150 Years Ago: A bad morning for the USS Mercedita

January 31 began early for the crew of the USS Mercedita 150 years ago today. Later that day, Captain Henry S. Stellwagen, her commander, would draft his official report:

At 3 a.m. we had slipped cable and overhauled a troop steamer running for the channel by mistake. At 4 I laid down. Lieutenant-Commander Abbot was on deck, giving orders to Acting master Dwyer about recovering the anchor, when they saw a smoke and faint appearance of a vessel close at hand. I heard them exclaim, “She has black smoke. Watch, man the guns, spring the rattle, call all hands to quarters!” Mr. Dwyer came to the cabin door, telling me a steamboat was close aboard. I was then in the act of getting my pea-jacket, and slipped it on as I followed him out; jumped to poop ladder, saw smoke and a low boat, apparently a tug, although I thought it might be a little propeller for the squadron. I sang out, “Train your guns right on him and be ready to fire as soon as I order.” I hailed, “Steamer ahoy! Stand clear of us and heave to! What steamer is that?” Then ordered my men “Fire on him;” told him, “You will be into us! What steamer is that?” His answer to first or second hail was “Halloo!” the other replies were indistinct, either by intention or from being spoken inside his mail armor, until the act of striking us with his prow, when he said, “This is Confederate steam ram —–.” I repeated the order to “Fire,fire!” but no gun could be trained on him, as he approached on the quarter. Struck us just abaft of our aftermost 32-pounder gun and fired a heavy rifled through us, diagnoally penetrating the starbord side, through our Normandy condenser, the steam drum of port boiler, and exploding against port side of ship, blowing a hole in its exit some 4 or 5 feet square. The vessel was instantly filled and enveloped with steam. Reports were brought to me, “Shot through the boilers,” “Fires put out by steam and water,” “Gunner and one man killed,” “Number of men fatally scalded,” “Water over fire-room floor,” “Vessel sinking fast. The ram has cut us through at and below water line on one side and the shell has burst on the other about at the water’s edge.”

In the span of less than 12 hours, two Federal warships had been surprised by the Confederates in the waters around Charleston. Like the USS Isaac Smith the afternoon prior, the commander of the Mercedita faced a dire situation. And like Acting Lieutenant Francis S. Conover the day before, Stellwagen had to strike his colors and accept the mercy of his attacker. So hectic were preparations that the Mercedita‘s crew failed to place the plugs in the ship’s boats when lowering them to the water.

Stellwagen’s opposite number was Flag Officer Duncan N. Ingraham on board the CSS Palmetto State – one of Charleston’s two ironclad rams. Ingraham granted the Mercedita‘s crew parole. But the interaction delayed the Palmetto State as her sister ship, the CSS Chicora, engaged other blockaders.

USS Mercedita

If none of my fellow Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial blog writers pick up the story from there, I’ll continue with cross-post this evening.

(Stellwagen’s report is from ORN, Series I, Volume 13, page 579.)

150 Years Ago: Capture of the USS Isaac Smith

I’m running a bit behind again on today’s post.  Furthermore, this is another “over there” post.

One hundred and fifty years ago this afternoon, Confederates ambushed and captured the Federal gunboat USS Isaac Smith.  In observance of that event, today’s post is a cross posting over at the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial blog.

Yes, I do have a special fondness for the Civil War activity in those low country marshes.

Artist's impression of the capture of USS Isaa...
Artist’s impression of the capture of USS Isaac Smith in the Stono River, South Carolina, 1863. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

New Hunley discovery may alter interpretation

I’ve been posting much about the low country of late.  So this news item fits in line.  From the Charleston Post and Courier:

Hunley legend altered by new discovery

For nearly 150 years, the story of the Hunley’s attack on the USS Housatonic has been Civil War legend.

And it has been wrong.

Scientists have discovered a piece of the Confederate submarine’s torpedo still attached to its spar, debunking eyewitness accounts that the Hunley was nearly 100 feet away from the explosion that sent a Union blockade ship to the bottom of the sea off Charleston in 1864.

Instead, the Hunley and its eight-man crew were less than 20 feet from the blast. And that changes everything about the story — and possibly even provides a clue as to why it sank.

“I would say this is the single-most important piece of evidence we have found from the attack,” said Maria Jacobsen, senior archaeologist on the Hunley project.

Basically, Hunley conservators found a piece of the torpedo’s copper shell, peeled back from the blast, when they removed a century of hardened sand and shell from the submarine’s 20-foot spar. The torpedo was bolted to the spar, contradicting the conventional wisdom that the torpedo was planted in the side of the Housatonic with a barb like a fishing hook, slipped off the spar and then detonated by rope trigger when the sub was a safe distance away.

Instead, the Feb. 17, 1864, attack off Charleston was a dangerous, close-quarters assault that risked the sub and crew.

“This changes some things,” said Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, longtime chairman of the state Hunley Commission. “They were much closer to the explosion than we believed, but I don’t believe this was a suicide mission.”

Read full article here.  And take a look at the photo gallery here.

By my count this is the third “interpretation” of how the designers of the Hunley fixed the torpedo for the final mission (and I’m sure there are other interpretations I’ve missed).  Prior to the submarine’s recovery in 2000, the most often depicted arrangement was some form of contact device centered on a spar projecting from the top deck of the vessel.  The replica outside the Charleston Museum has just such a setup.

Charleston 4 May 10 097
Replica of H.L. Hunley

Such positioning would require the submarine to be well submerged in order to contact it’s target below the waterline.  And of course it would place the submarine in close proximity to the resultant explosion.  But this was based on contemporary sketches of the submarine.

Later interpretations had some sort of barb on the torpedo to fix the explosive to the target.  That interpretation held that a release line played and triggered the explosion when the submarine had backed off sufficiently.

Depiction on the Friends of the Hunley Site

This interpretation has the spar fixed to the bottom of the vessel and is backed up with documentary evidence.  Andy has a more detailed discussion on this setup posted.   The documents also indicate the torpedo had three fuses, in order to ensure the detonation.

With this latest discovery, the interpretation leans towards the torpedo arranged to explode under the target ship – the USS Housatonic.  If so, that’s actually more dramatic than my mundane description allows.  From a technical perspective, this means the Confederates had already determined the optimum position to detonate a torpedo in order to sink a ship – directly beneath it.  However, not until after World War II would technical advances produce a weapon to achieve such effects with consistency.

One thing for sure, what we know of the Hunley will continue to evolve as the artifacts reveal their portion of the story.