John Wood’s swashbucklers set out to seize a Union fleet.
BY PHILLIP RUTHERFORD
As the new year of 1864 arrived, General Robert E. Lee’s attention focused on New Bern, North Carolina. Stationed there on the Neuse River was a fleet of imposing Federal warships and Yankee ironclads under construction in the sounds. They were inviting targets, Lee thought. On January 2, he wrote a recommendation to President Jefferson Davis.
A bold party could descend the Neuse at night, capture the gunboats, and drive the enemy by their aid from the works on that side of the river, while a force should attack them in front.
If anyone other than Lee had suggested such a scheme, Davis probably would have rejected it outright. But Lee saw the ironclads and gunboats as the nucleus of a fleet that would sweep the Carolina waters clean of the enemy. Davis agreed and immediately issued orders: attack New Bern.
A successful capture of the river town would solve a number of problems for the Confederacy. It was a military operations center, a major supply depot, and a rallying point for the strong unionist sentiment still alive in the state. Even if it could be held just long enough to loot the supplies stored there, the raid would be worthwhile. To head the land attack, both Lee and Davis decided on Major General George Pickett. And from the beginning, Davis had no doubt who he would select to head the naval part of the operation; his choice was a grandson of Zachary Taylor, son of Union General Robert Wood, and Davis’ own chief military aide and nephew . . . John Taylor Wood.
Already something of a hero, Wood distinguished himself in a type of naval warfare that had almost gone out of style. He was adept at surprising and capturing enemy warships using only darkness, stealth, small arms, and a few daredevils like himself. Employing his “navy on wheels,” (small boats transported to their destination by wagon) he had already “cut out” and captured seven enemy vessels, including two well-armed gunboats, the Satellite and the Reliance.
Knowing that the success of the operation depended on surprise, Wood immediately began to organize his part of the assignment, telegraphing naval commanders in Richmond, Wilmington, and Charleston. He ordered them to select crews of vigorous, hardy seamen for a secret mission. They were to be equipped only with cutlasses, rifles, revolvers, ammunition, three days’ cooked rations, and the clothes they wore; they were to travel fast and light.
Lieutenant Benjamin Loyall, commandant of midshipmen on the Confederate Naval Academy schoolship Patrick Henry, led the Richmond contingent, consisting of ten cutters and approximately 115 men and officers. On January 28, they left the James River and rowed to Petersburg, where they lashed the boats upright on railway gondolas and road in them like passenger cars on the overland trip.
When the Richmond group reached Goldsboro, North Carolina, Lieutenant George Gift, delayed with supply problems, had not yet arrived with his men and boats from Charleston and Wilmington. (The main problem was inter-service rivalry; he accused, “The army people monopolize everything, yield nothing.”) Evidently by prearrangement Loyall knew to push on to the embarkation point at Kinston. Arriving there at 2:00 a.m. on the 31st, his men quickly unloaded the boats and slid them down the bank into the Neuse. Wood had already engaged a pilot who knew the route and its dangers well. For secrecy’s sake, he sent them all twenty miles downstream to the first rendezvous, a small island, while he nervously awaited Gift.
As he paced the bank, Wood undoubtedly considered the problems of the total operation. New Bern might not be another Gibraltar, but it would be difficult to take. Located at the confluence of the Trent and Neuse Rivers, it had been in Federal hands for nearly two years, and the hands had not been idle. The Yankees constructed a line of earth-works, anchored by Fort Stevenson on the northeast, to protect the only land approach to the town; in front of these fortifications they cut all the trees for two miles, furnishing their artillery a clear field of fire. Fort Anderson, built just across the Neuse, covered the plain before the works with an effective crossfire. And most disturbing, the Federals at Moorhead City could instantly supply reinforcements by rail if they were ever needed. Pickett had a most difficult job ahead of him.
