Monthly Archives: January 2013

150 Years Ago: A bad morning for the USS Mercedita

January 31 began early for the crew of the USS Mercedita 150 years ago today. Later that day, Captain Henry S. Stellwagen, her commander, would draft his official report:

At 3 a.m. we had slipped cable and overhauled a troop steamer running for the channel by mistake. At 4 I laid down. Lieutenant-Commander Abbot was on deck, giving orders to Acting master Dwyer about recovering the anchor, when they saw a smoke and faint appearance of a vessel close at hand. I heard them exclaim, “She has black smoke. Watch, man the guns, spring the rattle, call all hands to quarters!” Mr. Dwyer came to the cabin door, telling me a steamboat was close aboard. I was then in the act of getting my pea-jacket, and slipped it on as I followed him out; jumped to poop ladder, saw smoke and a low boat, apparently a tug, although I thought it might be a little propeller for the squadron. I sang out, “Train your guns right on him and be ready to fire as soon as I order.” I hailed, “Steamer ahoy! Stand clear of us and heave to! What steamer is that?” Then ordered my men “Fire on him;” told him, “You will be into us! What steamer is that?” His answer to first or second hail was “Halloo!” the other replies were indistinct, either by intention or from being spoken inside his mail armor, until the act of striking us with his prow, when he said, “This is Confederate steam ram —–.” I repeated the order to “Fire,fire!” but no gun could be trained on him, as he approached on the quarter. Struck us just abaft of our aftermost 32-pounder gun and fired a heavy rifled through us, diagnoally penetrating the starbord side, through our Normandy condenser, the steam drum of port boiler, and exploding against port side of ship, blowing a hole in its exit some 4 or 5 feet square. The vessel was instantly filled and enveloped with steam. Reports were brought to me, “Shot through the boilers,” “Fires put out by steam and water,” “Gunner and one man killed,” “Number of men fatally scalded,” “Water over fire-room floor,” “Vessel sinking fast. The ram has cut us through at and below water line on one side and the shell has burst on the other about at the water’s edge.”

In the span of less than 12 hours, two Federal warships had been surprised by the Confederates in the waters around Charleston. Like the USS Isaac Smith the afternoon prior, the commander of the Mercedita faced a dire situation. And like Acting Lieutenant Francis S. Conover the day before, Stellwagen had to strike his colors and accept the mercy of his attacker. So hectic were preparations that the Mercedita‘s crew failed to place the plugs in the ship’s boats when lowering them to the water.

Stellwagen’s opposite number was Flag Officer Duncan N. Ingraham on board the CSS Palmetto State – one of Charleston’s two ironclad rams. Ingraham granted the Mercedita‘s crew parole. But the interaction delayed the Palmetto State as her sister ship, the CSS Chicora, engaged other blockaders.

USS Mercedita

If none of my fellow Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial blog writers pick up the story from there, I’ll continue with cross-post this evening.

(Stellwagen’s report is from ORN, Series I, Volume 13, page 579.)

150 Years Ago: Capture of the USS Isaac Smith

I’m running a bit behind again on today’s post.  Furthermore, this is another “over there” post.

One hundred and fifty years ago this afternoon, Confederates ambushed and captured the Federal gunboat USS Isaac Smith.  In observance of that event, today’s post is a cross posting over at the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial blog.

Yes, I do have a special fondness for the Civil War activity in those low country marshes.

Artist's impression of the capture of USS Isaa...

Artist’s impression of the capture of USS Isaac Smith in the Stono River, South Carolina, 1863. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

New Hunley discovery may alter interpretation

I’ve been posting much about the low country of late.  So this news item fits in line.  From the Charleston Post and Courier:

Hunley legend altered by new discovery

For nearly 150 years, the story of the Hunley’s attack on the USS Housatonic has been Civil War legend.

And it has been wrong.

Scientists have discovered a piece of the Confederate submarine’s torpedo still attached to its spar, debunking eyewitness accounts that the Hunley was nearly 100 feet away from the explosion that sent a Union blockade ship to the bottom of the sea off Charleston in 1864.

