FORT SUMTER AND THE U.S. NAVY
A strong southeast wind whipped the water into deep troughs off the bar at the mouth of Charleston Harbor, while low, angry clouds scudded across the sky. The transport steamer Baltic rocked in the troughs, holding its position at the edge of the swash channel.
It was April 12, 1861, and aboard the transport, Captain Gustavus Vasa Fox no doubt glanced around and frowned. In the distance he could have made out the gray outline of the two-masted side-wheel sloop Harriet Lane, her paddlewheels slapping at the encroaching waves. Behind her was the dim shape of the bark-rigged sloop Pawnee, also rocking slowly in the surf. Alarmingly, the Powhatan and the Pocahontas were missing. This must have disturbed him, because their striking power was vital to the mission.
Fox knew that those present were the only ships of an eight-vessel fleet sent by navy secretary Gideon Welles to provide a relief mission for beleaguered Fort Sumter, located at the mouth of the harbor. No doubt Fox, who was in charge of the expedition, must have deeply pondered the absence of the 3,765-ton, 11-gun side-wheel frigate Powhatan, which had been ordered to join the fleet. Her absence would be crucial, because her heavy guns could have provided the fleet with protection from the glowering Confederate batteries on Cummings Point and Sullivan’s Island, on each side of the harbor’s mouth, and also from any encroaching armed vessels the Confederates would muster against him.
Welles’ order emphasized that the primary mission of the fleet was to provision Fort Sumter and that the War Department would furnish the necessary transports for the force.1 But it was clear that those transports with 200 troops, plus three steam tugs, Uncle Ben, Freeborn, and Yankee, were also missing with no clue as to their whereabouts.
Gustavus Fox was fully qualified for the mission. A native of Massachusetts, he had been appointed midshipman in the navy in 1845 after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy on January 12, 1838.
Fox served aboard the U.S.S. Preble, on which he gained experience about command at sea and the intricacies of transport duty during the Mexican War. He later resigned his lieutenant’s commission and settled down as a merchant in his native state. But President Lincoln had personally contacted him to head the Fort Sumter relief mission. Fox arrived at Charleston, on March 21, to confer with Anderson about the state of affairs at the fort. After his visit, Fox became convinced that a relief mission was possible, in spite of growing tensions around the fort in Charleston and the batteries surrounding it.
Following the rapid secession of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, it became clear that war was in the offing. President Lincoln put Fox on notice to proceed with all possible speed to Charleston Harbor, with a relief mission for Anderson and the garrison at Sumter.
The task force left New York Harbor, with the Powhatan and the 750-ton, six-gun sloop Pocahontas departing on April 6, and the rest of the flotilla leaving at various times. Fox’s Uncle Ben left on the seventh, with the rest following. Soon after reaching Sandy Hook, the force found itself in an Atlantic gale, with heavy winds that dogged the vessels all the way to Charleston.
Fox’s orders stated that the flotilla was to stand off the harbor and await the arrival of the missing warships, which were believed to have been delayed by the storm. This was puzzling, considering that the warships had left one day before Fox’s departure.
By April 12 it was clear that the absence of the vessels would seriously crimp the mission. The tugs, with their fast speed and low draft, would have been ideal for slipping past the enemy’s gun positions, as would a small fleet of launches on board the Powhatan. These vessels would have carried not only provisions but a detachment of relief troops in case an opportunity allowed them to be placed in the fort under the protection of the powerful warship. None of the present ships had boats that would serve the purpose, and now there was also a shortage of personnel. Fox began to experience a feeling of frustration as the hours dragged on.
One bright spot in the picture for Fox, however, was the capture of a small ice schooner by the Pawnee. For a time it appeared that this fast vessel would be ideal for slipping past the batteries at night, but the idea was soon abandoned when the rumble of gunfire was heard within the harbor. As the angry clouds lifted, Fox and the crews of the vessels could witness black smoke drifting over the harbor, indicating a conflict.2
Their worst fears were realized: Fort Sumter was under attack! It is not difficult to comprehend the frustration and utter helplessness felt in the relief flotilla as they watched a torrent of shells reaching high and arcing down upon the hapless fort and its outgunned and outmanned occupants. For a time a heavy pall of smoke obstructed their vision, but as the wind whipped it away, the horror of it all was driven home. Meanwhile, the Pocahontas hove into view, delayed by the storm; alarmingly, the warship was alone, without the much-awaited Powhatan.
