Sea fight on Albemarle Sound, part 1

A placid Albemarle Sound extends west from Duck on the Outer Banks in North Carolina. Miles to the west, a slam-bang sea fight took place on the sound on May 5, 1864 between a Union blockading squadron and a Confederate ironclad. (Brian F. Swartz Photo)

Charles Addison Boutelle sensed trouble.

Today — Thursday, May 5, 1864 — had dawned clear, already 63 degrees at 4 a.m. A southwesterly breeze flitted gently across Albemarle Sound in North Carolina as the temperature climbed steadily to 69 degrees at 8 a.m. and 83 degrees at noon.

The North Carolina sun beat relentlessly on the USS Sassacus, a double-ended side-wheel steamer commanded by Lt. Cmdr. Francis A. Roe. Displacing 974 tons, the 205-foot Sassacus carried two 100-pounder Parrott rifles, four 9-inch Dahlgren smoothbores, two 24-pounder howitzers, a 12-pounder rifled cannon, and a smoothbore 12-pound.

The ship carried 145 officers and men, including Acting Master Boutelle. The “acting” identified him as a volunteer, not regular Navy, and upon such volunteers had Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles relied to crew the expanding wartime fleet.

Born in Damariscotta, Charles A. Boutelle went to sea at age 15 with his ship-captain father. Boutelle joined the Navy as an acting master in spring 1862. (Maine State Archives)

The Sassacus lay anchored in deep water near Bluff Point. Nearby floated the brand new, Boston-built USS Mattabesett (1,192 tons and 14 guns), commissioned on April 7, 1864. She belonged to Commander John Carson Febiger, recently transferred from western waters and served as the flagship for the inshore squadron blockading Albemarle Sound, Capt. Melancton Smith III, “Senior Officer in the Sounds.”

The USS Wyalusing (1,192 tons and 14 guns, Lt. Cmdr. Walter W. Queen) and USS Whitehead (138 tons and one 100-pounder Parrott rifle, Acting Ensign G.W. Barrett) swung at their chains near Mattabesett.

Born in Damariscotta in February 1839 to ship’s Captain Charles and Lucy (Curtis) Boutelle, Charles Boutelle moved with his parents to Brunswick in 1848 and attended local schools and North Yarmouth Academy. Going to sea with his father at age 15, he learned blue-water seamanship and evolved into a capable deck officer..

Overseas in 1861, Boutelle returned home in February 1862 and volunteered for naval duty, “for which he felt best fitted.” In early April Boutelle joined the USS Paul Jones in the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron and participated in blockading duties and some combat from South Carolina to Florida before joining the Sacassus in fall 1863 as its “sailing-master and ordnance officer.”

Boutelle became the warship’s “navigating officer” by early spring 1864.

Built at the Portsmouth Navy Shipyard in Kittery, the Sassacus slid down the ways on December 23, 1862. Commissioned in October 1863 and plagued by mechanical breakdowns that benched her from the Washington Navy Yard to Hampton Roads, the Sassacus reached Albemarle Sound in latter April 1864.

Jutting deep into northeastern North Carolina, Albemarle Sound narrows westward past Laurel Point on the south shore and Drummond Point to the north. The sound widens again before ending where its major tributaries, the Chowan River and Roanoke River, reach the sea, the Roanoke at Batchelor’s Bay, Albemarle Sound’s southwestern corner.

With the Army occupying Plymouth and Navy warships offshore, Union forces controlled the western sound in early spring 1864. Edenton had endured the occasional naval “show-the-flag” visitation and the rare Army raid, but “became neutral ground for both Confederates and Federals,” noted historian Richard Dillard.

Mid-winter 1864 negotiations with Maj. Gen. Ben Butler, commanding the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, led to him promising that if Edenton and Chowan County residents behaved, “they will not be interfered with by the troops of the United States.”

Then a Confederate threat emerged that spring.

Working in a rude shipyard set up in a cornfield alongside the Roanoke River, skilled laborers took 15 months to finish the ironclad CSS Albemarle.

The Confederate Navy had hired Lt. Gilbert Elliott in mid-April 1862 to build an ironclad to destroy Union warships blockading the North Carolina sounds. Hailing from Elizabeth City on the Pasquotank River in North Carolina, he established a crude shipyard in a cornfield at Edward’s Ferry on the Roanoke River.

The cornfield belonged to plantation owner Peter Smith, hired by Elliott as construction superintendent. John L. Porter, chief constructor for the Confederate Navy, designed the ironclad while relying on Elliott-drawn sketches.

Transforming the night into day, a period artist drew the CSS Albemarle ramming and sinking the USS Southfield in the Roanoke River.

The Albemarle went to Commander James Wallace Cooke, a native North Carolinian who had resigned a U.S. Navy lieutenancy in 1861 to sail for the Confederacy.

Measuring 158 feet long and 34.5 feet wide, the Albemarle drew nine feet with her flat bottom. Sloped at 30 degrees, the casemate contained six gun portholes: one each at bow and stern and one apiece set 90 degrees to starboard and port of the end portholes. A large iron shutter protected each porthole.

Two Elliott-built 200-horsepower steam engines turned twin three-bladed screw propellers. Top speed was around four knots.

Armament comprised a double-banded,100-pounder Brooke rifle mounted forward and a similar Brooke mounted aft. Each gun pivoted 180 degrees to fire from three portholes.

Emerging from the Roanoke River darkness early on April 19, 1864, the CSS Ablemarle (center) rammed and sank the Union gunboat USS Southfield in this more accurate view of the attack.

The ironclad’s “armor consists of 2-inch iron plates (English), 6 inches wide, placed longitudinally” over the 14-inch-thick wood casemate, Melancton Smith noted. The armor extended across the deck and angled over the hull to protect the Albemarle’s waterline, indicated Melancton Smith. Made from “a solid wedge of iron,” the submerged prow was “3 feet in length and 2 in breadth.”

Construction started in January 1863 and finished as Cooke took the Albemarle downriver on April 15, 1864 to support a Confederate attack on Union-held Plymouth. Emerging from the darkness at 3:30 a.m., April 19, the ironclad attacked the lashed-together side-wheel gunboats USS Miami (742 tons and six guns) and USS Southfield (762 tons and four guns).

The Albemarle rammed and sank the Southfield. Freed from its lashings, the Miami dropped downriver. Damaged by the ramming, the ironclad steamed upriver for repairs. Confederates captured Plymouth, thus giving Cooke access to Albemarle Sound.

Startled by the ironclad’s success, Smith anticipated another attack against his squadron and planned to lure Cooke out on the sound, where the larger Union warships could maneuver better.

Sources: Cmdr. John C. Febiger, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Vol. 9, p. 750 (additional Volume 9 entries will refer to OR); Capt. Melancton Smith III, OR, p. 735; History of Penobscot County Maine, p. 766; H. Clay Williams, Biographical Encyclopaedia of Maine of The Nineteenth Century, p. 308; Henry Chase, ed., Representative Men of Maine, p. 17; Richard Dillard, M.D., The Civil War in Chowan County, North Carolina, pp. 23-24; Smith, pp. 762-763.

Next week:Sea fight, part 2

For your reading enjoyment, check out part 2 and part 3 of “Sea Fight.”


If you enjoy reading the adventures of Mainers caught up in the Civil War, be sure to like Maine at War on Facebook and get a copy of the new Maine at War Volume 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg, available online at Amazon and all major book retailers, including Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble. —————————————————————————————————————–

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

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 jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.