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12 April 1861, 3:30 A.M.
"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 the fire of his batteries on Fort Sumter in one hour from this time." For Major Robert Anderson, commanding officer of Sumter, and his besieged garrison of barely one hundred men, this demand came as no surprise. Since just after Christmas the Union soldiers in Sumter had watched as Confederate soldiers in Charleston mounted heavy guns and trained them toward the Union forces. Fort Sumter was so vulnerable: small and precariously perched on an island in the middle of the Charleston harbor. Anderson understood his plight, and so did his superiors in Washington. At best, provisions might last for a week. But if he were brought under fire, he and his men could not hold out more than a few hours. The only possible hopea forlorn onewas that the navy might be able to speed past the Confederate guns and relieve the garrison. That hope rested with ill-informed politicians and officers in Washington, who had never seen Pierre G. T. Beauregard's sturdy fortifications.
At 4:30 A.M. the Confederate batteries opened fire. Meanwhile, offshore the long-awaited Union "relief" arrived. It was a fleet of three vessels: the unarmed merchantman Baltic, the small revenue cutter Harriet Lane, and the steam frigate Pawnee. When they realized it was hopeless to try to run the Confederategauntlet, these ships tacked and steamed back and forth out of range. Their crews crowded the bulwarks, trying to catch a glimpse of the drama in the harbor.
All through the day and night the Confederate batteries kept up their fire. The masonry walls of the fort slowly crumbled while Anderson and his men did what they could to return fire. In the darkness arching mortar rounds flew over the harbor and exploded within the walls of the fort. The bombardment continued through the morning of the thirteenth. Anderson had done all that he could; it was pointless to resist. At three in the afternoon Fort Sumter raised the white flag. After the usual ceremonies the three Union vessels standing away were permitted to approach and embark the major and his garrison. The Civil War had begun.
The Union debacle at Sumter was even more of a defeat for the Union navy than it was for the army. While the army had struggled and resisted, the navy had not even fired a shot. The three navy vessels had only helped the army to retreat.
Some Americans could still remember the heady days of the War of 1812. Where, they asked, were the Stephen Decaturs, the William Bainbridges, and Isaac Hulls? Where was the courageous navy of Washington Irving's and James Fenimore Cooper's novels? In the 1840s and 1850s the navy had been the darling of the public. The navy had successfully defended the Republic against pirates in the West and East Indies, and helped spread trade and commerce; it had successfully shown the flag around the world. In an age when readers devoured travel books, officers such as Alexander Slidell Mackenzie drew considerable audiences by spinning tales of their travels to exotic climes. It was a time, observed a writer in a contemporary magazine, the American Quarterly, when "Sailors wash the tar from their hands and write verses in their log-books; midshipmen indite their own adventures; and naval commanders not content with discovering countries and winning battles, steer boldly into the ocean of literature."
High among the American navy's claims to prominence in the antebellum years was its role in scientific exploration. Spurred on by the urge to compete with other nations, the United States used its navy to explore, chart, and carry scientists to the far regions of the globe.
In 1848 Lieutenant William Lynch led a small party that surveyed the Sea of Galilee. From there, via the Jordan River, they entered the Dead Sea. Commander John Rodgers was dispatched to survey and chart the North Pacific, while Lieutenant William L. Herndon was sent off to explore the Amazon. At home Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury was appointed superintendent of the Depot of Charts and Instruments, a post from which he exerted great influence as he gathered data from merchant and naval officers. Thanks to his vast store of information, Maury could carefully chart winds and currents. He was able to direct American captains to the fastest passages to their destinations. Maury's efforts made his office an important scientific resource. And science, of course, was not the only reason for these expeditions. The presence of American warships and officers served to encourage commerce. The American navy was keen to support and encourage overseas trade, for it benefited both the nation and the navy.
The navy was also making advances and gaining public approval in its system of education. By tradition, officers in the American navy were trained on an apprentice system. A young man, usually with good family connections, was taken into the service and placed aboard ship as a midshipman. The name itself defined his position, for in the hierarchy of shipboard life this young man stood somewhere between the enlisted men in the forecastle and the officers who lived aft. His job was to learn navigation, ship handling, and the other skills necessary to command at sea. After an appropriate but indefinite period of time he would receive his commission and move into the world of the naval officer.
Not everyone, however, was pleased with this system. Some, such as Secretary of the Navy Samuel Southard, thought that naval officers were poorly educated. Shipboard training, in his view, was inadequate and uneven. In 1823 the inadequacy of the system was proved when the service had to report that of eighty-nine midshipmen, only thirty-nine had sufficient knowledge to pass an exam which led to promotion. Perhaps it was this embarrassment to the service that prompted Southard to observe in a report to Congress: "Instruction is not less necessary to the navy than to the army." The army already had West Point. What Southard wanted was an academy for the navy.
