The Civil War Blockade Strategy Board Report

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The Civil War Blockade Strategy Board: Supplemental Report

13 July 1861 — OR, I, volume 53, pages 67–73, supplement. (In the Official Records, a "supplement" is a document found or received too late for insertion in volume.) OR (Official records). Officially known as the Official records of the Union and Confederate Armies.

This report considers the South Carolina coast, particularly Bull's Bay, St. Helena Sound, and Port Royal Sound. Recommends seizure and occupation of at least one. (See The Civil War Blockade Strategy Board Reports.)

Supplemental Report: OR, I, vol. 53, pp. 67–73

Report of a conference in relation to the occupation of points on the Atlantic coast.
WASHINGTON, D.C., July 13, 1861.
Secretary of the Navy:

SIR: We have the honor to inform you, in further prosecution of the duties assigned us, we have made a careful study of three of the most important of the secondary bays or harbors on the Southern coast, for the purpose of military occupation. These are Bull's Bay, Saint Helena Sound, and Port Royal Sound, all on the coast of South Carolina. We shall describe each one of them separately, offering some suggestions as to their advantages and the best mode of occupying them, and we will endeavor to explain, by a comparison of their relative merits, the grounds for preferring the two former over the latter for immediate occupation. We have taken them up in the order of their situation from north to south.

Bull's Bay, which has been justly called Noble Harbor of Refuge, is fifteen miles southwest of Cape Romain and twenty-two miles from the main bar of Charleston Harbor. The passage into it is direct, there being but one single course over the bar. The light-house is plainly in sight, being less than four miles distant from the outer curve of the bar, and its bearing, together with the soundings and buoys, when properly placed, makes the entrance easy. Twenty feet may be carried in at high water of common tide and fifteen at low water. The channel-way is marked by breakers on either hand, and inside there is a snug, well-protected anchorage in deep water, with good holding-ground. Bull's Bay is situated below the parallel at which the West India hurricanes leave the coast, which very much increases its value as a harbor of refuge. Bull's Island, from which the bay takes its name, is six miles and a half long and about one mile and a half wide. The northeast bluff at the entrance is high and wooded, and admits of being strongly fortified without delay or great expense; but batteries erected to defend the entrance may be taken in the rear by landing about three miles south of the northeast bluff, and keeping on the beach till within a mile of the light-house, where of sand hills commanding the entrance. It is suggested, therefore, that the extremity of the island should be secured by an inclosed work on the point and a line of intrenchments across the island at a distance of two miles, more or less, from the light-house. For defense, Bull's Bay possesses this striking advantage, that it can be held at a single point. Excepting the small sand key (Bird Island), there is no fast land from which it can be attacked. Bird Island is two miles off, not easy of access, and insignificant.

It is not probable that any defensive works constructed by the rebels will oppose any formidable obstacle to the occupation of the place, but it is to be considered that its proximity to Charleston subjects it to assault. This assault may be made by combined forces from both directions, for there is interior water communication with the Santee on the north, as well as with Charleston on the south. Vessels drawing not more than four and a half feet can come out of the Santee through Alligator Creek at the Horns, pass within Cape Island and Raccoon Key, traverse Bull's Bay, and keep inside all the way to Charleston. Very few white men know the whole route, but many negroes are familiar with it. There are six "divides", or places where the tides diverge or converge, between Cape Romain and Charleston Harbor.

Four of these run dry at low water and the other two are encumbered with mud and oyster banks. At this season of the year, however, the rice crops having been carried to market, there is but little intercourse with the Santee district by water. Taking these liabilities into account, it is thought that 4,000 men well intrenched would hold the island, though without an exact knowledge of its topography it is impossible to speak with certainty. The island affords good water, and timber for constructing wharves for coaling, or for other uses, if needed. In these respects, and as harbor of refuge, there is no point north of Charleston that can be made so useful. It is so easy of access and so perfectly healthy in the hot season that the authorities of Charleston have recommended it for the seat of a quarantine during their strangers' (or yellow) fever months.

