Operations against Charleston, February 9-13, 1865, Part 2: The Last Battles about Charleston

While Major-General William T. Sherman’s forces in the interior of South Carolina were working across the South Fork of the Edisto River on February 10, 1865, outside Charleston, a small Federal force was mounting one of the many demonstrations directed to keep Confederate forces pinned to the coast.  The demonstration was, to say the least, uninspired.

Almost like a thread that keeps being pulled, the operation called for a Federal force to work its way across Sol Legare against Confederate pickets on the southwestern end of James Island.  This approach was used before the battle of Grimball’s Landing in July 1863, then again during the operations of July 1864, and also for several minor operations conducted during the second half of the war.

The approach put Federal troops in front of a well designed belt of defensive works, which could be held by a small Confederate force.  Out in front of the line of works was a picket line, with its own earthworks, covering Grimball’s and Rivers’ Causeways leading off Sol Legare.  Since the Federals had often used those causeways to threaten James Island, the Confederates had fully developed the positions to allow a small force to defend against a much larger force.  And that, in a nutshell, is the story of the Battle of Grimball’s Causeway.

On the night of February 9, Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig had a small brigade, roughly 1,200 men, move onto Sol Legare, by way of landing on Front Cole’s Island.  The force consisted of the 54th and 144th New York Infantry, 32nd and 33rd USCT, and the 55th Massachusetts.  Supporting this movement, the Navy provided two gunboats, a tug, and two mortar schooners to support the demonstration.  On the Stono River, Lieutenant-Commander A.W. Johnson lead the USS Wissahickon and mortar schooner USS C.P. Williams.  On the Folly River, the USS Commodore McDonough and mortar schooner USS Dan Smith, under Lieutenant-Commander A.F. Crosman, covered the right flank of the Federal advance. At the Army’s request, two monitors came over the bar into the Stono.  Only the USS Lehigh moved up the river to engage, however.  Lieutenant-Commander Alexander A. Semmes, on the Lehigh, was in overall command of the naval forces.

The landings went off well on the morning of the 10th.  At around 9 a.m. the mortar schooners commenced firing on the Confederate picket line.  The gunboats and monitor joined in with direct fire.  This had the desired effect of getting the attention of the Confederate pickets.  Meanwhile Hartwell had the two New York regiments maneuver and counter-march on Sol Legare to directly threaten the pickets.

On the Confederate lines, Major Edward Manigault, commanding the right end of the Confederate line on James Island, came up to the picket line in response to reports of activity.  On the line were, according to Manigault’s recollections, 100 men of the 2nd South Carolina Heavy Artillery and 20 cavalrymen.  Reinforcements came in the form of a three companies from the Palmetto Guards and a detachment of dismounted cavalry, amounting to 188 men.  Distributing this force, Manigault had 160 men at Grimball’s Causeway and 48 at River’s Causeway.  The remainder were held in reserve or on the picket line between those two points.

The demonstration remained distant gunboat fire and show until around 5 p.m.  Hartwell pressed the two New York regiments against Grimball’s Causeway with rush.  This pushed in the Confederate skirmishers and might have dislodged the position if continued.  Having gained the outer rifle pits, however, the Federals were content to hold what they had.

Among the casualties on the Confederate side was Manigault himself.  Struck near the spine with a wound considered mortal, he lay in the line of rifle pits overtaken by the Federals along with a soldier from the Palmetto Guard who stayed, tending to the officer.  Manigault later recalled:

Immediately after, 6 men of the 54th N.Y. (with unmistakable brogue) came up and took [the soldier] prisoner, and then took me.  I was in a moment despoiled of my watch, sword, pistol, and field glass and, shortly after, taken on a blanket to Grimball’s Causeway where Capt. [Gustav] Blau, 54th New York, was in command of our men’s rifle pits, or earthwork, which we had just abandoned.

Manigault survived the wound and the war.  Writing in 1902, he recalled the South Carolinians lost seven or eight killed or wounded, with 17 captured.  Other sources put the number at 20 killed and 70 wounded.  The Federals suffered a like number of casualties.

For the Navy, the only tense moment came in regard to the gunboat McDonough, which suffered boiler trouble.  While never under fire, the vessel had to wait until a tow could be arranged to get to safety downriver.

