Battle of Port
On the morning of November 7, 1861, Du Pont's flagship, the Wabash led the
fleet into action. As the Union vessels near the sound Confederate
batteries at Forts Walker and Beauregard opened fire. Du Pont, having sent
ships to test the enemy's capabilities the day before, concentrated most
of his fire on the more heavily armed Fort Walker.
For several hours Union warships dueled the Confederate forts. Shells
ripped through Fort Walker, dismounting guns, and killing or wounding some
of the garrison. Though valiantly served, the Confederate guns did little
harm to the constantly moving ships.
Cutting the Lifeline
At the outset of the Civil War, Federal strategists knew that a naval
blockade of southern ports was crucial to stop the influx of supplies from
abroad which the South depended upon to conduct war. It would also slow
the exportation of goods funding the South.
Situated between the seaports of Savannah and Charleston, Port Royal Sound
was an excellent base from which to carry out a naval blockade.
Confederate planners knew the importance of Port Royal Sound. To defend it
they constructed two large, earthen forts at its entrance; Fort Walker on
Hilton Head Island and Fort Beauregard on Bay Point. Combined they mounted
nearly 50 guns.
A Difficult Passage
On October 29, 1861 the largest fleet yet assembled by the United States,
under the command of Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont, set sail from Hampton
Roads, Virginia. Nearly 13,000 soldiers and Marines accompanied the17
warships, 25 coaling schooners and 33 transports, but their destination
had been kept secret.
Three days out to sea, a tremendous gale off Cape Hatteras scattered the
fleet and four ships were lost. Opening sealed orders provided in the
event the convoy was dispersed, each vessel plotted its own course to a
rendezvous point off Port Royal Sound. By November 3, the majority of the
squadron had arrived.
Preparing the Attack
As the Union fleet assembled, it was first challenged by four Confederate
vessels commanded by Josiah Tattnall. Vastly out-armed, the Southern
gunboats continued to contest the advance Union warships for two days
while Du Pont positioned the fleet against General Thomas Drayton's
Du Pont's innovative plan divided his warships into two parallel
squadrons. The vessels would sail into Port Royal Sound between two enemy
forts. Once past the defenses, one column would guard against Confederate
gunboats while the other circled back in an elliptical maneuver,
bombarding the forts into submission.
Brother Against Brother
In a war of divided loyalties, sometimes brother did face brother in
battle. Thomas Drayton's younger brother, Percival Drayton, commanded the
Pocahontas, which fired more than 70 rounds in one hour at his brother's
troops on shore. Confederate Colonel John A. Wagener described the battle
from his vantage point at Fort Walker: "The enemy had chosen a day which
was entirely propitious to him. The water was smooth as glass. The air was
just sufficient to blow the smoke of his guns into our faces, where it
would meet the column of our own smoke and prevent our sight excepting by
glimpses. No sooner did we obtain his range when it would be changed, and
time after time rechanged, while the deep water permitted him to choose
his own position and fire shot after shot and shell after shell with the
precision of target practice."
Southern resistance continued until mid afternoon when their ammunition
ran low, and little damage had been inflicted on the attacking fleet. With
many of their guns dismounted, and in danger of being trapped. the
decision was made to abandon Forts Walker and Beauregard and retreat
inland. Port Royal Sound had been secured by the Union.
For the remainder of the war the area served as Union headquarters for the
army's Department of the South and navy's South Atlantic Blockading
Squadron, which patrolled the South Carolina, Georgia and east Florida
Sponsor- Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island