The George Washington and a 24-pdr Howitzer

Yes another howitzer story!

24-pdr FH Model 1841 – Beaufort Arsenal

The Beaufort, South Carolina Arsenal Museum has on display a 24-pdr Field Howitzer Model 1841 with an interesting history.   The scanned 35mm photo must suffice for now, as good friend Mike Stroud relates the Arsenal is currently undergoing renovations.  His entry for the marker on site offer views of the arsenal and grounds.

N.P. Ames of Springfield, Massachusetts produced this particular weapon in 1847.  Field notes from a trip there in 1995 indicate no other visible markings.  But the howitzer conforms to the regulation dimensions of the pattern in all respects.  The exterior of the piece is badly corroded, so I could not identify a specific registry number at that time.

According to historian and journalist Warren Ripley, the howitzer in Beaufort came from the wreckage of the U.S. Army steamer George Washington, sunk by Confederate batteries on April 9, 1863 [see Ripley, Arms and Artillery of the Civil War, p. 47-8].   However, I would point out that other secondary references indicate the combatants recovered the weapons during the war, and cast in doubt the origin of the howitzer [see L. Craig Gains, Encyclopedia of Civil War Shipwrecks, p. 146].   Over the years I’ve found Ripley’s accounts of events well researched, but in this particular case I feel several bits of evidence cloud the story regarding the recovery of the howitzer in the photo above.

Built in New York in the 1850s as a 240-ton side wheel steamer, the Army requisitioned the George Washington early in the war as a transport.  By 1862 she operated in the waters around Port Royal Sound and Hilton Head, crewed by a detachment from the 3rd Rhode Island Artillery.  Armament included a 20-pdr James Rifle and two 24-pdr bronze howitzers.  My guess is the 20-pdr was actually an old 12-pdr smoothbore gun, banded and rifled to the James system.  But the 24-pdr howitzers certainly were the Model 1841 type.  Captain Thomas B. Briggs, of the 3rd Rhode Island, commanded the ship.

On the morning of April 8, Briggs departed Beaufort and linked up with the Navy gunboat U.S.S. E.B. Hale. The Hale, skippered by Acting Lieutenant Edgar Brodhead, was a 220-ton screw vessel, armed with four 32-pdr guns.  Orders called for the two ships to patrol around Port Royal Island, with the Hale stopping for guard duty covering Whale Branch of the Coosaw River.  After reaching the vicinity of Brickyard Point, the Hale ran aground on a shoal.  When efforts to free the ship failed, Briggs opted to continue the patrol and return by nightfall to protect the Hale.  Both commanders then waited for the tide to return.   All went according to plan, and by 11 p.m. the tide lifted the Hale free, and Brodhead remained near the Washington through the night.  After 4 a.m. on the morning of the 9th, Brodhead decided it best to move out of hostile waters and pulled up anchor.  Brodhead did not signal Briggs of this move.

When morning dawned, Briggs found his ship alone in enemy waters.  Shortly after getting under way, Briggs noticed activity on the north bank of the Coosaw River, at Chisolm Island.  This turned out to be Confederate field artillery which had moved up during the night with the aim of ambushing the Federal ships – four guns of the Beaufort (S.C.) Artillery and two guns of the Nelson Artillery, commanded by Captain Stephen Elliot of the Beaufort Artillery.  The Confederates, armed with 6- and 12-pdr field pieces, opened fire upon the Washington as she began to move with telling effect.  One of the first shells fired struck the stern, disabling the rudder.  Another hit the magazine, causing an explosion which dismounted one of the howitzers and started a fire.

Briggs recovered from the stun of the explosion to find his command in a hopeless situation.  He ordered the white flag run up to save his crew.  The Washington, while disabled and on fire, lay closest to the south banks of the river, which at the time was under Federal control.  Faced with the flames, the crew abandoned the ship and fled to the marshes.  From the Confederate perspective, of course, this appeared as a breach of protocol.  As such, the gunners on the north bank re-opened fire on the fleeing Federals.  Briggs ordered some of the badly wounded casualties cast off in one of the ships boat, which was later captured by the Confederates.  But the remainder of the surviving crew labored through the marsh to gain safety.

