- Bogart, Charles B.
- Early warships, Ship histories and stories
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 1980 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
When the Wachusett steamed from Boston on March 5 1865 for the Far East, it was with a crew composed mostly of landsmen. Thus, for the first two days at sea the majority of her crew was so seasick that not only could she not defend herself, but she found it impossible to set her sails and was forced to continue to use her engines. Even this was a major problem as most of the engineering force was seasick and she had to steam at a reduced speed.
When on March 7 the officers tried to exercise the men at the guns, a large number of them were still seasick while those capable of bearing a hand were almost completely lacking in knowledge of naval gunnery. It proved necessary to instruct the crew in the elementary facets of gunnery.
The original sailing plan for the ship called for her to sail to either Madeira or Cape de Verdes for coaling and reprovisioning before sailing around Africa. This route was chosen as it avoided the coast of Brazil. Upon putting to sea Commander Townsend, however, decided to make for the West Indies and then St. Helena before rounding Africa. This change in sailing orders was the result of a report that the CSS Shenandoah was operating off the island of Martinique. Commander Townsend hoped to surprise the raider and sink her in a gun duel a la Kearsage-Alabama. Unfortunately for the Wachusett this information was not accurate, for the Shenandoah was already cutting a path of destruction across the Pacific.
Shortly after putting to sea it became apparent to Commander Townsend and his Engineering Officer that the ship was burning excessive amounts of coal. Though the engineering force tried everything in its power to conserve the coal, it kept disappearing at an alarming rate. The consensus of opinion among her officers was that this excess consumption of coal was a result of efforts undertaken by the Bureau of Construction and Repair in reshaping the ship’s hull by removal of her bilge keel during her last refit to improve her sailing speed.
While the reconstruction had indeed added a knot to her speed while under sail, it had had the opposite effect on her speed under steam. To make matters worse, when on March 13 the lack of coal forced the setting of all her sails, it was discovered that the foretop mast and jib-boom were sprung so that only some of her sails could be set. Thus, under shortened sail she made for the port of St. Pierre at Martinique, arriving there on March 16. Here she laid to and replaced the foretop mast and jib-boom with spares from her hold. Though spares were carried for such an emergency, they were being used long before anyone had contemplated using them.
The stay at St. Pierre proved to be not uneventful due to a rumored Confederate naval attack, desertions and a grounding. The town was filled with talk of a surprise attack to be made on the Wachusett on some dark night or that the CSS Shenandoah was lying off the port ready to sink the Wachusett as soon as she put to sea. These stories seemed to be true, as a large steamer was sighted cruising outside the port on a couple of occasions. Thus, when on March 19 a large steamer was observed entering port, the Wachusett was cleared for action. Much was the disappointment of the Wachusett’s officers and men when the steamer proved to be a French mail steamer which reported that the other ship cruising off the island was a British warship.
With repairs completed and the ship reprovisioned, the Wachusett up anchored on March 29 to proceed to sea with six deserters in irons in her hold. Fate decreed, however, that she was not to reach sea that day, for she ran herself aground on the rocks below Fort de France. Here she remained for the next two days as her crew worked to lighten ship. With all of her stores and most of her armament removed, she was towed free from the rocks by a British and a French warship. Examination of the hull proved that only a few of her coppers had been worked loose so that her supplies and arms were restored on board. The ship finally cleared St. Pierre on April 4.
Once clear of St. Pierre, course was set for Porto Grande on St. Vincent Island. The run to Porto Grande was undertaken under steam and sail, the fires being banked every time a breeze arose and then being relit when the breeze died out. The only break in this routine was observed on April 12 when the ship laid to to retrieve a large log sighted floating on the sea for possible use on board. Once recovered, the log proved to be of no value and was returned to the sea, all of the crew’s work and efforts being for naught. On April 28, St. Vincent Island was sighted on the horizon and the Wachusett entered Porto Grande the next day. The ship’s stay at Porto Grande was not a happy one for her officers and men. The Island of St. Vincent was at this time suffering from a three-year drought, which had brought malnutrition and disease to the population. Death was on every hand; the log spoke of people dropping dead on the streets of Porto Grande. While the log revealed the suffering of the people, neither the Wachusett nor any of the other ships which visited the harbor apparently undertook any action to alleviate this suffering. While this is hard to comprehend for anyone now living who served in the Navy, it must be remembered that at that time malnutrition and starvation were accepted as a fact of life. Even the local government apparently undertook no action to help its citizens.