Crew members aboard U.S.S. Nahant, one of the last surviving Civil War monitors, pose on deck for a photograph during the Spanish-American War in 1898. The dents in the turret behind them were put there by Confederate shot off Charleston, thirty-five years before.
One hundred fifty years ago Sunday afternoon, warships of the Union’s South Atlantic Blockading Squadron steamed into Charleston harbor, intent on pounding Fort Sumter into submission. The U.S. Navy’s commanding officer, Rear Admiral S. F. Du Pont (right), had at his disposal two full divisions of ironclad monitors that, he hoped, would be able to stand up against the Confederate batteries ringing the harbor. But the Confederate fire was too great, most of Du Pont’s ships were seriously damaged in the action. After about ninety minutes’ hard action, the Union fleet withdrew. In his report to the Navy Department, Du Pont described the event as a “failure,” but saw his withdrawal as one that had averted what otherwise would have been a “disaster.”
Since we’ve talked a good bit about Civil War-era monitors here, I’d like to share an account of this action by Alvah Folsom Hunter (1846-1933), a sixteen-year-old ship’s boy aboard one of those monitors, U.S.S. Nahant. Hunter had been in the Navy only a few months, and recorded his experiences aboard Nahant in great detail. An annotated edition of Hunter’s diary was published in 1987, edited Craig Symonds. Most of the drawings that accompany Hunter’s account here are by one of his shipmates aboard Nahant, Assistant Surgeon Charles Ellery Stedman.
U.S.S. Weehawken’s “devil,” as depicted in the ORN. At noon signal was made from the Ironsides (the flagship) to get under way, and then another delay caught us. It had been ordered that the Weehawken should lead the line of monitors, and some over-wise individual had devised an apparatus for lifting or exploding any torpedoes which might be encountered in the advance. The Weehawken was encumbered with this device, which had been well named “a devil.” “It was formed of very heavy timbers crossing at right angles, bolted together, and was about fifty feet in length, shaped not unlike a boot-jack, the bows of the vessel propelling within the notch. The after-ends, or jaws, of the raft were secured by chains to the bows of the vessel”. There were grapnels to catch the torpedoes suspended beneath this cumbersome raft. When the Weehawken was hoisting her anchor, the chain became entangled with these grapnels, and caused over an hour’s delay before the chain was cleared and the anchor hoisted up. Not only that, but the encumbrance upon her bows made the naturally unwieldy monitor still more unwieldy and difficult to steer, and but for the tide having turned and begun to run flood again, it is doubtful if the Weehawken could have steamed up against the current so as to come within range of Fort Sumter. As the Weehawken was the appointed leader of the line, a delay to her held back the entire fleet. The order of battle was that known as “line ahead,” or, as a soldier would state it, “single file.” The eight monitors were formed into two divisions, with the frigate Ironsides (flagship) between the first and second division. In the first division were the Weehawken, Passaic, Montauk, and Patapsco; in the second the Catskill, Nantucket, Nahant, and Keokuk. The distance between the vessels was intended to be one hundred yards, but they steered so badly it was quite impossible to keep close to distance. The monitors were extremely heavy, unwieldy vessels, steering badly when conditions were at the best. Being in shallow water increased the difficulty of steering, and when steaming ahead very slowly, the difficulty was still further increased; the clumsy vessels were here pretty nearly unmanageable. When the signal to get underway was made, our crew was called to quarters, and those of us who were stationed on the berth deck, where we could hear little and see nothing, found the long wait very trying to our nerves. We knew that the engine was frequently started and then stopped again, and supposed the starting and stopping were but incidents of getting the vessels into line formation, but why the long, long delay in opening fire, we did not know. It was nearly three hours after the call to quarters that we began faintly to hear the boom of the guns of some of the vessels, and it was ten minutes past three o’clock when our two guns were fired in quick succession. The relief we all felt when at last our guns spoke out was very great, and we gladly hastened to such duties as came to us. Passing on to the door of the magazine the call for cartridges and shells, seeing these brought to and passed through the door to the turret chamber, shaking the inverted cartridge tub over the tub of water, and then returning it to the door of the magazine, didn’t call for furious activity on our part, but, it was something to do, and a great relief to our strained nerves. Handling ammunition in the compartment below the turret, by Nahant’s Ship’s Surgeon, C. E. Stedman. The leading division had come into action about three o’clock, and soon after that the Admiral, finding the Ironsides pretty nearly unmanageable in the shallow water and having had to anchor, ordered the signal: “Disregard the movements of the flagship” to be hoisted. This signal at once set free the vessels in the second division and they steamed past the flagship into close action. The Nahant was probably the fastest of the single-turreted monitors, and the Keokuk, next her in line, was even faster. These two vessels, the last in the line, steamed ahead at full speed and were quickly in the thickest of the fight. “Four bells” sounding on the gong in the engine room, which ordered the engineer to go ahead at full speed, was distinctly heard by us on the berth deck, and in a few minutes cannon shot began to strike the Nahant. At first the hits were few and scattering, but, as we drew nearer to Sumter, they were more frequent. Captain Downes stated that we went up to within five-hundred yards of Sumter, nearer to that fort than any other vessel, and the shots came down upon us in an irregular staccato. There was about twenty-five minutes’ time when we were struck on an average about once a minute. Stedman’s drawing of Nahant’s turret in action. Stedman omits much of the internal bracing used in the turret, but captures the action well. One