With darkness, both sides settled in.  The Navy continued firing through the night at fifteen minute intervals.  Batteries on Morris Island resumed bombarding Charleston.  The Federals retained their lodgement until the night of February 11.  Major-General Quincy Gillmore had decided to switch the focus of demonstrations to Bull’s Bay.  So the forces on Sol Legare were needed elsewhere.

To keep up the “show” and maintain pressure on James Island, Schimmelfennig mounted a feint against Battery Simkins and Fort Sumter on the night of February 11.  Major John A. Hennessy, 52nd Pennsylvania, lead a boat demonstration out into Charleston Harbor.  “The enemy opened a lively artillery fire from Simkins and Sullivan’s Island and a musketry fire from Simkins and Sumter,” reported Schimmelfennig. The actions of February 10-11 did force the Confederates to reallocate troops from Sullivan’s Island to James Island.  Otherwise, the demonstrations had little effect on events to follow.

One more operation was mounted in front of James Island before Charleston fell.  Sensing from intercepted dispatches that the Confederates were shifting troops back to Sullivan’s Island, and wishing to keep those troops distracted from the landings at Bull’s Bay, Schimmelfennig moved a force under Colonel Eugene Kozlay, 54th New York, onto Sol Legare (again!) on February 13-14.  Covering the maneuvers, the Navy’s gunboats fired a few more shots into the Confederate lines… perhaps the last such fired at James Island during the war.  The Federal force retired on the night of February 14.

Designed to keep the Confederates distracted and focused on James Island, these operations were more like a soft punch landed against a recoiling opponent.  Even as Schimmelfennig made his last demonstration, the Confederates had orders cut for the evacuation of Charleston.   Gillmore, content to make a demonstration at Bull’s Bay, which he hoped might catch the Confederates off guard.  But before I move to the discussion of Bull’s Bay and pesky issues like tides and the draft of ships, allow me to review the particulars of the Confederate withdrawal from Charleston.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, page 1017; Manigault’s, and much of the information accounting for the battle of Grimball’s Landing, from Edward Manigault, Siege Train: The Journal of a Confederate Artilleryman in the Defense of Charleston, edited by Warren Ripley, Charleston: University of South Carolina Press, 1986, pages 243-7.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Quackenbush observed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I then allowed the Patapsco to drift up with the tide”: The loss of the Patapsco, Part 1

From the Navy’s perspective, Major-General William T. Sherman’s plans for South Carolina were somewhat mundane.  As Sherman plotted a line of march toward the center of the state, he planned to bypass Charleston.  For Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren, this meant the prize which he’d been assigned, when assuming command of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron in 1863, was not on the list of objectives.  However, Sherman did ask Dahlgren and the Army troops on Morris Island to help the advance by mounting demonstrations against Charleston to distract the Confederates.

On January 15, 1865, Dahlgren arrived off Charleston on his flagship USS Harvest Moon just before 8 a.m.  After breakfast, he summoned his senior commanders for a conference.  Dahlgren explained the situation to his subordinates then opened for a frank discussion:

The question was, How and when?  I observed that it might be done in three ways: 1. Attack Sullivan’s Island.  2. Pass in and attack [Fort] Johnson. 3. Run all the way up and attack the city.  They were not inclined to go beyond the first step – attack Sullivan’s Island.  After a full and unreserved discussion, I decided that the obstructions near Sumter should be examined by boats under the supervision of the captains of monitors for each night.

Before the meeting was concluded, news came in that Federal troops were ashore and attacking Fort Fisher, North Carolina.  That positive news meant Dahlgren could expect reinforcements in short order.  Rear-Admiral David D. Porter would dispatch the monitors from the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron after the fort fell. Of course, this also meant Porter would be looking for more tasks to take on. To be brief, Dahlgren must have felt some pressure to begin his operations against Charleston – be that a demonstration or full assault – before any hint of “idleness” came to the lips of those in Washington.

For any course of action, Dahlgren’s squadron needed to clear the torpedoes around Fort Sumter.  From this meeting, Dahlgren issued a set of instructions to the force off Charleston… eleven points in all.  For the tactical examination, which became very important later in the day, points 6 to 9 were most important:

6th. This, then, will be the period of preparation, and the first measure will be to examine the channel and make sure of the obstructions, their nature and position.

