Despite the heavy guns on Morris Island and numerous blockaders allocated to watch the entrance to Charleston harbor, blockade runners continued to slip in and out of Charleston. Not to say it was an easy task, as the captains of the Flora, or the Presto, or the sloop Mary might attest. On the night of November 6-7, 1864, it was the turn of the blockade-runner Chicora, also known as the Let Her Be. But don’t confuse this Chicora with the CSS Chicora, the ironclad defending Charleston. The blockade-runner was a Liverpool-built steamer built earlier in 1864 and commissioned by the Chicora Import & Export Company. That company was “showing the way” through the blockade with several successful runs in the second half of 1864. The Chicora‘s run into port during the early morning hours of November 7 was one of those.
Captain J. F. Green, senior officer on the blockade, reporting on the failure to intercept the Chicora, stated “a large side-wheel steamer ran into the port of Charleston on the 7th instant at about 1 o’clock a.m.” Green noted that the outside blockaders fired forty-one shots at the Chicora, “many of them at a distance not exceeding 100 yards, and were heard to strike her.” Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren later attributed the failure to the poor weather and visibility that night.
Among the ships on the blockade that night, the USS Pontiac was best in position to intercept the Chicora. The Pontiac had been stationed close to the entrance to Maffitt’s Channel. To pick up the pursuit, she’d slipped her anchor. At daylight, the Pontiac returned to retrieve the anchor. While doing so, she came under fire from Battery Marshall on Sullivan’s Island. Lieutenant-Commander Stephen B. Luce, on the USS Pontiac, wrote a first-hand report of the incident:
It is with painful regret that I find myself obliged to inform you that, while engaged this morning in picking up our anchor, slipped to go in pursuit of a blockade runner, Battery Marshall opened fire on us, and a shell from a rifled gun exploding on the forecastle, killed 4 of the crew and wounded 7 others, besides 1 officer slightly.
Observing the first few shells to explode far short, I took no further notice of the battery, but continued my efforts to get the end of our chain. We got hold of the buoy rope, when suddenly a shell from the battery struck the bow just over the port hawse pipe. It penetrated the bulwarks, struck the forecastle deck, and exploded, scattering destruction on every side. Fragments of the iron hawse pipe and two hand grenades (the latter exploded by the concussion) lent their aid to increase the sad mortality. These grenades had been placed in a rack on the forecastle bulwarks for convenient use of the forward lookouts. Striking the deck, the shell knocked a hole through the yeoman’s storeroom, throwing fragments of the plank and shell below, but causing no material damage. Our buoy rope was cut away, and with it the end of the chain lost. Not deeming it prudent to remain longer exposed to the fire of the battery, I steamed down for the outside squadron and anchored.
Luce later forwarded details of the casualties and damage. The death toll rose to five by that time. Although initial reports considered the damage serious, later Green and Dahlgren downplayed the effects of the lucky shell.
Consider the lengths to which the Federal sailors went to retrieve the anchor. Very often, to get off in pursuit of a runner, the blockaders would “slip” the anchor. That is, for the landlubbers out there, to just cut loose the anchor instead of taking the time to winch it up. Such allowed the blockader to get underway faster. But that practice left the ship without an anchor – a very necessary item for a ship required to maintain a station. A stash of replacement anchors was at Hilton Head. But every iron anchor left at the bottom was another item that had to be shipped south to maintain the blockade, displacing other needed supplies. So the blockaders often attached a buoy to the anchor chain with the hope of retrieving the slipped anchor. And as we see from the report from the Pontiac, sometimes that didn’t work.
As for the gun which fired the shot, there’s a good possibility that weapon is the same pictured here:
Not the old-English gun on the right, but the Brooke on the left.
And the Chicora? After a very successful commission running the blockade, she later became a great lakes steamer. This photo is supposed to show her in more peaceful times:
(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 16, pages 46, 50-52.)