Potion of Bull's Bay secures the easy command of the four inlets (Price's, Capers', Dewees', and Breach Inlets) lying intermediate between it and Charleston Harbor. Neither of these enjoy any trade now, but Dewees' Inlet has seven feet at low water or twelve feet at mean high water, and an excellent anchorage in four fathoms on the inside. It might prove a useful harbor to vessels of light draft. A deep creek, navigable for boats at low water even to Station Fuller (see chart), enters Dewees' Inlet. From Fuller to Mount Pleasant is nine, miles, and it is connected with Hobcaw Point, in rear of Fort Moultrie and Castle Pinckney, for the greater part of the distance, by a well traveled road in a pine forest. The night road from Charleston to Georgetown, through Christ's Church Parish, passes at an average distance of four miles from the shore. It is well conditioned, the resort of a regular travel, and preserves a communication with the banks of the two Pedees that would suffer no interruption from our occupation of Bull's Island.

Saint Helena Sound, situated nearly midway between Charleston and Savannah, is particularly well adapted to promote the efficiency of the blockading squadron. There are two anchorages, which are healthy throughout the year-one near Otter Island, on the north, and one near Hunting Island, on the south; and the bay is so wide that these two roadsteads may be considered wholly independent of each other. There are three channels of approach-the east, the southeast, and the south channels. The first has only eight feet on the bar at mean low water and fourteen at high; the second, which is a little less direct, has ten and sixteen feet, and the third has seventeen feet at mean low and twenty-three feet at mean high water.

It should be remarked that the mouth of the South Edisto River is embraced within the northern limits of this sound. The South Edisto is the Edisto proper, the North Edisto being the outlet of the Wadmalaw Sound and the Dawho, while the Edisto itself is a long river, from which large quantities of lumber are sent annually to Charleston. It is navigable for vessels drawing nine feet of water up to Governor Aiken's rice plantation, at Jehosse, where it communications with North Edisto River though the Dawho. The Dawho is navigable for steamers drawing not more than six feet at all times of tide, under the direction of a pilot. Thirteen feet of water at mean low and nineteen at mean high water can be carried into South Edisto, and there is good anchorage inside, west of Big Bay Island, in five fathoms; but the anchorage on the north side of the bay, which we first mentioned, that under Otter Island, is the better and healthier one of the two.

The continuous ranges of sand shoals, which compose the bar at the several entrances of Saint Helana Sound, extend, unfortunately, six miles to seaward, and the land is low and difficult to distinguish; the channels, therefore, if used, must be distinctly marked with buoys; the light-ship must be anchored in a suitable place, and the light-house which has been built on Hunting Island, together with the beacon light near it, must be maintained. Capable pilots must be at hand. The delta shoals in Saint Helena Sound are long and narrow; between them are deep and very regular channels, running in directions nearly parallel to each other, that may be called natural, as regards the rivers of which they are the drains. Beyond these delta shoals a mass of irregular shoals extends out to the southward from Fenwick and Otter Islands (separating South Edisto River from the sound), which, by breaking the sea and easterly storms, preserve comparatively smooth water in the sound. The Ashepoo, Combahee, Bull, Coosaw, Morgan Islands, and Huntins Island (Rivers) empty into the sound. To complete our topographical description we must speak of them in order.

The Ashepoo enters the sound at Otter Island, and at its mouth, under the shelter of the island, is the safe and healthy anchorage we have twice mentioned-safe in all weathers and healthy in all seasons, requiring protection from no other point than Otter Island. Near this anchorage, but separated from it by the delta of the Ashepoo and Combahee, is another equally healthy and safe anchorage in six fathoms of water, equidistant between Otter and Morgan Islands, and nearly one and a half nautical miles from each-not easily molested, therefore from the land, if Otter Island were in our possession.

