Civil War – 31 January 1863 – not a routine day on the water

If you’ve ever been at sea for a significant time or been a sailor you know the art of the routine is of considerable importance.  Routine allows you to get done what you need to get done so you can do actual work, or have fun, or just stare out at the awesomeness of being at sea.

When the routine is busted is when things go bad.  During peacetime this can be bad weather, equipment breaks, some dummy does dummy things, etc.  War is of course when the routine is shattered by expected or unexpected action.

The Union blockade of the Confederate States was one of the most successful (and least appreciated) acts of the war.  By the time the war was halfway over goods might be 20 or 30 times more expensive in parts of the South.  By the end, the Confederacy was starving.

Making this blockade happen was the genius of many hands, but much credit is due to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles.  But for the average Union sailor it was a boring slog of a routine, day after day, sitting off the southern coast watching mostly empty water, in an era where air conditioning didn’t exist.

So on January 31st, 1863 at least it’s not Summer, so the temperature is good.  But there’s a blockade runner’s dream in an early morning fog.  But it’s not a blockade runner the Union Navy has to worry about, the Confederates are coming out to fight:

Two Confederate rams, the CSS Chicora (Commander John R Tucker) and Palmetto State (Lieutenant John Rutledge) under overall command of Flag Officer Duncan N Ingraham, left Charleston Harbor in an early morning fog and attacked the blockading fleet.  The rams successfully destroyed the USS Mercedita (Captain Stellwagen) and the Keystone State (Commander William E LeRoy).  General PGT Beauregard commander of the Charleston district, claimed that the blockade had been lifted.  More Federal ship arrived.

Chicora and Palmetto State were modern ironclad rams, arguably two of the most dangerous warships then afloat.  Whereas Mercedita and Keystone State were wooden steam ships.  In order to blockade such a long coastline, the Union Navy had to rely on hundreds of old model wooden vessels which were fine for chasing down blockade runners but simply couldn’t compete with modern armored warships.

– The reality is the Confederacy didn’t have the industrial base to generate enough modern warships, and those they had were slowly and methodically run down and destroyed as the Union captured Confederate port after port.  Chicora and Palmetto State are exceptions in that since Charleston held almost until the end of the war, they lasted all the way until 1865 and were scuttled when Union forces finally took Charleston.

– So this was of course a very one sided battle, at least at the tactical level.  Mercedita was hit by gunfire and then rammed to the point that she surrendered.  Keystone State was disabled by gunfire afterwards.  Contrary to the above text, both ships would survive, be towed away, and continue service for the Union after repairs.  Chicora and Palmetto State would exchange gunfire with the rest of the blockade fleet before retiring.

– A one sided affair and a complete tactical victory for the Confederacy, it did nothing to change the overall scope of the war.  The Union blockade of Charleston remained intact.  Which is, of course, the purpose of an effectively executed blockade.

– All throughout the war are the scattered names of dozens of Union and Confederate generals who are just kind of there.  And even when they execute brilliant acts here and there, they’re still just kind of there.  They’re just guys.  And you ask yourself, why?  Beauregard was the co-winner of First Bull Run.  Why is he just kind of there for the rest of the war?  Well, it’s because of statements like this: ”claimed that the blockade had been lifted”.

– So if you’re some Charleston citizen, and Beauregard says the blockade is over, and two days later you look out over the water and the blockade is still there, you’d be certain that man was an idiot.  Here is a perfect example of Southern spirit over common sense.  Elan is not enough to win a war, and yet many of the South’s leaders (even those in the most key of positions) figured it would be enough to triumph.  It wasn’t.  The text above blandly notes: “More Federal ship arrived.”  Beauregard’s outlandish view of the war cannot compete with a Union war machine that can replace ships at will, no matter how many are destroyed.  And crewed by Union sailors who had one of the hardest, most thankless tasks of the war, but who completed their mission in the end.

Chicora and Palmetto State in Charleston harbor

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