In the fort, Major Robert Anderson shared Fox’s perplexity. On December 26, 1860, he had written to Col. S. Cooper, adjutant general, that he had just removed his garrison from Fort Moultrie to Sumter, except for four noncommissioned officers and seven men. He revealed that there was a year’s supply of hospital stores and four months’ supply of provisions. He presented the rationale for the abandonment of Moultrie and a secret move under cover of darkness.
After his move from Moultrie, Anderson must have looked around the unfinished fort and wondered what was in store for the men and himself, to say nothing of his beloved country, the United States of America. But the move was necessary because of what preceded it.
The tight-lipped Anderson was well equipped for commanding Fort Moultrie. Born in Kentucky on June 4, 1805, Anderson, who was early on a very religious man, graduated 15th in his class from West Point in 1825. His combat record included the Blackhawk and Seminole Indian Wars, and he served in Mexico under General Winfield Scott, during which he was wounded. After these events, he found himself translating French military texts into English at the War Department. In 1845 he married Elizabeth L. Clinch, daughter of Brigadier General Duncan Clinch. He settled down to what he thought would be a quiet, peaceful life of service.
In November 1860 John B. Floyd, U.S. secretary of war, ordered him to command the garrison at Moultrie. Although Anderson was sympathetic toward slavery because of his southern origins, he remained loyal to the Union, and his devotion to duty was admirable.4
Without question, he accepted the command. He and Elizabeth packed their bags, moved to South Carolina, and took up residence in Moultrie, which by this time had gained the reputation of being a socially agreeable place, especially because of the people of Charleston. It had become less of a military establishment and more a social club of sorts, which the upper-class residents of Charleston frequented.
The only other fortifications in Charleston Harbor were the incomplete Fort Sumter and Castle Pinckney, the latter a brick edifice on a small island a mile north off Charleston. It had a capacity of 100 men and an armament of 22 guns, but in 1860, 10 men under an ordnance sergeant occupied it. Anderson was aware that South Carolina forces, in the event of hostilities, would quickly take the Castle Pinckney site. He therefore reasoned that any hope of resistance lay in Fort Sumter, even though it was incomplete.
Anderson no doubt had recalled the impressive event of the removal of his men from Moultrie after it was painfully obvious that well-armed South Carolina militiamen could overwhelm and capture the fort. The situation became critical, so on December 26, he decided to move the garrison to Fort Sumter.
To accomplish the ruse, boats were cleverly concealed on the waterfront, a sunset parade of men was held on the grounds to present a picture of normalcy to prying eyes, and dinner was placed on the table of the officers’ mess, though it was later transferred and eaten at Sumter.
The plan was so secret that even Captain Abner Doubleday, Anderson’s second in command, wasn’t notified until 20 minutes before the evacuation. The only personnel notified early of Anderson’s plans were an engineer who supplied the rowboats, schooners, and barges to be used for transporting the families of the men, and an officer who was put in charge of three boats for them. The schooners were loaded in broad daylight with supplies for Fort Sumter, a normal procedure recognized by the Confederates. Anderson and some of his staff stood on the ramparts of the fort, watching the schooners sailing for the fort.
At twilight, the garrison was marched through the fort and loaded on boats that had been hidden behind the seawall. Just before dark set in, the boats shoved off, headed for the fort, and managed to elude a Confederate patrol boat; the men had removed their coats and placed them over their rifles on the bottom, and Doubleday had opened his coat to hide his buttons, in order to make him look like a civilian. The Confederates concluded that this was a boatload of workers heading for the fort and let them get under way. Behind them, a detail of men spiked the guns, burned gun carriages, cut down the flagstaff, and removed needed supplies to take over. They managed to finish in time to join their comrades the next morning. It was a well-thought-out and well-crafted operation, accomplished without a hitch, with Charleston’s civilians and militia never suspecting a thing.
