Maine at War

Cannonballs flew past a Calais sailor rowing between ironclads

The USS Lehigh was a single-turret ironclad built for the United States Navy during the Civil War. In mid-November 1863 the ironclad ran aground at night off Morris Island at Charleston, S.C. When dawn revealed the stranded ship, Confederate cannons stationed around Charleston Harbor started shooting at the Lehigh. The ironclad was saved by the heroic efforts of her crew, including Seaman Horatio Nelson Young of Calais.
United States Navy
The USS Lehigh was a single-turret ironclad built for the United States Navy during the Civil War. In mid-November 1863 the ironclad ran aground at night off Morris Island at Charleston, S.C. When dawn revealed the stranded ship, Confederate cannons stationed around Charleston Harbor started shooting at the Lehigh. The ironclad was saved by the heroic efforts of her crew, including Seaman Horatio Nelson Young of Calais.
Posted Nov. 26, 2013, at 11:49 a.m.
Last modified March 20, 2014, at 10:35 a.m.
A colorful lithograph published in spring 1863 depicts the April 7, 1863 attack by U.S. Navy ironclads on Fort Sumter, a Confederate-held post locking Union warships from sailing deeper into Charleston Harbor. The largest warship is the USS New Ironsides, among the larger ironclads built for the Navy during the Civil War.
Library of Congress
A colorful lithograph published in spring 1863 depicts the April 7, 1863 attack by U.S. Navy ironclads on Fort Sumter, a Confederate-held post locking Union warships from sailing deeper into Charleston Harbor. The largest warship is the USS New Ironsides, among the larger ironclads built for the Navy during the Civil War.
Two cannons peer over the parapet at Fort Moultrie, located on Sullivan’s Island near Charleston, S.C. In the distance flags wave above Fort Sumter. Confederate troops garrisoned both forts during the Civil War, and from Fort Moultrie Confederate gunners hammered the grounded ironclad USS Lehigh at dawn on Nov. 16, 1863.
Two cannons peer over the parapet at Fort Moultrie, located on Sullivan’s Island near Charleston, S.C. In the distance flags wave above Fort Sumter. Confederate troops garrisoned both forts during the Civil War, and from Fort Moultrie Confederate gunners hammered the grounded ironclad USS Lehigh at dawn on Nov. 16, 1863.

A British naval hero’s namesake rowed to glory at Charleston, S.C., in mid-November 1863.

Horatio Nelson Young was born in Calais on July 19, 1845. Anxious years later to join the fight against the Confederacy, he enlisted in the Navy in Boston and later reported aboard the USS Lehigh, a new ironclad modeled after the USS Monitor.

Skippered by Comm. Andrew Bryson, the Lehigh joined the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron off Charleston in August 1863. Commanded by Rear Adm. John Dahlgren, the squadron had unsuccessfully attempted since spring to subdue the Confederate artillery batteries ringing Charleston Harbor. Aided by naval gunfire, Union infantry had finally captured Morris Island and its fortifications — Gregg and Wagner — in September.

Sometime after dark on Sunday, Nov. 15, Dahlgren ordered Bryson to picket “a position which would enable me to use my guns on any boats of the enemy which might be seen approaching Morris Island,” Bryson noted in a Nov. 17 report.

The USS Lehigh anchored in “3[-½] fathoms of water on a half ebb tide,” and Bryson felt his ship “was perfectly secure” on the site. He noticed that “on the making of the flood tide,” the USS Lehigh “swung” on her anchor. He subsequently believed “that she touched on a lump [of sand] and there hung.

“The water was so smooth and she went on [the sand] so easily that it is impossible for me to say at what time during the night she touched,” the chagrined Bryson admitted.

The eastern horizon gradually brightened on Monday. Aboard the USS Lehigh, sailors scrambled to “get under steam” and rejoin the fleet; Bryson dared not linger off Cumming’s Point because “I was within range of the enemy’s batteries on Sullivan’s Island” to the east.

Bryson knew that if detected so close to shore, his ship could be a sitting duck.

She was. When he ordered USS Lehigh placed under way, “I … found to my surprise that the ship was on the bottom.

A “signal was then made … that assistance might be rendered me,” Bryson remembered.

At approximately 7:15 a.m., a sharp-eyed lookout at Fort Moultrie “discovered …[a monitor] to be aground opposite” the post, recalled Capt. J. Valentine, the fort’s commander.

“As soon as” Confederate gunners “perceived that the ship was ashore, they opened on me from nine different batteries” and soon zeroed on the hapless ironclad, Bryson noted.

Aboard the flagship USS New Ironsides, Dahlgren learned that the USS Lehigh was in big trouble. “I at once signaled to the ironclads to get underway and myself went up in the [USS] Passaic,” boarding that ironclad at 7:55 a.m.

The Passaic anchored 1,000 yards from Fort Moultrie at 8:50 a.m. Boarding his sailor-rowed barge at 9:15 a.m., Dahlgren crossed from the Passaic to the USS Nahant, which he believed “could approach so as to get a hawser aboard the Lehigh” because “the tide was rising.”

