Sherman’s March, February 13, 1865: Federals advancing towards the Congaree

Having gained bridgeheads over the North Fork of the Edisto River on February 12, 1865, Major-General William T. Sherman’s orders for February 13 were to complete crossing of that stream and push on towards the Congaree River.


For the Right Wing, Major-General Oliver O. Howard tasked the Seventeenth Corps with destruction of the Columbia (or Orangeburg) Branch Railroad up to the State Road, about a dozen miles north of Orangeburg.  Mounted infantry struck further out to Motte’s Fort (a colonial and Revolutionary War placename), near the Congaree bottoms.  There they encountered Confederate pickets prepared to burn the railroad trestle over the swamps.

The Fifteenth Corps moved astride the Caw Caw Swamp. The Second and Third Divisions advanced on a road to the east side.  The First and Fourth moved by way of a plantation road on the west side.  The two columns aimed to concentrate at Sandy Run Post-Office the next day.

The Twentieth Corps, with once again Major-General John Geary’s division in the lead, likewise advanced out of the Edisto bottoms.  First priority of the day was repairing Jeffcoat’s Bridge.  That accomplished, the advance met some resistance as Geary recalled:

February 13, by 1 a.m. the bridge was repaired. I immediately sent forward skirmishers and found that the enemy had retired from their position of last night. By daylight my First and Second Brigades had crossed and my Third Brigade followed closely. My skirmishers met those of the enemy intrenched at a bridge across a mill stream three-quarters of a mile from the river, and after a sharp encounter drove them and captured their works. At a fork of the road just beyond the enemy attempted to stand behind rail barricades, but were quickly driven from them. Here I halted and gave my troops an opportunity to breakfast, having received orders to allow the Third and First Divisions to pass me, and with my division to bring forward the rear of the train from this point to the encampment four miles ahead on the direct Columbia road. I reached the camp with the rear of the train at 11 p.m. The country north of the North Edisto becomes more rolling, with many quite steep hills. The soil continues sandy, and is poorly cultivated; weather cold; distance, six miles.

Actions of February 12-13 cost Geary 13 casualties.

The Fourteenth Corps and the Cavalry Division remained the only forces south of the Edisto that day.  Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick maintained a protective picket line running from Johnson’s Station to Kitching’s Mills.  This allowed Major-General Absalom Baird’s Third Division, Fifteenth Corps to improve on the railroad damage out to that point.  The other two divisions of the Fifteenth Corps proceeded over the Edisto and camped near Dean’s Swamp that evening.

Preparing for the next day’s advance, Kilpatrick dispatched Colonel Thomas J. Jordan’s First Brigade towards the North Edisto.  At Gunter’s Bridge, Jordan’s men sparred with Confederate pickets.  But no serious resistance lay between the forks of the Edisto.

We might summarize the activities of February 13 as simply a lot of movement, some railroad wrecking, and some minor skirmishes.  One side note is worthy of mention here.  For the day’s activity, Major-General Frank Blair noted, “The Ninth Illinois Mounted Infantry, having returned from Pocotaligo, took the advance.”  Recall the 9th Illinois was sent as escort back to the Right Wing’s supply base on February 4.  The wagons and escort returned to the wing on February 12.

The column, consisting of more than fifty wagons, had traversed through the area behind the Federal advance with no recorded molestation.  No running battles with Confederate cavalrymen.  No contested passage of the numerous swamps.  The Confederate leaders were far more concerned about getting in front of Sherman’s advance to worry about making trouble behind him.  There is an implication here which takes some time to develop.  But consider earlier stages of the war, during Federal advances through Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, and Mississippi.  In each there were significant partisan activity which cause worry to the Federal commands.  Such was not the case in the first two weeks into South Carolina.  I’d ask the reader to consider why that might be the case.

The other aspect of the ride to Pocotaligo and back that feeds in here is a queue to me!  I’ve neglected discussion of events along the coast which happened in conjunction with Sherman’s advance.  I shall move now to correct that deficiency!  The story of Charleston’s fall is directly linked to events on the Congaree in place and time.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 378 and 685.)