7th. As the impression of the commanders of monitors is that a range of obstructions extends from Sumter, these will be the first object, and the commanders of the advance monitors of the 15th, Patapsco and Lehigh, are charged with this duty for the night, and so on, in succession.  The scouts, all boats, tugs, etc., will report to them to assist.

8th. The preliminary to removal will be by explosion.  Torpedoes may be used and boats filled with powder floated up with the tide.

Floats with grapnels or hooks attached may be floated up to catch and mark objects below water.

9th. To protect against floating torpedoes long, slender pine poles, 30 to 50 feet, may be lashed in pairs in the middle, so as to form an X, into which enters the bow at one end, heels secured, and from the other depends a net, the whole to float.

Following the issue of these instructions, Dahlgren proceeded ashore to consult with Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig and make full observations of the Confederate defenses.  All seemed in hand.  The squadron off Charleston had conducted similar operations near Fort Sumter for well over a year.  While risky and well within range of the Confederate guns, the proposed actions were somewhat routine for the sailors and their officers.

The orders placed Lieutenant-Commander Stephen P. Quackenbush, on the Patapsco at the fore.  That monitor was assigned duty as the forward picket monitor for the night.  To accomplish the task, Quackenbush planned to move up past the normal picket station.  As he later related in his report:

We rounded to, and I immediately called alongside the officers in charge of picket and scout boats.  I directed them to select as many boats as had grapnels and to push them up the harbor, using every effort to discover torpedoes or obstructions; the remaining boats to take position on our beams and quarters, keeping within 100 or 200 yards of the vessel.  The commanding officers of the tugboats were ordered to keep about the same distance ahead and on each bow.  The object in assigning these positions was to avoid observation by the enemy and drawing their fire.  I then allowed the Patapsco to drift up with the tide until nearly in a line from Sumter to Moultrie, the boats and tugs keeping in their respective positions.  From this point, which was the highest point attaned, we steamed down to within a few yards of the Lehigh buoy; then stooped and allowed the vessel to drift up, keeping in sight of the before-mentioned buoy.

Quackenbush’s references the “Lehigh bouy” which marked the location where the USS Lehigh grounded on the night of November 15-16, 1863:


You’ll also see on that naval chart a mark labeled “Wreck of Patapsco.” Such gives good measure of the distance that Quackenbush allowed the monitor to drift in obedience of his orders on January 15, 1865.  And that also leads to my next post and the end of the Patapsco.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 16, pages 169, 175, and 365. )

Distribution of Vessels, South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, January 1, 1865

During the war the commanders of the Navy’s operating squadrons provided periodic reports on the assignments of vessels in their respective commands.  Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren did so twice a month (with some variance, but more or less on the 1st and 15th of each month).  As was the practice, he submitted a report on January 1, 1865.  The report was the first since the fall of Savannah.  So there were adjustments due to the changing situation and mission.  Obviously, with no need to blockade Savannah and no threat from rams from that port, Dahlgren could reallocate his forces.  Considering the operations that followed in the first months of 1865, it’s worth a look at the Navy’s dispositions on the first day of the year.

The first grouping to look at is the area from the South Carolina border to Charleston:


As of January 1, no vessel patrolled Murrell’s Inlet.  The furthest north assignment was the steamer USS Canadaigua covering Winyah Bay, approaches to Georgetown, and Cape Romain.  The sailing vessels USS George Mangham and USS James S. Chambers covered Bull’s Bay.  Of course, north of the state line was the jurisdiction of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.  There was a significant naval force operating off Cape Fear against the Confederate defenses there.  But that falls outside the scope of my post.

Laying outside the bar of Charleston, the blockade consisted of the steamers USS James Adger, USS Wamsutta, USS Nipsic, USS Mary Sanford, USS South Carolina, USS Flambeau, USS Memphis, and USS Potomska.  The tugs USS Laburnum, USS Azalea, and USS Sweet Brier also operated outside the bar.  These vessels formed the primary force to intercept blockade runners inbound to Charleston.

