Tuesday, August 27, 2013

"So Here is a Nice Mess:" The Navy Shells Wagner and Sumter from Land and Sea at Charleston

This watercolor, titled "View of Charleston Harbor and its Defenses," shows the Navy and Army siege lines
on Morris Island.  The Navy Battery is on the left and the ironclads can be seen on the far right.
Having failed to take Fort Wagner by direct assault, Brigadier General Quincy Gilmore elected to start a formal siege operation against Confederate defenses. His plan was to blast the Confederate out of their positions in a similar manner to siege operations conducted against Vicksburg and Port Hudson. He also expanded the target list to include Fort Sumter. The problem Gilmore faced was the same problem faced by Union ground forces out West: a lack of heavy guns.  Like the sieges of Port Hudson and Vicksburg, the Navy came to the Army's aid.

Rear Admiral John Dahlgren furnished the necessary resources. He provided two English-made 70-pounder Whitworth Rifles (captured from a blockade runner), two 200-pounder Parrott Rifles, and five 100-pounder Parrott Rifles. In addition, sailors and soldiers dragged ten mortars into position (an excellent discussion on the Naval battery's particular guns and the batteries can be found at Craig Swain's "Marker Hunter" blog).
Navy gun crews with the Whitworth Rifles

Dahlgren assigned Commander Foxhall Parker, Jr. to oversee the newly designated "Naval Battery" and "Naval Brigade." Parker served as Dahlgren's adjutant for the squadron aboard USS Wabash and gave the commander leeway in finding the necessary sailors and marines to man and protect the guns. In a major concession to Army-Navy cooperation, naval units on shore fell under Gilmore's command.

This is not to say Dahlgren and his ships would stand idly by. The admiral assigned two monitors, Passaic and Patapsco, to take aim at Fort Sumter from 2,000 yards out. Four other Union monitors (WeehawkenCatskillMontauk, and Nahant) took aim at Fort Wagner, with New Ironsides and several wooden gunboats in reserve.

Harper's Weekly's Theodore Davis' interpretation of
the Navy Battery firing at Fort Sumter. 
The bombardment from land and sea on Forts Wagner and Sumter began on August 17th and last through the 24th. Dahlgren and Gilmore were cordial during the first four days of the bombardment. Things went a little sour on the 21st when Gilmore asked the monitors to suppress Wagner's sharpshooters.  Dahglren frequently stated to Gilmore that he could have the monitors at any time.  In this case, however, Dahlgren explained the finer points of tides and currents to the general and concluded that his ships could not simply charge in whenever needed.

Dahlgren's sketch of the position of his ironclads during the August
17th bombardment of Fort Wagner and Battery Gregg.
Surprisingly, Gilmore was not offended.  He changed his tune when he asked Dahlgren to leave Wagner alone, and go all in with all his ironclads at Fort Sumter at close range. Once again, Dahlgren hesitated and explained the difficulties of attacking Sumter, namely the shallow waters around the fort. He finally decided on releasing two monitors, Passasic and Weehawken, to assault Sumter at close range. Both monitors ran aground during their attack.

But, Gilmore would change his mind several times about where he wanted the Navy's resources. Though Army-Navy cooperation had improved since Du Pont left, Dahlgren expressed major frustrations with his Army counterpart. It seemed that every time Dahlgren prepared to send his monitors at Sumter, Confederate sharpshooters from Fort Wagner would take aim at Gilmore's sappers.  Angered, Gilmore would demand the monitors to return. One telegram provided proof of Dahlgren's frustration. Gilmore signaled Dahlgren during the operation to "Send [the monitors] back, they are inspecting us with their spyglasses."

The end result of the seven day bombardment looked impressive. Several sections of the brick and mortar of Fort Sumter were smashed. Yet Sumter and Wagner remained in control of their respective garrisons. Dahlgren recalled several monitors for repairs caused by Confederate guns. The Catskill in particular took several critical hits. Wagner's guns struck Catskill seven times near the pilot house, which resulted in her commanding officer Commander George Rogers' death. In his final report on the operation to Secretary Welles, Dahlgren believed that he did not have enough ironclads to attack Sumter, suppress Wagner's guns, and perform other duties in Georgia. Thus, the operation ended in failure.

The Naval Battery recorded mixed results as well. Parker reported that his four gun battery fired 703 Parrott shells, 373 of which struck Sumter.  Over two hounded solid shots came from the Whitworth rifles. More shots would have come from the Whitworths if it wasn't for one that exploded, killing four sailors. A shell exploded after it became jammed half into the barrel. Sailors attempted to ram the shot further into the gun.

When Dahlgren heard that Passaic ran aground, he wrote in his diary, "So here is a nice mess."  It should have been his final conclusion for this particular operation.

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