Instead, the Hunley and its eight-man crew were less than 20 feet from the blast. And that changes everything about the story — and possibly even provides a clue as to why it sank.

“I would say this is the single-most important piece of evidence we have found from the attack,” said Maria Jacobsen, senior archaeologist on the Hunley project.

Basically, Hunley conservators found a piece of the torpedo’s copper shell, peeled back from the blast, when they removed a century of hardened sand and shell from the submarine’s 20-foot spar. The torpedo was bolted to the spar, contradicting the conventional wisdom that the torpedo was planted in the side of the Housatonic with a barb like a fishing hook, slipped off the spar and then detonated by rope trigger when the sub was a safe distance away.

Instead, the Feb. 17, 1864, attack off Charleston was a dangerous, close-quarters assault that risked the sub and crew.

“This changes some things,” said Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, longtime chairman of the state Hunley Commission. “They were much closer to the explosion than we believed, but I don’t believe this was a suicide mission.”

Read full article here.  And take a look at the photo gallery here.

By my count this is the third “interpretation” of how the designers of the Hunley fixed the torpedo for the final mission (and I’m sure there are other interpretations I’ve missed).  Prior to the submarine’s recovery in 2000, the most often depicted arrangement was some form of contact device centered on a spar projecting from the top deck of the vessel.  The replica outside the Charleston Museum has just such a setup.

Charleston 4 May 10 097

Replica of H.L. Hunley

Such positioning would require the submarine to be well submerged in order to contact it’s target below the waterline.  And of course it would place the submarine in close proximity to the resultant explosion.  But this was based on contemporary sketches of the submarine.

Later interpretations had some sort of barb on the torpedo to fix the explosive to the target.  That interpretation held that a release line played and triggered the explosion when the submarine had backed off sufficiently.

Depiction on the Friends of the Hunley Site

This interpretation has the spar fixed to the bottom of the vessel and is backed up with documentary evidence.  Andy has a more detailed discussion on this setup posted.   The documents also indicate the torpedo had three fuses, in order to ensure the detonation.

With this latest discovery, the interpretation leans towards the torpedo arranged to explode under the target ship – the USS Housatonic.  If so, that’s actually more dramatic than my mundane description allows.  From a technical perspective, this means the Confederates had already determined the optimum position to detonate a torpedo in order to sink a ship – directly beneath it.  However, not until after World War II would technical advances produce a weapon to achieve such effects with consistency.

One thing for sure, what we know of the Hunley will continue to evolve as the artifacts reveal their portion of the story.

Some “olde English iron”: British smoothbores rifled for Confederate service

The other day I mentioned this rifled gun currently resting outside the Old Powder Magazine in Charleston, South Carolina:

Charleston 4 May 10 181

12-pdr English Siege Gun, Banded and Rifled by Confederates

There is little doubt as to the weapon’s vintage. The royal monogram on the top is that of either King George II or King George III .  In other words, likely a weapon that pre-dated the Revolution and therefore the United States.

Charleston 4 May 10 187

Monogram – King George II or III – on Gun

The gun appears to have several bands welded together.  Such was common practice among Confederate shops, both in Charleston and Richmond.

Charleston 4 May 10 184

Band on 12-pdr Gun

However the knob was removed from the gun, either during the alterations or later handling.

Charleston 4 May 10 193

Breech Profile of Banded and Rifled 12-pdr

The gun’s muzzle remained unaltered.

Charleston 4 May 10 185

Muzzle Profile of English 12pdr

A look down the bore shows the other alteration done by the Confederates – rifling.

Charleston 4 May 10 186

Bore of Rifled and Banded English 12-pdr

I count seven grooves, but with all the deterioration that’s more of a guess.  The bore is a bit larger than standard 12-pdr gauge.  But that may be explained by the machining required for rifling.

Also at the Old Magazine is a similar 12-pdr that remained, at least on the exterior, unaltered.

Charleston 4 May 10 188

12-pdr English Gun at the Magazine

The breech of this gun retains the knob and ring.  Although proper fitting for naval use, the practice from the 18th century into the 19th century called for similar fittings on seacoast guns.

