Warship Wednesday May 4 2016: The original Wahunsenacawh
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday May 5, 2016: The original Wahunsenacawh
Here we see the U.S. Navy’s Susquehanna-class sidewheel steam frigate USS Powhatan photographed during or just after the Civil War. She gave some 35-years of hard service and had the likes of Commodore Perry and Adm. Porter hoist their flag from her at one time or another.
In an effort to modernize the sail-powered fleet of the 1840s, the Navy built two 229-foot Mississippi-class 2nd rate paddle frigates followed later by seven 265-foot Franklin/Merrimack-class 1st rate steam screw frigates in the 1850s.
Sandwiched between these two classes were the USS Susquehanna and her near-sister Powhatan. Although both used the same steam plant designed by Chas Haswell, Engineer in Chief of the Navy, and overall layout, they were built at two different Naval Yards with class leader laid down at New York while Powhatan‘s construction began at Norfolk on 6 August 1847. This led to slight differences between the two ships in both dimensions and armament.
Powhatan was the first Navy ship named in honor of 16th century Native American Chief Wahunsenacawh, whose name was held by the English in Virginia to be “Powhatan” and is best remembered as the father of Pocahontas.
Our paddle frigate was some 253-feet in length and used dual side-mounted paddlewheels (with 23×10 foot buckets on each radial) driven by twin engines to make 11-knots when all four of her copper boilers were lit. A three-masted auxiliary sailing rig could carry her at less to conserve coal. She was heavily armed compared to other navy’s frigates, with a single 11-inch and 10 9-inch Dahlgrens as well as some smaller mounts, a Marine detachment and small arms for her nearly 300-man crew.
Commissioned 2 September 1852, she soon sailed for the far-off East India Squadron where she served as Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s flagship for his 8-vessel task force on his epic second visit to Japan.
While in the Far East, she escorted the first Japanese ambassador and his staff to the West Coast, fought Chinese pirates off Kowloon alongside the British, and generally waved the flag all over the Pacific.
When the Civil War erupted, Powhatan was back in U.S. waters under the command of one Lt. David Dixon Porter. As the Southern states dropped out of the Union, the chain of Army forts securing their seacoast and interior went with them, abandoned to their fate by U.S. forces.
A few notably remained occupied including Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor and Fort Pickens controlling the entrance to Pensacola.
Well old Bill Seward, Army Capt. Montgomery Meigs– an Army engineer reporting to President Abraham Lincoln directly– and Porter coughed up an idea to resupply Pickens on the low-low, escorting troops under Col. Harvey Brown of the 5th Artillery Regiment and supplies from New York on the steamer Illinois.
Without the augmentation and Brown’s leadership, the fort would have fallen. With them, it remained a vital Union base in the Gulf of Mexico from which the New Orleans and later Mobile campaigns could not have been launched.
Powhatan then made good use of her speed provided by her 2x 31-foot paddlewheels to run down the rebel steamers Dick Keys and Lewis and pursue the raider CSS Sumter throughout the West Indies before joining the blockade of the Southwest Pass of the Mississippi, retaking the schooner Abby Bradford on 15 August.
Transferring to the blockade off Charleston in 1863, she captured the blockade-runners Major E. Willis on 19 April and C. Routereau on 16 May before another tour in the West Indies and taking part in the capture of Fort Fisher.
Following the end of the War, she was dispatched back to her original Far East duties, arriving 22 June 1866 in San Francisco, serving as flagship of the South Pacific Squadron through 1869.
Aging and following a refit in New York, she joined the Home Squadron by 1870 and spent the next two decades conducting cruises of the Caribbean and North Atlantic, often being tapped as a Squadron flagship.
These were the salad days of her life and a series of images from this period give a window into the life of Uncle’s bluejackets in the 1870s and 80s.
However, things were not always quiet in the peacetime Navy.
Three of her crew earned rare peacetime Medals of Honor in the 1870s: Landsman George W. Cutter, Coxswain William Anderson and Seaman Joseph B. Noil.
Noil, a Canadian by birth who signed up during the Civil War, recently came to light for his action off Norfolk 26 December 1872.
On yesterday morning the boatswain, I .C.[sic] Walton, fell overboard from the forecastle, and was saved from drowning by Joseph B. Noil, seaman, who was below on the berth deck at the time of the accident, and hearing the cry ‘man overboard,’ ran on deck, took the end of a rope, went overboard, under the bow, and caught Mr. Walton, who was then in the water, and held him until he was hauled into the boat sent to his rescue. The weather was bitter cold, and had been sleeting, and it was blowing a gale from the northwest at the time. Mr. Walton, when brought on board, was almost insensible, and would have perished but for the noble conduct of Noil, as he was sinking at the time he was rescued.
Noil, promoted to *Captain of the Hold, was presented the MOH in 1873. However, when the hero passed away at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington D.C. in 1882, he was buried in the hospital cemetery with a misspelled headstone and no mention of his service.
(*in the old sailing Navy, then as now you had Chiefs who were responsible for various departments, for instance: captain of the forecastle, captain of the afterguard, captain of the hold, captain of the maintop, captain of the foretop, et. al. That of Captain of the Hold was the senior seaman rating attached to the provision party vested with responsibility for stowage and care of the holds. Later known up to 2009 as the Storekeeper (SK) rating, is today the Logistics Specialist (LS) whose still uses the old rate’s crossed-keys badge)
This was corrected in a graveside ceremony last week attended by Noil’s family, Chief of Navy Reserve Vice Adm. Robin Braun and Canadian Defense Attaché Rear Adm. William Truelove, CMM.
“Your shipmate is not simply someone who happens to serve with you,” Braun said. “He or she is someone who you know that you can trust and count on to stand by you in good times and bad and who will forever have your back.
“So, by […] rededicating his headstone, we are not only correcting a wrong, we are highlighting and reinforcing the eternal bond which exists between Shipmates-past, present, and those yet to come. And, although I-or any of us-did not know him, we are his Shipmates-and, 134 years after he passed, we have his back.”
As for Noil’s vessel, Powhatan was decommissioned, 2 June 1886 and sold to Burrdette Pond of Meriden, CT., where she was scrapped in August 1887.
Powhatan‘s sister Susquehanna was laid up in 1868 until she was sold for scrapping on 27 September 1883 to E. Stannard of New York City.
Since then, no less than four ships have carried the name Powhatan on the Navy List; one a World War I troopship and the other three all tugs of various kinds, the last of which, USNS Powhatan (T-ATF-166), was transferred in 2008 to Turkey where she continues to serve as TCG Inebolu.
Displacement 3,980 t.
Length 253′ 8″ deck
Draft 18′ 6″
Propulsion: 2 Steam engines, 4 boilers, 1,172 hp, side paddlewheels
One 11″ Dahlgren smooth bores
Ten 9-inch Dahlgrens
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