The Generals and Admirals: Samuel F. Du Pont (1803-1865)
Civil War admiral who commanded the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. He performed well but was held responsible for an unsuccessful attack on Charleston, South Carolina using ironclads.
When the Civil War broke out, Samuel F. Du Pont took the initiative to protect Washington by sending naval vessels in Chesapeake Bay. During the summer and early fall of 1861, Du Pont cemented a close relationship with Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus V. Fox, according to Du Pont biographer James M. Merrill. Merrill noted that Du Pont began “exercising considerable influence with the Navy Department. Fox had confidence in his judgment, and the two men commenced a friendship, based on an appreciation of each other’s qualities.“11 Historian William M. Fowler, Jr., wrote that Secretary of the Navy Gideon “Welles and Fox were aware of Du Pont’s talents. Early in August...they had approached him about an important mission: the seizure of a port along the coast of Souther Carolina.” Although Port Royal was considered too heavily fortified to be a good target, Welles and Fox focused on the utility of its deep harbor.”2
Commodore Du Pont was put in charge of the naval component of a planned army-navy operation to establish a Union beachhead in South Carolina, but he ran into conflict with another amphibious expedition further north to be led by General Ambrose Burnside. Historian Thomas J. Goss wrote: “While contributing to the training and organization of the Army of the Potomac, Burnside talked to McClellan and Lincoln about his next assignment. Eager for a larger military role, he proposed the formation of an amphibious division for operations along the coast of the Carolinas. The president warmed to the idea and sent Burnside to New England in September 1861 to recruit men with experience at sea for this specific mission. Burnside was very successful at this new task and met his quota for new regiments even though his recruiting drive occurred at the same time as Butler’s similar campaign in New England.”3
Meanwhile, governmental confusion reigned in Washington and Du Pont was ordered to come to Washington from New York, where he was preparing a Union fleet to move south. The joint expedition under command of Du Pont and General Thomas W. Sherman collided with the Burnside effort on October 1, 1861. President Lincoln was scheduled to meet with Fox at the home of Secretary of State Seward across from the White House. As Du Pont related his Washington meeting: “I had been looking for Sherman but could not find him, but encountered Fox, who exclaimed and said I was just in time to go with him to Mr. Seward’s where the President was, to have a final discussion on the expedition – just as if it had not been settled six times that it was to go.” Seward’s home was across Lafayette Park from the White House and near the War Department.
We found Lincoln and Seward, the former not making me out much and wondering why I had been brought in. Fox, discovering this, reminded the President I was the naval commander of the expedition. Seward. pokes a cigar at Fox who, sitting on the same sofa with Lincoln, puffs the smoke into the President’s eyes. Meantime there is a desperate hunt going on all over town for certain individuals required for the conference, viz, Secretary of War Simon Cameron, General George B. McClellan, and General Thomas Sherman. The Assistant Secretary of State and Assistant Secretary of War have this interesting mission to perform; they look in now and then to see if anyone has arrived, take up another trail and continue the hunt, and finally return declaring they had been to every conceivable place but could find no one – whereupon old Seward in an emphatic but melancholy tone exclaims, ‘There’s nobody nowhere tonight!’ After a while the Secretary of War appears; soon after Sherman, who had gone to be early and refused to get up, until told the President wanted him.
Du Pont biographer James M. Merrill wrote: “As the meeting progressed, Lincoln appeared in ‘a great hurry’ to end it. Although he expressed little hope for the expedition, he was vexed by the delays, and badgered Welles to get the amphibious forced underway in four days.5 On October 7, General Sherman wrote Secretary of State Seward: "Capt Dupont [sic] says to get such vessels that will ensure success he will be unable to leave New York before Tuesday next...”6
Historian John Niven wrote: “At New York, where Du Pont had gone to supervise the last details of fleet organization, Fox planted the idea of Port Royal in the Flag Officer’s mind. Welles was careful to include Port Royal in the instructions he issued Du Pont on October 12, but the decision was still left in the Flag Officer’s hands.
