The first and second naval vessels named Somerset retained the name carried at the time of their acquisition by the Navy during the Civil War and World War I, respectively, while the third Somerset (LPD 25) was named to honor Somerset County, Pa., where United Air Lines Flight 93 crashed on 11 September 2001. On that day, a seven-member flight crew and the 33 passengers were on board when the aircraft was hijacked by al Qaeda-linked suicide terrorists. Those on board the doomed plane, however, bravely attempted to wrest control of the aircraft from the four hijackers, and Flight 93 crashed in Stonycreek Township, well short of what most believed was a prominent target in Washington, D.C. "The courage and heroism of the people [on]board the flight will never be forgotten,” Secretary of the Navy Gordon R. England declared, “and USS Somerset will leave a legacy that will never be forgotten by those wishing to do harm to this country."
Somerset (AK 212) and Somerset (PCE 892) were named for the counties in Maryland, Maine, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, but the former was never commissioned, and the latter received her name while decommissioned and in reserve, and thus never operated under that name.
(Side-wheel gunboat: tonnage 521; length 151'0"; beam 32'4"; complement 110; armament 2 IX-inch Dahlgren smoothbores, 4 32-pounders)
The first Somerset -- a wooden-hull, side-wheel ferry built at Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1862 -- was acquired by the Navy at Washington, D.C., on 4 March 1862. On 17 March, 38-year old Lt. Earl English, a veteran of service in the Mexican War and who had been severely wounded in the assault on the Barrier Forts at Canton, China, in November 1856, reported to Commodore Hiram Paulding, Commandant of the New York Navy Yard, for duty in command of Somerset. After conversion at the New York (N.Y.) Navy Yard, Somerset was commissioned there on 3 April 1862, Lt. English in command.
Just two days prior to Somerset’s being placed in commission [1 April 1862], Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles ordered Lt. English to “proceed with the U.S.S. Somerset with all practicable dispatch to Key West, Fla., and report to Flag-Officer William W. McKean, for duty as a part of the East Gulf Blockading Squadron.” Somerset got underway during the forenoon watch on 13 April in company with side-wheel gunboat Fort Henry. Two days into the voyage, on 15 April, Somerset logged her sister ship making “signals which could not be made out,” so she ran down in her direction to speak [communicate with] her only to have Fort Henry back into her. Fortunately, Somerset suffered no damage in the mishap, and ultimately arrived at her destination, via Hampton Roads, without further incident on 27 April and coaled ship.
Flag-Officer [Acting Rear-Adm.] McKean ordered Somerset to “cruise for a short time near Havana [Cuba]…” before proceeding on to St. Marks, Fla. Shortly before the gunboat sailed on 28 April 1862, McKean instructed her commander to send any seaworthy prizes taken to Boston, Mass., for adjudication. If said prizes needed coal, they were to put in to Key West first to obtain it.
Soon thereafter, however, on the afternoon of 1 May 1862, McKean received a letter dated 25 April from Cmdr. David D. Porter, Commanding the Mortar Flotilla on the Mississippi, telling of the progress of operations against New Orleans but also how Confederate forces still posed a threat. “I ask all the assistance you can give us,” Porter wrote, “in the shape of steamers with heavy guns and solid shot. There is no time for delay; we may otherwise meet with disaster.” McKean immediately set off in the steam sloop Niagara, his flagship, to catch up with Somerset and dispatch her to join Porter’s flotilla. “Important as her [Somerset’s] services are to me,” he explained in a letter to Secretary Welles, “I considered them of still more importance in the river.”
Meanwhile, Somerset had proceeded to the coast of Cuba to take up her blockade station. Steaming ten miles offshore between Matanzas and Havana on Sunday, 4 May 1862, she discovered a steamer flying British colors standing to the westward. Lt. English ordered his ship to head toward the stranger. Somerset crossed the ship’s bow, and hoisted the stars and stripes. English hailed her and “ordered her to heave to, so as to allow me to send a boat alongside.”
Hearing “no audible reply” and that the other ship [clearly “much faster,” the gunboat’s commanding officer lamented, “than this vessel”] was “proceed[ing] directly on her course,” English called “all hands to quarters,” and Somerset wore round and stood toward her. Somerset fired a blank cartridge, then a shell across the ship’s quarter. “Evidently endeavoring to escape,” the uncommunicative vessel maintained her course and speed, prompting Somerset to fire a IX-inch shell over her. At 1115, English then ordered a shot fired “to cripple him.” The shot cut away the fore rigging, compelling her to stop and strike her colors.
English learned upon boarding that the ship that had sought to escape him was Circassian -- “among a list of vessels … that I was to be particularly on the lookout for.” After finding Circassian’s papers “not in accordance with the customary forms” and obtaining statements from some of her crew, English “felt justified in taking possession” of the ship. He sent Somerset’s Marine Guard, Orderly Sgt. James Carroll in charge of two corporals and ten privates (one of whom had only enlisted in the Marine Corps on 1 March 1862, a little over two months before), together with 11 sailors, to take charge of the prize that he placed under Acting Master William A. Arthur.