Conservatism, however, held sway, and Southard's dream of a naval academy was not realized for more than twenty years. Those opposed to an academy argued that "book learning" was not needed by seagoing officers. Senior officers saw this business of reform as an insidious attempt by civilian politicians to change their beloved navy. They, and they alone, should determine who joined the ranks of their fellow officers.
The naval academy remained only a dream cherished by reformers. Then, in December 1842, the nation was startled by the tragic events aboard the brig Somers. In September 1842 this vessel, under the command of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, had sailed from New York bound toward Africa with dispatches for the African Squadron. Though she was a small vessel, Somers was packed with a heavy crew of 120, largely a cargo of apprentice sailors. Only 9 of these men were experienced seamen.
One of the young men on board was Philip Spencer, the son of the secretary of war. Spencer's reputation was tarnished at best. As a midshipman he had been in and out of a good deal of trouble, usually involving drinking, but he had managed to stay in the service thanks to his father's influence. On the homeward voyage toward the Virgin Islands, this troublesome midshipman sowed discontent among the young and inexperienced apprentices on board the brig. Spencer's activities did not go unnoticed, and on 26 November Mackenzie ordered the midshipman seized and placed in irons. An investigation and court-martial followed; Spencer was convicted of mutiny, along with two fellow plotters. All three were hanged.
The Somers mutiny rocked the navy and spilled over into politics. Spencer had his champions, as did MacKenzie. In the midst of the raging debate over the Somers's mutiny, a general consensus emerged: Educating midshipmen entirely on board ship left a good deal to be desired. Neither education nor discipline was well served by sending inexperienced boys to sea, particularly when they were crammed into a craft like Somers. The service was finally ready for reform, and its secretary, George Bancroft, was ready to carry it out.
Bancroft was a graduate of Harvard College and the founder of the famous Round Hill School in Northampton, Massachusetts. He was probably best known, however, as the author of the multivolume History of the United States. As an experienced educator Bancroft understood the need for more professional, rigorous, and regular education for naval officers. He was also an astute politician, able to chart a fine course that would avoid opposition to reform within the service and allay Congress's parsimonious reluctance to fund reform. Through some fiscal legerdemain, Bancroft secured funds from existing appropriations to support faculty salaries. At the same time, with the cooperation of the War Department, he found a location for his new school at a little-used military facility on the Severn River in Annapolis, Maryland. Bancroft appointed Franklin Buchanan, a well-regarded and senior officer, the first superintendent. The curriculum, Bancroft specified, should consist of mathematics, nautical astronomy, theory of morals, international law, gunnery, use of steam, Spanish, French, "and other branches essential in the present day to the accomplishment of a naval officer."
On 10 October 1845 the school officially opened. By the following year, fifty-six midshipmen had enrolled. With the academy now a fait accompli, Bancroft asked Congress directly for regular appropriations to support the school. Congress agreed. Bancroft's small school on the Severn was on its way to becoming an important influence on the United States Navy.
Of all the navy's activities during the antebellum years, the best known and most popular were the expeditions of Charles Wilkes and Matthew Calbraith Perry.
In the summer of 1838 Lieutenant Charles Wilkes set forth from Norfolk on an epic voyage. With six vessels at his command, he was under orders to explore various parts of the Pacific and to push into the South Polar seas. Known officially as the United States Exploring Expedition, Wilkes's venture was the most important scientific undertaking conducted by the American navy in the nineteenth century. The voyage lasted nearly four years, covered more than eighty-five thousand miles, charted 280 islands, collected thousands of scientific specimens, and sightedat lastthe Antarctic continent. Wilkes's reports were published and widely read.
Equally well known was Perry's expedition to Japan, an event that changed the destiny of two nations. Leaving from Norfolk in November 1852 with a squadron consisting of the side-wheel steamers Mississippi and Susquehanna and the sailing sloops Plymouth and Saratoga, Perry entered Tokyo Bay in July 1853 to begin efforts at opening relations with the Japanese. Impressed by Perry's firm and dignified manner and alert to their own interests, Japanese officials accepted a letter from President Millard Fillmore to the emperor. Perry then informed them that he would return in the spring to receive a response to the president's letter.
In mid-February Perry returned with a force even more powerful than the original. Dropping anchor, this time off Yokohama, Perry entered into three weeks of elaborate negotiations designed to impress the Japanese. It worked, and on 31 March he signed the Treaty of Kanagawa, which opened the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate to American trade and promised fair treatment for shipwrecked American sailors. Having completed his mission, Perry returned home in triumph. Not to be outdone by Wilkes, he spent the remaining three years of his life preparing his three-volume Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan ... 1852-1853, and 1854....
