The Newbern expedition. [from our own Correspondent.]
capture of the "under Writer."
Kinston, N. C., Feb. 7.Just where the Trent river joins its waters with the Neuse, situated on a point of land which borders either stream, lies the little town of Newbern, a place of some note in North Carolina. Soon after the fall of Roanoke Island, on the 14th day of February, 1862, it fell into the hands of the Yankees, since which time it has been in their possession and has been the seat of some of their most important military operations. Immediately after occupation extensive fortifications were erected, and the lines extended over some 20 miles of surrounding country. The regiments stationed here have been composed principally of men from Massachusetts and New York, the blackest of Abolitionists, full of schemes and plans for negro emancipation, equalization and education; negro regiments have been organized; companies of disloyal Carolinians put in service against us; the most tyrannical rule established; and both men and officers have been guilty of the greatest outrages and atrocities. For many months they have occupied the town securely, retaining undisturbed possession, scarcely dreaming of the possibility of an attack. In the river some two or three gunboats are generally lying, either anchored off the town or cruising up or down the Neuse or Trent, to the great terror of the inhabitants living near their banks. The largest of these gunboats was the "Underwriter," the capture of which forms the subject of my brief sketch. Undoubtedly a large majority of my readers will remember the account I wrote of Capt. Wood's previous expedition on the Rappahannock, in which he boarded the "Satellite" and "Reliance," and it will be, therefore, unnecessary for me to go over again the details of preparation and departure usual up on such boating parties. Suffice it to say, then, on the morning of Sunday, 31st January, our boats were launched in the Neuse River, and in an hour's time we were pulling down towards the appointed rendezvous some forty miles above Newbern. One by one the boats came in, and at midday we only awaited the arrival of our commander, Capt Wood. About two o'clock his boat rounded the point, and he stepped ashore into the brigandine looking bivouac we had established. Without delay the arms and ammunition were distributed, the boats made ready, everything put ship-shape for the night, and between two and three o'clock we hauled out into the stream. The boats were arranged in two divisions, the first under command of Capt. Wood, the second under Lieut. B. P. Loyall, and the two forming parallel to each other, we pulled rapidly down the stream. The trip was one of some little interest, but it would exceed my limits to give a detailed account of it. The river is wide and deep, the banks low and bordered with gnarled cypress trunks, whose branches hang over the water's edge forming a wall on either side; woodlands unbroken, forest upland giving place only to swampy lowlands with dense undergrowth and debris of fallen logs, huge junipers, and dead trunks, which waved their Titau-like arms against the deep blue of the sky. Winding and curving in many a turn, the river seemed a succession of little lakes; wild ducks rose at our approach, and flew with rapid wing into the forest coverts, and from the oozy banks sprung the startled muskrat and otter into the depths below. Silently the two black lines of boats filed down the stream with muffled oars, issuing no sound but the steady dip as they fell into the wave. Sometimes fallen logs obstructed the way, and the monotony of the hour was varied by a boat aground, with those astern crashing into them, piling one into the other before the line could be stopped. Night came on, and the shores grew dim, dusky shadows fell upon the water, and the red tints of the west faded as the stars appeared from zenith to horizon. Just before dark the boats were hauled alongside each other to receive instructions, and this done, Capt. Wood offered up fervent prayers for success, asking God to judge between us and our enemies, and once more we were winding down the Neuse. The night was very dark, and it was with great difficulty the way could be traced, the only bearings being taken from the faint light of the sky seen through the tree- tops above. About 3 o'clock we came into the open country above Newbern, where the river widened and the shores grew low and marshy. The night was foggy and thick; some rain fell. To get a fair understanding of the plan of attack, I may say briefly that it was intended Gen. Pickett should open upon the Yankee lines early in the morning to divert their attention and drive them back into the town. He had with him two brigades only — Clingman's and Hokes's — while Gen. Barton had been sent up the Trent to fall upon the town simultaneously with those in front. In addition to this, Col. Dearing, with a small force of infantry, a battalion of cavalry, and two pieces of artillery, had been sent across the Neuse to threaten Fort