of the heavy shot struck our turret fairly, about two feet above the deck and just over the heads of the three of us boys who were standing near the turret-chamber door, and so tremendous was the impact, we all three instinctively ducked our heads. The solid shot was smashed and we clearly heard the pieces rattling down upon the deck above our heads. While we were coming into close action, our guns were kept as busy as the difficulty of loading and firing them permitted. Both guns were fired seven times each, and a little later the XI-inch gun was brought to bear upon one of the forts and fired for the eighth time, making fifteen shots in all fired by the Nahant. Cross-section through the hull, turret and pilothouse of a Civil War monitor similar to U.S.S. Nahant. Just after we came under the terrific fire which rained down upon us, three heavy shots struck the pilot-house in quick succession. [Unlike the original Monitor, the pilot-house on Passaic Class ships was located atop the turret for maximum all-around visibility.] One of these shots struck just at the base of the pilot-house, where a massive iron ring, some four inches deep by a foot wide, rested upon the top of the turret. This ring was put there as a safeguard, to prevent a shot which might strike there from penetrating at the angle formed by the base of the wall of the pilot-house and top of the turret. The metal of this iron ring was bulged outward and upward, and the inch-thick plates of the pilot-house were bulged outward and downward around the deep dent made by the shot. The result was that the turret and pilot-house were tightly welded together; the turret was “jammed” and could not be revolved. At almost the same instant, a shot struck the pilot-house close beside one of the peepholes which were cut through the walls to give those on duty inside some view of matters outside. The bolts which held the inch-thick plates together were countersunk into the plates on the outside, the nuts being on the inside. Heavy curtains made of two thicknesses of canvas with hair quilted in between hung around the inside of both turret and pilot-house to prevent the heavy nuts on these bolts from flying if the bolts were struck by a shot, but in the pilothouse there had to be holes cut through this curtain where it covered the peepholes. The shot which struck close beside a peephole struck squarely on one of the bolts, the bolt broke off close by the nut inside, the nut and bolt-end being driven across the inside of the pilot-house with the velocity of a solid shot. Stedman’s depiction of the action off Fort Sumter in April 1863, with (l. to r.) Nantucket, New Ironsides and Nahant. Stedman, as was his pratice at the time, gave the first and last of these vessels the fictional names of “Otternel” and Semantecook” in the caption of his drawing. Quartermaster [Edward] Cobb was at the wheel, Pilot [Isaac] Sofield stood a little behind him and was stooping over a bit to observe what could be seen through a peephole on the other side, and Captain Downes was standing a little to one side of the pilot. The flying nut struck Cobb upon the side of his forehead, tearing off a piece of his skull about five inches long by three wide, inflicting a mortal wound. It next struck Pilot Sofield close beside the spinal column at the base of the neck making a deep cut nearly two inches in length and effecting a paralysis of the body because of the shock to the nerves, so that he dropped as though instantly killed. It then glanced upward and struck the top of the pilot-house, then re-bounded downward upon Captain Downes’ foot, inflicting a painful bruise which kept the Captain limping about with the aid of a stout cane for several days. We on the berth deck knew nothing of this tragedy till the turret chamber door opened and three men came through bearing the body of poor Cobb, and my first sight of a wounded man was when I heard a gasping moan, turned around and looked directly down upon the gaping wound on the side of Cobb’s head. Then, for a few seconds, I wished I was back in Boston. The wounded man was borne to the wardroom table, which was requisitioned for a surgery when we went into battle. It was quickly seen that the case was hopeless, the wound was mortal, and the unfortunate quartermaster was tenderly moved to his hammock, which was spread down on the berth deck for him. Two or three mimutes after Cobb had been brought down, the inert body of Pilot Sofield was lowered down from the pilot-house to the turret, then lowered to the chamber below and borne to the wardroom table. I was summoned to make ready the berth in Mr. [Ensign Charles C.] Ricker’s stateroom for Pilot Sofield, and overheard Dr. Stedman telling his assistant that if the blow had struck half-an-inch to the right, it would have killed the pilot, as it would have smashed the spinal column. Striking where it did it made only a deep and painful flesh wound, but the shock to the spinal cord had effected a paralysis.
Treating casualties in action on the wardroom table, by Assistant Surgeon Stedman. This scene actually depicts his earlier ship, U.S.S. Huron. Another man was quite badly wounded at just about the same moment as those in the pilot-house, a seaman named John McAllister. He was one of a gun’s crew and was standing beside his gun in the turret. One of the shots striking the turret broke off a piece of iron which weighed seventy-eight pounds. This piece of iron was thrown violently across the turret, in its course striking and bending the rod which operated the steering gear, and then struck down McAllister, injuring him severely. The steering gear was put out of business by this accident, and there we were: helpless, drifting slowly up towards the obstructions and under the fire of a hundred heavy guns. It was fully ten minutes before the supplementary steering gear in the turret-chamber could be got into working condition. When it was working, efforts were made to so steer the ship that the guns could be again trained upon Fort Sumter, but these efforts were futile, and the Nahant was headed out just as the signal for the fleet to withdraw was hoisted on the flagship. The Nahant joined the other vessels and all moved down to the former anchorage. Stedman’s depiction of repairing battle damage on U.S.S. Nahant, this time after a subsequent “set-to” with Confederate gunners at Fort Wagner on Morris Island.