Savannah’s Siege, December 14, 1864: Though not marching, the march was not “over”

In some high-level discussion of the events of late 1864, you will see the March to the Sea concluded with something like “Sherman’s men stormed Fort McAllister… … … then he gave Savannah to President Lincoln as a Christmas gift.  The End.”  But a week passed between the storming of Fort McAllister and the surrender of Savannah.  And a lot happened in that interval.  Indeed, Major-General William T. Sherman might have considered Savannah “already gained” as of the evening of December 13, but even he knew better than to proclaim it so.  Writing to Washington at his first opportunity, he took the time to explain his overall scheme, “… if General Foster will prevent the escape of the garrison of Savannah and its people by land across South Carolina, we will capture all.”  Sherman planned to bring up siege guns, from Major-General John Foster’s ample ordnance yards at Hilton Head and then demand the surrender of Savannah.

But that would take time, which for the moment Sherman had plenty of.  Aside from bringing up the heavy guns, Sherman needed to replenish his supplies, particularly fodder for the animals.  And for a siege, even a short one, the armies would need munitions stockpiles beyond what was carried on the march.  In addition, there were some movements needed on the periphery in order to maintain the hold on Savannah.  Looking at the pieces as they sat on the “big map” on December 14:


Foster had a division of troops confronting the Charleston & Savannah Railroad at Coosawhatchie, where Major-General Samuel Jones’ scratch force managed to cling to the line. However, I must stress again, that link, while important, was not the only passage way out for the Savannah garrison.  But it was somewhat a “leaning domino” in the situation.

Major-General Joseph Wheeler maintained a vigilant screen on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River.  His presence, it was hoped, would prevent a Federal dash north to link up with Foster.  At that moment, a regiment or so from Colonel Ezra Carman’s brigade, were occupying Argyle Island.  Though small, this was a threat towards the Confederate escape route from Savannah.  However, it seemed, as the week went on, Carman was the only Federal leader to appreciate that opportunity.

To the south of the Savannah siege lines, Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry were roaming freely across Bryan, McIntosh, and Liberty Counties.  Colonel Smith Atkins men had established contact with the Navy in St. Catherine’s Sound.  Kilpatrick reported the vessel to be the USS Octorara.  But that cannot be true, as that vessel was in Mobile Bay at the time.  Rather it was the USS Fernandina which was assigned that section of coastline.   Though Kilpatrick suggested establishing a base of supply on the Medway River, that was overtaken by events on the Ogeechee to the north.

Kilpatrick’s other brigade, under Colonel Eli Murray, occupied the historic community of Midway as columns advanced in several directions.  The 9th Pennsylvania Cavalry rode down the Savannah & Gulf Railroad with an aim to destroy the bridge over the Altamaha River.  Colonel Thomas Jordan, commanding the regiment, “found the enemy (two regiments of infantry and artillery) too strongly posted to attack them.” Instead Jordon burned several smaller trestles and bridges running through the swamps leading to the river.


In the lines outside Savannah, Brigadier-General John Geary’s men were active along the Savannah River.  On the 13th, Geary complained about Confederate sharpshooters operating on Huchinson’s Island.  He sent a detachment of the 134th New York, under Major William Hoyt, to clear the upper end of Huchinson’s Island that afternoon.  To complete the coverage of his river flank, Geary brought up Battery E, Pennsylvania Light artillery, under Captain Thomas Sloan, and their 3-inch rifles.   The battery occupied a position low on the river bank, but with a clear view of the river channel, Huchinson’s Island ricefields, and the South Carolina shore.  Throughout December 14th, the Confederates bombarded the lines in Geary’s sector.  At 10 a.m. “one of the enemy’s gun-boats came up on the high tide in Back River, the other side of Hutchinson’s Island….”  This caused several casualties, but with the change of tides, the gunboat withdrew.

