Will o’ the Wisp Goes Aground
One hundred fifty years ago this evening, one of the better-known blockade runners of the war, Will o’ the Wisp, met her end in the surf off a Galveston beach. From the book:
At Vera Cruz, [Captain Abner M.] Godfrey turned over command of Wisp to one of his officers, a man named Stockton, who sailed again on January 30 for Galveston. On Friday evening, February 3, while running northeastward in a fog along the Galveston Island shore toward the Southwest Channel, Will o’ the Wisp was spotted by one of the blockaders, which opened fire on the side-wheeler. That shot missed, and Wisp disappeared into the fog once again. But in evading the blockader, Wisp ran aground several miles south of the city. The ship stuck fast, and the crew clambered down into the surf. They were met on the beach by Confederate sentries, who initially suspected them of being a Federal landing party. The crew eventually made it to the home of a man named Middlegger, who gave them something to eat and let them bed down for the night.
Over the next several days, the stranded ship was swarmed by Confederate soldiers and civilians, as well as the party formally assigned to salvage the cargo. The ship, according to a Union officer who later went on board, was “so near the beach as to require but a plank, which was there, for the rebels to board her.” Most of the cargo was stolen by soldiers or civilians, either for their own use or in hopes of being able to sell to others. After the fog lifted on February 6, two Union warships discovered the stranded steamer and shelled her for about two hours, but by then the vessel had been picked clean. In the predawn darkness of February 10, a week after Wisp went aground, boarding parties from USS Princess Royal and USS Antona went aboard to destroy what was left, but they needn’t have bothered. “The vessel was completely riddled in her hull from our fire on a previous occasion,” the commander of Princess Royal wrote in his report. “Her hold was full of sand and water; her after section awash, and the deck scuttled fore and aft, for the purpose, apparently, of getting out her cargo. The engine had been taken to pieces, and the vessel was a complete wreck. The wheelhouses were the only part which could be burned…Everything [else] was destroyed excepting what was under water and beyond reach.” The small part of the cargo that was successfully salvaged—estimated later to be about one-tenth of the total—was consigned to Thomas W. House, who included it (“slightly damaged”) in a big auction of “blockade importations” on February 28 in Houston. Lots recovered from Wisp included plate tin, Brazilian coffee, “gents’ half hose” and sixty reams of paper.
Image: Amy Borgens (r.) and I, diving on the wreck later identified as Will o’ the Wisp, July 2009. Image courtesy Texas Historical Commission.