Deconstructing Common Misconceptions of the April 1863 Fort Sumter Ironclad Assault
April 7, 2023, marks the 160th anniversary of the ironclad assault against Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor and since I am speaking about 1863 Charleston at the 2023 Emerging Civil War Symposium, it felt natural I would provide some insight to the battle on its anniversary. That April day, Seven Passaic-class monitors, the experimental double-fixed-turreted USS Keokuk, and the ironclad frigate New Ironsides advanced in column towards Fort Sumter. Their goal was to bombard this linchpin of Charleston’s defense into submission while entering the inner harbor to force Charleston’s capitulation. It was a battle where ironclads faced fortifications, with the fortifications coming out the victor in this instance by demonstrating the prowess of Confederate gunners and the difficulties of naval bombardment and assault.
This general narrative attached to the April 7, 1863, ironclad attack that failed to force Fort Sumter’s submission excludes many ancillary elements both instrumental in how the battle turned out and in how commanders believed it would develop. By diving deeper one can gain a greater appreciation of the variables frontline commanders consider surrounding the complexities of naval combat.
To start, the battle is labeled as one between Fort Sumter and nine United States ironclads – the frigate New Ironsides, the experimental Keokuk, and the Passaic-class monitors Weehawken, Passaic, Montauk, Patapsco, Catskill, Nantucket, and Nahant. This description immediately forgets the Confederate artillerists in other positions commanding Charleston’s channel on Morris Island and Sullivan’s Island. When Rear Admiral Samuel Francis Du Pont advanced his ironclads in column towards Charleston’s inner harbor, they faced artillery fire from multiple angles.
A second misconception is that these ironclads were the only US ships available. A “squadron of reserve” including the wooden war-steamers Canandaigua, Unadilla, Housatonic, Wissahickon, and Huron were assigned for the day’s assault. Their task was to form a second wave to assist the ironclads as they bombarded Morris Island or entered the inner harbor after Sumter’s surrender. When the US ironclads failed to close Sumter, this second wave was abandoned.
A third misconception about the US forces involved the army. Major General David Hunter had elements of what would soon be designated the X Corps in the vicinity, and he exchanged notes with Admiral Du Pont that his men were prepared to participate. Even if they might not engage on April 7, these ground forces might exploit gains soon after.
Before shifting to Confederate forces, it is worth mentioning that at least three formerly enslaved men helped pilot US ironclads that day. Robert Smalls, famed for his commandeering of the steamer Planter, was a contracted pilot on USS Keokuk. What is mostly forgotten is that two other formerly enslaved men who also escaped Charleston to US lines, Richard Bell and Gabriel Pinkney, likewise piloted ironclads in. The men were praised afterwards for their “skill, courage, and intelligence” in the assault.
Why the ironclads failed to reach Sumter was another matter. Most think it was because of the severe fire of Confederate gunners, and while that fire was quite accurate thanks to ranging stakes marking distances across the harbor, it also ignores the Confederacy’s unseen weapon of channel obstructions. These obstructions ranged from pilings to torpedoes and “appeared almost to touch one another.” Their placement forced the US squadron into killing fields.
Admiral Du Pont knew of these obstructions and torpedoes and called for experimental technology to clear the way. He first sent for the submersible Alligator to cut through the obstructions before the battle. That submersible was lost in a storm en route to Charleston. Next Du Pont received an experimental torpedo-clearing raft. Once affixed to USS Weehawken, that vessel led the US column into battle as a makeshift minesweeper. A torpedo “exploded” and “lifted the vessel a little,” nearly tearing the device off Weehawken, but updated rafts were later used across US naval theaters. USS New Ironsides sat astride another torpedo during the battle, which failed to explode.
Perhaps the biggest misconception about the April 7 ironclad assault at Charleston was that there were nine ironclads involved. True Admiral Du Pont commanded nine such warships, but the overall number ignores two Confederate ironclads also present – Chicora and Palmetto State. Confederate naval Captain John R. Tucker had both, which demonstrated their ability to steam and fight with trained crews two months before by sortieing from Charleston to challenge the blockade, standing by behind Fort Sumter steaming “slowly around in a circle during the entire bombardment.”