Elsewhere along the lines, the troops of both sides settled in to the monotony which epitomizes a siege.  Other than local reconnaissance and small adjustments to lines, very few were willing to press a general engagement.  Federal veterans of the long summer months outside Atlanta were content to let the situation develop. Typical of the activity during this stage is that recorded by Brigadier-General John Corse, Fourth Division, Fifteenth Corps:

No effort was made to assault the enemy’s lines, which were separated from ours by the north branch of the Little Ogeechee and the rice swamps that abound on either bank of that stream.

Another reason for Federal inactivity on December 14th was the absence of two-thirds of the senior commanders.  Although Major-General Oliver O. Howard returned to his headquarters that day, Sherman spent the night on board Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren’s flagship USS Harvest Moon.  This set a pattern repeated over the next week, which would put Sherman afloat more than on dry land.  Such would leave him somewhat detached from the day-to-day operation of the armies.  However this was for the most part unavoidable.  The one “lose string” that Sherman needed to bring in was Foster’s operations.  And at the same time, Sherman needed to be in position to best correspond with superiors up north.  But his time afloat would leave a void not compensated by the presence of his two wing commanders.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 128, 278, 388, 701-2.)

“The position itself is a strong one…”: A call to improve the defenses of Georgetown, SC

By the winter of 1864, Georgetown was the only seaport of significance on the South Carolina coast that didn’t have Federal land batteries directly impeding blockade-runner access.  Winyah Bay offered refuge for blockade-runners, even if Georgetown had no direct rail links to the interior.  And upstream from Georgetown was a Confederate Navy Yard at Mars Bluff.


But remarkably, the Federals and Confederates had paid this sector very little attention.  Blockaders patrolled the approaches to Winyah Bay.  And a few Confederate defenses, none with more than a 32-pdr gun, protected the channels.  But Brigadier-General James Trapier, commanding South Carolina’s Fourth Military District, wanted to change that.  Writing on January 26, 1864, he cited the growing importance of Georgetown, Winyah Bay, and the Mars Bluff yard to the Confederate war effort:

Hdqrs. Fourth Military Dist. of South Carolina,
Georgetown, January 26, 1864.
Brig. Gen. Thomas Jordan,
Chief of Staff, &c., Charleston, S.C.:

General: The Confederate navy-yard at Mars Bluff, Peedee River, is assuming daily greater and greater importance.

Already has there been nearly completed there a vessel of war of some magnitude, which it is computed will be ready for sea in about two months. It is contemplated, as I learn, to build others, and it seems probable that important additions to our Navy will continue to be supplied from this yard as long as the war may last.

The President alludes to it in his annual message, and its growing importance will naturally attract the attention of the enemy.

It is my duty, therefore, to invite attention to the fact that the only defense for this navy-yard consists in the battery (White) which guards the entrance to Winyah (upper) Bay, and such a defense as might be extemporized by riflemen and field batteries upon the banks of the river. I need not refer to the armament of Battery White; the commanding general of course is aware of its weakness. The position itself is a strong one, and with a proper artillery and a sufficient infantry support might be rendered almost, if not absolutely, impregnable.

In view of the fact that it covers a naval establishment of growing importance, and the additional fact that this may become a harbor of resort for steamers running the blockade and possibly the only one that may some day be left to the Confederacy–and that the Waccamaw, Peedee, Black, and Santee Rivers (all of which are also covered by Battery White) will, if adequately protected, yield an amount of subsistence sufficient for the support of 50,000 men, I hope I shall not be considered importunate in thus again inviting the attention of the commanding general to the subject. To me it seems one of no mean importance.

I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
J. H. Trapier,
Brigadier-General, Commanding.

Trapier made a strong case for reinforcing this key defense within his district.  (And I’m playing a little loose here with the title of the post, but figured “Georgetown, SC” is more easily recognized by the reader than “Mars Bluff Navy Yard,” “Peedee River,” or “Winyah Bay”.)  Battery White, which he referred to, stood at a narrow point at the upper end of Winyah Bay (lower part of the map below).


The layout and profile of the battery was impressive (and remains so even today).

