October 29, 1861, the Union launched the largest US naval and amphibious expedition in its history – a force that would not be matched until the 20th c. Its mission was the taking of Port Royal, the finest, natural deep-water port on the East Coast south of New York. Guarded by Fort Walker on Hilton Head and Fort Beauregard at Bay Point, the port was vital to the Union both as a coaling station for blockade ships and as a strategic toehold in the South.
Also at stake was something less tangible, but equally critical, Northern morale. Deeply shaken by the defeat and heavy losses at Bull Run and an apparently stalled war effort, the North needed a victory. With Commodore Samuel Francis DuPont in command aboard the flagship USS Wabash, “one of the most important maritime engagements in the Civil War”11 was about to begin.
The morning of November 7th ushered in a new age in naval warfare. With the increased maneuverability afforded by steam power, naval warships for the first time had an advantage over fixed fortifications. In the four-hour siege that could be heard as far away as Lobeco, the USS Wabash alone fired 888 shots. In the battle that came to be known locally as the “Day of the Big Gun Shoot,” the forts proved no match for Union’s 157 guns. By 2:30 in the afternoon, both forts were abandoned and the North had its first significant victory in the war.
11The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina, page 451
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