Naval History, August 2012
On a rainy night on a remote station, the U.S. Navy paid the price for poor training and lack of vigilance when Confederate raiders seized the gunboat Water Witch.
For the officers and men of the Union side-wheel steamerWater Witch , the evening of 2 June 1864 passed quietly. On board the gunboat, nothing about the monotonous night distinguished it from any other of the previous several months. She was moored in familiar waters—Ossabaw Sound, Georgia—where, as usual, she was the lone ship blockading the large ocean inlet 15 miles south of Confederate-held Savannah.
The Water Witch ’s isolation, however, made her an inviting target. And as her crew turned in that drizzly night, nearby Confederate sailors and marines rowed stealthily through the darkness in hopes of carrying out one of the Civil War’s most audacious naval raids.
Launched at the Washington Navy Yard in 1851, the Water Witch shipped 378 tons and measured 150 feet in length and 23 feet at the beam. In early 1853 she sailed on her first mission, exploring and surveying portions of South America’s Atlantic coast, the River Plate region, and the Paraná River. As the ship ascended the Paraná two years later, she was fired on by Paraguayan forces attempting to halt her progress. One cannon shot cut away the ship’s wheel, killing the helmsman.
The incident was not forgotten. In 1858 Congress authorized President James Buchannan to dispatch a large naval force, which included the Water Witch , to strong-arm concessions from Paraguay. Along with issuing an apology and granting a favorable commercial treaty to the United States, the South American country paid an indemnity to the family of the dead helmsman.
When the Civil War broke out, the Water Witch was assigned to the Gulf Blockading Squadron and served as a dispatch vessel and mail packet, as well as an occasional blockader. On 12 October 1861, the gunboat saw sharp action at Head of Passes on the lower Mississippi when she and three other Union warships were routed by a Confederate Navy force led by the ironclad ram Manassas. However, five months later the Water Witch scored a victory when she chased down the Confederate blockade runner William Mallory .
Later in 1862, the steamer joined the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, based at Port Royal, South Carolina. After participating in an expedition up Florida’s St. John’s River, the Water Witch returned to Port Royal. She mainly served as a dispatch vessel until early 1863, when she broke down and was towed north for repairs. In June of the same year she returned to the South Atlantic and was assigned blockade duty, primarily at Ossabaw Sound.
About 11 months later, Flag Officer William W. Hunter, the acerbic commander of the Confederate Savannah River Squadron, decided to pounce. On 31 May 1864 he issued orders to First Lieutenant Thomas Postell Pelot, executive officer of the ironclad floating battery Georgia , to lead a foray “designed to surprise and capture a vessel of the enemy now at anchor at the mouth of the Little Ogeechee River” in Ossabaw Sound. An 1855 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Pelot had captained a privateer early in the war before commanding various Confederate vessels.
Guiding the expedition would be a free black man, Moses Dallas, who had served the Confederate Navy for more than two years and proved himself invaluable to Hunter’s command—no one else seemed to know the waters around Savannah as well as he did. In fact, a year earlier Hunter’s predecessor, Commander William A. Webb, had notified Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory that he was compelled to raise Dallas’ pay from $80 to $100 per month in order to retain his services: “He is a colored pilot and considered the best inland pilot on the coast.”
In accordance with Hunter’s order, the foray’s 117 men and 15 officers were drawn from various Savannah River Squadron crews. The raiders set out from the Georgia , their seven boats towed by the steam tender Firefly , at 1300 on 31 May. Four hours into their backwater journey they arrived at the Isle of Hope battery, where they cast off from the steamer. With Dallas expertly guiding the way and expedition sailors and marines rowing, the boats made their way through the Skidaway Narrows and along twisting waterways to the Vernon River and finally to Confederate Beaulieu Battery, arriving at 2100. But once there, they discovered the Water Witch had weighed anchor; that afternoon she had moved a dozen miles south to St. Catherine’s Sound.
For his part, Pelot did not seem overly troubled by the disappearance of his intended target. Early the next morning, he penned a dispatch to Hunter in which he described his plans to send scouts to scour the surrounding waters for the vessel. Pelot declared that he had “every reason to suppose that I will find some game for to-morrow night.”
That same day, the Water Witch , under the command of Lieutenant Commander Austin Pendergrast, Naval Academy class of 1853, returned to the gray-brown waters of Ossabaw Sound and anchored on the Little Ogeechee River near Raccoon Key. There, she would be well positioned to catch any shallow-draft boats that might try to move goods to Savannah. Earlier in the war, Pendergrast had suffered the ignominy of surrendering the venerable frigate Congress after the CSS Virginia had riddled the grounded ship with shell fire and hot shot. The Congress ’ acting captain had been killed in the battle, and Pendergrast, his second in command, had no choice but to give up the doomed ship.
