By Alfred P. Cappio
Extracted from the Bulletin of the Passaic County Historical Society, 40th Anniversary Issue
Most Americans think that the Civil War was a soldier’s war, fought on land between the armies of the two opposing factions. Sumter, Bull Run, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and those other land battles are, to them, the story of the conflict. These persons have either forgotten, or perhaps they never knew, that another struggle was carried on water, and, that, in the final analysis, this sea war won by the Federal Navy made possible our victory at Appomattox Courthouse.
This naval war was fought not only on the seven seas, but also along the banks of the Mississippi, the James, the Red and Rapidan rivers, and in the many coves and bays which dotted the Con- federacy’s shoreline. It was the Navy whose guns made possible the Union victories at New Orleans, Vicksburg and Mobile and saved McClellan’s forces at Malvern Hill. It was the naval blockade of Southern ports that cut off vital supplies so desperately needed by Lee’s armies and thus helped to bring about the final surrender.
Naval vessels blockaded the harbor at Charleston, preventing supplies from entering by sea.
Naval vessels bombarded the city’s defenses and covered the advance of the land armies which fin- ally captured the city late in 1864.It was not an easy operation, nor a short one. Above all, it was not a cheap victory, but rather one bought by the struggles and the blood of the men who participated in it. Men were killed, and ships were sunk in front of the Charleston fortifications. The brunt of this campaign was borne by the iron- clad monitors those cheese boxes on rafts patterned after John Ericsson’s invention which in 1862, had saved the North at Hampton Roads when the Monitor stood off the Confederate ironclad, Merrimac.
One monitor distinguished itself above all others. It was the U. S. S. Passaic, named after
the Passaic River in New Jersey. It is doubtful if any other ship in the Union Navy fought in more actions, fired more shells at enemy fortifications, or was hit more often by enemy fire than was the Passaic. Truly this boat might well be called “The Fightingest Ship in Mr. Lincoln’s Navy”.
The success of the Monitor in its battle with the Merrimac on March 9, 1862, led the Federal authorities to place a rush order with Ericsson to build nine more of these vessels at his shipyard located at Greenpoint (now Brooklyn), New York. The first to be completed was the Passaic, launched on August 30th, and commissioned at the New York Navy Yard on November 25th, 1862. Two days later, under the command of Captain Percival Drayton she sailed to join Admiral Du Pont’s South Atlantic Blockading Squadron based at Port Royal, South Carolina.
Boiler trouble caused the strip to stop at the Washington Navy Yard for repairs, and it was here that President Lincoln and his cabinet inspected her on December 6th. On December 29th, she sailed from Hampton Roads with the original Monitor. The two ships encountered very rough weather off Cape Hatteras. Although the Monitor was lost with all hands aboard, the Passaic survived the storm and reached Beaufort, South Carolina safely on January 1st, 1863.
Her first assignment was to blockade ‘Wassau Sound. Here on February 23rd, she captured the schooner Glide, a blockade runner loaded with cotton.
By now, the other monitors had been completed, and had joined the Passaic at Wassau Sound. Admiral Du Pont decided to test the ability of the ironclads in action against land fortifications, and ordered them to attack Fort Mae Allister dominating the sea approaches to Savannah, Georgia. The Passaic was made the flagship of the small squadron, and Captain Drayton given charge of the operation. Drayton was a member of an old and distinguished South Carolina family of whom for the Confederacy, and in this battle, he was opposed by an older brother, General Thomas F. Drayton, who commanded at Fort Mac Allister.
The Passaic led the small fleet into action, and came to position only 1,200 yards from the guns of the fort. From 8:40A.M. to 3:30P.M., her guns were busy firing fifty-two projectiles against the enemy, and she was hit a total of thirty-four times. In his report of the action, Captain Downes of the Nahant, another monitor, said that all of Mac Allister’s guns had been concentrated on the Passaic, and that she appeared to be the only ship under fire. Although the attack was not successful in capturing the fort, the Passaic had proven that the monitors were capable of withstanding a heavy fire which would have sunk any wooden ship in the Navy.
