How we repulsed a massive Federal attack 160 years ago
By Michael Trouche
Friday marks the 160th anniversary of one of the most remarkable battles that you’ll
probably never read about in most history books or hear about in local media. It was the Union naval attack on Charleston on April 7, 1863, during the Civil War by nine heavily-armed ironclad ships of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron against land defenses guarding the city.
Our media rails against parents wanting to shield their children from books that are
written to promote an ideology they find objectionable, but the same journalists seem to have no issue with ignoring factual historic events about whose outcome they don’t like.
This April battle is well-documented history and an event that was critical in the shaping of a war that we are often told defines us, yet what really happened is largely unknown even in Charleston because of who won. Not liking the outcomes of Little Big Horn or Wounded Knee did not erase those events from history, and neither was any more a part of our past than the naval battle in our harbor.
The true story is about how the Union assembled powerful ships to capture Charleston — featuring the flagship New Ironsides, seven monitors — Passaic, Weehawken, Montauk, Patapsco, Catskill, Nantucket, Nahant — and the ironclad screw steamer Keokuk. This comprised the deadliest naval flotilla in the world at that time, packing massive 11 and 15-inch
guns that could fire shells weighing as much as 350 pounds for thousands of yards. Federal commanders were confident that these big ships with their iron cladding would easily overpower the batteries at Fort Sumter, Fort Moultrie and Morris Island, that only had bricks or earthworks as cover.
Charleston native Unionist Percival Drayton was captain of the Passaic and boasted beforehand that “nothing could stop the capture of Charleston by vessels able to run its fire.”
Captain Daniel Ammen, commanding the Patapsco, also predicted mockingly that Fort Sumter "would be reduced to a pile of ruins before the sun went down.”
These words came back to haunt then, as did and a multitude of cannon shells, and the entire Union squadron was manhandled by the accuracy of Confederate gunners who used 69 cannon to fire 2209 shots in about 40 minutes. The gunnery skill of the defenders was remarkable for a time when shells and fuses were known for inaccuracy; also, keep in mind that they fired from distances of 600 to more than 1,000 yards against moving targets that had (with the exception of the New Ironsides) very low profiles. Nonetheless, they plastered the nine vessels with more than 400 hits.
The defenders of Fort Sumter seemed so unfazed with the Union firepower that when the saw the ironclads approaching, they raised the Palmetto Flag, fired a 13-gun salute and then got the Regimental Band of the First South Carolina Artillery to mount the walls and begin to play.
Over on the Union side, Poor Percival Drayton was hearing what certainly was not music to his ears, and wrote later that the shells “at times were whistling so fast we couldn’t keep count.” The attack was called off without any ship getting close to the forts, as five ironclads were badly damaged and the Keokuk was riddled with 90 hits and sank in shallow water the next day.
Like most of the fights here in Charleston during the Civil War, the battle was a complete Confederate victory versus superior forces, and like most of those battles, it is largely overlooked by our city government and media today. The April 7th battle should be as well-documented today as the July 18th attack that same year by the 54th Massachusetts, but it’s not by a long
Yet, in terms of military significance, the former was no less crucial than the latter, as iron ships were for the first and only time in history defeated in a major battle with land batteries, and because Union commanders realized afterward that Charleston could never be taken from the sea, which completely changed their tactics and the course of the war.
One fascinating postscript is that in the weeks after the battle, with the Keokuk’s double turrets exposed from its bed on a shallow bottom, Charleston civilian riggers Adolphus and James Lacoste, with the able assistance of black mechanics Asa Butterfield, Jack Baker and Edwin Watson, took boats under the cover of darkness to cut open the iron turrets and winch out two massive 11-inch Dahlgren guns with block and tackle. Those Union guns were then used to shoot back at the fleet that brought them, and one of them still stands near the monument to the Defenders of Charleston at White Point Garden.
Michael Trouche is a seventh generation Charleston native and is an award-winning
journalist and former college professor and local tour guide.