“Thirty shells struck the hull of the steamer….”: End of the hard-luck Etiwan

When the sun rose on June 7, 1864, the Federals on Morris Island spotted a new target in Charleston harbor.  Lieutenant-Colonel William Ames, 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery, reported:

I have the honor to report that at daylight on June 7, a small river steamer was discovered from Fort Putnam aground on a shoal 3,200 yards from the above-named fort. The position of the steamer was a point on a line drawn from the flag-staff in Putnam to the left (enemy’s) of Castle Pinckney. No boats were seen to leave the steamer: neither did she have steam up when discovered. She probably was abandoned at the time of grounding, and the steam allowed to escape. The steamer was, at the time of running ashore, returning from Fort Sumter to the city. Fire was at once opened upon her with a 200-pounder rifle from Fort Putnam and one 100-pounder from Battery Chatfield. At 6 a.m., two 100-pounders were opened from Fort Strong, also one 30-pounder from Fort Putnam.

The steamer receiving the Federal’s hot attention that morning was the Etiwan (sometimes reported as Etowah or Etowan).  The Etiwan was a particularly important target for the gunners since, as Ames mentioned, she was used to run supplies out to Fort Sumter.  You might say the Etiwan suffered from hard-luck.  In April 1863, she had run across a torpedo.  The explosion damaged her hull, but her crew managed to put the Etiwan aground on a bank in front of Fort Johnson.  After repairs, the Etiwan returned to service.  On August 29 of that same year, the submarine torpedo-boat H.L. Hunley lay tied up next to the Etiwan.  Movement by the Etiwan pulled the Hunley down into the water, drowning five of the crew.  And finally, on the night of June 6-7, 1864, the Etiwan grounded hard on a shoal, not far from her earlier grounding, between Fort Johnson and Fort Sumter.  When daylight came, she was a target in range of the Federal gunners on Morris Island.


With a little repositioning of guns, the men of the 3rd Rhode Island sent over their rifled projectiles, feeling for the Etiwan‘s hull.

The effect upon the vessel produced by these guns was very good. A shell from Fort Strong carried away the smoke-pipe. The upper works of the steamer were struck many times, and are broken up. Thirty shells struck the hull of the steamer, causing her to fill and sink to a level with her decks. The guns in Fort Strong were ordered to cease firing at noon. One 100-pounder rifle (Parrott) was burst in Fort Strong during the firing, also one in Battery Chatfield. The firing from 12 m. until 6 p.m. was from one 100-pounder in Battery Chatfield and one 200-pounder in Fort Putnam.

In an effort to distract fires, the Confederates on James Island opened on Morris Island, though with less effect:

From daylight until l0 a.m., the enemy kept up a heavy fire upon our works from the James Island batteries. They fired 284 shot and shell during this time. There were no casualties. The only damage done by enemy’s shell was to the slopes and parapets of our works.

The counter-battery fire did not prevent the Federals from continuing their work on the steamer.  Ames recorded an expenditure of 267 rounds from Morris Island:

  • Fort Putnam – 132 rounds.
  • Fort Strong – 57 rounds.
  • Battery Chatfield – 78 rounds.

A lot of gunpowder expended, on both sides, but inevitably the Etiwan was a loss to the Confederates.  Thereafter, there was one less steamer to support the garrison in Fort Sumter.

But the Etiwan was not a complete loss.  The watchful eyes of the Federals prevented the Confederates from salvaging the wreck. However, after the war the Federals recovered the steamer, repaired the damage, and employed her around the harbor.  She was later renamed St. Helena in merchant service, without any further recorded incidents.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, page 115.)


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