With Circassian’s engineers sullenly “having refused duty immediately upon her capture, and the engineer force of the Somerset being insufficient to work both steamers,” the Union gunboat towed her prize to Key West, arriving shortly before Flag-Officer McKean returned in Niagara on 6 May 1862. Reasoning that his force could not spare the men required to take Circassian north, McKean wrote Secretary of the Navy Welles that the prize would be adjudicated locally.
In addition, however, not only had McKean found a sought-after prize awaiting his return, but that same day also “received the glorious intelligence of the capture of New Orleans,” an event duly celebrated by Niagara’s firing a national salute of 34 guns. Somerset, for her part, hoisted the jack to the fore and the national ensign to the main. The fall of New Orleans, McKean wrote, “obviates the necessity for dispatching [Somerset] to the [Mississippi].”
Returning to the blockade west of Havana soon thereafter, Somerset encountered bad weather and, having been buffeted about, ran in close to the shore in search of smooth water, followed by the sloop Marion and the steamer R. R. Cuyler. The Spanish steam frigate Petronila, however, chanced upon the three American ships. From a distance of some three miles, Somerset, a converted ferryboat, may have resembled a Mississippi Riverboat, the two ships accompanying her, the boats passing between them, and Marion’s seemingly escorting Somerset from Cuban waters to the Florida Reefs seemed to indicate the capture of a blockade runner.
On 13 May, with the island Cuba visible to the south-southwest, Somerset received orders from Marion to proceed to Key West. A half-hour before the end of the forenoon watch, Acting Master Arthur noted in the log: “11:30 steaming slow against head sea and wind. Find we make Dreadfull [sic] heavy lunging and Rolling, making the vessel very uncomfortable…”
The case of mistaken identity, meanwhile, prompted Capt. R. M. Vinalet, Petronila’s commanding officer, to write to the “Senior Commander in Chief of the Cruising Ground in the Waters of the Island of Cuba” [Flag-Officer McKean] on 14 May, complaining of “an infraction of international right…” Subsequently, McKean addressed the issue in his response to Capt. Vinalet, and U.S. Vice-Consul-General Thomas Savage took the matter up with Admiral Don Joaquín Gutiérrez Rubalcava y Casal in Havana. Savage reported the “very frank and friendly” exchange of views to McKean, but diplomatically suggested “it is better policy to remove vessels now employed on this coast to our own and its vicinity, and thus avoid giving offense to the authorities here…”
Somerset returned to Key West, and on 16 May 1862, Flag-Officer McKean ordered her to proceed to the Cedar Keys and relieve the gunboat Tahoma in blockading that place. McKean informed Lt. English that Lt. John C. Howell, Tahoma’s commanding officer, had been instructed to turn over the schooner Ezilda, Tahoma’s tender, to Somerset, as well as to provide “any information he may be possessed of that can be useful,” and “all the coal he can spare.” Furthermore, having reason to believe that “vessels have recently succeeded in landing cargoes at Crystal River,” McKean sent the schooner Beauregard [Acting Master David Stearns, commanding] to aid in blockading that part of the coast, and informed English that the new arrival would be subject to his orders. Taking advantage of Somerset’s steaming to the Cedar Keys, McKean sent Beauregard’s quarter-deck and forecastle awnings as cargo.
Somerset reached her destination on the afternoon of 16 May 1862, at which point Lt. English and Lt. Howell conferred, the latter learning that English had assisted in surveying the channels between Way, North, Sea Horse, and Snake Keys, that area known collectively as the Cedar Keys. Apparently since Somerset’s captain enjoyed at least some familiarity with those waters, Lt. Howell determined to “make a reconnoissance [sic] of [Way] Key for the purpose of affording [Flag-Officer McKean] more exact information that I had heretofore been able to gain.”
Taking three boats and about 20 men from the supply ship National Guard, under the command of Acting Master William L. Hayes, four boats and 40 men from Tahoma, in charge of Lt. Alexander F. Crosman, and Acting Masters Jonas S. Higbee and Henry Hurley, Lt. Howell embarked in Somerset in command of the expedition. Despite the Tahoma’s boats sounding the approaches, the gunboat touched bottom [“and that lightly”] once.
Through their glasses, after Somerset had dropped anchor, Howell and English could see four men “lounging unconcernedly in front of a dilapidated house.” The expedition commander decided to send a boat ashore, under a flag of truce, “to notify them of our intention to land and to warn them that any shot fired at our people would be followed by the immediate destruction of all the property within reach of our guns.” Having delivered the warning, the boat flying the flag of truce shoved off.
At that moment, an astonished Lt. Howell saw what appeared to be 30 armed men -- Confederate soldiers -- walking up the railroad track. Since the “usages of war” did not permit fire to be opened until the flag of truce had returned to the ship, Somerset had to delay opening up on the rebels, but when she did, she shelled the track, as well as the chaparral and the house behind which the enemy had been concealed. After the shelling, the expedition landed “about 100 men,” employing Tahoma’s sailors as skirmishers, and marched toward the village. Searching the house yielded no evidence of continued occupation, and Lt. Howell concluded that the troops they had seen were the “advanced guard of a rebel regiment which the contraband [escaped slave] Henderson told me was stationed about three miles back of Way Key.”