Fort Sumter had an interesting history. It was one of a series of important coastal fortifications built by the U.S. government after the War of 1812. Constructed on a shoal in the middle of the harbor, it was named after Thomas Sumter, a general in the South Carolina militia during the Revolutionary War. It contained 10,000 tons of granite shipped from Maine and 60,000 tons of other rock, plus millions of bricks from local brickyards. Nearly completed before Anderson and his men occupied it, it was an imposing structure with 5-foot-thick, 50-foot-high walls and a parade ground of one acre. The facility was designed for 140 guns and a garrison of 650 officers and men. At the time of Anderson’s occupation, the fort had only 48 guns mounted on the ramparts.
The sight that met Anderson and his men at the fort must have been jolting. The parade ground was cluttered with building materials, guns, carriages, shot and shell, derricks, timber, tackle and blocks, and coils of rope.5 Undaunted, they went about cleaning up, mounting guns, bricking up unused embrasures, and hoisting barbette guns to the ramparts of the fort. It was an effort to prepare for any eventuality.
In Charleston, howls of protest went up as crowds collected in the streets to vent their anger at Anderson’s clever move. South Carolina’s governor, Francis W. Pickens, sent an envoy to the fort to demand an explanation and to order Anderson and his garrison back to Fort Moultrie. Anderson sternly refused to move, and the envoy departed in a huff, full of fuss and feathers.
Meanwhile, the Buchanan administration was doing what it could to help Fort Sumter. General Winfield Scott, now the head of the army, grew impatient and declared that Fort Sumter was to be held, provisioned, and given the help of a couple of first-class warships.6 Gloomy, pessimistic Buchanan, worried about his political legacy, believing that the secession would never be overthrown by force of arms, stood by, wringing his hands, during those tense days at Charleston. He finally got off the fence and trudged into action. He basically agreed with Scott’s assessment but was convinced that a flotilla of warships must never enter Charleston to antagonize the South Carolinians. Instead, he suggested one steamer carrying supplies, plus the screw sloop Brooklyn as a backup, to form a relief mission.
But Scott vetoed the use of the Brooklyn, declaring that the huge warship, with her 17-foot draft, would be unable to cross the bar at Charleston Harbor. In its place, the 1,172-ton brigantine-rigged side-wheel merchant steamer Star of the West was picked to carry out the mission. She left New York’s Governor’s Island on January 5, loaded with supplies and 200 troops under the command of First Lieutenant Charles B. Woods of the 9th Infantry. She arrived at the mouth of Charleston Harbor on January 9 and boldly steamed into the harbor with the troops hidden below decks lest the gunners on each side of the channel, at Sullivan’s Island and Cummings Point, get suspicious.
So far, so good. No shots were fired at them, prompting Captain John McGowan to stay his course. It began to look as if the mission might succeed.
Suddenly, a shot arced high from Morris Island and plunged into the water ahead of the vessel. Then a series of shots followed, one of which landed near the rudder; another skidded across the forechains. The situation became hopeless, and after Captain McGowan had conferred with Lieutenant Woods, he decided to abort the mission rather than risk losing his ship, its cargo, and possibly the troops.7
In Fort Sumter, the defenders, who had been eagerly and hopefully watching the progress of the ship, no doubt groaned with frustration after the ship turned around. And more than one man must have thrown down his hat in anger. But Anderson wisely refused to answer enemy guns with his own, thus forestalling war for a time.
Anderson and his troops busied themselves preparing the fort for a possible attack. They mounted 38 guns on the first tier of the casemate and along the parapets of the fort, including five heavy 11-inch artillery pieces called Columbiads, mounted on the parade ground to be used as mortars. By April 12, they had managed to mount more than 60 guns in the fort. While not nearly matching the armament of the Confederates, it was still a formidable defense. However, the specter of having supplies cut off was of real concern to the defenders.
