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The Confederate ram Albemarle. [from the New Orleans, La., Picayune, December 28, 1902, January 4, 1903.]

Built to clear the Roanoke, Neuse and Pamlico rivers, she accomplished her mission Brilliantly.

By Captain James Dinkins.
Early in 1863 the Federals had complete possession of all the bays and sounds and rivers along the Virginia and North Carolina coasts.

Pamlico Sound afforded a fine rendezvous for vessels of all kinds, while the towns along the Roanoke, Neuse and Pamlico rivers were garrisoned by Federal troops. From these garrisoned towns foraging parties scoured the country and destroyed or carried away every movable thing, including beast and fowl. The people in that section, being robbed of everything they possessed, appealed to the authorities at Richmond for aid and relief.

On March 14, 1863, General D. H. Hill sent a brigade of infantry and a battery of smoothbore guns, under General J. J. Pettigrew, in response to the call of the people, with instructions to destroy Fort Anderson, on the Neuse river, opposite Newbern, N. C.

General Pettigrew bombarded the place for two hours, but, satisfied he could not capture it by assault, withdrew. Subsequently, General George E. Pickett was ordered from Kinston, with instructions to capture Newbern and destroy the enemy's fleet.

At this juncture the Confederates did not have a vessel of any kind in either of the three rivers named. General Pickett, feeling the need of some diversion on the river, managed to get a lot of skiffs, or new boats, about thirty in all, which he filled with men armed with rifles and cutlasses, under command of Colonel John Taylor Wood, who proceeded down the Neuse, to co-operate with the infantry.

The enemy's fleet at Newbern consisted of five gunboats-the Lockwood, Underwriter, Hetzel, Commodore Hull, and the Hunchback, while the forts were garrisoned by 4,000 men and fifty cannon. The audacity of the Confederates, therefore, in descending the river with thirty skiffs to attack the Federal fleet of five gunboats and two heavily-armed forts, scarcely has a parallel.

Colonel Wood set out on his desperate mission with as brave a [206] little band as ever went in search of an enemy. There was not a faint heart or a nervous hand in the party. The noble fellows, in fisherman's boats, moved along, hugging the banks as closely as possible, hoping to avoid detection, until they had reached sight of the gunboats. What those men talked about and what hopes they had of surviving an attack against an armored fleet as they glided down the Neuse, would be a pretty story, if it could be told, but we can only surmise what passed between them in their whispered conversations, or what their thoughts reverted to.

About the middle of the night they sighted the Underwriter, lying at anchor, and immediately under the big guns of the fort.

Nothing daunted, Colonel Wood formed his skiffs in columns of fours, and gave orders to pull for the gunboats.

He imparted to the commander of each the part he was expected to perform.

He directed the movement with as much deference and ceremony as if he was communicating with captains of modern men-of-war.

On they pulled in the stillness of the night, each crew striving their utmost to be the first to reach the scene.

The signal lights hung from the Underwriter, but all was darkness without. A sentinel paced the deck to and fro, but otherwise there was no evidence of life on the vessel.

It was well known to the Federals that the Confederates had no vessel of any nature or kind in the river, therefore they felt no anxiety for their safety.

Fortunately the tide was in favor of the Confederates, as it ebbed to the sea, and the noise of the waves, as they splashed against the gunboat, drowned the sound of their oars.

Noiselessly the assailants glided into the shadow of the ship, and the four skiffs in front passed by and turned into shore.

Instantly, almost, those following were in touch of the gunboat, and when Colonel Wood gave the signal the boys clambered on the sides as nimbly as squirrels. They all knew what was expected of them and went to work.

The sentinel was captured before he could arouse his comrades, therefore little difficulty was experienced in making the crew prisoners.

The officers of the vessel tried to rally the crew, and the Commander, Lieutenant Westervelt, and four or five marines, who refused to surrender were killed.

The little band of Confederates behaved as if each was a captain, and covered every part of the boat without a moment's delay. [207]

The guns of the fort were not exceeding 100 yards distant, but Colonel Wood's plans were carried out so perfectly and noiselessly the garrison was not aware of what transpired below them.

Colonel Wood thought to make the Underwriter his flagship, but finding the boilers cold set fire to her, and escaped without the loss of a man or an oar.

The following day General Pickett opened fire on the forts and created the wildest dismay among the enemy, but decided not to assault the works, and on February 3d withdrew his command.

The boldness of Colonel Wood and his little crew excited the wonder of the enemy, and won the warmest commendations from our people, especially those who had felt the ravening hands of the foraging parties.

Soon after the events described above had taken place an ardent and devoted Southerner by the name of Gilbert Elliott, who had had some experience in boat building, proposed to the authorities at Richmond that with such aid as the Government could give he would undertake to construct a ram, which he believed would clear the Roanoke river of the meddlesome things which infested its waters. He received all the encouragement the Government could offer, and began the work, under conditions which very few men would have been willing to undertake.

