Sea fight on Albemarle Sound, part 2

As a Navy squadron attacks the Confederate ironclad CSS Albemarle on May 5, 1864, the USS Sassacus strikes the ironclad’s stern quarter in an effort to push the warship’s portholes below the surface. Acting Master Charles A. Boutelle of Maine was the navigating officer aboard the Sassacus. (Bangor Public Library)

Commanded by Acting Volunteer Lt. Charles A. French, the side-wheel gunboat USS Miami (742 tons and six guns) weighed anchor at Edenton Bay at 1 p.m. on May 5, 1864 and steamed southeast across North Carolina’s Albemarle Sound toward the Roanoke River estuary. With Miami came the USS Commodore Hull (a 382-ton side-wheel ferry mounting six guns, Acting Master Francis Josselyn), the USS Ceres (a 150-ton steamer with one 30-pounder, Acting Master H.H. Foster), and the Army transport steamer Trumpeter.

Josselyn had spent the morning checking out a suspicious “fishing boat” near Edenton and watching the Roanoke River. In early afternoon he towed the armed launches whose crews would row into the river “to sink torpedoes [mines].”

James Wallace Cooke commanded the ironclad CSS Albemarle.

The four ships neared the buoy at the river’s mouth. At 1:30 p.m., Josselyn’s lookouts saw the ironclad CSS Albemarle (Commander James Wallace Cooke) and two steamers “coming out of the river … distant about 2 miles.”

Sending the Trumpeter to alert Union warships farther east, French steamed “in line slowly down the sound” while keeping a safe distance from the ironclad. His ships approached Bluff Point with the Albemarle not far behind.

With Cooke came the armed steamer CSS Bombshell and the troop transport CSS Cotton Plant. Her crew numbered 37 officers and crew, according to her commanding officer, Lt. Albert Gallatin Hudgins.

Cooke soon saw “six of the enemy’s gunboats … about 10 miles distant,” steaming away east-northeast, and gave chase.

He sailed into a Capt. Melancton Smith III trap. “Senior Officer in the Sounds,” Smith had ordered French to lure Cooke down the sound to meet Smith’s larger sidewheelers, mounting sufficient guns to beat up the ironclad. Cooke had steamed “about 16 miles” when the big warships, “of a much more formidable class, carrying from ten to twelve guns each, made their appearance.”

The deck plan of the CSS Albemarle reveals three portholes forward and three aft. A 100-pound Brooke rifle mounted forward and another one mounted aft could pivot to fire from any of three portholes. (Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies)

Signal flags wigwagged aboard the Union flagship USS Mattabesett { Commander John Carson Febiger) at 3:15 p.m., noted W.H. Mayer Jr. on the USS Sassacus. The ship slid into position behind Febiger, poured on “full speed, went to [general] quarters, and cleared … for battle,” said Acting Master Charles A. Boutelle, a native Mainer.

The USS Wyalusing (1,192 tons and 14 guns, Lt. Cmdr. Walter W. Queen) and USS Whitehead (138 tons and one 100-pounder Parrott rifle, Acting Ensign G.W. Barrett) took the third and fourth positions in line, respectively as, like wolves stampeding cattle, the Albemarle and her escorts approached while “driving the Miami and [the] picket boats before them,” Boutelle noticed.

Captain Melancton Smith III commanded the Navy warships blockading the North Carolina sounds. (National Archives)

The temperature now approaching 95 degrees, Febiger signaled, “Ram is out,” at 3:45 p.m., and the Commodore Hull and Ceres took their positions with the Miami to form the squadron’s second division, steaming on the first division’s port quarter.

Boutelle reported one enemy ship (the Cotton Plant) withdrawing as the Union squadron advanced.

The enemy is retreating,” the Miami signaled at 4:20 p.m. Febiger confirmed the Albemarle and the other steamer headed toward the Albemarle River’s entrance, some 10 miles away. Twenty minutes later the Mattabesett drew even with the ironclad, which “fired two shots.”

