Open main menu



CHAPTER XXV


Naval Attack on Forts Sumter and Moultrie.—1863


ON March 5, General Hunter issued the following address to his command in the form of a general order (No. 16):

Soldiers of the Department of the South: After long and wearying delays, due to causes over which no one in this Department had control, we have at length the cheering prospect of active and very important service.

Soldiers of the 10th Army Corps, you are stimulated by every consideration of honor to vie with the gallant men from the Departmentof North Carolina who have been sent by the Government to take part with you in the dangers and the glory of operations now pending.

Officers and men of the command, you are adjured to the performance of every duty. All who earn distinction, no matter how humble their positions, have my pledge that their services shall be honorably acknowledged, and the acknowledgment pressed to their advantage.

Alas, the General's manifesto proved but another deception. One more entire month of weary waiting was to elapse before the "pending operations" were actually commenced. Again the delay in the arrival of the rest of the monitors from the North was the cause of the postponement. The Weehawken and the Nantucket appeared during March, but the last ironclad, the Keokuk, reported only at the very end of the month. She was a departure from the monitor model, and a new experiment, as she was turtle-shaped, with sloping sides and two stationary turrets.

On March 31, I wrote from Hilton Head: "But for a violent gale that arose suddenly last night, and has been blowing with unabated fury since, I should probably have been able to announce definitely the day on which the army and navy are to commence their long-delayed offensive operations. Still, I can assure your readers with the utmost positiveness, that the rough weather is now the only obstacle to the immediate consummation of the aggressive plans of General Hunter and Admiral Dupont." At last I was right in my predictions. As soon as the elements of high winds and heavy seas had quieted down, the combined campaign by land and water really opened. I was thoroughly tired of my long-enforced idleness, and heartily welcomed the prospect of active work. I naturally assumed that the extensive and protracted preparations for vigorous, telling strokes against the enemy would bring me steady and stirring occupation for some time to come. But the god of war ordained it otherwise. In little more than one week our offensive energy was to be exhausted, the carefully planned attack on arch-rebellious Charleston to prove an utter failure, even in the very first stage of its execution, and my task in South Carolina to be suddenly brought to an end. How all this came about is told in the following batch of reports to the Tribune, printed in its issue of April 14:

United States Surveying Steamer Bibb,

North Edisto Harbor, April 4, 1863.

Preliminary movements and reconnoissances, embarkations and landings, have been making for some time, both by the navy and army; but it was only on Wednesday last that there was a general readiness for the commencement of the main operations. High wind and heavy sea caused another delay of twenty-four hours, but on the day before yesterday morning the four ironclads still remaining in Port Royal Harbor started at last for this general rendezvous; the Admiral's blue flag was transferred from the Wabash to the James Adger, which left soon after the monitors; and a large number of the army transports also followed in their wake. I availed myself of a kind invitation of General Ferry, commanding one of the divisions of the expedition, and made my way across the bay to St. Helena landing and aboard his flagship, the steamer New England, as soon as I saw the wheels of the James Adger in motion. The New England formed the centre of a group of steamers and propellers, all heavily laden with human freight. The troops had been marched aboard the night before, in the expectation of an immediate departure; but the means of landing (scows and surf-boats) could not be secured until this morning, and the division got under way only a short time before sundown.

The destination of General Ferry's command was Stono Inlet. It was to make a landing on Cole's Island, already occupied for some days by a regiment. The fleet had hardly crossed the bar when a severe gale suddenly sprang up, and continued to blow all night. When the sun rose on Friday morning, the sorry discovery was made that the transports had been scattered, and lost in the storm most of the surf-boats they had been towing. In the course of the forenoon, however, the vessels all hove again in sight, but, low tide preventing their passage over the bar, they were ordered to lie off the entrance until high water. The New England having too deep a draught for a safe crossing, she proceeded to this port in order to transfer part of her load to another steamer.

North Edisto Harbor presented, when we entered it, an aspect at once pleasing and imposing. Its placid waters, with well-defined, graceful contours of shore lines, just contrasted and variegated enough to give tone to the picture, formed an idyllic ensemble strangely contrasting with the numerous novel and formidable engines of naval war riding at anchor within its sheltering limits. All the ironclads excepting the New-Ironsides, with the James Adger, Seneca, Sebago, and Bibb, had arrived. Around them floated a great flock of sailing craft—mortar, ordnance, buoy and supply schooners; the Adams Express steamer Mary Sanford, the Locust Point and other propellers, together with several ever-puffing, ever-rushing tugboats, imparting additional liveliness to the scene. Before leaving Port Royal, I had obtained Admiral Dupont's permission to witness the operations of the ironclads from the New-Ironsides. Soon after arriving, I boarded the James Adger in order to ascertain the best mode of reaching the former, and had a passage provided for off Charleston on the survey steamer Bibb, to which I transferred myself and baggage forthwith from the New England. My reception by Acting-Ensign Robert Platt, the commander of the Bibb in the absence of Captain C. O. Boutelle of the Coast Survey, was as courteous as I could possibly desire it to be.

Instead of dying out, as expected in the morning, the wind grew more violent in the afternoon, so that our anchorage became ruffled. As the swell increased in volume and the vessels rocked and rolled more and more, it became evident that the morrow was not likely to bring the sound and fury of action. Still, the final preparations for it were continued with unabated vigor on all the ironclads. Their decks were stripped of what little in the way of spars and rigging they had. The sides, turrets, pilot-houses, and decks of all were covered with a thick and anything but elegant coat of grease. Several were still receiving additional plating upon their most exposed portions. Various contrivances for exploding and taking up torpedoes and obstructions were tried. The click and clank of tools and the commands of officers and the shouts of working parties resounded until long after sundown. Towards evening, the steamship Ben Deford, carrying Major-General Hunter and staff, came in and anchored close to the Admiral's flagship. Several schooners and steamers also stood in, with a number of small boats lost by General Ferry's transports, so that no hindrance of the movements of the land forces need be apprehended from that mishap.