The river was not navigable for the enemy's vessels more than a few miles above Plymouth, therefore Mr. Elliott decided to construct the ram at what was known as Edwards Ferry. To all others it seemed an impossibility. No material or competent workmen at hand, yet he went to work and put so much energy in it, and expressed such confidence in his ability to float a machine worthy a trial, it gave vigor and strength to the undertaking.

It is impossible to say how he obtained the necessary bolts and nuts, besides the iron, to plate her. He prosecuted the work with great caution and secrecy. If the enemy ascertained his purpose an effort would be made to thwart it.

Howbeit, he was master of every situation, and by April 10, 1864, the ram was ready for service, and was christened Albemarle.

She was built according to the plans of Constructor John L. Porter, Confederate States Navy. She was made of pine timber, 8x10 inches thick, dovetailed together and sheathed with four layers of plank. She was 122 feet long, 45 feet beam, and drew 8 feet. Her shield, octagonal in form, was 60 feet long, and was protected by two layers of 2-inch iron plating. [208]

The ram, or the prow, was of solid oak, also plated with 2-inch iron, and tapered like a wedge. She had two engines of 200 horsepower, and when one considers the circumstances and difficulties under which she was constructed, we must confess she was a wonder.

When Elliott reported her ready for service, the Government selected the best men available to man her, under command of Captain J. W. Cooke, and decided to make another effort to capture Plymouth.

On April 18, 1864, the Albemarle cut loose from the little town of Hamilton, N. C., and started down the river to co-operate with an infantry force under command of General Hoke. The latter reached the vicinity of Plymouth and surrounded the town, from the river above to the river below, and awaited the advent of the ram.

About a mile and a half above the Federal forts, at Warren's Neck, and near Thoroughfare Gap, the enemy had planted torpedoes and obstructed the channel with wrecks of old boats and other things.

Captain Cooke came to anchor some three miles above Plymouth, and sent out a boat under command of a lieutenant to explore the river.

The lieutenant, after a time, returned and reported that it was impossible to pass the obstructions.

Captain Cooke thereupon gave orders to bank the fires, and the men were allowed to go to sleep.

Gilbert Elliott, who accompanied Captain Cooke as a volunteer, feeling great dissatisfaction at the conclusion reached, and believing that it was ‘then or never’ with the ram, if she was to accomplish anything, urged Captain Cooke to make the trial. He argued that it would be foolhardy to attempt the passage of the obstructions and the forts in day time, and requested permission to make an investigation also.

Captain Cooke assented, and with the pilot, whose name was John Lusk, and two sailors, who volunteered to accompany them, set out in a small lifeboat.

They carried a long pole with them, and, arriving at the obstructed point, began to take soundings.

Elliott soon discovered that there was ten feet of water over and above the obstruction (which fact was due to a freshet in the river). The little party, however, pushed along down the stream until they reached Plymouth, and, taking advantage of the darkness, which was increased by the shadow of the trees, pulled to the opposite [209] shore and watched the transport taking on board women and children, whom they were sending away on account of General Hoke's demonstration.

With the greatest caution, almost afraid to take a long breath, for fear of detection, Elliott and his companions made their way back and reached the Albemarle after midnight. Elliott stated to Captain Cooke his firm conviction that the ram could pass the obstructions, and urged him to make the attempt.

His earnestness was so great that Captain Cooke at once determined to do so, and had the men aroused, and gave orders to get up steam as quickly as possible.

The Albemarle was soon under way, but the enemy was entirely ignorant of her approach. In fact, they had no knowledge that the Confederates owned a boat in the river.

She passed over the obstructions safely, but very soon a gun belched forth from the fort at Warren's Neck, and Captain Cooke realized that he was on a perilous journey.

The Federal battery opened fire vigorously, and the shells rattled against the ram in rapid succession.

Elliott had protected her sides with hanging chains, and they proved a very fine shield.

The ram was soon beyond the range of the guns, but a little lower down she passed a fort on which was mounted a very heavy gun. The big shells went whizzing over her bow and beyond, crashing through the timber for two miles.

The firing aroused the Federal fleet at Plymouth, and two vessels, the Miami and the Southfield, started to look for the trouble.

The vessels carried each six 9-inch guns, one 100-pounder Parrott rifle, and a 24-pounder howitzer.

The two vessels were lashed together and ascended the river with entire confidence among the officers that nothing in the Roanoke river could check them one minute.

Captain Flusher, the senior Federal officer, stated that his purpose in lashing the vessels together was to get the Confederate craft, whatever it might be, between his vessels, and capture it with little trouble.

