Category Archives: Fort McAllister

The Monitors at Fort McAllister: Technical Intelligence for the Rebels

Following the March 3rd attack on Fort McAllister, Captain John McCrady, Chief Engineer State of Georgia, filed a very detailed report of the action. His main focus was upon the fortifications and how those stood up to the bombardment. But he included several details about the Federal activity, particularly the monitors. Lacking the actual names of the monitors, McCrady referred to them as “No.1,” “No.2,” and “No.3″ each identified by colored bands around their turret tops and smoke stacks. Since the Federals practiced a bit of subterfuge and repainted these prior to the battle, McCrady mistakenly identified No.1 as the USS Montauk, when it was more likely the USS Passaic.

That mistaken identity aside, McCrady consolidated reports and interviews from several observers of the action. Lieutenant E.A. Elarbee, of the Hardwick Mounted Rifles, provided McCrady an “up close” description of the monitors:

Lieutenant Elarbee and 4 men of Captain McAllister’s company went over into the marsh opposite the fort the night before on a call for volunteers for that purpose. They attained a position from 200 to 250 yards from Monitor No. 1. On the officer stepping out of the turret to ascertain the effect of his shot one rifle was fired at him, but missed, upon which he immediately turned to re-enter the turret, but was shot in the act, stumbling forward, and at last entering only with difficulty. No. 1 fired grape or canister at the men in the marsh immediately after this and once subsequently, but without hurting one of them. Lieutenant Elarbee, from his position, had a nearer view of No. 1 than any one has yet had of one of the monitor fleet. No. 1 is supposed to be the Montauk. He reports that her ports are always open; that her guns run in and out of battery, and that they are loaded from the muzzle. He could distinctly hear the words of command, “In battery,” &c., and saw the hands of the men and the staff of the rammer protruded through the port in loading. He also reports that in No. 1 the muzzle of the gun when in battery protrudes about 6 inches from the port. He could see nothing of the same kind in Nos. 2 and 3. He could observe no injury done by our shot to the turret, the only observable effect being a whitish streak on the iron. The shot either glanced or were broken to pieces. One of our shot is reported to have struck about 6 inches from a port. According to Lieutenant Elarbee’s observations, and also Mr. McAlpin’s, the turret of No. 1 during this engagement turned only one way, the revolutions being to an outsider uniformly from left to right. Lieutenant Elarbee also observed that the motion of revolution was not even and continuous, but affected by a marked trip at regular intervals. The turret appeared to be sometimes arrested temporarily in its revolutions; whether from design, imperfect machinery, or injury from our shot could not be ascertained.

Clearly John Ericsson’s turret, while advanced for its day, was still somewhat cumbersome to use.

CW Confrence 10 Mar 12 070

Reproduction of the Monitor’s turret at the Mariners’ Museum

With no protective port covers, the crews had to turn the turrets away from the enemy during loading. Loading the guns from the muzzle in the cramped space was time consuming. The need to rotate the turret consumed even more time. And when the turrets rotated, those down range had ample warning to seek cover.

Elarbee’s observations provided the Confederates with a badly needed close up view of the monitors. While not quite a walk around tour, at least particulars about the operations and performance under fire. It is what we’d call today a technical intelligence report.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, page 221.)

150 years ago: A privateer meets an untimely end on the Ogeechee

The steamer Nashville came to a fiery end on this day in 1863.

The ship began her career as the US Mail Steamer Nashville doing service between New York and Charleston. In that capacity on April 11, 1861 she entered Charleston harbor (having been fired on by the USRC Harriet Lane in the process). After the firing on Fort Sumter, Confederates seized the Nashville, turning her into an cruiser. The CSS Nashville was the first warship to fly the Confederate flag in Europe, making a run to England. On return, she was sold for service as a blockade runner, and a turn under the name Thomas L. Wragg. But she ran too deep in the water for that role. So she began a refit for service as a privateer, and received a new name – the Rattlesnake. By early 1863, the Rattlesnake sat upstream of Fort McAllister on the Ogeechee River.

Regardless of the outfit, her Federal opponents knew her as the Nashville. And they considered her a great threat that must be be neutralized if not destroyed. On the morning of February 28, 1863, Commander John Worden took the ironclad USS Montauk into familiar waters near Fort McAllister, followed by a few wooden the USS Seneca, USS Wissahickon, and USS Dawn – all veterans of the earlier bombardments of the fort.

