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.)

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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!

150 Years Ago: A bad morning for the USS Mercedita

January 31 began early for the crew of the USS Mercedita 150 years ago today. Later that day, Captain Henry S. Stellwagen, her commander, would draft his official report:

At 3 a.m. we had slipped cable and overhauled a troop steamer running for the channel by mistake. At 4 I laid down. Lieutenant-Commander Abbot was on deck, giving orders to Acting master Dwyer about recovering the anchor, when they saw a smoke and faint appearance of a vessel close at hand. I heard them exclaim, “She has black smoke. Watch, man the guns, spring the rattle, call all hands to quarters!” Mr. Dwyer came to the cabin door, telling me a steamboat was close aboard. I was then in the act of getting my pea-jacket, and slipped it on as I followed him out; jumped to poop ladder, saw smoke and a low boat, apparently a tug, although I thought it might be a little propeller for the squadron. I sang out, “Train your guns right on him and be ready to fire as soon as I order.” I hailed, “Steamer ahoy! Stand clear of us and heave to! What steamer is that?” Then ordered my men “Fire on him;” told him, “You will be into us! What steamer is that?” His answer to first or second hail was “Halloo!” the other replies were indistinct, either by intention or from being spoken inside his mail armor, until the act of striking us with his prow, when he said, “This is Confederate steam ram —–.” I repeated the order to “Fire,fire!” but no gun could be trained on him, as he approached on the quarter. Struck us just abaft of our aftermost 32-pounder gun and fired a heavy rifled through us, diagnoally penetrating the starbord side, through our Normandy condenser, the steam drum of port boiler, and exploding against port side of ship, blowing a hole in its exit some 4 or 5 feet square. The vessel was instantly filled and enveloped with steam. Reports were brought to me, “Shot through the boilers,” “Fires put out by steam and water,” “Gunner and one man killed,” “Number of men fatally scalded,” “Water over fire-room floor,” “Vessel sinking fast. The ram has cut us through at and below water line on one side and the shell has burst on the other about at the water’s edge.”

In the span of less than 12 hours, two Federal warships had been surprised by the Confederates in the waters around Charleston. Like the USS Isaac Smith the afternoon prior, the commander of the Mercedita faced a dire situation. And like Acting Lieutenant Francis S. Conover the day before, Stellwagen had to strike his colors and accept the mercy of his attacker. So hectic were preparations that the Mercedita‘s crew failed to place the plugs in the ship’s boats when lowering them to the water.

Stellwagen’s opposite number was Flag Officer Duncan N. Ingraham on board the CSS Palmetto State – one of Charleston’s two ironclad rams. Ingraham granted the Mercedita‘s crew parole. But the interaction delayed the Palmetto State as her sister ship, the CSS Chicora, engaged other blockaders.

USS Mercedita

If none of my fellow Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial blog writers pick up the story from there, I’ll continue with cross-post this evening.

(Stellwagen’s report is from ORN, Series I, Volume 13, page 579.)