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.)

“None of your ironclads will be withdrawn”: Status quo for Dahlgren’s squadron

Where as a year earlier the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron might have complained of over use, in September 1864 the sailors, particularly those on the ironclads, may have complained about the doldrums of inaction.  The blockade of Charleston required long hours of watch interrupted with an occasional chase of a runner or shell fired at the Confederate batteries.  With the Army taking a defensive posture, the outlook did not call for any “Mobile Bay” actions.  Earlier in the summer the Navy Department weighed options to withdraw some of the monitors from Charleston.  With developments at the Gulf ports and a shuffling of Rear Admirals David Farragut and David D. Porter, rumors floated that Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren might be relpaced… or the monitors might leave Charleston for efforts elsewhere.

However, on September 22, 1864, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells sent a message to Dahlgren which shook loose those rumors.  The first part of the transmittal covered instructions for Farragut, who was at that time in transit north, to take a short leave of absence.  The nature of instructions left Dahlgren at Charleston while Porter would take over the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron (a post which the 63-year old Farragut had declined).

The later part of the message addressed the monitors at Charleston: “None of your ironclads will be withdrawn, and none sent from the north at present.”  Thus Charleston remained important enough to require four monitors on station.  With one other monitor holding check at Ossabow Sound outside Savannah and three more repairing at Port Royal, the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron remained a potent force should the Confederate ironclads attempt a sortie.

So for the fleet off Charleston, the doldrums remained.  Given the “leaks” in the blockade experienced earlier in the month, Dahlgren had, on September 16, issued very detailed instructions to the fleet in regard to their duties covering the Confederate port.  “In order to prevent any misunderstanding as to my views in regard to the duties of the blockade at this place, the following are issued in explanation thereof….”  Those orders began with delineation of command responsibilities.  When Dahlgren himself was not at Charleston, the senior officer present was “responsible for the efficiency of the blockade, inside and outside.”  The orders gave that officer direct control over all vessels outside Charleston.  As for their stations, Dahlgren gave some latitude to the senior officer, but there was not much slack in the line:

The picket duty performed by the monitors is peculiar, and resembling no other.  The monitor which has the picket is to take position from 2,200 to 2,300 yards from Moultrie (terminations of Cumming’s Point and Simkins, in line), at such part of the channel there as may be most advantageous.  The tugboats and cutters which are assigned to picket duty for the night will report to the commander of the picket monitor and receive their directions from him.  These are designed to advance the picket more toward the  main passage by Sullivan’s Island, and between Sumter and Moultrie, and to check or capture the rebel boats, or to give notice of an attempted escape of any vessel….

This advanced monitor is to be supported by another, which may be placed 500 yards to the southward of the former, or if the passage of blockade runners is anticipated, may be stationed in line with the picket monitor, and in case the picket monitor is attacked must render instant aid….

Two more monitors are to take post farther down the channel, and not so far off that they can not be got conveniently to the front, in case of an alarm there…

So long as the picket monitor is only performing picket duty the officer in command is to follow his own discretion, but in case of an attack or of any unusual move by the enemy, which is sufficient to bring the supporting monitor into play, then the senior officer of the two will command, and so on with the other monitors when they arrive….

It was assumed that any action involving all four monitors would involve the senior officer present in the blockade force.  Furthermore, it is clear the inner line of blockaders covering Charleston harbor were aligned to the placement of the monitors.  So with Dahlgren’s orders, can paint a picture of just what this boring duty for the monitors looked like on the map!


Add to this layers of picket boats, tugs, and, out where the water is deeper, the larger blockaders.  I still find it remarkable, and a testament to the skill of those captains who dared, that any blockade-runners made port in Charleston at this time of the war.

Dahlgren’s orders also addressed how the monitors were to use their guns:

It is unnecessary for me to say that the picket monitor and other monitors are to use their guns just when their commanders deem fit, and are not to fail to do so upon blockade runners, or boats, or vessels of the enemy, and also on his batteries, if instant action is needed, but they are not to leave stations in order to enter upon a regular engagement with the batteries on Sullivan’s Island without orders, because the senior officer, being within full view by day and signal distance by night, can best judge of the necessity himself. It is also enjoined that the XV-inch is not to be used except in engaging rebel ironclads or principal forts, as it is almost impossible to replace them here when worn out.