One struck wood and hurled splinters that wounded six sailors assigned to the “forward rifle gun,” Febiger noticed. His ship fired its starboard Parrott and Dahlgren guns when 100-150 yards from the Albemarle; the solid shot bounced off the armored casement.

A hellish din erupted inside the ironclad as enemy shot and shell clanged against the iron plates. “The third or fourth shot fired by the enemy” — evidently the Mattabesett — “broke off 20 inches” from the muzzle of the aft Brooke, Cooke reported. Despite the damage, the crew kept working the gun.

Trailing the Mattabesett by some 1,800 feet (“about three cables’ length”), the Sassacus passed down the Albemarle’s port side and when “within 150 yards” fired “our starboard broadside with solid shot and increased [powder] charges,” Boutelle said.

Utilizing the Albemarle for cover, Hudgins had placed the flimsy Bombshell off the ironclad’s starboard side. Now the Mattabesett rounded the Albemarle’s bow and fired at the Bombshell; Febiger claimed the ship’s capture because its flag came down its staff and a white flag went up.

Boutelle begged to differ. Roe ordered the “helm hard aport” as Sassacus cleared the Albemarle’s bow. Curving around the ironclad, the Sassacus neared the Bombshell, then “firing into us with rifled pieces,” Boutelle said. The Sassacus gave “her a broadside” and “hulled her in three places.”

Maine native Charles A. Boutelle was the navigating officer aboard the USS Sassacus during the May 5, 1864 Battle of Albemarle Sound in North Carolina. (Maine State Archives)

Hudgins lowered his colors as the Sassacus passed close to his ship. An officer hailed him and asked if he surrendered. “Yes,” Hudgins replied.

The Union officer ordered the Bombshell to steam behind the Sassacus and anchor. Hudgins “promptly obeyed,” Boutelle noticed.

Hudgins later confirmed that he “surrendered his vessel to the second vessel in the line,” the Sassacus, Roe reported to acting Rear Admiral Stephen P. Lee.

The second division failed to follow the first division, and the Albemarle effectively divided the federal squadron. Noticing the ironclad “swung partly round, presenting her [starboard] broadside to us,” the Sassacus’ commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. Francis Roe, “rang four bells again and started for her full speed,” Boutelle said.

Her gunners firing “solid and chilled-end shots” until the cannons could not bear, the Sassacus built up speed and struck the Albemarle at 5:05 p.m. “square on his side” while steaming “about 10 to 11 knots,” Boutelle said. The impact occurred where the ironclad’s “casemated roof joined the hull” on its “starboard quarter, the Sassacus driving the Albemarle “under till the water flowed clear over his deck.

Maintaining his ship’s speed, Roe hoped to shove the ironclad so deep that sea water would pour through the gun ports. Without visual confirmation, Roe knew the Albemarle’s port side had lifted as the starboard side submerged, exposing the unprotected lower hull to shelling by the three Navy warships off the ironclad’s port side.

He did not foresee James Cooke fighting back.

Sources: Acting Volunteer Lt. Charles A. French, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Vol. 9, p. 753 (additional Volume 9 entries will refer to OR); Cmdr. James W. Cooke, OR, p. 770; Capt. Melancton Smith III, OR, p. 736; Acting Master Charles R. Boutelle, OR, p. 744; Cmdr. John C. Febiger, OR, pp. 747, 750; Lt. Cmdr. Francis A. Roe, OR, p. 743

Next week:Sea fight, part 3

For your reading pleasure, check out part 1 and part 3 of “Sea Fight.”

If you enjoy reading the adventures of Mainers caught up in the Civil War, be sure to like Maine at War on Facebook and get a copy of the new Maine at War Volume 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg, available online at Amazon and all major book retailers, including Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble. —————————————————————————————————————–

Brian Swartz can be reached at He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at