Reasoning that the expedition had come to reconnoiter the area, not to take and hold the key, Lt. Howell ordered that no skirmishers or “any part of the force” should cross the trestlework of the Florida Railroad Line. “I thought it would be a useless expenditure of life,” Howell reasoned later, “to send sailors in pursuit of a probably superior force of soldiers who knew every foot of the ground and who, protected by dense woods, would be able to pick our people off with perhaps no loss to themselves.”
Nevertheless, Lt. English and Lt. Howell, accompanied by Lt. Crosman, Acting Master Charles Potter, and Somerset’s Marine Guard, crossed over and thoroughly inspected the railroad trestlework, finding it a “very substantial piece of work.” Howell suggested later that if Union troops based at Fernandina could hold eastern Florida, such a substantial structure would be of great benefit, but if not, he recommended that, since it constituted the only bridge by which the Confederates could move heavy ordnance to Way Key, it should be burned. Lieutenants English and Howell agreed “to await further orders on the subject.” In any event, Somerset could “shell the key and burn the work at any time,” covering the operation with her guns. The expedition remained on the key for an hour, then re-embarked in their boats.
Later that afternoon, Somerset and Tahoma visited Depot Key, a short distance to the east of Way Key, the landing force finding “every house open,” with one particular residence being in a “topsy-turvy” state, thus “giving evidence of a hasty flitting.” They found an elderly African-American man the only inhabitant, and since he showed “no inclination to leave,” he was left undisturbed. Amidst the lengthening shadows, the Union sailors returned to their vessels, Somerset remaining there overnight and coaling from National Guard the next morning.
Somerset remained off the Cedar Keys. On the morning of 5 June 1862, Ezilda, her tender, manned by Acting Master Arthur, with Acting Master’s Mate Charles H. Brantingham and eight men, cruising independently about 30 miles up the coast, surprised the small steamer Havana in Deadman’s Bay, about to complete discharging cargo and loading cotton. Thus discovered, Havana’s crew set her afire and abandoned her, so by the time Ezilda’s sailors could board, all that could be salvaged was her jib, an anchor, two chain cables and three pigs of lead. Ten tons of lead on her decks melted in the fire, and sank with the vessel.
Ten days later [15 June], Somerset, accompanying Tahoma, crossed the bar of the St. Marks River. Lt. English called all hands to quarters at 6:45 a.m. and cleared the decks for action, then the ship provided the U.S. bark Kingfisher with potable water. As the two gunboats stood toward the shore, Somerset fired nine IX-inch rounds and five 32-pounder shells, while Tahoma fired 17 X-inch shells and 14 from her Parrott gun at a battery of four or five guns of a Confederate artillery company. Afterwards, a joint landing party, Somerset’s in the gig and cutter, and Tahoma’s in five boats, went ashore and destroyed the battery and burned a barracks, returning without loss. In reporting the action of 15 June to Secretary of the Navy Welles, the newly arrived Flag-Officer [Commodore] James L. Lardner (who had relieved McKean on 4 June) called it “good service against a nest of rebels that had captured two of the Kingfisher’s boats [in the Aucilla River, Fla., on 2 June] and were prepared for other mischief.”
The next afternoon [16 June], Somerset was steaming down the coast from St. Marks, Deadman’s Point eight miles to the northeast and Sea Horse Key about 30 miles to the southeast, when she encountered a schooner standing in to Deadman’s Bay, where her tender Ezilda had surprised the steamer Havana 11 days before. Somerset stood toward the vessel that, upon sighting the oncoming warship, “hauled her wind and stood to the westward…” She hove to, however, as the gunboat drew nearer. English hailed her, eliciting the response: “From Havana, bound to Pensacola.”
The two officers who boarded the schooner found her to be Curlew, “with English colors and a provisional register.” Curlew had cleared Havana all right, but not for Pensacola but for Matamoras, Mexico. As squally weather threatened, Somerset put her prize crew under Acting Master Arthur and Master’s Mate John H. Stotsenburg, on board and took Curlew in tow. “Finding her so much out of her position,” Somerset’s commanding officer later reported, “and on board sufficient evidence to justify me in seizing her, I have sent her into Key West for adjudication.”
Somerset continued to blockade the Cedar Keys into the summer. The schooner Beauregard, assigned to that area, suffered the loss of her commanding officer and six men, in addition to an unnamed contraband, who disappeared after manning a boat and pursuing a sloop off the mouth of the Crystal River on the morning of 29 June 1862. In reporting the incident to Secretary of the Navy Welles, Flag-officer Lardner related Lt. English’s opinion that Acting Master Stearns and the men with him had been “captured by the rebels.”
His ship ordered to blockade the port of Apalachicola, Lt.-Cmdr. English received “reliable information” that Confederate troops had moved away from a terminus of the Fernandina Railroad near which lay “very extensive salt works” -- salt being both lucrative and indispensable in the South. Feeling it his “duty to destroy them, if possible,” English called all hands to quarters at 4:00 a.m. The ship weighed anchor a little over an hour later and stood up the channel towards Way Key. Somerset ran aground during her approach, but kedged herself off.
