The arrest of a Confederate colonel, his courts-martial, the sinking of a very successful commerce raider, the breakup of a grounded French man-of-war and the rescue of her crew, the worries of a Union commander about the political ramifications of not saving the Prony, a letter of gratitude from the French Vice-Consul in Norfolk to the Confederates, and an official request for more information concerning Union actions from Gideon Welles, Secretary of the US Navy are all part of the story of the rescue of the French man-of-war Prony’s crew.
Col. George B. Singletary, commander of the 27th NC stationed in New Bern, decided to dislodge the Union forces holding Hatteras. He loaded 400 of his troops aboard the schooner Napoleon and took off on an apparently unauthorized expedition on 4 Nov 1861. The steamer Albemarle accompanied the Napoleon. Flag Officer William F. Lynch had placed three guns on the Napoleon and anchored her in the Neuse River to protect New Bern from any Union forces that might approach from Hatteras. Singletary failed to get Lynch’s permission to use the Napoleon. Upon learning of Singletary’s ill-advised sortie, Lynch with his 5 ship fleet (the Sea Bird, Curlew, Ellis, Edwards, and Fanny) took off for Hatteras in an attempt to keep Singletary and the Napoleon with her valuable cannons from being captured.
Finding six Union ships anchored at Hatteras Inlet, Singletary decided to call off the attack, turning towards Ocracoke instead. On his arrival, he found what he thought to be a Lincoln gunboat aground south of the inlet and fired on her. Discovering she was French, Singletary went out aboard the Albemarle and tried to assist them in getting off the bar. He was unsuccessful in getting her off. The French commander devised a plan to get his ship off the bar at the 10:00 p.m. high tide by dumping coal and some of his guns overboard.
The Albemarle went aground while navigating the channel back to the sound. Some French officers in one of the Prony’s boats came aboard, sent by French Captain de Fontanges to discuss his plans for freeing the Prony. Around 5:00 p.m., Union ships appeared from the north. The commander of the Union fleet at Hatteras fifteen miles away (Lt. Werden of the USS Stars and Stripes) had heard the gun fired around 3:00 p.m. and sent the Putnam to investigate. The Putnam’s commander was directed to fire a gun and stop to wait for re-enforcements if he spotted any Confederate activity in the vicinity of Ocracoke. As soon as the Prony was spotted aground, the Putnam fired the signal gun as ordered but failed to wait.
Werden dispatched the Ellen, Pettit, Ceres, and Underwriter under the command of Lt. Commanding Lowery of the Underwriter to join the Putnam. The Ceres and Putman soon outdistanced the others. The Underwriter broke down and lost an hour making repairs. Lowery sent the other vessels after the Putnam. Lowery signaled for the Putnam to fall back after she and the Ceres got a five mile lead. The Ceres returned to the Underwriter. The Putnam did not. Her commander claimed to have gotten the signal when he was just three miles from the wreck; the Ceres, in the lead, turned back when five miles from the wreck. As punishment, he and the Putnam were sent back to Hatteras Inlet
The Ceres, Underwriter, Ellen, and Pettit continued on towards the wreck. The Ceres arrived first and ran in close to the Prony. A boat put off from the Prony with a French officer aboard, Lieutenant Costas. He boarded the Ceres and informed Lt. MacDiarmid of the French plans to get the Prony off at high tide the next day. Costas asked that the Ceres stand by the Prony overnight. MacDiarmid said he would report to his commander on the Underwriter.
MacDiarmid reported to Lowery on the Underwriter and was ordered back to Hatteras to report to Werden. Lowery also sent the Ellen and Pettit back to Hatteras because of the damages they were receiving due to the storm. The Underwriter stood by until 7:30 a.m., but left without rescuing the French crew because her machinery was out of order and the vessel was leaking very badly. The Prony had broken up by this time. Two Confederate steamers were reported as being in the Ocracoke Inlet when the Underwriter departed.
After the storm intensified during the afternoon of the 5th and the French officers couldn’t get back to the Prony. Singletary convinced them to let him sail under the French flag to keep the Union troops from attacking him. He lowered the French flag when the “mosquito fleet” arrived the next day. The Curlew and the Albemarle successfully remove the French crew on the 6th. Singletary had already sent the Napoleon back to New Bern to discharge his troops by this time. The morning after the rescue, Singletary leaves for New Bern with about 50 of the French crewmen they had rescued aboard. The Curlew went back to the wreck, removed the crew’s belongings, and blew up the ship to keep her out of Union hands. The French captain was disturbed that Singletary left and carried off his crewmen without his permission. Lynch was equally disturbed that that Singletary didn’t stay and help retrieve the baggage from the wreck.
Captain de Fontanges complained to Lynch about Singletary laving with French crewmen aboard without consulting him. Lynch tried to stop Singletary from carrying the Frenchmen to New Bern. He ordered the Winslow to pursue the Albemarle with orders from the French captain directing his ranking officer on the Albemarle to return on the Winslow. The Winslow struck the submerged remains of a light-boat sunk by the Union forces back in September and sank around 10:30 in the morning. The Curlew was then assigned the task and retrieved the 50 crewmen from New Bern. She caught up with the Sea Bird and Ellis en route to Gosport and transferred her load to the Ellis the next day near Roanoke Island.
On his arrival at New Bern, Singletary was arrested by order of Brigadier General D. H. Hill, commander of the Northern District of North Carolina, for disregarding his orders concerning Hatteras. Singletary was court-martialed on 9 Dec 1861 and was sentenced to be relieved of command for 2 months. (Rather than submit to this humiliation, he resigned his commission, only to turn up as colonel of the new 44th NC on 28 March 1862. The UDC post in Greenville is named for him. He was killed at Trantor’s Creek.)
The Sea Bird and the Ellis arrived at Canal Bridge with their load of Frenchmen at 7:00 p.m. on the 8th of November. They both went aground the following morning before they reached the locks at Great Bridge. Lt. J.W. Alexander took an open boat and continued on to Norfolk in search of aid to refloat the two grounded steamers. After procuring the services of the J. B. White, he proceeded back to assist the Sea Bird and Ellis. About 2-3 miles before he reached the locks, he met the Sea Bird heading northward towards Gosport, having freed herself and the Ellis.
The two ships pulled alongside the Receiving Ship United States at Gosport and placed the enlisted Frenchmen onboard. The Sea Bird then proceeded to Norfolk and delivered the French officers to the Atlantic Hotel. Lynch and de Fontanges returned to Gosport, where they were received by Commodore French Forrest, commander of the navy yard. De Fontanges made it clear that he felt the Federals had left them to their fate without making the least effort to assist them.
Transferred to Fort Monroe aboard the William Seldon, de Fontanges refused any offer of assistance from Union navy Flag Officer Goldsborough. De Fontanges made “grave complaints” to Goldsborough in person concerning his perceived omission of assistance by the Union vessels. The Secretary of the U. S. Navy Gideon Welles initiated an investigation into the handling of the situation by Lieutenant Werden. Both the Union and Confederate sides realized the political importance of the situation. The French were leaning towards officially recognizing the Confederacy at this time. This rescue cast the Union forces in a bad light.