Our story begins in late 1864 when a Union General had a great idea. Let's blow up Fort Fisher in the middle of the night. We'll load up a warship with gunpowder, set it ablaze and the explosion will knock down the walls of the fort, will dismantle the 44 powerful guns the Confederate have and during the enemy's confusion we will advance thousands of soldiers into the fort and capture all the soldiers that had not yet been killed.
The Fort clearly had to be taken. It protected access to the port of Wilmington North Carolina and this port was the last stronghold for the blockade runners that regularly brought in supplies for the South's war efforts. Its destruction would bring the war much closer to an end.
So plans were drawn up and a very select crew of officers and men, totalling 15 were selected from the crew of the Union's USS Agawam, pictured above. Three of those selected were Canadians. (At least ten were serving on the vessel at that time.) This was no doubt a suicide mission with serious chances that they would not be returning. As in other similar events during the war, the men may have made out their wills and sent letters home to loved ones in the days before the plan was put into place.
But for the entire sail back to the start point... another 100 miles, the crew would be now sitting on a floating bomb. A very big one. Any accident or sparks on the decks, or enemy shots would blow the lot of them sky high.
But they got her loaded up and back to the start point again without incident. Then not wanted to be heard by the enemy, she was towed buy a third vessel towards her target, but then the mission was called off due to whether conditions. So back out to sea they went with their big time bomb. They would have to wait out the several day delay... still sitting on the bomb. Any number of events could have seen them taking their last breath of life. But finally on the 23rd they got the go-ahead and so the tow line was fastened and off they headed towards shore. But there was far too much light for the night and because of a fear that the enemy might see them, it was decided to anchor the vessel about 450 yards off shore. The original plan called for only 150 Yards.
The plan called for the explosion at shortly after 1a.m., but it did not come till about 30 minutes later. By that time the USS Louisiana had drifted a little and experts would later determine that the timing device was a complete failure. It was the fire in the cabin that finally reached the powder. But by that time about 80% of it had blown away by the early morning breeze. The entire exercise was a complete failure as there was little if any damage to the fort. In fact, while heard some 20 miles away, it was also heard in the fort. But because the chambers for the crews were well below ground with tons of earth above them to cushion any blows from enemy shells, they also dulled the noise. Some felt it was little more than one vessel colliding with another way out at sea. It brought no hoped for panic in the fort.
The above picture is from the sea looking onto land and the fort.
Because of the incredible dangers involved, all of the crew except the officers, who were not entitled under then rules, were awarded a Medal of Honor. One would go to Canadian William Garvin and another to Canadian John Neil. (One of the officers was also a Canadian.) I've yet to find the leaf that, if turned over, will reveal the exact jobs of Garvin and Neil on the "powder boat" on that day , 148 years ago today.