Inside the bar, with the mission to block either runners or rams from exiting the harbor, was the strongest elements of the squadron.  This force included seven monitors – USS Patapsco, USS Montauk, USS Nahant, USS Passaic, USS Nantucket, USS Lehigh, and USS Catskill (under repairs).   The tugs USS Gladiolus, USS Catalpa, USS Hydrangea, USS Jonquil, USS Geranium, and USS Oleander supported the monitors and patrolled the ship channels.  Other vessels inside the bar off Charleston were the sailing vessels USS John Adams, USS Orvetta, USS Sarah Bruen, and USS Sea Foam.  The tender USS Home was also in the waters off Morris Island.

Also off Morris Island, but operating in support of the Army, were the gunboats USS Wissahickon and USS Commodore McDonough, along with the mortar schooners (abbreviated M.S. for my map) USS T.A. Ward, USS Dan Smith, and USS C.P. Williams.:


South of Charleston, several vessels covered the waterways of South Carolina.  The sailing ship USS St. Louis covered the North Edisto.  The gunboat USS Stettin and schooner USS Norfolk Packet covered St. Helena Sound.

At Port Royal were the steamers USS Philadelphia and USS Pawnee; the tugs USS Arethusa, USS Carnation, USS Larkspur, and USS O.M. Pettit; and the sailing vessel USS Houghton.  In addition the steamers USS Mingoe and USS Pontiac, along with tugs USS Daffodil and USS Dandelion, were operating up the Broad River in direct support of Army operations there.  Other vessels listed at Port Royal were tenders and hulks, which included the old ship of the line USS New Hampshire and the old blockade runner USS Chatham.

Also at Port Royal, but not available due to servicing and repairs (and thus not tallied on my maps), were the monitor USS Sangamon; steamers USS Cimarron, USS Ottawa, and USS Winona; tugs USS Acacia, USS Amaranthus, USS Iris, USS Camelia, and USS Clover;  and the sailing ships USS Braziliera and USS George W. Rogers.

Covering the coast of Georgia, the squadron was now able to spread itself thin:


Posted to the Savannah River was the steamer USS Sonoma and mortar schooner USS Racer.   The mortar schooner USS John Griffin was posted to Wassaw Sound.  The steamer USS Flag and mortar schooner USS Para policed the waters of Ossabow Sound.  The bark USS Fernandina covered St. Catherine’s Sound.  The steamer USS Lodona‘s assignment was Sapelo Sound.  The USS Saratoga was in Doboy Sound.   The bark USS Ethan Allen plyed the waters off St. Simon’s Island.  And the USS Dai Ching covered St. Andrew’s Sound.  The latter vessel, one of Dahlgren’s light draft steamers, was due to move north and cover South Carolina waters.

The brig USS Perry provided support to Army posts at Fernandina, Florida.  further south in Florida (and off my map), the steamers USS Norwich and USS E.B. Hale operated in the St. Johns River.

Add to these forces the various armed transports operated by the Army, for whom there is scant accounting in the official records.  All considered, a formidable force ranging from ironclads to armed tugs confronted the Confederate forces along the southern Atlantic coastline.

NOTE: Several of the sailing vessels had been rated as mortar schooners earlier in the war.  In some cases, with the mortars removed, those vessels served as blockaders.  I’ve tallied those former mortar schooners as sailing blockaders for this post.  So if you sense there is some mis-match of the ratings, keep that in mind.

(The Distribution of vessels of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, January 1, 1865, is recorded in ORN, Series I, Volume 16, pages 154-5.)

July 5, 1864: The “very remarkable” practice of Dahlgren’s 50-pdr rifle

July 5, 1864 brought the fourth straight day that Federals and Confederates sparred on the west end of James Island.  Though not a full scale engagement by Civil War standards, the firing at times involved some of the heaviest weapons of the war.

Anchoring the right of the Confederate lines was Battery Pringle with one 10-inch columbiad, one 8-inch columbiad, two rifled 42-pdrs, two rifled 32-pdrs and two 8-inch shell guns. On the Federal side, the largest guns were afloat.  The monitor USS Lehigh carried a XV-inch smoothbore and an 8-inch Parrott rifle.  Her sister, the USS Montauk, had a XV-inch and am XI-inch guns.   The mortar schooners USS Racer and USS Para brought 13-inch seacoast mortars to the fight.  The USS Commodore McDonough carried less weight, with only a IX-inch gun and several field-piece caliber weapons.  And the gunboat USS Pawnee carried eight IX-inch Dahlgren guns, a 6.4-inch Parrott, and a 50-pdr Dahlgren rifle.

