Advance of the Ironclads (part two)

Today we welcome back guest author Eric Sterner.

Part two of a series.

The Ironclads Advance:

The USS Weehawken bombarding Fort Sumter.
The USS Weehawken bombarding Fort Sumter.

After the haze in Charleston harbor finally cleared mid-morning on April 7th, 1863, Du Pont raised the signal for the ironclads in his squadron to get underway.   It was just over a year since Fox had urged him to attack the city.  There was little wind and the sea was smooth.  Eight of his ships were Passaic-class monitors.[1]  The ninth was another experiment, the lightly-armored Keokuk, which sported two pivoting XI-inch Dahlgren smoothbores in two non-rotating gun towers.[2]  The tenth vessel was the New Ironsides, a more conventional-looking ship that mounted its weaponry in broadside.  This included seven XI-inch Dahlgrens and one 150-pdr Parrott rifle per side.[3]  Unfortunately, its deep draft and weak engines limited the ship’s maneuverability in the harbor.

The ironclads were to make their way down the main ship channel in column and gather six to eight hundred yards off Fort Sumter’s northwest face, which Du Pont considered its weakest.  After battering the fort into submission, they would attack Charleston’s other outer defenses, starting with those on Morris Island.[4]  The plan to engage Sumter differed considerably from the expectations in Washington, where Fox and Welles thought Du Pont would bypass the outer defenses and threaten Charleston directly.

The New Ironsides goes into action.
The New Ironsides goes into action.

It was likely with a heavy heart that Du Pont watched Weehawken lead his column towards Sumter, followed by sister ships Passaic, Montauk and Patapsco.  From his station aboard New Ironsides, next in the column, his frustration could only have grown.  Visibility from the pilothouse, which sat aft of the smokestack, was poor and worsened by the still air that ensured smoke hung over the fleet and harbor.  The Passaic monitors Catskill, Nantucket, and Nahant followed New IronsidesKeokuk brought up the rear.

Things went awry from the first.  Weehawken had a raft mounted forward to help clear obstructions.  When she raised anchor to get underway, it fouled on the raft and delayed the entire column.[5]  While skippers and pilots struggled with underpowered vessels and poor visibility, the men below decks had to judge events from the sound of their own engines and occasional boom of guns.  Remembered one crewman “[T]hose of us who were stationed on the berth deck, where we could hear little and see nothing, found the long wait very trying to our nerves.  We knew that the engine was frequently started and then stopped again, and supposed the starting and stopping were but incidents of getting the vessels into line formation, but why the long, long delay in opening fire we did not know.”[6]

Sailors aboard the USS Passaic.
Sailors aboard the USS Passaic.

The defending Confederates watched the ironclads approach at a snail’s pace.  Du Pont started his attack with the outgoing tide, thinking that it would help carry disabled ships away from the defenses and out of the harbor.[7] (He was preparing for failure, rather than rushing past Sumter).  The ebbing tide slowed the progress of his squadron as it made its way toward those waiting forts and batteries.  The Confederates in Fort Sumter, unimpressed with the slow progress of the ironclads, went to dinner, after which the regimental band inside Fort Sumter struck up some music, followed by an artillery salute.[8]

Finally, Weehawken reached Sumter.  Batteries on Sullivan’s island engaged her at range as she passed, joined by Sumter just before 3 pm.  Upon coming abreast of the fort, Weehawken encountered the first line of Confederate underwater obstructions.  Her captain described them:

We approached very close to the obstructions extending from Fort Sumter to Fort Moultrie—as near, indeed, as I could get without running upon them.  They were marked by rows of casks very near together.  To the eye they appeared almost to touch one another, and there was more than one line of them….The appearance was so formidable that upon deliberate judgment I thought it right not to entangle the vessel in obstructions which I did not think we could have passed through and in which we should have been caught.”[9]

About this time, Weehawken experienced a large explosion close aboard, which Captain Rodgers interpreted as the detonation of a torpedo, as mines were then known.[10]  With that, Weehawken turned to avoid the obstacles and engage Sumter directly.  Seeing the lead vessel move to fight the fort head on, Passaic and Montauk followed.  Du Pont’s plan to pass the fort and then engage it from the northwest devolved into a general slugging match between the monitors and Fort Sumter, aided by its surrounding coastal defenses, principally Fort Moultrie and Battery Bee, Battery Beauregard, and the guns on Cumming’s Point.

