During the middle and late war years, the waters in front of Fort Sumter were the equivalent of a no-man’s-land, though without the firm ground for a picket to place a foot. By day, monitors stood in the channel occasionally trading shots with the Confederate batteries. At night, picket boats from both sides patrolled, scouted, and, not too infrequently, sparred.
One such engagement occurred 150 years ago last night (February 26-27) in 1864. That evening, Lieutenant-Commander John Davis, of the USS Montauk, ordered out boats from the USS Nipsic and USS Flag as pickets:
The boats from the Nipsic and Flag were to patrol across the channel in advance of [the Montauk], not more than two or three ship’s lengths above, and to keep within sight; the flood tide was running, water smooth, atmosphere hazy.
Acting Master’s Mate William H. Kitching commanded the boat from the Nipsic. These boats were part of a screen, set most every night unless prevented by heavy weather, to prevent any Confederate boats from reaching the monitors. The loss of the USS Housatonic just over a week earlier raised the importance of these pickets.
A boat from the USS Supply, led by Lieutenant Gilbert C. Wiltse, also set out on a reconnaissance near Fort Sumter. So Wiltse’s boat moved far in advance of the picket boats. Approaching to within 300 yards of Fort Sumter, Wiltse noticed a large boat against the northeast face. Wiltse managed to avoid the Confederate boat by altering his course. Then about a half hour later, he saw the boat again. This time the Confederates were bearing down on one of the picket boats. Wiltse heard “Patapsco, this is the Nipsic’s boat” and shortly after some musketry. The Confederate boat had intercepted Kitching’s boat.
Submitted months later, Kitching reported:
I have the honor to report to you the capture of the USS Nipsic’s first cutter, with 5 men in my charge, while on picket duty in Charleston Harbor, on the night of February 26, 1864. I left the Nipsic between the hours of 5 and 6 p.m., and was towed up to the advanced monitor by tugboat, and at 7 p.m. shoved off from the monitor, with instructions to proceed up the channel in the direction of Forts Sumter and Moultrie. The night was thick and hazy and the tide was on the flood, running strong. I pulled leisurely up until I had got abreast of Fort Sumter, when I changed the direction of the boat and pulled toward the fleet. I had got about 150 yards from Fort Sumter when I caught sight of a dark object directly ahead, and almost immediately after was hailed, “Boat ahoy!” Under the supposition that the hail proceeded from one of our picket boats, I gave them in answer, “Nipsic’s first cutter,” as I did not wish the enemy to know the countersign. They hailed me again; I gave them the countersign “Patapsco.” they hailed the third time, and beginning to have suspicions that all was not right, I gave in return, “Catskill.” My object in doing this was that the rebels should not know the true countersign. I had scarcely returned the hail when I received a volley of musket balls, which passed over our heads, doing us no damage. I immediately ordered my men to take to their oars and pull strong, in the hope of escaping, for I could see that the enemy’s boat was superior to my own. I soon saw it was useless, so ordered my men to trail oars and give them a volley in return. I kept it up, but as no assistance arrived, I was forced to surrender, which I did, after throwing the arms overboard. None of my men was wounded; myself but slightly. As near as I could find out, there were 19 men in the enemy’s boat. We were taken on board their flagship, the Charleston, where we spent the night; the next morning were sent up to the city and placed under confinement. On the 17th of May I was sent to Macon, Ga., and my men to Andersonville. That is the last I saw of them. I have since learned they are dead.
There was somewhat a discrepancy in regards to Kitching’s orders. According to Davis, the boat had drifted off it’s station and was therefore exposed and captured. But Kitching, perhaps with the benefit of eight months to reflect, said he was to move up the channel towards Fort Sumter.
Kitching listed the names of his landsmen:
George P. Johnson, Martin L. Atkinson, Uriah B. Marshall, William O’Brien, and Lyman Holbrook.
(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 341-4.)