Sun, Moon, and Tides: Salvaging the Keokuk’s Guns, Part 3

The first two posts in this set have related details of the salvage of guns from the USS Keokuk and discussed the sources we have for that story. Allow me to turn now to some “gritty” details and offer some of my own interpretation.

The key element in the recovery of the USS Keokuk’s guns is the light and tide data. Those factors limited the time allowed for the recovery crew to work.  So let me bring in data about the sunrise, sunset, moon rise, and moon set for April 20 to May 5 (from the US Naval Observatory site).  First the sun’s data for the time in question:


I’ve walked through the definitions of Beginning Morning Nautical Twilight (BMNT), Beginning Morning Civil Twilight (BMCT), End of Evening Civil Twilight (EECT), and End of Evening Nautical Twilight (EENT), but for a refresher, here’s a diagram:

The definition of each is based on the angle the sun is below the horizon.  So while we can say the sun set at around 7 PM during the period in question, the twilight ensured there was visibility until nearly 8 PM each night.  Likewise, “first light” was between 4:49 AM and 4:31 AM.  The bottom line here – “night work” was only possible between around 7:30 PM and 4:45 AM each day.

Next the moon’s rise, fall, and phase:


The first important consideration with respect to the moon’s data is the percentage of illumination.  We all know of the fateful moonlight on May 1-3, 1863 and how that affected actions on certain Virginia battlefield.   At Charleston, those nights with full and almost full moon periods coincided with the retrieval operations.  In short, on the nights LaCoste’s crew needed the most natural illumination, they got it.

Second important point is the moon transit times.  Starting on the night of April 27-28 the moon transits were very favorable to those working at night on the waters – rising in the afternoon and setting after midnight.

But, there’s a third factor to consider with the moon – tides.  Yes, you probably recall the moon’s gravitational effects are the major influence on tides.  So while the moon was up, and shining brightly, the tides were also high.  I’ve taken the  tide data for the same dates from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) tides page, placing it into this somewhat busy table.  Each day has it’s own tide data graph:


Note, this data is “projected” tide levels, not actual.  Since NOAA did not have a sensor buoy out in 1863, the actual tide levels, which are affected by a number of other variables, are unknown.  The red diamonds indicate the projected level of the tide at hourly intervals.  For the period in question these ranged from just short of seven feet over sea level to just under sea level.  During the days of April when workers tore through the turret tops, the tides were not expected to exceed six feet.

The yellow highlights in those blocks indicate the “prime working hours” to the best of my calculations.  These would be during periods of night with the tides under two feet.  My estimates don’t match exactly to Johnson’s “two and a half hours’ labor on each night.”  During some of the best nights for work, from April 24-28, I think there were closer to four hours of prime working hours.

On the other hand, the first days of May offered scant few prime working hours for the crew.  For May 1-2 when the first gun was retrieved, the crews had barely an hour of darkness with low tide.  May 3 offered no prime working hours.  The best hours for work on May 4 and 5 were late evening.  The moon was full and up most of the night.

What’s more, the tide data runs against one element of the story related by Warren Ripley.  It was not a rising tide which pushed the first gun out of the turret, but rather a falling tide.  Call it a very fortuitous odd large wave.  But anyone who’s spent a day at the beach will attest such exist, even with falling tides.

There’s one more measure to consider here. Johnson indicates the Keokuk sank in 13 feet of water.  That matches to Navy charts made during the war.  Consider that Commander Rhind reported the Keokuk‘s draft, before going into action, was 9 feet.  If drawings of the Keokuk are accurate, the line of sight for the Dahlgrens was around 16 feet above the keel.  Even considering settling that would happen, the Keokuk‘s turrets should have remained exposed for more than just the lowest tides.  Given that calculation, would LaCoste and crew have worked on the turret tops or the sides?

Of course none of my data presented here takes into account the weather.  Even a slight storm would have deprived the Confederates of valuable working hours.  But Johnson does not mention any specific nights on which the weather prevented or minimized work.

In conclusion, I’ll offer these points for thought:

  • There were more “prime working hours” than generally believed (not counting for weather of course).
  • The turrets were more exposed than Johnson led us to believe.
  • LaCoste’s crew did not benefit from a rising tide during the recovery of the first gun.

None of those points would have significantly reduce the risk.  Nor do those offered conclusions diminish the daring nature of the operation.  And of course we can still say without doubt that this gun…

Charleston 4 May 10 060

… was recovered from the Keokuk in early May 1863 and used by Confederates for the defense of Charleston.


How do we know about this “daring event of the war”? : Salvaging the Keokuk’s Guns, Part 2

As seen from the 1200 words spent relating the details about the salvaging of the USS Keokuk’s guns, the story is more than a simple recovery with dramatic flourishes on the side. Every account you are apt to find will emphasize the difficult labor against the elements with dangers ever-present. But were do we derive the details of this story?

Yesterday I cited Charleston area historian Warren Ripley, from his book Artillery and Ammunition of the Civil War. Ripley previously wrote articles about the operation for Charleston newspapers The News And Courier and The Evening Post timed fifty years ago during the centennial. Many readers are familiar with the reprinting of those in The Civil War at Charleston booklet.

