Capture of the Underwriter. [from the Virginia Pilot, Norfolk, April 30, 1899]
At New Bern, North Carolina, February 2, 1864. an interesting paper.Read by request before Pickett—Buchanan Camp, Confederate Veterans, this city, April 25th, 1899, by B. P. Loyall commander Confederate States Navy—Reminiscences that will be read with interest and profit.
The following reminiscenses of the capture of the U. S. S. gunboat Underwriter, at New Bern, N. C., February 2, 1864, were read before Pickett-Buchanan Camp, Confederate Veterans, April 25th, by special request, and are reproduced in these columns in response to the earnest solicitation of many of our readers: Commander and Comrades. I thank you for the invitation to speak to you this evening, and respond to it cheerfully, but with some misgiving, lest I should fail to give honor where honor is due, and because the subject is so personal to me. A boat expedition is somewhat out of the ordinary events, and to make it understood by all, I will have to go into particulars at the risk of being tedious. After the fall of Roanoke Island in the winter of 1862, the Federals had control of the sounds of North Carolina, and of some of the rivers emptying into them. They had occupied all the towns situated on the water, and among them New Bern, which lies at the confluence of the Neuse and Trent rivers, occupying an angle between the two—a place easily defended by the power having control of the  water. They had built strong earthworks on the land side, stretching from river to river, and had several gunboats cruising about to protect the place on the water side. Among these gunboats one was the Underwriter, which had been a heavy ocean tugboat at New York, and purchased by the United States government, had been converted into quite a formidable vessel of war. She was the ship that fired the first gun in the attack upon Roanoke Island, where your speaker had the misfortune to be captured, and it may be said there was something like the rule of compensation when said speaker had a hand in capturing her. She was armed with two 8-inch guns, one 3-inch rifle and one 12-pounder Howitzer, and had a crew of about eighty-five all told. Picture to yourself a steamer about the size of; the Northampton, with very low guards, and stripped of her sides or bulwarks, except a wooden rail with rope netting from that to her deck. The quiet possession of New Bern by the Federals had distressed and worried the patriotic people of North Carolina, and General Hoke, than whom there was not a more competent or brilliant officer of his rank in the Confederate army, strongly advocated a quick movement upon the place by the army, assisted by the navy on the water, predicting certain success, and large reward in stores, munitions and prisoners. The matter took definite shape in January, 1864, and it was decided to send General Pickett with as much of his division as might be available, to make the attempt. On Friday, January 29, 1864, orders were received by the four ships lying at Drewry's Bluff, each to fit out a cutter fully armed for service on a secret expedition. No one in the squadron knew of our destination, except your speaker and Captain Parker, serving on the Patrick Henry, and we were ordered to take five days rations. I was put in command of that part of the expedition, with confidential orders to report to Captain John Taylor Wood (his naval rank), at Kinston, N. C. To escape notice as much as possible, we pulled down James river to the Appomattox, and reached Petersburg before daylight. There was a railway train waiting for us, and we hauled our boats out of the water, and, by hard work, loaded them on the flat cars before the people were up and about. We started off at once, and it was a novel sight to see a train like that—Jack sitting up on the seats of the boats and waving his hat to the astonished natives, who never saw such a circus before. Many of them had never seen a boat. We reached Kinston on Sunday morning, and immediately got the boats in the water of the Neuse  river, dropped down a short distance below the village and put things in shape for the trial of battle. Captain Wood met us at Kinston (where we were joined by three boats fully armed, from Wilmington, N. C.), and took command of the expedition. About 4 o'clock in the afternoon we shoved off from the river bank and started down for New Bern, which is about forty miles distant by the river. When we had gotten some two miles below the town, orders were given for every man to put a band of white cotton cloth on the left arm, above the elbow, and the name ‘Sumpter’ was given as the watchword. These precautions are necessary in a night attack, as there are no flags in sight to rally upon. Every man was armed with a cutlass and navy revolver. Before dark the commander ordered all the boats to assemble together, and, as we floated down the quiet stream, he