“The expedition was a failure, caused by a defective tube”: USS Memphis eludes CSS David

Last night I posted another entry at the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial site.  That installment discussed a failed attack by the CSS David on the USS Memphis, in the North Edisto River on March 6, 1864.

Please head over the the CWN 150 site for details on that action.

As I mentioned in “my take” on the H.L. Hunley, I find the countermeasures employed by the Federals against the torpedo-craft to be a significant overlooked story.  And at the same time, the weapon employed by the Confederates was ineffective even given the standards of the time period.  In the action of March 6, the spar torpedo device suffered from exposure and didn’t fire when struck.  Otherwise, the Memphis would probably have become another shipwreck in the waters of South Carolina.


150 years ago: “The torpedo instantly exploded…. In twenty seconds the hull sank.”

No, that is not a quote from some account of battle.  Rather it comes from a report of experiments conducted at Charleston to perfect a spar torpedo for use against the blockaders.  Captain Francis D. Lee provided this report to Brigadier-General Thomas Jordan (General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Chief of Staff) on March 13, 1863:

In obedience to instructions from department headquarters I made an experiment with my boat torpedo on yesterday. One of the abandoned gunboats was placed at my disposal some days since, which, after loading with rubbish from the burnt district, got a draught of 6½ feet at her bow. I was anxious to obtain a draught of 7½ feet, but was unable to procure a vessel of that class. The torpedo-bearing boat for attacking this hulk was a light-built canoe about 20 feet long, with a spar suspended 6 feet from her keel and projecting beyond her bow 22 feet, at the extremity of which I placed the torpedo, with a charge of nearly 30 pounds of powder. It was my purpose to make the experiment at 1.30 o’clock p.m., that being the hour of high water, but the delays consequent upon the want of dispatch on the part of the steamer engaged to tow the hulk in place prevented the completion of all necessary preparations until 2.30 p.m. At that hour a strong northwest wind, amounting nearly to a gale, was blowing, which, with the ebb tide, rendered it impossible for me to moor the hulk in such position as to attach the lines for striking her side. Every previous preparation having been, however, made, I deemed it proper to make a trial even at the risk of failure, and gave orders to strike the vessel in the stern. After great difficulty, owing to the roughness of the sea, I secured a line to the bow of the torpedo-boat, and after reeving it through a block secured to the hulk returned it through a block in the stern of the torpedo-boat, and thence to a row-boat. I then ordered the row-boat to pull away. The torpedo-boat moved with good speed to the hulk and apparently struck, but without the expected discharge. The position of the torpedo-boat seemed to indicate that the torpedo had passed under the hulk. Leaving the boat in this position I returned to the city, and after giving the hands a recess of an hour returned to the hulk to examine into the true condition of things. I then found that the torpedo, in place of striking directly in the stern, had passed diagonally under the counter of the hulk. On withdrawing it I discovered that the torpedo had not come in contact, and that the lead plugs containing the sensitive tubes and charges of chlorate potassa were entirely uninjured. Night fast coming on I secured the torpedo-boat to the side of the hulk so as to be safe from accident, determining to make a new trial the following morning. On this morning at 8 a.m. I returned to the hulk, accompained by Captain Chisolm, of the general staff, and Mr. W. S. Henerey, machinist, and after anchoring the hulk across the stream put on the lines and struck her about amidships. The torpedo instantly exploded, with little or no displacement of water. In about twenty seconds the hulk sank. On moving up to the torpedo-boat we discovered her entirely uninjured, with a very small quantity of water in her, more than half of which was there before the explosion. From all appearances the spar is uninjured.

Lee’s experiments were designed to perfect the armament of spar torpedo boats, known as “Davids,” then being built.  Involved with ship construction in addition to other engineering chores, Lee was a busy man at this time of the war.

The spar torpedo boat that Lee was working to arm were the “Davids.”  These were low-profile, steam-powered boats.  The hope was, riding low in the water, the Davids could slip up close to anchored blockaders to deploy the deadly payload.

CSS David – showing machinery arrangements

The CSS David may have looked like a submarine, but it was not submersible.  And unlike the H.L. Hunley, a steam engine propelled the David.   Based on the profile and mode of attack, the Davids were arguably predecessors of the light draft torpedo boats and eventually the “PT” boats of World War II fame.

At least two of these type vessels were under construction in Charleston in the spring of 1863.  Further examples constructed in Charleston and elsewhere constituted the largest “class” of any warship built for the Confederacy.  A photo taken after Charleston’s surrender in 1865 shows one of these “Davids” beached.

A beached David at Charleston in 1865

The photo compares well to the drawing.  Notice the spar fixed on the front of the boat.  At the business end of that spar were fixtures to support the contact torpedo…

… the device that Captain Lee was perfecting 150 years ago today.  While not ready for action that spring, soon the Confederates would use these spar torpedo boats in an effort to lift the blockade of Charleston.