English accordingly had Somerset proceed as close to the shore as her draft would permit on the morning of 4 October 1862, and had his guns throw some dozen shells in the direction of the enemy, compelling them to hoist a white flag. English then landed the field howitzer along with its crew, and the Marine Guard, under Acting Master Edward C. Healey, to cover the demolition party, Acting Master William E. Dennison, Somerset’s executive officer, with boat crews (23 men all told) to destroy whatever salt works they found. Dennison and his men demolished “quite a number” of such facilities before they reached the place over which the white flag still flew. Upon reaching the works, however, Somerset’s tars found them large, and while taking stock of the situation, noticed several women walking in front of a nearby house.
Leaving the women unmolested and unfired-upon, Dennison and his demolition party soon found themselves under fire from about two dozen men -- armed salt workers -- who had been concealed behind the house. Returning the fusillade, Somerset’s sailors killed and wounded several Confederates, then destroyed “several barrels of salt, a number of boats; captured one launch and a large flat [boat],” displaying conduct that their commanding officer felt to be “all that could be desired.”
The destruction had not been wreaked without cost, however, as Acting Assistant Surgeon Lemuel J. Draper later reported eight casualties. Buckshot had dangerously wounded Captain of the Afterguard Henry Everett in four places; likewise seriously wounded was Seaman Randolph Cooke, shot through the throat. Buckshot had severely wounded First Ordinary Seaman Thomas Wilson and Seamen James O’Neill and John Willard; a musket ball had severely wounded Seaman Willis H. Hines, while Somerset’s executive officer, Acting Master Dennison, had been struck in the right hip by a spent ball, and spent buckshot had hit Frederick Block in the forehead.
Tahoma arrived in the Cedar Keys later that day, finding Somerset at anchor off Depot Key. Cmdr. Howell learned from Lt.-Cmdr. English of the attack on the salt works, and of Somerset’s casualties. “I determined to fit out a strong expedition,” Howell declared later, “to send enough men to overcome all opposition.”
Consequently, on the morning of 6 October 1862, four boats from Tahoma (towed in by Somerset) and four from Somerset (two between them shipped howitzers), 111 men embarked, under Lt.-Cmdr. Crosman, put out for shore. Shell, shrapnel, and canister scourged the houses, woods, and underbrush, and put some 20-30 armed Confederate guerrillas to flight. Sailors with small arms landed and deployed as skirmishers on each howitzer’s flank. Working parties then set about destroying the boilers that Lt.-Cmdr. Crosman described as “of various shapes and curious construction.” Then, they set fire to the houses “on account of the treacherous use made of them” on the 4th.
The expedition moved on to the next salt work, covering the demolition work from the boats. “Two very thick cast-iron and two wrought-iron boilers” required howitzer shells to put them out of action, then the Yankee sailors burned buildings in proximity to the work before re-embarking in their boats – an evolution completed none too soon, a for a train arrived with reinforcements that deployed with shouts and yells and began firing -- “From the sound,” Lt.-Cmdr. Crosman later wrote, “I judged them to be Minié or Enfield bullets,” none of which struck any of the sailors from Tahoma or Somerset.
“The expedition was entirely successful,” Crosman recounted, “destroying some 28 boilers, burned to the ground all buildings within reach…no confusion was exhibited in landing, nor was there any departure from the instructions given prior to it; no useless expenditure of ammunition, and no one hurt.” Cmdr. Howell praised the men from both vessels who had taken part in the expedition. “The rebels here needed a lesson,” Howell declared triumphantly in a letter to Acting Rear-Adm. Lardner on 14 October, “and they have had it.”
Somerset continued to blockade Apalachicola into the autumn, and, during that time, on 23 October 1862, Lt.-Cmdr. Crosman, 24-years old and described by those who knew him as “intelligent, warm-hearted, and zealous in his profession,” relieved Lt.-Cmdr. English as commanding officer. The ship also came under a new squadron commander, when Acting Rear-Adm. Theodorus Bailey relieved Acting Rear-Adm. Lardner. At that point, the gunboat’s new commanding officer appeared eager to impress upon his seniors the importance of Federal forces capturing Apalachicola, transmitting reports concerning the “favorable conditions for the immediate occupation” of that place. Acting Rear-Adm. Bailey forwarded Lt.-Cmdr. Crosman’s reports to Secretary of the Navy Welles, expressing the admiral’s intending to “look into the subject matter spoken-of…”
Tragedy touched the ship, however, two days after Christmas [27 December] 1862. Concluding boat operations for the day, a volunteer crew (Acting Master’s Mate Brantingham) took out the ship’s second cutter in worsening weather. It did not return. During the second dog watch (6-8 p.m.), the gunboat’s log noted “squally weather with rain” at the end of that period, as the ship veered out 15 more fathoms of chain. Strong winds followed in the next watch, near the end of which (11 p.m.), Lt.-Cmdr. Crosman personally took charge of Somerset’s first cutter to look for his missing men.