Although the Water Witch was well positioned for action, there was little to suggest that she would see any. The excursion to St. Catherine’s Sound had been uneventful, and expectations among the crew for this particular stint on the Ossabaw were that little would happen to make it different from any other.
But that morning, scouts sent by Pelot to reconnoiter the nearby waters spotted the gunboat almost immediately. With theWater Witch ’s position fixed, the raiders finalized their plans that afternoon and then waited until 2000 to set out.
Pelot was eager to take the blockader, but he was almost certainly unaware that his would-be prize was commanded by a former close associate and shipmate. Pelot’s and Pendergrast’s years at the Naval Academy had overlapped. Moreover, they had been midshipmen on board the Navy razee Independence during at least part her 1849–52 cruise with the Mediterranean Squadron. Serving on board the same ship at the same rank meant that the two officers had berthed, messed, and worked very closely together. Although specifics of their relationship are unknown, there can be no doubt that the two had known each other quite well.
That evening the raiders divided in seven groups, climbed into their boats, and pushed away from Beaulieu Battery. But locating the Union vessel in the newly dark night proved to be no easy task. Even with Dallas navigating, the Confederates, organized into two columns and with muffled oars, splashed ineffectually across the water, confounded by the tides and currents that washed through the sound. Boats got lost in the darkness, then drifted back into position, sometimes bumping into one another. More important, the raiders could not find their quarry.
It was nearly daybreak on 2 June when Pelot was forced to postpone the mission. Aside from the fact that his men were tired, the coming daylight would rob them of any element of surprise. But before heading back to Beaulieu Battery, he ordered two lookouts ashore at Raccoon Key, where they stood a good chance of spotting the gunboat when morning came.
The preparations for a follow-on foray that evening very nearly mirrored those of the night before. One of the raiders, Amos Sherritt, remembered that “the captain assigned to every man the exact station he must take and what duties each must perform.” The Confederates pushed away from shore at 2100 and set out immediately for Raccoon Key. According to Second Lieutenant Joseph Price, the expedition’s second in command, the scouts they had left there reported that “one of the enemy’s vessels was located in Ossabaw Sound about 3 miles from where we then were.”
Pelot waited. The Union vessel would be easier to seize if her crew was more deeply asleep. The weather, which had turned into a lightning-punctuated murk of drizzle and haze, added to the raiders’ trepidation. It was midnight when the Confederates set out from the key.
Although there were no immediate indications that the Water Witch was at particular risk, earlier that night Pendergrast had ensured that preparations were in place to protect the ship from just the sort of raid Pelot was leading. In fact, he was so confident and diligent that one of the Water Witch ’s former officers later claimed the captain “had often declared that he never would be taken.”
While Pelot and his raiding party approached, nearly everyone on board the Water Witch —the crew numbered about 60 officers and men—was out of the rain, below decks, and asleep. The officer of the deck that night was Acting Master’s Mate Eugene D’W. Parsons. Chief among his responsibilities was to sound the alarm if the ship were attacked.
As the raiders neared the Water Witch , Pelot led his column of four boats toward her port side while Price’s three-boat column approached her starboard. Parsons spotted one or more of the boats and called out, “Who’s there?” The Confederate raiders pulled harder on the oars, but did not reply.
Parsons called out again: “Ship ahoy! Who goes there?”
One of the Confederates shouted back, “Contraband!” implying they were runaway slaves seeking sanctuary on board the Union gunboat.
Still not satisfied, Parsons repeated: “Who’s there?”
But by then Pelot’s launch had reached the ship. Parsons tried to sound the alarm. He spun the ship’s rattle, and the two thick oaken reeds inside sprang against the carved wooden cogs mounted to the handle. But, perhaps due to fear, or maybe because the boats were approaching so swiftly, he whirled it only enough to produce a few fitful clicks.
More launches pulled up against the Water Witch , but Parsons was still unsure who manned them. His shout was no longer a question. “Who’s there!”
Pelot shouted up, “Rebels, damn you!”
With that, Parsons stopped wasting his breath and fired his revolver down into Pelot’s boat. At the same time, grappling hooks trailing ropes arced up from the raiders’ launches. The fight for the Water Witch was on.
Parsons continued firing at Dallas, Pelot, and the rest of the Confederates who clambered up the side of the gunboat. At least one of his shots found its mark—Moses Dallas fell dead.
The gunfire and shouting succeeded where Parson’s alarm failed. Belowdecks, men scrambled out of their berths and grasped in the darkness for firearms and cutlasses as they pulled on shoes, jackets, and trousers. Pendergrast was among them. “On hearing a noise, I sprang up the companion way and enquired of the officer of the deck what was the matter, but received no reply except from the rebels who were shouting the word ‘Rebels! Rebels!’”
