Charleston at War: City turns out to welcome its own ship
Naval Historial Center/Provided
This 1901 drawing by R.G. Skerrett depicts the Palmetto State in Charleston Harbor during the war.
It was unlike anything that had ever sailed into Charleston Harbor.
The ship was 150 feet long with a low, flat deck that quickly gave way to a steep, sloping, ironclad casemate. Peeking out of this floating fortress were the barrels of four considerable guns.
In profile it looked like a floating butter dish, albeit one armed to the teeth.
On Saturday morning, Oct. 11, 1862, the residents of Charleston crowded the docks at Marsh Wharf, a few blocks north of the Market, for a glimpse of this curious new addition to the harbor fleet.
Not even a sudden rain, which drenched the crowd before abruptly dissipating, could dampen the spirits of the hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of people who had turned out to witness the baptism of Charleston's first, and locally built, ironclad gunboat.
The aptly-named Palmetto State was ready for battle.
Seven months after the first clash of ironclads at Hampton Roads, Virginia, the city finally had its own lethal gunboat. This was thanks in part to the numerous ladies of the city, many of whom were crowded on the docks.
For months, the "Ladies' Gunboat" association had raised money for the ship's construction, ultimately contributing nearly $30,000 to the cause. They had taken the idea from a similar campaign in New Orleans.
On this day those women would be honored for their commitment to the war effort. Several of them were given prominent seats atop the ship's casemate for the ceremony. From that perch they watched the arrival of honored guests, including Col. Richard Yeadon (editor of the Charleston Daily Courier) and D.N. Ingraham, who would serve as the ship's captain.
The applause for those men would pale, however, in comparison to the raucous celebration that broke out when Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, recently returned to the city, appeared. As he took his seat among the ladies (an unsurprising choice), the "assembled throng" welcomed him with "hearty and long continued cheers," The Charleston Mercury later reported.
Yeadon, who had coordinated the ladies' fundraising efforts, delivered the main address at the ceremony. He declared the ship's name "redolent of victory," recalling the Revolutionary War battle in which the troops on Sullivan's Island repelled the British fleet with a fort made of palmetto logs.
The Palmetto State, Yeadon predicted, would "prove herself not unworthy of that glorious name."
When the speeches ended, Sue Gelzer, the young woman who had made the first contribution, was escorted to the foredeck. There she smashed a bottle of "choice old wine" on its bow.
"With all solemnity and reverence," Yeadon said, "and invoking on thee the blessing of Almighty God, noble boat, Palmetto State, I baptize thee, in the name of the patriotic ladies of South Carolina. Amen."
The celebration would continue into the afternoon with a luncheon at the Marsh workshop. For hours, spectators filed by for a closer look at the strange ship. Just as the official ceremony ended, a ship steamed by that was nearly the Palmetto State's twin.
The Chicora, The Mercury noted, would likely be finished and ready for a similar send-off within 90 days.
It appeared the city would soon have a fleet able to take on the Union blockade.
The Palmetto State's christening could not have come at a better time.
Following the victory at Secessionville, Charleston had struggled through a summer filled with disturbing news. On July 16, the military raided a small store on Anson Street, seizing "whisky and other spirits." A woman at the store tried to stop the guards, and when they attempted to apprehend her, she busted through the store's front window.
The woman ran to the Market, procured a pistol and returned to protect her property.
"Notwithstanding the violence of the woman," The Mercury reported, "the guard exercised the greatest moderation towards her."
The next day a gun exploded at Fort Moultrie during a routine inspection, killing Lt. Col. Thomas W. Wagner in the blast. The Mercury reported that the news "spread gloom" over the entire city, for "few men in our midst could have been as illy spared."
At the same time, most locals were worried about money, or their lack thereof. It only made matters worse when local authorities discovered a counterfeiting ring operating in the city.
As the war dragged into its second year, enthusiasm for the conflict seemed to have waned slightly. Charleston was isolated, cut off from the rest of the South and it had taken a toll. The Mercury spoke for many Charlestonians when it worried that the politicians did not devote enough resources to protecting the city most coveted, after Richmond, by the Yankees.
August ended with the execution of Cpl. George H. Burger of Company E, 1st Regiment, S.C. Artillery. Burger had been charged with desertion, a sentiment that, it seemed, many in Charleston could understand.
After his court-martial, Burger was shot on the beach at Sullivan's Island, "some little distance beyond the Moultrie House."
The city's mood improved somewhat in early September when The Mercury reported the "important rumor" that Gen. Beauregard was believed to be en route to Charleston, which he would make his headquarters for defense of the coast.
The hero of "Manassas and Shiloh" arrived in Charleston on Saturday, Sept. 13, and checked into the Mills House. By the month's end, Beauregard would take the Meeting Street home of Otis Mills as his residence and headquarters.
"We are sure that his presence will stimulate the minds of our troops and people with his own unconquerable spirit, and that his knowledge, judgment and energy will speedily supply whatever may be lacking to render Charleston safe against the enemy's attacks," Robert Barnwell Rhett Jr. opined in The Mercury.
"The eventful campaigns of the last two years have afforded abundant evidence of the tact and success of General Beauregard in the management of large armies of volunteers."
No one -- even newspaper editors -- realized that Beauregard was not at all happy to be back in Charleston.
The general had been relieved of his command in the West, and was less than happy about it. The official reason was that Beauregard had retreated from a critical rail line in Corinth, Miss., the previous May.
He did so largely because his men, sick from contaminated water, were greatly outnumbered by advancing Union troops. But that mattered little to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who did not particularly like Beauregard anyway.
When the general took medical leave without permission, he was ordered back to Charleston. Although friends tried to get his command restored, it did no good.
