Wednesday, February 13, 2013

From McAllister to Maine: The strange career of the U.S. Montauk

By 1st Lt. William Carraway
Public Affairs Office, Georgia Dept. of Defense

The American Civil War is replete with curious turns and connections. People, places and events intersect in ways unpredictable to the participants at the time. But in retrospect those chance circumstances move inexorably as if drawn by imperceptible chains to an inevitable conclusion. The wayward career of the Union monitor Montauk links historic battles, Georgia plantations, the Lincoln assassination and ultimately naval reserve service during the Spanish-American War

There was nothing unusual about the Montauk itself. One of more than 60 ironclad warships constructed by the Union, the Montauk wallowed low in the water from the weight of its iron armor. Its single round turret echoed the design of the original U.S.S. Monitor which had been described as “a Yankee cheese box on a raft.” The Montauk was armed with two smooth bore cannon of 380 mm and 280 mm caliber. The Montauk was captained by Cmdr. John Worden, a spectacularly bearded naval veteran who had commanded the U.S.S. Monitor in its historic battle at Hampton Roads with the C.S.S. Merrimack. The March 9, 1862 battle marked the first engagement between two iron ships.

Worden had been wounded and partially blinded in that engagement and was forced to relinquish command. Following his convalescence he was assigned to command the newly commissioned Montauk in December 1862.

Sailing forth from New York harbor, the Montauk took nearly a month to reach the blockading fleet off the coast of Port Royal, S.C. With the arrival of the Montauk, blockade squadron commander Rear Adm. Samuel DuPont determined to launch an attack on Confederate Fort McAllister located on the south bank of the Ogeechee River near the present town of Richmond Hill in Bryan County, Ga. Built by Soldiers of the 1st Georgia Infantry, the fort had been designed by army engineers to absorb the energy of naval bombardment. As the shattered ceramic walls of Fort Pulaski had confirmed, brick and mortar were no match for the long range artillery in use by the U.S. Navy.

Fort McAllister protected the approach to Savannah approximately as well as the fertile rice fields and strategic railroad bridge within the range of its ten guns. In addition to a company of the 1st Georgia Infantry, commanded by Georgia Military Institute graduate 1Lt. Alfred Hartridge, the fort was garrisoned by Georgia cavalrymen under command of Cpt. Joseph McAllister for whom the fort is named.

By the time the Montauk’s boilers set steam Ft. McAllister had already been under naval fire four times. By January 27, 1863 the 1st Georgia had been replaced by the Emmett Rifles. Command of the fort had also passed to Maj. John Gallie, a Scotsman turned Savannah merchant turned Confederate officer. Gallie and his garrison watched as the Union flotilla steamed within firing range of the fort’s guns. The Montauk initiated the with a blast from its 380 mm cannon. Gallie’s artillery struck back and over the next five hours the earthen fort would exchange fire with the floating iron ships. The Montauk was struck fifteen times by McAllister’s guns but suffered no serious damage. The battle concluded when the Union flotilla expended its ammunition and withdrew.

After resupplying, the iron fleet again sallied forth against the fort. In the early morning of February 1, 1863, the Montauk closed on Fort McAllister and unleashed a blistering fusillade. Supported by the ships that made the assault on January 27, the Montauk poured a constant fire into the fort. During the desperate fire Maj. Gallie was fatally struck in the head by a one of the Montauk’s shells. Due to falling tides, the Montauk was unable to continue the assault and once again was forced to retire. Despite being hit nearly by nearly 50 Confederate shells, the Montauk was again undamaged.

The Montauk continued its quixotic attacks against Fort McAllister. On February 28, the Montauk, sailing up the Ogeechee sighted theConfederate blockade runner Rattlesnake afloat near the fort. Worden ordered the Montauk to engage The Rattlesnake was destroyed when a shell impacted her powder magazine. Before the crew of the Montauk could celebrate, the ship struck a torpedo. Crippled, the Montauk limped away to effect repairs.

February 28th represented the Montauk’s last action against Fort McAllister. The Fort would not be taken by sea but would eventually fall when Sherman’s Armies reached Savannah.

Returning to coastal blockade duty of the coast of S.C. the Montauk participated in actions in Charleston Harbor in the spring of 1863. In July, the Montauk shelled Fort Wagner - the fort depicted in the climactic assault by the 54th Massachusetts in the motion picture Glory.

The Montauk continued blockade operations in South Carolina until transferred to North Carolina in the final months of the war. With the fall of the Confederacy, the Montauk steamed to the Washington Navy Yard where it received an unexpected visitor. The body of John Wilkes Booth was brought to the deck of the Montauk on April 27, 1865 for autopsy. Booth had been killed in a skirmish with Union Soldiers while hiding in a barn at Garret’s Farm in Virginia following his assassination of President Lincoln. The Montauk would subsequently serve as a make-shift prison for Booth’s conspirators.

The Montauk was decommissioned from military service in Philadelphia in late 1865. John Worden, her former commander, would serve as superintendent of the Naval Academy and end his career as a Rear Adm.

The Montauk would return to service in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. Crewed by Naval Reservists, the Montauk guarded the harbor of Portland, Maine for nearly a year. The Montauk was sold for scrap at the dawn of the 20th century. It was one of the last five Civil War monitors remaining.

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