White Battery 5 May 10 363
Ditch in front of Battery White

The work directly covered the channel.

White Battery 5 May 10 354
Winyah Bay from Battery White

Though with only a handful of cannons, some of which carried Royal markings of colonial-era weapons, the battery was not armed to contest any serious Federal effort.

Georgetown 2 May 10 310
British 32-pdr gun from Battery White, now in Georgetown

Unfortunately, General P.G.T. Beauregard could only endorse the request, with his approval, pending some quantity of guns to go around:

Inform General Trapier that the views expressed in this letter meet with my entire approval, but I regret that I have neither the force nor the guns to send at present for the defense of that important point of the department. If some Brooke guns could be obtained from the Navy Department, I would be happy to put them in position, but the effort to obtain some for the defense of Charleston from the comparatively useless gun-boats in that harbor has so signally failed that I consider it useless to make another attempt for Winyah Bay.

In short, if the Confederate Navy thinks their yard and the harbor at Georgetown is important, they needed to mind its defenses…. and worry less about the leaky ironclads at Charleston.

Eventually, Trapier would get some attention on this matter. A couple of 10-inch Columbiads would arrive to bolster the defenses.

White Battery 5 May 10 382
10-inch Confederate Columbiad at Battery White

But that was months away.  In the interim, Winyah Bay, Georgetown, and the navy yard at Mars Bluff, remained exposed.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 546-7.)

150 years ago: Arrival of the 54th Massachusetts and an issue with flags of truce

On June 3, 1863, Major-General David Hunter addressed a letter to Governor John A. Andrew, reporting the arrival of a new regiment at Hilton Head:

Governor: I have the honor to announce that the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts (colored troops), Colonel Shaw commanding, arrived safely in this harbor this afternoon and have been sent to Port Royal Island. The regiment had an excellent passage, and from the appearance of the men I doubt not that this command will yet win a reputation and place in history deserving the patronage you have given them. Just as they were steaming up the bay I received from Col. James Montgomery, commanding Second South Carolina Regiment, a telegraphic dispatch, of which certified copy is inclosed. Colonel Montgomery’s is but the initial step of a system of operations which will rapidly compel the rebels either to lay down their arms and sue for restoration to the Union or to withdraw their slaves into the interior, thus leaving desolate the most fertile and productive of their counties along the Atlantic sea-board.

The Fifty-fourth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers shall soon be profitably and honorably employed, and I beg that you will send for service in this department the other colored regiments which Colonel Shaw tells me you are now organizing and have in forward preparation.

Hunter also included a copy of recent correspondence to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Hunter had complained to the rebel leader about the treatment of black troops and laborers captured by Confederates. I’ll save full discussion of that subject for another day.

The arrival of the 54th Massachusetts, just as the 2nd South Carolina returned from the Combahee Ferry Raid, offers up yet another example of the Emancipation Proclamation applied to action. Yet, as we know, there was a contrast between the method by which the two regiments were recruited…or shall we say “gathered.”

At the same time, a message from the Confederates arrived at Hilton Head. Brigadier-General Thomas Jordan expressed his outrage about certain particulars by which flags of truce were exchanged. Just before the Combahee Raid, Brigadier-General W. S. Walker complained about a new Federal practice.

When we wish to communicate we are deprived of the opportunity by the action of the enemy in sending over negroes and their officers to receive us. When they wish to communicate with us they send officers representing white commands in order to secure a hearing. If this is permitted the advantages of such intercourse will be entirely with the Abolition forces and we will be debarred from them.

Indeed, can you imagine the awkward situation where a master might approach, under a white flag, his former chattel asking for a parlay?

In his letter to Hunter on June 3, Jordon echoed Walker’s observations:

The virtual effect of which is apparent to exclude us from all communication by flags of truce, while our enemy retains that privilege by compliance in the composition of the escort of his flag with our regulations. I cannot believe that this is your actual intention, that is, that you have determined by the obnoxious complexion of the detachment sent to receive our flags to reject all flags of truce from our side, while exercising the privilege of the flag of truce to its fullest extent on your own side. Therefore am I induced to present the matter frankly and plainly for your consideration, and to ask to be made acquainted with your future intentions in the premises.

