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Chapter 5: capture of the works at Hatteras Inlet by Flag officer Stringham.--destruction of the privateer Judah.

  • Determination of Lincoln to regain possession of the Southern ports and harbors.
  • -- a board of eminent civilians and naval officers convened. -- the Sounds of North Carolina -- their defences, etc. -- Hatteras Inlet. -- a squadron fitted out to capture Hatteras Inlet. -- vessels composing the squadron and their commanders. -- Commodore Stringham. -- the squadron leaves Hampton Roads. -- the squadron anchors at Hatteras Island. -- bombardment and capture of forts Hatteras and Clark. -- the garrison surrender to General Butler and Commodore Stringham. -- effect of the capture of forts Hatteras and Clark on the Confederates. -- destruction of Fort Ocracoke. -- the Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds. -- Colonel Hawkins sends a regiment to take possession of Chicacomico. -- capture of the transport Fanny by Confederate steamers. -- plans of the Confederates frustrated. -- Colonel Brown and Colonel Hawkins join hands. -- the Monticello renders good service. -- disastrous retreat of the Confederates. -- cutting out of the Confederate privateer Judah.

It was evident to any one who had studied the subject, that the United States Government could make no headway against the Confederates while the seaports and their defences remained in the hands of the latter. From the beginning President Lincoln had boldly avowed his purpose to regain possession of all the Southern ports and harbors.

A board of eminent civilians and naval officers had been convened by the Navy Department to consider the whole subject, and report upon the best means of approaching and attacking the ports then in the possession of the Secessionists; and the result of their labors, when placed in the hands of the Secretary of the Navy, was of great service in enabling the Department promptly to take proper measures for the recapture of the ports along the Southern coast.

From the beginning the Secessionists had appreciated the necessity of securing possession of the Sounds of North Carolina and defending their approaches against our gunboats. There is in this region a network of channels communicating with the Chowan, Neuse and Roanoke Rivers by which any amount of stores and munitions of war could be sent by blockade runners to supply the South.

The numerous inlets are navigable for light draft vessels, but owing to their shallow water our vessels of war could not penetrate them.

The main channel for entering the Sounds was Hatteras Inlet, and here the enemy had thrown up heavy earthworks to protect the most important smuggling route then in operation; for, although Charleston and Mobile were considered important ports for smuggling supplies to the South, Hatteras Inlet was none the less so.

For the purpose of capturing the defences of Hatteras Inlet a squadron under command of Commodore Stringham was fitted out. It consisted of the Minnesota, Captain Van Brunt, Wabash, Captain Mercer, Monticello, Commander J. P. Gillis, Susquehanna, Captain Chauncey, Pawnee, Commander Rowan, Cumberland, Captain Marston, and the Revenue Steamer Harriet Lane, Captain Faunce.

Three transports accompanied the squadron [45] The Adelaide, Commander Stellwagen, George Peabody, Lieut.-Commanding Lowry, and the Fanny, Lieut.-Commanding Crosby. They carried about 900 troops under command of Major-General B. F. Butler.

On the 27th of August, 1861, the day after leaving Hampton Roads, the squadron

The sounds of North Carolina.

anchored off Hatteras Island, on the extreme southwestern point of which were Forts Hatteras and Clark, separated by a shallow bay, half a mile wide. Of these works Fort Hatteras was the larger, and together they mounted twenty-five guns.

In those days of wooden ships one gun mounted on shore was considered equal to five on shipboard, but even this allowance made the squadron superior to the forts, without considering the heavier guns and better equipments of the frigates.

Part of the troops landed on the island under cover of the guns of the squadron, and at 8:45 on the morning of the 28th, the battle commenced. The Wabash, of fifty guns, with the Cumberland in tow and followed by the Minnesota, stood in towards Fort Clark and opened fire, and were soon joined by the Susquehanna.

The plan of attack, although afterwards followed in several cases during the Civil War,was not the best calculated to bring an engagement to a speedy conclusion. The [46] vessels were kept in motion in a circle or ellipse, passing and repassing the enemy's works.

The plan has the advantage of bothering the enemy's gunners, as the ships are constantly changing their range, but it detracts from the accuracy of the fire on board the vessels and it tends to lengthen out an engagement. At Hatteras what should have been finished in six hours required twenty-four to accomplish.

Commodore Silas H. Stringham, U. S. N. (afterwards Rear Admiral.)

