Ironclad Nantucket Commander Donald M. Fairfax, en Route to Attack Charleston Harbor, Writes of the Monitor (two weeks after Battle of Hampton Roads) and Slavery
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“I do not think the Ironclad Monitor deserving of the credit of sea boat although they can stand a great deal…I am rather on the old democratic order – go for the Union always – but religiously believe in observing the Constitution literally – This horrible negro question I ever have deplored and view those in the North as inimical to the success of our Republic who have kept up this strife – of course there is no excuse for the South but certainly the abolitionist is much to blame” [CIVIL WAR]. DONALD MACNEIL FAIRFAX.
Autograph Letter Signed, as Commander of U.S.S. Nantucket
, to “Cooke,” 4 pp., 7¾ x 9¾ in. Port Royal, [S.C.]. March 26, 1863.
Port Royal, March 26, 63
I fully intended on writing you. I am almost sure that I acknowledged the receipt of yr: letter dated Providence Febry 21 62 immediately after my return from Washington. I regretted very much not having seen you when you came to Boston in search of me – an unfortunate Court of inquiry at Washington called me south when I intended being in Boston on a certain day. I was pressed very much by department at Boston and New York to get my vessel to sea. Very little time was given me to think of my social relations. After great hurry I got finally to sea on the 9th March and the next day a storm drove me into Delaware break water – on the 11th at 2 PM – in tow of the side wheel Government boat Florida the Nantucket again turned her head south. Was off Cape Henry & Charles by daylight the following morning and the eve of the 13th we passed south of Hatteras – until then very smooth – getting into Gulf Stream with the wind strong from North an ugly sea caused our irregular craft to flounder about considerably – striking heavily as the sea wld drive her onward towards our port – but nothing unpleasant arose during our entire voyage to Port Royal. We struck a good vein of weather – just as we reached port heavy south west winds came on <2>
we experienced a head sea after passing Charleston – iron clads of the Monitor class labour heavily in a head sea – fair winds & seas do not inconvenience them – at least not so seriously – seas pass over them without any hard blows. I do not think the Ironclad Monitor deserving of the credit of sea boat although they can stand a great deal – we were under the water sometimes two feet – but the buoyancy of these vessels seems to be in proportion to the sea – to a certain extent at least – strange things surely – had Ericsson consulted men of professional attainments he might have very materially improved upon these vessels – they have their vulnerable points! Cooke you never have told me whether you are a married man? I take it for granted that you are – in my opinion a good wife is one of Gods best gifts to a man – Now my friend I would say that you who have no night watches, no signal gun to fire, no enemy to meet as we soon must, are favored more than those whose duties call them away from the home & fire side. Now engaged in fighting against rebellion. I thank my Heavenly Father now that I am called upon to go forth to battle with an enemy of the General Government that I am where I am now – but Cooke what will compensate a man for these cruel separations from his family? Therefore I envy you! <3>
But of that we will not now speak – all union loving people must feel desirous of serving their Country one way or another. We are about to enter upon a great undertaking – time will show what it is – I only hope success may attend it. The world are interested in the result of iron clads, although I do not think the class perfected by any means. I write as tho at P. Royal – in reality we are within 18 miles off Fort Sumter. You know my dear fellow that I’m not permitted to write of any contemplated attack. You can infer from the press North and South we are about to attempt a great work – when we finish what we are about then I will give you a full account of the whole affair – until then we will be patient with the issue. I met the Mr. Weld of Jamaica Plain whom you knew may years ago – Rob and Robt. Sturgis – the latter is living in Phila. – at least was on account of his health. How are you on the goose question? I am rather on the old democratic order – go for the Union always – but religiously believe in observing the Constitution literally – This horrible negro question I ever have deplored and view those in the North as inimical to the success of our Republic who have kept up this strife – of course there is no excuse for the South but certainly the abolitionist is much to blame – and it is after all, beyond a political feeling, of no particular interest to the non slave holder. I can never think <4>
any philanthropic motives actuate the party – a mistaken few who think slavery dreadful do not tax their minds with the other evil of destroying the Southern White Man – a religion, or any philanthropic measure must be judged of by the amt of good to come out of it, with least detriment to the good of the whole. We are too frequently mistaken in what we deem our imperative duty – Even when that duty conflicts with the rights of our neighbors. I am not in favor of extension but I go for protecting the slaveholder in the controlling of this domestic evil – how fortunate are we who have no slaves. I often have felt grateful to my fathers father that he liberated over a hundred and spent a fortune to carry out his views – leaving me poor – but I sincerely hope that when we do come back to a one Government that we may be a strong Conservative republic. What matters it whether Massachusetts or So. Carolina attempt nullification of a common law of the land? But enough – I did not set out with intention of preaching politics – I am living in New Jersey until the Old Dominion is restored and a union man can break bread with her citizens – she is a conservative state as is also Old Rhode Island – write me at Port Royal So. Ca. – it will not be more than two weeks before our XV in. and XI in. Dahlgren will be speaking in tones that rebels never have relished – We will have 8 or 9 ironclads – even 10 – Counting new iron sides. Now Cooke my friend goodbye. Write me. Yr friend
D. W. Fairfax
Written just 9 days prior to the First Battle of Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, (April 7, 1863) aboard the ironclad Nantucket, future Admiral Donald Fairfax comments on topics ranging from his vessel’s prowess, to John Ericsson’s design and the ironclad’s seaworthiness, to his personal feelings towards on slavery. Fairfax was the only member of his family to side with the North (hence his current New Jersey residence), but he was very sympathetic to Southern slaveholders, not wishing to destroy their way of life.
Ironclads were first used in naval warfare only two weeks before this letter, on March 8-9, 1863, at the Battle of Hampton Roads. With the war generally going poorly for the North, the Navy hoped for a stunning victory at Charleston Harbor. The Union force, under the command of Rear Admiral Samuel Francis Du Pont, consisted of consisting of nine ironclads. The fleet attacked the Confederate defenses at the harbor’s entrance, firing for nearly two hours but inflicting insufficient damage before tidal conditions forced the retreat of the ironclad fleet. The ships had been unable to penetrate even the first line of harbor defenses, and the following day, Du Pont decided against a further attack.
A rich, highly detailed letter related to this early, all-ironclad attack on the important Confederate defenses at Charleston.
Donald MacNeil Fairfax (1822 – 1894). Born in Fairfax, Va, graduated from U.S. Naval Academy in 1841. He served in California and in Mexican American War. Unlike many officers from the South, he stayed loyal to the U.S. Navy during Civil War. He was an executive officer aboard the San Jacinto and actively involved in the infamous “Trent Affair,” an 1861 diplomatic controversy involving the Navy’s removal of Confederate commissioners from the British mail-steamer, RMS Trent. Promoted in 1862 to commander, he served in the Western Gulf Squadron under Admiral Farragut. He was Superintendant of the Naval Academy from 1863-1865, eventually rising to commodore in 1873 and admiral in 1880.