- The Washington Times - Friday, August 20, 2004

She may have been a trim, fast little side-wheel paddle-steamer of about 1,300 tons that victimized Northern merchant shipping, though not to the extent of the Alabama and Florida. But when the Rattlesnake went aground on the Ogeechee River just south of Savannah, Ga., not even the Fort McAllister gunners could save her, and they certainly tried hard enough.

Rattlesnake had begun as the Nashville, the name by which she is remembered. Originally she was a Northern vessel, plying an innocent trade as a merchant ship between New York and Charleston, S.C. She was in Southern waters when war began, however, and was pressed into service with the Confederate navy, which needed all the ships it could get.

Transformed into a ship of war, the Nashville was placed under the command of Lt. Robert B. Pegram. With only a brace of brass 12-pounders on her forecastle deck, she was lightly armed, but she was quite capable of sinking any unarmed vessel unfortunate enough to cross her path.

On Oct. 21,1861, she left Charleston, slipping through the blockade, as many a nimble paddler was able to do, and paid a visit to Bermuda, where Southerners could always be assured of a very warm welcome. When she left, Nashville became a hunter in search of prey, and on Nov. 19, she found a victim in the English Channel.

The Harvey Birch could not have been expecting any trouble there. She had left the French port of Le Havre and was homeward bound for New York. Surrendering to her formidable foe, she was put to the torch, her crew released in the English seaport of Southampton, southwest of London.

Protestations of neutrality notwithstanding, England’s sympathies were very much with the Confederacy. It must have infuriated Charles Francis Adams, U.S. minister to Britain, to learn that a Rebel flag was flaunting its colors in a stiff Solent breeze. There was nothing he could do about it, though. It was the first such flag to fly in British waters.

Sometimes England enforced the rules of neutrality. When the steamer USS Tuscarora also anchored at Southampton, on Jan. 8, 1862, she presented the locals with the fascinating spectacle of two hostile warships lying at anchor with dissimilar American flags. It must have been the talk of the town.

When the captain of the Tuscarora, sister ship of the Kearsarge, which would attack and sink the Alabama in June 1864, began to take an understandably close interest in his Confederate neighbor, he was warned by the port authorities to keep away from her.

Perhaps at their request, Tuscarora moved anchorage to the nearby Isle of Wight, and she was ordered to remain there until after the Nashville had sailed.

On Feb. 3, Nashville weighed anchor and headed back across the Atlantic to the Confederate States, breaking her journey for another brief visit to Bermuda.

On her way home, she seized and burned the Philadelphia schooner Robert Gilfillan. Evading the vigilant blockaders off the coast of North Carolina, always a risky venture, she berthed at Beaufort on Feb. 28, although she soon moved the short distance to Moreland City.

Various changes soon occurred to the Nashville. Sold by the Confederate navy to private owners Fraser, Trenholm & Co., who were based in Charleston, she was renamed Thomas L. Wragg, and Lt. William C. Whittle became her captain.

She became a blockade runner, flying the British flag and always showing pursuers a clean pair of heels. A further change took place when she was transformed into a cruiser and became the Rattlesnake.

No one could have foreseen that time was running out for the busy little ship and her crew.

She proved a successful blockade runner, but when she stuck fast in Seven Mile Reach on Feb. 27, 1863, she soon found herself in desperate trouble.

At first, her commander must have believed himself to be safe, for he was guarded by a line of torpedoes, as mines were then described, as well as by the guns of Fort McAllister, located on the Ogeechee River near Savannah. However, Rattlesnake had attracted the attention of a federal ironclad.

Montauk was captained by John Lorimer Worden, whose original Monitor had dueled with Virginia (often referred to by its original name, the Merrimack). Despite a ferocious cannonade from the fort, Worden managed to get within 1,200 yards of the former Nashville and turned his 15-inch Dahlgren on her. Hit five times, the Confederate vessel sent a column of black smoke skyward.

The end obviously was very near, and one wonders why Whittle did not order his crew to leave the stricken ship. Hit several times more, Rattlesnake began to burn fiercely, and all too quickly the fire reached the magazine. A tremendous explosion blew the paddler to pieces, and there were no survivors.

Montauk was withdrawing from the scene of the engagement when she collided with a torpedo and had to be grounded on a bank.

Temporary repairs were effected on the spot, enabling the ship to limp to Port Royal, where all damage was made good. Worden remained in the U.S. Navy after the war and ended as a rear admiral. He retired in 1886 and died 1897.

Peter Cliffe, a retired corporate administrator, lives in Hertfordshire, England. He became interested in the Civil War while working with a multinational firm in this country.

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