Doc. 19.-fight in Albemarle Sound, N. C.
A national account.
Hatteras inlet, N. C., May 18, 1864.I venture to submit the following account of one of the most unusual and remarkable naval conflicts of this or any other war, in which the contending forces were so markedly disproportionate, and the result so contrary to preconceived ideas of “iron-clad” invincibility, that it may justly claim to take a historical position on the same page that records the brilliant exploits of Decatur and John Paul Jones. On the afternoon of May fifth, the Mattabesett, Sassacus, and Wyalusing, side-wheel gunboats, were lying at anchor in Albemarle Sound, twenty miles below the mouth of the Roanoke River, having been assigned the arduous duty of encountering, and, if possible, destroying the rebel iron-clad ram Albemarle, whose recent raid, in conjunction with the attack and capture of Plymouth, when she succeeded in capturing two of our gunboats, and sustained unharmed the repeated broadsides of the Miami, directed by the brave and lamented Flusser, rendered our prolonged occupation of the Sound at least a problem to be solved, and invested the expected contest with unusual importance. An advanced guard of picket-boats, comprising four or five of the smaller vessels of our force, with the Miami, had been sent forward to the mouth of the river to decoy the “ram” from under the protective batteries of Plymouth into the open waters of the Sound, and falling back before her into a favorable position for our attack. At a quarter past three P. M., the Mattabesett signalled “to get under way,” and forming in line ahead, the three vessels, in the order in which their names have been written, proceeded with ordinary speed up the Sound, when, at one P. M., the Mattabesett communicated with the army transport Massasoit, coming down, and immediately after made signal, “Ram is out,” and we now discovered our retreating pickets, as they slowly retired before the advancing foe. A moment later and we discovered a glistening speck upon the water beyond our retiring vessels, with two other dark hulls hovering near, which we knew to be the ram accompanied by her consorts. Our ship was cleared for action, and every preparation made for a determined and desperate struggle with our formidable antagonist; and now we were driving along under full steam, and closing rapidly with the enemy. The weather was perfectly charming; not a ripple disturbed the glassy sheet of water from shore to shore, and the dazzling sunshine gleamed upon the inclined side of the iron-clad like a mass of silver, as she lay defiantly bearing a magnificently large and gaudy ensign of the Confederacy. As we approached, the rebels were communicating hurriedly with boats, and soon the white stern-wheel steamer turned short round, and put back hastily toward Plymouth, being, as we afterward learned, the Cotton Plant river steamer, cotton-clad, and manned by two hundred sharp-shooters and boarders. As she left, the other steamer, which proved to be the Bombshell, captured from the army by the rebels at Plymouth, and now used against us, closed up on the ram's quarter, in position for the impending action. The whole scene was impressive and beautiful. Our vessels, under a powerful head of steam, came sweeping gracefully along, and as the Mattabesett approached near, she hauled up for the ram, followed by others in line, when the Miami, some distance astern, fired over us, making a very good but useless shot, which was answered by the Albemarle, whose guns, it was  easy to see, were of the heaviest caliber. When abreast, and about three hundred yards distant from the ram, the Mattabesett delivered her broadside, and passing around her stern, ran by the Bombshell close aboard, as the latter lay on the post-quarter of the ram. Attention was now absorbed in the movements of our own ship, and as we came up, the ram, having failed to get near the Mattabesett, as she swept by, turned her bow fairly for the Sassacus; but measuring the distance, we gave our vessel only a slight sheer with starboard helm, then jamming it hard-a-port, passed about one. hundred and fifty yards from her, delivering with precision our whole broadside of solid shot, which bounded from her armor like rubber balls. Sweeping around her stern, we now stood toward the Bombshell — which had annoyed us exceedingly with small rifled shot directed at our pilot-houses, and which came flying in quick succession over our hurricane deck — and training on her, poured into her hull a full broadside, which brought the rebel ensign down, and sent the white flag up; when, ceasing fire, we ranged close aboard, and hailed to know if they had surrendered, which was answered by shouts of “Yes,” “yes,” “yes!” from a dozen throats. Ordered her to drop out of fire and anchor, which was executed in good faith, and pushing on to regain the time we had consumed in this capture, we noticed that the Mattabesett had again passed by the ram, delivering her fire, and the Wyalusing had come up astern of the Sassacus, attracting the attention of the Albemarle from us, to whom she now exposed her whole side. She was about eight hundred yards distant, and we were in just the