The Sinking of the USS Hatteras

The Union Navy’s USS Hatteras was in the news 150 years after it was sunk in the Gulf of Mexico by the CSS Alabama on January 11th, 1863. A scientific expedition consisting of researchers from several national and state agencies, plus other organizations used sonar to draw a three dimensional picture of the wreck as it lies today in about 60 feet of water 20 miles from Galveston, Texas.  More about that later, but first, some background on the Hatteras and how it ended up on the bottom of the Gulf.

The Hatteras was a 210 foot long side wheel steamer originally built as a civilian ship that was converted to military use as part of the Union blockade of Confederate ports.  The vessel had conducted raids and captured several blockade runners off the coasts of Florida and Louisiana in 1861 and 1862 before joining the blockade off the Texas coast near Galveston on January 6th, 1863, with Lieutenant Commander Homer C. Blake in command.  The ship’s career came to an abrupt end on January 11th when it engaged the Confederate commerce raider CSS Alabama under the command of Captain Raphael Semmes.  Alabama sank Hatteras after a 20 minute exchange of cannon fire; two crewmen from the Hatteras were killed in the action.  Six men managed to escape and the rest of the 126 man officers and crewmen were captured and taken to Jamaica, where they were paroled.

Here’s Blake’s official report of the action, filed when he was in Jamaica:

Kingston, Jamaica, January 21, 1863.

SIR: It is my painful duty to inform the Department of the destruction of the U.S.S. Hatteras, recently under my command, by the Confederate steamer Alabama on the night of the 11th instant off the coast of Texas. The circumstances of the sad disaster are as follows:

Upon the afternoon of the 11th instant at 3:30 o’clock, while at anchor in company with the fleet under Commodore Bell, off Galveston, Tex., I was ordered by a signal from the U.S. flagship Brooklyn to chase a sail to the southward and eastward. I got underway immediately and steamed with all speed in the direction indicated. After some time the strange sail could be seen from the Hatteras and was ascertained to be a steamer, which fact I communicated to the flagship by signal. I continued the chase and rapidly gained upon the suspicious vessel. Knowing the slow rate of speed of the Hatteras, I at once suspected that deception was being practiced, and hence ordered the ship to be cleared for action with everything in readiness for a determined attack and a vigorous defense. When within about 4 miles of the vessel, I observed that she had ceased to steam and was lying broadside on, awaiting us. It was nearly 7 o’clock and quite dark, but notwithstanding the obscurity of the night I felt assured from the general character of the vessel and her maneuvering, that I should soon encounter the rebel steamer Alabama.

Being able to work but four guns upon one side of the Hatteras, two short 32-pounders, one 30-pounder rifled Parrott gun, and one 20-pounder rifled gun, I concluded to close with her in order that my guns might be effective, if necessary. I came within easy speaking range, about 75 yards, and upon asking “What steamer is that?” received the answer, “Her Britannic Majesty’s ship Vixen.” I replied that I would send a boat aboard, and immediately gave the order. In the meantime both vessels were changing their positions, the stranger endeavoring to gain a desirable position for a raking fire. Almost simultaneously with the piping away of the boat the strange craft again replied, “We are the Confederate steamer Alabama,” which was accompanied by a broadside. I at the same moment returned the fire. Being well aware of the many vulnerable points of the Hatteras, I hoped by closing with the Alabama to be able to board her, and thus rid the seas of this piratical craft.

I steamed directly for the Alabama, but she was enabled by the great speed and the foulness of the bottom of the Hatteras, and consequently her diminished speed, to thwart my attempt, when I had gained a distance of but 30 yards from her. At this range, musket and pistol shots were exchanged. The firing continued with great vigor on both sides. At length a shell entered amidship in the hold, setting fire to it, and at the same instant, as I can hardly divide the time, a shell passed through the sick bay, exploding in an adjoining compartment, also producing fire. Another entered the cylinder, filling the engine room and deck with steam, and depriving me of all power to maneuver the vessel or to work the pumps, upon which the reduction of the fire depended.