It was this latter weapon which Rear Admiral John Dahlgren would boast of loudest in a report, written a couple weeks later, to his old command, the Bureau of Ordnance, in Washington:

I enclose a report from Captain Balch, commanding the USS Pawnee, of the firing made by the Dahlgren 50-pounder in that vessel.

The distances are correctly known by the chart of the Coast Survey.

The object was the rebel Battery Pringle, on the east side of the Stono, a very formidable work.

I consider the result as very remarkable, that is, striking 298 times out of 347 shots, at a distance of 3,200 or 4,400 yards.

The whole firing, however, was excellent with the various pieces – Parrott 8-inch rifle, Dahglren XI-inch, and 50-pounder, XIII-inch mortars, etc. – in each instance the cloud of earth thrown from the work exhibiting the great accuracy.

The XI-inch was fired with 20-pounds of powder.

The vessels engaged were the Pawnee, Lehigh, Montauk, McDonough, Racer, and Para, commanded by Captains Balch, Semmes, Johnson, Phythian, Phinney, and Furber.

The accuracy of the rebel fire was also considerable.  I have seen three successive shots only miss the turret. In one instance a man lost a leg and another badly wounded; both in the Montauk.

Not often in modern warfare that a weapon’s designer is allowed to wield it in combat.

At the time of the engagement, Dahlgren perhaps had thoughts of the previous summer in mind. He suggested to Major-General John Foster that a battery placed on John’s Island, and covered by the monitors, could work to reduce Battery Pringle.  The army officers soon dismissed that option, noting how extensive the Confederate works were already.  By the time a proper siege were laid, the Confederates could prepare additional defenses in depth.  James Island was not Morris Island, after all.

But to the Confederates James Island was a sensitive point.  It was the route taken by the British in 1780 to capture Charleston.  So the line to the left of Battery Pringle was vital to holding the cradle of secession.  Toward that end, Brigadier-General William Taliaferro requested heavier ordnance to combat the ironclads in the Stono. Specifically, he asked for a Brooke Rifle placed in Battery Pringle so as to cover the Stono River.   To provide such, Major-General Samuel Jones had to shift one of his precious heavy rifles from a position defending the harbor entrance.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 15, pages 557-8.)

“The vessel is a complete wreck”: The end of the Presto on the beach of Sullivan’s Island

Let me pick up where I left off about the demise of the blockade-runner Presto.  Bound in from Nassau on the morning of February 2, 1864, she’d managed to elude the blockaders by working in from the northeast approaches to Charleston harbor.  All that was left was a fast run along the beach through Maffitt’s Channel.


Nearly gaining the harbor, the Presto struck the wreck of the blockade runner Minho, which had run aground on Bowman’s Jetty in October 1862.  After backing off the wreck, water came in through a hole in the hull.  So the Presto‘s captain ran her towards the beach.

As dawn broke, everyone around the harbor entrance had a view of the stranded steamer.  Admiral John Dahlgren, who’d spent the night afloat, was starting his customary trip inshore when, “my attention was drawn to a very handsome steamer close under the batteries of Moultrie…. She showed a fine, very low, and long hull, with two short funnels, painted white.”  Wasting no time, Dahlgren ordered the four monitors on duty forward to shell the Presto.

On shore, the men on Morris Island also noticed the Presto.  According to Colonel William W.H. Davis, 104th Pennsylvania Volunteers, the Army’s guns were soon in action:

She was discovered to be aground at reveille on the morning of the 2d, when the three 30-pounder Parrotts in Fort Putnam were immediately opened upon her. The first 3 shells (time fuse) burst over her, driving away the men who were engaged in discharging the cargo. At 8 a.m., the 300-pounder Parrott in Battery Chatfield was opened upon the steamer with good effect, 1 shell striking the furnaces. About this time two monitors moved up and commenced firing at long range, most of their shots passing over or falling short. Fort Strong opened soon after, firing a shell every fifteen minutes from the 200-pounder Parrott until 7 p.m.

Davis indicated the ranges to the Presto were 3,600 yards from Fort Strong (old Battery Wagner); 2,700 yards from Battery Chatfield; and 2,600 yards from Fort Putnam (old Battery Gregg).


