Hard Aground on Frying Pan Shoal
By Osborne Ellis
This story was submitted to me for publication a number of years ago by Osborne Ellis who retains his original copyright to the work.
At four o’clock in the early morning darkness and subfreezing cold of Tuesday, February 18, 1862, the nine hundred and eighty men of the Thirteenth Maine struck their tents at Camp Beaufort in Augusta. Maine. The tents and other equipment of the regiment were loaded on sleds for the trip across the ice of the Kennebec River to the railroad station, for they were on their way to War. After waiting on the Arsenal grounds for two hours, the regiment formed for the last time in the State of Maine and marched across the river to the railroad station. In the march they were accompanied by the mounted escort of the First Maine Cavalry as an honor guard.1 During their almost three hour wait to board the twenty-seven car train, the men were served coffee and cakes by the ladies of Augusta.2 Finally the train pulled out and wound its slow way to Portland, arriving there at two in the afternoon. Here the regiment formed for a parade in honor of their commanding officer, who was from that city, and after marching through the streets of Portland again boarded the train for the balance of the trip to Boston.3 By eleven P.M. the train arrived at the Haymarket Station of the Boston & Maine Railroad - a trip of fourteen hours since leaving Augusta.
In Boston, the Thirteenth was quartered in historic Faneuil Hall until the afternoon of February 20, when Col. Dow and his staff, including Major Hesseltine of Waterville and about two hundred men of companies A, B, E & I embarked on the steamer S.S.Mississippi for the voyage to Ship Island, Mississippi, where they were to join General Benjamin Butler’s soon to be designated Department of the Gulf4 . The balance of the regiment remained in Boston until February 27 when they traveled to New York and sailed with a Connecticut regiment on the steamer Fulton, also bound for Ship Island.
Dow is, of course, well known in Maine history as a Civil War general, mayor of Portnad and as the "Father of the Temperance Movement". Hesseltine was the first man to join the Union Army from Waterville, Maine. He and General Butler were graduates of Waterville College - (now Colby College.)
The steamer Mississippi was a newly renovated, three decked ship of two thousand thirty-two tons owned by the Union SS Co. and under the command of Captain Fulton. She was powered by two vertical direct-acting steam engines with cylinders sixty-two inches in diameter with a forty-eight inch stroke which drove the ship by a single stern screw. She was built with two water-tight bulkheads which divided the ship into three water-tight compartments,5 This design would later save her from sure disaster. This was to be the maiden voyage of the overhauled M ississippi. She had not yet had sea trials, the engines had not been tested and the compasses had not been checked.
Also embarked with the four companies of the 13th Maine was the 31st Massachusetts Infantry Regiment under the command of Col. O.P. Gooding.6 The Maine boys were quartered amidships, directly under the main cabin and ship’s galley. They soon discovered that they could obtain additional rations of ‘boiled beef and coffee’ if they reversed the ‘1’ and ‘3’ on caps so that they appeared to be from the 31st regiment. This was soon discovered, however, and the Maine men went back to eating single rations.7
Late in the afternoon of February 22, the Mississippi took in her mooring lines and slowly left the wharf and headed out of Boston Harbor for the open Atlantic. For two days the voyage was pleasant and on the afternoon of February 24, she dropped anchor near Fortress Monroe at Old Point Comfort at the entrance to Hampton Roads near the mouth of the James River. Also anchored nearby were the USS Cumberland and the USS Congress. Less than two weeks later, they would both be destroyed by the CSS Virginia - the former USS Merrimack.8
This story comes to us by way of Osborne Ellis who first published it in January 1994 in the (Waterville, ME) Morning Sentinel. It involves a ridiculous, almost dead-pan comical set of circumstances that will make you groan in anticipation as the story unfolds. I've reprinted it here with only a few additions from Mr. Ellis' emails to me. It reads as an almost perfect rewrite of the old expression of 'out of the frying pan and into the fire'.
