January 31, 1863 (Saturday)
The Federal blockade attempting to choke the Confederate States into submission was, by this point in the war, more or less going well for the North. Ports along the Chesapeake Bay and James River were shut down in Virginia, as was Savannah, Georgia. Much of the Carolina Coast was dealt a similar blow, with the all-too-obvious exceptions of Willimington, North Carolina and the birthplace of secession, Charleston, South Carolina (Mobile, Alabama was also very much open for business).
Two Union steamers, the Commodore McDonough and the Isaac Smith were common sights along the Stono River, just south of Charleston. They’d scout for targets and lob a few shells here and there.
To counter these attacks, the Confederates secretly built three batteries to keep the snooping Yankee ships at bay. As was typical, the Isaac Smith made her way up the Stono on the 30th. She unknowingly steamed past two of the Rebel batteries before anchoring just off James Island. The Rebels waited, hoping she would continue on so they could get a better shot, but after too many minutes, what the upper battery let loose went wide.
It was close enough to send the Smith scrambling, however. She couldn’t get a good shot at the Confederates, so tried to escape back down the river. But this brought her under the guns of the two hidden batteries. One of the shots hit her boiler and stopped her dead. Her captain, Acting Lieutenant Fancis Conover, had no choice but to run up the white flag. They had lost 9 killed and 16 wounded from a crew of 117.
As all this was happening, the captain of the Commodore McDonough heard the firing and steamed up the river to come to the Smith‘s rescue. Here, she met with the lower Confederate battery and could go no farther. With one Union ship out of the picture, an opportunity was now presented.
General P.G.T. Beauregard had arrived back in Charleston in September 1862. He immediately set about improving the defenses and trying to figure out how to keep Union ships out of the harbor and how to break the blockade with what he saw as scant and stingy support from Richmond.
He, along with Flag Officer Duncan Ingraham, who commanded the Confederate fleet in Charleston, wanted to make a night attack upon the Union blockade ships. These were wooden ships and quite susceptible to the two Confederate ironclads – the Chicora and the Palmetto State.
At 11:30pm on the 30th, Ingraham, aboard the Palmetto State, accompanied by her sister ship, left the wharf, planning to do all the damage they could.
It wasn’t until around 4:30am on this morning that the Palmetto State came into view of the Union blockader Mercedita. At first, the watchman had no idea what to make of the steamer approaching his ship. He called out as she got closer, but, at first, no reply came. Right after the captain called all hands to quarters, he called out to the mysterious ship, now 100 yards off his starboard side.
“Stand clear of us and heave to!” he cried. “You will be into us!” But the only reply was an eerie “Halloo.”
That is, until the ship was mere seconds away from impact: “This is the Confederate States steam ram Palmetto State!” And then all hell broke loose.
The ram hit the Mercedita, causing her to list to port. The Palmetto State was so close that the Federal gunners couldn’t depress their pieces enough to fight back. But such was not true for the Rebels, who fired their 7-inch bow gun into the guts of the crippled Union vessel, blowing a gaping hole in the port side.
Like the Isaac Smith, the Mercedita had no choice but to surrender. She was hardly in any shape to fight. But Flag Officer Ingraham had no room on his ship for the prisoners and wounded and so they were paroled. The ship was surrendered, but not taken as prize.
While the surrender was being worked out, the other Rebel ironclad, Chicora, was making time for the Federal blockader Keystone State. The Yankees on board had heard the firing from the Mercedita, but figured that their comrades were simply capturing a blockade runner.
And so, when the Chicora came near, Commander William Le Roy ordered the Keystone State to pull along side this second mystery ship. He called out “What steamer is this?” And was met with the same reply given by the Palmetto State to the Mercedita: “Halloo.”
Things must have clicked in Commander Le Roy’s mind because he immediately fired into the Rebel craft. As he turned the Keystone State to deliver a broadside, the Rebel Chicora did the same, but faster. One of the shots blew through the crew’s sleeping quarters, decapitating three men. Other shells burst all around the ship, starting fires throughout.
Le Roy, thinking quickly, extinguished the fires and ordered his ship to chase down the Confederate Chicora. This was a bold, but ultimately reckless move. As he came closer, the Chicora let loose another round. This time, the steam drums were hit and scalding steam was sent burning its way through the engine room.
With nothing left that he could do, Le Roy ran down his flag. The Confederates stopped firing when they saw she was surrendering. The Keystone State‘s engines, however, were still operational. Though she was listing hard, the side wheels were still moving, slowly taking her away from the Rebel Chicora.
As the Confederates were contemplating what to do about the seemingly surrendered, yet still sort of mobile Keystone State, the Federal vessel’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Thomas Eastman, noticed that the ship’s flag had been run down. He demanded to know who did it.
“I ordered it down,” replied Commodore Le Roy. “We are disabled and at the mercy of the Ram who can rake and sink us. It is a useless sacrifice of life to resist further.”
Eastman was livid. He took out his sword and dashed it to the deck. “God damn it!” he spat. “I will have nothing to do with it!” Le Roy, wanting nothing to do with Eastman’s ridiculous bravado, asked if he would take full responsibility for whatever happened next. Eastman said he would and rehoisted the flag aloft.
The Keystone State actually managed to escape, with a little help from the nearby Memphis. The Rebels aboard the Chicora saw this as typical Yankee behavior and went looking for revenge. But it was not to be.
The firing had attracted the attention of three additional Union ships, which pulled closer to exchange shots with both the Palmetto State and Chicora.
At 7:30am, figuring that they had done all the damage they could, Flag Officer Ingraham ordered his two ironclads back into Charleston Harbor. They arrived to salutes from the Rebel forts and cheering throngs in the late afternoon.
General Beauregard informed Richmond that they had officially broken the blockade. While this wasn’t exactly the most honest statement in the world, it did have some rather interesting strings attached to it.
When the British, Spanish and French Consuls in Charleston were informed, it became an international incident. If the blockade was officially broken, according to international law, the United States had to reissue notices that it was going to blockade the South. They would then need to honor a fifteen-day grace period before it could be enforced.
The three consuls steamed out to see for themselves whether or not the blockade was broken. All three concluded that it was not. Afterwards, the Union officers made their case, calling the Confederate claims “false in every particular.”
The ships that were attacked by the Rebels, reported the Federals, didn’t even withdraw. True, one surrendered, but the other five involved did not.
Still, in the South, where naval victories were as rare as hen’s teeth, this would have to do.1
- Sources: P.G.T. Beauregard by T. Harry Williams; Success Is All That Was Expected by Robert M. Browning Jr.; Official Naval Records, Vol. 13. [↩]