Confederate torpedoes could not sink John Crosby for long

Orland sailor John K. Crosby was stationed aboard the USS Housatonic in February 1864. (U.S. Navy Photo)

Orland sailor John K. Crosby was stationed aboard the USS Housatonic in February 1864. While patrolling the approaches to Charleston, S.C. that month, the 1,240-ton steam sloop made military history. (U.S. Navy Photo)

To paraphrase Psalm 107, Orland sailor John K. Crosby literally “went down [in]to the sea in ships” twice, but Confederate subs and torpedoes could not keep this “old salt” sunk for long.

Born in Cutler on May 9, 1831, Crosby arrived in Orland with his family nine years later. He joined a Grand Banks-bound fishing schooner in 1845; the sea’s ever-changing moods drew him constantly from life ashore, and by 1859 Capt. Crosby skippered the Orland-built brig “Adeline P. Fluker.”

Soon after Confederate troops captured Fort Sumter, Navy warships started blockading Southern ports to prevent vital military supplies from reaching the Confederate armies. The Union lacked ships and sailors; Navy agents could buy almost every available ship that floated, but only by recruiting aggressively among America’s far-flung merchant fleet could the Navy hope to find enough men to man its burgeoning fleet.

Crosby joined the Navy at Boston on Monday, Feb. 24, 1862 and soon reported aboard the USS Housatonic. Launched at the Boston Navy Yard the previous November, the 1,240-ton steam sloop was being outfitted prior to her late August 1862 commissioning. Crosby and the Housatonic joined the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron off Charleston, S.C. in mid-September.

Navy warships maintained a relatively tight blockade on Charleston, still an active Confederate port frequented by blockade runners. Blockading duty was already hazardous near the shifting sands of the Charleston Bar; as Crosby stepped onto the Housatonic’s quarterdeck as officer of the deck after sunset on Saturday, Feb. 17, 1864, he knew that a Confederate naval squadron had occasionally sallied from Charleston to attack the Federal warships.

The USS Housatonic lay anchored about 5½ miles from Confederate-held Fort Sumter. “The weather … was clear, the night bright and moonlight, [the] wind moderate from the northward and westward, sea smooth and tide half ebb, the ship’s head [pointed] about” west-northwest, a court of inquiry reported later.

Crosby walked the deck, checked with the posted lookouts, and watched the ocean himself. About 8:45 p.m. Crosby “and the lookout stationed at the starboard cathead, on the starboard bow of the ship,” spotted an object about “about 75 or 100 yards distant,” the court of inquiry reported.

“It had the appearance of a plank moving in the water,” the Housatonic’s executive officer, Lt. Francis J. Higginson described the object in a Feb. 18 report. “It came directly toward the ship, the time from when it was first seen till it was close alongside being about two minutes.”

The object “presented a suspicious appearance” while moving “with a speed of 3 or 4 knots” and “exhibiting two protuberances above [the water line] and making a slight ripple in the water,” the court reported.

A war artist sketched the moment when an explosion damaged the starboard quarter of the USS Housatonic on Feb. 17, 1864. (Library of Congress)

A war artist sketched the moment when an explosion damaged the starboard quarter of the USS Housatonic on Feb. 17, 1864. Orland sailor John K. Crosby was the officer of the deck that fateful night; he and a lookout simultaneously spotted a “plank moving in the water” toward the ship and sounded the alarm. The CSS Hunley torpedoed the USS Housatonic, which became the first warship to be torpedoed by an enemy submarine. (Library of Congress)

“During this time the [anchor] chain was slipped, [the] engine backed, and all hands called to quarters,” Higginson wrote. “The torpedo struck the ship forward of the mizzenmast, on the starboard side, in a line with the magazine. Having the after pivot gun pivoted to port[,] we were unable to bring a gun to bear upon” the approaching object.