On October 16 the fleet left New York for Hampton Roads, where it would rendezvous with the transports and auxiliary vessels, which would total more than 70 ships. While at sea, Du Pont had almost convinced himself that Port Royal should be the objective. Fox banished all doubts when the fleet arrived at Hampton Roads on October 23. He insisted upon Port Royal. Six days later the largest and certainly the most heterogeneous fleet ever organized by the United States sailed out of Hampton Roads — course south southeast.”77 Du Pont’s armada left Hampton Roads on October 29, carrying 12,000 Union troops. It ran into a vicious storm off Cape Hatteras, destroying some ships and scattering the rest. Nevertheless, the fleet regrouped off Port Royal on November 4. The port was captured on November 6 – providing a promising start for Du Pont’s tour as the head of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Du Pont confided to Assistant Secretary Fox: “During the disheartening events of our passage, my faith never gave way, but at some moments it seemed appalling. On the other hand I permit no elation at our success. Yet I cannot refrain telling you that it has been more complete and more brilliant than I ever could have believed.”9
The pressure to take Charleston and avenge the surrender of Fort Sumter grew during late 1862 and early 1863. Du Pont biographer James M. Merrill wrote: “The North craved a naval victory at Charleston. The union army under General McClellan was stalemated in Virginia. General Lee stopped the Federal advance up the Yorktown Peninsula in the Seven Days’ Battle.”99 Du Pont was ordered back to Washington in late September to meet with Lincoln Administration officials. Although Du Pont believed that army support was needed to capture Charleston, Fox maintained that Charleston could be taken by the navy without assistance . “The assistant secretary insisted that the monitors were invulnerable, argued that success depended on the Navy alone, and discarded the idea of a joint operation,” wrote Merrill. Du Pont’s “stubborn silence convinced both Welles and Fox that the admiral’s views coincided with their own and the secretaries spoke of the upcoming operation as ‘the crowning glory of a successful career.’”10
Du Pont was not entirely passive. Naval historian William F. Fowler, Jr., noted: “Du Pont expressed serious reservations about the usefulness of the monitors; he also informed Welles that this experience and his previous operations along the coast had convinced him more firmly than ever that success against the forts required troops. His message was not well received in Washington, where so much had been gambled on these ugly water beetles and their power to control the coast.”11
One of Du Pont’s problems was that Captain John Dahlgren, who commanded the Washington Navy Yard and who was a close advisor to President Lincoln on naval affairs, wanted Du Pont’s position and made a concerted effort to get it in the fall of 1862. Dahlgren’s influence peddling irritated Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and his deputy, Gustavus V. Fox, almost as much as it did Du Pont. In his diary Gideon Welles often recorded his irritation with Dahlgren’s ambition and his close relationship with President Lincoln, writing on October 1, 1862: “Dahlgren has asked to be assigned to the special duty of capturing Charleston, but Du Pont has had that object in view for more than a year and made it his study. I cannot, though I appreciate Dahlgren, supersede the Admiral in this work.”12
Du Pont wrote Fox on October 8: “I forgot to tell you the other day, because I never had a chance to see you alone, that Foote & Wise had made a most extraordinary appeal to me to give up my command to Dahlgren — I was astounded but as to what passed I will reserve until meet — Simply observing that Dahlgren is a diseased man on the subject of preferment & position — As I told Foote he chose one line in the walk of his profession, while F & I chose another; he was licking cream as we were eating dirt & living on the pay of our rank. Now we wants all the honors belonging to the other but without having encountered its joltings — it is a disease & nothing else.”13 Du Pont did not have a high opinion of the abilities of Dahlgren, who had largely been confined to shore duty. Welles informed Dahlgren: “Rear Admiral Du Pont has been called to Washington to concert measures for this attack and the Department cannot consent to deprive him of the honor of leading and directing these forces. Your natural desire however to be present is appreciated and if you desire it, you can have orders to an iron-clad that will take part in the attack.”14
Du Pont visited Washington in October 1862 and met with naval and administration officials, including President Lincoln on October 16. Biographer Kevin J. Weddle wrote: “Du Pont ‘explained the general nature of our occupation off the seacoasts of three rebel states and the moral effect of this.’ Lincoln then criticized the army’s failures at the ‘James Island affairs.’ The admiral was struck by Lincoln’s frustration with Major General George McClellan and the Army of the Potomac. At one point in their conversation, Lincoln complained that McClellan was constantly badgering him for more troops; but, the commander in chief grumbled,’If you promise him those, he will call for ten thousand more.’ The hint was there for Du Pont to take; Lincoln was fed up with reluctant commanders. Perhaps because of Lincoln’s unsolicited criticism of McClellan, Du Pont did not inform the president of his concerns over the monitors or his preference for a joint operation to take Charleston.”15 Du Pont’s reticence was to be his undoing.
