Category Archives: Navy

The Hunley Attack

February 17, 1864 – One of the first submarine attacks in history occurred when a “submersible” Confederate vessel confronted a Federal warship on blockade duty at Charleston Harbor.

The C.S.S. H.L. Hunley was a forerunner to the modern submarine. It had sunk in two previous test runs, killing both crews, including inventor Horace L. Hunley himself in the second run. Both times the Confederate navy salvaged the Hunley and restored her for service. Built from a boiler cylinder, the hand-cranked, cigar-shaped craft was nicknamed “the peripatetic coffin.”

The H.L. Hunley | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the Federal South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, had received intelligence that Confederates were experimenting with submersible ships to attack the Federal blockaders. He had been aware of “semi-submersible” vessels ever since the David’s attack on the U.S.S. New Ironsides last October, and he knew that new technology was being attempted to make the vessels even harder to see on the water.

Navy Secretary Gideon Welles warned Dahlgren that Confederates were developing a type of “submarine machine.” Dahlgren passed this information to his fleet commanders, instructing them to look out for a ship “of another kind, which is nearly submerged and can be entirely so. It is intended to go under the bottoms of vessels and there operate.”

A Confederate deserter informed the Federals that a vessel had been developed that could “stay underwater 10 minutes each time, and would come up 75 to 80 yards from where she went down.” Dahlgren reported, “When she does not dive, she only shows two heads above the water about the size of a man’s head. He (the deserter) thinks she is about 20 feet long and the manholes are about eight feet apart. She is made of iron.” Dahlgren stated that because he had “every reason to expect a visit from some or all of these torpedoes, the greatest vigilance will be needed to guard against them.”

Dahlgren put all his ship captains on high alert, but he assured them that only in “smooth water, and when the tide is slack, that any danger is imminent.” The waters had been rough in Charleston harbor since the beginning of the year, and by the time calm finally came on the night of the 17th, the Federal crews had grown complacent.

Lieutenant George E. Dixon, commanding the Hunley, targeted the U.S.S. Housatonic, a 1,240-ton wooden sloop-of-war. Dixon and his six crewmen waited for a strong ebb tide and favorable winds to help maximize the Hunley’s top speed of four knots. Moving out on a foggy night, guided by a near-full moon, the vessel covered the 12 miles to her target, on blockade duty just outside Charleston Harbor.

At 8:45 p.m., Captain Charles W. Pickering, commanding the Housatonic, sighted a strange object floating in the water toward his ship and notified Acting Master John K. Crosby, the deck officer. Crosby later stated, “It… had the appearance of a plank moving in the water.” The Hunley was already within 100 yards when Crosby saw that it was an enemy vessel. He ordered the crew to slip the anchor cables and back the ship away, but by that time, the Hunley was upon them. None of the Housatonic’s 12 guns could be depressed low enough to fire on the attacker.

The Hunley’s crew detonated a torpedo attached to a spar against the Housatonic’s side. According to Crosby, “The torpedo struck forward of the mizzen mast, on the starboard side, in line with the magazine.” The torpedo held 90 pounds of gunpowder, and the Federal ship sank within five minutes after detonation. Because the water was just 27 feet deep, the Housatonic did not sink completely, allowing all but five of her crew to escape. The remaining 158 crewmen were rescued by the nearby U.S.S. Canandaigua.

The Hunley signaled her success to Confederates on Sullivan’s Island but then disappeared, believed to have been sunk by the blast. There were no survivors, and the craft was finally found in 1970. However, this was the first sinking of a ship by a submarine in history, and it served to put the Federal blockaders on full alert. According to the Charleston Daily Courier:

“The explosion made no noise, and the affair was not known among the fleet until daybreak, when the crew were discovered and released from their uneasy positions in the rigging. They had remained there all night. Two officers and three men were reported missing and were supposed to be drowned. The loss of the Housatonic caused great consternation in the fleet. All the wooden vessels are ordered to keep up steam and to go out to sea every night, not being allowed to anchor inside. The picket boats have been doubled and the force in each boat increased.”

Dahlgren directed his captains to launch patrols and put up netting to guard against similar type vessels. He also wrote Welles proposing a Federal reward of $20,000 to $30,000 for anyone seizing or destroying any vessel like the Hunley. Distressed by this surprise attack, Dahlgren wrote, “They are worth more to us than that.”

