Saturday, October 5, 2013

October 5, 1863: Southern "David" fails to sink Union "Goliath"

C.S.S. David
On this night 150 years ago, a tiny Confederate semi-submersible craft attacked the U.S.S. New Ironsides as she stood off the entrance to the port of Charleston, South Carolina. Union Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren sent the following report on the incident to Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles.
No. 183.]    Flag-Steamer PHILADELPHIA, October 7, 1863.

SIR: Another attempt to blow up the Ironsides has been frustrated. About 10 o'clock on the night of October 5, some explosions, as if of small arms were heard in the direction of the Ironsides; the duration was quite brief, and then all was still. As soon as I could reach the frigate, I learned that a torpedo had been exploded near the Ironsides, and that Acting Ensign Howard had been mortally wounded by a shot from the torpedo vessel.

In the morning it appeared that a man had been picked up, who admitted that he had been in the torpedo. His account was, that the vessel was shaped like a cigar, had a maximum diameter of more than 6 feet; length, he could not be sure of, but it was said to be about 50 feet. There were four persons in it. The torpedo contained 60 pounds of powder, was secured on a bar 10 feet long projecting from the bow, and immersed perhaps 6 feet.

The vessel left Charleston about dark on the evening of the 5th instant, passed down outside of us, and then, returning, made for the Ironsides and struck her fairly amidships. It was not quite 10 o'clock, and many officers were still on deck. The torpedo was seen approaching and hailed, when some shots were fired from her, one of which wounded the officer of the deck mortally; immediately the explosion followed, and the effect of the apparatus may be considered as complete, yet no impression is visible on the armor or exterior planking. The prisoner says that, fearing the explosion, he jumped overboard just as the torpedo was hailed.

After I had heard this prisoner, I learned that another had been taken, whom, however, I did not see, as the story of the first sufficiently explained the movements of the torpedo. About noon I learned from papers found on the last prisoner that he had been the commander of the torpedo, and was a lieutenant in the Confederate Navy. These papers (four in number) I transmit herewith, from which it seems that the vessel was called the "David," probably to point to the presumed success against the Ironsides, which was to enact the Goliath. The project, it appears, had also been regularly concocted, as one document is dated September 6. The report of Captain Rowan, the commander of the Ironsides, has not been received at this date.

How far the enemy may seem encouraged, I do not know, but I think it will be well to be prepared against a considerable issue of these small craft. It is certainly the best form of the torpedo which has come to my notice, and a large quantity of powder may as well be exploded as 60 pounds.

I was concerned for the monitors, and am now on the way to Port Royal for a day or two to see what can be done to arm those which are there against these machines. Captain Rowan is in command, and I gave personal instructions to the commanders of the monitors, which it is but just to them to say were almost needless. The vessels themselves should be protected by outriggers, and the harbor itself well strewn with a similar class of craft. Their three ironclads are so provided, and I do not doubt that when an attack is made by us there will be a number of these torpedoes at work on our vessels. The subject merits serious attention, for it will receive a greater development.

I wish that I could have transmitted the report of Captain Rowan, but it had not been received, and I desired to inform the Department as soon as possible.

The outside of the hull near the locality of the explosion was examined by the divers, and it is reported to me verbally that no impression of any consequence is to be seen, except, perhaps, the removal of some copper, which, by the way, has occurred in other places, from other causes, and so leave an opening to the worms.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

JNO. A. DAHLGREN,
Rear-Admiral, Comdg. South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

Hon. GIDEON WELLES,
Secretary of the Navy, Washington, D.C.

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