So like the Army’s land batteries, the Navy’s big guns had orders restricting their use.  The largest of these guns might as well been in a glass case – break in the event of a Confederate ironclad sortie.

But there was one weapon that Dahlgren was willing to “air out” against the Confederate batteries:

It is desirable to sustain a continued fire with the rifle 12-pounder howitzers on the works on Sullivan’s Island whenever the duties of the monitors permit, so as to interfere as much as possible with rebel operations, the distance about 3,500 yards to 4,000 yards.

So John Ericsson’s magnificent engineering marvels, with those heavy caliber smoothbores and rifles, with all that armor, representing the cutting edge of technology… and the crews are told to roll a boat howitzer out on deck to lob shells at the Confederate forts.  Despite being the smallest weapons in the fleet, the boat howitzers were the most often used at Charleston during this period of the war.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 680-2 and 684.)

August 9, 1864: Prince Albert out on the jetty, another blockade runner sunk

On August 9, 1864, Captain Joseph F. Green, commanding the blockaders off Charleston, reported the demise of another blockade runner:

I have to report that a propeller steamer, name unknown, was discovered by the Catskill at daylight this morning aground off Moultrie.  The Catskill immediately opened fire upon her with her rifled howitzers, followed by the battery on Cumming’s Point and she was soon set on fire and sank.

The monitor USS Catskill did not use her main guns, but rather boat howitzers.  But the heavy hitting was done by the larger Parrott rifles from the Army’s batteries ashore on Morris Island.  The combined fire made short work of the stranded blockader runner.

Though Green could report success in that regard, the other side of the story concerned him:

It is with regret and mortification that I have to state that this violator of the blockade would have reached Charleston safely and unseen had she not taken the ground.

Neither the picket tugs, nor any of the picket boats, so far as I have learned, knew of the grounding or presence of the strange steamer until the Catskill fired upon her, when they had returned or were on their way to the lower anchorage of these roads.

Acting Ensign [Joseph] Frost, commanding the tug Dandelion, the advance picket tug, appears to have been particularly regardless of the orders and indifferent to his duty on the night in question.  He anchored about 9 p.m., contrary to general and special orders, and remained at anchor all night and left his anchorage at daylight without seeing the strange steamer. I have placed him under suspension.

That’s not the “mentioned in dispatches” you want to have on record.

The blockade runner was the Prince Albert working out of Nassau.  The August 10 edition of the Charleston Mercury reported:

The steam propeller Prince Albert from Nassau, got ashore, near the Sullivan’s Island Breakwater, on Monday night last.  At daylight the Yankee batteries on Morris Island commenced firing at her, and, we understand, have injured her so much that she has become a wreck.

The paper also noted that Battery Gregg (Fort Putnam) fired 106 shots at the steamer, while Battery Wagner (Fort Strong) added 72 shots.  This distracted the gunners from their main target of Fort Sumter that day, which only received 133 shots.  The Confederate batteries replied with 117 shots.  The Confederates were able to salvage some of the ship’s cargo, particularly greatly needed medical supplies.

The Prince Albert was one of many ships that ran afoul of Bowman’s Jetty off Sullivan’s Island.  The land seemed to reach out and grab any vessel passing Maffitt’s Channel.   Historian Stephen Wise indicates the Prince Albert ran into the wreck of the Minho (which had also taken down the Presto earlier in the year) on the jetty, underscoring the treacherous nature of the passage.

Even with the ironclads and blockaders concentrated at the mouth of the harbor… even with heavy guns on Morris Island… Charleston remained an active port for ships running the blockade.  In fact, four of five attempting to enter Charleston that August would be successful.

(Citations from ORN Series I, Volume 15, page 624; “Charleston Mercury,” Volume 85, #12135, August 10, 1864, p.2, c.1.)