Anderson, and prevent reinforcements from Washington. This was the position of affairs at an early hour this morning. It was hard on to four before we came opposite the town, and so dark and foggy we could see but a short distance beyond our bows. The day before it had been ascertained the Yankee gunboats were in the Neuse, but upon reaching the position formerly occupied, they were no where to be seen. For an hour we cruised around from point to point trying in vain to make their lights, and at last, daylight being close at hand, we were forced to give up the search and return up the river. There were no gunboats in the Neuse. Meantime Gen. Pickett had opened fire upon the Yankee lines, and while we were pulling again up the stream we heard his guns booming through the mist, varied at times with the rattle of musketry. Going some four or five miles up the Neuse, we entered a small creek, and landed upon an island covered with full grass and a few stunted shrubs. We were still in eight of Newbern, but the boats were hauled close in upon the bank and the men completely hidden. The firing on the opposite shore was now at its height, and we could see by the sound of the guns that Gen. Pickett was driving the enemy, and that the fight gradually turned towards the town. Worn out by a sleepless night and the fatigue of pulling fifty miles, the men threw themselves down upon the ground, and were soon fast asleep and I, too, would have slept, but was selected for other duty, an unmount of which will be given hereafter. All day long the land fight was going on; but at length night came, and we prepared to go down again after the steamers. Two launches, under Lieut. Gift, had now joined us, and about eleven o'clock we hauled again into the Neuse and pulled down towards the town. Completely worn out by the fatigue of the day, I had fallen asleep in the boat, and had slept for upwards of two hours, when the hall of "boat shoy!" roused me from clamber, and I knew we were close upon the enemy. "Boat shoy!" again shouted the watch as he sprang the rattle which called the men to quarters. All abreast, shout four bundled yards away, our bents were hearing down upon the steamer, which loomed up largely ahead of us. way," shouted Capt. Wood; "give way, way." repeated Lieut. Loyall, and give way did until the boats nearly sprang out of the The instructions were that one division should board forward, the other astern; but, through mistake, all but two of the boats went forward, Lieut Loyall's alone going aft and Capt. Wood's amidships. I was in the boat with Mr. and could see the Yankees had all in the ways, just aft the wheel-house, and as the came up they greeted us with a volley of musketry, which flashed in our very faces, the balls unpleasantly into the boat or into the beyond. The men gave way strongly, and as soon as the boat struck the side the grapnel was thrown on board the steamer and we were fast alongside. Still the firing continued with great rapidity, and, having no support, we got the heaviest of it, only dividing with Capt. Wood's boat, a first feet from us. Hot and fast goes the firing; the Yankees, having all gotten on deck and armed, were pouring it into us with remarkable rapidity. The flashes came full in our faces, lighting them up with a deathly pallor, while the sulphurous of burning powder pervaded the air. Struck by a splinter the first fire, bringing a profusion of blood from my face and nose, I could scarcely see or comprehend all the rapid movements of our little fleet; but I knew our boat was first at the side, Capt. Wood's close after, then came Lieuts. Hoge, Kerr, Porcher, Gardner, Roby, and Wilkinson, while a short distance away, slackened up to prevent running down the other boats, was Gift with his launches. Our boat once fast, Lieut. Loyall and Mr. Gill, engineer, sprang forward to lead the men on board. At this time the fire was the hottest I have ever seen even in three years experience in war, and I hardly dared hope one- half our number would come out alive Mr. Wood, especially, I looked every moment to see fall. Standing upright in his boat, he gave the orders as coolly as he had done an hour before the enemy were in sight. Finding I had sustained but a slight splinter scratch, I went forward to follow Mr. Loyall, when a marine, shot through the heart, fell heavily upon me and crushed me down over the thwarts. Extricated from this, I found the ship was ours, and Mr Wood, upon the hurricane deck, was endeavoring to stop the fight, as the Yankees had called for quarter. It ceased in a moment, and the prisoners sent aft, and secured, and the wounded gotten where the surgeons could attend to them. Poor Gill was lying in the gangway, shot in four places and mortally wounded, and Midshipman Palmer Saunders, cut down in a hand-to-hand fight, was breathing his last upon the decks. The fight was now ended; the boarders were successful. And here I should say that the Underwriter was moored, head and stern, to the shore, under three of the largest batteries, and hardly a stone's