While collecting scientific data, charting oceans, and negotiating treaties were laudatory and useful ventures, they were not the navy's principal mission. As always, its first assignment was to defend the nation at sea. But it had rarely been called upon to perform its first duty. Although some officers who were to play key roles in the Civil War, such as Raphael Semmes and David Dixon Porter, did get a taste of combat in the Mexican War (1846-1848), it was tantalizingly brief. For the most part it was the army that fought Mexico, leaving the navy to play a very supporting role. Putting down random attacks of piracyanother peacetime occupationrequired no great force either. Lulled by the comfort of peace, the navy ignored many of the technological advances which were being made overseas in gunnery, armor, and propulsion, advances that were changing the face of war at sea.
Contemporary European commentators were apt to write off the American navy because of both its small size and its lack of modern ships and weapons. In the 1850s, for example, paddle wheels were still popular in the American navy, though it had become clear how vulnerable they were to enemy fire. One British observer remarked that the American navy was the last one still planning to sail into battle in side-wheelers. Even the more modern screw-propelled steamers in the fleetMerrimack, Roanoke, and Minnesotawere criticized by sophisticated foreign observers. One British reviewer noted that the screw frigate Niagara had "no beauty to recommend her." Beauty or not, though, the steam frigates at least were a far step ahead of side-wheelers and sailing frigates. Their one big handicap, which revealed itself after 1861, was their deep draft. Designed as blue water craft, ready to assail the seaborne trade of any would-be enemy, these frigates drew too much water to allow them to come in close to shore, where they might help blockade ports.
In the matter of armament, the navy had made some strides, thanks primarily to John Dahlgren. Dahlgren, an expert on ordnance, entered the navy in 1824. It was he who designed the large-bore guns, nine inches and eleven inches, capable of hurling both solid and shell shot, which armed the navy's vessels at mid-century. While Dahlgren's guns were placed aboard, senior officers still insisted, against his advice, on putting a variety of guns in each broadside. This resulted in supply problems since various shot were required for each size gun. It also raised the possibility in drill or battle "of mismatching powder charges and projectiles." Dahlgren also recommended the use of rifled guns, but more senior officers resisted the innovation.
In retrospect, however, the most glaring mistake of the U.S. Navy in the years before the Civil War was its reluctance to recognize the overwhelming superiority of armoredthat is, ironcladvessels. The Crimean War (1854-1856) had provided bloody proof that exploding shot could annihilate wooden hulls. Anyone needing further evidence had only to look at the experience of the Russians. In 1853 the Russians, with modern shell guns, destroyed a Turkish fleet of wooden vessels at Sinope in the Black Sea. Two years later the victors found themselves the vanquished at the Battle of Fort Kinburn near the mouth of the Dnieper River. The French attacked the Russians in the fort with three crude ironclad floating batteries, Devastation, Lave, and Tonnant. The three rafts stood only eight hundred yards off the fort. Within a few hours they had totally demolished Fort Kinburn, with almost no damage to themselves, despite more than two hundred direct hits from Russian guns. The lesson was unmistakable. Assessing the situation, one naval writer noted that "it would be impossible to find men stupid enough to go into action against this new form of gunnery in unprotected ships, and that he who compelled men to do so would be guilty of a crime." In subsequent years all European navies equipped themselves with armored vessels and shell guns.
The navy needed modern ships and armaments; chiefly, however, it needed leadership. The civilian secretaries changed with each administration; during the 1840s and 1850s the average secretary served less than two years. He could hardly be expected to provide the kind of long-term guidance which the neglected navy required. Even when a secretary offered sensible leadership, his program often ended with his tenure. Real control of the service rested in the bureaucratic system. Since 1842 five bureaus, all reporting to the secretary, held administrative responsibility for the navy: Construction, Equipment, and Repair; Medicine and Surgery; Ordinance and Hydrography; Supplies and Accounts; and Yards and Docks. Each bureau, under the direction of a senior officer, became something of an independent satrapy, and short-term civilian secretaries were ill prepared to deal with such firmly entrenched and wily bureaucrats.
The American navy on the eve of the Civil War was light of head and weak in the body. In battle it was by no means a match for its European counterparts, but that was not its mission. It had defended American rights in distant places, kept order when necessary, and conveyed scientists and diplomats on important journeys. Unfortunately what was acceptable in peace proved wholly inadequate in war.
President James Buchanan was as weak as his navy. He merely stood by, wringing his hands, while the Union disintegrated. On 20 December 1860 South Carolina voted to leave the Union. In January Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana joined the Palmetto State. In February Texas left. With the Deep South gone and the Upper South (Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina) wavering, the Union was effectively dissolved, yet Buchanan did virtually nothing. In early February delegates from the seceding states met in Montgomery, Alabama, and formed a new government, the Confederate States of America. They elected Jefferson Davis of Mississippi its president.