Was the capture of the blockade-runner Pocahontas a SIGINT success?

On the morning of July 9, 1864, Acting-Master Frederick W. Strong, commanding the tug-boat USS Azalea reported the capture of the Confederate schooner Pocahontas the night before:

I respectfully report the capture at 11:30 p.m., July 8, of the schooner Pocahontas, of and from Charleston, S.C., bound to Nassau, New Providence, with a cargo of 53 bales of cotton and 299 boxes of tobacco.

She was boarded simultaneously by boats of this and the USS Sweet Brier, the officers of both boats claiming precedence in boarding.  I would prefer that a prize crew be detailed from the Sweet Brier, as I have no officers to send in her.

The following papers were found in the possession of her captain: Clearance from port of Charleston, S.C. to Nassau, New Providence. Manifest of cargo and register.

Strong goes on to mention the captain of the Pocahontas, Joseph G. Hester, had on board the uniform of a lieutenant of the Confederate Navy.  Hester “being desirous of leaving the Confederate States,” had put his personal finances into the purchase of the blockade-runner and cargo.  Hester and his wife attempted passage on the Pocahontas.  Captain Joseph F. Green, senior officer on the blockade off Charleston at the time, added in his report that Hester offered information about the situation in Charleston:

He states that there are at Charleston three ironclads ready, and the rebels are hastening the completion of another on the stocks, and putting on extra thickness of plating, several shots from Morris Island having penetrated her.  Common report at Charleston says when she is ready a raid will be made by the rams and torpedo boats on the vessels at this anchorage. That the steamer Fox was to start out last night, but broke down.  That there were but seventeen men in Fort Johnson when the attack was commenced by the army.  That the rebels are expecting an attack on Fort Sumter by us and are making preparations to meet it.

A lot of leads in that paragraph.  The damage reported to the ironclad then under construction lends weight to the justifications for bombarding Charleston.  And the mention of just 17 men at Fort Johnson, though a gross under-statement, confirmed the lost opportunity from the morning of July 3.  Lastly, keep in mind for the moment the Steamer Fox was in Charleston and making ready for a run.

But something not mentioned in the reports is how the two Federal tugs came upon the Pocahontas.  Normally successful captures of this type start with the captain recalling the weather, the first sighting of the vessel, direction and course taken by the runner, and any actions required to intercept the vessel.  In this case, there are none.  No shots fired. No maneuvers required to intercept.  Just that boarders from the two tugs captured the runner.  Perhaps there were no details to relate?  Maybe the two tugs were, by chance, positioned at the right place, with crews at the ready when the Pocahontas made the run out?

Or, let me offer another possibility – the Federals were watching for a signal to indicate when the Pocahontas was setting sail.  Recall the work of Sergeant John D. Colvin on Morris Island, breaking the Confederate signal codes.  One of the deciphered messages from July 2 read:

Captain G.:

Schooner Pocahontas will be allowed to go out to sea to-night. Same signals will be used as arranged for last night.

Read, Captain.

There are several reasons why the Pocahontas wouldn’t have made a run out on the night of July 2-3, if as the message indicates was planned.  Not the least of which was all the Federal activity between Morris Island and Fort Johnson.   But this message does show the Federals knew the Pocahontas was preparing for a trip out and that signals were arranged between stations in and outside Charleston harbor.  Knowing that, were the Federals tipped off by the signals on the night of July 7?

One other interesting note in regard to Confederate signal lights.  On July 10, the Federals decoded several messages mentioning night-time signal lights, in a conversation Confederate stations at Breach Inlet and Battery Bee on Sullivan’s Island, at around 1:50 a.m.:

What is the meaning of those lights on the beach?

The response:

They are ordered to light the channel for ——–.


You will please use a fort light hereafter.

Elements to ponder here.  The Pocahontas used Maffitt’s Channel parallel to Sullivan’s Island, intending to clear the bar somewhere off Breach Inlet.  And, as mentioned in Green’s report, the Confederates were preparing another blockade-runner – the Fox – for passage at that time, making her a candidate for the lost name in the response above.

