‘What Boat Is That?’ – David Strikes its Goliath

October 5, 1863 (Monday)

Diagram of the CSS David
Diagram of the CSS David

Since we last checked in on Fort Sumter and Charleston Harbor, little had changed. The Federal Navy continued to periodically bombard Sumter, which was little more than a pile of mortar, while the infantry had largely packed its bags. The Confederates held on, while waiting for at least two strange naval projects to come to fruition.

The (now) more famous submarine Hunley was still a work in progress, but the torpedo boats, like the David were ready. Unlike a submarine, the torpedo boats were not fully submersible. They did, however, sit so low in the water that they may as well have been.

The object of both was the same – to deliver an unsuspected explosive right against the side of an enemy ship, preferably without damaging the vessel carrying said explosive. To accomplish this, the David, which was little more than a discarded locomotive boiler with an engine, was fitted with a fourteen foot spear. The barb of this spear was tipped with an explosive (the torpedo), which rested six and a half feet below the waterline.

The David was completed about a week prior to this date, and Lt. Commander William Glassell was put in command. Over the course of the week, he and his crew of three tested the strange ship and by this date, he felt he was ready to do some damage.

USS New Ironsides (center)
USS New Ironsides (center)

Such a small crew deserves a mention. Lt. Commander Glassell was at the helm (so to speak), while James Tomb was the engineer. The fireman was James Sullivan, and Walker Cannon was the pilot. At 9pm, hoping to take advantage of the tide flowing out, Glassell and the David steamed past Fort Sumter, to select one of the blockading ships for a target.

Apparently, Glassell did not just want any ship, as he set a course for the USS New Ironsides, a wooden ship whose sides had been plated with iron. She was the most powerful ship of those that were gathered before Charleston. Visibility was poor inside the David, so to get a better look, Glassell and the pilot, Cannon, opened the top hatch and climbed atop their torpedo boat. Each were armed with shotguns, which they hoped would play into their plan.

Glassell may take it from here:

The admiral’s ship, “New Ironsides,” (the most powerful vessel in the world), lay in the midst of the fleet, her starboard side presented to my view. I determined to pay her the highest compliment. I had been informed, through prisoners lately captured from the fleet, that they were expecting an attack from torpedo boats, and were prepared for it. I could, therefore, hardly expect to accomplish my object without encountering some danger from riflemen, and perhaps a discharge of grape or canister from the howitzers. My guns were loaded with buckshot. I knew that if the officer of the deck could be disabled to begin with, it would cause them some confusion and increase our chance for escape, so I determined that if the occasion offered, I would commence by firing the first shot.

Accordingly, having on a full head of steam, I took charge of the helm, it being so arranged that I could sit on deck and work the wheel with my feet. Then directing the engineer [James Tomb] and firemen [James Sullivan] to keep below and give me all the speed possible, I gave a double barrel gun to the pilot [Walker Cannon], with instructions not to fire until I should do so, and steered directly for the monitor. I intended to strike her just under the gangway, but the tide still running out, carried us to a point nearer the quarter. Thus we rapidly approached the enemy.

When within about 300 yards of her a sentinel hailed us: Boat ahoy! boat ahoy! repeating the hail several times very rapidly. We were coming towards them with all speed, and I made no answer, but cocked both barrels of my gun. The officer of the deck next made his appearance, and loudly demanded, “What boat is that?” Being now within forty yards of the ship, and plenty of headway to carry us on, I thought it about time the fight should commence, and fired my gun. The officer of the deck fell back mortally wounded (poor fellow), and I ordered the engine stopped. The next moment the torpedo struck the vessel and exploded. What amount of direct damage the enemy received I will not attempt to say. My little boat plunged violently, and a large body of water which had been thrown up descended upon her deck, and down the smokestack and hatchway.

David attacks the New Ironsides
David attacks the New Ironsides

Though Glassell did not attempt to describe the damage done to the New Ironsides, what she sustained was considerable. At first, however, she seemed to be mostly unscathed. But the blast worked in subtle ways that only an thorough examination could detect. Several weeks later, it was discovered that the torpedo pushed in the side of the ship by six inches, along a forty foot stretch. Additionally, planking in the area was shattered. This was fairly serious, and only an overhaul would fix it, but the New Ironsides remained at her post for another eight months.

New Ironsides
New Ironsides

With the damage done appearing at the time to be only minimal, the attempt seemed a failure. The David‘s engines were flooded and Glassell ordered her to be abandoned. The only way he knew how to escape capture was to swim for it. The Federal crew was alerted, and small arms fire was raining down upon the Rebels. Glassell and the pilot, Sullivan, grabbed cork floats, jumped into the water, and began paddling back to shore. The engineer, Tomb, also jumped in, but when he saw that Cannon, the fireman, was still in the stalled craft (apparently because he could not swim), Tomb turned around and together they tried to restart the David.

Somehow or another, Tomb and Cannon restarted the engine. Still under fire, they steamed through the Union fleet and safely back into Charleston Harbor. Glassell and Sullivan were not nearly as fortunate. The latter man continues:

The enemy, in no amiable mood, poured down upon the bubbling water a hailstorm of rifle and pistol shots from the deck of the Ironsides, and from the nearest monitor. Sometimes they struck very close to my head, but swimming for life, I soon disappeared from their sight, and found myself all alone in the water. I hoped that, with the assistance of flood tide, I might be able to reach Fort Sumter, but a north wind was against me, and after I had been in the water more than an hour, I became numb with cold, and was nearly exhausted. Just then the boat of a transport schooner picked me up, and found, to their surprise, that they had captured a rebel.

Both he and Sullivan, the fireman, were captured and taken to a Union prison. There, Glassell languished for eighteen months until his exchange.

Similar torpedo boats were also in operation, and would play upon the fears of Federal sailors until the fall of Charleston.1

  1. Sources: “Reminiscences of Torpedo Service in Charleston Harbor” by William Glassell, printed in Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 4; Success Is All That Was Expected by Robert M. Browning, Jr.; The Siege of Charleston 1861-1865 by E. Milby Burton. []
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‘What Boat Is That?’ – David Strikes its Goliath by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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