Captain Cooke, however, as soon as he sighted the Federal boats, ran the Albemarle close to shore, and when in proper position, he suddenly turned her toward the middle of the stream, and, giving her all the steam he could, he dashed the prow into the side of the Southfield before a gun was fired. Cutting her almost in twain, she [210] went to the bottom in less than two minutes, taking most of her crew with her.

The chains on the forward deck of the ram became entangled with the Southfield, which carried her bow to such a depth that the water began to pour into her portholes.

The situation was critical. It looked as if nothing could save the ram, but as the Southfield struck bottom she turned over, and the Albemarle was released.

The Miami, in the meantime, had broken apart from the sunken vessel, and opened fire from her big guns at such close range that the flash passed over and beyond the Albemarle.

Here a most remarkable circumstance occurred. A 9-inch shell struck the ram, rebounded, and exploded almost at the lanyard of the gun which it came from, killing Captain Flusher and six men. Notwithstanding the confusion, the Federal crew made an effort to board the ram, but were fought off by the Confederates, who used both bayonets and the butts of their rifles, killing a majority of the crew before they could escape.

Seeing how determined the Confederates were, the Miami, a very swift vessel, turned tail, and, although pursued by the ram, succeeded in making her escape.

She never reversed her engines until she had ploughed into Albemarle Sound.

Captain Cooke successfully carried out his part of the plan by driving every vessel into the ocean.

The following day General Hoke attacked the fortifications and carried them, although he lost a good part of his men.

General Ransom's Brigade alone left nearly six hundred dead and wounded on the field.

General Ransom distinguished himself by leading his men over the enemy's works, where occurred a hand-to-hand fight.

The Federal Commander, General Wessells, made a gallant defense, but Ransom and Hoke forced him to surrender. The enemy's loss was very heavy. His dead lay in heaps, and his wounded were lying on all sides. During the assault the Albemarle played upon the forts also, but the Federal boats were too cautious to return.

After the capture of Plymouth, N. C., April 19, 1864—by Generals Hoke and Ransom—in which action the Confederate ram, Albemarle, destroyed one gunboat of the Federal fleet and drove the others into Pamlico Sound; the Confederates were greatly encouraged and the Federals correspondingly discouraged and alarmed. [211]

The Yankees spoke of the ram as the ‘Second Merrimac,’ and they looked upon her as an unknown quantity, with unlimited capacity for destruction.

In fact the Federal Government was laboring under much anxiety because of the changed condition of affairs in the sounds and rivers of North Carolina.

A single boat, the Albemarle, had met the entire fleet, destroyed one vessel and defeated the others. Subsequently, she steamed into the open sound, fought seven gunboats and captured one (the Bombshell), severely damaged five others and compelled the entire squadron to seek a place of safety. During this engagement the little ram suffered no serious damage.

On May 5, 1864, the Albemarle left Plymouth, followed by the Bombshell, to meet the Federal fleet, which was reported advancing from the sound, for the purpose of clearing the river of all Confederate boats.

The Federal fleet had been overhauled, re-inforced and equipped with all sorts of guns and torpedoes, numerous enough to have alarmed several such crafts as the Albemarle, had she been manned by ordinary men and officers.

The Yankee fleet consisted of (what they termed) four double-enders—the Mattabesett, Commander John C. Febiger; the Sassacus, Lieutenant Commander F. A. Roe; the Wyalusing, Lieutenant Commander W. W. Queen; the Miami, Lieutenant Charles A. French—and two gunboats, the Whitehead, Ensign G. W. Barrett, and the Ceres, Commander H. H. Foster. Also, two transports, carrying seven guns each. The double-enders were equipped with four nine-inch Dahlgren guns, two 100-pounder Parrott rifles and one 24-pounder howitzer each.

Total, 36 nine-inch Dahlgrens, 8 100-pounder Parrott rifles and 4 24-pounder howitzers.

The gunboats carried eight smoothbore and two rifle guns each, making a grand total of 82 cannon, while the Albemarle mounted four 6-inch rifle and two 8-inch smoothbore guns.

The enemy left the sound with full determination to capture or sink the ram.

After leaving the mouth of the Roanoke, the average width of which is about 150 yards, and the depth sufficient to float a vessel drawing sixteen feet of water as high up as Plymouth. Along the shores of Pamlico Sound that beautiful May morning the marsh was [212] gay with little blue flags that nodded to the wind and bowed to the tide as it began to flow.

The birds skimmed lightly over its surface, and looked through the grasses at that splendid array of death-dealing monsters, as they gracefully moved about for positions in line before starting on the hunt for the Albemarle.

The sun rose beautifully, and the air was glorious; there was nothing to disturb the sway of the grasses or the chirp of the little marsh birds.

