“Such wretched condition that they could not be relied on”: Assessment of Confederate steamers in Charleston

It almost goes without mention that the Federal efforts outside Charleston, even when acting defensively, relied upon waterborne transport.  The logistics of supporting a force on those barrier islands required substantial lift capacity – moving materials from the northern ports to Hilton Head and thence throughout the theater to required points.  And those transportation assets, like other resources, were limited in the summer of 1864.

But what of the Confederate side?  With interior lines on the land-side of the barrier islands, they needed less of the ocean-going craft.  But the defensive arrangements still called for a flotilla of craft capable of plying the the harbor or inland waterways.  Early in September 1864, General Braxton Bragg inquired with Major-General Samuel Jones in regard to the steamers in Charleston, South Carolina.  In part, Bragg was sensing what capabilities remained in the port to support operations, with an eye as to the defensive limitations and possibly offensive options.  But also he was concerned about craft that might be lost with owners lured to profits of blockade-running.    On September 21, Jones responded by first detailing the craft under Confederate Army control at that time:

There are now in Charleston Harbor and under my control the following steam-boats, viz:

Celt: Built in Charleston Harbor and recently fitted up as a blockade-runner. It was loaded and ready to sail when I ordered it to be impressed for the use of the Government; in good condition, and capable of carrying 1,500 men at a trip.

Randolph: A good boat, but wanting a boiler; now undergoing repairs; capacity, 500 men.

Mary Francis: Doing duty, but wants a new steam-drum; capacity, 500 men.

Boston: Wants a new boiler; capacity, 1,000 men.

De Kalb: In wretched condition; thought nearly worthless; capacity, 600 men.

Rebel: In good order; capacity, 350 men.
Caldwell: Small boat, undergoing repairs; capacity, 250 men.

Chesterfield: Undergoing repairs; will be fit for service in two or three weeks; capacity, 1,200 men.

Coffee: Taken to pieces for the purpose, I believe, of being fitted up as a blockade-runner. Cannot be ready for service in less than four months; capacity, 600 men.

Torch: Will be ready for service in about three weeks; capacity, 500 men.

Hibben: In good order; capacity, 400 men.

Clinch: Was discharged on account of being sunk in harbor; has been raised by her owner, Mr. McCormick, and is now undergoing repairs.

Jones went on to say the Clinch was capable of carrying 1,000 men.  But the Clinch‘s owner wanted her fitted out as a blockade runner.  Though he had promised to provide a suitable replacement, when he had the vessel so outfitted.  Jones, for what it was worth, planned to retain the Clinch, regardless.

As to the overall assessment, Jones summarized:

The capacity of the different steamers herein given is what is reported to me as the registered maximum capacity. For actual service practically a deduction of at least one-third should be made.

So the “best case” given the figures was a lift capacity for Confederate Army controlled (and that is important to note here for the moment) steamers was 7,400 men, not counting the Clinch.  Subtract from that the ships under repair and not ready excepting an emergency, and the total was a little over 4,000.

When the Randolph and Mary Francis are repaired, no further transportation will be needed for Fort Sumter. There are in the engineer department here 100 pontoons, 22 by 8 feet, with oars, which may be used for transporting troops and material. When the other boats herein named are thoroughly repaired, they will suffice for ordinary harbor transportation. But nearly all of them are now and have for some time been in such wretched condition that they could not be relied on.

This arrangement was, of course, constraining on Confederate dispositions around Charleston.  As seen in early July 1864, the ability to shift troops across the harbor to threatened points factored heavily in contingency plans.  If the lift capacity to move troops rapidly from Sullivan’s Island to James Island, or vice versa, was only 4,000, the Confederates had to be concerned with any Federal brigade-sized push.  Toward that end, Jones expressed the need for more steamers:

In my opinion, the efficient defensive operations here demand that there should be five or six thoroughly good and reliable steam-boats capable of transporting from 700 to 1,000 men, in addition to those now here.

Jones went on to say, he was not accounting for some smaller boats or craft then in the harbor, blockade-runners available to impress, nor for vessels under Confederate Navy Control.  This is rather odd, particularly at the late stage of the war, for co-located commands to simply not have the high level coordination in place.  Read into that what you will, but it does speak volumes for the independent nature of the Confederate branches of service.One concern in Richmond was that transports were lost in attempts to run the blockade.  Jones quietly addressed that, “I know of no boat used as a Government transport in this harbor that has been allowed to run the blockade.”As he mentioned the need for more shipping, Jones also complained of the overall system for wants of reform:

One serious obstacle in the way of the efficient working of the transportation department results from the fact that the steamers used are owned and run by private parties, who, from cupidity and timidity, are reluctant to carry them where they are exposed to fire. The transports now in use are generally so defective that an engineer or any employé who knows anything of machinery may damage, and it is believed frequently have damaged, the boiler or machinery just enough to prevent the use of the boat when most needed. This may be remedied by placing picked men, under competent officers, to work the boats. Many such men were taken from that duty here and sent to Virginia with their regiments in May last, which seriously embarrassed the transportation service. I have asked that they be relieved, but my application has not been granted.

Indeed, it is one thing to have a ship.  It is another to have a properly crewed ship!  Men who had been good watermen at Charleston were at that time outside Richmond serving other purposes.  Another measure of how the campaigns of 1864 had forced the Confederacy into a bind.  Of these vessels named, two – the Celt and the Randolph – would end up wrecked in some of the final attempts to break the Federal blockade in the winter of 1865.  Others would end up among the various vessels damaged, burned, or otherwise left behind, among the debris from the long siege, when Charleston was abandoned.(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 624-5.)