Just offering this up as a possibility:

  • Federal signal troops intercepted a message on July 2 alerting the Navy about a blockade-runner.
  • Crews on the blockaders notice a pattern of lights that night, even though the Pocahontas didn’t make the run.
  • Several nights later, seeing the same pattern of lights, Federal ships move in to quietly intercept.
  • To keep secret that they knew the Confederate “secrets,” no mention of the lights is made in Federal reports.
  • Later, sensing the Federals were on to the signals, the Confederates change their light patterns.

I give it a fifty-fifty at best. One of those possibilities that always ends up one document short of being proven.

Still, the capture of the Pocahontas is a vignette of the blockade.  Not all the incidents in the game between runners and blockaders involved fast cruisers slipping anchors on a stormy night to chase down sleek steamers laden with valuable cargo.  Some of those stories involved unglamorous tug-boats.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 563-4; OR, Series I, Volume 35, Serial 66, pages 550 and 579.)

Schimmelfennig’s report on Confederate dispositions at Charleston

Earlier I posted a report from Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig detailing the Federal dispositions outside Charleston on April 25, 1864. On the same day, he also passed an assessment of the Confederate dispositions facing his command.  That separate report went forward, with endorsement by Major-General Quincy Gillmore, to Major-General Henry Halleck and ultimately to Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant.  The report read:

Hdqrs. Northern District, Dept. of the South,
Folly Island, S. C., April 25, 1864.
Brig. Gen. J. W. Turner,
Chief of Staff, Hdqrs. Department of the South:

General: I have the honor to report the following information, obtained from deserters who have recently come on board the fleet, of the movements of the enemy and changes of their force upon my front. It is partly confirmed by the reports of reconnoitering parties sent out by me on James and John’s Islands.

General Beauregard and staff, having returned from Florida, left Charleston for Virginia last week. Troops are constantly passing through Charleston from Florida and Columbia to the north. On John’s Island and the mainland in its neighborhood, the force, instead of being as formerly (four regiments of infantry–Wise’s brigade– and one regiment of cavalry), now consists of two regiments of infantry, one near Church Flats and one at Adams’ Run; five companies of cavalry and one light battery. Two regiments of Wise’s brigade are on their way north from Florida, and the remaining two are daily expecting orders to leave. The enemy have lately completed a new work on the mainland, to cover the ferry from John’s Island and east of Rantowles Station. It mounts six guns and is garrisoned by one company of heavy artillery. A bridge across the Stono River, from John’s Island to James, skirting the latter between Batteries Pringle and Tynes, is being built. It is a heavy bridge and the work progresses slowly. It is beyond the range of our guns.

On James Island there are now but two regiments of infantry, the Twenty-fifth and Twenty-seventh South Carolina. The artillery force remaining unchanged (one regiment of five or six companies), but the cavalry (four companies Fifth South Carolina) and the Siege Train have gone to Virginia. Earth-works are being thrown up south of Fort Johnson on the beach. In the city of Charleston there is but one regiment of infantry and five or six companies of artillery, besides which the cadets do duty. At Fort Ripley the garrison is, as formerly, one company of artillery. The palmetto logs having given way in some places, the foundation of the work is being strengthened by filling in stone, &c. At Fort Sumter the garrison remains unchanged; the fort is being constantly repaired.

On Sullivan’s Island heavy rifle-pits have been thrown up, connecting some of the batteries. Besides the heavy artillery, there is still one light battery on the island; one light battery is also reported as being at Mount Pleasant.

I am badly informed as to the infantry force in this neighborhood, but have understood that Evans’ brigade has lately left the vicinity for Virginia. I have considered it my duty of late to harass the enemy on my front as much as possible, in order to interfere with his movements. From information received from a deserter, I understand General Beauregard recently kept five regiments who were on their way north in Charleston for some days in apprehension of an attack on James Island, and the artillery on the island were kept at their guns during the night. A reconnoitering party sent to John’s Island the latter part of last week met with infantry, cavalry, and artillery, but in small force.