This morning it was manifest that we should experience rough weather for another day. High winds, veering in the course of the forenoon from N. E. to N. W., blew until towards evening. But, shortly before sunset, the sky became clear of clouds, the wind settled gradually into a calm, the surface of the water smoothened, and after dark there was every indication of a change for the better. At daylight, a strange accident had happened to the Whitney Battery Keokuk. The strong tide made one of the monitors drag anchor, brush past the former, carry off her anchor-chains, and set her adrift. Not having steam up, she floated helplessly down the bay towards the bar. Fortunately, before she reached the latter, her propellers had been got to work and she was safely brought back. About sunrise the naval squadron was joined by the gunboats Augusta, Memphis, and South Carolina, ordered here from off Charleston to take the monitors in tow. One of the two ironclad rafts with which the Ericsson anchored for several days outside, was brought in early this morning and attached to the bow of the Weehawken for experimental purposes. The officers and crews of the ironclads seemed to be even more busy than yesterday with hastening their preparations to completion. The greasing, the strengthening of the armor, the rigging up of means of rendering submarine engines of destruction harmless, continued all day. Experiments with throwing the grapnel from a coehorn were made on the Keokuk. One of the discharges unluckily resulted in slightly injuring Lieutenant Forrest.

In the evening several of the commanders of the ironclads came on the Bibb for consultation as to the hydrography of Charleston Harbor. Captain Charles O. Boutelle also arrived from the North. It became understood that, with anything like favorable weather, the Admiral would order the whole squadron to get under way at flood-tide in the morning.

April 5, 1863.

The presumptions of last evening were well founded. A clear sun, cloudless sky, and calm sea removed this morning the last impediment to the attack, and about 6 o'clock the general signal to get under way was made from the flagship.

The consummation of what has been preparing so long, so carefully, and on so extensive a scale, being now close at hand, certain statements, without which the character of the operations about to begin can not well be fully appreciated, may safely be made. An erroneous impression has undoubtedly prevailed all along in the North as to the offensive strength of the troops to be employed in the attack upon Charleston. I cannot, of course, at this moment state the real number of effectives at the disposal of General Hunter; but I can say, with a full knowledge of the actual figures, that it is far below the popular estimate. It is comparatively so small, indeed, that the land forces will be necessarily limited to a secondary part. They will have to act very much after the fashion of General Butler's command in the operations resulting in the capture of New Orleans. They will simply follow up the conquests of the navy; move in its wake and occupy the localities opened by it.

Of the navy, the armored vessels will do the main work. The facts ascertained in regard to the armament of the rebel defenses of Charleston Harbor would render the employment of the wooden ships under the command of Admiral Dupont (many of which are merchant vessels converted into men-of-war, and as weak as those that fell so easy a prey to the rebel ironclads in their late sortie) in any attempt at the reduction of the regular rebel forts exceedingly hazardous. The country may rest assured that all the pros and cons in connection with this question have been well weighed, and that wisdom required that the brunt of the contest should be borne by the ironclads. The aggressive qualities of these seem to be much misconceived by the general public. Popular fancy, nurtured by journalistic ignorance and exaggeration, has enveloped them with a nimbus of irresistibility not at all warranted by their real merits. Their fighting capacities should consist of running, offensive and defensive powers. Were the impending combat over, I could disclose facts proving that they are far from being the models of perfection in the light of which they appear to unprofessional minds. As it is, I can only say that, although they are beyond gainsay in certain respects more powerful than anything else afloat, they have marked deficiencies which render success not by any means absolutely certain.

Two months ago the plan of attack was to make a landing of troops under the guns of the navy on Morris Island, clear it gradually of the enemy, and, after Cumming's Point had been occupied, to support the attack of the forts by the ironclads with shore batteries. Since then the supposition that the defenses of the island had been so strengthened as to make this mode of operation impracticable, caused a modification of the original plan. It is now proposed to reduce the forts by the ironclads alone, and to bring and keep the land forces only as near as possible to the island, so as to secure its ready occupation after the fall of the forts shall have isolated it and necessitated the evacuation or surrender of its defenses. For this latter purpose the main body of the troops has now been landed on Cole's Island, occupied, as already stated, for some time by a regiment, with a view to working their way across it to Folly Island, as close to Morris Island as practicable. A safe anchorage for the navy nearer than Port Royal being desirable, Edisto Island was taken possession of last week by the brigade of General Stevenson, and the control of the harbor it commands secured.

It would not be difficult to demonstrate that this whole movement against Charleston cannot stand the test of sound strategy; that it is not likely to be successful without a much larger land force than that at the command of General Hunter. But as it is positively determined upon, and about being made in accordance with the wishes of the Government and the people rather than with the judgment of those entrusted with its execution, comments of this kind had better be deferred until its prudence can be measured by its results. One condition of success is certainly fulfilled: the heads of the two branches are resolved upon the utmost efforts to accomplish the desired end, and to make the best possible use of the ships, men, and material under their control. It is true, one of the old maxims of naval warfare is, that one gun on shore is equal to an entire ship's battery. Still, there is reason to suppose that the armament of the ironclads, although comparatively not very numerous, is so powerful in point of calibre as to be adequate to the task before it. The only fear of naval men is, that obstructions will prevent the vessels from reaching the proper position for an effective bombardment. If they can but bring the seven fifteen-inch and twenty-two eleven-inch guns and three rifled two-hundred-pounders, throwing combinedly nearly six tons of iron, to bear at close range, the result cannot be doubtful.

And now I will resume my narrative. At 7 o'clock the Bibb, which was to take the lead, was under way, and soon afterward the whole fleet was in motion. A magnificent spectacle spread out before us after we had crossed the bar and gained the open sea. The sun shone brightly, defining plainly every object upon the vast expanse of water. Slight undulations only disturbed the blue deep in its rest from the riot of yesterday. In our way rose the huge form of the Ericsson, and the horizon was lined with transports black with troops and headed in a northeasterly direction. The proud squadron steamed in grand and grim procession. What would old mariners from foreign waters think of the strange floating medley of swift, well-proportioned steamers and sails, and the slow, besmeared, ugly ironclad monsters? There came first the Bibb, next the Locust Point and Keokuk, then the Memphis and Nahant, the flagship and the Flambeau, the South Carolina and Patapsco, the tug Dandelion, and the Montauk, the August and Catskill and Passaic.

