Sunday, April 7, 2013

Battle of Charleston Harbor

Confederates in Charleston
In April 1863, the United States Navy turned its attention to Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston was an important city in the Civil War. Not only did it have military importance, as a center of blockade running, but it also had a vast political importance. It was where the war began with the bombardment of Fort Sumter in the harbor, and its capture would prove a major hit to Confederate morale and the town was also very supportive of secession. 
Samuel Du Pont
For these reasons it was decided by the Federal government to make an attempt to capture the town. The command was given to Samuel Du Pont. Du Pont had been sailing since the age of 12, and by the Civil War was a captain. He was on his way toward retirement, holding a post as commander of the Philadelphia Shipyard, but, when the Civil War came, he was returned to active service. He was promoted to flag officer, and after commanding the navy at the capture of Port Royal, he was promoted to rear admiral.
Ironclads advance
The expedition would be primarily naval in nature. Du Pont was given nine ironclads to make the attack. The flagship was the massive New Ironsides. It had been designed independently of the Monitor, was very similar to the French ironclad Glorie. It carried 18 guns and had masts as well as a steam engine. Accompanying the New Ironsides in the attack on Charleston were seven sister ships of the Monitor and an experimental ironclad, the Keokuk.
Charleston was commanded by General P. G. T. Beauregard. He had gained his fame in the town by leading the capture of Fort Sumter. He was assigned to duty elsewhere, but was sent back to South Carolina when he did not preform to the satisfaction of Richmond. The Confederate batteries and forts were well suited for the defense of Charleston from an attack from the sea. They had also placed barriers and torpedoes in the harbor, and although the defenders knew they were defective, the Yankees did not. 

The Federal navy came out to battle on April 7th, 150 years ago today. Time was lost as the ships met delays in their preparations. As the ships moved forward, one after another, problems were encountered with the New Ironsides. The sailors had difficulty maneuvering her, so she was pulled out of line and anchored, so the rest of the ships could proceed. Unknowingly, the New Ironsides was anchored directly over a huge Confederate torpedo. But, when the rebels pulled the electric switch to activate it, nothing happened. It is not known exactly why the torpedo failed, but a great opportunity was missed to destroy an important Union ship. 

New Ironsides
As the rest of the ships continued on, Du Pont's battle plan fell apart. The ships became disordered and came under a tremendous fire from the Confederate batteries. The fire was intense, and the ships remained far away from the Confederate batteries, rendering their fire inaccurate. When the tide began to turn, Du Pont ordered his fleet to retreat. The Confederate batteries had fired about 2000 shot, hitting 520 times. The Union ships had fired only 154 shots.

Different Union ships received differing amounts of damage. The Keokuk was hit the worst. She was shot 90 times, 19 below the waterline. She was taking on water as she withdrew from the fight, and despite the efforts of the crew, she sunk the next morning. Although the Union ships had been badly damaged, the actual casualties were light. On the ships only one was killed and 21 wounded, with the Confederates losing five killed and eight wounded. 
When Du Pont held a council of war the next day, his captains were unanimously against a renewal of the battle, and so he called of another attack. The government in Washington was not happy with Du Pont for giving up so easily, after loosing only a handful of men. He was removed from command.


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