Sinking of USS Varuna

Sinking of USS Varuna

USS Varuna sinking

Let’s look at two opposing viewpoints on an event that occurred during the Naval Battle of Fort Jackson, Louisiana. During the early morning hours of April 24, 1862.

A fleet of Union warships under Admiral David Farragut ascended the Mississippi River and forced a passage between the Confederate forts Jackson and St. Philip located on both sides of the river and bulled their way through the assembled Confederate fleet which included the ironclad C.S.S. Louisiana. Among the casualties in the Union fleet was the steamer U.S.S. Varuna commanded by Captain Charles Boggs. Despite the loss of the Varuna, Farragut’s fleet successfully passed the forts and occupied New Orleans the following day.

Detail from a Currier & Ives print of the Naval Battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip. Fort Jackson flies the Stars and Bars flag at center left while Fort St. Philip lay across the river. In the foreground, Farragut’s flagship the U.S.S. Hartford appears to be aflame, but that is actually a Confederate fire raft next to her. The U.S.S. Varuna was the only Federal vessel sunk during the battle; eight of her sailors were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions during the engagement. 

The first account of this engagement comes from the pen of an officer of the Louisiana whose name is lost to history while the second account originates from Ensign Frank Fitch of the USS Varuna, a vessel whose sinking and destruction is described by the officer from the Louisiana. Fitch’s account, supplemented by the report of Captain Charles Boggs who commanded the Varuna

Jackson, Mississippi
May 2, 1862

          I arrived here last night from Forts Jackson and St. Philip, having escaped from the Louisiana on Monday morning last at half past 8 o’clock in the morning. But I will detail my adventure as it occurred.

          After going to New Orleans, Commodore [William C.] Whittle ordered me to the Louisiana for the fight. I joined her on the 7th of April and on the 22nd we left for the forts. She was an ironclad, like the Shirley boat the Arkansas, and mounted 16 guns, but unfortunately, she could not propel herself, her power being inadequate. On the morning of the 24th, I had the mid-watch from 12 a.m. to 4 a.m. At half past 3, the bugle sounded the alarm in the forts and in a few minutes after the enemy commenced to run the gauntlet with 20 large steam sloops and 13 gunboats. The cannonading was terrific with at least 300 heavy guns being engaged.

3-D Model of the C.S.S. Louisiana

          I fired the first gun from the Louisiana at a big fellow close aboard [the U.S.S. Brooklyn]. This was the first intimation they had of our existence and the enemy believing us to be a light gunboat or steamboat laid us aboard for the purpose of carrying us by boarding which exposed him to the direct fire of our bow battery consisting of two 9-inch smooth guns and one 7-inch rifle, the latter much heavier and much more formidable than the “Belmont” or “Lady Polk” guns. Our captain [Charles F.] McIntosh, divining the object of the enemy, called a number of men on deck to repel and whilst firing musketry at the ship alongside, he was struck by grape and severely wounded, losing his right arm, breaking his left, and his right leg. [McIntosh died of his wounds.]

In the meantime, the rascal was fast to our bow about 40 feet from us and poured in a most terrific broadside, driving the hot smoke from his guns into our ports, but our metal was too heavy and he went ahead and came in range of our starboard battery where I had the pleasure of peppering him with my divisions of rifles; this settled him and he dropped off into the stream helpless. Then he fell in with the Manassas which had been poking and horning in all directions; Warley backed off and went in our friend full tilt, knocking a hole in his side which caused him to sink in a few minutes. This was the only close work we had and that did not last more than 10 minutes, if that long, during which we whipped a first-class sloop-of-war.

During the balance of the engagement, we stood by our guns and fired as they passed. In the morning, our upper works were a perfect wreck, cut all to pieces by grape and canister; the steamboat’s cabin alongside was literally in splinters but our iron casement was unhurt. Two 14-inch shells struck us whilst we were so close, which only made a deep dent in the iron, not starting the wood, and although I was standing immediately under them, I did not feel the concussion.