By moving up close to the obstructions in the river I was enabled, although under a heavy fire from the battery, to approach the Nashville, still aground, within the distance of 1,200 yards. A few well directed shells determined the range, and soon [we] succeeded in striking her with XI-inch and XV-inch shells. The other gunboats maintained a fire from an enfilading position upon the battery, and the Nashville at long range. I soon had the satisfaction of observing that the Nashville had caught fire from the shells exploding in her several places, and in less than twenty minutes she was caught in flames forward, aft, and amidships. At 9:20 a.m. a large pivot gun mounted abaft her foremast exploded from the heat; at 9:40 her smoke chimney went by the board, and at 9:55 her magazine exploded with terrific violence, shattering her in smoking ruins. Nothing remains of her.

However Worden was incorrect. Something did remain of the Nashville. And those remains are on display at Fort McAllister today.

Ft McAllister 5 May 10 011

Salvaged parts of the CSS Nashville

The Montauk almost came to ruin herself. While backing down from the obstructions, she encountered a Confederate torpedoe. At 9:35 a violent explosion under the Montauk prompted the evacuation of the starboard side of the engine room. Damage included bent ribs, sheared rivets, and buckled plates under a boiler.


Engineer’s Diagram of the Damage

Despite fears, the boilers did not burst. Although taking in water, the crew managed to pump out enough to get the boilers re-fired. That afternoon the Montauk made safe anchorage in the sound.

While the Federals were able to repair the Montauk, the Nashville, or Rattlesnake if you prefer, was but an obstruction in the river.

(Citation from Naval OR, Series I, Volume 13, pages 697-8.)

150 Years Ago: “the 15-inch shell a partial failure” at Fort McAllister

One-hundred and fifty years ago today (February 1) once again elements of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron entered battle. This time activity took place in the Ogeechee River south of Savannah, Georgia. After an ineffective bombardment of Fort McAllister on January 27, 1863 Commander John Worden withdrew the monitor USS Montauk to resupply ammunition. On the morning of February 1, he again lead a force comprised of the gunboats USS Seneca and USS Wissahickon, with the mortar schooner USS C.P. Williams towed by the USS Dawn. By 7:30 a.m. the Montauk anchored some 600 yards below the fort with the gunboats positioned downstream to support. Fifteen minutes later, Worden ordered his ironclad to resume firing on Fort McAllister.

Ft McAllister 5 May 10 068

View from Fort McAllister, looking downriver

About forty-five minutes into the bombardment, the Montauk scored a hit. A shot passed through an embrasure, disabling a 32-pdr gun and killing Major John B. Gallie, commander of the fort. Captain George Anderson replaced him and continued to direct fires against the Federal ships. The Confederates concentrated fire upon the Montauk, claiming to hit the ironclad at least eighteen times. Shortly after noon, by Anderson’s report, the Federals slipped downstream, opening the range. Later the Montauk’s turret ceased revolving, leading to speculation that one of those hits had scored a critical hit on the ironclad. Fort McAllister’s guns could not range the other vessels downriver. Furthermore, Anderson complained “Our rifle projectiles are miserable.”

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Reproduction 32-pdr at Fort McAllister

On the receiving end of these Confederate shots, Worden reported, “We were struck by projectiles forty-eight times, to wit, sixteen times on turret, three times on pilot house, seven times on smokestack, seven times on side armor, eight times on deck armor, once in gig, once in cutter, twice on boat’s spars, once on spare anchor, and had two flagstaffs shot away.” As the tide ebbed, Worden wisely let the Montauk slip downriver to avoid grounding. By mid-day, he was out of range and ceased fire.


Assessing the damage to the Montauk, Worden’s engineer reported dents but no fractures. “No effect was perceptible inside except in one instance, when two X-inch shot struck in rapid succession within 6 or 8 inches of each other near the base of the turret, immediately after which it was found difficult to revolve the turret until it was raised by driving in the key three-fourths of an inch, when it again revolved quite freely.” In short, the ironclad stood up well to anything the Confederates threw her way.

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Replica Columbiad at Fort McAllister

On the other side, the Confederates seemed likewise unimpressed with the monitor’s capabilities. Inspector General Major Henry Bryan reported:

The iron-clad seems to have fired principally 15-inch shell, one of which went directly through the parapet (17 feet thick) in front of a 32-pounder on the left. At this point the parapet was mostly built of marsh mud, which I infer cannot offer sufficient resistance to these missiles. Two shells seem to have struck near the same point on the parapet (made of sand) in front of the columbiad and tore away about a third of it, covering several men with sand; one or two were dug out. The resisting power of sand is very great, and after thick iron it makes probably the protection most desirable. So far as demolishing earthwork goes I am inclined to think the 15-inch shell a partial failure. I think a concentrated fire of smaller guns would have been more destructive to us. Had they burst better, however, the result might have been different.

Heavy Confederate guns could not seriously damage the monitors. And the monitors could not reduce earthwork forts. In the waterways around Savannah that translated to stalemate.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, pages 212-216 and ORN, Series I, Volume 13, pages 627-32.)