On this morning (June 17) in 1863, Commander William Webb directed the CSS Atlanta into Wassaw Sound.
Webb had big plans for the Atlanta:
My plan, which seems to me to be feasible (of course, being governed by the weather in a great measure after leaving), is to break up and raise the blockade between here and Charleston, and on returning to look into Hilton head, damaging the enemy there as much as possible, and then to enter the Savannah River, where I can remain to cut off supplies for Fort Pulaski. After returning from this cruise, I may proceed to the southward as far as Fernandina.
Web even requested clearing path through the obstructions in the North Channel of the Savannah River. Such would allow the Atlanta to “come and go at half tides.” The map below depicts Webb’s intentions, with the blue dots indicating Federal blockader stations.
The plan sounds ambitious, but the Atlanta was perhaps the most seaworthy (and that is a relative assessment) ironclad in the Confederacy at the time. The Atlanta began her career as the blockade runner Fingal. After one rather successful run into Savannah, Federal occupation of Tybee Island made a return voyage impractical.
With strong machinery and good lines, the Fingal drew attention from Confederate authorities beset with “ram fever” in the spring of 1862. Asa and Nelson Tift undertook the work to convert the cargo vessel into a warship. The Tifts cut the ship down to the waterline, added sponsons to support the sloped armor forming the casemate.
The armor across the casemate consisted of two layers of two inch thick iron, rolled out from railroad rails. Backing the iron was a three inch layer of oak, backed in turn by a fifteen inch layer of pine. On other parts of the side, the armor was only two inches thick.
Recristened the Atlanta, the ship’s armament included two 7-inch and two 6.4-inch Single Banded Brooke rifles. On the bow was a spar torpedo. And of course, a reinforced ram bow allowed the Atlanta to bludgeon adversaries if required.
The engines gave the Atlanta a speed of 8 knots, despite drawing over 1,000 tons. Overall the Atlanta measured 204 feet long with a 41 foot beam. She drew 15 feet 9 inches. While this gave the Atlanta better handling in open water, the depth of her keel caused many issues while operating in the coastal waterways. The need to clear obstacles and shallow waters prevented the Atlanta from responding to Federal attacks on Fort McAllister in the winter of 1863. When Flag Officer Josiah Tattnall planned an attack on Port Royal Sound in March, efforts to clear a channel took so long that Federals, tipped off by deserters, blocked the way.
Webb wanted to put the Atlanta to sea on May 30. But an engine failure and grounding stopped this attempt. While completing repairs, Webb refused to wait for the CSS Savannah to complete outfitting, preferring to strike immediately. By June 15, Webb was ready for another try. The Atlanta moved past the Wilmington River obstructions on that day. After coaling and waiting for tides, Webb cast off downstream timing his arrival in Wassaw Sound with the break of dawn. There he planned to attack two monitors reported on station, then make the 100 miles or so up the coast to Charleston (13 hours if the ironclad were making her best speed). The wooden gunboat CSS Isondiga and tug CSS Resolute followed the Atlanta, at a distance, to render aid and, with success, tow any damaged Federal monitors back to port.
On June 17, Webb got the Atlanta underway at 3:30 a.m. Out in the sound, Captain John Rodgers received warning of the Atlanta‘s movements (he does not indicate how, but one could suppose the sound engines carried over water) by around 4 a.m. He got the USS Weehawken underway by 4:20. The USS Nahant, under Commander John Downes, followed. Without a pilot, Downes had to follow Rodger’s lead. Rogers “… turned and stood up the sound, heading for the ironclad…” at 4:30 a.m.
Meanwhile, the Atlanta suffered a quiet, but terrible setback. At about the same time Rodgers slipped anchor to start moving, the Atlanta touched bottom. It took fifteen minutes to work the Atlanta off the shallows. In the morning twilight, at 4:55, Webb saw the monitors working up the sound. He ordered Lieutenant Alphonse Bardot to fire the bow gun – yes number 1740 if you are up on your reading – to fire on the monitors, hoping to pause their advance.
The shot went wide of the Weehawken, splashing near the Nahant. The Federals pressed on. Even in calm waters, pilots had trouble steering the Atlanta, now in a falling tide the ship was completely unmanageable. With the current pushing the ship, soon she was aground again.
While the Atlanta fought the current and the sandy bottom, the Weehawken held fire and moved closer. Confederate gunners fired when the opportunity arose, but scored no hits with seven shots. Rodgers closed the Weehawken within 300 yards of the Atlanta, laying in a quarter to which the Confederates could not train a gun. Rodgers then let his guns fire. The XI-inch shot missed, but the XV-inch gun scored. The cored shot broke armor plates and splintered part of the wood backing. Another XV-inch shot caused considerable damage to the pilot house. Two XI-inch shot knocked off a gun port shutter and damaged the overhang armor. Facing well aimed enemy shot with no hope of return fire, Webb struck his colors at 5:30. Thus the sortie of the Atlanta ended after a thirty-five minute exchange.
The crew of the Atlanta suffered one killed and 16 wounded. Ironically, the only damage to the Federal ironclads was caused when the Nahant bumped the Weehawken after the engagement was over. A Federal engineer was able to get the Atlanta‘s machinery in working order to back the ram off the shallows. By 8:30 a.m. the Confederate ironclad was at anchor in deep water, and about to begin a new career as a Federal ironclad.
For the Confederates, the loss of the Atlanta was a grave setback. Had Webb’s plan succeeded – and that is a really big IF – the blockade of two major ports would have been lifted. While the numerous Federal warships could have reestablished coverage within a week or so, the formalities of declaring the blockade might have left the ports open for a couple of months. And all the while, necessitating a Federal concentration against the Atlanta (more extensive than the CSS Albemarle a year later). And from the “big picture” such operations would occur at the same time that the Army of Northern Virginia was aiming to disrupt the blockade’s coal supply in Pennsylvania. But instead of a major victory, the Confederates were short one of their best ironclads with nothing to show in exchange for the loss.
On the Federal side, success with the Atlanta did not help Admiral Samuel Du Pont’s reputation. His relief, Admiral Andrew Foote already had orders. But with Foote’s death to Bright’s disease on June 26, Admiral John Dahlgren would head south to take up command of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Dahlgren would have one less Confederate threat to worry about as he took command.
(Sources: ORN, Series I, Volume 14, pages 264-292, 705, and 710-11.)