by Paul Hedden
By the end of my first year as a Licensed Tour Guide in Charleston, back in ’97, I had heard a number of differing stories about the Naval Blockade, the ship USS New Ironsides and the October 1863 attack upon it by the CSS David. The tales told to me by more experienced tour guides ranged from the Confederates sank the Ironsides to the permanent disabling of the grandest ship in the US fleet, to simply forcing it off station for the duration of the war. And the legends of the CSS David, the little ship that could, varied with the relater of the tale.
The real story, and how it came to pass, is more prosaic, yet more intricate and exciting, then all the sea stories and fairy tales surrounding the event.
In July, 1863 Theodore Wagner of John Fraser and Company, Theodore Stoney and other wealthy citizens of Charleston, recognizing the threat posed by the ironclads to the defense of the city, offered rewards for the sinking of blockading ships: $100,000 for the sinking of the New Ironsides and Wabash; $50,000 for a monitor.
David Ebaugh, Assistant Superintendent of the Cooper River Niter Works (used for the making of gunpowder) on the Cooper River near Moncks Corner, was invited by Dr. St. Julien Ravenel to construct a boat, preferably manually driven, to deliver a torpedo into the hull of the New Ironsides which was, according to Ebaugh, the “terror of Charleston Harbor”. Gunfire from the New Ironsides had been devastating at Battery Wagner. Ebaugh suggested he would build a “Segar” (sic) shaped boat and put in a steam Engine to drive it.
Ravenel opposed this idea, believing a steam driven boat would be too noisy and too big. Ebaugh replied saying he could provide an “engine that could be put in his (Ravenel’s) hat” and he would deaden the exhaust by mechanical means.
The boat “…was 5 feet in diameter and 48½ feet long, 18 feet of the middle of the boat was same size tapering to a point at each end.” When it was launched in late summer 1863, Charleston was under bombardment from Union guns protected from assault by sea by the ever more effective Blockade, including the New Ironsides.
The torpedo-boat was a new class of naval weapon christened the David. The story I heard most frequently in regard to the vessel’s name was that it was named after St. Julien Ravenel’s son, David. Ravenel had no son named David, however. An alternative explanation for the name was Biblical: it was Rear-Admiral Dahlgren, himself, in a report dated October 7, 1863 suggesting “the vessel was called the David, probably to point to the presumed success against the Ironsides, which was to enact the Goliath.” A third accounting for the name, the most mundane, but the explanation I find most reasonable: the boat was named for David Ebaugh, its builder. Ebaugh claimed this in a letter to the Rev. W.H.Campbell of Charleston, dated October 4, 1892.
William Thornton Glassell was born in Virginia, he was appointed a midshipman in the United States Navy, born in Alabama in March of 1848. When still a midshipman, his ship the St. Laurence was sent to the Great Exhibition in London in 1855. Lady Byron, widow of Lord Byron, visited the ship and invited only Glassell to dine with her the next evening. He accepted and “had a very pleasant interview”.
Promoted to lieutenant in 1855, he was serving on board the USS Hartford off China at the start of the Civil War. When Hartford reached Philadelphia, Glassell declined to swear an additional oath of allegiance prescribed for Southerners, and was imprisoned at Fort Warren and dropped from the U.S. service (December 6, 1861). Confederate authorities issued him a lieutenant’s commission, arranged his exchange, and assigned him to CSS Chicora in the Charleston Squadron. Glassell commanded his ship’s forward division during the squadron’s attack on the Union blockade (January 31, 1863). Interested by the Confederate Navy’s experiments with torpedoes and mines, he requested and received assignment to a special command training to attack the blockading fleet’s monitors.
On September 23, Lieutenant Commanding W.T. Glassell, of the Confederates States Navy, assumed command of the torpedo steamer David, and was ordered, when ready, “to proceed to operate against the enemy’s fleet off Charleston Harbor, with a view of destroying as many of the enemy’s vessels as possible”.