Despite President Lincoln’s impatience, plans to attack Charleston were repeatedly delayed. General J. G. Foster arrived in Washington in February 1863 to promote an army attack on Charleston, supported by Du Pont’s fleet. President Lincoln was startled by this apparent shift in plans. Fox wrote Du Pont on February 12: “The President sent for me to-day and read Foster’s despatch of the 2d stating that the Navy would be ready for the attack in about two weeks. We are very anxious but shall not press you. The President remarked to me several times ‘I should be very anxious about this job if you did not feel so sure of your people being successful.”16 Fox’s confidence in the ability of ironclad monitors taking Charleston unaided was as unlimited as it was ill-advised.
On February 16, President met with Secretary Welles and requested that Assistant Secretary Fox go to South Carolina to meet with Admiral Du Pont about the planned assault. Du Pont had not sufficiently conveyed his grave doubts that the proposed naval assault on Charleston could not succeed without land support from the army. Du Pont also had strong doubts about the efficacy of the ironclads, but Welles and Fox were adamant that they should lead the assault. Welles biographer John Niven wrote: “For a hardheaded ex-businessman and deepwater sailor, Fox showed a singular lack of judgment when it came to the ironclad Monitor. As wedded to design as Ericsson himself, he was blind even to its most obvious defects, deaf to its proven weaknesses in performance.... After Norfolk fell and the Merrimack was blown up by the retreating Confederates in May 1862, Fox actually suggested to Du Pont that the Monitor and the little ironclad gunboat Galena were enough to capture Charleston.”17 Du Pont biographer Weddle wrote: “”Clearly Welles and Fox in coordination with Lincoln set the strategic stage for Du Pont, but they failed to take the opinion of their subordinate into account while they pushed him to execute operations for which he was not prepared.”18
Du Pont complained to his wife that he had “the eyes of the nation and the government upon me and expectant, when the national heart is sore and impatient for a victory.”sup>19 Du Pont was proud. He later wrote his wife: “I will stand no reproof. I have served too long and too faithfully, and too loyally to the administration, to the country, and to the cause to stand for that and if I am censured, I will ask for a court.” sup>20
There was a communications gap between Du Pont and the Lincoln Administration. Military historian Craig Symonds wrote: “This misunderstanding derived in part from Welles’ near-absolute confidence in the efficacy of the monitors, and in part from Du Pont’s reluctance to be fully candid with his civilian masters for fear of being considered weak-willed.”21. About two weeks before the navy attacked Charleston, President Lincoln told New York Tribune journalist Albert D. Richardson: “Du Pont had promised some weeks before, if certain supplies were furnished to make the assault upon a given day. The supplies were promptly forwarded; the day came and went without any intelligence. Some time after, he sent an officer to Washington, asking for three more ironclads and a large quantity of deck-plating as indispensable to the preparations.” President Lincoln said he had sent a message to Du Pont: “I fear neither you nor your officers appreciate the supreme importance to us of time. The more you prepare the more the enemy will be prepared.”22
A few days later, President Lincoln told Secretary Welles that “the long delay of Du Pont, his constant call for more ships, more ironclads, was like General George B] McClellan calling for more regiments. Though the two men were alike, and...he was prepared for a repulse at Charleston.”23 A few days later, Welles wrote in his diary: “The President, who has often a sort of intuitive sagacity, has spoken discouragingly of operations at Charleston during the whole season. Du Pont’s dispatches and movements have not inspired him with faith. Fox who has more naval knowledge and experience and who is better informed of Charleston and its approaches, which he has visited, and the capabilities and efficiency of our officers and ships, entertains not a doubt of success.”24 The President was worried. Journalist William O. Stoddard recalled accompanying President Lincoln to visit the Army of the Potomac in early April 1863. The President “seemed absorbed in the saddest reflections for a time; then, becking a companion to him, said, ‘What will you wager that half our iron-clads are at the bottom of Charleston Harbor?’ This being the first intimation which the other had had of Dupont’s attack, which was then begun, hesitated to reply, when the President added, ‘The people will expect big things when they hear of this; but it is to late – too late!”25
