How do we know about this “daring event of the war”? : Salvaging the Keokuk’s Guns, Part 2

As seen from the 1200 words spent relating the details about the salvaging of the USS Keokuk’s guns, the story is more than a simple recovery with dramatic flourishes on the side. Every account you are apt to find will emphasize the difficult labor against the elements with dangers ever-present. But were do we derive the details of this story?

Yesterday I cited Charleston area historian Warren Ripley, from his book Artillery and Ammunition of the Civil War. Ripley previously wrote articles about the operation for Charleston newspapers The News And Courier and The Evening Post timed fifty years ago during the centennial. Many readers are familiar with the reprinting of those in The Civil War at Charleston booklet.

Other accounts of the salvage operation appear in E. Milby Burton’s The Siege of Charleston: 1861-1865, written in 1982; Robert M. Browning, Jr.’s Success Is all that was Expected, published in 2002, focusing on how the recovery played into the DuPont-Welles exchange; And more recently in Charleston Under Siege: The Impregnable City by Douglas W. Bostick. Unlike Ripley’s account, each of these works offers only a few paragraphs in context of the broader operations around Charleston. But all of these accounts derive the salvage story from a book written by John Johnson, published in 1890, named The Defense of Charleston, including Fort Sumter and the adjacent islands, 1863-1865.

Johnson served as an engineer in the Confederate army, posted to Charleston and Savannah. According to his introduction, in April 1864 he was assigned to a board of officers tasked with collecting the history of operations at Charleston. However, even with such proximity to the events, Johnson lamented the lack of documentation:

No special documents, official and contemporary, relating to the enterprise have been discovered. A few paragraphs embodied in more general reports constitute all the notes possessed from Confederate sources, while some correspondence between the Union authorities is the sum of contributions from the other side. But of the actors in this marine adventure five have been consulted in the preparation of this narrative, and no particulars have been used to supplement the official record except such as rest on agreement of evidence or seem to be most probable under all the circumstances.

Johnson’s normal wartime duties put him in contact with those involved with the recovery of the Dahlgrens. This included the engineers who first conceived the operation, and more importantly both Adolphus W. LaCoste and his brother John C. LaCoste. Johnson was able to list the work crew by name, indicating familiarity, if not direct, with those individuals. Two of the men mentioned by Johnson appear on a tally sheet of workers employed around Charleston, and specifically Fort Sumter, by John LaCoste in July 1863 (when Johnson was also working there as a Lieutenant). In this case, James Dougan and Thomas Loftus (first two names mentioned).

Page 4

I would also point out that Johnson mentioned Jack Baker as one of the three “colored” workers with the LaCostes. Baker appears on one of LaCoste’s lists from January 1864, along with Dougan and Loftus.

Page 48

And again, Johnson was working around Fort Sumter at that time. I would gather Baker was a free black working on these contracts.

Given the connections, at a minimum Johnson’s account is one step removed from the primary source. I’d argue even better than some of the “Battles and Leaders” accounts, since Johnson had to actually consult participants and compare details. So, how well does Johnson’s account of the salvage stand up? First off, Johnson’s narrative reads as if he himself were actually there:

With slippery footing on the tops or roofing of the turrets, constantly awash with the swell of the ocean breaking over them, their scant clothing kept wet with the salt spray, and no light allowed them, the mechanics bend themselves to the work. The first turret is attacked with sledge and chisel, wrench and crowbar, for nothing less than the removal of a large section of roof will satisfy them, sufficient to allow the lifting and free passage of a gun thirteen feet five inches long, nearly three feet in diameter at the breech, and weighing sixteen thousand pounds.

Johnson continues on to discuss the particulars for removing the gun from the carriage, to include the elevating screw. Sounds like Johnson did a good job gathering and assimilating the first hand accounts he received.

However there is a question in my mind about how accurate Johnson was with respect to the work hours. As related before, the Keokuk sat in shallow water, but was only accessible during low tides. In his words, the turrets “were exposed at low water, but so little that no more than two and a half hours’ labor on each night could be expected under the most favorable circumstances.” The work was done at night, with calm seas, and at low tides.

The workers had only ten nights to cut or pry open the turrets between April 20 and the end of the month. Given Johnson’s estimate of between two and two-and-a-half hours a night, that’s 20 to 25 working hours. On the night of May 1, the crews lifted out the first gun. Then the second was retrieved on May 5. So was that a total of 30 hour, maybe 35 at the most? What Johnson did not discuss is how much, if at all, battle damage affected the work.

I’ll pick up some of these questions in the next post on this thread. But for now let me mention one other connection between Johnson and the Keokuk guns. When the XI-inch Dahlgren was discovered in the sand on Sullivan’s Island, Johnson was among those who worked to have it moved to White Point Gardens. The plaque on the side of the gun today mentions him by name.

Charleston 4 May 10 062

Lieutenant Johnson Hagood, USA, mentioned on the plaque, was an Army officer who facilitated the gun’s transfer. He later went on to make major-general. I don’t think, however, he was directly related to the Confederate general and state governor of the same name. Still, maybe some reader can offer a connection, other than to say both were born in South Carolina.

Ok… next up, the sunsets, the moon, and the tides!

One response to “How do we know about this “daring event of the war”? : Salvaging the Keokuk’s Guns, Part 2

  1. Pingback: Sun, Moon, and Tides: Salvaging the Keokuk’s Guns, Part 3 | To the Sound of the Guns