Another Grounding, and a Cutting-Out Expedition
A large “Second National” Confederate flag believed to have been flown at Galveston by Major Charles R. Benton, chief ordinance officer for the garrison there. Original image corrected for perspective by the author. Texas State Library and Archives Commission.
On the night of February 3, 1865, the blockade runner Will o’ the Wisp went aground and was wrecked on the beach, several miles south of Galveston.
Two days after that, on the evening of February 5, the ill-starred Acadia piled onto the sand just beyond San Luis Pass, some thirty miles south of town.
And one hundred fifty years ago this evening, February 6, the runner Wren ran aground while trying to enter Galveston by means of the Southwest Pass, a narrow swash channel that ran around the eastern end of the island. It was a very close call. The stranded steamer was sighted at dawn on February 7, and the blockaders moved in as close as they dared to shell her. According to one report, over the course of the morning the Federals fired 102 shells at Wren, three of which struck and passed clean through the ship without doing significant damage. Colonel Cook, commander of the First Texas Heavy Artillery that manned the batteries along the shore, visited the stranded steamer, as did Brigadier General Hawes, the Confederate commander in the island. A former Confederate military officer, J. D. Patton, went on board to serve as a backup engineer, and other volunteers from shore came out to the ship to provide assistance. The steamer’s captain, William Raisbeck, kept steam up all morning to be ready to move the moment she floated. That moment came a little after one in the afternoon, and Wren got under way again. Raisbeck did not know the coast, relied heavily on one of his passengers from Havana to serve as a pilot and to make soundings. The passenger was Commodore Leon Smith, the officer who organized and commanded the naval attack on the Federal fleet at the Battle of Galveston, more than two years previously.
Wren made it safely into the harbor, much to the consternation of the blockaders who felt certain they would be able to destroy another runner. Nonetheless, the editor of the Galveston Weekly News was certain these three incidents, so close together, were no accident:
There is hardly any room to doubt that the three steamers were wrecked on our coast by Yankees in disguise…. We should never forget that treachery, falsehood and deception are the peculiar characteristics of Yankees, and we believe we have more to fear from these traits than from all their power in open and honorable war…. The coast of Texas is the safest of any on the whole seaboard of this continent. The water shoals so gradually and so uniformly that, with the lead line in the hands of any but a Yankee, no blockade runner could be beached in the thickest fog, unless intentionally. We have no doubt that the loss of the Wisp, the Wren and the Arcadia [sic] is due to Yankee treachery.
There’s no evidence that anything other than foul weather, heavy fog and (in the case of Acadia) ineptitude caused these wrecks. Still, you can see why people were inclined to believe otherwise.
Having let Wren slip from their grasp, though, some Union officers were determined to destroy her anyway. That same day, February 7, they organized a boat expedition consisting of cutters from U.S.S. Bienville and U.S.S. Princess Royal, consisting of twenty seamen and three officers, under the command of Acting Ensign George H. French. Their order were to attempt to capture a pair of cotton-laden schooners, lying at anchor under the guns of the battery at Fort Point, and to destroy Wren. For this latter task, the expedition was provided with five gallons of turpentine and a bundle of oakum for kindling. French was also given six 32-pounder shells, to be placed in the boiler and around the engines “before you leave,” in the expectation that they would cook off and wreck the ship’s machinery when the fire reached them.
The expedition set out from Bienville at about 8:20 p.m., well after dark this time of year, but encountered a strong current pushing from west to east (i.e., out toward the open Gulf of Mexico). Although his primary objective was to destroy Wren, anchored farther up in the harbor, French decided he could not get past the anchored schooners without being spotted, so he attacked them first. Both were taken without incident, and French assigned a prize crew to each to take them out to the fleet. French continued trying to get up into the harbor, but found the current too strong. With the approach of daylight and his men exhausted from a night pulling at the oars, French allowed the cutters to drift out with the current. French arrived back alongside Bienville at about 6:10 a.m., almost ten hours after setting out.
While they had missed their first objective, the two captured schooners proved to be a nice plum. They were the schooners Pet, with 256 bales of cotton on board, and Annie Sophia, loaded with 220 bales. The Navy bluejackets also captured 20 prisoners on the two schooners. Pet was owned by Thomas W. House, who had lost most of entire steamer’s worth of inbound cargo on Will o’ the Wisp. (He was having a very bad week.) When auctioned at New Orleans in June, Pet brought in just under $20,000 total, which ultimately netted nearly $8,000 to be shared between Bienville and Princess Royal.
This was actually the second time the schooner Annie Sophia had been captured; she had been taken two years before by U.S.S. R. R. Cuyler, condemned by a prize court, sold, and put back into running the blockade. On this occasion, she was condemned by the prize court at New Orleans and sold for $29,145.69. After paying court expenses and turning half of the remainder over to the government, the crews of Bienville and Princess Royal split prize money from Annie Sophia and her cargo to the amount of $12,450.