Du Pont had been reluctant to stage this attack with naval forces alone; he had urged a coordinated attack, using large numbers of land troops to help secure the batteries around the perimeter of the harbor. The events of April 7 vindicated Du Pont’s original position, as well as showing the limitations of the then-still-new armored ships in attacking heavy, well-trained shore batteries. After Du Pont’s failed attack, the Union strategy shifted to one that prioritized taking the forts on the outer periphery of Charleston Harbor, gradually working toward Sumter itself. If you’ve seen the great Civil War movie Glory, you have some familiarity with that part of the war.
Finally, if you haven’t seen his posts lately, my colleague Craig Swain has been doin’ the knowledge on the development of the Confederate defenses at Charleston over at his blog, To the Sound of the Guns. It’s fantastic stuff, in all its primary-source, granular detail. Great work, Craig — you’re showing how it’s done.
 S. F. Du Pont to Gideon Welles, “Attack by Federal ironclads upon the defenses of Charleston, S. C., April 7, 1863,” April 8, 1863. ORN, vol 14, 3.
 Alvah F. Hunter, A Year on a Monitor and the Destruction of Fort Sumter, Craig L. Symonds, ed. (Columbia: University of South Carolina, 1987).
 “Dr. Stedman” was Assistant Surgeon Charles Ellery Stedman, ship’s surgeon aboard Nahant, whose sketches illustrate this post. Charles Ellery Stedman, The Civil War Sketchbook of Charles Ellery Stedman, Surgeon, United States Navy. Jim Dan Hill, ed. (San Rafael, California: Presidio Press, 1976).
 Sofield’s paralysis may have been temporary; Assistant Surgeon Stedman’s after-action casualty report does not mention the paralysis, and says that Sofield “is doing well.” Pilot Sofield was still on active duty with Nahant at the end of 1863. C. Ellery Stedman, “Report of casualties on the U. S. S. Nahant,” April 7, 1863. ORN, vol 14, 5; John J. Cornwell, “Report of Lieutenant-Commander Cornwell, U. S. Navy, regarding drifting timber from the harbor obstructions,” December 29, 1863. ORN, vol 15, 210-211.
Test renders of a new work-in-progress, a Confederate David-class torpedo boat like those used at Charleston, 1863-65. (The rig that suspended the torpedo spar on the bow, in particular, is missing from this incarnation.) The model incorporates features from a variety of sources, so is intended to show the general appearance of the type, as opposed to any specific, individual craft. At some point I will provide an interior for it, but as only rudimentary diagrams of the boats’ internal layout exist, the interior of the model will be even more speculative than the exterior.
And finally, one of the torpedo boat alongside the submersible H. L. Hunley. The Davids were often used to tow Hunley in and out of the harbor, to save the strength of the hand-powered submarine’s crew:
Full-size images can be seen on Flickr.
Update: Apologies for the double-posting on this. After the first versions of these images went online over the weekend, Michael contacted me and pointed out that there was a more updated version of his plans of the boat than the one I’d used. These images, then, are corrected to reflect his most recent edition of the drawings. Most of the changes are small, but the boat has lost that beautiful-but-functionally-inexplicable curve in the profile of her stem (right, in an earlier model); that was apparently caused by exposure to the current and environment after the boat’s loss in 1864.
Digital model of the Confederate submersible H. L. Hunley, as she may have appeared in mid-February 1864, about the time of her successful attack on U.S.S. Housatonic off Charleston, South Carolina. The spar torpedo is based on recent findings announced in January 2013 by archaeologists at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, which is conserving the boat and its contents. Model based on plans by Michael Crisafulli. Full-sized images available on Flickr. All rights reserved.
More after the jump:
“Prize money” is a concept very familiar to maritime history buffs, or those who’ve read a lot of Forester or O’Brian. The idea was simply to provide a monetary incentive to naval personnel not just to destroy, but to capture intact, enemy vessels that could be either used as warships by their captors, or sold at auction to private owners. (Several ACW blockade runners went through this cycle several times.) A captured ship would be put through a legal proceeding — a “prize court” — and if “condemned,” it would be sold and (after deductions for expenses related to the appraisal, court costs and sale), the proceeds divided up among the crew of ships participating in the seizure of the vessel. The lion’s share of the money would be shared by the captain and officers of the capturing ship, on the assumption that they were more responsible for the capture than individual sailors; a successful cruise might set up a lucky naval captain for life, financially, while a sailor or ordinary seaman would collect enough for a wild evening of eating, drinking, and other, uh, forms of shoreside entertainment.
Prize money isn’t mentioned much in popular accounts of the ACW at sea, but it was nonetheless an important element in the minds of sailors in the Union blockading squadrons at the time. The Federals used a relatively complex formula at the time for apportioning prize money. After deductions for expenses, one-half of the money went straight to the government. Five percent went to the commander of the regional blockading squadron (in this case, the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron), and a further 1% went to the local squadron commander. These shares combine to account for 56% of the value of the prize.
