The Unhappy Story of the Rhoda H. Shannon

Wednesday, April 3, 1861

Major Anderson was nearly out of supplies. His command was receiving some dwindling amount from Charleston, but that appeared to be tapering off. He wrote to Washington asking yet again for instructions. Was he to be starved out? What was he to do once his provisions were exhausted?1

But then, for a moment, he thought he might have his answer.

At half-past two in the afternoon, a guard ran into the mess hall. A schooner flying the stars and stripes was in the harbor! The Confederate batteries on Morris Island had her under fire!

Anderson immediately ordered several guns to be readied.


Captain Joseph Marts, skipper of the Rhoda H. Shannon, a private ship out of Boston, hardly followed the news. He had heard of some trouble in Charleston and maybe something of a few Southern states making their own nation, but rumors and nothing more than that.

What he did know was that the Rhoda H. Shannon had a 180 tons of ice to deliver to Savannah. What he thought he knew was that he had arrived at his destination. Charleston’s lighthouse guided him into what the believed was Tybee Roads, off Savannah.

Marts believed he saw a pilot boat waiting to guide him to the docks. Ignorantly, he ran up the United States flag in the fore rigging as a signal to be lead ashore. Seeing no response after a few minutes, he began to bring his vessel into the harbor.

He guided the schooner past what he believed to be Tybee Island, but was actually Morris Island, where, unknown to him, multitudes of heavy artillery were pointed directly at the Rhoda H. Shannon.

A shot rang out from the island and a ball streaked across the sky and over his bow.

Whispers of a possible attempt to resupply Fort Sumter had been in the air as much as the rumors of surrender. The Confederate officers expected Sumter’s reinforcement as much as they expected its abandonment.
When the Confederate gunners saw an unidentified ship, flying no colors, passing before Morris Island to enter the main ship channel, a mile away from Fort Sumter, they followed orders (and tradition) to fire a single shot over the bow of the ship.

Marts took this shot as a warning to show his colors. Following these suspected orders, the stars and stripes were run up to his gaff peak. The Confederates, having also the orders to fire upon any ship flying those colors, lobbed several more shots over her bow.

Captain Marts had no idea what they wanted or what to do. He would continue on his course.

Marts, the unfortunate schooner’s captain lowered his colors and continued on his way. The firing continued as well. None of the shots struck his vessel, but when one ball tore through the mainsail, passing just two feet from the boom, he turned her about to put out to sea.

Even with this “retreat,” at least one battery continued to fire upon him until he was out of their range. He anchored in the Swash Channel, away from Morris Island, but just inside the bar.

Captain Marts welcomed a small boat sent from the nearby Fort Sumter by Major Anderson, needing to know what the ship was about and why she was fired upon. The men from Sumter gathered information and informed the Captain exactly where he was.

The ship was in some rough water, so they advised him to either anchor farther out to sea or continue on to Savannah.

Having enough, Captain Marts took the Rhoda H. Shannon and guided her back out to sea, wanting nothing more to do with whatever was going on in Charleston.2

  1. Official Records, Series I, Vol. 1, p234. []
  2. Official Records, Series I, Vol. 1, p236 – 240. Some help was given by Allegiance by David Detzer, who had access to a few sources I did not. However, the bulk of this story comes from the OR. []
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The Unhappy Story of the Rhoda H. Shannon by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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