The enemy fires very seldom from his batteries on James and Sullivan’s Islands, and at Fort Putnam only. On the night of the 21st-22d he opened very briskly and fired 50 shots in quick succession at Fort Putnam, killing 1 man of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, who was on outpost duty.

It seems that the enemy did not know what to make of the many steamers coming and going last week; was constantly in expectation of an attack and became nervous.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
A. Schimmelfennig,
Brigadier-General, Commanding District.

Mostly I pass this along to “move the runners up” for several follow on posts.  The angle to appreciate is what the Federals thought the Confederates had on hand.  Likewise, we should keep in mind what the Confederates estimated the Federal strength to be.

Both sides drew down the forces at Charleston.  Yet both sides still had reason to hold a line.  I would say Schimmelfennig’s report was not wide of the mark, for that day in April.  And the Confederate numbers, particularly infantry regiments, would continue to drop over the next two months.

(Citation from OR Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 72-3.)

150 years ago: Grant rejects any further offensive against Charleston

On April 21, 1864, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren passed a summary report to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells.  As Dahlgren had at other occasions since September of the previous year, the commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron offered operational options to employ the forces then outside Charleston, South Carolina (and note that Dahlgren was in Washington at the time, and not with the fleet off South Carolina):

Sir: As the demands of the public service elsewhere will prevent the detail of more iron-clads for service at Charleston, which will necessarily postpone any serious attack on the interior defenses of the harbor, I directed combined operations to would suggest that be the occupation of Long Island, with the view of an attack on the works of Sullivan’s Island, to be prosecuted as far as the force ashore and afloat may permit. If Sullivan’s Island can be occupied, it would enable the iron-clads to maintain position in the harbor permanently, and in the end to drive the rebels from Charleston.

And for emphasis, Dahlgren’s suggestion to operate against Sullivan’s Island was not a new proposal.  Dahlgren had pressed for such since the fall of Morris Island.  But nothing so concrete as to commit a plan to paper.

As with other similar suggestions, Wells referred the matter over to the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, for comment.  In those earlier events, Stanton had turned to Major General Henry Halleck for a response.  And Halleck had, like Dahlgren, remained non-committal.  And neither Halleck or Dahlgren would leave any remark which the opposite branch of service might interpret as a reluctance to support further operations.

But this was April 1864.  Stanton did not turn to Halleck, but rather to Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant.  For his response, on April 24, Grant requested direct input from Major-General Quincy Gillmore, who was at that time preparing to leave Charleston.

General: Herewith I send you copy of letter from Admiral Dahlgren to the Secretary of the Navy, and from the latter to the military authorities, recommending certain movements near Charleston, S.C. The letters explain themselves. Please read them and send me your views on the proposed movements. Not knowing the situation of affairs about Charleston, and particularly since the withdrawal of so many of your forces, I can give no specific directions. I would state, however, that it will be of great advantage to us if the force at Charleston can be safely employed in keeping up a demonstration that will force the enemy to keep large numbers there to watch their movements.

While giving some consideration to resuming some operations against Charleston, Grant’s mind seemed fixed.  Charleston was not on his list of objectives.  There was no room offered for Gillmore to even suggest more troops. In Grant’s view, any operations would remain limited to demonstrations.  And, reading between the lines, the reason for Gillmore’s input was to qualify, and quantify, the response back to the Navy.

Grant was not in favor of non-specific plans against elusive goals.  Nor was Grant willing to curtail or compromise his larger scheme of operations for the chance to settle a score at Charleston.  The cradle of secession was no longer a top objective.

For what it was worth, Halleck offered his opinion on the matter:

If the iron-clads and the large number of troops off Charleston for the last year could not take and hold Sullivan’s Island, how can they expect to do it with forces diminished more than one-half? Moreover, if taken, it would simply result in the loss from active service of 5,000 troops to garrison it, without any influence upon the coming campaign. It will require 60,000 men three months to take Charleston. The capture of Sullivan’s Island would not have much influence upon the siege of that place, as it can be conducted with greater advantage from other points. I am satisfied that Admiral Dahlgren’s letter was intended simply as an excuse in advance for the inability of the iron-clads to accomplish anything against Charleston.

