February 9, 1865: Changes in the Department of the South – Foster out, Gillmore back in command

The change of command had been forecast weeks before.  But the switch was made official on February 9, 1865.  Major-General John Foster issued General Orders No. 15 for the Department of the South from Hilton Head that day:

Having been granted a leave of absence, on account of disability from wounds, I hereby transfer the command of this department during my absence to Maj. Gen. Q.A. Gillmore, U.S. Volunteers, in accordance with orders from the War Department.

Gillmore posted General Orders No. 16 announcing his assumption, temporary assumption, of command.

Foster had suffered a hard fall from his horse the previous winter, while serving in Tennessee.  That, along with effects of other, older wounds, took a toll on the forty-one year old general.  Earlier he’d worked a request, by way of his wife, to secure a leave of absence.  One historian has cast this as a move “in order to save face….” But there seems to be little weight for that inference.

Major-General William T. Sherman had recognized Foster’s impairment, starting on the night after Fort McAllister fell.  When Foster’s department was placed under Sherman’s military division, the two continued to work together.  Sherman avoided replacing Foster during January when authorities in Washington had offered several able replacements.  Instead, Sherman worked with Foster, launched the march into South Carolina, and was issuing instructions to his subordinate right up until the day of the change in command.  In fact, even after the change, Sherman still addressed correspondence to Foster (particularly on February 24 and March 12!).  The simple explanation is Foster was physically impaired at that point.  And was thus not able to share the laurels that were to come.

However, this change came at a critical time.  In a very thorough (better than Gillmore left on his departure the previous spring, I might add) letter, Foster described the operational and tactical situation.  Referencing Sherman’s written instructions (and recall those of February 7 still had not reached the coast), Foster explained:

General Sherman’s written instructions may be modified in execution if the circumstances warrant it; for instance, if the enemy show a disposition to evacuate Charleston he may be felt strongly, and if the evacuation actually takes place the works are to be occupied and the diversion in Bull’s Bay may not then be made. Secondly. After carrying out the instructions regarding the operation at Bull’s Bay, if, in the judgment of the commander of the department, an additional operation may be attempted on Sullivan’s Island, as the admiral desires, he may undertake it if circumstances be favorable. This must not, however, be to the prejudice of anything specially directed by General Sherman.

As for ongoing operations, Foster described each in detail.  Brigadier-General John Hatch was over the Salkehatchie-Combahee with orders to pursue the Confederates along the railroad.  “This ought to be done as far as the Ashepoo if possible, and under very favorable circumstances to the Edisto.”

Brigadier-General Henry Prince, at Pocotaligo, held detachments from Sherman’s army to guard communications with Sherman’s columns. While Hatch might be withdrawn when Sherman reached the vicinity of Columbia, Prince’s base was to be maintained indefinitely, by order of Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant.

Foster continued, as he knew Gillmore’s attention would be focused on Charleston:

As far as operations in Charleston Harbor is concerned, the commander of the department may co-operate with the admiral in any way that he may judge proper, provided the written instructions be first fully carried out. General Sherman did not favor any serious operation about Charleston Harbor, but was willing to yield his objections if the commanding officer, after carrying out his essential directions, judged he had an opportunity favorable enough to warrant the risk of a serious attack. General Sherman attached more importance to the flank movement at Ball’s Bay and Georgetown. Major Gray informed me that General Sherman desired the operation at Bull’s Bay to be made six days from that day (the 8th instant). The force for this is assembled at the Stono.

The date set for the demonstration at Bull’s Bay is rather important to set in context.  On the day Foster and Gillmore changed the guidon, Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig was preparing for a joint operation into the Stono River.  The objective was to demonstrate against James and John’s Islands.  This operation was timed to work with another naval operation on the North Edisto.  Foster had sent instructions for that operation on February 6.  And due to Sherman’s notes on February 8, complaining about delays due to the bad roads, Foster intended to continue those demonstrations.  The intent was to make feints on one side of Charleston before withdrawing the troops to land on the other side at Bull’s Bay.

