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Admiral Du Pont

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Speaker: Kevin Weddle

 

Highly entertaining - not Greg's effort to make the computer and projector work, but the May talk by Kevin Weddle on the life and career of Admiral Du Pont.

 

Kevin started off by giving us an overview of the early life and career of Du Pont. A member of the famous and rich Du Pont family, Du Pont entered naval service in 1817 and would serve continuously on active duty for the next forty-eight years, nineteen of them at sea. Promotion at that time was slow and often was made through age of service. Like the army, rising through the ranks was slow and based on longevity of service not merit.

 


He was a hero of the Mexican War. He commanded the USS Cyane and captured or destroyed thirty enemy ships in the Gulf of California area. He also successfully transported Fremont's troops to capture San Diego. He rose to command the California naval blockade squadron in the last months of the war.

 

After the Mexican War he spent nearly a decade on shore assignment. He is credited with working towards modernising the US Navy. He was appointed superintendent of the Naval Academy but resigned after only four months arguing that the role would suit a person closer to retirement age. He advocated a mobile and offensive navy rather than the harbour defensive structure that existed at the time.

 

When war came he was in Philadelphia and took measures to defend Washington and assist troop movements around Annapolis. He was part of a group that made plans to blockade the southern states. The Navy Department was "run" by Gideon Welles as Secretary of the Navy with Gustavus Fox as Assistant Secretary. The Navy Department did not have any formal structure of command unlike the Army. Kevin was at pains to point out that Welles and Fox had a slightly different agenda to Du Pont.

 

He was appointed flag officer in September 1861 and led the expedition that sailed from Norfolk in the following month, no American officer having ever commanded so large a fleet. He achieved a great victory at Port Royal on November 7th 1861. This engagement is justly regarded as one of the most brilliant achievements of naval tactics. His unarmoured vessels, divided into main and flanking divisions, steamed into the harbour in two parallel columns. The flanking division, after engaging the smaller fort and driving back the enemy's ships, took position to enfilade the principal work, before which the main column, led by the flagship "Wabash," passed and re-passed in an elliptic course, its tremendous fire inflicting heavy damage. Du Pont actively followed up his victory. Tybee was seized, giving a base for the reduction of Fort Pulaski by the army; a combined naval and military force destroyed the batteries at Port Royal ferry; the sounds and inland waters of Georgia south of the Savannah, and of the eastern coast of Florida., were occupied; St. Mary's, Fernandina, Jacksonville, and other places were captured: Fort Clinch and the fort at St. Augustine were retaken, and fourteen blockading stations were established, all thoroughly effective save that off Charleston, where the vessels at command were insufficient to cover the circuit of twenty-three miles from Bull's Bay to Stono.

 

He received the thanks of Congress and was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral from 16th July 1862.

 

DuPont's downfall was his failure at Charleston on 7th April 1863. Although it was later argued by Welles that no formal orders were ever issued to Du Pont to capture Charleston by a Naval assault alone, it was always implied that this was the objective. Throughout this time period, Du Pont kept insisting by letters and through rare meetings that only a combined operation would have any chance of success. Perhaps naively, Du Pont believed that the politicians saw his views when clearly other agendas were being written. Du Pont was also undermined when Captain John Dahlgren sought to usurp Du Pont by asking to take command of the attack on Charleston. On this occasion Welles sided with Du Pont but relationships continued to sour.

 

Toward the close of 1862 several armoured vessels were added to his command, mostly of the monitor type, one of which destroyed the Confederate steamer " Nashville," under the guns of Fort McAllister. Being the first officer to whom the monitors had been assigned, he carefully tested their offensive powers by several attacks upon this work, on which they were unable to make any impression on account of the small number of their guns and the slowness of their fire. The Passaic-class Monitors were untried, their crews thrown together with little training and most importantly, the new weapons - XI and XV-inch cannon were plagued with slow rates of fire and problems for the gun crews in the cramped turrets. The XV inch cannon were particularly dangerous as the turret slots were designed for the XI - inch ones! Du Pont himself wrote to Fox about the ironclads You know best about the Ironsides, I would like to have her, but she cannot take Charleston alone."

 

Du Pont also had to contend with pressure from Lincoln who was keen for victories. In Lincoln's view, Du Ponts slowness to react and constant requests for reinforcements seemed to be the exact situation has was experiencing with McClellan. Fox was adamant that the new ironclad weapons would win the war and Du Pont was forced to act.

