Outside Charleston, the evening of January 15, 1865 began as so many other evenings under the blockade. As the sun sat behind Charleston, the blockaders moved to their nighttime stations. In the main ship channel, the USS Patapsco and USS Lehigh proceeded to take up station for their turn as picket monitors. However, Lieutenant-Commander Stephen P. Quackenbush on the Patapsco had a more involved task that evening than just watching for blockade-runners. Preparatory to actions against the Confederate defenses, Quackenbush was to cover boats reconnoitering the obstructions placed at the harbor entrance.
In a report filed the next day, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren offered details that night’s operations:
The advance duty of the night had devolved on the Patapsco and Lehigh. The latter was at anchor in the advance at the reserve station. The Patapsco got underway and proceeded up the harbor about dark for duty as the picket monitor of the night, and passed on to the usual station some 500 yards farther than the Lehigh. Here she rounded to, head downstream and to the flood tide.
From this point Captain Quackenbush suffered the Patapsco to drift with the tide, as the best mode of controlling the vessel and covering the operations of the boats.
Three scout boats, with grapnel drags, were now slowly pushed on, while picket boats were pulling on her quarters or beam.
In due time the Patapsco found herself so far up as to be nearly on a line drawn from Sumter to Moultrie, when she steamed down to the vicinity of a buoy, known as the Lehigh, because it marked a projecting shoal where the Lehigh had grounded about a year ago.
Here the engines were stopped and the Patapsco again drifted up. When near the former position she steamed back, approached the Lehigh buoy, stopped engine, and again drifted up. When near Sumter Captain Quackenbush steamed down once more, and for the last time….
While the Patapsco drifted in and motored back out against the tide, the Lehigh matched her drift but a bit further out in the main channel:
[The Lehigh] anchored near the Lehigh buoy about 7:45, and some twenty or twenty-five minutes later heard an unusual but not very loud report, saw a cloud of smoke, lost sight of the Patapsco, which previously had been dimly visible through the obscurity of the night, then heard men’s voices as if from the water, and fearing something was wrong, sent her boats to the Patapsco and weighed anchor.
On proceeding down the third time, and when within between 200 and 300 yards of the buoy, we struck and exploded a large torpedo, or torpedoes, about 30 feet from the bow and a little on the port side. The instant I discovered that we had been struck, I gave the order to start the pumps. In an instant more I discovered that the whole forward part of the vessel was submerged, and, there being no possible chance to save the vessel, I then gave the order to man the boats, but before even an effort could be made to do so that vessel had sunk to the top of the turret. The boat which hung at the port davits abaft the turret was afloat before Acting Ensign A. P. Bashford and the quartermaster of the watch, who were with me on the port side of the turret, could get into the boat to clear the falls. It was by great exertion that Mr. Bashford and the quartermaster succeeded clearing the boat from the head of the davits. When I left the turret to get to into the boat I could discover nobody on board, and the water was at the time ankle deep on the turret.
Within minutes of striking the torpedo, the Patapsco was under water. Including Quackenbush, five officers and forty-three men escaped the monitor. Sixty-two went down with the ship.
The torpedo that sank the Patapsco was among those laid by Captain John Simon, in charge of the Torpedo Service detachment in Charleston. Two days after the sinking, Simon proudly wrote:
I have the honor to report the destruction of one of the enemy’s monitors on the night of the 15th instant by a torpedo in Charleston Harbor. I had been engaged for some ten days before placing torpedoes in the locality where the monitor was struck. For some time past the enemy’s picket-monitors have been in the habit of venturing much closer in the harbor than usual, and it has been my ambition to teach them a lesson, as well as our friends, upon the subject of torpedoes, and it is a pleasure to me to announce that one of these turreted monsters has met a fitting fate.
Simon’s description alludes to a contact torpedo as opposed to a command detonated weapon. And it was likely among a pattern set up just after the first of the year. Notice on the map above the location of torpedoes found two months later after the fall of Charleston, in relation to the site where the Patapsco came to rest. This underscored the need for the Federals to continue their work probing the obstructions if they indeed intended to rush the entrance.
The Federal sailors learned a hard lesson on the night of January 15. The Patapsco went on station that night with “torpedo fenders and netting stretched as usual around her.” Boats were posted specifically to drag up obstructions and torpedoes. Yet, one slipped through all the precautions. Dahlgren repeated this lesson to authorities in Washington:
Most minute instructions have been given and repeated in regard to rebel torpedoes, and nothing more can be done to bar the chance of accident, save permanent torpedo catchers, substantially made and attached to the bows, so as to be entirely submerged and thus not to be exposed to shot in action.
Working against the torpedoes was a zero-defects chore. All it took was one of those explosive devices to slip detection, and a valuable vessel was no more, taking crew-members with it.
On the morning of January 16, only a couple feet the smokestack of the Patapsco remained above water.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, page 1135; ORN, Series I, Volume 16, pages 173, 174, and 175-6. )