The problem here was there being only so many troops in the department to perform all these demonstrations.  Hatch had about 3,500 men.  Schimmelfennig could scrape together about 1,000.  By removing troops from Schimelfennig and pulling others from around Hilton Head, the Federals could put 1,300 men under Brigadier-General Edward Potter at Bull’s Bay.  It is not clear from the record if Foster or Gillmore decided Bull’s Bay would have priority.  But regardless the abrupt change caused problems with the navy.

While Sherman appeared to remain aloof from the change in command, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren was unsettled to say the least.  On February 10, one of Dahlgren’s officers returned from Hilton Head with news,

… General Foster told him that the Stono must be over and the troops must be going to Bull’s Bay by this time. Also, that General Gillmore had taken command. How vexatious!  If General Gillmore had left a note with Captain Reynolds, saying what he designed to do, it would have been easy enough.

Dahlgren was not happy with the prospect of another operation with the general.  The two had not parted on cordial terms the previous spring.  Dahlgren hung the failure to take Charleston earlier in 1863 on Gillmore.  Now Gillmore was back to share in the laurels of the capture of the city.

While Foster departed having given Gillmore a fair appreciation for the situation, there is one thing he retained and which would serve to inhibit operations that followed.  Foster had possession of the cypher used by Sherman to encrypt messages.  This was the same cypher given to Dahlgren in January. Gillmore was not part of that “circle of friends”… if I may.  On February 13, when Sherman’s orders written on February 7 finally arrived at the coast, Gillmore couldn’t read the message.  He had to beg Dahlgren for assistance.

The good news, however, was that the end at Charleston was near.  These personal issues and counter-marches would not stand in the way of eventual success.  The matter was at that time being decided well to the north of Charleston.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, pages 367 and 369; ORN, Series I, Volume 16, page 367;  E. Milby Burton, The Siege of Charleston: 1861-1865, Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1970, page 314.)

Sherman’s March, February 7, 1865: The South Carolina Railroad falls to Sherman

Thus far into the narrative discussing Major-General William T. Sherman’s march into South Carolina, one major factor which played into the Savannah Campaign had not been much importance.  That would be the railroads.  Other than the Charleston & Savannah Railroad along the coast, the Federal advance encountered no lines. That is until February 7, 1865.  On that day, Sherman directed his leading columns at the South Carolina Railroad.  The aim was to cut the line providing direct connection between Charleston and Augusta.


Most of the laurels that day fell again to the Right Wing of Major-General Oliver O. Howard.  Marching orders for the 7th had the Fifteenth moving to Bamberg and the Seventeenth towards Midway.  Because he was traveling with Fifteenth Corps, Sherman gave direct instructions to Major-General John Logan.  Other than suggesting leading the march with two divisions in light marching order, Sherman directed that once upon the railroad “every rail must be twisted.” Other than suggesting leading with two divisions in light marching order, he left the details to the corps commander:

I will be with you, but want you to fight your own battles, as I am a non-combatant.  The enemy ought to fight us, but I don’t believe he will.

Sherman was correct. The Confederates did not contest the movement.  Logan recorded for the march:

The advance was unopposed, and with the exception of felled timber in the crossing of Lemon Swamp, which delayed the column a short time, the march was made with ease and celerity, my mounted infantry striking the railroad at Bamberg, or Lowry’s Station, by 9.30 a.m., and by 12 m. I had two brigades at work tearing up the track and piling up ties and rails preparatory to burning and twisting the same.

That evening, Logan deployed the divisions in a strong perimeter around the town.  On Logan’s right, Major-General Frank Blair’s Seventeenth Corps likewise met no formal resistance, but had a tough time crossing the creeks and swamps:

… the command moved forward through a drenching rain and over almost impassable roads toward Midway Station, on South Carolina Railroad. We rebuilt three bridges at Lemon’s Swamp, and succeeded in getting the Fourth Division and one brigade of the First Division into position covering the station.

To feel out the Confederate dispositions beyond to the Edisto River, mounted patrols fanned out to Holman’s Bridge, Binnaker’s Bridge, Cannon’s Bridge, the Edisto Railroad Bridge, and Walker’s Bridge (smaller blue dashed lines on my map).  Most of the bridges were already destroyed.  The patrols fought brief skirmishes at the Railroad Bridge and Cannon’s Bridge.  But this confirmed no Confederate force waited on the east side of the Edisto.