When about two miles out, the gunboats Locust Point and Dandelion stopped and took the ironclads in tow. The Weehawken dropped her raft, which was again taken up by the Ericsson. The Memphis, in standing to the southward to wait for its charge, ran foul of the bow of the Keokuk, and, although it seemed but just to touch the latter, was so seriously injured that she had at once to be sent to Port Royal for repairs. Excepting this mishap, we made our destination in safety. After two hours steaming, we came up with the blockaders and in full sight of Fort Sumter. The flagship had preceded us, and already assumed a station near the New-Ironsides, whose massive, graceless, barren hull, with its tier of huge guns, looked at a distance strikingly like a great swimming castle. As the different vessels approached, they took position in range with the flagship, and soon formed a line stretching far to the southward and northward about two miles from the bar. The last of the ironclads had just been brought up when rapidly succeeding reports of heavy guns from the harbor told us that the advent of the fleet had been noticed and the alarm sounded by the enemy.

The fleet being assembled, the next move was to buoy the channel to the bar. This duty was performed by the Bibb, the buoy schooner Admiral Dupont, and the Keokuk. The range to the bar was marked out by the former two by noon. Early in the afternoon Mr. Platt of the Bibb went on board the Keokuk, and under his guidance she gallantly steered for the bar. As she neared the shore the whole fleet watched eagerly her course. The battery supposed to cover Folly Inlet was every moment expected to open upon her. But the buoys were rolled off from the deck over her slanting sides at the proper points without molestation from the enemy. The buoys being placed, she steamed over to Swash Channel, after sounding which for several hours Captain Rhind brought her back to within a short distance from the Bibb.

The way over the bar was now opened, and the harbor accessible to all of the ironclads at the next flood tide. About 3 P.M. a stiff breeze rose suddenly, and speedily produced such a commotion of the sea as to drive the crews of the monitors from the decks, upon which they had been basking in the sun. The sky remained clear, but the wind gained in force. With the provoking, all but uninterrupted, unpropitiousness of the weather during the last two weeks, we are almost inclined to believe that Providence frowns upon our cause. At sunset the Patapsco got in motion, made directly for the bar and crossed it, and took a picket station, as it were, inside, from which to prevent the removal of the buoys by the rebels during the night. Her bold movement drew out no more of an opposing demonstration from the enemy than that of the Keokuk. As soon as the Patapsco commenced moving, the Catskill and Passaic also got under way, standing for the bar, close to which they remained during the night. We presume that they are intended as a support to the Patapsco in case her isolated position should tempt the rebel rams into an attack.

Late in the afternoon the Ericsson joined the fleet with her two rafts. At sunset the Ben Deford also appeared among it. About dark the Dandelion visited the several ironclads and delivered the final instructions of the Admiral for the movement of to-morrow. The whole ironclad squadron will enter the harbor at high tide in the morning, but whether the attack is to be commenced will depend upon wind and weather. There is a general weariness throughout the fleet of the delay of action, from day to day, by the freaks of the weather. The strain of nerves by the expected conflict itself can scarcely be more trying than the torture of suspense. May the next twenty-four hours bring us relief from the tantalization of expectation!

On Board U.S. Steam Frigate New-Ironsides

April 6, 9 A.M.

A quiet atmosphere and lulled sea greeted me at daybreak upon the quarter-deck of the Bibb. All signs augured for a commemoration of the anniversary of the battle of Shiloh by the opening of our guns upon Fort Sumter. About 7 A.M. I took leave of my kind hosts of the Bibb, and in a few minutes stood upon the spardeck of the New-Ironsides. Admiral Dupont with his staff, comprising Fleet Captain C. R. P. Rodgers; Lieutenant A. S. Mackenzie, Ordnance Officer; Flag-Lieutenant S. W. Preston; Ensign M. L. Johnson, Aide-de-camp and Signal Officer; and Mr. A. McKenly, Secretary, had boarded the ship from the James Adger early in the morning. Duty did not absolutely require the presence of the Admiral on one of the ironclads, but a chivalric sympathy with his subordinates appeared to impel him to share the dangers of the fearful ordeal through which they were about passing.

One could not help beholding the Ironsides with a sensation of awe rather than admiration. The sense of the beautiful was not touched either by symmetry or elegance of form or neatness of general appointment. But she looked the fighting craft — the machine of destruction — all over. Outwardly and inwardly, her every visible inch revealed her devotion to war and to war alone. With her body stripped of the last vestige of spars and rigging, her sides discolored with slush and yawning with monstrous guns, she impressed one like a fit head and leader of the turreted nondescripts around her. Her deck, in addition to its iron plating, was protected with untanned hides aft, and a layer of sand-bags forward. To provide against penetration by shot or shell of her unarmored bow and stern, barricades of sand-bags from three to four feet thick, and rising from deck to deck, had been piled up on the gun and powder-decks. They filled the cabins and deprived the officers of their use. The furniture was stowed away below. To increase the resistance of the sand by moisture, a steady stream of water that flooded the cabins was poured from hose upon the bags. Upon the gun-deck the 11-inch Dahlgrens and 200-pound Parrotts shone with a festive gloss. Muskets, cutlasses and pistols were stacked and heaped about. The powder-ways were open. The surgeons had their knives, pincers and saws displayed. Upon the whole, the flagship, though hardly replete with comfort, was attractive enough to one who could appreciate the stern pathos of preparation for battle.

I had been aboard about two hours when the signal to get under way was ordered to be made to all the ironclads outside of the bar. Simultaneously the drum and fife called all hands to quarters, and in a few minutes every man on board was at his post, and the ship ready to commence action at any moment. The general command of the ship was exercised by Commodore Thomas Turner and Lieutenant-Commander George E. Belknap. Lieutenant-Commander Barnes, commanding the gunboat Dawn, had also been detailed for special duty on this occasion. . . .

