Christmas Eve, 1863, and Charleston was quiet… relatively

On the day before Christmas, 1863, the Charleston Daily Courier lead with their customary account of fighting around the city:

Siege of Charleston

One-hundred and sixty-eight day.

There was no firing from the enemy during Tuesday night or Wednesday.  The quiet of Fort Sumter remained undisturbed.  The enemy were hard at work making some changes on Battery Gregg, the nature of which has not transpired.  Fort Moultrie directed a brisk fire at the working parties which was renewed at intervals through the day.

The firing heard so plainly in the city Wednesday morning and which some believed to be the enemy shelling the city, was from one of our gunboats practicing up Cooper river.  The fleet remained in its usual position, not firing a gun.

So nothing was stirring, not even an ironclad?  As frame of reference, this was posted in the December 24 paper, reaching the streets on a Thursday morning.  All through the day the newspaper men at the Courier and their rival, the Charleston Mercury, prepared a Christimas edition, that would go out Friday morning.  Both papers posted notices they would be closed on Friday, thus making it a long weekend.  So subscribers would not expect to see newspapers until Monday morning, December 28.

The Christmas Day edition of the Courier, arriving that Friday morning, featured an opinion piece on the importance of the holiday:


The Christian world celebrates to-day, the anniversary of the advent of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Savior of Man.  It is the oldest as well as the most important of all the Church festivals.  …

Well into the piece, a somber warning which might be served even in our own times:

There are many children of larger growth, woe, lost to the higher significance of this ancient feast, pervert it to fleshly delights, and derive their happiness in its avent from social reunions, good cheer, and the manful ports and games that have come down from the far distant past.  Too large a number of those who keep the day by generous fare and noisy mirth desecrate it by excessive indulgence in sensual pleasures, and forgetting the nature of the occasion and the obligations it enjoins, burden their stomachs with food, and drink deep of the Wassail Bowl.  How often is the injurious gluttony and indiscreet revelry of the half barbarous days of the Boar’s Head practice at the board in the present day, when through the blessing of Heaven is implored upon the meat and drink, the Giver is altogether forgotten and lost to all sense of gratitude, propriety and dignity, blasphemy, obscenity and drunkenness mark the wild carousal.

There you have it… a War on Christmas… in 1863.

But the piece turned from there to a frank assessment of the situation and the real war occurring right outside the city:

The Christmas of 1863 brings no gifts for the boys and girls. The sounds of battle have frightened away from our bleeding Southern land the bearer of painted toys, and candies and plums, and their parents and elders will have to be content with the wholesome food of simple quality, seeing that hams and turkeys, mince pies and plum puddings are things the contest we are engaged in compels them to do without. Many will dine on the scanty fare of every day.  Many will celebrate it afar from their homes, and the memory of the manner in which they have passed this day for a long series of years will aggravate their present ills and add grief to their sorrow.  Of those not a few have been driven from their homes by the ruthless enemy, who has burned their homesteads, took their slaves, and desolated their plantations [Emphasis mine]– How many mourn the untimely death of noble sons and husbands, and brothers, at the hands of the cruel invader, and how many thousands will hardly be aware that it is Christmas, for they will have to endure the same privations and hardships, and neither the food they eat nor the weapons they carry will remind them that the day they used to look forward to with such impatient desire, has once more dawned upon our earth.  The golden light of this morning will stream through the windows of many a home, but those generous rays will not dispel the darkness that enshrouds the hearts of the inmates. The light of those homes has been extinguished.  The beloved of their hearts, their joy and pride, lie sleeping in their gory garments on the field of carnage, where they fell with their faces to the foe. …

But, as with any stern sermon, the writer closed by encouraging the reader to be emboldened by faith:

Let us all keep this day in a penitent, thankful, truthful, reverent spirit, not forgetting the claims of the poor, and especially meeting the obligations we are under to our soldiers and their families, and praying with all fervor and faith that God would vouchsafe His blessing on our cause, and grant us speedy and honorable and enduring peace.