Pendergrast shouted orders for the ship to be slipped from her anchor chain and gotten under way. The Water Witch would be more difficult for the raiders to board if she were moving. At the same time he called for all hands to rally topside to repel boarders. Pendergrast then “jumped to my stateroom to get my arms and some clothing.”
Despite the loss of Dallas, the Confederate attack did not waver. More boats pushed up against the ship. “Throwing our grappling hooks in the ship’s netting, we climbed up,” Sherritt remembered. “Using our guns and cutlasses, we cleared our way across the deck, where the fight had become general.”
That struggle quickly erupted into a full-blown melee. Bleary-eyed and only partly clothed and armed—and wholly without a plan—the ship’s officers charged onto the rain-slicked deck. Joseph Price, recounting the Confederate perspective, wrote that it was during this phase of the attack, while coming alongside and cutting through the boarding netting—which stretched from the gunwales up six or seven feet into the rigging—“that most of our loss in killed and wounded was sustained.” Price remembered that “Lieutenant Pelot was the first to gain the deck, and while bravely fighting was shot and instantly killed.”
Pendergrast himself was in the thick of the fighting. It was common to embellish Civil War tales, and this clash was the subject of considerable exaggeration. Some versions put Pendergrast and Pelot in a dramatic sword fight under lightning-ripped skies. The truth was rather less romantic, especially since Pelot had probably been shot dead before Pendergrast even arrived on deck. For his part, the captain never mentioned Pelot in his reports. Without a hint of braggadocio, he wrote: “Upon regaining the deck, while making my way to the hurricane deck, I was struck by a cutlass on the head and rendered insensible.”
The ship’s officers, except for a couple of glaring exceptions, fought courageously. Pendergrast regained consciousness and, covered with blood, made his way to the hurricane deck. There he “rang the bell to go ahead on the engine in hopes of swamping the boats of the enemy.” For unknown reasons the engineers belowdecks responded by providing only a momentary burst of power. Pendergrast did not last much longer: “Soon after ringing the bell, I fell on the deck from loss of blood.”
Assistant Acting Surgeon William H. Pierson, woken by the firing, was about to make his way to his “usual sick quarters between decks forward” when Acting Ensign Chase Hill and Gunner’s Mate John Parker, both wounded, entered the wardroom. Pierson stayed in the compartment, where he treated the badly wounded with lint and bandages. Their numbers rapidly increased as the minutes ticked by.
Meanwhile, the Water Witch ’s officers battled furiously to repel the raiders. From the quarterdeck, they shot up two of Pelot’s boat crews so badly that their launches drifted downstream. Forward, a small group of officers led by Coast Pilot Rufus B. K. Murphy hacked, stabbed, and fired on the Rebels climbing over the railings. But in a short time they were overwhelmed by the greater Confederate numbers and were, in Pendergrast’s words, “soon wounded and rendered unfit for action by loss of blood.”
On the other hand, Parsons, the officer of the deck, fled the fight soon after emptying his revolver at the raiders. Pendergrast reported that he “left the deck and went below without being relieved.” Parson’s actions could hardly have been more pusillanimous.
Likewise, the engineers were frozen with fear; they refused to join the action or even perform their basic duties. Despite Pendergrast’s signal, they did not get the ship under way. He wrote that they “acted in the most cowardly manner. . . . Had they obeyed my orders to work the engine, the enemy would have been unable to board us.”
The fearfulness and timidity of Parsons and the engineers was mirrored by most of the ship’s enlisted sailors. According to Pendergrast, “The men seemed paralyzed with fear, and remained under the hurricane deck without giving the officers the least support, though they were ordered out.” In fact, before he had been knocked fully out of the fight, Pendergrast had tried to rally the lower ranks, but “I found it impossible to discover the whereabouts of all the men, owing to the darkness, and there was but little opportunity for the officers to give many orders, as all were engaged in combat the moment they reached the deck, and continued to fight until struck down.”
Sherritt, on the Confederate side, also noted the timorous nature of the Water Witch ’s enlisted men. He wrote that once on board, “Tom Muller and I took our station at the head of the hatchway just in time to intercept the bluejackets, who were crowding up. Muller barked, ‘Stay down there, or I’ll cut your damn noses off,’ and his order was obeyed.” It was at about this time that Pendergrast received his wound. Sherrit recalled: “King [probably Seaman William King of the ironclad Savannah ] who had taken charge of the cabin, struck Captain Pendergrass [sic] over the head with his cutlass, and would have killed him if his weapon had been sharper.”
Notwithstanding the feeble response of their men, Pendergrast’s officers continued to fight. After charging up out of the companionway, Acting Master Charles W. Buck “fired all six charges from my revolver at those on deck and attempting to board, and [I] believe every shot took deadly effect.”