The crossing of the bar involved considerable risk from grounding, but all passed it safely, and were at anchor inside by ten o'clock. The Weehawken lagged somewhat behind, by having a raft from the Ericsson again fitted to her bow, but soon joined the rest. Charleston bar is a ridge-like elevation of the bottom of the sea, reaching from one end of the entrance of the harbor to the other. Large vessels can safely make the inside only through three openings in this, known as the Main Ship, Swash, and North Channels. The first runs to the south of the bar, almost parallel to Morris Island. The third to the north of the bar, along Sullivan's Island; and Swash Channel, between the two. The Main Ship Channel is commanded by the forts and batteries on Morris Island; the Swash and North Channels by those on Sullivan's. All three channels run into one directly in front of and at short range from Fort Sumter, whose guns, with those of the equidistant Fort Moultrie and Cumming's Point battery, thus defend the entrance to the harbor proper by a concentric fire. In addition to the mentioned works, there is said to be another heavy battery (Fort Bee) on Sullivan's Island, between the Moultrie House and the fort. It is presumed that the fire of nearly 150 guns converges at the described junction of the three channels.

The course of the ironclads was up the Main Ship Channel. It was expected that before coming under the fire of Sumter and Moultrie they would have to run, in a distance of three miles from the bar, the gauntlet of four works on the beach of Morris Island one at Lighthouse Inlet, another near Lawford Beacon, a third at Morris Lighthouse, and a fourth at Cumming's Point. The general belief was that the first-mentioned would interfere with the passage of the bar, and hence all hands were ordered below. But the eyes of the commanders and pilots were vainly strained in trying to discover its outlines, and the opinion became general that it had no existence. The walls and parapets of the forts further up, however, could be distinctly made out. . . .

The ironclads had come to anchor to get the benefit of the ebb tide, which it was deemed the part of prudence to await in order to discover more readily, and avoid, take up or destroy more easily, the various obstructions of the channels; but shortly after eleven a haze arose, and in the course of an hour rendered the shore lines indistinct. In the absence of any other means of guidance, Pilot Godfrey deemed these requisite for safe steering, and declared a postponement of the attack to the next day necessary. The Admiral assented to it, and hence, after standing some distance further in so as to bring us directly opposite Lighthouse Inlet, we again let go our anchor. Our turreted consorts likewise came to anchor to the southeastward and northwestward of us, in the line designated in the order of battle.

From the spar-deck of the Ironsides a unique panoramic scene was now in range of vision. The apprehensions of the closeness of rebel batteries having been allayed, the hatches of all the ironclads were opened, and their decks crowded with swarms of men from stern to bow, that made the quaint forms of the monitors and Whitney Battery appear like as many small islands with low mounds and teeming population. Through the mist the walls of Fort Sumter rose dimly to the northwest. Seaward the Powhatan, Canandaigua, Huron, Housatonic, Wissahickon, Unadilla, Flambeau, Ladona, Flag, Bibb, Ben Deford and others ranged in a long semi-circle around the horizon. Upon Morris Island beach, crowds of curious rebels watched the strange sights before them with evident amazement. At intervals guns from the forts and batteries spoke of the enemy's readiness for the combat to which we were challenging them. Those around me manifestly first fretted from disappointed expectation, but by degrees lost their ill humor and indulged in pastimes little in keeping with their earnest duties. The crew seemed unusually jolly, and amused themselves with such sports as only sailors know how to practise.

In the latter part of the afternoon General Seymour and Major Duane, Chief of Engineers, came aboard and had a brief consultation with the Admiral. A brigade of General Ferry's division, it is understood, is engaged in working its way up Folly Island, with some siege batteries. That the army will remain passive witnesses of the attack by the ironclads is now certain. A spirit of indifferent merriment continues to prevail among my shipmates. On the gundeck and in the wardrooms, jovial groups while away the time with songs and jokes, as though they were not on the eve of a struggle to the fierceness of which human records will probably have no counterpart, but about joyously returning home from a long cruise.

The Admiral and staff had occupied the cabins of Captain Turner and his officers at the stern of the ship; but, the cabins having been filled with sand-bags, we all slept on mattresses spread on the gundeck, where the hammocks of most of the crew were also swung. About four hundred officers and men occupied the common space, yet almost perfect stillness prevailed during most of the night.

Evening, April 7.

In a few brief hours this afternoon, history has been enlarged with volumes of memorable matter. The combat for which we have been so long accumulating strength, is over. It was short and decisive. We have experienced a bitter repulse. The ironclads have come short of the expectations even of the most diffident, and we are now mourning over the apparent certainty of an abandonment of the enterprise of which the country, with more faith than reason, hoped such great results.

At sunrise a veil of mist hung over the horizon, but toward the middle of the forenoon it cleared rapidly away, and at ten o'clock the pilot announced that, at last, our work would commence. Early in the morning, signals from the shore revealed to us the undisputed occupation of Folly Island by Colonel Howell's brigade. General Seymour is with it, and seems at a loss to know why we did not move to the attack with daybreak. The Admiral, Commodore Turner and all are anxious to get under way as soon as the mist has disappeared. But Pilot Godfrey again prevails with his argumentation in favor of going in upon low tide, and we must put up with continuing upon the rock of suspense until after noon. The opportune arrival of a mail on the supply-steamer Massachusetts assisted greatly in passing the dragging hours. Officers and men forgot for a while the approaching dangers in the eager perusal of letters from home.

As the morning hours advanced, the sphere of our operations became more and more defined. On the lower end of Morris Island, rebels could be seen dragging heavy guns to the beach. The men and guns on the walls of Forts Sumter and Moultrie could be readily counted. The spires and even the houses of Charleston seemed not more than a mile or two off. Our friends outside evidently know that we are about striking blows. The gunboats and transports are all standing closer to the bar. The Flambeau, Bibb, Ben Deford, and Nantucket are seeking the best points of observation from the North Channel, but a shell or two from Fort Beauregard, the outer work on Sullivan's Island, compelled the latter to make a hasty retreat to a safer position. At noon, there is a call for a general muster on the gun-deck. From the Admiral down to the powder-boys, all humbly kneel and listen to, and seek strength for the coming trial from, a short, touching prayer read by Commodore Turner. The recollection of the sight of those four hundred determined, battle-eager men, bowing in picturesque groups before their Maker, around the grimmest implements of war, will never be effaced from my memory.

