The Lincoln administration had pressured Rear-Admiral Samuel F. Du Pont, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, to capture the forts in Charleston Harbor, which would lead to the fall of Charleston itself. Being the site of Fort Sumter, Charleston was more of a symbolic than a strategic objective for the Federal high command.
Du Pont had been reluctant to attack the forts ringing the harbor because he doubted the new ironclad warships had the power to reduce such strong fortifications. Ironclads had been successful against forts previously in the war, but mostly by running past them, not by outgunning them. In this instance, the Confederates had the advantage in firepower, and running past the forts would be impossible once the ironclads entered the harbor. Moreover, Du Pont could expect no help from the army. Major-General David Hunter, commanding the Federal Department of the South, had no intention of sending his troops in against such strong fortifications.
Resigned to his fate, Du Pont prepared to attack nonetheless. He dispatched the ironclads U.S.S. Keokuk, Montauk, Passaic, and Patapsco to the North Edisto River and positioned other gunboats in preparation for the impending assault on April 1. Du Pont arrived at Edisto Island the next night and issued orders to his ship commanders on the 4th:
“… The Squadron will pass up the main channel without returning the fire of the batteries on Morris Island, unless signal should be made to commence action. The ships will open fire on Fort Sumter when within easy range, and will take up position to the northward and westward of that fortification, engaging its left or northeast face at a distance of from 600 to 800 yards firing low and aiming at the center embrasure… After the reduction of Fort Sumter it is probable that the next point of attack will be the batteries on Morris Island. The order of battle will be line ahead…”
The ironclad fleet was assembled on the afternoon of April 5. Federals had placed buoys in the channel off the Stono bar to mark the safe passage, with the gunboats U.S.S. Catskill and Patapsco guarding the buoys. Du Pont assigned steamers to be ready to tow off any vessels that might be disabled in the impending assault.
The attack fleet consisted of nine monitor-class ironclads: the U.S.S. Weehawken, Passaic, Montauk, Patapsco, New Ironsides (Du Pont’s flagship), Catskill, Nantucket, Nahant, and Keokuk. The ships had 32 guns against 76 guns at six key positions in the harbor: Fort Sumter, Fort Moultrie, Sullivan’s Island, Morris Island, James Island, and Cumming’s Point.
The ships crossed the Charleston bar and prepared to attack, but hazy weather rendered pilots unable to judge the ranges, so it was postponed for a day. The ships anchored just outside the harbor on the night of the 6th.
The tides delayed the attack on the 7th until around noon. The fleet then began advancing toward the main channel leading into the harbor single-file, with the Weehawken under Captain John Rodgers leading the way. But the raft that the Weehawken was pushing to offset Confederate torpedoes got tangled with the main ship, causing another delay. The advance finally got under way in earnest around 3 p.m.
This would be the largest naval attack of the war, as well as the first-ever saltwater engagement by an ironclad fleet. The Confederates knew the attack was coming, and after waiting so long for the Federals to make a move, they were almost relieved that it was finally here. Charleston residents lined the shore to watch the action. As the fleet came on, the Confederates at Fort Sumter raised their flag and fired a 13-gun salute to the Confederacy while a band played “Dixie” from the parapet.
The Federal ships struggled to get past the obstructions and over the sandbars. Confederate markers in the water guided the range of their guns and made the vessels even more vulnerable. Federal captains had trouble navigating the strong flood tide sweeping into the harbor as they came under fire.
Intense fire opened from Fort Sumter and nearby Sullivan’s and Morris islands. The Federals returned fire, but the ironclads’ slow guns could not match the enemy’s cannonade. A witness called the Confederate fire, “Sublime, infernal, it seemed as if the fires of hell were turned upon the Union fleet.” A naval officer said, “Such a fire I never saw. Nothing could be heard but the whistling of shot.”
The Federal ships fired 154 rounds, hitting Fort Sumter 55 times. But the Confederates fired 2,209 rounds and scored over 400 direct hits that destroyed decks, riddled smokestacks, penetrated armor, and disabled guns. The Weehawken took 53 hits and struck a torpedo. The Passaic took 35 hits and had her main gun turret disabled. The Montauk under Captain John L. Worden took 47 hits, as did the Patapsco. The New Ironsides was disabled and sat helpless above a 2,000-pound torpedo. Confederates tried to detonate the torpedo, but a faulty wire saved the ship and crew, including Du Pont.
The Catskill was next in line, sustaining 20 hits and taking in water. The Nantucket took 51 hits that disabled her turret. The Nahant was crippled by 36 hits. The Keokuk got within 600 yards of Fort Sumter but sustained 90 hits, 18 of which penetrated the iron near the waterline. “Riddled like a colander,” the ship fell back toward Morris Island and sank later that night. Confederates later recovered the Keokuk’s signal books, which contained all the Federals’ naval codes. Two Confederate spar-torpedo boats (oar-driven vessels with mines attached to a spar to ram enemy ships) were sent out to attack the enemy ships still inside the Stono bar, but the Federals had already withdrawn.
The Federals sustained 23 casualties (one killed and 22 wounded), while the Confederates lost 14 (four killed and 10 wounded). Du Pont’s flagship signaled a withdrawal around 5 p.m., as the harbor proved to be “a circle of fire not to be passed.” A Charleston resident wrote of the Federal ships, “It was a most signal defeat for them. We did not use half of our guns and had no recourse to rams, torpedoes, etc.” His “only regret is that the fleet did not make more of a fight so as to be more badly damaged.”
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