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Chapter 33:

  • Capture of the Princess Royal.
  • -- remarks on blockading the Southern ports, and the difficulty in preventing blockade-runners getting in and out. -- attack on blockading vessels before Charleston by Confederate rams. -- surrender of the U. S. S. Mercedita. -- Keystone State disabled by the rams, which afterwards attack the Augusta, Quaker City and Memphis. -- rams escape chased by the Juniata. -- Confederates claim the blockade is raised. -- the claim not admitted and the blockade strengthened. -- capture of the gunboat Isaac Smith. -- the iron-clad Montauk, Commander John L. Worden, engages the forts at Ogeechee River. -- Confederate steamer Nashville destroyed by the Montauk and other vessels. -- iron-clads Passaic, Patapsco and Nahant attack Fort McAllister. -- sinking vessels on Charleston bar as obstructions. -- expectations of the Navy Department from the iron-clad vessels. -- Admiral Dupont attacks the batteries in Charleston harbor, April 7, 1863. -- description of the harbor of Charleston. -- order of Admiral Dupont previous to attacking the forts. -- list of iron-clads engaged in the attack. -- iron-clads retire before the heavy fire of the batteries. -- the Keokuk disabled and afterwards sunk. -- list of damages to the iron-clads. -- comparison between the guns on shore and those afloat. -- view of the case. -- Reflections on Chief Engineer Stimer's letter to the Navy Department. -- difficulties encountered by the monitors. -- misrepresentations of the attack on Charleston. -- General Ripley's instructions for repelling the federal attack on Charleston. -- correspondence between President Lincoln and Admiral Dupont, and between Mr. Secretary Welles and Admiral Dupont. -- Admiral Dupont retires to Port Royal. -- combined attack of Army and Navy on Buffington. -- capture of Confederate iron-clad Atlanta by the U. S. S. Weehawken. -- Admiral Dupont retires from command of the South Atlantic Squadron and is succeeded by Rear-Admiral Dahlgren. -- Secretary Welles' letter to Rear-Admiral Dupont on his giving up his command. -- list of officers who served under Admiral Dupont.

Operations commenced in January, 1863, by some of the vessels of Rear-Admiral Dupont's squadron capturing a large blockade-running steamer, which proved to be one of the most valuable prizes of the war.

To show the nature of the blockading service, it may not be uninteresting to give an account of the capture of the above-mentioned vessel.

On the morning of the 29th of January a blue light was observed from the U. S. S. Unadilla, Lieutenant-Commander S. P. Quackenbush, in an easterly direction, supposed to be from the U. S. S. Blunt. The Unadilla slipped her cable and stood in shore in a north-west direction, guided by a rocket thrown up apparently by the Blunt, and indicating the course of a vessel attempting to run the blockade. After proceeding inshore a mile and a half, a steamer was observed from the Unadilla standing along close to the shore, and heading for Charleston. Two shots were fired at her by the Unadilla, when the strange steamer changed her course and ran upon the beach, where she was immediately taken possession of. The prize proved to be the iron steam-propeller Princess Royal, four days out from Bermuda--one of the principal depots of the blockade-runners — loaded with rifle-guns, small-arms, ammunition, [368] steam-engines for iron-clads, etc., etc.

Thus was the Confederacy kept afloat by our cousins across the water, not so much from sympathy with the Southern people as from a desire to obtain cotton, which was so necessary for them to have to keep their mills going and prevent a revolt of the factory operatives. The English Government did nothing to prevent blockade-running, and doubtless considered it a fair business enterprise. If a vessel got safely in past the blockaders, her cargo sold at a large profit, and she loaded with cotton, worth three times as much as the ingoing cargo. There was great excitement as well

Surrender of the U. S. Steamer Mercedita to the Confederate ram, Palmetto State, off Charleston harbor, Jan. 31, 1863.

as profit to the hardy Britons who engaged in this trade.

In some respects the Confederates had advantages superior to our own. The markets of Europe were glutted with rifled guns and engines, and almost all the blockade-runners carried rifled field-guns for the Confederates, while the conservative Army and Navy Departments of the North felt it due to the people that all the implements of war should e made at home. The result was that the Confederates at an early stage of the war had their forts partly armed with heavy rifled guns, while in our vessels-of-war a rifled gun was an exception.

It was plainly to be seen that, as long as blockade-running continued, the task of putting down the Rebellion was greatly increased, and it could only be prevented by the untiring energy and watchfulness of the Navy, incited somewhat by the hope of prize-money, which is a great incentive to extra exertions in time of war both to officers and men. Blockade-runners were captured in large numbers, and the vessels and cargoes condemned by our Admiralty Courts, without protest from the British Government.

