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Capture of the USS Underwriter
In the Neuse River, off Newbern, N. C., February, 1864

By Surgeon Daniel B. Conrad, CSN
From: Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. XIX. Richmond, Va., January. 1891.  Pages 93-100. 

In January, 1864, the Confederate naval officers on duty in Richmond, Wilmington and Charleston were aroused by a telegram from the Navy Department to detail three boats' crews of picked men and offices, who were to be fully armed, equipped and rationed for six days; they were to start at once by rail for Weldon, North Carolina, reporting on arrival to Commander J. Taylor Wood, who would give further instructions.

So perfectly secret and well-guarded was our destination that not until we had all arrived at Kingston, North Carolina, by various railroads, did we have the slightest idea of where we were going or what was the object of the naval raid. We suspected, however, from the name of its commander, that it would be "nervous work," as he had a reputation for boarding, capturing and burning the enemy's gunboats on many previous occasions.

Embarking one boat after another on the waters of the Neuse, we found that there were ten of them in all, each manned by ten men and two officers, every one of whom were young, vigorous, fully alive and keen for the prospective work. Now we felt satisfied that it was going to be hand-to-hand fighting; some Federal gunboat was to be boarded and captured by us, or we were to be destroyed by it.

Sunday afternoon, February 1, 1864, about 2 o'clock, we were all quietly floating down the narrow Neuse, and the whole sunny Sabbath evening was thus passed, until at sunset we landed on a small island. After eating our supper, all hands were assembled to receive instructions. Commander Wood, in distinct and terse terms, gave orders to each boat's crew and its officers just what was expected of them, stating that the object of the expedition was to, that night, board some one of the enemy's gunboats, then supposed to be lying off the city of Newbern, now nearly sixty miles distant from where we then were by water. He said that she was to be captured without fail. Five boats were to board her on either side simultaneously, and then when in our possession we were to get up steam and cruise after other gunboats. It was a grand scheme, and was received by the older men with looks of admiration and with rapture by the young midshipmen, all of whom would have broken out into loud cheers but for the fact that the strictest silence was essential to the success of the daring undertaking.

In concluding his talk, Commander Wood solemnly said: "We will now pray;" and thereupon he offered up the most touching appeal to the Almighty that it has ever been my fortune to have heard. I can remember it now, after the long interval that has elapsed since then. It was the last ever heard by many a poor fellow, and deeply felt by every one.

Then embarking again, we now had the black night before us, our pilot reporting two very dangerous points where the enemy had out pickets of both cavalry and infantry. We were charged to pass these places in absolute silence, out arms not to be used unless we were fired upon, and then in that emergency we were to get out of the way with all possible speed, and pull down stream in order to surprise and capture one of the gunboats before the enemy's pickets could carry the news of our raid to them.

In one long line, in consequence of the narrowness of the stream, did we pull noiselessly down, but no interrupting pickets were discovered, and at about half past three o'clock we found ourselves upon the broad estuary of Newbern bay. Then closing up in double column we pulled for the lights of the city, even up to and close in and around the wharves themselves, looking (but in vain) for our prey. Not a gunboat could be seen; none were there. As the day broke we hastened for shelter to a small island up stream about three miles away, where we landed upon our arrival, dragged our boats into the high grass, setting out numerous pickets at once. The remainder of us, those who were not on duty, tired and wary, threw ourselves upon the damp ground to sleep during the long hours which must necessarily intervene before we could proceed on our mission.

Shortly after sunrise we heard firing by infantry. It was quite sharp for an hour, and then it died, away. It turned out to be, as we afterwards learned, a futile attack by our lines under General Pickett on the works around Newbern. We were obliged to eat cold food all that day, as no fires were permissible under any circumstances; so all we could do was to keep a sharp lookout for the enemy, go to sleep again, and wish for the night to come.

