By Mike Manning – Chair – Friends of the Boston Harborwalk
In terms of name recognition, USS Housatonic is another lesser known vessel built in the Boston Navy Yard (Charlestown). However, she would become recognized as the victim of a naval warfare innovation late in the American Civil War. Named after the 149-mile-long river that flows through the western regions of Connecticut and Massachusetts, Housatonic was one of four Ossipee-class sloops-of-war ordered by the US Navy in 1861. She was launched on November 20th, 1861 and commissioned on August 29th, 1862. Sloops-of-war displaced nearly 2,000 tons – a weight less than that of ships-of-the-line and frigates. This class of warships was designed and built with three masts (fore, main, and mizzen), square-rigged sails, and a single gun deck.
In addition to a dozen sails – she also had a coal-fired steam engine to provide propulsion when the winds were unfavorable. The gun deck had an array of cannon and howitzers of varying calibers. Housatonic had a complement of nearly 200 officers and enlisted men.
In September 1862, Housatonic was assigned to the South Atlantic Blocking Squadron and steamed to Charleston, South Carolina. After four uneventful months of blockade duty, on January 31st, 1863 her crew was called to action as two Confederate ironclad blockade runners, the CSS Chicaro and CSS Palmetto, sailed toward her in an attempt to break the blockade. The ships had left Charleston in an attempt to salvage a cargo stranded onboard the Princess Royal – a Confederate blockade-runner that had been forced ashore just outside the blockade line. However, Housatonic’s heavy cannon fire forced both Confederate vessels back to the safety of Charleston’s inner harbor.
Her next action came on March 19th, 1863, when Housatonic and Wissahickon chased the 407-ton iron-hulled blockade runner SS Georgiana ashore on Long Island, South Carolina. Her incoming cargo of munitions, medicine, and merchandise was valued at over $1,000,000 at the time. While the crew did escape back to the mainland, the Wissahickon’s commanding officer had the wreck set alight. She burned for several days with intermittent black gunpowder explosions. The loss of cargo was a significant setback to the Confederacy.
A month later, Housatonic tangled with additional Confederate blockade runners. She captured the sloop Neptune as she tried to evade the Union blockade after departing Charleston harbor with a cargo hold full of turpentine and cotton.
In July, she took part in the bombardment of Fort Wagner. For the remainder of 1863, Housatonic remained on blockade duty – but also provided cannon fire for various operations against Confederate forts and earthen redoubts. These defensive positions, armed with heavy ordnance, were scattered throughout Charleston’s harbor and its islands.
At the beginning of 1864, while on blockade duty, she was anchored in Charleston Harbor’s shallow waters. On the evening of February 17th, the officer-on-duty spotted something moving on the surface of the water, approximately 100 yards from the ship. Initially, it was thought to be a plank, but curiously this plank was moving against the receding tide.
The officer immediately called out orders. Within a minute, the anchor chain was slipped, the engine started, and all hands were called to quarters. The captain and other officers fired their pistols at the object – but to no avail. A thunderous explosion rocked Housatonic.
No one knew it at the time, but this was the first-ever successful submarine attack on a surface warship in history. H.L. Hunley, an eight-man human-powered (i.e. hand-cranked) submersible, had lodged a spar torpedo, against the starboard hull of its prey, between the mizzen and main masts. A spar torpedo was a 16-foot long pole (spar) mounted on the bow of Hunley. At the tip of the spar was an explosive charge (torpedo). Once secured against the target’s hull, the torpedo detached from the spar, and the submarine backed away.
Most critically, in this attack, the charge detonated below Housatonic’s waterline. The effect was devastating and she began to sink immediately. Fortunately, because she was anchored in relatively shallow waters, all but five crewmen survived. Many crewmen had climbed into the rigging and clambered up the masts which remained above the surface of the water. However, Housatonic could not be salvaged and was declared a total loss.
The explosion was so intense that the entire crew of Hunley died as a result of the concussive effects of the underwater blast. Just weeks before the attack, the submarine had been commandeered by the Confederate army (not the navy) from its owner, Horace Lawson Hunley, and its designers, James McClintock and Baxter Watson, and pressed into wartime service. The time was so short between confiscation and her first combat mission, that she had not been sufficiently tested or officially commissioned in service to the Confederacy (hence no “CSS” prefix). Hunley’s chosen target was Housatonic as it was the largest Union vessel in Charleston Bay.
The submarine attack was the second significant and transformational naval engagement during the Civil War; the first was the unprecedented battle of the ironclads at Hampton Roads, Virginia in March 1862.
Remarkably, both actions involved warships built in the Boston Navy Yard.
Within a short span of two years, naval warship construction and warfare changed dramatically and permanently. Wooden warships were obsolete, and a new class of warship, the submarine, began its silent service to navies throughout the world.
(Footnote #1: At the battle of Hampton Roads, USS Monitor, the Union’s first ironclad, clashed with CSS Virginia – the Confederacy’s first ironclad. Virginia was the re-incarnation of USS Merrimack – a hybrid-powered (sails and steam) frigate built in 1855 at the Boston Navy Yard (Charlestown). She was scuttled by Union navy personnel to prevent its capture by the Confederacy when they
seized Port Norfolk, Virginia. Confederate engineers raised her up and converted the wooden vessel to an ironclad.)
Images courtesy of Wikipedia