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.

2016-03-19 Charleston 026

The work included a stripping and repainting.  So with a fresh coat of paint, markings stand out sharp:
2016-03-19 Charleston 043

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. )

Fort Moultrie honored with a silver coin

This isn’t a Civil War tribute, more so Revolutionary War, but it does involve a Civil War site and one of my favorites.  From the Charleston Post-Courier:

Fort Moultrie to be featured on coin

Sullivan’s Island – Fort Moultrie is about to be made of something richer than any other park in South Carolina. Silver bullion.

An image from the history of the iconic national park at the tip of Charleston harbor will be minted onto quarter coins in 2016. As a bonus, a number of “investment coins” will be minted, three-inch discs of fine silver. Those coins now sell for about $225 each.

Sgt. William Jasper waving the Palmetto flag was picked by a U.S. Mint citizens committee earlier this week. Gary Marks, committee chairman, called it a depiction of an iconic moment in the classic 1776 Revolutionary War victory that immortalized the fort….

The Fort Moultrie coins will be among five national park or site designs issued for 2016 as part of the America the Beautiful series started in 2010. All told, 56 America the Beautiful designs will be issued, one from each state or territory. The designs appear on the reverse side of the coin; the obverse side still depicts George Washington….

(Full story here.)

I tend to focus on Fort Moultrie’s Civil War importance, but the fort which stood at that location during the Revolutionary War arguably was greater in terms of influence.  A state flag was derived from that action.

Fort Moultrie is one of the few places where visitors can consider military history from nearly every era of US history.  The post was active right up to the end of World War II in some shape or form.  As such it offers a unique location to interpret coastal defense (a somewhat overlooked and important component, historically speaking, to the national defense).  And for those not inclined to study the big guns, there is the story arch from Revolution to Secession and thence to reconciliation.

 

150 Years Ago: An inspection of the batteries on Sullivan’s Island

One aspect of the operations of Charleston that I like to present is the evolution of fortifications around the harbor (Federal and Confederate).  In my opinion, one should study such to appreciate the tactical aspects. Many authors will write on the subject as if a “battery” or “fort” was static and unchanged through the war, and thus representing a generic “unit” of force.  However, I would offer the level of detail offered in reports and correspondence during the war indicate the participants saw no small importance in the evolution of those defenses.  In other words, if the participants in 1864 thought it important to mention the different caliber of weapons, then 150 years later we should lend that aspect some manner of interpretation.

In the case of Sullivan’s Island, one can easily trace the evolution of the works from the very first days of the war, through improvements prior to the Ironclad Attack on Fort Sumter, changes after the fall of Morris Island, and all the way up to the fall of Charleston in 1864.  A report posted by Major George Upshur Mayo on March 29, 1864 provides one of several “snapshots” describing the works on Sullivan’s Island on that time line.  The entire report, including endorsements, is close to 3,000 words with three pages of tables, including a count of all munitions (the report appears in the ORs, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 383-6).  For brevity, allow me to present portions of the main report with additional annotations where needed.  And for reference, these are the works in review:

Sullivans_Island_Batteries

Starting from the western-most battery:

Battery Bee, upon the western extremity, is not yet quite completed, though a number of laborers are engaged upon it. Its armament is in an effective condition, the guns all working well and protected by merlons. The magazines are dry and kept with neatness. The ammunition in them, as far as could be judged without examining each cartridge, is in good order; the implements new. There are three chambers which have no cannon, which, I presume, will be furnished when necessity or opportunity requires.

Mayo indicated Battery Bee included one 11-inch Dahlgren (salvaged from the USS Keokuk), four 10-inch columbiads, one 10-inch rifled columbiad, and one 8-inch columbiad. In the magazines were 241 11-inch shot, 97 11-inch shell, 671 10-inch shot, 435 10-inch shell, 50 10-inch grapeshot, 25 10-inch canister, 45 10-inch (rifled) bolts, 6 10-inch rifled shells, 338 8-inch shot, 134 8-inch shells, 30 8-inch canister, 124 11-inch cartridges, 626 10-inch cartridges, 180 8-inch cartridges, 2,496 pounds of common powder, 1,587 friction tubes, and 985 paper fuses.  Interesting, though, Mayo rated Battery Bee as incomplete even at this late date with open gun positions.

