Charleston’s ship channels – then and now

During our visit to Charleston last week, the Aide-de-Camp and I walked the Sullivan’s Island beach near sunset.  During our walk, our study of the harbor was interrupted as this big white thing passed:


That’s the Carnival Ecstasy outbound on a cruise to some tropical ports of call.  One escort boat paces to the stern.  There was a larger pilot boat on the other side.  We kept tabs on the liner’s progress as she worked out the channel to the sea.

2016-03-19 Charleston 090

The cruise liner is 150 years removed from the days of coal-fired steamships that attempted to run out of Charleston during the Civil War.  Sailors of those blockade runners might not recognize the modern diesel engines powering the liner.  For that matter, maybe the concept of luxury cruises might seem odd to the Civil War sailors….

But one thing that would look familiar are those boats tending to the big ship.  I wrote about the problems getting ocean going ships over the bar at Charleston on several occasions, in particular how that limited options during the crisis days at Fort Sumter.  During the war, the US Navy kept numerous armed tugs in the blockading force off Charleston.  These light-draft and maneuverable vessels were invaluable for working in the shallows and also for assisting the larger ships through the narrow confines of the channels.  Recall that during the Civil War the approaches to Charleston harbor offered four channels:


Of all the wartime maps of Charleston, I like this one best.. and not just because of the colors.  The US Coast Survey produced this map in 1865 by direction of Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren.  Annotations on the map supported Dahlgren’s reports filed at the end of the war.  So we see notes about the locations of significant wrecks, torpedoes, harbor obstructions, and batteries.

But look at the channels.  Charleston had four:

  • Main Ship Channel – coming up from the south in front of Morris Island.  The Federal ironclads used this channel to attack Fort Sumter on April 7, 1863. And later the Federals maintained a presence in the channel, first as they worked against Battery Wagner then later for operations against Fort Sumter.
  • Swash Channel – Somewhat a secondary route directly over the bar.  Federals often posted tugs or light draft gunboats in the Swash Channel overnight on blockade duty.
  • North Channel – Also a secondary route.  Used often by the blockade runners in the first half of the war (as evidenced by the wreck of the Georgiana.
  • Beach Channel, better known as Maffitt’s Channel – Running along Sullivan’s Island, this became the preferred channel for blockade runners.

Now let’s consider how the entrance to Charleston looks… from under the water… today:


I’ve called out some key points in red on this navigational chart.  Note the locations of Forts Sumter and Moultrie, still watching the passage of vessels at the harbor entrance.  But other than that, a lot of changes – above and below the water.

We see Morris Island Lighthouse on the lower left.  That’s not the location of the wartime light, but rather a postwar light built in 1876.  It servers to depict how much Morris Island has retreated. Keep in mind that the coastal survey teams documented rather alarming changes to Morris Island between the pre-war and 1863. So don’t get the idea that barrier island’s erosion is all a 20th century thing.  Barrier islands shift and move… that’s what they do.

Looking under the water, notice that Charleston now has just one channel.  Two jetties reach out from shore to help stabilize that channel.  For ships entering harbor, the first leg of the passage is the “Fort Sumter Range,” on which the vessel’s bearing is directly at Fort Sumter.  The Corps of Engineers maintains that channel to a depth of 49 feet mean low lower water (MLLW) but has plans to deepen that to 52 feet.  MLLW?  Yes, the “The average of the lower low water height of each tidal day observed over the National Tidal Datum Epoch.”  It’s a low tide thing.  Wonder what Dahglren would say about a 52 foot deep channel into Charleston for his ironclads?

Note the locations of the wartime channels, marked in red, on the modern chart.  Only a remnant of the Main Ship Channel remains in front of Fort Sumter.  Maffitt’s Channel is but a memory.  The modern channel splits the Swash and North Channels (and my annotation of those two channels there is somewhat a ballpark estimate… both channels wandered around a bit even during the war).  Some of these changes were prompted by all the activity off the coast in the 1860s.  Certainly the number of wrecks, to include the stone fleet, had some impact.  But the biggest issue was four years in which no channel maintenance was conducted.  After the war, Charleston needed a deeper channel.  Jetties built in the 1870s widened out the Swash Channel.  Now in the 21st century ships are getting bigger and thus the project to make it 52 feet deep, at low water.

Oh… and by the way, for that project to deepen the channel, the Corps of Engineers has conducted a “cultural resources assessment.”  On page 23 of Appendix O of the report, the Army has determined at least one anomaly within the channel deserves attention.  As a precaution, the Army will have “an archaeologist onboard the dredge when operating in the vicinity of the anomaly.”  Furthermore, “Remote sensing surveys will be conducted in all areas proposed for widening to ensure that incidental damage to any such resources will be avoided. It is anticipated that no cultural or historic resources would be affected by the project.”

Some other points of reference, since we are out looking at those waters.  Notice Rattlesnake Shoals remains a hazard to navigation out on the northeast approaches.  Walk down to the lower left of that shoal and you see a box outlined on the chart:


The chart indicates, in Note A, that we should refer to Chapter 2, US Coastal Plot 4, specifically part 165.714.  There we find the coordinates for a trapezoid and the following warning:

In accordance with the general regulations in §165.23 of this part, all vessels and persons are prohibited from anchoring, diving, laying cable or conducting salvage operations in this zone except as authorized by the Captain of the Port.

