Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"What ship is that?" CSS Alabama Strikes, Sinks USS Hatteras

CSS Alabama continued her cruise west across the Gulf of Mexico, reaching its western edge by mid January 1863.  Captain Raphael Semmes received reports that Galveston, Texas was taken by Union forces (see "War on the Periphery.") Even though his information was several weeks out of date, he decided that he would liberate the Texas port from Yankee control. In doing so, he changed Alabama's modus operandi from commerce raiding to direct combat.  It is not clear why he decided to take such an aggressive and risky action, as Semmes did not give a detail explanation in his autobiography or official reports. He was unaware that local Texas forces already succeeded in reopening the port by chasing off local blockading forces.  He also did not know that Farragut quickly reestablished the blockade with a squadron of ships headed up by the mighty sloop-of-war USS Brooklyn.  As Alabama approached Galveston, watches spotted several warships on blockading stations. While he pondered whether to attack or not, Semmes got lucky.  The U.S. Navy sent a ship towards him.

On the Union side, watches spotted an unknown vessel several miles to the south at 3:30 in the afternoon.  Thinking it to be another blockade runner,  Commodore Bell dispatched the paddle steamer USS Hatteras under the command of Lieutenant Commander Homer C. Blake to investigate.  It was 7:00 in the evening when Hatteras reached the unknown vessel.  As was standard protocol when two ships approached each other, Blake call out "What ship is that?"

Upon hearing the reply "Her Majesty's Ship Vixen" (some heard  the name "Petrel"), Bell put a small boat in the water with a boarding party to investigate.  As soon as the small boat hit the water, one of Alabama's officers announced "We are the Confederate steamer Alabama!" and opened fire on Hatteras.  With two heavy guns, Alabama outgunned Hatteras' meager battery of 32-pounders. With the element of surprise, action was short and decisive. 

One of Alabama's guns put shots into Hatteras' hull, which caused the gunboat to take on water and sink.  Bell put up the white flag and ordered all hands to abandon ship.  Causalities from the battle were light. Two of Hatteras' firemen, both recent Irish immigrants, died when one of Alabama's shots hit the engine room.  The rest of Hatteras' company was saved by Alabama except for the sailors in the small boat that deployed right before the battle.  Seeing Hatteras defeated, those men quietly drifted away from Alabama, before rowing back to the Galveston blockade.  Brooklyn later picked up the wayward boarding team and saw the remains of Hatteras sink.  Thus, in the course of one month, the U.S. Navy lost three ships (Hatteras, Harriet Lane, and Westover) off the coast of Galveston to Confederate forces. Meanwhile, Alabama slipped away and headed towards Jamaica.

sonar of Hatteras
A three dimensional sonar image of the remains of
USS Hatteras (NOAA picture)
The Hatteras wreck site is currently under Federal protection and has been the subject of groundbreaking court decisions.  In Hatteras Inc. v. USS Hatteras, Federal courts ruled that salvages can not claim U.S. Navy, Confederate States Navy, or any other government ship in American waters, simply on the fact that government authorities have not made an attempt to salvage the ship.  The opinion has led Congress to pass several laws, namely the Sunken Military Craft Act, to protect government-owned ship wrecks in American waters.

NOAA has since surveyed the wreck site with three dimensional sonar, released several images of the wreck site:

1 comment:

  1. Where can a crew list of survivors be found. I believe a great great uncle, Charles Parsons was on the ship when it sank and he was imprisoned subsequently.

    Ken Shelin