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The “Albemarle” and the “Sassacus.”

by Edgar Holden, U. S. N.
On the 5th of May, 1864, the Albemarle, with the captured steamer Bombshell, and the steamer Cotton Plant, laden with troops, came down the Roanoke River. The double-enders Mattabesett, Sassacus, Wyalusing, and Miami, together with the smaller vessels, Whitehead, Ceres, and Commodore Hull, steamed up Albemarle Sound to give battle.1

The Sassacus was one of the several wooden side-wheel ships, known as “double-enders,” built for speed, light draught, and ease of manoeuvre. She carried four 9-inch Dahlgren guns and two 100-pounder Parrott rifles, and was under the command of Lieutenant-Commander F. A. Roe.

The Union plan of attack was for the large vessels to pass as close as possible to the ram without endangering their wheels, deliver their fire, and then round to for a second discharge. The smaller vessels were to take charge of thirty armed launches, which were expected to accompany the iron-clad. The Miami carried a torpedo to be exploded under the enemy, and a strong net, or seine, to foul her propeller.

All eyes were fixed on this second Merrimac as, like a floating fortress, she came down the bay. A puff of smoke from her bow port opened the ball, followed quickly by another, the shells being aimed skillfully at the pivot-rifle of the leading ship, Mattabesett, cutting away rail and spars, and wounding six men at the gun. The enemy then headed straight for her, in imitation of the Merrimac, but by a skillful management of the helm the Mattabesett rounded her bow,2 closely followed by our own ship, the Sassacus, which at close quarters gave her a broadside of solid 9-inch shot. The guns might as well have fired blank cartridges, for the shot skimmed off into the air, and even the 100-pound solid shot from the pivot-rifle glanced from the sloping roof into space with no apparent effect. The rapid firing from the different ships produced clouds of smoke. Changes of position were necessary to avoid being run down, and constant watchfulness to get a shot into the ports of the ram, as they quickly opened to deliver their well-directed fire. There was also danger of [629] our ships firing into or entangling each other. As our own ship delivered her broadside, and fired the pivot-rifle with great rapidity at roof, and port, and hull, and smoke-stack, trying to find a weak spot, the ram headed for us and narrowly passed our stern. She was foiled in this attempt, as we were under full headway; and swiftly rounding her with a hard-a-port helm, we delivered a broadside at her consort, the Bombshell, each shot hulling her. We now headed for the latter ship, going within hail.

Thus far in the action our pivot-rifle astern had had but small chance to fire, and the captain of the gun, a broad-shouldered, brawny fellow, was now wrought up to a pitch of desperation at holding his giant gun in leash, and as we came up to the Bombshell he mounted the rail, and, naked to the waist, he brandished a huge boarding — pistol and shouted, “Haul down your flag and surrender, or we'll blow you out of the water!” The flag came down, and the Bombshell was ordered to drop out of action and anchor, which she did.

Now came the decisive moment, for by this action we had acquired a distance from the ram of about four hundred yards, and the latter, to evade

Maps of the coast of the Carolinas.

the Mattabesett, had sheered off a little and lay broadside to us. The Union ships were now on both sides of the ram, with engines stopped. Commander Roe cried to the engineer, “Crowd. waste and oil in the fires and back slowly! Give her all the steam she can carry!” To Acting Master Boutelle he said, “Lay her course for the junction of the casemate and the hull!” Then came four bells, and with full steam and open throttle the ship sprang forward like a living thing. It was a moment of intense strain and anxiety. The guns ceased firing, the smoke lifted from the ram, and we saw that every effort was being made to evade the shock. Straight as an arrow we shot forward to the designated spot. Then came the order, “All hands, lie down!” and with a crash that shook the ship like an earthquake, we struck full and square on the iron hull, careening it over and tearing away our own bows, ripping and straining our timbers at the waterline.

The enemy's lights were put out, and his men were hurled from their feet, and, as we learned afterward, it was thought for a moment that all was over with them. Our ship quivered for an instant, but held fast, and the swift plash of the paddles showed that the engines were uninjured. Through the starboard shutter, which had been partly jarred off by the concussion, I saw the port of the ram not ten feet away. It opened, and like a flash of lightning I saw the grim muzzle of a cannon, the gun's-crew naked to the waist and blackened with powder; then a blaze, a roar and the rush of the shell as it crashed through, whirling me round and dashing me to the deck.

Both ships were under headway, and as the ram advanced, our shattered bows clinging to the iron casemate were twisted round, and a second shot [630] from a Brooke gun almost touching our side crashed through, followed immediately by a cloud of steam and boiling water that filled the forward decks as our

Rear-Admiral F. A. Roe, U. S. N.

overcharged boilers, pierced by the shot, emptied their contents with a shrill scream that drowned for an instant the roar of the guns. The shouts of command and the cries of scalded, wounded, and blinded men mingled with the rattle of small-arms that told of a hand-to-hand conflict above. The ship surged heavily to port as the great weight of water in the boilers was expended, and over the cry, “The ship is sinking!” came the shout, “All hands, repel boarders on starboard bow!”

The men below, wild with the boiling steam, sprang to the ladder with pistol and cutlass, and gained the bulwarks; but men in the rigging with muskets and hand-grenades, and the well-directed fire from the crews of the guns, soon baffled the attempt of the Confederates to gain our decks. To send our crew on the grated top of the iron-clad would have been madness. The horrid tumult, always characteristic of battle, was intensified by the cries of agony from the scalded and frantic men. In the midst of all this, when every other man had left the engine-room, our chief engineer, Mr. Hobby, although badly scalded, stood with heroism at his post; nor did he leave it till after the action, when he was brought up, blinded and helpless, to the deck. An officer of the Wyalusing says that when the dense smoke and steam enveloped us they thought we had sunk, till the flash of our guns burst through the clouds, followed by flash after flash in quick succession as our men recovered from the shock of the explosion.

To us, at least, there seemed time enough for the other ships to close in on the ram and sink her, or sink beside her, and it was thirteen minutes as timed by an officer of the Wyalusing; but the other ships were silent, and with stopped engines looked

Chart of the engagement in Albemarle Sound, May 5, 1864: a, Albemarle; B, Bombshell; C P, cotton Plant; M, Mattabesett; S, Sassacus; Wy, Wyalusing ; mi, Miami; C, Ceres; Wh, Whitehead; C H, Commodore Hull.


The “Sassacus” ramming the “Albemarle.”


The “Sassacus” disabled after ramming.

on as the clouds closed over us in the grim and final struggle.3

Captain French, of the Miami, who had bravely fought his ship at close quarters, and often at the ship's length, vainly tried to get bows on, to come to our assistance and use his torpedo; but his ship steered badly, and he was unable to reach us before we dropped away. In the meantime the Wyalusing signaled that she was sinking — a mistake, but one that affected materially the out-come of the battle. We struck exactly at the spot for which we had aimed; and, contrary to the diagram given in the naval report for that year, the headway of both ships twisted our bows, and brought us broadside to broadside — our bows at the enemy's stern and our starboard paddle-wheel on the forward starboard angle of his casemate.4 At length we drifted off the ram, and our pivot-gun, which had been fired incessantly by Ensign Mayer, almost muzzle to muzzle with the enemy's guns, was kept at work till we were out of range.

The official report says that the other ships then got in line and fired at the enemy, also attempting to lay the seine to foul his propeller — a task that proved, alas, as impracticable as that of injuring him by the fire of the guns. While we were alongside, and had drifted broadside to broadside, our 9-inch Dahlgren guns had been depressed till the shot would strike at right angles, and the solid iron would bound from the roof into the air like marbles. Fragments even of our 100-pound rifle-shots, at close range, came back on our own decks.

Commander Roe was asked to correct his report as to the speed of our ship. He had said we were going at a speed of ten knots, and the naval report says, “He was not disposed to make the original correction.” I should think not!--when the speed could

Paymaster George De F. Barton, Acting aide and signal officer to commander Roe during the engagement with the “Albemarle.” from a photograph.


Acting Master Charles A. Boutelle, U. S. N.

Commander W. B. Cushing, U. S. N.

only be estimated by his own officers, and the navigator says clearly in his report eleven knots. We had, perhaps, the swiftest ship in the navy. We had backed slowly to increase the distance; with furious fires and a gagged engine working at the full stroke of the pistons,--a run of over four hundred yards, with eager and excited men counting the revolutions of our paddles; who should give the more correct statement?

Another part of the official report states that the bows of the double-enders were all frail, and had they been armed would have been insufficient to have sunk the ram. Our bow, however, was shod with a bronze beak, weighing fully three tons, well secured to prow and keel; and this was twisted and almost entirely torn away in the collision.

At dusk the ram steamed into the Roanoke River, never again to emerge for battle, and the object of her coming on the day of our engagement, viz., to aid the Confederates in an attack on New Berne, was defeated; but her ultimate destruction was reserved for the gallant Lieutenant Cushing, of glorious memory.

note.--The Navy Department was not satisfied with the first official reports, and new and special reports were called for. As a result of investigation, promotions of many of the officers were made.--editors.

The “Albemarle” ready for action.

1 The Union force under Captain Melancton Smith in the action of May 5th, 1864, was: Double-enders: Mattabesett, Commander John C. Febiger; Sassacus, Lieutenant-Commander Francis A. Roe; Wyalusing, Lieutenant-Commander Walter W. Queen; Miami, Acting Volunteer Lieutenant Charles A. French. Ferryboat: Commodore Hull, Acting Master Francis Josselyn. Gun-boats: Whitehead. Acting Ensign G. W. Barrett; Ceres, Acting Master H. H. Foster. The losses were: Mattabesett, k, 2; w, 6,--total, 8; Sassacus, k, 1; w, 19 (13 of these were scalded),--total, 20; Wyalusing, k, 1,--in all 29.--editors.

2 If the Mattabesett rounded the bow of the Albemarle, the latter must have been heading up the sound at the time; in other words, she must have turned previous to the advance of the Union fleet. Upon this point the reports of the captains of the double-enders give conflicting testimony. Commander Febiger represents the ram as retreating toward the Roanoke, while Lieutenant-Commander Roe describes her as in such a position that she would necessarily have been heading toward the advancing squadron. The conflict of opinion was doubtless due to the similarity in the two ends of the ram.,--editors.

3 There was no lack of courage on the other ships, and the previous loss of the Southfield, the signal from the Wyalusing that she was sinking, the apparent loss of our ship, and the loss of the sounds of North Carolina if more were disabled, dictated the prudent course they adopted.--E. H.

4 Against the report mentioned, I not only place my own observation, but I have in my possession the written statement of the navigator, Boutelle, now a member of Congress from Maine.--E. H.

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May 5th, 1864 AD (3)
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