There was plenty of timber in the South, and the Southerners could build vessels as fast as Perry did on Lake Erie, but they could not build engines of the kind they required.

The British merchants who went into blockade-running with such alacrity probably never dreamed of the facility with which the United States Government could equip a large number of vessels exactly calculated to run down and capture their own. There was another factor that these traders had not taken into account — the watchfulness and energy of the American naval officers, who were ever on the alert, and would either run the blockade-runners off the coast or upon the beach, where they would fall into Federal hands, often with their cargoes in perfect order. This was the case with the Princess Royal, which was floated off without sustaining the least injury, and [369] was fitted up by the Navy Department as a gun-boat. and performed good service, under Commander M. B. Woolsey, at the capture of the forts at Donaldsonville, La.

During January, 1863, the harbor of Charleston was not occupied by the Federal squadron, but the vessels lay outside the bar, keeping a bright look-out. Towards the end of the month two of the heaviest ships. the Powhatan and Canandaigua, had to proceed to Port Royal for coal, leaving some lighter vessels to continue the blockade. The Confederates had two ironclad rams, the Chicora and Palmetto State, under Commodore D. N. Ingraham, in Charleston Harbor, and on the 31st of January, about 4 A. M., they succeeded in crossing the bar unperceived in the darkness and attacked the Mercedita, Captain H. S. Stellwagen, which had just returned from the chase of a strange vessel.

The captain was below, and Lieutenant-Commander Abbott in charge of the deck, when the faint appearance of a vessel showing black smoke was seen through the gloom. All the Federal vessels burned anthracite, while the Confederates and blockade-runners burned bituminous coal, the smoke from which can be seen even in the darkness of night.

All hands were called to quarters, the captain appeared on deck, and saw what, for all he knew, might be a tug belonging to the squadron. The guns were trained on the approaching stranger, who was then hailed and ordered to heave-to. The answer to the first hail from the Mercedita was “Hello!” The other replies were purposely indistinct, and the stranger crashed into the Federal vessels, with the reply, “This is the Confederate States' steam-ram, Palmetto State.”

The order was given to fire, but no gun could be brought to bear on the enemy as she approached. At the moment of striking, the Palmetto State fired a rifle-shell diagonally through the Federal steamer, which penetrated the condenser, the steam-drum of the port-boiler, and exploded against the port-side of the vessel, making a hole four or five feet square in its exit. The Mercedita was instantly enveloped in vapor, while cries came from below “Shot through the boiler! Fires put out — gunner and one man killed and a number fatally scalded — water over fire-room floor — vessel sinking fast! The ram has cut us through at and below water line, and the shell has burst at the water line on the other side!”

This was appalling information, and it must be a well-trained crew that would not feel nervous at such intelligence. Captain Stellwagen could do nothing, for the enemy's ram was under his counter. He had made a mistake in not firing on the stranger as soon as she appeared, for none but an enemy would have approached so stealthily.

He should have had steam up and chain ready to slip at a moment's notice. No one expected that the enemy's rams would dare cross the bar, but the same love of adventure existed in the Confederate navy as in the Federal. and this affair was another illustration of the importance of never underrating a foe.

After the Palmetto State struck the Mercedita she swung round under the latter's counter, and the Confederate commander called out, “Surrender, or I will sink you!” Captain Stellwagen replied, “I can make no resistance, my boiler is destroyed.” “Then, do you surrender?” inquired the other. “I do,” replied Stellwagen.

The Confederate commander hailed several times for a boat to be sent him, threatening to fire in case of further delay. Lieutenant-Commander Abbott then proceeded on board the ram, where the parole of the officers and crew of the Mercedita was demanded; after receiving which, the ram started in the direction of the Keystone State, which vessel and three other blockaders Captain Stellwagen had tried to alarm by burning signal-lights.

Soon after the ram left the Mercedita the people on board that vessel saw a shell from the Keystone State explode against her armor, and several shells from the ram hit the Keystone State, followed by smoke and vapor, which poured from the latter. The firing then receded to the north and east and finally died away, and it was supposed the ram had engaged all the blockading vessels in turn.

The commanding officer of the Mercedita now set to work to save his vessel, about which nothing had been said on board the ram. The enemy supposed the vessel was sinking, and probably thought those on board could take care of themselves. In two hours repairs were made, and with the assistance of the Stettin and Flag the Mercedita reached Port Royal.

When the Keystone State was attacked, Commander Le Roy gallantly returned the enemy's fire, but the ram lodged a shell in the fore-hold of his vessel, which set the Keystone State on fire and obliged her to shear off till it could be extinguished. By this time the ram

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