The Attack On the Gunboat USS Marblehead on Christmas Day 1863

If the crew of the United States steam gunboat USS Marblehead was expecting, or at least hoping, for a quiet Christmas Day in 1863, those expectations and hopes were dashed at daylight that morning. The Marblehead was engaged in an on going patrol of the South Carolina coast and coastal rivers, and on Christmas morning was anchored in the Stono River near the town of Legareville, southeast of Charleston on the eastern side of John’s Island. As soon as light permitted, Confederate artillery on John’s Island opened fire on Marblehead, determined to sink or drive her off and clear the way for an infantry attack against a small Union army encampment near Legareville.

USS Marblehead

Marblehead’s crew responded immediately, including the ship’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Richard W. Meade, Jr., who arrived on deck with his sword and sidearm strapped over his night clothes. The ship had enough steam to get underway, and moved nearer the Rebel position to return fire. Meanwhile, two other nearby Union Navy vessels immediately got underway to assist Marblehead. The steam sloop USS Pawnee under Commander George B. Balch and the mortar schooner USS C.P. Williams, under Acting Master S.N. Freeman, moved into position to provide enfilade fire from the Kiawah River, south of Legareville.

USS Marblehead, USS C.P. Williams, and USS Pawnee (L to R) at Legareville SC Dec. 25, 1863

The naval gunfire proved effective. The Confederate artillery commander, Lieutenant Colonel Del Kemper, reported that he had opened fire on Marblehead at 6:10 a.m., and decided to withdraw about 7:00 a.m., after concluding his fire on Marblehead was ineffective and his guns could not reach Pawnee. He had two 30 pounder Parrot guns that were withdrawn, but a pair of eight inch siege howitzers had to be left behind because there were not enough horses left to remove them.

Kemper may have believed his fire on Marblehead was ineffective, but the ship did sustain several hits and associated damage in several locations. Meade reported three men killed and four wounded; there were no reported casualties on the Pawnee or C.P. Williams. Kemper’s artillerymen had three killed or mortally wounded, and nine wounded, plus several horses were killed.

Meade filed this report on the Marblehead’s action:

Off Legareville, Stono River, December 25, 1863.

ADMIRAL: I have the honor to report that the enemy on John’s Island opened fire on us at 6 o’clock this morning from two batteries of field and siege artillery, posted advantageously in the woods. At the time the enemy opened fire the vessel had steam only on the port boiler, as the bad leak in the starboard one had rendered it necessary to haul the fires under that boiler.

Lieutenant Commander Richard Meade USN

We replied vigorously to the enemy, and, slipping the cable, took a position nearer their guns, in which, after a sharp contest of an hour, the enemy retired in disorder, leaving one gun and caisson behind them. It is reported that they abandoned two guns.

Both officers and men of this vessel behaved admirably, and, though the vessel was struck over twenty times and was much cut up aloft, on deck, and in personnel, stood to their guns until the enemy retired discomfited from theirs.

I have to commend the gallantry and good service of Acting Ensign George F. Winslow and the officers of the two gun divisions. William Farley (boatswain’s mate), captain of the XI-inch gun, behaved in the most gallant manner, animating his men and keeping up a rapid and effectIve fire on the enemy. I trust you will take suitable notice of this man’s conduct. He deserves the medal of honor. James Miller (quartermaster) behaved gallantly, and Joseph Bouden (sailmaker’s mate), a prisoner at large, behaved so well in the action that I am induced to hope that the Department may overlook the grave offense for which he was tried by court-martial recently. Robert Blake, a contraband, excited my admiration by the cool and brave manner in which he served the rifle gun. The enemy’s fire was very effective, and the vessel is badly cut up aloft (losing maintopmast) and on deck; has several shot in the hull and one or two in the foremast, and has lost 3 men killed and 4 wounded, one seriously. The surgeon’s report is herewith enclosed. The report of ammunition expended is also enclosed, by which you will observe that a rapid fire was kept up. The loss of the enemy must have been very considerable at our short range, as the abandonment of their artillery proves.

The Pawnee, which when the action commenced was at anchor in the inlet, took an enfilading position on the Kiawah River, and by her fire contributed greatly in demoralizing the enemy and forcing him to retreat. The mortar schooner also came down and joined in the action.

In conclusion, I have again to commend the good conduct of everyone on board. Their courage was so well displayed that the enemy, who had doubtless counted on disabling us, were forced to retire (without effecting their object) in confusion and ignominy.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Lieutenant- Commander, U.S. Navy

Rear-Admiral JOHN A. DAHLGREN, U. S. Navy
Commanding South Atlantic Blockading Fleet.

Meade organized an expedition of officers, sailors, and Marines to retrieve the abandoned howitzers on December 28th. The expedition was successful; it was no small task considering each gun was estimated to weigh 3000 pounds.

Medals of Honor Awarded for Marblehead’s Action on the Stono River at Legareville South Carolina on Christmas Day 1863

Four sailors from Marblehead were awarded the Medal of Honor for this Christmas Day action. They were: Boatswain’s Mate William Farley, Quartermaster James Miller, Landsman Charles Moore, and Robert Blake, an escaped slave referred to as a contraband in Meade’s report and in the citation of the Medal. Blake was born into slavery in South Carolina, and was captured by a U.S. Navy raid on the Santee River of that state in 1862, along with 400 others. During the Civil War, the U.S. Navy was more integrated than the army, and Blake answered a call for volunteers to serve on the U.S.S. Vermont. He later transferred to the Marblehead and served as Meade’s steward. When the shelling began in the John’s Island action, Blake brought Meade his uniform and then, despite having no official battle station, began bringing gunpowder to the crew manning the ship’s guns, while under heavy enemy fire. Blake, along with the others, were awarded their Medals of Honor on April 16th, 1864. Blake was the first African American to actually be awarded the Medal of Honor; although there were others who would earn the Medal for actions that took place before Blake’s, those recipients were awarded their Medals after he got his. Blake was also rewarded with a promotion to Seaman.

Robert Blake, USN. From a U.S. Navy Poster from 1970


America’s Heroes: Medal of Honor Recipients from the Civil War to Afghanistan. Edited by James H. Willbanks.

Deeds of Valor: How American Heroes Won the Medal of Honor, Volume II. Edited by W.F. Beyer and O.F. Keydel.

Medal of Honor: The Navy. Compiled by the Bureau of Naval Personnel, U.S. Navy.

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 15, Part 1.

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