Hunter responded to Jordon a few days later:

That no invidious distinction, as you seem to suppose, was intended to be made between the class of officers instructed to receive flags of truce from you and those sent by me with flags of truce to your lines.

The Government of the United States recognizes no difference between officers mustered into her service and fighting under her flag. All are equally competent to be intrusted with the duties of their respective positions, and all are accorded equal protection and rights.

It is the invariable practice of all armies for the senior officer on outpost duty to receive flags of truce sent to that portion of the lines under his charge, and it happened on the occasion of your sending a flag to which you refer that the regiment on duty was the First South Carolina Regiment of loyal volunteers. No change of the regular practice was thought necessary in the case, nor can any change of the practice, invidious to any portion of the soldiers of the United States, be allowed. The flag of the United States covers all its defenders with equal honor and protection, irrespective of any accidents of color. This is now the avowed and settled policy of my Government and of all other governments under whose flags colored soldiers, whether African or East Indian, have been or are employed. No principle of international military usage is better settled or more universally recognized amongst civilized nations. The flag of truce sent to you by my order was, as is also usual, intrusted to a staff officer of the post through which it was sent, and in so sending it no regard was had to the fact whether he was or was not commissioned to serve with colored troops.

Yes, if now the two South Carolina regiments, comprised of former slaves, was assigned garrison duty to relieve the white regiments for field campaigns… well who do you think will be accepting those truce requests?

But I don’t think Hunter was completely honest here. Without doubt the arrangements were made to press a delicate point. Perhaps something akin to refusing to sit at the back of the bus in the midst of war?

As the number of blacks in arms or otherwise employed by the Federals increased, such as here with the 54th Massachusetts, the Confederates faced an ever more complex situation. Escaped slaves were easily translated to spades worth of sand not excavated, cotton not harvested, or other labor not completed. And with the arming of those former slaves, the Confederates were forced into awkward, to say the least, situations.

Debate the causes all you want. Cite speeches and letters of firebrands, please. But at the front lines of the Civil War, slavery was at center stage.

(Hunter’s letter to Governor Andrew is from OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, pages 462-3. Walker’s letter to Jordon is in the same serial, page 962. Jordon’s letter to Hunter on page 464. And Hunter’s response on pages 465-66.)

Analysis of Confederate gunnery: “The firing must be low, deliberate, carefully aimed, and within short range.”

On this day (April 10) in 1863, General P.G.T. Beauregard’s chief of staff, Brigadier-General Thomas Jordan, forwarded criticism to Brigadier-General Roswell S. Ripley, commander of the Charleston defenses, with respect to the actions of April 7 and the defeat of the ironclads:

Hdqrs. Dept. South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida,
Charleston, S.C., April 10, 1863.

Brig. Gen. R. S. Ripley, Comdg. First Military District, Charleston, S.C.:
General: I am instructed to call your attention to the fact that during the recent action, 7th instant, our batteries fired in all at least 2,200 balls in two and one-half hours’ time; the enemy meanwhile having fired not to exceed 125 shots. It is the belief of the commanding general that there was a great waste on our side, which, if repeated in subsequent encounters, will end in our disaster, and to prevent which the most stringent measures and orders must be given and rigidly enforced. The firing must be slow, deliberate, carefully aimed, and within short range. All care must be given to this momentous matter, and it, is hoped that officers will not again throw away so much precious ammunition.

Battery Bee, for example, never nearer than 2,000 yards to any of the iron-clads, is reported to have fired 283 shots, and Battery Beauregard 157, at the same distance. At this distance only a chance shot can be expected to do any harm to one of the monitors.

Respectfully, your obedient servant,

 Thomas Jordan,
Chief of Staff.

One might think that after repelling the world’s most powerful ironclad fleet, and even sinking one of the vessels that Beauregard would be ecstatic, or at least content.  But looking at the expenditure of ammunition, he was not.  Let’s put some teeth behind Beauregard’s critique of the gunners.