Give Halleck credit, as he appeared to best characterize the nature of Dahlgren’s original letter starting this chain. With no ironclad reinforcements, Dahlgren was not ready to “damn the torpedoes.”

But at this point, I have to ask why Halleck had not expressed this view five months earlier?

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 64, 67-8.)

150 Years Ago: An inspection of the batteries on Sullivan’s Island

One aspect of the operations of Charleston that I like to present is the evolution of fortifications around the harbor (Federal and Confederate).  In my opinion, one should study such to appreciate the tactical aspects. Many authors will write on the subject as if a “battery” or “fort” was static and unchanged through the war, and thus representing a generic “unit” of force.  However, I would offer the level of detail offered in reports and correspondence during the war indicate the participants saw no small importance in the evolution of those defenses.  In other words, if the participants in 1864 thought it important to mention the different caliber of weapons, then 150 years later we should lend that aspect some manner of interpretation.

In the case of Sullivan’s Island, one can easily trace the evolution of the works from the very first days of the war, through improvements prior to the Ironclad Attack on Fort Sumter, changes after the fall of Morris Island, and all the way up to the fall of Charleston in 1864.  A report posted by Major George Upshur Mayo on March 29, 1864 provides one of several “snapshots” describing the works on Sullivan’s Island on that time line.  The entire report, including endorsements, is close to 3,000 words with three pages of tables, including a count of all munitions (the report appears in the ORs, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 383-6).  For brevity, allow me to present portions of the main report with additional annotations where needed.  And for reference, these are the works in review:


Starting from the western-most battery:

Battery Bee, upon the western extremity, is not yet quite completed, though a number of laborers are engaged upon it. Its armament is in an effective condition, the guns all working well and protected by merlons. The magazines are dry and kept with neatness. The ammunition in them, as far as could be judged without examining each cartridge, is in good order; the implements new. There are three chambers which have no cannon, which, I presume, will be furnished when necessity or opportunity requires.

Mayo indicated Battery Bee included one 11-inch Dahlgren (salvaged from the USS Keokuk), four 10-inch columbiads, one 10-inch rifled columbiad, and one 8-inch columbiad. In the magazines were 241 11-inch shot, 97 11-inch shell, 671 10-inch shot, 435 10-inch shell, 50 10-inch grapeshot, 25 10-inch canister, 45 10-inch (rifled) bolts, 6 10-inch rifled shells, 338 8-inch shot, 134 8-inch shells, 30 8-inch canister, 124 11-inch cartridges, 626 10-inch cartridges, 180 8-inch cartridges, 2,496 pounds of common powder, 1,587 friction tubes, and 985 paper fuses.  Interesting, though, Mayo rated Battery Bee as incomplete even at this late date with open gun positions.

On to the next battery in the line:

Battery Marion, connected with Battery Bee, is neatly policed. The platform for the 7-inch Brooke gun has settled from its true position; the parapets in one or two places have a disposition to slide on account of the shifting character of the sand. Dampness begins to ooze through one place in the passage, not as yet sufficient to affect the ammunition, which is in good order.

Colonel [William] Butler complains of a defect in the powder sent from the naval ordnance bureau with or for the Brooke gun, saying experience has proven it to be defective in strength. To the eye it appears good; analysis can only disclose the reported defect. The same officer requests that efforts be made to procure for the guns in his command a small quantity of bar steel to repair the eccentrics of the columbiad carriages, which repairs, when necessary, can be made at the island. The battery is connected with Fort Moultrie by a sally-port.

