Dahlgren on Shrapnel, part 2: “these results are only to be considered as general terms”

As discussed earlier, while working on a system of boat howitzers to equip the US Navy, John Dahlgren conducted a detailed study of the behavior of shrapnel.  He identified three factors which governed the performance of shrapnel, from a target point of view, and thus would provide the requirements for the practice of fire for such projectiles.  Those were the range, the time of projectile flight, and height of burst above the ground. And those were the same requirements we saw in the illustration from other pre-war manuals.


What Dahlgren’s study offered was a “schooled” approach to the problem, as he felt the behavior should be scientifically defined to provide a reliable reference to the gunner.  Dahlgren determined shrapnel was most effective when exploding 50 to 130 yards in front of and 4 to 15 feet above the intended target.  So the next question – how to make a shrapnel projectile’s burst to occur with such regularity that the gunner could achieve a result within that “most effective” space.  The key to achieving such results would be accurately setting the burn time of the fuse.

But that was easier said than done, as Dahlgren observed:

The shrapnel fired from cannon may have a velocity in the different parts of its trajectory, amounting to as much as 1200 or 1500 feet per second, and hence a difference in the burning of the fuze, almost inappreciable in time, will be made very perceptible by the variations in the distances at which the explosion occurs; thus, with the 1200 feet per second, a fourth of a second will produce an error of 100 yards:  if the velocity be 600 feet per second, the difference in distance will still be fifty yards.

Keep in mind at the time of writing, most services used paper fuses.  In the use of such, the length of the paper was cut, using a rule calibrated to the burn rate of the fuse, for the desired burn time.  The Bormann fuse was just coming into use.  But in either case (and the case for most of the other types in use) the smallest time measure provided was the quarter second.  What Dahlgren was telling us is that quarter second could produce an error of between 50 to 100 yards.  In other words, this would produce an unacceptable variation which might serve to throw shrapnel completely outside the optimal window, if not the marginally effective zone.

Dalgren went on to point out another factor, which fell outside the gunner’s control, was the consistency of fuses.  Regularity in burn rate was a problem at the time.  Furthermore, the set of the fuse would often change the performance, in some cases leading to misfires and other problems.  So the bottom line this was not simply a case of selecting a fuse length and firing the shrapnel.  More thought was required.

Dahlgren did point out that British practice was to provide each shrapnel with four fuses.  These were defined by the ranges allowed based on the fuse burn time – 650 yards, 900 yards, and 1100 yards, with a fourth left to be cut based on tactical needs.  Not specifically stated, but assumed, is these allowed the gunner select a fuse based on where he wanted the shrapnel balls to hit the ground.  In other words, the 650 yard fuse would cause a burst at around 500 yards, with balls proceeding forward another 150 yards.. .give or take.

Though Dahglren spent some time describing the nature and functionality of various fuses available at the time, he shorted the discussion with a “might be too much elaborate this brief sketch” … so allow me to follow that lead at time time.  He simply noted that in US service (both land and sea) the standard was to provide shrapnel with fuses pre-configured for 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 seconds (color coded).  It was not desirable to modify those fuses in order to shave off fractions of a second. And while he provided for some modifications or fabrications, those were considered impractical for field service.  Instead, the focus should be, he felt, on precise employment of the standard fuses (again, not only burn time but placement in the projectile to reduce the chance of misfire, failure to fire, or other derived irregularities).

What this leads us to is a somewhat fixed practice of fire.  A gunner would seek to fire shrapnel when the target was at a range which matched to the burn time of those configured fuses.  Granted, that might be inconvenient as battles are too often fought at odd ranges (you know… were four map sheets join and all).  But this plays upon that 50 to 130 yard fall of the balls after the shrapnel burst.  To be blunt, this was horseshoes and hand-grenades work.  So long as the time of burn was within that desired  50 to 130 yard, an effect could be felt.

Now the critical point fell upon the sighting arrangements of the cannon.  Given that fuses were working on a “set” time, and from that the gunner derived the zone in which the balls would fall, he had to work back to ensuring the gun tube was properly oriented to push the projectile on the desired flight path.  Azimuth… the easier part of that problem.  Elevation was the question mark.  Dahlgren explained the functioning of the fuse and elevation as such:

… the elevation is given to the piece which is required to carry the projectile to the proper distance, while the fuze adjusts the explosion to the time which the projectile occupies in traversing this space.

Given those fixed fuses, Dahlgren suggested the British method would work best for sights:

The sight in this method is graduated to the intervals of time which will carry the projectile to its desired position; and each graduation is accompanied by the two distances which include the spread of shrapnel balls.

Thus if the fuze be adjusted to 2″, and the piece elevated by the sight, raised to the line on it marked 2″, then the shrapnel will burst about 500 yards from the piece, and spread its balls from that point a considerable distance farther – effectively, at least 150 yards.

Note here the use of the symbol (“) for seconds, as opposed to referencing inches.  Select a measured fuse to fire at a measured distance and use a set elevation on the sight.  The gunner was to trust the equipment and ordnance provided to perform with regularity.  No need to know the science here.  Just basic rules of thumb – target at 650 yards, select a two second fuse, elevate gun to the two second mark on the sight.  Fire.

Dahlgren admitted that the factors necessary (range to burst, elevations, etc.) for this arrangement needed refinement, agreeing his department needed to work out those details.  Still, he concluded:

Even when obtained, these results are only to be considered as general terms that are to guide the intelligent officer to a proper application of shrapnel or of shells, when used upon uncovered troops; there being left in the fractions of seconds, a wide margin for the tact and discretion that are to make his fire more or less effectual.

A bureaucratic way of saying, “We’ll get the gunner in the ballpark, but someone still needs to observe fires in order to hit the target.”

We can actually trace Dahlgren’s practice of fire directly into the manuals.  From The Ordnance Instructions for the United States Navy of 1860, we have this paragraph regarding shrapnel from boat howitzers:

Similar terms are used in marking the sight and the fuze.  Thus, if the fuze be adjusted to 2″, and the piece elevated by the sight raised to the line on it marked 2″, then the shrapnel will burst about 500 yards from the piece and spread its balls from that point to a considerable distance farther – effectively at least 150 yards.