While the authorities in Montgomery moved vigorously to create a new government, a sluggish feebleness infected Washington. President-elect Lincoln, who was not to take the oath until 4 March, could do little to stop its course. Two departments in particular, critical to the preservation of the Union, felt Buchanan's flaccid hand: the War Department and the Navy Department.
Some contemporaries suggested that more than simple bewilderment and ineptness had paralyzed the War Department. Accusations of treachery were directed at the secretary, John B. Floyd. This former governor of Arkansas and ardent states' rights Democrat was alleged to have made sure that Federal arsenals in the South were well stocked with munitions before he casually surrendered them to Confederate authorities.
The situation in the Navy Department was somewhat different. Clearly, Secretary Isaac Toucey, a Connecticut Democrat with southern sympathies, was not a knave; he was simply a fool. With a crisis so apparent and so long in coming, any prudent secretary would have called his vessels home. Toucey, however, left his navy scattered across the globe. Twenty-seven vesselsmore than half the American navywere on foreign station: in the East Indies, in the Mediterranean, off Brazil, on the African coast, and in the Pacific. Had Toucey acted more wisely, a sizable fleet might have been concentrated at key southern locations before the Confederates had time to erect powerful fortifications. The secretary's failure to act in time provided the Confederates ample opportunity to prepare a warm welcome for any would-be naval intruder.
Congress noted Toucey's misconduct. Only two days before Lincoln took office it voted "censure" against the secretary. It was a small penalty for such gross negligence.
Meanwhile, at home in Illinois Lincoln was trying to assemble a more effective government. The new secretary of the navy would be a critical ally. Lincoln needed to find someone who was both competent and politically acceptable. The latter would be the most difficult quality to find. The Republican party was still quite new, and it was riven by factions. The party was a fragile coalition united only by the fear of an expanding southern slave power. Free-Soilers, Democrats, and Whigs ranked among its members, and Lincoln needed to be mindful of all factions if he wished to govern effectively. To alienate any one element of the party was to risk collapsing the entire structure. For this reason Lincoln insisted that his cabinet must reflect the composition of the party. As he looked about for a secretary of the navy, he took notice of an old Democratic wheelhorse, Gideon Welles of Connecticut.
Welles was born in 1802 in Glastonbury, Connecticut, into a reasonably prosperous family. After his graduation from the local Cheshire Academy, he went to visit relatives in Pennsylvania. While traveling, he took to writing descriptions of the places he visited and people he met. Several of these sketches were picked up and published by the New York Mirror. But writing was hardly a respectable or rewarding career, and once he was back in Connecticut, his family insisted that he find a profession with more status. Welles floated amid business ventures and small-town politics, served a stint as a sergeant in the militia, and was once the Fourth of July orator. Then, in 1824, he made a bold decision. Though he was surrounded by Federalists, he threw in his political lot with the Democrat Andrew Jackson. He was now, and remained at heart for the rest of his life, a Jacksonian Democrat.
The new Democrat allied himself with another Connecticut politician, John Niles, publisher of the Hartford Times and Weekly Advertiser. Niles, who recognized Welles's skill as a writer, put him to work churning out biting editorials. Those who felt the sting of his pen called him an "illiberal pedagogue," but Welles also earned respect as a partisan editor. Together Welles and Niles assembled a powerful Democratic party organization in Connecticut. In 1829, thanks to his support of Jackson, Niles became postmaster of Hartford. In 1835 Niles was elected U.S. senator, and Welles moved into the postmastership. Welles lost his job with the Whig victory of William Henry Harrison in 1840 but then recouped in 1844, when his support of the victorious Democrat, James K. Polk, was rewarded with an appointment to the Navy Department. Four years later, when the Whigs and Zachary Taylor came to power, Welles returned to Connecticut politics in the pages of the Hartford Times.
Like many northern Democrats, Welles supported the doctrine of states' rights, but he disapproved of the apparent southern desire to nationalize the institution of slavery. Saddened at the direction his party was taking, he broke publicly with the Democrats in 1855 and joined the newly formed Republican party. The following year he accepted the party's nomination for governor. It was a race he was sure to lose, but he won national attention in the process. His efforts earned him a seat on the Republican National Committee, which ensured him a critical place at the party convention in 1860. There he opposed Lincoln in favor of Salmon P. Chase, a candidate even more clearly opposed to slavery.
Excerpted from UNDER TWO FLAGS by William M. Fowler, Jr.. Copyright © 1990 by William M. Fowler Jr.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.
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