Sweeping the ground between Batteries Wagner and Gregg: The Navy off Morris Island

I’ve neglected the Navy’s contribution to the Morris Island Campaign, and it’s time I resolved that! What makes the campaign a great study in joint operations is the high operational tempo shared by both Army and Navy. I’ve posted several thousand words about the Army’s activities on land. And the Navy, blue water navy that is, was no less active at sea.

During the days immediately following the July 18, 1863 assault, the ironclads and gunboats of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, under Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren, provided a shield while the engineers completed the first and second parallels. Through the last weeks of July and into early August, the squadron’s activities were somewhat repetitive – move up the main channel in the morning, fire upon selected targets around the mouth of the harbor but in particular Battery Wagner, retire that evening.

USS New Ironsides

For example, on July 24 the ironclads USS New Ironsides, USS Weehawken, USS Montauk, USS Catskill, USS Nantucket, and USS Patapsco, along with the wooden gunboats USS Paul Jones, USS Seneca, USS Ottawa, and USS Dai Ching sortied up the channel to cover construction on the second parallel. The Weehawken, New Ironsides, Montauk, and Patapsco moved up within 1,500 yards of Battery Wagner by 5:45 a.m., and began firing on the Confederates. The Nantucket and Catskill held a few hundred yards further back. And the wooden gunboats lay further back out of respect for the Sullivan’s Island batteries. The ships exchanged fire with Fort Sumter and Batteries Wagner and Gregg throughout the day, with the occasional shot coming from the Sullivan’s Island side. The bombardment kept pressure on Wagner until dusk, when the Navy retired to their anchorage. Just to give a measure of relation between the Federal parallels, Confederates works, and the positions of the ships, the map below depicts, generally, the stations of the bombarding squadron:

July24NavalBombardment

Reporting to Washington, Dahlgren summed up the action:

Yesterday I went up with the ironclads and opened a heavy fire on Fort Wagner, in order to prevent a sortie upon some new works which General Gillmore had pushed within 600 yards of the fort. The [wooden] gunboats assisted at long range; the firing was good and frequently excellent. The firing of Fort Wagner was soon silenced, and the garrison driven to shelter, so that in the course of the morning our new batteries were partially armed. The fire was interrupted by a flag of truce, borne by a steamer having on board some of our wounded who had been taken prisoners at various times. General Gillmore tells me that his advanced position is now secured.

All told, the Navy fired nearly 1000 projectiles that day. The logs recorded six hits by the Confederate guns. I would say the details recorded for this and other bombardments during the campaign were not up to the standard set for the April 7 attack. I suppose when thousands of rounds per day are raining down, neither side has time for meticulous score-keeping. And bombardment sorties, like that of July 24, were daily occurrences through the middle of August. Although that of July 24 was one of the larger in terms of ships involved.

USS Paul Jones

In a report to the Navy Department, on July 30, Dahlgren elaborated on the somewhat static state of affairs, and alluded to additional support provided by the navy:

The position of affairs is not materially changed since the date of my last dispatch (July 25), except that our advanced batteries (600 yards from Wagner) are in operation and will receive frequent additions to its armament. I have contributed four rifle cannon with a detachment of seamen (say 120), under Captain Parker, and will land more when I have the men to spare.

Every day two or three of the ironclads join in and sweep the ground between Wagner and Cumming’s Point, or else fire directly into Wagner, the only objection to which is that it is drawing largely on the endurance of our cannon. However, I have no doubt the Bureau of Ordnance will enable me to meet this difficulty.

I will detail the Naval Battery in the second parallel in a future post. That work contained two 70-pdr Whitworth and two 8-inch Parrott rifles.

Dahlgren continued with mention of the need to retain ships picketing the Stono River. Additionally, rumors that an ironclad might break out of Savannah forced him to retain two monitors and supporting gunboats on that station. Dahlgren went on to assure authorities in Washington the ironclads were holding their own in the face of enemy fire:

The turrets received a shot occasionally with the usual result, and the Ironsides has been struck repeatedly with X-inch shot (1,200 to 1,400 yards) without material impression. A shot from Fort Sumter in passing the spar deck glanced from the edge of it and by the concussion damaged the beam below, with knees connecting. If the dept of water would only permit her to approach, I would sweep the ground clean with her powerful broadside.

Before closing, Dahlgren requested support in the form of a rather high-tech non-lethal device:

There are many little things that would aid me here. For instance, the electric light which Professor Way exhibited here, and which Professor Henry (Smithsonian Institution) knows of; it would either illuminate at night, if needed, or would serve to signal, the eclipse of its flame being perfect…

The spotlight would not pan out as planned, but the suggestion foreshadowed the use of such powerful lights on the battlefield in the 20th century.

Dahlgren also requested iron boats for scouting at night. Not mentioned in the report, he had already used ships boats to picket offshore Morris Island in response to rumors about Confederate assaults on the parallels. On July 25, he detailed six boats, armed with howitzers, to stand ready offshore. As operations continued, similarly armed boats were picketed in the channel at night.

Federal activities around Morris Island through the first week of August was properly an Army-Navy operation.

(Citations from Naval OR, Series I, Volume 14, pages 391 and 409-10. Details of the July 24 bombardment from abstract of logs pages 393-5.)

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3 thoughts on “Sweeping the ground between Batteries Wagner and Gregg: The Navy off Morris Island

  1. I don’t think you neglected anything. The detail of your information is great! I almost feel like I am a witness to these events 150 yrs ago. Keep up the excellent work!

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