Recently promoted captain, John Lorimer Worden won a significant victory during his operations against Fort McAlister, Georgia. USS Montauk’s XV-inch shellgun destroyed the blockade runner, Rattlesnake, previously known as the raider CSS Nashville. On February 27, 1863, the ship’s destruction was welcome news to the war-weary North. Nevertheless, when the battle smoke cleared, Worden had an ominous report to present to the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron’s commander, Rear Admiral Samuel Francis DuPont.
Worden had previously worked on Passaic–class monitors as an assistant to Brooklyn Navy Yard commandant Rear Admiral Francis Hoyt Gregory. This position and his captaincy of USS Montauk gave him the ability to recognize various problems with this class of monitors. Worden believed the Passaic class had these major issues:
- A slow rate of fire
- The XI-inch shell gun should be replaced by a 150-pounder Parrott rifle. (Montauk was unable to damage the eastern walls of Fort McAllister.) Worden believed the use of rifles would prove more effective in damaging Confederate forts.
- If a boiler burst, there was no effective escape plan to protect crew members from scalding.
- While the Passaic-class could withstand being struck by heavy shot, Worden noted that the pilothouse was an exposed target and required more armor.
- The link between the pilothouse and turret and their pivoting machinery could easily be jammed by shot. Iron rings needed to be added to protect this vulnerable spot.
- The thin hull armor (1-inch boilerplate) was insufficient to protect against torpedo damage.
- The deck armor needed to be strengthened.
Worden also forwarded a report by Montauk’s engineer, Thomas A. Stephens, concerning mechanical flaws and other evidence of poor workmanship. Montauk’s commander reinforced the need to correct these problems. 1
DuPont summarized Worden’s experiences bombarding Fort McAllister and forwarded the Montauk commander’s report stating:
“My own previous impressions of these vessels, frequently expressed to Assistant Secretary Fox, have been confirmed, viz: that whatever degree of impenetrability they might have, there was no corresponding quality of aggression or destructiveness against forts, the slowness of fire giving full time for the gunners in the Fort to take shelter in the bombproofs.”
“This experiment also convinces me of another impression, firmly held and often expressed, that in all such operations, to secure success, troops are necessary.”2
The South Atlantic Blockading Squadron commander knew that the slow rate of fire (one shot every seven minutes) and speed (7 knots) made these ironclads unfit to attack the complex harbor defenses of Charleston. DuPont would continue to express his concerns about a monitor’s poor steering qualities, unreliable engines, and limited firepower. These factors convinced DuPont that monitors would not be able to reduce Charleston’s fortifications. Unfortunately for the Admiral, both Welles and Fox falsely believed that monitors were perfectly designed to combat forts.3
The letter written by Admiral DuPont was what Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and Assistant Secretary Gustavus Vasa Fox did not want to hear. They had placed great faith in monitors, Fox, especially, viewed Charleston as the “cradle of secession” and knew the port needed to be punished. The assistant secretary also wanted the US Navy to receive full credit for a victory that he knew would be attained at Charleston. Accordingly, Fox wrote to DuPont, “I feel my duties are twofold,” Fox advised, “First, to beat our Southern friends; second to beat the army.” 4
Accordingly, DuPont had no other option but to attack Charleston. The Confederate fortifications were indeed comprehensive. General P. G. T. Beauregard began developing defensive fortifications immediately after the capture of Fort Sumter in April 1861. When he was called away for other duties, Major General John C. Pemberton and Brigadier General Roswell S. Ripley continued expanding the defenses. Beauregard returned in September 1862 as Commander of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida and continued this work.
There were three fortification rings. The outer line consisted of Battery Wagner and Battery Gregg on Morris Island, Fort Sumter on a manmade island in the middle of the harbor’s entrance, and Fort Moultrie with nearby supporting batteries on Sullivan’s Island. As the main shipping channel passed between Forts Sumter and Moultrie, the Confederates had placed obstructions and torpedoes to block any attempt to bypass the forts.