The remaining 44% was divided among the officers and crew of the capturing vessel(s). This amount was split into 20 equal shares, with the captain taking 3 shares, the officers and midshipmen taking 10 shares, and the enlisted men dividing up the remaining 7 shares between them. Clear as mud, right? Here’s a made-up example to show how it worked:
Say a Union gunboat off Charleston, U.S.S. Hypothetical, captured a Confederate ship. Hypothetical has 1 captain, 10 officers and snotties, and 70 enlisted men in her crew. After deductions for the adjudication of the prize, the captured Confederate ship has a value of $10,000. With me so far? Here’s how that scenario would break out in terms of prize monies:
You can see immediately that a lucky and industrious ship’s captain could amass a substantial amount of money quickly, and a senior admiral on a prize-rich station – say, the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, off Cape Fear and Wilmington, North Carolina – could become wealthy indeed. The disparity of prize money distribution between the senior officers and ordinary seamen (who, after all, were exposed to most of the same risks) was a perennial complaint around mess tables in navies on both sides of the Atlantic:
A British cartoon from the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The officer asks the praying sailor if he’s afraid of the enemy. “Afraid? No!,” the sailor replies, “I was only praying that the enemy’s shot may be distributed in the same proportion as the prize money, the greatest part among the officers!”
Anyway, that’s how prize money was supposed to work in the Union navy during the Civil War. The case of Planter and her makeshift crew, though, had some unusual wrinkles. First, the Confederate steamer was not really captured in action, but rather simply ran out to the nearest Union warship (in this case, U.S.S. Onward), and surrendered. More important, Planter’s makeshift crew were not U.S. naval personnel, and so not eligible for prize money under normal circumstances. Samuel F. Du Pont (left, 1803-65), the flag officer commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, wasn’t sure how to handle the question of prize money in this case, but passed the question along to Washington. “I do not know whether. . . the vessel will be considered a prize,” Du Pont wrote in his report of the incident to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, “but, if so, I respectfully submit to the Department the claims of this man Robert [Smalls] and his associates.”
Welles may or may not have sorted out the legal complexities of the case for himself, but he hardly had time to consider it regardless. On May 19, 1862 – just six days after Planter’s daring run out of Charleston — Senator James W. Grimes of Iowa (right, 1816-72), a member of the Naval Committee, introduced legislation authorizing the Welles to have the steamer and its gear appraised, and half the values awarded to “Robert Small [sic.] and his associates who assisted in rescuing [Planter] from the enemies of the Government.” The legislation further instructed Welles to, at his discretion, invest the monies in U.S. securities and pay Smalls and his companions the interest “annually until such time as the Secretary of the Navy may deem it expedient to pay him or his heirs the principal sum.” In the House of Representatives, the Senate bill was held up briefly on procedural grounds by the infamous Copperhead, Clement Vallandigham of Ohio, but it passed a week later on May 26, 1862, by a vote of 121 to 9, with Vallandigham in the latter group. The bill was formally enrolled the next day, and signed by the president on May 30, just over two weeks after Smalls’ escape. The full act read:
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the Secretary of the Navy be, and he is hereby, authorized to cause the steam transport boat Planter, recently in the rebel service in the harbor of Charleston, and all of the arms, munitions, tackle, and other property on board of her at the time of her delivery to the Federal authorities, to be appraised by a board of competent officers, and when the value thereof shall be thus ascertained to cause an equitable apportionment of one-half of such value so ascertained as aforesaid to be made between Robert Small[s] and his associates who assisted in rescuing her from the enemies of the Government. Section 2. And be it further enacted, That the Secretary of the Navy may, if he deems it expedient, cause the sum of money allotted to each individual under the preceding section of this act to be invested in United States securities for the benefit of such individual, the interest to be paid to him or to his heirs annually until such time as the Secretary of the Navy may deem it expedient to pay to him or his heirs the principal sum as aforesaid.
The provision for Planter’s prize monies to be invested in securities and held indefinitely at the discretion of the Secretary of the Navy is, as far as I know, virtually unknown when it comes to regular U.S. naval personnel. To be sure, as with anything associated with governmental bureaucracy and accounting, delays, lost paperwork, and missing approvals were routine, and it was common for seamen and officers to wait many months, or even years, to receive the prize monies they’d earned during the war. (I once researched a case in which a Union officer’s claim against a civilian ship went all the way up to the Supreme Court, where he lost in late 1867. Or rather, his estate lost; the officer himself had died more than two years before.) But once prize money was cleared to be awarded, it was distributed. There’s little doubt that this case was handled as it was because the recipients were African Americans, former slaves, who were assumed to be unable to trusted to handle large sums of money wisely. It was well-intentioned, but patronizing and ultimately an insulting rationalization that kept Robert Smalls and his crew from receiving direct compensation for their actions for a long time, if ever.
Welles forwarded the text of the new legislation to Flag Officer Du Pont on June 6, along with instructions to have the captured steamboat appraised. In due course, Planter was inspected and assessed to be worth $9,000; the four loose guns, intended by the Confederates for the new battery being built on pilings in the middle of Charleston Harbor, were valued at an additional $168, for a total of $9,168. That number is strikingly low for a nearly-new steamboat in good operating condition, loaded with munitions; I may discuss that in another post. Regardless, under the legislation passed in May 1862, Smalls and his crew were entitled to half that amount, or $4,584. Du Pont ultimately divided the monies as follows:
How much was their prize money worth, in modern terms? An historical economist might say, “quite a bit” or “a lot.” In fact, there’s no single, direct answer to that question. There are a variety of formulae and indices used by economists to track the value of currency over time, and they give widely (and wildly) different results. Even in a single category, tracking income and wealth, the modern equivalent of the prize money awarded the crew of Planter varies between a low of around $106,000 to as high as $12M. The equivalent using unskilled labor as a basis of comparison pegs the modern equivalent at around $737,000, which seems very roughly in the ballpark to me.