Below this, the Courier ran a notice that the Wayside Home would offer Christmas Dinner to all soldiers, “with or without furloughs or passes” from noon to three that afternoon, free of charge.  With the same notice, the Mercury urged donations to the Wayside Home as to replace items recently lost when a blockade runner came to grief.

On other columns that day, the Mercury lauded a seasonal serenade by the Eutaw Band, formerly the Charleston Brass Band, and now part of the 25th South Carolina Infantry.   The state of Georgia, as reported by the Mercury, was only $15 million in debt despite war situation, but had $9 million in public property to back that. Besides, it was reported the taxable property amounted to almost $800 million.  So the bills, from the war, could be met… at least those measured in dollar figures. However, the Mercury gave a less favorable estimate for the Federals that Christmas:

Expensive undertakings. – The New York Daily News, of the 16th instant, in an editorial says that powder, ball and shell alone, which have been used in the attempt to take Charleston, cost the United States Government seven millions of dollars, and the whole cost of the various expeditions fitted out against the city has amounted to upward of thirty millions of dollars.  The cost will probably be doubled, adds the News, and the undertaking will be abandoned.

It further adds, that enough has been expended in attempts to take Richmond to build half a dozen cities of the size, and almost as many lives lost as would populate the whole of them.

Thus, for those Charlestonians making the best of Christmas, there was a ray of hope, sought for in the Courier‘s message.  While Southern states might scrape up the financial reserves to see through the war, the Yankees were about to cave in…. at least that’s how it looked from the hopeful writers in Charleston.

As for the news around Charleston on Christmas Day, the Courier would lead with more reports indicating firing on Federal work parties.  Sumarizing, “… no particular movements of the enemy on Morris Island….” and “The fleet maintained the usual position.”  The number of Federal blockaders inside the Charleston bar was twenty-eight (including four monitors and the USS New Ironsides), supported by an equal number in Lighthouse Inlet and four blockaders outside the bar.

But one additional sentence, seemingly a late inclusion, placed an ominous pale on Christmas Day:

The enemy opened on the city between twelve and one o’clock.  Our batteries replied as usual, with spirit.

Confederate officers place the start of this bombardment at 12:30 AM Christmas morning.  And that shelling continued through the day until 1 PM.  All told, 134 shots reached the city that day, with another sixteen falling short.  Occurring the same morning, a large fire broke out in Charleston resulting in the loss of $150,000 in property and several injuries to firefighters.

And while Charleston was receiving the bombardment and fighting a fire, over on the Stono River Confederates staged an ambush of the USS Marblehead.  Thus neither side was interested in Christmas Day truces.  On Monday, December 28, the Mercury would begin their report of these activities, “The Christmas of 1863 will long be remembered by those who passed the day in the City of Charleston….”

[While I’ve detailed the ambush of the Marblehead in earlier posts, I’ve only given the bombardment and fire passing mention.  I shall resolve that shortcoming in a post to follow.]

(Citation from Charleston Daily Courier, Thursday, December 24, 1863, page 1, column 1 and Friday, December 25, 1863, page 1 columns 1-3; Charleston Mercury, Friday, December 25, 1863, page 2, column 1, and December 28, 1863, page 2 column 1.)

Dahlgren asks for better blockaders – “More vessels of the Nipsic class”

On this day (December 30) in 1863, Rear-Admiral Dahlgren sent a request to the Secretary of the Navy, with the objective to improve the blockade against southern ports:

Sir: A few more vessels of the Nipsic class would give great efficiency to the blockade here, in exchange for some other vessels which could be of service elsewhere.

Short and to the point.  Dahlgren liked the USS Nipsic.  But why?

At the start of the Civil War, the US Navy faced an awkward situation.  While in possession of some advanced steam frigates and sloops, these were designed to operate on the high seas.  These ships were in some respects the logical steam-powered descendants of the original “six frigates” navy.  But the Civil War required for ships able to operate in the shallow waterways along the coast, yet were fast and handy in the sea-lanes.  The quick response was the “90-day gunboats,” or officially the Unadilla-class.  And these gunboats served well.  By the time of Dahlgren’s inquiry, seven of those were in service with the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron:

  • USS Chippewa at Port Royal, South Carolina.
  • USS Huron patrolling Doby Sound, Georgia.
  • USS Marblehead working the Stono River, South Carolina.
  • USS Ottawa stationed at the mouth of St. John’s River, Florida.
  • USS Seneca at Port Royal, but soon departing for Georgetown, South Carolina.
  • USS Unadilla off Tybee Island, Georgia.
  • USS Wissahickson stationed in Wassaw Sound, Georgia.

