Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Heroes Get Remembered, but Legends Never Die: The Ongoing Fascination with USS Monitor

Today marks the 151st anniversary of the sinking of the USS Monitor.  It is as much a front story headline over a hundred and fifty years ago as it remains today.  The burial of the two unidentified sailors at Arlington National Cemetery in March hit worldwide popularity among the major news outlets.  It is by far one of the most intriguing stories of the American Civil War.  But why?  

This post is but one of many written about the Monitor today.  That is no secret.  It's an anniversary, after all.  In a block of major commemorations already occurring (WWII, 1812, WWI, Korea), it seems only natural.  Our own American love affair with commemorations continue to drive many history-based blogs and social media outlets such as the CWN 150.  History happens within these parameters.  The job of the historian and the general public is to remember it in whatever way they seem fit: ceremonies, stories, publications, lectures, etc.  It is an unspoken "social contract" Civil War enthusiasts signed back in 2011 at the commemoration's beginning.  The story of the Monitor, however, is still alive and thriving.  Others already faded into the distant sleep of the bicentennial.  

Battlefields around the country also received their attention this year.  Thousands of visitors braved the heat and flocked to the Gettysburg and Vicksburg sesquicentennial commemorations.  Their stories certainly deserve equal praise and reverence.  What is particularly interesting about the USS Monitor, now 151 years later, is its adaptability.  Her story constantly evolves.  Like some creature lost in the evolutionary chain, the men of the Monitor adapt to the changing time periods. 

Dozens of books about the Monitor currently line your book store's Civil War section.  The majority of these published over the course of the last decade.  Timeliness is next to godliness.  Many monographs claim "new developments" or "uncovered history."  This is perhaps an intentional play on the ship's 2002 recovery.  Even after the hoopla of the ship's sesquicentennial anniversary during the Battle of Hampton Roads in 2012, books, articles, and news stories continue to surface.  Far beyond the typical "15 minutes" of historical fame, the Monitor has overstayed its welcome.  We are okay with that.

The continued fascination exists on everything from wine bottles to memorial plaques and challenge coins.  In the grand scheme of collective memory, the Monitor is THE BRAND for the Civil War navies.  At a time when branding takes up so much time and energy for museums and institutions around the world, enthusiasts for this subject have known theirs for years.  Whether you like the publicity or not, the Monitor is here to stay.  

Heroes get remembered.  Legends like the Monitor, however, never die.  That is a promise as ironclad as the ship itself.  

Here's to 151 years.  As you toast your champagne tonight, save a little bit for the Monitor boys.    

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Refugee Rangers

A Union militia soldier who may have served in the "Refugee Rangers" in Florida. Source:  Florida Dept. of State Photo Archives

In December 1863, Adm. Theodorus Bailey, commanding the E. Gulf Blockading Squadron, was approached by Mr. Enoch Daniels, a Unionist refugee living in the Charlotte Harbor area, who requested permission to assemble a volunteer company from among the other Unionist refugees in the area and at Key West. They would form a raiding party that could work in conjunction with Union military forces, attacking, capturing and/or destroying southern property and more importantly, attempting to disrupt the round-up and transport north of beef cattle to feed the southern armies. The U.S. Army would arm and equip this unit, and the Navy would transport them to embarkation points and lend them heavy gun support as long as they were within range. This endeavor was approved, and Daniels formed a company of refugees designated by the Army as the “Florida Rangers,” but Adm. Bailey liked to refer to them as the “Refugee Rangers.”

In late 1863, the Rangers were ready to take the offensive. On 24 December 1863, Lt. Baxter of the Gem of the Sea sent an armed boat party of 14 men in the ship’s launch and cutter, under the command of Acting Ensign J.H. Jenks, to link up with Daniels and 15 men of the Refugee Rangers at Useppa Island. The ship’s landing party also towed with them two small boats for the rangers’ use. Daniels directed the landing party to a location on the Myakka River (“Myacca” in the ORN reports) to go ashore, where they landed on 25 December. The Rangers headed inland to make trouble, while Jenks and his party of bluejackets established a defensive position on the beach to await the Rangers’ return and evacuate them. The understanding was that the Rangers’ party would be back in 7 days. On 28 December, the US Sloop Rosalie arrived at the landing site to help provide additional cover and fire support. The next day the sailors conducted additional reconnaissance in the area and relocated the USN shore camp to a location with a better defensive position.