Back at the flotilla, Fox was eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Powhatan, but the powerful warship never came. Unknown to him, she had been diverted to relieve Fort Pickens at Pensacola, Florida. It was later revealed that the secretary of state, William Henry Seward, had presented some papers for Lincoln to sign, and without reading them, the president signed all. One of the papers contained an order for the Powhatan to report to Fort Pickens, thus overriding Welles’ order for the warship to accompany the Fox expedition. Fuming with anger, Welles tried to recall the Powhatan, but it was too late for Captain David Porter to reverse course for Pensacola, citing his orders from Lincoln. It is a military given that the president’s orders always take precedence over all other orders.8
Soon after the Fox flotilla had arrived off Charleston Harbor, the city’s newspaper, the Charleston Mercury, indignantly declared that “the gage is thrown down and we accept the challenge.” It was clear that the new Confederacy was ready for war.
Meanwhile, General Pierre G. T. Beauregard had taken command of Confederate forces at Charleston in March. He repeatedly demanded the evacuation of Fort Sumter but eventually grew impatient and decided that the time was ripe for action. His aide-de-camp, James Chestnut Jr., wrote the following message to Colonel Anderson:
SIR: By authority of Brigadier-General Beauregard, commanding the provisional forces of the Confederate states, we have the honor to notify you that he will open fire of his batteries on Fort Sumter in one hour from this time.9
On April 12, the guns crews at Fort Johnson, 2,450 yards to the north of Fort Sumter, breakfasted early, then prepared their weapons for action upon orders from General Beauregard. Captain George S. James, commanding the mortar artillery, stepped back after the 10-inch seacoast Columbiad was loaded, yanked the lanyard, and sent a shot arcing high in the air, which exploded over Fort Sumter. This was the prearranged signal for all batteries to start firing.10
The Civil War had officially begun.
A holocaust opened up around the harbor. Shell after shell slammed into the fort, gouging out huge shards of brick; shells exploded in the parade ground, flinging deadly shrapnel. As Abner Doubleday wrote: “Shot and shell went screaming over Sumter as if an army of devils were sweeping around it.”11
At first, for some reason, Anderson refused to fire back, but eventually he decided to answer fire with fire. Doubleday then sent an answering projectile against the floating iron battery off Moultrie; the shot bounced harmlessly off the iron plating, but Anderson had finally replied to the challenge. His eager gunners launched a barrage against the iron battery and the batteries on Cummings Point. The Confederates responded, and it quickly became a mad exchange of shot and shell. The harbor became a kaleidoscope of flashing light and billowing smoke, which at times obliterated the view of spectators at Charleston. There, citizens flocked to the wharves and waterside to view the action out in the harbor; a large number of women stood whispering fervent prayers for their kinfolk, but many viewed the bombardment as a grand spectacle, and even a heavy rainfall failed to dampen their enthusiasm.
The Confederate barrage was intense and unrelenting. Fires started around the parade ground, including in the officers’ quarters. A heavy rain shower temporarily halted the bombardment and managed to put out some of the fires, but after it passed, the Confederate cannonade continued with a renewed ferocity. As an observer in Charleston, Mary Boykin Chestnut, wrote: “Fort Sumter has been on fire. Anderson has not yet silenced any of our guns. So the aides, still with swords and red sashes by way of a uniform, tell us. But the sound of those guns makes regular meals impossible. None of us goes to table. Tea trays pervade the corridors, going everywhere. Some of the anxious hearts lie on their beds and moan in solitary misery.”12
In the fort, Major Anderson and his men were hunkered down, trying to escape injury from flying debris or a direct hit. Their uniforms were blackened by smoke and cinders from burning wood, and soon the troops began to suffer fatigue. Luckily, so far no one had been injured or killed, but as the bombardment intensified, it became obvious they could not take much more punishment.
The ferocity of the bombardment moved Doubleday to later write: “The scene at this time was really terrific. The roaring and crackling of the flames, the dense masses of swirling smoke, the bursting of the enemy shells and our own which were exploding in the burning room, the crashing of the shot, and the sound of masonry falling in every direction, made the fort a pandemonium.”13
Meanwhile, outside the bar, the Union fleet stood by helplessly as the conflagration in the harbor grew in intensity. Fox reported that as the bombardment progressed, consideration of a possible relief mission was discussed with all the commanders. The idea was rejected because heavy seas might have swamped the boats. A sense of hopelessness and frustration set in among the fleet personnel.
