Back of 23 December 2012 I brought you the story of Canadian William Garvin, serving in the US Navy during the Civil War. Garvin and several other Canadians fought in the battle of Fort Fisher on two occasions and the earlier blog told of the story of loading up a boat with explosives and sailing it towards the edge of the fort and lighting it in the hopes of blowing up the enemy fort. I am bringing this story back to life, for the new reader and adding the notes that one of the other Canadians on that vessel would also later be awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions, as did Garvin.
Fort Fisher clearly had to be taken by the Union. It protected the access to the port of Wilmington North Carolina. This port was the last stronghold for the blockade runners that regularly brought in supplies and troops for the Confederacy. Its destruction would mean the war would soon end.
So plans were drawn up that would only involve a highly select crew. Coming from the USS Agawam, pictured above, at least one of those pictured was involved in the execution of the plan. It would be none other that the commander of the vessel...Alexander C. Rhind. He is at extreme right and has his foot on a step. Others in the photos may also have participated
Of the several Canadians serving on the vessel, at least 3 would take part in the mission. Two of the three would be awarded a Medal of Honor for their bravery. A third, Lt Sam Preston from Toronto was the subject of past blogs which argued that while not qualified on the date of the event, he later became so and ought to have been awarded one. But this never happened.
Those selected were volunteers who well knew that it was a suicide mission and most onboard did not expect to ever see them again. The men made up their wills and even sent home letters before they set off on the day in question.
The men had to first sail her to a friendly port and strip her down, including all weaponry, and then packing her with over 215 tons of gunpowder in 50 pound sandbags and canisters placed at several points throughout the ship. Then an elaborate timing mechanism had to be wired throughout the ship that would allow for the lighting, while two were still on board and then exit without delay.
But for the entire sail back to the start point, another 100 miles away, the crew would then be siting on a time bomb just waiting to explode. Any accidents or sparks on the deck or enemy shelling would surely blow them all to eternity. But a job is a job and they sailed her back to the start point without incident.
Putting the plan into play, another vessel was tasked to tow them into the spot from which it would be steered into place. The towing was because the Union did not want the enemy to hear the engines of any vessels and tip them off that something strange was in play. But when they got to the appropriate point they were called off, with the vessel still under foot and ordered back out of the harbour area. Apparently weather conditions became too unfriendly.
But then they had to sit for several days for conditions to become more favourable. Still sitting on their self-created time bomb all of the time. Finally, on December 23 1864 they got the go-ahead, hooked up yet again and towed into place. But then there was another problem. There was too much light, and a real fear that the enemy would surely see them if they moored at the originally place, the 150 yard point off the fort. So they anchored it at 450 yards away from the target.
This is one side of Fort Fisher, from the water looking in at the massive walls. The high mounds contained batteries of very heavy cannons. The left was in Civil War days and the right in more recent years.
When the Louisiana was finally in place and all fuses checked, all of the men left the vessel in rowboats and headed out a dozen miles into the sea and the awaiting USS Agawam. But the Commander and Torontonian Lt. Sam Preston, above mentioned, stayed on board to set the lighting mechanism in action. It seems that they had numerous problems and so the two officers decided to actually light the cabin on fire, and if all else failed that would spread to the powder all over the ship and blow her up.
But like most of the steps so far, this also failed. After the cabin was lit the two officers also made their escape back to the Agawam. And there they waited and waited and waited. Finally after a 30 minute delay the ship blew...but not nearly as expected. The tides carried her further away, and into a spot that would have no effect on crumbling the walls as hoped for. In fact the winds blew off about 80% of the gun powder, and the big bang was little more than a baby puff. The noise could be heard 20 miles away but since it was in the early am, most of the confederates were still down in their bunkers...very deep under ground. Many were not even awaked by the explosion because the earth muffled the sounds.
Fort Fisher would be taken... but certainly not on this day. And Wilmington would fall soon after and the war would soon be over.
It was on the USS Agawam that Commander Rhind actually presented Medals of Honor on 12 May 1865 to either 8 or 9 sailors, Garvin being one of these and John Neil from Newfoundland being another.
That was 148 years ago Sunday.
While there is some heavy disagreement with a grave yard in California and the Congressional Medal of Honor Society of the United States and the Medal of Honor Historical Society of the US and myself, it is strongly believed that John Neil would end up serving some 32 years in the US, mostly in the navy and possible briefly in the army first at the beginning of the Civil War.
More research is needed but it is believed he is buried in a grave that does not state that he is a MOH recipient, but eyes are watching and investigations continue.