So by 1860, the observation became the rule. A “practice of fire” described in one paragraph.

However.. you know there was going to be a “but… ” here…. There is a problem with this practice of fire.  Aside from that paragraph in the Instructions, there is no table in that manual detailing the particulars for three second, four second, or five second settings. Now there was a separate set of manuals detailing how the Navy wanted sailors to use boat howitzers.  And there we find this table (The Naval Howitzer Ashore, 1865):


This is “good stuff” but not the raw inputs needed for the “practice of fire” for shrapnel.  We don’t find table increments for seconds as defined on the sight.  Instead we have degrees of elevation, with ranges and time of flight provided.  But notice this is broken down, were available, for shrapnel and shell.  While not directly supporting the “practice of fire” we can see how the figures given in the practice play out.

Turning again to the two second time of flight, we see a close approximation at 1.9 seconds associated with a range of 500 yards for shrapnel from a 12-pdr smoothbore howitzer (the caliber and type Dahglren cited in his tests).  That occurs with a 1º elevation.

Notice if we go down a line to the particulars for shells, the two second time of flight would fall somewhere between 516 yards and 730 yards, likely around the midpoint between those two.  With an elevation between 1º and 2º.This requires some bending of the mind around the ballistics, but I submit the ranges given for shrapnel coincide with the range where the burst occurs, not where the balls would fall.  However, that given for the shell is where the projectile hits ground (and the gunner wants it to explode).  Thus, I’d submit we are reading different definitions for “range” on those lines accounting for the different uses of projectile types.

That “but….” presented within this table lingers over the “practice of fire” like a cloud in battle obscuring the target.  Yes, Dahlgren defined the practice in clear terms before the war.  And yes, those practices were incorporated in the pre-war (1860) manual.  However, at least by 1865, the tables provided failed to give the gunner such “tolerable approximations” that Dahlgren sought in 1852.  One gets the impression that shrapnel was just not that important after all!

(Citations from John A. Dahlgren, A System of Boat Armament in the United States Navy, Philadelphia: A. Hart, 1852, pages 56, 69-70; Ordnance Instructions for the United States Navy, Washington: George W. Bowman, 1860, page 109.)


“Foster… was frustrated in his grand stab at Charleston.” – Separating supposition from reliable fact

Over the holiday break, I took to reading H. David Stone’s Vital Rails: The Charleston & Savannah Railroad and the Civil War in Coastal South Carolina.  I’d picked up the book shortly after publication.  But until last month had confined my use of the work to select passages as I “blogged” through the 150ths of the war.  It is a good study of the vital railroad link, which I’ve mentioned on no small number of occasions.  I’d recommend Stone’s book for anyone serious about study of the South Carolina-Georgia Coast theater.

While I think Stone’s study of the railroad is outstanding, as with any historical study there is always some passage or paragraph that a discerning reader will take exception.  Criticism, that is, taken to examination of the logical presentation, consideration of source material cited in support, and thence analysis of the conclusion.  I call it good critical thought… you know, critical as in the sense of “an analysis of the merits and faults” and not the street connotation of being dismissive.

The passage that raised my attention came within a chapter discussing the operations in front of Charleston in the summer of 1864.  As I’ve blogged those activities to length in earlier posts, I’ll cut to the chase here. Major-General John Foster arrived to assume command in the Department of the South in June 1864.  After assessing the situation and considering his orders from Washington, Foster promptly organized an offensive.  Before detailing Foster’s plan, Stone writes:

Well aware of the city’s vulnerability, Foster decided on a decisive assault on Charleston.  He expected at the very least to destroy the railroad connection between the Broad River and Charleston, and he hoped to find a weak point in the line of defense through which he could penetrate and gain the city itself.

That is a loose, but fair, interpretation of Foster’s intent.  A paragraph before, Stone alluded to Foster’s orders from Washington.  Those being “… to tie up any Confederate reserves that might potentially be sent to aid Lee or Johnston.”  And Foster was to remain defensive in stance, with offensive operations limited to raids.   At the end of the chapter, Stone summarizes the operation:

Foster had begun his tenure with high aspirations but was frustrated in his grand stab at Charleston. Coastal topography, oppressive midsummer heat, and inefficient subordinates had doomed the operation; however, the ability of the Confederate troops to concentrate troops from remote areas by rail could not be discounted. Toward the end of the campaign Foster unleashed what became a protracted bombardment of Fort Sumter, but it did not change the fact that his superior force failed to meet its goal….

This is where I turn on the critical eye.  Foster’s goal… what was it?

To answer that, we have to keep in context where Foster fit into the military command structure.  He was a department commander in an Army in the “big army” sense.  So he was a subordinate to Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant.  And as Grant was removed from Washington at the time in question… you know… pressing Bobby Lee in Virginia, the official correspondence between Washington and Foster came from Major-General Henry Halleck. There is a letter written on June 29 by Halleck which summarizes what Grant wanted Foster to do (and in context here, Halleck is responding to Foster’s appeal for more troops and boats to make a push on Fort Sumter and other objectives):

What I understand General Grant wishes you to do is precisely what in one of your former dispatches you proposed doing, i.e., make raids on the enemy’s lines of communication, destroy as much of them as possible, and keep as many of his troops occupied at the south as you can.  He has given no special instructions, but leaves the matter entirely to your judgement and discretion. In a recent dispatch he remarked that in your present condition of the Southern coast, stripped as it was of rebel troops, your forces might effect an important diversion.

Clearly Halleck, and Grant for good measure, did not consider Charleston to be Foster’s main objective.  The date of this letter is important, but more so is the length of time taken for this message to get into Foster’s hands.  Halleck’s letter would have arrived at Hilton Head sometime after the first week of July.   And that was after Foster had launched his offensive.  So did Foster place Charleston as an objective above those given by his superiors?  Did Foster extend the “judgement and discretion” to assume an objective beyond what Grant directed?

