Charleston at War: The David takes on the Ironsides
The little boat slipped out of Charleston Harbor just after dark, hugging the edge of the channel as it made for the blockade.
From a distance it was practically invisible, but even at close range the ship was a puzzling sight: it looked like nothing more than a whale bobbing on the surface -- with a smokestack sticking out of the top.
Aboard this strange boat, Lt. William T. Glassell scanned the horizon, looking for his target. They called this boat the David, the Biblical reference intentional. No doubt, its target was a Goliath: the USS New Ironsides.
The cigar-shaped David had been designed and built by two Charlestonians, Theodore D. Stoney and Dr. St. Julien Ravenel. Just over 50 feet long and not even 6 feet wide, the torpedo boat was a steamship so reliant on its stealth that its engines burned anthracite coal, which produced a colorless smoke. The ship was designed to sneak up on warships and plant a charge in their sides by use of a spar designed by Francis D. Lee.
Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard had been intrigued by the design and thought it seemed more practical than the fish-boat Hunley. The David simply rode low in the water; it did not attempt to completely submerge. There were six of these torpedo boats under construction already, but this would be the first real test.
The New Ironsides had come to represent the might of the U.S. Navy. The 230-foot, armor-plated warship -- powered by steam and sail -- carried more than a dozen powerful guns, weapons it had used with great efficiency against Fort Sumter and Battery Wagner. Most people in Charleston simply called the ship the "Ironsides" in a tone that conveyed respect and disdain.
Glassell spotted the New Ironsides swinging at anchor off Morris Island just after 9 p.m. on Oct. 5, 1863. Less than a mile away, he ordered his crew to speed up.
The David sliced through the water at about 7 mph, and remained unseen until it was closing on the boat. Then someone on the deck of the New Ironsides spotted the David and quickly opened fire. Glassell popped out of the boat and returned fire using all he had available -- buckshot. Still, he managed to hit one officer aboard the warship.
Moments later, the David rammed the Ironsides directly amidships.
The explosion was immediate, and came with an unforeseen side effect. The blast threw a wall of water into the air, some of which fell into the David's smokestack, extinguishing the fire in the boiler. The torpedo boat was adrift, within easy range of the New Ironsides' considerable guns.
For a moment, there was confusion. The explosion had rattled the New Ironsides and its crew was slow to react. A few grabbed rifles and fired at the David, but the little boat quickly drifted out of sight.
Aboard the David, Glassell was worried. He feared that eventually the New Ironsides would spot his boat and blow it out of the water. Reluctantly, he ordered his men to abandon ship.
Glassell and another crewmen, Sullivan, later were picked up at sea by a Navy blockade ship. But the David's engineer, J.H. Tombs did not swim far from the David before turning back -- he saw little percentage in swimming alone in the open ocean. When he reached the torpedo boat, Tombs found J.W. Cannon, the David's navigator, clinging to the its smokestack. Cannon could not swim.
The two men climbed aboard, somehow managed to re-start the fire and quietly snuck away from the swarming blockade ships.
It wasn't a perfect attack, but it appeared Charleston had a new secret weapon.
A good bluff
The Charleston Mercury made little of the David's attack on the Ironsides -- again erring on the side of caution rather than risk revealing too much about the new secret weapon.
"The small hours of Tuesday morning were marked by a very gallant and encouraging, though only partially successful, attack on the enemy's fleet," The Mercury reported on Oct. 7. "Of the character or details of the attacking expedition we deem it best for the present to be silent, and we are requested by the military authorities to extend to the Southern newspapers elsewhere the request to omit all mention of any definite intelligence that may reach them in reference to the affair.
"We can only inform readers that the Yankee ironclad frigate Ironsides is believed to have been injured, though she still rode at her usual anchorage yesterday afternoon."
Soon, the city would learn that the New Ironsides was not as damaged as everyone had thought.
On Oct. 10, the crew of a local mail boat spotted two U.S. Navy sailors in a small craft -- guns in hand, glasses held to their eyes. It appeared very much like they were spying on Fort Sumter. The men on the mail boat, which carried dispatches between the city and Sumter, were "wholly unarmed" but knew they must do something to stop the Yankees. They decided to bluff.