offered up the petitions from the prayer book to Almighty God for those about to engage in a battle. It was a solemn and impressive scene—just as the shades of evening were falling—this unusual assemblage of armed men. Then, with muffled oars, a single line was formed, and we pulled with measured stroke down the stream. The river is narrow and full of turns, winding in and out, with low, sedgy banks. Here and there huge cypress and water oak trees, which almost lock their heavy branches over the stream. The night was so dark that we could not see each other, and often the leading boat ran into a shoal point, got aground, and the whole line would be jumbled up in a crowd. After 2 o'clock in the morning, the river widened, and we began to see better around us. Soon we reached the mouth of the river and sniffed the salt air of the sound. Every eye was strained to see a ship. We pulled in the direction of the town of New Bern, and searched in vain to find something afloat, although we got close enough to the wharf to hear talking, probably the sentries on the dock. There was nothing to be done but find some refuge out of sight until next night, but it was a hard letting down from the pitch of excitement and expectation we had been under—the unbending of the bow that had been strung for action. We moved up the river some three or four miles to Bachelor's creek, where among the reeds and rushes we tried to hide ourselves and rest until next night, and try it again. We felt very uneasy lest we should be discovered, and our purpose known; for unless our attack should be a surprise, it would  be useless and madness to undertake it. No force in small boats, except in overwhelming numbers, can capture an armed ship, unless by taking her unawares. We spent a day of tedious waiting. Officers and men laying low, spinning yarns and talking about our prospects. I happened to hear the talking of one of the group, where a fine young officer said: ‘Fellows, where will we be this time to-morrow?’ He was among the killed, and it was such a lesson on the uncertainty of human life. Among the killed there was Hoge and Gardner and Henry Cooke and Gill and Palmer Saunders and Goodwin, from our State, and Gift and Porcher and Scharf and Williamson and Kerr and Roby, all trained at Annapolis and true as steel—among these, three were from Norfolk and Portsmouth. In plain sight of us was a tall crow's nest, occupied by a lookout of the Federal army on their pickett line, and I assure you it gave us a creepy, uneasy, feeling to think that our whole movement and intention might be discovered. And here let me remark that this very situation determines and exemplifies what I judge to be a man of war—a leader who does not allow his plans to be upset by what he thinks the enemy is going to do. He must be always combative and not calculating chances. Wood paid no attention to doubts and surmises, but had his eye fixed upon boarding and capturing that ship, and doing his part in the fall of New Bern. We were in full hearing of Pickett's dashing attack upon the Federal outerworks that day, and knew that he was driving them from the advanced line of fortifications. Before sunset Wood called for the swiftest boat, and, with your speaker in company, pulled cautiously down the river, keeping close under the banks. We had not gone two miles, when simultaneously we both cried: ‘There she is.’ We discovered a black steamer anchored close up to the right flank of the outer fortifications of New Bern, where she had come that day, and having located her exactly, we returned to our hiding place, with the understanding that we would attack her between 12 and 4 o'clock in the morning. Orders were given accordingly, and all hands were made to know the order of battle and what they had to do. In rushing pell mell upon the side of a ship with boat, they naturally rebound and leave a gap that is not easy to get across, so each bow oarsman was ordered to be ready to jump aboard with a grapnel as soon as she struck and make her fast; and our coolest men were picked for that duty, which you will easily see is risky. Some time after midnight we got under way and pulled slowly down  the river in two columns of four boats each, Wood to board her forward with his boats and your speaker to board her abaft with his. The night was very dark and gloomy, and we could not see a light anywhere, except an occasional glimmer about the town; but we knew pretty nearly where the vessel was, and with our glasses in the evening understood her build and structure. The stroke of the muffled oars was almost noiseless, and suddenly the dark hull of the ship loomed up; and it seemed almost at the same moment there came from her the shout: ‘Boat, ahoy!’ Then we heard the loud and cheering cry from Wood: ‘Give way, boys,’ which was caught up and echoed along both lines of boats. Then rang out and sharp from the ship the rattle, calling the men to quarters for action, and now the fight was on. No need for orders now to these disciplined men. I suppose the distance was about one hundred yards, and while our men were straining at their oars, we heard the sharp click of rifles, and the only reply we could make was by the marines (three or four being in each boat), who delivered their fire with great coolness. It seems to me now that of all the uncomfortable things a fighting man might have to do, that of pulling an oar with his back to his foe must be the most trying and disheartening, but not a man weakened. In less time than is required to tell of this, we were into her. Our boat struck the vessel just abaft the wheelhouse, where the guards make a platform, an admirable place for getting on board. The ship's armory, where all the small arms were kept, was in a room just there under the hurricane deck, and they did not stop to reload, but loaded guns were handed to the men, as fast as they could fire. It seemed like a sheet of flame, and the very jaws of death. Our boat struck bow on, and our bow oarsman, James Wilson, of Norfolk (after the war with the Baker Wrecking Co.), caught her with his grapnel, and she swung side on with the tide. As we jumped aboard Engineer Gill, of Portsmouth, among the first, was shot through the head, and as he fell dead our men gave a yell, and rushed upon the deck, with the crews of the two other boats close behind. Now the fighting was furious, and at close quarters. Our men were eager, and as one would fall another came on. Not one faltered or fell back. The cracking of fire arms and the rattle of cutlasses made a deafening din. The enemy gave way slowly, and soon began to get away by taking to the ward room and engine room hatches.  They fell back under the hurricane deck before the steady attack of our men, and at that time I heard the cheers and rush of our comrades from forward, and I knew we had them. They came along from forward with cutlasses and muskets they had found, clubbing and slashing. In a short time I heard the cry: ‘We surrender.’ They could not stand the force and moral effect of an attack like that, and remember, they were not Spaniards we were fighting. Wood gave the order to cease firing, and after a brief consultation with your speaker, we ordered the two firemen we had with us to go down into the engine and fire room to see if they could get her under weigh, and take her up the river, where we might put her in shape, and, as she was the largest vessel at New Bern, we would have temporary command of the river. It was in the fight on the forward deck that the intrepid young Palmer Saunders gave up his life for his country. He attacked a stalwart sailor with his cutlass and killed him, but had his head split open and a shot in his side. I wish I could relate the deeds of individual prowess and gallantry, but in such a melee as that, one has all he can do to keep on his feet and look out for himself We found the fires banked and not steam enough to turn the wheels over. At this juncture Fort Stevens opened fire upon our vessel, regardless of their own people. One shell struck part of her lever beam, went through a hen coop near where the marines were drawn up, and passed through her side. Upon further consultation we decided to burn her, and gave the order to man the boats, taking special care of our own and the enemy's wounded and our dead, and all prisoners we could get hold of. I thought it very strange that the captain of the vessel could not be found, but, upon inquiry among his men, we learned that he had been wounded in the leg and had jumped overboard. He was drowned. Poor Palmer Saunders was carefully placed in a blanket and lain in the bow of my boat, where he could be better supported than aft. He was breathing, but entirely unconscious. Of course, some of the men missed their boats, as nobody stood upon the order of his going in the face of the firing from those forts. After seeing all the boats under my charge get away, we shoved off and pulled off from the ship. The duty of setting fire to the Underwriter had been assigned to Lieutenant Hoge, of Wheeling, a talented young officer of fine attainments and undaunted courage. When we had gotten half mile from the ship, Wood pulled up  toward our boats and asked if I had ordered the ship set afire. I said: ‘Yes’; but it looked as if it had not been done successfully. Just then Hoge came along in his boat and said that he had set fire to her. Wood ordered him to go on board and make sure of it, and he went promptly. Here was trying duty to perform. The forts were firing every few minutes in our direction—wildly, of course, as big guns cannot be aimed well at night, but you never can tell where they are going to strike. In about ten minutes we saw a flame leap out of a window forward of the wheelhouse, where the engineer's supplies were kept, and Hoge pulling