Other accounts of the salvage operation appear in E. Milby Burton’s The Siege of Charleston: 1861-1865, written in 1982; Robert M. Browning, Jr.’s Success Is all that was Expected, published in 2002, focusing on how the recovery played into the DuPont-Welles exchange; And more recently in Charleston Under Siege: The Impregnable City by Douglas W. Bostick. Unlike Ripley’s account, each of these works offers only a few paragraphs in context of the broader operations around Charleston. But all of these accounts derive the salvage story from a book written by John Johnson, published in 1890, named The Defense of Charleston, including Fort Sumter and the adjacent islands, 1863-1865.

Johnson served as an engineer in the Confederate army, posted to Charleston and Savannah. According to his introduction, in April 1864 he was assigned to a board of officers tasked with collecting the history of operations at Charleston. However, even with such proximity to the events, Johnson lamented the lack of documentation:

No special documents, official and contemporary, relating to the enterprise have been discovered. A few paragraphs embodied in more general reports constitute all the notes possessed from Confederate sources, while some correspondence between the Union authorities is the sum of contributions from the other side. But of the actors in this marine adventure five have been consulted in the preparation of this narrative, and no particulars have been used to supplement the official record except such as rest on agreement of evidence or seem to be most probable under all the circumstances.

Johnson’s normal wartime duties put him in contact with those involved with the recovery of the Dahlgrens. This included the engineers who first conceived the operation, and more importantly both Adolphus W. LaCoste and his brother John C. LaCoste. Johnson was able to list the work crew by name, indicating familiarity, if not direct, with those individuals. Two of the men mentioned by Johnson appear on a tally sheet of workers employed around Charleston, and specifically Fort Sumter, by John LaCoste in July 1863 (when Johnson was also working there as a Lieutenant). In this case, James Dougan and Thomas Loftus (first two names mentioned).

Page 4

I would also point out that Johnson mentioned Jack Baker as one of the three “colored” workers with the LaCostes. Baker appears on one of LaCoste’s lists from January 1864, along with Dougan and Loftus.

Page 48

And again, Johnson was working around Fort Sumter at that time. I would gather Baker was a free black working on these contracts.

Given the connections, at a minimum Johnson’s account is one step removed from the primary source. I’d argue even better than some of the “Battles and Leaders” accounts, since Johnson had to actually consult participants and compare details. So, how well does Johnson’s account of the salvage stand up? First off, Johnson’s narrative reads as if he himself were actually there:

With slippery footing on the tops or roofing of the turrets, constantly awash with the swell of the ocean breaking over them, their scant clothing kept wet with the salt spray, and no light allowed them, the mechanics bend themselves to the work. The first turret is attacked with sledge and chisel, wrench and crowbar, for nothing less than the removal of a large section of roof will satisfy them, sufficient to allow the lifting and free passage of a gun thirteen feet five inches long, nearly three feet in diameter at the breech, and weighing sixteen thousand pounds.

Johnson continues on to discuss the particulars for removing the gun from the carriage, to include the elevating screw. Sounds like Johnson did a good job gathering and assimilating the first hand accounts he received.

However there is a question in my mind about how accurate Johnson was with respect to the work hours. As related before, the Keokuk sat in shallow water, but was only accessible during low tides. In his words, the turrets “were exposed at low water, but so little that no more than two and a half hours’ labor on each night could be expected under the most favorable circumstances.” The work was done at night, with calm seas, and at low tides.

The workers had only ten nights to cut or pry open the turrets between April 20 and the end of the month. Given Johnson’s estimate of between two and two-and-a-half hours a night, that’s 20 to 25 working hours. On the night of May 1, the crews lifted out the first gun. Then the second was retrieved on May 5. So was that a total of 30 hour, maybe 35 at the most? What Johnson did not discuss is how much, if at all, battle damage affected the work.

I’ll pick up some of these questions in the next post on this thread. But for now let me mention one other connection between Johnson and the Keokuk guns. When the XI-inch Dahlgren was discovered in the sand on Sullivan’s Island, Johnson was among those who worked to have it moved to White Point Gardens. The plaque on the side of the gun today mentions him by name.

Charleston 4 May 10 062

Lieutenant Johnson Hagood, USA, mentioned on the plaque, was an Army officer who facilitated the gun’s transfer. He later went on to make major-general. I don’t think, however, he was directly related to the Confederate general and state governor of the same name. Still, maybe some reader can offer a connection, other than to say both were born in South Carolina.

Ok… next up, the sunsets, the moon, and the tides!

“One of the most daring events of the war…”: Salvaging the Keokuk’s Guns, Part 1

I’ve mentioned this gun on several occasions:

Charleston 4 May 10 060
XI-inch Dahlgren, Alger #235, from USS Keokuk

The gun stands guard today at Charleston’s White Point (Battery) Park. But its Civil War story ranks it among the most historic artillery pieces to survive the war. The gun was one of two XI-inch Dahlgrens on board the USS Keokuk at the time of the April 7, 1863 attack on Fort Sumter. In the engagement, nineteen Confederate shot pierced the Keokuk. She ran aground and sank in shallow water the following morning.

