“The insufficiency of the present force.”: Loss of the USS Water Witch and impact on the blockade

A 150th anniversary which I should have noted here last week is the capture of the USS Water Witch in Ossabaw Sound, Georgia.  The incident itself was but a small matter in the scope of the larger battles occurring at the same time.  But the capture of this gunboat had important effects which played out that summer.  However, I’ve been somewhat reluctant to post about this important chapter, as there is a rather controversial story attached.  I’ll explain more below, leave the details of the operation for a later date,  and give the impact of this incident proper elevation.

The Water Witch was a side-wheel gunboat of pre-war construction, boasting a 30-pdr Parrott, a 12-pdr rifle, and a couple of boat howitzers.  Her light draft allowed operation in the shallow coastal waters where the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron had to patrol against blockade runners.  In the spring of 1864, her assignment was Ossabaw Sound, southeast of Savannah, Georgia (bottom center).

SavannahDefensesColor2a

The Water Witch‘s station, was to say the least, isolated. Lieutenant-Commander Austin Pendergrast, commanding the Water Witch, feared this position invited Confederate attack.  And as occurred at other intervals during the war, the Confederates accepted this invite.  On the last day of May, Commodore William Hunter, commanding the Savannah Squadron, authorized an expedition under Lieutenant Thomas Pelot, with the objective to capture the Water Witch. Following capture, Pelot hoped to approach other blockaders, who being familiar with the ship’s outline, would allow him to close and perhaps capture more Federal gunboats.

WaterWitch2

After staging his men and waiting for the Water Witch to arrive at the opportune location, Pelot set out on the night of June 1-2 with his expedition. Using the cover of a rainy night, Pelot’s boats reached the Water Witch unobserved until the last moment.  The Confederate sailors rushed the gunboat and, although alarmed Federals did resist the boarders, were soon in control of the vessel.  In the melee were three important casualties – Pelot himself killed by a pistol shot; Second in command Lieutenant Joseph Price badly wounded; and contracted pilot Moses Dallas also killed by a pistol shot.  Short on leaders and no pilot to get the Water Witch to sea.  At that point, the ranking officer Midshipman Hubbard T. Minor opted to retreat the Water Witch to the safety of the Confederate batteries on the Vernon River.  Making her way up, the Water Witch grounded and required assistance.  With some effort, the Confederates were able to secure their prize.  But the grand objective of breaking the blockade again eluded… or did it?

Several threads to follow from this story.  Some of which I don’t have space to adequately discuss is this single post.  First, and the more controversial of which, is the pilot Moses Dallas.  Dallas was a slave, working somewhat independently of his owner.  Because he was involved and killed, some have offered his story as a “Black Confederate.”  Unfortunately, those claims are long on talk and short on facts.  I don’t think anyone has completely painted the picture of Moses Dallas.  A good discussion of Dallas and the capture of the Water Witch is posted on Maurice Melton’s Savannah Squadron website.  (And Melton has a short video on Vimeo.) Please look at the postscript at the bottom of the page where this story takes on a “stranger than fiction” angle.  I have my own opinion as to Dallas, but will keep that in the haversack for now.

The more important aspect of this incident, in the scope of the broad war effort, was the Federal reaction to the capture.  This was another embarrassing incident for Rear-Admiral John Dahglren.  Immediately, Dahlgren ordered efforts to find and recapture… or sink… the Water Witch.  But that came to naught as the Confederates had her secured up the Vernon River.  Explaining the loss to the Navy Department, on June 6, Dahlgren wrote:

It is to be apprehended that long and undisturbed possession has relaxed the vigilance of our blockaders, and that, in some instances, precautions have been omitted because they seemed needless in places where, as far as the eye can reach, not a living soul is to be seen for months that looks like an enemy.

Though Dahlgren went on to point out the standing instructions to his captains in regard to securing the vessels.  But crying over spilled milk was to no avail.  The problem remained – Dahlgren was down one more blockader.  When first reporting the loss (in a message sent on June 4) he wrote “I beg leave to call attention to the insufficiency of the present force, particularly if the rebels are active, which I think may be now reasonably looked for.” That tone continued as he elaborated further on June 6:

It is not to be disguised, however, that the force under my command is becoming inadequate to the duties of this station.

It is now so much reduced by the absence of vessels that are disabled and under repair, by losses and by the reduction in numbers of men whose times have expired, that it is difficult to sustain the blockade efficiently, and, in some cases, with safety.

Dahlgren did not mention at the time, but among the items captured on the Water Witch was the ship’s signal book.  Given that intelligence, Federal ships from Cape Henry to the Rio Grande were compromised.  Compounding this problem, for reasons more administrative in nature, the South Atlantic Squadron was also running short of fuel coal.

Days later, the inefficiencies of the blockade came into full view.  A blockade runner cleared Charleston unmolested.   “She went quite near to the outside picket boat,” Dahlgren reported, “so that the proper signal was made in time, but the outside blockade was too weak to head her off in the obscurity of the night.”  With that report, Dahlgren again took the time to enumerate, in detail, the state of his squadron.  He simply hadn’t enough hulls to keep the blockade tight.  Furthermore, he continued to fear for the safety of the vessels he had on hand.  Orders repeated to his captains – from the monitors down to the smaller gunboats – required the ships to maintain extra vigilance.  And to reduce the chance of another capture, Dahglren pulled the blockaders out of the most advanced positions, posting instead to stations outside the sounds.

The blockade of Georgia and South Carolina eased up considerably.  From October 1863 until the end of May 1864, only three blockade runners successful cleared Charleston.  Then in June and July, five cleared the South Carolina coast (including one from the Santee River).  Three more would follow in August and five more in September.  As for runners entering Charleston, only three had made port successfully after the fall of Battery Wagner, up to June 1864.  Then thirteen slipped in to port between June 8 and the end of September. The effort to keep pressure on the Confederacy suffered a setback on the blockade.  And the capture of the Water Witch was in part – and no small part I would add – responsible for that.

Closing on the Water Witch for now, let me mention the Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Georgia has on display a full scale replica of the ship.  The Museum has also posted several short video clips produced by the University of Georgia:

And… the real Water WitchWell she is still at Savannah, on the Vernon River and is the subject of ongoing efforts to stabilize and preserve the wreck.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 469, 471-2 and 519.)

3 thoughts on ““The insufficiency of the present force.”: Loss of the USS Water Witch and impact on the blockade

Comments are closed.