The Battle of Hilton Head
, alternatively but not commonly known as the Battle of Port Royal
, was a major naval engagement on May 5, 1915 in the immediate vicinity of Port Royal Sound in South Carolina, CSA during the Great American War. Fought between the two fleets of the United States and a combined sortie of Confederate and Brazilian vessels known as the Combined Fleet, the engagement was, at the time it occurred, possibly the largest naval battle in recorded history, only the second to feature dreadnoughts on both sides (after the Battle of the Desventuradas a year earlier between the United States and Chile). The battle was one of the most lopsided and decisive defeats by a naval force in history - of the Combined Fleet, only a single battleship and four submarines was able to escape un-sunk, and an estimated eleven thousand Confederate and Brazilian soldiers died while countless others fled to shore or were captured.
The battle occurred in a strategic context of early 1915 in which the Bloc Sud powers of the Confederate States, Brazil and Mexico had successfully begun a campaign of harassment and interdiction against US shipping in the Caribbean and, to a lesser extent, central and north Atlantic by way of increasingly deploying battleship assets out of port and a strategically novel campaign of semi-unrestricted submarine warfare. The United States, having secured naval supremacy in the Pacific over the prior year, elected in early 1915 to seek a decisive coup de main
against the Confederate First Fleet of Admiral Richmond Hobson operating out of the vicinity of Charleston and Savannah - as it turned out, the protected sound of Port Royal in between the two. To this end, the US Navy sent a massive task force under Admiral Joseph Murdock from the Pacific through to the Caribbean in early April, and dispatched a smaller fleet under Admiral Reggie Belknap out of New England at the same time to lure the Confederates into an engagement. Concerned about the massing of American force in the Caribbean, Hobson joined his fleet up with a Brazilian squadron under Admiral Isaias de Noronha off the Florida coast and sailed north to respond to Belknap, unaware that Murdock's fleet was in the Bahamas, and not near the Virgin Islands as he believed.
Belknap successfully drew Hobson out to Bermuda, giving Murdock time to position his fleet to intercept Hobson on his return to port when the Confederate admiral deduced that he was being forced into a battle out at sea that was not to his advantage. Upon returning to South Carolina, his Combined Fleet had its T crossed both from in front by Murdock and behind by Belknap, who had trailed him back at a distance, creating a "cauldron at sea," as it would later be known. In a massive, daylong battle featuring more tonnage than any before in history, the Combined Fleet was decisively eliminated; attempts to break for Port Royal and Savannah were both unsuccessful. Both commanding admirals were captured, with Hobson pulled from the sea after being blown from the deck of his flagship by a shell; Murdock, the American fleet admiral, was killed early in the engagement when the bridge of his flagship was nearly totally destroyed. Only the CSS Texas
was able to successfully break through, though with severe damage, and escape to port in Savannah.
The decisive loss of three of the Confederacy's four dreadnoughts, and one of its two pre-dreadnought battleships (the Confederacy had captured two American battleships at Baltimore, but they were being held in reserve in Mobile under repair after taking severe damage) essentially eliminated the Confederacy as a viable naval force for the remainder of the war (the fourth dreadnought, Arkansas,
would be severely damaged and captured in the Battle of the Florida Straits three months later) and badly set back the ability of Brazil to project power in the Caribbean; indeed, it was the first and only major naval engagement between the United States and Brazil in the entirety of the war. By a quirk of fate, it occurred on the same date that the major breakthrough into Nashville occurred in the Midlands Theater of the war, and "Black May" is a term used in the Confederacy to this day for the moment when the war turned irreversibly against them with the twin defeats. As for the United States, it remains celebrated as a foundational military triumph, with the deceased Murdock in particular enjoying the legacy of national martyrdom. Internationally, it remains one of the most studied battles strategically and tactically, as there was no particular mistake made by Hobson's maneuvers and due to the sheer firepower involved; lessons drawn from Hilton Head would prove highly influential in the naval battles of the Mediterranean during the Central European War.
Today, Hilton Head Island in South Carolina remains a national military cemetery, with several thousand of the remains of the Confederate war dead from the battle buried there (though it is rumored that unidentified Americans and Brazilians are entombed in unmarked graves there, too). On the centennial of the battle, American President Brian Schweitzer became the first-ever American President to visit the Hilton Head National War Cemetery; indeed, only token dignitaries had traveled there on previous anniversaries, taken as a sign of warming relations between Richmond and Philadelphia.
(I didn't quite get the Confederate flag looking the way I'd hoped, oh well)
(Yes that is the USS Arizona
burning as my stand-in for the sinking Virginia
; if you're ever in Hawai'i, Pearl Harbor is worth seeing)