In part one of this set, I discussed the lead-up to the Christmas Day ambush on the Stono River, December 25, 1863. With the guns in place, and the USS Marblehead in their sights, the Confederates planned to start the action at dawn.
Shortly after 6 a.m. in the gathering light of Christmas morning, Lieutenant-Colonel Del Kemper opened the engagement with shots from Lieutenant Ralph Nesbit’s howitzers, in what I earlier identified as the Upper Battery (2) position. The guns of the Lower Battery soon joined in. But their fires were ineffective. The range reported at the time was around 1,200 yards. Nesbit reported starting with 8-second fuses then moving to 5-second fuses. He claimed to have hit the Marblehead on several occasions, but without effect. Confederate observers at the time contended the gunners failed to hit their target.
On the Marblehead, Lieutenant-Commander Richard W. Meade came on deck wearing his night clothes, ordering his men to respond.
At the time the Confederates opened fire, the Marblehead had steam in one of two boilers. However, with a falling tide, Meade ordered the anchor slipped so the gunboat could maneuver downstream. While the ship turned, Meade – still in his robe – ordered his gunners to return fire on the Confederate batteries. Despite the Confederate fire and casualties among the gun crew, Boatswain’s Mate William Farley, captain of the XI-inch pivot gun, got off the Marblehead‘s response. Acting Ensign George F. Winslow rallied the ship’s crew to the to her guns.
Meade’s servant, Robert Blake, rushed on deck to offer his commander a coat and uniform more befitting the action. But when he saw one of the crew struck down, Blake began running powder between the magazine and the guns.
One Confederate shell burst and threw fragments hitting landsman Charles Moore. Though bleeding profusely, Moore resumed his duties until forced below to see the surgeon. Yet, Moore slipped back on deck and again resumed his duties until growing faint from the loss of blood.
While the ship maneuvered, Quartermaster James Miller stepped up to the foredeck and cast the lead to determine the depth of the channel. Miller sat at an exposed position, but was performing a task more vital as the gunners. Had the Marblehead run aground at that time, the situation might have turned in favor of the Confederates. However, with room to maneuver, the Marblehead closed the range to the Confederate batteries and began firing shell, grape and canister.
When the howitzers and field guns opened fire on the Marblehead, the remaining guns in the Upper Battery and those of Charles’ Battery opened on Legareville. Colonel P.R. Page did not advance his infantry, and instead waited to see the gunboat disabled. He intended to advance a couple of 12-pdr howitzers to induce the Federal detachment to surrender. But with the Marblehead remaining in action, Page suspended all movements.
Meanwhile, further downstream Commander George Balch brought the USS Pawnee into action. By 6:35 a.m. that sloop was in position to fire across the marshes and enfilade the Confederate batteries. By 7 a.m. Acting Master S.N. Freeman skippered the USS C.P. Williams, under sail, up the Stono to a position to engage. The weight of this fire completely disrupted the Confederate gunners. Kemper decided to withdraw just as the Williams opened fire. Likewise, Page ordered a general withdrawal of the force. Around 7:30 a.m., the Confederates ceased all firing. The Federals likewise stopped shortly afterwards.
In the action, the Confederates suffered three killed and eight wounded. They also had a dozen horses killed and lost five sets of harnesses. This lost mobility forced Kemper to leave behind two 8-inch howitzers and an ammunition chest. After withdrawing behind Abbapoola Creek, running north of Legareville, the Confederates setup a defensive position and waited for an opportunity to recover the lost material. However, through the remainder of the morning, the C.P. Williams fired some twenty 13-inch mortar shells in that direction to keep the Confederates at bay.
Assessing the failure, Page cited the poor gunnery and execution by the siege howitzers. Defending his men, Kemper countered that the howitzers were ill-suited for work at the range the Marblehead was engaged. He also voiced concern the infantry never advanced, and his guns thus received all the Federal attention. General P.G.T. Beauregard took into account both accounts within his endorsement of reports:
The failure to destroy or drive away the Marblehead is due to the inefficiency of the artillery through bad ammunition, fuzes, and primers, and bad service of the guns. The 8-inch howitzers, objected to by Lieutenant-Colonel Kemper, were intended to be employed in case the enemy’s gunboats took position to throw grape and to shoot our gunners with Enfield rifles.
Yes, those 30-pdr Parrotts were supposed to fire upon the gunboat, supported by the howitzers. Not the other way around. Beauregard went on to say the enfilading fire from the Pawnee should not have had a great effect on the Confederate gunners.
Unknown to the Confederates at the time, their gunners had fired with some degree of accuracy. The Marblehead recorded 30 hits. “We have one 30-pounder shell which lodged in the steerage and did not explode….” Meade recorded two other unexploded shells lodged in the ship. Overall Meade reported extensive, but largely superficial, damage. The Marblehead suffered three killed and four wounded.
Closing his report of the action, Meade lauded the behavior of Winslow, Farley, Miller, and Blake – going as far to recommend Farley for the Medal of Honor. Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren responded:
It is not in my power to promote Acting Ensign Winslow… but if you consider Farley and Miller suitable for appointments as master’s mates, I will transmit them. Blake may be rated as seaman.
Dahlgren would go on to recommend to the Department of the Navy that Winslow and Acting Ensign George Harriman be promoted to acting masters for their conduct. Eventually, Farley, Miller, Blake, and Moore (who was not mentioned in Meade’s recommendations) received the Medal of Honor for their actions on Christmas Day 1863.
(Sources: Edward Manigault, Siege Train: The Journal of a Confederate Artilleryman in the Defense of Charleston, edited by Warren Ripley, Charleston: University of South Carolina Press, 1986, pages 100-102; Walter F. Beyer, Volume 2 of Deeds of Valor: How America’s Heroes Won the Medal of Honor, Detroit: The Perrien-Keydel Company, 1902, pages 50-52; OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 747-50; ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 188-209.)