At this stage of the Rebellion, Charleston had become a comparatively unimportant point in the overall strategy of the war against the South. However, the Federal government felt that the reduction of Fort Sumter, where the war started, and the capture of Charleston would be a great moral victory in a struggle now going so badly for its land armies. Du Pont was ordered to at- tack the defenses of the city with a fleet consisting of nine ironclads and five wooden gun- boats. After Charleston’s guns had been silenced, an army of 4,000 men commanded by General Truman Seymour would proceed to attack the city itself.
During the two years following the fall of Fort Sumter, the Confederates had developed Charleston into the most heavily fortified port of the Confederacy. Forts Sumter and Moultrie had been rebuilt, a strong position Fort Wagner, had been constructed on Morris Island directly opposite Sumter, Battery Bee had been erected on Sullivan’s Island, and numerous other fortifications set up along the banks of the two rivers. In addition, the channel had been heavily mined and filled with cables and other obstructions to prevent the passage of ships. In all, the Confederates had massed more than three hundred guns capable of firing one hundred and sixty shots a minute. It was into this inferno of shells that the fleet advanced to attack on April 7th, 1863.In the forty-five minutes the action lasted, the Confederates fired more than 3,500 shots and shells in repelling the attack. One vessel, the Keokuk, was sunk, and all of the others hit several times, while Sumter upon which the fleet had concentrated its guns, was only slightly damaged.
The Passaic had fired thirteen shots and had been struck thirty-four times. As a result, she was sent to New York for repairs. She was re-com- missioned on July 19th, 1863, with Lieutenant- Commander Edward Simpson, replacing Captain Drayton in command. From then until Charleston was finally captured on November 14th, 1864, the Passaic took part in every engagement against the city and its defenses.
In a report to Admiral Dahlgren, who had replaced Du Pont, Commander Simpson related that the Passaic went into action eleven times between July 29th and September 8th. During this period, she fired two hundred and twenty-six shells against the enemy and took in return one hundred thirty-five hits from the Confederate guns. Typical was her work in the engagement of September 8th. During an attack on Sullivan’s Island, she was ordered to go well in front of the rest of the fleet and engage Battery Bee at close range. The Confederates concentrated all of their guns on her, and though she was hit fifty-one times, she managed to get off forty-nine of her own shells. Her last action took place on November 16th, 1863 when Admiral Dahlgren used her as his flagship during an attack on Fort Moultrie. In this engagement, the U. S. S. Lehigh ran aground and was rescued by the Passaic while both vessels were under heavy fire.
Following extensive repairs, she was sent to Wassau Sound under command of Lt. Commander Fillebrown, and served on blockade for the rest of the year. The Passaic was honored on April 14th, 1865, when she was ordered to Charleston to take part in the ceremony of raising the United States Flag over Fort Sumter, exactly four years to the day after Doubleday had surrendered the fort to Beauregard. On June 18th, 1865, the Passaic went out of commission at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.
The Passaic was laid up at the League Island Navy Yard in Philadelphia until 1875, when she returned to duty as a member of the North Atlantic Squadron, serving as receiving ship at the Washington Navy Yard. She cruised with the fleet from September 1st, 1882 until the eighteenth of November when she was assigned to duty with the Naval Academy at Annapolis, remaining there for the next ten years. She spent four years, 1893, 1894, 1895 and 1896 at Boston on loan to the Massachusetts Naval Militia. The next two years were spent with the Georgia Naval Militia at Brunswick, Georgia. Recalled to action at the outbreak of the Spanish American War in 1898, she cruised southward in defense of our shores from May 16th to September 11th, when she was finally de-commissioned at the Pensacola Naval Base. On October 10th, 1899, the old warrior was sold to Frank Samuels of Philadelphia who broke her up for scrap.
Writing in his diary on June 3rd, 1865, Admiral Dahlgren said of the Passaic, “A steady worker for two- and one-half years, and the first monitor in commission after the Monitor.” And in a letter written for the Army and Navy Journal of April 24th, 1864, Commander Simpson said, “The Passaic was the worst hit of all the monitors.”
Yes, the Passaic earned the title of “The Fightingest ship in Mr. Lincoln’s Navy”, and deserves to be remembered with pride by all who live in the river valley from which she received her name.