December 6, 1863 started as a quiet day outside Charleston. The Federals on Morris Island fired a handful of shells at Sullivan’s Island. Brigadier-General Quincy Gillmore had already closed the second great bombardment of Fort Sumter. The focus of the army’s guns was now generally the fortifications around Charleston, and Charleston itself. But otherwise both sides were riding out what Confederate journals recorded as a “cold and blustering” day. A moderate gale was blowing in from the Atlantic.
That afternoon, Rear-Admiral Dahlgren met with Patrick Hughes, inspector and supervisor of repairs on the ironclads, in his cabin on the USS Philadelphia. An officer interrupted the meeting around 2:30 to let the Admiral know the USS Weehawken had put up signal flags asking for assistance. Moments later, another officer reported the Weehawken was riding low and appeared to be floundering.
Within five minutes of the first report, the Weehawken was underwater. Vessels anchored nearby rendered assistance. Most of the crew got off the ironclad to be rescued.
Despite the efforts, four engineers and twenty-seven men went down with the Weehawken. By dusk, only the smokestack remained above water. The Weehawken sank on the edge of the main ship channel, where the ironclads often sheltered during operations against Fort Sumter. The location appeared on Navy charts accompanying official reports at the end of the war:
On the day of the sinking, Lieutenant-Commander Edward Simpson, commanding the USS Passaic, offered the opinion that weakened rivets gave way and had opened some seams of the Weehawken. The water had simply overwhelmed the ship’s pumps. Other opinions questioned the positioning of ammunition below decks. The Weehawken had just taken on a full load of ammunition after returning from Port Royal. Within days of the sinking, divers went onto the Weehawken to assess the damage. And as the Navy will do to clarify such matters, Dahlgren ordered a court of inquiry to determine the cause or causes of the ship’s loss. By the first week of January, 1864, the board issued findings:
1st. The additional weight of ammunition that had been lately put on board of her, leaving her trim so little by the stern as not to allow sufficient inclination for water to get to the pumps freely.
2d. The neglect to close the hawse hole and delay in closing the hatch over the windlass room, which permitted the rapid accumulation at the forward extremity of the vessel of sufficient water to bring her nearly on an even keel.
3d. The large amount of water that was permitted to come into the vessel under the turret through the XI-inch port and down the berthing hatch, which assisted to tip the bows of the vessel.
4th. The amount of water which, owning to the immersion of the forward part of the vessel, came in under the plank-sheer.
5th. The absence of all effort to relieve the forward part of the vessel from its depressed position by rolling shot aft or moving any weight from the bow.
The court does not consider that it has any positive evidence that the hull of the Weehawken is ruptured….
All agreed that the Weehawken took on too much water by the bow and the pumps aft could not pull enough water to keep the ship afloat. The board noted several on board the Weehawken observed the pumps sucking air, even with the water collecting forward. This was, they believed, due in part to small pipes running forward to collect the water.
One of the causes cited was the hawse pipe opening in the anchor well. A post-war photograph of that particular area on sister ship USS Catskill shows that particular fitting for study:
In his endorsement of the board’s findings, Dahlgren dismissed the ammunition stowage as a major factor. Instead he focused on the water taken on through unsecured openings in the hull. “The mischief was really done by the entrance of too much water through hatches, hawse pipes, etc….” Instructions received later from the Navy Department would help address these issues. But the danger, due to the low freeboard of the monitors, remained.
Immediately after the sinking, Dahlgren requested pumps to help recover the Weehawken. Though, Dahlgren did not express any sense of urgency in the recovery, feeling the loss would not impact plans for forcing Charleston harbor:
It was gratifying to learn from the Department’s communication of December 3 that the new monitors will be here by the 1st of January, for that is only two weeks off, and the onward move will then be made without delay.
If the Weehawken can be got up in time, so much the better; if not, I shall not hesitate because I have only ten monitors instead of eleven.
But the Weehawken was not to be recovered that winter, or even the following spring. Several wartime schemes for recovering the Weehawken came to naught. After the war, several salvage operations managed to pull off much of the armor plate, the guns, machinery, and some human remains. But to this day substantial parts of the Weehawken remain off the coast of Morris Island.
Assessing this “deplorable disaster that befell the Weehawken,” Dahlgren lamented, “Among the melancholy consequences are the loss of life.” Thirty-one died and a monitor lost. Not in combat against the enemy, but rather to the sea itself.
(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 161-171.)