The Naval Assault on Charleston: 1861-1863

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series The War on the Seas

Fort Sumter in 1860Of all the cities and states that had gained the animus of Union soldiers and sailors was the city of Charleston and the state of South Carolina. They saw the two entities as the primary Originators of the secession of the Southern states. Diaries, letters and books attest to the fact that Union soldiers and sailors believed that Charleston and South Carolina were both a den of traitors.

When Union troops under General William T. Sherman entered Columbia, the South Carolina state capital, one man wrote that this is where treason began and this is where we’ll end it.

Finally, the Union men saw the attack on Fort Sumter as the final treason. The nearly defenseless fort was pounded mercilessly until its commander, Major Robert Anderson surrendered to the Confederates.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that the Union government planned to first shut and then capture the harbor and the city of Charleston. It was being used by blockade runners on a continuous basis and the Union Navy planned to institute an air-tight blockade to prevent egress and ingress.

Admiral Samuel Du Pont urged the War Department to attack Charleston soon after Port Royal was taken in early November of 1861. He knew that it would require a joint sea and land assault but the Army had other priorities. The 10,000 troops assigned to the operation were commanded by Maj. Gen. David Hunter but they proved to be too few for a successful assault.

The first attempt to shut the port was made by using a “Stone Fleet” of ship hulks that were filled with rocks and scuttled to obstruct the main channel. Twenty-four whaleships were sunk starting from December 1861 to January 1862. Between 12 and 20 more vessels were sunk later in 1862. The powerful tides and storms washed the hulks away over a period of a year or two. Meanwhile, other channels remained open to the blockade runners.

The Union forces had a more promising opportunity when they received word that the Confederates had abandoned their positions that were guarding the seaward approaches to James Island to the south of the city. On June 2, 1862, Du Pont immediately landed two of Hunter’s divisions on James Island. They were positioned to come in the rear of Charleston’s defenses.

The Union Army was faced with meager Confederate resistance but Hunter convinced himself that he was outnumbered by the enemy. The reality was that the Union forces far outnumbered the Confederates. He left Brig. Gen. Henry Benham in charge and instructed him not to act until ordered.

In the ensuing two weeks while the Union troops sat by idly, the Confederates reinforced the island. On June 16th, Benham disobeyed orders and attacked. He was badly beaten near the town of Secessionville. Hunter withdrew his force and relieved Benham who was demoted to lieutenant colonel.

This was followed by a raid that probed the outer defenses of the city. There was a bloodless skirmish at Simmon’s Bluff on June 21st, just south of Charleston. The 55th Pennsylvania Infantry had been assigned to sever the railroad line from the city. Upon landing, they surprised the 16th South Carolina, razed their camp and routed the troops. They then boarded their transport, foregoing the raid on the railroad and returned to their base.

Meanwhile, the Confederates had been strengthening the defenses surrounding the city, creating a three-tier defensive system. The outer defenses consisted of fortifications that protected the mouth of the harbor and the channels from the barrier islands. These included Fort Wagner and Battery Greg on Morris Island on the south side of the harbor entrance. Fort Sumter was directly ahead in the center of the harbor mouth. Fort Moultrie, Battery Bee and Battery Beauregard were on the right side of the harbor on Sullivan Island. Battery Greg, Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie combined to deliver three-sided fire on the harbor entrance.

The second line of defenses consisted of artillery batteries ringing the harbor that were sited to engage any vessel that might break through the outer ring. On James Island, there was Fort Jackson and Battery Glover. Fort Ripley and Castle Pinckney were situated in the harbor itself. On the Battery in the city itself was Battery Ramsey. The flank approaches to the city were protected by a series of land forts.

The Confederates had removed the buoys marking the various channels making navigation without a pilot nearly impossible. Du Pont referred to Charleston Harbor as a “bag” and a “cul de sac”. The admiral believed that Charleston would be a trap for his warships.

After the unsuccessful assault on Fort McAllister, Du Pont had returned to the problem of solving the Charleston Harbor defenses. The Washington authorities, particularly Navy Secretary Gideon Welles and President Abraham Lincoln were particurly keen for Du Pont to force the harbor defenses defenses using the new weapons that he had been assigned.

Du Pont’s attacking force now included the latest warships in the Union’s arsenal. He had been given seven Passaic class monitors, the new USS Ironsides and the experimental USS Keokuk. Other naval operations were sidetracked in order for these resources to be sent to Charleston.

