“One of the most daring events of the war…”: Salvaging the Keokuk’s Guns, Part 1

I’ve mentioned this gun on several occasions:

Charleston 4 May 10 060

XI-inch Dahlgren, Alger #235, from USS Keokuk

The gun stands guard today at Charleston’s White Point (Battery) Park. But its Civil War story ranks it among the most historic artillery pieces to survive the war. The gun was one of two XI-inch Dahlgrens on board the USS Keokuk at the time of the April 7, 1863 attack on Fort Sumter. In the engagement, nineteen Confederate shot pierced the Keokuk. She ran aground and sank in shallow water the following morning.

Both Federals and Confederates visited the wreck in the days after the battle. The Federals attempted to destroy the Keokuk – first using one of the remaining “Devils” then later by demolition charges. But the Keokuk filled with sand within days of sinking. The navy officers felt the ironclad, laying between the guns of Morris Island and the blockading fleet, was out of reach. However the Confederates began picking over the wreck when darkness provided cover, making off with flags, pennants, small arms, and equipment (and part of a signal-book washed up on Morris Island, to the immediate advantage of the Confederates). Although complete salvage of the Keokuk was out of the question, the wreck lay close enough to shore that several began eying the Dahlgrens.

KeokukLocation

As seen in the map above, the Keokuk lay about ¾ a mile (or 1300 yards) off Morris Island. Confederate engineers Major D.B. Harris, Major William Echols, and Lieutenant S. Cordes Boyleston made several surveys of the wreck. Harris described the wreck:

…her turrets within 4½ feet of their tops had been pierced by four 10-inch shot and one 7-inch rifle shot, and a wrought-iron Brooke bolt had penetrated seven-eights of its length and stuck in the iron plating. Several severe indentations were also observed, near the plates were warped and the bolts broken or started…. The vessel having sunk in 13 feet of water prevented an examination of the lower portions of her turrets or her hull, which no doubt were served in a like manner.

Echols made a drawing of the turret (which sadly did not survive for inclusion in the Official Records). From these surveys the Confederates formed a plan to recover the Dahlgrens. Keeping these activities secret, General P.G.T. Beauregard selected Adolphus LaCoste, a civilian employed by the Ordnance Department, to lead the salvage operation. And let me stress secret. Scant few details of this operation appear as official record. Receipts for services rendered during the time period make no specific mention of the work. Only a reference to “moving and transporting cannon at Fort Sumter, Morris Island, and other points in Charleston Harbor” totaling $1420:

Page 65

Not a single mention of “Keokuk” or “salvage.” Such is important, as I will explain further in the next part of this story, because the details we have about this incredible operation is for the large part word of mouth and secondary source.

Work began sometime around April 20. The workforce consisted of ten men, three of which were blacks, employed by LaCoste along with at least five soldiers from the Fort Sumter garrison. These men worked on the wreck at night, to avoid notice by the blockaders, and at low tide when the turrets were exposed. The first step involved clearing the turret top sufficiently to allow extraction of the guns. The Keokuk’s turrets were not the rotating type seen on the monitors, but more so casemates with the guns mounted to pivot to firing ports. So clearing the turrets required cutting away iron plates.* Once the tops were open, the workers could free the guns from the carriages. The last step was to hoist the guns out of the wreck for transportation into Charleston harbor. Of course all of this work was done with the surf continually crashing against the wreck and all surfaces nearly or partially submerged.

Since at any time the Federals could interrupt the work, field guns on Morris Island, notably a Whitworth rifle, provided cover. Likewise the guns at Battery Wagner stood ready during the recovery. At least once, on April 20, the ironclad CSS Chicora ventured forth to exchange fire with the blockaders while covering the operation.

By the first of May the crew cleared the turrets sufficiently to allow extraction. To lift the guns out of the turret, LaCoste placed outriggers on a hulk, formerly the Rattlesnake Shoals lightship. LaCoste also placed a large number of sandbags on the bow of the hulk for counter-balance. On the designated night, the steamer Etiwan towed the hulk out to the Keokuk. Supporting the workers, both the Chicora and CSS Palmetto State sallied forth to parry any interference by the Federals.

