150 years ago: The Presto fails to pass through Maffitt’s Channel

I’ve written before about the decline of Charleston as a port for blockade runners.  That decline, much the result of the Federal occupation of Morris Island, did not signify a complete closure of Charleston.  Because the Federal guns on Morris Island and the ironclads off Fort Sumter dominated the Main, Swash, and North Channels entering the port, a channel along Sullivan’s Island took on more importance.  Known as Maffitt’s Channel, or less frequently Beach Channel, this path into the harbor was covered by the line of forts on that island.

On the first night of February 1864, the blockade runner Presto made an attempt to gain Charleston harbor using Maffitt’s Channel.  But before relating that story, allow me to properly introduce that particular route into the harbor.

MaffittsChannel

The channel in front of Sullivan’s Island was always somewhat problematic.  By the 1830s, the currents of the channel were posing a danger to structures on the island – namely Fort Moultrie.  To prevent the harbor from becoming wide open to the sea and also protect the Army’s material investment, in 1838 engineer Captain A.H. Bowman proposed a jetty extending out from a point near Fort Moultrie.   Additional grillages in conjunction with the jetty arrested further erosion. By the late-1840s the jetty was complete and having the desired effect.  The original jetty was a palmetto log structure.  That original jetty was modified and replaced with stones by the 1860s. (And furthermore, the structure off Sullivan’s Island today is also a modern replacement.  So the jetty there today is neither the historical structure or exactly where the historical structure stood.)

But the citizens of Charleston, dependent upon the predictability of the harbor entrances for their livelihood, complained the channel was insufficiently surveyed.  Although a survey completed in 1852 defined the channel, by 1854 that chart was invalidated by changes.  In that year Commander John N. Maffitt led a team re-surveying the channel.   Maffitt also concluded the long term solution to the matter was frequent re-surveys.  In gratitude for his work, Charlestonians named the channel in his honor.

(But of course most readers may know Maffitt from his wartime exploits as commander of the CSS Florida and CSS Albemarle.)

The US Coastal Survey continued to monitor the channel in the years before the war.  Though somewhat busy, the chart below compares the differences of the 1850, 1855, and 1856 surveys (click to embiggin, as we say):

Regardless of the year surveyed, Maffitt’s Channel came to a very narrow passage between the jetty and the offshore shoal (marked by a buoy).  The passage was never more than a few hundred yards.  From the standpoint of navigation, the “daymark” for those passing that way was east-most corner of Fort Sumter.  Of course, that was of little use at night. Unless of course someone in the fort cast a light for support.

Needless to say, that narrow passage, coupled with other dangers where gunners actively sparred by day and night, made Maffitt’s a problematic passage at best.  During the war, Bowman’s Jetty “collected” several vessels as result. A recent survey project by the University of South Carolina plotted many of those:

chashbr_ftmoultriewrecks_11

Notice how the Island has now stretched out into what was the wartime channel.  And there is Presto… sitting in front of Battery Jasper.  While the jetty wasn’t the direct cause that claimed the Presto, the cumulative effects of a tricky, narrow channel and fear of Federal gunfire put the ship on the beach.

Prestosullivans-island

I’m going to follow this post up with particulars of the Presto’s demise and the resultant sparring it caused.  But before closing out, let me also mention Andy Hall’s excellent work on a wartime photo of wrecks on Bowman’s Jetty.  Complete with 3d and stereo-view animated GIF.  The Celt ran aground there a year and some weeks after the Presto.  Yes, the blockade runners were active right up to the end at Charleston.

6 thoughts on “150 years ago: The Presto fails to pass through Maffitt’s Channel

  1. Great stuff.

    The entrances at Galveston and Mobile both have a lot of similarities to the entrance at Charleston. Maffitt himself ran aground in Owl using a channel very much like the one that bore his name, at Galveston in early 1865. He managed to get away, but it was a very close call.

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