Charleston Harbor 1861Du Pont felt that any assault on the Charleston harbor defenses needed the accompaniment of the Army. His views on Army-Navy cooperation were well known in Washington but had been ignored.

Meanwhile, the general wartime situation in early 1863 was not promising for the Union cause. In December 1862 the huge Federal army had been repulsed at Fredericksburg with serious losses. The Army of the Potomac was in serious disarray. Along the Mississippi, the campaign around Vicksburg was bogged down. Galveston had been retaken by the Confederates. A general war weariness had overtaken the North with signs that the Republicans might fare poorly in the fall elections.

Under this cloud, Du Pont was being pushed into attacking the defenses of Charleston harbor with his powerful but flawed force. At this stage of their development, the Passaic class monitors were slow-moving and slow-firing behemoths. They were somewhat longer and twice as heavy as the original USS Monitor. The New Ironsides moved at the same rate of speed, 7 knots per hour while the Keokuk was slightly faster at 9 knots.

Du Pont did not share the enthusiasm of the Navy Department for the armored vessels. Although they could withstand whatever punishment the coastal artillery inflict, their offensive capabilities were severely restricted. New Ironsides carried 16 guns (broadside, so only 8 could be brought to bear at one time), but each of the others carried only two guns. Each Passaic had one 15-inch (380 mm) and one 11-inch (280 mm) gun, while Keokuk carried two 11-inch (280 mm) guns. Although they were larger than the typical 32-pounder weapons that would be used against them, their rate of fire was much less. Seven minutes was needed to swab, reload, and aim between shots.

The Army, led by Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, was unwilling to send any more than 10,000 to 15,000 untrained troops to assist in the operation. First Battle of Charleston HarborEven with those, they would only send them in to exploit the naval successes, if they occurred.

Charleston, blockaded as it was, had become a target of only limited military significance, as the active centers of combat were mostly in Virginia and the interior of the country. Its value as a port for blockade runners was not much greater than that of Mobile, Alabama or Savannah, Georgia, and all were eclipsed by Wilmington, North Carolina. It was selected as a target more for its symbolic worth than for its strategic importance. In the words of one of the participants in the naval attack, “Fort Sumter was regarded in the public mind, North and South, as the citadel of the fortress, the incarnation of the rebellion, and as such it was attacked and defended.”

All of this set the stage for the First Battle of Charleston Harbor on April 7, 1863. Du Pont on his flagship, the New Ironsides, was positioned in the middle of the Union line of battle. The attack commenced at noon. The Union line was led by the USS Weehawken, Passaic class monitor. A special raft with grappling hooks had been constructed in an attempt to sweep the Confederate torpedoes. The Weehawken almost immediately fouled her anchor on the grappling hooks of the raft. This slowed her speed considerably to 3 knots. The rest of the battle line were slowed behind her.

USS KeokukIt took two hours for the Union vessels to reach their firing positions. Due to handling problems from the strong currents and shallow waters, the New Ironsides was forced to drop out of line and anchor in order not to run aground. The following ships were forced to steam around her. Meanwhile, at the head of the line the Weehawken had moved out of the channel and the others following had become confused by her maneuvering.

The Union ships were now in an area where the Confederate shore batteries were able to pummel them. In the course of two hours, the Confederates fired 2,000 shots of which 520 were hits. By contrast, the Union fleet only fired a mere 154 shots. Although the heavy armor protected the crews, many of the ships suffered mechanical damage, such as, jammed turrets and damaged gunports. The worst hit was the Keokuk which was hit 90 times, including 19 times at or below the waterline. The near stationary movement of the Union vessels made them easy targets for the Confederate gunners.

As the tide began to turn, Du Pont ordered his fleet to withdraw. In his official report Du Pont asserted that he planned on renewing the attack the following day but his captains refused. The USS Keokuk sank during the night, after her crew had been evacuated. The USS Keokuk sank in an area where here smokestack was above the water which marked her position. Under cover of darkness, a crew led by Charleston salvager, Adolphus W. Lacoste, was able to recover her tw0 11-inch Dahlgren smoothbore guns from the wreck.

Several of the other ships required repairs that would take between days and weeks to complete. Fort Sumter had sustained some damage but it was quickly repaired. The Union casualties were one killed and 21 wounded while the Confederates had 5 killed and 8 wounded.


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