But Wood could not be too concerned with Pickett’s troubles; he had problems of his own. The success of the entire operation depended on capturing the gunboats. If he failed, not only would the dream of a small eastern fleet fade; New Bern would not be held, even if taken. Three or four of the warships constantly patrolled the rivers, ready to use their guns in the town’s protection or to ferry supporting troops. In fact, the gunboats had already materially aided in New Bern’s defense when Brigadier James Pettigrew threatened Fort Anderson in March 1863. Their guns drove the Confederates from the field and shielded the landing of reinforcements. Wood had to take the gunboats quickly and without damage if he was to support Pickett and later use them to raid enemy shipping.
After a morning of worry, Wood watched Gift’s train pull in at noon, carrying two large launches, two cutters, and a crew of about 135. Wood was relieved but anxious to get started. As it was obvious that the launches would take time to unload, he took only the cutters and left to join Loyall, telling Gift to follow with the eighty-two men he left behind.
When Wood arrived at the island, the men had just finished supper, the last hot meal they would have for several days. Calling them all together, including the twenty-five marines under Captain Thomas Wilson, he revealed their orders for the first time. The seamen, especially the younger ones, were excited by the audacity of the plan and would have cheered if they had not been ordered to keep quiet. After leading them in a prayer for the success of their mission, Wood divided the little flotilla into two divisions of six boats each, taking command of one group and giving the other to Loyall, his executive officer. He passed out white armbands for nighttime identification and gave them the password, Sumter. They then pushed off on the remaining backbreaking forty miles to New Bern.
Back at Kinston, Gift and his men unloaded the heavy launches and dragged them to the Neuse with the help of two mules. Impressing a pilot, they started downriver in the two boats, each armed with a 12 pound bow howitzer. They made good time; it was 3:00 p.m., an hour after Wood left them.
Wood’s men in the cutters strained at their muffled oars, pulling hard in the cold, dusky light. The river was treacherous; in places it was so narrow that the sailors could almost touch the cypress and water oaks overhanging each bank; in others, it broadened into a shallow lake. Half-sunken logs, snags, and sandbars clogged the channel. The boats, now in a single, sinuous line, constantly hung up, ran into the bars, and banged into each other. Mostly, the quiet was unearthly. Excepting the infrequent whispers of the men, the only sounds were the splash of a misplaced oar and the creaking of the oarlocks. Scarcely could a living thing be seen. Occasionally a flock of squawking ducks exploded in their faces in a flurry of feet and feathers. In the trees overhead, a screech owl shattered the night quiet. Clouds formed; then a cold mist and drizzle began to fall, adding to the misery of the bone-weary men.
The pilot had warned them of two points where the Yankees posted cavalry and infantry pickets. Here, they had to observe absolute silence and were cautioned to only fire if fired on. If spotted, they would pull down-river with all their might so that they could begin their attack before news of them reached New Bern. But fortunately they passed the picket points unnoticed.
About 3:30 a.m., February 1, the character of the stream began to change: the river broadened and the banks became low and marshy. Then through the thickening fog and mist, Wood saw the dim glow of New Bern’s lights and at the same time heard heavy firing nearby. Pickett had begun his part of the operation. This was the perfect moment to attack. Although his men were tired and he did not have Gift’s launches, he knew the watches on the gunboats would be almost blind from the fog and the long night. The raiders could be among the warships before being hailed, and after the captures, the guns of Fort Stevenson and Fort Anderson would be hard put to search them out.
Wood formed the cutters into two columns and eased forward, straining his eyes for the prey. They rowed past the town, staying near the opposite bank. They reversed and came back, closer this time. They could not be certain: was the fog obscuring the gunboats, or were they simply not there? This time the flotilla moved in among the wharves, so near that the seamen could hear the sleepy voices of the sentries. There were no gunboats at New Bern!
Just before dawn, Wood ordered his men to row about three miles back up the Neuse to a small island in Bachelor’s Creek, where they could rest. There, the sailors pulled the boats from the water and hid them in the bushes and tall marsh grasses. Those not selected as sentries simply collapsed, ignoring the cold, muddy ground and wet grass. They had rowed sixty miles down a foul river; they had been awake for almost twenty-four hours; and they had been on edge, expecting a fight. They were exhausted.