Both Federals and Confederates visited the wreck in the days after the battle. The Federals attempted to destroy the Keokuk – first using one of the remaining “Devils” then later by demolition charges. But the Keokuk filled with sand within days of sinking. The navy officers felt the ironclad, laying between the guns of Morris Island and the blockading fleet, was out of reach. However the Confederates began picking over the wreck when darkness provided cover, making off with flags, pennants, small arms, and equipment (and part of a signal-book washed up on Morris Island, to the immediate advantage of the Confederates). Although complete salvage of the Keokuk was out of the question, the wreck lay close enough to shore that several began eying the Dahlgrens.


As seen in the map above, the Keokuk lay about ¾ a mile (or 1300 yards) off Morris Island. Confederate engineers Major D.B. Harris, Major William Echols, and Lieutenant S. Cordes Boyleston made several surveys of the wreck. Harris described the wreck:

…her turrets within 4½ feet of their tops had been pierced by four 10-inch shot and one 7-inch rifle shot, and a wrought-iron Brooke bolt had penetrated seven-eights of its length and stuck in the iron plating. Several severe indentations were also observed, near the plates were warped and the bolts broken or started…. The vessel having sunk in 13 feet of water prevented an examination of the lower portions of her turrets or her hull, which no doubt were served in a like manner.

Echols made a drawing of the turret (which sadly did not survive for inclusion in the Official Records). From these surveys the Confederates formed a plan to recover the Dahlgrens. Keeping these activities secret, General P.G.T. Beauregard selected Adolphus LaCoste, a civilian employed by the Ordnance Department, to lead the salvage operation. And let me stress secret. Scant few details of this operation appear as official record. Receipts for services rendered during the time period make no specific mention of the work. Only a reference to “moving and transporting cannon at Fort Sumter, Morris Island, and other points in Charleston Harbor” totaling $1420:

Page 65

Not a single mention of “Keokuk” or “salvage.” Such is important, as I will explain further in the next part of this story, because the details we have about this incredible operation is for the large part word of mouth and secondary source.

Work began sometime around April 20. The workforce consisted of ten men, three of which were blacks, employed by LaCoste along with at least five soldiers from the Fort Sumter garrison. These men worked on the wreck at night, to avoid notice by the blockaders, and at low tide when the turrets were exposed. The first step involved clearing the turret top sufficiently to allow extraction of the guns. The Keokuk’s turrets were not the rotating type seen on the monitors, but more so casemates with the guns mounted to pivot to firing ports. So clearing the turrets required cutting away iron plates.* Once the tops were open, the workers could free the guns from the carriages. The last step was to hoist the guns out of the wreck for transportation into Charleston harbor. Of course all of this work was done with the surf continually crashing against the wreck and all surfaces nearly or partially submerged.

Since at any time the Federals could interrupt the work, field guns on Morris Island, notably a Whitworth rifle, provided cover. Likewise the guns at Battery Wagner stood ready during the recovery. At least once, on April 20, the ironclad CSS Chicora ventured forth to exchange fire with the blockaders while covering the operation.

By the first of May the crew cleared the turrets sufficiently to allow extraction. To lift the guns out of the turret, LaCoste placed outriggers on a hulk, formerly the Rattlesnake Shoals lightship. LaCoste also placed a large number of sandbags on the bow of the hulk for counter-balance. On the designated night, the steamer Etiwan towed the hulk out to the Keokuk. Supporting the workers, both the Chicora and CSS Palmetto State sallied forth to parry any interference by the Federals.

Withdrawal of the first gun went smoothly up to a point. When the tackle reached the top of the outriggers, the gun’s muzzle was still a foot or so inside the turret. So an eight ton weight dangled in the open turret. To pull the gun further from the turret, workers began moving sandbags from the bow to the stern of the hulk, slowly raising the gun further from the wreckage. But even then a few inches of muzzle remained inside the turret. With dawn coming soon, LaCoste had to either find a way out, or give up hoping for success another night. But the matter was taken out of his hands. In the words of historian Warren Ripley:

Then fate took a hand. Tide and sea had continued to rise and as the old ship rose and fell, a wave a little larger than the rest passed beneath her. The bow lifted, fell again with the gun slamming against the turret, this time on the outside, free.

With the first gun in hand, the Etiwan towed the hulk to harbor. A few nights later the crew returned again to retrieve the second gun with less dramatics.

On May 5, Beauregard reported to Secretary of War James Seddon that, “The two 11-inch guns from the wreck of the Keokuk have been saved by Mr. LaCoste…” These two guns were at that time the largest in the defenses of Charleston (and from my estimates the largest caliber in all of the Confederacy at that time). One of the guns went to Fort Sumter and the other to Battery Bee on Sullivan’s Island. There the guns fired upon their former owners on occasion. With the later reduction of Fort Sumter, the gun stationed there was removed and placed in battery at White Point in Charleston, seen on the far left of this view.

That gun went to scrap some time after the Civil War. However the Battery Bee gun remained on Sullivan’s Island, buried in the sand. Found in the 1890s, that gun became a prized display in White Point Gardens. Today it stands as a relic with a colorful story to tell.

Charleston 4 May 10 067
The Battery Bee gun now in the Park

After the war, Commander Alexander Rhind, who’d commanded the Keokuk, said the salvage of the guns was “one of the most daring of the war, and in point of skill had probably no counterpart.”