Withdrawal of the first gun went smoothly up to a point. When the tackle reached the top of the outriggers, the gun’s muzzle was still a foot or so inside the turret. So an eight ton weight dangled in the open turret. To pull the gun further from the turret, workers began moving sandbags from the bow to the stern of the hulk, slowly raising the gun further from the wreckage. But even then a few inches of muzzle remained inside the turret. With dawn coming soon, LaCoste had to either find a way out, or give up hoping for success another night. But the matter was taken out of his hands. In the words of historian Warren Ripley:

Then fate took a hand. Tide and sea had continued to rise and as the old ship rose and fell, a wave a little larger than the rest passed beneath her. The bow lifted, fell again with the gun slamming against the turret, this time on the outside, free.

With the first gun in hand, the Etiwan towed the hulk to harbor. A few nights later the crew returned again to retrieve the second gun with less dramatics.

On May 5, Beauregard reported to Secretary of War James Seddon that, “The two 11-inch guns from the wreck of the Keokuk have been saved by Mr. LaCoste…” These two guns were at that time the largest in the defenses of Charleston (and from my estimates the largest caliber in all of the Confederacy at that time). One of the guns went to Fort Sumter and the other to Battery Bee on Sullivan’s Island. There the guns fired upon their former owners on occasion. With the later reduction of Fort Sumter, the gun stationed there was removed and placed in battery at White Point in Charleston, seen on the far left of this view.

That gun went to scrap some time after the Civil War. However the Battery Bee gun remained on Sullivan’s Island, buried in the sand. Found in the 1890s, that gun became a prized display in White Point Gardens. Today it stands as a relic with a colorful story to tell.

Charleston 4 May 10 067

The Battery Bee gun now in the Park

After the war, Commander Alexander Rhind, who’d commanded the Keokuk, said the salvage of the guns was “one of the most daring of the war, and in point of skill had probably no counterpart.”

In my next post in this series, I will take you into the historiography behind this story. We could simply leave the fact these guns were recovered from the Keokuk, but the story is too good not to examine the details. And some of those details indicate there’s more to this story.

Citations above from OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, pages 245-6, and 926. Warren Ripley’s account of the operation is from Artillery and Ammunition of the Civil War, pages 93-97.

* There’s one detail which eludes here. I’ve not seen diagrams depicting the actual arrangements of the turrets (or casemates or towers as some call them). Some depictions of the Keokuk have grillwork over the turret. However, secondary accounts of the recovery relate the need to cut through iron plate in order to clear the turret. In either case, LaCoste’s crew had to cut through a significant amount of metal and wood.

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11 responses to ““One of the most daring events of the war…”: Salvaging the Keokuk’s Guns, Part 1

  1. Do you know how the Confederates would have cut through the metal to get at the guns? Would they have used something as simple as a metal saw or a cold chisel, or was there some early version of a cutting torch I’m unaware of?

  2. Saws, chisels, prybars, and sledges… and about anything else they could lay hands on. I believe the cutting torch is an early 20th century invention.

  3. Pingback: How do we know about this “daring event of the war”? : Salvaging the Keokuk’s Guns, Part 2 | To the Sound of the Guns

  4. Pingback: Sun, Moon, and Tides: Salvaging the Keokuk’s Guns, Part 3 | To the Sound of the Guns

  5. I thought at one time visiting ft sumpter I was told a gun there was from the Keokuk?

    • There are no Keokuk guns at Fort Sumter today. The one Keokuk gun at the fort during the war was moved to the Battery in Charleston. After the war it was scrapped.

  6. Pingback: Cannon Walk Around: The Keokuk XI-inch Dahlgren | To the Sound of the Guns

  7. Pingback: Inactivity, faulty dispositions, wasted labor: Confederate preparations on Morris Island | To the Sound of the Guns

  8. Pingback: The ever shrinking armament of Fort Sumter | To the Sound of the Guns

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  10. Pingback: 150 Years Ago: An inspection of the batteries on Sullivan’s Island | To the Sound of the Guns

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