To the left of the Fifteenth Corps, Major-General Alpheus S. Williams moved two divisions of Twentieth Corps towards Graham’s Station.  At 2 p.m., Williams reported his progress:

My advance is within two miles of the railroad.  My column is badly stretched out, owing to the swollen condition of the streams.  I have three brigades in hand and shall move on the railroad at once, and shall bring up my whole command to that point to-night. I am satisfied from the report of prisoners that there is nothing but one brigade of cavalry (perhaps more) in my front. They are withdrawing.

By nightfall, Williams had the two divisions in camp along the railroad.

Further to the left of the advance, Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s Cavalry advanced on Blackville.  After skirmishing with some of Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry, the Federals gained the town and the railroad there. With that, nearly twenty-five miles of the railroad line were in Federal hands by nightfall.

Boasting of his success thus far, Kilpatrick wrote to Sherman, “At any moment you desire I can drive Wheeler into the Edisto, and think save any bridge you may name.”  But Sherman was not concerned with the Edisto for the moment, and directed the cavalryman to focus on the railroad for the moment.  Any crossing of the Edisto (technically the South Fork of the Edisto) would be further upstream.  “Don’t risk much, but keep your horses and men well in hand.”

Further south, five divisions in the “second wave” were still struggling with the swamps.  Major-General John Geary’s Second Division, Twentieth Corps had trouble crossing the Coosawhatchie Swamp.  Spending most of the day cordurying and bridging, not until 4 p.m. could the men begin crossing.  Behind them, the First Division, Fourteenth Corps made an equally difficult march, only gaining nine miles using the road up from Brighton.  The other two divisions of the Fourteenth Corps did little movement on the 7th, as they replenished supplies and did improvements to the roads.

However Major-General John Corse did make significant progress in his march to rejoin the Fifteenth Corps.  From his camp that evening at Hickory Hill, reporting to Sherman he wrote:

I know not how anxious you may be to have me with you, but I assure you not more so than I am. Our roads have proven execrable. I worked all one day on a swamp about three and a half miles long. If I can get this bridge done to-day I will move heaven and earth to join you day after to-morrow, if you are not too far from me. Please let me know of your whereabouts as soon as practicable after the reception of this. Slocum is to-day about Duck Branch Post-Office with Geary; Davis is–God knows where, for the roads are such I have no doubt he is nearer the infernal regions than he ever was before. I hope you have a few green leaves of all the fresh wreaths you are winning left for.

At least past the Coosawhatchie, Corse and the others could expect to find corduroyed roads and intact bridges in the wake of the earlier marches.

Along the coast, Brigadier-General John Hatch’s men advanced, somewhat tentatively, along the railroad.  By day’s end they could report three miles gained.  But knowing veteran troops opposed them, Hatch ordered his men to entrench for the night.  Discretion was the better part of valor for a column engaged in a demonstration.

That evening, Sherman sent a note to Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren indicating his progress and directing future movements.  Sherman’s message indicated he was keeping a lot of options open:

We are on the South Carolina road, at Midway, and will break fifty miles, from Edisto toward Augusta, and then cross toward Columbia. Weather is bad and country full of water. This cause may force me to turn against Charleston. I have ordered Foster to move Hatch up to the Edisto, about Jacksonborough and Willstown. Also to make that lodgment about Bull’s Bay. Watch Charleston close. I think Davis will order it to be abandoned, lest he lose its garrison as well as guns. We are all well and the enemy retreats before us. Send word to New Berne that you have heard from me, and the probabilities are that high waters may force me to the coast before I reach North Carolina, but to keep Wilmington busy.

An interesting observation made by Dahglren with respect to Sherman was, “I notice that all these letters he writes himself.”  And the message of February 7 was one asking for specific actions.  Unfortunately, due to the distances involved, the message was not in Dahlgren’s hands until February 14.  By that time, the situation had changed considerably.  Instead, the operation at Bull’s Bay had assumed the higher priority.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 224 and 377 ; Part II, Serial 99, pages 321, 328, 336, and 338. )

January 26, 1865: “Ships were made to be lost” – USS Dai Ching abandoned and burned

I’m a bit off my sesquicentennial timing, but hope the reader will grant the grace of a day’s slip in the timeline.  I mentioned yesterday evening the movements of Federal gunboats along the South Carolina coast as the Navy supported Major-General William T. Sherman’s preparations for his South Carolina march.  Of those gunboat operations, the one which raised the most attention, on either side of the lines, was that of the gunboat USS Dai Ching and tug USS Clover as they moved up the Combahee River.   Lieutenant-Commander James C. Chaplin skippered the gunboat, while Acting Ensign Franklin S. Leach commanded the tug.