The floating barricade was railroad iron with chained logs anchored at intervals. Strong tides destroyed much of the original barrier, and a rope obstacle was installed. Two rows of netting were strung across the Confederates’ broken wooden boom. Added to the netting were 15-foot rope tentacles installed to entangle propellers. Floating barrels supported the rope obstructions, and the Unionists thought they were torpedoes. 5
Fort Johnson and Battery Glover on James Island, Fort Ripley and Castle Pinckney in the harbor, and White Point Battery at the southern end of the city comprised the second defensive ring. These defenses were further supported by the ironclads CSS Chicora and CSS Palmetto State. The inner ring consisted of batteries on the Ashley and Cooper rivers to guard against land assault.6
Charleston Harbor was like a cul-de-sac. Once past the outer ring and into the inner harbor, the Union ships would be surrounded by menacing batteries. The outer ring alone had more than 130 heavy guns. Fort Sumter mounted 76 cannons, including 10-inch Columbiads, 7-inch Brooke rifles, and 10-inch mortars. The guns of Battery Bee, Fort Moultrie, and Fort Sumter were focused on a red buoy, Confederate Number 3, located 1,200 yards from the obstructions. Consequently, the Confederates had placed their most powerful seacoast guns in a position to fire on the invading ships for a 2,000-yard “wall of fire to reach the obstructions.” 7
Torpedo Damage Repaired
Meanwhile, Worden had returned to Port Royal Sound in early March. Montauk was surveyed by a team led by Chief Engineer Alban C. Stimers. On March 5, the engineer recommended beaching the ironclad and applying an iron patch to properly repair the torpedo damage that occurred on February 28, 1863. Completion time for this project was estimated to take 10 days. Fortunately, the Port Royal Sound Naval Station had two temporary monitor maintenance and repair workshops called “Port Royal Working Parties.” The workshops provided skilled workers, specialized tools, supplies, and spare parts to effect major modifications, overhauls, and repairs. The Port Royal Naval Station had grown dramatically in support of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, providing coal and other supplies and a safe anchorage. 8
Once Montauk was repaired, it was readied for the attempt to capture Charleston along with DuPont’s other ironclads. DuPont had no strong belief in the operation’s success; however, he knew that attempting to pass the outer ring of Confederate fortifications would be difficult. His goal, therefore, was to make the attempt and, in doing so, not allow a disaster to befall his fleet. He wanted his ships to remain in motion to upset the enemy’s aim and fire at Fort Sumter’s barbette batteries, as plunging fire was hazardous to any monitor’s thin deck armor.9
Admiral DuPont was particularly concerned about Confederate obstructions and torpedoes positioned between Fort Sumter and Sullivan’s Island. John Ericsson (at that time during the Civil War, could do no wrong) designed an anti-torpedo raft to resolve DuPont’s fears. The “devil’s” raft would be affixed to a monitor’s bow with chains; this device was fitted with grapples to remove torpedoes impeding a monitor’s course. A torpedo was added to the raft to blow a hole through any obstructions. The raft weighed 70 tons. Many ironclad ship commanders thought the raft could flip over and damage their ships. Only John Rodgers of USS Weehawken agreed to give this strange contraption a try but only without the torpedo.10
Union Line of Battle
DuPont’s ironclads assembled off North Edisto Island on April 1 and then moved to the outer Charleston Bar by April 5, 1863. Commodore Thomas Turner was concerned about how well his ironclad would perform during the attack. USS New Ironsides had a 15.8 ft. draft that only gave Turner’s ship a few feet of clearance when streaming through Charleston’s main channel. New Ironside’s unarmored ends were vulnerable to rifled shot; the vessel was somewhat unmanageable in shallow water. Turner believed that his ironclad presented a huge target and would be the focus of Confederate cannon fire. The Commodore would have preferred to keep his vessel out of the fight; however, DuPont knew that public opinion demanded the ship must to be included in the attack.11
USS Weehawken, with the torpedo raft and Captain John Rodgers, led the attack. It was followed by USS Passaic (Captain Percival Drayton), USS Montauk (Captain John L. Worden), and USS Patapsco (Commodore David Ammen.) Next came USS New Ironsides (Commodore Thomas Turner). This ironclad was DuPont’s flagship; also onboard was fleet captain, Captain Christopher Raymond Perry Rodgers. The flagship was followed by Catskill (Commodore George M. Rodgers), Nantucket (Commodore Donald M. Fairfax), and Nahant (Commodore John Downes). The final vessel in line was the tower ironclad Keokuk commanded by Commander Alexander C. Rhind.12
On Saturday, April 4, DuPont issued his attack orders:
“The Squadron will pass up the mainship channel without returning the fire of the batteries on Morris Island, unless signal should be made to commence action. The ships will open fire on Fort Sumter when within easy range, and will take up a position to the northward and westward of that fortification, engaging its left or northeast face at a distance of from 600 to 800 yards, firing low and aiming at the center embrasure. The commanding officers will instruct their officers and men to carefully avoid wasting shot and will enjoin upon them the necessity of precision, rather than the rapidity of fire. Each ship will be prepared to render every assistance possible to the vessels that may require it. … After the reduction of Fort Sumter, it is probable that the next point of attack will be the batteries on Morris Island. The order of battle will be lined ahead … a squadron of reserve … will be formed outside the bar and near the entrance buoy, consisting of … Canandaigua, Housatonic, Huron, Unadilla, Wissahickton will be held in readiness to support the ironclads when they attack the batteries on Morris Island.”13
The next day, DuPont’s squadron assembled off the harbor’s entrance. While most of the fleet anchored off the Charleston bar, DuPont sent USS Keokuk, supported by USS Patapsco and USS Catskill, to buoy the bar. The monitors remained on station to guard against the removal of the buoys by the Confederates. On April 6, the rest of DuPont’s command crossed the bar and prepared to begin the assault; however, because of a thick haze, the pilots refused to guide the Union warships as critical landmarks could not be seen. 14
On the morning of April 7, 1863, a light breeze blew away the haze. DuPont ordered his vessels to get underway at 11 p.m. to take advantage of the slack tide. When the fighting began, it would be at ebb tide, which DuPont believed would help any disabled ironclad to float away from the Confederate forts. DuPont knew he faced a determined, powerful enemy. He recognized that he would need to improvise as the battle developed. Nevertheless, the admiral did not intend to force the attack at the cost of any of his ships. Retreat was the correct course to take if his ironclads incurred too much damage.
