Into Action Aboard a Monitor at Charleston
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.