Tag Archives: CSS Chicora

Fort Johnston Photo Analysis, Part V: Looking across the fort from the east… and maybe a Rebel Ram?

Our next stop on this look at Fort Johnson, as it was in 1865, takes a few steps around that 10-inch Rifled Columbiad and looks back at the face of the works from the east side:

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I’ve labeled the location where this photo was taken as FJ4 in the diagram below:

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You can see from the two green lines extending from the octagon, FJ4 offers a different perspective of the fort.   The view is slightly elevated.  Based on the perspective of the 10-inch Rifled Columbiad, the camera must have been over, or at least adjacent to, the 8-inch siege howitzer seen in FJ3.

As with many of these photos, there were duplicates made as part of a stereo view.  The Library of Congress has both digitized.  Here’s the second of the set, which is somewhat worse for the wear in some ways… yet more detailed in others:

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There’s our old friend in the foreground.

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One detail that stands out better in this view is the finish of the metal:

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The cannon is in sharp focus, so what do we make of the scruffy looking finish here?  I think we are seeing brush lines from a coat of paint or lacquer applied to the metal.  We may also be seeing tarnish or rust over that finish.

Oh, and earlier I mentioned the missing truck wheels… well while snipping from the photo last night, I noticed for the first time….

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So after removing the trucks, the Confederates laid them in the gun pit?  Or was this the first step as the Federals dismounted the gun for movement?  I’m still thinking the former.  The Federals never moved this weapon from Fort Johnson.  So why bother pulling off the truck wheels?  A small puzzle of the sort that prompts me to keep looking at these photos… hopefully you share that foible.

The negative is a bit damaged, but we can still see the details of the barrel placed beside the cannon:

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Implements, such as this maneuvering bar, remain in place about the columbiad:

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Looking behind at the walls of Fort Johnson, this view, more than the others, gives away the construction technique used for the earthworks:

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Perhaps that is because this particular face was oriented towards the harbor mouth and thus caught more of the weather.

Looking down that line, this is the view that causes hearts to flutter over on the blackpowder artillery forum:

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A Brooke Rifle, two Confederate columbiads, and three mortars. Wouldn’t you like to have those in your back yard?

And this guy “owned” them as of April 1865:

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No sack coat.  Just his shirt, suspenders, trousers, and brogans.  Sleeves rolled up.  Must have been warm that spring day.

Looking beyond our friend at the Brooke, there is a team of horses and a sling cart.

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Keep in mind the location of that sling cart.  It shows up in other photos.  I’d speculate that the sling cart was most recently employed to move one of the mortars now laying at the waterfront.

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These have the distinctive profile of the 10-inch Seacoast Mortar, Model 1840.   No weapons of that type were in Fort Johnson when the Confederates left Charleston.  However, Battery Simkins, just southeast, had three.  So these could be the three mortars from Battery Simkins, which were very, very active against the Federals on Morris Island during the siege of Charleston.

To the right of the mortars are a couple of large beams.

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These show up in the perspective of FJ5, which I’ll look at next.  So these are important placemarks in the photo. Otherwise, it is a stack of wood… very large pieces of wood.

But let’s look beyond those mortars and wood beams to see what is in Charleston Harbor:

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No vessels waiting in the “roads.” But there is what appears to be a smoke stack and debris.  So what is that?

When the Confederates left Charelston, a number of vessels were scuttled or left derelict.  Three ironclads were scuttled in the direct vicinity of Fort Johnson – CSS Palmetto State, CSS Charleston, and CSS Chicora.   Of the three, the Chicora lay closest to Fort Johnson’s wharf and jetty.   Describing that wreck, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren wrote, “The Chicora alone is visible in any part, and that only a few inches of the casemate at low water.”  I think it is safe to assume that if the casemate was barely at water level, the smokestack was above water.  The Coast Survey team did not annotate the location of the Confederate ironclads on their survey of the harbor.  So we cannot put a name on that wreck, at least to satisfy my standards.  But the smokstack is in the right place to be the remains of the Chicora.

Looking beyond that interesting wreckage, we see the distant shoreline.

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This should be parts of Charleston proper and the inner harbor.  But the lens did not capture many details.  At some points on the horizon, we can just make out buildings and piers:

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But as you can tell from the small size of this cropped area, the digitized copy degrades to pixels as we zoom down further.   Disappointing, as that would be another interesting study.

Let me close out this stop by returning to our friend at the Brooke:

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This gentleman posed like this for at least a couple of moments, knowing his image would be captured on glass plate.  He knew that the photographer was recording him, standing in front of those Confederate guns, as a small testament to the triumph of Federal arms in the Civil War.  This isn’t a stiff, parade-ground pose.  His body is relaxed.  As mentioned above, his dress is very casual, more so that of one on a work detail than a guard or escort.   He has one hand tucked in the waist, and the other as a prop against the Brooke.

But I sense something stern about his facial expression.  Maybe it is the thought of hefting all those heavy mortars, as he marks time until the return home.  Or maybe he just wanted his “war face” preserved to impress those viewing his pose 150 years later.

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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.