Eyewitness 1864: A narrow escape follows Union crew's ship seizure

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After U.S. Navy sailors were able to capture a Confederate blockade-running ship in the dead of night, their troubles were far from over.

No sooner had the captain of the Chatham agreed to surrender than the USS Huron found herself in danger of being dashed to pieces in stormy Atlantic seas.

The Daily Pittsburgh Gazette on Jan. 4, 1864, printed an unidentified Pittsburgh sailor's account of the "long and perilous" pursuit of the Chatham. The chase had taken place on Dec. 16, 1863, off the Georgia coast at Doboy Sound. Such first-person stories, written by local participants, often were published by regional newspapers like the Gazette.

The Huron, a steam-powered gunboat, was part of the Union's South Atlantic Blockading Squadron that sought to cut off Confederate trade. The Huron had been pursuing the Chatham for about an hour when the rebel vessel headed into shallow water. George Stevens, the commander of the Huron, ordered his crew to follow, and broadsides from the Union ship's guns persuaded the Chatham's captain, J. E. Mardenbrough, to give up.

"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 enemy ship was boarded successfully, but the Huron remained stuck and was in danger of being swamped. "The ship reeled over until the muzzles of the guns were submerged in the sea to the trunnions," the Gazette's on-the-scene correspondent wrote.

Waves "would strike her with a report like a cannon and sent the sheeted foam fifty feet into the air and over the ship, threatening to shiver the vessel into pieces, but the brave old ship -- God bless her -- had a heart of oak."The sailor reported that after working through the night and into the late morning, "our exhausted crew, with one last effort, got her off on the flood tide."

The article estimated the value of the Chatham's cargo of cotton, tobacco and rosin at $250,000. That number is equivalent to about $4.7 million in modern money. The Huron also captured 55 crew members and passengers aboard the Bahamas-bound ship.

"We are now safe in harbor with our prize snug alongside," the Gazette story concluded. The Chatham was taken to Port Royal, S.C., which had been captured by the North early in the war.

The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, compiled after the war, described the Chatham as "an old Savannah River boat, not seaworthy, and her prize master reports that he had much trouble in getting her even to this port."

The Huron continued in blockade service through the end of the war in April 1865. She and her crew captured at least one more Confederate merchant ship, according to the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. She was later part of a Northern armada that bombarded Fort Fisher, N.C., closing the port of Wilmington to blockade runners.

The Huron was decommissioned in 1868.

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184.

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