Figure 1: Lithograph by T. Bonar, New York, depicting USS Keokuk while she was under construction at the J. S. Underhill Dry Dock & Iron Works, New York City, shortly before her 6 December 1862 launching. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 2: Hand-tinted copy of a line engraving published in Harper's Weekly, 1863, depicting USS Keokuk on the building ways at the J.S. Underhill shipyard, New York City, at about the time of her 6 December 1862 launching. Courtesy of the US Navy Art Collection, Washington, DC. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 3: USS Keokuk, watercolor by Oscar Parkes. Courtesy of Dr. Oscar Parkes, London, England, 1936. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 4: USS Keokuk, engraved reproduction of an artwork by R.G. Skerrett, 1901. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 5: "Panoramic View of Charleston Harbor. Advance of Ironclads to the Attack, April 7th, 1863." Line engraving published in The Soldier in our Civil War, Volume II, page 172, with a key to individual ships and land features shown. US Navy ships present are (from left to center): Keokuk, Nahant, Nantucket, Catskill, New Ironsides, Patapsco, Montauk, Passaic and Weehawken. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 6: "Charleston Harbor, Looking towards the City." Line engraving published in Harper's Weekly, January-June 1863, pages 264-65, depicting the Federal fleet off the harbor mouth at the time of the ironclads' attack on Fort Sumter, 7 April 1863. US Navy ships specifically identified include New Ironsides (second from left in the ironclad formation) and Keokuk (ironclad furthest to the right). US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 7: Line engraving published in Harper's Weekly, 1863, depicting USS Keokuk as she sank off Charleston, South Carolina, on 8 April 1863, the morning after she received heavy damage from Confederate guns during the Union ironclads' attack on Fort Sumter. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 8: Illustration of USS Keokuk by Tony Gibbons, from the book Ships of the Civil War 1861-1865, by Kevin J. Dougherty and published by Metro Books, New York, 2013, page 55. Note the pointed ram bow, which was to be used to literally ram enemy warships, especially if they were made of wood. Although mistaken for a double-turreted monitor, Keokuk had two stationary cylindrical gun towers, each possessing three gun ports. Each gun tower was armed with one 11-inch gun, which could be maneuvered to fire through one of the three gun ports at a 90-degree angle. The ship also had high sloping sides, an unusual feature for ironclads.
Named after a town in Iowa, the 677-ton USS Keokuk was an experimental ironclad steamer that was designed by Charles Whitney and was built by the J. S. Underhill Dry Dock & Iron Works at New York City. Keokuk was commissioned in March 1863 and the ship was approximately 159 feet long and 36 feet wide, had a top speed of 9 knots, and had a crew of 92 officers and men.
Keokuk was an ironclad, which was a ship that had a hull made of or reinforced with iron, but did not necessarily have a revolving turret. Monitors were made using iron throughout the ship and had revolving turrets. Keokuk had two stationary cylindrical gun towers, each with three gun ports. The ship was usually mistaken for a double-turreted monitor, although it was not. Each tower was armed with an 11-inch smoothbore Dahlgren gun, and each gun could be moved to fire out of any of the tower’s three gun ports at a 90-degree angle. Keokuk also possessed high sloping sides and was equipped with a pointed ram bow, to be used for ramming enemy warships (especially wooden ones). Her armor consisted of horizontal iron bars alternating with strips of wood, but this turned out to be an unfortunate (and fatal) design decision.
Keokuk left New York City on 11 March 1863 and steamed south to join the Union Navy’s South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, which was preparing an attack on Charleston, South Carolina. Keokuk arrived at Newport News, Virginia, on 13 March and left four days later, but had to return for repairs after her port propeller was damaged by a buoy. Keokuk left Newport News once again on 22 March and arrived at Port Royal, South Carolina, on 26 March.
The Union naval officer in charge of the assault on Charleston was Admiral Samuel Francis DuPont and his plan was to mount a major attack on the southern port using ironclads and monitors, with the ultimate goal of destroying or at least neutralizing Fort Sumter, which was in Charleston harbor. DuPont wanted to steam past Morris Island off Charleston without returning fire, then steam deep into the harbor and open fire at Fort Sumter at close range. After Fort Sumter was reduced to rubble, DuPont would concentrate his fire on the other Confederate forts on Morris Island. It was a bold plan, but it terribly underestimated both the Confederate defenses in the forts as well as the many obstacles that were placed in the water off Charleston to slow down, or even stop, just such an attack.
Once all of his ships were in position, DuPont began his attack at noon on 7 April 1863. But the numerous obstacles in the channel next to Fort Sumter slowed down the progress of DuPont’s warships. By 1500 hours, the Union warships finally came within range of Forts Sumter and Moultrie. More than 100 Confederate guns and mortars from inside the forts pounded the Union fleet as they continued their painfully slow procession inside the harbor. For roughly two hours, southern artillery and Union warships exchanged gunfire at ranges as close as 600 yards. The Confederate gunfire was extremely accurate, scoring some 400 hits and heavily damaging several Union monitors, including Keokuk.
Confederate gunfire cascaded down on the Union warships, with the southerners firing 2,229 rounds at the invading fleet. The Union ships, which had far fewer guns among them, could only manage to respond by firing 139 shells. As Keokuk neared Fort Sumter, she received the “undivided attention” of the Confederate guns from inside the fort. For roughly 30 minutes, Keokuk managed to maintain her position and fired her two guns at Fort Sumter, while being hit 90 times in return. Her unique alternating iron and wood armor proved woefully insufficient in protecting the warship from enemy gunfire and approximately one-fifth of the shells hit below Keokuk’s waterline.
Although nearly pounded to pieces, Keokuk could still move and was able to retreat and anchor out of range of the Confederate forts. Admiral DuPont ordered all of his ships to withdraw at dusk. Keokuk’s crew struggled valiantly to plug all of the many holes and keep the ship afloat, but it was a losing battle. The next day on 8 April, even more water poured into the vessel and Keokuk sank off Morris Island, the only Union warship lost as a result of the battle. USS Keokuk had served in the US Navy for only a month.