Thursday, January 24, 2013

Ironclads on the Georgia Coast - Monitor vs. Fort I

USS Montauk (left) laid up in 1902. The proud warship would be scrapped a couple years later. Image source: Naval History and Heritage Command

This is the first in a series of posts I would like to offer on actions by US and CS ironclads on the Georgia coast in 1863. In early 1863, Adm. Du Pont of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron was preparing for a massive invasion of Charleston Harbor, using a combination of ironclad and wooden warships. The US Navy was sending him the new Passaic Class monitors and he wanted to test one of them out, simultaneously trying to get rid of a “thorn in his side” - the Confederate ship CSS Nashville/Rattlesnake taking refuge up the Ogeechee River.

Ft. McAllister was a large Confederate earthen fortification mounting 8 heavy guns and guarding the mouth of the Ogeechee River, Georgia (south of Savannah) and an important railroad crossing upstream. The fort also guarded the upstream mooring site of the Nashville, which intelligence said was being converted from a blockade runner back into a commerce raider (to be renamed CSS Rattlesnake) that would attempt to escape through the blockade and prey on Union shipping in the S. Atlantic and Caribbean. On 24 January 1863 Du Pont sent the USS Montauk, under the command of Capt. John Worden (now recovered from the wounds he received commanding USS Monitor at the first battle of ironclads), to head up Ossabaw Sound into the Ogeechee to probe Ft. McAllister and destroy the Nashville. The turreted ironclad was accompanied by three wooden gunboats (USS Seneca, Wissahickon, and Dawn), and the mortar schooner C. P. Williams to provide additional gunfire support. Heavy fog on 25 and 26 January impeded the expedition’s progress. The evening of the 26th, the Union flotilla anchored in the river downstream and out of range of the fort. That night Lt. Commander John Davis took two boats and reconnoitered the area upstream under cover of darkness; the bluejackets destroyed artillery range marks placed by the fort’s gunners, and marked the locations of obstructions, some of which were armed with torpedoes.

The morning of 27 January, Worden took the Montauk in and hove to about 1,600 yards off the fort (short of the series of obstructions at a spot marked by Davis the night before). The other gunboats followed him and anchored several hundred yards further away. Confederate battery and monitor both opened fire about 7:35 AM, and pounded away at one another for almost 4 hours. The Montauk ran out of ammunition a little after 11 AM. Hits to the monitor (13 or 14) did little to no damage, but likewise the shellfire from the USN gunboats did minimal damage to the heavy earthen and sand walls of the fortification; they simply absorbed the energy and concussions of the shells, even those from the big XV inch Dahlgren on the Montauk. Another critical weakness was the length of time it took to load and fire the huge XI and XV inch Dahlgren guns of the Montauk (roughly 7 min. between shots). The fire from the other gunboats also resulted in little damage to the fort.

Four days later, on the morning of 1 February, Worden took the Montauk in again. Accompanied by the same flotilla of gunboats as the 27 January attack, Worden anchored near the fort and opened fire. Once again, confederate fort and navy gunboats dueled for most of the morning. About 12:30 the gunboats withdrew. The only significant casualty for the Confederates was the loss of the fort’s commander, Maj. John B. Gallie, who was killed by a shell from the Montauk.

Ft. McAllister after capture by Union forces in mid-December 1864. Ogeechee River (and USN gunboats?) in the background. Image source: Library of Congress photo archives.

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