At 12:10 faithful Captain Barrymore of the tender Dandelion took leave of us, and, with the parting of his tug, the last link connecting us with the outside world was severed. At the same time the order to weigh anchor was given. At 12:30 the signal to get under way was hoisted on the flagship. The question how the ironclads were to communicate with each other during action had often puzzled me, but an ingenious arrangement contrived by the officers of the Ironsides and the Admiral's staff, and consisting of a narrow opening in the plate over the aft masthole, through which a long pole with small flags was raised above the spar-deck, gave assurance of a ready communication and comprehension of orders. There was some delay with the monitors ahead of us, but at ten minutes of two o'clock the whole line was in motion. General Seymour telegraphed a “God bless you” when our screw made its first revolutions.

Now comes the stirring general call to quarters. There was a great bustle for a few seconds, but the apparent chaos on the gun and powder-decks quickly changed into the most perfect order and quietude, and, in a few minutes after the order was given, every breathing body, Lieutenant Town of the Army Signal Corps, his two assistants, and myself alone excepted, was ready to do his part in the action. There was not that boisterous, evanescent enthusiasm I have often seen rise in the army to a high pitch and then suddenly fall to the depth of craven-heartedness; but the calm resolution and prompt obedience of orders that are the vital condition of success in battle. There were four hundred men on the two decks, but a remarkable quietness was maintained.

The iron bulkheads fore and aft on the gun-deck, forming the casemates with the plated sides, were next closed. Streams of water were then again let upon the hides and sand-bags above and below. The pilot-house received another liberal dressing of slush. These last measures of protection being taken, Lieutenant-Commander Belknap's command, “Close port-holes!” rang through his trumpet over the gun-deck. In a second the ponderous shutters fell, and the hatchways were the only sources of daylight to those below. A “Look out for fore-and-aft shot!” from the trumpet next brought the gunners down behind their pieces. The grating over the hatchways was fastened by this time, with the exception of a small opening aft, through which the few permitted to remain upon the spar-deck were passing up and down. We were going at the rate of about four knots an hour. The little craft before and behind us were vigorously plowing the water with their blunt bows, keeping well in line. Nearer and nearer did we approach; clearer and clearer became the lines of the rebel defenses. Already we can count the guns on Fort Wagner (the work next to Morris Lighthouse) and Cumming's Point, and the windows of the houses of St. Vincent and Moultrieville. At 2:25 the first signs of the afterward fatal difficulty of steering the ship in a tideway became manifest The bow swung to the port side, and it was necessary to stop her engines to steady her course. In a few minutes we were again in motion.

The first four monitors had already passed Fort Wagner, and we were now abreast of it. We can look into the very mouths of the guns, but they remain silent. We know not what to make of it. Ahead we steam, anxiously awaiting the report of the first gun. At last, about 3 o'clock, two flashes of fire burst from Fort Moultrie, and two shots flew across the bow of the Weehawken, the foremost monitor, that seemed to have approached within less than half a mile. This fairly opened the action. Everybody was now ordered below from the spar-deck and the last hatch closed. Pilot Godfrey, the Admiral, Captain Rodgers and Commodore Turner took their station in the pilot-house. The order, “Fifteen pounds up!” sounded over the gun-deck, and directly the whole ship's battery was shotted. Then followed a few minutes of intense anxiety. For me and a few others, the pilot-house and the ports that were kept open to heave the lead, afforded means enough of observing what was passing outside. But the mass of those aboard must have felt, for moments at least, natural diffidence at the thought of groping in darkness, as it were, into the deadly strife with the enemy.

The suspense did not last long. Six bells had just struck when a dull sound, like that of a sledge-hammer upon an anvil, was heard on the bow port side. It was the hostile greeting of Fort Sumter, now within 1200 yards of us. A second and a third, more violently than the first, shook the sides of the ship. Soon came the humming and whizzing of rifled and round shot and shell overhead. Still the successive discharges could be distinguished. The several reports had not yet been drowned, so to speak, in a continuous roar. But, hark! There is a reverberation as though of numerous, simultaneous thunder-claps; now a fierce, unceasing roar vibrating the air with a violence that causes even the solid mass of our ship to tremble. A look through the open port on the port side discloses the cause of the furious outburst. The first four monitors had reached the converging point of the fire of Cumming's Point battery, Forts Sumter and Moultrie, and Battery Bee. One after the other had steadily steamed, without firing a shot, to the verge of the concentrating ranges. The enemy evidently reserved their main fire for work at close quarters; but when the Weehawken had reached within six hundred yards of Fort Sumter, a long, broad, brilliant flame suddenly leaped from its side, with all but simultaneous intense glares from Cumming's Point and Moultrie, followed instantaneously by immense volumes of smoke and a rain of projectiles that fairly hid the turrets of our craft with countless spouts of water thrown up by striking shot and shell. Again and again this appalling scene was enacted in all its dire sublimity. As the forts and batteries, like so many vomiting craters of volcanoes, sent forth one torrent of destruction after another, my heart failed and panged with the fear of seeing the little monitors shivered into atoms. But when, in response to a signal from the flagship, they commenced replying to the enemy with the thunder of their huge batteries, and the combat was no longer one-sided, my confidence revived.

