Most students of Civil War naval history are familiar with the unsuccessful 7 April 1863 attack by Union ironclads at Charleston, South Carolina. Less well known is the attempt by a pair of Confederate ironclads to lift the U.S. Navy blockade of the city in the early hours of 31 January 1863. The Richmond-class ironclad rams Palmetto State and Chicora badly damaged four wooden blockaders before the Rebel ships were chased back to Charleston Harbor.
Lieutenant William H. Parker, executive officer of the CSS Palmetto State, left a vivid account of that attack in his memoir, Recollections of a Naval Officer. Parker and his older brother, Foxhall A. Parker Jr., were prewar officers in the U.S. Navy. While William sided with the Confederacy, Foxhall remained loyal to the Union and later would help establish the U.S. Naval Institute and serve as superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy.
What follows is William’s account of the Palmetto State's sortie and encounter with one of the Union blockaders.
About 10 P.M., January 30th, Commodore [Duncan] Ingraham came on board the Palmetto State, and at 11.30 the two vessels quietly cast off their fasts and got underweight. There was no demonstration on shore, and I believe few of the citizens knew of the projected attack. Charleston was full of spies at this time, and everything was carried to the enemy. It was nearly calm, and a bright moonlight night,—the moon being 11 days old. We went down very slowly, wishing to reach the bar of the main ship channel, 11 miles from Charleston, about 4 in the morning, when it would be high water there. . . .
We steamed slowly down the harbor and, knowing we had a long night before us, I ordered the hammocks piped down. The men declined to take them, and I found they had gotten up an impromptu Ethiopian entertainment.1 As there was no necessity for preserving quiet at this time the captain let them enjoy themselves in their own way.2 No men ever exhibited a better spirit before going into action; and the sort, manly speech of our captain convinced us that we were to be well commanded under any circumstances. We passed between Forts Sumter and Moultrie—the former with its yellow sides looming up and reflecting the moon’s rays—and turned down the channel along Morris Island. I presume all hands were up in the forts and batteries watching us, but no word was spoken. After midnight the men began to drop off by twos and threes, and in a short time the silence of death prevailed. . . .
As we approached the bar, about 4 a. m., we saw the steamer Mercedita lying at anchor a short distance outside it. I had no fear of her seeing our hull; but we were burning soft coal, and the night being very clear, with nearly a full moon, it did seem to me that our smoke, which trailed after us like a huge black serpent, must be visible several miles off. We went silently to quarters, and our main-deck then presented a scene that will always live in my memory. We went to quarters an hour before crossing the bar, and the men stood silently at their guns. The port-shutters were closed, not a light could be seen from the outside, and the few battle-lanterns lit cast a pale, weird light on the gun-deck. My friend Phil. Porcher, who commanded the bow-gun, was equipped with a pair of white kid gloves, and had in his mouth an unlighted cigar.3 As we stood at our stations, not even whispering, the silence became more and more intense. Just at my side I noticed the little powder-boy of the broadside guns sitting on a match-tub, with his powder-pouch slung over his shoulder, fast asleep, and he was in this condition when we rammed the Mercedita.
We crossed the bar and steered directly for the Mercedita. They did not see us until we were very near. Her captain then hailed us, and ordered us to keep off or he would fire. We did not reply, and he called out, “You will be into me.” Just then we struck him on the starboard quarter, and dropping the forward port-shutter, fired the bow gun. The shell from it, according to Captain [Henry S.] Stellwagen who commanded her, went through her diagonally, penetrating the starboard side, through the condenser, through the steam-drum of the port boiler, and exploded against the port side of the ship, plowing a hole in its exit four of five feet square. She did not fire a gun, and in a minute her commander hailed to say he surrendered. Captain Rutledge then directed him to send a boat alongside. When I saw the boat coming I went out on the after-deck to receive it. The men in it were half-dressed, and as they had neglected to put the plug in when it was lowered, it was half full of water. We gave them a boat-hook to supply the place of the plug, and helped to bail her out.
Lieutenant T. Abbott, the executive officer of the Mercedita, came in the boat. I conducted him through the port to the presence of Commodore Ingraham. He must have been impressed with the novel appearance of our gun deck; but his bearing was officer-like and cool. He reported the name of the ship and her captain, said she had 128 souls on board and that she was in a sinking condition. After some delay Commodore Ingraham required him to “give his word of honor, for his commander, officers and crew, that they would not serve against the Confederate States until regularly exchanged.” This he did—it was a verbal parole. He then returned to his ship. . . .
We rammed the Mercedita at 4.30 A.M., and lost much valuable time while the commodore was deciding what to do with her officers and men. Our chance for making a great success lay in taking advantage of the darkness. We knew that when day came the enemy would see they were contending with iron-clads, and would refuse battle—and we with our inferior speed could not force it. We finally stood out to the eastward and engaged the Quaker City, Memphis, and some other vessels, as they came up, but they sheered off as soon as they felt the weight of our metal. When day broke I got a chance to get up on the spar-deck. I first looked astern for the Mercedita, and not seeing her, asked our pilot where she was. He said she must have sunk; and that was the general impression on board; but I knew she was not in deep water, and seeing no masts sticking up, “I had my doubts.”
The fact is we did not ram her quite hard enough. The panic on board her caused by the shell from our bow-gun was at first so great that they thought she was sinking. One boiler being emptied caused her to heel over, I suppose; but as we stood out to engage the enemy to the eastward, they got matters to rights, and finally went off to Port Royal where she arrived safely.
While the Confederate commander at Charleston, General P. G. T. Beauregard, quickly issued a proclamation that the attack has lifted the blockade, he conveniently left out that a surrendered Union ship along with her crew had escaped in the early morning darkness. The status of the Mercedita as well as her officers and men was decided by a Union court of inquiry. It determined that Lieutenant Abbott’s pledge that the crew would not take up arms against the Confederacy until exchanged was binding, but it didn’t apply to the gunboat, which later served in the North Atlantic and West Gulf blockading squadrons.
1. Some of the sailors were putting on an impromptu minstrel show.
2. Captain John Rutledge commanded the Palmetto State.
3. Lieutenant Philip Porcher would perish in March 1864 when the steamer he commanded, the CSS Helen, went down in a gale.