With the vessel on fire in two places, and beyond human power a hopeless wreck upon the water, with her walking beam shot away and her engine rendered useless, I still maintained an active fire, with a double hope of disabling the Alabama and of attracting the attention of the fleet off Galveston, which was only 28 miles distant. It was soon reported to me that shells had entered the Hatteras at the water line, tearing off entire sheets of iron, and that the water was rushing m, utterly defying every attempt to remedy the evil, and that she was rapidly sinking. Learning this melancholy truth, and observing that the Alabama was on my port bow, entirely beyond range of my guns, doubtless preparing for a raking fire of the decks, I felt that I had no right to sacrifice uselessly, and without any desirable result, the lives of all under my command.

To prevent the blowing up of the Hatteras from the fire, which was making much progress, I ordered the magazine to be flooded, and afterwards a lee gun to be fired. The Alabama then asked if assistance was desired, to which an affirmative answer was given.

The Hatteras was now rapidly going down, and, in order to save the lives of my officers and men, I caused the armament of the ship on the port side to be thrown overboard. Had I not done so, I am confident that the vessel would have gone down with many hearts and valuable lives. After considerable delay, caused by a report that a steamer was seen coming from Galveston, the Alabama sent us assistance, and I have the pleasure to inform the Department that every living being was conveyed safely from the Hatteras to the Alabama. Ten minutes after leaving the Hatteras she went down bow first with her pennant at her masthead, with all her muskets and stores of every character, the enemy not being able, owing to her rapid sinking, to obtain a single weapon.

The battery upon the Alabama brought into action against the Hatteras numbered seven guns, consisting of four long 32-pounders, one 100-pounder rifle gun, one 68-pounder, and one 24-pounder rifled gun.

The great superiority of the Alabama, with her powerful battery and her machinery, etc., under the water line, must be at once recognized by the Department, who are familiar with the construction of the Hatteras and her total unfitness for a contest with a regularly built vessel of war. The distance between the Hatteras and the Alabama during the action varied from 25 to 100 yards. Nearly fifty shots were fired from the Hatteras, and I presume a greater number from the Alabama.

I desire to refer to the efficient and active manner in which Acting Master Henry [O.] Porter, executive officer, performed his duty. The conduct of Assistant Surgeon Edward S. Matthews, both during action and afterwards, in attention to the wounded, demands my unqualified commendation. I would also bring to the favorable notice of the Department Acting Master’s Mate F. J. McGrath, temporarily performing duty as gunner. Owing to the darkness of the night and the peculiar construction of the Hatteras, I am able only to refer to the conduct of those officers who came under my especial attention, but from the character of the contest and the amount of damage done to the Alabama, I have personally no reason to believe that any officer failed in his duty. To the men of the Hatteras I can not give too much praise. Their enthusiasm and bravery was of the highest order.

I enclose the report of Assistant Surgeon Edward S. Matthews, by which you will observe that five men were wounded and two killed. The missing, it is hoped, have reached the fleet at Galveston. I shall communicate to the Department, in a separate report, the movements of myself and command from the time of our transfer to the Alabama until the departure of the earliest mail from this place to the United States.

I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Lieutenant-Commander, U.S. Navy.

Secretary of the Navy, Washington, D.C.

From Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies Series I, Volume 2

Although the Hatteras sank a century and a half ago, it remains property of the U.S. Navy and is protected as a historic site.  The location of the ship has been known for years, but little of it has been observed due to sand and silt covering it; plus all the sand and silt in the water on the sea floor in the area makes it difficult to get pictures or even see it.

Recent storms uncovered parts of the wreck, and the scientific team from NOAA, Texas A&M University at Galveston, the Texas Historical Commission, and other agencies went to work with a sonar capable of producing a three dimensional images of the wreck.

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