Very early in the mid watch, however, on 28 December, Acting Master Thomas Chatfield sent Somerset’s gig, Master’s Mate Thomas Toombs, to investigate a light sighted on nearby Sand Island. The craft returned with Acting Master’s Mate Brantingham and four men, who told of the second cutter’s capsizing about 7 p.m. the night before when hit by a sudden squall. Captain of the Forecastle John Martin and Captain of the Forecastle Angus Sinclair had drowned, while Coxswain George Farrel and Seaman Horace Bartlett were “missing, both having left the boat and attempted to swim ashore.”
At 1:30 a.m. on the 28th, Lt.-Cmdr. Crosman returned to the ship, and, learning of the fate of the second cutter, immediately “ordered all hands to search St. Vincent’s and Sand Island.” Ultimately, a search located the remains of the lost sailors, and they were interred “with suitable headboards.” Crosman eulogized them as “among the best [men] in the ship.” Their loss brought the vacancies in the ship’s complement at the start of the year 1863 to 14, as Crosman noted, “a full gun’s crew.”
In writing of the loss of his men to the commander of the East Gulf Blockading Squadron, as Somerset lay in St. George’s Sound on New Year’s Day 1863, Crosman used the occasion to again urge the occupation of Apalachicola. Not the least of his reasons, however, lay in the fact that the Confederates were building two steam gunboats at Chattahoochee that could potentially wreak havoc with the ships blockading those waters. “Though I may be considered presumptuous in offering my opinion to those of long experience,” Crosman explained, he felt prompted “by the feeling it is the duty of all officers to do their utmost in all legitimate ways to further the crushing of this rebellion.”
By mid-February 1863, Somerset continued to operate off the west pass of St. George’s Sound. Anchored off New Inlet on 18 February, lookouts on board the gunboat noted a small fore-and-aft schooner shortly before 2 p.m., standing along the shoreline to westward, outside St. George’s Island. Lt.-Cmdr. Crosman immediately dispatched a cutter, Acting Master Higbee in charge of an armed crew, to give chase. Crosman followed in the armed sloop Brockenborough, that had been officered and manned from Somerset. Meanwhile, Higbee’s cutter had overhauled its quarry and captured what proved to be the schooner Hortense, bound from Havana to Mobile, Alabama. Acting Master Higbee took the prize to Key West.
Somerset maintained her vigil off Apalachicola into the spring of 1863. On the night of 25 May, the watch noted the wind blowing freshly from the eastward and the northeast. The next day, the wind steadily increased, compelling Lt.-Cmdr. Crosman to order the second anchor let go that afternoon. On the 27th, “it was blowing a violent gale,” driving the coal bark Andrew Manderson ashore nearby. “Boats could not live,” Crosman later reported, “and no opportunity of aiding her existed.” The storm blew lighters and small craft ashore, or they sank where they had been anchored. Somerset’s tender Brockenborough had to be beached on the shore opposite that held by the Confederates to prevent her from falling into enemy hands and enable her crew to save themselves.
The wind increased in fury still more, becoming “almost a hurricane.” Somerset put out the last spare anchor, veering to the bitter end of the starboard bower anchor and putting an equal strain on all chains. “I was now convinced,” her captain wrote later, “this was a cyclone, and…we were right in the path of the storm,” approaching in a northwesterly direction. At one point the gale subsided, with the wind coming from the west. Crosman’s crew recovered all anchors as quickly as they could, and Somerset shifted her berth to the east-northeast of Sand Island where she “rode out comfortably the other half of the gale…”
Nevertheless, at 8 p.m. on the night of 27th, Crosman had Somerset’s engine started and “kept it working full stroke, yet the [anchor] chains were as harp strings.” Concerned lest the bitts give way, Crosman had his crew take “the end of the best bower chain down the fire-room hatch through a hole cut in the bulkhead separating the fire room from the fore peak, up around two beams and a carline through the fore timbers and clinched the end to its own part. The floor timbers are too slight, to be relied upon as a fastening for the chains.”
The storm increased in intensity, blowing a hurricane through the night and into the mid watch, “Whole seas came over the bows,” Crosman reported, “Everything was battened down forward, and the deck was flooded constantly.” Despite the gangway doors being nailed with bucklers, the sea stove them in, forcing the men to place shores against them. “The squalls were terrific,” Crosman recounted later, “and it seemed impossible for anything to stand their violence.” The unrelenting tempest pushed the current past at a rate of eight knots.
“By good luck,” Crosman noted, “a fire was burning on shore, and compass bearings told me through the night, as the faint glimmer shone through the spray, that we had not moved.” When day broke, Somerset’s captain noted that his ship “had not dragged a particle.” Once the gale subsided and they could take stock of the damage, Crosman and his crew noted that “two or three of the five sponsons under the bow [had been] slightly splintered.” They replaced them easily enough with “good and stouter ones.” In concluding his report to Acting Rear-Adm. Bailey, Crosman noted “…it may be gratifying to you to learn that the Somerset proves to be so staunch.” (“At sea,” Crosman lamented, “it is a different matter.”)
