1864: John J. Allen, Jr. to Henry Martin Lowe

The following incredible letter describes the sinking of the U. S. Steamer Southfield by the Confederate Ram Albemarle during the Battle of Plymouth. It was written by 21 year-old Acting Master’s Mate John J. Allen, Jr. (1842-1920) who was aboard the Southfield when she was rammed in the early morning hours of 19 April 1864—a day that John said “will ever remain fresh in my memory.”

I could not find an image of John but here is George W. Marchant wearing the uniform of an Acting Master’s Mate. (Ron Coddington Collection)

John was born in Warren, Bristol county, Rhode Island, the son of John J. Allen (1814-1890) and Mary Tyler Bowen (1823-18xx). He was appointed Acting Master’s Mate on 18 May 1863 and served initially on the USS Sumpter when she joined the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron at Hampton Roads. She was initially stationed off Hampton Bar but in June she was sent to the Yorktown, Virginia, area to search for the Confederate privateer Clarence. On the morning of 24 June, she collided with the Union transport, USS General Meigs eight or nine miles from the Smith Island lighthouse and sank in 42 feet of water. The officers and crew were rescued by the Jamestown and taken to Newport News, Virginia. Later, in 1864, he was assigned to the U. S. Steamer Southfield. Ironically, just before the action described in this letter, on 10 April 1864, he wrote a letter to Gideon Welles requesting a copy of his appointment to Acting Master’s Mate stating that he had lost it “at the time of the disaster of the United States Steamer Sumpter.

Once again, when the U. S. Steamer Southfield sank just a few days after writing the letter to Welles, John lost everything he owned again. Feeling snakebitten, John tendered his resignation on 23 April 1864 claiming that he was destitute. “I made them think that there was nothing but destitution before me if I remained. I hope that I will get out of here for I am too unlucky to stay here any longer,” he confided to his friend.

Less than three months later, on 15 July, John left the Tacony at New Bern on sick leave and arrived at Warren, Rhode Island on 21 July, sick with chills & fever. He official resigned on 22 August 64.

After the war, on 10 July 1866. John married Eunice “Josephine” Starkey (1843-1908) in Bristol county, Rhode Island. Eunice was the daughter of Abel and Louisa E. Starkey of Westmoreland, New Hampshire.

The letter was addressed to Henry Martin Lowe (1840-1907) of Rockport, Essex county, Massachusetts, who had served throughout most of 1862 and early early 1863 aboard the USS Gunboat Penobscot as the Paymaster Steward. In July 1863, however, he was reassigned to the US Steamer Southfield as the Paymaster’s Clerk with his Uncle Addison Pool serving as the Assistant Paymaster. In March 1864, just one month before the Battle of Plymouth, Lowe wrote his wife that he was going to be returning home soon. George W. Brown would take Henry’s place as Paymaster’s Clerk aboard the Southfield and it would be Brown, not Lowe, that would be taken prisoner. Lowe’s uncle, Addison Pool, would fortuitously avoid death or captivity too, having gone to Newbern just prior to the attack. [Note—Lowe’s letters can be read at 1862-64: Henry Martin Lowe to his Family.]

“Gunfight on the Roanoke,” The gun crew of the U.S.S. Miami witnesses the sinking to the U.S.S. Southfield by the C.S.S. Albemarle, April 19, 1864. Via TomFreemanArt.com


U. S. Steamer Tacony
Roanoke Island, North Carolina
Monday, April 25th 1864

My dear friend Henry,

How I wish that I could be writing this letter from the Southfield at Plymouth today but fate has destined it otherwise and we must calmly submit to it. Ere this reaches you, you will have undoubtedly been made acquainted with all the particulars of the late battle and fall of Plymouth and the sinking of our gallant Southfield by that infernal ram [CSS Albemarle] of which we joked so much about and ever doubted such an idea as her appearance at Plymouth which we had fortified so well. Henry, what do you think of it & was it not a shame that we were whipped so badly after the confidence we always entertained on our fortifications if the place was attacked?