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 139-41; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 730-31; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 374; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 898; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 399-400; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 465; 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), p. 179; Melton, Maurice, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 363-64; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 371; Ward, Geoffrey, Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 325-26

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Confederates Target New Bern

January 20, 1864 – Confederate commanders looked to take back a key point on the North Carolina coast to better feed their armies.

Federal forces had captured New Bern, one of North Carolina’s largest cities, in early 1862. Since then, the Confederates made sporadic attempts to take it back, but by this time, it had become an important objective because the Federal warehouses there could feed the Confederate armies through the winter.

Gen Robert E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

New Bern was especially important to General Robert E. Lee, whose Army of Northern Virginia was finding it increasingly difficult to sustain itself in ravaged, war-torn Virginia. If Confederate forces could seize the town, they could use the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad to transport the foodstuffs and supplies north into Virginia.

Now that the Federal and Confederate armies in northern Virginia had gone into winter quarters, Lee wrote President Jefferson Davis, “The time is at hand when, if an attempt can be made to capture the enemy’s forces at New Berne, it should be done. I can now spare troops for the purpose, which will not be the case as spring approaches.”

Lee acknowledged that the Federal garrison at New Bern had been strongly fortified, but it “has been so long unmolested, and experiences such a feeling of security, that it is represented as careless.” So were the Federal gunboats patrolling the nearby waters.

Lee stated, “A bold party could descend the Neuse (River) in boats at night, capture the gunboats, and drive the enemy by their aid from the works on that side of the river, while a force should attack them in front.” To do this, and to secure the “large amount of provisions and other supplies” there, “a bold naval officer” and experienced men would be needed. Lee asked, “Can they be had?”

Davis responded two days later, “Your suggestion is approved, but who can and will execute it?” Davis stated that a naval fleet could not be assembled any time soon. He also suggested that Lee should lead the New Bern operation himself:

“You could give it form, which would insure success… without your personal attention, I fear such failures as have elsewhere been suffered… It would be well to send the brigade, and if circumstances permit, you had better go down; otherwise, I will go myself, though it could only be for a very few days, Congress being in session.”

Lee waited over two weeks to reply, “until the time arrived for the execution of the attempt on New Berne.” Without acknowledging Davis’s offer to personally lead the troops in the attack, Lee stated he would take command, “but I consider my presence here (in northern Virginia) always necessary, especially now, when there is such a struggle to keep the army fed and clothed.” Lee also reiterated the need for a gunboat fleet, writing, “With their aid I think success would be certain.”

Confederate Gen George Pickett | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

Leadership ultimately devolved upon Major General George Pickett, who had taken command of the Department of North Carolina last fall. Pickett’s force would consist of 13,000 infantrymen, 900 cavalry troopers, and 17 guns. Lee worked with Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke, Pickett’s second-in-command, to develop the attack plan. It began with 14 naval cutters under Commander John T. Wood clearing the Federal gunboats off the Neuse River, thus “driving the enemy from their guns” on shore. Pickett would then launch a three-pronged advance:

  • An infantry force, Brigadier General Seth M. Barton’s 600 cavalry, and 14 guns would attack New Bern from the southwest, below the Trent River.
  • An infantry force, Colonel James Dearing’s 300 cavalry, and three guns would advance from the northeast and capture Fort Anderson, across the Neuse from New Bern.
  • Hoke’s division, joined by Pickett, would advance on New Bern from the northwest.

In addition to these joint army-navy operations, Brigadier General William H.C. Whiting, commanding Confederates at Wilmington, would move 35 miles southeast to attack the Federal garrison at Morehead City. Lee wrote Pickett, “Everything will depend upon the secrecy, expedition, and boldness of your movements.” Lee recommended troop placements and authorized Pickett to abort the attack if necessary. He then stated, “If successful, everything in New Berne should be sent back to a place of security.”

From there, Lee urged Pickett to oversee “the enemy driven from Washington, Plymouth, &c., and much subsistence for the army obtained.” Offering more specifics, Lee instructed, “If you have to use the telegraph, merely say, ‘The day is’–name the day of the month; he (Whiting) will comprehend. Commit nothing to the telegraph that may disclose your purpose.”

Lee directed Hoke to personally deliver the instructions to Pickett and “explain to him fully the plan of operations.” As Hoke moved his Confederates south into North Carolina, he was to coordinate efforts with draft officials “to get conscripts and recruits.”

The mobilization began on the 30th, and Pickett’s forces began arriving outside New Bern the next day. The operation continued into February.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 91; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 393; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 524

Federals Continue Pressuring Charleston

January 13, 1864 – Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, recommended that Federal forces use torpedo boats, like the Confederacy’s David, to attack enemy ships and defenses in Charleston Harbor.