The mailmen "called out lustily to the occupants of the small boat to pull alongside and surrender," The Mercury later reported.
The two Union men apparently were in no mood to fight, and quickly surrendered. They tried to claim they had mistaken Fort Sumter for the New Ironsides in the darkness.
As it turned out, the two soldiers were better spies for the South than the North.
Shortly after they were locked up at the city jail, they began to tell their captors about the Union's latest movements off Charleston. They also claimed that the attack on the New Ironsides was a failure, that the torpedo boat had inflicted little damage on the great warship. And they confirmed that Glassell and Sullivan were now prisoners aboard one of the blockade ships.
Finally, the two Yankees revealed that Robert Parker Parrott -- inventor of the famous gun -- had been on Morris Island for more than a week, helping the troops prepare for a new bombardment of Charleston. The North had several 300-pounders, the spies said, which could fire six miles into the city.
When a massive explosion rocked the peninsula that same day, many locals feared the assault already had come. But this was a tragedy of a different nature: A group of young boys playing with an unexploded Yankee shell accidentally detonated it.
The boys had found the shell at the ammunition storehouse on Southern Wharf, near Gen. Ripley's headquarters. One of the children thrust a heated wire into the shell, and that worked as well as any fuse.
In the blast, two boys and a slave were killed -- their bodies charred beyond recognition. The Mercury called it an accident caused by carelessness, one that could have been avoided through "ordinary precautionary measures."
Although the sad incident distracted the city for a moment, it did little to overshadow the news garnered from the two Yankee spies: The city would be shelled again, and soon.
The Union forces on Morris Island were quiet for much of the first half of October, busy at work on Cumming's Point and their plans to continue the bombardment. But not even shelling from Confederate batteries that was "more rapid and regular than usual," could entice the Yankees into a fight.
The biggest news event that day would occur just a few blocks from The Mercury office, but no mention of it would appear in the paper. The fish-boat was about to launch again.
The submarine had been recovered from the harbor, its hull scrubbed clean, its casualties buried in the soldiers and sailors cemetery. Beauregard had soured on the machine after it sank at Fort Johnson, and so had no qualms about releasing it when Horace Hunley -- the boat's namesake -- arrived in Charleston to demand its return.
Hunley said the fish-boat worked perfectly, and suggested it sank because Beauregard's men didn't know how to operate it. He brought in men from Mobile, Ala., men who had worked on its construction. Hunley claimed they would demonstrate that the fish-boat could indeed sink a blockade ship.
Thursday, Oct. 15, was a dreary morning -- a drizzle left the air thick with moisture and a haze that hung over the harbor. A small crowd had gathered around Adger's Wharf to watch Hunley test his boat. While technically a secret weapon, most people in Charleston knew about the sub. If they hadn't seen it arrive at the train station, or watched it cross the harbor, they at least had heard tell of it.
Although Hunley had financed two previous submarines, and had this vessel named for him in appreciation, he had nothing to do with the design of the fish-boat. That did nothing to dampen his confidence that he understood the concept well enough to command the ship. The men from Mobile could handle the rest, he assumed.
The crew climbed into the boat that morning, but Hunley paused before descending into the boat. He pointed across the harbor to the Indian Chief, a Confederate receiving ship anchored in the Cooper. The ship would serve as the submarine's target.
Moments later, the fish-boat churned away from the dock, sliding slowly across the harbor surface. As it closed in on the Indian Chief, it quietly disappeared beneath the water.
The crowd scanned the harbor for a while, but the submarine never surfaced.
Weeks later, when the boat was found on the harbor floor, crews examining the wreck would conclude that Hunley apparently did not know how to operate the boat any better than Confederate Navy officers. He had opened the valve that allowed water to flow into the sub's forward ballast tank so that it would submerge. But he never shut off the valve, and the tiny cabin quickly filled with water. Most of the men from Mobile drowned.
Hunley himself was found with his head in the forward conning tower, in a pocket of air, clutching a candle.