Early on the morning of the 25th, a tug brought out several tons of uncharged shells which were loosely stowed on the lower deck - displacing many members of the 13th’s Company E. During the same afternoon, General and Mrs. Benjamin F. Butler, Mrs. Butler’s maid, and the General’s staff boarded the ship. In the early evening the Mississippi weighed anchor and sailed for Hatteras Inlet to pick up Brigadier General Thomas Williams and his staff.9
The sun rose over fair sea and sky on the morning of the twenty-sixth as the Mississippi steamed along the coast of North Carolina. Appearances seemed to assure a pleasant journey to Hatteras Inlet.10 In the afternoon, however, things changed abruptly and by 6 PM, when they were a few miles from their next port of call, the ocean was so rough it was decided to turn seaward and await daylight before crossing the bar to the inlet. As the ship came about to head east, its stern momentarily hit a shoal. By 10 PM, with the wind increasing in intensity, the situation was considered dangerous. There was so much water coming over the bow the fires in the boilers were threatened. Volunteers were called from the 13th. The soldiers of the Maine regiment who had been sailors in civilian life readily turned-to to help work the ship. Almost all the other men on board were unaccustomed to the sea.11
The combination of shallow water and high winds caused great breakers to cover the ship. All the men who were not seasick were working with buckets to try to keep the water from reaching the boilers. The sailor-soldiers of the 13th secured the hatches to slow the flow of water into the ship. This was promptly completed and a wind sail rigged at the hatches to provide fresh air for the seasick soldiers below.12
‘Just show us what is to be done, and we are the men to do it!’
- The soldier-sailors of the 13th Maine.
According to Chaplain Moore of the 13th, the Maine soldier-sailors responded quickly: “....there came into the cabin 15 of the most eager and ready sailors you ever saw, the leader of them saying, ‘Just show us what is to be done, and we are the men to do it!’ They were instantly on deck and in the rigging in a trice, hardly awaiting orders, but seeing at a glance just what was wanted . The mate of the vessel remarked, ‘You can’t teach those men anything.’ It was freely said that under God’s blessing the salvation of the ship from destruction with all her freight of human souls was due to the promptness, courage and skill of those Maine sailors.”13 From 1 AM to 9 AM on Feb. 27th the men toiled at keeping the water under control to save the ship. Throughout the night, the Mississippi rolled to her beams end, her yards almost touching the water on each roll. Many members of both the 13th and 31st were deathly seasick. On the lower deck, the artillery shells had broken loose and were rolling wildly about the hold breaking the stanchions of the soldiers’ bunks and threatening the sick men.14
This wild scene, accompanied with the groans, cursing, and prayers of the sick, and the screeching of the rigging, made the men feel as though death was near. Some, perhaps, would have welcomed the alternative. The only light on the scene during the night was the phosphorescent aurora of the breaking waves which made even the bravest fear for their lives.
By daylight, the wind began to diminish but the sea continued to build until some of the experienced sailors estimated that the waves were at least thirty feet high. The wind continued to moderate until about 9 AM when the sailors were able to rig the main spencer, (a fore and aft sail), which held the ship into the wind so that water no longer threatened the fires. Then they were dismissed from what was probably the hardest work they had ever done in their lives.15
By noon on the 27th of February the sea had calmed greatly, and the task of putting the vessel back together commenced. Because Hatteras Inlet was now far astern, General Butler decided not to return to pick up General Williams but to continue on the voyage to Ship Island. Many of the Maine men felt that nothing else so dangerous or ridiculous could happen to them again, considering what they had been through. Little did they know. 16
With the vessel moving ahead at fair speed,
there was a sound that caused the experienced sailors of the 13th to shudder: the grating of gravel under the keel.