In the evening of January 25, Chaplin anchored the Dai Ching at the mouth of the Combahee.  His pilot, who’d been transferred from another ship for this operation, was concerned about ascending the river at night.  A bit of background here – the Dai Ching had operated on the Georgia coast earlier in the fall.  It was necessary to obtain a pilot familiar with the South Carolina waters.  So they took on Stephen Small, a colored man from the USS Stettin.  The Dai Ching herself was moderately armed as gunboats went for the time – one 6.4-inch Parrott Rifle, two 20-pdr Parrotts, and four 24-pdr howitzers.  The Clover carried a 12-pdr gun and a 12-pdr howitzer.

At 6 a.m. the following morning the watches reported a boat heading down stream.  The men on the boat identified themselves as crew “from the schooner Coquette, loaded with 74 bales of cotton, and lying about 2 miles below where the batteries at Tar Bluff,” some five miles above the Federal’s anchorage. The map below depicts the locations of the ships in the Combahee during the day, generally… as the base map dates to the 1820s:


Wasting no time, Chaplin got underway to with this prize in mind:

At 7.30 a.m. we went to quarters, the earthworks on Tar Bluff being in sight, though no guns or men could be seen with a glass from the masthead.  We were now about 2 miles from the works, and nearly up to the schooner.  Acting Master George Howorth was sent with an armed crew in the first cutter to take possession of the prize, and the tug was ordered to take her in tow, and follow us on up the river.  When within a mile of the earthworks, and while training the 20-pounder rifle upon it, the rebels opened upon us with three guns, one shot falling short, the other two going over our deck.  The engines were immediately reversed, the ship turned and headed down the river, with the intention of engaging them in the reach below, where we would be less exposed to rebel fire.  While turning a very sharp bend, the wind blowing fresh down the river, with a strong ebb tide, I perceived that the ship would run into the bank on our starboard bow, and discovered that the pilot had deserted the bridge. I immediately rang three bells, but before the ship could be backed, she forged ahead into the bank, where she remained fast.

Aground, the Dai Ching could only engage the Confederates with the howitzers and aft-end 20-pounder rifle.  Chaplin signaled the Clover to assist while his crew cleared the rails to allow the big 6.4-inch Parrott to pivot in line to fire on the Confederates, “which soon commenced playing on the enemy, doing good execution.”  But Chaplin’s efforts to get the gunboat off were unsuccessful:

The tug came up, and while attempting to take our line, got in between the ship and the bank, and with great difficulty we succeeded in springing her out.  She then took our line, which parted, and instead of returning and taking a hawser, which was ready, she stood on down the river.

The Clover stood down river for some forty-five minutes.  Next Chaplin dispatched Howorth in the cutter in an attempt to reach the USS Pawnee, which was operating in the Ashepoo River nearby.  When Howorth got downstream to the Clover, he insisted the tug take him out to the Coquette.  This movement left the Dai Ching both stranded and isolated.

As the tide fell, the Dai Ching settled fast by the stern.  The Federals expended all their 20-pdr ammunition engaging the Confederates.  In exchange, the gunboat was “struck more than 30 times, her decks were shot through in six or seven places, one shot going through the reinforce deck, lodging in the berth deck.”  One of the Confederates shots penetrated below the waterline.  Chaplin ordered all the crew off the ship into the nearby marsh, save those needed to work the big Parrott.  At 2:30 p.m. a Confederate shot hit the rifle’s carriage and put it out of action.  With little other option at hand, Chaplin ordered the gunboat abandoned.  At 3 p.m. the last of the officers set the ship on fire and made for the marshes.

After returning from the Coquette, Leach only took the Clover up river to a point three miles from the Dai Ching.  Leach would claim with an ebb tide, he could not make way up the river to aid the gunboat.  Chaplin and crew worked their way across four miles of marsh before finally getting to the tug.  That evening the survivors were taken on board the Pawnee.