In my next post in this series, I will take you into the historiography behind this story. We could simply leave the fact these guns were recovered from the Keokuk, but the story is too good not to examine the details. And some of those details indicate there’s more to this story.

Citations above from OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, pages 245-6, and 926. Warren Ripley’s account of the operation is from Artillery and Ammunition of the Civil War, pages 93-97.

* There’s one detail which eludes here. I’ve not seen diagrams depicting the actual arrangements of the turrets (or casemates or towers as some call them). Some depictions of the Keokuk have grillwork over the turret. However, secondary accounts of the recovery relate the need to cut through iron plate in order to clear the turret. In either case, LaCoste’s crew had to cut through a significant amount of metal and wood.

The stalemate of April outside Charleston, Part 2

First off, let me update the map provided in part 1 of this set (looking at the situation outside Charleston in late April 1863):

I’ve added the place-names for the islands held by the Federals.  Also depicted the units deployed to James, Morris, and Folly Islands.

Second, let me better describe Brigadier-General Vogdes’ command.  The brigade  consisted of 6th Connecticut, 36th Illinois, 4th New Hampshire, 100th New York, 62nd Ohio, 67th Ohio, and 85th Pennslvania infantry regiments.  The Third Battalion of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry (Companies I, K, L, and M) accompanied the brigade.  Also attached to Vogdes’ command was one company of the 3rd New York Light Artillery, two companies of the 3rd Rhode Island Artillery, and Battery C, 1st U.S. Artillery.  Rounding out the formation was three companies of the 1st New York Engineers.

On Seabrook Island, just off the map to the left, Brigadier-General Thomas Stevenson had the 10th Connecticut, 24th Massachusetts, 56th New York, and 97th Pennsylvania, along with additional supporting troops.  All told, nearly 7,500 Federals occupied the barrier islands south of Charleston.

On the Confederate side, General P.G.T. Beauregard’s calls for assistance, prior to and after the April 7 ironclad attack, resulted in an increase in troops around Charleston.  On March 21, Brigadier-General Roswell Ripley’s 1st Military District (Charleston, Fort Sumter, James Island, St. Johns Island, and posts to the north of Charleston) numbered 12,345 troops present, up from 8,663 reported at the middle of the month.  On April 7, when the ironclads attacked, that number was roughly the same.  But by April 23, Ripley reported 18,351 present for duty.  But this was a temporary increase in strength.

Although not engaged in any major fighting, the troops were far from idle. In the weeks after the April 7 attack, Beauregard feared a Federal landing at Bull’s Bay might expose the flanks of Sullivan’s Island.  One brigade shifted to Christ Church Parrish in response.  At the same time, Beauregard ordered Brigadier General S.R. Gist to occupy Black Island, behind Morris Island, with field artillery (see the map above for location).  Fear was that Federals might occupy that island and take in flank both the Morris Island defenses and Secessionville (Fort Lamar).  But to fortify these points the Confederates needed time and labor.  As mentioned before, they were coming up short on the later.

By the first days of May, troops were departing Charleston for other threatened sectors.  Among those departing were the brigades of Brigadier-Generals S.R. Gist and W.H.T. Walker. Pressed to send Brigadier-General Nathan Evan’s Brigade on top of that, Beauregard argued with some success to retain at least 13,000 troops in front of Charleston (both 1st and 2nd Military Districts).

Reflecting on the situation and the results of the April 7th engagement, Beauregard offered advice to Colonel John Forsyth, responsible for the defenses at Mobile Bay:

I place great reliance, however, on three things – heavy guns, Rains torpedoes, and, in deep water, rope obstructions.  I have also introduced here Lee’s (one of my officers) spar torpedoes, attached to row-boats, which ought to be used in flotillas on all our large rivers.

In the days after the attack, Beauregard had followed his own advice.  He temporarily held up some heavy guns, including Brooke rifles, moving by rail to Savannah.  But unable to retain those, he looked about for other options.  One was to modify more of the heavy smoothbores into rifled guns – particularly the 8-inch columbiads which had little effect on the ironclads – in a manner similar to the 42-pdrs.  This program eventually expanded to 10-inch columbiads.  But the process took time.  None of the guns would appear in the harbor defenses until mid-summer at the earliest.

The number of rifled guns in Beauregard’s entire command as of the end of April was 113, as indicated on an April 24 report:


The majority of rifled guns were field artillery, and an odd assortment at that (Wiards, Blakelys, Parrotts, James, and Whitworths).  The converted 42-, 32- and 24-pdrs were marginal at best. Of the Brookes, three of those from the report were earmarked for the CSS Atlanta at Savannah.

But the Charleston defenders would receive, as the spoils from the victory on April 7, two additional heavy guns.  With the USS Keokuk sunk in shallow waters (see the blue mark just to the lower right of the map), Confederate engineers deemed it possible to salvage the ship’s XI-inch Dahlgrens.  That work took place between mid-April and the first week of May.  As result, Beauregard added the heaviest guns in all of the South to his defenses. (I promise more details on that operation in posts to follow.)

While working the wreck, the Confederates needed to support the salvage crew from any Federal interference.  At least twice during the salvage, Confederate ironclads moved up to cover the operation.  On April 20, the CSS Chicora exchanged shots with the Federals.  Guns on Morris Island also covered the operation, particularly a Whitworth field gun.  Although of light caliber, the gun could fire a solid bolt accurately to extreme ranges.  Beauregard wanted a second gun of this type, but was denied.

