The Battle of Hilton Head, also called the Battle of Port Royal Bay, was a naval engagement in September of 1914 (September 11-12) between the United States Navy and the Confederate and Mexican Navies off of the coast of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. The two-day battle was fought in order to secure control of Port Royal Bay and establish American control over the Port of Savannah, which had been the key site of blockade runners and was a port where supplies from Venezuela and Brazil could still reach the Confederacy.
The battle was one of the most vicious and destructive naval engagements in the history of warfare, with thirty-one ships destroyed and nearly 20,000 men killed and an additional 22,000 casualties in the course of three days. It was the most devastating naval battle in the war and was the bloodiest battle in the American Theater. The bulk of losses were by ships of the poorly-constructed Mexican Navy, particularly when three ships were sunk in deep waters two miles from the main engagement.
The US Navy lost, in total, twelve ships: two battleships, with zero survivors of either crew - the USS George Washington and the USS Benjamin Franklin, and also lost four destroyers, one battlecruiser and five light cruisers. In addition, the battleship USS Michigan was heavily damaged and forced to return to Delaware for repairs, and six light cruisers and two destroyers were pulled from duty afterwards as well. Roughly 2,567 men were killed on the Amiercan side, mostly aboard the Washington and the Franklin, with 8,956 wounded in the firefight.
The CS Third Fleet was devastated, however, with the battleships Virginia, Georgia and Cuba all sunk and the battleship South Carolina run aground on the north end of Port Royal Bay. In addition, seven destroyers, six battlecruisers and twelve light cruisers had been lost, with 6,717 dead and 3,459 wounded. It remains the greatest naval loss in Confederate history to this day.
The Mexican Second and Fourth Fleets were wiped out as well, with half of the Second Fleet fleeing south towards Cuba after the engagement on the 11th and most of the Fourth Fleet being sunk on the 12th. 5,791 men were killed and 10,453 were wounded, particularly the sailors onboard the Destroyer Moctezuma who ran aground at St. Helena island. The Mexican steamers Tenochitlan, Texcoco and Guayapil were all sunk in deep waters southeast of the main site of battle by the USS Michigan and USS Philadelphia on the 12th while bearing away from the battle, leading the Mexican government to cite the sinking of fleeing warships as a war crime even to present day, for which the US government has never assumed responsibility for or apologized for.
Hilton Head National Monument
The island of Hilton Head, including the old Fort Walker, is today preserved by the CSA government as a national war monument that includes unmarked graves for every 6,717 Confederate sailor who died as well as a separate Army monument to the 28 Confederate soldiers killed during the fighting at Fort Walker a few days afterward. The Confederate Naval Academy graduating class is brought to Hilton Head the day before their graduation every year for a day of reflection, and the Confederate President holds an annual address to the Confederate Navy Veterans Association every year at the site.
In 1964, President Nelson Rockefeller of the United States and President Lyndon B. Johnson of the Confederate States held a joint commemoration ceremony of the fiftenth anniversary of the battle at Hilton Head, the first such joint remembrance in the history of the two countries. At the seventy-five year anniversary of the battle in 1989, US President Robert J. Dole and Confederate President Samuel Nunn were joined by Mexican President Carlos Salinas, who was roundly criticized in native Mexico over his attendance due to the Mexican viewpoint that the United States murdered fleeing and defenseless Mexican sailors. Similar commemorations are planned for the 100th anniversary in 2014.