After the destruction of the U.S. bark Amanda in a hurricane on 29 May 1863,Lt. Cmdr. Crosman took Somerset to the waters where the wrecked vessel lay on 4 June, carefully sounding the waters as she approached. Over the next few days, Somerset’s sailors “labored cheerfully in the sun and water” under cover of the ship’s guns. They salvaged, among other items, six 32-pounder guns, 253 solid shot, 30 shells, spars and ironwork, and a barrel-full of grape and canister that Crosman had fitted to his ship’s ordnance, and six water casks. Such industry, however, had come at a cost, for the working party, toiling in water often up to their waists, suffered “ugly cuts and bruises” that, even if slight, developed into “most malignant sores.”
Retrieving useful gear from the wrecked ship having been accomplished, Somerset steamed to East Pass of St. George’s Sound, running lightly aground. Backing off with no trouble, she discovered that the recent hurricane that she had weathered so well had moved the buoy used as a guide about a mile to the west. Restoring the buoy to its proper place, Somerset’s sailors then put down Amanda’s water casks “slung with stout chain and anchored…with about 500 to 600 pounds of kentledge” in the place of buoys laid by the Coast Survey.
On the morning of 12 June 1863, Crosman sent Acting Master Thomas Chatfield, Somerset’s executive officer, on a “reconnoitering trip” to the east, and charged him with determining the location of salt works rumored to have been in operation “since the commencement of this rebellion” at Alligator Bay [Harbor]. He provided him with a sketch of the area upon which the exec was to note “soundings and positions of the various establishments.”
Chatfield set out at 6 a.m., with ten men and provisions for three days, and set course to the east. Seeing a squall approaching at 7 a.m., Somerset’s little expedition put in to a small cove to anchor and ride out the storm, but resumed their trip at 11 a.m. when the weather cleared. Chatfield dutifully observed the location of shoals and took soundings, entering the information on the chart. Two miles from the mouth of Alligator Bay, the gunboaters beheld “a range of salt works” but water no deeper than 10 feet out to a mile and a half from shore.
From his vantage point in Somerset’s launch, from one-half to three-quarters of a mile offshore, Chatfield saw more salt works, however, the “most extensive of which” lay at the mouth of Alligator Bay. He noted a good anchorage, with 12 feet of water, extending out from shore a mile. Continuing toward South West Cape, Somerset’s reconnoitering party saw “no more works of any kind” so wrapped up its work at 7 p.m. Heading into the wind and with night coming on, Chatfield dropped anchor off Dog Island Reef to await the dawn.
Somerset got underway the next morning, 13 June 1863, and headed east. She retrieved the executive officer and his men off Dog Island Reef. “An expedition to break up the salt works would be attended with but little danger,” Chatfield opined, “as the ground is too open for an ambush to be successful and the operations of the men can be conducted under cover of the guns of the vessel.”
Somerset then “felt” her way toward the coastal waters toward Alligator Bay, anchoring within 1,100 yards of the shore. “Within easy range of my guns,” Crosman marveled, “[lay] the most extensive range of salt works I have yet seen upon the coast.”
Acting Master Chatfield organized the landing force. At noon, Chatfield, Acting Master Alexander Waugh and Master’s Mate Toombs, 53 seamen and 12 marines (“65 muskets all told”) embarked in the ship’s launch, two cutters, and Somerset’s spare boat, all craft having been armored with iron plate, along with a party from the engineering division armed with sledge hammers. Splashing ashore, Chatfield deployed the engineers to start their work of destruction, with Somerset’s marines as pickets and the armed sailors as skirmishers behind the adjacent buildings to protect the engineers.
All told, Somerset’s men destroyed “45 salt boilers, about 200 bushels of salt, and 8 buildings, large and small,” as Chatfield put it later, “thus thoroughly breaking up the establishment.” Having met no opposition, all men visible at the outset having precipitously fled, the landing force returned to the ship at 3 p.m.
U.S. schooner James S. Chambers anchored in the East Pass to St. George’s Sound on 8 July 1863, freeing Somerset to proceed toward St. Marks to inquire into the coal supply on board Stars and Stripes as well as “to destroy all salt works in that vicinity,” sailing on the 12th. Somerset anchored off Ocklockonee Shoal at about 3 p.m., some 13 miles distant from the light-house. Stars and Stripes came alongside later, and reported plenty of coal on board.
Lt.-Cmdr. Crosman, having ascertained Stars and Stripes’ coal status, gave thought to returning to East Pass but “It occurred to me,” he wrote later, “that no moon would be up that night; that it is nearly change; that there was generally a smart breeze during the night; that the tides were spring and neap, or nearly so…” Given the factors that promised to favor success in an endeavor to push upriver on a raid, Crosman ordered Acting Master Charles L. Willcomb, Stars and Stripes’ commanding officer, “to prepare all his men and boats for a night expedition…”
“After the shades of evening had shut in the vessels from the vigilant gaze of the rebel pickets in the light-house,” Crosman later wrote, Somerset and Stars and Stripes got underway, proceeded to the bar, and dropped anchor. At 9 p.m., Somerset’s men, “enthusiastic and sanguine of success,” shoved off in five boats, Stars and Stripes’ in three, with Somerset’s gig, fitted out as an ambulance boat, bringing up the rear.