Did Robert Smalls, William Morrison and the others ever see any of the principal of the money they’d been awarded by Congress? I’d like to say they eventually did, but if fact I don’t know. For certain, there would be plenty of people, in government and out, to whom the idea of turning over a large sum of money to freedmen and –women would be an anathema, and there were plenty of ways for them to rationalize cheating Smalls and the others of their hard-earned reward. (Think about the corrupt recruit depot quartermaster in the film Glory.) I hope they did eventually receive their prize money, along with the interest it had accrued.
 Rodman L. Underwood, Waters of Discord: The Union Blockade of Texas During the Civil War (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2003), 35.
 S. F. Du Pont to Gideon Welles, “Abduction of the Confederate steamer Planter from Charleston, S. C., May 13, 1862.” May 14, 1862. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, Series I, Vol. 12, 821.
 Congressional Globe, Senate, 37th Congress, 2nd Session, May 19, 1862, 2186-87; ibid., 2363; ibid., 2392; Statutes at Large, 37th Congress, 2nd Session, 904.
 Gideon Welles to S. F. Du Pont, “Letter from the Secretary of the Navy to Flag-Officer Du Pont, U. S. Navy, transmitting copy of an act of Congress in the case of Robert Smalls and others.” ORN, Series I, Vol. 12, 823.
Images: Top, escape of the steamer Planter by R. G. Skerrett, from the ORN. Images of Planter’s crew adapted from “Heroes in Ebony–The captors of the Rebel steamer Planter, Robert Small, W. Morrison, A. Gradine and John Small,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 21m 1862, via Library of Congress. Gridiron’s name is given elsewhere as “Gradine”; I’ve adopted the spelling used in official naval correspondence.
In my post about Robert Smalls and the “abduction” of the Confederate steamer Planter the other day, I overlooked the last two grafs of the Harper’s Weekly story which, line-for-line, may be the most interesting of the piece:
Our correspondent sends us a drawing of an infernal machine [i.e., a mine], drawn by one of the negro hands of the Planter named Morrison. This chattel, Morrison, gives the following account of himself:
Belonged to Emile Poinchignon [Poincignen]; by trade a tinsmith and plumber; has lived all his life in Charleston; was drum-major of the first regiment of the Fourth Brigade South Carolina Militia, and paraded on the 25th of last month; has a wife and two children in Montgomery, Alabama, whom he expects to see when the war is over. I asked him how he learned to read and write. Answer: “I stole it in the night, Sir.”
Okay, okay. Calling William Morrison a “black Confederate” seems pretty silly under the circumstances. But William Morrison must, in some ways, capture all the complexities of of the situation of many African American men in the Confederacy during the war. Through his trade as a craftsman, Morrison probably enjoyed better circumstances than the majority of enslaved persons in the South, but he remained bound by the system. He suffered from a long, distant absence from his wife and children — no doubt an involuntary one. He learned to read and write not through the efforts of a kind and paternal master, but secretly, though his own initiative — “I stole it in the night.” And when he saw the opportunity to steal himself from his master, he didn’t just run off, but did so in a way that would cause the largest possible damage and embarrassment on the Confederacy, in a way that would (not coincidentally) assure his own death if recaptured. And finally, when he did reach the Federal blockading fleet, he shared with them intelligence about Charleston’s harbor defenses: a mine that, by virtue of his skills as a tinsmith and plumber, he may have actually helped assemble with his own hands.
William Morrison was neither a “happy Negro,” nor a “faithful slave.” Next time someone points to a vague reference to an African American musician or otherwise connected to the Confederate military, and then waxes eloquent about that as evidence of black Confederates fighting for home and hearth against the Yankee invader, etc., etc., ask them about William Morrison of the steamboat Planter.________________
Image: Detail of the print, “Heroes in Ebony — The captors of the Rebel steamer Planter, Robert Small, W. Morrison, A. Gradine and John Small.” Library of Congress.
One hundred fifty years ago, Captain George Sholter James of the South Carolina Artillery passed word to his subordinate, Lieutenant Henry Farley, to open fire on Fort Sumter, a half-mile away to the east, with a ten-inch mortar positioned at Fort Johnson. The concussion of that first shell would reverberate for the next four years.
I’m not very good about remembering or observing anniversaries. (My wife will confirm this.) And I probably wouldn’t write anything at all about the bombardment of Fort Sumter, but for a piece that appeared Monday in the Washington Post‘s Civil War sesquicentennial blog, A House Divided. The blog itself is a group blog, which publishes short pieces by a variety of historians, written in response to specific questions. For Monday’s installment, the question was, “by attempting to resupply Ft. Sumter, did President Lincoln purposely provoke the war?” The selected respondents this time were Dennis Frye, Chief Historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park; Craig Symonds, Professor Emeritus at the United States Naval Academy, Mike Musick, former Subject Area Expert for the U.S. Civil War with the National Archives in Washington, D.C.; Brag Bowling, director of the Stephen D. Lee Institute and past Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, Sons of Confederate Veterans and past President of the Richmond Civil War Roundtable; John Marszalek, Giles Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history at Mississippi State University; and Lonnie Bunch, Founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Each of the authors has a slightly different take on the question, though most conclude that Lincoln’s efforts to resupply Sumter were explicitly not intended to provoke a shooting war. Bowling disagrees in an essay that is filled with common talking points about the Sumter crisis and Lincoln’s supposed Machiavellian plotting to “force” the Confederate artillerymen into firing the first shot. Bowling’s essay is a trimmed-down version of one he’d written a couple of weeks ago for the Georgia Heritage Council website.
