- Historic Sites
Du Pont Storms Charleston
Could ironclads successfully attack land positions? No one knew. Into the very “nest of the rebellion,” sewn with mines and ringed by bristling forts, steamed the proud monitors of the Union fleet
June 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 4
This was not to say that Beauregard had abandoned all notion of assuming the offensive, however limited his means. He had at his disposal two homemade rams, the Palmetto State and the Chicora , built with funds supplied by the South Carolina legislature and the Ladies Gunboat Fair. The former mounted an 80-pounder rifle aft and an 8-inch shell gun on each broadside, while the latter had two g-inch smoothbores and four rifled gs-pounders. Both vessels were balky and slow, with cranky, inadequate engines and armor improvised from boiler plate and railroad iron; but as January drew to a close the General was determined to put them to the test by challenging the blockade squadron off the Charleston bar. Orders were handed Flag Officer Duncan Ingraham on the thirtieth, instructing him to make the attempt at dawn of the following day.
Beauregard, in addition, had in mind a limited offensive of his own, to be launched against the nine-gun screw steamer Isaac Smith , which had been coming up the Stono River almost nightly to shell the Confederate camps on James and John’s islands. That night he lay in wait for her with batteries of field artillery, allowed her to pass unchallenged, then took her under fire as she came back down. The opening volley tore oft her smokestack, stopped her engines, riddled her lifeboats, and killed eight of her crew. Her captain quickly surrendered himself and his ship and the ninety-four survivors, including seventeen wounded. Repaired and rechristened, the Smith in time became the Stono and served under that name as part of Charleston’s miniature defense squadron.
Meanwhile, the Palmetto State and the Chicora , followed by three steam tenders brought along to tow them back into harbor in case their engines failed, were over the bar and among the wooden-walled block aciers by first light. The Federal squadron, mounting a total of one hundred guns, included the i.aooton sloop of war Housatonic , two gunboats, and seven converted merchantmen. A lookout aboard one of these last, the nine-gun steamer Mercedita , was the first to spot the misty outline of an approaching vessel. “She has black smoke!” he shouted. “Watch, man the guns! Spring the rattle! Call all hands to quarters!” This brought the captain out on deck, clad only in a pea jacket. When he too spotted the stranger, nearer now, he called out: “Steamer, ahoy! You will be into us! What steamer is that?”
It was the Palmetto State , but for a time she did not deign to answer. Then, “Halloo!” her skipper finally replied, and with that the ram put her snout into the quarter of the Mercedita and fired her guns. Flames went up from the crippled warship. “Surrender,” the Rebel captain yelled up, “or I’ll sink you!” The only answer was a cloud of oily smoke shot through with steam. “Do you surrender?” he repeated.
This brought the reply, “I can make no resistance. My boiler is destroyed.”
“Then do you surrender?”
So the Palmetto backed off and turned to go to the help of the Chicora , which meanwhile had been serving the ten-gun sidewheeler Keystone State in much the same fashion. Riddled and aflame, the latter hauled down her flag to signify surrender, then ran it up again and limped out to sea as the two rams moved off in the opposite direction. At the far end of the line, the Housatonic and the gunboats, thinking the racket had been provoked by a blockade-runner venturing out, held their stations. By full daylight, the two improvised ironclads were back in Charleston Harbor, their crews accepting the cheers of a crowd collected on the docks.
Beauregard was elated. Quick to claim that the blockade had been lifted, at least momentarily, he took the French and Spanish consuls out to witness the truth of his words that “the outer harbor remained in the full possession of the two Confederate rams. Not a Federal sail was visible, even with spyglasses.” Next day the enemy was back again, presumably too vigilant to permit him to risk another such attempt, but he did not admit that this detracted in the slightest from the brilliance of the exploit. He bided his time, still improving his defenses for the all-out attack he believed was about to be launched. “Already six monitors … are in the waters of my department, concentrating about Port Royal, and transports with troops are still arriving from the North,” he reported in mid-March. “I believe the drama will not much longer be delayed; the curtain will soon rise.”
Three more weeks went past before his prediction was fulfilled. Then on Monday, April 6, the day after Easter—it was also the first anniversary of Shiloh and within a week of the second anniversary of the opening of the war in this same harbor—not six but nine brandnew Union ironclads, some single and some double-turreted, crossed the Charleston bar and dropped anchor in the channel, bringing their great 11- and i5-inch guns to bear on the forts and batteries Beauregard had prepared for their reception.
The curtain had indeed risen.