almost from the first shot. Shortly after the engagement began, several of the largest vessels took flanking positions out of reach of the 32-pounder guns in Walker, and raked the parapet of that fort. “So soon as these positions had been established,” reported Major Huger, “the fort was fought simply as a point of honor, for from that moment we were defeated.” This flank fire, with the incessant direct discharge of the fleet’s heavy batteries, So 5 <cmh5_34>dismounted or disabled most of Fort Walker’s guns. The 10-inch columbiad was disabled early in the action; the shells for the rifled guns were too large to be used, and the ammunition for all but the 32-pounders exhausted, when, after four hours of hard fighting, Colonel Heyward ordered that two guns should be served slowly, while the sick and wounded were removed from the fort; that accomplished, the fort to be abandoned. Thus terminated the fight at Port Walker.

At Port Beauregard, the battle went more fortunately for the Confederates. A caisson was exploded by the fire of the fleet, and the rifled 24-pounder burst, and several men and officers were wounded by these events, but none of the guns were dismounted, and Captain Elliott only ceased firing when Walker was abandoned. In his report, he says: “Our fire was directed almost exclusively at the larger vessels. They Were seen to be struck repeatedly, but the distance, never less than 2,500 yards, prevented our ascertaining the extent of injury.” General Drayton successfully conducted his retreat from Hilton Head, and Colonel Dunovant from Bay point, all the troops being safely concentrated on the main behind Beaufort.

The taking of Port Royal harbor on the 7th of November, 1861, gave the navy of the United States a safe and ample anchorage, while the numerous and rich islands surrounding it afforded absolutely safe and comfortable camping grounds for the army of Gen. T. W. Sherman, who was specially in charge of this expedition. The effect of this Union victory was to give the fleet and army of the United States a permanent and abundant base of operations against the whole coast of South Carolina, and against either Charleston or Savannah, as the Federal authorities might elect; but its worst result was the immediate abandonment of the whole sea-island country around Beaufort, the houses and estates of the planters being left to pillage and ruin, and thousands of negro slaves falling into the hands of the enemy. General Sherman wrote to his government, from Hilton Head, that the effect of his victory was startling. Every white inhabitant had left the islands of Hilton Head, St. Helena, Ladies, and Port Royal, and the beautiful estates of the planters were at the mercy of hordes of negroes.

The loss of the forts had demonstrated the power of the Federal fleet, and the impossibility of defending the island coast with the guns which the State and the Confederacy could furnish. The 32 and 42 pounders were no match for the 11-inch batteries of the fleet, and gunboats of light draught, carrying such heavy guns, could enter the numerous rivers and creeks and cut off forts or batteries at exposed points, while larger vessels attacked them, as at Port Royal, in front. It was evident that the rich islands of the coast were at the mercy of the Federal fleet, whose numerous gunboats and armed steamers, unopposed by forts or batteries, could cover the landing of troops at any point or on any island selected.

On the capture of Port Royal, it was uncertain, of course, what General Sherman’s plans would be, or what force he had with which to move on the railroad between Charleston and Savannah. The fleet was ample for all aggressive purposes along the coast, but it was not known at the time that the army numbered less than 15,000 men, all told. But it was well known how easily a landing could be effected within a few miles of the railroad bridges crossing the three upper branches of the Broad river, the Coosawhatchie, Tulifinny and Pocotaligo, and the rivers nearer to Charleston, the Combahee, Ashepoo and Edisto. Bluffton, easily reached by gunboats, afforded a good landing and base for operations against the railroad at Hardeeville, only 4 miles from the Savannah river, and 15 from the city of Savannah. On this account, General Ripley, assisted by the planters, caused the upper branches of the Broad, and the other rivers toward Charleston to be obstructed, and meanwhile stationed the troops at his command at points covering the landing.

General Drayton, with a part of Martin’s regiment of cavalry, under Lieutenant-Colonel Colcock, and Heyward’s and De Saussure’s regiments, was watching Bluffton and the roads to Hendersonville. Clingman’s and Radcliffe’s North Carolina regiments, with artillery under Col. A. J. Gonzales, Captain Trezevant’s company of cavalry, and the Charleston Light Dragoons and the Rutledge Riflemen, were stationed in front of Grahamville, to watch the landings from the Broad. Colonel Edwards’ regiment and Moore’s light battery were at Coosawhatchie, Colonel Dunovant’s at Pocotaligo, and Colonel Jones’, with Tripp’s company of cavalry, in front of the important landing at Port Royal ferry. Colonel Martin, with part of his regiment of cavalry, was in observation at the landings on Combahee, Ashepoo and Edisto rivers. The idea of this disposition, made by Ripley immediately upon the fall of Forts Walker and Beauregard, was to guard the railroad bridges, and keep the troops in hand to be moved for concentration in case any definite point was attacked.

On the 8th of November, the day after Port Royal was taken,. Gen. Robert E. Lee took command of the department of South Carolina and Georgia, by order of the President of the Confederacy. It was evident to him that the mouths of the rivers and the sea islands, except those immediately surrounding the harbor of Charleston, could not be defended with the guns and troops at his command, and, disappointing and distressing as such a view was to the governor and especially to the island planters, whose homes and estates must be abandoned and ruined, General Lee prepared for the inevitable. He wrote to General Ripley, in Charleston, to review the whole subject and suggest what changes should be made.

“I am in favor,” he wrote, “of abandoning all exposed points as far as possible within reach of the enemy’s fleet of gunboats, and of taking interior positions, where all can meet on more equal terms. All our resources should be applied to those positions.” Subsequently the gov-ernrnent at Richmond ordered General Lee, by telegraph, to withdraw all his forces from the islands to the mainland. When the order was carried out, it was done at a terrible sacrifice, to which the planters and citizens yielded in patient and noble submission, turning their backs upon their homes and their property with self-sacrificing devotion to the cause of Southern independence. Never were men and women subjected to a greater test of the depth and strength of their sentiments, or put to a severer trial of their patriotism, than were the planters and their families, who abandoned their houses and estates along the coast of South Carolina, and retired as refugees into the interior, all the men who were able entering the army.

At the time of the fall of Forts Walker and Beauregard, Charleston harbor was defended by Forts Moultrie and Sumter, Castle Pinckney and Fort Johnson, and by batteries on Sullivan’s and Morris islands. All these were to be strengthened, and the harbor made secure against any attack in front. To prevent the occupation of James island, the mouth of Stono river was defended by forts built on Cole’s and Battery islands, and a line of defensive works built across the island. No attempt had been made to erect forts or batteries in defense of the inlets of Worth or South Edisto, but the harbor of Georgetown was protected by works unfinished on Cat and South islands, for twenty guns, the heaviest of which were 32-pounders.

When General Lee took command, November 8th, he established his headquarters at Coosawhatchie, and divided the line of defense into five military districts, from east to west, as follows: The First, from the North Carolina line to the South Santee, under Col. A.M. Manigault, Tenth volunteers, with headquarters at Georgetown; the Second, from the South Santee to the Stono, under Gen. R. S. Ripley, with headquarters at Charleston; the Third, from the Stono to the Ashepoo, under Gen. N. G. Evans, with headquarters at Adams’ run; the Fourth, from Ashepoo to Port Royal entrance, under Gen. J. C. Pemberton, with headquarters at Coosaw-hatchie; the Fifth, the remainder of the line to the Savannah river, under Gen. T. F. Drayton, with headquarters at Hardeeville.

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