“None of your ironclads will be withdrawn”: Status quo for Dahlgren’s squadron

Where as a year earlier the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron might have complained of over use, in September 1864 the sailors, particularly those on the ironclads, may have complained about the doldrums of inaction.  The blockade of Charleston required long hours of watch interrupted with an occasional chase of a runner or shell fired at the Confederate batteries.  With the Army taking a defensive posture, the outlook did not call for any “Mobile Bay” actions.  Earlier in the summer the Navy Department weighed options to withdraw some of the monitors from Charleston.  With developments at the Gulf ports and a shuffling of Rear Admirals David Farragut and David D. Porter, rumors floated that Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren might be relpaced… or the monitors might leave Charleston for efforts elsewhere.

However, on September 22, 1864, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells sent a message to Dahlgren which shook loose those rumors.  The first part of the transmittal covered instructions for Farragut, who was at that time in transit north, to take a short leave of absence.  The nature of instructions left Dahlgren at Charleston while Porter would take over the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron (a post which the 63-year old Farragut had declined).

The later part of the message addressed the monitors at Charleston: “None of your ironclads will be withdrawn, and none sent from the north at present.”  Thus Charleston remained important enough to require four monitors on station.  With one other monitor holding check at Ossabow Sound outside Savannah and three more repairing at Port Royal, the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron remained a potent force should the Confederate ironclads attempt a sortie.

So for the fleet off Charleston, the doldrums remained.  Given the “leaks” in the blockade experienced earlier in the month, Dahlgren had, on September 16, issued very detailed instructions to the fleet in regard to their duties covering the Confederate port.  “In order to prevent any misunderstanding as to my views in regard to the duties of the blockade at this place, the following are issued in explanation thereof….”  Those orders began with delineation of command responsibilities.  When Dahlgren himself was not at Charleston, the senior officer present was “responsible for the efficiency of the blockade, inside and outside.”  The orders gave that officer direct control over all vessels outside Charleston.  As for their stations, Dahlgren gave some latitude to the senior officer, but there was not much slack in the line:

The picket duty performed by the monitors is peculiar, and resembling no other.  The monitor which has the picket is to take position from 2,200 to 2,300 yards from Moultrie (terminations of Cumming’s Point and Simkins, in line), at such part of the channel there as may be most advantageous.  The tugboats and cutters which are assigned to picket duty for the night will report to the commander of the picket monitor and receive their directions from him.  These are designed to advance the picket more toward the  main passage by Sullivan’s Island, and between Sumter and Moultrie, and to check or capture the rebel boats, or to give notice of an attempted escape of any vessel….

This advanced monitor is to be supported by another, which may be placed 500 yards to the southward of the former, or if the passage of blockade runners is anticipated, may be stationed in line with the picket monitor, and in case the picket monitor is attacked must render instant aid….

Two more monitors are to take post farther down the channel, and not so far off that they can not be got conveniently to the front, in case of an alarm there…

So long as the picket monitor is only performing picket duty the officer in command is to follow his own discretion, but in case of an attack or of any unusual move by the enemy, which is sufficient to bring the supporting monitor into play, then the senior officer of the two will command, and so on with the other monitors when they arrive….

It was assumed that any action involving all four monitors would involve the senior officer present in the blockade force.  Furthermore, it is clear the inner line of blockaders covering Charleston harbor were aligned to the placement of the monitors.  So with Dahlgren’s orders, can paint a picture of just what this boring duty for the monitors looked like on the map!


Add to this layers of picket boats, tugs, and, out where the water is deeper, the larger blockaders.  I still find it remarkable, and a testament to the skill of those captains who dared, that any blockade-runners made port in Charleston at this time of the war.

Dahlgren’s orders also addressed how the monitors were to use their guns:

It is unnecessary for me to say that the picket monitor and other monitors are to use their guns just when their commanders deem fit, and are not to fail to do so upon blockade runners, or boats, or vessels of the enemy, and also on his batteries, if instant action is needed, but they are not to leave stations in order to enter upon a regular engagement with the batteries on Sullivan’s Island without orders, because the senior officer, being within full view by day and signal distance by night, can best judge of the necessity himself. It is also enjoined that the XV-inch is not to be used except in engaging rebel ironclads or principal forts, as it is almost impossible to replace them here when worn out.

So like the Army’s land batteries, the Navy’s big guns had orders restricting their use.  The largest of these guns might as well been in a glass case – break in the event of a Confederate ironclad sortie.

But there was one weapon that Dahlgren was willing to “air out” against the Confederate batteries:

It is desirable to sustain a continued fire with the rifle 12-pounder howitzers on the works on Sullivan’s Island whenever the duties of the monitors permit, so as to interfere as much as possible with rebel operations, the distance about 3,500 yards to 4,000 yards.

So John Ericsson’s magnificent engineering marvels, with those heavy caliber smoothbores and rifles, with all that armor, representing the cutting edge of technology… and the crews are told to roll a boat howitzer out on deck to lob shells at the Confederate forts.  Despite being the smallest weapons in the fleet, the boat howitzers were the most often used at Charleston during this period of the war.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 680-2 and 684.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

3 thoughts on ““None of your ironclads will be withdrawn”: Status quo for Dahlgren’s squadron

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