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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.