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1863 December 26: The Sinking of the USS Weehawken

December 29, 2013

The USS Weehawken was an ironclad monitor in the U.S. Navy. Launched on November 5, 1862, and commissioned on January 18, 1863, she was a larger and improved version of the USS Monitor. She had been deployed in the blockade off Charleston (S.C.) harbor since February of 1863. On 7 April, the Weehawken led the Union fleet in the first major naval assault against Confederate installations in Charleston harbor. On August 23 and September 1-2, the Weehawken was one of the ships that bombarded Fort Sumter, pounding it to rubble. On the morning of December 6, 1863, the Weehawken lay anchored off Morris Island, in Charleston harbor, during a moderate gale. Suddenly, the ironclad signalled for assistance and appeared to observers to be sinking. Attempts to beach the vessel failed, and she sank five minutes later.

A court of inquiry found that Weehawken had recently taken on a considerable amount of heavy ammunition in her forward compartments. This change excessively reduced her forward freeboard, causing water to rush down an open hawsepipe and hatch during the storm. As the bow sank, and the stern rose, water could not flow aft to the pumps and the vessel foundered

The following article was taken from the December 26, 1863, issue of The Prescott Journal.

APPALLING DISASTER.

LOSS OF THE MONITOR WEEHAWKEN.

Correspondence N.Y. Herald.

UNITED STATES TRANSPORT FULTON, OFF CHARLETTON [sic], December 8. 1863.—At two o’clock on Sunday afternoon, while a furious wind prevailed from the northwest, the iron-clad Weehawken, lying at the entrance of Charleston harbor, went down at her anchorage—went suddenly, swiftly, and unaccountably to the bottom—and carried with her, to a horrible death beneath the waves, four of her engineers and twenty-six of her crew.

Saturday had been a bright and beautiful day, with scarcely a breath of air astir, and with a calm, unruffled sea.—During the night a breeze sprang up, and the wind blowing freshly at daylight on Sunday, increased by noon to a violent storm.

The iron-clad fleet was lying meantime at its usual anchorage.  The frigate New Ironsides was stationed off Morris Island, at a distance of about one mile due east from Fort Wagner—or, as it is now called Fort Strong.  North of the Ironsides lay the flagship Philadelphia, distant about one hundred yards.  The Weehawken was next, anchored two or three hundred yards to the northward of the flagship.  The first signal of distress was made from the Weehawken, at a few minutes before two o’clock.  The signal was seen and answered at once by the flagship, from which four boats were sent to her assistance, and by the South Carolina, which sent two of her boats to the Weehawken‘s aid.  The tugs Dandelion and Iris were also at once called up, and with them commander Duncan,¹ of the Weehawken, who chanced to be on the flagship, and in conversation with the Admiral, when the signal was made, proceeded immediately with the hope of running his vessel to the beech [sic].  He had scarcely left the Admiral, when the officer of the deck made out from the Weehawken a new signal, and immediately reported her to be sinking.

A moment later she settled swiftly down by the head, careened slightly over to starboard, and disappeared beneath the waves.

"Sinking of the Monitor "Weehawken" at the Siege of Charleston, December 7th [sic], 1863; from a sketch by W. T. Crane

“Sinking of the Monitor “Weehawken” at the Siege of Charleston, December 7th [sic], 1863; from a sketch by W. T. Crane²

It is impossible to convey any idea of the appalling nature of this disaster.  It came with the suddenness of a thunderbolt.  When the first signal of distress was made no one divined how serious was the danger, and when, at length, the vessel went down, it was difficult for those who saw her disappear to credit the evidence of their own senses.  The confusion on the flagship, arising mainly from the difficulty of launching her boats, and the desire of both officers and men to be first in them, was most intense and painful.  The wind was now blowing with great fury and the boats which hastened from all sides to the scene encountered great peril in picking up from the water the few who had succeeded in getting away.  As many others were rescued from the surging waves by the launches of the flagship, the South Carolina and the tugboats Dandelion and Iris.  Thirty perished.

All day the Weehawken had labored heavily in the sea, which kept her decks constantly submerged, and which frequently swept in huge volumes into her forward hatch.  Towards noon the crew commenced paying out chain, to ease her ;  but, accustomed as they were, in every gale, to the shipping of such seas, it is believed that they had grown confident and careless of danger, and paid no heed to the encroaching waters until it was too late to resist them.  They dreamed of no peril till the waves had fairly yawned to swallow them.  Then, when it was known for a certainty that the vessel was to be lost, a paic [sic] of fright and fear benumbed them, and the terror-stricken crew below had little power to help themselves.  There were men in irons between decks, and the sergeant at-arms rushed frantically away to release them.  Poor fellows, they all went down.

There were invalids in the sick bay, and to their relief the surgeon sent his steward, who never returned.  There were firemen at the furnaces, to who vain shrieks for a helping hand at the pumps were made.  A few of the confident were rushing to their quarters to save their effects, jostling the timid on their way to the deck to save themselves.  It was in the midst of scenes like this that the Weehawken went down.

I believe that none of the officers perished save the four assistant engineers, who were overtaken by the flood before they could make any effort to escape.—Commander Duncan had only taken command of the Weehawken on Saturday, having been detached from the Paul Jones to relieve Commander Calhoun.  The officers’ clothing, the paymaster’s funds and the papers of the ship sank with her.

The yeoman was brought alive on board the flagship, and died in spasms a few moments afterward.  Various parties were picked up and taken to the nearest vessel, where every provision was made for their comfort and restoration.  Those of the crew who were saved are now scattered in small squads throughout the fleet.  It is impossible to procure at present the names of those who were lost.

The Weehawken is lying in five fathoms of water, and will soon be raised.—Until she is brought up, no on can tell with certainty why she sank.

1.  Jesse A. Duncan.
2.  This engraving was published in The Soldier in Our Civil War: A Pictorial History of the Conflict, 1861-1865, Illustrating the Valor of the Soldier as Displayed on the Battle-field: from Sketches drawn by Forbes, Waud, Taylor, Beard, Becker, Lovie, Schell, Crane, Davis and Numerous Other Eye-witnesses to the Strife, edited by Paul F. Mottelay and T. Campbell-Copland, (New York: Stanley Bradley Pub. Co., 1893), vol. 2: 184. The UWRF Archives has only volume 1 of this book; this copy of the image comes from the Naval Historical Center’s website, Photo #: NH 58709.

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