John Rodgers and USS Weehawken led the column toward Fort Sumter. Immediately Weehawken’s anchor was entangled with the anti-torpedo raft’s grapples. This delayed the advance for almost two hours and the ships got underway. According to John Worden, at 12:15 p.m., the ironclads came under fire from Fort Sumter and all the batteries on Sullivan and Morris Islands. Weehawken was in trouble from the beginning of the cannonade. The raft slowed the ironclad’s speed to 3.5 knots and made it very difficult to steer. This impacted all the other ships and it was hard to maintain the line in any order. They passed by buoys that they recognized as range markers for the Confederate gunners. Some ships’ commanders thought the buoys marked the location of torpedoes.
When Weehawken reached the obstruction, Rodgers veered to port as the obstruction’s appearance was “so formidable, that, upon deliberate judgment, I thought it might not right to entangle the vessel in obstructions.” Rodgers continued, noting, “which I did not think we could have passed through, and in which we should have been caught.” As Rodgers turned away from the obstruction by facing his ship seaward to stop Weehawken being forced by the tide into the obstruction, an explosion occurred, and they feared torpedoes became a reality when an explosion “lifted the vessel a little.” The ship did not receive any damage from the torpedo; however, Weehawken did receive 53 hits during the 40 minutes in the fire zone. Rodgers noted that Weehawken was fired upon by “over 100 guns.” Heavy shot struck the side armor and broke it. Another shot caused a hole in the deck, causing a leak. Bolts were broken, and the turret temporarily jammed.15
Passaic followed in Weehawken’s wake and was struck 35 times. The ironclad’s turret was jammed twice. All the iron plates on the upper edge of the turret were broken, and the pilothouse was badly dented by a Brooke bolt. Drayton was only able to fire the XI-inch Dahlgren four times and the XV-inch fired nine shots. The XI-inch shell gun was disabled for more than an hour.
John Worden’s Montauk avoided any major damage despite being struck by Confederate shot 14 times. Worden had removed Montauk 800 yards away from Fort Sumter. Consequently, Worden opened a deliberate pace of fire against Fort Sumter. Yet, other problems arose that limited Montauk’s effectiveness. Worden later wrote that “the flood tide moved the ironclads towards some formidable looking obstructions (which I deemed it highly important to avoid), and the ships turned their head toward the flood and I followed in their wake. I turned toward the fort again, got within about 700 yards of it, and delivered my fire as long as I was able to hold that position; but the tide drifted us, and the other vessels, I turned toward the fort again, got within 700 yards of it, and delivered my fire as long as I was able to hold that position; but the tide drifting us, and other vessels being close around me, I again turned to avoid fouling them, still delivering my fire as opportunity occurred.”16
Worden noted that Montauk broke off action based on signals received from the flagship. By 5:40 p.m., Montauk had anchored 2 ¼ miles below Fort Sumter. It had been a hard and difficult fight. Worden noted that his ironclad had been struck 14 times by Confederate shot that did minimal damage to Montauk. Three shots struck the turret upper deck plating and smokestack. One of the ship’s cutters was lost; however, one shot hit the pilothouse (with Worden inside) and severely damaged it by loosening several bolts and bending the iron plate inward. 17
Into the Valley Of Fire
Montauk was followed by Patapsco. That ironclad lost headway and failed to answer its helm (steering problem). Accordingly, situated 1,200 yards from Fort Sumter and 600 yards from Fort Moultrie, Patapsco was a sitting duck and was hit by 47 shots. The flagship New Ironsides was next in line and became unmanageable in the shallow water and strong current. New Ironsides’ Commodore Turner was forced to anchor his huge ironclad to avoid running it aground. The flagship had already collided with a couple of monitors and almost was swept ashore. The temporary anchorage was directly over a 3,000-pound electronic torpedo. It failed to ignite because the copper wires had been broken by wagon wheels or the wires were just too long for the current to create a spark. Nevertheless, New Ironsides was only to fire one broadside at Fort Sumter and was then blanketed by 50 shots and shells. DuPont signaled the rest of the fleet to disregard the flagship’s motions.
