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.
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.)