With Crosman in Somerset’s lead boat, the boats formed in line ahead, and pulled for the mouth of the river, oars muffled and metal bayonet scabbards sheathed in blue flannel. Handcuffs and spare trailing lines lay ready to be employed in the event prisoners were taken. Silently, slowly, the expedition threaded its way among the oyster bars, and “no noise could be heard save the splash of the water as it struck the bows of the boats and rippled past…”
Suddenly, from the shore a Confederate picket hailed them. As all hands quickly lay on their oars, Crosman replied to the sentry’s hail. He had been fishing downriver, and said that he was proceeding to St. Marks to sell his catch. Suspicious, the rebel soldier told the “fisherman” to come ashore.
Responding that he was coming, Crosman whispered to Acting Master Chatfield to keep the boats in their positions. Intending to capture the picket before he could raise a general alarm, Somerset’s lead boat stood toward the shore. At that moment, a fire blazed up, and brands floated through the air. Caps snapped in the night, then the picket fired at the boat, putting a bullet through the bicep of Seaman Meade. More shots rang out, prompting Crosman, “knowing that the surprise was now over,” to order fire returned. Signal fires blazed up, and the battery upstream fired signal guns, “everything denot[ing] consternation and alarm upon the part of the enemy.”
Pressing on upriver past a clearly alerted enemy out of the question, “with much regret,” Crosman ordered a retreat, putting Stars and Stripes’ boats in the lead and his own bringing up the rear. As the force retired to the ships, Stars and Stripes’ launch surprised a sailboat and captured it (finding a compass, provisions, cigars, and charts on board), the two-man crew abandoned their craft at the approach of the launch, eventually making shore after wading two miles through a swamp.
The expedition returned to the ships at 5 a.m. on 13 July 1863. That afternoon, Somerset could see trains arriving at St. Marks, “no doubt bringing troops from Tallahassee” in the wake of the attempted raid the night before. Both Somerset and Stars and Stripes shelled Confederate troops near the light-house near there. The former then stood in to Spanish Hole, off the light-house, on the 14th. Crosman sent a boat ashore with a working party that pulled apart a shed to provide material for a coal bin to protect the ship’s steam drum, and for stakes to mark obstructions in the river. In personally reconnoitering the sand bars of the St. Marks River, Crosman noted the last stake just below the mouth of Big Bayou, the piece of wood marking the point of an oyster bar some 1,000 yards south of Port Leon. There he found a scow sunk in the middle of the 9-foot channel, loaded with what appeared to be about 100 tons of stone, obstructing the channel.
Somerset sent a landing party ashore on 15 July, returning to the light-house and burning out the stairway inside as well as a large quantity of corn stored there. “I think it will be some time,” Crosman reported later, “before the rebel pickets can use the light-house as a lookout.” Having established that the stone-laden sunken scow prevented Somerset from moving up river, Lt.-Comdr. Crosman took his ship, along with Stars and Stripes, down to a point to the north of Ocklockonee Bay, arriving there at 12:30. A half-hour later, Acting Master Chatfield left the ship in command of a 70-man landing force in two cutters and launches, proceeding to Marsh’s Island, the ship’s gig accompanying the expedition as an ambulance boat, in charge of Assistant Surgeon George H. Cooke.
Finding two separate facilities, Chatfield landed the whole force, deploying pickets and skirmishers to protect the working parties. Escaped slaves encountered on Marsh’s Island told of no troops on the island, all having departed a week before. Chatfield’s sailors destroyed some 27 salt boilers, some 60 bushels of salt, and put the torch to all the buildings. Meanwhile, Stars and Stripes put a landing force ashore a half-mile to the right of Somerset’s, and destroyed 23 boilers and captured three prisoners. The two landing forces merged, then reconnoitered the island. Finding no more works remaining, the sailors returned to their ships. “We met no opposition,” Chatfield reported, “and returned without any accident.”
For the remainder of the year 1863 and into the spring of 1864, Somerset continued to blockade the west entrance to St. George’s Sound. During that period of time, on 5 October 1863, Acting Master William Budd, who had transferred from the Coast Survey, Department of the Treasury, to the Navy in May 1861, relieved Lt.-Cmdr. Crosman as commanding officer.
On 12 May 1864, Acting Master Budd sent Somerset’s light draft boats, and those of the U.S. schooner James S. Chambers to transport troops under Lt. Thomas Hunter, of the 110th New York Volunteers, and land them a few miles below Apalachicola. Budd had instructed Acting Ens. Edward H. Smith, Jr. (who had received his commission the day before Christmas of 1863) after the troops had been disembarked, to parallel their movements from close inshore and maintain communication with them as they marched toward the town. Budd then took two launches from Somerset and reached Apalachicola in time to discover what appeared to be some 70 to 80 Confederates about to embark in boats from the town’s wharves.