A week ago last night [17 April 1864] or 3:30 P. M. the attack was first made. The pickets were driven inside and Fort Grey 1 was the recipient of the first fire from the enemy’s batteries erected about a mile up the river from the fort opposite and by the fisheries of Major Willi___]. The [picket boat] Whitehead, Ceres, and Bombshell took an active part that night. The Ceres received several shots, had two men killed, one Engineer and four men wounded. 2 The batteries ceased their fire at about 9 P. M. and later in the evening repeated attempts were made to take Fort Grey but without success.

At daylight the next morning [18 April 1864] the battle again commenced from up the river and back of the town at all points. Bombshell in charge of [Acting Ensign Thomas B.] Stokes was sunk by the enemy early in the morning while carrying a dispatch to “Grey.” In the afternoon I went with a party of men to bury the two killed on the Ceres and after performing that duty, we went over to the breastworks to see the sport there. When returning to the ship, the enemy (a force estimated at 12,000) made a powerful assault withe intention, I suppose, of taking the town by storm, but they found their mistake for the Southfield and Miami cut adrift (as we had not at that time taken any part) and poured upon them our shell as fast as we could load and fire—Miami below the town and we above—and making a cross and terrific fire upon them. It seemed as though the whole strength of the enemy’s shell fell in the river for it actually boiled with them. And though we were struck, not one of our men was injured that I know of. Some were knocked over but not hurt.

The curtain did not drop upon that scene until nearly eleven o’clock at night when the enemy fell back after making their best efforts to scale the breastworks and forts. They fought hard and well—I will give them the credit of that. 3

As the Ram [Albemarle] up to that time was not heard from, we felt sure of success and did not expect another attack. But at one the next morning (Tuesday)—and one which will ever remain fresh in my memory—the Whitehead came down reporting that the Ram was coming, called all hands, and commenced making fast to Miami 4 as before to receive her, and at 4 a.m., just as we were getting the last fast secure, the infernal thing came right down past the town and made straight wake for us (we were laying then down to the picket station). I can’t tell how the vessel passed all the torpedoes, blockades, forts, &c. no more than a man in the moon. Besides, I am unable to see how it was we didn’t slip cables and run before her to lessen the blow, but there she appeared coming full speed with that Cotton Planter steamer with her with two hundred sharpshooters in her. The Ram struck the Southfield on the starboard bow and cut her through to the boilers. 5 From both of our vessels we gave her 13 shots which made no impression upon her whatever. Capt. [Charles] Flusser was killed by the reflection of one of his shells that could not be drawn and was forced on the Ram. 6 Mr. Hargons and Farrington were wounded pretty badly. Also about a dozen of the Miami’s men. [Charles A.] French was the first to leave the Southfield after being struck but when the Southfield was nearly under, about a third of the men and all the officers except Newman, Stokes, George Pratt, Goff, Strieby, and Brown escaped. 7 Capt. French then ordered a retreat and we steamed out of the river [aboard the Miami] in company with Whitehead and Ceres. The Ram following but could not catch.

The Ram never fired upon us and I don’t know why without it was because she was afraid to open her ports. I could not say that there was a man killed on the Southfield but some much have drowned. I know I saved [W. C.] Jackson 8 and three of the men by getting in one of the Miami’s boats which were along side hoisted up and pulling them on board. Jackson would not acknowledge it, I know, but I can tell him that he would [have] been in the hands of the enemy now if I had not pulled him over. But that’s nothing.

Well, the town could not hold out after we were drove out and at noon on Wednesday [April 20, 1864] they then surrendered to the Confederates. Some say nothing was surrendered, but taken—that is, we fought to the last.

On Wednesday the steamer Tacony came up to the head of the Albemarle Sound where we were laying with the Miami and Whitehead and we got up an expedition to go up and see if we could pick up anyone and capture the Dollie if we could. I had charge of one of the boats. Hadn’t got but a little ways past Louise Island when we met the Ram and two other steamers coming down and we had to put back accomplishing nothing. The Ram nor the Rebel steamer have come out of the river yet and we are keeping a sharp lookout for them in case they do undertake it.