These assignments reflect the type’s ability.  Instead of standing off Charleston harbor, these gunboats covered the shallower inlets along the coast (and as I’ve mentioned in other posts, these were not quiet assignments).

But the success of the Unadilla-class was not complete.  These vessels were a compromise in order to meet the rushed requirement.  By mid-war several shortcomings diminished the 90-gunboats’ value.  The landlubber version – the ships were too slow and rolled too much in moderate seas to handle the main guns.  Salty sea version?  I direct you to Volume one of Donald L. Canney’s The Old Steam Navy.  The Unadilla-class could make 9 knots, maybe 10, in good trim.  But by 1863, custom designed blockade runners could best that by two or three knots.

In response came the more refined, larger Kansas-class gunboats, of which the USS Nipsic was a member.  For comparison the Unadilla herself was 156 feet long and displaced 691 tons.  The Nipsic, on the other hand, was 180 feet long and displaced 836 tons.  The added length, along with about two feet of beam, ensured the Nipsic did not draw much more water.

And that added space was used for boilers and more efficient machinery.  The Unadilla’s steam engine was rated at 400 horsepower, while the Nipsic’s was at 670 horsepower.  That of course translated into greater speed.  The Nipsic reached 12 knots on trials and in service.

The other advantage to the longer, wider hull was the handling of weapons.  Recall the Marblehead fought on Christmas Day 1863 with one XI-inch Dahlgren, one 20-pdr Parrott, and a couple of 24-pounder boat howitzers.  By contrast, the Nipsic mounted two IX-inch Dahlgrens, one 6.4-inch Parrott, a 30-pdr Parrott rifle, and four boat howitzers.  The 30-pdr rifle sat on a forward pivot position on the foredeck.  As seen in the photo below, the big Parrott was on another pivot just forward of the main-mast.

The Dahlgren IX-inch were on the broadside.  The howitzers were mounted aft.

With more deck space, the handling of the guns was at least a little better than the Unadilla.

Earlier, when the Nipsic arrived at Charleston in November, Dahlgren expressed his positive assessment of the vessel, though with a couple of concerns:

After seeing her in motion, hearing the reports of her performance, and making an examination, I consider her class a valuable addition to the Navy.  She is very fast under steam (11 knots) and steers well.  Her armament is also powerful, the only defect being the contiguity of the mainmast and the two IX-inch guns, which might be avoided.

I would also advise a close adherence to the 10-foot draft, as a matter of great convenience in many of the inlets along the coast. The Nipsic draws 11
512 feet, though with two-thirds amount of coal will come to 10 feet.  The vessel pleased me much.

And, like any vessel, once the “new” wore off there were more decided criticisms.  In April 1864, Lieutenant-Commander A.W. Johnson commanded the Nipsic and filed this observation:

I have to report that on the 4th instant, off Cape Romain Shoals, the Nipsic encountered a heavy gale from the E.S.E. and S.E., this being the first trial of rough weather she has experienced.  Her behavior therein confirmed the opinion that her present armament should be reduced in weight…. The vessel labored so heavily that I was compelled to keep her up to the sea, as the wind changed its direction, which, fortunately, a sufficiency of sea room enabled me to do….  I do not regard her altogether a safe vessel in heavy weather with the battery now on board.

All that said, the Nipsic was still very useful in its wartime career, spent almost entirely in the South Atlantic squadron.  As Dahlgren felt, the Navy could have used several more vessels of the type.

But the Nipsic was almost a “one of a kind.”  Only two other vessels of the Kansas-class received the same machinery and boilers as the Nipsic.  And those two, the USS Shawmut and USS Nyack, were not commissioned until late in 1864.  The remainder of the class received machinery different machinery (in some cases unconventional and unique machinery) or boilers arrangements.  Most reached trial speeds of over 11 knots.  But only the three “as designed” ships offered the reliability and economy desired.

