150 years ago: A privateer meets an untimely end on the Ogeechee

The steamer Nashville came to a fiery end on this day in 1863.

The ship began her career as the US Mail Steamer Nashville doing service between New York and Charleston. In that capacity on April 11, 1861 she entered Charleston harbor (having been fired on by the USRC Harriet Lane in the process). After the firing on Fort Sumter, Confederates seized the Nashville, turning her into an cruiser. The CSS Nashville was the first warship to fly the Confederate flag in Europe, making a run to England. On return, she was sold for service as a blockade runner, and a turn under the name Thomas L. Wragg. But she ran too deep in the water for that role. So she began a refit for service as a privateer, and received a new name – the Rattlesnake. By early 1863, the Rattlesnake sat upstream of Fort McAllister on the Ogeechee River.

Regardless of the outfit, her Federal opponents knew her as the Nashville. And they considered her a great threat that must be be neutralized if not destroyed. On the morning of February 28, 1863, Commander John Worden took the ironclad USS Montauk into familiar waters near Fort McAllister, followed by a few wooden the USS Seneca, USS Wissahickon, and USS Dawn – all veterans of the earlier bombardments of the fort.

By moving up close to the obstructions in the river I was enabled, although under a heavy fire from the battery, to approach the Nashville, still aground, within the distance of 1,200 yards. A few well directed shells determined the range, and soon [we] succeeded in striking her with XI-inch and XV-inch shells. The other gunboats maintained a fire from an enfilading position upon the battery, and the Nashville at long range. I soon had the satisfaction of observing that the Nashville had caught fire from the shells exploding in her several places, and in less than twenty minutes she was caught in flames forward, aft, and amidships. At 9:20 a.m. a large pivot gun mounted abaft her foremast exploded from the heat; at 9:40 her smoke chimney went by the board, and at 9:55 her magazine exploded with terrific violence, shattering her in smoking ruins. Nothing remains of her.

However Worden was incorrect. Something did remain of the Nashville. And those remains are on display at Fort McAllister today.

Ft McAllister 5 May 10 011
Salvaged parts of the CSS Nashville

The Montauk almost came to ruin herself. While backing down from the obstructions, she encountered a Confederate torpedoe. At 9:35 a violent explosion under the Montauk prompted the evacuation of the starboard side of the engine room. Damage included bent ribs, sheared rivets, and buckled plates under a boiler.

Engineer’s Diagram of the Damage

Despite fears, the boilers did not burst. Although taking in water, the crew managed to pump out enough to get the boilers re-fired. That afternoon the Montauk made safe anchorage in the sound.

While the Federals were able to repair the Montauk, the Nashville, or Rattlesnake if you prefer, was but an obstruction in the river.

(Citation from Naval OR, Series I, Volume 13, pages 697-8.)


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