Although the Federals reported they’d engaged 7-inch Brooke Rifles, there were no Confederate guns of that type within many miles of the Combahee.  If the reports filed earlier in the month are accurate, the heaviest weapons firing on the Dai Ching were 24-pounders.

The court of inquiry investigating the loss of the Dai Ching placed no blame on Chaplin.  Rather the court felt Small, the pilot, was at fault for the grounding, indicating he “behaved in a most cowardly manner in deserting his post when the first shot was fired…”  Furthermore the court felt Leach “displayed great negligence” when he failed to aid the Dai Ching. Lastly the court considered Howorth’s actions “highly reprehensible” for insisting the Clover fall down the river so he could carry the message to the Pawnee.

In his assessment of the loss, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren noted:

The Dai Ching was the least valuable in many respects of the light-draft gunboats, her speed under steam being less than 5 knots, and her only heavy gun a 100-pounder.

Of course I would not risk even that much without sufficient reason.

Even more succinct and to the point, when appraised of the gunboat’s fate, Sherman responded, “Tell Admiral Dahlgren I regret the loss of the Dai Ching, but can quote Admiral Porter, who told me once that ships were made to be ‘lost’.”

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 16, pages 191, 192-3, 199-200; OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, page 162.)

January 24 – 26, 1865: Gunboats probe along the South Carolina coast

While Major-General William T. Sherman worked his wide-spaced wings into position to start the invasion of South Carolina during the latter half of January 1865, the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron launched several forays up the rivers along the South Carolina coast.  In part these were to test the Confederate defenses.  But Sherman and Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren, commanding the squadron, hoped these efforts would convince the Confederates that Charleston remained the next objective.  For the most convincing act, Sherman requested a move on the Edisto or Stono Rivers.

Writing to authorities in Washington on January 24, 1865, Dahlgren summed up the dispositions for these operations:

I have the Dai Ching and a tug in the Combahee to assist the move at that ferry.

The Sonoma is in the North Edisto, and the Pawnee leaves at early light with a tug for the Ashepoo, where a battery and obstructions are reported.

The orders of all are to drive the rebel pickets and knock down his batteries where they an be reached.

The Tuscarora, Mingoe, State of Georgia, and Nipsic are at Georgetown, with orders to prevent the erection there of any batteries.

The Pontiac is in the Savannah River, at Purysburg, advancing with General Sherman’s extreme left.  The demonstration desired by General Sherman at Charleston may be said to be begun by the collection there of so many ironclads.

In addition to simply letting the monitors, including those recently arrived, Dahlgren prepared a demonstration on the Stono River.  The USS St. Louis  sent launches up the North Edisto River, reaching Togodo Creek, to map any obstructions and torpedoes.   Later the USS Sonoma made her way up the North Edisto.  The USS Wissahickon and USS Commodore McDonough let themselves be seen in the familiar waterways of the Stono River.

I’ve already discussed the operations of the USS Pontiac on the Savannah River.  And operations closer to Charleston were more of “motions” to be seen.  The interesting operations were on the Combahee and Ashepoo Rivers.


The USS Pawnee and tug USS Daffodil drew the assignment on the Ashepoo River.  Although Federal patrols had probed the river on several occasions, the channel was far too shallow for any extensive operations.   A small fort guarded the Ashepoo.  But the Confederates either had already abandoned the work or remained quiet when the Daffodil fired “some twenty or thirty rounds” on January 26.

The USS Dai Ching and the tug USS Clover were to work up the Combahee River.  Earlier the Dai Ching was operating in support of the Right Wing’s movements from Port Royal Island.  On January 22, after a conference with Major-General Oliver O. Howard, the gunboat moved over to the Combahee.   Acting Ensign Walter Walton recalled that Howard,

… informed me that the Dai Ching could not be of any possible service to him at Port Royal Ferry, but would be a great protection to his right flank, if the Dai Ching ascended the Combahee River as far as Combahee Ferry, as he intended sending troops there to prevent the rebels from crossing at that point.