Brodhead, receiving word of action at Brickyard Point, made his way back to the site.  Along the way he assisted the steamer U.S.S. Planter in resisting a Confederate patrol.  Passing back into the Coosaw River he made preparations to assist the Washington, but found the vessel burned to the water line.  Some of the Washington‘s crew hailed from the shore, and after white flags broke out on all sides, the Hale recovered the remaining survivors including a number of wounded.  The Washington suffered two killed, ten wounded, and two missing.

When the Hale returned to port, Brodhead received scathing rebukes from General Rufus Saxton, commanding the District of Beaufort.   To which the Navy officer responded,

If Captain Briggs supposed that I would hazard my vessel by lying there until after sunrise, after having been aground from 1 till 11 p.m., long enough to get a dozen field batteries in position, his ideas of proper precaution differ from mine.  We passed within 10 feet of the Washington when we came off the shoal, and could be plainly seen (as we were) by her, getting underway in the morning.

A later court of inquiry by the Army found “…the destruction of the boat is chargable to the desertion by the Hale of her consort, and the surrender of the boat due to the culpable excitement and lack of presence of mind of Captain Briggs.”  The Navy, in a separate court, found “…that the conduct of Acting Lieutenant Edgar Brodhead, commanding the U.S.S. E.B. Hale, in connection with the loss of the army steamer George Washington, is irreproachable, and that no further military proceedings are necessary in the case.”

While the finger pointing continued at the Federal courts, the Confederates attempted to recover the captured guns.  Captain Elliot reported his men raised one 24-pdr howitzer, the bell, and an anchor.  But the howitzer was buried in the marsh due to Federal activity.  Elliot was not able to recover the pivot gun, which he described as a Parrott rifle.  He further stated the Federals had already recovered the other 24-pdr howitzer.  However, no federal records indicate such recovery.

I would propose, first, the pivot gun described by Captain Elliot was in fact an iron 12-pdr siege gun which was rifled and banded, presumably with the “James system.”  Such a weapon, when viewed in murky water, might be mistaken for a Parrott pending detailed examination.  And such would match Federal accounts indicating the presence of a James Rifle on the ship.

Second, that the howitzer dismounted by the magazine explosion ended up outside the ship’s wreckage.  When the Confederates did not find it, they assumed the Federals had made off with the weapon.  Years later, as Warren Ripley related in his book, a fisherman noticed the cannon, which was recovered.

I further wonder if the James rifle and the remaining 24-pdr sit along the Coosaw River, awaiting recovery.  Until such, only the 24-pdr at the Beaufort Arsenal serves as a reminder of the sinking of the George Washington.

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Aside from field notes and those linked above, I consulted the following sources in composing this article:

Report of Capt. Thomas B. Briggs, Third Rhode Island Artillery, April 9, 1863,  Army Official Records, Series I, Volume 53, Serial 111, pp. 4-5.

Report of Acting Lieutenant Brodhead, U.S. Navy, Commanding U.S.S. E.B. Hale, April 9, 1863, Navy Official Records, Series I, Volume 14, pp. 115-7.

Report of Capt. Stephen Elliot, Jr., Beaufort (S.C.) Artillery, April 14, 1863, Army Official Records, Series I, Volume 20, Serial 20, pp. 283-4.

Letter from Brigadier-General Saxton, U.S. Army, to Rear-Admiral Du Pont, U.S. Navy, transmitting opinion of a military court of enquiry, April 21, 1863, Navy Official Records, Series I, Volume 14, pp. 117-8.

Report of Rear-Admiral Du Pont, U.S. Navy, giving the finding of the court in the case of Acting Lieutenant Brodhead, U.S. Navy, June 2, 1863, Navy Official Records, Series I, Volume 14, pp. 120-1.

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2 responses to “The George Washington and a 24-pdr Howitzer

  1. Larry Donovan

    Thank you for such a well-researched article! I found this article while searching for information on the explosion of the steamer George Washington. My Great-Great Grandfather, John Hyde, was one of the R.I. volunteers killed during the explosion. Or, as his Army record states, “blowed up by the Rebels”.

    Do you know of any other markers/burial sites associated with this incident? I don’t believe they definitively identified his body, so I suspect that the unidentified bodies were buried in a common Union grave of some sort nearby.

    I wish you all the best with your work – it is truly amazing.

    • Larry, thanks for the kind words.

      My guess as to the burial site of those killed in the action is Beaufort National Cemetery. There are 174 unknown in that cemetery.