150 Years Ago: Working on four or five gunboats simultaneously in Charleston

Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred Roman served as the Inspector General for General P.G.T. Beauregard’s district in the winter of 1863.  His role, as with all inspector generals in armies, was to assess the progress towards the commanding general’s objectives – be that a specific project or something less specific like overall readiness.  In the early days of March 1863, Roman turned his attention to military shipbuilding projects in Charleston.  In a report to Brigadier-General Thomas Jordan, Beauregard’s chief of staff, on March 10, 1863, Roman addressed the delays producing more warships to defend Charleston:

In obedience to your communication of the 4th instant, requesting me to make frequent visits (at least once a week) to the torpedo ram to urge its completion, I visited yesterday the ship-yard where said ram is being constructed, and I beg leave to report as follows:

Sixty-one ship-carpenters and laborers are now employed on the marine ram, under the general supervision of Capt. F. D. Lee. They work from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Captain Lee and F. M. Jones, his assistant, think that the wood work of the boat will be completed in two weeks. The timber and planking for the shield is already prepared and is now being put together. The boiler and part of the engine are in place and the shafting was being fitted to the stern. The necessary repairs to the machinery (which is second-hand machinery, purchased in Savannah) are being executed at the arsenal. Captain Lee has no immediate control over that portion of the work, and he doubts whether it will be ready as soon as the rest. Both Captain Lee and Jones, being otherwise engaged, do not remain all day with the workmen. Captain Lee, however, visits the ship-yard regularly once a day.

So much time has been consumed in the building of that ram, and on the other hand the difficulty of procuring iron to shield it is so great, that no zeal, I imagine, is shown in the progress of the work. If the carpenters were ready to-day no iron could be had to complete the ram. The Navy Department has promised everything, but has given comparatively nothing. The idea of working simultaneously on four or five gunboats in Charleston instead of concentrating all the labor on one at the time is indeed so very singular that I am altogether at a loss to account for it. From all appearance the Palmetto State and the Chicora will be the only two rams used in the defense of this harbor, whether the Federals attack us now or whether they delay it for months.

I add emphasis to the sentences in the middle of the last paragraph.  Roman’s remark about the Navy Department was just another dig at authorities in Richmond. As time passed, the friction between Richmond and Charleston would continue to be a problem.  Those in Charleston, from Beauregard on down, saw a looming threat from the sea.  But they saw their requests unfilled (and to some degree perceived them falling on deaf ears).

But were authorities in Charleston trying to do too much?  In other posts, I’ve offered correspondence and other documents that illustrate the shortage of resources – particularly iron.  In this case, Roman narrowed the focus of his complaint to lack of armor and machinery.  Captain Francis D. Lee, an army engineer – not a naval officer – had charge of the project.  But he lacked any control of the arrival of components.  This led, as Roman pointed out, to delays when the labor force mismatched the tasks required on a particular day.  And of course F.D. Lee had plenty of other work to do outside the shipyard.

For context, the CSS Palmetto State and CSS Chicora mentioned in the report were already in service (and had already fought an engagement at the end of January).  In December 1862, the Confederates laid down another Charleston ironclad ram, to be named the CSS Charleston.  I would assume it was the Charleston that Roman referred to in the report.  At the same time, Captain Lee conducted experiments with spar torpedoes to arm couple of boats then under construction.  These would later become the CSS David and CSS Torch, followed by a series of similar vessels.  And of course there were several other projects outfitting blockade runners (recall the CSS Stono, ex-USS Isaac Smith), refitting gunboats, and generally keeping the ships afloat.  Very easy to see why Roman would complain the Confederates were trying to do too much at once… and thus all the projects suffered.

And can we put numbers behind the labor shortage, and better interpret the difficulties cited by Roman?

Perhaps.  In addition to receipts for contract labor provided by firms such as J.M. Eason or Cameron in Charleston, the Navy recorded individuals employed.  The sheet below was the first of nine listing the individuals paid for services from January 1 through March 31, 1863:

Page 808

The final tally, signed by paymaster Henry Myers, listed 275 individuals and a total payment of $419,233.92 (all lines with a nice “check” mark perhaps indicating someone was very thorough validating the numbers).  Were 275 skilled hands (and I’m certain that was not the full sum of workers employed, considering the contracts mentioned above) enough to produce four or five more warships?  And maintain those already afloat?  I believe the paymaster’s sheet made Roman’s point.

And… hey… notice the second name down on the list:

Page 808a

Darn that extra “e”!  Scuttles my planned April Fools Day post!

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One response to “150 Years Ago: Working on four or five gunboats simultaneously in Charleston

  1. Pingback: 150 years ago: “The torpedo instantly exploded…. In twenty seconds the hull sank.” | To the Sound of the Guns

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