At other places and times during the war, Dahlgren was somewhat sensitive about any army officer prompting changes to the dispositions of his ships.  In this case, either the admiral acquiesced based on prior agreements, or was simply too involved with other matters to worry.  No records of official requests to Dahlgren survive. However, as the message to Washington cited above implies, on January 24, Dahlgren was on board with the movement of the Dai Ching.    In addition, at 4 p.m. on January 24, Dahlgren wrote to Sherman to verify, “The Dai Ching in the Combahee, with orders to annoy the rebels as much as possible, to land and drive in their pickets.”   Yet, it is important to note that at no time leading up to the posting of the Dai Ching did Sherman or any other army officer give any indication of advancing across the Combahee or Salkehatchie until the Left Wing was in position.

The aggressive posting of the Dai Ching would lead to a setback for the Federals on January 26.

(ORN, Series I, Volume 16, page 187, 188, 195, and 196.)

Re-enforcements for the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron

The fall of Fort Fisher allowed the Navy to shift some weight around on the Atlantic coast.  At the start of the month the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron (NABS) had almost sixty warships concentrated at the mouth of the Cape Fear River.  And with the fall of the bastion, the Federals could reduce that commitment.  Commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron (SABS), Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren hoped some of those ships could proceed to Charleston in anticipation of supporting Major-General William T. Sherman’s advance into South Carolina.

On January 19, 1865, some of those warships from the NABS arrived at Charleston and Port Royal.  Reporting to the Navy Department on January 20, Dahlgren detailed the arrivals:

The monitors Canonicus and Mahopac arrived here yesterday; also the Shenandoah, Juniata, Ticonderoga, Tuscarora, and State of Georgia.

The Mohican has arrived at Port Royal.

To-day arrived the Monadnock and Keystone State.

These were indeed some powerful additions to the blockade off Charleston.  The monitors USS Canonicus and USS Mahopac were mates in a class of monitors which improved upon the basic Passaic-class.  These carried two XV-inch Dahlgren guns in the turret.  This view of the Mahopac on the Appomattox River shows their wartime appearance:

Note the signal tower in the background.

The Canonicus-class worked their way into a lot of photos, mostly due to their long service life.  You’ll note in the distant background of the photo below the profile of a four-stacked warship, indicating a new era in naval warship design:

As the last Civil War monitor afloat at that time, the Canonicus represented the type during the Jamestown Exposition of 1907. Just a few months later, she was scrapped.

The USS Monadnock, however, was a beast of a different class. She was from a class of two-turreted monitors, carrying four XV-inch Dahlgrens.

Dahglren had asked for these type monitors earlier in the year as a counter to Confederate ironclads.  Though larger and heavier than the Canonicus class monitors, the Monadnock actually drew about a foot less water – Just over 12 feet compared to 13 feet of the single-turret monitors.

The other vessels listed were wooden steamers of various types.  Most useful was the USS Shenandoah which could make 15 knots while carrying an armament including a 8-inch Parrott rifle and two XI-inch Dahlgrens.  The USS Juniata, armed with a 6.4-inch Parrott and an XI-inch Dahlgren, could make 9 knots, in good condition.  And the USS Ticonderoga rated 11 knots, when in top condition, while carrying an 8-inch Parrott, six IX-inch Dahlgrens, and a 50-pdr Dahlgren rifle.  Certainly the type of vessels needed to tighten the blockade at Charleston.

Did I say “good condition”?  That was a problem.  Some of these vessels were in poor shape when sent south, as Dahlgren related:

The Canonicus is in good order, but the Mahopac has a XV-inch burst, which can not be replaced here; her decks are reported to leak badly.

The Ticonderoga and Juniata are reported in immediate need of much repair in the steam department; they are now in this harbor, and orders have been given to place them in serviceable condition.

Furthermore, a request from Rear-Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the NABS, would remove one of Dahlgren’s monitors.  On January 19, Porter requested:

I send you the Monadnock.  She is a splendid vessel, but draws rather too much water for my purposes.

Will you send me without delay one of your lightest draft monitors in exchange for her? There are one or two forts on the [Cape Fear] river that I cannot wind up without an ironclad.

What Porter needed was one of the original Passaic-class monitors which drew 10 feet, 6 inches, as they lacked some of the improvements of the later monitors.  That request pressed, Dahlgren sent the USS Montauk.  This put the Montauk on a course that would intersect later in the spring with John Wilkes Booth.