As the sun rose and the fog dispersed, the Confederates were astounded to see a tall crow’s nest with a Yankee lookout in plain sight of their camp. Miraculously, the observer did not spot them the entire day. The men made as little movement as possible and anxiously ate their pre-cooked rations; campfires were out of the question. Meanwhile, Wood went off in search of Pickett to coordinate their efforts.
The plans for the land attack were good ones. Pickett would make a frontal assault against New Bern with the mass of his 4,500 troops; he would send Brigadier Seth Barton with cavalry and artillery to cut the Atlantic & North Carolina Railroad from Morehead City to check the arrival of reinforcements; in the meantime, Colonel James Dearing would attack Fort Anderson across the Neuse, also preventing reinforcements from that quarter; and lastly, General Lee would order a diversionary demonstration at Morehead City to keep the Yankee nervous.
Things were going much as planned. By late afternoon on February 1, the enemy had been driven back inside his works in front of New Bern, but Pickett was getting edgy. He heard nothing from Barton, whose operation was absolutely essential. If he did not cut the rail line, New Bern would become a tap for the Confederates.
Meanwhile, Gift’s command had been rowing down from Kinston all day. If Wood had trouble maneuvering the small cutters through the congested twists and loops of the Neuse, Gift with his heavy launches must have had hell. Although they embarked only an hour after Wood, they failed to link up with him until almost sundown, about fifteen hours after the first group arrived.
Early that morning when Wood heard the guns opening Pickett’s offensive, Lieutenant G. W. Graves, commander of the three gunboats in the New Bern estuary and captain of the U.S.S. Lockwood, heard them too. Signaling Acting Master Jacob Westervelt of the U.S.S. Underwriter and Acting Master Francis Josselyn of the U.S.S. Commodore Hull to stand by, Graves waited for a message from Brigadier I. N. Palmer, chief of the Federal land forces. At about 6:30 a.m., it arrived; the Rebels were attacking in force, and Palmer needed the gunboats to repel them. Graves ordered the Underwriter to steam up the Neuse and anchor about 100 yards below Fort Stevenson to command the cleared plain outside the Union works. The Hull would take position above her. Although the Underwriter arrived on station at 9:00 a.m., the Hull drove so solidly aground as she got underway that she could not even be moved by tugs. Notified that the Rebels were erecting a battery near Brice’s Creek, off the Trent, Graves steamed up that river as far as the shallow channel would permit.
Near sundown, Loyall and Wood scouted downriver near New Bern to see if a possible prize had turned up. It had. The Underwriter, a side-wheel steamer of 325 tons, one of the largest in North Carolina waters, lay riding at her mooring. She was 186 feet long and 35 feet wide. Mounting two 8-inch shell guns, and a 30-pound and a 12-pound howitzer, she carried a crew of eighty-four. Wood told Loyall that they would attack her sometime after midnight. Ironically, she was scheduled to leave for duty off Hatteras the following morning.
At 11:00 p.m. Wood assembled the men for their final instructions. Each man, specially picked, knew his job. Wood always made certain that his men were more than just fighters; they could operate a vessel after its capture. After leading his men in prayer and dividing the marine detachment among the craft as the sharpshooters, he ordered them all into the boats. As they settled themselves, young Midshipman Palmer Saunders looked up into the clouding sky and remarked, “I wonder, boys, how many of us will be up in those stars by tomorrow morning.” While this comment sobered the older men, the younger sailors were full of excitement positioning their cutlasses and pistols for instant access, regaling each other with the great deeds they would do, and choosing buddies for the imminent fight. On every boat, the commanders handed out short tapered, white-pine dowels provided by the expedition’s carpenter; they would soon come in handy. In the distance the battle lanterns of the Underwriter shone clearly at each mast.
The cutters, again in their two divisions, traveled cautiously side by side. Wood would strike forward, Loyall aft. The launches brought up the rear. Since the cutter force was more than enough to take the Underwriter, the launches would be used only for reinforcement or defense from other gunboats.
The raiders were not attacking blindly. Sometime earlier, a spy dressed as a hill-country farmer slipped into New Bern and visited the gunboats at the wharves. He noted their armaments, the discipline of their crews, and their modes of keeping watch. Wood’s men knew what to expect.
