“The vessel is a complete wreck”: The end of the Presto on the beach of Sullivan’s Island

Let me pick up where I left off about the demise of the blockade-runner Presto.  Bound in from Nassau on the morning of February 2, 1864, she’d managed to elude the blockaders by working in from the northeast approaches to Charleston harbor.  All that was left was a fast run along the beach through Maffitt’s Channel.


Nearly gaining the harbor, the Presto struck the wreck of the blockade runner Minho, which had run aground on Bowman’s Jetty in October 1862.  After backing off the wreck, water came in through a hole in the hull.  So the Presto‘s captain ran her towards the beach.

As dawn broke, everyone around the harbor entrance had a view of the stranded steamer.  Admiral John Dahlgren, who’d spent the night afloat, was starting his customary trip inshore when, “my attention was drawn to a very handsome steamer close under the batteries of Moultrie…. She showed a fine, very low, and long hull, with two short funnels, painted white.”  Wasting no time, Dahlgren ordered the four monitors on duty forward to shell the Presto.

On shore, the men on Morris Island also noticed the Presto.  According to Colonel William W.H. Davis, 104th Pennsylvania Volunteers, the Army’s guns were soon in action:

She was discovered to be aground at reveille on the morning of the 2d, when the three 30-pounder Parrotts in Fort Putnam were immediately opened upon her. The first 3 shells (time fuse) burst over her, driving away the men who were engaged in discharging the cargo. At 8 a.m., the 300-pounder Parrott in Battery Chatfield was opened upon the steamer with good effect, 1 shell striking the furnaces. About this time two monitors moved up and commenced firing at long range, most of their shots passing over or falling short. Fort Strong opened soon after, firing a shell every fifteen minutes from the 200-pounder Parrott until 7 p.m.

Davis indicated the ranges to the Presto were 3,600 yards from Fort Strong (old Battery Wagner); 2,700 yards from Battery Chatfield; and 2,600 yards from Fort Putnam (old Battery Gregg).


The USS Lehigh, USS Passaic, USS Nahant, and USS Catskill moved up that morning and engaged.   Commander Andrew Bryson indicated the Lehigh fired forty-two 8-inch Parrott rounds, with nine scoring hits.  On the Passaic, Lieutenant-Commander Edward Simpson fired sixty-eight rounds during the day at the range of 2,350 yards.  Many of the Navy’s shots went high of the target.  With good adjustment to fuses, the shells burst over the Presto to interrupt any attempt at salvage.

However the Nahant and Catskill were unable to get into a good position to contribute.  And Dahlgren did not allow the monitors to move closer to the Confederate guns on Sullivan’s Island.  Mid-morning, Commander John Cornwell slipped the Nahant back down the channel to pick up two 12-pdr rifled boat howitzers.  With those guns on deck, the Nahant returned to position and fired 135 shells at the range of 2,200 yards.

In response to all this activity, the Confederates responded with counter-battery fire.  At Fort Sumter, Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Elliot observed, “… Sullivan’s Island replied, exploding some shells so near the monitor that the fragments struck her and caused a very perceptible decrease in the activity of the field-gun detachments.”

The Federals did not let up, as Davis related,

A 100-pounder Parrott at Strong was opened at noon and continued to fire until daylight the next morning. The fire of this gun, with that of the two 30-pounders in Putnam, prevented the rebels from getting any of her cargo during the night.

The next morning (February 3), the Navy resumed shelling the wreck. The Lehigh fired a total of twenty-six 8-inch Parrott shells, producing only four hits.  The Passaic fired 35 shells, with no effect recorded.  Both the Lehigh and Nahant fired boat howitzers from their decks. Two 12-pdr rifled boat howitzers on the Lehigh fired seventy-four projectiles, scoring only eight hits, at a distance between 2,400 to 2,500 yards.  Likewise, Davis’ guns on Morris Island picked up their work on the morning of the 3rd.  One 8-inch Parrott in Fort Strong fired fifteen shells, with five hits.  Twice the Presto caught fire during the day, and was reported as on fire as darkness fell.

Firing on the wreck continued, though at a lower rate. Through the night of February 3 and into the morning of February 4, Federal gunners on Morris Island continued their fires with 30-pdr Parrotts.  At dawn, again the monitors resumed firing.  The Nahant fired fifteen XV-inch shells and thirty-nine XI-inch shells that day.  The practice was better that day with twenty-seven hits recorded.  On the morning of the 5th Federal observers noticed a foot bridge from Sullivan’s Island out to the wreck.  This of course brought more fires from Morris Island.  But by that time, all observers agreed the wreck was broken up sufficiently to prevent salvage of the vessel.  Still, Davis ordered “a shell to be fired at intervals to prevent their obtaining any of her cargo or other articles which may not have been destroyed.”

Over the days the Federals concentrated on the Presto, according to Davis the Confederates sent back over 400 shells as counter-fire.  Two of the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery were wounded, one mortally. Confederate casualties were likewise minimal.  One soldier was killed by a stray Federal shell during the action.   And returns failed to mention any wounded.

However, there may have been a missed opportunity for the Federals.  Months after the action, deserters mentioned something was indeed salvaged from the Presto.  Davis related,

… the troops on Sullivan’s Island got hold of the liquor on board of her and had a “grand drunk,” and it is alleged that 300 men at that time could have taken the island, but unfortunately it was not known until the opportunity had passed.

The land batteries fired a total of 769 projectiles.  The total included thirty-four 10-inch Parrott shells from Battery Chatfield.  The 3rd Rhode Island’s regimental history summed up the performance of that large gun in the action, indicating the Presto‘s “touching requiem was played by Captain [Augustus] Colwell’s 300-pounder Parrott.”

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 33, Part I, Serial 65, pages 104, 187; Part II, Serial 66, page 40; ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 263-6; Frederic Denison, Shot and Shell: The Third Rhode Island Heavy Artillery Regiment in the Rebellion, 1861-1865, Providence, R.I.: Third Rhode Island Artillery Veterans Association, 1879, page 234.)


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