With respect to torpedoes, after the ironclad attack the Confederates wanted to determine the reason for the “big torpedo” failure.  As related earlier, the determination was excess cable played out during the laying of that weapon, thus rendering it incapable of firing.  That issue identified, the defenders soon placed more of the large torpedoes.

But Beauregard was most interested in employing the spar torpedoes.  Writing to Adjutant General Samuel Cooper in Richmond, he lamented that, “The work on the marine torpedo ram is at a stand-still for want of material and money.”  The funding for the project was expended and more was needed. While the Confederate navy provided some materials, much of the needed iron-plating went to the ironclads then under production in Charleston.  Pressing the point, Beauregard added:

Meantime the great value of the invention has been demonstrated so as to secure general conviction, and Captain Tucker, commanding Confederate States naval forces afloat on this station, declares unhesitatingly that this one machine of war, if finished, would be more effective  as a means of defense and offense than nearly all the iron-clads here afloat and building, a fact of which I am and have been fully assured.  Had it been finished and afloat when the enemy’s iron-clads entered this harbor several weeks ago but few of them probably would have escaped.

In early May, Confederates in Charleston received reports of “400-500 tons of iron mailing plates” in Nassau.  Circulars went out offering up to $1,500 per ton to blockade runners transporting the iron.  Beauregard went to the extreme measure of denying cotton to any runner who refused to carry the iron.

During the lull through the end of April, Confederates angled for an opportunity to mount a row-boat spar torpedo attack on the Federal vessels anchored in the Stono River near Folly Island. But these efforts came to naught.  Naval crews sent to Charleston in anticipation of capturing a monitor were soon sent back to Richmond.

As April closed, both sides maintained a stalemate outside Charleston.  Yet as both sides shouldered for leverage on the coastline, particular points gained prominence for future operations.  Folly Island would be the toe-hold needed to secure Morris Island.  Morris Island would thence become the key to reducing Fort Sumter.  Beauregard’s spar torpedoes would indeed succeed in damaging the Federal ships outside the harbor.   And the stationary torpedoes would keep the fleet out of the harbor.  The stalemate in April was but a brief respite before the next round of operations.  There would be few such respites in the next two years of war as Charleston became a very active theater.

(Citations and table from OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, pages 906, 917, and 927.)

Hold Folly Island without attracting attention: The stalemate of April outside Charleston, Part 1

After the Ironclad attack of April 7, 1863, major activity around Charleston slowed. Several reasons for this. Admiral Samuel DuPont was, naturally, reluctant to expose the ironclads again. General David Hunter was content to leave the status quo. On the Confederate side, in spite of the pleas of General P.G.T. Beauregard, the focus shifted to other threatened theaters. Troops, cannons, and other resources were dispatched or diverted to Vicksburg and Virginia.

But that is not to say there was no activity. To understand the next round of operations at Charleston we must consider the actions taken to improve positions by both sides of the contest through April and into May. Turning again to the wartime maps, let me offer a rough depiction of the dispositions towards the end of April:


At the time of the Ironclad attack, the Federal troops on Folly Island prepared to dash over Light House Inlet and onto Morris Island. But with the withdraw of the ironclads, Hunter – with no great reluctance – ordered the troops to stand down. All indications are, had that assault taken place, it would have overwhelmed the southern end of Morris Island. But I won’t speculate (here at least) about the potential to capture Battery Wagner.

Those troops remained on Folly Island and extended the “beachhead” out to nearby Coles Island and Long Island. Recall back in March Confederate commanders desired those same islands as leverage to close off any access to James Island. The very presence of Federal picket lines at those points touched on a sore point in the Confederate defenses. This left the Stono River open for Federal gunboats (with some risk of course).

But the Federals did not press any advantages there. Brigadier-General Israel Vogdes commanded just 4,200 troops on Folly Island. While he had an interesting array of field artillery (Wiard rifles and boat howitzers included in the mix), he was not allowed to place any heavy guns. Further down the coast, Briadier General T.G. Stevenson commanded another 3,200 troops on Seabrook Island. Vogdes’ troops occasionally exchanged shots with the Confederates. The biggest skirmish occurred on the night of April 10. But generally both sides were content to simply observe each other. Vogdes’ reports contain several mention of Confederate works and artillery seen on Morris Island.

Despite detailed requests to improve the defenses of Folly Island and even erect heavy guns, Vogdes received no encouragement. His superior, Brigadier-General Truman Seymour, concluded, “A work at the mouth of Folly River seems undesirable just now. The object is to simply hold Folly Island, without attracting too much attention to it, until projected operations can be recommenced.”

And what was recommenced? Mostly just posturing. Hunter did make a proposal for what might be called a “reverse March to the Sea” to take 10,000 troops “through counties in which, as shown by the census, the slave population is 75 per cent of the inhabitants.” Proposing the operation to Lincoln, Hunter added, “Nothing is truer, sir, than that this rebellion has left the Southern States a mere hollow shell.” Perhaps a winning strategy, but some eighteen months too early.

