April 7, 1863 (Tuesday)
Charleston, South Carolina was seen by most in the North to be the birthplace of secession. Capturing the city would be a great symbolic victory, and shutting down the blockade runners freely speeding in and out of the harbor wouldn’t be mere icing on the cake.
For nearly a year, Naval Secretary Gideon Welles had been making plans to do just that. There were, however, two problems. The first was an obvious lack of willingness on the part of the Army. Specifically, General David Hunter, commanding the Department of the South, wanted little to do with such things. And so as the months passed, drama within Hunter’s command waxed and waned . Secretary Welles, in Washington, seemed more or less fine going at Charleston sans infantry support. Rear Admiral Samuel Francis DuPont, however, was not so keen.
In fact, he wasn’t thrilled at all with attacking Charleston. This wasn’t because he was afraid to get his hands dirty. His prestige, firmly entrenched before the war, had proven itself time after time during the war. Dupont wanted any and all help that he could receive. But even if General Hunter was a fully willing participant, the Admiral had reservations about the ironclads he would be using.
Dupont had never liked the Monitor class ships. He believed them to be vulnerable to torpedoes (water mines), and not as durable as they seemed. The new class of ironclads, the Passaics, were but a slightly different story. For starters, they were better armed and longer. He understood how, against Rebel ships, these new ironclads were second to none, but against fortifications? He simply didn’t buy it. Besides, something always seemed to be breaking down on the ships. They were unreliable and potential deathtraps for the men encased inside.
But the longer he put off making an attack, the more the Confederates under General P.G.T. Beauregard strengthened their defenses. The biggest obstacle was Fort Sumter, the bitter pill the Federals had to swallow at the onset of war. And, as the planned went on, it was this bitter pill that became the focus. When winter turned to spring, the city of Charleston became almost secondary. Fort Sumter had to fall. Once it did, it was nearly assumed the city would follow.
Charleston itself was left to General Hunter, who had arrived (on orders) with 10,000 troops and a battery of siege guns. He had already decided not to help in the initial assault, but to act as a sort of clean up crew once Sumter fell.
But its fall was anything but certain. General Beauregard had been preparing his defenses for months. The gunners of the forts and land batteries knew precisely their guns’ ranges. Additionally, mines and obstructions had been sunk in the channels. To guard against infantry, lines of batteries and earthworks had been placed and dug out to make it tough work indeed. In the unlikely event that Sumter fell, Charleston itself was arrayed with a garland of guns. He was every bit as ready at Admiral Dupont, and probably more certain of the outcome.
The attack was to take place on April 6th, but due to fog, Dupont postponed it a day. And so for the entire time, the fleet, which consisted of seven Passaic class monitors, as well as his flagship, the New Ironsides, lay just off the bar letting everyone in Charleston know that an attack was soon coming.
According to Dupont’s plans, Fort Sumter was the objective. The ships were not to return the fire coming from Morris Island and were to focus upon Sumter with accurate, rather than rapid, fire.
In the early afternoon of this date, it began. The USS Weekhawken, equipped with a raft that acted as a makeshift minesweeper, led the line, with the New Ironsides in the center, and five reserve ships in the rear.
Just as in the initial April 1861 fight for Fort Sumter, the Rebels shot first. From Fort Moultrie, to the north, a single shot rang out, but fell short. Wanting not to waste ammunition, the Confederate guns otherwise remained silent until the Weehawken reached a buoy placed by the Rebels to mark the range of one of Sumter’s guns. And with miraculous accuracy the contest began.
As they moved in, Sumter’s artillery was joined by guns from Fort Moultrie, Sullivan’s Island, and Morris Island. In all seventy-six gun rained down their shots and shells upon the Federal fleet. At first, due to the heavy armor, the damage was slight, barely of note. But so was the Union fire. The ships bore heavier guns than the forts, but they did not know the range. Heeding Dupont’s orders for sure fire, rather than rapid, they held off until moving closer to Sumter.
When the Federal ships were finally in range, the Confederate hell was already at work. Being the first ship in the line, the Weehawken received most of the attention, even taking the brunt of a mine exploded just off her bow. Faced with obstructions, she veered off course, throwing the rest of the line into bewilderment. Adding to the mess, Dupont’s flagship, the New Ironsides, had to drop anchor due to her inexperienced captain. Dupont signaled for the rest of the fleet to move on.
Following the lead ship, the Passaic managed to get four shots off at Sumter, being hit twice in the process, quickly disabling her turret. Seeing she was injured, Confederate guns turned upon, hitting her thirty-five times in as many minutes, as she limped out of range.
Soon the Nahant was disabled by a shot to her pilot house, which took out everyone but her commander. As the New Ironsides tried to go forward again, she collided with both the Catskill and Nantucket before again dropping anchor. This time, she rested right up against a Confederate mine. This particular mine was wired to the shore and was to be fired when a boat drew near to it. Unfortunately for the Rebels at the other end, a wagon had run over the wiring and disabled the mine. It wasn’t until much later that Dupont learned of his almost-impending death.
The New Ironside‘s problems held up the reserve ships, which saved them from the Confederate strafing. The first few, however, were being decimated. Through the iron, the Keokuk steamed to within 900 yards of Sumter, in a wild attempt to bring down the fort. All his audacity managed to do, however, was draw every Confederate gun to his ship.
While she fired three times, ninety Confederate shots hit the Keokuk. Many hit near the waterline and threatened to sink her. The twin gun turrets were battered inoperable and her steering was nearly shot. Like the others, she managed to limp away.
This was all too much and Dupont knew he was beat. Before dark, he signaled for the retreat. A few ships kept up a covering fire until 5:30, but after two and a half hours, the battle was over.
The Confederates in Forts Sumter and Moultrie had fired over 2,200 shots. Over a quarter of them (520) hit their marks. In comparison, the entire Federal fleet only managed to fire 154 times. Some damage was done to Fort Sumter. The Federals lost only one man killed, though twenty-one had been wounded. The Confederates lost five killed and eight wounded.
That night, Dupont gathered his officers. At first, he wanted to renew the attack the following day. But after hearing their reports, he called it off. “I attempted to take the bull by the horns, “wrote Dupont to General Hunter the following day, “but he was too much for us. These monitors are miserable failures where forts are concerned.”
As if signaling the end of practical Naval maneuvers against Charleston, the next morning, the USS Keokuk sank off Morris Island. From here on out, any attempt to take the birthplace of secession would have to come through both the Army and the Navy.1
- Sources: Gate of Hell, Campaign for Charleston Harbor, 1863 by Stephen R. Wise; Seige of Charleston, 1861-1865 by E. Milby Burton; The Naval History of the Civil War by David Dixon Porter; Success is All that was Expected by Robert M. Browning, Jr. [↩]