One more note on the Nipsic – this going into the post-war era.  After many years of service, the gunboat underwent “great repair” in 1873.  This was a late 19-th century way of getting around limited naval shipbuilding funds.  In 1879, the “repairs” were complete resulting in a ship 185 feet long displacing 1,375 tons.  It was that USS Nipsic which confronted German gunboats (and an observing British corvette HMS Calliope) in Apia harbor, in the Samoas in March 1889.  When a cyclone struck the harbor on March 15, the “repaired” Nipsic suffered worse than her predecessor.

That’s the Nipsic in the center.  A black-eye for U.S. interests to say the least. But an embarrassment which figured prominently in the public call for modernization of the US Navy.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 101, 215, and 403.)

Howitzers recovered from Legareville

When the Confederates withdrew from their positions around Legareville on December 25, 1863, they left behind two 8-inch siege howitzers among other equipment.  Later that day, Brigadier-General George Gordon, commanding a Federal division posted to Folly Island, sent Captain Henry Krauseneck, of the 74th Pennsylvania Infantry, with 250 men to clear the Confederate positions.  With reports of Confederate forces returning to the batteries, Krauseneck had his men recover what equipment could be carried.  But the Federals had no way to pull off the howitzers.  Instead they damaged the carriages sufficiently to prevent Confederate recovery.  That night, Major John Jenkins, 3rd South Carolina Cavalry, sent scouts to the position and found the howitzers dismounted.

The problem facing both sides was the 2,600 pound (give or take) weight of the howitzers.  Even when mounted on a carriage, the howitzers were hard to handle in the marsh.  The Confederates ordered up sling carts with the intent to recover the howitzers under cover of the night.  But the Federals didn’t give them the time to work out those arrangements.

Commander George Balch ordered Lieutenant-Commander Richard Meade, of the USS Marblehead, to recover the howitzers on December 28.  Meade set out mid-afternoon with eight boats and some ninety men, including twenty-two marines to provide security.  Meade first landed men at the Lower Battery location to recover the howitzer there.  He and the rest of the party went to the Upper Batteries.

The marines were thrown well out in advance as pickets, to prevent surprise. The gun in the most northern work being dismounted, it proved an immense labor to raise it and lash it on the siege carriage; the trail of the carriage was then lifted by the main force of 30 men onto the 12-pounder howitzer carriage, brought for the purpose, then lashed there.  A rude wagon was thus formed.

It being impossible to drag the gun through the marsh (knee deep in stiff mud), which was the way we came in, a detour of over a mile was necessary.  Plank was laid along the edge of the marsh and the gun was hauled with great exertion to the bayou and gotten into the Marblehead’s launch. ….

Remarkable improvisation by the sailors. By 4 p.m. both howitzers were on the launches and proud trophies for the naval party.  As Meade put it, “The expedition returned in good order, and the rebels can boast two guns less than they had on December 24, 1863.”  Wartime photographs place one of these two trophies on the USS Pawnee:

Though it is erroneously identified as a 24-pdr howitzer (result, I think of identification in Meade’s initial report).  The howitzer is definitely an 8-inch Siege Howitzer Model 1841.  The two howitzers ended up as part of the Navy’s trophy collection at Washington Navy Yard. This howitzer is likely the same photographed on the Pawnee‘s deck:

WNY 10 Apr 10 550

The other howitzer in the pair exhibits considerable damage:

WNY 10 Apr 10 544

Both carry an inscription on the breech describing the action at Legareville in short words:

WNY 10 Apr 10 543

But aside from the inscription, there are only traces of some markings on the muzzle.  Nothing that might better identify the source of these howitzers.  Prior to the war, four vendors produced forty-six howitzers of this type (with Fort Pitt Foundry adding four more in 1861 to make it an even fifty).  Survivors of that lot exhibit standard markings as prescribed in pre-war ordnance instructions – inspector initials and registry number on the muzzle; foundry on the right trunnion; year of manufacture on the left trunnion; and weight stamp under the cascabel.

