While ramming the CSS Albemarle on her starboard quarter, the 14-gun side-wheel USS Sassacus rode up on the ironclad skippered by Commander James Wallace Cooke.
At such a close distance, nobody could miss. “The guns were so close together that the burned powder from the ironclad’s gun blackened the bows of the Sassacus,” recalled that ship’s CO, Lt. Cmdr. Francis Roe..
One shell fired from his main deck struck the Albemarle and broke apart, “one portion flying back and landing on our decks,” he said.
Gunfire pounded across North Carolina’s Albemarle Sound in late afternoon on Thursday, May 5, 1864 as the Albemarle battled seven Yankee warships, including the well-armed Sassacus, USS Mattabesett (Cmdr. John Carson Febiger) and USS Wyalusing (Lt. Cmdr. Walter W. Queen). Four smaller warships rounded out Febiger’s squadron, and on a good day, the Albemarle would have blown those lightweight vessels out of the water.
Maintaining forward speed, Roe locked Sassacus with the Albemarle, which slowly swung until its aft gun crew, the muzzle of their Brooke rifle almost touching the Yankee’s bow, fired a 100-pound shell that pounded into the Sassacus “10 feet abaft the stem and 3 feet above the copper on the starboard side,” reported Maine native Charles A. Boutelle, navigating officer aboard the Sassacus.
The shell punched through “the store room, crossed the berth deck,” and exited through the port hull, he noted.
Roe later claimed that a Sassacus gun crew put a shell or two through the Albemarle’s forward gun port. Standing in the Yankee’s fore top, seaman Edward Zacharias hurled grenades into the Albemarle’s open hatch, but apparently missed while throwing a gunpowder cartridge into the ironclad’s smoke-belching smokestack.
Off the ironclad’s port side, the smaller Union warships Ceres, Commodore Hill, and Miami fired their smaller guns, the shot and shell bouncing off the Albemarle’s thick plate armor or whistling overhead to splash among the four warships, including the one-gun Whitehead, off the Confederate’s starboard side.
Surrounded by nipping and gnawing enemies, Cooke looked for targets. At the ironclad’s forward Brooke rifle, the crew targeted Sassacus and “fired from the starboard forward port,” said Boutelle, who may have witnessed the smoke exploding from the Confederate’s porthole.
This shell punched through the Sassacus’ hull “abreast of the foremast,” rippng through two ship’s knees, obliterating the ship’s dispensary, and holing the forward coal bunker before “going clear through” the “starboard boiler,” Boutelle said.
Holing two bulkheads beyond the engine room, the shell struck an oak stanchion, ricocheted 90 degrees, and planted itself in a starboard stateroom.
Psssst! Released from the holed boiler “in terrible volume,” steam scalded everyone “in the fire room,” killed fireman Thomas Johnson, and injured J.M. Hobby, the first assistant engineer, stationed “at the starting bar,” Boutelle said.
Reflecting the best traditions of the United States Navy, Hobby stayed at his post.
Filling the Sassacus and rising above deck level, a steam cloud momentarily hid the ironclad. In case Southern sailors boarded the suddenly crippled Sassacus, forward scrambled every sailor already on deck and overboard went Roe’s signal books.
As the steam thinned, sailors saw the Albemarle steaming past the Sassacus’ starboard wheel, damaged during the battle. Rushing to their cannons, Yankee gunners fired another broadside, and a shell carried away the ironclad’s flagstaff, taking with it the Confederate colors.
The broadside broke the elevating screws on the Sassacus’ two starboard 100-pound Parrott rifles. Its engine “being unmanageable,” the Sassacus slowly pulled away, firing “so long as a gun could be trained” on the Albemarle, and finally anchored “about 2 miles distant,” Boutelle reported.
Gunfire thudded across Roanoke Sound as Queen and the Wyalusing pounded at the Albemarle. Queen’s guns fired repeatedly; suddenly a section “of the forward port plating” flew off the ironclad. Cooke holed the Wyalusing five times, with one shell damaging the starboard wheelhouse, “passing through … the mainmast about 30 feet above deck,” and chipping an “aft howitzer,” Queen noted.
His fast-firing Brookes “caused such a dense smoke” that Cooke could not “ascertain the damage done to the enemy.” The ironclad apparently sank one big Yankee warship “and severely crippled two others.”
His smokestack so “riddled … as to render it useless” and “the tiller giving away,” Cooke ordered sailors to “tear down the bulkheads” and toss them and “all … my bacon, lard, and other combustible matter” into the boilers “to produce steam sufficient” for reaching the Roanoke.
As darkness fell, the Union ships “ceased firing’ at 7:30 p.m., and Febiger signaled them 30 minutes later to take position “line abreast” and sail south to anchor.
At 6:40 p.m. “the steamer Rockland took our hawser” and towed the Sassacus a few miles to anchor at Bluff Point, Boutelle reported. The port anchor rattled overboard at 7:15 p.m. and caught a solid bottom, and the damaged warship swung with the tide.
The Sassacus fired 69 rounds, including solid shot and shells, and suffered 20 casualties, including 14 black-gang members scalded; three firemen were “wounded fatally.” The remaining losses occurred elsewhere, with a few men wounded on deck, according to acting surgeon Edgar Holden.
A post-battle inspection found the Sassacus capable of making perhaps 4 knots on its intact port boiler. The starboard boiler was non-repairable on station, so Charles Boutelle and the Sassacus steamed north oh, so slowly for repairs at Norfolk.
Roe recommended Boutelle for promotion to acting volunteer lieutenant, the highest rank available for volunteer officers. Granted by Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles “in consideration of your gallant conduct” in the Albemarle fight, the promotion soon sent Boutelle to command the USS Nyanza in the West Gulf Squadron.
Sources: Acting Master Charles A. Boutelle, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Vol. 9, pp. 745-746 (additional Volume 9 entries will refer to OR); Lt. Cmdr. Francis A. Roe, OR, pp. 746, 760; Cmdr. James W. Cooke, OR, pp. 770-771; Cmdr. John C. Febiger, OR, pp. 747-748; Lt. Cmdr. Walter W. Queen, OR, pp. 750-751; Acting Surgeon Edgar Holden, OR, pp. 742-743; Gideon Welles, OR, p. 762; Acting Rear Adm. Stephen P. Lee, OR, p. 762
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Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.