In our opinion had all the larger vessels anchored in line abreast of the forts, with the smaller vessels on their flanks, t he enemy's batteries would have been quickly silenced. As it was the people in the forts were almost smothered by the fire from the frigates, and their aim made so uncertain, that little damage was done to the ships. Shortly after noon the Confederate flags had disappeared from both forts, and the enemy were evidently abandoning Fort Clark, on which our troops moved up the beach and hoisted the Union flag on that work.

Fort Hatteras still kept up the fire, and at night the squadron hauled off.

At 7:30, on the morning of the 29th, the ships again opened on Fort Hatteras, and continued the fire with vigor until 11:10, when a white flag was displayed by the enemy.

Although the reduction of these works was not a very great achievement for a squadron mounting 158 guns, yet the work was well done, and little damage was received from the enemy.

As soon as the white flag was shown from Fort Hatteras, some of the light draft vessels entered the inlet and drove off the reinforcements that were evidently endeavoring to reach the forts.

At 2:30 P. M. General Butler went on board Com. Stringham's flagship, taking with him Flag Officer Samuel Barron, C. S. N., commanding naval defences of Virginia and N. Carolina, Col. Martin, 7th Reg., N. C. Infantry, and Col. Andrews, commanding Forts Hatteras and Clark, who had surrendered unconditionally with their commands. [47]

Soon after the Commodore proceeded in the Minnesota to New York, where all the prisoners were transferred to Governor's Island.

This was our first naval victory, indeed our first victory of any kind, and should not be forgotten. The Union cause was then in a depressed condition, owing to the reverses it had experienced. The moral effect of this affair was very great, as it gave us a foothold on Southern soil and possession of the Sounds of North Carolina, if we chose to occupy them. It was a death-blow to blockade running in that vicinity, and ultimately proved one of the

Capture of the forts at Hatteras Inlet.--fleet opening fire and boats landing through the surf. August 28, 1861.

most important events of the war; and if we recall the pertinacity with which the Confederates fought for these Sounds, even to the end of the war, we can appreciate the value they placed upon them.

To prevent Hatteras Inlet from again falling into the hands of the Confederates, the forts were garrisoned, although difficult to hold owing to unforeseen circumstances.

Fort Ocracoke, on the inlet of that name, twenty miles south of Hatteras, was abandoned by the enemy soon after the fall of Forts Hatteras and Clark, and was destroyed by a party from the U. S. S. Pawnee, who rendered useless twenty-two guns and a quantity of munitions of war.

The closing of these inlets to the Sounds of North Carolina sent the blockade runners elsewhere to find entrance to Southern markets, but as channel after channel was closed the smugglers' chances diminished and the labors of the blockading vessels were much reduced.

The great value of the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds may be judged by reference to subsequent events, when they formed a base of operations for the enemy which we found it extremely difficult to break up, and it was not until the Navy had been largely increased by the addition of the proper kind of vessels,that the United States Government was able to get possession of all the important points in the Sounds.

“The subsequent operations upon Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds and their rivers show how important a base these formed for the Confederates, and how difficult it would have been to crush the rebellion had they remained in their possesion.”

Colonel Hawkins, who had been left in command of Fort Hatteras after its capture, found his position to be an uncomfortable and dangerous one. [48]

The troops were subjected to annoying privations and dangerous exposure, and on one occasion narrowly escaped capture by the Confederates.

On September 29th, 1861,Colonel Hawkins sent the 20th Indiana Regiment to take possession of and fortify Chicamacomico, the northern point of Hatteras Island.

Plan of the attack on forts Hatteras and Clark, August 28th and 29th, 1861.

These troops were but partially equipped and scantily provisioned, their supplies being sent the next day in the army transport Fanny. Just as this vessel arrived she was met by three Confederate steamers, but their true character was not known until they opened fire, and but few of the Fanny's crew escaped.

As soon as the Confederates learned the true condition of affairs, they conceived the bold design not only of capturing the six hundred men of the Indiana regiment, but of retaking the forts at Hatteras. Their plan was to land a large body of men above the Union regiment and another below, between them and Hatteras, and thus render retreat impossible and their capture certain. At the same time a fleet of light steamers was to pass quickly down the Sound and make a sudden attack upon the forts at the inlet.

But for unforeseen events they might perhaps have succeeded.

The Confederates having collected ten [49] transports, six steamers, one cotton-barge and two flat boats, carrying in all about 3,000 men, commenced their movement on the 4th of October, intending to land a part above and a part below the Indiana encampment.

Colonel Brown, commanding the Union troops, divided his forces also, intending to fight the enemy at the two points threatened, but at this juncture he received peremptory orders to retreat, and as he was now some distance from his camp and there was no time to lose, he was obliged to start on a march of forty miles without supplies of any kind.

