USS Underwriter

Written By Andrew Duppstadt

The Confederate Navy conducted numerous joint land and sea raids during the Civil War.  One important expedition in North Carolina was against the USS Underwriter in early February 1864.  The brainchild of a naval officer, John Taylor Wood, the expedition was part of a larger Confederate offensive against the Union stronghold at New Bern.  General Robert E. Lee detailed General Robert F. Hoke’s brigade, under the command of General George Pickett, to attack and attempt to retake the city.  The army’s assault is largely forgotten because it failed.  The navy’s spectacular attack, however, was more successful and proved that Union control in eastern North Carolina, even relatively late during the war, could still be challenged seriously.

In conjunction with the ground assault, Wood gathered a force of thirty-three officers and 220 enlisted men, including Confederate marines at Kinston.  The naval expedition carried out its mission in twelve boats and two large launches, each armed with a 12-pounder howitzer.  Men from the James River Squadron (including a number of hand-picked midshipmen from the Confederate Naval Academy), Wilmington Station, Charleston Station, and Savannah Squadron were detailed for the expedition.
Because some troops and equipment arrived late, the party descended the Neuse River in two groups and eventually regrouped at Bachelor’s Creek, where one unit had already encamped after a long night of rowing.  Late in the evening of February 1, Wood, Executive Officer Benjamin Loyall, and an experienced crew reconnoitered the target, the USS Underwriter, and planned to attack the next night between midnight and 4 a.m.  The Underwriter, a 325-ton side wheel steamer, measuring 186 feet long and thirty-five feet wide, boasted an 800 horsepower engine, two 8-inch guns, a 12-pounder howitzer, and a 30-pounder rifle.  On board were twelve officers and seventy-two men, commanded by Acting Master Jacob Westervelt.

The attack was spectacular.  Wood’s force attacked in two columns, his own striking forward of the Underwriter’s wheel and Loyall’s detachment striking aft.  Confederate marines with Enfield rifles in each boat acted as sharpshooters, and Lieutenant George Gift’s launches were held in reserve with extra men, prepared for towing the vessel if necessary.  The attack began with five bells of the midnight watch (2:30 a.m.).  A lookout on the Underwriter’s deck spotted the raiders, and the Federal sailors on board opened fire.  Loyall’s boat reached the target first, and his men boarded the steamer, with Wood and his men close behind.  Fierce, hand-to-hand fighting made the ship’s deck slippery with rain and blood.  Within five minutes the Confederates prevailed.

The fires in the Underwriter’s furnaces had been banked, and engineers estimated that it would take an hour to build enough steam to move the ship.  Before Wood had time to contemplate the situation, the batteries of Fort Stephenson, a Federal fort on the riverbank, opened fire on the vessel.  Wood decided to burn and scuttle the vessel; he could not get the ship back upriver.  The fires set on the Underwriter reached the ship’s powder magazine, causing a terrific explosion.  The Confederates rowed hastily back upriver toward Swift Creek, where they rested and quickly buried five men.  After returning to Kinston, most of the raiding party manned their previous stations.  A few officers and men remained behind and helped operate the Confederate ironclad, CSS Neuse.   Benjamin Loyall became that ship’s commanding officer.  

The Confederate Army’s ground assault on New Bern failed; however, the Confederate Navy performed admirably.  Its action proved that Union control of coastal North Carolina was not unshakable, even as late as the spring of 1864.