And what prompted such regulation?  Just off from lighted buoy #16 is where the H.L. Hunley was found.

One more bit of history comes by way of the notes on this chart.  Track to  “Danger Area (see note B)” just below the Hunley‘s box.  Note B states:

Area is open to unrestricted surface navigation but all vessels are cautioned neither to anchor, dredge, trawl, lay cables, bottom, nor conduct any similar type of operation because of residual danger from mines on the bottom. Anchorage in the designated area is at your own risk.

Minefields in that area (and others marked on the chart) date to the World Wars. So more than just Civil War history to consider.

And that history has me reflecting on changes… changes to the harbor entrance that we can document.  Often our thoughts about changing battlefields remains above the surface as we look at topology.  Things like new roads and development tend to obliterate what was heavily contested ground in the 1860s (as Phil recently wrote about).  But for some battlefields, there is another dimension to consider.  The waves on the surface of the ocean off Charleston still rise and fall just in 1863…


But what is beneath those waves has changed drastically.

Thoughts on the USS Housatonic and H.L. Hunley

A couple of frequent visitors noted that I did not lead today with any notes about the H.L. Hunley and the sinking of the USS Housatonic.   Certainly this event falls into the lap of my favorite topic of late – the war around Charleston.  So I should write up a couple thousand words, right?  Honestly, I can’t offer much more than what is already offered to the public from other sources.  The Friends of the Hunley offers a substantial amount of information on the submarine.  The Navy’s History and Heritage Command has a listing of reports and correspondence from the war.  And Andy Hall has some damn fine drawings of the vessel:

Cutaway View of Confederate Submersible H. L. Hunley, February 1864

I’m always keen to ensure separation where I offer the “story” and my opinions.  That in mind, let me offer some opinions I have about the Hunley-Housatonic… with the hope that readers clearly see this as just opinions on the subject.

Earlier, in a post for the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial site, I offered an observation about the emergence of anti-submarine warfare in anticipation of the employment of the Hunley.  My point there was the level to which the Federals were aware of the threat and what measures they took to counter the Hunley and Confederate torpedo boats.  If we consider February 17 to mark the first successful submarine attack, we must also assess the event as the first failure to defend against the weapon.  It was, if I may, the initiation of anti-submarine warfare.  From that date until the end of the Cold War (at least), anti-submarine warfare grew to dominate naval warfare.  Control of the seas depended upon controlling what was under the sea (and some readers will say that stands true today).

At the tactical level, the Hunley‘s trip out demonstrated the weapon was far more versatile than the David used the previous fall against the USS Ironsides.  The Housatonic was easily three nautical miles from Breach Inlet.  To reach that far off shore, without detection, speaks to the special capabilities inherit to the submarine.

Hunley's Route

But there’s another side to that coin.  Why wasn’t the Hunley employed against the more lucrative targets closer to shore?  Perhaps one of the monitors laying off Morris Island?  To do so, the Hunley would come in close proximity to the torpedoes and obstructions at the mouth of the harbor.  But more importantly, I think, the Federals had taken sufficient countermeasures to deter such attacks on the monitors – calcium lights, boat howitzers, fenders, support from shore batteries and boat patrols.  And instructions stood to anchor those ships in shallow waters at night specifically to hinder submerged attack.

No such instructions went out to the deep water blockaders further off shore.   The Federal response to the threat of Hunleys and Davids was confined to the monitors.  Despite a wealth of information about the Hunley from deserters and other sources, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren underestimated the capabilities of the submarine.

That said, did the sinking of the Houstatonic have any great effect on the war?  I’d argue not.  The blockade remained in effect.  Though I would point out that blockade-running activity increased for Charleston through the spring and summer of 1864.  But a trickle of what traffic had been the year before.  The fall months would see a burst of traffic, mostly due to factors other than fear of another submarine attack.  That is not to say the Federals didn’t make adjustments due to the attack.  Rather those adjustments were far easier to implement than for the Confederates to repeat their success with more submarines.

Perhaps, if held back for use in conjunction with an orchestrated attack, the Federals would have felt the Hunley‘s impact even more.  But as we’ve heard, General P.G.T. Beauregard preferred to “experiment on his enemy.”  Sometimes it is hard to save the bolt for the bigger fight.  Then again, a saved bolt does not insult to the enemy.

Another point, and this is more a personal rub, is how we frame this event for interpretation.  The headlines are “Hunley-centric” as if the Housatonic was just a hulk out there on the waters.  There were men on board the Housatonic that night.  These were not nameless, faceless entities.  Rather men serving for cause and country.  Five those men did not see the next day.  And they are still out there.  Should we not mention Ensign Edward Hazeltine, Clerk Charles Muzzey, Quartermaster John Williams, Second Class Fireman John Walsh, and Landsman Theodore Parker on this day?

UPDATE:  Robert Moore does mention the names of those lost on the Housatonic… and a little more on them.

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 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!