Interior of Fort Hatteras after the bombardment.

The Confederate steamers attempted to cut off his retreat by landing troops about eighteen miles below, and it now seemed to be reduced to a question of speed between steamers, and men wading through the loose and scorching sand.

The Confederate flotilla, however, was delayed by some of the boats getting aground, and their troops were not landed until after dark. Captain Brown, passing the fleet without being perceived, reached Hatteras light-house after a day of intense suffering and fatigue, and was soon re-enforced by Colonel Hawkins' regiment sent up from the forts to his relief.

Upon learning that the Indiana regiment had been re-enforced, the Confederates began a retreat up the island which proved far more disastrous to them than that of the Union troops had been, for they were at once pursued, not by marching troops, but by a gun-boat, following them on the outside of the island.

This steamer was the Monticello, commanded by Lieutenant D. L. Braine, and she rendered good service on this occasion by inflicting heavy loss upon the enemy, and driving him on board his vessels in a thoroughly demoralized condition.

The Confederates, when first seen from the Monticello, were marching along the narrow strip of sand in close order, and being entirely without cover offered an excellent mark for the Union gunners.

The Monticello's fire was very well directed, and the bursting shells caused great havoc in the ranks of the enemy.

They soon broke and ran, many of them taking refuge in a clump of woods abreast of their steamers.

The Confederate vessels at once sent boats to bring off the troops, and as they neared the shore the soldiers rushed wildly into the water, having lost all idea of order or discipline in their great eagerness to escape.

Two of the boats loaded with men were [50] struck by shells and sent to the bottom, several officers were killed, and the shore for a distance of four miles was strewn with killed or wounded.

The Confederate steamers fired several times across the island at the Monticello, but their projectiles fell short and they soon desisted. Lieutenant Braine continued his attack until 5:25 P. M., when, as he was running short of ammunition and the enemy were completely scattered and disorganized, he decided to withdraw.

Destruction of the privateer schooner Judah.

There is always an excitement in a cutting-out expedition that does not exist in any

Destruction of Fort Ocracoke, on beacon Island, by a party from the U. S. S. Pawnee.

other service during war, and many events of that kind which happened in the American and British navies hold a larger place in the memory of old sailors than some more important achievements.

One of these cutting-out expeditions took place in the harbor of Pensacola, and is worthy to be chronicled in history, for from all accounts it was a gallant affair, and most creditable to those who commanded and executed it.

There is no act in naval science requiring more skill, courage, dash and judgment than the cutting out of an armed vessel in an open roadstead. or under the guns of a ship or fort. Some of these have been at times connected with scenes of terrible slaughter; others, by taking advantage of favorable circumstances, have been successful without any serious loss to the boarding party; but under whatever circumstances it may be undertaken, a “cutting-out” party is always attended with the greatest peril.

When Fort Pickens was fully manned and all the guns mounted necessary to give it a superiority over the batteries of General Bragg on the navy yard side, it was supposed that Pensacola was hermetically sealed, not only against the entrance of blockade runners, but that Pickens would prevent the exit of any hostile vessel intended to prey upon American commerce.

But this was not the case-notwithstanding that the guns of Fort Pickens commanded all the works under General Bragg, and could have knocked them to pieces in the course of a few hours. The Confederates did not seem to attach much importance to the Union fort or its auxilliary works, and it was reported to Commodore Mervin, the commander of the naval forces off Pensacola, that the schooner Judah was fitting out at the Pensacola Navy Yard as a privateer to prey upon our commerce. This vessel had been seen from day to day lying in a small basin formed by the Navy Yard on one side, and a dock on the other. She could be seen from the fort and her daily progress noted, as her rigging was being fitted and other preparations being made towards sending her to sea — but not a protest was made by the guns of Fort Pickens against this cool proceeeding of fitting [51] out a privateer right in the sight of the fort, and in reach of its shot and shell.

This vessel had been watched for some time by the officers of the squadron lying four miles outside, and Commodore Mervin determined to make an effort to destroy her, knowing the damage she would commit if once permitted to get out to sea.

The schooner was secured in such a position that it was very difficult for an attacking party to get at her without great exposure to themselves. The Confederates concluded that they had made her so safe that no naval force would undertake to cut her out, and General Bragg evidently attached little importance to the guns of Fort Pickens--a 10-inch Columbiad and a 12-pound fieldpiece, were mounted so as to command the schooner's deck and also the wharf, to which she was secured by chains — and it was reported that there were a thousand soldiers stationed in and about the yard ready to repel any number of boats that might attempt to approach the wharves. To attack the schooner under such circumstances was a perilous undertaking, but Commodore Mervin considered the destruction of this privateer of so much importance as to warrant the risk of a failure and the loss of men.

