End of year summary from the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery

Last day of the year, so time for a little summary roll-up of the activities at Charleston, South Carolina for 1863.  The regimental history of the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery offered just such a roll-up, focused on material and labor expended:

In the siege operations in 1863, the returns showed that we expended twenty-four Parrott guns.  We also expended 46,175 sand-bags; about 500 wattle gabions; fifty iron gabions; seven sap-rollers filled with facines; three sap-rollers filled with cotton; 12,382 feet of boards and planks.  The saps approaching Fort Wagner, if in a straight line, would have exceeded a mile.  They were four feet wide and two feet deep.  Three-fourths of the work was executed in the night, and nine-tenths of it under fire of artillery and sharp-shooters.  The sap-rollers – nine feet long and four feet in diameter, weighing about 2,000 pounds – were moved about six inches at a time.  About one-half of the work was performed by colored troops.  About 200 men were engaged at a time; reliefs were frequent.  The more exposed work continued about fifty days, and we lost 150 men.

The regimental history did not provide  the number of projectiles fired.  I’d estimate that count, including Army and Navy gunfire fired at all targets around Charleston, would exceed 26,000 rounds.   Most of that firing occurred during the second major bombardment.  A significant portion of that total was fired from heavy caliber weapons.  Note also the character of the labor… and who performed the work.  And for all that expenditure of material and muscle, the advance towards Charleston had only gained one barrier island and silenced, but not destroyed, a single fortification.

Students of the Civil War will point out a similar summary might have been recorded for operations outside Petersburg and Richmond, or outside Atlanta, at the end of 1864.  Was the nature of warfare changing?  Or were certain features of warfare enhanced?

(Citation from Frederic Denison, Shot and Shell: The Third Rhode Island Heavy Artillery Regiment in the Rebellion, 1861-1865, Providence, R.I.: Third Rhode Island Artillery Veterans Association, 1879, page 207.)

Dahlgren asks for better blockaders – “More vessels of the Nipsic class”

On this day (December 30) in 1863, Rear-Admiral Dahlgren sent a request to the Secretary of the Navy, with the objective to improve the blockade against southern ports:

Sir: A few more vessels of the Nipsic class would give great efficiency to the blockade here, in exchange for some other vessels which could be of service elsewhere.

Short and to the point.  Dahlgren liked the USS Nipsic.  But why?

At the start of the Civil War, the US Navy faced an awkward situation.  While in possession of some advanced steam frigates and sloops, these were designed to operate on the high seas.  These ships were in some respects the logical steam-powered descendants of the original “six frigates” navy.  But the Civil War required for ships able to operate in the shallow waterways along the coast, yet were fast and handy in the sea-lanes.  The quick response was the “90-day gunboats,” or officially the Unadilla-class.  And these gunboats served well.  By the time of Dahlgren’s inquiry, seven of those were in service with the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron:

  • USS Chippewa at Port Royal, South Carolina.
  • USS Huron patrolling Doby Sound, Georgia.
  • USS Marblehead working the Stono River, South Carolina.
  • USS Ottawa stationed at the mouth of St. John’s River, Florida.
  • USS Seneca at Port Royal, but soon departing for Georgetown, South Carolina.
  • USS Unadilla off Tybee Island, Georgia.
  • USS Wissahickson stationed in Wassaw Sound, Georgia.

These assignments reflect the type’s ability.  Instead of standing off Charleston harbor, these gunboats covered the shallower inlets along the coast (and as I’ve mentioned in other posts, these were not quiet assignments).

But the success of the Unadilla-class was not complete.  These vessels were a compromise in order to meet the rushed requirement.  By mid-war several shortcomings diminished the 90-gunboats’ value.  The landlubber version – the ships were too slow and rolled too much in moderate seas to handle the main guns.  Salty sea version?  I direct you to Volume one of Donald L. Canney’s The Old Steam Navy.  The Unadilla-class could make 9 knots, maybe 10, in good trim.  But by 1863, custom designed blockade runners could best that by two or three knots.

In response came the more refined, larger Kansas-class gunboats, of which the USS Nipsic was a member.  For comparison the Unadilla herself was 156 feet long and displaced 691 tons.  The Nipsic, on the other hand, was 180 feet long and displaced 836 tons.  The added length, along with about two feet of beam, ensured the Nipsic did not draw much more water.

And that added space was used for boilers and more efficient machinery.  The Unadilla’s steam engine was rated at 400 horsepower, while the Nipsic’s was at 670 horsepower.  That of course translated into greater speed.  The Nipsic reached 12 knots on trials and in service.