Mayo tallied Battery Marion’s armament as three 10-inch columbiads, one 8-inch columbiad, and five 10-inch seacoast mortars; but he didn’t count the triple-banded 7-inch Brooke which was not mounted at that time.  In the magazines were 318 10-inch shot, 261 10-inch shells, 23 10-inch canister, 256 10-inch mortar shells, 125 7-inch rifle shells, 522 7-inch bolts, 16 7-inch hollow shot, 252 10-inch cartridges, 201 8-inch cartridges, 207 7-inch cartridges, 8,800 pounds of powder, 1,900 friction primers, and 600 paper fuses.

Mayo gave only a brief report on Fort Moultrie:

Fort Moultrie, next in order upon the island, has now no quarters inside, which gives a good parade within its walls. It is well protected by a system of traverses and the guns in effective condition. The magazine is in good order and neatly kept. In the rear of the fort are a number of broken canister, which might be removed for renewal to Charleston. The ammunition in good order.

The fort’s armament at that time consisted of four 10-inch columbiads, two 8-inch rifled columbiads, one 32-pdr banded and rifled, two 24-pdr smoothbore guns, and one 10-inch seacoast mortar.  Munitions in the fort included 660 10-inch shot, 269 10-inch shells, 36 10-inch canister, 33 10-inch spherical case, 90 8-inch shot, 53 8-inch shells, 190 8-inch rifled bolts, 274 32-pdr shells, 120 32-pdr rifled bolts, 553 24-pdr shot, 83 24-pdr grapeshot, 89 24-pdr canister, 450 10-inch cartridges, 255 8-inch cartridges, 485 32-pdr cartridges, 168 24-pdr cartridges, 18,275 pounds of common powder, 130 pounds of rifle powder, and 4,510 friction tubes.

Continuing, Mayo reached Battery Rutledge:

Battery Rutledge in good order, with its ammunition dry and well cared for. The batteries from Bee to this one constitute one continuous parapet, well protected with traverses and spacious, well arranged bomb-proofs, and in some instances with amputating rooms for the medical bureau; these of course were not visited.

Battery Rutledge contained three 10-inch columbiads, one 10-inch columbiad rifle, and three 10-inch seacoast mortars.  The magazines contained 396 10-inch shot, 125 10-inch shell, 7 10-inch grapeshot, 26 10-inch canister, 11 10-inch caseshot, 58 10-inch rifled bolts, 22 10-inch rifled shells, 40 10-inch mortar shells, 126 6-pdr canister (fixed), 29 6-pdr (fixed) shot, 236 10-inch cartridges, 4,000 pounds of common powder, and 2,300 pounds of damaged powder.

Mayo did not include a narrative assessment of Fort Beauregard, but listed the armament as one 10-inch columbiad, one 8-inch rifled and banded columbiad, one 8-inch smoothbore columbiad, two 32-pdr banded and rifled guns, one 32-pdr smoothbore gun, two 24-pdr smoothbore guns, and three 8-inch seacoast howitzers.  In Fort Beauregard’s magazine were 106 10-inch shot, 3 10-inch canister, 416 8-inch shot, 111 8-inch shell, 79 8-inch grapeshot, 113 8-inch canister, 169 8-inch shell, 69 8-inch rifled bolts, 101 32-pdr shot, 12 32-pdr shells, 80 32-pdr grapeshot, 69 32-pdr canister, 166 32-pdr rifled bolts, 7 32-pdr conical rifled shot, 156 32-pdr rifled shells, 229 24-pdr shot, 156 24-pdr grapeshot, 2 24-pdr conical smoothbore shell, 130 24-pdr canister, 749 unfixed cartridges of various sizes,  1,800 pounds of common powder, 1,150 pounds of “Rodman” powder (presumably “Mammoth” powder), 200 pounds of damaged powder, and 1,529 friction tubes.

Mayo turned next to the four numbered, and unnamed, batteries between Forts Beauregard and Marshall.

Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 4, two-gun batteries extending along the south beach at an average distance of about 500 yards apart, covering the space between Forts Beauregard and Marshall and intended seemingly as a protection against boat assaults, are small open works with no traverses. There being no magazine in this cordon of works, the ammunition is kept in chests, exposed to the weather. Some of the chests need repairs and tarpaulins as a protection.

