Sunday, June 22, 2014

An Unusual Civil War Cemetery

Grave site of CSN Seaman James King. Naval History and Heritage Command.

This past Thursday, June 19, was the 150th anniversary of the engagement of the USS Kearsarge and CSS Alabama, probably the second most famous ship-to-ship fight of the Civil War after the Monitor and Virginia. This leads to the CW Navy trivia question of the week; what is the only official Civil War historical site outside of the U.S.? The answer is, the City of Cherbourg, France. In a cemetery on a hillside overlooking the French port city lie the graves of three seamen, two Confederate and one Union. The Confederate seamen are George Appleby and James King, killed on the Alabama during the engagement. The Union sailor is William Gowen, who was rescued adrift in the waters of the English Channel. He was brought to shore and died eight days later, of wounds he received while serving on the Kearsarge in the combat. In September 2004, the Civil War Preservation Trust designated Cherbourg and its cemetery an official site of the American Civil War. This is the only such site outside of the U.S.

Deck scene on USS Kearsarge after the engagement with CSS Alabama. Naval History and Heritage Command.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Confederate capture of the USS Water Witch on the Georgia coast

USS Water Witch. Library of Congress archives.

The USS Water Witch was a sidewheel steam gunboat (150’ in length; 378 tons). Commissioned into the U.S. Navy in 1851, she spent her early years conducting surveys in South America. When the Civil War broke out, she was initially assigned to blockading service with the Gulf Blockading Squadron, but eventually was transferred to the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. She spent some time in the Florida theatre, participating in forays up the St. Johns River, and then served on the blockade of the Georgia coast.

In May 1864, Flag Officer William Hunter, commander of the C.S. Navy Savannah River Squadron, issued orders to First Lt. Thomas Pelot to assemble a raiding force to capture a Union gunboat stationed at the mouth of the Little Ogeechee River. On 31 May, Pelot set out with a force of 117 men and 14 officers recruited from various ships in the squadron. When they arrived at Beaulieu Battery late that evening, they found that the Water Witch, their target, had weighed anchor to take up station in St. Catherine’s Sound, to the south. Pelot did not let this dissuade him. He sent out scouts to scan the coast for the enemy gunboat, which returned to the station in Ossabaw Sound off the Little Ogeechee River the morning of 1 June. Having located their target, the CSN raiding party set out late in the evening of 2 June. They were guided by Moses Dallas, a free black pilot who had rendered outstanding service to the Confederate Navy for over two years. His knowledge of the local waters on the southeast Georgia coast was unmatched.

The Water Witch was commanded by Lt. Commander Austin Pendergrast. In one of those all-too-common twists of fate one encounters in war, Pendergrast and Pelot were classmates in the U.S. Naval academy and were shipmates as Midshipmen on the USS Independence. The night of 2 June was foggy and rainy. Pendergrast had set a deck watch to guard against a raid; the officer of the deck that night was Acting Master’s Mate Eugene Parsons. He spotted some of the approaching CSN boats and hailed them. At first the Confederates replied “Contraband,” but after repeated hails Pelot yelled “Rebels, d____ you!” Confederate seamen and officers swarmed onto the deck. Parsons spun the ship’s battle rattle as a warning, but apparently for too short a time to sound the alarm. The officers and crew of the Water Witch were awakened by the sound of gunfire and shouting on deck. The Union gunboat’s officers put up a gallant defense, but oddly, most of the crew cowered below decks, along with the engineering division. Lt. Pelot was killed in the initial rush onto the ship, and command of the CSN raiders then went to Lt. Joseph Price. Their guide, Moses Dallas, was also killed by a pistol shot from Parsons in the initial rush on the Union ship.

The Union men eventually succumbed to wounds and the overwhelming numbers of the CSN raiders, the battle for the ship lasting about 20 minutes. One of the few Union bluejackets who did attempt to help the officers defend the ship was Landsman Jeremiah Sills, an African American seaman who is said to have stationed himself at the doorway to the ship’s arms locker and kept coming out with loaded pistols which he fired at the CSN raiders. The Confederates suffered 6 dead and 17 wounded, the Union 2 dead and 14 wounded. Pendergrast was wounded but survived. He was subsequently court-martialed and found guilty of “culpable inefficiency in the discharge of duty.” The victorious Confederates steamed up the Vernon River with the ship, towards Savannah, hoping to convert her to a C.S. Navy gunboat. They never had the chance to do this and the ship was sunk at her moorings in December 1864 as Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and his men closed in on Savannah.

Today, you can board and tour a full-size replica of the USS/CSS Water Witch at the Port Columbus National Museum of Civil War Naval History in Columbus, Georgia.

USS/CSS Water Witch at the Port Columbus Civil War Naval Museum. Author's photo.