Friday, February 22, 2013

Ironclads on the Georgia Coast - Destruction of the CSS Rattlesnake

Blockade runner CSS Nashville; converted into the commerce raider CSS Rattlesnake

After two attempts by the ironclad monitor gunboat USS Montauk to destroy/defeat the Confederate fortification Ft. McAllister near the mouth of the Ogeechee River, Georgia, Montauk Capt. John Worden and his squadron commander, Adm. DuPont, took stock of what their next move would be. The next move by the Confederates helped with this decision. The evening of 27 February 1863, the former blockade runner/now commerce raider CSS Nashville (re-named CSS Rattlesnake) slipped downriver from her mooring above Ft. McAllister, hoping to evade the USN blockaders in Ossabaw Sound in the dark of night. Her captain evidently felt the time was not right, and he turned around and headed back up the Ogeechee to his protected mooring site. In a great stroke of misfortune, Rattlesnake ran aground on a shallow bar in the river, near the fort. A tug was sent down and desperate attempts were made to free the trapped ship. If “bad luck brings bad luck,” this would be it, because the Union Navy found out about the trapped raider that very night.

The morning of 28 February, Worden headed upriver with the Montauk and three wooden gunboats. The gun crews in Ft. McAllister tried their best to fend off the ironclad, but knew that she was resistant to their shot, and the other gunboats remained out-of-range. Worden opened fire on the trapped Confederate ship, and after only a few well-placed shots it was evident she was doomed. Rattlesnake caught fire, and eventually blew up when the flames reached the powder magazine. The whole affair was over in little more than an hour, and the Admiral now had one less thing to worry about. In his report to DuPont relating the incident, Worden wrote exultantly:

“I beg leave, therefore, to congratulate you, sir, upon this final disposition of a vessel which has so long been in the minds of the public . . .”

The triumphant Montauk backed out and started to head downstream, accompanied by the cheers of her gunboat consorts; then the Confederates got their revenge. Montauk struck one of the torpedoes placed in the river, which blew a gash in the iron hull of the warship. At first it appeared the pumps could keep up with the flooding, but Worden’s engineers soon told him that the ship was taking on water fast. He headed toward a shallow shoal area, fortunately out of range of the fort’s guns, and beached the monitor. The crew effected a temporary repair, and the Montauk was ultimately able to make it out and return to Port Royal for repairs and refitting.

Destruction of the CSS Nashville/Rattlesnake by gunfire from USS Montauk. Ft. McAllister in the center-background. Image sources:  Naval History and Heritage Command.

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