The spar-rigged torpedo carried by the submarine CSS Hunley struck the Housatonic forward of the mizzenmast and exploded. The sea poured through a hole Crosby estimated at 10 feet square, and the sloop sank within five minutes in 27 feet of water. Higginson noted that the Housatonic sank “stern first” while “heeling to port.”

Crosby survived the sinking, but five Housatonic sailors did not: Ensign E.C. Hazeltine, Yeoman Charles Muzzey, Landsman Theodore Parker, Fireman Second Class John Walsh, and Quartermaster John Williams.

The primitive Confederate submarine CSS Hunley lays on a Charleston dock. Maine sailor John K. Crosby spotted the submarine approaching the USS Housatonic after dark on Feb. 17, 1864. (Harper's Weekly)

The primitive Confederate submarine CSS Hunley lays on a Charleston dock. Maine sailor John K. Crosby spotted the submarine approaching the USS Housatonic after dark on Feb. 17, 1864. (Harper’s Weekly)

Crosby then served aboard the USS Cameron before reporting as skipper aboard the USS Harvest Moon, a side-wheel steamer launched in Portland in 1863 and used by Rear Adm. John A. Dahlgren as his flagship. He had assumed command of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron in 1863.

Crosby’s tenure aboard the USS Harvest Moon did not end well either.

Wednesday, March 1, 1865, found the steamer “laying at anchor at Winyah Bay, SC … near and abreast Battery White,” Crosby testified before a Navy court of inquiry held April 27, 1865 at Georgetown, S.C. Under questioning by the judge advocate, Acting Assistant Quartermaster Charles A. Gable, Crosby explained what had happened to the second ship that Confederates had blown up beneath his feet.

“I got underway at 7:15 a.m., in obedience to the Admiral’s orders and proceeded down the bay through Marsh Channel” at “about six and one half knots,” Crosby testified. He had taken aboard “pilots W.T. Uptegrove and W.S. Nany” to help navigate the channel.

Below deck, Dahlgren “was pacing about the cabin waiting for breakfast, occasionally taking a squint with the glass at objects along the shore,” the admiral later wrote in his diary. Wednesday was “a dull looking morning, with the usual leaden-colored NE sky,” and “a little after seven” the Harvest Moon headed “for Charleston.

“I had dressed as usual, and just concluded,” Dahlgren wrote.

“About two miles from Battery White bearing NNW I heard a heavy explosion aft followed by a loud crash,” Crosby testified. “At this time I was standing in the Pilot House, I immediately jumped out of the pilot [house] and ran aft to see what the matter was.”

“Suddenly, without warning, came a crashing sound, a heavy shock,” and “the partition between the cabin and the wardrobe was shattered and driven towards me,” Dahlgren recalled. He heard “the hurried tramp of men’s feet, and a voice of someone in the water was heard shrieking, as if badly hurt.”

Dahlgren figured “the boilers had burst, then the smell of burnt gunpowder suggested that the magazine had exploded.”

Crosby discovered “that the ship was sinking very rapidly.” He “immediately gave orders to call away all boats and on making an examination I found a large hole, 10 by 12 feet square, stove through to the main deck fifteen to twenty feet aft of the shaft on the starboard side, caused I supposed by running onto an iron Rebel torpedo (mine), and exploded under her bottom.”

Dahlgren donned “my pea-coat and cap and sallied forth” onto the deck. He concurred that “a torpedo had been struck by poor old ‘Harvest Moon’ and she was sinking.”

The flagship sink in 15 feet of water in “not over two minutes and a half,” Crosby testified. “The spar and hurricane deck was above water, and the gun deck one foot underwater.”

After hearing from six additional witnesses, the court exonerated Crosby of all blame. “I had no idea there were any torpedoes in the channel,” he told the three judges; the other witnesses agreed.

By now the war was over. The Navy struck the sunken USS Harvest Moon from the rolls. Crosby left the Navy months later and returned to Orland, where he married Irene Dorr in February 1867. They lie buried side by side in Orland’s Oak Grove Cemetery.

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jive with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.