As the raiders approached the Underwriter, sheets of rain began to fall, obscuring her for a time. Then, at 300 yards, her black hull stood out. In New Bern, a lonely bell tolled mournfully, like a death-knell. Nearing the gunboat, the raiders suddenly heard the ship’s bell ring out five times: 2:30 a.m. Everything was going perfectly–then at about 100 yards came a sudden, nervous shot, “Boat ahoy! Boat ahoy!” Wood did not answer. “Boat ahoy! Boat ahoy!” Wood still did not respond and gained a few more valuable yards. Then out of the night came the ear-shattering clacking that they all dreaded: the lookout sprung the battle rattle, calling the crew to quarters.
The surprise was over. Wood yelled, “Give way! Give way strong!” Loyall and the other boat commanders took up the cry, “Give way, boys! Give way as you never did before!” They had to get under the Underwriter’s deck guns or be annihilated. The cutters shot forward.
On the Underwriter, all was instant chaos. The crew, dazed by sudden awakening, many undressed, stumbled out on deck half panic-stricken, but still not certain of the danger. Officers screamed commands, the armorer frantically distributed small arms, and the men hurried to light battle lanterns. The raiders could hear the slap of bare feet on deck and the jangle of loose equipment being kicked about. Then dim, shadowy figures appeared at the rail.
The flash of deadly small arms fire lit up the ship, clearly outlining the heads of the crew and allowing the raiders to mark their locations. Minie( balls smacked into wood and flesh. The marines stood in the bows of the rocking cutters and gave it their best shot. Then they were alongside! The coxswain of Wood’s boat, a giant of a Virginian, shouted and sneered, guiding the tiller which his knees as he waved two pistols in the air. Suddenly he lurched and fell forward, dead with a bullet in his forehead. The rudder, now loose, caused the boat to swerve from the intended boarding position at the fore gangway and to strike near the wheelhouse. By then most of the cutters had closed, and the raiders had thrown their grapnels over the ship’s rail, making the little boats fast with their prey. Westervelt had indeed felt oversecure: the anti-boarding nets were down.
Gift thought he saw the Underwriter trying to get underway and shouted to Midshipman John Scharf to disable her deck machinery with a bow howitzer. Scharf put his shell through the pilothouse without appreciable effect. As he readied to fire again, he saw the boarders swarming up the ship’s side and over the rail. Fearful of hitting fellow Confederates, he desisted.
Wood intended to be first on deck as he had in all of his other midnight sorties, but the death of his coxswain changed that. Loyall, who lost his eyeglasses in boarding, was first aboard, with Engineer Emmett Gill right behind. The near sighted Loyall immediately stumbled and fell head long onto the deck. At that second a volley from the ship’s crew cut down Gill and the next three raiders: They all fell on top of Loyall, each taking from four to six balls. By the time he struggled from beneath this bleeding mass of flesh, the battle had begun in earnest.
The dark ship was like something from a nightmare: men cheered, shouted, screamed with pain. The noise from small arms fire and the clashing of cutlasses was deafening. Lending an even more chaotic air to all was a crate of wildly cackling chickens. From near the ship’s armory came and unending flash and roar as the armorer pressed loaded rifles into the hands of defenders who could then fire without reloading. Men fell all over the rain-and-blood-slick deck. A few of the ship’s crew tried to man the small howitzer to sweep the deck, but Wood’s sword never stopped slashing, and he cut them down.
Although the fighting was initially three to one against the Confederates, because only part of the force was engaged, the relentless pressure from the raiders began to tell. The marines who rallied as ordered on the hurricane deck poured a murderous fire into the Federal sailors. As the raiders from fore and aft linked up amidships, the defenders began to fall back into the companionways, some forced into the wardroom and others into the coal bunkers and steerage. Defenders and raiders alike picked up empty rifles and used them as clubs. The acrid black-powder smoke mixed with a light fog that rolled in to throw a ghostly haze over the dark deck. After ten or fifteen minutes of desperate, bloody fighting, a cheer rang out, “She’s ours! She’s ours!”
