BY ROBERT N. ROSEN
(Third of a series)
The siege of Charleston, 150 years ago in April 1863, turned out to be a debacle for the Union Navy. Union Adm. Samuel DuPont’s worst fears were realized. Steering was a problem for the monitors and for the New Ironsides because of the strong currents. The ships took a severe battering from Gen. Pierre Beauregard’s well-placed artillery on Forts Sumter, Wagner, and Moultrie. “Sublime infernal, it seemed as if the fires of hell were turned upon the Union Fleet,” one eyewitness recounted. The Confederates fired 2,200 shots to the warships’ 139. The Keokuk, piloted by the escaped former slave, Robert Smalls, was hit 90 times at point-blank range by the guns at Fort Sumter. “Riddled like a colander” and “the most severely mauled ship one ever saw,” witnesses reported. It later sank off Morris Island. The officers of the New Ironsides refused to bring the vessel within range of Sumter.
“Well…The Monitors have been met and have been driven back,” Confederate soldier Gus Smythe wrote. “Sure to you in the city it seemed but a skirmish, but the walls of Sumter as well as her garrison bear testimony to the terrible conflict in which they were engaged. It lasted only two hours, but if they would have stood it for two hours longer the whole east, or seaface, of Sumter would have been cracked.”
President Lincoln sent Adm. DuPont the following message:
“Executive Mansion, April 13, 1863. Hold your position inside the bar near Charleston; or if you have left it return to it, and hold it until further orders. Do not allow the enemy to erect new batteries or defenses on Morris Island. If he has begun it drive him out. I do not order you to renew the general attack. That is to depend upon your discretion, or a further order.”
The president had urged DuPont for months to attack Charleston. DuPont’s excessive caution reminded him of Gen. George McClellan.
As Alvah Hunter, a young Federal seaman aboard the monitor Nahant, observed, “The President is, of course, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and, consequently, his word is law. Undoubtedly his order that our position in the outer harbor of Charleston be held was wise, and if that order had been obeyed, the guns of the Keokuk would not have been salvaged by the Confederates, nor would Fort Wagner have been strengthened into the hard nut to crack which the combined forces of the army and navy found it to be three months later.”
The monitors took a terrible beating. John Ericsson, the Swedish inventor of the Monitor, had warned that they were not the panacea the navy sought. “A single shot may sink a ship,” he had told Gustavus Fox, “while a hundred rounds cannot silence a fort.” Inside the monitors “the nuts that secured the laminated plates flew wildly, to the injury and discomfiture of the men at the guns.” The shots, one reporter wrote, “Literally rained around them, splashing the water up thirty feet in the air, and striking and booming from their decks and turret.” During the two-and-a-half-hour battle, only one ironclad got within 900 yards of Fort Sumter. Five of the monitors were seriously damaged. The Weehawken was hit 53 times. DuPont lost his desire to continue the fight when he saw the damage done to his monitors. Fortunately for him, the worst had not happened. The New Ironsides at one point floated directly over a 3,000-pound mine, which the Confederates were unable to detonate. Thus technology failed both sides. The ironclads had failed to defeat the forts, Beauregard’s “circle of fire.”
DuPont was despondent and called off the attack. “I attempted to take the bull by the horns, but he was too much for us,” he later wrote. “These monitors are miserable failures where forts are concerned.” DuPont was to be relieved of his command for this defeat, which stunned the North, but his officers defended him.
“The Federal admiral,” A. Toomer Porter, a Charleston priest, later recalled, “has been blamed for not steaming in and taking the city. He knew better than his critics. The harbor was magnificently fortified, the channel was filled with torpedoes, and on every spot in it one hundred guns of the largest caliber could be concentrated. No vessel afloat could have been above water a quarter of an hour.”
Navy Secretary Gideon Welles and President Lincoln were furious with DuPont. Welles wrote in his diary that DuPont imparted “all his fears and doubts to his subordinates, until all were impressed with his apprehension.” Welles felt that DuPont should not have quit after “a fight of 30 minutes and the loss of one man.”
The Navy Department was to suppress the truth of that battle in Charleston harbor for eight months. Congress had to demand the report three times.
Robert N. Rosen, an attorney, is the author of “A Short History of Charleston” and “Confederate Charleston.”