In crossing the bar and ascending the sound to reach the anchorage a vessel need not approach Hunting Island so near as two miles, or Otter Island nearer than one mile and a half. The Ashepoo is navigable for vessels drawing nine feet of water twelve miles above the point of Otter Island, where they can supply themselves with fresh water on the last of the ebb. Seven miles above is the mouth of Mosquito Creek, which connects with the South Edisto through Bull's Cut. The light-draft steamers plying on the inland passage from Charleston south go through this cut, descent the Ashepoo, cross the Combahee Bank through a small channel, and thence ascend the Coosaw to Beaufort and Port Royal Ferry. This is only possible for steamers drawing five feet; those of large draft must pass outside of Otter Island.

We have to penetrate to the depth of six miles into the sound of Saint Helena to reach the point of junction of the Combahee and Coosaw Rivers. The first of these rivers is navigable for vessels drawing ten feet of water some twenty miles up. Fresh water may be had on the ebb about ten miles up. There is a boat connection with the Ashepoo seven miles up. The Coosaw is broader and shoaler than the Combahee; it forms a part of the interior navigation from Charleston. Steamers drawing eight or nine feet will run outside from Charleston to Saint Helena Sound, and entering the latter by the most convenient channel, according to the tide, will proceed up the Coosaw to its junction with Beaufort River at the brick-yards and thence down to Beaufort on the inside way from Savannah and Florida; or the same steamer may continue up Coosaw River to its head, near Port Royal Ferry, and go thence through Whale Branch into Broad River and Port Royal Bay. Vessels bound up the Coosaw may go by the way of Morgan River to Parrott Creek, which connects the two rivers by a 15-foot channel. All these connections are readily traced on a map of a suitable scale. They are pointed out in detail because you will perceive from them how large a tract of country and how extensive, important, and complex a series of lines of interior trade and navigation will be threatened and commanded by the military possession of Saint Helena Sound.

Hitherto we have specified two anchorages as desirable; it remains for us to speak of the third and the best. The south channel, as we have said before, has seventeen feet at low water and twenty-three feet at mean high water; it is therefore quite superior to the others. It leads to an anchorage in five fathoms of water within half a mile of the northeast point of Hunting Island and near the new light-house. Both the anchorage and the adjacent shore are healthy throughout the year. The island is about six miles long, with an average width of little more than half a mile to Johnston's Cree. It is wooded and is stocked with deer, being used as a game preserve. A small creek (Johnson's), with a narrow channel fifteen feet deep near its mouth, runs close to the shore. This is a suitable spot for a coaling depot. There is timber for constructing a wharf, for which there is a natural site near the mouth of a small creek.

We have said that the two anchorages on the north and south sides of the sound are independent of each other. It is so, but the isolation of that which is protected by Hunting Island is the most complete. Here, as in Bull's Bay, and in these two places alone, the military occupation of a single point, remote and inaccessible to a large force except by great expense of time, labor, and money, secures the roadstead, the depot, and the channel of approach; and, moreover, this channel is the best of the three leading into Saint Helena Sound, from the broader space of which it is effectually separated by a natural barrier of banks, partially dry at low water. Neither shells nor solid shot could molest the shipping, nor hardly projectiles from rifled cannon; and the possession of this anchorage commands a considerable extent of inland navigation, though less than that on the north side.

Vessels of heavy draft can pass into Morgan River by turning the spit of a shoal near Hunting Island Point, and those of light draft by an inner channel between Oyster and Egg Banks. Vessels drawing ten feet of water may take an inside passage from Hunting Island to Port Royal Bay, entering the latter through Station Creek. Three points of meeting of the tide occur. The channel is bold in general, but intricate, requiring a pilot. Many wooded hummocks and one large house must be passed within pistol shot. Between Saint Helena Sound and Port Royal Bay are found four inlets-Fripp's Skull, Prtichard's, and Trenchard's, of which the first and last only, having ten and thirteen feet, respectively, at high water, can be made available for the uses of commerce.

It is estimated that 4,000 men, in addition to the co-operating naval force, would be sufficient to take and hold Hunting Island, which would be defended, like Bull's Island, by an inclosed work on the point and a line of intrenchments across from the sea to Johnston's Creek at some distance from the light-house. The intrenchments would be less extensive on account of the island being much narrower.