Warley in the Manassas and Huger in the McRae covered themselves with glory. Warley seemed to fairly revel in the fight. The Manassas was everywhere but unfortunately the vessels of the enemy were faster than she and carried 20 guns, whilst she carried but one. The McRae held four of them at bay and was gallantly fighting both broadsides when Warley came to her assistance. Huger of the McRae became mortally wounded. Warley was unhurt. All the regular Navy vessels went into this fight and remained there.

USS Varuna rammed by CSS Stonewall Jackson during the Battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip

But how different was it with the much blowed of Montgomery fleet with the single exception of the Governor Moore, commanding by Captain Beverly Kennon late of the Navy. Instead of using their vessels as rams. They ignominiously ran them ashore, shot off their guns, fired the boats, and took to the swamp. Kennon of the Moore attacked one of the large sloops of war, running up the river directly after and striking her on the stern first, then backed off and struck her amidships, and then aft, then forward, and then amidships- giving her five blows which completely hammered the life out of her and down she went.

But whilst Bev was butting, the other vessel was giving him broadsides and at the moment of the last butt, a shell struck the Moore, knocking her rudder off, completely disabling her, and so she drifted ashore and was burnt by the enemy. Her gallant commander remained with her and was taken prisoner in her.

The destruction of the ironclad C.S.S. Louisiana

After the fight, we felt convinced that we could whip the whole fleet if they would only fight us, but then we could not go up. On Thursday morning at 1 or 2 o’clock, the men in Fort Jackson mutinied, spiked the guns, shot the sentinels, and left. At daylight, when we awoke, we found the white flag in place of the battle flag. If we surrendered the ship, no doubt we could be paroled but we would give the enemy an ironclad battery. Captain Mitchell preferred Fort Warren to giving up his honor, and so we fired the ship and I took to the swamp and escaped with three other officers.

Ensign Frank Fitch, U.S.S. Varuna

New Orleans, Louisiana
April 26, 1862

          In the most terrible naval battle on record, our glorious stars and stripes came through triumphantly victorious! The Varuna was sunk by the continued efforts of a large vessel with an iron prow and a Confederate gunboat- not by their cannon, but by running into us. But we have the proud satisfaction of knowing that we set on fire and burned both of the vessels that sunk us, besides destroying four others! The Varuna’s career was brief, but most glorious!

U.S.S. Varuna

Porter’s bomb fleet had been shelling Fort Jackson for three or four days and nights without any material damage to the fort except killing five or six men and wounding as many more, and they had inflicted nearly as much damage on us. The Rebels had flooded the fort by letting water through the levee, and of course our shells did not burst unless they struck barbettes or casemates, and they were getting jubilant in their security and our impotence as they thought.

We all felt it to be a most desperate undertaking, but we knew something decisive must be done soon. We did not start as early in the night as we expected to. It was between 3 and 4 o’clock when we got off. The moon had just risen- our vessels moved off up the river, without displaying any lights; the men were all at their posts by the guns- all silent except the bombs from Porter’s fleet. The vessels moved silently and slowly up the stream like huge specters.

Presently Porter opened on them with his whole fleet, filling the air with the terrible whizzing and streams of fire from the fuses of the bombs. In a moment, the forts opened on us with fury and desperation in the hope that they might sink some of us and throw the rest into confusion. They set adrift fire rafts, that they might destroy us in that manner, but it all did them no good. You may imagine all the terrific scenes you have ever read of put together, and you may have some idea of the terrific grandeur of this. Think of the roar of 500 or 600 heavy guns, discharged as fast as they could be loaded. As we looked down the river, it seemed as if the forts, ships, river, and everything else were on fire. No wonder the people of New Orleans thought it was an earthquake.

About this time, the Varuna, being very fast, shot ahead of the fleet, and was soon out of range of the forts and although we were struck several times, no one was hurt so far. Being clear of the forts and a considerable distance above the rest of the fleet, she turned her attention to the Rebel gunboats (of which these were 13, only two escaped). They opened on us hot and heavy with shot and shell, but on we went, pouring broadside after broadside into them. We soon set four of them on fire, when the rest, seeing we were so far ahead of the fleet, concluded to run us down. They succeeded, but we destroyed both of them. 

Diagram from the O.R. showing the location of the two forts, the river defenses, and location of the Confederate fleet. The Louisiana moored just upstream of Fort Jackson.

