THE STORY OF THE KEOKUK
sank off the south end of Morris Island, at half-past eight o’clock the
following morning (Apr11 8). Her smoke-stack and turrets are now visible at low
water. From her wreck floated ashore a book, a spy-glass, and pieces of
furniture bespattered with blood, and small fragments of iron sticking in them.
On the morning of April 7 1863, a small but powerful squadron of Union ironclads waited impatiently inside the bar of Charleston harbour to begin the long-expected attack against Fort Sumter—if not also against the city beyond. Here was where the great ‘Rebellion’ began.
It was not until noon of April 7th that the New Ironsides, the flagship of the Union squadron, finally hoisted the signal to weigh anchor and proceed with DuPont’s pre-arranged order of battle: line-ahead, with the monitors Weehawken, Passaic, Montauk, and Patapsco; New Ironsides at the middle of the formation (to better facilitate signalling during the action); followed by the monitors Catskill, Nantucket, and Nahant; with the experimental, twin ‘fixed-turret’-ram U.S.S. Keokuk bringing up the rear. The ships were to navigate between forts Sumter and Moultrie, firing “when within easy range”, to a position “six…to eight hundred yards” off Sumter’s northwest face. “After the reduction of Fort Sumter,” the plan concluded somewhat vaguely, “it is probable that the next point of attack will be the batteries on Morris island.”
On the 5th of
April, the enemy’s force had materially increased
in the Stono and the North Edisto. His iron-clads, including the
frigate New Ironsides, and eight monitors had crossed the outer
bar and cast anchor in the main channel. No doubt could be
had of their intention.
Two days later on the 7th a date ever memorable in the
annals of the late war, the signal for the attack on Fort Sumter,
so long anticipated and so long delayed, was finally given.
First steamed up, in line, one following the other, the Weehawken, the Passaic, the Montauk and the Patapsco; four single-turreted monitors. The New Ironsides, the flagship of the fleet, came next. Then came the Catskill, the Nantucket, the Nahant; three other single-turreted monitors. The double-turreted Keokuk was the eighth, and closed
turret opened fire at five minutes past three, and moved backward, thus
developing their maneuver of attack. . . . The second turret passed first fired,
moved backward; the first moved forward, passed the second, fired, and backed,
then retired from action; the other turrets maneuvering in the same relative
manner, each time nearing or receding a little from the fort, in order not to
present a permanent target. . . . The Keokuk sank off the south end of Morris
Island, at half-past eight o’clock the following morning (Apr11 8). Her
smoke-stack and turrets are now visible at low water. From her wreck floated
ashore a book, a spy-glass, and pieces of furniture bespattered with blood, and
small fragments of iron sticking in them. -
The firing of the turrets was timed; they discharged generally at intervals of ten minutes. - . - Allowing six of them constantly engaged, they delivered eighty-seven shots; one fired twice and retired; the Keokuk fired three or four times, and the Ironsides about seventeen making the total number fired by the enemy about one hundred and ten, which were principally
directed at Sumter.* her walls show the effect of fifty-five missiles shot, shells and fragments.
The action lasted two hours and twenty-five minutes; but the chief dam-
age is reported by the enemy to have been done in thirty minutes. The
Keokuk did not come nearer than nine hundred yards of Fort Sumter. She
was destroyed. The New Ironsides could not stand the fire at the range of a
mile. Four of her consorts, monitors, were disabled at the distance of not less
than thirteen hundred yards. They had only reached the gorge of the harbor,
never within it, and were baffled and driven back before reaching our lines
The most powerful class of boats were the ironclads. There were several groups of these the largest being the Passaic class monitors each having an 11 and 15 inch Dahlgren gun mounted in a single, revolving turret. And then the one of a kind, the Keokuk, carrying two guns in two fixed towers.
