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.)