January 31, 1863 – Two new Confederate ironclad rams attempted to break the Federal blockade of Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, by attacking a portion of the blockading fleet.
Confederates had continuously sought ways to break the Charleston blockade as soon as it had begun. The Federals had captured several blockade runners, including the British merchant steamer Princess Royal on the 29th, which was run aground near Rattlesnake Channel by the Federal gunboat U.S.S. Unadilla. Federals confiscated six rifled cannons, 930 armor-piercing shells, 600 barrels of gunpowder, and two engines for ironclad vessels. The cargo totaled nearly $500,000 and was the blockading fleet’s largest capture of the war.
The next day, Confederate shore batteries opened a crossfire on the Federal gunboat U.S.S. Isaac Smith as she tried reconnoitering up the Stono River. The fire ran the ship aground, and the captain surrendered after losing 25 men (eight killed and 17 wounded). Confederates later renamed the Isaac Smith the Stono.
General P.G.T. Beauregard, now commanding the Confederate defenses in South Carolina after recovering from illness, directed Flag Officer Duncan N. Ingraham, the Confederate naval commander at Charleston, to confront the Federal blockading vessels with his two new rams, the C.S.S. Chicora under Commander John R. Tucker and Palmetto State under Lieutenant John Rutledge, along with three tenders.
In the predawn fog of the 31st, the Chicora fired on the U.S.S. Keystone State, hitting the ship’s boilers several times. Twenty-five Federals were killed; many were scalded to death. Meanwhile, the Palmetto State rammed the converted merchant ship U.S.S. Mercedita and left her when the Federals reported that she would soon sink. The rams returned to their base, where the Confederate crewmen reported destroying two Federal vessels and burning four others.
However, the Confederates had not destroyed any vessels; the U.S.S. Memphis rescued the Keystone State, and the Mercedita was not sinking as the Federals claimed. Both ships were towed to Port Royal for repairs and were soon back on active duty. All other Federal ships continued their blockade as normal, unharmed.
Even so, Beauregard interpreted the exaggerated news of the Isaac Smith’s capture and the destruction of blockaders to announce that the blockade of Charleston had been broken. Beauregard escorted the French and Spanish consuls to the waterfront to show them that “the outer harbor remained in the full possession of the two Confederate rams. Not a Federal sail was visible, even with spyglasses.”
Beauregard argued that since the blockade had been broken, the Federals could not reinstate it without first giving the Confederates a 60-day notice in accordance with international law. Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, ignored Beauregard’s claim and resumed the blockade immediately.
Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 113; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 139, 555-56; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 258; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 222-24; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 259-60; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 316-17; 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. 124-25; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: C.B. Richardson, 1866; revised version New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 571