Thursday morning [April 21, 1864] I was ordered to this steamer which started for Roanoke Island immediately and we have been lying here ever since. You saw the Eutaw at Newbern. Well, this steamer is just the model of her. We steamed 16 knots and came from the mouth of the Roanoke to this place in 4 hours. Vast boat! hey! Accommodations splendid but I feel splendid afraid of her with one old suit only to my back. I am getting used to it now but don’t expect to remain here long for my “resignation” has been sent in to the captain of this steamer and I presume he has approved and forwarded it in for here I am destitute and I made them think that there was nothing but destitution before me if I remained. I hope that I will get out of here for I am too unlucky to stay here any longer and it is a disgrace for a man to be in these surrounds with no hope of promotion.

Newbern and Washington are to be attacked I hear and they have Rams also you know and if they don’t look out pretty sharp, they will fall into the hands of the Rebels. Gideon Wells will wake up bye and bye and get his eyes open. Pool, your uncle, went to Newbern just before the Ram came down at Plymouth. Doc [Peter H. Purcell] & [Surgeon’s Asst. W. C.] Jack[son] have gone to Newbern. Farris is on the Ceres. William [F.] Pratt, [John R.] Peacock, and [Joseph S.] Watts is on the Miami.

I have heard that the entrenchments around Plymouth were filled three and four deep with the dead bodies of the rebs who were killed when trying to scale the breastworks. Tough old battle, I assure you. Two of the companies of cavalry made a dash through the lines just before the town gave in and made their escape to Washington, North Carolina. I might write enough of the affair to fill a dozen sheets of foolscap but I hope to come where you are one of these old days and then I can tell you all about the affair. I want you to answer immediately and let me know if there is any chance for me where you are and if you are making a good business for if you can give me any encouragement whatever, I shall follow you out there with a capital to start on.

I am fully decided upon what I say and would like nothing better than to get into business with such a valuable friend and agreeable companion as you have been to me. I missed you dreadfully after you left us and very often I would look for your familiar voice and footstep. I am glad that you went away as you did for you might have shared the same fate as Brown—your successor. He might have got clear for he had no station and we did. Don’t you remember how much you used to say that if you thought the Ram would come down, you would stay to see her? Do you still wish that you had stayed? I would have given a thousand dollars if we had sunk her but as it is, I don’t know what to make of it. Don’t forget to tell me all about how you are prospering and if there is any chance for me down that way. I shall have to send this letter to Rockport and I presume your wife will forward it on. Direct to U. S. Steamer Tacony, Newbern, N. C., and I guess they will come all right. Goodbye for today, Lowe, and I remain your true friend, — John J. Allen, Jr.

1 Fort Grey [Gray] was “a detached Union position upstream from the town built to fend off Confederate gunboats descending” the Roanoke River. The fort was attacked by a force led by James Dearing. It consisted of Terry’s Virginia Brigade and several guns, including three 20-pounder Parrotts (probably from Blount’s and Macon’s batteries). They approached the fort from Long Acre Road. [The Fight for the Old North State, by Hampton Newsome, page 208.]

2 “The Confederate gunners [in Dearing’s command] trained their Parrott rifles on the Ceres and opened a storm of shot. Several found their mark. One smashed a launch, wrecked machinery, and hit the port quarter just above the waterline near the magazine. Another drilled through the prt gangway. The projectiles killed fireman William Rose outright and wounded cook Samuel Pascall, who died later.” After returning to the wharf at Plymouth later that night, “the bodies of Rose and Pascall were laid out in the quartermaster’s office. Seven others had been wounded and they were all treated by the Miami’s surgeon, Dr. William Mann, with the assistance of Sayres Nichols.” [The Fight for the Old North State, by Hampton Newsome, page 214.]

