Attack On USS Underwriter "The Very Jaws Of Death" February 1 - 2, 1864
On the cold rainy morning of February 2, 1864, the gunboat USS Underwriter was moored at the Neuse River port town of New Bern, NC, where it could add the firepower of its cannon to aid in the defense of New Bern from Confederate land forces. Shortly after 2:00am the ship's lookout spotted 14 small boats being rowed rapidly toward the ship. He sounded the alarm, and the ship's crew members hurried on deck. They delivered several volleys of rifle fire at the boats before grappling hooks were thrown on board and Rebel raiders armed with cutlasses and pistols began climbing over the sides.
The first raiders met a "blazing sheet of flame", and four of them were hit with six or seven minie balls apiece. "It seemed like the very jaws of death", remembered one survivor, but more and more raiders scrambled onto the ship and a wild melee of hand-to-hand fighting ensued between the boarders and the crew. Gradually the greater numbers of the Confederates won out, and the ship's crew was forced belowdecks into the ward room and coal bunkers. The raiders found that with the ship heavily moored fore and aft and the fires banked, it was impossible to steam away with the captured vessel.
The sound of battle aboard the Underwriter had alerted nearby Union shore batteries. Despite the large number of Union prisoners on board, the Yankee batteries began shelling the ship with an intense fire. The Rebel commander, John Taylor Wood, "calmly and clearly" ordered the Union prisoners and Confederate dead and wounded placed in the small boats, and after setting the ship on fire, the raiders climbed back into their boats and began rowing back upstream.
The Northerners on shore, seeing the Underwriter burning and knowing it held several tons of gunpowder, abandoned the nearby batteries in order to escape the coming explosion. Wood's men escaped having lost 5 killed, 15 wounded, and 4 missing. Nine of the Underwriter's crew were killed, with 20 wounded and 26 taken prisoner.
Fascinating Fact: Acting Master Jacob Westervelt was not seen on deck during the battle, and his men believed him guilty of cowardice. When several weeks later his body washed ashore, it was presumed he had died defending his ship.
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