Charleston at War: Charleston harbor key blockade target
The ships arrived on a Monday night -- most of them sailing barks or brigs -- and they quickly fell in line with the other federal ships attempting to block traffic into and out of Charleston Harbor.
It was an ominous sight, a line of towering masts on the horizon standing between Charleston and the rest of the world.
By the following morning -- Jan. 21, 1862 -- Charleston residents still picking through the ruins of the December fire took time to spread the word that the Yankees were stepping up attempts to cut off the city's supply lines.
These ships were not simple blockaders, however; many did not appear to even be warships. The
Mercury reported that "some of them seem to be old craft, and do not resemble armed vessels in any respect."
That led most people to assume the North had sent in another Stone Fleet.
In December, the United States Navy had sunk 16 ships in the channels leading into Charleston Harbor. They were mostly old whalers, junk that the Union had bought at reduced rates.
The ships were filled with New England granite, then scuttled to serve as barricades. The wrecks would either stop traffic or tear the keel out of any ship that didn't yield.
All of this went along with the Union's Anaconda Plan. The strategy was to blockade every southern port from the Mississippi River up the East Coast, forcing coastal cities to live without supplies -- much as Maj. Robert Anderson's men had at Fort Sumter.
The plan had not been executed very well; there weren't enough ships to blockade the Mississippi, and efforts on the East coast had thus far produced mixed results.
The problem for the U.S. Navy at Charleston was that there were several routes into the harbor. Blockade runners and privateers were still finding their way into port and selling their goods at much higher prices to reflect the risk they had taken.
The city kept close tabs on the blockaders, and every week The Mercury reported their numbers -- there were rarely more than five ships or fewer than three. But it seemed the New Year had brought a new resolve from the North to clog up the most important southern ports. And Charleston was undoubtedly one of them.
That Thursday, lookouts for the city spotted the crews of this new batch of blockaders stripping the ships of rigging and spars. One ship, it was reported, already had been scuttled between Beach Channel and Rattlesnake Shoal, just a few miles off Sullivan's Island.
"This no longer left any room for doubt that this was really another detachment of the famous Stone fleet, by which the wicked City of Charleston is to be 'hermetically sealed,' " The Mercury reported.
Editor Robert Barnwell Rhett Jr. speculated that most of the remaining ships would be sunk during the night. But a Nor'easter soon blew up, giving the Yankee sailors fits and slowing their work considerably, a fact that Rhett seemed to take great joy in reporting.
But the fact remained that Charleston Harbor was being bottled up. The only good news was that, as a result of the storm, the city's wells were finally filling up again.
A glaring weakness
Most of the second "stone fleet" was sunk during the last week of January. Union soldiers took advantage of a break in the weather on Sunday, Jan. 26, to send most of the old ships to the Atlantic floor.
By The Mercury's tally, the blockade fleet had sunk 10 wrecks, which brought the total number of channel obstructions to 26. Slowly, the Yankees were proceeding with their plans to ensure that Charleston was closed for business.
In the first days of February, refuse from the second stone fleet -- spars and blocks, mainly -- were found floating in the harbor. Local sailors, who claimed that winter storms were breaking up the wrecks, began collecting the trash and hauling it ashore.
"Many of the smaller specimens are being distributed over the city, and will, in time, be among the curiosities of the Lincoln War," The Mercury reported. "Others, that are more valuable, are being sold by the wreckers."
While Charleston residents were reduced to selling junk dumped in their water by the Union Navy, northern newspapers were crowing about the progress made by the blockade. On Feb. 4, The Mercury reprinted an article from the New York Tribune that called Maffitt's Channel "one of the rat holes to Charleston, and a more important one than we were led to suppose."
"This will relieve us of a troublesome channel to guard," the Tribune noted.
For much of the month, Charleston was consumed by news of the blockade, which the Tribune had reported would remain outside of Charleston for the foreseeable future. Soon, the city heard rumors that Union ships were advancing on Savannah and parts of the North Carolina coast.
There was also speculation that Bull's Bay had been targeted, and, by the middle of the month, it appeared that was one story with a bit of truth to it.