A hundred fifty years (and a few days) ago, Major Robert Anderson quietly evacuated his command at Fort Moultrie, South Carolina, to Fort Sumter, an unfinished installation in Charleston Harbor. In doing so, he ceded the indefensible Moultrie to the South Carolina secessionists, and set the stage for the “Sumter crisis” that would play out over the next several weeks.
In the wake of South Carolina’s secession on December 20, Anderson’s orders from the Secretary of War, dated December 21, were somewhat contradictory. In the two-page memo, he is first enjoined, if attacked, to “defend yourself to the last extremity.” Then, he is reminded that “it is neither expected nor desired that you should expose your own life or that of your men in a hopeless conflict in defense of the Forts. If they are invested or attacked by a force so superior that resistance would in you judgment be a useless waste of life it would be your duty to yield to necessity and make the best terms in your power.”
Even as the War Department sent those orders, a delegation from South Carolina was en route to Washington to demand the surrender of Moultrie and the other U.S. military installations around Charleston Harbor. Both sides expected the Buchanan administration to refuse, and both sides then expected Moultrie to be overrun by South Carolina militia called up in response to that state’s withdrawal from the Union. The outcome seemed pre-ordained.
What Anderson did on December 26, on his own initiative, was change the game from the way both Washington and the secessionists expected it eventually to play out. Between six and eight p.m., Anderson spiked Moultrie’s guns, burned their carriages, cut down the flagpole and transferred his entire command to Sumter. The next day, in response to an incredulous telegram from a War Department caught blindsided by his action, Anderson wired back:
The telegram is correct. I abandoned Fort Moultrie because I was certain that, if attacked, my men must have been sacrificed and the command of the harbor lost. I spiked the guns and destroyed the carriages to keep the guns from being used against us. If attacked, the garrison would never have surrendered without a fight.
Anderson speaks here explicitly to his commitment to both the men of his command and to his mission as a soldier — had he waited for the expected assault on Moultrie, “my men must have been sacrificed and the command of the harbor lost.” In a letter to his wife, dated at the time for their arrival at Sumter, Anderson (like many of his contemporaries) credits God with guiding the wisdom of his action:
Fort Sumter, S. C.,
8 P. M., Dec. 26, 1860.
Thanks be to God. I give them with my whole heart for His having given me the will, and shewn me the way to bring my command to this Fort. I can now breathe freely. The whole force of S. Carolina would not venture to attack us. Our crossing was accomplished between six and eight o’clock. I am satisfied that there was no suspicion of what we were going to do. I have no doubt that the news of what I have done will be telegraphed to New York this night. We saw signal rockets thrown up all around just as our last boat came over. I have not time to write more—as I must make my report to the Ad. Genl. . . . Praise be to God for His merciful kindness to us. I think that the whole country North and South should thank Him for this step.
I like that last line, “I think that the whole country North and South should thank Him for this step.” I doubt either side did at the time, but I think Anderson was right — he thought (to use a bad, modern cliche) “outside the box” and pushed back the direct, armed conflict for more than three months.
In its ongoing Civil War series, “A House Divided,” the Washington Post asks several prominent historians whether evacuating Moultrie was Anderson’s best option. So far Joan Waugh, Frank J. Williams, and Scott Hartwig all agree: Major Anderson had no alternative, short of outright capitulation. Hartwig:
Anderson had 74 officers and men in two artillery companies at Ft. Moultrie, but after deducting the noncombatants – musicians, sick and those under arrest for various reasons – his effective strength was about half that. Moultrie’s purpose was for its guns to cover the channel leading from the open sea into Charleston harbor, not defend against an attack from the rear. The fort’s defenses were so vulnerable to land attack that no competent army officer would have considered attempting to defend it. Wind had blown sand up so high against the fort’s walls that cattle could climb up, walk through the embrasures and onto the parapet. Sand dunes east of the fort rose higher than the fort’s walls and provided excellent firing positions for an attacker. All of the buildings in the fort except for the fortifications were wood and easily burned. There were private houses on the east side of the fort and cottages on the west side, which could provide additional cover for an attacker. But a competent attacker did not need to assault the fort. Sitting on a peninsula of Sullivan’s Island it could easily be cut off and the garrison starved into surrender.
Following the December 20 secession of South Carolina, Anderson learned that preparations were underway to attack Moultrie if the negotiations between South Carolina’s commissioners and the Buchanan administration failed to secure its surrender. Anderson already knew that Buchanan probably would not surrender the fort so it was necessary to act quickly. Fort Sumter was the only defensible point available to Anderson and his small garrison. It could not be attacked by land and could be reinforced and resupplied by water. On the evening of December 26, in a cleverly planned and executed operation, the garrison made the transfer from Moultrie to Sumter without incident.
Though it infuriated the secessionists at the time, who thought they’d been played (they had), it seems clear now that Anderson’s move was the correct one, both politically and militarily. It held off direct, armed conflict, maintained a symbolic U.S. military presence at Charleston, and bought both sides more than three months’ time to reach a peaceful resolution to the dispute. In modern parlance, Anderson “dialed it back” by evacuating Moultrie and removing his men to Sumter. More to the point, it’s hard to see why Anderson would do anything else; although a pro-slavery Kentuckian and a former slaveholder himself, he saw his first allegiance to his assignment, and to his immediate command. Anderson couldn’t control events outside Moultrie’s walls, but he recognized that both Washington and the secessionists had effectively locked themselves into courses of action that would have destroyed his command and yielded any U.S. control over the harbor. In the absence of clear directives from Washington, he responded to them as a professional soldier should, with careful deliberation and planning, followed by decisive execution, in a way that gave the government — both governments — time and options to avert the looming crisis.
