Tag Archives: CSS Chicora

Watching for an ironclad sortie at Charleston, Dahlgren hoped to “capture the whole”

With the fall of Savannah, attention in the Department of the South turned to Charleston.  Among some Federal leaders there was concern the Confederates might feel the situation desperate enough to try a “go for broke” attack.

Throughout late November and early December 1864, there was some concern of a Confederate boat attack on Morris Island, along the lines of that proposed by Brigadier-General Roswell Ripley. But when Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig returned from leave, he discounted such rumors.  Reporting to Major-General John Foster, he indicated all was routine around Charleston.  However, Schimmelfennig did direct repairs to defensive arrangements which had been neglected.  In particular on December 26, he directed “dry brush to be piled up in front of the forts and batteries on [Morris Island] where the ground admits, at a distance of from 200 to 300 yards.…”  This brush, placed out past musket distance from the fortifications, would be set on fire in the event of a Confederate attack.  The intent was, with the brush so far out in front of the works, for it to illuminate the ground directly in front of the works and leave the attackers silhouetted and easy targets.

At the same time, the Navy was concerned the Charleston Squadron, chiefly the ironclad rams CSS Charleston, CSS Palmetto State, CSS Columbia and CSS Chicora, would sortie out of Charleston in an attempt to break the blockade.  After all, the CSS Savannah was preparing to make just such a breakout when Savannah fell.  Shortly after Christmas, Captain Gustavus H. Scott, senior officer on the blockade outside Charleston, suggested to Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren that the Confederates were preparing for a breakout.  In response, Dahlgren took a break from matters at Hilton Head to visit the old front at Charleston.

Dahlgren felt secure the monitors on blockade duty at that time were sufficient to deal with the threat.  But he did remind the Navy Department that several of the monitors had been on station for quite some time.  That in mind, along with the growing possibility of an engagement, Dahlgren asked for replacements, “otherwise there is no small risk that one or two may become unserviceable.”

Coordinating with Schimmelfennig on December 29, Dahlgren downplayed any concerns:

Though I felt no apprehension as to the ability of the force here to maintain control of the anchorage, and even capture the rebel ironclads if they ventured out, yet, as I might be drawn in some other direction at the time, it seemed due to the perfect security of General Sherman’s base that no means should be omitted.  I have, therefore, reinforced the division, there are now seven monitors here, which I think places the question beyond doubt.

Seeking to coordinate for the contingency, Dahlgren related some of his thinking to the commander ashore:

In case the ironclads venture out, my plan will be to draw them as low down this anchorage as they will come, so as to make sure of the capture of the whole by making retreat impossible.

In such an event, will you please cause some of your heavy guns to be turned seaward, and scour the water with grape so as to clear out the torpedo boats which might be troublesome when engaged with the rams.

Having seen the defenses of Savannah up close, and concerned the Confederates might further improve the defenses of Charleston, Dahlgren added:

The rebels will, no doubt, endeavor to increase the obstructions in the harbor, and some grape or mortar shells at night from your guns near Johnson and the Middle Ground would stop them.  The naval battery will assist in this if you think proper.

After seeing the works about Savannah and the obstructions in the rivers (Savannah, Tybee, Vernon, and the Ogeechee), I am satisfied it was impregnable to any force in any direction save where it was assailed by General Sherman.

To Captain Scott, Dahlgren provided detailed contingency plans on December 31.  Scott was told to ensure the monitors and blockaders act in consort in the case of attack, and not as single units.  Particularly, Dahlgren wanted no monitors “separated from the main body before they can receive assistance.”  Altering the normal arrangements, Dahlgren specified that:

At night, if the weather is suitable, four monitors are to be pushed in advance, the other three in reserve at a convenient distance, and two of them may be allowed to draw fire under one boiler at a time to clean and repair, but even these vessels should be made available if an attack is made.

To counter torpedo boats and laying additional obstructions, Dahlgren called for alert picket boats (though without mention of a picket boat captured earlier in the month).  In the event of a torpedo boat attack, the monitors and the land batteries were to “scour the water with grape at intervals.”

In the event the ironclads moved out of the harbor, Dahlgren’s orders to Scott reflected the intentions voiced to Schimmelfennig:

It will be an object to draw them as much as possible under the fire of our land batteries, and to avoid exposing the monitors to their batteries…. The lower down the channel they can be drawn into action the less probable it will be that any escape.  If high up and beaten, they will find protection under their own batteries on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina.

A sound plan.  But not one that would see a need. The Confederate squadron in Charleston was bottled up for similar reasons the Savannah Squadron had been doomed weeks before.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, page 819; ORN Series I, Volume 16, pages 151-4.)

