Wreck of the Steamship Celt, 1865
This Library of Congress image is one of the most famous of Civil War blockade runners, but it’s almost never identified — only the location is given, on the shore of Sullivan’s Island, near Charleston. I believe this is the wreck of the sidewheel steamer Celt, ashore just off Fort Moultrie. Although the specific location of this image is not recorded in the LoC catalog information, during the war period there was only one point on Sullivan’s Island with a stone jetty or breakwater extending into the water like the one shown in the foreground of the image. That was Bowman’s Jetty, which entered the water directly in front of Moultrie. Jetties like that are commonly used on barrier islands like Sullivan’s to reduce erosion from currents running parallel to the shore.
This sketch map from the NOAA archives, prepared at the end of the war in 1865 — roughly the same time the photograph was made — shows the wreck site of Celt close up on the beach, with the wrecks of two screw steamers, Minho (lost October 2, 1862) and Isaac Smith (a.k.a. Stono, destroyed June 5, 1863), further out along the jetty. As Isaac Smith/Stono was burned, it seems likely that the wrecked ship in the background is Minho.
Celt was built at Charleston during the war, which helps explain the relatively simple machinery construction apparent in the image. Launched in 1863, the 160-foot steamship she was used by the C.S. Quartermaster in and around the harbor until February 1865, when she was loaded with cotton and attempted to run out through the blockade. Celt was wrecked near Moultrie on February 14, 1865. Although the steamer was grounded in shallow water, yards from the beach, six or seven of her crew took to a boat and rowed out to a Federal warship instead. Her cargo, or most of it, also ended up in the Federals’ hands (ORN):
Report of Lieutenant-Commander Barrett, U. S. Navy, commanding U. S. S. Catskill. U. S. IRONCLAD CATSKILL, Charleston Harbor, S. C., February 20, 1865. ADMIRAL: I have the honor to report that on the morning of the 18th instant I ordered an officer to board and hoist our colors on the blockade runner Celt, which had run ashore near the breakwater off Sullivan’s Island two or three days before the evacuation of this place. The runner has a valuable cargo of cotton, but the vessel is in too bad condition to be serviceable, [and] I am of the opinion that she can not be floated off without danger of sinking, and advise that the cotton may be removed. Very respectfully, your obedient servant, EDWARD BARRETT, Lieutenant-Commander. Rear-Admiral J. A. DAHLGREN, Commanding. South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.
The Federals recovered at least 190 bales of cotton from the wreck, but reported in early March that Celt‘s hull “lies stranded on the beach at Sullivan’s Island, back broken, and full of water, and decks ripped up. The machinery is in an irreparable condition; some few pieces might be removed and be of service. Boilers are mostly below water, but judging from the condition of those parts visible, we are of the opinion they are not worth the expense of removing.” This is a good description of her state in the photograph, as well.
There’s some interesting detail in the photograph that hint at the vessel’s origins as a local craft built under the exigencies of wartime. Celt has two engines (left, above) that, while partially submerged, appear to be arranged as in a Western Rivers boat, and the valving shown looks to be almost identical. Such engines were reliable and simple but not overly efficient. They also operated under very high pressure compared to most seagoing ships, and so may have required a more robust set of boilers. Similarly, the paddlewheels are of very simple construction, with wooden arms and fixed floats (paddle blades). As with the engines, this is a very basic design, easy to build and maintain, but not efficient and somewhat coarse by shipbuilding standards of the time.
Modern aerial view of Fort Moultrie (via Google Earth), with the remains of Bowman’s Jetty still visible at upper right. The beach has extended further out from its position in 1865, placing (it is believed) the wreck of Celt under the sand.
The wreck site of Celt, as well as Isaac Smith/Stono and Minho, was the subjects of an extensive archaeological survey in 2012 by a team from the University of South Carolina. Although what remains of Celt is now believed to be under sand, some distance back from the shore, the wreck was not located at that time.
The original images was part of a stereo pair. Here is is in red/cyan, and as an animated GIF: