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Doc. 66. escape of the Harriet Lane.

off Galveston, Texas, May 5, 1864.
The late United States revenue cutter Harriet Lane, in company with three other notorious blockade running steamers-viz.: Matagorda, alias Alice, Isabel, and one whose name is unknown, has escaped from the harbor of Galveston. After being so closely watched for the past fifteen months, her escape, in company with the other steamers, was effected on the night of the thirtieth ultimo, during a squall, in this wise: During the day the weather was dull and cloudy throughout, and the night set in dark and squally, with occasional quick flashes of lightning, at which time it was difficult to see anything, even at a short distance. The Harriet Lane, with a schooner in tow, followed by the Matagorda and Isabel, at intervals of three minutes, left her moorings off Pelican Spit Fort — behind which the Lane and all blockade-runners to Galveston are protected, and laden with cotton — about half-past 8 o'clock in the evening, and steamed slowly along the land to the southward and westward in the South-west channel, keeping close in to the island, to elude detection by our blockading vessels. To deceive our forces, the rebels, a few days previously, had planted buoys in the North-east, or Bolivar, channel, to give us the impression they were to run out that passage. Therefore, on the night in question, apprehending their attempt to escape, additional blockading vessels were placed in that channel, and only one in the South-west channel, which was deemed too shallow for the Lane to run through, as by the chart not more than eight feet of water can be obtained therein. By information received from deserters, the Lane, when loaded, drew ten or eleven feet. The main ship channel was considered the only one in which she could run, and therefore the most effective and swiftest vessel on the station (the Lackawanna) was stationed there.

Well, to return. The Harriet Lane, deeming herself secure, from being so close to the shore, was slowly steaming out, when she was discovered by the United States gunboat Katahdin, stationed in the South-west channel, which immediately slipped her cable and gave chase without making any signal, except — about an hour and a half after slipping, she overhauled the Lane within two thousand or two thousand five hundred yards--when she fired four shots at her, if that can be called a signal; after which all was quiet. The firing of guns is not deemed any signal unless quick and rapid, as that might be occasioned by a schooner running in or out, and when the firing ceased we were given to understand that all was over; and instead of making a signal, as he is required to do by the instructions of the blockade, the captain of the Katahdin, like the dog in the manger, chose to disobey his express orders (if his instructions were the same as those of all the rest of the gunboats here), and left the blockade, and the most dangerous of all channels open, without notifying the commanding officer, Captain J. D. Merchant, of it in any manner. Besides, it was generally understood among us gunboats that the Lackawanna (flagship) was the only vessel fitted to chase any steamer, especially the Harriet Lane, and that she alone was to fulfil that duty.

The chase was very exciting indeed, the Katahdin making the most possible speed — the vessels being at times near enough to distinguish the men on each other's decks, then again separating, the Lane keeping out of range of the Katahdin's rifled guns. At daylight the following morning the Katahdin found she was not only chasing the Lane, but three other vessels not seen before, which proved to be the three steamers before mentioned — all keeping in company and close to each other. During the day the chase was most exciting, the wind freshening so that the Katahdin could go a little faster, thus having the advantage of the Lane, whose masts had been removed before she left port; and she also gained on the Matagorda so fast that, soon coming within range, she gave her Yankee compliments in the shape of shot and shell, in many instances causing the splinters to fly, and frightening her crew into throwing overboard her whole deck load of cotton, some three hundred bales, after doing which the crew went to work tearing up the hurricane deck to burn in her furnaces; but again the pursuer and pursued separated, and during the night the Lane and Isabel were lost sight of, about thirty miles off the west coast of Louisiana, near Vermilion bayou, and the next day at dark the other two were lost to sight, owing to a head wind springing up, lessening the speed of the Katahdin some two knots, and enabling the steamers to get away.

The Katahdin, having expended all her ammunition and being short of coal, returned to this station on the third instant at daylight.

This I think one of the greatest mistakes (if not blunders) of the war, as the Harriet Lane will undoubtedly again appear upon the high seas as an armed enemy of the United States, and do more harm to our commercial marine than either the Florida or Alabama, from her great speed when in good order. The greatest speed she made while chased was not more than nine knots and that of the pursuing gunboat eight knots six fathoms, doing her best; while on this station there is not a slower craft. Even this vessel will make ten or eleven knots easy in smooth weather, and the flagship Lackawanna, the fastest vessel in the Gulf, I understand, has [471] been known to make thirteen or fourteen knots under favorable circumstances. If the latter vessel had gone in chase, all four steamers would, in ten hours afterward, have been on their way to New Orleans in charge of a prize crew.

The Lackawanna, I believe, was sent here for the express purpose of looking after and chasing the Harriet Lane, and the captain of the Katahdin, by his neglect of duty, lays himself liable to great blame. My only hope left is that these vessels — more especially the Harriet Lane — may be “gobbled up” by some of our cruisers before reaching Havana, in which case it will prevent one privateer from being fitted out to prey on our commerce.

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