Robert E. Lee famously cast his lot with Virginia and the Confederacy, but that only came months later, when he felt his own, home state was threatened. Had Lee been in command at Moultrie in December 1860, I suspect he would have done exactly the same thing.
Ed. Note: The post has been extensively rewritten in response to a reader’s inquiry in the comments, below. Thanks to him for providing the impetus for this. Image: Evacuation of Fort Moultrie by W. R. Waud, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.
The language of the S.C. Declaration is so straightforward, so unambiguous that it is difficult to comprehend that there ever could have been any disagreement over what drove South Carolina to secede. So before any more breath is wasted in arguing about just what our state will be commemorating on Monday, we are reprinting the Declaration on this page. We would urge anyone who doubts that our state seceded in order to preserve slavery — or, for that matter, anyone who has come to accept the fiction that slavery was merely one of several cumulative causes — to read this document.
What we found most striking in rereading the Declaration was the complete absence of any other causes. After laying out the argument that the states retained a right to secede if the Union did not fulfill its constitutional and contractual obligations, the document cited the one failing of the United States: its refusal to enforce the constitutional provision requiring states to return escaped slaves to their owners. “This stipulation was so material to the compact,” the document declares, “that without it that compact would not have been made.”
There is room for disagreement over whether we can fairly judge the morality of the secessionists by the standards of 2010. There is room to debate whether the men who fought for the Confederacy believed they were simply fighting to defend their state, without regard to why their state needed defending, or to what role slavery played in the social order. There might even be room to debate what motivated other states to leave the Union.
But those are debates that need to be had honestly, based on what really happened 150 years ago. Pretending that anything other than slavery played a significant role in South Carolina’s secession is not honest, as the secessionists themselves made a point of telling the world with such abundant clarity.
Too small for a republic. . . .
On Friday, University of Texas at Austin President William Powers Jr. issued a statement calling on the university’s Board of Regents to change the name of Simkins Hall, a dorm for graduate and law students. The dorm, built in the 1950s, is named for a famed UT law professor who was a Confederate officer and, as a recent publication points out, a senior leader of the Ku Klux Klan in Florida during Reconstruction and a lifelong, unabashed defender of the “Invisible Empire” throughout his later tenure at the university. The Board of Regents is likely to consider the president’s recommendation at a meeting this week.
William Stewart Simkins (1842-1929) was a well-known member of the faculty at the University of Texas, teaching there from 1899 to 1929. Although he officially attained emeritus status in 1923, he continued to lecture weekly until his death. “Colonel Simkins,” as he was sometimes called, was a memorable teacher, and something of a character. He was grumpy and irritable. He drank whiskey and once got into a famous argument with the temperance leader Carrie Nation. “Many students were scared of him,” one old alum wrote, “but I always got on well with him and did well in his class.”
Simkins was a South Carolinian by birth, and enrolled at the Citadel in the years just before the outbreak of the Civil War. In January 1861, it was Cadet Simkins who sounded the alarm when lookouts sighted Star of the West, a civilian steamer sent by the Buchanan administration to bring supplies to the Federal garrison at Fort Sumter. (Some contemporary accounts credit Simkins with firing the initial gun, widely recognized as the first shot of the Civil War.) Simkins was subsequently commissioned as an artillery officer in a South Carolina battery, participated in the defense of Charleston Harbor in 1863, and ended the war in 1865 as a colonel.
After the war, Simkins settled in Florida, where he and his older brother, Eldred James Simkins (1838-1903), soon helped organize that state’s Ku Klux Klan. By his own admission, William Stewart Simkins played a central role in coordinating that organization’s violence and intimidation against both white “carpetbaggers” and African Americans who challenged the prewar social or political order. Simkins not only acknowledged his role in the Klan’s violent activities, he fairly bragged about his own deeds. In an infamous speech he gave fifteen years after joining the UT faculty — and a half-century after the war — Simkins told of how he ambushed an African American state senator who had spoken out publicly against Simkins’ and his friends’ publication of a anti-Reconstructionist newspaper:
Now in the same town there was a negro [sic.] by the name of Robert Meacham who was. . . brought up as a domestic servant in a refined Southern family and absorbed much of the courteous manner of the old regime. He had been highly honored by the Republican party; in fact, had been made temporary chairman of the so-called Constitutional Convention heretofore referred to. He was at the time of which I am now speaking State Senator and Postmaster in the town. I could hardly exaggerate his influence among the negroes; glib of tongue, he swayed them to his purpose whether for good or evil; in a word, he was their idol. On one occasion he was delivering a very radical speech in which he referred to the paper which we were editing as that “dirty little sheet.” He was correct as to the word “little,” for it was not much larger than a good size pocket handkerchief; but it was exceedingly warm, a fact which had excited his ire. The next day, being informed by a friend who was present of Meacham’s remark, I called upon him at the post-office and asked an interview. With his usual courtesy he bowed and said he would come over to my office as soon as he had distributed the mail. I cut a stick, carried it up to the office and hid it under my desk. Within an hour he appeared. I told him to take a seat, but I could see that he suspected something unusual as he began to back towards the door. I saw that I was going to lose the opportunity of an interview, so I grabbed the stick and made for him. Now, my office was the upper story of a merchandise building approached on the side by wooden stairs. I hardly think that he touched one of those steps going down; it was a case of aerial navigation to the ground. This gave him the start of me. He was pursued up to the postoffice door and through a street filled with negroes and yet not a hand was raised or word said in his defense, nor was the incident ever noticed by the authorities. The unseen power was behind me. Had I attempted anything of the kind a year before I would have been mobbed or suffered the penalties of the law.
