South Carolina

Charleston’s Confederate Ironclad Attack | Naval History Magazine

Most students of Civil War naval history are familiar with the unsuccessful attack by Union ironclads on April 7, 1863 at Charleston, South Carolina. Less well known is the attempt by two Confederate ironclads to break the US Navy blockade of the city in the early hours of January 31, 1863 Richmond-class armored rams Palmetto State and Chikora four wooden blockades badly damaged before the rebel ships were chased back to Charleston harbor.

Lieutenant William H. Parker, chief clerk of the CSS Palmetto Stateleft a vivid account of this attack in his memoirs, Memoirs of a Naval Officer. Parker and his older brother Foxhall A. Parker Jr. were pre-war officers in the US Navy. While William sided with the Confederacy, Foxhall remained loyal to the Union and later helped establish the US Naval Institute and served as Superintendent of the US Naval Academy.

What follows is Williams’ account of the Palmetto State‘s deployment and encounter with one of the Union blockades.

About 10 p.m., January 30, Commodore [Duncan] Ingraham came aboard the Palmetto State, and at 11:30 a.m. the two ships quietly shed their fast and went underweight. There was no demonstration on land and I think few citizens knew about the planned attack. Charleston was full of spies at that time, and everything was carried to the enemy. It was almost calm and a bright moonlit night – the moon was 11 days old. We went down very slowly, aiming to reach the main ship canal bar, 11 miles from Charleston, about 4 a.m. when there would be high tide. . . .

We slowly steamed down the harbor and, knowing we had a long night ahead of us, I ordered the hammocks down. The men refused to take her and I found that they had organized an impromptu Ethiopian conversation.1 Since there was no need to keep calm at that time, the captain let them enjoy themselves in their own way.2 No man ever showed a better mind before he went into action; and the friendly, masculine language of our captain convinced us that we should be well commanded under all circumstances. We passed between Forts Sumter and Moultrie – the former with its yellow sides rising and reflecting the rays of the moon – and turned the canal along Morris Island. I suppose all the soldiers were in the forts and batteries watching us, but not a word was spoken. After midnight, the men began to fall off in twos and threes, and before long the silence of death reigned. . . .

As we approached the bar around 4am we saw the steamer mercedita anchored a short distance outside of it. I wasn’t afraid of her seeing our torso; but we burned soft coals, and as the night was very clear, with the moon almost full, it seemed to me that our smoke, trailing behind us like a gigantic black snake, Got to be visible several miles away. We made our quarters in silence, and our main deck then presented a scene that I will always remember. We left a quarter of an hour before crossing the bar and the men stood at their guns in silence. The portside shutters were closed, no light could be seen from outside, and the few battle lanterns burning cast a dim, eerie light on the gundeck. My friend Phil. Porcher, who commanded the bowgun, was outfitted with a pair of white velvet gloves and had an unlit cigar in his mouth.3 As we stood at our stations, not even whispering, the silence intensified. Right next to me I noticed the broadside guns’ little powder boy sitting on a matchbox with his powder pouch over his shoulder, fast asleep, and he was in that state when we rammed them mercedita.

We crossed the bar and headed straight for the mercedita. They didn’t see us until we were very close. Their captain then called out to us and ordered us to keep our distance or he would shoot. We didn’t answer and he called out, “You’re going to fancy me.” Just then we hit him on the starboard side, dropped the forward port breech and fired the bow gun. The hull of it, according to the captain [Henry S.] Stellwagen commanding her passed diagonally through her, penetrated the starboard side, through the condenser, through the port boiler steam drum and exploded against the ship’s port side, plowing a four by five foot square hole in its exit. She did not fire a gun, and after a minute her commander called out and said he had surrendered. Captain Rutledge then instructed him to send a boat alongside. When I saw the boat coming I went out on the quarterdeck to receive it. The men inside were half dressed and, having neglected to plug in the plug when it was lowered, it was half full of water. We gave them a boat hook to provide the location of the plug and helped get them out.

During the Civil War, William Parker took part in the Battle of Hampton Roads, helped defend Drewry’s Bluff on the James River, and served as commander of the Confederate Naval Academy. (US Naval Institute photo archive)

Lieutenant T. Abbott, the executive officer of the mercedita, came on board. I led him across the harbor to Commodore Ingraham. He must have been impressed by the novelty of our gun deck; but his demeanor was official and cool. He gave the name of the ship and her captain, said she had 128 souls on board and was in a sinking condition. After some delay, Commodore Ingraham required him to “give his word of honor to his commander, officers, and crew, that they would not serve against the Confederate States until they were regularly exchanged.” He did – it was an oral probation. He then returned to his ship. . . .

We rammed them mercedita at 4.30 a.m. and wasted much valuable time while the commodore decided what to do with his officers and men. Our chance for great success lay in taking advantage of the darkness. We knew that the next day the enemy would see that they were fighting with iron armor and would reject the fight – and we, with our slower speed, could not force it. Finally we stuck out to the east and attacked Quaker town, memphis, and some other ships as they surfaced, but they broke off as soon as they felt the weight of our metal. As day broke I was given the opportunity to get up on the spar deck. I looked aft first mercedita, and not seeing her, asked our pilot where she was. He said she must have sunk; and that was the general impression on board; but I knew she was not in deep water, and seeing no masts “I had my doubts.”

The fact is we didn’t ram them hard enough. The panic on board caused by the shell from our bow gun was so great at first that they thought she was going to sink. A kettle being emptied tipped them over, I suppose; But when we came out to attack the enemy to the east, they put things right and eventually proceeded to Port Royal, where she arrived safely.

While the Confederate commander at Charleston, General PGT Beauregard, was quick to announce that the attack had lifted the blockade, he conveniently omitted that a surrendered Union ship and her crew had escaped in the early morning darkness. The state of mercedita and their officers and men was decided by a Union investigative tribunal. It noted that Lieutenant Abbott’s promise that the crew would not take up arms against the Confederacy until they were exchanged was binding, but it did not apply to the gunboat, which later served in the North Atlantic and Western Gulf blockade squadrons.

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