Over all that wide expanse of water there was nothing to suggest the desperate encounter and inglorious defeat that awaited the great fleet which floated so grandly over Pamlico Sound. The scene resembled preparations for review.

Everything in readiness, the column headed for the mouth of the river, the Mattabesett leading, but the movement was so deliberate, and the order so perfect, no one could have believed that one single vessel would drive them back. It was not reasonable. It could not be possible.

The double-enders were ordered to pass as close to the Albemarle as they could, deliver fire, then get out of line as quickly as possible and round to for a second discharge if necessary, while the gunboats and transports were to open from below.

Torpedoes were provided to each boat and instructions given to use them liberally, and, if possible, destroy the propeller of the Confederate ram.

The vessels of the squadron sent to attack the Albemarle exceeded in numbers the entire Confederate Navy at that time.

However, the ram had twice before demonstrated its ability to take care of itself even against great odds.

As the Federal fleet rounded into the river, they sighted the Second Merrimac, as she steamed toward them. Captain Cooke opened with a shot from one of his rifles, which was quickly followed by another and another.

The aim was skillful. The first shot cut the rail and spars away from the Mattabesett and wounded six or seven men.

Captain Cooke put on all the steam at his command and made for the Yankee boats. By this time the Sassacus came into position and fired a broadside from her 9-inch guns, but such shot as struck the ram skimmed off into the air, and even the 100-pound rifle shells glanced off as they struck her sloping sides.

By this time five of the Yankee boats were firing on the ram as [213] fast as the guns could be worked, but the smoke settled over all, and became so dense the Federal boats pulled away for fear of being rammed and took new positions.

The Albemarle continued to advance, keeping her guns busy.

The Yankee boats, favorably posted in the sound, concentrated their big guns on the ram, hoping to disable it by reaching her port holes. It looked as if the little ram could not survive the combined attack, but she was out for a fight, and floated into the sound as proudly and defiantly as if she was supreme. Quickly she changed her coure for the ‘double-enders,’ but they set out again and took up new positions, and the ram passed in between them, using her guns with marked effect.

The situation was desperate, and the Sassacus was signalled ‘to ram the Albemarle.’ It was the only hope of success, though it was deemed certain that the Sassacus would go under. She moved on the Albemarle with a full head of steam, risking everything to save the other vessels. It was a moment of intense anxiety for all as the big ship neared the little Albemarle. The latter sent two shots through the Yankee boat just before she struck. A mighty crash, and the boom of cannon. The smoke became intense, and both vessels quivering, rebounded for the second attack. The bow of the Sassacus was shattered and she attempted to escape. The ram was still afloat, though, and went in pursuit, sending a shell crashing through the boat and through her boilers. Soon a cloud of steam and boiling water filled every part of the vessel.

The shrill screams of the escaping steam almost drowned the sound of the guns, which the ram continued to fire into the unfortunate vessel.

The shouts of the Confederates and the cries of the scalded, blinded and wounded men made a scene which would appall the stoutest heart. The Sassacus surged to one side, then to the other, and began to sink.

Those of the Yankee crew who survived climbed into the rigging to escape the boiling steam.

The tumult always characteristic of battle was doubly intensified by the cries of agony from the scalded and dying men.

No effort was made by the other Federal vessels to give them aid. During all this time the surviving vessels floated at a respectful distance and took no part whatever. When the steam had cleared away the Federal fleet had gone, and the proud little Albemarle was master of the field. [214]

One of the Commanders, in reporting the battle, said:

‘There was no lack of courage on our ships, but the previous loss of the Southfield, and the signal from the Wyalusing that she was sinking, and the loss of the Sassacus, dictated the prudent course they adopted.’

The prudent course referred to was to get away as quickly as possible.

Captain Cooke picked up the survivors of the Sassacus and returned to Plymouth.

From this action may be deducted the following argument:

There is nothing in naval affairs which surpasses in brilliancy this battle of the Albemarle. The conduct of her crew was glorious; their deeds excited wonder at the time, and should stimulate those unborn when they hear the story. This single boat successfully met and defeated the entire Federal fleet on the North Carolina coast.

This story of the Albemarle is not complete. I cannot do her justice, but hope my feeble effort to tell of her matchless deeds will induce some one, better able, to do so.

Let us give a yell for Captain Cooke, his officers and crew.

It may be said, with truth, that the Southern people put more energy into naval affairs than had been done for fifty years before.

Had the Confederacy been able to construct one-third as many boats as the Federals had, there would not have been a blockade of Southern ports. This is self-evident when we read the story of the Merrimac, the Albemarle and the greatest of all, the Alabama. When we recall her operations and consider the obstacles in her way, we stand in amazement and congratulate ourselves that Semmes was one of us.

Natura lo fece, epoi ruppe la stampa.’

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