Nov 16

Rescue under Fire of Ironclad Lehigh

Tuesday, November 16, 2010 12:01 AM


During the American Civil War the vast majority of guns mounted in Confederate forts not be easily penetrate the armor on Union monitors. Even so, ironclads were fragile machines, especially vulnerable when stationary and struck repeatedly by enemy fire. When these iron behemoths accidently ran aground in the shallow coastal waters of the South, it sometimes took the heroics of flesh and blood to save them from destruction.

On the evening of 16 November 1863, Confederate batteries at Fort Moultrie, near Charleston, South Carolina, unexpectedly opened a very heavy, long-range fire on Federal troops in their field works on Morris Island. The Union Army commander, Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gilmore, immediately requested help from the Navy, and Rear Adm. John Dahlgren ordered the monitors on picket duty, including U.S.S. Lehigh, to move up and cover approaches to the Union position in case the Southerners intended to launch a boat attack. Cmdr. Andrew Bryson ordered his ship, Lehigh, to anchor in three and one half fathoms of water at half-ebb tide, believing the monitor would be perfectly safe. During the flood tide that night, however, the vessel swung and gently grounded on a sand bar.

Upon discovering after daylight that Lehigh was aground, nine different Confederate batteries opened an intense bombardment at about 2300 yards, firing over 300 rounds and striking the ironclad twenty-two times, including eleven hits on the deck plating, six of which broke through the armor. One hit struck the hull, bent the plating in and eventually started a leak that let in nine inches of water per hour. The monitors Nahant and Montauk came to her assistance, the former making three attempts to pass a line with small boats to begin a tow. Gunner’s Mate George Leland, Coxswain Thomas Irving, and Assistant Naval Surgeon William Longshaw twice succeeded in passing the line under heavy fire, only to have it severed by enemy guns. The third attempt by Seaman Horatio Young, Landsman William Williams, and Landsman Frank Giles succeeded as well, and this time it served to provide the tow that rescued Lehigh from her precarious position. Dahlgren praised all for risking their lives to save an invaluable warship, and the enlisted men each received the Medal of Honor for their heroism under heavy enemy fire.

  • Jim Valle

    Dahlgren’s action at Charleston followed that of Rear Admiral Sanuel Francis DuPont. DuPont gave up his attack on the city citing the frequent breakdowns on the Ironclads and Monitors under his command including the Keokuck which sank just outside the Charleston bar after being battered by the guns of Ft. Sumter. DuPont was relieved of his command on the suspicion that his complaints about the monitors unreliability was just a cover for lack of aggressiveness but Dahlgren discovered in his turn that much of what DuPont said about the monitors and ironclads was true. Another complication was the ships slow rate of fire compared to the Confederate forts bsatteries which resulted in little damage being done to the forts while the ships were literally plastered with shot and shell.