Buck then tried to train one of the ship’s howitzers on a boatload of Rebels boarding from the port side. He struggled with the gun, but before he could bring it to bear “was struck or pushed down, and lost cutlass and pistol. Recovering I again made the attempt, when I was felled senseless by a heavy blow on the forehead.”
When Pelot was killed, command of the raid passed to Lieutenant Price, who was badly slashed by a cutlass. He later declared that he owed his life to Ordinary Seaman E. D. Davis, who “cut down every opponent when I was sorely pressed by them.” Davis evidently was a stalwart fighter. Indeed, the handpicked nature of the Confederate party was not lost on its opponents. William Pierson noted the “excellent appearance” of the men who made up the Confederate force and guessed correctly that “they were carefully selected for the enterprise.”
Although the Water Witch ’s officers did most of the fighting, not every enlisted man cowered belowdecks. The most notable of these was Jeremiah Sills, a black landsman. Pierson recorded, “The colored boy who was killed, Jeremiah Sills, is said to have to have fought most desperately, and this while men who despised him were cowering near with idle cutlasses in the racks jogging their elbows.”
The notion—alluded to by both Buck and Pendergrast—that the enlisted men were lost without their officers to lead them suggests a certain failure on the part of Pendergrast’s leadership. That the men were not trained well enough to perform at their stations without direct oversight was a dreadful inadequacy.
Ultimately, it cost Pendergrast his command. Despite their brave and vigorous defense, the Water Witch ’s officers soon were reduced to no more than a few scattered men fighting isolated duels against much greater numbers of Confederates. Before the raid was 20 minutes old, it was essentially over.
With the Water Witch’s crew subdued, the raiders set about securing their prize. Their first order of business was tending the wounded and restraining their captives. Acting Master Buck regained consciousness to find his wrists in handcuffs and a sentry standing overhead. The rest of the ship’s crew was rounded up on the poop deck, cuffed and tied in pairs in a line. It was sometime during this process that Peter McIntosh, an escaped slave, jumped overboard and fled into the night.
The Confederate attackers achieved their objective at the cost of 6 killed and 17 wounded. The crew of the Water Witchsuffered 2 dead, 14 wounded. McIntosh swam to Raccoon Key and then Ossabaw Island. After making his way to the southeast tip of the island, he was rescued later that day by a blockader in St. Catherine’s Sound and relayed the news of the lost gunboat. The capture of the Water Witch stunned the Union blockade forces and caused a reaction—in both the popular press and the Navy—that was outsized compared with the actual damage done.
According to an 11 June New York Times article: “The affair is conceded to be one of the most disgraceful marine disasters that has ever taken place in the department.” In addition to getting numerous facts about the capture wrong, the story exaggerated the capabilities of the competent, but aging, steamer. “By losing the Water Witch we lose one of the fleetest, and, in every respect, the most valuable vessel for blockade service we had in the squadron.”
While the commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, Rear Admiral John Dahlgren, ordered strong measures to discourage similar future attacks, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles had Lieutenant Commander Pendergrast court-martialed on the charge of “culpable inefficiency in the discharge of duty.” He was found guilty and suspended from duty for two years on half pay.
The Confederates savored their success. Three U.S. Navy signal books were discovered on board the gunboat and promptly forwarded to Richmond, but the captors were not able to put their biggest prize to use. The Water Witch steamed up the Vernon River, where she stayed bottled up and never saw action under the Confederate flag. Ultimately, she was burned and scuttled on 19 December 1864 as Major General William Tecumseh Sherman’s forces invested southeastern Georgia.
“Arrival of the U.S. Steamship Independence,” The New York Times , 26 June 1854.
John R. Blocker, “Capture of Blockader, Water Witch ,” Confederate Veteran , vol. 17 (December 1909).
Robert M. Browning Jr., Success Is All that Was Expected: The South Atlantic Blockading Squadron during the Civil War(Dulles, VA: Brassey’s, 2002).
“Our Hilton Head Correspondence . . .” The New York Times , 11 June 1864.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion , series I, vols. 14 and 15 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1902, 1905).
Water Witch III, Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, http://www.history.navy.mil/danfs/w3/water_witch-iii.htm.Themost visible exhibit at the National Civil War Naval Museum at Port Columbus, Georgia, is a full-size reproduction of the gunboat Water Witch. The original gunboat’s plan drawings were used in the construction, which was completed in 2009. The museum also features the 185-foot hull of the Confederate ironclad ram Jackson (originally named the CSS Muscogee); the remains of the gunboat CSS Chattahoochee; a full-size replica of the Monitor’s turret; a re-created berth deck, wardroom, and captain’s cabin from the Union flagship Hartford; and an extensive collection of Civil War–related naval flags.