April 7, 1863: First Battle of Chaleston Harbor

Fort Sumter

For a brief period in the Civil War it was commonly thought that ironclads were such a revolutionary feature in naval and amphibious warfare that their mere presence ensured victory.  That period ended abruptly with the first battle of Charleston Harbor on April 7, 1863.  Throughout the War Charleston was the great white whale for the Union, not only as an important port, but also the gem of South Carolina, the home of secession.  Charleston would not fall until February 18, 1865 as a result of Sherman’s march through South Carolina, by which time the War was irrevocably lost in any case.  The siege of Charleston lasted 567 days, and is the epic American siege of our history.

Rear Admiral Samuel Francis DuPont had seven monitors under his command.  He did not share the assumptions of his superiors that the monitors, along with two additional ironclads, could batter the forts and batteries that ringed Charleston Harbor into submission.  Dupont’s doubts quickly were found to be accurate.  Two hours of bombardment did not enable the Union fleet to penetrate the first line of Confederate defenses.  Realizing he was getting nowhere, Dupont withdrew.  USS Keokuk sank that evening.  Casualties were slight:  1 killed and 21 wounded for the Union and 5 killed and 8 wounded for the Confederates.  Dupont and his captains decided not to renew the attack the next day.  Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles was appalled, and Dupont was relieved from command on July 5, 1863.  This section of a dispatch from a New York Times correspondent with the fleet, captures well the air of unreality of this attack: (more…)