Loss of Charleston’s floating battery

The December 21, 1863 edition of the New York Daily Tribune ran a column with news “From the Department of the South.”  The column’s leaders ran, “The Loss of the Weehawken – Explosion-Fire in Fort Sumter – Harbor Obstructions Washing Ashore – Shelling of Charleston – The Steamer Planter Still With Us – Discovery of a Brass Twelve-Pounder.”

Most of these I can provide links back to blog posts, with, given my advantage of 150 years, have more details analysis than the reporter’s few paragraphs:

But for the accounts of harbor obstructions washing ashore, there’s a bit of added mystery here which 150 years of collective research have not, in my opinion, offered much more than the reporter’s brief explanation:

On Saturday night [December 12?], during the storm, a wooden concern 50 by 30 feet, double planks on the bottom and sides, strengthened inside by beams a foot square, was washed ashore on this island one mile from Light-House Inlet. The general inquiry is “What is it?”  Gen. Turner, the able Chief of Artillery, gave it as his opinion that it was formerly a Rebel floating battery, as evidently shows signs where guns have been mounted, but of late has been used as an obstruction to the harbor, as very large stones are still in it, which seems to justify that belief.

The floating battery debuted during the weeks after South Carolina’s secession.  During the 1861 crisis in Charleston harbor, state authorities ordered the construction of a floating, armored battery, using recent examples from the Crimean War.  The presence of the battery caused quite a stir in the days before the shooting war started.

The battery mounted a couple of 32-pounder guns and two 42-pounder guns. The battery participated in the bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12-14, 1861.

In action, the battery proved less formidable than made out in both the public eye and military minds.  The war’s inaugural battle proved the high point for the floating battery’s career.  By the time of the operations on Morris Island in 1863, the battery lost its iron plating for use on other projects (ironclads and “Davids”).  The guns went to conventional land batteries around the harbor.   The battery was thus more of a barge at that point, perhaps serving as an anchor point for rope obstructions.  Federal maps have it laying off the “Middle Ground” shoal in the harbor.

InnerHarborFloatingBattery

The map indicates Battery Ripley along with an “ironclad battery” and a “floating iron battery” on the shoal.  One of the later is likely the original floating battery.  Either location placed it in a position to be swept out in the main channel, given a very high storm tidal rush.

At any rate, after December 1863 there is scant reference to the floating battery. Some reports have it’s hulk surviving at the end of the war, laying off Morris Island.  If so, there is corroboration for the Tribune report.  I always keep this in mind, when reviewing the background of the Morris Island photographs, hoping to catch a glimpse of wreckage which might have been the floating battery.  But likely the wreck was at least partially broken up by Federals in need of wood that winter.

The obscurity of the floating battery’s demise is due in part to the Confederate reliance on obstructions and torpedoes as barriers in the harbor’s entrance.  By December 1863, Federal naval officers were far more concerned with the obstructions and torpedoes than the batteries, floating or otherwise.  On the same day the New York newspaper ran the story, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren reported the recovery of some debris from those obstructions:

For ten days subsequent to the disaster of the Weehawken the weather was wretched, with the exception of a single day – wind, rain, and a heavy sea having prevailed in different combinations; one result of which has been to wash down a quantity of obstructions from the upper harbor, much to the discomfiture of the rebels, no doubt, not only depriving them of the aid they expected to derive from such means, but disclosing to us obstructions of another and more formidable character than those which we were aware of.

The quantity was very considerable, and besides those made of rope, which were well known to us, there were others of heavy timber, banded together and connected by railroad iron, with very stout links at each end.

I cannot undertake to say how these parts were combined, for, when I saw the timber in the channel, the iron connections were not visible, and when I saw the later ashore, the timer had been cut up for firewood.

But the solidity of strength of the wood and iron were obviously so great that they must have proved formidable obstructions to encounter.

I think it significant that Dahlgren does not mention the floating battery among the debris. Though, the hulk could have been “cut up for firewood” by the time he viewed the debris and thus unrecognizable.

Further down in the Tribune‘s report, the reporter recorded:

The storm that has been visiting us for the past few days is over.  To-day the weather is like Spring.  Often before I think I date my letters June or July. The coldest time we have is about 4 o’clock a.m.  Then the mercury is not low, but we are cold because of the great change that has taken place since noon of the previous day.

As I write this post, the high temperature predicted for Charleston is 74º.  Maybe mother nature is likewise celebrating the sesquicentennial with us?

(Dahlgren’s report is from ORN, Series I, Volume 15, page 185.)

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