Early the morning of 30 December, the sailors heard noises in the brush next to their camp, indicating “ . . . men were crawling toward them.” Jenks at first thought it was Daniel’s party returning to the landing site and he hailed, “Who comes there?” The reply came, “Captain Daniels and his men.” Jenks ordered them to halt and give the countersign agreed upon to confirm their identity. The response was a hail of musket and shotgun fire from what was estimated to be 40 Confederate troops. The sailors returned fire and fell back to their boats. When they were out of the line of fire, the Rosalie opened fire on the ambushing troops with her 12-pdr boat howitzer with canister and grape and additional musket fire from seamen on the deck. The firepower of the Rosalie was invaluable and no doubt saved the lives of most of the USN landing party. Jenks returned to the Gem of the Sea with one wounded seaman and to reprovision. He was able to carry off all of the weapons, camp equipage and material from their beachhead with minimal loss.

Baxter sent the ship’s boats and the Rosalie back to the landing site to await Daniel’s return. On 1 January 1864 the sailors returned to the bark with Daniels and five of his men. Six of his original 15 men had deserted after they landed on 25 December, and it is likely that at least some of them were involved in the ambush of the USN shore party on 30 December. Four men were still “at large” ashore, having become separated from Daniel’s party. These intrepid four eventually made their way over to the Peace River, found a small schooner, captured the ship and returned in it to the Gem of the Sea.

Historian George Buker believes that the E. Gulf Squadron's close ties with local Unionists, including the formation of the Refugee Rangers (who eventually became the Second Florida Cavalry, US), and their initiative to organize an infantry regiment of escaped slaves as the Second Florida USCT, represent a signature achievement which is not recognized today by many Civil War scholars.

Skirmish between Confederate cavalry and Union raiding party, possibly a group of the Refugee Rangers. Source:  Florida Dept. of State Photo Archive.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

St. Andrews Bay Salt Works Raids 1863

1860's sketch of the Florida coast showing St. Andrews Bay (lower right). Source:  Florida Dept. of State photo archive.

In earlier posts (3 Feb 2012 and 4 Oct 2012) we highlighted the importance of salt to the Confederacy, Florida’s role as a main producer of salt, and the Union Navy’s efforts to destroy salt works along the Florida gulf coast. In his book “Blockaders, Refugees and Contrabands. Civil War on Florida’s Gulf Coast”, George Buker notes that the initial salt works raids were harassing efforts, conducted incidental to other blockade activities. The strategic importance of salt to the Confederacy was not apparent to the East Gulf Squadron command until they noted that nearly every blockade runner captured contained salt as at least a portion of its cargo. It was then that the squadron command realized that a concentrated effort to find and destroy these works would be a major strategic blow to the Confederate war effort. In December 1863 these focused raids began, concentrating on the epicenter of Florida salt production, St. Andrews Bay.

On 2 December 1863 the bark USS Restless, Acting Master William R. Browne commanding, sent a landing party in to Lake Ocala in St. Andrews Bay. They found three separate works with a total capacity of 130 bushels per day. The landing party destroyed carts and flat boats, disposed of the salt, and took 17 prisoners, whom they released because they didn’t have room to bring them back to the gunboat. They made the southerners swear an oath of allegiance to not take up arms against the Union.

Hearing of Browne’s exploits, Acting Ensign Edwin Crissey, commanding the steam gunboat USS Bloomer, sought out the Restless and offered to assist Browne and his ship. Crissey and his ships were actually with the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, but his proximity to the East Gulf Squadron’s operations area enabled him to help there. On 10 December 1863, the USN flotilla entered St. Andrews Bay and split up into two enterprises. Browne fired two shells into the town of St. Andrew (present-day Panama City) to warn the Confederate soldiers and salt workers garrisoned there. He then commenced shelling the town, which shortly was burning. The entire town was destroyed by the fire.