Rear Adm J.A.B. Dahlgren – Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

By this month, the Federal blockade of Charleston Harbor was choking the city into submission. Federal troops occupied Morris and Folly islands southeast of Charleston, but Confederates still held Fort Sumter in the harbor. Dahlgren reported to President Abraham Lincoln:

“The city of Charleston is converted into a camp, and 20,000 or 25,000 of their best troops are kept in abeyance in the vicinity, to guard against all possible contingencies, so that 2,000 of our men in the fortifications of Morris and Folly Islands, assisted by a few ironclads, are tendering invaluable service… No man in the country will be more happy than myself to plant the flag of the Union where you most desire to see it.”

With Federal blockading vessels under constant threat from torpedoes and other obstructions, Dahlgren warned his commanders about a type of boat–

“… of another kind, which is nearly submerged and can be entirely so. It is intended to go under the bottoms of vessels and there to operate… It is also advisable not to anchor in the deepest part of the channel, for by not leaving much space between the bottom of the vessel and the bottom of the channel it will be impossible for the diving torpedo to operate except on the sides, and there will be less difficulty in raising a vessel if sunk.”

In recommending the Federal use of David-type torpedo boats, Dahlgren wrote:

“Nothing better could be devised for the security of our own vessels or for the examination of the enemy’s position… The length of these torpedo boats might be about 40 feet, and 5 to 6 feet in diameter, with a high-pressure engine that will drive them 5 knots. It is not necessary to expend much finish on them.”

In late January, the Federals batteries on Morris Island resumed their sporadic bombardment of Fort Sumter. The Charleston Courier reported, “The whizzing of shells overhead has become a matter of so little interest as to excite scarcely any attention from passers-by.” The barrage increased on the 29th, and over the next two days, 583 rounds were fired into the fort.

The Confederate defenders still refused to surrender. And despite the blockade’s effectiveness, blockade-runners still escaped into the open seas occasionally. Lieutenant Commander James C. Chaplin wrote to Dahlgren offering reasons why blockade running was so appealing:

“… They are provided with the best of instruments and charts, and, if the master is ignorant of the channel and inlets of our coast, a good pilot. They are also in possession of the necessary funds (in specie) to bribe, if possible, captors for their release. Such an offer was made to myself… of some 800 pounds sterling. The master of a sailing vessel, before leaving port, receives $1,000 (in coin), and if successful, $5,000 on leaving and $15,000 in a successful return to the same port.”

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References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 358-59, 362, 364; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 388, 391; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 457-58

Charleston: The Federal Bombardment Continues

November 12, 1863 – Federal batteries opened a new bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. The fort had already been reduced to rubble by this time, but the defenders still refused to surrender.

Federal forces had finally taken Morris Island in September, but they had not been able to capture the symbolic Fort Sumter, in the harbor north of the island. The Confederates at Sumter had prevented the Federals from clearing the torpedoes (i.e., mines) and obstructions from the harbor. The Federals positioned mortars and rifled cannon on Morris Island and, coupled with the gunboats blockading the harbor, tried bombarding Sumter into submission.

Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor | Image Credit: Learnnc.org

November opened with the Federals firing 786 rounds into the fort. The next day, President Jefferson Davis arrived at Charleston as part of his southern tour. A delegation of military officers and city officials welcomed Davis as he came off the train. This included General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate defenses in the city, despite his strained relationship with Davis. It also included Colonel Robert B. Rhett, whose Charleston Mercury had been highly critical of Davis’s policies.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

According to a correspondent of the Charleston Courier, as Davis rode from the train station to city hall, “The streets along the line of procession were thronged with people anxious to get a look at the President. The men cheered and the ladies waved their handkerchiefs in token of recognition.”

Davis delivered a speech from the portico of city hall, where he recalled that his last visit to Charleston had been to attend the funeral of legendary statesman John C. Calhoun 13 years ago. Davis announced, “He who would attempt to promote his own personal ends; he who is not willing to take a musket and fight in the ranks, is not worthy of the Confederate liberty for which we are fighting.”

Noting the Federal bombardment that could be heard in Charleston Harbor, Davis said that although the city “was now singled out as a particular point of hatred to the Yankees,” he “did not believe Charleston would ever be taken.” Rather than surrender the city, Davis preferred that the “whole be left one mass of rubbish.” As Davis spoke, the Federals launched another 793 rounds into Fort Sumter.

City officials held a reception for Davis in the council chamber, where attendees noticed that Davis said nothing positive about Beauregard’s efforts to defend Charleston. Beauregard did not attend a dinner held in Davis’s honor that night at the home of former Governor William Aiken, explaining that he had a strictly official relationship with the president.

That night, Lieutenant Commander Greenleaf Cilley of the U.S.S. Catskill observed Confederate movements in the harbor that indicated a potential Confederate counterattack:

“Two boats under sail were seen moving from Sumter towards Sullivan’s Island. About 11 p.m. a balloon with two lights attached rose from Sumter and floated towards Fort Johnson… At midnight a steamer left Sumter and moved towards Fort Johnson. At sunrise… observed the three rams and the side-wheel steamer anchored in line of battle ahead from Johnson towards Charleston, and each with its torpedo topped up forward of the bows.”

Federal artillerists fired another 661 rounds into Fort Sumter on the 3rd. Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, watched the bombardment from his flagship and said that he “could plainly observe the further effects of the firing; still, this mass of ruin is capable of harboring a number of the enemy, who may retain their hold until expelled by the bayonet…”

Davis left the next day after inspecting the Confederate defenses on James Island and the batteries close to Charleston. The Federal bombardment of Fort Sumter continued, with Dahlgren reporting on the 5th, “The only original feature (of the fort) left is the northeast face, the rest is a pile of rubbish.”

As Davis arrived at Wilmington, North Carolina, on the 6th, Dahlgren began using a new kind of torpedo to remove obstructions from Charleston Harbor. The device, invented by John Ericsson, held 600 pounds of explosives in a cast-iron shell about 23 feet long and 10 inches wide. It was attached to the bow of the U.S.S. Patapsco and suspended by two long booms. The torpedo proved ineffective because it interfered with the ship’s movements, and the explosion sprayed water onto the deck. Dahlgren returned the device to Ericsson for refinement.

By the 10th, Davis was back at Richmond and Dahlgren reported that his squadron had fired 9,036 rounds into Sumter over the past two weeks; in the span between the 7th and the 10th, the Federals hurled 1,753 rounds into the fort. The Confederates, having suffered minimal casualties during the bombardment, still refused to surrender.

The Federals began a new artillery barrage of Sumter on the 12th, launching another 2,328 rounds over the next three days. On the night of the 15th, the Confederate batteries at Fort Moultrie responded by firing on the Federal guns at Cummings Point, on the northern tip of Morris Island. Dahlgren notified his squadron commanders to keep a close watch on Cummings Point in case the Confederates decided to land and attack the Federal batteries there.

The U.S.S. Lehigh ran aground while patrolling Cummings Point, and the Confederates opened fire on her at dawn on the 16th. Crewmen from the U.S.S. Nahant attached a line to the Lehigh under heavy fire to tow her off the bar. The Lehigh was rescued, and Landsmen Frank S. Gile and William Williams, Gunner’s Mate George W. Leland, and Coxswain Thomas Irving were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their action.

Meanwhile, Beauregard issued a report explaining why the Confederate gunboats in the harbor were no match for the Federal land batteries or ironclads:

“Our gunboats are defective in six respects: First. They have no speed, going only from 3 to 5 miles an hour in smooth water and no current. Second. They are of too great a draft to navigate our inland waters. Third. They are unseaworthy by their shape and construction… Even in the harbor they are at times considered unsafe in a storm. Fourth. They are incapable of resisting the enemy’s XV-inch shots at close quarters… Fifth. They can not fight at long range… Sixth. They are very costly, warm, uncomfortable, and badly ventilated; consequently sickly.”

In the last two weeks of November, the Federals fired nearly another 4,000 rounds into Fort Sumter, which had become little more than rubble. A landing party of 200 Federals tried to capture the fort on the 19th, but they withdrew when the Confederates discovered their approach. Despite these efforts to pound Sumter into submission, the defenders showed no sign of giving up the fort.

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References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 338-41, 343, 345; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 822-23; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 366-68, 370-76, 378; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 428-35, 437-39; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q463

Charleston: Another Federal Bombardment

October 31, 1863 – In a five-day span, Federal batteries fired 2,961 rounds into Fort Sumter, but the Confederate defenders still refused to surrender.

Federal army and navy forces had been unable to capture Sumter, the prime symbol of defiance in the South and of rebellion in the North. Federal gunners on Morris Island south of the fort concluded a six-day bombardment on October 3 after firing 560 rounds at their target. The Federal guns fell relatively silent for the next two weeks as the commanders pondered their next move.

