The Cape Fear Civil War Round Table


By David Norris

Quietly sunning itself on a grassy lawn on the campus of UNC-Wilmington lays a very large souvenir of the Civil War-a 30-pounder Parrot rifle. The Parrot rifle was once part of the armament of the USS Peterhoff, a captured blockade-runner assigned to the U.S. Navy's North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

The Peterhoff was British-built, iron-hulled sidewheel steamer. She left Falmouth, England on January 27, 1863, bound for Matamoras, Mexico by way of St. Thomas, Danish Virgin Islands. On February 20, the USS Alabama halted the Peterhoff just off the Danish island of St. John's by firing first a blank cartridge, then a shotted gun fired across her bow. Although the Peterhoff was flying the British flag, and was well within Danish waters, they were searched by a Union boarding party. The Federal sailors found nothing wrong and let the ship proceed to St. Thomas.

Also in the harbor at St. Thomas were two U.S. Navy ships commanded by Acting Rear Admiral Charles Wilkes, who had gained notoriety for his seizure of the British mail steamer Trent in December 1861. (Wilkes removed two Confederate diplomats on their way to Europe; the seizure of the Trent angered the British so much that there was a chance of war breaking out over the 'Trent Affair' before cooler heads defused the situation.) In 1863, Wilkes was no less aggressive in searching out potential blockade breakers. As the Peterhoff left St. Thomas on February 25, signals flew between Wilkes and the USS Vanderbilt offshore. The Vanderbilt ordered the Peterhoff to heave to, and another boarding party examined her papers, which stated that the steamer was bound for Matamoros. However, a sailor aboard the Peterhoff told the boarding that they were really headed for Brownsville, Texas (a port just across the Rio Grande from Matamoros.)

The sailor's testimony was taken as proof that the Peterhoff was intended to run the blockade into Texas, and the ship was seized and sent to Key West, Florida. The incident angered both Denmark and Great Britain, the latter particularly because the Peterhoff was carrying British mail. The Times of London believed that the prize court would quickly release the vessel after such 'discreditable proceedings', but the court condemned the ship, which was purchased by the Union Navy. Without a change of name, the prize was transferred to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron to watch the approaches to the Cape Fear River.

At 5 a.m. on March 6 1864, the USS MONTICELLO was steaming to Beaufort for coal when they spotted a strange steamer in the dim predawn light. The Monticello's officer of the watch, Acting Ensign Joseph Hadfield, believed that they had seen a blockade-runner and set a course to challenge the potential prize. Unfortunately, the Monticello was steaming closer in to shore than they should have been, and they were blundering into the inner line of blockaders watching the approaches to the Cape Fear at New Inlet. Hadfield thought he was closing in on a blockade-runner at anchor, but instead he was dead-set on a collision course with the blockader Peterhoff.

At 5:10 p.m., the Monticello plowed into the Peterhoff, striking her amidships. The Monticello was little damaged, but the Peterhoff sank in five fathoms of water within half an hour. All of her crew was saved, although they lost practically all of their possessions. One hundred and twenty officer and men were packed onto the USS Florida until other billets could be found for them. The Peterhoff's paymaster, Josia F. Dunham, told the Florida's paymaster and diarist William Frederick Keeler that he had just joined the navy, and thought he's had a 'a pretty hard start.'

After dusk on the night of March 7, several boats were sent from the blockaders Mount Vernon and Niphon to destroy as much of the Peterhoff as they could, to keep the Confederates from salvaging anything useful. The Union tars found themselves on a dangerous assignment. In the darkness with a 'considerable sea rolling over the wreck,' they could only work on the forecastle and quarterdeck, and even these were slightly awash even at low tide. They worried about the garrison of Fort Fisher, as there were a considerable amount of signal lights and fires burning busily on the shore all night. The Confederates never fired at the wrecking party. The Yankees cut down the masts and chopped up the rigging. The guns that they could reach, a 30-pounder Parrot rifle on the forecastle and a boat howitzer on the quarterdeck, were spiked and dumped overboard. Just after midnight, the work was done and the boats returned top their ships with some salvaged sails and rigging.

Famed naval raider Lt. William B. Cushing commanded the Monticello at the time of the wreck. Inquiries placed the blame squarely on Hadfield's 'inefficiency and carelessness,' but he was still on board the Monticello with Cushing in September. On the night of July 15, 1864, the USS Cherokee slammed into the wreck of the Peterhoff. The impact awakened most of the crew, but no serious damage was done. After the war, the United States Supreme Court overturned the prize court's decision regarding the Peterhoff, on the grounds that the sailor's testimony should not have invalidated the ship's papers, which were in order. After this rare reversal of a prize court ruling, the owners were reimbursed for their loss.

Acting Ensign H.S. Borden of the Niphon notified his superiors that the guns on the main deck of the Peterhoff 'might be taken off, provided there was suitable vessel for the purpose, if tended to immediately.' Borden's advice went unheeded until 1974. In that year, the 4.2-inch, 30-pounder Parrot rifle was raised by a joint effort of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History and UNC-Wilmington. Although on display on the UNC-Wilmington campus, the gun is on loan from the United States Navy, because it is still owned by that agency. The Visitors' Center at Fort Fisher and the Carteret County Museum of History at Morehead City also have guns from the Peterhoff on display.


Sources: Stephen R. Wise, Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running During the Civil War; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion; 'The Capture of the Peterhoff', The New York Times, 15 April 1863-

-Editor's Note: The Peterhoff has yet another Wilmington connection. In 1862, Simon B. Kahnweiler, a German-born Wilmingtonian merchant ran the blockade and traveled to England and Europe to purchase supplies for the Confederacy. In a business partnership with Wilmington's Mayor, O.G. Parsley, Kahnweiler chartered the Peterhoff for that vessel's first try at running the blockade. She reached the Islands safely and discharged her cargo and returned to England. She was captured on her second run through the blockade and as an U.S. Navy man-of-war, was equipped with seven guns, was sent to the Cape Fear area where, less than a month later she was accidentally sunk. As for Simon, he remained abroad until after the war; it was later said that he made and lost a fortune during that conflict!-