Aftermath of Hurricane Matthew: Forts survive storm surge; unearthed ordnance

Like many, I have monitored the news from the southeast as Hurricane Matthew over the last few days.  Friends and relatives living in and around the storm’s path all report they are fine and recovering.  The storm left behind a trail of damage and destruction, with over 300 reported deaths in Haiti alone and ten reported in the U.S.

But it could have been much worse.  The eye passed some 20 to 25 miles offshore of Tybee Island.  Later the center of the storm passed thirty miles eastward of Charleston before making landfall further up the coast near Cape Romain, not far from where Hurricane Hugo made landfall in 1989.  While Hugo was rated at category 4 when making landfall, Matthew was falling from category 2 down to 1 before reaching the coast.  Still the track covered a large section of coast from Florida to North Carolina.  As such, we see a lot of familiar place-names in news reports.

From Savannah, footage shows flooding at Fort Pulaski.  At first this appears dramatic… particularly from the view of the reporter (… who’s not yet visited the fort):

fortpulaskihurricanematthew

Yes, the fort is completely isolated, with a significant portion of Cockspur Island under water.  As of this writing, there are no on-site reports.  So we don’t have a full assessment.  But from this view, we can see the interior of the fort was not flooded.  A tree in the interior has fallen and the demilune is wet, but the casemates appear dry.  Relatively that is.  The video didn’t give a close view of the lighthouse further downriver.  Hopefully within a few days the water will drain off… and hopefully any damage is minor.  And this is largely due to the careful placement and construction of the fort. General Joseph Mansfield deserves much credit for the fort’s survival… 170 years after the fact!

Further up the coast, Forts Sumter and Moultrie were also within the storm’s path.  The forts closed and prepared to weather the storm:

No work as of this writing about the status of those forts.  So we are in “wait and see” mode. The storm surge crested to 9.29 feet at Fort Sumter at it’s peak.

However, Fort Sumter is in the news feeds due to a post-storm finding down the coast at Folly Island.  Erosion from the storm unearthed a pile of what appear to be shells:

civil-war-cannonballs

Later reports added, “Authorities announced Sunday night that a number of the cannonballs were detonated by the Air Force and a small amount of them would be transported to the Naval Base.”

I don’t want to “Monday morning quarterback” here.  As I’ve said in the past, handling explosive ordnance is something we must… MUST … allow the experts to manage.  Some will offer, from a safe distance, these were fully inert.  Maybe so.  Maybe not.  “We” were not there, and don’t know all the details.  The individuals on the scene made a risk assessment and deemed action necessary.  We should accept their decision as the call to make.  All I would offer is that EOD teams, such as those called upon to respond at Folly Island, should have access to as much information on Civil War ordnance as possible to further aid their decisions.  Far better to incorporate what is known about the subject into their (EOD) policies and procedures than to openly criticize them for being cautious.  This hurricane killed at least ten here in the US.  And over 600,000 died in the Civil War.  We should not rush to add more to either grim tallies.

The value of this find was not with the actual shells themselves, but rather the context of the location. This site appears to be on the northern end of Folly Beach. Several Federal batteries stood in that area, guarding Lighthouse Inlet (and in July 1863, were used to support landings on Morris Island).  Archaeological surveys of the area have documented well some of the battery locations (as the gentleman in the video notes, the location was known by locals as a place where fortifications stood).  Hopefully this find will add to that knowledge.  Given the location, on eroded beach, it appears sufficient effort was made to document that context.  Perhaps this will spur further archaeological examinations in the area.

The Guns of Fort Moutrie – New Display

Fort Moultrie maintains one of the best displays of Civil War-period heavy ordnance, and certainly the most storied such display.  Those stories have been a “gold mine” for posts (see, for instance… posts on the 7-inch Triple Band Brooke Rifle, the 8-inch Banded and Rifled Columbiads, and the 10-inch Banded and Rifled Columbiad.)  Several of those guns sit on “cannon row” outside the fort.  A most impressive display, with all those large guns lined up for inspection.

For many years, those guns sat very close to the ground on wood blocks.

Fort Moultrie 3 May 2010 552

Obviously, wood deteriorates with time, particularly with tons of iron pressing down.  And being close to the ground, weeds were apt to spring up (as seen here).  Furthermore, the open bores suffered in the sea-side air….

Fort Moultrie 3 May 2010 548

and collected debris from less considerate visitors.

A few years back, the fort opened a project to upgrade the “cannon row” display.  An adopt-a-cannon program by Fort Sumter-Fort Moultrie Historical Trust gave the guns some much overdue maintenance.  The first time I’d gotten a chance to see the new display was during our recent vacation trip:

2016-03-19 Charleston 024

A concrete blocks, shaped to support the specific weapon, now elevate the guns to a respectable viewing level.  A slab of concrete keeps the weeds at bay.  And plugs in the bores fight off corrosion and miscreant leavings.

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The work included a stripping and repainting.  So with a fresh coat of paint, markings stand out sharp:
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A job well done by the Fort Sumter-Fort Moultrie Trust and the National Parks Service.  Their work ensures these guns can keep telling stories for decades to come.

“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, he planned to bypass 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 ashore and attacking Fort Fisher, North Carolina.  That positive news meant Dahlgren could expect reinforcements in short order.  Rear-Admiral David D. Porter would 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. )