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The Attack on Charleston

The Illustrated London News, vol. 42, no. 1201, p. 490.

May 2, 1863


Admiral Dupont, who commanded the Federal iron fleet in the attack on Charleston, has made his report of the engagement to the Secretary of the Navy, but it has not been published, as the Government "does not consider it sufficiently explicit." But descriptions of the whole attack have been given by the New York journals.

The expedition had been in preparation for a considerable time. As the iron vessels were completed they were collected on the South Carolina coast, and during the week preceding the 7th of April the fleet had been quietly assembling in the North Edisto River, which is about midway between Port Royal and Charleston. The whole force consisted of nine iron cased steamers or Monitors--the name of the first vessel of the kind constructed for actual service having been adopted to describe the entire class. There was a squadron of reserve, consisting of five more vessels, which were to have supported the attack, but these ships took no part in the engagement.

The Federal fleet crossed the bar on the morning of the 5th of April and anchored inside it, in the main ship channel. The old passage through the bar has been obstructed by the "stone fleet" the Federals sunk in it with the intention to destroy the harbour; but the action of the tides has formed a new channel, and through this the Monitors passed.

The following description of the position of the forts renders the accounts of the engagement intelligible, and, indeed, explains the defeat. The only channels of entrance were commanded and swept by the heavy guns of the forts and batteries. All the defensive works mentioned, except Forts Sumter and Moultrie, have been constructed since the commencement of the war:--"To the left of the channel, on entering Charleston harbour, is Morris Island, and to the right Sullivan's Island. The batteries on the former command the main ship channel, and those on the latter the Swash and North Channel. In front and at short range from these channels is Fort Sumter, with Fort Moultrie opposite, on the right, and the fort on Cumming's Point at the left. All the principal channels converge and run between Moultrie and Sumter, and beyond these are Fort Ripley, and Castle Pinckney. On Sullivan's Island is a battery at the north end, guarding Breach Inlet, which is too distant to disturb the passage of our vessels, and nearer, and close to the Moultrie Hotel, is a strong sand battery called Fort Beauregard; south of Cumming's Point Battery is Fort Wagner; and there is another fortification on the inlet which divides Morris from Folly Island."

The nine Monitors engaged were the Weehawken (with an Ericsson raft chained to her bow); the Passaic, Captain Percival Drayton; the Montauk, Commander John L. Worden; the Patapsco, Commander Daniel Ammen; the New Ironsides, Commander Thomas Turner; the Catskill, Commander G. W. Rogers; the Nantucket, Commander Donald M'N. Fairfax; the Nahant, Commander John Downes; and the Keokuk, Lieutenant-Commander Alexander G. Rhind.

Admiral Dupont was on board the New Ironsides, from which all the signals were made. At one o'clock, after a short prayer had been read by the Captain of the Ironsides, the fleet advanced to the attack in single line, the ships following each other in the order in which they are named above. A delay of nearly an hour was caused by the raft of the Weehawken, intended to lift or explode the submarine torpedoes, becoming entangled. At two o'clock, however, all was clear again, and the line advanced. The first ship, the Weehawken, was nearly four miles from the point the fleet was ordered to make before opening fire; and all the batteries on Morris Island, the ships passing within easy range of each, had to be run. As the vessels steamed slowly by, however, the forts on the island were silent. The Confederates reserved their fire till it could be delivered with the utmost possible effect. At three in the afternoon the fleet rounded the point coming within the range of the guns of Fort Sumter and the batteries on Sullivan's Island. They opened their fire on the advancing ships, and with terrible results.

The correspondent of the Tribune, who was on board the Ironsides, says:--

"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 third, more violently than the first, shook the sides of the ship. Soon came whizzing and humming 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 600 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 spouts of water thrown up by the shot and shell."

At this point of the action it was discovered that the entrance channels were obstructed by lines of piles stretching across them, which it was impossible to pass.

The report of the New York Times says:--"You can readily conceive that this unlooked-for estoppel utterly deranged the original intentions. The rebels were quite as well aware as we that the north-west face of Sumter is its weakest point; that it was, in fact, never finished, and therefore that it would be first attacked; and they used means which admirable engineering skill would suggest to prevent our reaching it. Thus brought to a pause, it only remained for the ironclads to take up such positions as they could. And the complication was further increased by the ill-behaviour of the flagship, the Ironsides. While steaming along up through the passage in front of Sumter she was caught by the tideway and veered off from her course, and, her huge iron frame refusing to obey her rudder, she became in great part unmanageable. This embarrassed not her only, but all that portion of the fleet following her. The two Monitors immediately behind (the Catskill and the Nantucket) fell foul of her, one on one side and the other on the other, and it was full fifteen minutes before they could be got clear and pass on. In this plight it only remained for Admiral Dupont to signal to the fleet to disregard the movement of the flagship. This he did, and the ships then assumed such positions as were available and they could gain, the whole number being at the mouth of the harbour between Cumming's Point and Sullivan's Island, and opposite the north-east and eastern face of Fort Sumter, at distances of from 600 to 1000 yards. While the manœuvres rapidly indicated in these paragraphs are going on, you must not suppose the enemy is inactive. The powerful work on Cumming's Point, named Battery Bee, opens; the long-range rifle ordnance of Fort Beauregard joins in; Moultrie hurls its heavy metal; the 50 guns that line the Redan swell the fire; and the tremendous armament of Sumter vomits forth its fiery hail. There now ensues a period of not more than thirty minutes, which forms the climax and white heat of the fight; for though from the time when fire was opened on the head of the approaching line to the time when the retiring fleet passed out of the enemy's range covered an interval of two hours and a half--from half-past two till five, yet the essence of the fight was shut up in these thirty tremendous minutes."

It being impossible longer to face the fire of 300 guns of the heaviest calibre, or to advance under it, the signal was made to cease action and retire. The engagement ended at a few minutes after five o'clock:--

"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, 1 Whitworth steel-pointed shot remained sticking in the wall); 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 60 and 70 times, but sustained no material damage. The Weehawken was struck 59 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 58 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 51 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 40 and 50 times, and, besides the disabling of her 200-pounder Parrott, had her turret much dented and pilot-house weakened. The Nahant was struck 80 times, and had her pilot-house almost broken into pieces. Four men were wounded, one mortally, in it from flying bolts."

The Tribune states that the Federal fleet did not fire more than 151 rounds of ammunition during the whole attack.

The Times says:--"The Ironsides was frequently struck. One of the shots broke off and carried away one of her port shutters, and her wooden bows were penetrated by shell, though they were prevented from doing the damage they otherwise must have done by Commodore Turner's precaution of protecting the exposed part of the vessel with sandbags. But the poor Keokuk--she, of all others, was the most fearfully maltreated. This vessel was struck ninety times, and she had nineteen holes above and below the water-line, some of a size through which a boy might crawl. Her turrets (5¾ in. of iron in thickness) were fairly riddled, and came out of the contest mere sieves. During the action twelve of her men were wounded, among whom was her commander, the gallant Rhind."

After working her pumps all night it was evident at daybreak that the Keokuk was sinking. The crew were rescued by boats from the other vessels. At eight in the morning she had disappeared.

After receiving the reports from the several captains during the night of the 7th, Admiral Dupont decided that to renew the attack against such obstacles, and in the shattered state of the fleet, was impossible.

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