What neither President Lincoln nor Assistant Secretary Fox were prepared for was the brevity of the repulse to the Union flotilla – which lasted less than two hours. Nine Union ironclads led by the Weekhauken engaged the heavily fortified defenses of Charleston. They were heavily outgunned and five ironclads were heavily damaged. One sank. Among the causes for the disaster, in Du Pont’s opinion, were the guns that John Dahlgren had designed for the ironclad monitors. Naval historian Robert J. Schneller, Jr. wrote: “The monitors proved difficult to maneuver, and their complicated machinery proved vulnerable to concentrated gunfire. As Du Pont had warned, their striking power was inadequate for strictly naval operations against forts.”26 President Lincoln told Dahlgren that “he had written a joint letter to the General David Hunter and Admiral, giving discretion as to an attack on Charleston or Savannah, but did not suppose they would give up Charleston after a fight of forty minutes.”27 Mr. Lincoln told another visitor that “the six months’ preparation for Charleston was a very long grace for the thin plate of soup served in the two hours of fighting.”28 Welles wrote in his diary that he was “pained, grieved, distressed by what I hear; and that I hear from him so little. We learn that after all our outlay and great preparations, giving him about all our force and a large portion of the best officers, he intends making no farther effort, but will abandon the plan and all attempts to take it. A fight of thirty minutes and the loss of one man, which he witnessed, satisfied the Admiral.”29 Du Pont biographer James M. Merrill wrote “At the Navy Department Lincoln informed reporters that he was ‘not pleased with the results,’ before departing ‘with a downcast, haggard, bewildered look, unshaven, with neckcloth all awry – the very picture of a man whose wits had left him.’”30
Du Pont biographer Kevin J. Weddle wrote: “Du Pont had gone to great pains to inform both Fox and Welles of his reservations and concerns over the efficacy fo the monitors and the difficulty of the mission. But to Welles, Fox, and Lincoln, Du Pont’s defeat meant that his days as commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron were numbered. For Fox and Welles, a change was essential because Du Pont would not support the monitors adequately and the department had bet everything on these ironclads. When the time came for Welles to relieve Du Pont, Lincoln did not intervene on the admiral’s behalf despite the urging of the influential congressman Henry Winter Davis and the favorable report of his own private secretary John Hay.” Du Pont’s pride also ill-served him, according to Weddle, who wrote: “His paramount concern for reputation overrode his common sense and prudence and led him to make ill-considered accusations and to write almost insubordinate letters to his civilian superiors.”31
Historian John Niven wrote: “After the Charleston repulse, or ‘demonstration,’ as Welles referred to it in the press, Lincoln became wary and not entirely truthful with Du Pont’s friends.”32 Du Pont had strong support from his subordinates, but he had poor luck in his choice of political allies, the most prominent of which was Maryland Congressman Henry Winter Davis, a determined Republican critic of President Lincoln Early in May, Congressman Davis had a long chat with the President.” Davis biographer Gerald S. Hening wrote that “Davis felt certain that his friend had acted wisely under the circumstances; but Du Pont’s superiors thought otherwise.33 On May 2, Davis visited President Lincoln and told him that Du Pont ‘had never thought the attack wise, had always said it must be a joint attack to be successful; that the Navy Department knew of your views of the great danger of a purely naval attempt.”34
Davis subsequently wrote Du Pont that the President told him “that no one stood higher than you with him and the Department; that you were the idol of the navy and the favorite of Mr. Welles and enjoyed their full confidence; neither had ever felt the slightest abatement of it; they knew you had done all that in your opinion was possible, and they had never dropped a word of censure or discontent respecting you. That the attack on Charleston had been noised abroad from last fall as always imminent and his expectations and the country’s raised to a high pitch, and the delay became oppressive, when finally you announced that you would try your ironclads on Fort McAllister and then on or about the latter part of February would be ready to attack Charleston. He was looking to that time for the attack and expecting to have the city, when you sent up Stimers for plates to strength the decks of the ironclads and to say that you must have three more monitors; this did not cause any change of feeling, no discontent, but he did not understand how it was that you made no reference to the postponement of the attack involved in the application, and that it occasioned some surprise that there was no mention of the attack, which had been informed was to have come off at that time. That then the plates were furnished and it seemed possible that the delay in making the attack might arise from an opinion on your part that you could not succeed, and, if that was so, it was useless to keep the vast iron fleet idle at Port Royal, an order was sent you from the Navy Department to the effect that if you doubted the ability of the force at your disposal to take Sumter and Moultrie, you might abandon the attack and order the ironclads round to the Mississippi or elsewhere; and that you proceeded to make the attack, but after a further and considerable delay which he did not entirely understand; and respecting the attack, he said there was no disapproval of what you had