“A great volume of black smoke issued from Fort Sumter,” Fox wrote, “through which the flash of Major Anderson’s guns still replied to the rebel fire. The quarters of the fort were on fire, and most of our military and naval officers believed the smoke to proceed from an attempt to smoke out the garrison with fire rafts.”14 This was the first time in the Civil War the fire rafts were suggested as a weapon. They were later to be used against Admiral David Glasgow Farragut in the Mississippi River campaign; twice they almost cost him his flagship, Hartford.15
In the fleet, Commander Gillis, captain of the powerful steam sloop Pocahontas, reported his desire to enter the harbor to relieve Sumter, but he intended to proceed without pilots, the buoys and all marking removed, which would have probably grounded his vessel.16 It is another stark example of the utter helplessness felt by the commanders of the Union fleet outside Charleston Harbor.
In the fort, Anderson had ordered his gunners to evacuate the barbette positions and concentrate on the casemates, because he was aware that the guns on the floating battery and those newly unmasked on Sullivan’s Island could sweep the ramparts with shot, making it impossible for his men to hold those positions.17
The situation had become close to disastrousone-fifth of the fort was on fire, and the heavy, suffocating smoke drove the defenders into refuge in the embrasures or forced them to lie on the ground, handkerchiefs over their mouths. It was painfully obvious the fort was receiving a great deal of damage.
At one point the flagstaff was hit and knocked down, giving the Confederates the impression the fort had surrendered. Meanwhile, a boat, with white flag flying and carrying Senator Louis T. Wigfall, cautiously approached the fort with a demand for surrender.
Wigfall’s demand not only called for the surrender but offered a carrot in that Anderson could salute his flag as it came down and could leave the fort unharmed, with drums beating and flags flying.
Wigfall was unable to enter through the sallyport because of fallen debris, so he was forced to crawl in through a small opening, where he was met by one of Anderson’s men, Private John Thompson, who at first refused to let him enter. But after Wigfall’s identity was known, he was allowed in. While Wigfall was waiting for Anderson to appear, he became aware that even though the flag was down, there was still a lot of firing from Confederate batteries. He approached Lieutenant Jefferson Davis (no relation to the Confederate president) to inquire about the situation. Davis informed him the flag had been put back on the ramparts, whereupon Wigfall put a white flag on his sword, handed it to Davis, and demanded the lieutenant wave it over the ramparts. Davis refused, and a soldier was appointed to do the waving. As he was doing so, a solid shot landed nearby, causing the soldier to jump back and exclaim, “I’m not holding this flag, for it is not respected!”18 It was later learned that General Beauregard had not authorized Wigfall’s terms; the senator was acting entirely on his own.
When Anderson learned that Beauregard’s terms were similar to Wigfall’s, he began to realize the futility of continued resistance, especially with a scarcity of ammunition and provisions, to say nothing of the damage to the fort and the dangerous conditions his men were in. He ordered the flag down, then fired off a dispatch to Beauregard:
In the peculiar circumstances in which I am now placed in consequence of that message [Wigfall’s] and of my reply thereto, I will now state that I am willing to evacuate this fort upon the terms and conditions offered by yourself on the 11th instant, at any hour you may name tomorrow, as soon as I can arrange means of transportation. I will not replace my flag until the return of your messenger.19
Beauregard informed Anderson that a steamer, the Isabel, would be placed at his disposal on the morning of April 14, and as promised, the major and his men would be allowed to salute the flag as it was lowered, and to take it with them.20 With great sadness, but with great dignity, Anderson and his officers and men acquiesced to the order to board the Isabel the next morning, to be taken to the fleet waiting off the bar.
The embarkation was to have taken place the next morning, April 15, at 11:00 a.m. However, the skipper of the Isabel had misjudged the tide, so the vessel was aground until 2:00 p.m. and the surrendered garrison had to endure the spirited ceremonies of the Confederate troops as they took over the fort.21 Anderson’s men used the time to bury with honors Private Daniel Hough, who was killed in an explosion while firing a salute gun during the surrender ceremonies.