Evidence points to “no.”  Throughout June, Foster wrote at length to Halleck in regard to operations.  Though he did pester for more resources (particularly light-draft ships), these must be considered in context – a commander asking for additions in order to accomplish just that little bit more than possible with the existing resources.  Without those, Foster appeared content to remain within Grant’s wishes.  On June 23, Foster provided an update on planned operations, discussing his intent… and how that fit within the context of Grant’s wishes:

I shall be ready to commence operations in about one week, with a force of 5,000 men, which is all that can be collected of the reliable men.  I propose, first, to destroy the Charleston and Savannah Railroad, and then to make a sudden attack, either upon some of the defenses of Charleston or of Savannah.  If I fail in one I will try the other….

No where in that message does Foster seem fixated on Charleston.  It was an objective, to be sure.  But it was an objective reserved for follow through, after the primary goals were met.  Furthermore, Foster gave it as much importance as he did Savannah. This was further underscored in a dispatch to Halleck written on June 30 (and thus crossing, in transit, the Halleck letter of June 29).  I quoted that dispatch extensively in an earlier post, but for emphasis would mention this passage:

My definite object is to destroy the railroad, and this, I think, we shall accomplish. But, in addition, we shall worry the enemy, and may possibly find a weak spot by which we may penetrate. If so, we shall not fail to profit by it. If none are found on the west side, I may, possibly, before retiring, attempt to take Fort Johnson by boats.

Again, Foster’s focus was not specifically Charleston, rather was in line with Grant’s instructions – demonstrate and annoy with the aim to fix Confederate forces.   Foster did leave open the hope the situation might deliver some great prize.  But he confined that hope, at least in writing.

We might liken Foster’s hope to that of a quarterback throwing a pass on third down and long yardage.  The objective might be to secure a first down.  But if a touchdown was the result, he’d take that gladly.   Everyone looking from Morris Island had eyes on the prize that was Charleston.  But that is not to say Foster or anyone else in June 1864 were engineering an offensive with a focused, deliberate objective of Charleston.  What we have is Foster’s words to Halleck that confine his goals to those suggested by Grant’s guidance.  To presume more, one would need get into Foster’s head and to his personal thoughts.  Nobody has cited any of Foster’s personal papers or letters home in evidence on this particular subject, for what it is worth.

So where does this notion about Foster’s goal (of capturing Charleston in July 1864) come from?  Stone does not offer footnotes linking sources for the passages quoted above.  To be fair, the first passage is fully supported by the content mentioned earlier in the paragraph, which is sourced.  The second passage, which is his conclusion, need not be directly sourced.  Being a conclusion, it is more so the duty of the writer to lead the reader to agree with a supposition.

In his book, The Siege of Charleston 1861-1865, E. Milby Burton opens the discussion of Foster’s offensive with a quote from the 11th Maine regimental history.  “To capture Richmond would be grand, but to capture Charleston would be glorious….”   A vivid quote, but unfortunately taken out of context, as it comes from a section detailing the regiment’s initial assignment to the Department of the South in January 1863.  From that misdirected opening, Burton proceeded to explain Foster’s offensive as one aimed at Charleston, with a secondary directive, “if possible, destroy the Charleston and Savannah Railroad….”  That said, Burton concluded the Confederate defenders had rallied in the face of superior forces to save Charleston in a near-run affair.

Burton drew from several sources to support this conclusion.  Some were Federal accounts – the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery regimental history, quotes from Admiral John Dahlgren, and northern newspapers for the most part.  None of which were able to definitively pin Foster to a goal.  Not even Dahlgren who, for all his close work with the General, did not fully measure the intent from Washington in his assessment.

Burton relied heavily upon the Confederate engineer John Johnson.  We might turn to The Defense of Charleston Harbor as the furthest point back in the history of the history … er… historiography… in which we hear Foster’s goal that July was Charleston:

With abundant transportation and the powerful support of the navy, Major-General Foster had at length resolved on a very serious attempt on Charleston itself.

Later, summarizing the operations, Johnson wrote:

The land and naval forces of the attack were strong enough, but they were not pushed with the vigor that characterized the fighting on Morris Island. Had they been, they might have achieved in one week what the toilsome and bloody campaign of Morris Island failed to accomplish after twelve months – viz. the capture of Charleston. …

Thus in the progress of the war Charleston had twice driven back the forces of the Federal navy under DuPont and Dahlgren in 1863, and twice the forces of the Federal army under Benham in 1862 and Foster in 1864.

Over the years, I’ve come to rely upon Johnson’s narrative to fill in many of the particulars missing in official accounts.  In particular he provided a wealth of first-hand details about operations.  However, I think in this case, while he made a very astute observation from his own experience, it was lacking in perspective. In short, Johnson did not know, could not know, and would not know (even later) that Foster’s orders limited him to demonstrations.  With that, we really cannot use Johnson as a source to pin Charleston as Foster’s goal.  And thus we find Burton’s, and to some degree Stone’s, suppositions somewhat shaky.

Again, please don’t take this critical essay as detracting from Stone’s good work.  I just think this is a salient point in the narrative of history where historians have generally not explored with the diligence that the subject requires.  We’ve long accepted what distant observers to the event (Johnson or newspapers or regimental histories) have to say.  We’ve not wrangled properly with the direct sources.  To say that Foster, for his July 1864 operations, intended to march into Charleston, one has to discredit what he wrote to Halleck.  I’ve yet to see that done.  (And before we toss this small point of history into the “It was a backwater of the war” dust-bin, remember that in the 1864 campaigns everything was related.  Foster’s operations were a part of a larger, complicated, and inter-dependent Federal operations that season.)