There were other Confederate naval forces at Charleston that day, waiting to enter the fray. All ironclads, military steamers, smaller launches, and even rowboats were armed with spar torpedoes to ram US ships. There was also a team of Confederate sailors specially trained in boarding and disabling monitors by placing “iron wedges to wedge between the turret and the deck” while covering the pilothouse “with wet blankets” and utilizing “turpentine or camphene in glass vessels to smash over the turret” creating an “inextinguishable liquid fire.” Even as US forces advanced, Captain Tucker directed the seizure of civilian craft to bolster these. “If you require those steamships, take them,” Tucker advised his officers. If Du Pont’s monitors managed to pass Fort Sumter and enter Charleston’s inner harbor, the conflict would have quickly turned into the war’s largest ironclad fleet engagement.
Tucker’s two ironclads and supporting craft did not fire a shot that day. Neither did any of Du Pont’s five supporting wooden war-steamers. Ultimately only acting as spectators to the engagement between US ironclads and Confederate forts, their general lack of mention in the narrative becomes clear. However, their inclusion in any examination of the April 7 battle is just as crucial as the acknowledgement of Confederate channel obstructions.
All of these elements hint that both sides had grander plans that afternoon. Du Pont had a second wave of ships ready to enter the fray, proving he either expected to enter Charleston’s inner harbor or at least recognized there was a real possibility of it happening. If USS Weehawken’s obstruction and minesweeping device would have worked better, then the ironclads might have closed or passed Fort Sumter. Then the wooden steamers could close and finish the forts while the monitors neared the city to demand its surrender. Additionally, General Hunter’s troops were relatively nearby to get on steamers to enter the harbor or occupy Fort Sumter should it surrender.
For the Confederacy, the channel obstructions showed General P.G.T. Beauregard and Captain John Tucker understood Charleston harbor’s geography. Their plan to funnel US warships into a killing field worked, with all of them sustaining significant damage; USS Keokuk sank days later, and USS Passaic limped to New York for emergency repairs. The presence of Tucker’s ironclads and supporting craft further highlights however, that these two commanders were thinking larger than reliance on forts and obstructions. They had a backup plan in place.
Ultimately the April 1863 ironclad attack against Charleston showcased many things: US ironclads could sustain significant damage and continue to fight, carefully planned fortifications could defeat these ironclads, and torpedoes and obstructions could prove key to victory or defeat. Another largely ignored takeaway is that naval operations are a far more complex system of engagements than most realize, with ship and squadron commanders constantly thinking about contingencies and workarounds. Understanding these complexities will help anyone better comprehend the nature of naval planning and combat, both in the US Civil War and beyond.
 Order of battle and Plan of Attack upon Charleston S.C., April 4, 1863, S.F. Du Pont, Official Dispatches and Letters of Rear Admiral Du Pont, U.S. Navy, 1846-48, 1861-63, (Wilmington, DE: Ferris Brothers, 1883), 439.
 Francis J. DuCoin, “Assailing Satan’s Kingdom: Union Combined Operations at Charleston,” Craig L. Symonds, ed., Union Combined Operations in the Civil War, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), 81.
 Rodgers to Dahlgren, August 14, 1863, “Letters Received by the Secretary of the Navy from Commanding Officers of Squadrons (Squadron Letters), 1841-1886” Year Range 25 June 1863-30 Sep 1863, South Atlantic blockading Squadron, NARA Records Group 45, Publication Number M89, US National Archives.
 Rodgers to Dahlgren, April 8, 1863, Squadron Letters.
 Chuck Veit, “The Innovative Mysterious Alligator,” Naval History, Vol. 24, No. 4, August 2010, 26-29.
 Rodgers to Dahlgren, April 8, 1863, Squadron Letters.
 William H. Parker, Recollections of a Naval Officer 1841-1865, (New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1883), 309
 Mallory to Webb, February 19, 1863, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Vol 13, 821.
 Tucker to Dozier, April 7, 1863, Ibid., 826.