But ultimately, Beauregard was a good soldier; he did what he was told. He spent the fall strengthening Charleston defenses, and could be seen around the harbor making inspections at Fort Sumter.
Meanwhile, Charleston was mostly distracted by local issues. On Nov. 15, peninsula residents and police witnessed a grisly sight. That evening, G.V. Anker discovered a runaway slave named Charles loitering near his Coming Street house.
Charles, "belonging to Mr. J.K. Brown," The Mercury reported, had been on the run for two years and was, the newspaper said, "known to be a desperate fellow."
When the police cornered Charles and he realized that he could not escape, Charles drew a knife and slit his own throat. He died almost instantly.
Two weeks later, Phillis Stuart, apparently a free black woman, was arrested and charged with "sending a mulatto child to a school for white children." The mayor sentenced Stuart to 30 days solitary confinement.
The Mercury noted, "We understand that there are some other cases of this character, which will soon be looked after."
As 1862 drew to a close, the best news in Charleston seemed to be that Beauregard had not only restored the confidence of locals, he had vastly improved coastal defenses.
Confederate troops repulsed Yankees who tried to make inroads south of the city at Pocotaligo. And when a small boat from the blockading fleet snuck close to Sullivan's Island one night to take soundings, the Beauregard Battery "welcomed the venturesome boat with a shot … causing the occupants to skedaddle in hot haste."
Even the Union gunboats' shelling of James Island did not seem much cause for concern. On New Year's Day, The Mercury hoped for a glorious 1863 to wash away "this winter of our discontent."
"The darkest days of our trial, we trust, are passed. The Old Year is gone, with its long months of carnage. The New Year can scarcely unfold so red a record of suffering, disaster, and dear-bought triumphs."
For the first several weeks of the new year, little changed around Charleston.
On Jan. 10, The Mercury reported that the famous Union ironclad, the Monitor, had sunk. The veteran of the Battle of Hampton Roads was lost in a storm while under tow off the Outer Banks. Soon after that, a Yankee gunboat was captured off the Florida coast.
It was not a good month for the Union Navy, but the blockade outside Charleston Harbor remained intact, much to the chagrin of Charleston residents. On Wednesday, Jan. 28, the newspaper printed a letter from a local sailor that succinctly summed up the frustrations of the entire city.
"Why is it that, with gunboats at this port, well armed, manned and officered, and 'spoiling for a fight,' we do not clear the blockade?"
Since the baptism of the Palmetto State, its sister ship, the Chicora, had joined the harbor fleet, but their effect thus far had been underwhelming. And people had taken notice.
As it turned out, the letter signed only "A Mariner" was prescient.
Few people realized the inherent problems with Charleston's gunboats. At first glimpse they appeared to be large, powerful warships. In truth, the Palmetto State and the Chicora were cramped, slow and so heavily weighted down by their iron skins that they drew 12 feet. That meant they could barely cross the bar to get outside the harbor.
By those standards, the ships were of little use. By the time enemy ships were in range of the two ships, it would probably be too late to save Charleston.
Beauregard must have seen the letter in The Mercury, and recognized that the lack of action from the two ships threatened the city's tenuous morale. Within a day, he urged Capt. Ingraham to take the Palmetto State outside the harbor for military maneuvers.
On Friday night, Jan. 30, the Palmetto State and Chicora slipped away from the docks around 9. They were followed by three boats, including the Etiwan, that would serve as tenders. The ships moved slowly, for Ingraham did not want to reach the bar until after the moon had set. In a light breeze and calm seas, the two ironclads managed to get across the bar without incident.
And there, outside the harbor, they waited.
Around 4 a.m., a lookout on the Palmetto State's deck spotted the silhouette of a Yankee ship lying dead ahead. Ingraham laid in a course and steamed toward the blockader. Fifty yards out from the USS Mercedita, the Palmetto State cut its engines and allowed its accumulated momentum to propel her toward the boat.
At some point, a sailor on the Mercedita's deck spotted the ironclad, but the man did not seem to realize that the ship bearing down on him was an enemy ship, or that its ramming course was intentional.
"Back her, or you'll run into us," he said.
But, of course, that was Ingraham's plan.
The Palmetto State ran bow-first into the Mercedita's port quarter. As the concussion of the impact subsided, the ironclad fired her forward gun into the blockade ship, bursting its boiler and immediately crippling its engine.
By the time the Palmetto State began to back away, the Mercedita's captain called out his surrender.
While the Palmetto State dealt with the Mercedita, the Chicora had another ship, the USS Keystone State, in its sights. After firing three shots, the crew of the Chicora could hear the Keystone State's fire bell. But the Yankee ship wasn't finished. She fired back.
The Chicora's crew called out to the blockader's crew, ordering the ship's surrender. But in the meantime another Union ship, the Quaker City, had come up on the Chicora's stern and began firing.
As the Quaker City and Chicora traded blows, the Keystone State was able to limp away, and was soon beyond the reach of the ironclad's guns. The Mercedita followed.
It was a sloppy fight that continued until dawn. Other ships arrived to trade blows with the two Charleston ironclads, but all of them stayed safely out of the reach of the Rebels' guns.
Finally, as the sun rose over the Atlantic, the Palmetto State and Chicora steamed for shore. They would be forced to wait until the afternoon for a tide high enough to get them across the bar and into the harbor. While the ironclads swung at anchor, their bored crews surveyed the horizon, a seascape devoid of detail.
And devoid of the Union Navy.
Without taking down a single ship, the Palmetto State and Chicora had flexed their muscles, proven their worth and -- briefly -- dispersed the blockade.
Beauregard was pleased with the engagement, although he suffered from no illusions that the blockade was over. The ships would be back, the general knew, but he was confident that Charleston was ready for the coming fight.
Next: The blockade strikes back