away. In a very few minutes the whole expanse of water was lighted up, and you may be sure we struck out with a vim to rendezvous at Swift creek, about six miles up the river, on the opposite side from New Bern, where General Dearing had a small cavalry camp. As we were pulling up we could hear now and then the boom of the guns of the Underwriter as they were discharged by heat from the burning ship, and just before reaching our landing place we heard the awful explosion of the sturdy vessel, when the fire reached her magazine. After daybreak we reached the place on the bank of the creek, where there was a clearing, and landed our cargo of dead and wounded and prisoners. As we were taking Saunders out of the boat he breathed his last, and so passed into the presence of God the soul of that young hero. As soon as the surgeon had made the wounded as comfortable as possible under the circumstances, the prisoners were drawn up in line to make a list of them. As I passed down the line, a strapping big fellow, without any trousers on and barefooted, said: ‘My Lord, is that you?’ I looked him over and recognized him as an old quarter-gunner that had been shipmate with me in the frigate Congress ten years before, and among the wounded I was called to have a greeting from a young fellow, who had been a mizzen-topman in the same ship, and after the war got me to give him a certificate to secure his pension. Our casualties had been six killed, twenty-two wounded, all of them brought away. Two were missing and afterwards accounted for. The Federal loss was nine killed, eighteen wounded and nineteen prisoners—about thirty of her crew escaped. The wounded and prisoners were promptly taken care of by General Dearing's command, and sent up to Kinston. Captain Wood  proceeded to Richmond at once. As soon as proper arrangements could be made the command was summoned to pay the last rite of burial of the dead. At three o'clock in the afternoon, under the stately pines that bordered the stream, your speaker read the church service for the burial of the dead, and the bodies of our lamented comrades were tenderly laid in mother earth, there to rest until we shall all be summoned to the great assize. General Pickett's plans miscarried, it was alleged, by the failure of one of his brigadiers to make an attack at the appointed time on the Trent river side of the defense. He withdrew his force leisurely and retired upon Kinston. I could never understand why the other gunboats at New Bern did not attack the Underwriter after her capture by us. Instead of that two of them got under weigh and steamed around into Trent river, as fast as they could. While we were getting ready to abandon the ship, it worried us very much to see one of those boats coming directly toward us, but she soon turned and went in the other direction, much to our relief. In speaking of our casualties, it was said that there were two missing, and it was under laughable circumstances. When we took to our boats two of the men rushed to the stern where they saw a boat made fast, and they slided down into her. In a few moments other men piled into her, and ‘shove off’ was the word. It soon developed that the boat had eight Yankees and two rebels on board, and these two poor fellows set up a fearful cry for help. We heard them howling from our boat, but could not see, nor imagine what it meant. The poor fellows were rowed ashore to New Bern by their Yankee prisoners—so to speak. They were afterwards exchanged and I met one of them in Richmond. He said he never felt so mean in all his life, and he almost split his throat hallooing for us to get them out of the scrape. The attack upon New Bern was well planned, and we all know that the assault of that intrepid division was irresistable, but here was another case of somebody has blundered. If General Pickett's plan had been carried out, there would have been another exemplification of the power of a navy, by its very absence in this case; for the neutralizing of the help given by the Underwriter in the defense of New Bern would have made General Pickett's assault upon the right flank of those defences a very different affair. Referring to this capture, Admiral Porter, U. S. N., wrote at that time:  ‘This was rather a mortifying affair for the navy, however fearless on the part of the Confederates. This gallant expedition was led by Commander John Taylor Wood. It was to be expected that with so many clever officers, who left the Federal navy, and cast their fortunes with the Confederates, such gallant action would often be attempted, and had the enemy attacked the forts, the chances are that they would have been successful, as the garrison was unprepared for an attack on the river flank, their most vulnerable side.’ That night our command pulled up to Kinston, tired and fagged from four days of work and unrest, and so we went back to our ships at Richmond.