First off there are three tables from the official records detailing the guns involved and ammunition expended.  First a table from Major William Echols showing the number of guns, by location, and the expenditure of ammunition by caliber and type.


For his report, General Ripley posted a table showing the guns involved in the April 7:


Ripley also broke down the ammunition expended in his report, including the pounds of powder and friction primers:


There are a few discrepancies, but I rate them insignificant for a high level analysis. So let’s mash the numbers.

First off, how accurate was the Confederate shooting that day?  Well of 2229 rounds fired, Beauregard’s report indicated 520 hits:


Yea… less than 25%.  Maybe Beauregard had a point.

The high level battery-by-battery numbers are easy to interpret from the tables provided.  No surprise, Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie had the most guns and did the most firing.  The 8-inch columbiads and 32-pdr smoothbores, being the most numerous type, fired the most rounds by type.

But how about rounds per gun?  There is a twist there:

  • Fort Sumter – 44 guns firing 831 rounds = 18.8 rounds per gun.
  • Fort Moultrie – 21 guns firing 868 rounds = 41.3 rounds per gun.
  • Battery Bee – 6 guns firing 283 rounds = 47 rounds per gun.
  • Battery Beauregard – 2 guns firing 157 rounds = 78.5 rounds per gun.
  • Cummings Point – 2 guns firing 66 rounds = 33 rounds per gun.
  • Battery Wagner – one gun firing 22 rounds = 22 rounds per gun.
  • Fort Johnson – one mortar firing 2 rounds = 2 rounds per gun.

Certainly some teeth for Beauregard’s criticism.  Let’s break that down to rounds per gun, by type, by location:


Even though they fired at greater range, the two batteries fired an excessive number of heavy caliber rounds at the ironclads.

But let’s flip those numbers around a bit.  Recall back in the winter Beauregard wanted 150 rounds per gun.  Let’s use that number as a baseline.  Now I’m not saying that Charleston received that quantity – and the records clearly indicate a shortfall in that regard – but simply taking that number as a convenient baseline.  So how much did the engagement on April 7 set back Confederate stores?


This chart depicts the percentage of total number of rounds (factoring 150 rounds per gun), by type, required at Charleston, with the red being the percentage expended.  Again, let me stress that “On hand” is simply my projection against the baseline of 150 rounds per gun.  Example: There were ten 10-inch columbiads in the outer defenses on April 7.  The projected number of rounds per gun was 150.  The total number of rounds projected was 1500.  The number expended on April 7 was 385.  That was an expenditure of 25.6% from what was “needed” for those guns.

Now… keep in perspective what we are talking about with the April 7 action – about 2 ½ hours of action. So…

What if the USS Weehawken’s anchor hadn’t gotten fowled in “the Devil” that day, and the attack had commenced two hours earlier and continued until 5:30 p.m.?   Or, what if Admiral Samuel DuPont had decided to reengage on April 8? How long until the fleet might hold “wash day” while laying off Fort Sumter with complete impunity?

Clearly, Beauregard could not afford another such “victory” and hope to hold Charleston.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 14, Page 893.)

150 years ago: “The torpedo instantly exploded…. In twenty seconds the hull sank.”

No, that is not a quote from some account of battle.  Rather it comes from a report of experiments conducted at Charleston to perfect a spar torpedo for use against the blockaders.  Captain Francis D. Lee provided this report to Brigadier-General Thomas Jordan (General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Chief of Staff) on March 13, 1863:

In obedience to instructions from department headquarters I made an experiment with my boat torpedo on yesterday. One of the abandoned gunboats was placed at my disposal some days since, which, after loading with rubbish from the burnt district, got a draught of 6½ feet at her bow. I was anxious to obtain a draught of 7½ feet, but was unable to procure a vessel of that class. The torpedo-bearing boat for attacking this hulk was a light-built canoe about 20 feet long, with a spar suspended 6 feet from her keel and projecting beyond her bow 22 feet, at the extremity of which I placed the torpedo, with a charge of nearly 30 pounds of powder. It was my purpose to make the experiment at 1.30 o’clock p.m., that being the hour of high water, but the delays consequent upon the want of dispatch on the part of the steamer engaged to tow the hulk in place prevented the completion of all necessary preparations until 2.30 p.m. At that hour a strong northwest wind, amounting nearly to a gale, was blowing, which, with the ebb tide, rendered it impossible for me to moor the hulk in such position as to attach the lines for striking her side. Every previous preparation having been, however, made, I deemed it proper to make a trial even at the risk of failure, and gave orders to strike the vessel in the stern. After great difficulty, owing to the roughness of the sea, I secured a line to the bow of the torpedo-boat, and after reeving it through a block secured to the hulk returned it through a block in the stern of the torpedo-boat, and thence to a row-boat. I then ordered the row-boat to pull away. The torpedo-boat moved with good speed to the hulk and apparently struck, but without the expected discharge. The position of the torpedo-boat seemed to indicate that the torpedo had passed under the hulk. Leaving the boat in this position I returned to the city, and after giving the hands a recess of an hour returned to the hulk to examine into the true condition of things. I then found that the torpedo, in place of striking directly in the stern, had passed diagonally under the counter of the hulk. On withdrawing it I discovered that the torpedo had not come in contact, and that the lead plugs containing the sensitive tubes and charges of chlorate potassa were entirely uninjured. Night fast coming on I secured the torpedo-boat to the side of the hulk so as to be safe from accident, determining to make a new trial the following morning. On this morning at 8 a.m. I returned to the hulk, accompained by Captain Chisolm, of the general staff, and Mr. W. S. Henerey, machinist, and after anchoring the hulk across the stream put on the lines and struck her about amidships. The torpedo instantly exploded, with little or no displacement of water. In about twenty seconds the hulk sank. On moving up to the torpedo-boat we discovered her entirely uninjured, with a very small quantity of water in her, more than half of which was there before the explosion. From all appearances the spar is uninjured.

Lee’s experiments were designed to perfect the armament of spar torpedo boats, known as “Davids,” then being built.  Involved with ship construction in addition to other engineering chores, Lee was a busy man at this time of the war.

The spar torpedo boat that Lee was working to arm were the “Davids.”  These were low-profile, steam-powered boats.  The hope was, riding low in the water, the Davids could slip up close to anchored blockaders to deploy the deadly payload.

CSS David – showing machinery arrangements

The CSS David may have looked like a submarine, but it was not submersible.  And unlike the H.L. Hunley, a steam engine propelled the David.   Based on the profile and mode of attack, the Davids were arguably predecessors of the light draft torpedo boats and eventually the “PT” boats of World War II fame.

At least two of these type vessels were under construction in Charleston in the spring of 1863.  Further examples constructed in Charleston and elsewhere constituted the largest “class” of any warship built for the Confederacy.  A photo taken after Charleston’s surrender in 1865 shows one of these “Davids” beached.

A beached David at Charleston in 1865

The photo compares well to the drawing.  Notice the spar fixed on the front of the boat.  At the business end of that spar were fixtures to support the contact torpedo…

… the device that Captain Lee was perfecting 150 years ago today.  While not ready for action that spring, soon the Confederates would use these spar torpedo boats in an effort to lift the blockade of Charleston.

Andy Hall has some very good renderings of the Davids on his site, including one view comparing the David to the Hunley.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, pages 820-1.)

