Warship Wednesday, July 1, 2020: The Hunchback of Nord Virginia
Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, July 1, 2020: The Hunchback of Nord Virginia
Here we see the steam ferry-turned-gunboat USS Hunchback somewhere on the James River, likely in late 1864. Note leisurely sitting officers on the lower deck with the sailors carefully posing assorted nautical actions above, complete with spyglasses. The only U.S. Navy warship to bear the name (so far), she was extensively chronicled by Matthew Brady (or someone of his group) in period photographs during the Civil War.
A wooden-hulled sidewheeler steamer, Hunchback was constructed in New York in 1852 for use by the New York and Staten Island Ferry Company. Some 179-feet overall, she could make 12 knots, making her a reliable– and fast– way to move people and light cargo around the boroughs of the bustling metropolis.
Purchased by the Navy 16 December 1861, she sailed to Hampton Roads soon afterward and was commissioned there two weeks later, retaining her peacetime name. She joined such interesting vessels on the Naval List as USS Midnight, and USS Switzerland, likewise taken up from trade with their names intact, a necessary evil as some 418 existing ships were purchased for naval use by the Union fleet during the war in addition to the more than 200 new vessels ordered from various yards.
Armed with a trio of soda-bottle-shaped IX-inch Dahlgren smoothbore shell guns (two forward, one stern) and a fearsome 100-pound/6.4-inch West Point-made naval Parrott (capable of a 7,800-yard range) over her bow, she was assigned to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron as a fourth-rate gunboat and by 5 February was in combat– only six weeks after her purchase– using her newly-mounted cannon to bombard Fort Barrow in support of Gen. Burnside’s invasion of Roanoke Island. She reportedly had to move in close to the Confederate works and received extensive punishment from the rebels in exchange.
No rest for the weary, her shakedown cruise continued with supporting landings up the Chowan River throughout the next month, coming to a head with a sortie up the Neuse River to New Bern where she and other gunboats of the Squadron engaged batteries and landed troops, capturing the key depot.
Hunchback continued to see hot service in the sounds of North Carolina through September 1863, especially up the Chowan. During her 20 months in Tar Heel waters, she broke up the Confederate siege of Washington (N.C.) on the Pamlico River, helped defend Fort Anderson, captured at least four small ships, and engage rebels in an extended action below Franklin, Virginia.
It was against Franklin that one of her crew, Ohio-born bluejacket Thomas C. Barton, earned the Medal of Honor. His citation read,
“When an ignited shell, with cartridge attached, fell out of the howitzer upon the deck, S/man Barton promptly seized a pail of water and threw it upon the missile, thereby preventing it from exploding.”
Barton would go on to rise to Acting Master Mate and perish aboard the old 74-gun ship of the line USS North Carolina in 1864, likely from illness. It should be remembered that most of those who died in the Civil War did so from disease and sickness, rather than bullet and shrapnel.
Withdrawn from the line in late 1863, Hunchback would make for Baltimore where her war damage was repaired, her hull corrected, and her steam plant overhauled.
Thus reconditioned, the armed ferry returned to the fleet in May 1864, towing the new Canonicus-class monitor USS Saugus up Virginia’s James River where the armored beast, along with her sisters Canonicus and Tecumseh, could support operations against Richmond and defend against Confederate ironclads.
The 500-ton Hunchback would continue her time in the James River, based at Deep Bottom, for the next 10 months and was used as a fire engine of sorts, splitting her time running supplies and dispatches up the river while pitching in to provide brown water naval gunfire support along the muddy banks whenever the Confederates obliged to come within range. Her most notable action on the James was on 30 June when accompanied by Saugus, she clashed with Confederate batteries at Four Mills Creek.
It was during this Virginia period, sometime between May 1864 and March 1865, that she hosted a photographer, often chalked up as Matthew Brady– or at least someone associated with him, perhaps Egbert Guy Fowx. Notably, and something that is backed up by muster rolls that state many of her crew were enlisted “on the James River,” her complement included several apparent recently freed slaves.
Brady/Fowx apparently found the ship’s landing guns fascinating.
Just before the end of the war on 17 March 1865, Hunchback was sent back to her old stomping grounds in the coastal sounds of North Carolina– loaded with solid shot and three spar torpedoes (mines) in case she ran into a rebel ironclad— resulting in once again being sent up the Chowan River to clear the way for Sherman, who was marching North.
RADM David Porter, in writing to Commodore William H. Macomb, was blunt about the flotilla’s ability to halt any expected sortie by the Confederate ram CSS Neuse, sistership of the infamous CSS Albemarle— which was in fact not a threat at the time.
By 1 April, Hunchback made contact up the Chowan with advanced scouts of the 1st New York Mounted Rifles, part of the Army of the James pushing South, near Stumpy Reach (Point?), where her war effectively ended.
On 1 June, Hunchback was “sent north” on orders from Porter, along with at least 20 other converted steamers, no longer needed for any sort of naval service, and swiftly disarmed and decommissioned at New York 12 June 1865.
She was sold 12 July 1865 to the New York & Brooklyn Ferry Co., was renamed General Grant in 1866, and remained in service until 1880. While some records have her on the Brooklyn-to-New York ferry run for the next 15 years, the City of Boston has records of her purchase, for $23,000 in December 1865, to the East Boston Ferry Company.
Her final fate is unknown, but as she was a wooden-hulled vessel, it is not likely she endured much beyond the 1880s.
The muster rolls of the Hunchback, as well as extensive disapproved pension applications for her former crew members, are in the National Archives.
Displacement: 517 tons
Length: 179 ft.
Beam: 29 ft.
Depth of Hold: 10 ft.
Propulsion: One 40-inch bore, 8-foot stroke vertical walking beam steam engine; twin sidewheels
Speed 12 knots
Crew: Listed as “99” although some muster rolls have her with as many as 125 aboard
Armament: Hunchback was listed in naval returns as having 7 guns, however, DANFS just lists:
3 x 9-inch guns
1 x 100-pounder 6.4-inch Naval Parrott rifle
She also carried at least two if not three 12-pounder landing guns, as extensively shown in photos, which could explain the apparent discrepancy.
In 1865 she also apparently carried a spar torpedo
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