Commissioned at Savannah on November 22, 1862, the ironclad CSS Atlanta was converted from the Scottish-built blockade-runner Fingal. Under Cdr William A.Webb, she limited her activities to patrolling the waters below Savannah for the first six months of her service afloat. However, on June 14, 1863, Webb learned that the Federal monitors Weehawken and Nahant were inside Wassaw Sound, and determined to attack them. With a spar torpedo attached to the bow of his vessel, and armed with four rifled cannon, the Confederate commander believed that he could blow the enemy ships out of the water if he could only get close enough to them. Unfortunately for the Confederacy, however, Rear Adm Samuel Dupont had received word via deserters that the Atlanta was about to make "a dash for the sea," and the Federal vessels were ready for action.
After coaling all night, the Atlanta steamed in sight of the monitors, and began her approach. Commanded by Lt James N.Thurston, a graduate of The Citadel in Charleston, SC, the Marine Guard aboard the vessel (which included W.S.Lewis, a black slave owned by Thurston) manned the two port side 6.4in Brooke rifled cannon when the ship was at battle stations. All went well until the Atlanta unfortunately grounded about three-quarters of a mile from the enemy ships. At the mercy of the monitors, she was subsequently badly damaged by a "raking shot" fired from one of the 15in guns on the Weehawken as that vessel rounded close to the stern of the stricken ironclad. This forced a piece of armor plating back through the woodwork, tearing a hole Sft wide by the entire length of the protective shield. According to the official report of Cdr Webb,
this caused "everything moveable in die vicinity to be hurled across the deck with such force as to knock down, wound, and disable the entire gun's crew of the port broadside gun in charge of Lieutenant Thurston (Marine Corps) and also half of the crew at Lieutenant [Alphonse] Barbot's bow gun, some thirty men being injured more or less." After three direct hits, the Atlanta struck her colors and her crew, consisting of 21 officers and 124 men including 28 Marines, surrendered.
The captured enlisted Marines were taken to Fort Monroe, where they were paroled by the beginning of July 1863. However, Lt Thurston was sent north to Fort Warren, Massachusetts, where he was received on July 4, 1863. About seven weeks later, he and Lt Joseph Alexander, CSN, managed to escape over the parapet of the fort and hid in icy water for two hours before swimming out to a floating target. Finally managing to reach the opposite side of the channel, they stole a boat and passed themselves off as fishermen until recaptured by a revenue cutter off Boon Island. Returned to Fort Warren, Thurston was finally paroled and exchanged on October 18, 1864.
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