The USS Lehigh, USS Passaic, USS Nahant, and USS Catskill moved up that morning and engaged.   Commander Andrew Bryson indicated the Lehigh fired forty-two 8-inch Parrott rounds, with nine scoring hits.  On the Passaic, Lieutenant-Commander Edward Simpson fired sixty-eight rounds during the day at the range of 2,350 yards.  Many of the Navy’s shots went high of the target.  With good adjustment to fuses, the shells burst over the Presto to interrupt any attempt at salvage.

However the Nahant and Catskill were unable to get into a good position to contribute.  And Dahlgren did not allow the monitors to move closer to the Confederate guns on Sullivan’s Island.  Mid-morning, Commander John Cornwell slipped the Nahant back down the channel to pick up two 12-pdr rifled boat howitzers.  With those guns on deck, the Nahant returned to position and fired 135 shells at the range of 2,200 yards.

In response to all this activity, the Confederates responded with counter-battery fire.  At Fort Sumter, Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Elliot observed, “… Sullivan’s Island replied, exploding some shells so near the monitor that the fragments struck her and caused a very perceptible decrease in the activity of the field-gun detachments.”

The Federals did not let up, as Davis related,

A 100-pounder Parrott at Strong was opened at noon and continued to fire until daylight the next morning. The fire of this gun, with that of the two 30-pounders in Putnam, prevented the rebels from getting any of her cargo during the night.

The next morning (February 3), the Navy resumed shelling the wreck. The Lehigh fired a total of twenty-six 8-inch Parrott shells, producing only four hits.  The Passaic fired 35 shells, with no effect recorded.  Both the Lehigh and Nahant fired boat howitzers from their decks. Two 12-pdr rifled boat howitzers on the Lehigh fired seventy-four projectiles, scoring only eight hits, at a distance between 2,400 to 2,500 yards.  Likewise, Davis’ guns on Morris Island picked up their work on the morning of the 3rd.  One 8-inch Parrott in Fort Strong fired fifteen shells, with five hits.  Twice the Presto caught fire during the day, and was reported as on fire as darkness fell.

Firing on the wreck continued, though at a lower rate. Through the night of February 3 and into the morning of February 4, Federal gunners on Morris Island continued their fires with 30-pdr Parrotts.  At dawn, again the monitors resumed firing.  The Nahant fired fifteen XV-inch shells and thirty-nine XI-inch shells that day.  The practice was better that day with twenty-seven hits recorded.  On the morning of the 5th Federal observers noticed a foot bridge from Sullivan’s Island out to the wreck.  This of course brought more fires from Morris Island.  But by that time, all observers agreed the wreck was broken up sufficiently to prevent salvage of the vessel.  Still, Davis ordered “a shell to be fired at intervals to prevent their obtaining any of her cargo or other articles which may not have been destroyed.”

Over the days the Federals concentrated on the Presto, according to Davis the Confederates sent back over 400 shells as counter-fire.  Two of the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery were wounded, one mortally. Confederate casualties were likewise minimal.  One soldier was killed by a stray Federal shell during the action.   And returns failed to mention any wounded.

However, there may have been a missed opportunity for the Federals.  Months after the action, deserters mentioned something was indeed salvaged from the Presto.  Davis related,

… the troops on Sullivan’s Island got hold of the liquor on board of her and had a “grand drunk,” and it is alleged that 300 men at that time could have taken the island, but unfortunately it was not known until the opportunity had passed.

The land batteries fired a total of 769 projectiles.  The total included thirty-four 10-inch Parrott shells from Battery Chatfield.  The 3rd Rhode Island’s regimental history summed up the performance of that large gun in the action, indicating the Presto‘s “touching requiem was played by Captain [Augustus] Colwell’s 300-pounder Parrott.”

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 33, Part I, Serial 65, pages 104, 187; Part II, Serial 66, page 40; ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 263-6; Frederic Denison, Shot and Shell: The Third Rhode Island Heavy Artillery Regiment in the Rebellion, 1861-1865, Providence, R.I.: Third Rhode Island Artillery Veterans Association, 1879, page 234.)

Repairing Monitors at Port Royal

On November 30, 1863, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren provided a status report to the Navy Department covering the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron’s activities at the close of the month.  A substantial portion of that report – two paragraphs out of a total of seven – centered upon repairs to the ironclads of the squadron.In addition, Dahlgren also alluded to repairs needed on the USS New Ironsides.  After five continuous months of activity around Charleston, including several sustained engagements with shore batteries, the ironclads were showing from wear and damage.