throw from the wharf. The flash of the guns and the report of musketry had aroused the soldiers on shore, and they were now witnesses of the scene, but determined not to be inactive ones; for, regardless of their own prisoners on board, they fired a shell into us, which, striking the upper machinery and exploding on the deck, produced a terrible shock. I was in the cabin at the time, and thinking the vessel had been blown up, rushed on deck like others. Another shell exploding over the deck explained the cause of the commotion, and told us the shore batteries had opened fire. To spare the prisoners and wounded Capt. Wood ordered them to be put into the boats and the ship made ready for firing. But for them the shore shots would have been returned, for Lieut Hoge had opened the magazines, and had stationed the men at the guns. As the steam was down, it was found it would be impossible to take time to get it up under the heavy fire of batteries not one hundred yards away; and so, the wounded and prisoners being put into the boats, the vessel was fired. In five minutes after our boats had left the side the Underwriter was one mass of flame, burning up the dead bodies of the Yankees killed in action; also, three or four dead negroes in the coal bunkers. Writing this four days after the fight, worn down with the fatigue of arduous duty and of sleepless nights, I am entirely unable to do justice to this naval battle, and I trust some other pen more worthy will hand it down among the records of the war. Of course, in the darkness of the night, there were many things which did not meet my eye — many acts of daring, and many deeds of heroism. All fought well. There was no halting, no cowardice; every man stood at his post and did his duty. The conduct of the officers was beyond all praise. Cool and collected in every movement, they executed their posts well. From Commander Wood down to the youngest midshipman, not one faltered. Conspicuous among all was the conduct of the marines, a company of them, under Capt. Wilson, being distributed through the boats.--As we came up to the ship they rose and delivered their fire, taking accurate aim, reloading still under the heavy fire from the Yankees. When on board they obeyed their orders promptly, and, forming on the hurricane deck, not even the explosion of the monster shell among them could break the ranks or turn a man from his post. The steamer was boarded very handsomely. The enemy had sufficient notice to arm themselves, and the boarders had to fight their way upon the decks. Worst of all were the land batteries which turned their guns upon us. In the whole history of naval warfare, cutting a steamer from under land batteries has been considered the most daring and hazardous achievement that could be accomplished. The danger and risk is so great that such attempts have been few. The feat of Lord Dundonald in cutting out the ship at Callao was considered, by all odds, the greatest act attached to his splendid naval reputation, and the readers of Maryatt will remember well his ideas upon the subject. The "Underwriter" lay under three very large forts, close beside a town filled with troops, and tied head and stern to the shore. Seeing the vessel well on fire, we turned once more up the Neuse, and pulled away from the town. A heavy storm came up, the rain poured down in torrents, wetting us to the skin, and half filling the boats with water. As we round a point of woods we take a last look at the burning ship, now completely enveloped in flame, the lurid light flaming in the sky and flashing for miles across the water. Although hidden from our view, we could see by sudden flashes up the sky, and by the dull, heavy, booming sound which come to us upon the night air that the shell room was reached and that the explosion had begun. Turning into the creek, we landed on the shore to care for the wounded. In the evening they were sent up to Swift Creek Village, and from thence to Kinston. Two days after the whole party arrived, except, alas! the four poor fellows left behind. To close, I will say the "Underwriter" was a large side-wheel steamer, formerly a New York ocean tug boat, but was commissioned in September, 1861. She fired the first gun at Roanoke Island; had engines at 800 horse power, the largest the Yankees have taken across Hatteras swash; mounted four guns--two large 8-inch shell guns, one 12 pound rifle, and one 12 pound howitzer.--The steamer was one of the purchases of Morgan, brother-in-law of Secretary Wells, when engaged in his vast speculations; but it must be said she was the best of the lot. She was 186 feet 9 inches in length, 35 feet beam, and about 325 tonnage. Jacob Westerville — a grand rascal — a North Carolinian, was her commander. Taken all in all, the "Underwriter" was one of the most formidable gunboats of the new purchase, and the best in the sounds. In another letter I will finish the affair, as far as I am concerned, and speak of the battle on land, with the deeds of the gallant Pickett, Hoke, and others. Bohemian.