As the Isabel moved along on its way to the rendezvous with the Baltic, Confederate gunners stood at attention, saluted the ship, and heaped curses upon the Union fleet for their timorous action.
The damage to Fort Sumter was starkly corroborated later by Captain Gillis of the Pocahontas. The Confederates permitted him to visit the facility, and he found it to be “a complete wreck, the fire not yet extinguished, its battlements and tottering walls presented the appearance of an old ruin.”22
The garrison boarded the Isabel and was taken out to the fleet anchor- age and to the waiting Baltic. Then that vessel, accompanied by the Pawnee and the Pocahontas, sailed for New York. Arriving on April 17, Anderson and his men were feted and celebrated as heroes. Anderson never recovered physically from the traumatic, humiliating experience at Sumter, suffering from ill health until his death on October 26, 1871. However, he did live long enough to participate in the raising of the Union flag over Fort Sumter on April 15, 1865, four years to the very day he left it in surrender.
As would be expected, repercussions over the fall of Fort Sumter came thick and heavy, with justification from the South and understandable anger from the North. Fox was furious. He maintained that the Powhatan with her heavy guns, along with those of the Pocahontas and the five guns of Harriet Lane and eight of Pawnee, would have created a formidable force with which to counter Confederate batteries in the harbor. The navy itself came under unfair, stinging criticism for its seeming reluctance to act decisively during the attack, while the army received all the accolades, leaving the navy with an image of impotence when it was needed most.
But in truth only the Pawnee could have navigated the channel at high tide, because of her shallow draft. But then she not only would have been under the many guns lining the shores, but would have presented a prime target for the batteries at Fort Moultrie, Fort Johnson, Battery Simkins, and the floating iron battery. It would have been a risky, almost suicidal venture indeed, with the possible destruction of one of the navy’s prime warships in a lost cause. In this writer’s opinion, the use of the Pawnee would have been futile.
In retrospect, one of the saddest aspects of Anderson’s dilemma at Fort Sumter is the fact that he felt abandoned by his government and the navy. He mentioned this in an undated letter to an unknown friend (possibly Senator John Crittenden):
Cut off from all intercourse with my government, I have been compelled to act accordingly to the dictates of my own judgement; and had the contingency, referred to, arise, I should, after prayerfully appealing to God, to teach me my duty, I have cheerfully and promptly performed it. My govt. had left me too much to myselfhas not given me instructions, even when I have asked for them.23
As early as February 1861, Crittenden recognized Anderson’s situation and his well-known concern that the move from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter and the subsequent loss of Sumter precipitated the secession of North Carolina. Crittenden assured Anderson that his move to Fort Sumter had no effect whatsoever in escalating states to secession, or in producing civil war, if that be the result.
The fall of Fort Sumter moved the Lincoln administration into high gear, with the president drafting a proclamation:
Now therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, in virtue of the power invested in me by the Constitution and the laws, have thought to call forth, the militia of the several States of the Union, to the aggregate number of seventy-five thousand, in order to suppress said combinations, and to cause the laws to be duly executed.24
According to Lincoln, the people were urged to defend the Union and popular government in order to redress wrongs already long enough endured. The war of words had now ceased, and it was time for action. In actuality, both sides were unprepared for war. Only the Union had a navy of sorts, although it suffered from a shortage of fighting ships.
That shortage was the result of almost unbelievable negligence on the part of the Buchanan administration. Prior to the Civil War, in 1849, the navy was at its peak strength: 90 fighting ships in inventory, with 42 in active service not including store, supply, and receiving ships and supporting craft. These vessels constituted six squadrons based around the world, from the Mediterranean to the Pacific Ocean. Indeed, the United States was a world naval power.
The ascent to such status had been a long, hard climb for the navy, because the genesis of the U.S. Navy was in a group of privately owned ships usually armed with one or two guns. They were called into service and given letters of marque by the Continental Congress in March 1776. Their owners, aggressive men known as privateers, attacked British commerce vessels, robbed them, and captured them or in many cases destroyed them. As a result of privateer actions, numerous British ships were accosted on the high seas.
