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Torch

 

(ScStr: cpl. 11; a. triple-torpedo spar)

 

Lt. Lewis R. Hill, CSN, commanded CSS Torch on the Charleston station 1863-64. As reported by a Confederate deserter in January 1864, Torch, a steamer, was "built like the other ironclads [Charleston, Palmetto State, Chicora], but is very small. Has no guns mounted, but has a pole projecting from her bow, with three branches at the end, with a torpedo on each. The pole is about 12 feet long. Each torpedo is about the size of the one on the Charleston, and contains about 70 pounds of powder."

 

The craft was launched at Charleston the summer of 1863, apparently unchristened, and "taken to Marsh's shipyard where a second-hand steam engine was placed in it and a spar designed to carry three 100-pound torpedoes was attached." Carrying six 75-pound torpedoes (mines), she left her moorings 20 August with a volunteer crew of Charlestonians under a naturalized Briton, experienced blockade runner Capt. James Carlin. At Fort Sumter they picked up Lt. E. S. Fickling, CSA, and 11 soldiers of the 1st South Carolina Artillery in case of attack by Federal launches. Passing the harbor obstructions after midnight, they sighted USS New Ironsides, Capt. Stephen C. Rowan, anchored "across the channel and heading for Morris Island," with five monitors moored nearby. The watch officer on the big ironclad was startled by "a strange vessel, sitting very low in the water and having the appearance of being a large boat, coming up astern very fast." Captain Carlin, 40 yards off, found Torch too slow in answering the helm and "discovered as we ranged up alongside that in consequence of the Ironsides being in the act of swinging to the ebb we must miss with our torpedoes, but feared that her chain cable would either ignite them or detain us alongside. In either case we must have been captured."

 

To repeated hails Carlin responded, "The steamer Live Yankee" from Port Royal. At this tense moment, Torch's engine caught on dead center; Ironsides beat to quarters, fired a rocket and threatened to board while Carlin's sharpshooters nearly let go a volley that would have betrayed the smaller craft; Carlin gave orders "in time to prevent the firing upon some sailors that were looking at us from the ports. I saw they were not boarding and I immediately ordered the men to hold and not fire. They dropped immediately, showing specimen of the effect of good discipline." In two minutes the little band drifted "just clear of his bow and out of danger of being boarded except by launches"; out of reach of the enemy's broadside, Torch was momentarily safe until Ironsides' "chain had been slipped, and backing astern, the bow guns were fired" at the retreating Confederates; for, in the nick of time, the recalcitrant engine started and Torch was off toward Fort Moultrie.

 

After this hairbreadth escape, Captain Carlin felt it his "duty most unhesitatingly to express my condemnation of the vessel and engine for the purposes it was intended, and as soon as she can be docked and the leak stopped, would advise making a transport out of her."

 

The following year, 1864, she was commanded by Lt. Lewis R. Hill, CSN, but her role remains obscure. A contemporary reported long afterward that she had been a "tub-like model" with an inefficient, "second-hand and much worn engine" and "could only be kept afloat by bailing." A Lt. Clarence L. Stanton, CSN, had said of her that she had never been iron-plated, despite reports to the contrary, was structurally unsound and little used in consequence. A Major Lee, CSA, from his report to General Beauregard seems to have obtained from Secretary Mallory the transfer of her unfinished hull on the ways and to have engined her, although originally she had been intended for a permanently anchored floating battery. The presumption is that Torch was relegated to such immobile status after her escapade of 21 August 1863.