In the end, I’m left with an oft-repeated lesson from the study of history.  Never accept a premise or supposition without the strength of sources – no matter how small or obvious the point might be.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 146, 156, and 157; H. David Stone, Jr. Vital Rails: The Charleston & Savannah Railroad and the Civil War in Coastal South Carolina, Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2008, pages 191-2 and 199; The Story of One Regiment: The Eleventh Maine Infantry Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion, New York: J.J. Little & Co, 1896, page 109; E. Milby Burton, The Siege of Charleston 1861-1865, Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1970, pages 284-5;  John Johnson, The Defense of Charleston Harbor: Including Fort Sumter and the Adjacent Islands, 1863-1865, Walker, Evans & Cogswell Company, 1890, pages 215 and 223 ).


For the holidays, lets each rehabilitate some Civil War general… I call Schimmelfennig!

This being the season of giving, I ask what have we given back to the Civil War field of study?  We all “take” from our studies – reading primary and secondary sources, walking the battlefields, and receiving knowledge all around.   But what do we give back in return?  How this season we “clean up” some corner of Civil War study that need be straightened or otherwise put in order?

Consider… Throughout the Sesquicentennial discussions we heard about some major figures from the Civil War being “rehabilitated” by historians.  Most notable is George B. McClellan.  We even heard mention of Joe Hooker.  Though I still lean towards strict twelve step process for Little Mac… someone skipped a few steps with McClellan in my opinion.  This is not a new notion for historians.  During the Centennial, US Grant was “rehabilitated” to some degree, mostly by that magical prose from Bruce Catton.  William T. Sherman was moved but a few shades to the good side of Lucifer himself.  Though we really should recognize the work of British admirers decades earlier, who sort of threw a mirror in our American faces.  However of late Grant is being “un-rehabilitated” back to a mere mortal.

What I have in mind is straight forward and altruistic – pick a figure due “historical rehabilitation.”  Name any figure from the Civil War – general, politician, or other.  Pick a poor figure.  Someone you think has not gotten a fair shake through the historians’ collective pens. Then offer up a few paragraphs explaining why this figure is worth a second look.  Think about it… are there any persons who are completely nonredeemable?  Totally incompetent? Without any merit?  Well… maybe there are some.  But I’d submit that to be a small number within the larger sample set.  Besides, even H. Judson Kilpatrick, Alfred Pleasonton, and Franz Sigel had good days to speak of!

I’ll make the first offering.  This is my target for rehabilitation:

Alexander Schimmelfennig.  Like most, my introduction to Schimmelfennig was the butt end of many jokes about “hiding with the hogs” at Gettysburg.  Schimmelfennig’s stay at the Henry Garlach house has come to epitomize the failings and faults of the Eleventh Corps in the battle.

Over the years, I’ve learned not to add an extra n, making his name an active present tense verb, to Schimmelfennig. Though you might find more than a few cases where I’ve slipped and not corrected.  Furthermore, I’ve come to recognize my characterization of Schimmelfennig’s actions were but one of many collective misunderstandings (being kind… maybe collective ignorance?) about the actions at Gettysburg.  Indeed, our myopic view of that battle has caused no short list of misconceptions.  Schimmelfennig is one of many receiving short treatment, and outright insult, due to the intellectual white elephant, named Gettysburg, stuck to history’s charge.

Let us first be fair about Schimmelfennig at Gettysburg.  Certainly his July 1, 1863 on the field is not fodder for any great story about military prowess and proficiency.  Though it was not an example of bumbling incompetence.  Why was he in the Garlach back yard to start with?  Well it was because, unlike many of his peers and superiors, he was not emulating General Gates’ flight from Camden in search of “high ground” south of town.

And in the two years that followed that stay in the shed, Schimmelfennig demonstrated he was indeed a very capable field commander… in the oft overlooked Department of the South.  I’ve chronicled those activities during the Sesquicentennial… and will mention a few key points here.   Schimmelfennig first went to the department as part of Brigadier-General George Gordon’s 1st Division, Eleventh Corps, sent as reinforcements in late July 1863. The Brigadier-General led a successful demonstration in February 1864 on John’s Island; assumed responsibility for the front against Charleston through the spring and early summer 1864, directing several bombardments of Fort Sumter, and mounting demonstrations to aid the main operations elsewhere;  And played an important role in Foster’s July 1864 “demonstration” that nearly broke through to Charleston.   After returning from leave (recovering from malaria), Schimmelfennig was in command of the forces that captured Charleston on February 18, 1865.

Schimmelfennig readily adapted to situations and was innovative.  He successfully used of Hales rockets in an assault role and urged the troops to use rudimentary camouflage to disguise their activities.  To the many USCT regiments in his command, he offered fair and complementary leadership, advocating for pay equality.  The naval officers working with him, particularly Rear Admiral John Dahlgren, considered Schimmelfennig the better of the Army generals to work with at Charleston.

And we should remember, as if a name like Schimmelfennig would allow us to forget, that the general was not American-born.  Thus he faced much of the institutional bias within the Federal officer corps.  Schimmelfennig, a Prussian, was a veteran of the revolutions and wars of 1848.  Pulling on our historian sensibilities, Schimmelfennig was a bit of a military historian himself, providing context to the conflicts between Russia and Turkey in the years leading up to the Crimean War.

Oh, and I should add, Schimmelfennig “pioneered” the use of petrochemicals to ward off mosquitoes…. Um… by smearing kerosene over his exposed skin while on duty at Folly and Morris Islands.  Not exactly DEET, but you know.  Fine… he was a bit far short of a renaissance man.

At any rate, you get my point – Schimmelfennig’s service is done a dis-service by overly emphasizing those three days in July 1863… or even after weighing in his (and the Eleventh Corps) performance at Chancellorsville months before.  Maybe he was not among Grant’s Generals depicted in Balling’s painting, but Schimmelfennig served with distinction during the war.  He is at least deserving of more consideration than “a brigade commander at Gettysburg.”

That’s my proposed target for rehabilitation.  What’s yours?  And why?

June 1865: South Atlantic Blockading Squadron reduced but still blockading

As April 1865 turned into May 1865, the Federal war effort slowed dramatically. A visible manifestation of this was the review in Washington, D.C. when three major armies passed on parade, with most of those troops due to muster out within weeks. Other components of the Federal war machine deactivated with much less fanfare.  The Navy didn’t have a “grand review” of any sorts.  But there was a rundown – or shall we say, demobilization.