At the end of the month, Vogdes became convinced an opportunity existed to his front. On April 29 he reported, “I have been reconnoitering pretty carefully, and putting everything together have come to the conclusion that most of the enemy’s force have been withdrawn from Charleston.” Vogdes mentioned a disappearance of Confederate troops and newspapers passed between the lines. Vogdes desired a fortification on the north end of Folly Island. As he saw it, if the next operation was defensive, then such works would firmly secure the island from attack. But if the next phase was offensive, then Vogdes wanted overwhelming firepower to suppress any Confederate defenses on Morris Island. In all, the theater commander seemed oblivious to any opportunity that existed between Folly and Morris Islands.

Another point which Federal commanders overlooked was the wreck of the USS Keokuk. When the ironclad sank in shallow waters on April 8, the Federals made a few abortive attempts to destroy the vessel. Both sides paid visits to the wreck afterwards. The Federals felt salvage operations were not feasible, particularly in close proximity to the Confederate guns. On the other hand, Confederate engineers saw the two XI-inch Dahlgrens in the Keokuk as prizes for the taking.

I’ll look at the Confederate activity in the next part.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, pages 446-57.)

The Dahlgren “family” of smoothbore shell and solid shot guns

Earlier I mentioned some connections between the biggest of the Dahlgren guns and the Army’s Rodman guns. These weapons were contemporaries, as of course were the inventors – John A.B. Dahlgren and Thomas J. Rodman. But while the Army’s Rodman guns were designed almost exclusively for seacoast defense, Dahlgren’s designs covered practically all the Navy’s requirements. Given the varied nature of such requirements, the term “Dahlgren” might refer to several different types.

We can generally group the Dahlgrens within three “families” – the boat howitzers, the heavy smoothbores, and the heavy rifled guns. I’ve discussed the boat howitzers in detail (but should return to complete the discussion of the various subtypes at some point). The rifled Dahlgrens, I must likewise table for the moment as they don’t factor yet sesquicentennial-wise. I’ve already discussed the IX-inch and XV-inch Dahlgren guns. So it is time I introduce the family of heavy smoothbores:


I’ve organized this diagram to show the three generations of Dahlgren’s heavy smoothbore guns: pre-war, wartime, and post-war. The vertical columns show the various calibers of these heavy smoothbores. Again, notice the use of roman numerals with the weapon designations, which was the Navy’s practice at the time.

Within those generations are four sub-types: the original shellguns (blue-gray), wartime solid-shot guns (tan), the turret guns for the ironclads (gray), and the postwar derivatives (gold).

First, the original shell guns. When discussing the IX-inch shell guns used by Confederates at Charleston in 1861 (and which were still there in 1863), I offered this table comparing the particulars of the Dahlgren Shellguns:


These were the four main calibers of shellguns entering service in the years just before the Civil War. As the family diagram shows, there was a 32-pdr shellgun. But this was apparently just a developmental weapon, with few produced. The VIII-inch guns went through a design change during the war, resulting in a heavier version. Production run of that heavier VIII-inch shellgun was 351, from 1864 to 1867.

As their name implies, the shellguns featured a design optimized for firing shells. There’s a long story behind the employment of shells for naval ordnance. The short version – by the first half of the 19th century fuse, projectile, and cannon design reached a point that the shell was a viable option for naval use. While traditional solid shot, depending on raw kinetic energy, could damage wooden ships, the shell’s explosive power offered certain advantages. Dahlgren designed these shellguns to fire primarily shells, with the option to use solid shot when needed.

The shellguns served the Navy well, particularly the IX- and XI-inch guns. These included perhaps the most historic of all the guns used in the Civil War, the XI-inch guns in the turret of the USS Monitor.

CW Confrence 10 Mar 12 112
IX-inch Dahlgren from the USS Monitor

And of course there were a few other famous Dahlgren shellguns, also of XI-inch caliber.

Charleston 4 May 10 060

But we’ll get to the guns of the USS Keokuk in due time.

By mid-war, the Navy realized a requirement for guns which could fire solid-shot, along with the occasional shell (in other words, the opposite of the original shellguns). Consequently, the Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance designed a set of guns based on Dahlgren’s original design. The requirement for these guns was to fire solid shot against armored warships, with high durability in mind. Such accounts for the heavier weight.

At any rate, the solid-shot guns came in four calibers:

  • 32-pdr of 4,500 pounds. 379 produced between 1864-67.
  • VIII-inch of 10,000 pounds. Only one produced in 1864.
  • IX-inch of 12,280 pounds. Only one produced in 1865.
  • X-inch of 16,500 pounds. 29 produced in 1862-65.

The production figures offer an indication these guns were not entirely successful. The aberration being the large number of 32-pdrs produced. The need for weapons on smaller craft (river and inshore patrol) might account for a healthy production run. But what has been lost to time is why such production continued well after the war.

While the solid-shot guns were not deemed successful enough as anti-ironclad weapons, the big turret guns were. As mentioned in the post about the XV-inch guns, Dahlgren had some reservations about casting guns larger than XI-inch. So many of the XIII-, XV-, and XX-inch used the Rodman casting technique as a “hedge.” These joined the XI-inch shellguns in the early monitors. By war’s end, the preference was for uniform caliber armament in the turrets. The Navy received only eleven of the XIII-inch guns. The lone XX-inch gun produced during the war was not delivered to the Navy, but later sold to Peru. But as mentioned earlier, the XV-inch guns became the Navy’s standard turret guns (going through a few design revisions along the way).