In order to fill out our notes on this vicinity we shall observe that at the eastern end of Saint Helena Island, which forms the right ban of the outlet of Morgan River into Saint Helena Sound, stands the plantation of Mr. Coffin, at whose house commences a public road, called the Sea-side road, that extends thirteen miles to Port Royal Bay, at Land's End. Two miles from Mr. Coffin's a road diverges to the right, leading to Ladies Island and Beaufort, distant eleven miles. Both these roads are lined with the residences of gentlemen and sea-island cotton plantations.

Parrot Creek, joining Morgan and Coosaw Rivers, has been referred to. Opposite to it is Village Creek, leading to a village on a bluff, the summer resort of the Saint Helena planters. Four fathoms may be carried up Morgan River to Dathaw Island, which is separated from Saint Helena Island by a creek. This creek unites at his head with Cowan Creek, while the latter separates Saint Helena from Ladies Island. Boats pass by this route from Beaufort to Saint Helena Sound. The road to Beaufort from Ashton's, just mentioned, crosses the creek by a bridge at the plantation of the late Mrs. General Eustis. Ladies Island, at the head of Morgan River, is a little more than a mile wide. The town of Beaufort is on the opposite shore of the river of that name. A road leads from Mr. McKee's plantation, at the head of Morgan River, across to the bluff opposite Beaufort.

The above description will enable you to form an idea of the interdependence and of the intercommunication, by boat and carriage, between the islands filling up the head of Saint Helena Sound and the waters emptying into it; of the advantages to be derived from its military occupation, and of the opposition, with its means and facilities of combination, which this occupation is likely to provoke.

Port Royal Bay is the finest harbor south of Chesapeake Bay, which it resembles in capacity and extent. It is approached by three channels, the least of which has seventeen feet of water, while the two others have nineteen feet at mean low and twenty-five feet at mean night water. Several of our screw frigates of the first class can pass the bar, and when the entrance is once made a whole navy can ride at anchor in the bay in uninterrupted health and security. The bar, however, is badly situated; the narrowest and shoalest part is so far out from the headlands, which generally furnish natural beacons and sailing marks, that a conspicuous object is needed on the spot.

The light ship should be replaced, and large buoys should be planted in proper places (an open screw-pile basket-beacon, well braced, might be put down with great advantage in a well-protected spot, under the lee of Martin's Industry and the southeast breakers). We are looking ahead a little in saying this. The absence of light vessels, beacons, and buoys will by no means prevent access to the bay. The ships of the expedition will pass through a lane of small vessels anchored on the borders of the natural channel. It is probable that the entrance to the harbor has been fortified on both sides, and especially at Bay Point. This point may be approached in the rear by landing at Pritchard's Inlet, next east of Trenchard's Inlet, near high water, pulling through the creek connecting the two down Trenchard's Inlet to a point near Luce Station, and thence passing along the beach and through the woods to Bay Point. On the Hilton Head side it is more difficult to take the point in the rear. The entrance is over two miles wide; there is fine anchorage under Bay Point; on the shore there is a number of rough houses, the summer resort of planters. Under the head of Saint Helena we have entered into some details respecting the interior communications and navigation that need not be repeated.

The town of Beaufort, on Port Royal Island, has no commercial importance. During the how weather, when the planters are in their summer residences, the population numbers about 2,000. At other periods of the year it has but little more than 500 inhabitants. A battery of eight guns, it is said, has been erected at the eastern end of the town. Water may be had at the Station Port Royal, Land's End, Saint Helena Sound, or by sinking wells from six to ten feet deep anywhere along shore, or casks at Bay Point. Near this point may be constructed a wharf for a coaling station above the mouth of the little creek that appears on the Coast Survey chart. The piece of marsh between the fast land and deep water (on the chart) must be crossed by a bridge. Timber grows close by. The woods directly in the rear of the sea-beach consist chiefly of pine, interspersed with chinquapin and live-oak. Portions of the island are clear and open. Near the beach there are many clumps of myrtle bushes, matted together with jack wines and Cherokee roses. The island is healthy where exposed to the influence of the sea breeze.

