The Palmetto State And The Chicora

The Confederate response to this challenge began with the laying of the keel of the Palmetto State in January, 1862, followed by that of the Chicora two months later. Both ships were of the now standard Brooke-Porter design, 150 feet long with a 12-foot draft, which gave them the run of Charleston Harbor at least. The Chicora was built under authority of the South Carolina General Assembly and presented to the Confederate States Navy upon completion.

Both ships were finished without any great difficulty and were in commission by November of 1862.

By January, 1863, in response to repeated pleas from Rear Admiral Du Pont, the great ironclad frigate New Ironsides and four Passaic class monitors had been ordered to the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. In the short time allotted them before the Union preponderance of power became a reality, the two Confederate ships had a brief moment of glory: on the morning of January 31, the Palmetto State, flying the flag of Flag Officer Duncan Ingraham, followed by the Chicora, steamed out of the harbor and, taking advantage of an earlymorning fog, caught the Union blockading force completely by surprise.

The armed steamerMercedita was hit at point-blank range and immediately rammed by the Palmetto State. The Mercedita's captain, unable to depress his guns to fire upon the ironclad and with his engines disabled, hauled down his flag. Within a few moments both ironclads had a second converted steamer, the Keystone State, under fire, with the same result. The rest of the Union ships scattered and the ironclads returned to Charleston, and a tremendous ovation.

Since this was the only time in the entire war that a Confederate ironclad actually had put to sea, engaged the enemy successfully, and returned safely to port, it seems hardly fair to criticize them. Nevertheless, it must be said that reports after the action indicate that, while the vessels handled well, they were far too slow even to keep the enemy within rifle range. Furthermore, the Chief Engineer of the Chicora advised against ramming the Keystone State because he did not believe his engines had enough power to back away!

This was their first and last sortie. The two ships remained in the harbor, performing various support activities for Army units under attack on Morris Island, but the strength of the Union ironclads outside the harbor was simply too much for them.

A third ship, the Charleston, was laid down in December of 1862, and completed the following September. She was slightly larger than the Palmetto State and the Chicora, and more heavily armed, but her presence hardly affected the odds.

A fourth ironclad, the Columbia, was laid down early in 1863 and never completed.

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