Read CHAPTER XI - THE IRONCLADS OFF CHARLESTON of Charles Carleton Coffin, War Correspondent, free online book, by William Elliot Griffis, on

After five letters from Washington, in the first of which he had predicted that in a few days, for the first time in war, there would be the great contest between ironclads and forts, and the stroke of fifteen-inch shot against masonry, Carleton set off for salt water, determining to see the tug-of-war on the Atlantic coast. It was on Saturday afternoon, February 7th, that he stood on deck of the steamer Augusta Dinsmore as she moved through the floating masses of ice down the Hudson River to the sea. This new ship was owned by Adams’s Express Company, and with her consort, Mary Sandford, was employed in carrying barrels of apples, boxes of clothing, messages of love, and tokens of affection between the Union soldiers along the coast and their friends at home. Heavily loaded with express packages, with fifty or sixty thousand letters, and with several hundred fifteen-inch solid shot, packed ready for delivery by Admiral Du Pont at or into Fort Sumter, the trim craft passed over a sea like glass, except that now and then was a dying groan or heave of the storm of a week before. A pleasant Sunday at sea was spent with worship, sermon, and song. After sixty hours on salt water, Carleton’s ear caught the boom of the surf on the beach. The sea-gulls flitted around, and after the sun had rent the pall of fog, the town of Beaufort appeared in view.

The harbor was full of schooners which had come from up North, bringing potatoes, onions, apples, and Yankee notions for the great blue-coated community at Newburgh. Carleton moved up the poverty-stricken country through marsh, sea-sand, pitch-pine, swamp, and plain. Here and there were the shanties of sand-hillers, negro huts, and scores of long, lank, scrimped-up, razor-backed pigs of the Congo breed, as to color; but in speed, racers, outstripping the fleetest horses. Making his headquarters at Hilton Head, Carleton made a thorough study of the military and naval situation. He visited the New England regiments. He saw the enlistment of negro troops, and devoted one letter to Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s first South Carolina regiment of volunteers.

With his usual luck, that is, the result of intelligence and energy which left nothing to mere luck, Carleton stood on the steamer Nantasket, off Charleston, April 7, 1863. Both admiral and general had recognized the war correspondents as the historians of the hour. At half past one, the signal for sailing was displayed from the flag-ship. Then the ugly black floating fortresses moved off in a line, each a third or a half a mile apart, against the masses of granite at Sumter and Moultrie, and the earthen batteries on three sides. “There are no clouds of canvas, no beautiful models of marine architecture, none of the stateliness and majesty which have marked hundreds of great naval engagements. There is but little to the sight calculated to excite enthusiasm. There are eight black specks, and one oblong block, like so many bugs. There are no human beings in sight, no propelling power visible.”

A few minutes later, “the ocean boils.” Columns of spray are tossed high in air, as if a hundred submarine mines were let instantly off, or a school of whales were trying which could spout highest. There is a screaming in the air, a buzzing and humming never before so loud.

“You must think the earth’s crust is ruptured, and the volcanic fires, long pent, have suddenly found vent.”

“There she is, the Weehawken, the target of probably two hundred and fifty or three hundred guns, at close range, of the heaviest calibre rifled cannon, throwing forged bolts and steel-pointed shot turned and polished to a hair in the lathes of English workshops, advancing still, undergoing her first ordeal, a trial unparalleled in history. For fifteen minutes she meets the ordeal alone.”

Soon the other four monitors follow. Seventy guns a minute are counted, followed by moments of calm, and scattering shots, but only to break out again in a prolonged roar of thunder. In the lulls of the strife, Carleton steadied his glass, and when the southwest breeze swept away the smoke, he could see “increasing pock-marks and discolorations upon the walls of the fort, as if there had been a sudden breaking out of cutaneous disease.”