On the afternoon of April 7, at 2:30 p.m. the attack was begun. The order of attack was first the Weehawken would lead the way, commanded by Captain John Rodgers. The Weehawken came under immediate attack with heavy fire from the 95 guns mounted on Fort Sumter. Captain Rogers looking through the spy hole slit in his conning tower suddenly saw “Beauregard’s Barrels” dead ahead and in his imagination felt his ship shake and list from the explosion of a mine. He automatically stopped his advancement and started reversing. Behind him a cable length away the column of ships had to react to Rodger’s maneuvers and suddenly the whole formation was broken and scattered. In addition, they were being pounded by Fort Sumter. DuPont was aboard the New Ironsides but could not get signals out to his fleet to reorganize. At 5:30 p.m. the Admiral finally got orders to his captains to withdraw. The New Ironsides had come about and was moving past the Keokuk when her captain reported that she was close to sinking. The New Ironsides rescued the Keokuk crew, abandoned her and proceeded out of the harbor past Morris Island. The other ships limped behind her severely damaged. All told the ships had received 439 hits with the New Ironsides receiving 93 hits on her own. Throughout the entire battle, only one man was killed and 22 wounded. Admiral DuPont alone saw his defeat clear as a bell.
The Keokuk left to her own demise off Morris Island finally sank right after the crew was rescued. She sat in the shallow water off Morris Island with her stack showing above the waves at high tide. The Confederates according to records would raid her at night collecting souvenirs such as rifles, clothing and flags. During the days, the Union ships were trying to figure out a way to finish her off. They finally reported that the Keokuk was not worth the risk of salvaging and that she was filling up with sand and would be of no use to the Confederates, but the Confederates thought differently. They were after the two guns.
The City wanted those guns desperately and hired the best civilian ship rigger they could find, Adolphus W. LaCoste. LaCoste rounded up his best crew and started lining up the equipment he would need. He procured the abandoned hull of a lightship, some heavy timbers to use as a derrick and all the block and tackle and other equipment he would need. These guns weighed 15,700 pounds.
“Their problems were many. The wreck lay roughly 1,300 yards from Morris Island, which could be reached if danger threatened only by a quick pull for the shore. Danger, in the presence of the Union blockading fleet, was only about two miles away – if the vessels were on station. However, there was no guarantee the Yankees would stay they could cross the bar day or night and at any moment an ironclad might wander over to check on the Keokuk.”
So most of the work had to be done in silence at night with no lights. They had to enter through the cone shaped turrets, which were 20 feet in diameter at the base to about 14 feet at the top, not leaving a lot of working room. Because of the tides, they only had about two hours a night in which to work and even then, they had to deal with breaking waves and tough currents. The men had to dive underwater to remove the bolts, which held the guns in their carriages, and the whole process was slow going under the worse of conditions. Finally, the guns were free now the other tough part was to come. The crane and lifting tackle were ready on the hull of the lightship, the steamer Etiwan was used to tow the vessel back to Charleston with the cannons on board and the Palmetto State and the Chicora were sent out as escorts in case the Yankees saw what was going on. The whole operation from start to finish had taken three weeks, the labor and risk of several hundred men, three ships and a number of smaller boats.
The salvage was worth the agony, the twin Dahlgrens became the most powerful guns in Charleston. One was mounted at Fort Sumter for a while where it lived until August and was at one point the only serviceable cannon in the fort. It was then moved to Battery Ramsey at the eastern end of White Point Gardens in the City. It was either destroyed somehow or sold as scrap after the evacuation of Charleston. The other Dahlgren was mounted at Battery Bee on Sullivan’s Island and was used to guard the harbor until the evacuation. Amazingly, it was abandoned by the Confederates and of no concern to the Yankees until one day the cannon and its carriage overturned and was buried by the sand near the beach. In 1898 it was found by troops stationed at Fort Moultrie and a year later it was mounted on The Battery where it can be seen at the corner of East Bay and South Battery.
I have also to transmit herewith two Abolition ensigns obtained from the Keokuk, as she lies off Morris Island Beach, by Lieutenant Glassell, C. S. Navy, one of which is evidently the ensign under which she fought and was worsted.
None of the iron-clads flew large flags, the object having doubtless been to avoid presenting a mark to our artillery.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
R. S. RIPLEY,
"On the 11th there were indications that the attacking fleet was about to withdraw; and on the 12th, at high water, the Ironsides crossed the bar and took up her position with the blockading fleet, and the monitors steamed and were towed to the southward, leaving only the sunken Keokuk as a monument of their attack and discomfiture."