Parry's Island, which separates Beaufort and Broad Rivers, is about five miles long, and is devoted to the culture of sea-island cotton. Broad River is navigable up to Charleston and Savannah Railroad station at Pocotaligo. Steamers and sailing vessels from Saint Helena pass round Port Royal Island and enter Broad River by way of Port Royal Ferry and Whale Branch.

Port Royal is one of the wealthiest of the sea islands, and is devoted to the culture of sea-island cotton. Besides this passage of communication between Port Royal Bay and Saint Helena Sound through Whale Branch there is narrow passage, having nine feet at low water, between Lemon and Daw Islands, going down the Chechesee River and entering Skull Creek. A depth of nineteen feet may be carried from Port Royal Bay up Chechesee River to Foot Point, on the Colleton River. This range, a distance of ---- miles, was surveyed in 1859 with reference to a naval depot and coaling station at Foot Point.

Hilton Head Island, which is devoted to the culture of sea-island cotton, extends from Port Royal Bay to Calibogue Sound, and thirteen feet may be carried up the Chechesee, through Skull Creek, to the sound, which constitutes the inland passage to Savannah. The outer shore of Hilton Head Island is so effectually protected by Gaskin Bank and the shoals inside of it, that a landing is practicable in moderate weather. This is facilitated by an inshore channel within the outer breakers.

It may be stated as one general fact, true of the whole coast of South Carolina, that there are from one to two feet less water on the bars during and immediately after westerly gales and as much more during and after northeast and southeast gales. The latter cause the heaviest sea. Another general fact is that those are the most healthy sites which are open to the direct action of the sea breeze. Sheltered points close to the sea-shore will often be unhealthy, while others with a southern exposure six or eight miles inland will be perfectly healthy during the summer and autumn.

For the military occupation of Port Royal Bay it would be necessary, in order to escape molestation, to hold three points, and this would probably involve, as the easiest method of holding them, the occupation of the three islands of which these points form part; that is, Hilton Head Island, Parry's Island, and Phillips' Island. It is difficult to give any precise estimate of the exact number of troops required to hold these islands.

At the present moment, when most of the Southern troops are in Virginia or Tennessee, it is probable that, notwithstanding the contiguity of Savannah and Charleston, no very large bodies could be concentrated against us, but the operation would be likely to withdraw the troops from the north. This effect, almost certain as it is, will compensate us for the application of a considerable force on this point. Six thousand men might take possession of Port Royal, but to hold it permanently would probably require 10,000 or 12,000 men in addition to the available Navy contingent.

Of those three places-Bull's Bay, Saint Helena Sound, and Port Royal Bay-we have no hesitation in recommending the immediate military occupation of the first, for the reasons already fully given in the preceding pages, viz, its accessibility, direct channel, safe anchorage, all of which make it a most convenient harbor of refuge, and its being securely held by the possession of a single point. With regard to Saint Helena Sound and Port Royal Bay there is more room for doubt. We have compared the two somewhat as follows: If Port Royal has the greater depth on the bar (twenty-three to twenty-five feet), yet the bar of the former is eight miles from the land, while that of the latter is only three miles and a half. Saint Helena is held by the occupation of a single point. Port Royal requires that three points should be taken and fortified. The entrance of the former is six miles wide, and the best channel can only be molested from Hunting Island; that of the latter is only two miles wide, and the attacking fleet will be subject to fire from both sides. The resources for wood and water are about the same in each. Saint Helena is more central between Charleston and Savannah; Port Royal commands a larger interior communication and trade. The noble bay of Port Royal comprises one large open space, capable of containing any number of vessels anchored in one body. The anchorages of Saint Helena are divided and distinct from each other. It seems to us that Saint Helena ought to be seized before Port Royal, because it will be so much more easily taken and held. The former is a comparatively obscure place, little known and but little resorted to, while the latter is constantly talked of as the first point of attack, and is closely looked after.