In spite of these energetic efforts, privateering was not enough to match the mighty squadrons of Great Britain, and warships were sorely needed to counter enemy naval strength. The Colonials would have to create some sort of viable navy. The Colonials, true to their powerful, patriotic aggressiveness, were ready to meet and solve the pressing problems. A navy, albeit a small one, somehow managed to come into being.
Historians are in agreement that the first American warship was the Hannah, a 78-ton schooner owned by John Glover of Marblehead, Massachusetts. She was taken into the fledgling Colonial navy on August 24, 1775, and armed with four 4-pounders with an army regiment as a crew.
Following the Hannah, many ships were built and crewed by the states themselves after Rhode Island adopted its famous Rhode Island Resolution on August 26, 1775, which became the first public proposal for an American fleet. The Continental navy itself consisted of four armed ships, and although they captured many prizes in British commerce ships, their light armament and shallow drafts rendered them inadequate as warships on the high seas to challenge British power.
On October 13, 1775, the Continental Congress approved a plan to outfit two vessels, Andrea Doria and Cabot. Then, on October 30, they authorized construction of two larger vessels, Alfred and Columbus. According to historian Nathan Miller, their mission was to be employed “for the protection and defense of the United Colonies.”25 That made it the official birth of the Continental navy. These ships were to fulfill the obligations of a true navy and were not to be used solely for privateering purposes, as were the ships built and sponsored by the states themselves. A seven-man Naval Committee was organized to create and nurture the navy.
After the Revolutionary War, the Congress decided that a navy was no longer needed, and it sold off the remaining ships of the fleet in 1785. But a limited resurrection began as a result of the struggle with Barbary pirates off the coast of Tripoli. These cruel sea robbers preyed on American ships and either killed or imprisoned the crews. To counter this threat, Congress voted to construct 6 warships, the names of which are legendary in the annals of naval history: Constitution, Congress, President, Chesapeake, and United States.
By 1860, the existing fleet was impressive on paper only. The inventory consisted of a fleet of 61 ships and auxiliary craft that included 12 screw sloops, 8 frigates (including five sail frigates), and 3 ships of the line. Most of the serviceable vessels were on stations around the world, and those immediately available to the newly elected president, Lincoln, were in pitiful shape and included 11 ships at the Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk, Virginia.
Most of these fine ships were being overhauled and at the time were not seaworthy for blockade duty, which was announced by the president on April 19, 1861. At Gosport, the U.S.S. Merrimack was being overhauled and awaiting a new engine, while a ship of the line, the U.S.S. Delaware, was nothing more than a floating hulk. Other vessels included two sister ships of the Merrimack, Roanoke, and Colorado, and some support vessels, all out of active service for repairs or overhaul. As for manpower, th e prewar roster of personnel consisted of 1,200 officers and 64,000 men. After the secession, 259 officers resigned or were dismissed, many of them joining the Confederate cause.
Many of the officers were graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, which was founded as a result of the inadequacy of the practice of training officers at sea. Enter George Bancroft, historian and educator, who at the time was secretary of the navy. In 1845, he realized the need for a naval training facility that was the equivalent of the army’s West Point Academy. Bancroft obtained permission from the Naval Board of Examiners to recommend the establishment of a naval school at the abandoned Fort Severn at Annapolis, along the banks of the Severn River.
With the appointment of Gideon Welles as its secretary, the navy came out of its doldrums and began to recapture its former glory and strength. Welles created the official organization of the navy that saw the establishment of the Bureau of Yards and Docks, the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, the Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography, the Bureau of Provisions and Clothing, the Bureau of Order and Detail, and the Bureau of Construction, Equipment and Repair. An assistant secretary of the navy was also added, with Gustavus Fox named the first holder of the post. Fox’s appointment, in 1861, was a wise one indeed, because he soon became the right hand of Secretary Welles and remained indispensable throughout the war.
Lincoln’s controversial blockade extended from South Carolina to Galveston, Texas. Then on April 27, after North Carolina and Virginia joined the new Confederacy, the blockade was extended northward to include those states. The feeble United States Navy was now faced with covering 3,500 miles of coastline, with 189 harbors and navigable rivers a formidable task indeed. This set the stage for one of the most ignominious events in the history of the U.S. Navy.