Crissey and his men landed in West Bay and proceeded to the salt works there. From his report dated 20 December 1863 he described a major raid on these:

 At 5 p.m. I proceeded to the salt works on West Bay, destroying the salt works lined on each side of the bay for 7 miles, belonging to private individuals, numbering at least 198 different works, each averaging two boilers and ten kettles each, which, with a large quantity of salt, were destroyed. . . . . On the afternoon of the 14th we came to a large Confederate Government works, under the command of Mr. Clendening, which turned out daily 400 bushels of salt. This was one of the best located in West Bay, being situated in a marsh, the water of which yielded 75 gallons of salt to 100 gallons of water; it was, in fact, a complete salt village, covering a space of three-fourths of a square mile, employing many hands and 16 ox and mule teams constantly to haul salt to Eufola Sound [Eufaula, Ala?], and from thence conveyed to Montgomery, at which place it is selling at a fabulous price of $40 and $45 per bushel. At this place were 27 buildings, 22 large steam boilers, and 200 kettles, averaging 200 gallons each, which cost the Government $5 per gallon, all of which were totally destroyed, together with storehouses containing salt, etc. This work, together with the other works, could not have cost less than three million dollars.”

Notable from this report is Crissey’s description of one of these works as “a complete salt village” and his estimate of the total value of the works he destroyed, on the order of $3 million. In today’s dollars that would certainly translate into tens of millions.

An 1886 Navigation Chart of St. Andrews Bay is on the NOAA historical maps site at:
http://historicalcharts.noaa.gov/tile /zoomifypreview.html?zoomifyImagePath=LC00184_12_1886 . A living history event, the St. Andrews Bay Salt Works Raid, is held in April in Panama City to educate folks about these Union Navy raids and the importance of salt to the Confederacy.

Replica salt kettle at a park in Panama City, FL commemorating salt production during the Civil War.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Portion of CSS Georgia retrieved from Savannah River

When Savannah, Georgia fell to Federal forces in December 1864, the CSS Georgia was among the warships scuttled by the retreating Confederates.  The ironclad, really little more than a floating battery due to propulsion problems, has remained in the Savannah River ever since.  Over the years salvage operations, channel dredging, and other activities have disturbed the ironclad's site.  Some of the ship's guns and other artifacts were recovered as part of archeological investigations starting in 1979.  But with plans to enlarge the river channel, the remains were at risk.  The Army Corps of Engineers, Savannah District, which is responsible for maintaining the ship channel, has long looked for ways to preserve the remains of the Georgia.  On Tuesday, November 12, 2013, those efforts brought a 2 1/2 ton portion of the ironclad to the surface.  From the US Army website:

Army Corps, U.S. Navy retrieve piece of Civil War ironclad from Savannah River 

Savannah, Ga. (Nov. 13, 2013) -- Archeologists working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Savannah District, aided by divers and salvage operations teams from the U.S. Navy, retrieved a 64-square-foot section of a Civil War ironclad warship from the bottom of the Savannah River here, the evening of Nov. 12.

The divers worked in strong currents with near-zero visibility during the past week to assess the possibility of lifting a small piece of the Confederate ship's casemate for archeological testing.

A crane lifted it onto a barge anchored near historic Old Fort Jackson on the eastern edge of Savannah. Experts estimate the piece weighs more than 5,000 pounds.

The Confederate navy scuttled the CSS Georgia in 1864, as Union troops approached Savannah. The iron-covered ship remained on the river bottom until 1969, when a dredge removing sediment from the shipping channel struck a portion of the ship, according to Julie Morgan, staff archeologist for the Corps' Savannah District. A brief recovery effort in the late 1980s removed two cannons, various types of munitions and other artifacts.

"This retrieval will play a major role in creating a research design to effectively remove the CSS Georgia before expanding the shipping channel along this stretch of the Savannah River," said Morgan. "It took a dedicated team working in some very tough conditions to bring this piece to the surface."

Over time, the ship's casemate, the iron-covered upper portion of the warship, came apart. The small portion removed Nov. 12 will give archeologists the ability to assess the condition of the remainder of the ship, according to Morgan, and ensure the team follows protocols from the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.

The Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, or SHEP, includes removal and preservation of CSS Georgia, which sits immediately adjacent to the shipping channel. The SHEP will deepen Savannah's harbor from its current 42-foot depth to 47 feet, greatly expanding its capability to handle larger cargo vessels. (Original article.)

The Savannah District Flickr page has a few photographs from the recovery operation already posted.  The first shows the barge and rig used to recover the armored casemate section:

Corps retrieves piece of Civil War ironclad from Savannah River

The next shows recovery well under way: Corps retrieves piece of Civil War ironclad from Savannah River

Lastly, the section is shown on the barge: Corps retrieves piece of Civil War ironclad from Savannah River

Hopefully, more of the ship will come to the surface before long and go through the conservation process for eventual display. The "science" behind recovery of Civil War ironclads has come a long way since the USS Cairo and CSS Neuse were brought up.  

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Hillsborough River Raid

Unadilla-Class gunboat USS Tahoma.  Source:  Naval History and Heritage Command via the Florida State Archives
The Hillsborough River drains into Hillsborough Bay, a northeastern "arm" of Tampa Bay on the west central Gulf coast of Florida. In the fall of 1863, Lt. Commander A. A. Semmes (cousin of the famed Confederate raider captain  Raphael Semmes) of the USS Tahoma received intelligence that the Confederate steamer Scottish Chief and sloop Kate Dale were moored up the Hillsborough River, loaded with cotton and ready to run the blockade. Joined by the side wheel steam gunboat USS Adela (itself a captured and converted blockade runner), he dispatched six boats on 16 October with a landing force of 100 sailors and marines, plus officers and guides, under the command of his Executive Officer, Acting Master Thomas R. Harris.

Illustration of the side-wheel steam gunboat USS Adela by one of it's crew.  Source:  Naval History and Heritage Command.

Putting ashore near Ballast Point, the landing party made their way by land up the Hillsborough River. They at first tried to bring with them a small boat to cross the river, but eventually had to leave the boat in a hiding place, due to the difficulty of transporting it. Master Harris later wrote in his after action report:

After this we moved along very rapidly under the direction of our excellent guides, and reached the banks of the Hillsboro (sic) River about 4 a.m. October 17, having marched about 14 miles. Having stationed lookouts, the party lay down till daylight. Shortly after daylight we discovered the steamer and sloop on the opposite side of the river about 9 miles above us. The force was immediately moved to a point opposite of where they lay and those on board ordered to send a boat to us. When the boat reached [us] I sent Acting Ensigns Randall and Balch, with a suitable number of men, on board of the vessels, where they made prisoners of all except two, who escaped on the Tampa side. Hauling the vessels over, I fired both effectually.”

The landing party returned to the beach area where they came ashore, and boats were dispatched from the gunboats to retrieve them. The Confederate forces had by now been alerted to the presence of the naval landing party, and sent troops to pursue them. An intense firefight ensued between the navy men and southern troops, a mix of infantry and dismounted cavalry. Union casualties were three killed, six wounded, and four taken prisoner.

Ship's boat crewed by USN sailors landing marines at the Hillsborough River Raid re-enactment in 2010.  Source:  USS Ft. Henry web site.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Rowboats, Davids target New Ironsides

(Image from United States Navy Library)
Glassell first tried to attack New Ironsides from a rowboat, but the development of the Davids held far more promise of success in destroying the Union's largest warship in Charleston.
Navy Lieutenant W.T. Glassell was furious that his faithful service was being questioned when he landed in Philadelphia in early 1862.  He was coming off a long tour that had taken him and the crew of 25-gun screw sloop Hartford to the East Indies Squadron. Even when threatened with imprisonment, he insisted that the oath he already had taken to uphold the Constitution was more than sufficient for now. 
Although he wrote out a letter of resignation dated Dec. 4, 1861, it was never delivered. In these testy days following First Manassas and Ball’s Bluff, a Virginia-born officer’s word was not good enough.  He was “dismissed” from the Navy in December. Little could the Union authorities who cashiered him after 15 years of service and sent Glassell to Fort Warren in Boston harbor without trial know that they soon would be fighting one of the Confederacy’s most daring officers in a nasty new kind of war.