The Mercury, obeying Beauregard's orders to not mention the fish-boat, did not report on the accident. But on Friday, Oct. 16, the Charleston Daily Courier ran a small notice of the incident on its front page. The story carried the headline "Melancholy Occurrence" and was vague enough to avoid raising the general's ire.
"On Thursday morning an accident occurred to a small boat in the Cooper river, containing eight persons, all of whom were drowned: Their names were Captain Hunly (sic), Brockbank, Park, Marshall, Beard, Patterson, McHugh and Sprague, Their bodies, we believe, have all been recovered."
In fact, it would take weeks for divers to retrieve the Hunley from the harbor floor. By then, the Union had broken its silence.
The shooting started at 10:30 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 26 -- a storm of shells that rained down on Fort Sumter and did not let up until dark. For the first time since taking Morris Island, the Union forces had turned the guns of Batteries Wagner and Gregg on the South. They would not let up for days.
On Wednesday, The Mercury would later report, 679 shots were fired at Sumter in a day's time, only 88 of which missed their mark. In the early hours of Thursday, another 117 shells were hurled at the fort, all but seven hitting Sumter.
Charleston tried to go about its business during the bombardment, the assault on Sumter was merely background noise. On Thursday night, J.J. Fickling reported that a black man climbed his fence with the intention of stealing some of his chickens. When Fickling tried to stop the man, he was stabbed in the head, neck and left arm. The assailant escaped, unidentified.
On Saturday, the Soldiers Relief Association made plans to deliver cooked meals to men at several harbor forts, and the Circular Church announced plans to hold its Sunday services in the lecture room of the Third Presbyterian Church.
Life went on, even during the siege.
Most of the city, however, spent the weekend preparing for a presidential visit. Jefferson Davis, who had been in Mobile, decided to call on Savannah and Charleston en route back to Richmond.
As the president's train passed through the Lowcountry on Monday, Nov. 2, Confederate soldiers lined the tracks to cheer him on. When the train reached the depot on John Street, Beauregard was waiting to offer the president a carriage ride into the city. The pomp and circumstances delighted many of the Charlestonians lining their route, but it was purely for show. Beauregard and Davis largely despised each other.
The procession wound through Spring, Rutledge, Calhoun and Meeting streets on the way to City Hall. Locals crowded the sidewalks, The Mercury said, for a glimpse of "the chief magistrate of the Confederacy." At the corner of Broad and Meeting, local women had hung garland and a wreath. On the wreath there was a ribbon that said "Ladies of the Soldiers' Relief Association welcome President Davis to Charleston."
The mayor and city council received Davis on the City Hall portico, where the president delivered some brief remarks to the assembled Charlestonians. He noted that the city was much changed since his last visit, an unhappy reminder of the city's condition following the fires and the continued shelling.
Davis quickly recovered by playing to the crowd -- invoking the name of John C. Calhoun, and calling him the champion of states' rights in a "glowing tribute."
The president's speech was nearly drowned out by the thunderous sound of Yankee guns echoing across the harbor. It prompted Davis to say that if the city ever becomes a prize of the foe, he hoped it would only "be as a mass of ruins."
Forced to recover again, Davis assured Charleston residents he didn't think that would happen, predicting that if Union forces tried to take the city by land they would "meet a disastrous defeat."
Davis spent most of the week in Charleston, attending receptions and touring the harbor defenses. On Tuesday, he traveled to Sullivan's Island, where he inspected Fort Moultrie and other fortifications. Afterward, The Mercury said, "his Excellency expressed himself highly pleased." Later, the president boarded one of the local ironclads to get a closer look at the "ruins of Fort Sumter." On Wednesday, Davis visited James Island -- touring Fort Johnson, Secessionville and Fort Lamar.
The next morning, Davis boarded his train and headed north for Wilmington. As his train car left the depot, the Union was still shelling Sumter daily and would, on and off, for another month.
Despite the president's assurances, he left the people of Charleston wondering when -- not if -- the Union guns would turn, once again, toward the city.
NEXT: The first successful submarine attack