Today in History – March 15, 1865, the CSS Pee Dee was scuttled in the muddy waters of the Great Pee Dee River.

Without doubt, the largest and most heavily armed gunboat vessel to patrol the Great Pee Dee River during the Civil War was the eponymous CSS Pee Dee (Mostly referred to as the ‘Peedee’). In as much as it was from the outset, the only real gunboat in those waters, in no way diminishes the accomplishment of those who built or sailed her
Due to difficulties in obtaining materials and the limited manpower resources, the ship was constructed over a two-year period from a design produced by John L. Porter, CSN, (Acting Naval Construction Officer) late in 1862. It was a Lt. Edward J. Means, CSN, commanding the local Naval Station, who oversaw construction of the twin-screw, Macon-class gunboat at the Mars Bluff Navy Yard in Marion County, South Carolina. One of its engines was ordered from the Naval Iron Works, Richmond with the other ordered and shipped by blockade runner from Great Britain. The ‘Pee Dee’ herself measured one hundred and sixty five feet in length had a top speed in the region of eight or nine knots. The ‘Pee Dee’s’ size and armaments required a crew of eighty six. The vessel’s intended armament was four 32-pound guns mounted broadside and two 9-inch pivots sited forward of each mast. An acute shortage of guns however forced a considerable downgrading in the ‘Pee Dee’s’ weaponry. Most accounts suggest the ‘Pee Dee’ sailed with two Brooke guns of Confederate design (See picture left) and one Dahlgren cannon captured some months before from the Union forces.
The CSS Pee Dee was finally launched in December 1864 and fitting-out completed in February 1865 when Lt. O. F. Johnston, CSN, was appointed the ship’s commander but with a significantly reduced crew of sixty men. On a point of interest, on the day the ‘Pee Dee’ took up station on river patrol, a local Baptist minister asked permission to board. Johnston, himself a Baptist agreed and gave the minister a tour of the ship. Before leaving, the visitor gave Johnston a bible and blessed the vessel and bade her crew good fortune. He said their war would be short but no harm would come to any man aboard. In all ways, the minister’s words were prophetic.

560ac17a68e76.image (1)Arguments persist as to the operational role envisaged for the CSS Pee Dee. She may have been built to protect several of the Confederacy’s greatest assets, the strategically important railroad bridges facilitating vital communication links over to the biggest river in the region. Three companies, the Wilmington and Manchester (Sumter), the Cheraw and Darlington and the North-Eastern railroads all passed through the area and all had key bridges over the river. Had any been destroyed, vital supply lines to the Confederate armies would have been cut. Others suggest the ‘Pee Dee’ was designed to protect the regular passenger and freight ships that ploughed the river at the time and, in the event the war had continued and with a full armament provisioned, she could have seen action at sea. Indeed, it appears orders issued late in the war but which were never carried out because of low river levels, called for the ship to head out into the Atlantic.

Protecting the bridges and river shipping would be reason enough to employ this powerful fighting ship, as in one instance, in a failed operation, a Federal gunboat sailed upriver to destroy the North-Eastern’s bridge over the Santee River.

18739621In the CSS Pee Dee’s only recorded action of the war, she was used to support of the withdrawal of Gen. William J. Hardee’s army from that town of Cheraw in the face of the arrival of Gen. William T. Sherman’s vastly superior Union forces. Here the ‘Pee Dee’ was assigned to hold off Union forces so that Hardee’s troops would have time to destroy a railroad bridge in Cheraw in an effort to slow the enemy advance. Ironically, this was one of the very bridges the ‘Pee Dee’ had been designed to protect. The engagement at Cheraw took place between March 2nd and 4th but there is no record the CSS Pee Dee’s armament was actually used. Conjecture aside, a week later with the Confederate forces being forced to withdraw throughout South Carolina, the decision was made to scuttle the CSS Pee Dee. Its guns were pushed into the deep river and the ship partially dismantled before being set on fire within sight of the Marion Courthouse Naval Yard.



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