Repairing Monitors at Port Royal

On November 30, 1863, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren provided a status report to the Navy Department covering the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron’s activities at the close of the month.  A substantial portion of that report – two paragraphs out of a total of seven – centered upon repairs to the ironclads of the squadron.In addition, Dahlgren also alluded to repairs needed on the USS New Ironsides.  After five continuous months of activity around Charleston, including several sustained engagements with shore batteries, the ironclads were showing from wear and damage.

The value of Port Royal with its secure harbor came into play here.  During operations at Charleston, the squadron established a rotation by which monitors were serviced and repaired at Port Royal.  Dahlgren’s report mentioned ships going through those rotations at the end of November:

The Patapsco and Catskill are not yet finished, but soon will be; the Lehigh has gone down to Port Royal to have some damages by shot repaired, the bottom cleaned, and a new 8-inch rifle, the present one having been expended on Sumter.  It is not yet reported whether the leak that occurred lately was caused by shot or not.

Recall the USS Lehigh suffered damage while aground on November 15 and sitting under the Confederate guns the next day.  The USS Patapsco was a frequent visitor to Port Royal, it would seem.  She’d been in port for servicing through the last half of September.   Then the ironclad returned briefly after her Parrott rifle cracked and fouling had accumulated on her hull.    And now again, she was in Port Royal.  Clearly the barnacles and oysters liked the Patapsco. A report from Patrick Hughes, inspector and supervisor of the operations, described the fouling in response to inquiries in a report dated December 4:

The bottom of the monitors is covered with a thick coating of oyster shells and grass.  The grass grows to a considerable length; I have a sample here of what came off the bottom of the Catskill.  It seems to be grass coralized.  It resembles strong brook corn, and is 12 inches long.

This growth on the hulls slowed the already sedate monitors – in some cases to half the designed speed. One way to clean the accumulated sea-life off the monitors was to beach them. Hughes described that operation in his December 4 response:

The monitors are put broadside on the beach without any shoring.  When the monitors are properly beached there is no danger whatever of straining any part of the vessel or having any injurious effect on machinery or turret.

The flat bottom of the monitors allowed the breaching, in broadside.  But Hughes continued on to state there were risks involved with beaching a monitor.

The Catskill lay on the beach in a very bad position for one tide.  She lay stern on, and there was a difference of 8 feet of water between bow and stern.

While she lay in this position some parts of the machinery had to be unfastened, and there was a perceptible alteration in the fire-room floor plates.  When she floated the parts went back to their places.  The vessel does not appear to have sustained any injury.

A report from Hughes posted on November 29 offers mentions additional hazards of such beaching operations:

In my report of the 22d instant I informed you that the Catskill came off the beach that morning, and I expected she would leave here in a few days.

This vessel went on the beach again that same evening and remained there until the morning of the 28th instant, getting off at 10 o’clock.  In trying to get the vessel off on the morning of the 27th they carried away the anchor gear, breaking one tooth in each of the pinion wheels and bending the shaft. It will take three days to repair.  On the morning of the 28th instant one of the towboats struck the plating on the bow and started the fastenings, breaking some of the blunt boltheads off.  To fasten this plating properly it will take about three days.  I will have all the damages to this vessel repaired by Thursday morning, December 3.

And while beaching allowed workers access to the sides of the ship, particularly to address damage to the armor plating, the position did not allow workers to clean the bottoms.  For that, the Navy employed divers.  And those were best, and safely, used at Port Royal’s quiet waters.

Hughes wanted to apply zinc paint to the undersides of the monitors to prevent the encrustation.  But when applied while beached, tidal actions prevented the paint from drying.  Clearly a proper dry-dock facility was needed.  And Port Royal had none.

Unlike the monitors, the New Ironsides could not be beached at Port Royal.  Normal wear in addition to damage sustained from Confederate guns and the spar torpedo attack had tested seams, planking, and cross beams.  The ship’s carpenter reported, “The spar deck, gun and berth decks leak so badly that it is necessary to calk them fore and aft.” Captain Stephen Rowan estimated the repairs required three weeks attention at Port Royal.  He also forwarded a requisition for 3,000 sand bags, as existing sandbags on deck had to be removed for the calking.

While the refit activities at Port Royal were sufficient to sustain the ironclads, the port lacked the shipyard facilities needed to fully repair and improve the ships.  One does wonder, given the frequency of such refits, if photograph, even grainy, exists somewhere of a monitor laying upon the South Carolina beach.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 142-3, 145, and 151-2.)



Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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