On to the next battery in the line:

Battery Marion, connected with Battery Bee, is neatly policed. The platform for the 7-inch Brooke gun has settled from its true position; the parapets in one or two places have a disposition to slide on account of the shifting character of the sand. Dampness begins to ooze through one place in the passage, not as yet sufficient to affect the ammunition, which is in good order.

Colonel [William] Butler complains of a defect in the powder sent from the naval ordnance bureau with or for the Brooke gun, saying experience has proven it to be defective in strength. To the eye it appears good; analysis can only disclose the reported defect. The same officer requests that efforts be made to procure for the guns in his command a small quantity of bar steel to repair the eccentrics of the columbiad carriages, which repairs, when necessary, can be made at the island. The battery is connected with Fort Moultrie by a sally-port.

Mayo tallied Battery Marion’s armament as three 10-inch columbiads, one 8-inch columbiad, and five 10-inch seacoast mortars; but he didn’t count the triple-banded 7-inch Brooke which was not mounted at that time.  In the magazines were 318 10-inch shot, 261 10-inch shells, 23 10-inch canister, 256 10-inch mortar shells, 125 7-inch rifle shells, 522 7-inch bolts, 16 7-inch hollow shot, 252 10-inch cartridges, 201 8-inch cartridges, 207 7-inch cartridges, 8,800 pounds of powder, 1,900 friction primers, and 600 paper fuses.

Mayo gave only a brief report on Fort Moultrie:

Fort Moultrie, next in order upon the island, has now no quarters inside, which gives a good parade within its walls. It is well protected by a system of traverses and the guns in effective condition. The magazine is in good order and neatly kept. In the rear of the fort are a number of broken canister, which might be removed for renewal to Charleston. The ammunition in good order.

The fort’s armament at that time consisted of four 10-inch columbiads, two 8-inch rifled columbiads, one 32-pdr banded and rifled, two 24-pdr smoothbore guns, and one 10-inch seacoast mortar.  Munitions in the fort included 660 10-inch shot, 269 10-inch shells, 36 10-inch canister, 33 10-inch spherical case, 90 8-inch shot, 53 8-inch shells, 190 8-inch rifled bolts, 274 32-pdr shells, 120 32-pdr rifled bolts, 553 24-pdr shot, 83 24-pdr grapeshot, 89 24-pdr canister, 450 10-inch cartridges, 255 8-inch cartridges, 485 32-pdr cartridges, 168 24-pdr cartridges, 18,275 pounds of common powder, 130 pounds of rifle powder, and 4,510 friction tubes.

Continuing, Mayo reached Battery Rutledge:

Battery Rutledge in good order, with its ammunition dry and well cared for. The batteries from Bee to this one constitute one continuous parapet, well protected with traverses and spacious, well arranged bomb-proofs, and in some instances with amputating rooms for the medical bureau; these of course were not visited.

Battery Rutledge contained three 10-inch columbiads, one 10-inch columbiad rifle, and three 10-inch seacoast mortars.  The magazines contained 396 10-inch shot, 125 10-inch shell, 7 10-inch grapeshot, 26 10-inch canister, 11 10-inch caseshot, 58 10-inch rifled bolts, 22 10-inch rifled shells, 40 10-inch mortar shells, 126 6-pdr canister (fixed), 29 6-pdr (fixed) shot, 236 10-inch cartridges, 4,000 pounds of common powder, and 2,300 pounds of damaged powder.

