Attack on the Ironsides and Sinking of the Housatonic

excerpts from Submarine warfare, offensive and defensive, including a discussion of the offensive torpedo system, its effects upon iron-clad ship systems, and influence upon future naval wars by John S. Barnes

     Every description of vessel in the rebel service was armed with a torpedo, in addition to their regular armaments, with the intention of using them in action; but it soon became known to the Union authorities that torpedo boats were being constructed specially designed to attack our fleets under cover of darkness, and our vessels, warned of the project, were generally prepared to receive them.

     The first attempt to use the torpedo boat was that upon  the "Ironsides," off Charleston, on the night of the 5th of October. 1863. The circumstances of this affair are interesting, in view of the novelty of this application of torpedoes to actual warfare, and may be thus briefly summed up.

     At about 9 o'clock a small object was descried by the sentinels, approaching the ship from seaward; being taken for a boat, it was hailed in the usual manner. A rifle-shot from the now rapidly approaching craft was the only reply, and the officer of the deck fell mortally wounded. At the same instant, a tremendous explosion alongside shook the huge hull of the "Ironsides" to its centre—an immense column of water deluged her decks, and for a moment there was considerable confusion and alarm, during which the torpedo boat drifted out of sight.

     Boats were sent in pursuit, but nothing could be seen of their daring assailant. Two men were, however, discovered floating by the aid of life-preservers—one of them was the Captain of the torpedo boat. He stated that the explosion filled his craft nearly full of water, and, thinking she was sinking, he abandoned her. She had left Charleston that evening soon after dark, and steamed down outside the fleet, when the vessel was turned around and steered directly for the " Ironsides." Four men constituted her crew, and her torpedo contained sixty pounds of powder.

     The subsequent history of this vessel is, that, deserted by all but one of her crew, she drifted for an hour helplessly in the tide without motive power. Her engineer, after being in the water for some time, found himself near her, and succeeded in getting on board, lighting her fires anew, and navigating her safely back to Charleston. Here she remained until the close of the war, occasionally venturing out to attack our fleet.

     Upon the occupation of Charleston she was found there with eight others similarly constructed, and was brought to the Naval Academy, where she is preserved as one of the relics of the war. These vessels were built of boiler iron, and were of the shape known as " cigar shape." They presented but a very small target above the surface, but were usually clumsy and dangerous craft in a seaway. Under full steam they could attain a speed of seven knots per hour.

     The name " David" was given to the first of this form of craft, likening her to the David of Holy Writ, who, with a sling, slew Goliath. This name, like that of the " Monitor," became familiar to our people, and was used as a generic title for all such craft.

     Investigation showed that the injuries to the "Ironsides," although severe, were not sufficient to cause her withdrawal from the service.

     The failure to destroy the "Ironsides" caused a temporary cessation of these attacks, although it made such an impression upon the minds of those exposed to similar attempts that extraordinary precautions were adopted.

     Lookouts were doubled, chain-cables made ready for slipping, and high steam carried at night, so that the ship could move at speed upon the instant. Commanders of vessels on the " inside" blockade were directed to employ their boats at night in rowing guard around their ships. Steam tugs were attached to each squadron in great numbers, and detailed to the duty of guarding the frigates and iron-clads, by steaming slowly around them, in readiness to run down any suspicious-looking object observed in their vicinity. When at all practicable, booms, nets, and other devices were used as additional protections.

     The position of our fleet before Charleston afforded peculiar facilities for this species of attack. A large force of iron-clads and transports were collected within a narrow space inside the outer bar, while a number of wooden ships of war, frigates, sloops, and gunboats maintained the blockade of the northern channels still used by blockade runners.

     Considerable anxiety was felt for the safety of the monitors of this fleet, as they were the particular objects of dread to the enemy, and essential to the preservation of the situation; at the same time they were exceedingly open to attack by torpedo boats, and were, therefore, protected by every device that ingenuity could suggest.

     Notwithstanding all these precautions, and contrary to Admiral Dahlgren's belief, the "Housatonic," a heavily armed steam sloop-of-war, then lying on the outside blockade of Charleston Harbor, was attacked and utterly destroyed by a " David" on the 17th of February, 1864.

     The Captain of the " Housatonic" was severely wounded, and the report of the affair was made by the executive officer, who gives us the principal features in the document hereto annexed:



" OFF CHARLESTON, S. C., February 18, 1864.

     "SIR,—I have the honor to make the following report of the sinking of the United States steamer 'Housatonic' by a rebel torpedo off Charleston, S. C., on the evening of the 17th instant.

     "About 8.45 P. M., the officer of the deck, Acting Master J. K. Crosby, discovered something in the water about one hundred yards from and moving towards the ship. It had the appearance of a plank moving in the water. It came directly toward the ship; the time from when it was first seen till it was close alongside, being about two minutes. During this time the chain was slipped, engine backed, and all hands called to quarters. The torpedo struck the ship forward of the mizzen-mast on the starboard side, in a line with the magazine. Having the after pivot gun pivoted to port, we were unable to bring a gun to bear upon her. About one minute after she was close alongside, the explosion took place, the ship sinking stern first, and heeling to port as she sank. Most of the crew saved themselves by going into the rigging, while a boat was despatched to the ,Canandaigua.' This vessel came gallantly to our assistance, and succeeded in rescuing all but the following officers and men, viz.:

     " Ensign E. C. Hazeltine, Captain's Clerk C. O. Muzzey, Quartermaster John Williams, landsman Thomas Parker, second-class fireman John Walsh.

