President Lincoln Confers about Charleston Situation

April 12, 1863

Worried about the Union attack on the port of Charleston, South Carolina, President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton meet at the Navy Department near the White House.   Navy Secretary Gideon Welles subsequently reports that Union forces commanded by Admiral Samuel Du Pont have been repulsed.  As presidential aide John G. Nicolay subsequently writes home regarding

….the late fight there.  The Admiral and other officers there the day after the attack came to the conclusion it was a failure and resolved to abandon it.  I can hardly understand why they came to this determination so son, for after all the damage done us was very slight….To counterbalance the sinking of our ship and the trifling derangement of some Monitors, we had tested their comparative invulnerability and had found and secured possession of a safe and important anchorage inside Charlton Bar, from which we could greatly lessen the line of blockade, and more important than all it substantially commanded a part at least of Morris Island enabling us to gain a lodgment there by landing troops, and beginning a series of siege operations that might of themselves render Fort Sumpter untenable.  This advantage was partially thrown away by the subsequent withdrawal of the whole iron-clad fleet, leaving the enemy undisturbed in the work of erecting new batteries, which they began, even bbefore we left, to protect that only weak point in their defences.  I am inclined to hink Admiral Du Pont has ere this discovered that he made a mistake in thus leaving….”

President Lincoln was beginning to lose confidence in Admiral Du Pont. Historian John Niven wrote that Navy Commander Alexander C. Rhind to explain his actions: “On the evening of April 12, Rhind reported to the Navy Department.  He handed Du Pont’s preliminary report to the anxious Welles.  After scanning its few lines, Welles asked the bearded, impassive Rhind if he would care to elaborate.  He would, indeed.  Words tumbled from his lips so rapidly that Welles knew the officer’s nerves were on edge Yet here was an eyewitness account from a commander whose vessel had been closest to FortSumter and had suffered the most damage.  Welles felt that Lincoln should hear Rhind’s story.  While the nervously voluble officer was describing the action of his ship to the attentive President, Fox and Summer appeared.  When Rhind began a severe indictment of the monitors, Fox interrupted him, stating that they were not designed to engage in duels with heavy fortifications.  Du Pont had been expected to run his ironclad fleet by them.  Rhind said that was impossible because of the obstructions and the torpedoes.  Sumner asked curtly why they had not been removed.  ‘I cannot answer for the others: I did not remove any simply because I could not,’ said Rhind.  ‘Well, Joe Hooker will have to take Charleston,’ said Sumner contemptuously.  ‘Is he going down in an ironclad?’ asked Rhind, his voice heavy with sarcasm, his temper rising.  The distressed Welles managed to intervene and terminate the discussion, which he felt impolitic and impractical.  Throughout Lincoln remained impassive, but he had reached a decision.”

President Lincoln responds to a letter from General Joseph Hooker, commander of the Army of the Potomac, who had written: “”After giving the subject my best reflection, I have concluded that I will have more chance of inflicting a serious blow upon the Enemy by turning his position to my right, and if practicable to sever his communication with Richmond with my Dragoon force, and such Batteries as it maybe deemed advisable to send with them.  I am apprehensive that he will retire from before me the moment I should succeed in crossing the river, and over the shortest line to Richmond, and thus escape being seriously crippled.”

I hope that when the Cavalry have established themselves on the line between him and Richmond, they will be able to hold him and check his retreat until I can fall on his rear–or if not that, I will compel him to fall back the way of Culpepper, and Gordonsville over a longer line than my own with his supplies cut off.

‘The Cavalry will probably cross the river above the Rappahanock bridge, thence to Culpepper and Gordonsville, and across to the Aquia Railroad somewhere in the vicinity of Hanover Court House. They will probably have a fight in the vicinity of Culpepper, but not one that should cause them much delay or embarassment.

‘I have given directions for the Cavalry to be in readiness to commence the movement on Monday morning next.  While the Cavalry are moving, I shall threaten the passage of river at various points, and after they have passed well to the Enemies rear, shall endeavor to effect the crossing.

I hope Mr. President, that this plan will receive your approval.  It will obviate the necessity of detaching a force from Washington in the direction of Warrenton, while I think it will enhance my chances for inflicting a heavy blow upon the enemies forces.

We have no news for over the river today, the enemy refusing to let us have the newspaper.

I sincerely trust that you reached home safely, and in good time yesterday.

We all look back to your visit with great satisfaction.’

President Lincoln writes: “Your letter, by the hand of General Butterfield, is received, and will be conformed to.  The thing you dispense with would have been ready by midday to-morrow.”

Published in: on April 12, 2013 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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