done either in making or desisting from the attack, but that he had been under the impression that the attack might last for days and even weeks and be a gradual process, and when he learned that it had been made and closed in two or three hours, it was a matter of surprise, not of blame or censure, nor a cause of discontent, but simply an unexpected shape of the matter; and when he heard at the same time that the fleet was actually about to be withdrawn, an order was telegraphed by him to you on the 13thth April which...was not intended in the slightest degree to censure or reflect on either the attack or retreat but merely to secure a continued menace of Charleston while other operations proceeded elsewhere; and for fear the telegram might seem abrupt and possibly capricious, he wrote you and General David Hunter a joint letter explaining the telegram in that sense he felt sure there could be no intention in the Navy Department to allow you to be injured; for the Secretary and Fox both were friendly and really felt the utmost confidence in your disposition and ability to render service.”35
Historian John Niven wrote that Congressman “Davis glossed rapidly but succinctly over Du Pont’s alleged mistreatment. What he really wanted was publication of the Admiral’s detailed report, especially those parts where the monitor captains had questioned the feasibility of their vessels for the mission entrusted to them. Du Pont’s correspondence with the department, warning of the perils of Charleston, should likewise be spread upon the public record. Lincoln replied blandly that much of this information was new to him.”36 The President told Davis that “he had begun to suspect that the enterprise was a department pet – something which which had been kept for the navy alone.”37 Despite these statements, Du Pont was effectively scapegoated for his failure to capture Charleston. Naval historian William F. Fowler, Jr., wrote: “Du Pont’s decision brought a barrage of venomous attacks in the northern press and in the corridors of the Navy Department. The Chicago Times reported that Welles and Fox believed Du Pont to be an “incompetent and a coward.” The Senate and the House demanded that the secretary forward to them dispatches relating to the failure at Charleston. Du Pont provided evidence, supported by his captains, that to attack again with the monitors was ‘madness’ and ‘sheer folly.’ Fox and Welles refused to give in, and in both public and private they continued to aim their barbs at Du Pont.”38
“The Lincoln war office refused to accept DuPont’s withdrawal from Charleston Harbor as a defeat and was more determined than ever to renew the effort,” wrote historian Paul Calore.39 The decision was made to replace Du Pont, according to Secretary Welles, who wrote in his diary: “Du Pont is pleasant in manner and one of the most popular officer in the Navy...”40 John Dahlgren was not the Administration’s first choice for the post. William O. Stoddard, an aide to President Lincoln, wrote in an anonymous newspaper dispatch in early June: “The sending [of] Admiral Foote to relieve Dupont sic in the command fo the fleet of Charleston, naturally leads the public mind to place some reliance on the complaints, which have been so freely made of the old-fogyism and dilatoriness of the latter. Du Pont certainly has done good service, and accomplished many important undertakings, but if he cannot keep step with the rapid march of improvement in naval warfare, he must needs give way to some man who can, Hiss success in the command of the fleet off Charleston is a man in whom the people have great faith, and from whom they will expect very much.”41
Dahlgren received the command because Admiral Andrew Hull Foote, who was to command the Blockading Squadron while Dahlgren commanded the force attacking Charleston, fell sick from an old wound. Within a month, Foote was dead. Du Pont was replaced on July 5, 1863. According to naval historian Robert M. Browning, Jr., “The Secretary of the Navy candidly told Dahlgren that his appointment had been in part made as a result of the wishes of the president. Fox also likely had some input into the decision. Whereas Fox did not particularly like Dahlgren, he certainly was disgusted with Du Pont. Fox probably also believed that Dahlgren, who had longed for this command, would be aggressive and take Charleston. Welles advised Dahlgren that relieving Du Pont under these circumstances ‘involved some risk and responsibility to both the Department and the recipient’ because this promotion would cause discontent and would not be ‘lessened by this command.’”42 Du Pont’s challenge was not overcome by Dahlgren; Charleston did not fall to Union forces until April 1865.
Du Pont was not given an active command after his dismissal from the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, but performed some administrative tasks in Washington and died shortly after the war ended. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Du Pont was commandant of the Philadelphia Naval Yard. Unlike other members of his famous family of Delaware manufacturers, Samuel capitalized the “D” in his last name and rather than the family business, he joined the navy, where he remained for 40 years. Many contemporaries and historians persisted in misspelling his name.