Meantime the Ironsides had vainly tried to keep up with the monitors ahead. At 3:37 we were startled by the command, “Stand by the starboard anchor!” followed soon by “Let go the starboard anchor!” The ship had again been disobeying the rudder and threatening to swing on the shoals on our port side. The enemy at once noticed our embarrassed position, and, improving the fixed mark afforded by the stoppage, diverted their long-range guns for a while from the monitors upon us. Bang, bang, their shot went against the sides almost faster than we could count. Happily the anchor straightened the course of the ship, and in a few minutes we were again under way. We had hardly gained a hundred or so yards upon Fort Sumter when the ship became once more unmanageable, and the anchor was again let go. The Admiral now had the monitors in our wake signalled to disregard the movements of the flagship, and run past it toward the forts. The two nearest, the Catskill and Nantucket, however, from their own heavy, unsteady steering and our own swinging, got foul of us and brushed on the port and starboard side, but got again clear, and headed on in disordered line with the Nahant and Keokuk.

The Ironsides continued almost helpless at the mercy of the tide — now gaining a little, now backing, now striking bottom, now swinging to right and left. Officers and crew grew restive. The enemy's guns were continually playing upon us. We had not yet returned a single shot. There was, indeed, something grand in this scornful disdain of the rebel fire; but our gunners nevertheless chafed under it. At last, at 4:30, while swinging on the starboard side, our port broadside came to bear fully on Fort Moultrie, and Commodore Turner would not let this opportunity slip. “Open port-holes, aim, fire!” followed by a severe concussion of the air, and the first and only offensive effort of the Ironsides in the action was made. Shortly after, the strong ebb tide rendered it utterly impossible to make headway with the ship, and the order was given to drop back. Never was a command more reluctantly given or obeyed. Deep chagrin settled upon all. Still, no other course was left, and we slowly steamed back, after signalling to the monitors to withdraw from the action and follow the flagship, and anchored under the guns of Fort Wagner.

While the Ironsides struggled, a passive mark, with the tide, the other eight ironclads had one after another become engaged in what will live in history as the most desperate — despite its brief duration — naval action known to mankind. I have already made an attempt to describe the raking, roaring intensity of the concentric fire of the rebel works. I might fill page after page with descriptive phrases without reflecting anything like the reality of its fury. The facts and figures respecting its effect upon the monitors which I give below will convey a better idea of its character than vain word-painting.

Under it the captains of the Weehawken, Passaic, Montauk, and Patapsco were working with might and main to come abreast, with their badly steering vessels, of the northwest face of the fort, as directed in the order of battle, firing all the while their guns, now at Sumter, then at Moultrie. But they were still under the fire of the northeast face when they discovered three lines of floating obstructions, with another consisting of a row of piles across the whole harbor a short distance beyond. They endeavored to gain the narrow passage left open through the first, but found themselves unable to exercise sufficient control over their vessels to do so. While making this attempt, the turret of the Passaic was so bent in by a single shot as to make the working of the 11-inch gun impracticable. A short while after, the turret refused altogether to turn, depriving her of all offensive power. The 200-pounder Parrott of the Patapsco also became early disabled. But, aside from these damages to two, the fact that not one of the four could make head way past the batteries, rendered their stay under the heaviest fire useless, and hence they turned about and steered back, after having been in concentric range nearly an hour. The motion of the Weehawken was very much impeded by the Ericsson raft chained to her bow. A torpedo exploded close to her port side, but did not inflict any damage. On the way up, the Patapsco's screw caught in a kind of network of chains and cable, kept afloat by barrels and perpendicular by weights. For a while it seemed as though she could not be extricated from the mesh, but in the end she worked clear.

The Catskill, Nantucket, Nahant, and Keokuk had the same experience. When the Catskill and Nantucket got entangled with the Ironsides, the last-mentioned steamed ahead of the three others, but all four got into action shortly after each other, and about the time those that had preceded them were turning back. The enemy had by no means spent the force of their fire upon the first four. The increased number of assailants seemed to spur them, on the contrary, into doubling their energies. For nearly half an hour the scene was wrapped in intensified sheets of flame, clouds of smoke and sprays of water. Then the impassability of the obstructions compelled the last four to fall back with the others. The Catskill, Nantucket and Nahant had kept their course half-way between Forts Sumter and Moultrie, received and replied to the hottest fire of both. The Keokuk had stood more to the left, and come within 300 yards of Fort Sumter, the fire of the whole northeast face of which it seemed to sustain for some time alone, without being able to fire more than three shots in return — from what cause I will show below.

About fifteen minutes before 5 o'clock a signal was made from the flagship to cease firing and withdraw from the enemy's fire. Shortly after 5 o'clock the monitors, followed by the Keokuk, were within hail of the flagship, and the fire of the enemy stopped. In dropping down, the Nantucket aimed a few shots at Fort Wagner, which were the last fired on our side. When the vessels were nearest the obstructions, the pilots made out the ironclad rams Palmetto State and Chicora, with a wooden gunboat, standing toward them from the city. After approaching within a mile of the obstructions, they came, however, to a discreet halt, and did not venture to engage the monitors. Upon coming out of range, the hatchways of the Ironsides were opened, and we could once more have a full view of things around us. As I reached the spar-deck, the Keokuk was just passing our starboard side, with Captain Rhind limping about the forward turret. A sorry sight she presented. Her sides and turrets showed innumerable holes. She was evidently used up. The Nahant, Patapsco, and Nantucket also passed, and the commanders of each reported more or less damage. The pilot-house of the first was badly shattered. But the full extent of the injuries to the ironclads was not known until their commanders personally reported them to the Admiral in the course of the evening. The Keokuk had 90 shots in all 19 on the water line (12 starboard, 7 port); 15 in the after turret (5 of them through); 12 in the forward turret (3 of them through); 25 on the sloping sides (15 starboard, 10 port); 8 through sheeting on after turret; 10 through smoke-stack (7 through, 3 glanced); 4 through the boats, 2 glanced off the deck; 1 cut signal-staff; 3 or 4 went through the flag.

