Today, November 7th, is an important date in the history of the Civil War, although many history books overlook its significance. On this date, the Great South Carolina Expeditionary Force achieved a quick victory at Port Royal Sound and made it possible for the Union Navy to enforce a blockade over the entire Atlantic coast of the Confederacy. The following excerpt from my "A Scratch with the Rebels" explains why the Battle of Port Royal was so vital.
Shortly after Fort Sumter fell, Lincoln had officially declared a blockade of all states that had seceded and dispatched the Niagara to hold Charleston Harbor. Her arrival, to be sure, had caused some initial consternation; on 9 May 1861, Miss Emma Holmes, a Charleston resident, worried: "Old Abe has at last fulfilled his threats of blockading us by sending the Niagara here. ...The Niagara is a splendid steam propeller, so contrived that she can withdraw the wheel from the water & thus use either steam or her sails at pleasure, and is probably the fastest ship in the U. S. navy. It carries 12 guns, is manned by 600 men, and fully supplied with provisions, implements & munitions of war. She has already warned off two or three vessels . . ."
Concern soon gave way to nonchalance, however; within days the Niagara was gone. The same resident wrote in her diary for 18 May, "Since last Tuesday, the Niagara has not been seen anywheres [sic] along our coast . . . So, the much talked of blockade is at an end, not having done us any harm, but plenty to Old Abe . . ."
Blockading the South Carolina coast was no easy task. If the North planned to maintain an effective blockade against the Confederate States, their overriding need was for a safe southern harbor from which to operate. The international understanding was that other countries would respect a blockade only so long as it operated effectively. The English, in particular, had questioned the validity of the Northern blockade, and understandably so, since they were in large part dependent on southern cotton to keep their textile mills in operation. English lawyers probed the clauses of the Union's Blockade Act, pointing out that an absolute blockade had to be effective before it could be legal. If some ships could penetrate the blockade, no foreign government was bound to observe it. The withdrawal of blockading vessels for repairs or supplies would be interpreted as abandonment of the effort; it was therefore essential that Union ships have quick and easy access to a supply depot.
In late October, Harper's Weekly speculated that there were only three southern harbors deep enough to let large ships enter. Beaufort, South Carolina; Brunswick, Georgia; and Pensacola, Florida were all possible destinations for the Expedition. Naval intelligence had already focused on Port Royal, South Carolina, as one of the more important southern harbors. From Port Royal, blockading vessels would be less than a day's sail from such important Confederate ports as Charleston and Savannah. It was further hoped that from a naval base at Port Royal, it would be possible to take and hold these vital harbors. As Lieutenant Daniel Ammen, commander of the Seneca, explained in his memoirs, a blockade from within a harbor could be effective with only one ship. If the blockade had to be maintained outside the range of coastal guns, it could take up to thirty ships to achieve the same degree of effectiveness.
I've always had a soft spot in my heart for this anniversary. Several times I contrived to be in Hilton Head of this date so that I could look out over the water and imagine the Union fleet. But this year, the event takes on a special significance for me because my next book will involve the blockade and the attempts of Confederate blockade runners to break the Union control of the coast. Stay tuned!