Looking carefully at the muzzle and trunions in the wartime photograph on the Pawnee, I see no markings.  So very likely these howitzers never had the standard set of markings.  That said, just after the war began, Tredegar Foundry produced two dozen of the same make and model for Confederate orders. Four of those went to Charleston in September 1861:

Page 91a

Signed over to Major, later Brigadier-General, J.H. Trapier in fact.  Tredegar foundry markings are notorious for being shallow and easily eroded with time.  And of course, Tredegar disregarded the “Yankee” ordnance instructions for markings early in the war.

Four 8-inch howitzers sent to Charleston in 1861.  Four howitzers of the same type used in the Christmas Day ambush in 1863, with two abandoned and captured.  Now two unmarked howitzers at the Washington Navy Yard.  While not positive proof, there’s enough to suggest the trophies were of Confederate manufacture and not of pre-war Federal stocks.

Regardless of origin, those two howitzers are surviving artifacts from the action at Legareville.

WNY 10 Apr 10 546

Those speak to the action for which four Medals of Honor were awarded, to include the first to an African-American sailor.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 194-6.)

Robert Blake: Slave, Contraband, Sailor, and Hero

One of several interesting facets to the Christmas Day fighting at Legareville is the Medal of Honor awarded to Robert Blake.  The particulars for that Medal of Honor read:

Rank and organization: Contraband, U.S. Navy.

Entered service at: Virginia.

G.O. No.: 32, 16 April 1864.

Accredited to: Virginia.

Citation: On board the U.S. Steam Gunboat Marblehead off Legareville, Stono River, 25 December 1863, in an engagement with the enemy on John’s Island. Serving the rifle gun, Blake, an escaped slave, carried out his duties bravely throughout the engagement which resulted in the enemy’s abandonment of positions, leaving a caisson and one gun behind.

As mentioned yesterday, Blake’s was one of four awarded to crew-members of the USS Marblehead for actions on that day.  All four were issued under the same general orders.  While the other three citations indicate rank and assigned post, Blake’s identification was simply “contraband.”


The timing of the orders meant Blake was not only the first African-American to receive the Navy’s version of the Medal of Honor, but also the first African-American to receive the award in any service.  Sergent William H. Harney, 54th Massachusetts, is often cited as the first such award, for his actions during the July 18, 1863 in the assault on Fort Wagner.  However, Harney’s Medal of Honor was not approved until 1900 – a gap of 37 years.  Blake’s was awarded a short four months after the action.

But while much is known of Harney and his life, we have precious few leads on Robert Blake.  We can trace Robert Blake back to an incident in June 1862.  A naval force under the command of Commander George Prentiss worked up the Santee River with the aim to destroy railroad bridges upstream.  Heading up the river, the expedition passed the plantation of Aurthur  M. Blake without incident (red arrow on the map below). The Confederates had used the plantation as a base for patrols on the Santee and forces protecting the blockade runners using the river.  But apparently any garrison there retreated when the gunboats arrived.  Finding the river upstream too shallow for the ships to reach the targeted railroad bridge, Prentiss returned.


On June 26, 1862, when passing the Blake Plantation the second time, his ships took fire.  In response Prentiss returned fire and landed a party to chase away the Confederates contesting passage.  Considering the plantation a legitimate military target, due to the use of the buildings by Confederates, Prentiss had the house and mill burned.  His landing party brought back 100,000 bushels of rice.  And… important to the story of Robert Blake… some 400 slaves made their escape to the steamers.

Arthur Blake, of course, was none too happy about the destruction of his plantation and loss of his slaves.  The 1860 census indicated he owned $150,000 in real estate and $350,000 in personal property.  In May 1863, Arthur issued a claim against the Confederate government for damages totaling $288,375.


Arthur offered a full list of the 402 slaves he recorded as “lost” due to the action.  Among those was a 28 year old “Robert” valued at $1,100.  (And for what it is worth, in 1871 Arthur submitted a nearly identical list along with a claim to the U.S. government for the loss of slaves and other possessions during the war.  That claim was denied.)

