Let me slip away from Charleston for a bit… but not too far away. One-hundred and fifty years ago today (April 9, 1863) marked another victory for the Confederates in the Low Country of South Carolina – the destruction of the Army steamer Washington in waters off Port Royal Island. Three years ago I discussed the sinking of the Washington, but Let me retell the story again here on the anniversary.
The Washington left Beaufort, South Carolina on April 8, 1863 in conjunction with the Navy gunboat USS E.B. Hale. The ships had orders to patrol up the Coosaw River to Port Royal Ferry and then down Whale Branch to the Broad River. Captain Thomas B. Briggs, of the 3rd Rhode Island, commanded the Washington, which carried two 24-pdr field howitzers and a James Rifle (likely a converted 12-pdr siege gun). Acting Lieutenant Edgar Brodhead commanded the 220-ton the Hale, with four 32-pdr guns.
I’ve depicted the initial leg of this patrol in blue on the map below.
After leaving Brickyard Creek and starting the turn up the Coosaw River, the Hale ran aground (roughly where the orange star is located on the map). When attempts to free her failed, the Washington continued on the patrol to Port Royal Ferry. Briggs returned to protect the Hale through the night.
A rising tide brought the Hale off the shallows during the night. At around 4:30, Brodhead decided to continue with his part of the mission. He later claimed to have signaled the Washington as the Hale passed within feet of the Army steamer, before slipping up the Coosaw River. By 5:30 the Hale was well upstream, but the Washington remained in the channel. As the sun’s early light opened over the marshes, a Confederate battery opened up from Chisholm Island on the north shore. The guns were under the direction of Captain Stephen Elliott and were parts of the Beaufort and Nelson Artillery batteries. Remarkably, the Confederates scored early hits with 6-pdr field guns at a mile range. “After two rounds it was evident that she was disabled. She raised a white flag and drifted up the river and across to the opposite shore.”
With the Washington nearing the “friendly shores” of Port Royal Island and burning furiously, Briggs opted to abandon ship. Confederate gunners interpreted this as an attempt to escape capture. So the firing resumed.
Meanwhile, having passed Port Royal Ferry and proceeded to the Broad River (depicted with the green line on the map), Brodhead on the Hale received word of the Washington‘s peril. He then returned to the Coosaw to the site of the action. There he found the Army steamer aground and flags of truce all around. Brodhead managed to bring off four severely wounded men still on the half sunk Washington. At that point, he made haste to Beaufort seeking care for the casualties.
The loss of the Washington was yet another blow to fall on Federal forces operating in South Carolina. In short order, the Army and Navy traded charges – the Army feeling that Brodhead left the Washington without coordination; and Brodhead claiming he had and the Army opted to lay in reach of the enemy for no reason. The arguments came to naught. The only real conclusion drawn was the Confederate field batteries were a threat in the confined waterways of South Carolina. Perhaps Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton summarized the affair best, “it was a most disgraceful affair.”
As mentioned in the older post, there is but one relic from this rather small episode.
Confederate reports indicate they recovered one of the 24-pdr howitzers from the Washington, and buried it on the shoreline. Decades later a local fisherman came across the other howitzer, still in the wreckage. The howitzer is today one of the artillery pieces on display at the Beaufort Arsenal.
Report of Capt. Thomas B. Briggs, Third Rhode Island Artillery, April 9, 1863, Army Official Records, Series I, Volume 53, Serial 111, pp. 4-5.
Report of Acting Lieutenant Brodhead, U.S. Navy, Commanding U.S.S. E.B. Hale, April 9, 1863, Navy Official Records, Series I, Volume 14, pp. 115-7.
Report of Capt. Stephen Elliot, Jr., Beaufort (S.C.) Artillery, April 14, 1863, Army Official Records, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, pp. 283-4.
Letter from Brigadier-General Saxton, U.S. Army, to Rear-Admiral DuPont, U.S. Navy, transmitting opinion of a military court of enquiry, April 21, 1863, Navy Official Records, Series I, Volume 14, pp. 117-8.
Report of Rear-Admiral DuPont, U.S. Navy, giving the finding of the court in the case of Acting Lieutenant Brodhead, U.S. Navy, June 2, 1863, Navy Official Records, Series I, Volume 14, pp. 120-1.