It was then that Confederate Surgeon David Conrad’s job began. He leaped from the hurricane deck to the lower deck and slipped in the pools of blood. Rising up, he grabbed the arm of Lieutenant Wilkinson to steady himself. Wilkinson, not recognizing the surgeon in the darkness, cocked his pistol and put it to Conrad’s head, thinking he was an enemy sailor. Conrad slapped it away just in time. Wilkinson only said, “I’m looking for you Doctor. Come here.” He led him in the dark and haze to a boy holding another in his lap. Having to examine the limp sailor by feel, he ran his hands over the boy’s head until they disappeared into a great gash between his ears. Some brawny Federal sailor had cleft Midshipman Saunders’ head completely in two.
Dead and wounded littered the deck, cut down by cutlass slashes, gunshots, and flying wood splinters gouged from the deck and rails by the hail of bullets. Loyall leaned exhausted against an aft cannon, himself bleeding from a splinter wound. Conrad ordered the men to lay out the dead on deck, as he went below to find more wounded. In the dim light of the wardroom lantern he found six more, all suffering from pistol wounds.
The brief action had been savage. The Confederates lost Engineer Gill, Midshipman Saunders, Seaman Hawkins, Seaman Sullivan, and Marine Bell. In addition they found fifteen wounded and discovered four missing. The Federals had twenty wounded and nine killed, including Captain Westervelt, who jumped overboard along with some of the crew at the beginning of the melee and was then shot while hanging on to a hawser.
By the time the doctor returned from below, the raiders were trying to get the Underwriter underway and instantly convert her into a Confederate cruiser. Every able man went to his preordered station. An engineer and five helpers hurried to the engine room to get up steam; Loyall and his command attempted to unshackle the chains from the moorings; Gift and the launches tried to tow the gunboat out into the river away from the forts; Lieutenant Hoge opened the magazines; his crew manned the deck guns; and the marines guarded approximately forty prisoners.
Then one piece of bad news after another reached Wood. The engine room reported the fires banked and that it would take at least an hour to raise enough steam. Loyall told him that the Underwriter was chained to a buoy and it would take hours to free her. Gift sent word that the ship would not budge; she was likely aground. At almost the same moment, Fort Stevenson, alerted by both the sounds of the battle and some escaped seamen, opened on the ship will small arms and cannon, heedless of Yankee sailors still aboard. The very first shell, either trough excellent gunnery or blind luck, penetrated the wheelhouse and burst amid the deck machinery, disabling the walking beam. It was all over. The Underwriter would never serve the Confederacy. She had suddenly become a deathtrap for her prize crew.
Wood, decisive as always, did not lose a second dwelling on the bad luck. Calmly ordering the Confederate dead and wounded and the Union wounded and prisoners put aboard the boats, he commanded Hoge to load all cannon and turn them on the town. As shells from Fort Stevenson and the other batteries began to fall heavily on the Underwriter, all the raiders and prisoners had left the gunboat except for four lieutenants. Wood told them to bring embers from the boilers and fire the ship. When the fire from the burning ship ignited the cannon, the Underwriter would fire her last broadside into New Bern. Soon great columns of flames shot out of the forward hatch and wardroom. Within five minutes of the first Federal shell-burst, all had abandoned the Underwriter, except the Union dead who would burn with her.
The raiders and their prisoners clustered on the lee of the gunboat, protected by its hull. The little boats again formed a double line for the dash to safety. As the flotilla cleared the gunboat, the men–prisoners and raiders alike–pulled for their lives. The fire from the fort was momentarily heavy but ineffective. From the light of the burning ship, the men could clearly see the depressed muzzles of the cannon and their crews at ready. But suddenly the fire slackened. The Confederates thought that the glare from the blazing gunboat had blinded the gunner, but they later learned that the officers and men had abandoned their guns, anticipating the momentary explosion of the tons of powder in the ship’s magazine.