“One of the most daring events of the war…”: Salvaging the Keokuk’s Guns, Part 1

I’ve mentioned this gun on several occasions:

Charleston 4 May 10 060

XI-inch Dahlgren, Alger #235, from USS Keokuk

The gun stands guard today at Charleston’s White Point (Battery) Park. But its Civil War story ranks it among the most historic artillery pieces to survive the war. The gun was one of two XI-inch Dahlgrens on board the USS Keokuk at the time of the April 7, 1863 attack on Fort Sumter. In the engagement, nineteen Confederate shot pierced the Keokuk. She ran aground and sank in shallow water the following morning.

Both Federals and Confederates visited the wreck in the days after the battle. The Federals attempted to destroy the Keokuk – first using one of the remaining “Devils” then later by demolition charges. But the Keokuk filled with sand within days of sinking. The navy officers felt the ironclad, laying between the guns of Morris Island and the blockading fleet, was out of reach. However the Confederates began picking over the wreck when darkness provided cover, making off with flags, pennants, small arms, and equipment (and part of a signal-book washed up on Morris Island, to the immediate advantage of the Confederates). Although complete salvage of the Keokuk was out of the question, the wreck lay close enough to shore that several began eying the Dahlgrens.

KeokukLocation

As seen in the map above, the Keokuk lay about ¾ a mile (or 1300 yards) off Morris Island. Confederate engineers Major D.B. Harris, Major William Echols, and Lieutenant S. Cordes Boyleston made several surveys of the wreck. Harris described the wreck:

…her turrets within 4½ feet of their tops had been pierced by four 10-inch shot and one 7-inch rifle shot, and a wrought-iron Brooke bolt had penetrated seven-eights of its length and stuck in the iron plating. Several severe indentations were also observed, near the plates were warped and the bolts broken or started…. The vessel having sunk in 13 feet of water prevented an examination of the lower portions of her turrets or her hull, which no doubt were served in a like manner.

Echols made a drawing of the turret (which sadly did not survive for inclusion in the Official Records). From these surveys the Confederates formed a plan to recover the Dahlgrens. Keeping these activities secret, General P.G.T. Beauregard selected Adolphus LaCoste, a civilian employed by the Ordnance Department, to lead the salvage operation. And let me stress secret. Scant few details of this operation appear as official record. Receipts for services rendered during the time period make no specific mention of the work. Only a reference to “moving and transporting cannon at Fort Sumter, Morris Island, and other points in Charleston Harbor” totaling $1420:

Page 65

Not a single mention of “Keokuk” or “salvage.” Such is important, as I will explain further in the next part of this story, because the details we have about this incredible operation is for the large part word of mouth and secondary source.

Work began sometime around April 20. The workforce consisted of ten men, three of which were blacks, employed by LaCoste along with at least five soldiers from the Fort Sumter garrison. These men worked on the wreck at night, to avoid notice by the blockaders, and at low tide when the turrets were exposed. The first step involved clearing the turret top sufficiently to allow extraction of the guns. The Keokuk’s turrets were not the rotating type seen on the monitors, but more so casemates with the guns mounted to pivot to firing ports. So clearing the turrets required cutting away iron plates.* Once the tops were open, the workers could free the guns from the carriages. The last step was to hoist the guns out of the wreck for transportation into Charleston harbor. Of course all of this work was done with the surf continually crashing against the wreck and all surfaces nearly or partially submerged.

Since at any time the Federals could interrupt the work, field guns on Morris Island, notably a Whitworth rifle, provided cover. Likewise the guns at Battery Wagner stood ready during the recovery. At least once, on April 20, the ironclad CSS Chicora ventured forth to exchange fire with the blockaders while covering the operation.

By the first of May the crew cleared the turrets sufficiently to allow extraction. To lift the guns out of the turret, LaCoste placed outriggers on a hulk, formerly the Rattlesnake Shoals lightship. LaCoste also placed a large number of sandbags on the bow of the hulk for counter-balance. On the designated night, the steamer Etiwan towed the hulk out to the Keokuk. Supporting the workers, both the Chicora and CSS Palmetto State sallied forth to parry any interference by the Federals.

Withdrawal of the first gun went smoothly up to a point. When the tackle reached the top of the outriggers, the gun’s muzzle was still a foot or so inside the turret. So an eight ton weight dangled in the open turret. To pull the gun further from the turret, workers began moving sandbags from the bow to the stern of the hulk, slowly raising the gun further from the wreckage. But even then a few inches of muzzle remained inside the turret. With dawn coming soon, LaCoste had to either find a way out, or give up hoping for success another night. But the matter was taken out of his hands. In the words of historian Warren Ripley:

Then fate took a hand. Tide and sea had continued to rise and as the old ship rose and fell, a wave a little larger than the rest passed beneath her. The bow lifted, fell again with the gun slamming against the turret, this time on the outside, free.