Interior of Fort Sumter.
Interior of Fort Sumter.

Things were worse in the rear of Du Pont’s column.  New Ironsides proved unwieldy in the current.  After Weehawken opened fire, Du Pont signaled the column to ignore his motions and then anchored opposite Fort Wagner, well out of the fight for Sumter.  Weehawken’s turn threw the column into some confusion, further limiting the New Ironsides’ ability to fire on Charleston’s defenses lest it hit the monitors.[11]  This effectively halved Du Pont’s firepower.  Just after 4:00 pm, Catskill and Nantucket, both seeking to pass the flagship and join the melee, collided with her, causing a brief delay.[12]  Nahant and Keokuk brought up the rear, with Keokuk moving the closest to Sumter.  Her proximity and odd configuration set her apart from the Passaics and Keokuk took a pounding.  Her captain noted, “Nineteen shots pierced her through and just at the waterline.  The turrets were pierced in many places,” concluding “in short, the vessel was completely riddled.”[13]  After just a few minutes, she withdrew from the fight.[14]  By 4:30, Du Pont had had enough too.  He ordered a general withdrawal, intending to return the next day.  New Ironsides loosed a desultory broadside at Fort Moultrie just before departing the scene.[15]

That evening, Du Pont called a commander’s conference.[16]  Keokuk was out of action and sank the next morning when the weather kicked up.  The fire directed at Nahant had sprung bolts and warped her armor, jamming the turret.  Passaic, Patapsco, and Nantucket each lost the use of one gun.[17]  Confederate fire inflicted much of the damage, but some resulted from malfunctions.  Crews could make minor repairs, but the major facilities were back at Port Royal.  Collectively, the squadron’s 32 guns had fired about 150 shots, hitting Sumter some 36 times.  For their part, 76 Confederate guns fired close to 2200 shots, hitting 520 times.[18]  Their hit percentages are comparable, but the difference in volume was telling. The battle had reduced the effective combat power of Du Pont’s squadron by nearly half.  Sumter was negligibly damaged.

The Aftermath:

Samuel Francis Du Pont.
Samuel Francis Du Pont.

When Du Pont opted not to renew his attack, the Northern press heaped criticism at him.  He attributed the most prominent attack to Alban Stimers, the General Inspector of Ironclads, and a cabal with vested interests in the monitors.[19]  His relationship with Welles and Fox quickly spiraled downward.  When Welles concluded Du Pont had lost interest in renewing efforts against the city, he relieved the Rear Admiral.[20]

If Welles and Fox were harsh in dealing with the Admiral, historians have been kinder. Du Pont’s most recent biographer dubbed him “Lincoln’s Tragic Admiral” and argued Welles and Fox sacrificed the Rear Admiral to cover up their own misguided faith in monitors.[21]  That is not entirely fair to Welles and Fox.  Clearly, the monitors were deficient against forts.  For his part, Welles understood this.  He took Du Pont’s reports from Fort McAllister at face value, expressing more concern that the attacks taught the Confederates as much as the Navy.  Their desire to bypass the forts and directly threaten Charleston capitalized on those experiences.  The inadequacy of the monitors’ offensive power against forts mattered less, since Welles and Fox did not intend Du Pont to engage them.  The Rear Admiral’s persistence in arguing and then proving his point, particularly in his operations against Fort McAllister, could only appear to be an excuse for delay.

That said, by 1863 the moment for running the forts, if one existed when Fox raised it, had passed.  Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, who resumed command of the district in September, 1862, took steps to improve the inner harbor’s defenses by adding heavier guns and improving the very underwater obstructions that Weehawken turned to avoid.[22]  Unlike New Orleans, where Farragut’s squadron could lick its wounds in relative safety after passing the city’s defenses, Du Pont’s ships would remain under fire once he ran the outer defenses.  By the beginning of 1863, the parallels Fox and Welles envisioned between New Orleans and Charleston did not correspond with reality, if they ever had.  Du Pont, however, persisted in highlighting the limitations of the ironclads, rather than the tactical picture in the harbor.