Page 22b

Prentiss indicated he landed the escaped slaves, now contrabands, on North Island, between the sea and Winyah Bay, outside Georgetown, South Carolina.  The contraband camp established there soon grew in number as more escaped slaves joined the 400.  Fearing a Confederate raid, the Navy relocated the camp, which had grown to nearly 2,000, to Hilton Head in March 1863.

There’s no clear record of Robert Blake enlisting in the Navy.  I suspect sometime prior to the relocation of the contraband camp he signed on to serve on one of the ships operating off the South Carolina coast.  I’ve yet to locate any papers showing his enlistment.  And maybe he didn’t enlist, but rather volunteered to work as a servant.  After all, that was his station on Christmas Day 1863 off Legareville in the Stono River.

Consider the places I’ve mentioned within the narrative thus far.  The Blake Plantation, though some fifty miles north of Charleston, was in Charleston County.  And Legareville, some twenty miles south, is likewise in Charleston County.  Robert Blake was fighting within the county from which he’d escaped as a slave.  Certainly a “legality” which would not escape notice if the Marblehead‘s crew been captured.  And perhaps a little extra motivation for Robert Blake that morning.

Within four months of that incident, Robert Blake’s military career reach its high point.  He was ranked a seaman.  What’s more, a seaman with the nation’s highest military award.  Sadly, I find no record of Blake’s subsequent service and eventual fate.  But I can say the details we know of his life speak to a broad spectrum of experience – from slave, to contraband, to sailor, to hero.

Christmas Morning ambush at Legareville, Part 2

In part one of this set, I discussed the lead-up to the Christmas Day ambush on the Stono River, December 25, 1863.  With the guns in place, and the USS Marblehead in their sights, the Confederates planned to start the action at dawn.


Shortly after 6 a.m. in the gathering light of Christmas morning, Lieutenant-Colonel Del Kemper opened the engagement with shots from Lieutenant Ralph Nesbit’s howitzers, in what I earlier identified as the Upper Battery (2) position.  The guns of the Lower Battery soon joined in.  But their fires were ineffective.  The range reported at the time was around 1,200 yards.  Nesbit reported starting with 8-second fuses then moving to 5-second fuses.  He claimed to have hit the Marblehead on several occasions, but without effect.  Confederate observers at the time contended the gunners failed to hit their target.

On the Marblehead, Lieutenant-Commander Richard W. Meade came on deck wearing his night clothes, ordering his men to respond.


At the time the Confederates opened fire, the Marblehead had steam in one of two boilers.  However, with a falling tide, Meade ordered the anchor slipped so the gunboat could maneuver downstream.  While the ship turned, Meade – still in his robe – ordered his gunners to return fire on the Confederate batteries.  Despite the Confederate fire and casualties among the gun crew, Boatswain’s Mate William Farley, captain of the XI-inch pivot gun, got off the Marblehead‘s response.  Acting Ensign George F. Winslow rallied the ship’s crew to the to her guns.

Meade’s servant, Robert Blake, rushed on deck to offer his commander a coat and uniform more befitting the action.  But when he saw one of the crew struck down, Blake began running powder between the magazine and the guns.

One Confederate shell burst and threw fragments hitting landsman Charles Moore.  Though bleeding profusely, Moore resumed his duties until forced below to see the surgeon.  Yet, Moore slipped back on deck and again resumed his duties until growing faint from the loss of blood.

While the ship maneuvered, Quartermaster James Miller stepped up to the foredeck and cast the lead to determine the depth of the channel.  Miller sat at an exposed position, but was performing a task more vital as the gunners.  Had the Marblehead run aground at that time, the situation might have turned in favor of the Confederates.  However, with room to maneuver, the Marblehead closed the range to the Confederate batteries and began firing shell, grape and canister.

When the howitzers and field guns opened fire on the Marblehead, the remaining guns in the Upper Battery and those of Charles’ Battery opened on Legareville.  Colonel P.R. Page did not advance his infantry, and instead waited to see the gunboat disabled.  He intended to advance a couple of 12-pdr howitzers to induce the Federal detachment to surrender.  But with the Marblehead remaining in action, Page suspended all movements.