About sundown one gunboat appeared on the distant rim of the bay. She came up, anchored off the city some five miles from where we were lying, and we felt that she was our game. We began at once to calculate the number of her guns and quality of her armament, regarding her as our prize for certain.

As darkness came upon us, to our great surprise and joy, a large launch commanded by Lieutenant George W. Gift, landed under the lee of the island. He had been, by some curious circumstance, left behind, but with his customary vigor and daring impressed a pilot, and taking all the chances came down the Neuse boldly in daylight to join us in the prospective fight. His advent was a grand acquisition to our force, as he brought with him fifteen men and one howitzer.

We were now called together again, the orders to each boat's crew repeated, another prayer was offered up, and then, it being about nine o'clock, in double column we started directly for the lights of the gunboat, one of which was distinctly showing at each masthead. Pulling slowly and silently for four hours we neared her, and as her outlines became distinct, to our great surprise we were hailed man-of-war fashion, "Boat, ahoy!" We were discovered, and, as we found out later, were expected and looked for.

This was a trying and testing moment, but Commander Wood was equal to the emergency. Jumping up, he shouted: "Give way hard! Board at once!" The men's backs bent and straightened on the oars, and the enemy at the same moment opened upon us with small arms. The long, black sides of the gunboat, with men's heads and shoulders above them could be distinctly seen by the line of red fire, and we realized immediately that the only place of safety for us was on board of her, for the fire was very destructive. Standing up in the boat with Commander wood, and swaying to and for by the rapid motion, were our marines firing from the bows, while the rest of us, with only pistol in belt, and our hands ready to grasp her black sides, were all anxious for the climb. Our coxswain, a burly, gamy Englishman, who by gesture and loud word, was encouraging the crew, steering by the tiller between his knees, his hands occupied in holding his pistols, suddenly fell forward on us dead, a ball having struck him fairly in the forehead. The rudder now having no guide, the boat swerved aside, and instead of our bows striking at the gangway, we struck the wheelhouse, so that the next boat, commanded by Lieutenant Loyall, had the deadly honor of being first on board. Leading his crew, as became his rank, duty and desire, he jumped and pulled into the gangway--now a blazing sheet of flame, and being nearsighted, having lost his glasses, stumbled and fell prone upon the deck of the gunboat, the four men who were following close up on his heels falling on top of him stone dead, killed by the enemy's bullets; each one of the unfortunate fellows having from four to six of them in his body, as we found out later. Rising, Lieutenant Loyall shook of his load of dead men, and by this time we had climbed up on the wheelhouse, Commander Wood's long legs giving him an advantage over the rest of us; I was the closest to him, but had nothing to do as yet, except to anxiously observe the progress of the hand-to-hand fighting below me. I could hear Wood's stentorian voice giving orders and encouraging the men, and then, in less than five minutes, I could distinguish a strange synchronous roar, but did not understand what it meant at first; but it soon became plain: "She's ours," everybody crying at the top of their voices, in order to stop the shooting, as only our own men were on their feet.