“The [ironclad] Nahant being the nearest ship to me immediately came to my assistance and anchored near us,” Bryson noticed as Confederate shot and shell struck the USS Lehigh or whizzed low over her deck.

At Confederate-held Battery Rutledge on Sullivan’s Island, Capt. C.H. Rivers watched as “soon after the engagement began[,], three monitors [Montauk, Nahant and Passaic] came in to protect” the grounded Lehigh.

Even as enemy gunners pounded the Lehigh, sailors aboard the Nahant fired one 15-inch shell at Fort Moultrie at 7:45 a.m. and then fed a hawser through the ironclad’s gun turret. If that hawser could be secured aboard the Lehigh, the Nahant could possibly tug the trapped ironclad into deeper water.

Nahant sailors apparently “lost” the hawser, according to the ironclad‘s “abstract log.” They “hauled it in and ran it again,” this time with close-order assistance from three Lehigh sailors.

Coxswain Thomas Irving, Gunner’s Mate George Leland, and Assistant Surgeon Dr. William Longshaw clambered into a small boat. Enemy shells screamed past as Irving and Leland rowed the boat to the Nahant, where Longshaw handed crewmen “a line bent on the hawser,” Dahlgren later reported. Then Irving and Leland rowed back to the Lehigh, where sailors hauled the line and hawser onto their ironclad’s battered hull.

The hawser “was [promptly] cut by a shell” fired from Fort Moultrie, the Nahant’s abstract log reported.

Back to the Nahant rowed Irving and Leland. Longshaw again handed the line to waiting sailors as “the shot and shells from cannon and mortars were flying and breaking all around,” Dahlgren wrote. Again the rowers pulled hard for the Lehigh, where sailors hauled aboard the hawser.

“It was again cut by a shot from Fort Moultrie,” the Nahant’s log keeper notated.

Time was running out aboard the USS Lehigh. Three sailors volunteered to replace Longshaw and his companions.

Seaman Horatio Nelson Young, Landsman Frank Gile, and Landsman William Williams climbed into the pitching ship’s boat and started pulling for the Nahant. Comrades made themselves small-as-possible targets on the Lehigh’s deck and watched as oars bit into the sea.

For the third time the line reached the Nahant, whose sailors secured it to the hawser. Aboard the Lehigh sailors pulled with all their combined strength, hauled the hawser on deck, and secured it. Signals passed between the two ironclads, and “I ordered the Nahant’s propeller to be started,” Dahlgren reported.

The Nahant then “steamed ahead,” according to that ship’s abstract log.

Bryson ordered the Lehigh’s engine backed as the Nahant took up the strain on the hawser and added her engine’s power to the Lehigh’s. “In the course of an hour the ship floated,” Bryson reported.

“It was the moment of high water and most fortunately the Lehigh yielded and backed off,” Dahlgren breathed deeply. “Even the hawser began to give away.”

Upon “finding [that] we were moving the Lehigh[, we] slipped our [anchor] chain [and] steamed into deep water and cast off from the Lehigh,” the Nahant’s abstract log noted. “During these operations a heavy fire was kept up on the vessels from Fort Moultrie and the batteries on Sullivan’s Island.”

The USS Lehigh took a pounding. Bryson counted enemy shells “striking twenty-two times, nine of which are wounds on the deck plating and these are the most serious of all the wounds she received.”

He initially reported that “no injury has been done [to] the ship by [her] grounding that can be perceived.”

Aboard the USS Lehigh Bryson counted “1 officer and 6 men” wounded, “2 seriously[,] the others slightly.” He praised Irving, Leland and Longshaw for their bravery and informed Dahlgren that “Acting Ensign Richard Burk also commanded my admiration for the courageous manner in which he performed all his duties.” Evidently in charge of the Lehigh’s deck party during the hawser-passing operations, Burk was severely wounded during the battle.

In his report, Dahlgren referred specifically to the line-transferring efforts made by Gile, Williams and Young and then stated that “these [men] I advanced on the spot in their rates. I have also given appointments as acting master’s mates to” Irving and Leland.

Because they were officers, Dahlgren could not automatically promote Burk and Longshaw. He urged that they be promoted because “they risked their lives to save an invaluable vessel which I am glad to say sustained no great damage.”

Writing from Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Dec. 2, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles acknowledged receiving Dahlgren’s report “in relation to the grounding of the Lehigh near Fort Moultrie and calling attention to the meritorious services of certain officers and men under a severe fire.”

Welles was not done. “Medals of honor shall also be awarded to Horatio N Young[,] William Williams[,] and Frank S Gile[,] the three seamen advanced by you in their ratings,” Welles instructed Dahlgren.

Horatio Nelson Young and his brave comrades did receive the Navy’s version of the Medal of Honor. Young would survive the war and return to the St. Croix Valley, where he died in July 1913.

He lies buried in St. Stephen Rural Cemetery, across the St. Croix River from Calais.

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net or visit his blog at http:maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.

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