150 Years Ago: Working on four or five gunboats simultaneously in Charleston

Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred Roman served as the Inspector General for General P.G.T. Beauregard’s district in the winter of 1863.  His role, as with all inspector generals in armies, was to assess the progress towards the commanding general’s objectives – be that a specific project or something less specific like overall readiness.  In the early days of March 1863, Roman turned his attention to military shipbuilding projects in Charleston.  In a report to Brigadier-General Thomas Jordan, Beauregard’s chief of staff, on March 10, 1863, Roman addressed the delays producing more warships to defend Charleston:

In obedience to your communication of the 4th instant, requesting me to make frequent visits (at least once a week) to the torpedo ram to urge its completion, I visited yesterday the ship-yard where said ram is being constructed, and I beg leave to report as follows:

Sixty-one ship-carpenters and laborers are now employed on the marine ram, under the general supervision of Capt. F. D. Lee. They work from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Captain Lee and F. M. Jones, his assistant, think that the wood work of the boat will be completed in two weeks. The timber and planking for the shield is already prepared and is now being put together. The boiler and part of the engine are in place and the shafting was being fitted to the stern. The necessary repairs to the machinery (which is second-hand machinery, purchased in Savannah) are being executed at the arsenal. Captain Lee has no immediate control over that portion of the work, and he doubts whether it will be ready as soon as the rest. Both Captain Lee and Jones, being otherwise engaged, do not remain all day with the workmen. Captain Lee, however, visits the ship-yard regularly once a day.

So much time has been consumed in the building of that ram, and on the other hand the difficulty of procuring iron to shield it is so great, that no zeal, I imagine, is shown in the progress of the work. If the carpenters were ready to-day no iron could be had to complete the ram. The Navy Department has promised everything, but has given comparatively nothing. The idea of working simultaneously on four or five gunboats in Charleston instead of concentrating all the labor on one at the time is indeed so very singular that I am altogether at a loss to account for it. From all appearance the Palmetto State and the Chicora will be the only two rams used in the defense of this harbor, whether the Federals attack us now or whether they delay it for months.

I add emphasis to the sentences in the middle of the last paragraph.  Roman’s remark about the Navy Department was just another dig at authorities in Richmond. As time passed, the friction between Richmond and Charleston would continue to be a problem.  Those in Charleston, from Beauregard on down, saw a looming threat from the sea.  But they saw their requests unfilled (and to some degree perceived them falling on deaf ears).

But were authorities in Charleston trying to do too much?  In other posts, I’ve offered correspondence and other documents that illustrate the shortage of resources – particularly iron.  In this case, Roman narrowed the focus of his complaint to lack of armor and machinery.  Captain Francis D. Lee, an army engineer – not a naval officer – had charge of the project.  But he lacked any control of the arrival of components.  This led, as Roman pointed out, to delays when the labor force mismatched the tasks required on a particular day.  And of course F.D. Lee had plenty of other work to do outside the shipyard.

For context, the CSS Palmetto State and CSS Chicora mentioned in the report were already in service (and had already fought an engagement at the end of January).  In December 1862, the Confederates laid down another Charleston ironclad ram, to be named the CSS Charleston.  I would assume it was the Charleston that Roman referred to in the report.  At the same time, Captain Lee conducted experiments with spar torpedoes to arm couple of boats then under construction.  These would later become the CSS David and CSS Torch, followed by a series of similar vessels.  And of course there were several other projects outfitting blockade runners (recall the CSS Stono, ex-USS Isaac Smith), refitting gunboats, and generally keeping the ships afloat.  Very easy to see why Roman would complain the Confederates were trying to do too much at once… and thus all the projects suffered.

And can we put numbers behind the labor shortage, and better interpret the difficulties cited by Roman?

Perhaps.  In addition to receipts for contract labor provided by firms such as J.M. Eason or Cameron in Charleston, the Navy recorded individuals employed.  The sheet below was the first of nine listing the individuals paid for services from January 1 through March 31, 1863:

Page 808

The final tally, signed by paymaster Henry Myers, listed 275 individuals and a total payment of $419,233.92 (all lines with a nice “check” mark perhaps indicating someone was very thorough validating the numbers).  Were 275 skilled hands (and I’m certain that was not the full sum of workers employed, considering the contracts mentioned above) enough to produce four or five more warships?  And maintain those already afloat?  I believe the paymaster’s sheet made Roman’s point.

And… hey… notice the second name down on the list:

Page 808a

Darn that extra “e”!  Scuttles my planned April Fools Day post!