I then jumped down on the deck, and as I struck it, I slipped in the blood, and fell on my back and hands; rising immediately, I caught hold of an officer standing near me, who with an oath collared me, and I threw up his revolver just in time to make myself known. It was Lieutenant Wilkinson, who the moment he recognized me, exclaimed: "I'm looking for you doctor; come here." Following him a short distance in the darkness, I examined a youth who was sitting in the lap of another, and in feeling his head I felt my hand slip down between his ears, and to my horror, discovered that his head had been cleft in two by a boarding sword in the hands of some giant of the forecastle. It was Passed Midshipman Palmer Sanders, of Norfolk. Directing his body, and those of all the other killed, to be laid out aft on the quarter deck, I went down below, looking for the wounded in the ward-room, where the lights were burning, and found half a dozen with slight shots from revolvers. After having finished my examination, a half an hour and elapsed, and when ascending to the deck again I heard the officers of the various corps reporting to Commander Wood; for immediately after the capture of the vessel, according to the orders, the engineers and firemen had been sent down to the engine-room to get up steam, and Lieutenant Loyall as executive officer, with a number of seamen had attempted to raise the anchor, cast loose the cable which secured the ship to the wharf just under the guns of Fort Stephenson, while the marines in charge of their proper officers were stationed at the gangways guarding the prisoners. The lieutenants, midshipmen and others manned the guns, of which there were six eleven-inch, as it was the at tention to convert her at once into a Confederate man-of-war, and under the captured flag to go out to sea, to take and destroy as many of the vessels of the enemy as possible. But all our well-laid plans were abortive; the engineers reported the fires out, and that it would be futile to attempt to get up steam under an hour, and Lieutenant Loyall, too, after very hard work, reported it useless to spend any more time in trying to unshuckle the chains, as the ship had been moored to a buoy, unless eh could have hours in which to perform the work. Just at this moment, too, to bring things to a climax, the Fort under which we found that we were moored bow and stem, opened fire upon us with small arms, grape and solid shot; some of those who had escaped having reported the state of affairs on board, and this was the result.

In about fifteen minutes a solid shot or two had disabled the walking-beam, and it then became evident to all that we were in a trap, to escape from which depended on hard work and strategy. How to extricate ourselves in safety from the thus far successful expedition, was the question; but events proved that our commander was equal to the emergency.

Very calmly and clearly he directed me to remove all dead and wounded to the boats, which the several crews were now hauling to the lee side of the vessel, where they would be protected from the shots from the fort. The order was soon carried out by wiling hands. They were distributed as equally as possible. Each boat in charge of its own proper officer, and subjected under that heavy fire to that rigid discipline characteristic of the navy, manned by their regular crews, as they laid in double lines, hugging the protected lee of the ship as closely as possible, it was a splendid picture of what a body of trained men can be under circumstances of great danger.

After an extended search through the ship's decks, above and below, we found that we had removed all the dead and wounded, and then, when the search was ended, reported to Captain Wood on the quarter-deck, where, giving his orders where the fire from the fort was very deadly and searching, he called up four lieutenants to him, to whom he gave instructions as follows: two of them were to go below in the forward part of the ship, and the other two below in the afterpart, where from their respective stations they were to fire the vessel, and not to leave her until her decks were all ablaze, and then at that juncture they were to return to their proper boats and report.

The remainder of us were lying on our oars while orders for firing the ship were being carried out; and soon we saw great columns of red flames shoot upward out of the forward hatch and ward-room, upon which the four officers joined their boats. Immediately, by the glare of the burning ship, we could see the outlines of the fort with its depressed guns, and the heads and shoulders of the men manning them. As the blaze grew larger and fiercer their eyes were so dazzled and blinded that every one of our twelve boats pulled away out into the broad estuary safe and untouched. Then we well realized fully our adroit and successful escape.

Some years after the affair I met one of the Federal officers who was in the fort at the time, and he told me that they were not only completely blinded by the flames, which prevented them from seeing us, but were also stampeded by the knowledge of the fact that there were several tons of powder in the magazine of the vessel, which when exploded would probably blow the fort to pieces; so, naturally, they did not remain very long after they were aware that the ship had been fired. This all occurred as we had expected. We in our boats, at a safe distance of more than half a mile, saw the "Underwriter" blow up, and distinctly heard the report of the explosion, but those at the fort, a very short distance from the ship, sought a safe refuge, luckily for them.

Fortunately there was no causalities at this stage of the expedition. I boarded the boat in my capacity as surgeon, attending to the requirements of those who demanded immediate aid, and I witnessed many amusing scenes; for among the prisoners were some old men-of-war's men, former shipmates of mine in the Federal navy years before, and of the other officers also. Their minds were greatly relieved when I made known to them who their captors were, and that their old surgeon and other officers were present, and as a natural consequences they would be treated well.