position we most desired. The ram appeared to be steaming slowly, as if waiting for events, but using her guns rapidly all the time, throwing one hundred pounder Brooke's rifle shot and shell with spirit and energy. Fortune seemed most favorable, and our intrepid commander determined to close with our antagonist, seized the opportunity without hesitation, and ordering “four bells” again, and again repeated, as previously arranged with the chief engineer, who was acquainted with our design, the ship was headed straight for what was supposed to be the weakest part of the ram, where her casemate or house joined the hull. Our fires were clean, we had thirty pounds of steam, and with throttle wide open, the Sassacus dashed at her grim adversary. We seemed to move frightfully slow, but each moment increased our speed as the intervening space grew less, till we attained the rate of nine to ten knots, when we struck our iron foe a fair, perfect, right-angled blow, without glance or slide. The shock to our ship was not nearly so heavy as we had expected. Something gave way. Was it our ship? Were we cut down? No! thank Heaven! It was the iron-clad, and as her black hull was forced under by our bow till the water flowed over it from side to side, we thought our foe was going down, and could hardly repress a shout of exultation in answer to the ringing cheer with which our comrades on the Wyalusing greeted our bold grapple with the monster. As we struck her, the ram drove a one hundred pounder Brooke's shot through and through her, from starboard bow to port side. Our stem was forced into her side, and keeping up our headway, we careened her down beneath our weight, and pushed her like an inert mass before us, while in profound silence our gunners were training their heavy ordnance to bear on their astonished enemy. Now a black muzzle protrudes from the ram's open port, and the loaders of our Parrott rifle, standing on the slide, serve the gun within fifteen feet of that yawning — cannon mouth. It was a grand reproduction of the old days of “broadside to broadside” and “yard-arm locked to yard;” but the immense guns, now grinning defiance across the few feet of space which separated them, each one carrying the weight of metal of a whole tier of the old-time carronades, rendered this duel of ponderous ordnance a magnificent and imposing spectacle. Still we pushed her broadside before us, our engine at full speed, pressing our bow deeper and deeper into her. Still she gave way; and now we threw a hasty, anxious glance toward our consorts. Were they coming to assist us? Would they seize the golden chance we so invitingly held out to them, and pushing on to the monster's unguarded side, help us to crush her down out of sight forever? Not a sound! not a movement! not a gun! All was quiet as the night throughout our fleet. It was a grapple for life. A silent but fearful struggle for the mastery, relieved only by the sharp, scattering volleys of muketry, the whizzing of leaden bullets, and the deep muffled explosion of hand-grenades, which the fellows in our foretop were flinging in the enemy's hatch, driving back their sharp-shooters, and creating consternation and dismay among the closely packed crew of the iron-clad; but not until our pilot-house and smoke-stack had been spattered all over with the indentation of rifle-balls. No one had yet fallen. We had thrown shot and shell square into her port from our rifle-guns on the hurricane-deck, and driven volley after volley of musketry through every aperture in her iron shield, and now our heavy one hundred pounder was training for another crushing blow. Presently a movement was felt in the two ships. We heard a crashing of timbers, as at the moment of collision. The ram was swinging under our starboard bow, and now suddenly the vessel trembled with the shock, as our one hundred pounder and that of the enemy thundered at each other with a simultaneous roar. Another sound, more fearful than bursting shells or belching cannon, now reached our ears. The terrible sound of unloosed, unmanageable steam, rushing in tremendous volumes, seething and hissing as it spreads, till both combatants were hidden in a dense, suffocating cloud of stifling vapor. Her shot had pierced our boiler, and all was lost! No! not lost yet! Our sharp false stem, which had cut deeply into the side of the  ram, now gave way, as she forced herself ahead across our bow, crushing and bruising our more delicate craft in her progress, and this stem, thus wrenched off, allowed the two vessels to swing side by side. Now came the fierce duel for life. Our gunners could only hope to injure our antagonist by firing with accuracy into her open ports, while every shot of the enemy would tell with fatal effect upon our wooden vessel. The guns were now served and fired muzzle to muzzle, the powder from those of the Albemarle blackening the bows and sides of the Sassacus, as they passed within ten feet. A solid shot from our one hundred pounder struck her port-sill, and crumbling into fragments, one piece rebounded on our own deck, but the rest flew into that threatening port-hole and silenced the enemy's gun. A nine-inch solid shot and a thirty-pounder