“Gets you into trouble, but can’t get you out” – a naval incident off Morris Island

On the evening of August 5, 1863 a small incident occurred which serves to demonstrate the sparring going on afloat in the waters near Charleston. First Assistant Engineer James Tomb, of the CSS Juno, filed a report on August 8 which began:

The Juno had a large spar, with a 65-pound torpedo attached, and was sent down on picket duty below Fort Sumter at night. We had a cotton bale strapped to the stem, a few feet above the water line, to act as a fender if we had a chance to strike one of the enemy’s ships. Lieutenant Philip Porcher was in command…. We laid below Fort Sumter, waiting, and had just started the engines ahead when a large launch came towards us….

The Juno was a blockade runner built by Tod & McGregor, in Glasgow, England. In August 1863 she was temporarily employed by the Confederate Navy as a picket/torpedo boat. The ship measured 188 feet long.

Blockade runner, part-time torpedo boat Juno

The launch that Tomb mentioned was from the USS Wabash, but was commanded by Acting master Edward L. Haines from the USS Powhatan. Earlier in the day when the Powhatan departed for Port Royal earlier in the day, she left behind a launch and 24 men under the command Haines. That launch, two from the Wabash, and one from the USS Housatonic were assigned picket duty on the ship channels near Morris Island that night. All were armed with 12-pdr boat howitzers. Being the senior officer, Haines took command of one of the Wabash‘s boats himself. Late in the afternoon the four boats received tows over the bar into the main ship channel.

Haines received his orders directly from Rear-Admiral Dahlgren that evening. Dahlgren was particularly concerned that evening, as the Confederates were seen moving buoys during the day, should a ram or spar torpedo boat attempt a sortie. Furthermore, Haines was to intercept any of the Confederate steamers that often docked at Cumming’s Point during the night. Backing up the launches, the monitor USS Catskill lay in the channel that evening. A small rowboat, commanded by Ensign B.H. Porter, also moved in the waters off Fort Sumter that night conducting a reconnaissance. Haines arrayed his launches in a line forward of the Catskill, but all within range for mutual support.

The evening was uneventful until around 11 p.m. Porter returned to the picket line to report a steamer was making Cumming’s Point, and might be a blockade runner. Haines went into action:

I immediately got my anchor and let my launch drop up towards Cumming’s Point, in order to get a view of the steamer standing down the channel so close to Morris Island. I immediately opened fire on her from my howitzer, and made signals as agreed upon to the fleet, at the same time pulled my boat towards shoal water, to avoid colliding with her. Finding I could not escape, I determined to board her and take her, at the same time expecting answers from the other launches, or Catskill, they being in sight.

On the Juno, Tomb observed that the launch…

… hailed us, ordering us to surrender, and the next moment fired into us from a 12-pounder howitzer in the bow. We immediately headed for her, striking her about amidship; but not having much headway on the Juno, the launch swung around to port, just forward of the wheel and then boarded us. The Juno had no guns outside of a few small arms. All the engineer division with the balance of the crew fired upon them as they came over the rail.

Haines, outnumbered, surrendered.

At least two of Haines’ crew were knocked overboard in the collision. The Confederates tried to secure them. Federal observers claimed the Confederates fired on the men in the water. Eventually two men made shore on Sullivan’s Island and joined their shipmates in captivity. However the claims about firing on the men prompted an exchange between Dahlgren and General P.G.T. Beauregard with respect to the “usages of war.”

Otherwise, this incident was quietly forgotten. By August 15, Haines and most of his men were in prison in Richmond. Haines remained in Libby Prison until May 1864 when Confederates shipped him to Macon, Georgia. Later he went back to Charleston:

On the 28th of July I was sent from Macon to Charleston, S.C., with first 600 officers, for the purpose of placing us under fire. On arriving in Charleston we were confined in the jail yard; part of the officers were without shelter of any kind. From the jail yard we were sent to a dirty, filthy work-house, infested with all manner of vermin, and the only means whereby we could escape these torments was to give our parole, which resulted in a change of quarters to the Roper Hospital, a very comfortable building.

Haines was exchanged in October 1864. He bitterly stated that, “During all my imprisonment I have been treated more like a criminal than a prisoner of war.”

But that end of *this* story provides threads for another, rather interesting, story which I better save for it’s sesquicentennial – and it involves 600 Confederates and their stay on Morris Island.

Haines closed his report saying, “I am happy to report that I was promptly obeyed and bravely supported by all of my crew.” But the crew supporting Haines thought differently, Tomb recalled that the captured coxswain, Charles Fellick, complained that morning, “This comes from placing an officer in charge of a boat who gets you into trouble, but can’t get you out.”

(Citations from Naval OR, Series I, Volume 14, pages 425-7.)

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