Mayo did not include a narrative assessment of Fort Beauregard, but listed the armament as one 10-inch columbiad, one 8-inch rifled and banded columbiad, one 8-inch smoothbore columbiad, two 32-pdr banded and rifled guns, one 32-pdr smoothbore gun, two 24-pdr smoothbore guns, and three 8-inch seacoast howitzers.  In Fort Beauregard’s magazine were 106 10-inch shot, 3 10-inch canister, 416 8-inch shot, 111 8-inch shell, 79 8-inch grapeshot, 113 8-inch canister, 169 8-inch shell, 69 8-inch rifled bolts, 101 32-pdr shot, 12 32-pdr shells, 80 32-pdr grapeshot, 69 32-pdr canister, 166 32-pdr rifled bolts, 7 32-pdr conical rifled shot, 156 32-pdr rifled shells, 229 24-pdr shot, 156 24-pdr grapeshot, 2 24-pdr conical smoothbore shell, 130 24-pdr canister, 749 unfixed cartridges of various sizes,  1,800 pounds of common powder, 1,150 pounds of “Rodman” powder (presumably “Mammoth” powder), 200 pounds of damaged powder, and 1,529 friction tubes.

Mayo turned next to the four numbered, and unnamed, batteries between Forts Beauregard and Marshall.

Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 4, two-gun batteries extending along the south beach at an average distance of about 500 yards apart, covering the space between Forts Beauregard and Marshall and intended seemingly as a protection against boat assaults, are small open works with no traverses. There being no magazine in this cordon of works, the ammunition is kept in chests, exposed to the weather. Some of the chests need repairs and tarpaulins as a protection.

Mayo suggested improvements to the parapet of No. 1; mentioned a carriage in No. 3 that required repair; and damages to the parapet of No. 4. Mayo also suggested these works needed iron traverse circles to replace wood circles then in place.  Colonel Ambrosio Gonzales overruled, saying the 24-pdr guns should be mounted on siege carriages to allow redeployment where needed on the island.  Mayo noted the “disparity” in the ammunition for each of these batteries:

  • No. 1:  Two 32-pdr smoothbore guns, 104 32-pdr shot, 15 32-pdr shells, 77 32-pdr grapeshot, 78 32-pdr canister, 93 32-pdr cartridges, and 176 friction tubes.
  • No. 2: two 24-pdr smoothbores, 84 24-pdr shot, 100 24-pdr grape, 32 24-pdr canister, 69 24-pdr cartridges, 140 friction tubes, and 5 signal rockets.
  • No. 3: Two 32-pdr smoothbores, 34 32-pdr shot, 9 32-pdr shells, 48 32-pdr grape, 50 32-pdr canister, 46 32-pdr cartridges, and 49 friction tubes.
  • No. 4: Two 24-pdr smootbores, 88 24-pdr shot, 14 24-pdr shells, 111 24-pdr grape, 99 24-pdr canister, 29 24-pdr cartridges, and 41 friction tubes.

The last work on the line inspected by Mayo was Fort (or Battery) Marshall, at Breach Inlet:

Battery Marshall, at Beach Inlet, is as yet in an incomplete condition, though the guns are all in working order. A large bomb-proof, in addition to those already complete, has been commenced, upon which a force is now at work. One of the 12-pounders has wheels of different sizes, and in another the cheeks of the carriage are not upon a level. These two defects in these two carriages should be remedied. The magazines are in good order, and dry, as well as the ammunition, but roaches, by which they are infested, cut the cartridge-bags. It would therefore be as well to keep the powder in the boxes and barrels until a necessity arises for use, so that the bags may be preserved. I noticed the passage-way to one of the magazines much encumbered with shell. A room constructed for such projectiles is decidedly to be preferred.