The next morning dawned calm and clear. There was hardly any wind, and the gentle ocean swells were a sharp contrast to the conditions of the previous two days. Just after eight A.M. a Maine sailor-soldier reported to Col. Dow that Cape Fear Lighthouse and Frying Pan Shoal were on the starboard bow, and if something wasn’t done the ship would soon be aground.17 When asked how he knew, he reported that he was familiar with these waters, and the Mississippi was in grave danger. About 9 AM, with the vessel moving ahead at fair speed, there was a sound that caused the experienced sailors of the 13th to shudder: the grating of gravel under the keel. There was no abrupt shock, only the slowing of the ship to a stop. The Mississippi was fast aground on Frying Pan Shoal. There was no possible excuse for the ship to be at this location. The weather was clear and Cape Fear Lighthouse was visible to starboard. The generally accepted opinion was that the captain was either treacherous or painfully incompetent - probably the latter.18 In fact a Maine newspaper, The Eastern Argus, in their issue of Saturday, March 8, 1862, reported that Captain Fulton was suspected of intentionally running the ship aground.19
Attempts were immediately started to free the vessel. The soldiers were ordered on deck to run en-mass quickly from side-to-side and from bow-to-stern while the engines were put to full power both forward and astern. It was all to no avail. She was hard aground. Boats were put over the side and soundings were made to determine which way might provide the deeper water. No appreciable difference was found in any direction.
Captain Fulton, with unimaginable stupidity, then ordered the anchor dropped. The ship was still being powered, alternately both forward and astern, and it was then that she struck one of the flukes of her own anchor which put a two-foot hole through the hull. Water rushed in flooding the forward third of the ship up to the ‘tween-decks. This put the vessel down by the head and immovably fixed its bow to the shoal. As water entered, the two water tight bulkheads were closed to prevent her from being completely flooded.20
And there the Mississippi sat: hard aground on one of the most dangerous shoals on the eastern coast of the United States, no other ship in sight, Confederate forts near the mouth of the Cape Fear River in plain view, and a two foot hole through her port bow. In this section of the Atlantic gales could arise at any moment. The scene was grim. With more than fifteen hundred lives on board, a hostile coast a few miles distant, and so few boats it would take three days to evacuate all hands, there seemed no possible escape other than drowning or a Confederate prison.21
At this point, Captain Fulton became completely ineffective. He was so confused that he was unable to determine from his Nautical Almanac whether the tide was falling or rising. A distress signal was raised and minute guns were fired. Finally a member of General Butler’s staff read the almanac and found that the tide was falling and would be at high at 8 PM that evening. Shortly after noon the United States Gunboat, Mount Vernon, one of the Wilmington blockading fleet, came alongside and sent over Acting-Master Henry L. Sturgis to see what assistance might be rendered. The Mount Vernon had seen the puffs of smoke from the minute guns and had approached to see what was wrong.22
The Mt. Vernon took the Mississippi in tow and tried to break her free. But with the low water situation nothing was accomplished; in fact, the smaller ship (the Mt Vernon) struck the shoal three times but did not become grounded.23 Later, the wind increased and it appeared that they were in for a full northwest blow. At this point the men of the 13th Maine were transferred to the smaller ship, and a detail started throwing the loosely stowed artillery shells overboard. About 7 PM, after two hundred men had been transferred to the Mt. Vernon, the artillery shells jettisoned, and with the engines of both ships working at full power, the Mississippi broke free. The ship, with her forward compartment flooded, was so far down by the head that she wouldn’t properly answer her helm and her propeller was partially out of water. It was then that General Butler relieved Captain Fulton and put Acting-Master Sturgis in command. After the anchor chains and the ship’s gun were moved aft, the Mississippi was able to proceed under her own power and both vessels steamed to where they could anchor in the lee of the land near the mouth of Cape Fear River. (It was later learned that the ship’s gun, a “long-rifled cannon”, which was supposed be used to protect her from Confederate raiders, had no ammunition on board.24
The next morning, General Butler ordered a survey of the damage to the Mississippi, and it was decided to put in to Port Royal, South Carolina, where repairs could be made.25 Men who had been transferred to the Mt. Vernon were returned to their original ship. Pumps worked almost continuously until arrival at Port Royal at about 5 PM on March 2. For the men of the 13th Maine, lately of Camp Beaufort in Augusta, it was but a short distance to Beaufort, South Carolina.