The New-Ironsides was hit between sixty and seventy times, but sustained no material damage. One of the shutters of port five, port side, was knocked off; an 11-inch shell lodged in the bow between the sides and the sand-bags. A shot passed through the smoke-stack, and her bulwarks were much shattered. The Weehawken was struck fifty-nine times. The turret was badly dented, and worked with difficulty. Many bolts in the pilot-house had been loosened and driven through. The Montauk was hit twenty times; the Passaic, fifty-eight times (in addition to the damage already stated, her pilot-house was much weakened by the loosening and driving through of the bolts). The Nantucket was struck fifty-one times, and had her turret stopped twice by shot. The Catskill received about the same number of shots. Both the latter had their decks almost torn open by rifled bolts. The Patapsco was hit between forty and fifty times, and, besides the disabling of her 200-pounder Parrott, had her turret much dented and pilot-house weak ened. The Nahant was struck eighty times, and had her pilot-house almost broken into pieces. Four men were wounded, one mortally, in it, from flying bolts.

Of ammunition, the different vessels fired: Ironsides 8 rounds, Catskill 25, Keokuk 3, Montauk 26, Nantucket 15, Passaic 9, Nahant 24, Weehawken 26, Patapsco 18, a total of 154. Assuming that one out of every ten rebel shots struck — a very liberal allowance — it would appear that the enemy fired over four thousand rounds. Three-fourths of these, at least, were discharged while the monitors and Keokuk were within the converging ranges — that is, in less than three-quarters of an hour; so that it appears the forts and batteries averaged almost two hundred discharges per minute. Their fire was excellently directed. Their guns were all of heavy, calibre, throwing 8, 9, 10, and 11-inch round shot and shell, and 5 and 6-inch rifled shot. The enemy had a few very effective Whitworth guns playing upon us. Several of the steel-pointed bolts thrown by them were found inside the Keokuk and upon the decks of several of the ironclads. The great force with which the rebel missiles struck and dented, bulged in and broke, the decks, sides, turrets, and pilot-houses, indicated high velocities from the heaviest practicable charges.

In spite of the comparative weakness of our fire, considerable damage was done to the forts. The northeast face of Fort Sumter was marked with eleven holes, plainly visible at our distance of three miles. Some gaps were three feet wide, and looked as though the shot had plowed right through the wall. Two embrasures seemed almost knocked into one. One of our first shots brought down the flag-staff of Fort Moultrie.

I conversed with all the captains of the ironclads during their meeting on board. Their opinions had but one drift: that it would be folly and sure destruction to renew the attack after to-day's experience, resulting in the total disabling of two (Keokuk and Passaic) and partial of three more (Nahant, Nantucket and Patapsco). The Admiral quietly received their reports, but did not ask for their opinions or make known his decision of the question of the renewal or abandonment of the attack.

April 8, 1863.

Late last evening the whole squadron dropped a mile further down the channel and anchored close to the bar. Almost my first look from the spar-deck this morning fell upon a sad sight. The Keokuk was sinking. She had anchored on the bar during the night. Her crew had been busy ever since last evening trying to keep her afloat by plugging the holes at her water line. But at daybreak a stiff breeze set the sea rolling, rendering their attempts futile. Captain Rhind hoisted a signal of distress at about 7, but it remained unnoticed until nearly 8, when the tug Dandelion came alongside the sinking craft. Through the strenuous efforts of her Captain, and Acting-Master Barrymore, every soul on board was saved, with a loss, however, of all they had. There was a mixture of the comic with the tragic in seeing officers and men lose their foothold in trying to get down the greasy slopes of the turtle-back deck and slide helter-skelter into the water, whence they were rescued by small boats. The crew were received with lusty cheers on board the Ironsides, and in the course of the morning sent to Port Royal on board the Wissahickon. The Keokuk went down precisely at 8:10, with her flag flying, in eighteen feet of water. In order to prevent the rebels from appropriating the machinery and guns, the wreck will be blown up.

The Weehawken lost her raft during the night. In the course of the morning it was washed ashore on Morris Island, and taken possession of by the enemy.

About noon the Admiral had the captains of the monitors called together, and declared his determination to them to withdraw their vessels from this harbor. As is the habit of his independent mind, he had arrived at this conclusion after cool reflection upon the facts officially reported to him, without consultation with any one else. But of course he was gratified with the coincidence of the opinion of his captains. To give the order to withdraw from the harbor was undoubtedly the most painful act of the Admiral's long and faithful career in the service of his country. He had to choose between the almost certain destruction of what was left fit for action of the ironclads, and the loss of personal prestige from accepting a repulse as the result of yesterday's attack. He chose the latter; and I say, with all the confidence personal observation can give, the country should thank him for it. When the fire of the rebel forts and batteries he was to attack and destroy, in the short time of three-quarters of an hour, disabled five and weakened all of the ironclads, how could he feel justified in continuing a work requiring in all probability a trial of days of the powers of offense and defense that had failed in less than an hour?

It is evidence of true courage of the highest order on his part to listen to the dictates of reason rather than follow the impulses of rash daring. The honor of the North was fully upheld in the action, and the loyal people can be justly proud of the devotion and gallantry of all engaged in it. . . .

When I left the flagship on Wednesday night, the Patapsco had already started for Port Royal, and the remainder of the monitors were expected to follow on the following day. The Ironsides was to return to her station among the blockaders. The Rear-Admiral and staff were to reëstablish themselves on the Wabash in Port Royal Harbor. The land forces, being numerically too small for independent aggressive conquests, will not be able to maintain themselves without the support of the ironclads on the islands between the Stono and Charleston, and probably will return, soon after the evacuation of the harbor, to their encampments at Hilton Head and St. Helena. Upon the whole, the loyal public had better accept the abandonment of all offensive demonstrations against Charleston as an accomplished fact.


The Admiral determined to send the Bibb at once to Washington with the reports of the action of himself and all the commanders under him. He promptly granted me permission to go North on her, which made me feel very jubilant, as it promised to enable me to outstrip by far all other press correspondents, not only as to knowledge of the details of the naval battle — of this I was sure anyway, as not one of my competitors had, like myself, shared its risks, but all of them had been far out of the range of fire on the transports — but also as to the time of publication. But this calculation came to naught. William Swinton, the very able correspondent of the New York Times, who, after the Rebellion, made quite a reputation as a historian of the war, managed to come aboard the Ironsides shortly after I had left her for the Bibb, to gather particulars of the fight from the officers and also to secure the privilege of going North on the despatch-vessel. My annoyance on seeing him come aboard may be imagined.

