One of the most daring and gallant naval exploits of the war, distinguished by the greatest coolness, presence of mind, and intrepidity of the brave men associated in the enterprise, was performed Monday night, October 6, 1863. This was no less than an attempt to blow up the United States steamer New Ironsides, lying off Morris Island. Though not fully meeting the expectations of those who conceived the plan, and those who carried it into execution, it called forth unbounded admiration for the brilliant heroism of the actors in their dangerous but patriotic and self-sacrificing undertaking.
The torpedo steamer David, with a crew of four volunteers, consisting of Lieut. Wm. T. Glassell, J. H. Toombs, chief engineer, and James Sullivan, fireman of the gunboat Chicora, with J. W. Cannon, assistant pilot of the gunboat Palmetto State, left South Atlantic Wharf between six and seven o’clock in the evening, for the purpose of running out to the Ironsides, exploding a torpedo under that vessel near amidships, and if possible blow her up. The weather, being dark and hazy, favored the enterprise. The boat, with its gallant little crew, proceeded down the harbor, skirting along the shoals on the inside of the channel, until nearly abreast of their formidable antagonist, the New Ironsides.
They remained in this position for a short time, circling around on the large shoal near the anchorage of the object of their visit. Lieut. Glassess, with a double-barrelled gun, sat in front of Pilot Cannon, who had charge of the helm. Chief Engineer Toombs was at the engine, with the brave and undaunted Sullivan, the volunteer fireman, when something like the following conversation ensued:
Lieut. Glassell. “It is now nine o’clock. Shall we strike her?”
Pilot Cannon. “That is what we came for. I am ready.”
Engineer Toombs. “Let us go at her then, and do our best.”
Sullivan, fireman. “I am with you all, and waiting. Go ahead.”
The boat was now put bow on, and aimed directly for the Ironsides. As the little steamer darted forward, the lookout on the Ironsides hailed them with: “Take care there; you will run into us. What steamer is that?” Lieut. Glassell replied by discharging one barrel at the Yankee sentinel, and tendering the gun to Pilot Cannon, told him there was another Yankee, pointing to one with his body half over the bulwarks, and asked Cannon to take care of him with the other barrel.
The next moment they had struck the Ironsides, and exploded the torpedo about fifteen feet from the keel, on the starboard side. An immense volume of water was thrown up, covering the little boat, and going through the smoke-stack, entered the furnace, completely extinguishing the fires.
In addition to this, pieces of the ballast had fallen into the works of the engine, rendering it unmanageable at that time. Volley after volley of musketry from the crew of the Ironsides and from the launches began to pour in upon them. Lieut. Glassell gave the order to back, but it was found impossible. In this condition, with no shelter, and no hope of escape, they thought it best to surrender, and hailed the enemy to that effect. The Yankees, however, paid no attention to the call. It was then proposed to put on their life-preservers, jump overboard, and endeavor to swim to the shore. All but Pilot Cannon consented. The latter, being unable to swim, said he would stay and take his chances in the boat. Lieut. Glassell, Engineer Toombs, and Sullivan the fireman, left the boat, the first two, having on life-preservers, and the latter supporting himself on one of the hatches thrown to him by the pilot. Engineer Toombs, becoming embarrassed with his clothing in the water, got back to the boat, and was assisted in by Cannon.
The boat was then rapidly drifting from the Ironsides. He now fortunately found a match, and lighting a torch, crept back to the engine, discovered and removed the cause of its not working, and soon got it in order. Engineer Toombs and Cannon reached their wharf in the city about midnight, fatigued, and presenting a worn-out appearance, but rejoicing at their fortunate and narrow escape.