A powerful new Confederate steam ram named the C.S.S. Atlanta (formerly the Fingal), under Commander William A. Webb, entered Wassaw Sound at the mouth of the Wilmington River on June 15. Webb’s goal was to drive Federal blockading vessels out of the sound, “raise the blockade between here and Charleston, attack Fort Royal, and then blockade Fort Pulaski.”
Rear-Admiral Samuel F. Du Pont, commanding the Federal Atlantic Blockading Squadron, learned of the Atlanta’s intentions and dispatched the ironclad monitors U.S.S. Weehawken and Nahant to stop her. The Weehawken had been repaired after taking 53 hits during the Battle of Charleston on April 7.
Webb received word of this and planned to use the percussion torpedo on the Atlanta’s bow to blow a hole in the Weehawken’s iron plating and sink her. He wrote Navy Secretary Stephen Mallory, “I assure you the whole abolition fleet has no terrors for me… My plan… is to break up and raise the blockade between here and Charleston, and on returning to look into Hilton Head, damaging the enemy there as much as possible, and then to enter the Savannah River, where I can cut off supplies for Fort Pulaski.”
On the overcast morning of the 17th, the Atlanta came down the Wilmington accompanied by the wooden steamers C.S.S. Isondiga and Resolute. The Atlanta fired six shots at the Weehawken and Nahant, but scored no hits. The Weehawken came within 300 yards and responded with five shots. Three hit their mark, and two of those were 441-pounders fired from the 15-inch gun. These pierced the Atlanta’s armor, disabled two gun crews, and killed two of the ship’s three pilots.
In less than 15 minutes, the Atlanta had run aground and lowered her colors while the Isondiga and Resolute steamed away. Webb was forced to surrender his ship and his crew, which consisted of 21 officers, 96 sailors, and 28 Marines. Captain John Rodgers, commanding the Weehawken, was awarded the thanks of Congress and a promotion to commodore. This was a major loss for the small Confederate navy and, as a northern correspondent wrote, it “created the wildest excitement in the (Federal) fleet, and has put new life into all hands.”
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865. Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press (Kindle Edition), 2012.
- Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 640-41
- Still, Jr., William N. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.