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.)

“Sustained with mortars and the occasional service of the 300-pounder rifle”: Fort Sumter’s seventh minor bombardment

Throughout the spring of 1864, Federal batteries on Morris Island maintained pressure on Fort Sumter with occasional shots.  These were aimed to prevent Confederate improvements, while at the same time to remind those in Charleston of the ever present threat.  Even one battalion in Fort Sumter was one less in Virginia.  Furthermore, keeping one battalion in the fort required resources that would otherwise be spent elsewhere.

On May 30, the Federals picked up the tempo of bombardment for a few days.  Major-General John Foster, new commander of the Department of the South, began testing the lines, so to speak.  One might say there was a bit of irony at play – in April 1861, Foster was the chief engineer worried about damage from Confederate batteries on Morris Island; now he was commanding Federal batteries on that island pounding Fort Sumter’s rubble.

But these activities were monotonous to say the least, though still very deadly. Chronicler of the siege, Major John Johnson, later wrote of the period starting on May 30:

During the next six or seven days the firing upon Fort Sumter was increased to the extent another minor bombardment – the seventh – being sustained with mortars and the occasional service of the 300-pounder rifle from May 30 to June 5th.  Four casualties occurred, but the fort suffered no damage.

In Fort Sumter, Captain John C. Mitchel recorded the hits and misses:

  • May 30 to June 1 – 55 mortar shells fired, with 41 hits; two Parrott shells, with one hit.
  • June 2 – 39 mortar shells fired, with only 14 hits; four Parrott shells fired, with three hits (one by a 300-pdr which dismounted a howitzer in the fort).
  • June 2 (night) – Eleven Parrott shells fired, with seven hits.
  • June 4 – 23 mortar shells with 13 hits.
  • June 4 (night) – 37 mortar shells, with only 14 hits.

The Federal batteries lay quiet on June 5, but resumed with five Parrott shells on June 6.  Skipping a day, the Federals fired four Parrott shells at the fort on June 8.  This bombardment, with somewhere close to 200 shells of large caliber (the by-day tally above is not complete, unfortunately), was negligible compared to the heavy bombardments of the previous fall.  But the war was still there outside Charleston, every day and every night.

During the bombardment on June 2, one of the Federal 300-pdr shells broke through a casemate and dismounted a 24-pdr flank howitzer in the fort.  A defensive weapon placed to counter Federal landing parties, the howitzer was important to the defense of the fort.  Having no replacement carriage, Mitchel immediately requested one from Fort Moultrie.  The injury, though, was slight. This does, however, run contrary to Johnson’s assessment of no damage to the fort.

The four casualties mentioned by Johnson are worthy of further discussion.  Not a single Confederate solider was injured in this bombardment.  None.  All four casualties – recorded as wounded – were negro workers. The most exposed work in the fort was done by the impressed or contracted laborers.

However, the most significant report from the fort during those days did not involve the bombardment.  On June 6, Mitchel noted, “The Ironsides has moved out over the bar, and lies now about 6 miles off.”  For well over a year, the USS New Ironsides was the nucleus of the ironclad squadron standing in the channel off Morris Island.  Her presence loomed as a mailed fist at the entrance to Charleston harbor.  The Confederate counter-ironclad efforts focused on this capital ship, and included torpedo boat attacks.  But the wear of operations and cumulative effects of combat damage left the ship in need of a refit.  The New Ironsides was heading north to Philadelphia and would be out of service for several months.  Her departure signaled the Confederates that no further naval attacks were planned or contemplated at Charleston.

(Citation from John Johnson, The Defense of Charleston Harbor: Including Fort Sumter and the Adjacent Islands, 1863-1865, Walker, Evans & Cogswell Company, 1890, page 214; Mitchel’s reports are from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 2)

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.)