Sunday, September 8, 2013

Monitor aground with exposed hull: USS Weehawken's precarious September 8

With the news of the Confederate evacuation of Morris Island on September 7, 1863, both Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren and Brigadier-General Quincy Gillmore set their eyes on the next objective - Fort Sumter. Transitioning from a protracted siege, the Army was not in position to react quickly. Heavy guns were easy to traverse, but needed to properly task organize to mount an effective assault on Fort Sumter. On the other hand, the Navy was in position, and much expected, to do something about Fort Sumter. Dahlgren already had his ironclads and supporting ships inside the bar on September 7, anticipating an operation in conjunction with the Army's last assault on Battery Wagner. Now with that fortification falling without resistance, Dahlgren could turn on Fort Sumter. In the hope that General P.G.T. Beaureagard would concede Fort Sumter, Dahlgren sent a demand for the fort's surrender. When that came back negative, Dahlgren begain preparations to seize the fort:
I immediately designed to put in operation a plan to capture Fort Sumter, and as a preliminary ordered the Weehawken to pass in by a narrow channel, winding about Cumming's Point, so as to cut off all communication by that direction....
In addition, Dahlgren ordered up the other ironclads to test the batteries on Sullivan's Island. Now free from any fires from Morris Island, and only token resistance from Fort Sumter, the Federal sailors could concentrate on Fort Moultrie and supporting batteries. And while conducting that sortie, Dahlgren's captains could survey the obstructions in the main ship channel. All this was preparation for a night effort that would include boat landings on Fort Sumter. Sounded like a good plan. But as will often happen, unanticipated events upset this plan. Captain Edmund Colhoun took the USS Weehawken inshore that morning according to instructions. By 8:30 a.m. the monitor was between Cumming's Point and Fort Sumter, having marked a channel with buoys. However an hour later a flood tide pushed the Weehawken onto a shoal where she touched bottom. At high tide, the monitor got off the shoal, but Colhoun encountered more problems:
... when the tide had risen sufficiently to float her, I got underway, in obedience to your order, "to return to my anchorage near the New Ironsides," but in consequence of the shoal water she steered very badly, taking "a rank sheer" to port; she brought up on the bank in 11 feet water. In the afternoon, at high water, I failed to get her off, as also on the following morning, though every effort was made, by taking coal and shot out, with one tug to assist us.
Stuck in shallow waters, the Weehawken sat in plain view of the Confederate gunners on Sullivan's Island. While the Weehawken lay grounded on September 7, her sister monitor, USS Lehigh anchored in the main ship channel in front of Fort Moultrie to act as a shield. The USS Montauk and USS Nahant also took station to engage the Confederate batteries. The tug USS Daffodil moved up to assist with unloading coal and solid shot.
USS Montauk and Lehigh laid up after the war

At night, the tug USS O.M. Pettit attempted to pull the Weehawken off the shoal. But the monitor remained stuck fast. Early on the morning of September 8, Major Stephen Elliot commanding Fort Sumter observed,
The monitor near Cumming's Point is evidently around. Her deck is now 4 feet above water and will be some 2 feet higher at low water. Fire should be opened on her, as the thin part of her hull is probably exposed.
The Confederate batteries soon responded to this opportunity. Colonel William Butler, commanding the artillery on Sullivan's Island, opened with a slow fire. In addition to 10-inch columbiads, the 7-inch triple-banded Brooke opened on the Weehawken. In addition to Fort Moultrie, Battery Bee, Battery Beauregard, and Battery Marion, the batteries on the east end of James Island also opened on the stranded monitor. Captain John Mitchel, 1st South Carolina Artillery commanding at Fort Johnson and Battery Simkins reported:
I first turned on it the 8-inch naval shell gun on the right of Battery Simkins, and then the three 10-inch sea-coast mortars, which, with the 10-inch columbiad, had been previously keeping a steady fire on Morris Island.
Fearing the weakened carriage of the 8-inch gun would give way, Mitchel ordered the embrasure of the 10-inch columbiad modified to allow it to fire on the ironclad. He also ordered a 6.4-inch Brooke rifle mounted in Fort Johnson so as to bear on the target. Although that work was accomplished late in the day, the Brooke did fire four rounds at the Weehawken. However, the stranded ironclad was not defenseless. Firing on Fort Moultrie, the second shot from the Weehawken's XV-inch gun hit an 8-inch columbiad in the fort. The projectile then struck a stack of boxed shells. The resultant explosion killed fifteen and wounded twelve. The confusion in the aftermath of this rather lucky shot eased some of the pressure on the Weehawken.

