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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
Fruitless though the experiment had been in positive results—aside, that is, from the fortunate interception of the Nashville —ZL lesson had been learned on the negative side as to the capabilities of the monitors. “Whatever degree of impenetrability they might have,” Du Pont reported, “there was no corresponding degree of destructiveness as against forts.” He felt much as one sailor had felt on a test run. “Give me an oyster scow,” the man had cried; “anything; only let it be of wood, and something that will float over instead of under the water!” Most of the captains were of a similar mind, and when they looked beyond the present to the impending future, their doubts increased. If these vaunted engines of destruction could not humble a modest nine-gun sand fort, what could they hope to accomplish against multi-gunned bastions such as Moultrie and Sumter?
They asked the question and shook their heads. “I do not feel as sure as I could wish,” one skipper admitted privately, while another was more positive in expressing his reservations, “f begin to rue the day I got into the ironclad business,” he wrote home.
Still, orders were orders, and as April came in, Du Pont completed his final preparations for the attack. In addition to his flagship, the New Ironsides , a highbulwarked, sj,5oo-ton screw steamer whose ponderous armor and twenty heavy guns mounted in broadside made her the most powerful warship in the world, he had eight low-riding monitors, mounting one or two guns each in revolving turrets; which meant that, in all, he would be opposing seventy-seven guns ashore with thirty-three afloat. These odds were rather evened by the fact that the naval guns, in addition to being mounted on moving targets, which made them far more difficult to hit, were heavier in caliber. Other odds were irreducible, however, one being that in order to reach the city from the sea his ships would have to steam for some seven winding miles in a shoallined channel, much of which had been obstructed and practically all of which was exposed to the plunging fire of the forts.
On April 2, despite increasing doubts and reservations, Du Pont left Port Royal and reached Edisto Island, twenty-five miles below the entrance to Charleston Harbor, before nightfall. There the ships were cleared for action, the exposed armor of decks and turrets covered over with untanned hides anil the bulwarks slopped with grease to lessen the “bite” of enemy projectiles, with the result that they stank fearfully under the influence of the Carolina sun.
On the fifth, Easter Sunday, he left North Edisto, and he crossed the Charleston bar next morning, intending to attack at once. But finding the weather hazy, which as he said “prevented] our seeing the ranges,” he decided to drop anchors and wait for the morrow, which he hoped would afford him better visibility. It would also afford the same for the gunners in the forts; but Du Pont was not thinking along those lines, or else he would have made a night attack. Finally, against his better judgment—and after much prodding from above, including charges that he had “the slows” and taunts that identified him as a seagoing George McClellan, overcautious and too mindful of comparative statistics—he was going in.
The next day—April 7—brought the weather he thought he wanted, and soon after noon the iron column started forward, the nine ships moving in single file, slowly and with a certain ponderous majesty not lost on the beholders in the forts. Originally the Admiral had intended to lead the way in the flagship, but on second thought he decided to take the center position from which “signals could be better made to both ends of the line,” so that the resultant order of battle was: Weehawken, Passaic, Montauk, Patapsco; New Ironsides; Catskill, Nantucket, Nahant, Keokuk .
There was an exasperating delay of about an hour when the lead monitor’s heavy chain became entangled with the bootjack raft designed to protect her bow from torpedoes; then the column resumed its forward motion, passing Morris Island in an ominous silence as the Rebel cannoneers on Cummings Point held their fire. As the ships approached the inner works, however, the Confederate and Palmetto flags were run up over Sumter and Moultrie, while bands on the parapets struck up patriotic airs and the guns began to roar in salute.
At this point Captain John Rodgers of the Weehawken , spotting floating rope obstructions just ahead, commanded the helmsman to swing the monitor hard to starboard in order to avoid becoming tangled in the web. This was well short of the point at which Du Pont had intended to open fire, and the result was that the whole line was thrown into confusion. Moreover, as Weehawken turned, she encountered a torpedo which exploded directly under her. “It lifted the vessel a little,” Rodgers later reported, “but I am unable to perceive that it has done us any damage.”