Long after the war, Glassell wrote that those eight months hardened him in such a way that “even President Hayes would now acknowledge that it was my right, if not my duty to act the part of the belligerent” after being exchanged as a prisoner of war in a conflict he hadn’t then joined.

 Now, the 30-year-old left the rank of the neutrals and accepted a lieutenant’s commission in the officer-rich and ship-poor Confederate Navy with orders to report to Charleston.  From the time when the South Carolina  port city hosted the convention that took the state out of the Union in December 1860 through the almost 34-hour bombardment of Fort Sumter in April 1861, punishing and recapturing Charleston assumed an intensity in the Lincoln administration’s war plans that rivaled the “On to Richmond” cry of the North’s newspapers.

Glassell was entering the cockpit of the asymmetric defensive strategy of the chastened Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, still a hero in the Low Country for Sumter and his victory at First Manassas. President Jefferson Davis had found Beauregard irritating as a commander outside of Washington and irascible as a commander in the West.  He used the general’s unasked for leave to recuperate from the battle strain of Shiloh and the evacuation of Corinth as the reason to oust him from command of the Army of the Mississippi in late June 1862.

The “Little Creole” took his time that September in studying the defenses already in place after being  ordered to what seemed a backwater in a shooting war. But the reception he received upon his arrival from citizens and authorities like Governor Francis Pickens soothed his feelings. He would do his best in Charleston until he received orders to again lead troops into battle. Barely waiting for his predecessor John C. Pemberton to take command of forces near Vicksburg, Beauregard wanted more and better obstructions – from ripping up the city’s cobblestone streets to slow down invaders on the water to laying mines carefully to channel old and new classes of “iron sea elephants” into the large guns of expanded batteries and reinforced forts to running rope lines from land point to land point to snarl screw propellers in the harbor.

Somewhat surprisingly from a career Army officer, an artillerist and engineer, he had an open mind when it came to almost all things naval – be they ideas on mounting spar torpedoes on row boats, building submersibles, and submarines to attack blockaders, and sending the city’s two harbor defending ironclads on a daring night attack on the Union fleet. Following the military dictum, when in charge, be in charge, he didn’t hesitate to wrest control of men and equipment when he believed it necessary to defend not only Charleston, but Savannah and coastal Georgia, and Florida.

One middling young naval officer, Glassell, played a leading role in many of these episodes. His entry into the world of “destructionists and capturers” began conventionally enough as deck officer in charge of ironclad Chicora’s first division.  In a combined attack with ironclad Charleston Jan. 30, 1863, on the Union fleet to raise the blockade at least temporarily.  If he had been asked how to attack under the cover or darkness in an ironclad, Glassell’s answer would have been simple. Ram the wooden blockaders at “full speed.” Instead “older and perhaps wise officers” ordered him to fire on Keystone State as it was bearing down on Chicora. His division’s shot killed 21 Union sailors, wounded another 15, and Keystone State’s flag was taken down in surrendering, but in the fighting was raised again and ship sailed away.

Glassell and Captain Francis Lee, an Army engineer, realized that time was not on the side of the Confederacy in Charleston harbor.  As shipyards in and around the Ashley and Cooper rivers struggled to find engines, armament, and iron plating for Southern ironclads like Chicora, that the Union could build 10 ironclads “of a superior class almost invulnerable to shot or shell.”  Lee by then was experimenting with a spar, a long pine pole, attached by socket to a rowboat, making it maneuverable; and at the end of the pole was a torpedo with “thirty or fifty pounds of explosives” that was under six to seven feet or water.  The idea was ram the spar into a ship below its waterline and the iron plating the operator in the boat’s front would be shielded by iron from expected gunfire from the ship’s deck, then set off the torpedo and safely back the boat away.

 “I believed it should be our policy to take immediate steps for the construction of a large number of small boats [with engines] suitable for torpedo service and make simultaneous attacks … before the enemy should know what we were about.”

