Editor’s Note: This excerpt about the explosion of Benjamin Butler’s headquarters ship Greyhound on the James River on November 27, 1864, is taken from Porter’s book Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War, pages 262–267, first published in 1885.
The Explosion of Butler’s Headquarters Ship Greyhound
By Admiral David D. Porter
General [Benjamin F.] Butler [commander of the Army of the James] made himself very agreeable in his intercourse with me, and was apparently very busy in making preparations for embarking the troops that were to go to Fort Fisher. We visited each other and hobnobbed together. I was pleased with his zeal for the success of the expedition, and as General Weitzel was always with him when he visited my flag-ship, I took it for granted that [Godfrey] Weitzel’s going in command of the troops was a fixed fact.
Butler made many visits, but the troops were not forthcoming, though winter was approaching, and it was necessary we should commence operations before it became too stormy on the coast. The fleet was all ready, and, as time passed, my patience was becoming exhausted.
In a leisure interval I went up the James River to Dutch Gap in the flag-ship Malvern to give orders to the vessels that would be left there in my absence. The cutting of the canal at Dutch Gap was a very good idea, contrary to the general impression, and should have been undertaken earlier in the war.
While I was at Dutch Gap, General Butler came up to see me in the Greyhound, which was his headquarters when afloat. This vessel deserved her name, for she was a long, lean-looking craft, and the fastest steamer on the river.
The general informed me that Mr. Fox, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, wished to see me without delay at Hampton Roads on important business, and, as my flag-ship was rather a slow vessel, he would take me down in the Greyhound. To this I agreed.
The Greyhound had been lying about an hour at the bank when we started down river.
The vicinity of Dutch Gap was a kind of neutral ground between the two armies, where prisoners were exchanged, and all sorts of people seemed to be hanging around the neighborhood. I never saw so many hang-dog-looking rascals congregated together in one place. The Confederates doubtless had spies there all the time among the adventurers who always follow in the wake of a great army.
I found General Schenck on board the Greyhound as Butler’s guest; he had suffered from his wounds, and was taking a little excursion for the benefit of his health.
There were no arms on board the Greyhound to my knowledge except General Butler’s sword, which, though a formidable-looking weapon, was of no use to any one except the owner, who seldom laid it aside.
The general’s boat’s crew wore his uniform, but had not so much as a pop-gun among them.
There was a captain and a pilot, an engineer, several firemen and coal-heavers, a couple of deck-hands, and a cook and steward.
I never carried a sword or pistol at any time; neither did General Schenck; so here was a vessel, totally unarmed, carrying two major-generals up and down the James River with nothing to protect them, to say nothing of an admiral who seldom traveled in such a careless fashion.
The two generals immediately sat down to a political discussion, while I thought I would take a turn through the upper saloon of the Greyhound, which was fitted like most passenger-steamers of her class, although her saloon may have been a little more gorgeous than usual. She cost the Government only about $500 a day, and carried the general with great speed from point to point where his services were required. Every general of importance had a vessel for this purpose, but the Greyhound was the gem of them all.
It was about half an hour after we started down the river that I went up to the saloon, and there I found half a dozen of those cut-throat-looking fellows, such as haunted Dutch Gap, scattered through the apartment.
I was so much struck with the appearance of these men and the confusion they exhibited that I said to one of them, “What are you doing here? Does the Greyhound carry first-class passengers?” The fellow glared impudently at me and said, “We are just lookin’ round to see how you fellers live; we ain’t a doin’ no harm.”
Not wishing to let these men see that I suspected them, I walked about quietly, as if amusing myself, while they, one after another disappeared below.
I went immediately to General Butler and said, “General, I don’t particularly care to be captured just now, as I have important business on hand, and I don’t suppose you do either; but you have a cargo of the worst-looking wretches on board this vessel that ever I laid eyes on; hadn’t you better look after them before they do any harm?”
The general acted promptly and ordered the captain to round to at Bermuda Hundreds, and turned our passengers over to a guard to give an account of themselves, much to their disgust. After a thorough search to see that there were no stowaways on board, we proceeded on our way, no one attaching much importance to the fellows whom we had put ashore, as it was supposed they were merely loafers trying to get to Hampton Roads free of expense.