Charleston 4 May 10 191

Breech profile of unaltered 12-pdr

An obstruction blocks the bore.  So while certainly not “banded” this gun could be “rifled” … or not.

Charleston 4 May 10 189

Muzzle profile of unaltered 12-pdr

Neither gun has trunnions.  Those may have been broken off to disable the guns or damaged during handling.  Since markings on the trunnions often provide additional details of the gun’s origin, that leaves a gap in the precise identification.

The guns measure around nine and a half feet long.  That places them in the 34 cwt class for the caliber.  While comfortable identifying Civil War artillery, I’m more of a dabbler when it comes to colonial era weapons.  So I’ll save the exact designation for those who know that time period well.  However, the tally of a “12-pounder old English siege (rifled)” in the list of guns at Charleston in January 1863 certainly makes this a Civil War piece.  In April of that year, another report indicated one 12-pdr “Old English siege, rifled, banded” and four “Old English siege, rifled, not banded” were among the weapons deployed in the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

Apparently the Confederates found modification of these old guns acceptable.  On August 15, 1863, one of the unbanded but rifled guns was sent back to the Charleston Arsenal to receive a band.  At the same time a smoothbore of the same type was at the arsenal, presumably for modification.  The old English 12-pdrs appear again in correspondence dated that October, with favorable mention from Colonel Ambrosio J. Gonzales:

The rifled 12-pounder gun [Major John Barnewll] mentions at Royal’s is very old, but reported as a very good gun.  It is one of those long 12-pounder English siege guns, recommended by me to the commanding general to be banded, which was then approved.

So at least the artillery chief and his commander, General P.G.T. Beauregard, saw value in the old guns.  At the time, the ordnance officers may have held these guns in higher esteem as they were cast using older methods.  The “hot blast” techniques introduced in the 19th century left many questions about iron guns.  In some eyes, the “older” guns were indeed “better”.  These guns, perhaps veterans of earlier wars, were therefore selected for modification – rifling, and in some cases banding.

While not anti-ironclad guns, they were dispersed to the outer fortifications around Charleston to cover waterways and other approaches to the city.  Proving once again even an old gun can have some “bite” left in it.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part II, Serial 47, page 415.)


150 Years Ago: Fort McAllister vs. the Montauk

I’d intended to post about the Fort McAllister bombardment today. But I was called in for some unexpected chores at work. So that post will wait for another day. In the meantime, please check the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial site for an article on the bombardment of Fort McAllister.

Batteries in the Marshes: The Defenses of Savannah, Part 2

Continuing from yesterday’s post, I’ll first turn to the improvements to the fortifications directed by General P.G.T. Beauregard in October 1862.

Although after his initial, but brief September 1862 inspection, Beauregard considered the defenses well placed, after the detailed inspection in October, he found many issues with gun placement in the works.  Beauregard called for repositioning of guns in almost all the existing major fortifications.  In addition he cited poor magazine and traverse placement in several of the batteries.

Those “tuning” chores in order, Beauregard ordered several new batteries erected.  To produce a cross-fire against any threat from Whitemarsh Island, he ordered a three-gun battery built at Greenwich Point on St. Augustine Creek. Turning again to the map, that battery is depicted in green and those from the earlier date in yellow (and remember the base map depicts fortifications as they existed in December 1864, so don’t jump ahead with this story and ignore the red and blue markings!)


Notice how the guns from Carston’s Bluff, Greenwich Point, and Thunderbolt sealed off any approach from Whitemarsh Island.

Further south, Beauregard wanted a battery on Rosedew Island to cover the Little Ogeechee River. And to further protect the causeway leading south to this extended line, he directed the formation of a siege train and additional works on Isle of Hope. The later, along with another three-gun battery, would help cover the approaches from Skidaway Island.