The other advantage to the longer, wider hull was the handling of weapons.  Recall the Marblehead fought on Christmas Day 1863 with one XI-inch Dahlgren, one 20-pdr Parrott, and a couple of 24-pounder boat howitzers.  By contrast, the Nipsic mounted two IX-inch Dahlgrens, one 6.4-inch Parrott, a 30-pdr Parrott rifle, and four boat howitzers.  The 30-pdr rifle sat on a forward pivot position on the foredeck.  As seen in the photo below, the big Parrott was on another pivot just forward of the main-mast.

The Dahlgren IX-inch were on the broadside.  The howitzers were mounted aft.

With more deck space, the handling of the guns was at least a little better than the Unadilla.

Earlier, when the Nipsic arrived at Charleston in November, Dahlgren expressed his positive assessment of the vessel, though with a couple of concerns:

After seeing her in motion, hearing the reports of her performance, and making an examination, I consider her class a valuable addition to the Navy.  She is very fast under steam (11 knots) and steers well.  Her armament is also powerful, the only defect being the contiguity of the mainmast and the two IX-inch guns, which might be avoided.

I would also advise a close adherence to the 10-foot draft, as a matter of great convenience in many of the inlets along the coast. The Nipsic draws 11
512 feet, though with two-thirds amount of coal will come to 10 feet.  The vessel pleased me much.

And, like any vessel, once the “new” wore off there were more decided criticisms.  In April 1864, Lieutenant-Commander A.W. Johnson commanded the Nipsic and filed this observation:

I have to report that on the 4th instant, off Cape Romain Shoals, the Nipsic encountered a heavy gale from the E.S.E. and S.E., this being the first trial of rough weather she has experienced.  Her behavior therein confirmed the opinion that her present armament should be reduced in weight…. The vessel labored so heavily that I was compelled to keep her up to the sea, as the wind changed its direction, which, fortunately, a sufficiency of sea room enabled me to do….  I do not regard her altogether a safe vessel in heavy weather with the battery now on board.

All that said, the Nipsic was still very useful in its wartime career, spent almost entirely in the South Atlantic squadron.  As Dahlgren felt, the Navy could have used several more vessels of the type.

But the Nipsic was almost a “one of a kind.”  Only two other vessels of the Kansas-class received the same machinery and boilers as the Nipsic.  And those two, the USS Shawmut and USS Nyack, were not commissioned until late in 1864.  The remainder of the class received machinery different machinery (in some cases unconventional and unique machinery) or boilers arrangements.  Most reached trial speeds of over 11 knots.  But only the three “as designed” ships offered the reliability and economy desired.

One more note on the Nipsic – this going into the post-war era.  After many years of service, the gunboat underwent “great repair” in 1873.  This was a late 19-th century way of getting around limited naval shipbuilding funds.  In 1879, the “repairs” were complete resulting in a ship 185 feet long displacing 1,375 tons.  It was that USS Nipsic which confronted German gunboats (and an observing British corvette HMS Calliope) in Apia harbor, in the Samoas in March 1889.  When a cyclone struck the harbor on March 15, the “repaired” Nipsic suffered worse than her predecessor.

That’s the Nipsic in the center.  A black-eye for U.S. interests to say the least. But an embarrassment which figured prominently in the public call for modernization of the US Navy.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 101, 215, and 403.)

Just a minor bombardment, I guess, on Morris Island: December 28, 1863

From the Confederate journal of operations at Charleston for December 29, 1863:

About dark last evening [December 28], four large parties, supposed to be regiments of the enemy, were observed proceeding from Battery Wagner toward Cumming’s Point.  It is thought the object of this movement was to repair the damages done to their works by the recent storm.  General Ripley determined to interrupt their operations, and directed the batteries on Sullivan’s Island to open heavily, which they did at about 9 p.m.  The commanding officer at Fort Johnson having been notified, the batteries adjacent to that work also joined in the action.  About 45 mortar and 50 direct shells were thrown in half an hour, but the enemy did not reply.  Our practice is said to have been fair, the chief defect being the oft-repeated one of fuses.

This may simply be a case of my laziness and not tracing down a specific account from the Federal side to this incident.  Ninety-five heavy caliber shells rained down and not even so much as passing reference in a regimental history.  Had that occurred anywhere but Charleston, the Official Records would have five to ten pages of reports.  But on Morris Island, that was just another minor little bombardment.  The sort of thing happening on any given day.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, page 187.)