On the night of the 13th September a boat expedition was fitted out from the frigate Colorado, consisting of the following boats: first launch, Lieut. J. H. Russell, commanding the expedition, 39 men; first cutter, Lieut. J. G. Sproston, 18 men second cutter, F. B. Blake, 26 men; third cutter, Midshipman J. Steece, 17 men; in all the expedition there were 100 officers, sailors and marines.

The plan was for Lieut. Sproston and Midshipman Steece to land with their boats' crews and (if possible) spike the two guns mounted in the yard, while at the same time Lieuts. Russell and Blake were to attack and carry the schooner.

The attack was made on the morning of the 14th September, 1861, at 3 o'clock A. M. The schooner was found moored to the wharf, one pivot gun and two in broadside mounted, with all her crew on board ready to repel boarders.

The boats were discovered and hailed. When about one hundred yards from the wharf the sentry gave the alarm by firing his gun, and immediately after followed a volley from the schooner's deck. The sailors sprang to their oars, and in less time than one could think Lieuts. Sproston and Steece from their respective boats sprung upon the wharf, followed by their men, and made a rush to find the guns — the other boats boarding the schooner. Only one man was found guarding the guns, and he was shot down by gunner Bireton as he was in the act of firing on Lieut. Sproston, both weapons going off at the same time. In the darkness the party became separated, and Lieut. Sproston and the gunner succeeded in finding the guns, which they immediately spiked.

Then came the contest for the schooner, which was a severe one while it lasted. In addition to the crew on deck some of the Confederates had gotten into the fore-top, from whence they poured a destructive fire upon the boats, while a hand-to-hand fight took place on the deck; but the sailors soon drove the crew of the schooner to the wharf, where they rallied, and being joined by the guard on shore (which had marched to the rescue) they kept up a continuous fire on the boarding party.

While this fight was going on, parties of the expedition were engaged in setting fire to the schooner, as it was found to be impossible to move her. An effectual fire was kindled in the cabin by Assistant-Engineer White and a coal-heaver named Patrick Driscoll. The Judah was soon in flames, and as there was no prospect of doing anything more, the boarding party shoved off.

By this time a large force of the enemy began to collect in the Navy Yard. and opened fire on the boats, but the officers and men, nothing daunted, returned the fire on the disorganized crowd with two howitzers loaded with grape and canister, firing six rounds before they were out of range of the enemy's sharpshooters. All this time the schooner was burning rapidly, with a great blaze, by the light of which the sailors could see where the enemy had posted themselves on shore, and they were soon scattered. The schooner blazed up so rapidly that she soon broke from her moorings and, having burnt to the water's edge, floated off and sank opposite to Fort Barrancas. The boats remained near the place until it was certain that the Judah would never be of any more service to the Confederates, and then returned to the Colorado which they reached at daylight. Here they were welcomed with that heartiness which belongs to the sailors,who were on the alert to greet their chums and look after wounded messmates.

To show the dangerous character of this expedition and the severity of the encounter, nearly one fifth of the boarding party were either killed or wounded; but the regrets that were felt for the loss of the gallant fellows who fell were somewhat compensated for (in the minds of the sailors) by the fact that their comrades had met the death of brave men fighting for the country they loved better than their lives.

This was without doubt the most gallant cutting-out affair that occurred during the war. The boarding party had not only the [52] crew of the schooner to contend with, but there was a force of over a thousand troops stationed a short distance off, that could be called upon at a moment's notice to drive away intruders. There was every prospect of a failure when the party started out, and no certainty whatever of success. It was one of those cases where men carried their lives in their hands, and no one there had a right to hope that he would return scatheless from such a daring adventure. The young officers who went out on this expedition have since that time been engaged in some momentous battles, but in none of them did they run such risks or require more nerve than on the night of the 13th of September, 1861, when they boarded and set fire to the schooner Judah and sent her, in flames, drifting down the harbor, as a proof of what American officers and seamen were willing to undertake to put down rebellion and uphold the majesty of the law. Those officers and men may think that their brave act has been forgotten amid the grander events that dazzled the imagination; but its completeness has given it a place in history it should never lose, and in after years when millions yet unborn realize what they owe to the Navy for the work performed during an intestine war to save this galaxy of States from disruption,the burning of the Judah, with all its attendant gallantry, will be read with as much avidity as any action of the kind that took place during the war..

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