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Brief History of a
Double-ended Gunboat

By Terry Foenander

During the war there were twenty-seven "Sassacus" class double-ended gunboats placed in commission. These vessels were specially constructed for service on narrow inland waterways, and with a rudder on each end, were able to travel in either direction without having to turn around.

The U.S.S. Agawam was one of these sidewheelers and was built at Portland, Maine, with her wooden hull being laid down in October 1862. She was launched on April 21, 1863, but was not commissioned until March 9, 1864. Her armaments consisted of two 100 pounder rifled cannon, four 9-inch smoothbore cannons, two 24-pounder smoothbore cannons, one 12 pounder rifled cannon, and one 12 pounder smoothbore cannon. These vessels had a complement of about two hundred men.

Three months before the vessel was commissioned, Confederate agents had seized control of a New York steam packet, the Chesapeake, some twenty miles north of Cape Cod, and had taken her into Canadian waters. The Union Navy Department sent orders to various naval commands for the immediate pursuit and capture of these miscreants, and in the ensuing flurry of activity, the seaworthy but incompletely armed Agawam was one of those that started out for the chase. However, the chase was soon abandoned when the vessel ran into a severe gale and could not proceed any further without serious damage or loss of life to those on board. She returned to Portland on December 17, 1863 with all on board feeling rather miserable after their lucky escape from the forces of nature. Some time later the vessel was sent to Portsmouth, New Hampshire to recruit her crew from the Kittery Navy Yard, where she was placed in commission on March 9, 1864, with Commander Alexander Colden Rhine and Lieutenant George Dewey as commanding and executive officers respectively.

On March 17th, the vessel cast off from the naval yard, with pilot, Mr. Prebel, in charge. However, she struck rocks at Sullivan’s Island and broke her port wheel. She was then moored to a buoy for two days before returning to the yard for repairs. Further damage was detected some days later when she went into dry dock and repairs were commenced immediately. On April 18, 1864 the vessel left Portsmouth in the morning and arrived at Portland, Maine that evening. Ten days later she weighed anchor and left Portland shortly after noon. However the vessel struck engine problems later that afternoon and returned to Portland for repairs.

Finally, May 6, 1864 the vessel leave Portland and three days later arrived off Fortress Munroe, Virginia. On May 11, she steamed up the James River, and later that afternoon fired some rounds into the woods along the shore. On May 14, Captain S. Phillips Lee, commanding the Union naval forces in the region, came aboard the Agawam and used the vessel for his flagship for the next month.

During the next three months the vessel was on patrol up and down the James River; occasionally exchanging fire with Confederate shore batteries.

Her one major engagement came on August 13, when, at 2:30 p.m. she exchanged fire with Confederate forces ashore off Four Mile Creek. The action lasted nearly four hours and the vessel sustained some damage to her smokestack and deck. John Williams, ship’s corporal, William Burke, ordinary seaman, and William Wilson, ordinary seaman, were killed and four other sailors were wounded by Confederate fire. Surgeon Herman P. Babcock gave a gruesome description of one of the casualties, in a letter written to his wife the day after the battle. He states, " . . . when I think over yesterday I am overwhelmed with gratitude to a merciful Providence. I had no idea until this morning of the narrow escape I had. Not five minutes before that fatal shell exploded on our deck I was in the same place where the man was killed and only moved to get more air. He sat on a step of the ladder lower than I and was talking to me when he was killed. The man shipped under a false name. His real name was John Babcock from Stonington, Conn. and he was telling me of it when a shell exploded overhead. Several of the men ran and dodged. I spoke up and said ‘No use running, you are safe in one place as another,’ and sent them back to their stations. This man then said, ‘I believe in predestination.’ He had hardly spoken when the back of his head went off scattering his brains over me and knocking me down. Some of the men picked me up for dead. I was so bloody and insensible from the shock, I don’t know how I did it, but as soon as I could walk I went to me run, took my instrument case, and went forward."

The next day the First Cutter’s crew were sent ashore to bury the dead. Their remains now lie at the Fort Harrison National Cemetery in Virginia.

Duels with Confederate shore batteries continued occasionally throughout the rest of August and September. On October 14, the vessel steamed down the James River and into Hampton Roads, anchoring off the Norfolk Navy Yard the next day. Minor repairs were preformed on the vessel over the next few days and on October 20, she steamed to and anchored off Fortress Monroe, before returning to the Navy Yard at the end of the month for more repairs.

On November 24, executive officer Lieutenant George Dewey left the ship, having been transferred to the U.S.S. Colorado.

December 13 saw the departure of Commander Rhind with several officers and sailors for special duty. This involved the transfer of the Louisiana to a site as close as possible to Fort Fisher, with a load of explosives aboard, on December 23, 1864.

Rhind and his party lit a fuse to the explosives and left the vessel on the U.S.S. Wilderness. The resulting explosion did not even raise an eyelid amongst the Confederates at For Fisher and the expedition was considered a failure. However, the sailors from the Agawam were awarded a medal of honor each for their part in the expedition. Coxswain, Frank Lucas forfeited his medal by later deserting. Another member of the crew, an African-American named Zachariah Colwell, also accompanied the other members of the expedition, but apparently had a minor part in it.

Throughout the remainder of the month, and all of January 1865, the vessel remained at the Navy Yard for repairs, and contrary to some accounts, was never involved in the final bombardment and capture of Fort Fisher.

At 2 p.m. on February 15, l865, the vessel got underway and left the Norfolk Navy Yard, steaming down to Fort Norfolk, off which she anchored for the night. The next afternoon, she continued down river steaming past Fortress Monroe, at which point the pilot was discharged. At 9:30 am on February 17. the vessel made Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, and at 2 p.m. she came in to Pamlico Sound, North Carolina.

Two days later she hove anchor and proceeded up the channel, where, at 11:30 am, she grounded on a sand bank. For the next five days several attempts were made to get her off the sand bank, even to the extent off unloading provisions and ammunition onto a schooner, to lighten the load aboard the Agawam. Her load of coal was also later unloaded to no avail. Finally, on the morning of February 24, she was able to get afloat, after many attempts, and, the next day, the coal, ammunition, and provisions were reloaded aboard. At 6:10 am on February 27, the vessel got underway and continued up the sound, coming to anchor off the fort on Roanoke Island. On March 2, she steamed into Pamlico Sound and the next day came to off the town of New Berne, on the Neuse River. She remained there for some time.

On April 13, 1865, after the news of the surrender of General Lee’s army at Appomattox, Virginia had reached them, the vessel fired a salute of thirty-six guns. However, on April 21, came the news of the death of President Lincoln at the hands of an assassin a week earlier, and the ensign was hoisted to half mast. The vessels guns were also fired at intervals of thirty minutes for the remainder of the day as a sign of respect. The remainder of the month was spent in patrolling the Neuse River and Hatteras Inlet. With the end of the war, the vessel remained in service until decommissioning in 1867.

Although her service during the war was short and off little consequence, the U.S.S. Agawam was one of the many vessels that helped in enforcing the blockade that eventually strangled the south into submission.

As with the majority of vessels that cruised the high seas, or patrolled the waterways of the Southern states, her service consisted of mainly of boring patrol duties that could drive a sailor to desertion when in port, or to commit a host of other misdemeanors, and there were no exceptions on the Agawam. However, the majority of the officers and crew continued on in spite of such adversities, and even in facing the dangers of battle, they showed the true spirit of what the sailor could put up with, when the time came to show his mettle.

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