During the Navy expanded from some 42 active vessels to over 650.  Likewise, the number of personnel increased to over 80,000, though remained dwarfed by the number of volunteers in Army service.  The primary task of the Navy throughout the war was the blockade.  Accordingly, operational focus shifted from “blue water” operations to “brown water” and “brackish water.”  But with the capture of Jefferson F. Davis and the surrender of all major Confederate commands, there was less need for all those hulls patrolling the coast. However- important to note – the blockade was still in effect. For several reasons, authorities in Washington wished to keep tight control over the southern coastline.

Orders from the Navy Department, issued on May 31, 1865, outlined the reduction of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron:

Reduce the South Atlantic Squadron to the following number of vessels with all possible dispatch, viz, 6 tugboats, 15 other steamers.

You can have, in addition, such store vessels as may be required in connection with this force.

Select the most efficient vessels for retention, and send to the Department a list of them. Send all the others to Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Portsmouth, the monitors to Philadelphia. Several light-draft monitors will soon be sent to the South Atlantic Squadron.

These orders sent home the many light draft steamers, purchased or built during the war expressly for blockading operations.  With only 21 vessels, the squadron could patrol entrances to ports, but not conduct the patrols ranging to intercept traffic further out at sea.  A function of the change to the blockade.  No longer were the Federals concerned about catching speedy runners before they reached the coast.  Instead, the effort was more of an effort to reestablish the traffic controls through formal ports of entry.

The orders continued, relating the intent for personnel reductions:

Fill up the vessels that remain as the fixed force of the squadron with their complement of officers and men. Retain for this purpose good volunteer officers, so far as possible those who wish to continue a while longer in the service, and send north all other volunteer officers, for the purpose of being mustered out of the service. Of the men, send home those who have the least time to serve.

In forwarding to the Department a list of the vessels retained, send with it lists of the officers of each and complete muster rolls of their crews, the latter to the Bureau of Equipment and Recruiting.

As for equipment, supplies, and materials formerly of the Confederacy:

All properties hitherto belonging to the rebel Naval Department, or that was under its control, will be taken possession of by you, and an account taken, with an estimate of the value thereof, and forwarded to this Department.  If such property is in possession of the United States military forces, make a written request for it, and report your action to this Department, that the necessary orders may be given by the War Department for delivery to the Navy.

And with peace, came the need to reduce expenses:

Economize in the use of coal, and give directions to all vessels to keep steam down, expect in an emergency, of which the senior officer shall judge, under directions of the commander of the squadron.

Lastly, the command changed titles and would thereafter be known as the “South Atlantic Squadron.”

The reduction of the squadron, already started after the fall of Charleston, accelerated.  On June 3, Dahlgren noted in his diary:

The Passaic left, in tow of the Calypso.  A steady worker for two and one half years, and the first monitor in commission after the Monitor.

Those orders went forward, as so many for the Squadron during the war, by dispatch vessel.  With no need for haste, the orders did not arrive at Charleston prior to the middle of June.  By that time, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren was already in Washington!  As result, on June 21, Dahglren wrote that the target force reductions were exceeded:

Under a previous order to send home vessels that needed much repair, or were inefficient, I had sent home so many vessels … that the force was reduced below the number of steamers (15) fixed by the Department.

The deeper cut did not reverse the Navy’s demobilization.  In July, Rear-Admiral William Radford took command of the Atlantic Squadron, which covered all vessels operating from the toe of Florida to the York River in Virginia.  The Navy further reduced Radford’s squadron to ten steamers after that time.

By July 1, aside from the steamers, tugs, and other support vessels, only two monitors were assigned to the South Atlantic Squadron.  These were the USS Catskill in Charleston and the USS Nahant repairing at Port Royal.

The Catskill left Charleston on July 13, bound for Philadelphia.  A few weeks later the Nahant sailed north also.  The once formidable South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, which had operated some of the world’s most advanced warships of the day, had dwindled down to a flotilla of gunboats and tugs.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 16, pages 340, 348, and 374.)

May 4, 1865: “The rebel ram Stonewall” on the loose

On May 4, 1865, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren forwarded a copy of orders, posted the previous day to the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, to Major-General Quincy Gillmore.  The copy was in part a courtesy to the Army commander, to let him know of the Navy’s operational matters.  But at the same time was a warning that despite the surrender of Confederate forces, there were many loose ends left untied… and one of those was a rather important, advanced warship sailing on the high seas – the CSS Stonewall.

The Stonewall was an advanced vessel for her time.  And she entered the stage from a backdrop of intrigue and secrecy… of the type novelists love to use.  The ship was laid down at Bordeaux, France in 1863.  Designed by Lucien Arman as an ocean-going ironclad, the Stonewall boasted a 4 ½ inch armor belt along the waterline and a 5 ½ armored pilot’s compartment.  Her offensive power was one 300-pdr (10-inch) and two 150-pdr (8-inch) Armstrong rifles (and there is some indication that at least one 70-pdr (6.4-inch) rifle was also on board when she sailed from Europe).  Add to that firepower the “ram bow” for use in close combat.  And to make that ram even more useful, the Stonewall featured twin screws and rudders, affording greater maneuverability than most vessels of her time.

The Stonewall was one of five “blue water” ironclads ordered from European shipyards by Confederate agents. Two “Laird Rams” were built in England under the cover of an Egyptian customer name.  But those were seized by the British government in the fall of 1863 and then served for the Royal Navy as coast defense vessels.  An armored frigate named Santa Maria, with an impressive twelve 8-inch rifles, was started in the yards of J.L. Thompson and Sons in 1863.  But once the true nature of the work was discovered, the Santa Maria became the Danish Danmark.