[Fitch’s description of the Varuna’s last fighting was omitted due to a similar letter previously published from another source gave essentially the same description. That letter was the report of Captain Charles S. Boggs which I provide here: “After passing the batteries with the steamer Varuna under my command on the morning of the 24th, finding my vessel among a nest of Rebel steamers, I started ahead delivering her fire both starboard and port at everyone that she passed. The first on her starboard beam that received her fire appeared to be crowded with troops. Her boiler was exploded and she drifted to shore. In a like manner, three other vessels, one of them a gunboat, were driven ashore in flames and afterwards blew up,” Boggs wrote.

“At 6 a.m., the Varuna was attacked by the Governor Moore, which was ironclad about the bow and commanded by Beverly Kennon, and ex-naval officer. This vessel raked us along the port gallery, killing four and wounding nine of the crew, butting the Varuna on the quarter and again on the starboard side. I managed to get three 8-inch shells fired into her abaft of her armor as also several shots from the after rifled gun when she dropped out of action partially disabled.

While still engaged with her, another Rebel steamer (C.S.S. Stonewall Jackson), also ironclad with a prow under the water, struck us in the port gangway doing considerable damage. Our shot glanced from her bow and she backed off for another blow, striking again in the same place and crushing in the side; but by going ahead fast, the concussion drew her bow around and I was able with the port gun to give her while close alongside five 8-inch shells abaft her armor. This settled her and drove her ashore in flames,” Boggs stated. 

Unidentified sailor of the U.S. Navy. Eight men from the Varuna were awarded the Medal of Honor: Thomas Bourne, Amos Bradley, John Greene, George Hollat, William Martin, John McGowan, William McKnight, and Oscar E. Peck. 

“Finding the Varuna sinking, I ran into the bank, let go the anchor, and tied up to the trees. During all this time, the guns were actively at working crippling the Governor Moore which was making feeble efforts to get up the stream. The fire was kept up until the water was over the gun trunks when I turned my attention to getting the wounded and crew out of the vessel. Captain Lee of the Oneida, seeing the condition of the Varuna, had rushed to her assistance, but I waved her on and the Moore was surrendered to her. I have since learned that over 50 of her crew were killed or wounded and she was set on fire by her commander who burned his wounded with his vessel,” Boggs concluded.]

As soon as we could be taken off the boats, some of us were sent to one ship, some to another, until all of us were quartered on the vessels. Charles and I are on the flagship U.S.S. Hartford. Lieutenant Kantz of Brown County, Ohio is the ordnance officer on this ship. He is a splendid officer and a true gentleman, and we feel grateful to him for his aid. He furnished us some clothing to put on.

The Rebel loss must be very large. The Rebels in the forts who survived wrote their friends in New Orleans, the burden of the letters being, “I am safe but our slaughter was terrible.” Our loss in the battles was miraculously small. Here on the Hartford, of over 400 men, only two killed and ten wounded. One or two of the vessels did not have a man hurt. The captain of the large vessel that sank us [Captain Bev Kennon of the Governor Moore] is a prisoner aboard the Hartford. He says one broadside from the Varuna killed 20 of his men and that only 18 of the whole crew escaped.

I do not know what will be done with the crew of the Varuna, unless they are transferred to a new ship. They all lost everything. I lost $400, and Charles over $200. We might have saved it had we not preferred to stick to our posts and assisted the wounded. At the very last moment, I saved the government funds and pay roll.

Sinking of USS Varuna

Written by Dan Masters

Originally published on Dan’s AWESOME Civil War Blog! We highly recommend you add it to your bookmarked browsers!

https://dan-masters-civil-war.blogspot.com/

Sinking of USS Varuna Sources:

“The Naval Battle at Fort Jackson-The Iron-Clad Steamer Louisiana in the Fight,” Arkansas True Democrat (Arkansas), May 15, 1862, pg. 1

Letter from Ensign Frank Fitch, Clermont Courier (Ohio), May 21, 1862, pg. 3

“Report of Captain Boggs of the Varuna,” The Cecil Whig (Maryland), May 17, 1862, pg. 1

Sinking of USS Varuna

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