Fort Marshall, at this time, included one 8-inch columbiad, one 8-inch shell gun, one 7-inch Brooke rifle, one 32-pdr rifle, two 12-pdr rifled guns, two 12-pdr smoothbores, one 4-inch Blakely on naval carriage, and three 8-inch seacoast howitzers.  The magazines, improper as they were, contained 95 8-inch shot, 225 8-inch shell, 71 8-inch grapeshot, 90 8-inch canister, 156 7-inch conical rifled bolts, 19 32-pdr shells, 12 32-pdr grapeshot, 16 32-pdr canister, 32 32-pdr rifled shot, 100 32-pdr rifled shells, 292 12-pdr shot, 124 12-pdr grapeshot, 124 12-pdr canister, 25 12-pdr conical rifled shot, 62 12-pdr conical rifled shells, 32 4-inch Blakely shells, 28 4-inch Blakely grapeshot, 21 4-inch Blakely canister,  866 cartridges of various sizes, 2,800 pounds of common powder, 500 friction tubes, 35 paper fuses, 190 Girardey fuses, and 92 McAvoy igniters.

Mayo went on to discuss Batteries Gary, Kinloch and Palmetto on the mainland. But to serve brevity in a post already beyond my preferred word count, I will save those for later.

Mayo expressed concerns about unmounted and unassigned guns on the island.  “A 32-pounder banded rifle not mounted is laying upon the beach,” he noted.  He also mentioned several 6-pdr field pieces not under any direct control of the battery commanders.  In general, Mayo felt the guns needed “lacquer and paint” to improve appearances and protect against the elements.  Lastly, he noted the presence of bedding in the magazines, but left that matter to the discretion of local commanders.

I plan, as part of my documentation of each individual work, to examine these batteries in detail.  So please check back for follow up posts in regard to specific arrangements in each fortification.

150th Anniversary of H.L. Hunley Sinking USS Housatonic

Monday is not only a national holiday, but also the 150th anniversary of the sinking of the USS Housatonic by the H.L. Hunley.   Throughout the weekend, Fort Sumter National Monument has a full slate of programs offered at Fort Moultrie:

Join us at Fort Moultrie for free programs February 15–17, 2014 in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley sinking the USS Housatonic off Sullivan’s Island on February 17, 1864. Because this event coincides with President’s Day Weekend the normal entrance fee is waived.

Confederate and Union reenactors camping at Fort Moultrie will present living history programs including musket firing demonstrations and artillery drills. Union reenactors will portray the crew of the USS Housatonic.

Saturday, February 15
11:00 AM Musket Firing
10:00 AM Children’s Musket Drills
1:00 PM Musket Firing
2:00 PM Children’s Musket Drills
2:00 PM H.L. Hunley History Program in Fort Moultrie Visitor Center
3:00 PM Musket Firing

Sunday, February 16
11:00 AM Musket Firing
10:00 AM Children’s Musket Drills
1:00 PM Musket Firing
2:00 PM Children’s Musket Drills
2:00 PM H.L. Hunley History Program in Fort Moultrie Visitor Center
3:00 PM Musket Firing

Monday, February 17
2:00 PM H.L. Hunley History Program in Fort Moultrie Visitor Center

In addition, The Friends of the Hunley offer a series of special programs at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, where the famous submarine is being conserved and studied.  I’m told there are still tickets for the Saturday reception and presentation:

Saturday, February 15th • Evening Reception and Presentation: The Men Behind the Machine
• Warren Lasch Conservation Center from 6:00PM – 8:30PM
• Tickets: $50.00
• Cocktail hour with light hors de vors and bar including private viewing of the submarine hosted by experts conducting the preservation work followed by a presentation by Forensic genealogist Linda Abrams. She has been researching the biographies of the submarine pioneers that manned the Hunley for over a decade. Using the latest available information, she will share the stories of each of the crewmembers and, when known, how they came to be on the submarine that fateful night.

On Monday, February 17th, the cost for tours of the Hunley is reduced (significantly).  Living history programs and a memorial service are planned at Breach Inlet, where the Hunley departed on its fateful mission:

Monday, Feb. 17th • Sesquicentennial Day
• Tours 10AM – 5PM
• All tickets $1.50 (ticket price is normally $12)
• Living history presentation and memorial service at Breach Inlet, where the Hunley and crew left land for the last time with a mission to make world history. Visit http://www.csatrust.org for more information on the service.