Early on the morning of Feb. 14, Union ships captured the schooner Theodore Stoney as it crossed the bay about 20 miles north of Charleston. A single Navy vessel had stopped the Stoney and commandeered it.
According to the Stoney's captain, the Yankees planned to sail the ship to Port Royal. But the Navy officers proved ignorant of the notoriously shallow bay and quick ran the Stoney aground.
When the captain refused to help the frustrated Yankees free the ship, they set it afire.
Crews on the schooners Elizabeth and Wando, as well as the sloop Edisto, witnessed the burning of the Stoney and panicked. Fearing their ships would be next, the crews sank all three ships and escaped to the mainland.
The incident only highlighted Charleston's -- and the Confederacy's -- greatest weakness, one The Mercury had noted a month earlier when it posed the question: "Shall We Build a Navy?"
"It has ceased to be a matter either of doubt, or concealment, that the ease with which the enemy has mastered our bays and inlets, is due less to the peculiar topography of our sea islands, than to our utter want of strength on the water," The Mercury had astutely opined.
"We have been taught, by bitter experience, the impossibility of providing adequate land defences for the numerous bays and inlets of our coast. For the security of our seaboard, a navy is absolutely essential, and any attempt to avoid the outlay, necessary to maintain an extensive armed marine, would indeed be poor economy."
For nearly a year, most of the South had concentrated on the ground war and ignored that glaring weakness. The North had recognized it and exploited it, especially at Port Royal. But the escalating blockade and the growing number of attacks on Southern ships would soon bring the rest of the Confederacy around to The Mercury's way of thinking.
The events off Hampton Roads cinched it.
Era of the ironclad
On Saturday, March 8, the South debuted the CSS Virginia as it launched an assault on the blockade squadron off Hampton Roads, Virginia.
The ship was the former Merrimac, a simple steam frigate, but it looked nothing like its former self. Salvaged by southerners, the ship had been re-fit as a ram with a deck made of iron nearly four inches thick.
It was an imposing warship. That day, the Virginia sank two ships and chased a third, the Minnesota, until it ran aground. The next day, after returning to port for repairs, the Virginia came back to finish the job.
And there, the former Merrimac met the Monitor, standing between it and the crippled Minnesota.
The Union Navy's own ironclad had been designed by John Ericcson, a Swedish engineer, and built in response to the Confederate re-fit of the Merrimac. The Monitor was a curious sight -- its hull sat low in the water, protected by iron, and featured a rotating gun turret, a development almost unheard of at the time.
For three hours the two warships fired at one another, neither able to do the other much harm. The Virginia finally damaged the Monitor's pilothouse, but could not get around the ship to finish off the Minnesota. The battle was a draw, but it held much more significance than a single engagement.
The era of the ironclad had arrived.
Over the next week The Charleston Mercury devoted several pages to the battle, calling it the South's first naval victory of the war. The appearance of the Monitor only solidified the newspaper's opinion that the South had to build its own Navy.
Within a week the newspaper would suggest that Charleston follow the lead of Virginia and re-fit the Mackinaw and John Ravenel with gun decks and a roof made of railroad iron.
"Nothing ought to be left undone to break up the blockade," the paper wrote, "and patriotic men, instead of buying up vessels in port for speculative purposes, ought rather to afford every facility in their power to make the most of the material at hand for war purposes."
It was a sly condemnation of war profiteering disguised as patriotism. And it was quickly answered.
Inspired by a similar campaign in Mobile, local women began donating money to build a ship that would be called the "Ladies' Gunboat." To the chagrin of Rhett, the first $2,000 raised was sent to The Charleston Courier. The Mercury was left to promise that it too would forward any donations sent to its offices.
Soon the money was rolling in -- cheered on by The Mercury's call to "build Merrimacs for every Southern harbor, and build them at once."
The fundraiser quickly took on a life of its own, and offered Charleston residents a chance to get involved with the war effort. The newspaper even came up with a contest so that readers could vote on names for Charleston's own ironclad gunboat, which was already under construction.
Readers who wrote in to express support for the idea soon agreed on a name. They decided that Charleston's first ironclad should be christened the "Palmetto State."
Next: Robert Smalls and the Planter