The Powder Vessel

"A Mere Puff of Smoke"

The Powder Vessel - USS 'Louisiana'

The Powder Vessel, USS Louisiana
Harper's Weekly

"I had no confidence in the success of the scheme, and so expressed myself." — Ulysses S. Grant, General-in-Chief, United States Army

By late October 1864, the U.S. Navy's armada of some 150 warships and transports had been assembled at Hampton Roads, Virginia. Adm. David D. Porter was ready to begin the expedition against Fort Fisher. But Ulysses S. Grant had yet to furnish the army ground forces necessary for the operation's success. After visiting with Grant, Porter came away feeling that the general was stalling for lack of interest, and felt that Grant simply wanted to end the war in Virginia — without the help of the navy. Porter complained to the Navy Department in Washington.

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles sought to speed things up by again reminding Abraham Lincoln of the importance of the army's participation. On October 28 he wrote the president: "You are aware that owing to the shoal water at the mouth of the Cape Fear River a purely naval attack can not be undertaken against Wilmington . . . but until recently there never seems to have been a period when [the War] Department was in a condition to entertain the subject." Welles further complained that the navy's immense flotilla was "lying idle, awaiting the movements of the army . . . . General [Braxton] Bragg has been sent from Richmond to Wilmington to prepare for the attack, and the autumn weather so favorable for such an expedition is fast passing away. The public expect this attack and the country will be distressed if it be not made; to procrastinate much longer will be to peril its success."

Yielding to political pressure, Grant once more agreed to detach an infantry force to accompany the expedition. But by early November Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, commander of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, had concocted an ambitious scheme to blow down the walls of Fort Fisher and stun its garrison into submission by means of a giant floating bomb. Though Lincoln showed little interest, Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus Fox loved the idea, and ordered the navy's Bureau of Ordnance to assess its feasibility. Not without skepticism, they concluded that a "powder boat," well placed and properly fitted, just might succeed in reducing the fort. Before long Admiral Porter decided that the scheme was worth a try, much to the chagrin of General Grant and Secretary Welles. The admiral decided to sacrifice the USS Louisiana for the grand experiment, and by the end of November she lay at Gosport Navy Yard, where she was stripped and disguised to look like a blockade-runner.

The Powder Vessel - Starboard Cutaway The Powder Vessel - Top View

With early December came Grant's turn to become impatient about the delay in embarking for North Carolina. He had recently learned of Bragg's departure from Cape Fear with reinforcements to oppose Sherman's advance in Georgia. In his opinion, now was the time to act. On the 4th he wrote to Butler: "I feel great anxiety to see the Wilmington expedition off . . . . Sherman may be expected to strike the sea coast [at Savannah] any day, leaving Bragg free to return. I think it advisable to notify Admiral Porter and get off without any delay with or without your powder boat." Grant hounded Butler repeatedly until mid-December, when the flotilla finally got under way.

The transports carrying 6,500 men of the Federal Army of the James arrived off Cape Fear on December 15. Porter arrived on the 18th with 64 warships, having stopped at Beaufort, N.C., to take on fuel and ammunition for his unwieldy ironclad monitors, and to finish fitting the Louisiana with a huge complement of gunpowder.

On Monday, December 19, the favorable weather at Cape Fear deteriorated. A violent gale blew in, disrupting the fleet, and forcing the army transports to return to Beaufort for four days. The warships remained at Cape Fear. Onshore the Confederates made good use of the bad weather, which gave them more time to prepare for the coming assault. Col. William Lamb removed his slave laborers from the area, and evacuated his wife and children to Orton Plantation on the west side of the Cape Fear. By December 17, Bragg had returned to Wilmington.

The long awaited Federal invasion was at hand. With great reluctance, Robert E. Lee finally dispatched a force of veteran infantry to oppose the impending attack on Wilmington. On December 20, Gen. Robert F. Hoke's Division set out on a miserable journey by rail to North Carolina.

By December 23, the Federals were preparing to launch the powder boat against Fort Fisher. With the fleet stationed 12 miles out, Cmdr. A. C. Rhind steered the Louisiana, burdened with 215 tons of powder, toward the shore. Under cover of darkness, the USS Wilderness towed her into the shallows. After setting an elaborate fuse and clockwork system and building a fire in propeller shaft, Rhind dropped anchor, abandoned the doomed ship, and was pulled in a launch to the Wilderness. By the sound of the crashing waves he estimated the ship was about 300 yards from the Northeast Bastion of Fort Fisher. It was 12:20 a.m. Unbeknownst to Rhind, an undertow and offshore breeze had pulled the Louisiana off course.

The Federals waited impatiently for the grand finale. Finally, at 1:40 a.m. on Christmas Eve, the powder boat erupted in bright flames and a shock wave rolled across the ocean, rattling the masts and rigging of the vessels. But Fort Fisher remained intact, for the ship had detonated too far from the structure to cause any damage. "Butler's Folly" had proven a complete failure, and when word reached Washington Secretary Welles lamented in his diary that the whole affair had ended in "a mere puff of smoke."

"It was a much too clear and starlight night for such a purpose . . . . the parapets and embrasures of the fort loomed up almost as distinctly as in the day time . . . . It took some twelve or fifteen minutes for [Cmdr. Rhind] to start the clocks, and adjust the fuzes, which being done he gave the signal, and we pulled him alongside [in a launch]. The rebels now discovered us and challenged us from the beach, but we cut the hawser by which we were moored and the little Wilderness dashed forward to seaward as if she too knew the value of every moment of time till we were out of range of the guns of the fort and clear of the powder ship. . . .[T]he Louisiana blew with a terrific explosion. An immense column of flame rose towards the sky, and four distinct reports like that of sharp heavy thunder were heard and a dense mass of smoke enveloped everything."
— Lt. Roswell H. Lamson, USS Gettysburg, in command of the Wilderness for the grand experiment

"I watched the burning vessel for half an hour . . . . Returning to my quarters, I laid down on my lounge to get a rest before the anticipated engagement next day [when] I felt a gentle rocking of the small brick house . . . which I would have attributed to imagination or vertigo, but it was instantly followed by an explosion, sounding very little louder than the report of a ten-inch Columbiad . . . . The vessel was doubtless afloat when the explosion occurred [as opposed to grounded], or the result might have been very serious."
— Col. William Lamb, commander of Fort Fisher

Text used with permission. All rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.

NOTICE: Powder Vessel graphics © Mark A. Moore.
All rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.


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