Eyewitness 1864: Pittsburgh sailor describes capture of a Southern ship

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When "Prize Fighter" described the Confederate ship Chatham as a "famous rebel iron steamer," the anonymous writer for The Daily Pittsburgh Gazette likely was exaggerating its importance to the South.

The Gazette published a first-person account of the "long and perilous chase" that ended in the capture of the blockade runner by the crew of the USS. Huron. The pursuit took place Dec. 16, 1863, off the Georgia coast at Doboy Sound, and it was reported in the Gazette on Jan. 4, 1864, in a letter apparently written by a crewman aboard the Union warship who used the pseudonym "Prize Fighter." Doboy Sound is about 60 miles south of Savannah.

Such you-are-there stories, written by soldiers and sailors who had taken part in the Civil War battles they were describing, were a frequent source of information for newspapers like the Gazette. The Huron was part of the U.S. Navy's South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, which had great success in disrupting Confederate trade with Great Britain and the Caribbean.

"Last night our picket boats made a signal that a steamer was heading down the river, but as the light was intensely dark, we failed to see her until [she was] within a short distance beyond us," the sailor wrote. "To slip [anchor] cable, clear for action and give chase was an instant's work."

It nevertheless took about an hour for the Huron, a screw-propelled steamship, to get within shooting range of the unidentified craft. "The chase now grew highly exciting, and as the rebel perceived that we gained on her, she fired up with desperate energy, until the flames streamed from her tall smokestacks." Those glowing smokestacks then "offered a good mark for our gunners."

Recognizing his vessel was in danger of being sunk or captured, the captain of the mystery ship changed course "to run over the dangerous shoals" near shore.

George Stevens, the commander of the Huron, ordered his crew to follow the fleeing craft into the shallow water.

"[The] blood of our commander was stirred up," the Gazette's correspondent wrote. The outcome was an apparent success that risked turning into disaster. The Huron's dangerous "dash across the shoals" allowed the Union ship's gunners to fire "broadsides so rapid and effective that [the enemy ship] burnt signals of surrender and hove to."

"Not a moment too soon, however, for just as she surrendered, crash went our gallant ship on the shoals, making every timber in her body crack," the Gazette correspondent wrote. "If the enemy had then known of our mishap, she could easily have escaped us as we were hard aground among the breakers."

The night was dark and the sea was rough. "We lowered away, and manned the launch and dispatched her to board the captured ship," he wrote. "When our brave lads disappeared into the darkness, I feared they might never return, for no boat could live long in such a sea.

"For one long hour we strained our eyes to catch the welcome signal that they had boarded the rebel," the story said. "At last the signal rocket shot up into the heavens with a beauty more than mortal to our vision, at which a wild cheer went up among our boys.

"But our attention was now drawn to our own danger," wrote "Prize Fighter". The enemy ship had been secured, but the Huron itself still was stuck in shallow water in stormy seas.

The rest of this tale will appear Jan. 19. Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184.

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