As Somerset’s first launch (Acting Ens. Brantingham) stood rapidly toward them, the surprised Confederates abandoned their boats precipitously and retreated through the town, “hastened,” as Budd reported later, “by a couple of shells from our howitzer.” In the darkness, however, the fleeing southerners passed Lt. Hunter, who mistook them for friendly troops and did not engage them, giving them time to make good their escape up a road that ran parallel to the shore. Budd and his men pursued the enemy for about two miles, until dense undergrowth and a plethora of paths through a wooded area rendered “any further pursuit unwise and futile.”
Acting Ens. Brantingham gave chase in Somerset’s first launch to a boat carrying Lt. George W. Gift, CSN, the leader of the enemy’s frustrated expedition, but it escaped into the darkness. Brantingham and his men, however, managed to capture one of the enemy’s small boats and took three prisoners.
Acting Master Budd reported that the object of the expedition he had discovered unfolding had been the capture of the U.S. steamer Adela, stationed in the East Pass of St. George’s Sound, to either capture the vessel and take her to Mobile, Ala., or put her to the torch. Budd’s men captured six of the seven boats that were to have been used in the rebels’ enterprise, all “fitted with muffled oars, paddles, grapnels [grappling irons], and incendiary materials,” in addition to rifles, cutlasses, signal flags, blankets, haversacks, and medical stores, and a diary belonging to one of the junior naval officers. Somerset’s sailors also took four more prisoners, three residents of Apalachicola who had been acting as scouts for Lt. Gift, and one of whom, Captain of the Afterguard Joseph Sire, CSN, from the C.S. Ship Chattahoochee, had apparently been intending to desert since he lingered behind as if inviting capture.
“They abandoned everything,” Acting Master Budd informed Acting Rear-Adm. Bailey soon thereafter, “and ran like sheep, without firing a shot. Had it not been for the unfortunate mistake of the officer [Lt. Hunter] in command of our troops, we should have captured or destroyed the entire force.” The commander of the East Gulf Blockading Squadron commended Budd’s zeal and good judgment “by which you so completely frustrated the plans of the rebels.” Acting-Rear-Adm. Bailey likened Budd’s zealous prosecution of the operation to that of Fort Henry’s commanding officer who had “made that vessel the terror of the coast for 50 miles, and the Somerset, her sister ship, bids fair to obtain under your command a like enviable reputation.”
Somerset continued to blockade the western entrance to St. George’s Sound. On 29 June 1864, Acting Master William F. Rogers, who had served with distinction in the mortar flotilla at the siege of Forts Jackson and St. Philip, earning praise from Rear-Adm. David D. Porter for “gallantry and meritorious conduct in action,” relieved Acting Master Budd as commanding officer. St. George’s Sound remained the ship’s primary operating area, and her duty that of blockading, punctuated only by her receiving orders to proceed to Key West -- which offered a more salubrious climate -- for repairs at the beginning of November 1864.
Returning to West Pass upon completion of that work, Somerset maintained the blockade through the end of the winter. On 30 March 1865, an expedition from that gunboat and the U.S. tug Sunflower destroyed salt works at St. Joseph’s Bayou, the Yankee sailors demolishing a 2-foot deep,12- by 5-foot boiler, as well as smashing “boxes, hogsheads, barrels, sluices…a large 4-wheeled wagon and a hut.” The men returned to their ships without loss.
On 2 April 1865, General Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House, Va., effectively ended the Civil War, although President Jefferson Davis hoped to fight on. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles wrote Acting Rear-Adm. Cornelius K. Stribling, Commander of the East Gulf Blockading Squadron, on 11 May 1865 that the destruction of Confederate rams at Columbus, Ga., had rendered “useless” the continued presence of Somerset and her sister ship Fort Henry off Apalachicola. Both vessels, Welles noted, were originally New York ferryboats and had proved themselves good “only for such service as that upon which they have been employed.” Both required “extensive repairs.”
The fate of Somerset and her sister ship lay undecided for a little over a fortnight, when Welles again communicated with Acting Rear-Adm. Stribling on 26 May 1865, writing that the capture of Jefferson Davis and the surrender of the Confederate ironclad ram Stonewall to Spanish authorities at Havana [19 May] enabled him to begin reducing the East Gulf Blockading Squadron. Welles informed Stribling that he was sending Somerset, along with Fort Henry, Isonomia, and Britannia, north as soon as they had returned to Key West from their blockading stations, as the Secretary of the Navy considered them, at that point, “inefficient or no longer required.” On 9 June 1865, the U.S. steamer Isonomia got underway for New York with Somerset, her boilers by that point having become inoperable, in tow.
Decommissioned at the New York Navy Yard on 26 June 1865, Somerset was sold at auction by Burdette, Jones & Co., to the Union Ferry Co., of New York, for $15,000.00 on 12 July 1865. Documented on 14 February 1866, Somerset operated as a ferryboat, home-ported at New York City, ultimately being disposed of in 1914.
Lt. Earl English 3 April 1862
Lt.-Cmdr. Alexander F. Crosman 23 October 1862
Act. Vol. Lt. William Budd 5 October 1863
Act. Master William F. Rogers 29 June 1864