A Most Peculiar Target of Naval Gunnery

ECW welcomes Neil Chatelain

USS Rhode Island
(NH 42205, US Navy History and Heritage Command)

The USS Rhode Island was operating in the Caribbean Sea on July 30, 1863, part of Acting Rear Admiral Charles Wilkes’ West India Squadron, having just completed a convoy of the Panama steamer Ocean Queen through the Windward Passage between Haiti and Cuba. Before taking up the next convoy, Commander Stephen D. Trenchard sought to catch up on some much-needed maintenance. He ordered his ship to heave to, taking in its sails for the sailmakers to go over and disassembling his steering machinery to clean a cylinder. After several hours of drifting, the drums, bell, and gong suddenly and unexpectedly called the crew to general quarters.

These were dangerous waters, hunting grounds of the Confederate commerce raiders Alabama and Florida. In fact, the Rhode Island’s convoy of the Ocean Queen was a direct result of the CSS Alabama capturing the Panama steamer Ariel in December 1862; safety for the transportation of California gold from Panama to New York necessitated Union warships to convoy treasure ships and patrol chokepoints. Hearing the call to battle stations, the Rhode Island’s sailors rushed to their assigned positions, manning the guns, fully expecting to train them against one of the dreaded Confederate raiders. Commander Trenchard pointed at a target and ordered two guns, a 12-pounder howitzer and an 8-inch cannon, to take careful aim and open fire. Their target however, was not a Confederate warship, but a waterspout, moving directly towards them!

Sailors are no strangers to such a phenomenon. Though not the most dangerous thing plying the seas today, a waterspout colliding with a vessel could cause severe damage, especially a Civil War era wooden steamer. I have personally encountered them on several occasions; on May 5, 2011, as officer of the deck on the USS Elrod, a now decommissioned guided missile frigate, five waterspouts suddenly formed directly ahead, blocking my ship’s way into our homeport of Norfolk, Virginia. Prudently, I issued orders and the Elrod turned out of the channel, heading back out to sea. This delayed our arrival in Norfolk by several hours, but ensured we reached port safely later that afternoon.

Commander Stephen D. Trenchard, USN
(NH 88503, US Navy History and Heritage Command)

The Rhode Island’s sailors could not maneuver however; their steering machinery was disassembled for maintenance and it would take hours to put it back together. With the waterspout pressing closer, Commander Trenchard did the only thing he could think of, ordering two of his cannon to open fire.

“The accuracy of the Rhode Island’s gunners was never better demonstrated than on this occasion,” Trenchard’s postwar collection of letters and writings claimed “Both missiles struck the spout quarterly and had the effect of breaking it up” by disrupting the system’s circulation. “Had it not been for the excellent marksmanship of her gunners, he continued, “the gallant little cruiser might have had an unpleasant if not dangerous experience.”[1]

This brings up the question of whether such a thing is even possible. Reports as early as 1750 indicate that it was indeed so, with an issue of that year’s Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure printing that “usually guns are fired at them, loaded with a bar of iron; and if they are so happy as to strike them, they presently discharge their water with a mighty noise, without any farther mischief.” Another account by British sailors in 1810 lists cannon fire as an “excellent mode” of dissipating the “evil” of a waterspout.[2]

Nonetheless, the use of artillery to break up a waterspout was largely seen as jest or haughty talk from sailors and by the late 19th century, this method was viewed with “little faith.” Scientists largely rejected claims by the likes of “an old sea captain” that cannon dispersed waterspouts, citing that the few documented claims were not “sufficient to prove the actual occurrence of such a consequence.”[3]

Despite the scientific doubts, Commander Trenchard had no other choice and he ordered his guns to fire, successfully striking and breaking up the approaching waterspout with his artillery. This brings forth another question. Was the Rhode Island alone in taking such action during the Civil War? This is more difficult to determine. The thirty volumes of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies the in the War of the Rebellion make no mention of waterspouts, and in the age of steam, most warships could simply move out of their way with relative ease. Despite this, antebellum naval officers kept the artillery method in their toolbox just in case and Civil War sailors and marines documented their encounters with waterspouts in diaries, official reports, and postwar writings.

