Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

The Fight off Charleston.

January 31, 2013

Harper's Weekly,Miscellaneous document sources

The Rebel Rams Engaging our Blockading Fleet off Charleston, South Carolina, January 31, 1863

The Rebel Rams Engaging our Blockading Fleet off Charleston, South Carolina, January 31, 1863.—Sketched by an Occasional Correspondent.


IN our last we announced, on the strength of rebel telegrams to Richmond, which had found their way into the New York Herald, that the rebel rams at Charleston had attacked our blockading fleet off Charleston, and destroyed the Mercedita. We have since received a sketch of the affair from an occasional correspondent, which we reproduce on page 117, and subjoin the following reliable account of the transaction:

It appears from the statement of an intelligent eye-witness that the cause of this attack of the rebel rams on our squadron was owing to the capture of the Princess Royal, the captain and pilot of that vessel having escaped ashore during the darkness of the night, and communicated intelligence to the enemy.

The Princess Royal endeavored to run the blockade by way of Beach Inlet on the 29th ult., but was discovered by the pilot-boat Blunt. On signal being given the Unadilla proceeded toward her, and captured the prize without other assistance. It was then discovered that the captain and pilot had succeeded in getting ashore by a small boat, carrying important dispatches to the rebel Government. The Unadilla carried her to the side of the Housatonic, and lay there till daylight, when a thunder of guns was heard, accompanied by sharp flashes of fire. It was supposed that our fleet was engaged in making, or the Alabama or Florida were endeavoring to force, an entrance. At daybreak two rebel iron-clads were seen coming down from the direction of Stone Inlet toward our fleet.

They attacked the Mercedita first. One ram struck her on the water ridge, keeling her over, and at the same time firing a shot, which entered one of her boilers, causing the death of three persons, including a gunner, by a shot and steam. The ram then hailed the Mercedita, and Captain Stellwagen lowered one of his small boats, after leaving one of the plugs out, allowing the water to enter it. The ram answered our hail by replying, “Confederate ram Palmetto State. Do you surrender?” This was repeated three times, Captain Stellwagen replying at each inquiry, “I am in a sinking condition.” The rebels answered, “God damn you to hell, if you don’t surrender we will blow you out of water. Send your boat aboard.”

The boat which Captain Stellwagen lowered then conveyed his lieutenant (executive officer) to the side of the rebel ram, and the officer asked to be admitted on board. This was refused. The lieutenant then repeated Captain Steliwagen’s statement that “we are in a sinking condition.” The rebel officer replied, “You can’t sink lower than the rails; we can not take you aboard.” The officer then gave his parole, as demanded, and returned to his ship. The rebels were thus successfully deceived as to the condition of the Mercedita, thinking she was in a sinking condition. She lay in shoal water, and hence their reply that “she could not sink lower than her rails.”

The ram then steamed toward the Keystone State, and sent a shot through her steam drum, causing the death of twenty-one persons—twelve by the shot and nine by being scalded by steam. Fifteen were wounded, and are lying at Port Royal, some in a precarious condition. In the mean time the United States gun-boat Housatonic engaged the other ram, driving her away. At half past six o’clock in the morning both rams left the scene and proceeded up to Charleston.

During this attack on our fleet, the Princess Royal, which lay near the Housatonic, and was the chief object of contest on both sides, succeeded in getting off, mainly through the energies of Third Assistant Engineer Thurston, who piled into her fires all the inflammable material at hand.

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