Meanwhile, further downstream Commander George Balch brought the USS Pawnee into action.  By 6:35 a.m. that sloop was in position to fire across the marshes and enfilade the Confederate batteries.  By 7 a.m. Acting Master S.N. Freeman skippered the USS C.P. Williams, under sail, up the Stono to a position to engage.  The weight of this fire completely disrupted the Confederate gunners.  Kemper decided to withdraw just as the Williams opened fire.  Likewise, Page ordered a general withdrawal of the force.  Around 7:30 a.m., the Confederates ceased all firing.  The Federals likewise stopped shortly afterwards.

In the action, the Confederates suffered three killed and eight wounded.  They also had a dozen horses killed and lost five sets of harnesses.  This lost mobility forced Kemper to leave behind two 8-inch howitzers and an ammunition chest.  After withdrawing behind Abbapoola Creek, running north of Legareville, the Confederates setup a defensive position and waited for an opportunity to recover the lost material.  However, through the remainder of the morning, the C.P. Williams fired some twenty 13-inch mortar shells in that direction to keep the Confederates at bay.

Assessing the failure, Page cited the poor gunnery and execution by the siege howitzers.  Defending his men, Kemper countered that the howitzers were ill-suited for work at the range the Marblehead was engaged. He also voiced concern the infantry never advanced, and his guns thus received all the Federal attention.  General P.G.T. Beauregard took into account both accounts within his endorsement of reports:

The failure to destroy or drive away the Marblehead is due to the inefficiency of the artillery through bad ammunition, fuzes, and primers, and bad service of the guns.  The 8-inch howitzers, objected to by Lieutenant-Colonel Kemper, were intended to be employed in case the enemy’s gunboats took position to throw grape and to shoot our gunners with Enfield rifles.

Yes, those 30-pdr Parrotts were supposed to fire upon the gunboat, supported by the howitzers.  Not the other way around.  Beauregard went on to say the enfilading fire from the Pawnee should not have had a great effect on the Confederate gunners.

Unknown to the Confederates at the time, their gunners had fired with some degree of accuracy.  The Marblehead recorded 30 hits. “We have one 30-pounder shell which lodged in the steerage and did not explode….”  Meade recorded two other unexploded shells lodged in the ship.  Overall Meade reported extensive, but largely superficial, damage. The Marblehead suffered three killed and four wounded.

Charleston 4 May 10 264
Stono River, near the site of the engagement, in 2010

Closing his report of the action, Meade lauded the behavior of Winslow, Farley, Miller, and Blake – going as far to recommend Farley for the Medal of Honor. Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren responded:

It is not in my power to promote Acting Ensign Winslow… but if you consider Farley and Miller suitable for appointments as master’s mates, I will transmit them.  Blake may be rated as seaman.

Dahlgren would go on to recommend to the Department of the Navy that Winslow and Acting Ensign George Harriman be promoted to acting masters for their conduct.   Eventually, Farley, Miller, Blake, and Moore (who was not mentioned in Meade’s recommendations) received the Medal of Honor for their actions on Christmas Day 1863.

(Sources:  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 100-102; Walter F. Beyer, Volume 2 of Deeds of Valor: How America’s Heroes Won the Medal of Honor, Detroit: The Perrien-Keydel Company, 1902, pages 50-52; OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 747-50; ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 188-209.)

Christmas Morning ambush at Legareville, Part 1

Ever since Federals began building river obstructions in the Stono River at the end of November, General P.G.T. Beauregard saw an opportunity to repeat the insult inflicted earlier in the year with the ambush of the USS Isaac Smith.   Orders cut on December 17 sent several batteries of artillery, about a regiment’s worth of infantry, and cavalry scouts to enact just such an ambush.

