The Long Blue Line: Gunboat Cutter E.A. Stevens—the Revenue Cutter Service’s experiment in modern naval technology (Part 2)

Learn more about the Coast Guard’s semi-submersible gunboat’s role in the American Civil War in Part 2 of the story.

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This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.

Colored pencil sketch depicting the Union ships Galena, Monitor, Aroostook, Port Royal and Naugatuck (listed as shown, left to right) bombarding Fort Darling at Drewry’s Bluff. Image courtesy of the Naval History & Heritage Command.
Colored pencil sketch depicting the Union ships Galena, Monitor, Aroostook, Port Royal and Naugatuck (listed as shown, left to right) bombarding Fort Darling at Drewry’s Bluff. Image courtesy of the Naval History & Heritage Command.

Written by William H. Thiesen, Ph.D.
Atlantic Area Historian, United States Coast Guard

Today we continue the story of the Coast Guard’s semi-submersible gunboat, E.A. Stevens. To read what happened first, read Part One.

Located eight miles south of Richmond with an elevation of approximately 100 feet above the James River, Drewry’s Bluff is one of the highest promontories on the river’s shores. It overlooks the James at a sharp river bend, providing an ideal location for a fortified position to shell approaching vessels.

From the bluff, cannons could employ plunging fire on targets with devastating effect. In early May 1862, the Confederates worked feverishly on the bluff’s fortifications, named Fort Darling, in preparation for an expected attack. They sank a number of vessels in the river as obstructions to navigation and hauled ordnance up the bluff to the fort. When the James River Squadron appeared in the morning of May 15, the battery included heavy cannon and Confederate naval personnel from the recently scuttled CSS Virginia.

The Battle of Drewry’s Bluff would prove the first true test of the E.A. Stevens under combat conditions. The Union warships experienced only minor resistance during their passage up the James River, however, at 7:45 a.m., on the 15th, the battle opened when Commodore John Rodgers’ flagship Galena approached to within 400 yards of the enemy obstructions.

E.A. Stevens shown with U.S. Navy ironclads Monitor and New Ironsides. Image courtesy of the Naval History & Heritage Command.
E.A. Stevens shown with U.S. Navy ironclads Monitor and New Ironsides. Image courtesy of the Naval History & Heritage Command.

The Confederates opened fire and the Galena quickly sustained shell hits. Rodgers calmly moved Galena into position using the ship’s anchor. Galena fired round after round into the fort and managed to cause some damage, but the Galena suffered far worse punishment than it gave. The ironclad received approximately 45 hits and nearly half of them penetrated its armor.

After the Galena made contact with the enemy, USS Monitor made its own approach. The ironclad closed on the fortifications at about 9:00 a.m., and began shelling the Confederate positions. However, the Monitor had been designed for naval combat rather than shore bombardment, so its cannon could not elevate sufficiently to hit the top of Drewry’s Bluff. After causing slight damage to the Confederate fort and sustaining hits from the enemy guns, Monitor retired downstream.

With the narrow river channel at Drewry’s Bluff, the squadron’s vessels could only file in one at a time. So when the Monitor withdrew, the E.A. Stevens moved up to take its place. The Stevens submerged to fire its main battery and the boat’s ordnance loading system successfully protected the crew from enemy sharpshooters and musket fire. The gunboat sustained no heavy damage from the enemy’s plunging fire, but captain David Constable later reported how enemy musket fire hitting his deckhouse’s armor sounded like hailstones raining down in a storm.

The Stevens continued pouring rounds into enemy positions, however, the gunboat suffered from the same problem as the Monitor. Edwin Stevens had designed the gunboat’s main ordnance to battle enemy warships and not shelling land fortifications. In any case, Stevens’s bombardment came to a halt when its 100-pound Parrott rifle exploded. The explosion blew off the gun’s breech and damaged the cutter’s pilothouse and deck. Despite losing the main gun, the Stevens crew continued to fight with their twelve-pound howitzers with canister and solid shot against the enemy’s land forces.

By 11:00 a.m., the squadron’s flagship Galena had suffered severe damage, exhausted its ammunition and sustained many dead and wounded. After four hours of dueling with the Confederates, Rodgers ordered his flotilla downriver. One of the Stevens’s crew received a shot in the arm and another suffered a serious contusion, however, the gunboat had experienced relatively few casualties in the hail of musket fire and enemy shells, and its catastrophic ordnance failure. Constable had sustained a head injury from shrapnel flying off the exploding Parrott gun, but remained at his station directing the broadside guns and commanding the Stevens throughout the rest of the battle.

James River Squadron attacks Confederate Fort Darling on Drewry’s Bluff, Virginia. Contemporary pencil sketch by F.H. Wilcke. Image courtesy of the Naval History & Heritage Command.
James River Squadron attacks Confederate Fort Darling on Drewry’s Bluff, Virginia. Contemporary pencil sketch by F.H. Wilcke. Image courtesy of the Naval History & Heritage Command.

The James River Squadron retired to Union-held City Point with the Stevens arriving in the evening and the rest of the squadron arriving the morning of May 16. Later that day, Rodgers convened a board composed of squadron officers to examine the remains of the Stevens’s Parrott rifle and determine the cause of its failure. The board concluded that rigorous testing and experimental firing before its installation on board the Stevens had weakened the gun, which had been the first of its kind. Meanwhile, the Stevens received the squadron’s wounded and proceeded downriver to medical facilities at Fort Monroe, in Hampton Roads.

The E.A. Stevens had been operating in Virginia waters since early April 1862. Even though its main gun remained shattered, Rodgers chose to retain the gunboat in the James River Squadron. Nevertheless, the Stevens saw no serious action after Drewry’s Bluff. On May 26, 1862, the Treasury Department ordered the gunboat to depart Hampton Roads and steam to the Washington Navy Yard for repairs. On the 29th, President Abraham Lincoln promoted Constable to the rank of captain before an audience of his full cabinet. Soon afterward, the Treasury Department transferred Constable to a new assignment away from the war zone.

By mid-July 1862, the gunboat had made its way to New York City to become guard ship for the harbor. Months of this monotonous duty likely caused great boredom among the crew requiring the commanding officer to order them thrown in irons on a regular basis. Occasionally, they received a harsher sentence as in the case of the ship’s steward, who “was placed in irons and triced up twelve hours at the expiration of which time he was placed in solitary confinement in double irons for two days for insolence to comdg. officer.”

A year later, the gunboat played a small role in battling the infamous New York City Draft Riots. On July 29, 1863, Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase ordered the gunboat’s name to revert from E.A. Stevens back to Naugatuck, so the cutter gunboat held the name E.A. Stevens for only three years.

The gunboat battle-tested several unique naval technologies including hidden loading systems, rubber recoil absorbers, multiple screws, high-speed water pumps and ballast tanks. The use of ballast tanks in the gunboat proved the most successful application of that technology up to that time. The twin-screw system had proven very useful for speed, maneuverability and aiming the main gun. Despite the success of its innovations, the Stevens’s exploding gun marred an otherwise successful service record.

After the Civil War, the Treasury Department assigned Naugatuck responsibile for patrolling North Carolina’s inland sounds and it called the city New Bern its homeport. Naugatuck served this duty from late 1865 until the summer of 1889, with periodic trips to New York, Norfolk and Baltimore for maintenance and repairs. Throughout its career as a gunboat, the E.A. Stevens/Naugatuck never belonged to the U.S. Navy, remaining a cutter in the long blue line.

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