Ironclads USS Passaic, Patapsco and Nahant bombarding Ft. McAllister. Note monitor Montauk hanging back with the wooden gunboats.
Admiral S. F. DuPont was determined to take out Ft. McAllister, guarding the entrance to the Ogeechee River, Georgia. He decided that if one monitor could not do it, he would send in three, accompanied by other gunboats. He sent the USS Passaic, Patapsco, and Nahant (under the overall command of Capt. Percival Drayton of the Passaic). All three were the newer Passaic Class of ironclad monitor gunboats. Passaic and Nahant were armed with XV and XI inch Dahlgren guns. Patapsco had a XV inch Dahlgren and a 200 pdr Parrott rifle. Each gunboat was painted in a different color scheme so they could identify one another. Capt. John Worden in the USS Montauk (another Passaic Class monitor) went along as a supporting vessel, but was ordered by DuPont to avoid action. There was concern that Montauk’s XV inch Dahlgren might be close to the end of its lifespan, because it had already been fired almost 300 times in the prior engagements. DuPont wanted to spare Montauk for use in the upcoming attack on Charleston harbor.
The morning of 3 March 1863, the four turreted ironclads, accompanied by the wooden gunboats Seneca, Dawn, Wissahickon, Flambeau, and Sabago and the mortar schooners C. P. Williams, Norfolk Packet and Para (towed by a steam tug) got steam up and headed up the river towards the fort. The mortar schooners were placed and the three new monitors approached the confederate fort. The fort had recently received some additional heavy guns and its garrison watched the approaching ironclads, ready to use them. About 8:30 AM Ft. McAllister opened fire, initiating the third “ironclad vs. fort” engagement. The Union gunboats returned fire. The gunners in the fort knew by now they couldn’t damage or sink the ironclads just by hitting them. They waited until the turrets of the monitors turned to fire at the fort and tried to aim for the open gunports, hoping a lucky shot would go through.
The firefight continued all that morning and into the afternoon. The fort scored numerous hits on the ironclads (mostly concentrating on Passaic), and the naval gunnery burst around and within the fort. A number of the larger confederate guns were disabled by shots from the ironclads. During the fight, Drayton stepped out onto the top of Passaic’s turret with his telescope to survey the scene. Suddenly musket balls went whizzing by, and he was hit, but uninjured, by an apparent ricochet. Prior to the battle, a squad of sharpshooters had been sent out from the fort, under the command of CSA Lt. Elijah Ellarbee, to establish an outpost to try to pick off USN gunners through the open gunports of the monitors’ turrets as they turned away from the fort to reload. They were so close to the Passaic that Ellarbee later said he could hear the orders of the gun captains to the crews in the turret as they went through their drill.
By mid-afternoon, about 3:30, Drayton ordered the flotilla to withdraw due to the falling tide. The three mortar schooners were left to continue lobbing shells at the fort in hopes of interfering with repair efforts. Both Passaic and Nahant experienced mechanical problems during the battle. When he surveyed the damage to his ship after the fight, Drayton noted that Passaic seemed to suffer much more damage to her armor than did Montauk in her prior two engagements with the fort, apparently due to deficiencies in the bolts used to anchor the iron plating and problems with the iron itself. DuPont ordered the installation of an additional layer of iron plating on the decks of the monitors. As would become evident in the upcoming attack on Charleston, the monitor gunboats simply could not bring to bear the overwhelming firepower that a “broadside” type warship could, and that this is what was needed to defeat shore fortifications.
USS Passaic. Source of images - Naval History and Heritage Command.