“I then allowed the Patapsco to drift up with the tide”: The loss of the Patapsco, Part 1

From the Navy’s perspective, Major-General William T. Sherman’s plans for South Carolina were somewhat mundane.  As Sherman plotted a line of march toward the center of the state, bypassing Charleston.  For Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren, this meant the prize which he’d been assigned when assuming command of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron in 1863, was not on the list of objectives.  However, Sherman did ask Dahlgren and the Army troops on Morris Island to help the advance by mounting demonstrations against Charleston to distract the Confederates.

On January 15, 1865, Dahlgren arrived off Charleston on his flagship USS Harvest Moon just before 8 a.m.  After breakfast, he summoned his senior commanders for a conference.  Dahlgren explained the situation to his subordinates then opened for a frank discussion:

The question was, How and when?  I observed that it might be done in three ways: 1. Attack Sullivan’s Island.  2. Pass in and attack [Fort] Johnson. 3. Run all the way up and attack the city.  They were not inclined to go beyond the first step – attack Sullivan’s Island.  After a full and unreserved discussion, I decided that the obstructions near Sumter should be examined by boats under the supervision of the captains of monitors for each night.

Before the meeting was concluded, news came in that Federal troops were shore and attacking Fort Fisher, North Carolina.  While great general “war news” for Dahlgren that meant he could expect reinforcements in short order.  Rear-Admiral David D. Porter was to dispatch the monitors from the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron after the fort fell. Of course, this also meant Porter would be looking for more tasks to take on. To be brief, Dahlgren must have felt some pressure to begin his operations against Charleston – be that a demonstration or full assault – before any hint of “idleness” came to the lips of those in Washington.

For any course of action, Dahlgren’s squadron needed to clear the torpedoes around Fort Sumter.  From this meeting, Dahlgren issued a set of instructions to the force off Charleston… eleven points in all.  For the tactical examination, which became very important later in the day, points 6 to 9 were most important:

6th. This, then, will be the period of preparation, and the first measure will be to examine the channel and make sure of the obstructions, their nature and position.

7th. As the impression of the commanders of monitors is that a range of obstructions extends from Sumter, these will be the first object, and the commanders of the advance monitors of the 15th, Patapsco and Lehigh, are charged with this duty for the night, and so on, in succession.  The scouts, all boats, tugs, etc., will report to them to assist.

8th. The preliminary to removal will be by explosion.  Torpedoes may be used and boats filled with powder floated up with the tide.

Floats with grapnels or hooks attached may be floated up to catch and mark objects below water.

9th. To protect against floating torpedoes long, slender pine poles, 30 to 50 feet, may be lashed in pairs in the middle, so as to form an X, into which enters the bow at one end, heels secured, and from the other depends a net, the whole to float.

Following the issue of these instructions, Dahlgren proceeded ashore to consult with Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig and make full observations of the Confederate defenses.  All seemed in hand.  The squadron off Charleston had conducted similar operations near Fort Sumter for well over a year.  While risky and well within range of the Confederate guns, the proposed actions were somewhat routine for the sailors and their officers.

The orders placed Lieutenant-Commander Stephen P. Quackenbush, on the Patapsco at the fore.  That monitor was assigned duty as the forward picket monitor for the night.  To accomplish the task, Quackenbush planned to move up past the normal picket station.  As he later related in his report:

We rounded to, and I immediately called alongside the officers in charge of picket and scout boats.  I directed them to select as many boats as had grapnels and to push them up the harbor, using every effort to discover torpedoes or obstructions; the remaining boats to take position on our beams and quarters, keeping within 100 or 200 yards of the vessel.  The commanding officers of the tugboats were ordered to keep about the same distance ahead and on each bow.  The object in assigning these positions was to avoid observation by the enemy and drawing their fire.  I then allowed the Patapsco to drift up with the tide until nearly in a line from Sumter to Moultrie, the boats and tugs keeping in their respective positions.  From this point, which was the highest point attaned, we steamed down to within a few yards of the Lehigh buoy; then stooped and allowed the vessel to drift up, keeping in sight of the before-mentioned buoy.

Quackenbush’s references the “Lehigh bouy” which marked the location where the USS Lehigh grounded on the night of November 15-16, 1863:

Lehigh1

You’ll also see on that naval chart a mark labeled “Wreck of Patapsco.” Such gives good measure of the distance that Quackenbush allowed the monitor to drift in obedience of his orders on January 15, 1865.  And that also leads to my next post and the end of the Patapsco.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 16, pages 169, 175, and 365. )

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