I'm pleased to share below news about the exciting marine archaeological investigation of the wreck of the USS Hatteras, lost in a short - but close and fierce - exchange of fire with the CSS Alabama during the Civil War. The wreck is in the Gulf of Mexico about 20 miles off of Galveston. Also below is a related excerpt from my new book, Galveston and the Civil War.
From the official press release (10 September 2012) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):
A team of archaeologists and technicians assembled by NOAA will begin today to create a three-dimensional sonar map to document the storm-exposed remains of the USS Hatteras, the only Union warship sunk in combat in the Gulf of Mexico during the Civil War.
The Hatteras, an iron-hulled steamship the U.S. Navy converted into a gunboat, was lost in a battle with the famous Confederate commerce raider CSS Alabama on Jan. 11, 1863, about 20 miles off Galveston, Texas. Largely forgotten, the battle was one of the skirmishes that saw the key southern port of Galveston change hands twice and remain one of the last bastions of the Confederacy.
Today, the wreck of the Hatteras is largely intact, resting 57 feet underwater in sand and silt. Recent hurricanes and storms have removed some of the sediment and sand that once encased the vessel like a time capsule. Shifting sands may once again rebury the Hatteras, and so within a short window of opportunity, the team is assembling to capture all the data it can. Working from a NOAA research vessel and two private craft, the divers plan to deploy high-resolution mapping sonar to create 3-D photomosaics of the Hatteras for research, education, and outreach purposes during the two-day mission.
You will find photographs and links to local and national news stories at my good friend Andy Hall's excellent "Dead Confederates blog here and here.
In one of the news stories, my friend an respected author and historian Edward T. Cotham, Jr., explains:
"It’s a very short battle, but it really cast a long shadow in history...The battle is important because it bought the Confederates in Galveston just enough time to fortify the city and hold on to it for the rest of the war. Because Galveston stays in Confederate hands until the end of the war, Galveston becomes the last major port for blockade runners...It really is one of the most famous ship-to-ship battles in the entire Civil War, and most people don’t even know it’s out here."
Indeed! And because it is so important to Galveston's Civil War history, I feature the clash in my new book, Galveston and the Civil War: An Island City in the Maelstrom (The History Press, September 2012).
I'm pleased to offer an excerpt from the book, below, which describes this short but important battle.
On Sunday, January 11, 1863, Private Henry O. Gusley, a marine on the USS Clifton (his previous ship, the USS Westfield, having been lost in the Battle of Galveston on New Year's Day 1863), wrote in his diary that afternoon that “a strange craft hove in sight, and the USS Hatteras went in chase.” He recorded that “heavy firing was heard in the direction the Hatteras had taken” and that the USS Brooklyn and USS Sciota put to sea to investigate. The two ships returned about noon the following day with no news; later in the evening, a small gig approached the fleet carrying six men from the Hatteras with a harrowing tale. (1)
L.H. Partridge, acting master of the Hatteras, described what happened after they gave chase:
As we came in sight she appeared as if endeavoring to escape…After dark we gained rapidly, and when we came near found her lying-to…As we came up Mr. Blake hailed and asked what ship it was. She answered “Her Britannic Majesty's ship Spitfire.” Captain Blake said “I will send a boat on board.” Boat being lowered I was ordered to take charge and board. Before we were one-half boats length away from the side the stranger opened fire. It was returned by the Hatteras and both started ahead under full head of steam, exchanging broadsides as fast as they could load and fire, for about twenty minutes, with big guns, and then with musketry from both vessels. All this time I had been endeavoring to board my vessel again, but could not come up. After musketry ceased, I discovered that the Hatteras was stopped and blowing off steam, with the enemy alongside for the purpose of boarding. Heard the enemy cheering and knew that the Hatteras had been captured, and thought it was no use to give myself up as a prisoner, and rowed back toward the fleet under cover of darkness, in hopes of giving information of the affair.(2)
The ship was not the fictitious Spitfire but the all-too-real and all-too feared Confederate commerce raider CSS Alabama, also known as the 290 (her hull number at the Laird Shipyard in Liverpool, England); it was one of the most storied ships of the war and commanded by the intrepid Raphael Semmes. The Alabama was launched in May 1862, and within months the ship was the terror of the Atlantic as it captured and burned Northern merchant ships. By the end of the war it had burned sixty-five Union vessels before being sunk off Cherbourg, France, in an engagement with the USS Kearsarge. The Alabama was in the gulf in January 1863 to
rendezvous with its supply vessel and—acting on intelligence—to harass Federal ships off of Galveston.(3)
Ironically, Admiral Farragut had presaged just such a conflict, warning that “if the Harriet Lane (captured by the Confederates in the Battle of Galveston) gets out, she will be as bad as the Alabama.” The action between the Alabama and the Hatteras was short—lasting about thirteen minutes—but in the words of Semmes, it was “sharp and exciting” as the two ships exchanged broadsides at distances of twenty-five to one hundred yards; one historian justly declared it “one of the most famous encounters between two ships of the entire war.” Still, Lieutenant Commander H.C. Blake, commanding the Hatteras, acknowledged the “total unfitness” of his converted ferry to fight it out with the “regularly built vessel of war” that was the Alabama; in that thirteen minutes, his vessel “was on fire in two places, and…a hopeless wreck on the water,” and he surrendered the crew.(4)
Admiral Farragut referred to the loss of the Hatteras as “still another disaster off Galveston” in a report to Secretary Welles. Commander Bell consulted with the captains of the remaining ships in his fleet “as to the chances of an attack on Galveston.” While they each had reservations, Bell recorded that “all of them expressed themselves ready to go in.” Bell, however, concluded it would be “injudicious to hazard the vessels without better chance of success” and lamented, “It is with a bitter and lasting pang of grief I give it up…there will be a censure, inconsiderate censure, but I can’t help it.” Farragut received reports that the Confederates had used every day to improve their defenses and conceded to Bell, “I fear the
time has passed for your going into Galveston.”(5)
1. Edward T. Cotham, The Southern Journey of a Civil War Marine. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006, 131–32.
2.Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (ORN), 31 vols. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1899–1908, Ser. 1, Vol. 19, 510.
3. The history of the Alabama is recorded in Raphael Semmes, Memoirs of Service Afloat During the War Between the States (Baltimore: Kelly, Piet & Co., 1869). Semmes recalled that they identified themselves as the HMS Petrel (not Spitfire) and that they identified themselves as the Alabama before firing on the Hatteras (543).
4. ORN, Ser. 1, Vol. 19, 490; Semmes, Memoirs, 544; ORN, Ser. 1, Vol. 2, 20.
5. ORN, Ser. 1, Vol. 19, 506, 738, 544.
More excerpts from Galveston and the Civil War: An Island City in the Maelstrom are coming soon!
Get your copy today from The History Press, amazon, or directly from me!