 

Assuming immediate command of his nine armoured vessels, mounting thirtyfour guns, Du Pont made a resolute attempt, on 7 April 1863, to take Charleston. At the time, Charleston was considered to be "the most heavily fortified city in the world". Besides Sumter, there was Fort Wagner, Battery Gregg, Fort Moultrie plus a number of minor emplacements. A total of 147 guns on various calibres could be brought to bear on the entry channel. The Confederates also had placed underwater obstructions and they had made much of the "torpedoes" that guarded the channel (in reality there were only a few of these and their reliability was questionable). They also had many months to place range markers in the channel to ensure accuracy in the fire.

 

Du Pont's orders to the fleet were vague, perhaps hinting at his lack of confidence. The fleet was to "steam up the channel past Morris Island and bombard Sumter from a range of 600-800 yards." They were instructed "not to waste ammunition and render assistance to any vessels that require it." After Sumter was attacked, "it is probable that the next point of attack will be the batteries on Morris Island." The fleet got underway at noon on 7th April. Unable to manoeuvre in the tortuous channels, filled with obstructions, the ironclads made slow progress. At around 3:00 they were exposed to a terrible crossfire from a hundred guns of the heaviest calibres. The ironclads themselves answered back very slowly. It is believed that the monitors only fired fifty-five rounds at Sumter, of which thirty-four hit the target. In reply, the Confederates fired 2,209 hitting the Union ships over 400 times. It was amazing that there was only one death, the quartermaster of the Nahant. With darkness approaching, the ships were wisely withdrawn, one sinking soon afterward and five others being disabled. Du Pont took stock of the damage to his ships and decided not to renew the battle the next day. The ironclad fleet had been soundly beaten This action was fought pursuant to express instructions from the Navy Department, the probable result not having been unforeseen by Du Pont, who had given it as his opinion that the cooperation of troops was necessary to secure success.

 

In the aftermath of the battle, there were various recriminations by all parties looking for a way to deflect the blame for the defeat. In his report of the battle Du Pont again set out that he believed Charleston could not be taken by a naval assault. But the writing was on the wall for Du Pont. Union reverses on the land meant that a naval defeat needed a sacrifice and Welles relieved Du Pont of his command. Lincoln did not intervene despite some very vocal support for Congressman Henry Winter Davis and his secretary John Hay.

 

On 6th July 1863 Du Pont lowered his flag on the Wabash and handed over his command to Rear Admiral Dahlgren. Du Pont fought to clear his name, but continued to work for the Navy by reviewing a number of procedures including Naval promotions.

 

Du Pont tragically died in June 1865 and was unable to vindicate himself. History has done that for him.

 

At the end the members fired a large variety of questions at Kevin: -

 

  • Why didn't amphibious operations work? - Mainly due to lack of command structure. They couldn't decide who would be in command - Army or Navy. It worked at Vicksburg where Grant and Porter realised success would only come with cooperation.
  • Union Army failure at Charleston? All the officers were fairly poor and lacked motivation. Best General Mitchel (ex Army of Ohio) but his plans were thwarted by catching yellow fever and dying shortly after arriving in the area. The lack of professional soldiers as opposed to patronage generals also didn't help.
  • Was Du Pont political? The family was rich before the war started and they considered themselves Whigs. Du Pont himself was no great political animal- the years at sea probably meant his ability to forge contacts were slim. He was no great Lincoln fan but he was anti-abolitionist. Henry Winter Davis was his only real supporter in Congress.
  • Why was he handled so badly? Lincoln was always distracted by the land war. The opportunities that Du Pont had to state his case were overshadowed by problems faced by Lincoln's generals ineptitude. The blockade was important to the overall strategy but the fate of one admiral was not going to bother him too much.
  • Views on Welles? Basically did his job efficiently except with for his sacking of Du Pont! The Navy lacked an overall Commander in chief (like Halleck for the Army) so Welles and Fox were operating in isolation, making decisions based on their civilian background knowledge.
  • Other Du Ponts? Lots of them. Henry Algernon Du Pont was his favourite nephew and he served with Sigel at New Market. At least 12 Du Pont's went through West Point.
  • What comparisons can be drawn between Du Pont and Farragut? First of all they were friends. Du Pont will be remembered for his failure at Charleston whilst Farragut had a more favourable press by winning at New Orleans and Mobile. Farragut was the better leader and the more aggressive commander.
  • What happened up to the end of the war? Du Pont was still looking at the organisation and structure of the Navy and rather than stew he continued to work and support the administration.
Lincoln's Tragic Admiral by Kevin Weddle is published by University of Virginia Press