Stephen Elliott, Jr., of Parry's Island, a nephew of George P. Elliott, has been employed in fortifying Port Royal, every foot of which he is familiar with, while not a planter knows Saint Helena.

Finally, believing that the three points we have recommended will suffice for the purposes of coaling stations and harbors of refuge for the blockading squadrons, we are not disposed to recommend any immediate measures for the taking of Port Royal. The putting of 12,000 or 15,000 men thus in the immediate neighborhood of Charleston and Savannah and the presence of a considerable fleet in this noble harbor would doubtless be a sore annoyance to the rebels, and necessitate the constant maintenance of large forces in those cities and on those shores. Yet the same force, naval and military, organized as an expedition and held in hand at New York for a blow anywhere, would threaten not only Savannah and Charleston, but the whole Southern coast.

If, in the organization of such a force, its destination should be absolutely undefined, the threat would be equally against every important point of the Southern coast from Hatteras to the Rio Grande. The simple putting to sea of such a force, if it were only to return to its port, would cause general alarm, and the Gulf States could no longer permit their troops to swell the armies of Virginia. The force thus organized, after being, by frequent embarkations and disembarkations, used as a means of threat, and thus perfectly drilled to its intended service, might at last be permitted to strike its blow. Whether at New Orleans, or Mobile, or Pensacola, or Savannah, or Port Royal, or that focus of rebellion-the scene of the great indignity offered our flag-Charleston, might be decided at the last moment.

We have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servants,
Captain, U. S. Navy, President.
Superintendent U.S. Coast Survey.
Major, U. S. Engineers.
Commander, U. S. Navy, Secretary.

Recommended Reading: Lincoln's Navy: The Ships, Men and Organization, 1861-65 (Hardcover). Review: Naval historian Donald L. Canney provides a good overview of the U.S. Navy during the Civil War, describing life at sea, weapons, combat, tactics, leaders, and of course, the ships themselves. He reveals the war as a critical turning point in naval technology, with ironclads (such as the Monitor) demonstrating their superiority to wooden craft and seaborne guns (such as those developed by John Dahlgren) making important advances. The real reason to own this oversize book, however, is for the images: more than 200 of them, including dozens of contemporary photographs of the vessels that fought to preserve the Union. There are maps and portraits, too; this fine collection of pictures brings vividness to its subject that can't be found elsewhere.

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Recommended Reading: A History of Ironclads: The Power of Iron over Wood. Description: This landmark book documents the dramatic history of Civil War ironclads and reveals how ironclad warships revolutionized naval warfare. Author John V. Quarstein explores in depth the impact of ironclads during the Civil War and their colossal effect on naval history. The Battle of Hampton Roads was one of history's greatest naval engagements. Over the course of two days in March 1862, this Civil War conflict decided the fate of all the world's navies. It was the first battle between ironclad warships, and the 25,000 sailors, soldiers and civilians who witnessed the battle vividly understood what history would soon confirm: wars waged on the seas would never be the same. Continued below…

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Recommended Reading: Iron Afloat: The Story of the Confederate Armorclads. Description: William N. Still's book is rightfully referred to as the standard of Confederate Naval history. Accurate and objective accounts of the major and even minor engagements with Union forces are combined with extensive background information. This edition has an enlarged section of historical drawings and sketches. Mr. Still explains the political background that gave rise to the Confederate Ironclad program and his research is impeccable. An exhaustive literature listing rounds out this excellent book. While strictly scientific, the inclusion of historical eyewitness accounts and the always fluent style make this book a joy to read. This book is a great starting point.


Recommended Reading: The Rebel Raiders: The Astonishing History of the Confederacy's Secret Navy (American Civil War). From Booklist: DeKay's modest monograph pulls together four separate stories from the naval aspects of the American Civil War. All have been told before but never integrated as they are here. The first story is that of James Bulloch, the Confederate agent who carefully and capably set out to have Confederate commerce raiders built in neutral England. The second is that of the anti-American attitudes of British politicians, far more extreme than conventional histories let on, and U.S. Ambassador Charles Francis Adams' heroic fight against them. Continued below...

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