By Matthew Robertson - Scnow
The mightiest fighting vessel to roam the waters of the Great Pee Dee River during the Civil War was the eponymous CSS Pee Dee. That it was one of the only fighting vessels in those waters does not diminish the accomplishment of those who built it.
Using limited resources, the ship was constructed over a two-year period from a design produced by Acting Naval Constructor John L. Porter, CSN, late in 1862. Lt. Edward J. Means, CSN, commanding the naval station there, oversaw construction of the twin-screw gunboat. One of its engines was ordered from the Naval Iron Works, Richmond.
Numerous sources suggest the other was brought by blockade runner from Great Britain. The Pee Dee was 150 to 170 feet long, had a top speed of something like nine knots and a crew of around 90.
The ship’s battery was supposed to be four 32-pound guns broadside and two 9-inch pivots. (Note: the gunnery nomenclature generally refers to barrel diameter, such as 9-inch, or projectile weight, 32-pounder, but neither is precise.)
But difficulty in obtaining guns forced improvisation. Most accounts suggest the Pee Dee sailed with two Brooke guns of Confederate design (they would have been roughly equivalent to the specified 9-inch pivoting cannons) and one Dahlgren cannon captured from the federals.
The Pee Dee was launched in late 1864 or early 1865 and, as that dating would suggest, enjoyed a relatively short career. Lt. O. F. Johnston, CSN, is listed in most sources as the ship’s commander.
During the Civil War, the Great Pee Dee River was more navigable than it is now and had regular passenger and freight riverboat service between Cheraw and Georgetown.
The CSS Pee Dee may have been built to protect several of the Confederacy’s greatest assets — railroad bridges that allowed that vital communication link to span the biggest river in the region.
The Wilmington and Manchester (Sumter), The Cheraw and Darlington and The Northeastern railroads all passed through the Pee Dee and all had key bridges which, if destoryed, would have cut vital supply lines to Confederate armies, said Carl Hill, director of the War Between the States Museum in Florence.
Other scholars suggest the Pee Dee was a “dual duty” ship that might have seen action at sea had the war continued. Orders issued late in the war — but never carried out because of low river levels — called on the ship and its crew to make for the Atlantic.
The bridge duty would have been reason enough to build a powerful fighting ship, however. At one point during the conflict, a Union gunboat sailed inland and unsuccessfully tried to destroy the Northeastern’s bridge over the Santee River, Hill said.