shell followed through the same opening in rapid succession as the tough-sided monster drifted clear of us, while our starboard wheel crushed and wrenched its iron braces in grinding over her quarter, smashing the launches that she was towing into a shapeless mass of driftwood, and grating over the sharp iron plates with a most dismal sound. Now she passed our wheel, and the crews of the after-guns, watching the moment, drove their solid shot into her ports. The elevating screw of our Parrott rifle was broken, and the gun could not be depressed to bear on the enemy's port, but hurled her missile against her iron armor, leaving a rent to mark the point of its impact. A nine-inch solid shot, fired with an increased charge, struck her inclined roof and flew en ricochet, like a pebble bounding from a pavement into the air beyond, and this at a distance of not more than fifteen feet. All this cool gunnery and precise artillery practice transpired while the ship, from fire-room to hurricane-deck, was shrouded in one dense cloud of fiery steam. The situation was appalling. The shrieks of the scalded and dying, as they frantically rushed up from below, with their shrivelled flesh hanging in shreds upon their tortured limbs; the engine, beyond control, surging and revolving, without guide or check, abandoned by all save one, who, scalded, blackened, sightless, still stood like a hero to his post. Alone, amidst that mass of unloosed steam and uncontrollable machinery, the chief-engineer of the Sassacus remained, calling to his men to return with him into the fire-room to drag the fires from beneath the uninjured boiler, which was now in imminent danger of explosion. Let his name be long remembered by the two hundred beings whose lives were saved in that fearful moment by his more than heroic fortitude and exertion. There were no means of instantly cutting off communication between the two boilers, and all the steam contained in both rushed out like a flash, exposing the ship to a more fearful catastrophe, should our brave engineers be too late in drawing the heavy fires which threatened our destruction. All this time, our consorts looking toward us, could see only a thick, white cloud, lighted up incessantly by the flashes of our rapidly served guns, as the gallant Sassacus rose gloriously above the storm of disaster that surrounded her, and challenged the admiration of her anxious comrades by the stubborn thundering of her battery. The ship still moved, working slowly ahead, on a vacuum alone. The cloud of steam at last lifted, and we could see the grim enemy of the Sassacus gladly escaping from that embrace of death in which we had held her for nearly a quarter of an hour, and retreated discomfited and demoralized toward the port from which she had sailed with so much bravado only a few hours before. The broad ensign which had waved so proudly over her casemate on our approach, now lay draggled and torn, with its shattered flag-staff, on her deck ; and turning our vessel around with hard-a-port helm, which she answered slowly but steadily, we again passed down by our enemy. Our divisions still stood at their guns, and our brave commander firmly enunciating his instructions and orders, and guiding every movement of his gallant ship with a coolness, precision, and relentless audacity that find no parallel since the days of Decatur and Bainbridge — those days of splendid gallantry and magnificent courage — calmly smoking his cigar through the whole eventful conflict, and displaying a perfect indifference to danger, worthy of one of Farragut's salamanders, kept his guns at work on our retiring foe, so long as they could be brought to bear, till the Sassacus was carried by her disabled engine slowly, gracefully, and defiantly out of range. Thus ended the single-handed encounter between the Sassacus — a delicate river steamer — and one of the most formidable iron-clads that the enemy have as yet put afloat. The results of this novel and most unequal engagement are most gratifying. The gunboat Bombshell, with four rifled guns, and a large supply of ammunition, was captured, with all her officers and crew, and the Albemarle, which was on her way to New-Bern to form a junction with the rebel force, then moving upon that city, was beaten with her own weapons, and driven back with her guns disabled, her hull terribly shaken, and leaking so badly that she was with difficulty kept afloat. So confident were the rebels of the ability of this invulnerable iron-clad to reach her rendezvous, that General Palmer, commanding at New-Bern, was summoned to surrender, and informed that “the river and sound were blockaded below,” and his communications cut off. The Albemarle did not come to time; but, attacked in a most impetuous and unexpected manner, was forced by an inferior antagonist to beat a precipitate retreat, which he commenced the very moment that he escaped the grasp of the Sassacus. And, although she kept up a retreating fire, she hastened to regain the protecting harbor of Plymouth, leaving us the undisputed control of the sound, and by her defeat saving New-Bern, and doubtless the Department of South-Carolina, from being lost to our Government.