     "The above officers and men are missing, and are supposed to have been drowned.

     "Captain Pickering was seriously bruised by the explosion, and is at present unable to make a report of the disaster.

          "Very respectfully, your obedient servant,


 " Lieutenant.

"Rear-Admiral JOHN A. DAHLGREN,

" Commanding S. A. B. Squadron."


     Admiral Dahlgren in reporting to the department this, the first successful application of the torpedo boat to purposes of war, thus comments upon its importance and influence as an engine of war:


     "The department will necessarily perceive the consequences likely to result from this event; the whole line of our blockade will be infested with these cheap, convenient, and formidable defences, and we must guard every point.

*   *   *   *   *   * 

     "I have attached more importance to the use of torpedoes than others have done, and believe them to constitute the most formidable of the difficulties in the way to Charleston. Their effect on the 'Ironsides' in October, and now on the 'Housatonic,' sustains me in this idea.

     "The department will perceive, from the printed injunctions issued, that I have been solicitous for some time in regard to these mischievous devices; though it may not be aware of the personal attention which I have also given to the security of the iron-clads. I naturally feel disappointed that the rebels should have been able to achieve a single success, mingled with no little concern, lest, in spite of every precaution, they may occasionally give us trouble. But it will create no dismay nor relax any effort; on the contrary, the usual inquiry will be ordered, though the whole story is no doubt fully known.

     "I desire to suggest to the department the policy of offering a large reward of prize money for the capture or destruction of a "David " —I should say not less than $20,000 or $30,000 for each; they are worth more than that to us.

     "I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,


 " Rear-Admiral, Commanding S. A. B. Squadron.


"Secretary of the Navy, Washington, D. C."


It is important, in order to complete the history of this affair, to add that the "David" which destroyed the "Housatonic," never returned to port, but was supposed to have been submerged by the disturbed water caused by the  explosion, or carried down with her huge antagonist. The following rebel document, captured after the fall of Charleston, explains the rebels' ideas on this point:



"CHARLESTON, S. C., April 29, 1864.

"GENERAL, —In answer to a communication of yours, received through headquarters, relative to Lieutenant Dixon and crew, I beg leave to state that I was not informed as to the service in which Lieutenant Dixon was engaged, or under what orders he was acting. I am informed that he requested Commander Tucker to furnish him some men, which he did. Their names are as follows, viz.: Arnold Becker, C. Simpkins, James A. Wicks, F. Collins, and — Ridgeway, all of the navy, and Captain J. F. Carlson, of Captain Wagoner's company of artillery.

" The United States sloop-of-war was attacked and destroyed on the night of the 17th February. Since that time no information has been received of either the boat or crew. I am of the opinion that, the torpedoes being placed at the bow of the boat, she went into the hole made in the 'Housatonic' by explosion of torpedoes, and did not have power sufficient to back out, consequently sunk with her.

"I have the honor to be, General, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

"M. M. GRAY,

" Captain in charge Torpedoes.

"Major-General DABNEY H. MAURY,

"Mobile, Ala."


Confederate General Maury, in his report of the defences of Mobile, gives the following account of the torpedo boat which sunk the "Housatonic:"


* * * "It was built of boiler iron, about 35 feet long, and was manned by a crew of nine men, eight of whom worked the propeller by hand; the ninth steered the boat and regulated her movements below the surface of the water; she could be submerged at pleasure to any desired depth, or could be propelled on the surface. In smooth, still water she could be exactly controlled, and her speed was about four knots. It was intended that she should approach any vessel lying at anchor, pass under her keel, and drag a floating torpedo which would explode on striking the side or bottom of the ship attacked. She could remain submerged for half an hour without inconvenience to her crew. Soon after her arrival at Charleston, Lieutenant Paine, of the Confederate navy, with eight others, volunteered to attack the Federal fleet with her. While preparing for their expedition, the swell of a passing steamer caused the boat to sink suddenly, and all hands, except Lieutenant Paine, who at the moment was standing in the open hatchway, perished. She was soon raised, and again made ready for service. Lieutenant Paine again volunteered to command her. While lying near Fort Sumter, she capsized, and again sunk in deep water, drowning all hands except her commander and two others. Being again raised and prepared for action, Mr. Aunley, one of her constructors, made an experimental cruise in her in Cooper river. While submerged at great depth, from some unknown cause, she became unmanageable, and remained for many days on the bottom of the river with her crew of nine dead men. A fourth time was the boat raised, and Lieutenant Dixon, of Mobile, of the 21st Volunteers, with eight others, went out of Charleston harbor in her, and attacked and sunk the federal steamer 'Housatonic.' Her mission at last accomplished, she disappeared forever with her crew. Nothing is known of their fate, but it is believed they went down with their enemy."

Barnes, John Sanford (Lieutenant-Commander), Submarine Warfare, Offensive and Defensive, Including a Discussion of the Offensive Torpedo System, Its Effects Upon Iron-Clad Ship Systems, and Influence Upon Future Naval Wars, pp. 125 - 131, New York, D. Van Norstrand, 1869

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