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.”

Ft McAllister 5 May 10 053
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.

Ft McAllister 5 May 10 072
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.)

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