CSS Savannah Threat: An open passageway from Savannah to Port Royal?

On December 7, 1863, Commander William Reynolds, senior naval officer at Port Royal, South Carolina, submitted a report to Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren which highlighted concerns for the safety of that important port:

Sir:  After the Chippewa’s expedition up Skull Creek the other day, I sent Lieutenant-Commander Harris on short to see Colonel Barton, commandant at Hilton Head, about the removal of the piles which had been drive across Skull Creek last winter to prevent an attack upon this bay from Savannah; and Colonel Barton said that he had opened a passageway for his picket boats to pass through; that there were still some sunken schooners in the way; that the obstructions could not be passed at night, and that in the daytime the attempt would hardly be made; that Fort Michel commands these obstructions, for which purpose it was erected; that the ram Savannah, to get into Skull Creek, would have to pass directly under the guns of Fort Pulaski.

All this may be very well, but this remains – that the passageway through Skull Creek, which it was deemed expedient to close against the Atlanta, is now partially open to the Savannah.

Colonel Barton informed Lieutenant-Commander Harris that on the evening of December 1 lights were seen from Fort Pulaski along the rebel picket lines above, and the garrison supposed that some vessel was about to attempt to run the blockade and opened fire.  At the same time the pickets on Hilton Head Island, near to Seabrook, became aware that the rebels were about attempting a raid upon them, which, did not come off.

I saw from this ship the same lights which the garrison at Fort Pulaski saw (distant rockets) and was aware that something unusual was going on, so much that I was on the point of going to quarters.

The expedition referred to was that conducted on November 28 under Lieutenant-Commander Thomas C. Harris and Colonel William Barton, 48th New York Infantry.  While the expedition returned after little contact with Confederate forces, the presence of fortifications raised concerns.

Reynolds referenced the CSS Atlanta and concerns surrounding that ironclad the previous spring.  The threat, at that time, was the Confederate ironclad might push past Fort Pulaski or – as she actually attempted in June 1863 – sortie out of Ossabaw Sound.  From there, the Atlanta could easily threaten Port Royal.  Federal officers feared the Atlanta could use Skull Creek as a passageway to access Port Royal Sound.  Another fear was the Confederates might use the maze of inland passages (one of which is highlighted on the map below) to bring light craft, particularly spar-torpedo boats, into the sound.  And keep in mind, the Federals used similar inland passages to flank and isolate Fort Pulaski the previous year.


To confront the threat out of Savannah, the Federals kept Fort Pulaski and adjacent batteries along the river manned; placed monitors on station in Ossabaw and Wassaw Sounds; constructed fortifications like Fort Michel around Hilton Head; and, of course, placed obstructions in the side channels like Skull Creek.

With the capture of the Atlanta in June, the threat relaxed somewhat.  But in the same month, the Confederates added the CSS Savannah to the squadron at Savannah.  The Savannah was one of the ironclad rams laid down in the spring of 1862, amidst “ram fever” using a layout from naval architect John L. Porter.  But being built from keel up as an ironclad, the Savannah was somewhat smaller, and drew less water, than the converted Atlanta.  Unfortunately, the only image of the Savannah is a grossly inaccurate newspaper illustration.

At the time Reynolds was writing his report, most of the information about the Savannah came from deserters.

These men report that the armament of the Savannah consists of two 7, and two [6.4] inch Brooke rifled guns; that her sides are protected with rolled-iron plating, 4 inches in thickness; that she carries a torpedo at her prow, as did the Atlanta, and has two more in her store room. Her crew numbers between 100 and 125 men, a very small proportion of whom are seamen, and of these she has recently lost several by desertions.  The speed of the Savannah does not exceed 6½ or 7 knots in smooth water.

The deserters provided details of not only the ram but of the status of the Confederate naval forces at Savannah:

The frames for two other rams are on the stocks in Savannah, but the iron plating for them can not be obtained.  In form and size, they resemble the one afloat, and will have the same draft of water s herself – about 11 feet. A small wooden steamboat, the Isondiga, mounting one 7-inch Brooke rifle, and one IX-inch Dahlgren, is also in the river; her boilers are represented as being old, and her machinery unreliable.  No torpedo boats are being constructed at Savannah.

The news that no torpedo boats were at Savannah was welcome, but the ironclad threat remained.  And considering those two other rams under construction, Federal authorities had to consider long term actions to neutralize the threat.  For the time being, Dahlgren would continue to post one or two monitors in the waters outside Savannah (at the time of Reynolds’ report, the USS Nantucket had that duty).  And the Army kept its vigil on land.  These required precautions pulled resources away from the “main act” at Charleston.

What I find of interest here is the play of operational intelligence in operational planning.  The Federals had to take on these precautions or run the risk, which they assessed to be valid, of leaving an opening for Confederate actions. On the other hand, careful examination of Confederate operations indicates the threat was far less potent as the Federals assessed.  A few well placed pilings were indeed all that was needed!

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 105 and 171-2.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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