In France, Confederate agents contracted for the Stonewall and a sister ship under the cover names Sphinx and Cheops, respectively.  Despite the legal setbacks in England, the work in France continued into 1864.  The intrigue pitted the French Emperor, Napoleon III, against his own government in an effort to see the vessels delivered to the Confederates.  But that was foiled by a leak of information to the US consulate.  As result, the Sphinx was sold to Denmark as the Stærkodder, and her incomplete sister ship to Prussia as the SMS Prinz Adalbert.  Though the Stærkodder received a Danish crew, the shipbuilder and the Danes failed to finalize the deal.  In the confusion, Arman completed a deal with the Confederates.  On January 6, 1865, a Confederate crew went on board the ironclad then in Copenhagen.

With several US cruisers keeping pace, the Stonewall went to sea only to spring a leak and seek a Spanish port.  After repairs, Captain T.J. Page took the Stonewall to sea, only to watch the Federal cruisers run off instead of offering battle.  Page then put in to Lisbon for provisions and fuel in preparation for a trans-Atlantic run.  Not until late April was she ready for sea.  But when she put to sea, the Federals still lacked a vessel capable of intercepting and engaging the Stonewall.  So she posed a significant threat on the high seas during the opening days of May, 1865.

Dahlgren’s copy of General Orders No. 48, forwarded to Gillmore, carried this cover:

General: I am informed by the Navy Department that the rebel ram Stonewall has left Teneriffe, and “her destination is believed to be some point on our coast.” Several vessels of the squadron are cruising along this coast and other orders have been issued.

The referenced orders included notices from the Navy Department, which not only called attention to the movements of the Stonewall, but also the flight of President Jefferson F. Davis. The two seemed connected at the time.  And was not far out of the question for Davis to flee to Cuba using the Stonewall as some executive escape vessel.  Dahlgren’s standing orders were:

The commanders of vessels stationed along the coast will use every means in their power to communicate to the iron-clads at Port Royal and Charleston the earliest intelligence of any vessel approaching the coast resembling the Stonewall, and to prevent the escape of the rebel leader and his accomplices. It is difficult to fix upon any precise point where this vessel might be expected; but once seen every effort should be made to spread the information among the squadron, and to bring the monitors within range of her, particularly to keep sight of her, so as to retain a knowledge of her locality. The Canonicus and Nantucket are at Port Royal: the Passaic and Catskill at Charleston.

At the same time 150 years ago, the Stonewall was nearing Nassau.  She would reach that port on May 6.  Unsure of the situation, Page would then make for Havana, Cuba.  There word of the Confederate surrenders caught up with the Stonewall.  Page opted to “sell” his vessel to Spanish authorities there.  Weeks later, US officials purchased the Stonewall from the Spanish and sailed her to the Washington Navy Yard.  There she studied in detail but generally found to be unsuitable to the needs of the post-war navy. But this did allow for some interesting photos with the Stonewall anchored near some of the Federal monitors for comparison.

The Stonewall‘s mission, when the Confederates first took possession of the ship, was to break the blockade.  She might have raided Port Royal and disrupted the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.  Had she arrived in late January, Page might have even stalled Sherman’s march through South Carolina for a while.  But by itself, the Stonewall was simply not enough to do more than play the fly to the Federal elephant’s advance.  She might have made headlines, but could not have done anything substantial  (as by that time the Confederates had no ports to open!).  As events unfolded, the legal and logistic snags ensured the Stonewall was late even for that minor role.

But the “What if” question remains for us to play around with.  Was the Stonewall, on paper a superior ship to the monitors, a potential game changer?  Well, speaking to the negative of that question, her sister ship in Prussian service was found to leak badly and was deemed a poor handling ship on the seaways.  The Prussians refitted the ship, adding better structures, armor, and Krupp cannons.  Still she was destined to play no role in two wars (Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian) fought during her service period.  The Prinz Adalbert was broken up in 1878.

However, on the positive side of that question, the Stonewall herself went on to a successful career, of sorts, under a different flag in a different kind of civil war.  In 1867, the Stonewall was sold to the Tokugawa Shogunate (for a substantial profit, by the way) and sent off for Japan.  Before arriving, the Shogunate lost ground and the Americans took control of the vessel when it arrived in Yokahama (April 24, 1868).   A deal with the Meiji government delivered the ironclad, then renamed Kōtetsu.  Over the following years, the Kōtetsu fought in several engagements as part of the Boshin War between Shogunate and the Imperial Court.   The most important of which was the battle of Hakodate in May 1869 (but four years removed from her last Confederate days).

There, the Kōtetsu dominated a force of unarmored ships.  That episode might provide some insight into what “might have been” at Port Royal.  Though the Kōtetsu appears to have remained in the coastal waters of Japan throughout these operations, never testing her ability to fight on ocean waters.

The French built ex-Danish, ex-Confederate, ex-American, ex-Shogunate Japanese ironclad was renamed Azuma in 1871 and rated coast-defense battleship.  She was finally stricken in 1888 and used as an accommodation hulk.  But, looking many decades into the future at that time, the former CSS Stonewall was the first rated “battleship” used by the Imperial Japanese Navy.  Many decades later the Azuma‘s descendants would contest an ocean with the descendants of the American monitors, in some of history’s largest naval battles.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part III, Serial 100, pages 299-300.)

March 17, 1865: USS Bibb strikes torpedo – Confederate defenses of Charleston still a problem for Federals

Charleston fell to the Federals on February 18, 1865.  At that point, one might presume the war played out with relatively little activity around Charleston.   Well, I might, if I were not so preoccupied following Sherman’s march, offer a fair quantity of posts detailing the activity at Charleston and vicinity through the end of the war.  The transition from besieged to occupied alone is an interesting story line.  There were several small scale military operations through the end of March which consolidated the Federal hold on the coast while keeping what Confederates remained off balance.  There were dozens of photographs from the Charleston area taken as photographers flocked to the Cradle of Secession to ply their trade.

And, for those of us interested in maps, the Federals took the time to conduct detailed surveys of Charleston harbor and the surrounding area.  Part of that detail went to the men and crew of the Coast Survey steamer USS Bibb.

