Fought on November 7, 1861, the Union victory at the Battle of Port Royal established a base of operations for the Union naval blockade of South Atlantic seaports throughout the Civil War.
Three days after the surrender of Fort Sumter and the beginning of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a naval blockade of all Southern ports. Lincoln’s goal was inspired by the Anaconda Plan, a scheme devised by General Winfield Scott to strangle the Confederacy economically by restricting commerce with foreign nations.
Implementation of the blockade compelled the War Department to establish naval squadrons operating in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic Seacoast in May 1861. Commanded by Flag Officer Silas H. Stringham, the Atlantic Blockading Squadron (originally known as the Coast Blockading Squadron) policed the seaboard from the Chesapeake Bay to Key West, Florida. In October 1861, the Navy divided the Atlantic Blockading Squadron to form the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron and the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Washington officials charged the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, commanded by Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont, with patrolling the coastal waters from the North Carolina-South Carolina border to Southern Florida. Du Pont’s jurisdiction included the Confederacy’s two preeminent ports of Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia.
On October 29, 1861, Du Pont’s squadron of seventeen warships and twenty-five coaling schooners steamed out of Hampton Roads, Virginia, and set course for Port Royal, South Carolina, on the Atlantic seaboard between Charleston and Savannah. Besides the flag officer’s 600 marines, the flotilla also included thirty-three transports, carrying approximately 12,000 soldiers commanded by Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman.
As the Union blockade began to materialize, Confederate officials were busily constructing provisional fortifications along the Southern coast. In anticipation of an attempt to take Port Royal Sound, Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard ordered the construction of two forts at the mouth of the sound.
Colonel R. G. M. Dunovant commanded Fort Beauregard at Bay Point on Philips Island on the north side of the sound. Armed with twenty cannon, the fort garrisoned roughly 640 Confederate soldiers.
Three miles across the water to the south, Colonel William C. Heyward commanded Fort Walker, located on the north end of Hilton Head Island. Armed with twenty-three guns, the fort garrisoned 622 Rebels, reinforced by another 1,000 soldiers who arrived just before the battle began.
The only Confederate naval presence in the area comprised a converted river steamer, and three tugs, each armed with two or three guns.
Brigadier General Thomas F. Drayton commanded the overall defenses of Port Royal Sound from his headquarters on Hilton Head Island. Highlighting the division of families during the Civil War, Drayton’s brother, Commander Percival Drayton, captained the USS Pocahontas, one of Du Pont’s warships.
Although General Drayton had over forty cannons at his disposal, they ultimately proved insufficient because many of them were light with short-range and manned by under-trained troops.
Originally planned as a combined army-navy campaign, Du Pont’s mission was to seize Port Royal Sound (described by the Navy’s Blockade Board as the “finest harbor south of Chesapeake Bay”) and establish a coaling station for his steamers and a base of operations for his squadron. The navy’s role was to engage the two Confederate forts, diverting enough attention to enable Sherman’s troops to establish a beachhead and overpower the Rebels by land.
The plan had to be altered after November 1, 1861, when hurricane-force winds scattered the squadron as it passed by Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The storm claimed several transports carrying the army’s landing craft. In addition, when the fleet began reassembling near the mouth of Port Royal Sound the next day, the ship Ocean Express, bearing all the army’s ammunition was missing. Deprived of his landing craft and adequate ammunition, Sherman, understandably, reneged on the original plan.
Unwilling to end the operation, Du Pont collaborated with his flag captain, C.H. Davis, and developed a revised plan. The new stratagem called for the navy to silence the two Confederate forts, thereby enabling Sherman’s soldiers to go ashore unopposed.
Du Pont’s squadron was reassembled enough by November 4, 1861, to spend three days preparing to implement the new plan. Fortune smiled on the flotilla as it moved into action on the morning of November 7. As Confederate General Drayton later recalled, there was “not a ripple 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, to vomit forth its iron hail.”
The squadron began advancing toward the mouth of the sound in two parallel columns at roughly 9:00 a.m. At 9:17, the Wabash led Du Pont’s nine heaviest ships in a line near the middle of the sound. To the right, five gunboats passed closer to Fort Beauregard. The fighting began at 9:26 when cannoneers at Fort Walker fired a shell at the Wabash, which failed to detonate.
As the paltry Rebel flotilla offered only token resistance before beating a hasty retreat, the two Union columns began effectively shelling Fort Beauregard as they passed by. Frustrated by the moving targets, the mostly inexperienced Rebel gunners, who were firing inferior weapons, inflicted little damage on the Yankees.
After passing beyond their effective shelling range, the squadron’s five gunboats peeled off to the left and began firing on Fort Walker. Meanwhile, Du Pont turned his nine ships about and returned toward the mouth of the sound, firing on Fort Walker as they passed. They then turned about and reentered the sound, thereby creating an elliptical pattern. Du Pont repeated the circuit three times. With each pass Du Pont widened his course closer to his targets and changed his speed, further confusing the Rebel artillerists while improving the accuracy of his own fire.
The intrepid Confederates held out for roughly four hours before running low on ammunition and abandoning Fort Walker. At 2:20 p.m., a naval landing party hoisted the Stars-and-Stripes over the deserted bastion. Shortly thereafter, the Confederates also abandoned Fort Beauregard. By sundown, General Sherman’s 12,000 Union soldiers garrisoned in both Confederate Forts.
Human losses at the Battle of Port Royal were trifling by Civil War standards. The Union squadron suffered only thirty-one casualties (eight dead and twenty-three wounded) during the four hours of fighting. Confederate losses totaled sixty-three (eleven dead, forty-eight wounded and four missing).
The Union victory at Port Royal established a base of operations for the federal navy that would facilitate efforts to isolate the South throughout the war. Although the blockade was never completely effective, it undoubtedly created hardships for the Confederate military, as well as for Southern residents. Federal troops also occupied Hilton Head Island, which served as headquarters for the Union’s mostly unsuccessful operations against Charleston and Savannah during the war.
Immediately following the successful invasion, Union forces moved inland and most residents of nearby Beaufort, South Carolina, abandoned the town. When Sherman’s soldiers filled the void, Beaufort assumed the unenviable mantle of becoming the first Southern city to be occupied by Federal troops. That development was an important morale booster for the Northern public that was still in shock following the stunning Confederate victory at the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861.
In addition to the evacuation of Beaufort, many neighboring, wealthy plantation owners abandoned their estates. The thousands of slaves left behind created complicated logistical problems for the Union military. The Lincoln administration’s efforts to establish policies for dealing with countless African Americans who were neither slaves nor citizens created a developmental laboratory for shaping social, political, economic, and educational Reconstruction practices that would prove useful after the war.