Mayo suggested improvements to the parapet of No. 1; mentioned a carriage in No. 3 that required repair; and damages to the parapet of No. 4. Mayo also suggested these works needed iron traverse circles to replace wood circles then in place.  Colonel Ambrosio Gonzales overruled, saying the 24-pdr guns should be mounted on siege carriages to allow redeployment where needed on the island.  Mayo noted the “disparity” in the ammunition for each of these batteries:

  • No. 1:  Two 32-pdr smoothbore guns, 104 32-pdr shot, 15 32-pdr shells, 77 32-pdr grapeshot, 78 32-pdr canister, 93 32-pdr cartridges, and 176 friction tubes.
  • No. 2: two 24-pdr smoothbores, 84 24-pdr shot, 100 24-pdr grape, 32 24-pdr canister, 69 24-pdr cartridges, 140 friction tubes, and 5 signal rockets.
  • No. 3: Two 32-pdr smoothbores, 34 32-pdr shot, 9 32-pdr shells, 48 32-pdr grape, 50 32-pdr canister, 46 32-pdr cartridges, and 49 friction tubes.
  • No. 4: Two 24-pdr smootbores, 88 24-pdr shot, 14 24-pdr shells, 111 24-pdr grape, 99 24-pdr canister, 29 24-pdr cartridges, and 41 friction tubes.

The last work on the line inspected by Mayo was Fort (or Battery) Marshall, at Breach Inlet:

Battery Marshall, at Beach Inlet, is as yet in an incomplete condition, though the guns are all in working order. A large bomb-proof, in addition to those already complete, has been commenced, upon which a force is now at work. One of the 12-pounders has wheels of different sizes, and in another the cheeks of the carriage are not upon a level. These two defects in these two carriages should be remedied. The magazines are in good order, and dry, as well as the ammunition, but roaches, by which they are infested, cut the cartridge-bags. It would therefore be as well to keep the powder in the boxes and barrels until a necessity arises for use, so that the bags may be preserved. I noticed the passage-way to one of the magazines much encumbered with shell. A room constructed for such projectiles is decidedly to be preferred.

Fort Marshall, at this time, included one 8-inch columbiad, one 8-inch shell gun, one 7-inch Brooke rifle, one 32-pdr rifle, two 12-pdr rifled guns, two 12-pdr smoothbores, one 4-inch Blakely on naval carriage, and three 8-inch seacoast howitzers.  The magazines, improper as they were, contained 95 8-inch shot, 225 8-inch shell, 71 8-inch grapeshot, 90 8-inch canister, 156 7-inch conical rifled bolts, 19 32-pdr shells, 12 32-pdr grapeshot, 16 32-pdr canister, 32 32-pdr rifled shot, 100 32-pdr rifled shells, 292 12-pdr shot, 124 12-pdr grapeshot, 124 12-pdr canister, 25 12-pdr conical rifled shot, 62 12-pdr conical rifled shells, 32 4-inch Blakely shells, 28 4-inch Blakely grapeshot, 21 4-inch Blakely canister,  866 cartridges of various sizes, 2,800 pounds of common powder, 500 friction tubes, 35 paper fuses, 190 Girardey fuses, and 92 McAvoy igniters.

Mayo went on to discuss Batteries Gary, Kinloch and Palmetto on the mainland. But to serve brevity in a post already beyond my preferred word count, I will save those for later.

Mayo expressed concerns about unmounted and unassigned guns on the island.  “A 32-pounder banded rifle not mounted is laying upon the beach,” he noted.  He also mentioned several 6-pdr field pieces not under any direct control of the battery commanders.  In general, Mayo felt the guns needed “lacquer and paint” to improve appearances and protect against the elements.  Lastly, he noted the presence of bedding in the magazines, but left that matter to the discretion of local commanders.

I plan, as part of my documentation of each individual work, to examine these batteries in detail.  So please check back for follow up posts in regard to specific arrangements in each fortification.