Certainly not content with swapping one monitor for three, Dahlgren continued to press for more.   On January 22, he wrote to the Navy Department asking for more ships and supplies as part of a report on support for Sherman’s plans:

I can not, however, avoid comparing the force at my disposal with that which has been assigned to other admirals.  I have not a single good broadside even of one deck; the Pawnee is the heaviest, 8 guns.

I hope, therefore, the Department may be able to dispatch some vessels of the kind with a draft not exceeding 15 feet, and as much lighter as may be.

I find that the monitors which come here bring no ammunition with them, and thus rendering my stock per gun too low.

I send a steamer to inform the Bureau of this, and ask that a supply of XV-inch ammunition may be sent with all possible dispatch.

Among the more coveted ships, Dahlgren would not receive the USS New Ironsides or the USS Brooklyn.  Those vessels were in need of refit.  Given the work of both vessels at Charleston at earlier points in the war, the presence of both vessels when Fort Sumter finally fell to Federal troops would have been poetic.  But history is prose.

(Citations from ORN, Series I,  Volume 11, page 615; Volume 16, pages 183-185.)


January 16, 1865: Dahlgren sees “a sign of the end.”

Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren’s official diary as commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron was generally constrained to operational matters.  So one would expect mention of the USS Patapsco on January 16, 1865.  And there was mention, along with other matters:

January 16 – General Sherman has sent me the key of the cipher of the Government, only confided to some half dozen persons. The Patapsco’s pipe just peeps above the water and marks her place, 800 yards outside of Sumter. The rebel telegram read, telling the news from Sullivan’s Island to Charleston. Letter from Judge [O.C.] Hopkins, of McIntosh County, asking that he and others might not be molested – a sign of the end.

Interesting what made the “news” in Dahglren’s world:

  • He was, as of that day, part of the “inner circle” of top level leaders managing the prosecution of the war.  He held THE cipher!
  • Dahlgren’s command had lost a major combat vessel, but that only warranted one lamenting sentence.
  • The Federals were still monitoring the Confederate signals across the harbor.  (IMO a SIGINT story that really needs more research on my part.)
  • And lastly, McIntosh County, having been the target of naval raids through the summer and bummers into the last fall, was ready to rejoin the Union.

Nothing came forward in Dahlgren’s correspondence, either to Washington or his command, that indicated the loss of the Patapsco caused any pause or reconsideration.  To Washington, Dahlgren stressed the nature of the work in the Monitors:

No one who has not witnessed it can appreciate the harassing nature of the never-ceasing vigilance with which the monitor duty is sustained in this harbor, no matter what the weather may be – amid the heat of summer and the cold of winter, or the heavy gales and bad weather which so often visit this anchorage.

A year earlier … even six months earlier … the fear of losing just one monitor restrained action at Charleston.  But on January 16, 1865, Dahlgren simply took the loss in stride and looked forward to reinforcements, due to arrive within days.   There was little time to reflect at the Patapsco‘s loss. All that could be done to counter the torpedoes had been done.  Now it was up to the sailors to tend them as best possible. Dahlgren’s focus, and that of the squadron, was to  actions in support Major-General William T. Sherman’s next march.

As Dahlgren wrote 150 years ago today, “a sign of the end.”

(Citations from ORN Series I, Volume 16, pages 174 and 365.)

“We struck and exploded a large torpedo”: Loss of the Patapsco, Part 2

Outside Charleston, the evening of January 15, 1865 began as so many other evenings under the blockade.  As the sun sat behind Charleston, the blockaders moved to their nighttime stations.  In the main ship channel, the USS Patapsco and USS Lehigh proceeded to take up station for their turn as picket monitors.  However, Lieutenant-Commander Stephen P. Quackenbush on the Patapsco had a more involved task that evening than just watching for blockade-runners.  Preparatory to actions against the Confederate defenses, Quackenbush was to cover boats reconnoitering the obstructions placed at the harbor entrance.

In a report filed the next day, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren offered details that night’s operations:

The advance duty of the night had devolved on the Patapsco and Lehigh.  The latter was at anchor in the advance at the reserve station.  The Patapsco got underway and proceeded up the harbor about dark for duty as the picket monitor of the night, and passed on to the usual station some 500 yards farther than the Lehigh.  Here she rounded to, head downstream and to the flood tide.