And to close out the “family tree” of the heavy Dahlgren smoothbores, these weapons saw long post-war service. With the heaviest of the family holding an important position as the primary armament of the Navy’s vaunted ironclads, some XV- and XX-inch guns appeared with slight improvements. The last twenty XV-inch guns featured Army-style elongated hemisphere bore bottoms. Three additional XX-inch guns conformed to a revised, slightly smaller, design in 1866-7. But none of those saw active service.

The long line of Dahlgren smoothbores ended, much as with the Army’s Rodmans, with a conversion.

Patriots Point 3 May 2010 075
Muzzle of XI-inch Dahlgren converted to 8-inch Rifle

Just over fifty XI-inch shellguns underwent an involved process with the aim to extend their usefulness a few more years. The modifications were done between 1876 and 1880. In addition to a rifled sleeve inserted into the bore, the guns also had their trunnions modified to retain the preponderance.

These heavy Dahlgrens served the Navy from the mid-1850s up to the eve of the 20th century. Although woefully inadequate at the time, a few of these old Dahlgrens were on the equally inadequate old monitors pressed into brief service during the Spanish-American War. After that time, just like the Army’s old Rodman guns, the Dahlgrens mostly went to scrap. But in a few cases, guns were salved for use as gate guards, bollards, or memorials. A fitting end for such long-serving guns.

150 Years Ago: The Ironclads Attack! The war returns to Fort Sumter

In April 1861, a bombardment of Fort Sumter ignited the Civil War.  The Confederates fired several thousand rounds, but only achieved a two foot deep penetration of the walls – far from a breech.  Fires set off inside the fort ultimately did more damage.

In April 1862, the Federals bombarded Fort Pulaski, along the Savannah River in Georgia, sending over three thousand rounds at that fort. Concentrated and accurate fires – thanks to the use of rifled breeching batteries – breeched the fort at a vulnerable salient.  Masonry fortifications were vulnerable.

One-hundred and fifty years ago today (April 7, 1863), the U.S. Navy pitted ironclads with heavy caliber guns (and a few rifles) against Fort Sumter.   War had returned to Fort Sumter.  And for the third year in a row, advanced technology tested masonry fortifications.

Today I am going to try something new for my blogging experience.  The focus for today is simply to account for the actions – an embellished timeline if you will.  Analysis to follow over the next few days (weeks?).  But I’m going to span a rather broad story over two blog posts on two blogs.  I’ve posted the naval side of the story on the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial site (and also invite you to read Andy’s posting of a first hand account of the battle at his site).  I’ll host that of the Confederate army here.

General P.G.T. Beauregard received reports of the ironclads’ presence on April 5.  Immediately, he alerted Savannah to have its mobile column to move by way of railroad to reinforce Charleston.  Beauregard also issued General Orders No. 53 – a lengthy order that was both inspirational and directive.  Anxiously the Confederates watched the much anticipated attack unfold.  Reports of troops landing on Folly Island and gunboats probing the Stono River and Lighthouse Inlet seemed to confirm what Beauregard predicted months earlier.  Observers’ reports indicated April 7 dawned with a heavy haze, which cleared as the day went on.  Among the flurry of dispatches, Beauregard mentioned last minute preparations.   He expressed concern about the “alligator” attached to the Federal ironclads which was clearly intended to clear the harbor obstructions.  He also urged commanders to conceal the buoys used to mark the range of guns.

At around 2 p.m. on April 7, observers on Morris Island, Fort Sumter, and Sullivan’s Island reported the advance of the ironclad fleet up the main ship channel.


As the ironclads slowly worked up the channel, the Confederates called the long roll and manned the guns.  The first “shots” of the battle were actually at 2:35 p.m. when the garrison of Fort Sumter fired a thirteen gun salute.

Recall again that on Morris Island, only Battery Wagner and the Cummings Point Battery contained heavy guns.  Due to the range to the ship channel, weak armament, and other factors, it was Fort Moultrie which would open the action.  At around 2:50 p.m. (near abouts),   Colonel William Butler received permission to open fire at the extreme range of his guns. The shots were inaccurate, and the decision was made to suspend firing until the range closed.  Shortly after 3 p.m., gunners at Fort Sumter joined in at a range of 1,400 yards.  Fort Moultrie resumed firing at that point.  And at ten after the hour, Battery Bee added the weight of its guns.  Battery Beauregard and Cummings Point Battery soon joined the fray, completing the cross-fire that covered the entrance to Charleston Harbor.  Seventy-six guns now focused on the Federal ironclads.

The Confederate accounts of action stress that firing was “by battery.”  So instead of an intermittent rain of projectiles, the gunners aimed and timed fires to focus on specific targets.  Brigadier General J.H. Trapier reported:

It soon became obvious that the enemy’s intention was to fight and not to run by, and orders were given to “train” on vessels nearest in and to fire by battery.  Volley after volley was delivered in this way, but although it was plain that our shot repeatedly took effect – their impact against the iron casing of the enemy being distinctly heard and seen – yet we could not discover but that the foe was indeed invulnerable.