At 61 and with more than half a century in the Navy, Commodore Duncan Ingraham, commander of naval forces in Charleston, dismissed Glassell’s “new fangled notions” out of hand. But the lieutenant pressed on – knowing where he could find the money in Charleston to build those deadly rowboats. He went to “my friend,” George A. Trenholm, one of the wealthiest men in North America and the head of the South’s largest trading firm and its financial agent in Europe.

 While Trenholm provided the money for the rowboats, Ingraham held firm against wild notions of any kind.  This time, citing Glassell’s age and rank, the commodore said he was not qualified to lead an expedition of this size.  He could command a boat in Ingraham’s view, but still the ranking officer did not authorize an attack on the lieutenant’s target of choice, Powhatan, an 11-gun paddle steamer. Glassell’s persistence eventually paid off on March 10, 1863.

At 1 a.m. with “the young moon gone down,” he and six other men set off on the “ebb-tide in search of a victim.”  He ordered his men to keep rowing even if they were discovered “until our torpedo came in contact with the ship.”  Several hundred yards away from the target, voices from the deck demanded to know “What boat is this?”  Glassell shouted back nonsense “and stupid answers” as he ignored repeated orders to stop or they would be fired upon .  “I trusted they would be too merciful to fire on such a stupid set of idiots as they must have taken us to be.”

As they closed within forty yards, aiming for the a spot just below the gangway on Powhatan’s port side, James Murphy suddenly backed his oar stopping the rowboat. At that instant, Glassell didn’t know why Murphy did what he did, but soon enough the other men stopped rowing and the rowboat “drifted with the tide past the ship’s stern.”  The Union deck officer and sailors now armed with rifles were taking no chances and kept shouting to Glassell to stay where he was and were ready to launch a boat of their own.

Murphy, who a few weeks later deserted, threw his pistol overboard and scrambled to grab the pistol of the man next to him but failed.  Glassell believing he “never was rash, or disposed to risk my life or that of others” drew his weapon and ordered the men to cut loose the torpedo so they could escape.  The men quickly followed his command and began rowing quietly but “with all their strength” away from their intended target.

Back in Charleston shortly after daylight, Glassell believed that spies ashore had tipped the Union Navy off to the torpedoes but counted himself lucky that he had only lost one torpedo and no men.  Steam power was the way to attack.  He didn’t want to take a chance on having another Murphy, who at first appeared ashamed, foil well-laid plans. For now, Glassell’s work in the Low Country was done as he was ordered to Wilmington to complete the ironclad North Carolina.

While Ingraham moved into more administrative duties, Glassell’s commander aboard Chicora, Captain John Randolph Tucker, took over active operations.  About a decade younger than the commodore but with 37 years of naval service, Tucker believed in the spar torpedo, especially against the gathering number of Union monitors.

Thirty miles up the Cooper River from the city on Dr. St. Julien Ravenel’s hidden away plantation, Theodore Stoney, another of the principals in the Southern Torpedo Company, was rushing to complete the privately-built and paid for but with Beauregard’s blessing cigar boat. Named David, the submersible with its discarded locomotive coal-burning engine, unseasoned wood covered hull with metal plating wasn’t a work of art, but its stealth on dark nights and armed with a spar torpedo made it a formidable opponent of even the Union’s most powerful ship  New Ironsides, which repeatedly pounded Confederate fortifications during the siege.

Stoney’s and Ravenel’s work may have been isolated, but there were others like James McClintock and Horace L. Hunley in Charleston busying themselves in constructing special “torpedo-boats” whose work “were curious things to a landsman’s eye” in and around the city. As patriotic as they were, the private inventors also had a $100,000 incentive provided by Trenholm’s company to sink New Ironsides or Wabash and $50,000 to sink any of the monitors.

With a new land and sea attack likely on the sea island batteries and forts and Charleston itself, Glassell was ordered back South, not for his services but to return the eight men he had with him to service on the gunboats in the harbor.  “There was nothing in particular for me to do.”

How Glassell knew Stoney he doesn’t make clear, but it was probably through Francis Lee.  Nonetheless, he called him “my esteemed friend.”  At a meeting in Charleston, Stoney said that the David had been shipped to the city by rail and was being finished in the port.  James Stuart, who used Sullivan as his last name to conceal his identity,  agreed to be the fireman.  J.W. Cannon came aboard as pilot.