Catskill then passed New Ironsides and reached within 600 yards of Fort Sumter. Commander George W. Rodgers was able to dismount a barbette gun; yet, the ironclad was bombarded 20 times. One shot created a hole through its deck and Catskill began to take on water. The monitor may have sunk if the water had been rougher. Nantucket came next and was struck 51 times. This Passaic-class monitor suffered: its XV-inch Dahlgren gunport and turret were both jammed. USS Nahant was the last monitor to attack and it suffered the most damage and casualties of all of the monitors, taking 36 hits. An 80-pound section of armor broke away from the pilothouse. It mortally wounded the helmsman, Quartermaster Edward Cobb, and flying bolt heads wounded six others. 18
A Sacrifice to the Grim God of War
The final Union ironclad to enter the fray was USS Keokuk. It was not a monitor; rather it was a tower ironclad mounting one pivot-mounted XI-inch Dahlgren in each of its two casemates. The ironclad’s armor was poorly devised by its designer Charles Whitney. Keokuk moved ahead of the crippled Nahant. This moment brought the tower ironclad to within 600 yards of Fort Sumter and the Confederates concentrated their fire on that vessel.
Soon it was struck by 90 rounds with almost 20 below or at the water line. It had to limp away from the Charleston forts in a sinking condition. Despite the efforts of its crew, Keokuk sank the next day.
DuPont called off the action and soon the battered Union ironclads were out of range of the Confederate batteries. DuPont was prepared to press the attack on the morrow; however, after each of the monitor captains conferred with the admiral, he knew an attempt would be futile. John Worden summarized the day’s action noting that the Union warships had withstood a “concentrated and terrific fire” for about 50 minutes. Montauk’s commander further advised DuPont, “after testing the weight of the enemy’s fire, and observing the obstructions, I am led to believe that Charleston can not be taken by the Naval force now present, and that had the attack been continued it would have not failed to result in disaster.” 19
Acting Assistant Samuel T. Browne had served with Worden in the pilothouse throughout the battle. Browne had noticed how deliberate and calm Worden remained throughout this one-sided engagement. Worden, Paymaster Brown noted, had commanded his vessel in a “noble manner despite the firestorm that exploded around our ship.” In turn, Worden lauded Browne for volunteering to “act as a signal officer and made himself familiar with the new code of signals adopted, was with me … and by his quickness of sight and of apprehension was material service to me, particularly in view of my much-impaired eyesight.” 20
Browne concurred with Worden about the feasibility of renewing the attack on the Confederate forts noting:
I am confident the force of iron-clads then available would have been insufficient for that purpose, and it would have been mad folly to have sent wooden vessels into that cul-de-sac whose sides bristled with few hundred guns, and the waters of whose harbor were filled with every variety of torpedoes; I have held the opinion … that even if the ironclads had penetrated the harbor, and escaped the network of torpedoes, that with four hundred guns hammering them to pieces would have only been a question of hours.21
The Confederates had achieved a stunning victory and uncovered the true weaknesses of monitors. The limited volume of fire, as noted by John Worden, reinforced why monitors could not single-handedly overwhelm fixed land-based batteries. The monitors were only able to send 139 shots against the forts. DuPont had ordered his captains to concentrate their fire against the barbette guns as plunging shot poised a great danger to a monitor. Both Weehawken and Catskill had holes put through their decks. This shot damage could have sunk either ship in heavier seas. The pilothouse was not only a good target for Confederate shells, but it also did not provide adequate viewing to enhance steerage or fire control. Captain Worden noted during the engagement he had “experienced serious embarrassment in maneuvering … in the narrow and uncertain channel, with the limited means of observation afforded from the pilothouse under the rapid and concentrated fire from the forts … and neither a compass nor buoys to guide.” 22
Ever since he witnessed the fight between USS Monitor and CSS Virginia, G.V. Fox believed in the monitor design and had pressed for more monitors. Once the Passaic-class was operational, the assistant secretary pushed Admiral DuPont to attack Charleston with his ironclads. DuPont did not share Fox’s enthusiasm for monitors because of their limited firepower and was accused of not forcing the monitors into Charleston Harbor. Fox, who had served on the USS Cyane with Worden in the 1840s, read Captain Worden’s report and began to understand why monitors alone could not capture Charleston.
