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The “Second Front” of the American Civil War

Civil War

The “Second Front” of the American Civil War

Naval operations along the Confederate coastline played a deciding factor in the outcome of the war, but it had "many fathers."

Naval operations along the Confederate coastline played a deciding factor in the outcome of the war, but it had "many fathers."

by Pedro Garcia

In the artificial quiet following the Union army defeat at the battle of Bull Run in July 1861, U.S. naval strategists, moving along unexplored paths toward a new and more effective blockade, stumbled, by trial and error, upon the discovery that command of the sea—which the Union Navy enjoyed—could be used for opening new land fronts along the miles of Confederate coasts and inland waterways. In effect, Union army strategists could set up a true invasion by sea, a “second front” that would complement the overland drive from the Union and border states south to control Confederate territory. This second front would be a series of major interforce operations that would be developed so steadily, so relentlessly, and in such a ubiquitous way that it could threaten disaster for the South. This idea of an amphibious strategy, which was a decisive element in defeating the South, had “many fathers.”

For example, one cannot deny that old General-in-Chief Winfield Scott’s earliest idea of strangling the Confederacy by blockading it along the Atlantic coast, the Gulf of Mexico, and the rivers, even if basically a passive one, had at its base an intuition of a new use of combined naval and land power. Although he had relied “greatly on the sure operation of a complete blockade of Atlantic and Gulf ports,” such a blockade to this time had proved to be ineffective. To address the problem of the blockade, the Navy created what amounted to a true operations office, a “Blockade Board” appointed by Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles in May 1861. The board, whose importance has usually been underrated by historians, included representatives of the Army, Navy, and Coast Survey.

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Bisecting the Country

The board soon prepared 10 reports and memos that outlined hydrographic conditions along the southern coast and specific points to seize as bases for refueling and maintenance. This turned out to be indispensable intelligence because, for one, of the hurricanes that between May and November can furiously pound the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic shores, thus making intermittent safe harbors of vast importance. Accordingly, there emerged a strategic orientation to operate against the extensive, vulnerable, and (at least for the time being) poorly defended seacoasts of the Confederacy. The Navy enabled Federal troops to establish themselves around the Confederate Army’s periphery, to stab into the interior, to threaten the railroad along the Atlantic coast, and to play a major role in bisecting the country down the line of the Mississippi River. The board’s concern for bases along the southern coastline resulted in expeditions to occupy Hatteras Inlet, N.C.; Port Royal, S.C.; Fernandina, Fla.; and Ship Island, off the Mississippi coast.

Although the U.S. Army was represented on the board and supplied units for expeditions, evidence suggests that it looked at the landings as no more than naval enterprises. “We separate in our minds the two enterprises of a purely military expedition and an expedition the principal design of which is the establishment of a naval station for promoting the efficiency of the blockade. We shall have the honor to present plans for both expeditions; but we will begin with the latter, premising, however, that we think both of them should be conducted simultaneously,” stated one report in July 1861. The Army, at least initially, showed little interest in using the seized enclaves as beachheads to secure objectives inland. Be that as it may, these operations were the genesis of the initial combined operations along, first, the southern coastline and, second, the southern “river coastline,” that is, along the Mississippi.

Seizure of Hatteras Inlet

The seizure of Hatteras Inlet, which leads into North Carolina’s Pamlico Sound, was the first sizable combined operation along the Atlantic coastline. Based on information that the Confederates were fortifying the place as a base for privateers, the Blockade Board recommended the action. On August 29, 1861, a small naval force under the command of Flag Officer Silas Stringham, a 42-year veteran of the Navy, heavily bombarded and forced the surrender of Forts Hatteras and Clark, which protected the inlet. This made redundant the 860 Union troops under the command of Maj. Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler, but the bloodless—for the Union—victory was welcome. Both garrisons, including Flag Officer Samuel Barron, C.S. Navy, in charge of the coastal defenses of Virginia and North Carolina, were taken prisoner.

Although the shelling of Port Royal received far more attention then and later, the heavy bombardment against the Hatteras forts clearly demonstrated the strength of naval gunfire against shore batteries. As a noted naval historian observed, “This was an important action if only because it was the first of its kind.” A few days later, when a Union expedition from the new base at Fort Hatteras seized and destroyed another Confederate work that protected Ocracoke Inlet and landed troops near the small town of Portsmouth, they found that the local people, overwhelmed by fear, had fled en masse. A feeling of dismay and deep distress permeated the South, but worse was yet to come.

Setting Sail for South Carolina

Less than two months later, in late October 1861, a great expedition of 15 war vessels and 36 transports commanded by Flag Officer Samuel Francis Du Pont and carrying on board Brig. Gen. Thomas Sherman with a corps of 12,653 soldiers set sail for South Carolina. Du Pont had assumed command of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron in September, when the Navy divided the Atlantic Squadron. Undoubtedly, a major factor in the decision to appoint him to the command was that, while head of the Blockade Board, he had a major role in preparing this expedition. Du Pont, a member of a well-known Delaware business family, although not an aggressive officer, was thoroughly able and competent and enjoyed the respect of his peers.

The expedition, with ships already earmarked for the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, appeared off Port Royal, S.C., on November 5. After a heavy bombardment of four hours, Forts Walker and Beauregard fell, and on the 7th the small town of Port Royal lay open to Union troops. On the 9th, the newly landed Federals seized the town of Beaufort. The Navy considered the Port Royal expedition the first step in providing blockading vessels with repair and coaling facilities along the south Atlantic coast. The second step was the seizure of Fernandina, Fla., on March 3, 1862. Union troops then marched into Jacksonville and St. Augustine, in the home state of the Confederate Secretary of the Navy, Stephen Mallory.

Expedition to Roanoke Island

During September 1861, Union Maj. Gen. George McClellan approved an expedition to capture Roanoke Island, N.C. Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, who originated the idea (both he and McClellan claimed it), commanded a corps of 15,000 soldiers, which he had recruited and trained. Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, who in September had replaced Silas Stringham in command of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, led the great expedition of 70 warships and transports that set sail on the night of January 11, 1862.

Both men conducted a skillful operation. On February 7 and 8, Burnside’s troops, under the protective fire of Union warships, landed in waves similar to the pattern later used in the Pacific during World War II. Goldsborough’s warships also battered two forts into submission, and on the 9th destroyed a diminutive Confederate flotilla of seven gunboats in nearby Elizabeth City. The seizure of Roanoke Island, where in the 16th century the first English colony in North America had been settled, assured the occupation of eastern North Carolina; strengthened the blockade, particularly in the North Carolina sounds; and was a factor in the Confederate evacuation of Norfolk, Va., to the north.

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