Rear Adm J.A.B. Dahlgren – Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the Federal South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, reported to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles that since his operations against Charleston began in July, the naval vessels had fired over 8,000 rounds and sustained over 900 hits.

Dahlgren also assured Welles that naval support to the Federal force on Morris Island ensured that “its supplies were entirely covered; provisions, arms, cannon, ammunition… were landed as freely as if an enemy were not in sight, while by the same means the enemy was restricted to the least space and action…”

Despite this, the Federal high command continued pushing for Dahlgren to lead his naval force into Charleston Harbor and capture the city. But the Confederates at Fort Sumter and other batteries throughout the harbor, along with the vast number of obstructions and torpedoes, prevented Dahlgren from doing so. Also, several ironclads needed repairs. Frustrated, Dahlgren told Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox that “the public demand for instantly proceeding into Charleston is so persistent that I would rather go in at all risks than stand the incessant abuse lavished on me.”

On the 22nd, Dahlgren met with his eight ironclad captains and two staff officers in a council of war. Dahlgren asked whether they should invade the harbor as soon as the ironclads were repaired or wait until new ironclads arrived in the winter. The officers voted six-to-four in favor of waiting.

Welles indicated that he did not oppose waiting; he told Dahlgren, “While there is an intense feeling pervading the country in regard to the fate of Charleston, the Department is disinclined to have its only ironclad squadron incur extreme risks when the substantial advantages have already been gained.”

But Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the Federal army forces on Morris Island, would not sit idle while waiting for Dahlgren’s help. From Cummings Point on the island’s northern tip, Gillmore opened a massive bombardment on Fort Sumter on the 26th, which would continue almost non-stop for the next 41 days. The bombardment did little damage since the fort’s walls were already almost completely crumbled.

Federal gunners hurled 625 rounds into Sumter on the 26th. The captain of the U.S.S. Patapsco reported that the fire was “hardly describable, throwing bricks and mortar, gun carriages and timber in every direction and high into the air.”

By the end of October, the Federals had fired 2,961 rounds in the heaviest bombardment of the war. The Confederates held firm for the time being, but the artillery barrage continued into November.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 134; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 334-37; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 823; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 356, 364-65; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 417, 426-27; 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), p. 179-80; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q463

David v. New Ironsides

October 5, 1863 – A small torpedo boat named the C.S.S. David detonated a mine against the Federal ironclad U.S.S. New Ironsides outside Charleston Harbor, South Carolina.

The Federal bombardment of Fort Sumter 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 David was a steam-powered, semi-submersible ship 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 the 5th to destroy the hated 3,486-ton iron frigate U.S.S. New Ironsides. The David was led by Lieutenant William T. Glassell, and 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.

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.

David approaching New Ironsides | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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 restarting 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 swimming 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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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 139; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 205; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 331; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 824; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 357; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 418; 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), p. 178; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 525

Charleston: Morris Island Abandoned

September 6, 1863 – Confederate forces finally abandoned Morris Island in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, after enduring relentless pressure for nearly two months. The Federals then looked to capture Fort Sumter.

Maj Gen Q.A. Gillmore | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the Federal Department of the South, had aborted two planned assaults on Battery Gregg, on the northern tip of Morris Island, earlier this month. But now Gillmore was ready to launch a full-scale attack on the more formidable Battery Wagner. In preparation, Federal gunners had pounded both Wagner and Gregg, as well as Fort Sumter in the harbor, relentlessly.

Colonel Lawrence Keitt, commanding the Confederates on Morris Island, asked the overall commander, General P.G.T. Beauregard, if he should surrender the batteries. Beauregard sent two officers to assess the situation, and they quickly recommended abandoning Morris Island. Beauregard reported to Richmond, “Terrible bombardment of Wagner and Gregg for nearly 36 hours… nearly all guns disabled… Sumter being silenced. Evacuation of Morris Island becomes indispensable to save garrison; it will be attempted tonight.”

As Keitt waited for a rescue force to take his men off the island, he wrote Beauregard, “Will boats be here tonight for garrison? If so, at what time? And if our sacrifice be of benefit, I am ready. Let it be said so, and I will storm the enemy’s works at once, or lose every man here.” That night, crewmen from the C.S.S. Chicora and Palmetto State manned rowboats to collect the Confederate defenders at Cummings Point and bring them to James Island to the west.