While cruising in command of the CSS Sumter, Captain Raphael Semmes mentioned that every now and then, “a water-spout would appear on the scene” during September 1861, though he never encountered one close enough to cause danger or require drastic action.[4] Three months later, on December 2, 1861, the government-procured merchant vessel Cora, while en-route to Savannah, Georgia to be sunk as a channel obstruction, was struck by a waterspout “like a clap of thunder,” making the captain believe his ship was sinking. It limped into Port Royal Sound, heavily damaged, and Union Flag Officer Samuel Francis Du Pont reported to Washington that the strike “took his sails out of him”[5] On May 24, 1862, the USS Westfield encountered one off of Round Island, Mississippi; eight days later on June 1, it encountered two more in the Gulf of Mexico, though in each case, they remained well clear of the ship.[6]

At least one other Civil War vessel manned its guns to engage a waterspout. The USS Vanderbilt occasionally saw waterspouts as it plied the Atlantic Ocean in search of Confederate commerce raiders. The crew sighted several on April 17, 1863, though these remained well clear of the ship. A year later, on May 16, 1864, The Vanderbilt saw another, quickly approaching. Just as occurred on the Rhode Island, gun crews were called to engage. By the time their cannon were loaded and trained, the waterspout “broke and disappeared.”[7]

A warship fires a broadside against a trio of waterspouts.
(James P. Espy, The Philosophy of Storms, [Boston, MA: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1841], xv)
So, Commander Trenchard’s claim of manning his guns and firing into a waterspout in July 1863 has some merit, as the meteorological phenomenon was common enough in the Civil War era, just as it remains so today, and accounts exist of other ships, both before and during the war, contemplating the same response. Despite these other accounts, the Rhode Island’s strange encounter in July 1863 remains the only claim I could find of a Civil War vessel engaging and eliminating a waterspout by gunnery fire, making it one of the most unusual artillery engagements of the Civil War.

[1] Edgar Stanton Maclay, ed., Reminiscences of the Old Navy: From the Journals and Private Papers of Captain Edward Trenchard, and Rear-Admiral Stephen Decatur Trenchard (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1898), 272.

[2] “Letter XIX,” The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure, (October 1750), Vol. 7, No. 4, 154.; Robert Johnson, Adventures of Captain Robert Johnson in the Northern Circulars of India, (London, Thomas Tegg, 1810), 19.

[3] “Waterspouts and the Damage They Do,” Washington Times, Aug. 19, 1906.; “A City Saved from Destruction by Salt,” San Francisco Call, June 25, 1899.; Hans Christian Œersted, “On Water-Spouts,” The American Journal of Science and Arts, (October 1839), Vol. 37, No. 2, 266.

[4] Raphael Semmes, Memoirs of Service Afloat During the War Between the States (Baltimore, MD: Kelley Piet and Company, 1869), 224.

[5] “Narrow Escape from Shipwreck,” Baltimore Sun, December 25, 1862. Samuel F. Du Pont to Gustavus V. Fox, December 6, 1861, Confidential Correspondence of Gustavus V. Fox: Assistant Secretary of the Navy 1861-1865, Robert Means Thompson and Richard Wainwright, ed. (New York: De Vinne Press, 1918), Vol. 1, 78.

[6] The Great Water Spout – Off “Round Island,” May 24, 1862. Daniel D. T. Nestell Papers, MS 310, Special Collections & Archives Department, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy.; Edward T. Cotham Jr., ed., The Southern Journey of a Civil War Marine: The Illustrated Note-Book of Henry O. Gusley, (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2006), 67.

[7] Wesly Moode and Adrienne Sachse, ed., The Diary of a Civil War Marine: Private Josiah Gregg, (Madison, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2013), 45, 69.

Neil P. Chatelain is an Adjunct Professor of History at Lone Star College-North Harris and a Social Studies Teacher at Carl Wunsche Sr. High School in Spring, Texas. A former US Navy Surface Warfare Officer, he is a graduate of the University of New Orleans, the University of Houston, and the University of Louisiana-Monroe. Neil researches US Naval History, with a particular emphasis on naval operations of the Confederacy.

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