While the Confederates were drawing a bead on the stranded Weehawken, Dahlgren moved up the rest of his ironclads to protect it. In the early morning mist, the USS New Ironsides and five monitors moved into the main ship channel to stand between the Weehawken and Sullivan's Island.


The contest now resembled that of April 7 when the ironclads had first tested the main ship channel. But unlike the spring battle, the New Ironsides featured prominently in the fight. The broadside ironclad fired 483 times and in return received 70 hits while standing directly between Fort Moultrie and the Weehawken. Two 10-inch columbiad solid shots from Sullivan's Island hit in close proximity damaging one of the iron plates.


Otherwise, damage was limited to shutters, stringers, and chains.

The same could not be said of the USS Patapsco. One of three hits on that monitor shot away the smokestack. With that damage, the monitor's engine could not function properly. So after firing eighteen XV-inch shells, eleven shrapnel, one stand of grape, and thirty Schenkle projectiles from her 8-inch Parrott, the Patapsco gave way to allow the Montauk to take a better position. The Montauk received 43 hits wile firing back twenty-eight XV-inch shells and seven stands of grape. The USS Passaic labored in the channel with damage from earlier action which hindered steerage and turret traverse. Yet Lieutenant-Commander Edward Simpson managed to hold her in line to fire nineteen XV-inch shells and thirty 8-inch Schenkle shells. In return the Passaic was hit 51 times, mostly from Battery Bee. Simpson summarized the damage:
Her side armor is broken through in several places, and the plates are spring off some inches from the overhang; she has now seven holes thorugh the deck, all of which make bad leaks; several hard hits on the ring around the base of the turret cause it to chafe against the deck plates under it, making it difficult to revolve the turret; several deck plates are started, and the armor at the stern is sprung apart 6 inches.
Yet, Simpson felt if required he could keep the Passaic in action. Also in the thick of the fight, the USS Nahant fired fifty-four XI-inch shells and eighteen XV-inch shells, while receiving four hits. The Lehigh fired twenty-two shells and received twenty-nine hits. Meanwhile, on the Weehawken, Colhoun refocused efforts to get his ship afloat. Right in the middle of the engagement, he sent his men to breakfast. Afterwards he ordered fires on Fort Sumter just to show the monitor was still in the fight, even if aground. Colhoun later tallied the score:
We were hit twenty-four times, doing no very serious damage; one shot struck the lower part of the overhang, passed under, made a hole about 3 inches, afterwards ascertained to be about 7 inches in diameter, and fractured the iron from the angles; the leak was soon stopped. We fired at Moultrie and Battery Bee 36 shell, at Sumter, 46; total 82.
The hit on the hull described by Colhoun may have come from the 7-inch Brooke at Fort Moultrie. However it was among the last shots ever fired from the gun. Lieutenant R.Y. Dwight, commanding that gun's section, recalled firing eleven shots at the Weehawken before receiving orders to fire on the other ironclads "with 20-pounder charges and wrought-iron bolts." After five or six of these shots, the bands on the gun cracked. In addition to that gun, two others on Sullivan's Island were disabled - the 8-inch columbiad damaged by the Weehawken and a rifled 32-pdr with a trunnion shot away.

By 1:30 p.m., Dahlgren signaled his ironclads to pull back. The tide was coming back in and he didn't wish to risk another running aground. Furthermore the tide should free the Weehawken. The withdrawal was by unit with the Lehigh remaining to cover her grounded sister. At 4:30 p.m. the Weehawken floated off the shoal and moved out into the channel.

This particular drama on September 8 thus concluded. But another was about to start. Dahlgren held to his plan to have a boat landing force assault Fort Sumter that night.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 14, pages 549, 551, 556, and 557. OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part II, Serial 46, pages 714 and 723.)

1 comment:

  1. The Monitor was one of the most significant pieces of American history that helped form modern U.S. history as we know it today. Great article with some interesting facts I never knew about this famous ship.