Rosedew Island is just left of center, again in green.  The Isle of Hope fortifications extended at different points from the center-right, upwards.  I’ve depicted two locations on opposite ends of the island.  However I am not sure exactly where the three gun battery, named Lake Bluff Battery, was located (UPDATEDon’t know why I overlooked this name.  Lake Bluff Battery – as noted in the table below, was located on the Altamaha River well southwest of Savannah.  The battery was an isolated and remote defense, but is of interest to those who like the obscure stories!  Look for a follow up post.).

Beauregard also directed a series of signal stations – Genesis Point, Rosedew Island, Beaulieu, Isle of Hope Causeway, Thunderbolt, Carston’s Bluff, Fort Jackson, Fort Boggs, and in Savannah.

But with regard to the guns in the forts, Savannah continued to make do with what was available after the harder pressed sectors received their allocations.  I’ve not located any returns for January or February 1863, but Major General Benjamin Huger provided a well detailed inspection report dated March 31, 1863. I derive the table below from that report.


Not listed here are several field guns, including rifled guns, listed in the fortifications.  The value of these guns was protecting land-side approaches to the forts, not defending the waterways.  The siege train employed for the Isle of Hope consisted, in March 1863, of four 8-inch siege howitzers, two 4-inch Blakely rifles, and one 20-pdr Parrott.  Also not listed above were a couple of Confederate ironclads – the CSS Georgia (although just a floating battery) and the CSS Atlanta – to supplement the land defenses.

Huger also provided a sketch indicating the facings of the guns along the Savannah River.


Clearly the Confederates had the Savannah River tied up nicely.  Further south, the works along the Ogeechee, Little Ogeechee, and Vernon Rivers required more attention.  If Savannah were to remain an option for blockade runners or commerce raiders, the Confederates had to control those waterways.


Looking at events 150 years ago, it was the battery at Genesis Point, by this time called Fort McAllister, which was receiving the attention of the Federals.  As noted above, the fort was armed with one 10-inch columbiad, one 8-inch columbiad, one 42-pdr gun, three 32-pdr guns, one 32-pdr rifle, and one 10-inch mortar.

Ft McAllister 5 May 10 073

Reproduction Columbiad at Fort McAllister

Those seven guns (and one mortar) would soon duel with Federal ironclads.

Ft McAllister 5 May 10 049

Reproduction 32-pdr Gun at Fort McAllister

(The referenced reports and orders appear in OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, pages 657-60 and 853-8)

Batteries in the Marshes: The defenses of Savannah, Part 1

Now if you consider the Charleston area a backwater by the middle of the Civil War, then maybe Savannah, Georgia qualifies as an eddy. But just as Charleston saw considerable activity in January 1863, the combatants in the Savannah sector were restless. Yesterday “Seaman Rob” provided a look at the ironclads bombardment of Fort McAllister, an operation taking place 150 years ago this week. Allow me to address the “land” side of activity in that theater.

After the fall of Fort Pulaski, activity around Savannah tapered off. Mostly garrison routine with a few patrols and blockade activity. The inactivity was partly due to limited forces arrayed. Any serious move against Savannah required more Federal troops, perhaps three times the number committed. And on the other side, the Confederates barely had enough troops to maintain the works.

However that is not to say Savannah lacked importance. The port remained an option for blockade runners. Even though Fort Pulaski denied access to the Savannah River, other routes allowed secretive blockade runners to slip in and out. The map below highlights the location of Wassaw and Ossabaw Sounds, with Savannah in the upper center (and Fort Pulaski on the upper right).


The map above is from the Official Records Atlas. It is a color version of a map drawn up at the war’s end and depicts fortifications in place at the time Major General William T. Sherman captured Savannah in December 1864. So keep that in mind when looking at the installations indicated in red and blue.

It was possible for ocean-going ships to work down from the port of Savannah, through St. Augustine Creeek and the Wilmington River, to reach Wassaw Sound. Lighter draft vessels could work the waters inshore of Sidaway Island to reach Ossabaw Sound. Furthermore, blockade runners could take shelter in the Ogeechee River (meandering across the lower left of the map) behind a well placed Confederate battery. (And I would add that all of the waterways named here are part of the modern Intercoastal Waterway.)

