- 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
Aboard the flagship, with her deeper draft, the confusion was at its worst. When she lost headway she had to drop anchor to keep from going aground, and as she hung there, trying to get her nose into the tide, she received two disconcerting butts from two of the monitors astern as they swept past in response to her signal to join the action. Hoisting anchor at last, the Ironsides chugged forward a short distance, only to have to drop it again in order to avoid piling up on a shoal. This brought her, unbeknownst, directly over a huge submerged torpedo which the Confederates had fashioned by packing an old boiler with explosives and connecting it to an observation post on Morris Island with an electric wire, to be used to detonate the charge at the proper time.
Now the proper time was very much at hand; the Rebel electrician later said that if he himself had been allowed to spot the Yankee flagship he could not have placed her more precisely where he wanted her. However, his elation quickly faded, turning first to dismay and then to disgust, when the detonating mechanism failed time after time to send a spark to the underwater engine of destruction. Meanwhile, happily unaware that he and his ship were in mortal danger of being hoisted skyward in sudden flame and smoke, Du Pont signalled the monitors to “disregard motions of commander in chief” and continue to press the attack without his help. The Ironsides , as one of her unemployed surgeons complained, was as completely out of the fight as if she had been moored to a dock in the Philadelphia Navy Yard, but this did not prevent her taking long-range punishment from the Rebel guns. Presenting as she did the largest and least mobile target in the harbor, she was struck no less than fifty-five times in the course of the engagement. Despite the din, according to one of her officers, “the sense of security the iron walls gave to those within was wonderful—a feeling akin to that which one experiences in a heavy storm when the wind and hail beat harmlessly against the windows of a well-protected house.”
No such feeling was experienced by the crews of the monitors, the officer added, “for in their turrets the nuts that secured the laminated plates flew wildly, to the injury and discomfiture of the men at the guns.” Up closer, they were harder hit. “The shots literally rained around them,” a correspondent wrote, “splashing the water up thirty feet in the air, and striking and booming from their decks and turrets.” The flagship was a mile from Sumter, the nearest monitors about half that far, but the captain of the twin-turreted Nahant quickly found what it would cost to close the range.
“Mr. Clarke, you haven’t hit anything yet,” he protested to the ensign in charge of the 15-inch gun, which was throwing its 42o-pound shells at seven-minute intervals. When the young man replied, “We aint near enough, Captain,” the skipper went into a rage: “Not near enough? Damn it, I’ll put you near enough! Starboard your helm, Quartermaster I” As the ship came about, a Rebel projectile slammed against the pilothouse sight-slit, killing the helmsman and man- ” gling the pilot. “Retire! Retire!” the captain shouted.
Others were hit as hard or harder, with similar results: smokestacks perforated, turrets jammed, decks ripped up, guns knocked out of action. The only effect on the enemy a journalist could see, examining the brick northeast face of Sumter through his glasses, was that of “increasing pock marks and discolorations on the walls, as if there had been a sudden breaking out of cutaneous disease.” But there was no corresponding slackening of fire from the fort, whose cannoneers were jubilant over the many hits they scored. Frenzied at being kept from a share in the fun of pummelling the ironclads, Confederates locked in the Moultrie guardhouse screamed above the roar of the bombardment: “For God’s sake, let us come out and go to the guns!”
After peering through the drifting smoke for about two hours, Du Pont was told that it was nearly five o’clock. “Make signal to the ships to drop out of fire,” he said quietly. “It is too late to fight this battle tonight. We will renew it early in the morning.” Below decks, when the gun captains, whose crews had stood idle all this time, received word of this decision, they sent up an urgent request that they be allowed to fire at least one broadside before retiring. It was granted, and as the Ironsides turned to steam down the channel an eight-gun salvo was hurled at Moultrie, the only shots she fired in the course of the engagement. This brought the total to an even 150 rounds expended by the whole flotilla, and of these 55 were scored as hits. The Confederates, on the other hand, had fired 2,209, of which no less than 441 had found their mark, despite the fact that the targets had not only been comparatively small, and moving, but had also been mostly submerged. That this was remarkably effective shooting Du Pont himself began to appreciate when the retiring monitors came within hailing distance of the flagship and he got a close-up look at their condition.