Torpedoed in Charleston Harbor
The Demise of the USS PATAPSCO

     From aboard his flagship the Harvest Moon at Charleston, South Carolina, Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren announced to the Navy Department the destruction of the monitor USS Patapsco the night of January 15, 1865. Her duties on this fateful evening were to provide naval gunfire support for the scout and picket boats then clearing the harbor of obstructions and torpedoes.

     The Commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron had, just two days prior, left Major General William T. Sherman at Savannah, Georgia of which it was the general's desire that he and Major General John Gray Foster make such an impression on Charleston as the combined forces permitted, however; everything was to be done that a general engagement with the batteries there were not to be brought on. General Sherman's army was preparing to march north and the enemy forces within his target area were to be looking the other way.

     It left the Navy very little time to prepare. Officer's call was held at 8 am, just twelve hours before misfortune would strike. The commanders of the monitors had been present and brought up to speed on what was coming. The admiral discussed operations from a mere demonstration upon Sullivan's Island to having his ships maneuver decisively up to the city itself.

     More ironclads had been expected down from the North Atlantic Squadron and as a safety measure; Dahlgren ordered that the channel at the entrance to the harbor be thoroughly examined. The commander's of the monitors were to give personal attention to the duties which before had been entrusted to the scout boats. Intelligence had been received from all quarters that obstructions had been laid across the channel from Sumter and it was important; if this was in fact true, to understand the nature of them and the extent. He wished his commanders to give directions on how to clear them by explosion.

     The scene across Charleston Harbor had been picturesque that day; Dahlgren had gone to Morris Island with Major General Alexander Schimmelfennig in order to possess themselves of a full view of the harbor. All had been quiet. There wasn't a vessel anywhere within sight and outside of it, the blockading fleet stood to anchor.

     The admiral fell asleep early that evening only to be aroused on or before 11 o'clock by the entrance of Captain Stephen Platt Quackenbush and his first lieutenant, who announced the loss of the Patapsco.

     Both the Patapsco and Lehigh pulled advanced duty that evening. Getting underway Captain Quackenbush sailed out ahead of all others by no less than five hundred yards, electing to drift with the tide in order to best control his ship and maintain operations. He proceeded from a line almost parallel between Forts Moultrie and Sumter down to a bouy the Federal Navy named "The Lehigh," shoal waters where the Lehigh had run aground about a year before. The fleet had been using grapnels to dredge the bottom of the harbor, the ship would steam back from one point and drift to the other. All had gone well until the third pass when the ship experienced a shock, and an explosion occurred on the port side with a cloud of smoke and in less than a minute the Patapsco's deck was below the surface of the water.

     Lieutenant Commander Stephen Platt Quackenbush remarked that the explosion occurred at 8:10 pm on the night of January 15, 1865. He ordered his formation that night to have boats trawling on his beams and quarters while assigning the tugs to precede his ship ahead on each bow. The Navy had already been under the assumption that all torpedoes above the line of Forts Moultrie and Sumter had been cleared, and the skipper of the Patapsco had not conceived that the safety of the vessel or the lives of the crew onboard were in jeopardy. None the less, the torpedo had been struck after two successful runs, thirty feet from the bow and slightly to port. The ship sank up to the top turret in thirty feet of water.

     Lieutenant William T. Sampson, the monitor's executive officer, recalled hearing the Captain order the pumps started, but as fast as the vessel was going down, he did not repeat it, as that time ran out. The ship sank so fast, all sailors who happened to be topside escaped to the picket boats nearby. The Engineer, a fireman on watch, and one man from berthing managed to get out from below. All others were lost.

     The USS John Adams, hosted a court of inquiry into the facts behind the sinking. On January 24, 1865, they had published nothing more than what the commanding officer of the lost monitor already reported to Admiral Dahlgren that night in his cabin. The sinking, some seven hundred yards from Fort Sumter rested now at the bottom of the west side of the channel. No expected wrong doing of Captain Quackenbush could be surmised; only that the Navy did what it has always done when it houses the anchor and sets sail; it makes for those mysterious waters and returns once more into harm's way.

Dan (Aldie) Daniel Moran
© 2005

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