The voyage on the Bibb was eventless. It took us three days and a half to reach Washington, giving me ample time to leisurely work up my notes and enjoy a welcome, soothing rest, after the intense excitement and nervous strain of the preceding days. My rival left the Bibb at Fortress Monroe, in the expectation, as I guessed at once, of getting the start of me by going on the regular boat to Baltimore and thence by train to New York, but we reached our common destination at the same time — that is, on the morning of the 13th. My report was at once issued by the Tribune as an extra and reprinted in the paper of the following day. It was referred to on the editorial page as follows:

Our special correspondent's account of the great naval contest at Charleston, which we printed in an Extra early yesterday morning, will be found in full in other columns. It is a complete and admirable description, and is especially valuable because it is the account of an eye-witness. Its author shared the perils of the conflict which he describes, on board the New-Ironsides, the flagship of Admiral Dupont, and is the only correspondent who was with the fleet during the engagement. The assertion in a morning paper of yesterday, previous to the reception of any account except by telegraph, makes it proper for us to add that our correspondent with difficulty obtained permission from Admiral Dupont to assume his perilous station. When, however, it had been granted him, the Admiral with considerate courtesy extended the offer to the other representatives of the press, but they unanimously declined it, and no one of them witnessed the contest, except at a safe distance from the scene of danger.

The allusion to my sole presence on the Ironsides was occasioned by the impudent fraud which the correspondent of the Times attempted to perpetrate by dating his account from the Ironsides, and making it read so as to create the impression that the writer had been on board the ironclad during the action.

Mr. Greeley and the whole editorial staff of the Tribune complimented me highly upon my achievement, and I received also considerable praise from the press. A substantial recognition was also awarded to me in the form of an extra allowance of one hundred dollars and two weeks' leave of absence. I need not say that all this made me not a little proud.

The repulse in Charleston Harbor led to very savage attacks on Admiral Dupont in a number of Northern papers. George W. Smalley, who was then military and naval editor of the Tribune, defended him very vigorously in that paper. I wrote to Captain C. R. P. Rodgers with reference to this, and received in reply the following letter, which I have always prized very highly :

(Private.) U. S. S. Wabash,
Port Royal, 25 April, 1863.

My dear Mr. Villard:

I am very much obliged to you for your kindness in writing to me. Your letter was deeply interesting to the Admiral as well as to myself. Your graphic and powerful account of the attack upon Charleston has done much to form public opinion, and I feel under great obligations to my old friend, Mr. Smalley, for the vigor and skill with which he has espoused our cause. Your own personal gallantry and unhesitating devotion in the exercise of your professional duty won for you the respect and confidence of us all, and I hope that it may be my good fortune soon to meet you again, and to find in a fairer field that success which we failed to win on the 7th.

Your letter to me was full of valuable information, and I can not sufficiently thank you for it.

I write briefly now, for I am sorely pressed by many unanswered letters, but I beg you to believe in the warm regard with which I am

Faithfully yours,
C. R. P. Rodgers.

Henry Villard, Esq., New York.

On the same day Captain Rodgers thus wrote to Mr. Smalley:

(Confidential.) U. S. S. Wabash,
Port Royal, 25 April, 1863.

My dear Mr. Smalley:

I beg you to receive my very cordial thanks for your kind letter, which I received by the Arago. It is a great satisfaction to me to find that one whom I had learned to regard as a tried comrade, has so effectively sustained our brave Admiral, under his first reverse, when an interested and powerful clique was so earnestly endeavoring to destroy a reputation so dear to those who have served under his orders. Mr. Villard's excellent letter and your skilful editorials have done much to frustrate the interested malignity which sought to win new contracts and large disbursements at the expense of the honor of men who have, at least, during this war served bravely and faithfully. The commanding officers who fought at Charleston are, as one man, emphatic and unanimous in coinciding with the Admiral in his views and decision. We were charged with the difficult task of taking Charleston by machinery. Twelve hundred men in ingenious machines were to take a strongly fortified city upon which the resources of the Rebellion had been lavished for two years. When these machines came to us, they were wholly untried, and we were to experiment with them under such a fire as the world has never before witnessed. Our attack was gallantly delivered, but the machines were found not equal to the task assigned them. After forty minutes fighting, without endeavoring to force the obstructions, five out of the eight smaller vessels were found wholly, or one-half, disabled, and every commanding officer in the attacking force was convinced that a persistence in the attack would turn failure into utter disaster. We might have produced a more dramatic effect by lingering until a portion of the fleet had been sunk, and have thus gratified the sensationalists, but it was certain that the Admiral could not take Charleston with the naval force given him — could not even take Fort Sumter, which I had hoped we should destroy. The power of the new ordnance and the heavy projectiles was greater than the endurance of the monitors. The shattering process was rapidly going on, and another hour's engagement would have destroyed many of the vessels.

Our people are shocked that there was so little loss of life. They forget that, in these mailed vessels, when the loss of life begins, swift destruction follows. They are nearly safe until they are destroyed. Had Charleston been taken, scores of new monitors would have been built, and now disappointed constructors are ready for denunciation. It remains to be seen whether the country will be influenced by the opinion of carefully selected Naval Commanders or by disappointed inventors and their interested parti sans. If an issue is demanded, the Naval Commanders are ready for it — ready and defiant. I am deeply impressed by your kindness in this matter. I have shown your letter to the Admiral, and he fully shares this feeling. I thank you most warmly, and I beg you to believe me, with true regard and respect,

Ever faithfully yours,
C. R. P. Rodgers.

G. W. Smalley, Esq., New York.

P. S. I had occasion to observe and admire the nerve and courage of Mr. Villard, and to witness the untiring fidelity with which he sought to perform his duties as an observer and recorder of all that was occurring.


Memoirs of Henry Villard - Charleston and its Forts.jpg

JULIUS BIEN & CO. N.Y.