As instructed, the Confederates completed preparations for the ambush to include a series of concealed battery positions on the island overlooking the marshes south of Legareville.  Major Edward Manigault, commanding the South Carolina Siege Train batteries (but was not actually on James Island himself), provided the most detailed descriptions of the battery positions.  There were five distinct positions, as indicated here:


Manigault’s description varies slightly from the orders issued for the operation, so I’ll run through those details:

  • Upper Battery (1) was a sunken work on the peninsula about ¾ a mile southwest of Legareville.   Captain Benjamin C. Webb, Company A, South Carolina Siege Trains, commanded two 30-pdr Parrotts here, to target the steamers.
  • Upper Battery (2) was another sunken work about 50 to 75 yards to the right of the first battery.  Lieutenant Ralph Nesbit, Company B of the siege trains, had two 8-inch siege howitzers positioned to fire on the steamers.
  • The Lower Battery on a raised platform about 250 to 300 yards on another peninsula further southwest.  Captain Frederick C. Schultz, Company F, Palmetto Artillery, commanded two 3.5-inch Blakely rifles, one 10-pdr Parrott, along with an 8-inch howitzer from Nesbit’s Battery targeted the steamers.
  • A battery platform on the road leading to Legareville.  There Lieutenant John P. Strohecker of the Marion Light Artillery lead a section of two Napoleons reinforced with the fourth of Nesbit’s 8-inch howitzers.  These cannons were aimed at the infantry in Legareville.
  • A position between the Upper Battery and Legareville for Captain William E. Charles’ Battery D, 2nd South Carolina Artillery with two 3.5-inch Blakely rifles in position to fire on the town or the steamers as needed.  Charles’ two 12-pdr howitzers stood ready to advance with the infantry towards Legareville.  (This position is referred to as the “Hedge Battery” by some accounts.)

Because of the elevated and exposed positions of the Lower Battery and Charles’s Battery, those positions were not completed, with the guns in position, until the night of December 24.

Colonel P.R. Page commanded two companies of his own 26th Virginia Infantry and five from the 59th Virginia, constituting the infantry force to move down the road to Legareville and capture the Federals there.  While Page technically had overall command of the operation, he was not in a position to direct the guns of the Upper and Lower battery positions under Lieutenant-Colonel Del. Kemper.  This proved to be a gap in control which hindered the Confederates when the ambush sprang.

A detachment of infantry, roughly 200 in number, from Brigadier-General George Gordon’s division occupied a small spit just outside of Legareville on the night of December 24.  The USS Marblehead, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Richard Meade (yes nephew of Major General George Meade), was laying in the Stono River, anchored just south of the town.  This 90-day gunboat mounted a XI-inch Dahlgren guns, two 24-pdr smoothbore guns, and one 20-pdr rifle.

Down closer to Stono Inlet the USS Pawnee lay in the Kiawah River, with Commander George Balch in charge.  Balch was a veteran of these waters, seeing earlier actions on the Stono with the Pawnee.  The Pawnee mounted eight IX-inch Dahlgens, one 100-pdr Parrott Rifle, one 50-pdr Dahlgren Rifle, and two 12-pdr boat howitzers.  Further downstream the mortar schooner USS C.P. Williams lay off Cole’s Island.

Confederate scouts reported these dispositions on Christmas Eve, though did not detail the exact locations of the Pawnee and Williams.  Around that time, Page opted for a slight modification in plans.  He would open the engagement with fire from the Upper Battery (2) and the Lower Battery against the Marblehead.  The other batteries would fire on the Federals near Legaresville.  While this gave plenty of firepower to cover the infantry advance, it pitted 8-inch howitzers and field gun caliber rifles against the gunboat.  But, as Page would later report, the intent was for the siege guns to distract and destroy the Marblehead while the infantry rushed into Legareville.  Kemper, on the other hand, felt the plan was for the infantry to distract the Marblehead, leaving his guns to destroy the gunboat.   And neither officer mentioned any plans to deal with the other Federal ships laying nearby (possibly because of the limited information about those vessels).

So as Christmas morning dawned at Charleston, a brisk bombardment was already underway.  On the Stono River, the action was just about to start.

On that note, please allow me to pause for the moment, and pick up the narrative later today. There are a lot of connections and cross connections to discuss.  Not the least of which involves this man:

And of course an inscription on the back of a cannon:

WNY 10 Apr 10 543

Just a couple of many stories from 150 years ago this Christmas Day.

(Sources:  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 100-102; OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part I, Serial 46, pages 747-50; ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 188-209.)