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[197]

Before the vessel had been completed the blockade of the Mississippi was established. A commodore stationed at New Orleans refused to man the vessel, and shared the accepted belief that she was useless. Permission to call for volunteers was given, however. With a crew of nineteen she steamed down the river to the mouth. There lay four sloops of war, bearing a total armament of 56 guns.

Of all the twenty souls aboard, Captain Austin alone stood upon the deck. Bearing down at full speed upon the blockading fleet, he aimed for the steam sloop of war Richmond, 22 guns. In the teeth of a hail of fire thundering from half a hundred cannon the intrepid commander, standing alone and in open sight from every vessel, commanded the engineer to pile more coal under the boilers. Broadside after broadside came crashing about him like the fury of hell. Plowing through the water with all the speed of which the vessel was capable, it was seen too late that a coal schooner lay between the ram and its victim. Without swerving, the Manassas steamed on. Solid shot crashed and broke upon the iron sides, but still Captain Austin stood unhurt. With an awful shock the ironclad cut through and through the sailing vessel, and plunged her spur far into the wooden sides of the Richmond, just as every cannon aboard belched forth its load of canister and shell.

The Manassas backed away unhurt, with its gallant captain still standing on the deck. His clothes were torn to shreds, but, burned and blackened as he was, not a wound appeared upon his body. The Richmond, however, was a wreck, while the coal schooner was already at the bottom of the sea. In hot haste the remainder of the Federal fleet were steaming away from the monster that had attacked them. The Confederate vessel was left alone and the blockade was temporarily broken. But in getting away from its victims the port engine of the ram had been broken. Pursuit was impossible. Slowly the Manassas steamed back to New Orleans, only to be later vitally injured. She was run upon a sand bank to save the crew, and was there abandoned by force of circumstances, never to sail the sea again.

But the advantage of an ironclad vessel of war had been demonstrated. The Manassas had been unarmed. At the same time the power of a craft of her stamp, manned by a sufficient crew and mounted with guns of large bore, was recognized. Upon similar lines the Merrimac was built on the Atlantic coast, and the Monitor was evolved from the brain of a Scandinavian. Captain Austin and Captain Stevenson had won their victory in more ways than one.

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Stephen F. Austin (3)
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