Notice also the proximity of the Atlantic and Gulf Railroad which, through several junctions, connected Savannah to Macon and Florida. Like many railways in the Confederacy, this became an important supply line. Reports during the war indicated vessels drawing up to 13 feet of draft could reach the railroad where it passed over the Ogeechee River, if well piloted.

Ft McAllister 5 May 10 127

Ogeechee River, just upstream from the Railroad Crossing

But not only were those waterways havens for blockade runners, they also offered up avenues for Federal raiders. The problem facing the Confederates was, with limited forces, the need to cover a vast area filled with tidal marshes. In September 1862, the Military District of Georgia counted only 8,371 present for duty.

Conversely, the problem for the Federals was how to move past those marshes and get to firm ground for maneuver. The Federal Navy couldn’t move up the rivers without ground support. And there simply was no “ground” from which to support! And like the Confederates, the Federals lacked the force to do much campaigning. An October 1862 return tallied only 12,837 present for duty throughout the entire Department of the South (covering South Carolina, Georgia, and north Florida).

Shortly after taking command of the Department of South Carolina and Georgia at the end of August 1862, General P.G.T. Beauregard began an inspection tour. He visited Savannah on September 21, 1862, but time constraints prevented a detailed review. He returned a month later in October for a very thorough inspection of Savannah’s defenses. This section of the map depicts the defenses immediately east of Savannah, extending south from the Savannah River. The fortifications indicated in Beauregard’s October report are depicted with yellow boxes (again, keep in mind that the base map depicted the works existing in December 1864).


The Savannah River defenses centered on a line roughly three miles downstream from Savannah. Beauregard considered Fort James Jackson, dating to the War of 1812, “a very weak work.” Battery Lee, just downstream, was better sited and armed. A battery across the marsh on Carston’s Bluff protected the back of Fort Lee. Across the river from Fort Jackson was a “Naval Battery” on a low island in the river (later named Fort Tattnall). Battery Lawton on Barnwell Island completed the line. Fort Boggs, just outside Savannah, provided another layer of river defense. Batteries near the waterfront and on Hutchinson Island provided close defense of the river-port.

To the south, the lone work defending the Wilmington River was Thunderbolt Battery. Very little covered St. Augustine Creek, which connected the Wilmington and Savannah Rivers. And St. Augustine Creek also lead back east to the waters behind Tybee Island, in close proximity to Fort Pulaski. However, while this offered a path for Federal advances, there was precious little ground for the Federals to stage for an attack across St. Augustine Creek towards Savannah. The Federals had patrolled Whitemarsh Island, the most suitable for Federal needs. But even there the marshes prohibited any direct move across to Savannah.

Further to the south of Savannah, very little covered the waterways and tidal marshes. Beauregard reported only two works – a battery at Beaulieu and a another battery at Genesis Point (later named Fort McAllister).


Here again, marshes kept the Federals at arms length. Skidaway Island might serve as a base for attacks inland – but only if a commander found a way through the tidal flats and marshes.

Ft McAllister 5 May 10 069

Ogeechee River at Fort McAllister

Beauregard included an inventory of the guns located in the forts defending Savannah from seaward approaches. (Beauregard also detailed the western, or land, defenses of the city, where 37 siege guns, howitzers and carronades were present.)


As with Charleston, the majority of ordnance on hand was older, obsolete 32-pdr guns. But Savannah had only five rifled guns. Recall that Fort Pulaski had forty-six guns at the time it fell, including five 10-inch columbiads, nine 8-inch columbiads, three 42-pdr guns, twenty 32-pdr guns, and two 4.5-inch Blakely rifles. Certainly iron Beaureagard wished he had back in the winter of 1863.

Beauregard was not just concerned about the number of guns defending Savannah. He also no less than 29 actions – ranging from improved magazine placement to plans for removal of women and children at Federal approach – required to better defend the city. I will look at some of those actions taken through January 1863 in the next post.

(Beauregard’s reports are found in OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, pages 633-4, 645-648, and 657-60.)