Monday, April 8, 2013

April 8, 1863: The fate of the U.S.S. Keokuk

U.S.S. Keokuk under construction showing the shape of hull and ram bow.

The U.S.S. Keokuk was a deeply flawed vessel. Keokuk was an attempt to build a lighter, cheaper ironclad with roughly the same firepower as a monitor. At 677 tons, Keokuk weighed little more than a third of what a Passaic-class monitor weighed (1,875 tons). Much of the weight savings came in the form of drastically lighter armor arranged in a novel fashion. Keokuk's armor, if it could be called that, was made up of alternating 2-inch bars of iron and wood with a half-inch thick plate covering. Additional weight was saved by using two lightly armored fixed "towers" in lieu of the Passaic-class' heavily armored rotating turret. Each tower held a single 11-inch Dahlgren gun on a pivot so the gun could fire from any one of three gun ports and she was equipped with a ram bow. The ship did have a higher freeboard than a monitor, and was probably more seaworthy, but as events would show, the Keokuk was not battle-worthy.
U.S. FLAGSHIP NEW IRONSIDES,
Off Cummings Point, S. C., April 8, 1863.

SIR: I have the honor to report that I got the Keokuk underway at 12:30 p. m. yesterday in obedience to the signal from the flagship and took a position in the line prescribed in your order of advance and attack. At 3:20, the flagship having made signal to disregard her motions, I ran the Keokuk ahead of my leading vessel to avoid getting foul in the narrow channel and strong tideway. I was forced, in consequence, to take a position slightly in advance of the leading vessel of the line and brought my vessel under a concentrated heavy fire from Forts Moultrie and Sumter at a distance of about 550 yards from the former. The position taken by the Keokuk was maintained for about thirty minutes, during which period she was struck ninety times in the hull and turrets. Nineteen shots pierced her through at and ]ust below the water line. The turrets were pierced in many places, one of the forward port shutters shot away; in short, the vessel was completely riddled.

Finding it impossible to keep her afloat many minutes more under such an extraordinary fire, during which rifled projectiles of every species and the largest caliber, as also hot shot, were poured into us, I reluctantly withdrew from action at 4:10 p.m. with the gun carriage of the forward turret disabled and so many of the crew of the after gun wounded as to prevent a possibility of remaining under fire. I succeeded in getting the Keokuk to an anchor, out of range of fire and kept her afloat during the night in the smooth water, though the water was pouring into her in many places. At daylight this morning it became so rough that I saw the vessel must soon go down. Assistance being sent me, I endeavored to get the vessel round and tow up, and in that effort, at about 7:30 a.m., she went down rapidly, and now lies completely submerged to the top of her smokestack. The officers and crew were all saved, the wounded having been put on board a tug a few minutes before the Keokuk went down. Owing to the loss of papers and the separation of officers and crew, I am unable to furnish an official medical report, but give as nearly as possible the casualties in the action of yesterday.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

A.C. Rhind,
Commander

Rear-Admiral S.F. Du Pont,
Commanding South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.
Rhind's decision to cut inside of the monitor ahead of him in line (the U.S.S. Nahant) brought the Keokuk fatally close to Confederate-held Fort Sumter. The Confederates under General P.G.T. Beauregard had upgraded Sumter's armament, including two powerful 7-inch Brooke rifles. The Brooke rifles--as well as 8-inch, 9-inch, and 10-inch shell guns in the fort--were able to easily punch through Keokuk's flimsy armor at a range of 550 yards.  Keokuk sank in shallow water, and Charleston's Confederate defenders were subsequently able to salvage the ship's two 11-inch Dahlgren guns and add them to Charleston's defenses.

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