With the first gun in hand, the Etiwan towed the hulk to harbor. A few nights later the crew returned again to retrieve the second gun with less dramatics.

On May 5, Beauregard reported to Secretary of War James Seddon that, “The two 11-inch guns from the wreck of the Keokuk have been saved by Mr. LaCoste…” These two guns were at that time the largest in the defenses of Charleston (and from my estimates the largest caliber in all of the Confederacy at that time). One of the guns went to Fort Sumter and the other to Battery Bee on Sullivan’s Island. There the guns fired upon their former owners on occasion. With the later reduction of Fort Sumter, the gun stationed there was removed and placed in battery at White Point in Charleston, seen on the far left of this view.

That gun went to scrap some time after the Civil War. However the Battery Bee gun remained on Sullivan’s Island, buried in the sand. Found in the 1890s, that gun became a prized display in White Point Gardens. Today it stands as a relic with a colorful story to tell.

Charleston 4 May 10 067

The Battery Bee gun now in the Park

After the war, Commander Alexander Rhind, who’d commanded the Keokuk, said the salvage of the guns was “one of the most daring of the war, and in point of skill had probably no counterpart.”

In my next post in this series, I will take you into the historiography behind this story. We could simply leave the fact these guns were recovered from the Keokuk, but the story is too good not to examine the details. And some of those details indicate there’s more to this story.

Citations above from OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, pages 245-6, and 926. Warren Ripley’s account of the operation is from Artillery and Ammunition of the Civil War, pages 93-97.

* There’s one detail which eludes here. I’ve not seen diagrams depicting the actual arrangements of the turrets (or casemates or towers as some call them). Some depictions of the Keokuk have grillwork over the turret. However, secondary accounts of the recovery relate the need to cut through iron plate in order to clear the turret. In either case, LaCoste’s crew had to cut through a significant amount of metal and wood.

The stalemate of April outside Charleston, Part 2

First off, let me update the map provided in part 1 of this set (looking at the situation outside Charleston in late April 1863):

April63Dispositions
I’ve added the place-names for the islands held by the Federals.  Also depicted the units deployed to James, Morris, and Folly Islands.

Second, let me better describe Brigadier-General Vogdes’ command.  The brigade  consisted of 6th Connecticut, 36th Illinois, 4th New Hampshire, 100th New York, 62nd Ohio, 67th Ohio, and 85th Pennslvania infantry regiments.  The Third Battalion of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry (Companies I, K, L, and M) accompanied the brigade.  Also attached to Vogdes’ command was one company of the 3rd New York Light Artillery, two companies of the 3rd Rhode Island Artillery, and Battery C, 1st U.S. Artillery.  Rounding out the formation was three companies of the 1st New York Engineers.

On Seabrook Island, just off the map to the left, Brigadier-General Thomas Stevenson had the 10th Connecticut, 24th Massachusetts, 56th New York, and 97th Pennsylvania, along with additional supporting troops.  All told, nearly 7,500 Federals occupied the barrier islands south of Charleston.

On the Confederate side, General P.G.T. Beauregard’s calls for assistance, prior to and after the April 7 ironclad attack, resulted in an increase in troops around Charleston.  On March 21, Brigadier-General Roswell Ripley’s 1st Military District (Charleston, Fort Sumter, James Island, St. Johns Island, and posts to the north of Charleston) numbered 12,345 troops present, up from 8,663 reported at the middle of the month.  On April 7, when the ironclads attacked, that number was roughly the same.  But by April 23, Ripley reported 18,351 present for duty.  But this was a temporary increase in strength.

Although not engaged in any major fighting, the troops were far from idle. In the weeks after the April 7 attack, Beauregard feared a Federal landing at Bull’s Bay might expose the flanks of Sullivan’s Island.  One brigade shifted to Christ Church Parrish in response.  At the same time, Beauregard ordered Brigadier General S.R. Gist to occupy Black Island, behind Morris Island, with field artillery (see the map above for location).  Fear was that Federals might occupy that island and take in flank both the Morris Island defenses and Secessionville (Fort Lamar).  But to fortify these points the Confederates needed time and labor.  As mentioned before, they were coming up short on the later.