On Monday evening the 5th of October, 1863, a little after dark, the David, with her crew of four, left Charleston wharf, and let the ebb tide take her down the harbor. Assistant Engineer James H. Toombs had volunteered to maintain the machinery and to fit its torpedo. The torpedo was made of copper, containing about one hundred pounds of rifle powder, and provided with four sensitive tubes of lead, containing the explosive mixture; this was carried by means of a hollow iron shaft projecting about fourteen feet ahead of the boat, and six or seven feet below the surface. The boat carried additional weapons on the deck: four double barrel shot guns, and navy revolvers; four cork life preservers were also on board, to provide a sense of security. Walker Cannon, pilot; and James Sullivan, acting as fireman, completed the all volunteer crew . The boat was ballasted so as to float deeply in the water. The area of free board above the water level was painted a camouflaging bluish color. The vessel traveled at six or seven knots an hour.
The David proceeded down the main Ship Channel, passing through the entire fleet of the enemy’s vessels and barges until arriving near New Ironsides at 8:30 p. m. The tiny boat waited another 30 minutes for the flood tide to pass. At 9 p.m. everything appeared favorable, and all were impatient to attack. As they approached the Ironsides within 50 yards the New Ironsides’ officer of the deck hailed the unknown vessel, loudly demanding, “What boat is that?” Being now within forty yards of the ship, with plenty of headway to carry the David forward, Lieutenant Glassell answered with a blast from one of the double-barreled shotguns. Two minutes later, going full speed, the David hit the ironclad with its spar torpedo just below the starboard quarter, 15 feet from her sternpost. The torpedo exploded about 6½ feet under the Ironsides’ bottom. The crew of the Union ship responded quickly with small arms, repeatedly striking the David, but causing no damage.
The explosion created a column of water which nearly swamped the smaller boat with a force strong enough to extinguish the boiler’s fires and, as they managed to reverse the engine, the shock created by the jolt of water cast loose iron ballast into the machinery, causing it to jam. By now the David had drifted beneath the bow of the New Ironsides, where continuous small arms fire from the crew above threatened their lives. The smaller boat’s crew believed they were about to sink, and jumped overboard, all hoping to be rescued by the very enemy vessels they had successfully evaded on the way to press their attack.
Lieutenant Glassell and Sullivan swam off in the direction of the enemy vessels, each grabbing hold of a life preserver, disappearing into the dark heaving sea. Glassell later wrote:
“Then taking one of the cork floats, I got into the water and swam off as fast as I could. The enemy, in no amiable mood, poured down upon the bubbling water a hailstorm of rifle and pistol shots from the deck of the Ironsides, and from the nearest monitor. Sometimes they struck very close to my head, but swimming for life, I soon disappeared from their sight, and found myself all alone in the water. I hoped that, with the assistance of flood tide, I might be able to reach Fort Sumter, but a north wind was against me, and after I had been in the water more than an hour, I became numb with cold, and was nearly exhausted. Just then the boat of a transport schooner picked me up, and found, to their surprise, that they had captured a rebel.”
Sullivan was also captured/rescued by the same coal schooner but apparently was not interrogated by his captures or seemingly referred to again.
Walker Cannon, the pilot, remained with the vessel. Engineer Toombs, finding himself adrift after dark in enemy waters and fearing no quarter would be shown him, made a successful effort to regain the David. He managed to relight the fires and, after a short time got up steam and unblocked the jamming machinery. Cannon then took the wheel and the disabled boat passed once more past the enemy fleet and steamed up channel, coming at one time within 3 feet of a monitor. A gauntlet of continuous fire of small arms pursued them, as well as the bombardment of two 11-inch guns from the New Ironsides.
The New Ironsides
On board the New Ironsides, considered to be the most powerful vessel in the world in Lieutenant Glassell’s estimate, the attack was not unexpected. Even so, the source of the attack was a surprise. The officer of the deck, Acting Ensign C.W. Howard, fell back mortally wounded as he hailed the attacker and gave the order fire. The watch delivered their fire. Acting Master Howard died the evening of October 10 at about sunset. He was promoted, posthumously, to Acting Master.
