Friday, September 23, 2016

Colonel Joseph G. Totten to Simon Cameron, April 3, 1861

WASHINGTON, April 3, 1861.

Under the strongest convictions on some military questions upon which great political events seem about to turn, I feel impelled to state them, since they are of a nature to derive, possibly, a little weight from my official relation to them, and since, moreover, circumstances might cause my failing to make the statement in time to be considered as a grave delinquency. I refer particularly to the question of defending or abandoning Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens.

Fort Sumter. – In addition to what I have heretofore said as to the impracticability of efficiently re-enforcing and supplying this fort, I will now say only that if the fort was filled with men and munitions it could  hold out but a short time. It would be obliged to surrender with much loss of life, for it would be bravely and obstinately defended, and the greater the crowd within the greater the proportionate loss. This issue can be averted only by sending a large army and navy to capture all the surrounding forts and batteries, and to assemble and apply these there is now no time. If we do not evacuate Fort Sumter it will be wrested from us by force.

Fort Pickens.Were this fort provided with a garrison of eight hundred or one thousand good soldiers, fully supplied with everything necessary to the best defense, and ably commanded, its utmost term of resistance would be about three weeks rather less than more. Were the besieging army practiced in the war of sieges, it would hardly be maintained for a fortnight. With a garrison of three hundred to five hundred men only, and in its present destitution of essential means, its siege supplies consisting of guns and ammunition merely, and these scanty and not of the best kind, the siege must be a very short one. But even the making good the deficiencies would, as stated above, only defer the issue for a week or so. In any case a quick surrender would be inevitable.

Regarding the fort independently of co-operation on one side or the other of a naval force, or of other fortifications in the harbor, these conclusions are not to be doubted, without disregarding all military experience. The occupation by the investing forces of the shore opposite, with numerous batteries pouring their showers of shot and shell into the fort, while the regular siege operations upon Santa Rosa Island were going on, would materially abridge the term of resistance. A naval force uniting in the defense, but confined to the waters outside of the harbor, might, to a certain extent, increase the casualties of the besiegers, but would not materially retard the operations. In that case the approaches would be pushed along the inshore face of the island, leaving the breadth of the island, with its sand hills and ridges, between them and the ships; and, moreover, two or three batteries planted on the out-shore face, and sheltered from the fire of the fort by sand hills and traverses, would compel ships to keep an out-of-range offing. Could this naval force act upon the bay side of Santa Rosa Island as well as upon the sea side, the progress of a siege, if practicable at all, might be greatly retarded. Under such circumstances this kind of attack would hardly be undertaken. Were the investing forces numerous and enterprising they might, nevertheless, even then attempt a coup de main; and, provided the garrison were weak in numbers, and worn out by a protracted cannonade and bombardment from the opposite shore, the chances of success would warrant the attempt.

But I consider that the passing of vessels of war into the bay would be a very hazardous proceeding in the face of Fort McRee, Fort Barrancas, its advanced battery, and several other batteries that all accounts agree in stating have been erected and mounted along the shore, from the navy-yard inclusive to and beyond the light-house. It is possible, however, that this channel might be passed at night by swift war steamers without utter destruction, and there might be retained by one or more of them enough efficiency to prevent the hostile occupation of the lower part of Santa Rosa Island, and the prosecution there of siege operations against Fort Pickens. In such event resort would certainly be had to cannonade and bombardment from the batteries on the opposite shore, and these plied with vigor and perseverance would at last reduce the fort to a condition incapable of resisting vigorous assault, since the garrison would be exhausted, and the means of defense on the cannonaded side have little efficiency left to them. The masonry on that part of the fort is exposed to sight, and to battering from top to bottom, and is pierced besides by a gateway and numerous embrasures, greatly weakening it. Every shot fired from the other shore would strike the walls, and every shell fall within them. With a brave and well-supplied garrison there would be an obstinate holding out, no doubt, but a surrender would at last close a scene in which on our side no other military virtues had room for display but fortitude and patience. The response of the fort to shot and shell would be by shot and shell, but with little proportionate chance of injury to the enemy's impassive batteries of sand.

This last mode of attack could be prevented, even with the command of the inner waters only, by landing upon the main shore a military force sufficient to capture all these forts and batteries, including the navy-yard. Admitting the supposition (quite unreasonable as I estimate our available army force) that we can before it is too late disperse the 3,000 or 5,000 men now in hostile array there and regain these possessions, what then? The Confederate States can assemble a large additional military force at Montgomery by railroad, and throw it down also by railroad upon Pensacola. Here there would be the struggle between the two armies on land, and not between forts and batteries.

The question that next arises is not whether this great nation is able with time to supply ample means in soldiers and munitions for such conflict, but whether, having expended nearly all its ready strength in reconquering the harbor fortifications and navy-yard, it could send timely and adequate re-enforcements. With our present military establishment and existing military laws I do not see how this would be possible before all that had been gained would be lost.

The seceded States, considering themselves as in a state of quasi warfare, see that if there is to be a struggle the very utmost of their military energies and resources will be called for. They see, besides, that to contend with the greater chance of success they must profit by our present state of military weakness, and under the first glow of a great political change they rush ardently into the requisite preparations. Upon the battle-field of Pensacola or its environs they are now stronger than we can become without the help of Congress, and they can and will augment their strength there if necessary beyond anything we can hope to do for yet many months.

The above and much like reasoning convince me that we cannot retain Fort Pickens, provided the other side is really in earnest, and follows up with like promptitude and energy their early military preparations. If we do not vacate this fort the result predicted as to Fort Sumter will certainly be realized here also it will be taken from us by violence.

Should the above reasoning not meet acceptance, or for political reasons should it be decided to hold and defend this fort to the last; then I have to say that every soldier that can be spared should be sent to its relief with the utmost dispatch, accompanied by military supplies of every kind and in the greatest abundance.

To supply in some sort the want of a naval force within the bay as large a force as can be spared from the immediate protection of the fort should be encamped upon Santa Rosa Island at some distance from the fort, maintaining communication with it and detaching parties to watch the upper part of the island. These will give timely notice of the entrance thereupon of hostile troops, and will prevent the erection of batteries against our ships lying off shore, through which all supplies for the fort must be derived.

While the fort is uninjured many men need not remain within its walls to secure it from surprise or escalade. Of course the detached troops must be kept within reach of quick recall. Such measures may delay somewhat, though neither these nor any others now within our reach will, in my opinion, prevent the loss of Fort Pickens.

I present these thoughts to the consideration of the Secretary of War, and, if he thinks them of sufficient interest, to the perusal of the President, because they force themselves from me by the vehemence of the convictions.

Treating it purely as a professional question, I do not presume to advise as to the policy of the Government in this connection, merely presenting what seem to me to be incontrovertible facts and inevitable consequences of a military nature, that may, perhaps, be allowed to bear upon the political question.

Having no personal ambition or party feeling to lead or mislead me to conclusions, I have maturely studied the subject as a soldier bound to give all his faculties to his country, which may God preserve in peace!

Respectfully submitted.
Chief Engineer.

SOURCE: The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume 1 (Serial No. 1), p. 232-5

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