While many of Du Pont’s concerns about a Navy-only attack on Charleston were well-founded, he dribbled them out piecemeal rather than making a forthright case against such an operation. He confessed to his wife, “I ought…to have told the Department what I thought: that the attack would be futile and disastrous…I compromised my sense of duty, by stating all the facts of those previous failures…to the Navy Department and leaving them to reconsider their orders.”[23]  To a political ally, he wrote, “I felt as if it was my duty to inform the Department of what was in store for it at Charleston—though I had never advised in any shape or form this attack—but I had not the moral courage… So I compromised with my conscience by stating the facts and letting the Department judge.”[24]  Instead of either carrying out the Welles-Fox plan or confronting them over its deficiencies, he offered up a half-hearted duel with shore batteries, exactly the kind of attack he cautioned against and which their concept sought to avoid.

After Du Pont’s departure, the Army and Navy launched a combined campaign against the city, as he had recommended.  It also failed before the war ended.  In fact, Charleston refused to surrender even after Army forces began bombarding the city directly, suggesting it would have resisted the attack Fox and Welles envisioned just as well.   Confederate military forces evacuated the city when William Tecumseh Sherman’s march through the state rendered it indefensible.  Charleston eventually surrendered to an officer of the United States Army.


[1]           See William H. Roberts, Civil War Ironclads: The U.S. Navy and Industrial Mobilization, (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002); p. 32, Kindle Loc 656.  The Passaics were intended to carry two XV-inch smoothbores, but only deployed with one XV inch Dahlgren and one XI inch Dahlgren due to wartime shortages.

[2]           Spencer C. Tucker, Blue & Gray Navies: The Civil War Afloat, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2006), pp. 39-40.

[3]           William H. Roberts, USS New Ironsides in the Civil War, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1999), pp. 11, 21-22.

[4]           U.S. Navy Department, The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1908), Series I, Vol. 14, p. 9.  (Hereafter ORN).  Du Pont’s forces at Charleston also included several wooden steamers, which were to remain outside the bar, but available for operations against Morris Island.

[5]           ORN, Series I, Vol. 14, p. 11.

[6]           Alvah F. Hunter, Craig L. Symonds, ed., A Year on a Monitor and the Destruction of Fort Sumter, (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1991), p. 50.

[7]           Robert M. Browning, Jr., Success Is All That Was Expected: The South Atlantic Blockading Squadron during the Civil War, (Washington, DC: Brassey’s Inc., 2002), p. 171.

[8]           Browning, op. cit., p. 173.

[9]           ORN, Series I, Vol. 14, p. 12.

[10]         ORN, Series I, Vol. 14, p. 12.  It was more likely the result of artillery fire.

[11]         ORN, Series I, Vol. 14, p. 6.

[12]         ORN, Series I, Vol. 14, p. 28; Browning, Jr., op. cit., pp. 174-175.

[13]         ORN, Series I, Vol. 14, p. 23.

[14]         Browning, op. cit., pp. 178-179.

[15]         Browning, op. cit., p. 179; ORN, Series I, Vol. 14, p. 6.

[16]         ORN, Series I, Vol. 14, p. 6.

[17]         ORN, Series I, Vol. 14, pp. 7-25.

[18]         Browning, op. cit., pp. 179-180; James M. McPherson, War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), p. 146.  Du Pont thought his forces had fired just 139 shots.  ORN, Series I, Vol. 14, p. 7.  Others offer slightly lower firing rates for the Union vessels and higher rates for the Confederates.  Tucker, op. cit., p. 247.  Beauregard, op. cit., p. 12.

[19]         Browning, op. cit., pp. 190-193; Taafe, op. cit., pp. 139-150, Kindle loc. 2827-3075.

[20]         From Gideon Welles, June 3, 1863, in SFDP Letters, Vol. 3, pp. 159-160.

[21]         Weddle, op. it., pp. 214-216; See also, Merrill, op. cit., pp. 298-299, and Gerald S. Henig, “Admiral Samuel F. Du Pont, The Navy Department, and the Attack on Charleston, April 1863,” Naval War College Review, Vol. 32, February 1979, p. 75.

[22]         Beauregard, op. cit., pp. 1-4.

[23]         SFDP to Mrs. Du Pont, April 10, 1863, in SFDP Letters, Vol. 3, op. cit,. pp. 14-15.

[24]         SFDP to William Wister McKean, c. April 29, 1863 in SFDP Letters, Vol. 3, op. cit., p. 66.  Italics in original.

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