Chief Engineer Alban C. Stimers, who had served on USS Monitor under Worden’s command, had observed the battle. Stimers’ duty during the attack was to study the performance of the monitors and to assist in maintaining them before and after the battle. The chief engineer had publicly asserted after the battle that DuPont’s April 7 assault was “feeble” and that it should be renewed. Stimers further asserted that the ironclad captains wanted to renew the attack. He also asserted that the damage incurred by the monitors could be easily repaired. Admiral DuPont insisted on holding a Court of Inquiry to dispute Stimer’s statements. DuPont believed that Stimer’s words were “language unbecoming an officer of the US Navy.” Proceedings were held and only two men testified: Captain Percival Drayton and Captain John L. Worden. Worden’s testimony noted that none of the ironclad’s captains thought it wise to renew the attack as the ships were not in a condition to do so.
If ordered to do so, Worden stated that he could bring Montauk back into action; however, he knew that the other commanders considered “their vessels were very considerably damaged… noting that some of their guns were disabled. His issue was once bolts had been broken, even after repairs the ironclads would not be able to resist shot as before the battle.” Worden noted, “I am and was of the opinion that a renewal of the attack on the 8th would have been likely to have resulted in a very serious disaster to the ironclads; after feeling the weight of the enemy’s fire on the 7th, and looking at the obstruction, which were of a very formidable character, I thought that any attempt to break through the obstructions would have got the propellers of the ships involved in the networks it was known the enemy had there; they would have become unmanageable ad so injured by torpedoes that they would have sunk in the harbor or have fallen into the hands of the enemy: and I did not think the risk of such a disaster was justifiable under the circumstances; rebel ironclads were lying behind our obstructions; any of our vessels that been disabled would have been exposed to attack from them.” 23
Worden did not believe that DuPont had any prejudices against monitors. Rather he thought that DuPont merely, as Montauk’s commander also did, recognized the firepower limitation of this type of vessel. Despite the confidence that Worden and other monitor captains had in the admiral, Fox and Welles could not tolerate the defeat at Charleston. They eventually replaced DuPont with Rear Admiral John Dahlgren as commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. On April 13, 1863, Worden was detached from Montauk and was detailed to serve as Admiral Francis Gregory’s assistant at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. There he endeavored to correct many of the monitor flaws that he had learned about while commander of USS Montauk. He reinforced the need for more effective firepower, better armor, improved steering, and greater seakeeping ability with each new monitor class.
- Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1902 (Hereinafter ORN), Ser. 1, Vol. 13, 693-710.
- John D. Hayes, ed., Samuel Francis DuPont: A Selection of His Civil War Letters. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1969, Vol. II, 387.
- Rowena Reed, Combined Operations In the Civil War. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1978, 286-288.
- Robert Means Thompson and Richard Wainwright, eds. Confidential Correspondence of Gustavus Vasa Fox, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, 1861-1865, Vol. II, 126.
- Reed, 291.
- Robert M. Browning Jr., Success Is All That Is Expected: The South Atlantic Blockading Squadron During the Civil War. Washington, DC: Brassey’s, 2002, 155-158;
- Reed, 289-291.
- ORN, Ser. 1, Vol. 13, 708-709.
- Daniel Ammen, The Old Navy and the New. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1891, 102-103.
- Browning, 171-172; Spencer C. Tucker, Blue and Gray Navies; The Civil War Afloat. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2006, 239-239; and ORN, Ser. 1, Vol. 14, 44.
- Reed, 291-292.
- Howard P. Nash Jr., A Naval History of the Civil War. New York: A.S. Barnes and Company, 1972, 191; and ORN, Ser. 1, Vol. 14, 9.
- Naval History Division, Civil War Naval Chronology, 1861-1865. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1971, Vol. III, 57-58.
- Nash, 191.
- ORN, Ser. 1, Vol. 14, 11-13.
- ORN, Ser. 1, Vol, 14, 13.
- Ibid, 13-14.
- Naval Chronology, Vol. III, 58-60; and Richard S. West Jr., Mr. Lincoln’s Navy. New York: Longmans, Green and Company, 1957, 234-237.
- ORN, Ser. 1, Vol. 14, 14.
- Samuel T. Browne, The First Cruise of the Montauk.
- ORN, Ser. 1, Vol. 14, 14.
- New York Times, July 28, 1863.