The next morning, Gillmore postponed his attack to make final preparations. During that time, Confederate deserters came into the Federal lines and reported that the batteries had been evacuated and the guns spiked. Gillmore ordered his troops to advance, and they soon learned that the deserters had told the truth.

The Confederates defending Wagner and Gregg had been under almost constant bombardment for 58 days, during which they held off an enemy force twice their size, inflicted 2,318 casualties, and lost just 641 men. The capture of Morris Island gave the Federals control of the southern entrance to Charleston Harbor. It also gave them access to many channels within the harbor, making the port too risky for most blockade runners to enter. The Confederacy’s main shipping port soon became Wilmington, North Carolina, as a result.

Gillmore informed Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, that army forces had taken Morris Island, and both men quickly turned their attention to capturing Fort Sumter. The Confederates in the fort defiantly held out, despite having sustained such punishment that, according to Dahlgren, Sumter now “from seaward was rather that of a steep, sandy island than that of a fort.”

Beauregard assigned Major Stephen Elliott, Jr. to lead 320 Confederate infantrymen to bolster the fort’s defenses. Beauregard told him:

“You are to be sent to a fort deprived of all offensive capacity, and having but one gun–a 32-pounder–with which to salute the flag. But that fort is Fort Sumter, the key to the entrance of this harbor. It must be held to the bitter end, not with artillery, but with infantry alone; and there can be no hope of reinforcements.”

Rear Adm J.A.B. Dahlgren – Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Dahlgren needed to capture the fort, not only because of its symbolic value, but also because the Confederates there prevented him from clearing the torpedoes and other obstructions from the harbor entrance. If the Federals had any hope of capturing Charleston, Fort Sumter needed to be taken first. When Dahlgren demanded the fort’s immediate surrender, Beauregard replied, “Inform Admiral Dahlgren that he may have Fort Sumter when he can take it and hold it.”

Dahlgren dispatched a naval reconnaissance in force on the night of the 7th. The Confederate batteries at Fort Moultrie and on James and Sullivan’s islands opened fire as the ships entered the harbor. The U.S.S. Weehawken grounded on a sandbar between Cummings Point and Fort Sumter. The other vessels, led by the U.S.S. New Ironsides, drew the Confederate fire while tugs tried pulling the Weehawken out; the New Ironsides took 50 hits. The tugs finally freed the Weehawken early next morning, and the fleet withdrew.

Gillmore planned a surprise attack on Fort Sumter by landing two infantry regiments on the island fortification on the night of the 8th. Coincidentally, Dahlgren planned a similar operation that same night with sailors and marines. The two commanders did not learn of each other’s plan until just hours before the attacks were supposed to start.

Gillmore proposed combining their efforts and placing them under army command. Dahlgren replied, “I have assembled 500 men and I can not consent that the commander shall be other than a naval officer.” Gillmore said that “why this should be so in assaulting a fortification, I can not see.” The commanders finally agreed to launch their separate attacks at different points on the island, with both commands using a password to identify each other.

Commander Thomas Stevens, assigned to command the navy part of the operation, expressed doubt that such a plan would work. But Dahlgren assured him, “You have only to go in and take possession. You will find nothing but a corporal’s guard.” The Confederates, having confiscated the signal book of the U.S.S. Keokuk in April, intercepted the Federal signals and knew an attack was coming.

The navy forces began rowing out to Sumter before moonrise, using muffled oars. Confederate lookouts expecting their arrival signaled the alarm, and the batteries on James and Sullivan’s island opened fire. Almost as soon as the first sailors and marines landed, Confederate rifle fire and hand grenades pinned them against the works.

The C.S.S. Chicora soon opened a deadly enfilade fire, and the guns at Fort Moultrie joined in as well. Dahlgren later reported, “Moultrie fired like the devil, the shells breaking around us and screaming in chorus.” The Federals could see nothing in the darkness, but the Confederates were well familiar with their surroundings.

The remaining navy boats turned back. The army boats were delayed by low tide, and when Gillmore learned of the navy’s failure, he canceled his part of the operation. The Confederates captured five boats and inflicted 124 casualties, most of which were prisoners taken. Beauregard reported, “Nobody hurt on our side.”

Dahlgren requested more ironclad monitors from the Navy Department. When Navy Secretary Gideon Welles refused, Dahlgren suspended bombardment operations, and his fleet resumed general blockading duties. Although the Federals had finally captured Morris Island, Fort Sumter and Charleston remained in Confederate hands.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 131-33; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 323-24; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 699-700; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 347, 349; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 405-07; 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), p. 176-78; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 88