Thursday, July 12, 2012

Naval Siege of Charleston Begins, June 1862

The New York Times lists the ships blockading Charleston in June 1862 for the benefit of its readers...and for Confederate authorities seeking intelligence on the opposition.

As many know, the South Carolina militia's attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina formally started the shooting aspect of the Civil War. The city was among the first to places for the Lincoln administration to declare to be under state of blockade. Between the beginning of the war and June 1862, various U.S. Navy ships placed themselves outside the harbor to demonstrate the "effectiveness" of the blockade (an important legal concept in international law).

 A few blockade runners had been capture. But, between a lack of suitable ships, a complex fortification system, and the tricky topography of the Harbor, the ships South Atlantic Blockading Squadron kept their distance and most blockade runners made it through. The non-cooperation between the U.S. Army and Navy that would become infamous throughout the entire Charleston siege, did not help either. On June 21, 1862, Major Charles G. Hapline, an adjutant-general for the Army's Department of the South, actually had to order masters of Army supply vessels to let U.S. Naval officers board their vessels!

USS Seneca
Thus it was a major achievement, that the gunboats USS Seneca and James Adger crossed the bar into Charleston Harbor. This was the first Federal Government presence inside the harbor since the surrender of Fort Sumter over a year earlier. It was only a short reconnaissance patrol near Morris Island that lasted a few hours. Seneca opened fire with her XI-inch Dahlgren on a Confederate Army camp, chased some soliders off, and cut a large pine tree in half. The gunboats beat a quick retreat back outside the bar when, for the first time since its surrender to Southern forces, Fort Sumter's guns fired several shots.

Two days later, the two gunboats crossed the bar again. Much to the embarrassment of Seneca's commanding officer, a lead-colored English blockade runner slipped right pass his gunboat in the middle of the night. Unfortunately for the blockade runner, it ran aground inside the bar. Given a second chance by King Neptune, the Yankee gunboats went after her. Joined by USS Keystone State, the three ships fired on the blockade runner. Confederate gunners at Fort Beauregard on Sullivan's Island fired back and put three shots into Seneca. The Yankee squadron retreated and two harbor tugs saved the blockade runner. Just a few hours later, the blockade runner Thomas L. Wragg attempted to make a run into Charleston, but turned around. Keystone State chased her for several hours before losing the blockade runner in a storm.

The three skirmishes were small actions. But they were the first of many actions between U.S. Navy warship, blockade runners, and Charleston's forts that would occur during what would be the war's most epic siege.

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