3 The Confederate forces were led by Gen. Robert Hoke, a native of Noth Carolina. He had three infantry brigades with him—his own Brigade led by Col. John T. Mercer; Matt Ransom’s North Carolinians; and Kemper’s Virginia Brigade under Col. William Terry. The city of Plymouth was defended by General Wessells who had about 2800 men—the better part of four infantry regiments. These included the 16th Connecticut, 85th New York, and 101st ands 103rd Pennsylvania. There were also some detached artillery units and two companies of 2nd North Carolina Colored troops.

4 “After a busy day of bombarding the attacking Confederates, the Miami and the Southfield had anchored below the town where the Union line was in danger of being outflanked by Hoke’s forces. Shortly after midnight, the Whitehead sighted the Albemarle coming downriver, and reported the fact to Flusser. According to a prearranged and, it would seem, somewhat foolhardy plan, a heavy chain was passed from the Southfield to the Miami. Flusser’s intention was that the two ships would maneuver to catch the Albemarle between them, and as the Confederate ship thrust against the chain, the two gunboats would be drawn alongside the Albemarle where the impact of their guns would loosen her plating, and demoralize her crew from the concussion alone.” [Civil War Ironclads: The Dawn of Armor” by Robert MacBride]

5 “Showing no sign of stopping or even slowing down, the Albemarle reach the Union vessels, brushed the Miami’s port bow, ‘gouging two planks through for nearly 10 feet,’ and then drove straight into the Southfield’s starboard bow. It was no contest. The Albemarle’s iron-plated prow sliced right through the Union vessel’s hull, penetrating 10 feet through the forward storeroom and into the fire rom, then driving ‘a hole clear through to the boiler.’ The impact delivered a catastrophic blow to the Southfield, which immediately started to sink with much of its crew still inside….much of the Southfield’s crew escaped onto the Miami.” [The Fight for the Old North State, by Hampton Newsome, page 232.]

6  While the Albemarle tried frantically to extricate itself from the Southfield which was sinking rapidly and pulling it under with it, the crew on the Miami turned their 100-pounder Parrott and 9-inch Dahlgren on the Albemarle. “During the first  moments of the fight, Capt. Flusser personally manned several of the Miami’s guns, firing the first three shots at pointblank range. According to one eyewitness aboard the Miami, Flusser hopped from gun to gun, firing the 100-pounder first, then the bow gun, and then the port broadside Dahlgren. Surgeon’s steward  Sayres Nichols recalled that the first round ‘struck her plumb, but the shot, though solid, produced no more effect, than one of those little torpedoes we have on fourth  of Julys.’ When Flusser reached the third piece on the port side ahead of the hurricane deck, the weapon’s captain yelled, ‘There’s a shell, sir, in that gun,’ revealing  that the tube had been charged with an explosive round and not solid shot. Flusser supposedly replied, ‘Well, it does not matter much. Depress, stand clear, boys.’ With that he yanked the lock string, send the round jetting toward the ironclad. The projectile, a ’10 second’ Dahlgren shell, smacked against the Albemarle’s casement and ricocheted back, exploding on board the Miami. One large fragment, 4 inches square, tore through Flusser’s body, and severed his arm. Another shard entered his skull. As he fell with the lanyard still in his hand, he was heard exhorting his men to ‘sink the ram.'” [The Fight for the Old North State, by Hampton Newsome, page 232-3.]

7 The officers of the Southfield crew mentioned by Acting Master’s Mate, John J. Allen, Jr. who survived the sinking but who were taken prisoners included Acting Master William B. Newman (who allegedly fired the last shot at the Albemarle before the Southfield sank); Acting Ensign Thomas B. Stokes; Acting Master’s Mate George W. Pratt; Acting 2nd Assistant Engineer William F. Goff; Acting 3rd Assistant Engineer John A. Strieby; and Paymaster’s Clerk George W. Brown.

8 W. C. Jackson was the Surgeon’s Steward aboard the U. S. Steamer Southfield at the time of the Battle of Plymouth.

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