Albemarle. Yesterday afternoon, at two o'clock, the ram, consorted by the steamer Cotton Planter and the Bombshell, which last they sunk at the attack on Plymouth and afterward raised, made its appearance at the mouth of the river. We retreated slowly, and they followed. Captain French sent the steamer Massassoit ahead to inform the remainder of the fleet. At four o'clock they came in sight, running up at full speed. When the rebel fleet saw our reenforcements they tried to back out; but it was no go, as some of our vessels can steam eighteen knots, while the ram can make but eight or nine. At half-past 4 we fired the first gun — our one hundred pounder rifle. That was the signal for the commencement of a most furious cannonading, which lasted over three hours. The fleet took up a position describing a circle, with the ram in the centre. In the mean time the Cotton Planter had fled, and by her superior sailing qualities escaped. The Bombshell we captured. She was crowded with sharp-shooters. The gunboat Sassacus steamed full speed right into the ram, at the same time giving her a broadside, but without the least effect. The whole fleet then sailed slowly round the ram, each boat as it passed giving her a broadside, which made the iron fly from her side and riddled her smoke-stack. This seemed to “rile” her some, for she then, for the first time, showed her teeth, and began to act on the defensive. She made directly for the Miami, and when she was about ten yards off, let fly at us with Whitworth rifles. One shell went through our smoke-stack, just over the men's heads; and the other went into the captain's cabin and exploded there, tearing every thing in that vicinity to pieces, and starting the deck above. A large piece of the shell went through the opposite side, making a hole clean through the ship. Mr. Hackett, our paymaster, was lying on a sofa in the cabin at the time, and, wonderful to say, was not hurt in the least, although the sofa was turned over on him, and he was covered with a pile of glass, books, clothes, pieces of wood, and broken furniture, and almost suffocated by the dust and smoke, with which the cabin was filled. We were also struck by a shell, which burst in the wheel-house, and shattered our signal-lamps, but did no other damage. A thirty-eight pound solid shot went through our second cutter, which hung alongside on its davits, and there is nothing left of our “dingy” but the keel and ribs. Strange as it may seem, not a man on our vessel was hurt. The Sassacus got a shell in her boilers, which killed three and wounded six. The Mattabasset had her deck swept by a shot, which took both legs off of three men, one of whom has since died, and the others are not expected to live. We have not yet heard whether any others in the fleet were hurt. The Miami fired over one hundred and seventeen times, and struck the ram over eighty times. We put one shot right into one of her ports, and dismounted a gun. The firing was kept up till after dark; and during the night the ram got away up the river. We all think that two hours more of daylight would have made her ours. The fleet is now lying at the mouth of the Roanoke, waiting for the ram to come out again; but I think she had such a shaking as she did not expect, and will be very careful how she pokes her nose in such a mess again. She looks as much like a huge turtle as any thing I can compare her to. She is iron-clad, then a layer of oak fifteen inches thick, and then another casing of iron. She is much more powerful and substantial than the Merrimac was. Just consider what an immense power of resistance she must possess. Yesterday, in the space of a little more than three hours, she was struck upward of two hundred and eighty times.