The Federal bombardment of Fort Sumter, South Carolina, continued sporadically after Federal forces had failed to capture either Sumter or Charleston by direct assault. Rear-Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the Federal South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, shifted his main focus from bombarding the fort to blockading the harbor. During this time, General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate defenses in the harbor, directed a new type of naval vessel to attack.
The C.S.S. David was a small steam-powered, semi-submersible torpedo boat whose construction had been funded by donations from Charleston residents. The David sat just above the waterline, making her nearly invisible to the blockade fleet. A 10-foot spar at the end of the David’s bow held an explosive device (i.e., a torpedo). This device had four percussion caps primed to detonate a gunpowder-filled canister on contact.
The torpedo boat headed out on the night of October 5, commanded by Lieutenant William T. Glassell. His three-man crew consisted of Pilot Walker Cannon, Assistant Engineer James H. Tomb, and Seaman James Sullivan (fireman). They had spent the past week testing the vessel, and Glassell pronounced them ready for action. Their mission was to destroy the hated 3,486-ton iron frigate U.S.S. New Ironsides.
The David passed Fort Sumter around 9 p.m. About an hour later, the deck officer of the New Ironsides sighted the cigar-shaped craft approaching from 50 yards. He hollered, “What boat is that?” Glassell, hoping to cause confusion among the enemy crew, emerged from the David and killed the man with a shotgun blast. The David’s engines then turned off and she drifted toward the New Ironsides.
The Federals opened fire, but it was too late. The David surged forward and rammed the ironclad’s starboard quarter, detonating 60 pounds of gunpowder six feet below her waterline.
The blast was not strong enough to sink the New Ironsides, but it extinguished the David’s boilers. Glassell ordered the crew to abandon ship, and three of the four men began swimming to shore. Cannon stayed aboard because he could not swim, so Tomb returned and the men tried to restart the David. Tomb finally relit the boilers, and he and Cannon escaped. Charleston residents welcomed them back to shore as heroes.
Federals captured Glassell and Sullivan as they tried to swim ashore. They were shipped north to face charges of using an uncivilized weapon, but no trial was held and they were later exchanged as prisoners of war. The New Ironsides went to the repair yard at Port Royal, where workmen discovered the blast had caused more damage than initially thought. She remained under repair for the next eight months.
Dahlgren wrote Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “How far the enemy may seem encouraged I do not know, but I think it will be well to be prepared against a considerable issue of these small craft.” Dahlgren informed Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox, “By all means let us have a quantity of these torpedoes, and thus turn them against the enemy. We can make them faster than they can.”
The explosion terrified the Federal crew and prompted the Federal naval command to develop a defense to this new type of warfare. Dahlgren issued orders for ironclads to have escorts while on patrol, and to be fitted with protective outrigging and netting while anchored.
Meanwhile, the Confederates scrambled to construct more David-like ships with larger torpedoes to attack the Federal fleet at Charleston.
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