In the haste to load the boats for the escape, one of the small cutters took on eighteen or twenty prisoners and only two guards, one in the stern steering and one in the bow. Realizing that they could not make headway with this heavy load, one of the guards called out to a cutter about fifty yards ahead that they needed to discard some of the prisoners and take on a stronger guard. Seizing this unexpected opportunity, U.S. Engineer Edgar Allen grabbed the stern guard’s cutlass and shouted for the prisoners to pull for shore with their lives. Instead, some of them, along with the bow guard, leaped overboard. But Allen and the remaining Yankees saved themselves from a Confederate prison, captured a cutter, and took a Rebel prisoner to boot
Wood, looking back at the flaming Underwriter from a half mile away, was not satisfied with the progress of the fire. She might still be saved by the Yankees. Therefore, he ordered Hoge back to the ship to better spread the fire. The lieutenant complied, and shortly a great ball of flame shot out of the window near the pilot house. He returned and Wood was then content to leave. Before the raiders rounded the bend and totally lost sight of the Underwriter, they looked back at her one last time. Wood later said that a burning ship was “a picture of rare beauty.” So must have been the Underwriter. Enveloped in flames, she lit up the night sky for miles with her flashes. Even with the increasingly heavy rain, there was no chance of anyone saving her. After two hours, at 5:00 a.m., the flames reached her magazine, and she exploded with an earthshaking roar, scattering burning debris for hundreds of yard before settling to the river bottom.
About 3:00 a.m., Brigadier Palmer informed Lieutenant Graves, who was up the Trent River in the Lockwood, that the Underwriter had been captured. Shortly thereafter, he could see her burning in the distance. Although he wanted to come to her assistance, he was unable, because the fog had made the intricacy of the channel even more difficult. The Hull, of course, could not help, because she was still aground downriver.
As the raiders pulled up the Neuse about eight miles to Swift Creek, where they would make camp and again communicate with Pickett, Conrad, went from boat to boat tending the wounded.
Near sunrise, the Confederates landed their boats and made the wounded as comfortable as possible. As they examined the cutters, they no doubt thanked their carpenter for his white dowels. The boats probably would not have made it to safety without them, for an average of fourteen had been used in each craft to plug bullet holes. Now came their saddest duty: digging a long pit, they interred their dead and marked the graves.
All that day they rested from the fight, while Wood talked to Pickett. Typically Wood was undaunted. He tried to convince Pickett to let him ferry an infantry force back down the river in his small boats and make a night amphibious assault on New Bern while Pickett again attacked from the front. But Dearing had accomplished little and Barton practically nothing, so Pickett was afraid of Union reinforcements arriving and refused. It is entirely possible, though, that Wood’s plan might have worked. By this time, the two remaining gunboats–the Hull now afloat–guarded the land approaches to New Bern, and relief ships sent by the Federal navy would not arrive for two days. The river was basically undefended. In addition, the demonstration ordered by Lee at Morehead City inadvertently accomplished Barton’s task: it had cut the railroad, and major reinforcement was precluded. Even U.S. Admiral David Porter later agreed with Wood:
Had the enemy attacked the forts, the chances are that they would have been successful, as the garrison was unprepared for an attack on the river-flank, their most vulnerable side.
Wood refused to accept Pickett’s decision. On February 2, after transferring all his wounded and prisoners to Colonel Dearing and leaving his men to rest, he rushed to Richmond to make a personal appeal to Davis to overrule Pickett and continue the assault. It did not matter to him that the raid was basically successful, even if it did not accomplish its major goals: the Confederates had secured considerable supplies near Morehead City and destroyed many Federal works; Pickett had killed or wounded over 100 of the enemy and captured over 300 more, all with minor losses; and the burned hulk of the Underwriter, one of the larger gunboats in the Union navy, now lay on the bottom of the Neuse. But Wood wanted total victory.
Following Wood’s orders, Loyall and his men rowed for two nights and a day back to Kinston, awaiting further word from Richmond. They arrived on February 5 and received a wire from Wood on the 8th. The raiders were to stay in readiness at Kinston; the mission was not complete. Their wait was short. The next day Wood ordered most of the boats and men to return to Petersburg. The New Bern Raid was over.
Lionized for their work, Wood and his men received a “Joint Resolution of Thanks” from the Confederate Congress. Most of the officers won immediate promotion, but Wood refused his, stating, “The affair does not deserve it.”