Friday, July 29, 2011

July 28, 1861-An Elephant Squashing a Gnat-USS St. Lawrence v. Privateer Petrel

On July 28, 1861, the two-gun privateer Petrel (ex-USRS William Aiken) deployed out of Charleston, South Carolina on its maiden voyage. Backed by a group of Charleston businessmen, the ship had been purchased from the South Carolina government in a disposal auction.

A few hours into the deployment, Petrel's company spotted what it thought was its first catch. It was a large ship, according to the watches, specifically it looked like a large East Indiaman-type merchant ship. As the two ships closed range, watches on Petrel realized they had made a horrible mistake. The ship was not a merchant, but rather a U.S. Navy frigate.

Petrel's captain turned the ship about and attempted to escape. The company then made a second mistake, they fired at the frigate and put a shot through one of the frigate's sails.  This only succeeded making the frigate angry.  The frigate returned fire several times with her forecastle gun, an 8-inch shell gun. 

The warship was the sail frigate USS St. Lawrence. Displacing 1,726 tons and carrying over fifty guns (vs. Petrel's 86-tons and two guns), the engagement is one of the greatest mismatches in world naval history (possibly only matched by the battleship HMS Dreadnought ramming the submarine U-29 in 1915). At least one shell from St. Lawrence struck Petrel and exploded.  Small boats from St. Lawrence were deployed and rescued thirty-six of the thirty-eight man company (two drowned). 

The victory was over-hyped in Northern press as an example of how easy the war at sea was going to be for Federal forces. The New York Times, for example, ran the headline "The Perils of Privateering." Petrel's company was taken to Philadelphia for adjudication on board USS Flag.

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