March 17, 1865: USS Bibb strikes torpedo – Confederate defenses of Charleston still a problem for Federals

Charleston fell to the Federals on February 18, 1865.  At that point, one might presume the war played out with relatively little activity around Charleston.   Well, I might, if I were not so preoccupied following Sherman’s march, offer a fair quantity of posts detailing the activity at Charleston and vicinity through the end of the war.  The transition from besieged to occupied alone is an interesting story line.  There were several small scale military operations through the end of March which consolidated the Federal hold on the coast while keeping what Confederates remained off balance.  There were dozens of photographs from the Charleston area taken as photographers flocked to the Cradle of Secession to ply their trade.

And, for those of us interested in maps, the Federals took the time to conduct detailed surveys of Charleston harbor and the surrounding area.  Part of that detail went to the men and crew of the Coast Survey steamer USS Bibb.

The Bibb was a common visitor to the waters around Charleston, having spent much time operating with the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.  During the war, one of the Bibb‘s important duties included surveys of the South Carolina waterways to allow the blockaders safe navigation.  And the Coastal Survey men on the Bibb continued that work after Charleston’s fall.  Fleet hydrographer Charles O. Boutelle, commanding the Bibb, was returning to Charleston after surveying the bar in the afternoon of March 17, 1865.  As the ship up the main channel around Sullivan’s Island, there was a sudden explosion, as Boutelle reported:

… we struck a sunken torpedo, which exploded under our port bow about midway between the port guard and the fore channels.

The shock was very severe, the sensation being that of striking a rock, being lifted by it, and passing over it into deep water beyond. The column of water thrown up by it nearly filled the second cutter and unhooked it from the forward davit.  Sixty fathoms of studded mooring chains, 1 ½-inch diameter, coiled upon the port side of the vessel forward, were thrown across the deck.  The knees upon the port side are started out, and the joiner work shows signs of the blow received. The surface blow pipes are broken on both sides.

In spite of that damage, Boutelle felt the Bibb could be returned to service within three days.  Though he did want to ground the vessel to conduct a more thorough damage survey.

When encountering a mine… er … torpedo, one wants to ascertain if there are more in the vicinity, or if this was just one stray that eluded earlier detection efforts.  Toward that end, Boutelle offered a very good position of the torpedo:

Angles taken half a minute before the explosion fix our position at the time. The new light east of Fort Moultrie, on Sullivan’s Island, bore north 85º east, distant 1,530 yards, and the flagstaff at Battery Bee bore N. 27º east, distant 744 yards. The depth of water was 25 feet at mean low water. The explosion occurred at 5:25 p.m., when the tide had not risen over 6 inches. As our position was directly in the track over which many vessels have passed, I infer that the torpedoes must have been placed low in the water where vessels of ordinary draft would pass over it at high tide.  The Bibb draws 10 feet at the point where she struck the torpedo.

And, we can see that exact plot on the survey map of Charleston harbor completed by Boutelle later in the spring (though he put an incorrect date in the notation):


Boutelle went on to suggest that vessels entering Charleston stick close to Sullivan’s Island “until the channel has been cleared of all hidden dangers.”

Two days later, the USS Massachusetts was heading out of Charleston when it struck a torpedo.  “Fortunately it did not explode.  The keel must have torn it from its moorings, for it struck the ship heavily under the starboard quarter and came up to the surface from under the propeller cut in two,” reported Lieutenant-Commander W. H. West.


West continued to say, as you can see from the map, he was very close to the buoy placed on the wreck of the USS Patapsco.  West attempted to recover the torpedo but the device sank before a launch could get to it.

This activity prompted Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren to report, on March 21, to Washington on the torpedo issues at Charleston.  From the days after Charleston’s capture, Dahlgren had ships and details working to clear the devices.  Aside from the Bibb and Massachusetts, the tug USS Jonquil had a frame torpedo explode while in the process of recovery, though causing no damage.  Regarding Bibb‘s torpedo, Dahlgren wrote:

There is no doubt that this is one of the sixteen put down at this place, and which every exertion has been made to raise for several days, but without success, as they slip from the sweeps.

The men who put them down say that General Hardee gave the orders a few nights before the disaster to the Patapsco, and that they finished that very night, which is further confirmation of the statement that these devices were reserved until a move by us was expected.

Dahlgren went on to note that torpedoes were alleged to be prepared for the CSS Charleston for use when that vessel was operative, to drop against any pursuers. The Federals also found a large number being prepared in Charleston when the city fell.

The divers are now here and will endeavor to raise the boiler torpedoes.

I am inclined to the belief that many of the floating torpedoes have been carried to the bottom in cutting away the rope obstructions.

It is reported that other torpedoes will be found at other places, but it requires time to find them by sweeping in such deep water.

Dahlgren continued efforts to clear the channel and render the port safe to enter.  Confederate torpedoes had achieved a strategic importance well beyond the meager effort expended.

While a localized event, the explosion of the torpedo against the Bibb draws back to the logistical issues facing Major-General William T. Sherman.  He’d captured Savannah in December, but the main port was not open sufficiently to allow deep water vessels to supply the army in January.  Likewise, with Charleston and Wilmington in Federal hands in March, the ports were still not cleared in sufficient time to aid Sherman’s movements through the Carolinas … at least to the capacity required.  Instead, Sherman would draw upon supplies sent to Morehead City, up the railroad to New Bern and Kinston.  It was not so much that Federal quartermasters lacked the supplies, the problem was moving those supplies to the point needed.  And the Federal transportation system for that leg of the supply chain depended upon a single rail line… which, recall, had but five engines.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 1 pages 295-6 and 296-7.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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