The Attack on U.S.S. New Ironsides
Virginia native William Thornton Glassell (right, 1831-1879) was a Lieutenant aboard U.S.S. Hartford in Chinese waters when the Civil War broke out. When the ship returned to Philadelphia on December 2, 1861, Glassell refused to take the oath to the United States. He was formally dismissed from the U.S. Navy on December 6, and so was arrested and imprisoned at Fort Warren. In time he was issued a commission by the Confederate government and, now being considered a prisoner of war, Glassell was eventually exchanged. Once in Confederate service, Lieutenant Glassell, C.S.N. assigned to the ironclad Chicora at Charleston.
Chafing for the opportunity to strike more directly at the Federal blockading fleet offshore, Glassell volunteered for duty in one of the more unconventional programs then being organized at Charleston, and took command of the little steam torpedo launch David. These cigar-shaped torpedo boats — the name of the first boat was an allusion to the biblical story of David and Goliath — had ballast tanks that allowed them to run almost completely submerged. They were fitted with a fixed torpedo on the end of a long spar, that could be rammed into the side of an enemy ship. It was a dangerous tactic, as much for the attacker as for the target, but the Confederates at Charleston were increasingly anxious to strike a real blow at the Union Navy. On the evening of October 5, 1863, Lieutenant Glassell and his three-man crew set out to attack the most prominent of the blockading ships offshore, U.S.S. New Ironsides.
Assistant Engineer [James H.] Toombs volunteered his services, and all the necessary machinery was soon fitted and got in working order, while Major Frank Lee gave me his zealous aid in fitting on a torpedo. James Stuart (alias Sullivan) volunteered to go as firemen, and afterwards the services of J. [Walker] Cannon as pilot were secured. The boat was ballasted so as to float deeply in the water, and all above painted the most invisible color, (bluish.) The torpedo was made of copper, containing about one hundred pounds of rifle powder, and provided with four sensitive tubes of lead, containing explosive mixture; and this was carried by means of a hollow iron shaft projecting about fourteen feet ahead of the boat, and six or seven feet below the surface. I had also an armament on deck of four double barrel shot guns, and as many navy revolvers; also, four cork life preservers had been thrown on board, and made us feel safe. Having tried the speed of my boat, and found it satisfactory, (six or seven knots an hour,) I got a necessary order from Commodore Tucker to attack the enemy at discretion, and also one from General Beauregard. And now came an order from Richmond, that I should proceed immediately back to rejoin the “North Carolina,” at Wilmington. This was too much! I never obeyed that order, but left Commodore Tucker to make my excuses to the Navy Department. The 5th of October, 1863, a little after dark, we left Charleston wharf, and proceeded with the ebb tide down the harbor. A light north wind was blowing, and the night was slightly hazy, but starlight, and the water was smooth. I desired to make the attack about the turn of the tide, and this ought to have been just after nine o’clock, but the north wind made it run out a little longer. We passed Fort Sumter and beyond the line of picket boats without being discovered. Silently steaming along just inside the bar, I had a good opportunity to reconnoiter the whole fleet of the enemy at anchor between me and the campfires on Morris’ Island. Perhaps I was mistaken, but it did occur to me that if we had then, instead of only one, just ten or twelve torpedoes, to make a simultaneous attack on all the ironclads, and this quickly followed by the egress of our rams, not only might this grand fleet have been destroyed, but the 20,000 troops on Morris’ Island been left at our mercy. Quietly maneuvering and observing the enemy, I was half an hour more waiting on time and tide. The music of drum and fife had just ceased, and the nine o’clock gun had been fired from the admiral’s ship, as a signal for all unnecessary lights to be extinguished and for the men not on watch to retire for sleep. I thought the proper time for attack had arrived. U.S.S. New Ironsides (center) on blockade duty. The admiral s ship, “New Ironsides,” (the most powerful vessel in the world), lay in the midst of the fleet, her starboard side presented to my view. I determined to pay her the highest compliment. I had been informed, through prisoners lately captured from the fleet, that they were expecting an attack from torpedo boats, and were prepared for it. I could, therefore, hardly expect to accomplish my object without encountering some danger from riflemen, and perhaps a discharge of grape or canister from the howitzers. My guns were loaded with buckshot. I knew that if the officer of the deck could be disabled to begin with, it would cause them some confusion and increase our chance for escape, so I determined that if the occasion offered, I would commence by firing the first shot. Accordingly, having on a full head of steam, I took charge of the helm, it being so arranged that I could sit on deck and work the wheel with my feet. Then directing the engineer and firemen to keep below and give me all the speed possible, I gave a double barrel gun to the pilot, with instructions not to fire until I should do so, and steered directly for the monitor. I intended to strike her just under the gangway, but the tide still running out, carried us to a point nearer the quarter. Thus we rapidly approached the enemy. When within about 300 yards of her a sentinel hailed us: Boat ahoy! boat ahoy! repeating the hail several times very rapidly. We were coming towards them with all speed, and I made no answer, but cocked both barrels of my gun. The officer of the deck next made his appearance, and loudly demanded, “What boat is that?” Being now within forty yards of the ship, and plenty of headway to carry us on, I thought it about time the fight should commence, and fired my gun. The officer of the deck fell back mortally wounded (poor fellow), and I ordered the engine stopped. The next moment the torpedo struck the vessel and exploded. What amount of direct damage the enemy received I will not attempt to say. My little boat plunged violently, and a large body of water which had been thrown up descended upon her deck, and down the smokestack and hatchway.
