CSS Atlanta Becomes a Federal Prize
A joint resolution of thanks from the United States Congress had been tendered on December 23, 1863 to Captain John Rodgers, commanding officer of the federal ironclad USS Weehawken for his gallantry in the engagement of the Confederate ironclad steamer Fingal, having been christened CSS Atlanta. The Navy Department submitted the captain's name to the President of the United States for heroic and serviceable acts.
By act of Congress July 16, 1862, any line officer of the Navy or Marine Corps was entitled to advancement one grade if upon the recommendation of the Commander-in-Chief; he received the thanks of Congress for highly distinguished conduct in conflict with the enemy, or for extraordinary heroism. All of Washington City concurred that Captain Rodgers be awarded the rank of Commodore.
The resolution came as a result of Naval Operations in the state of Georgia in mid June 1863, along the mouth of the Wilmington River and Wassaw Sound. Warning had been sent out to Commander C. R. P. Rodgers, commanding USS Wabash after certain prisoners had been interrogated by Major Charles G. Halpine. The two ironclads Weehawken and Nahant were both dispatched at once by Rear Admiral Samuel F. Du Pont, and preparations were made immediately for an imminent engagement upon Wassaw Sound.
CSS Atlanta had every intention of meeting up with the federal fleet and got underway at 6 p.m. on the evening of June 15th, bulked itself up with coal then proceeded to a point in the river which put the ship within five or six miles of the Weehawken and Nahant. The tide came up once again at 3:30 am the morning of June 17th and Captain William Webb immediately got underway to engage. Operations had gone against them, however, as the ironclad closed within three quarters of a mile, she ran aground and Atlanta lost time in reversing her engines and moving once more; however she had not traveled far before she began having problems obeying the helm with the flood tide on her starboard bow, the draft caused her to ground yet again.
The Weehawken and Nahant were making steam straight for the struggling warship. Weehawken in the lead with Nahant following in her wake, holding fire until both could give close quarters combat. It had been Atlanta's intention to arrest the federal assault and exchange shots from a distance, but Weehawken had other plans. Captain Rodgers suspected the Confederate vessel had run aground when he opened fire within close range, Atlanta now only capable of giving battle when sight of her target was obtained. Rodgers commenced firing with his fifteen and eleven inch guns striking Atlanta's shield nearly abreast of the pilot house driving the armor through tearing away the woodwork; the force of the blow disabled the entire port side gun crew being commanded by Lieutenant Thurston of the Confederate Marine Corps and half of Lieutenant Barbot's bow gun leaving some thirty casualties.
It had been a short engagement perhaps thirteen shots exchanged altogether, but Atlanta had raised the white flag completely unable to defend herself. As the two federal warships intended to engage and disable; the battle had already been won before Nahant, was able to get within firing range.
Upon examination the vessel had been struck four times. The first broke in the armor and wood backing, strewing the deck with splinters. The second shot only struck the edge of the overhang, the third struck the top of the pilot house knocking it off and wounding two pilots and stunning two men at the wheel. The wounded, numbering sixteen in all were moved to the steamer Island City.
That morning Weehawken had done battle and captured the finest ironclad in the Confederate Navy. She struck her colors at 5:30 am and Captain Webb surrendered his sword thereafter. The muster roll of the ship listed 21 officers and 124 men with 28 marines.
Two days later on June 19, 1863 an elated Rear Admiral Samuel Du Pont wrote to the Secretary of the Navy, the honorable Gideon Welles and announced that CSS Atlanta had been taken to Port Royal, South Carolina and was now flying under the American flag. Her career with the Confederate fleet lasted nineteen months. The James Adger was called for and all Confederate prisoners that could be moved were shipped north to Fortress Monroe.
The Navy Department published a letter of commendation for Captain Rodgers, nine days later and announced the forth coming recommendation and resolution of Congress however; it had caused a touch of heartburn with the skipper of the USS Nahant, Commander John Downes. He was gravely concerned that the entire department was misguided in believing that Weehawken had taken on Atlanta by herself and wished not to take away the glory for Captain Rodgers but only that the Navy Department understand that his ship and his crew were likewise making steam to engage that morning. If it weren't for such a short contest, Nahant certainly would have been in the midst of it all.
It was thus noted that the crew of the Nahant had acquitted themselves with the most characteristic bravery and should have been proud of that, but it remained the shots of the Weehawken that disabled and caused Atlanta to surrender and Washington felt confident that the laurels had been announced to the proper operational commander.
It could have been mere unfortunate circumstances for the Captain and crew of the CSS Atlanta, but her days sailing under the Confederate flag were over. The Federal prize would be re-commissioned USS Atlanta and fly under the United States flag until 1869 when she became a Haitian warship but for a brief moment. She went down in December of that year among many of her sister ships somewhere below Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.
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