By the first days of May, troops were departing Charleston for other threatened sectors.  Among those departing were the brigades of Brigadier-Generals S.R. Gist and W.H.T. Walker. Pressed to send Brigadier-General Nathan Evan’s Brigade on top of that, Beauregard argued with some success to retain at least 13,000 troops in front of Charleston (both 1st and 2nd Military Districts).

Reflecting on the situation and the results of the April 7th engagement, Beauregard offered advice to Colonel John Forsyth, responsible for the defenses at Mobile Bay:

I place great reliance, however, on three things – heavy guns, Rains torpedoes, and, in deep water, rope obstructions.  I have also introduced here Lee’s (one of my officers) spar torpedoes, attached to row-boats, which ought to be used in flotillas on all our large rivers.

In the days after the attack, Beauregard had followed his own advice.  He temporarily held up some heavy guns, including Brooke rifles, moving by rail to Savannah.  But unable to retain those, he looked about for other options.  One was to modify more of the heavy smoothbores into rifled guns – particularly the 8-inch columbiads which had little effect on the ironclads – in a manner similar to the 42-pdrs.  This program eventually expanded to 10-inch columbiads.  But the process took time.  None of the guns would appear in the harbor defenses until mid-summer at the earliest.

The number of rifled guns in Beauregard’s entire command as of the end of April was 113, as indicated on an April 24 report:

RifledGunsApril24

The majority of rifled guns were field artillery, and an odd assortment at that (Wiards, Blakelys, Parrotts, James, and Whitworths).  The converted 42-, 32- and 24-pdrs were marginal at best. Of the Brookes, three of those from the report were earmarked for the CSS Atlanta at Savannah.

But the Charleston defenders would receive, as the spoils from the victory on April 7, two additional heavy guns.  With the USS Keokuk sunk in shallow waters (see the blue mark just to the lower right of the map), Confederate engineers deemed it possible to salvage the ship’s XI-inch Dahlgrens.  That work took place between mid-April and the first week of May.  As result, Beauregard added the heaviest guns in all of the South to his defenses. (I promise more details on that operation in posts to follow.)

While working the wreck, the Confederates needed to support the salvage crew from any Federal interference.  At least twice during the salvage, Confederate ironclads moved up to cover the operation.  On April 20, the CSS Chicora exchanged shots with the Federals.  Guns on Morris Island also covered the operation, particularly a Whitworth field gun.  Although of light caliber, the gun could fire a solid bolt accurately to extreme ranges.  Beauregard wanted a second gun of this type, but was denied.

With respect to torpedoes, after the ironclad attack the Confederates wanted to determine the reason for the “big torpedo” failure.  As related earlier, the determination was excess cable played out during the laying of that weapon, thus rendering it incapable of firing.  That issue identified, the defenders soon placed more of the large torpedoes.

But Beauregard was most interested in employing the spar torpedoes.  Writing to Adjutant General Samuel Cooper in Richmond, he lamented that, “The work on the marine torpedo ram is at a stand-still for want of material and money.”  The funding for the project was expended and more was needed. While the Confederate navy provided some materials, much of the needed iron-plating went to the ironclads then under production in Charleston.  Pressing the point, Beauregard added:

Meantime the great value of the invention has been demonstrated so as to secure general conviction, and Captain Tucker, commanding Confederate States naval forces afloat on this station, declares unhesitatingly that this one machine of war, if finished, would be more effective  as a means of defense and offense than nearly all the iron-clads here afloat and building, a fact of which I am and have been fully assured.  Had it been finished and afloat when the enemy’s iron-clads entered this harbor several weeks ago but few of them probably would have escaped.

In early May, Confederates in Charleston received reports of “400-500 tons of iron mailing plates” in Nassau.  Circulars went out offering up to $1,500 per ton to blockade runners transporting the iron.  Beauregard went to the extreme measure of denying cotton to any runner who refused to carry the iron.

During the lull through the end of April, Confederates angled for an opportunity to mount a row-boat spar torpedo attack on the Federal vessels anchored in the Stono River near Folly Island. But these efforts came to naught.  Naval crews sent to Charleston in anticipation of capturing a monitor were soon sent back to Richmond.

As April closed, both sides maintained a stalemate outside Charleston.  Yet as both sides shouldered for leverage on the coastline, particular points gained prominence for future operations.  Folly Island would be the toe-hold needed to secure Morris Island.  Morris Island would thence become the key to reducing Fort Sumter.  Beauregard’s spar torpedoes would indeed succeed in damaging the Federal ships outside the harbor.   And the stationary torpedoes would keep the fleet out of the harbor.  The stalemate in April was but a brief respite before the next round of operations.  There would be few such respites in the next two years of war as Charleston became a very active theater.

(Citations and table from OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, pages 906, 917, and 927.)