Andy Hall has some very good renderings of the Davids on his site, including one view comparing the David to the Hunley.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, pages 820-1.)

150 Years Ago: Working on four or five gunboats simultaneously in Charleston

Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred Roman served as the Inspector General for General P.G.T. Beauregard’s district in the winter of 1863.  His role, as with all inspector generals in armies, was to assess the progress towards the commanding general’s objectives – be that a specific project or something less specific like overall readiness.  In the early days of March 1863, Roman turned his attention to military shipbuilding projects in Charleston.  In a report to Brigadier-General Thomas Jordan, Beauregard’s chief of staff, on March 10, 1863, Roman addressed the delays producing more warships to defend Charleston:

In obedience to your communication of the 4th instant, requesting me to make frequent visits (at least once a week) to the torpedo ram to urge its completion, I visited yesterday the ship-yard where said ram is being constructed, and I beg leave to report as follows:

Sixty-one ship-carpenters and laborers are now employed on the marine ram, under the general supervision of Capt. F. D. Lee. They work from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Captain Lee and F. M. Jones, his assistant, think that the wood work of the boat will be completed in two weeks. The timber and planking for the shield is already prepared and is now being put together. The boiler and part of the engine are in place and the shafting was being fitted to the stern. The necessary repairs to the machinery (which is second-hand machinery, purchased in Savannah) are being executed at the arsenal. Captain Lee has no immediate control over that portion of the work, and he doubts whether it will be ready as soon as the rest. Both Captain Lee and Jones, being otherwise engaged, do not remain all day with the workmen. Captain Lee, however, visits the ship-yard regularly once a day.

So much time has been consumed in the building of that ram, and on the other hand the difficulty of procuring iron to shield it is so great, that no zeal, I imagine, is shown in the progress of the work. If the carpenters were ready to-day no iron could be had to complete the ram. The Navy Department has promised everything, but has given comparatively nothing. The idea of working simultaneously on four or five gunboats in Charleston instead of concentrating all the labor on one at the time is indeed so very singular that I am altogether at a loss to account for it. From all appearance the Palmetto State and the Chicora will be the only two rams used in the defense of this harbor, whether the Federals attack us now or whether they delay it for months.

I add emphasis to the sentences in the middle of the last paragraph.  Roman’s remark about the Navy Department was just another dig at authorities in Richmond. As time passed, the friction between Richmond and Charleston would continue to be a problem.  Those in Charleston, from Beauregard on down, saw a looming threat from the sea.  But they saw their requests unfilled (and to some degree perceived them falling on deaf ears).

But were authorities in Charleston trying to do too much?  In other posts, I’ve offered correspondence and other documents that illustrate the shortage of resources – particularly iron.  In this case, Roman narrowed the focus of his complaint to lack of armor and machinery.  Captain Francis D. Lee, an army engineer – not a naval officer – had charge of the project.  But he lacked any control of the arrival of components.  This led, as Roman pointed out, to delays when the labor force mismatched the tasks required on a particular day.  And of course F.D. Lee had plenty of other work to do outside the shipyard.

For context, the CSS Palmetto State and CSS Chicora mentioned in the report were already in service (and had already fought an engagement at the end of January).  In December 1862, the Confederates laid down another Charleston ironclad ram, to be named the CSS Charleston.  I would assume it was the Charleston that Roman referred to in the report.  At the same time, Captain Lee conducted experiments with spar torpedoes to arm couple of boats then under construction.  These would later become the CSS David and CSS Torch, followed by a series of similar vessels.  And of course there were several other projects outfitting blockade runners (recall the CSS Stono, ex-USS Isaac Smith), refitting gunboats, and generally keeping the ships afloat.  Very easy to see why Roman would complain the Confederates were trying to do too much at once… and thus all the projects suffered.

And can we put numbers behind the labor shortage, and better interpret the difficulties cited by Roman?

Perhaps.  In addition to receipts for contract labor provided by firms such as J.M. Eason or Cameron in Charleston, the Navy recorded individuals employed.  The sheet below was the first of nine listing the individuals paid for services from January 1 through March 31, 1863:

Page 808

The final tally, signed by paymaster Henry Myers, listed 275 individuals and a total payment of $419,233.92 (all lines with a nice “check” mark perhaps indicating someone was very thorough validating the numbers).  Were 275 skilled hands (and I’m certain that was not the full sum of workers employed, considering the contracts mentioned above) enough to produce four or five more warships?  And maintain those already afloat?  I believe the paymaster’s sheet made Roman’s point.

And… hey… notice the second name down on the list:

Page 808a

Darn that extra “e”!  Scuttles my planned April Fools Day post!