From this point Captain Quackenbush suffered the Patapsco to drift with the tide, as the best mode of controlling the vessel and covering the operations of the boats.

Three scout boats, with grapnel drags, were now slowly pushed on, while picket boats were pulling on her quarters or beam.

In due time the Patapsco found herself so far up as to be nearly on a line drawn from Sumter to Moultrie, when she steamed down to the vicinity of a buoy, known as the Lehigh, because it marked a projecting shoal where the Lehigh had grounded about a year ago.

Here the engines were stopped and the Patapsco again drifted up.  When near the former position she steamed back, approached the Lehigh buoy, stopped engine, and again drifted up.  When near Sumter Captain Quackenbush steamed down once more, and for the last time….

While the Patapsco drifted in and motored back out against the tide, the Lehigh matched her drift but a bit further out in the main channel:


[The Lehigh] anchored near the Lehigh buoy about 7:45, and some twenty or twenty-five minutes later heard an unusual but not very loud report, saw a cloud of smoke, lost sight of the Patapsco, which previously had been dimly visible through the obscurity of the night, then heard men’s voices as if from the water, and fearing something was wrong, sent her boats to the Patapsco and weighed anchor.

Quackenbush observed:

On proceeding down the third time, and when within between 200 and 300 yards of the buoy, we struck and exploded a large torpedo, or torpedoes, about 30 feet from the bow and a little on the port side. The instant I discovered that we had been struck, I gave the order to start the pumps.  In an instant more I discovered that the whole forward part of the vessel was submerged, and, there being no possible chance to save the vessel, I then gave the order to man the boats, but before even an effort could be made to do so that vessel had sunk to the top of the turret.  The boat which hung at the port davits abaft the turret was afloat before Acting Ensign A. P. Bashford and the quartermaster of the watch, who were with me on the port side of the turret, could get into the boat to clear the falls.  It was by great exertion that Mr. Bashford and the quartermaster succeeded clearing the boat from the head of the davits.  When I left the turret to get to into the boat I could discover nobody on board, and the water was at the time ankle deep on the turret.

Within minutes of striking the torpedo, the Patapsco was under water.   Including Quackenbush, five officers and forty-three men escaped the monitor.  Sixty-two went down with the ship.

The torpedo that sank the Patapsco was among those laid by Captain John Simon, in charge of the Torpedo Service detachment in Charleston.  Two days after the sinking, Simon proudly wrote:

I have the honor to report the destruction of one of the enemy’s monitors on the night of the 15th instant by a torpedo in Charleston Harbor. I had been engaged for some ten days before placing torpedoes in the locality where the monitor was struck. For some time past the enemy’s picket-monitors have been in the habit of venturing much closer in the harbor than usual, and it has been my ambition to teach them a lesson, as well as our friends, upon the subject of torpedoes, and it is a pleasure to me to announce that one of these turreted monsters has met a fitting fate.

Simon’s description alludes to a contact torpedo as opposed to a command detonated weapon.  And it was likely among a pattern set up just after the first of the year.  Notice on the map above the location of torpedoes found two months later after the fall of Charleston, in relation to the site where the Patapsco came to rest.  This underscored the need for the Federals to continue their work probing the obstructions if they indeed intended to rush the entrance.

The Federal sailors learned a hard lesson on the night of January 15. The Patapsco went on station that night with “torpedo fenders and netting stretched as usual around her.” Boats were posted specifically to drag up obstructions and torpedoes.  Yet, one slipped through all the precautions.  Dahlgren repeated this lesson to authorities in Washington:

Most minute instructions have been given and repeated in regard to rebel torpedoes, and nothing more can be done to bar the chance of accident, save permanent torpedo catchers, substantially made and attached to the bows, so as to be entirely submerged and thus not to be exposed to shot in action.

Working against the torpedoes was a zero-defects chore.  All it took was one of those explosive devices to slip detection, and a valuable vessel was no more, taking crew-members with it.

On the morning of January 16, only a couple feet the smokestack of the Patapsco remained above water.

(Citations from OR,  Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, page 1135; ORN, Series I, Volume 16, pages 173, 174, and 175-6. )