Little could be seen from the gun deck, and to fire at random would endanger the fleet of transport and other vessels nearby. The marine guard and musketeers on the spar deck kept up fire towards the small object until it drifted out of sight. The New Ironsides began fire from two starboard guns. Two cutters were dispatched in search of the David, but returned without success.
As the David’s torpedo struck the aft quarter, starboard side, it shook the vessel, throwing up an immense column of water. The David seemed to drop astern. The explosion of the torpedo knocked down armory bulkheads and store rooms in its wake, but no visible impression on the armor or exterior planking was visible. Ordinary Seaman William L. Knox’s leg was broken and Thomas Little, Master at Arms received several severe contusions from the shock of the explosion.
Later, in November, a final report was issued on the damage done to the New Ironsides. Captain Rowan, commander of the New Ironsides informed Blockade Commander Rear-Admiral Dahlgren that upon removing coal in the bunkers of the Ironsides, it was discovered that the damage done by the torpedo was much more serious than first appeared. Rowan did not submit a written report, claiming the report was not yet complete. He stressed the importance of keeping the facts from the public noting “Everything will be done here to that end, though it is difficult to evade the researches of public correspondents.”
On March 6, 1864, David attacked USS Memphis in the North Edisto River. The torpedo misfired and Memphis rammed her. David, having lost part of her stack when rammed, retreated up the river out of range. Memphis, uninjured, resumed her blockading station.
David’s last confirmed action came on April 18, 1864 when she tried to sink the USS Wabash. Alert lookouts on board the blockader sighted David in time to permit the frigate to slip her chain, avoid the attack, and open fire on the torpedo boat. Neither side suffered any damage.
The ultimate fate of David is uncertain. Several torpedo boats of this type fell into Union hands when Charleston was captured on February 18, 1865. The David may well have been among them. Some believe she now lies buried beneath Tradd Street between the U.S. Coast Guard Station and Rutledge Avenue.
USS New Ironsides
New Ironsides remained on station until 6 June 1864 when she returned to Port Royal preparatory to a return to Philadelphia for repairs and a general overhaul. Her masts and rigging were replaced and most of the ship’s crew with time remaining on their enlistments were transferred to other ships in the squadron. The ship arrived at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in June of 1864. She was decommissioned to begin her refit.
New Ironsides completed her overhaul in late August 1864. Joining the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron in October when her crew finished gunnery training. She participated in a major assault in December on Fort Fisher, North Carolina. This attack was ended on Christmas Day, but the Union fleet returned to resume the operation on 13 January 1865. New Ironsides was one of several warships that heavily shelled Fort Fisher, preparing the way for a ground assault that captured the position on 15 January. Afterward New Ironsides supported Union activities on the James River. Her final decommissioning came on April 6, 1865 and was kept at League Island, Philadelphia where, on December 16, she was destroyed by a fire. The ship was towed to shallow water where she burned and sank. Her wreck was salvaged and her boilers were offered for sale in 1869.
Paul Hedden has been a resident of James Island for over two decades. He is the author of more than forty articles about the amazing history of James Island, most concerning the Civil War on James Island, which appeared in the James Island Messenger. Paul is an avid researcher and writer about the history and geography of South Carolina’s Lowcountry. His interests have brought him to participation nationally with the Civil War Preservation Trust and notice by the National Trust for Historic Preservation through his work with the Seashore Farmers Lodge on Sol Legare Road. Paul was one of five members of the Concerned Citizens of Sol Legare (pronounced Sol Legree) Seashore Farmers Lodge Museum and Cultural Center restoration committee, which traveled to Buffalo, N.Y. in October of 2011 to accept an honor award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation at its annual preservation conference. He is Chairman Town of James Island History Commission (2015 – present) and a member of Friends of the Old Exchange, the S.C. Historical Society, the Charleston Library Society, Friends of McLeod Plantation, and the Slave Dwelling Project.
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