Captain Fulton later claimed that it was the soldiers' rifles on board his ship which caused the compasses to go astray and caused the ship to be far off course. That excuse found little sympathy with General Butler and Col. Dow, for the Mississippi was one hundred miles off course, Cape Fear Light was in sight, the edge of Frying Pan Shoal was under the keel, the screw was churning up sand, and channel buoys were on the wrong side.26
On March 3 the Maine men were put ashore and marched to Seabrook Landing on Skull Creek, about seven miles from Hilton Head. Here they put in a miserable night in an abandoned cotton shed where the wind whistled through an open pole floor. The following day their tents were landed and a camp was established in an abandoned cotton field some distance from the shore.27
The Maine men escaped the further torment of Captain Fulton.
For six days the regiment drilled and did fatigue duty aboard the damaged ship. On March 9 the Maine men again struck their tents and marched to the shore where they boarded the Steamer Matanzas, while the 31st Massachusetts stayed aboard the Mississippi. The Maine men escaped the further torment of Captain Fulton, who again was put in command against the advice of General Butler, but not so the men of the Massachusetts Regiment, for he again ran his ship aground on a bank of oyster shells. This grounding was so severe that the 31th Massachusetts had to be put ashore while the ship was freed.28
Soon, the Matanzas entered the Gulf Steam and the boys from Maine enjoyed warm breezes and fair winds for the first time since the previous summer in the State of Maine. On March 20, the Matanzas came in sight of what appeared to be the sails of a large fleet of ships. Approaching, they realized that what they saw were tents on a low sand island with ships on the far side. On March 22, 1862, the men of Companies A, B, E & I of the Thirteenth Maine Infantry were put ashore at Ship Island, to join the balance of their regiment. It had been a voyage filled with fear and discomfort, and had taken thirty-two days. The other companies of the 13th had made the journey in nine.
The Mississippi’s bad luck continued, for when Captain Fulton arrived at Ship Island with the 31th Massachusetts Infantry, she was involved in a collision with other vessels.29
After the war, on May 11, 1869, the Mississippi was off Martinique feeling her way through thick fog when she struck a reef and became wedged fast. Part of her cargo of coffee and coal was jettisoned and her passengers put ashore. Two steamers tried in vain to free the ship but with no luck. Her cargo of coffee, which had become wet, began to ferment, and the gases drove everybody off the steamer. Gradually the wind and waves took their toll and she broke up and disappeared.30 And by the way, the Missiissippi's final captain was that same hapless Captain Fulton.
1. The Kennebec Journal. Issue of February 21, 1862
3.Lufkin, Edwin B. The Story of the Maine Thirteenth. Bridgton, ME: H.A. Shorey & Son, 1898 - Chapter II
4. War of the Rebellion - Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies *- Series I, Vol. VI, p. 696. (* Here in after referred to as O.R.)
5. Dow, Neal. The Reminiscences of Neal Dow. Portland, ME: The Evening Express Publishing Company, 1898.
6. Lufkin, Edwin B.
10. O.R. Series I, Vol. VI, Page 700
11.Lufkin, Edwin B.
13. Account of Chaplain Moore, Thirteenth Maine Regiment, Published in a Portland, Maine newspaper, The Eastern Argus
14. Lufkin, Edwin B.
17. Dow, Neal. p. 653.
18. Lufkin, Edwin B.
19. Eastern Argus, Vol. XXX, No. 58, of Saturday, March 8, 1862.
21. Lufkin, Edwin B.
25. O.R. Series I, Vol. VI, Page 701
26. Lufkin, Edwin B.
28. Lufkin, Edwin B.
29. Heyl, Eric. Early American Steamers. Vol. I, Buffalo, NY: 1953.
copyright by Osborne Ellis
Links to more info on the 13th Maine:
Maine Archives: Neal Dow http://www.state.me.us/sos/arc/archives/military/civilwar/dow.htm
includes a short bio of Neal Dow and a transcription of his letter on the "Steamer Mississippi" fiasco.
Ellis, Osborne. From Colby to Colonel: Waterville's first Civil War volunteer led company of Maine college students. http://www.colby.edu/colby.mag/issues/sum00/alumni/