The Bibb was a common visitor to the waters around Charleston, having spent much time operating with the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.  During the war, one of the Bibb‘s important duties included surveys of the South Carolina waterways to allow the blockaders safe navigation.  And the Coastal Survey men on the Bibb continued that work after Charleston’s fall.  Fleet hydrographer Charles O. Boutelle, commanding the Bibb, was returning to Charleston after surveying the bar in the afternoon of March 17, 1865.  As the ship up the main channel around Sullivan’s Island, there was a sudden explosion, as Boutelle reported:

… we struck a sunken torpedo, which exploded under our port bow about midway between the port guard and the fore channels.

The shock was very severe, the sensation being that of striking a rock, being lifted by it, and passing over it into deep water beyond. The column of water thrown up by it nearly filled the second cutter and unhooked it from the forward davit.  Sixty fathoms of studded mooring chains, 1 ½-inch diameter, coiled upon the port side of the vessel forward, were thrown across the deck.  The knees upon the port side are started out, and the joiner work shows signs of the blow received. The surface blow pipes are broken on both sides.

In spite of that damage, Boutelle felt the Bibb could be returned to service within three days.  Though he did want to ground the vessel to conduct a more thorough damage survey.

When encountering a mine… er … torpedo, one wants to ascertain if there are more in the vicinity, or if this was just one stray that eluded earlier detection efforts.  Toward that end, Boutelle offered a very good position of the torpedo:

Angles taken half a minute before the explosion fix our position at the time. The new light east of Fort Moultrie, on Sullivan’s Island, bore north 85º east, distant 1,530 yards, and the flagstaff at Battery Bee bore N. 27º east, distant 744 yards. The depth of water was 25 feet at mean low water. The explosion occurred at 5:25 p.m., when the tide had not risen over 6 inches. As our position was directly in the track over which many vessels have passed, I infer that the torpedoes must have been placed low in the water where vessels of ordinary draft would pass over it at high tide.  The Bibb draws 10 feet at the point where she struck the torpedo.

And, we can see that exact plot on the survey map of Charleston harbor completed by Boutelle later in the spring (though he put an incorrect date in the notation):


Boutelle went on to suggest that vessels entering Charleston stick close to Sullivan’s Island “until the channel has been cleared of all hidden dangers.”

Two days later, the USS Massachusetts was heading out of Charleston when it struck a torpedo.  “Fortunately it did not explode.  The keel must have torn it from its moorings, for it struck the ship heavily under the starboard quarter and came up to the surface from under the propeller cut in two,” reported Lieutenant-Commander W. H. West.


West continued to say, as you can see from the map, he was very close to the buoy placed on the wreck of the USS Patapsco.  West attempted to recover the torpedo but the device sank before a launch could get to it.

This activity prompted Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren to report, on March 21, to Washington on the torpedo issues at Charleston.  From the days after Charleston’s capture, Dahlgren had ships and details working to clear the devices.  Aside from the Bibb and Massachusetts, the tug USS Jonquil had a frame torpedo explode while in the process of recovery, though causing no damage.  Regarding Bibb‘s torpedo, Dahlgren wrote:

There is no doubt that this is one of the sixteen put down at this place, and which every exertion has been made to raise for several days, but without success, as they slip from the sweeps.

The men who put them down say that General Hardee gave the orders a few nights before the disaster to the Patapsco, and that they finished that very night, which is further confirmation of the statement that these devices were reserved until a move by us was expected.

Dahlgren went on to note that torpedoes were alleged to be prepared for the CSS Charleston for use when that vessel was operative, to drop against any pursuers. The Federals also found a large number being prepared in Charleston when the city fell.

The divers are now here and will endeavor to raise the boiler torpedoes.

I am inclined to the belief that many of the floating torpedoes have been carried to the bottom in cutting away the rope obstructions.

It is reported that other torpedoes will be found at other places, but it requires time to find them by sweeping in such deep water.

Dahlgren continued efforts to clear the channel and render the port safe to enter.  Confederate torpedoes had achieved a strategic importance well beyond the meager effort expended.

While a localized event, the explosion of the torpedo against the Bibb draws back to the logistical issues facing Major-General William T. Sherman.  He’d captured Savannah in December, but the main port was not open sufficiently to allow deep water vessels to supply the army in January.  Likewise, with Charleston and Wilmington in Federal hands in March, the ports were still not cleared in sufficient time to aid Sherman’s movements through the Carolinas … at least to the capacity required.  Instead, Sherman would draw upon supplies sent to Morehead City, up the railroad to New Bern and Kinston.  It was not so much that Federal quartermasters lacked the supplies, the problem was moving those supplies to the point needed.  And the Federal transportation system for that leg of the supply chain depended upon a single rail line… which, recall, had but five engines.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 1 pages 295-6 and 296-7.)

Sherman’s March, February 27, 1865: “I cannot dry up the river…” as floods continue to delay the march

Most days, as I draw the maps showing the route of march, I’ll have long blue lines running from point to point.  Today, you see none of that.  On February 27, 1865, all of Major-General William T. Sherman’s columns slowed and waited for the flood waters to fall.


For the day, Major-General Oliver O. Howard’s orders to the Right Wing were:

Owing to the freshet, the orders of march for to-day are so modified to make the first stage, to get everything across the Lynch as soon as it can be done, and then begin the march on Cheraw, for which three days will be designated.

The Fifteenth Corps built footbridges and laid some pontoons at their two separate crossing points.  Troops were across the river, but wagons could not cross.  So resupply was only accomplished by hand. The trouble faced at each crossing point was the river was not a single channel due to the flood.  In addition to the normal river width, the Federals faced overflows, often up to 1,000 yards, on each side. At Tiller’s Bridge, the 1st Missouri Engineers struggled against the overflows, and further worked to ease the concentration of forces at the crossing site:

The bridge of the first section over [Lynches River] was in good order, but the overflow on the west side was 700 feet wide and from three to four and a half feet deep; on the east side it was a half or three quarters of a mile wide.  We laid the ponton and built trestles on the west side fording the east side. The second section at 6:30 took out four boats and corduroyed the road across the creek in rear of the Third Division; then took up the bridge, went to [Lynches River] and worked the train until 10 p.m., when they were ordered to cross, which owing to the darkness, too until 4 a.m.