At Fort Sumter, Colonel Alfred Rhett’s gunners were similarly concentrating on targets:

At three minutes past 3 p.m. the leading vessel having approached to within about 1,400 yards of the fort she fired two shots simultaneously, one a 15-inch shrapnel, which burst; both passed over the fort. The batteries were opened upon her two minutes later, the firing being by battery. The action now became general, and the four leading monitors taking position from 1,300 to 1,400 yards distant, the fire was changed from fire by battery to fire by piece, as being more accurate. The fire by battery was again resumed as occasion offered. The Ironsides did not approach nearer than 1,700 yards. The whole fire of the batteries engaged was concentrated on the Passaic for thirty minutes, when she withdrew from the engagement, apparently injured. The other ships each in its turn received our attention. The fire of both Fort Moultrie and this fort being now directed against the Ironsides she immediately withdrew out of effective range.

However, Major C.K. Huger at Battery Wagner lamented his guns lacked the range to exert much influence on the battle.  “The guns of this battery were of too light a caliber to be of much service, but those at Cummings Point, under the immediate command of Lieutenant Lesesne, of First [South Carolina Heavy] Artillery, were much heavier, and the firing was particularly good.

As the USS Weehawken, leading the column of ironclads, reached the mouth of the harbor, it slowed both to direct fire at Fort Sumter and to allow an assessment of the obstructions ahead.  The Confederate engineers then triggered one of many torpedoes set in the channel.  Although throwing up lots of water, the monitor was unaffected.  (I’ve noted the general location of that torpedo on the map above, though I must confess that is more a guess than specific.)

Although receiving much attention from the Confederate gunners, the USS New Ironsides did not close the range.  The deep draft ironclad did not handle well in the ship channel and anchored to best utilize its heavy broadside upon Fort Sumter.  However, the selected spot just happened to be over this “infernal machine”:


Days before the attack, Confederates laid a “big torpedo” in the main ship channel.  This consisted of 3,000 pounds of powder in a boiler.  Attached to a frame and anchored at four corners, the total weight of the weapon was 20,000 pounds. This torpedo lay “about a mile off Fort Sumter and half a mile opposite Fort Wagner.”   (The location is depicted on the map above.)


Confederate engineers frantically tried to trigger the torpedo.  But it didn’t fire.  They watched in vain as the New Ironsides drifted away from the torpedo, all the while oblivious to the danger.  The reason for the misfire was discovered later – the cables to the torpedo were too long and thus the electricity attenuated as noted in a survey report from May:

The torpedo was successfully sunk on the spot located by General Ripley, but while running the cable the steamer (Chesterfield) ran out of steam, and, unable to hold against the tide and wind, went aground near Fort Sumter. On the increase of the flood we had to run back a long circuit reach Cummings Point and land the cable. It resulted from this accident that we played out 2 miles of cable, instead of 1, as expected.

But if the New Ironsides escaped the torpedo, the USS Keokuk was fated for calamity.  As the ironclad line shook out to avoid the New Ironsides, the Keokuk pulled up from the rear of the line.  From Fort Sumter, Colonel Rhett observed,

At five minutes past 4 p.m. the Keokuk left her consorts and advanced bow on gallantly to within 900 yards of our batteries. She received our undivided attention, and the effect of our fire was soon apparent. The wrought-iron bolts from 7-inch Brooke gun were plainly seen to penetrate her turret and hull, and she retired in forty minutes, riddled and apparently almost disabled.

The proximity of the Keokuk to Fort Sumter also drew fire from Sullivan’s Island.  Gunners at Fort Moultrie and Batteries Bee and Beauregard joined in.  Observers witnessed 10-inch shot from the columbiads and 7-inch bolts from the Brookes crash through the armor.

From the Confederate perspective, the Federals disengaged at 5:25 p.m. and worked back out the channel.  The crippled Keokuk came aground off Morris Island, and the crew rescued (The location is annotated on the map above).  On the Confederate side, there were three killed and eleven wounded.  The deaths and five wounded were result of an accidental ammunition explosion at Battery Wagner, and not from Federal fire.  The defenders of Charleston fired 2,229 projectiles, using 21,093 pounds of powder during the tw0 hour and thirty minute engagement.  In return, the Confederates counted fifty-five hits on Fort Sumter.

The defenders of Charleston had repelled the ironclads.  But the threat still loomed over the channels. The other half of Beauregard’s prediction – Federal landings on Morris Island – had not occurred.  Worse yet, the expenditure of ammunition left the defenders in a precarious position should the ironclads return.  The months to follow would see what neither side wanted – a protracted siege outside Charleston tying down resources at a critical juncture in the war.

There’s much to analyze about the ironclad attack.  It is one of the few engagements in which we have practically a “shot by shot” accounting.  Reports on both sides are rich with details.  But to avoid lengthening this already long post into a book length survey, I’ll save discussion of those details for the next few days and weeks.



OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20 – Official Confederate reports of the action are in pages 240-78.  Dispatches and correspondence appear in pages 880-90.  Report of the torpedoes is on pages 948-52.

ORN, Series I, Volume 14, pages 3-112.

Browning, Robert M. Success is All That Was Expected. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s Inc., 2002.

Burton, E. Milby. The Siege of Charleston, 1861-1865. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1970.