Memoranda read before the President and Cabinet, General Scott and Commodore Stringham, and Mr. Fox, late of the Navy, Washington, March 15, 1861, by Bvt. Brig. Gen. Joseph G. Totten, Chief of Engineers.*
The obstacles to the relief of Fort Sumter are natural or artificial obstacles to navigation, and military opposition.
The main channel in its best natural state would not admit the passage of vessels larger than sloops of war; so that, before it was obstructed, a naval attack, to be very formidable, must have consisted of many vessels of this kind.
In designing the defenses of Charleston Harbor, therefore, it was considered that Fort Sumter, with Castle Pinckney, would suffice, with some improvement of Fort Moultrie, and the erection of batteries in time of war on James Island at the position called Fort Johnson. A deeper entrance would have demanded a stronger system.
The South Carolina troops have strengthened Fort Moultrie and added batteries thereto; they possess Castle Pinckney; they have erected batteries at Fort Johnson, and, not having Fort Sumter, they have planted a number of guns (number not known) on Morris Island.
These last do not, certainly, bring their system up to that which included Fort Sumter; but they, as is represented, have also so blocked the main channel, or made its navigation so intricate, that only vessels light in draught can enter – vessels unavoidably weak to resist and impotent to assail.
If we suppose a squadron of war vessels as large as can be forced through the impediments of the main bar to have overcome that difficulty, and, under pressure of steam, to advance in daylight (as I think would be indispensable), they would suffer greatly from the fire of Morris Island, Fort Moultrie, and its adjacent batteries – but they would suffer much less than the small vessels, because much stronger and with vital parts better secured, and because their own fire would, to a certain extent, keep under, and, to a great degree, render uncertain the fire of the batteries. But whether larger or smaller, the vessels have not merely to pass the fire of the batteries – they must remain exposed to it. Because, before getting beyond the fire of Fort Moultrie, they come within scope of Fort Johnson, and while yet under the guns of these batteries they will be reached by Castle Pinckney. There is no point of shelter within these waters; and although the squadron of heavy sloops might survive the dangers of the passage, they could not long endure the cannonade that would be concentrated on any anchorage. In these very waters, this problem was settled in the Revolutionary War by the contest between the squadron of Sir Peter Parker and the single work of Fort Moultrie – then certainly not more powerful than now.
To enable the supposed squadron to remain, it is indispensable that a military force should capture the batteries from the land, and be strong enough, besides, to hold possession against the troops now assembled in and around them, and those that would rapidly come from the interior.
Should small vessels attempt this entrance by daylight, their destruction would be inevitable; at any rate, the chances of getting through would be too slender to justify any such enterprise. We have certain information that there is much practice with these guns, and that the practice now is good. If this risk were to be run by daylight, the vessels might have a draught of about eight feet, and could use the “Swash Channel,” or a passage between this and the main channel, or, finally, the latter. But I must repeat that unless we were to find a degree of inaptness and imbecility, and a want of vigilance and courage that we have no right to assume, this attempt by daylight with small vessels, even of great speed, must fail.
There remains another project, namely, to enter at night by the “Swash” Channel with a few (two or three) fast steam-tugs, having a draught of only (or about)five feet. To do this it will be necessary to take position before dark off this channel, so as to get upon the proper leading line to be followed after dark by the ascertained course, or, possibly, by the bearing of the lights of Fort Sumter. With proper precautions in screening the lights and fires of the boats, &c., I think the risk would not be so great, considering only the batteries, as to deter from this attempt, provided the object were of very great importance. I should expect one or two, perhaps all, of these vessels to reach Fort Sumter, and the shoal upon which they must be grounded – provided no other impediments awaited them.
But, in the first place, it is a necessary condition that the boats arrive off the harbor before night. If they can see to take these bearings, they can be seen from the shore. In the next place, it seems impossible to fit out any expedition, however small and unobtrusive, without arousing inquiry, and causing the intelligence to be transmitted by telegraph. We may be certain, therefore, that these tugs will be waited for by steamers lying in the channelway, full of men.
This mode of relieving Fort Sumter, or another by men in rowboats passing up the same channel, is so obvious that it is unreasonable to suppose it has not been duly considered and provided for, where so much intelligence and resource in military means have been displayed in the scheme of defense, and so much earnestness and energy in execution. We know that guard rowboats and steamers are active during the night; and that they have all the means of intercepting with certainty this little expedition, and overpowering it, by boarding – a commencement of war.
This attempt, like any other, will inevitably involve a collision.
This raises a question that I am not called on to discuss, but as to which I may say that if the General Government adopts a course that must be attended with this result, its first measure should not be one so likely to meet disaster and defeat; nor one, I may add, which, even if successful, would give but momentary relief, while it would open all the powers of attack upon the fort, certainly reducing it before the means of recovering Charleston Harbor, with all its forts and batteries and environs, can possibly be concentrated there.
J. G. T.
* See also General Totten to Secretary of War, April 3, 1861, post.
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. 198-200