We now know, from the Confederate officers then in Fort Sumter, that the best artillery made in England, and the strongest powder manufactured in the Confederacy, were used during this two and a half hours of mutual hammering, until then unparalleled in the history of the world. Near sunset, at 5.20 P. M., signals from the flag-ship were read; the order was, “Retire.”

The red sun sank behind the sand hills, and the silence was welcomed. During the heavy cannonade, like the Union soldiers who, obedient to the hunter’s instinct, stopped in the midst of a Wilderness battle to shoot rabbits, a Confederate gunner had trained his rifled cannon upon the three non-combatant vessels, the Bibb, the Ben Deford, and the Nantasket, which lay in the North Channel at a respectful distance, but quite within easy range of Sullivan’s Island. Having fired a half a dozen shot which had fallen unnoticed, the gunner demoralized the little squadron, and sent hundreds of interested spectators running, jumping, and rolling below deck, by sending a shot transversely across the Nantasket. It dropped in the sea about a hundred yards from the bow of the Ben Deford. Another shot in admirable line fell short. Shells from Cummings Point had also been tried on the ships laden with civilians, but had failed to reach them. However, the correspondents claim to have silenced the batteries, by getting out of the way; for in a few minutes the cables had been hauled in, paddle-wheels set in motion, and distance increased from the muzzles of the battery.

When the fleet returned, Carleton leaped on board of the slush deck of the monitor Catskill, receiving hearty response from Captain George Rodgers, who reported “All right, nobody hurt, ready for them again.” I afterwards saw all these monitors covered with indentations like spinning-top moulds or saucers. They were gouged, dented, and bruised by case-shot that had struck and glanced sidewise. Here and there, it looked as though an adamantine serpent had grooved its way over the convex iron surface, as a worm leaves the mark of its crawling in the soft earth under the stone. The Catskill had received thirty shots, the Keokuk a hundred. Inside of the Nahant, Carleton found eleven officers and men badly contused by the flying of bolt-heads in the turret; but, except from a temporary jam, her armor was intact. On the Patapsco a ball had ripped up the plating and pierced the work beneath. This was the only shot that had penetrated any of the monitors. The Weehawken had in one place the pittings of three shots which, had they immediately followed each other, might, like the arrows of the Earl of Douglas in Scott’s “Lady of the Lake,” split each other in twain. Except leaving war’s honorable scar, these three bolts hurt not the Weehawken. Out of probably three thousand projectiles shot from behind walls, about three hundred and fifty took effect, that is, one shot out of six. Three tons of iron were hurled at Fort Sumter, and probably six tons at the fleet. Fighting inside of iron towers, the Union men had no one killed, and but one mortally wounded. The Keokuk, the most vulnerable of all the ships engaged, sank under the northwest wind in the heavy sea of the next day.

It was long after midnight when Carleton finished the closing lines of his letter, and then stepped out upon the steamer’s guard for a little fresh air. Over on Sumter’s walls the signal-light was being waved. The black monitors lay at their anchorage. Ocean, air, and moonbeams were calm and peaceful. From the flag-ship, which the despatch steamer visited, the report was, “The engagement is to be renewed to-morrow afternoon.” Nevertheless, the next day, Admiral Du Pont, dissenting from the opinions of his engineers and inspectors, as to a renewal of the attack, moreover finding his own officers differing in their opinions as to the ability of the fleet to reduce Fort Sumter, ordered no advance. The enterprise was, for the present, at least, given up. So Carleton, after another letter on white and black humanity in South Carolina, which showed convincingly the results of slavery, sailed from Hilton Head.

Like the war-horse of Hebrew poetry, he smelt the battle afar off, and looked to Virginia. He reached home just in time to hear of the great conflict at Chancellorsville. Rushing to Washington, and gathering up from all sources news of the disaster, he presented to the readers of the Journal a clear and connected story of the battle. During the latter part of May and until the middle of June, the previous weeks having been times of inaction in the military world, Carleton recruited his strength at home. Like a falcon on its perch, he awaited the opportunity to swoop on the quarry.