A long day for the engineers. At Kelly’s Bridge, Major-General William Hazen reported the positive news that, “The river at this point has fallen about three inches….”  Imagine, Sherman’s entire campaign was down to a measure of vertical inches of floodwater.

Seventeenth Corps likewise worked on bridging, and waited for the waters to fall.  Major-General Frank Blair described the area around Young’s Bridge:

… we found the road [and] bottom lands adjoining overflowed for a considerable distance on each side, the water being from two to six feet in depth for a distance of about 200 yards on west and 1,500 yards on east side.

By afternoon of the 27th, the Corps had some bridging done. “About 2,500 men were engaged upon the work, and comleted 850 feet of bridging and 7,000 feet of corduroyed road on stringers before 5 p.m….”  At the fore of the advance, Brigadier-General Manning Force reported some progress:

… my command in camp about three-quarters of a mile from the bridge.  I propose, it meeting your approbation, to cross all my train to-night and let the troops remain on this side until morning. In the event of heavy rain and the water rising will move at once.

The Right Wing would at least have passage over the river for the next day.

The Twentieth Corps made a movement of just a few miles on the 27th.  The main effort was to consolidate the trains on the east side of Hanging Rock Creek. Major-General John Geary reported the ford used had a “smooth, rocky bottom.”  Geary further observed, “The soil continues treacherous and full of quicksands….”

Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry remained at Lancaster for the day, continuing the missions of guarding the left flank of the advance while putting up appearances of an advance on Charlotte.  In a note to Sherman, Kilpatrick proposed remaining on the flanks until the Fourteenth Corps was clear of the river crossings.  The cavalryman wanted to move from there through the headwaters of Lynches River instead of following the infantry.  As for his command and the Confederates he faced:

The country here is good; forage plenty. My command has been resting for two days, and is in better condition than at any time during the march. We have captured a large number of mules and some horses, and have mounted all my dismounted men, save 300. I think Hampton’s and Wheeler’s forces combined amount to about 6,000 fighting men. Notwithstanding this superiority of numbers, I shall attack if a favorable opportunity offers. The road upon which I shall march is the best in the country. I will keep you advised daily as to my operations and position.

Kilpatrick always seemed ready for a fight – one way or the other.  Sherman approved Kilpatrick’s plan of movement, though he reiterated the importance of maintaining communication.

It was at Rocky Mount Ferry where the anxious hours continued to burn away.  Major-General Jefferson C. Davis still had the Fourteenth Corps astride the Catawba River. Davis shook things up a bit to cure what he felt was an inefficiency with the pontoons.  Davis was fed up with the work of the engineers to that point.  Brigadier-General George Buell, Second Brigade, First Division, assumed overall control of the bridge-laying operations.  With the change made, Davis reported to Major-General Henry Slocum, adjusting his itinerary, hoping to cross that afternoon.  Davis added:

This is the best that can possibly be hoped for under the circumstances.  I am doing everything that man can do, but I cannot dry up the river that separates my command; it has fallen about eighteen inches and is still falling.  I do not know what the emergency is in the front, but presume it must be very great, judging by the general’s dispatches, and am working accordingly.

Slocum retraced the route back to the crossing that day to personally ensure no more time was lost.

Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Moore, commanding the pontoons, then following Buell’s instructions, laid a 680 foot long bridge about a half mile downstream from the original point.  Moore observed, “Here the current was not so rapid, and by 11 p.m. we completed the bridge….”  The first troops crossed over at midnight.  However, there was some difference of opinion which lingered after the war – was it Buell, persistence of Moore, or falling waters that enabled the crossing?  Perhaps all of the above.

While the bridging operations were going on, a foraging party met Confederate cavalry near Rocky Mount Creek.  The 104th Illinois had lost nine men from a foraging detail the day before, and on the 27th, a better armed party met an equally reinforced Confederate cavalry force.  The skirmish served to underscore the vulnerability of the Fourteenth Corps, as it struggled to catch up with the rest of the column.

The extended dispositions, with several columns outside range of mutual support due to the flood waters, did not go unnoticed on the Confederate side.  Major-General Matthew C. Butler reported to Lieutenant-General William Hardee, then in Cheraw with the forces withdrawn from Charleston, about an opportunity he noticed to his front.  “I think that if our troops were concentrated now and thrown rapidly upon the Fifteenth Corps very serious damage may be inflicted.”  Indeed, the opportunity appeared clear on any map one might draw.  The problem was that Hardee’s force was even less mobile than the Federals.  If the flooded rivers had isolated some of the Federal commands, it had likewise pinned the Confederate forces in place.  Butler went on to add his observations of Sherman’s supplies:

Prisoners taken on the 23d report Sherman’s army to have only five days’ rations, and were moving toward Wilmington or Georgetown. He has been foraging very extensively along his line of march, no house within reach of his main column has been passed by, and all supplies have been taken from the inhabitants by foraging parties of infantry mounted on captured horses.

As designed, Sherman’s command was living off the land as it moved.  But at some point, just as Butler and other Confederate commanders speculated, Sherman had to turn towards the sea for military supplies.  Though Sherman did not know at the time, Federal efforts along the South Carolina coast anticipated a move to a port facility.  Somewhat contrary to orders sent from Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant, Major-General Quincy Gillmore pushed out from Charleston to the Santee River railroad bridge.  And Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren occupied Georgetown, South Carolina on February 25th.   While none of this changed Sherman’s agenda, it did leave question marks in the minds of many Confederate leaders.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 380, 427, and 689; Part II, Serial 99, pages 597, 598, 599, 600, 603, and 1288; William A. Neal, An illustrated History of the Missouri Engineer and the 25th Infantry Regiments, Chicago: Donohue & Henneberry, 1889, page 170.)