The value of Port Royal with its secure harbor came into play here.  During operations at Charleston, the squadron established a rotation by which monitors were serviced and repaired at Port Royal.  Dahlgren’s report mentioned ships going through those rotations at the end of November:

The Patapsco and Catskill are not yet finished, but soon will be; the Lehigh has gone down to Port Royal to have some damages by shot repaired, the bottom cleaned, and a new 8-inch rifle, the present one having been expended on Sumter.  It is not yet reported whether the leak that occurred lately was caused by shot or not.

Recall the USS Lehigh suffered damage while aground on November 15 and sitting under the Confederate guns the next day.  The USS Patapsco was a frequent visitor to Port Royal, it would seem.  She’d been in port for servicing through the last half of September.   Then the ironclad returned briefly after her Parrott rifle cracked and fouling had accumulated on her hull.    And now again, she was in Port Royal.  Clearly the barnacles and oysters liked the Patapsco. A report from Patrick Hughes, inspector and supervisor of the operations, described the fouling in response to inquiries in a report dated December 4:

The bottom of the monitors is covered with a thick coating of oyster shells and grass.  The grass grows to a considerable length; I have a sample here of what came off the bottom of the Catskill.  It seems to be grass coralized.  It resembles strong brook corn, and is 12 inches long.

This growth on the hulls slowed the already sedate monitors – in some cases to half the designed speed. One way to clean the accumulated sea-life off the monitors was to beach them. Hughes described that operation in his December 4 response:

The monitors are put broadside on the beach without any shoring.  When the monitors are properly beached there is no danger whatever of straining any part of the vessel or having any injurious effect on machinery or turret.

The flat bottom of the monitors allowed the breaching, in broadside.  But Hughes continued on to state there were risks involved with beaching a monitor.

The Catskill lay on the beach in a very bad position for one tide.  She lay stern on, and there was a difference of 8 feet of water between bow and stern.

While she lay in this position some parts of the machinery had to be unfastened, and there was a perceptible alteration in the fire-room floor plates.  When she floated the parts went back to their places.  The vessel does not appear to have sustained any injury.

A report from Hughes posted on November 29 offers mentions additional hazards of such beaching operations:

In my report of the 22d instant I informed you that the Catskill came off the beach that morning, and I expected she would leave here in a few days.

This vessel went on the beach again that same evening and remained there until the morning of the 28th instant, getting off at 10 o’clock.  In trying to get the vessel off on the morning of the 27th they carried away the anchor gear, breaking one tooth in each of the pinion wheels and bending the shaft. It will take three days to repair.  On the morning of the 28th instant one of the towboats struck the plating on the bow and started the fastenings, breaking some of the blunt boltheads off.  To fasten this plating properly it will take about three days.  I will have all the damages to this vessel repaired by Thursday morning, December 3.

And while beaching allowed workers access to the sides of the ship, particularly to address damage to the armor plating, the position did not allow workers to clean the bottoms.  For that, the Navy employed divers.  And those were best, and safely, used at Port Royal’s quiet waters.

Hughes wanted to apply zinc paint to the undersides of the monitors to prevent the encrustation.  But when applied while beached, tidal actions prevented the paint from drying.  Clearly a proper dry-dock facility was needed.  And Port Royal had none.

Unlike the monitors, the New Ironsides could not be beached at Port Royal.  Normal wear in addition to damage sustained from Confederate guns and the spar torpedo attack had tested seams, planking, and cross beams.  The ship’s carpenter reported, “The spar deck, gun and berth decks leak so badly that it is necessary to calk them fore and aft.” Captain Stephen Rowan estimated the repairs required three weeks attention at Port Royal.  He also forwarded a requisition for 3,000 sand bags, as existing sandbags on deck had to be removed for the calking.

While the refit activities at Port Royal were sufficient to sustain the ironclads, the port lacked the shipyard facilities needed to fully repair and improve the ships.  One does wonder, given the frequency of such refits, if photograph, even grainy, exists somewhere of a monitor laying upon the South Carolina beach.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 142-3, 145, and 151-2.)