The Breach Inlet program is in conjunction with Confederate Heritage Trust, Inc.

Forget that blizzard stuff!  This is a 150th!

150 years ago: The Presto fails to pass through Maffitt’s Channel

I’ve written before about the decline of Charleston as a port for blockade runners.  That decline, much the result of the Federal occupation of Morris Island, did not signify a complete closure of Charleston.  Because the Federal guns on Morris Island and the ironclads off Fort Sumter dominated the Main, Swash, and North Channels entering the port, a channel along Sullivan’s Island took on more importance.  Known as Maffitt’s Channel, or less frequently Beach Channel, this path into the harbor was covered by the line of forts on that island.

On the first night of February 1864, the blockade runner Presto made an attempt to gain Charleston harbor using Maffitt’s Channel.  But before relating that story, allow me to properly introduce that particular route into the harbor.

MaffittsChannel

The channel in front of Sullivan’s Island was always somewhat problematic.  By the 1830s, the currents of the channel were posing a danger to structures on the island – namely Fort Moultrie.  To prevent the harbor from becoming wide open to the sea and also protect the Army’s material investment, in 1838 engineer Captain A.H. Bowman proposed a jetty extending out from a point near Fort Moultrie.   Additional grillages in conjunction with the jetty arrested further erosion. By the late-1840s the jetty was complete and having the desired effect.  The original jetty was a palmetto log structure.  That original jetty was modified and replaced with stones by the 1860s. (And furthermore, the structure off Sullivan’s Island today is also a modern replacement.  So the jetty there today is neither the historical structure or exactly where the historical structure stood.)

But the citizens of Charleston, dependent upon the predictability of the harbor entrances for their livelihood, complained the channel was insufficiently surveyed.  Although a survey completed in 1852 defined the channel, by 1854 that chart was invalidated by changes.  In that year Commander John N. Maffitt led a team re-surveying the channel.   Maffitt also concluded the long term solution to the matter was frequent re-surveys.  In gratitude for his work, Charlestonians named the channel in his honor.

(But of course most readers may know Maffitt from his wartime exploits as commander of the CSS Florida and CSS Albemarle.)

The US Coastal Survey continued to monitor the channel in the years before the war.  Though somewhat busy, the chart below compares the differences of the 1850, 1855, and 1856 surveys (click to embiggin, as we say):

Regardless of the year surveyed, Maffitt’s Channel came to a very narrow passage between the jetty and the offshore shoal (marked by a buoy).  The passage was never more than a few hundred yards.  From the standpoint of navigation, the “daymark” for those passing that way was east-most corner of Fort Sumter.  Of course, that was of little use at night. Unless of course someone in the fort cast a light for support.

Needless to say, that narrow passage, coupled with other dangers where gunners actively sparred by day and night, made Maffitt’s a problematic passage at best.  During the war, Bowman’s Jetty “collected” several vessels as result. A recent survey project by the University of South Carolina plotted many of those:

chashbr_ftmoultriewrecks_11

Notice how the Island has now stretched out into what was the wartime channel.  And there is Presto… sitting in front of Battery Jasper.  While the jetty wasn’t the direct cause that claimed the Presto, the cumulative effects of a tricky, narrow channel and fear of Federal gunfire put the ship on the beach.

Prestosullivans-island

I’m going to follow this post up with particulars of the Presto’s demise and the resultant sparring it caused.  But before closing out, let me also mention Andy Hall’s excellent work on a wartime photo of wrecks on Bowman’s Jetty.  Complete with 3d and stereo-view animated GIF.  The Celt ran aground there a year and some weeks after the Presto.  Yes, the blockade runners were active right up to the end at Charleston.