Glassell volunteered to help with the trial work.  Already, J.H. Tomb volunteered his engineer services. Lee was available to work on the copper torpedo that was to be loaded with 100 pounds of rifle powder and “provided with four sensitive tubes of lead, containing explosive mixture.” The spar projected about 14 feet from the front of the now bluish painted submersible.

Being the prepared commander, he took on four double-barreled shotguns and as many revolvers as extra armament and four cork life preservers as they began their trials.  The David reached speeds of six or seven knots. He also knew from the interrogation of deserters and prisoners that the fleet was expecting some kind of torpedo attack, likely based on his attempt on Powhatan and earlier try at New Ironsides. That meant the shotguns would likely have to take out the officer of the deck to succeed. There also would be riflemen rushing to the vessel’s side and possibly canister or grape shot as the attack rolled on With all that in place, Tucker signaled his approval of an attack at Glassell’s discretion, so did Beauregard.  But a rocket from Richmond landed ordering the lieutenant back to Wilmington.  “This was too much!,” and he now let Tucker “make my excuses to the Navy Department.”

Shortly after a starlight night fell on Oct. 5, 1863 and on the ebb-tide with a light breeze from the north, Glassell and his men headed out from the Charleston wharf.  The water was smooth as he headed for New Ironsides attack.  They slipped unseen past the picket boats near Fort Sumter, and Glassell could see the Union armada at anchor between the David and the camp-fires of 20,000 Union soldiers on Morris Island.  This was what he had imagined in the aborted rowboat attack.  The damage that could have been done then couldn’t compare to the havoc ten to a dozen Davids armed with spar torpedoes could have done this night. It was what he was thinking as he waited for the 9 p.m. signal gun firing to launch the attack on “the most powerful vessel in the world,” an exaggeration.

The David was off the ship’s starboard side. Glassell took charge of the helm from the pilot. He was sitting on the deck and working the wheel with his feet aiming for a spot near the gangway and a shotgun at the ready. He handed the pilot a double-barreled shotgun. He ordered the engineer and fireman to stay below and give the David as much steam as possible.

About 300 yards away, a sentinel spotted the David and began hailing it. “I made no answer.”  The officer of the deck demanded, “What boat is that?” as the submersible closed to within 40 yards.  Glassell fired the shotgun severely wounding the officer named Howard in the groin and the acting ensign died three days later.  He then ordered the engine stopped.  “The next moment the torpedo struck the vessel and exploded” then the David plunged violently.  But instead of going off at six to seven feet under water, the torpedo exploded about three feet below the waterline where the iron was 4 ½ inches thick backed by 27 inches of wood. The explosion, however, caused a huge column of water to wash over the deck and down the hatchway dousing the fires. Glassell told his men that their only chance for escape was to don the life preservers and swim for it.

Rifle and pistol fire rained down from the New Ironsides.  A nearby monitor now joined the fight.  For more than a hour, Glassell struggled with the cold and the wind when a boat from a transport hauled him out of the water and “to their surprise” found “they had captured a rebel.” They took him to Admiral John Dahlgren, the ordnance genius now commanding the Union Navy at Charleston who sent him to Ottawa.  Glassell was immediately recognized there by its commander, William Whiting. Whiting explained that his orders were to put Glassell in chains and double irons if he was obstreperous. Glassell said that he would adjust to the circumstances of his capture. Whiting appealed to Dahlgren to give the Confederate a parole on the promise not to escape. Sullivan got to the chains of New Ironsides where he was rescued and then imprisoned. 

Unknown to Glassell, Cannon, who could not swim clung to the David as it drifted slowly away from the large warship.  “Seeing something in the water, he hailed and heard, to his surprise, a reply from Engineer Tomb.” Tomb reported that he found “no quarter would be shown, as we called out that we surrendered.”  They re-started the fires and Cannon, winning for “himself a reputation” as a heroic pilot, headed for the city. Even though they were fired upon several times, they made it safely to Atlantic Wharf about midnight.