We had left Bermuda Hundreds five or six miles behind us when suddenly an explosion forward startled us, and in a moment large volumes of smoke poured out of the engine-room. The engineer at once closed the throttle-valve, stopping the vessel, and opened the safety-valve; the steam rushed out, and the Greyhound howled louder than her living namesake would have done.
The generals stopped their conversation, and the crew seized the planks lying about the deck and jumped overboard.
“What’s that?” exclaimed General Butler.
“Torpedo!” I answered. “I know the sound.”
The vessel was now in flames amidships, and the upper saloon filled with smoke like that from coal-tar. We were cut off completely from the crew, whom we did not know had jumped overboard.
I was in full vigor at that time, and possessed considerable bodily strength. The general’s gig hung at the port quarter, its bow resting on a house abaft the wheel. I put my shoulder under the boat and raised it from its rest, while the steward hauled in the slack of the tackle. When the boat was clear of the wheel-house I lowered the after-tackle and left the boat hanging within two feet of the water. I then lowered a smaller boat on the starboard side, put the steward and stewardess in her, and bade them look out for themselves. In the mean time some of the gig’s crew had swam around to the gangway, and we all got into the boat and shoved off, with the exception of the captain of the steamer, who worked his way aft, hauled down the colors, and seated himself on the rudder, whence we took him off.
From the moment of the explosion until the time of our leaving the Greyhound was certainly less than five minutes, yet the flames made such progress that the general’s aid, who had gathered up some of his papers and was the last one to get into the boat, had his hand burned.
We picked up the rest of the men who were floating in the water, and then lay on our oars watching the conflagration. The Greyhound was now wrapped in flames from one end to the other, and, in newspaper parlance, was a “grand spectacle.”
There was one melancholy event connected with the destruction of the Greyhound. General Butler had two or three fine horses on board, and their cries when the flames reached them were dreadful to hear, but their sufferings lasted only a short time, and their last groans were unheard amid the roaring of the flames, the crashing of timbers, and the noise of the steam, which continued blowing off to the last.
I think I saved General Butler a ducking on that occasion, if not his life; but I am afraid he forgot the service, although I would have worked as hard to get him out of that vessel, even had I known beforehand he would try to injure me.
Shortly afterward an army transport, loaded with troops for Hampton Roads, came along, and General Butler proposed we should take passage in her; but I had had enough of army steamers for one day, and, knowing that we should soon meet a navy tug, I proposed to pull on down the river. In half an hour we met the tug, went on board, and turned her back to Fortress Monroe.
The firemen were just going to dinner as we embarked, but kindly volunteered to relinquish their meal to us; so we sat down to pork and beans served in tin plates with iron spoons, and enjoyed it as much as if it had been a dinner at Delmonico’s.
I do not know that there was ever any investigation into the loss of the Greyhound. My theory was that the fellows put ashore at Bermuda Hundreds had planned to capture General Butler and destroy the Greyhound, and I believe they were provided with torpedoes to throw among the coal, which they could easily do when the firemen’s backs were turned. They could also have saturated the wood-work in the vicinity of the engine and fire-rooms with tar-oil with very little chance of detection.
When the torpedo was thrown into the furnace with the coal, it soon burst, blowing the furnace-doors open and throwing the burning mass into the fire-room, where it communicated with the wood-work. Perhaps the shell may have contained some volatile matter which caught the saturated wood. We were furnished with such shells ourselves during the war, but never used them. Only a few months ago the inventor inquired of me how many had been expended by the navy during the war, probably with the idea of claiming a royalty.
In whatever manner the Greyhound was set on fire, I am sure it was not one of the ordinary accidents to which all ships are liable. In devices for blowing up vessels the Confederates were far ahead of us, putting Yankee ingenuity to shame.
When we reached Hampton Roads a large assembly of the general’s friends was there to congratulate him on his escape from death, but the rest of us were unnoticed. I slipped on board one of the vessels of the squadron and invited myself to take tea with the captain, but resolved to keep clear of army steamers in future.1