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DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY -- NAVAL HISTORY AND HERITAGE COMMAND
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Alert

 

II

 

(ScTug: t. 90; 1. 62'; b. 17'; dph. 7'; dr. 6'5"; s. 7 k.; cpl. 15; a. 1 24-pdr. r. how.)

 

The second Alert—a screw tug built in 1861 at Syracuse, N. Y., under the name A. C. Powell—was purchased at New York City by the Navy on 3 October 1861.

 

Since this small tug's logs prior to 27 January 1865 have been lost, there are several significant gaps in our knowledge of her career. All we know of A. C. Powell's service until early in the summer of 1862 is that she was operating in the sounds of North Carolina on 13 March 1862. We next hear of her on 30 June 1862 when she was detached from the Potomac Flotilla for duty in the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

 

The reassignment was prompted by General Robert E. Lee's success in the Seven Days' Campaign which turned back General McClellan's Union army before Richmond and forced it to seek safety on the banks of the James River under the protection of Federal gunboats. A. C. Powell—then under the command of Acting Master Henry H. Foster—was one of several ships of the Union Navy sent to the James to assure Union control of that indispensable waterway.

 

While the tug was operating on that river, she was renamed Alert. Late in President Lincoln decided to withdraw the Army of the Potomac from the peninsula formed by the James and York Rivers and return it to the vicinity of Washington to protect the Union capital, threatened by Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles called Alert back to the Potomac to strengthen the forces which were to meet Lee, but the steamer was undergoing repairs at Newport News and was unable to get underway until after Union soldiers had stopped Lee at Antietam Cree'k. With Lee's decision to retire into Virginia, the need for Alert in the Potomac disappeared, and she remained in the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

 

During most of the remainder, of her service the tug acted as a dispatch and picket boat on the James River. She also made occasional runs to the sounds of North Carolina with messages. During these operations, Confederate forces in the waters she frequented were constantly endeavoring to seize Union warships or to destroy them by guile. For instance, on 12 November 1862, Capt. Thomas Turner, the senior Union naval officer in the Hampton Roads-Norfolk area, warned Alert, that ". . . the enemy is preparing ... an expedition of armed launches [to be] sent down close inshore in the darkness of the night until they get abreast of you." The admonition for ". . . the officers and men to be constantly on the watch ..." was especially important since Alert often served as tender to Philadelphia, the flag steamer of Acting Rear Admiral Samuel Phillips Lee who commanded the Union squadron.

 

Union warships on the James also cooperated with Army forces. In mid January 1863, Major General John A. Dix notified Admiral Lee that there were "... indications of activity on the part of the enemy . . ."in the Dismal Swamp-Suffolk area. Since a major Confederate movement in that vicinity could jeopardize the entire Union hold on the south bank of the James, Admiral Lee ordered Alert and her sister warships to ready themselves to help turn back the Southern thrust should it come.

 

Almost three months passed before that particular threat materialized. Early in April, Confederate General Robert E.Lee detached Lieutenant General Longstreet's corps from the Army of Northern Virginia to forage for supplies. Longstreet, apparently hoping to improve the South's strategic position while finding food for General Lee's soldiers, headed for Suffolk. When the Union Army called on the Navy for help, Admiral Lee ordered Lt. William B. Gushing to lead a group of gunboats up the Nansemond River, a tributary of the James, to assist Major General Peck's troops as they tried to stop Longstreet's advance.

 

Alert ascended the Nansemond with Gushing on 12 April and, for the next three weeks, participated in almost daily duels with Confederate shore batteries. Because of her light draft, she moved above the bar of the river into the narrower, shallower, and more dangerous part of the stream near Suffolk where the fighting was fiercest. The afternoon of the next day, her rudder was severely damaged requiring her to return briefly to Norfolk to have it replaced. The repair work was completed on the afternoon of the 16th, and the tug returned to the Nansemond and fought there through the end of the month.

 

Her vigorous fight and that of her sister ships prevented the Southern forces from dislodging Major General Peck's troops from their defensive works and finally prompted Longstreet to withdraw—a movement hastened by a message from General R. E.Lee who was about to engage the Union Army at Chan-cellorsville.

 

On 31 August 1863, the tug caught fire while moored in the Norfolk Navy Yard and sank. She was soon raised and, by October, had returned to duty. In January 1864 work to fit her with torpedo apparatus began, but the experiment proved to be unsuccessful. As a result, the tug returned to duty in the James in May.

 

On 2 February 1865, Alert was renamed Watch. Her work on the James reached its climax early in April when she participated in the naval expedition to Richmond which took President Lincoln to the former Confederate capital. Soon thereafter, she left that river and raced to the Potomac, presumably to try to cut off the escape of the assassin, John Wilkes Booth, who had shot the President.

 

Following the collapse of the Confederacy, Watch was decommissioned at the Washington Navy Yard on 26 May 1865. She was sold at auction there to Robert Lear on 5 July 1865. Redocumented as Watch on 2 August 1865, she served as a merchant tug until abandoned in 1886.

 

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The keel of a projected Resaca-c\ass screw sloop of war named Alert was laid down by the Washington Navy Yard early in 1865; and her machinery was to be built by the Portsmouth (N.H.) Navy Yard. However, the Navy's need for such a warship disappeared with the end of the Civil War; and the order for her construction was canceled in 1866.