Continuing to pull for the remainder of the night, we sought and found by the aid of our pilot, a safe and narrow creek, up which we ascended, and at sunrise hauled our boats up on a beach, there we carefully lifted out our wounded men, placed them under the shade of trees in the grass, and made them as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. Then we laid out the dead, and after carefully washing and dressing them, as soon as we had partaken of our breakfast, of which we were in so much need, all hands were called, a long pit was dug in the sand, funeral services were held, the men buried and each grave marked. We remained there all that day recuperating, and when night came again embarked on our return trip; all through that night and the four succeeding ones, we cautiously pulled up the rapid Neuse, doing most of our work in the darkness, until when nearing Kingston we could with impunity pull in daylight.

Arriving at Kingston, the boats were dragged up the hill to the long train of gondola cars which had been waiting for us, and then was presented an exhibition of sailors' ingenuity. The boats were placed upright on an even keel lengthwise on the fact cars, and so securely lashed by ropes that the officers, men, even the wounded, seated and laid in them as if on the water, comfortably and safely made the long journey of a day and two nights to Petersburg. Arriving, the boats were unshipped into the Appomattox river, and the entire party floated down it to City Point where it debouches into the James. It was contemplated that when City Point was reached to make a dash at any one Federal gunboat, should there be the slightest prospect of success; but learning from our scouts, on our arrival after dark, that the gunboats and transports at anchor there equaled of the number of our own boats at least, we had to abandon our ideas of trying to make a capture, and were compelled to hug the opposite banks very closely, where the river is nearly four miles wide, and in that manner ship up the James pulling hard against the current. By the next evening we arrived, without any further adventure, at Drury's Bluff, where we disembarked; our boats shown as mementos of the searching fire we had been subjected to--for they all were perforated by many minnie balls, the white wooden plugs inserted into the holes averaging fourteen to each boat engaged; they were all shot into them from stem to stern lengthwise.

Among the many incidents that occurred on the trip there were to which left a lasting impression on my mind, and to this day they are as vivid as if they had happened yesterday. As we were stepping into the boats at the island that night, the lights of the gunboat plainly visible from the spot on which we stood, a bloody, serious action inevitable, several of the midshipmen, youth-like, were gaily chatting about what they intended to do--joyous and confident, and choosing each other for mates to fight together shoulder to shoulder--when one of them who stood near me in the darkness made the remark, as a conclusion as we were taking our places in the boats:

"I wonder, boys, how many of us will be up in those stars by to-morrow morning ?" This rather jarred on the ears of we older ones, and looking around to see who it was that had spoken, I recognized the bright and handsome Palmer Sanders. Poor fellow, he was the only one who took his flight, though many of the others were severely wounded.

On our route down to Kingston by rail we were obliged to make frequent stops for wood and water, and at every station the young midshipmen swarmed into the depots and houses, full of their fun and deviltry, making friends of the many pretty girls gathered there, who asked all manner of questions as to this strange sight of boats on cars filled with men in a uniform new to them.

The young gentlemen explained very glibly what they were going to do--"to board, capture and destroy as many of the enemy's gunboats as possible."  "Well, when you return," replied the girls, "be sure that you bring us some relics--flags, &c." "Yes, yes; we'll do it," answered the boys. "But what will you give us in exchange?" "Why, only thanks, of course." "That won't do. Give us a kiss for each flag--will you?"

With blushes and much confusion, the girls consented, and in a few moments we were off and away on our journey again. On the return trip the young men, never for an instant forgetting the bargain they had made, manufactured several miniature flags. We old ones purposely stopped at all the stations we had made coming down in order to see the fun. The young ladies were called out at each place, and after the dead were lamented, the wounded in the cars cared for, then the midshipmen brought out their flags, recalled the promises made to them, and demanded their redemption. Immediately there commenced a lively outburst of laughter and denials, a skirmish, followed by a slight resistance, and the whole bevy were kissed seriatim by the midshipmen, and but for the whistle of train warning them away, they would have continued indefinitely.

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