Five Medals: Passing a rope to the USS Lehigh 150 years ago

Around 7 a.m. this morning (November 16) 150 years ago, observers in Fort Moultrie noticed a monitor laying just off Morris Island.  This was nothing surprising.  For weeks, the monitors had pulled picket duty at night then setup to bombard Fort Sumter as opportunity came.  As the morning light opened, they realized the monitor was aground and unable to move. Now the gunners on Sullivan’s Island had an opportunity to hurt the Federal fleet.  Their target was the USS Lehigh.

Captain Jacob Valentine at Fort Moultrie got his gunners in action immediately.  They fired the first of over 180 shots from the fort by around 7:15 a.m.  Over at Battery Rutledge to the left of Fort Moultrie, Captain C.H. Rivers reported opening around the same time.  Rivers’ gunners would add 89 solid shot and 33 shells to those fired during the day. As the gunners began their work, other targets steamed up the main ship channel to protect the endangered monitor.

On the Lehigh, Commander Andrew Bryson signaled for assistance well before dawn.

I was within range of the enemy’s batteries on Sullivan’s Island, and as soon as they perceived that the ship was ashore, they opened on me from nine different batteries, striking twenty-two times, nine of which are wounds on the deck plating, and these are the most serious of all the wounds received.

Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren ordered three monitors – USS Nahant, USS Montauk, and USS Passaic – to the aid of the Lehigh.  Dahlgren himself went on-board the Passaic.  By 8:50 that monitor was anchored opposite Fort Moultrie, logged at 1,000 yards range.  This apparently distracted the Confederate gunners for the moment.

Later the Passaic lifted anchor to maneuver and waited to open fire until 9:30, sending thirty 8-inch Parrott shells and four XV-inch shells at the Confederates.  The Montauk joined the Passaic at the same time, adding twelve XI-inch shells at ranges between 1,700 and 1,900 yards.  Joining the Navy, batteries on Morris Island fired on Sullivan’s Island, all the while continuing the bombardment of Fort Sumter.

Being posted forward on picket duty, in response to the perceived threat of Confederate boat attack the previous night, the Nahant was the first to steam up to the Lehigh.  The Nahant fired on XV-inch shell at Fort Moultrie at 7:45, but then ceased fire to pass a line through the turret in preparation to pull the Lehigh off.  Around 8:00, Assistant Surgeon William Longshaw, of the Lehigh, set out in a rowboat with Gunners-mate George Leland and Coxswain Thomas Irving to pass the line between the two ironclads.  Longshaw succeeded.  But no sooner than than the line was tied off, a Confederate shot cut the rope.  Longshaw and party braved the fire again.  And again Confederate fire cut the line.  The Lehigh remained stuck on the bottom.

Ashore, Brigadier-General Roswell Ripley, commander of the First Military District that included those guns on Sullivan’s Island, sent orders for the batteries to fire slowly.  Ripley realized high tide was due around mid-day.  If the Lehigh was not off by that time, the Confederates would have all afternoon to pick the ship apart.  However Federal fire had already damaged and dismounted a 32-pdr rifled gun in Fort Moultrie.

On the Lehigh, three seamen tried for a third time to pass a line to the Nahant.   Horatio Young, William Williams, and Frank Gile set out in the rowboat and again handed off a line.  This time, no Confederate shots cut the line but the Lehigh remained aground despite the pull from the Nahant.  Finally, around 11:45 that morning, the Lehigh broke loose.  (Although even then, the line abraded and nearly parted before the monitor was loose.)

With the Lehigh afloat, the monitors retreated down the main channel to safety.  Although the Passaic returned just before sunset for picket duty, and cautiously posted buoys at the point the Lehigh had run aground.  Casualties in the action were comparatively light.  Dahlgren reported seven men were wounded by shell fragments.  All five of the enlisted men survived the war. Ripley reported one killed and three wounded in Fort Moultrie.

Damage to the Lehigh appeared superficial at first. But within a few days, the ship was taking on water at a rate of nine inches per hour.  Although reduced to five inches per hour, the ironclad went to Port Royal for repairs which kept her there until January.  At a time when every monitor turret was needed, Dahlgren lost, at least temporarily, one of his ironclads.  But the Lehigh was repaired and returned to the line off Charleston harbor.  Later the Navy reassigned her to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, serving in the James River, where this and other photos were taken:

Notice the dents on the turret.  Compare to those seen in the photo from the early 20th century:

The iron retained the battle scars for decades.  We can’t be sure those dents were inflicted on November 16, 1863.  But at some point in the fighting in front of Charleston, the Confederate guns scored those hits.  And the Lehigh bore those scars up to the day she was scrapped.

As for the men, Dahlgren immediately raised the ratings of the enlisted men.  Along with Longshaw’s, he had their names read in orders posted to the fleet, noting “I shall also make honorable mention of them to the honorable Secretary of the Navy, which is all I can do for Dr. Longshaw.  It is not in my power to reward him suitably.”  Secretary Gideon Wells responded quickly to honor Longshaw and the others.

On December 1, Wells issued a letter of commendation to the assistant surgeon.  Like Dahlgren, Wells could not promote Longshaw directly.  But the secretary did arrange so that once Longshaw completed the mandatory examination after two years’ sea service (required by law),  and passed, he would be granted date of rank above all his peers taking the examinations.  Longshaw’s career and life came to an abrupt end just over two years later. He was killed on January 15, 1865, while tending a wounded marine during the assault on Fort Fisher.

Wells responded again on December 2 with respect to the others mentioned in Dahlgren’s report.  The five enlisted men involved with passing the lines had their ratings confirmed.  Leland and Irving, as petty officers, received a gratuity of $100.  And in recognition of their bravery in action, Leland, Irving, Young, Williams, and Gile were each awarded the Medal of Honor.

What began as an effort by Confederates to extinguish the calcium light on Morris Island started a chain of events that had an ironclad stranded under enemy fire.  Six men responded to a challenging situation 150 years ago today.  Five were awarded the nation’s highest recognition for valor.

(Sources:  OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 739-42; ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 117-24.)

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