The torpedo goes off. I immediately gave orders to reverse the engine and back off. Mr. Toombs informed me then that the fires were put out, and something had become jammed in the machinery so that it would not move. What could be done in this situation? In the mean time, the enemy recovering from the shock, beat to quarters, and general alarm spread through the fleet. I told my men I thought our only chance to escape was by swimming, and I think I told Mr. Toombs to cut the water pipes and let the boat sink. Then taking one of the cork floats, I got into the water and swam off as fast as I could. The enemy, in no amiable mood, poured down upon the bubbling water a hailstorm of rifle and pistol shots from the deck of the Ironsides, and from the nearest monitor. Sometimes they struck very close to my head, but swimming for life, I soon disappeared from their sight, and found myself all alone in the water. I hoped that, with the assistance of flood tide, I might be able to reach Fort Sumter, but a north wind was against me, and after I had been in the water more than an hour, I became numb with cold, and was nearly exhausted. Just then the boat of a transport schooner picked me up, and found, to their surprise, that they had captured a rebel.
Fireman James Sullivan and Engineer Toombs dived overboard with Glassell, as well. Pilot J. Walker Cannon remained with the boat because, some sources say, he could not swim — a remarkable fact, if true, given the semi-submerged nature of his craft, even in the best conditions. Glassell and Sullivan were picked up by Federal picket boats; Toombs scrambled back aboard David and, with Cannon guiding him, managed to return safely to Charleston. In his follow-up report to Confederate authorities, Toombs recounted that “the conduct of Lieutenant Glassell was as cool and collected as if he had been on an excursion of pleasure, and the hope of all is that he may yet be in safety.” Toombs reserrved his highest praise for Cannon, though, who in the engineer’s’ view “has won for himself a reputation that time cannot efface, and deserves well of his country, as, without his valuable aid, I could not have reached the city.” Engineer Toombs succeeded to command of the torpedo boat David.
U.S. Navy Acting Ensign Charles W. Howard, the officer of the deck of U.S.S. New Ironsides who was shot by Glassell, died of his wound on October 10. After Howard’s injury, Admiral Dahlgren had recommended him for promotion to Acting Master, which was formally granted on October 16, 1863, in recognition of his “gallant conduct in face of enemy.” Howard’s remains were subsequently buried in Beaufort National Cemetery. A Wickes Class destroyer, DD-179, was later named for him.
Glassell remained in Union hands until the last few months of the war, when he was again exchanged. This time he was assigned to the naval defenses of Richmond, commanding the ironclad Fredericksburg in the James River Squadron.
After the war, Glassell traveled to California, where his brother Andrew was active in land speculation. The Glassell brothers surveyed much of central and southern California, and Andrew Glassell helped establish the city of Orange, California. William Thornton Glassell died in Los Angeles in January 1879, leaving neither a wife nor children. He is buried in Angelus Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles.
Fun fact: William Thornton Glassell’s younger sister, Sarah Thornton Glassell, married George Smith Patton, a Confederate officer killed at the Third Battle of Winchester. The Confederate naval officer who very nearly sank U.S.S. New Ironsides was the grand-uncle of the famous World War II General, George S. Patton, Jr.