Glassell was on his way back to Forts Lafayette and Warren where he was held for more than year.  During this yearlong confinement, he was promoted for “gallant and meritorious service” as the Confederacy was sinking inexorably into defeat.  New Ironsides was pulled off station and spent months in dry-dock repairs. As Beauregard’s biographer wrote, “The Ironsides never fired another shot (on the coast of South Carolina) after this attack upon here,” but it returned in time to attack Fort Fisher and close the port of Wilmington.

Like Admiral Samuel F. DuPont before him, Dahlgren never succeeded in blasting Charleston in submission.

Long after the war, Glassell who remained a bachelor and moved in 1866 to a quiet life raising citrus in California wrote, “The time has arrived when I think it my duty to grant pardon to the government for all the injustice and injury I have received.”



G.T. Beauregard, “Torpedo Service in the Harbor and Water Defenses of Charleston,” Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 5, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2001.05.0040%3Achapter%3D2.10%3Asection%3Dc.2.10.38%3Apage%3D145, pp. 147-162.

George E. Belknap, “Reminiscent of the Siege of Charleston, Papers of the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts, Vol. 12, Google e-Book, pp. 190-198

Donald J. Caney, The U.S. and Foreign Navies in 1860,” excerpted from Mr. Lincoln’s Navy, www.navyandmarine.org/ondeck/1862foreignnavies.htm.

Jefferson Davis, Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Vol. 2, DaCapo paperback, 1990, p. 175.

John Witherspoon Dubose, Lieut. William T. Glassell of Alabama, Confederate Veteran, May 1916, google e-Book, pp. 193-195.

S.F. DuPont, Official Dispatches and Letters of Rear Adm. S.F. Dupont, Google e-Book.

David C. Ebaugh, “On the building of ‘The David,”’ South Carolina Historical Magazine, Vol. 54, No. 1, January 1953, pp. 32-36.

W.T. Glassell, “Reminiscences of Torpedo Service in Charleston Harbor,” Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 4, pp. 225-235.

W.T. Glassell, W.T. Glassell and the little torpedo boat “David,” Los Angeles, 1937 in Museum of the Confederacy collections in Richmond.

John A. Hamilton, “General Stephen Elliott, Lt. James A. Hamilton and Elliott’s Torpedoes,” Southern Historical Society Papers,Vol. 10, April 1882, pp. 183-186.

Johnson Hagood, Memoirs of the War of Secession, Google e-Book, 1916, pp. 191-193.

Horace Edwin Hayden, A Geneaology of the Glassell Family of Scotland and Virginia, Google e-Book, pp. 30-32.

John Johnson, The Defense of Charleston Harbor 1863-1865, Google e-Book, Appendix B and F.

Isabella Middleton Leland, editor, “Middleton Correspondence (Continued),” South Carolina Historical Magazine, Vol. 64, No. 4, October 1963, pp. 212-219.

Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Ser. 1, Vol. 14, pp. 610-640 (Union and Confederate accounts).

William Harwar Parker, Recollections of a Naval officer, 1845-1861, Google e-Book, pp. 27-32, 311-316.

Alfred Roman, Military Operations of General Beauregard, Vol. 2, DaCapo Press, 1994 reprint, pp. 12, 2123, 31, 58, 73, 77-80, 181-183, 445.

B.J. Sage, Organization of Private Warfare, Bureau of Destructive Means and Measures, Bands of Destructionists and Captors, privately printed, probably late 1863, Library of Congress Rare Book Collection.

J. Thomas Scharf, History of the Confederate States Navy, Random House Value Publishing, New York, 1996 reprint, pp. 758-760.

Augustus T. Smythe, “Torpedo and Submarine Attacks on the Federal Blockade Fleet of Charleston during the War of Secession, 1907 Yearbook of the City of Charleston, Google e-Book, pp. 53-64.

“St. Julien Ravenel, M.D.” Proceedings of American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Google e-Book, pp. 437-438

Lyon Gardiner Tyler, editor, “Glassell, William Thornton” entry Encyclopedia of Virginia Biography, Vol. 3, Google e-Book.

Stephen R. Wise, Gate of Hell, Campaign for Charleston Harbor 1863, University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, 1994, pp. 163-164.