Friday, March 1, 2013

Confederate Ironclads Attack the Charleston Blockade

CSS Palmetto State
The Confederate States Navy had two ironclads of note defending Charleston: CSS Palmetto State and CSS Chicora.  The squadron's commodore, Duncan Ingraham, noticed in January 1863 that the U.S. Navy's blockade was rather weak.  Hoping to duplicate (or surpass) the results of CSS Virginia or the results of the Confederate attack at Galveston, Ingraham decided to attack. 

The U.S.N's blockade nearest to Charleston's forts had only two wooden gunboats: USS Keystone State and Mercedita.  The Confederate ironclads put to sea at 11:30 p.m. and, due to their slow speed, reached the U.S.N's patrol lines at 4:30 the next morning. Both the dark night and a heavy fog assisted the ironclads in achieving the element of surprise.

Palmetto State rams Mercedita and Keystone State
 and Chicora exchange shots.
Mercedita's officer of the deck saw the unknown ships approach and asked the standard question: "What ship is that?" Upon receiving no answer, he woke his commanding officer, Captain Henry Stellwagen, and the ship's company went to general quarters.  Stellwagen personally gave a second warning as the unknown ship approached.  Then he heard the words, "This is the Confederate States steamer..." and upon those words, Stellwagen ordered his ship's guns to fire.  But the angle was wrong and no guns could be brought to bear.  At that point, Palmetto State fired her 7-inch rifle into Mercedita and rammed the wooden gunboat, causing her to take on water and sink. Mercedita surrendered.

USS Keystone State
Chicora went after Keystone State and also attempted to ram.  However, Keystone State used speed to her advantage and dodged the attempt.  The two ships exchanged shots at each other, with Keystone State taking the worst of it.
Fortunately for Keystone State, time was against the Confederates.  As daylight appeared, other ships of the blockading squadron, specifically USS Housatonic, Augusta, Memphis, Flag, and Quaker City rushed to the scene of battle. Also as the sun rose, the tide ebbed.  Fearing that he would not get his ships back across the sand bar at the entrance to Charleston Harbor, Ingraham decided to call off the attack.  As the ironclads withdrew, Housatonic took a shot at Palmetto State and knocked off her smoke stack.  The battle was over.

As the Union pulled back to repair their ships and remove casualties, General Beauregard and Ingraham immediately wrote letters to every foreign consulate to proclaim the blockade at Charleston had been risen (which would have forced the U.S. Navy to reissue a new blockade proclamation and keep the port open for 72 hours).  At first the English, French, and Spanish diplomats agreed.  But upon seeing the arrival of USS New Ironsides and other ships just a day later, the British consulate, Frederick Milnes Edge, changed his mind. He personally apologized to Admiral DuPont for his hasty declaration and wrote that it was his new opinion that the blockade at Charleston was still in force.

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