In modern-day Texas, this would be considered aggravated assault — a first-degree felony when committed against a public servant.
Simkins’ active involvement with the Klan may have ended when he and his brother came to Texas and began practicing law in Corsicana in the early 1870s, but his open admiration and promotion of the Klan did not. He continued to be an outspoken champion of the “Invisible Empire” throughout his decades on the faculty in Austin. Simkins’ 1914 Thanksgiving Day speech, excerpted above, was so popular that he gave it again on Thanksgiving the following year, 1915, a date which is widely accepted as the rebirth of the Klan in the 20th century. The speech was subsquently published in the UT alumni magazine, The Alcade.
Professor Simkins’ role as a founder of the Ku Klux Klan in Florida had largely been forgotten until this past spring, when Tom Russell, a law professor at the University of Denver, published a paper (PDF download) on the Klan and its sympathizers as a force that had worked steadily behind the scenes at UT to exclude African American students. Russell had first encountered Simkins’ history when Russell himself had been a faculty member in Austin in the 1990s. Russell presented his paper in March at a conference on the UT campus on the history on integration of the school, and publicly called for Simkins Hall to be renamed. The story was quickly picked up in blogs and editorials, and coverage in the Wall Street Journal and on television news soon followed.
It’s important to remember the time at which the decision was made to name the new dormitory after Professor Simkins. An editorial in the campus newspaper, the Daily Texan, points out that the 1954 decision came just weeks after the Supreme Court issued its famous Brown v. Board of Education ruling. But it’s likely that the regents who considered and approved the move were thinking at least as much about an earlier decision, Sweatt v. Painter (1950), in which a unanimous Supreme Court had rejected Texas’ refusal to admit an African American man, Heman Marion Sweatt, to the University of Texas School of Law on the grounds that there was no other public law school in the state of similar caliber open to African Americans. The Sweatt case was another nail in the coffin of separate-but-equal as enshrined in Plessy, and the State of Texas fought hard against it, going so far as to secure a six-month delay in state court quickly to establish a blacks-only law school at Texas Southern University in Houston — now the Thurgood Marshall School of Law. Considering the rancor that surrounded the Sweatt case — a cross was burned in front of the law school during Sweatt’s first semester — it’s hard to believe that just four years later, when it came time to name the new law school dormitory building, old Professor Simkins’ infamous Thanksgiving lectures, attended by hundreds of enthusiastic and applauding students, had been forgotten.
Russell’s call to remove Simkins’ name from the dorm has generated a lot of interest, and much controversy. Russell has continued to be a strong and steadfast advocate for the change, reminding critics that the issue here is not Simkins’ service as a Confederate officer during the war, but his active involvement with the Klan in the years following, and his enthusiastic support of the violence and intimidation they employed. “Please note that I have no problem with Colonel Simkinsʼs service as a Confederate soldier,” Russell wrote in an opinion piece in The Horn, the UT online news site. “Confederate and Union soldiers alike fought with honor. No one should confuse Confederate soldiers with Klansman. Doing so dishonors the soldiers by equating them with criminals.” I’m not certain, based on his manuscript, that Professor Russell is entirely sincere in drawing a bright line between the conduct of klansmen and wartime Confederates more generally; it may be more of a calculation than a conviction.
Nonetheless, Simkins Hall has got to go.
The Board of Regents is widely expected to accept President Powers’ recommendation to rename Simkins Hall this week. The facility’s new name would be “Creekside Dormitory.”
Additional: At the end of the third-to-last paragraph above, I observed that Professor Russell’s distinction between the action of klansmen like Simkins and Confederate soldiers as a whole was “more of a calculation than a conviction.” After thinking about it a little more, I’m convinced of it, but my comment was somewhat flip and unduly harsh. It’s effective strategy. In adding that short paragraph to his op-ed, Professor Russell takes a necessary and practical step to narrow the focus of his campaign. I have no idea what Russell’s views on the Civil War or the Confederacy are generally, but he very wisely keeps the focus here on Simkins, both his actions as a klansman during Reconstruction and his advocacy for the Klan in the decades that followed. The removal of Simkins’ name from the dorm is an easy case to make, on its own merits; allowing others to redirect the debate into one about the Confederacy (or “political correctness,” or the late Senator Robert Byrd, etc.) is wrong. In three sentences, Russell keeps the focus exactly where it should be in this case, on whether or not a major university should retain the name on one of its dormitories of a man whose explicit and enthusiastically-held actions and attitudes are so entirely out of line with the values the institution stands for. By excluding the Confederacy and the war from his central argument, Russell pares his campaign to its central and essential element, reducing it to a core that is effectively impossible to argue against on its own merits. That’s good lawyering.
Additional, Pt. 2: Tom Russell has a column on this case at the Huffington Post.