top of page
  • Writer's pictureGordon Thorsby

The Forgotten Man and the Fight with CSS Juno in Charleston Harbor

He is known.

by Gordon Thorsby

Crew of the U.S.S. Wabash

ST CHARLES UNION, Michigan May 10, 1917, Front Page, Col 1-


The burial of John and Mary Griffen took place at Riverside cemetery. “Mrs. G. A. Smale [daughter Edith] accompanied the remains of her parents from Los Angeles, CA and arrived on the 8:55 train.” Citizens of the town and an escort of high school students were present at the depot. From there, they proceeded to the cemetery (about 1/2 mile) where a short service was conducted by Rev A. E. Duplan. All businesses were closed in silent tribute for two most esteemed travelers (both had lived and died in Los Angeles) back to “City of the Blest.”

It was 45 years earlier where things started. Charleston Harbor was known for several well known events during the Civil War, among them: 1) Firing on Ft Sumter, April,1861, The CSS Palmetto State, CSS Chicora, two Confederate ironclads that that weakened the blockade around the harbor in April 1863, and 3) the failed infantry assault by the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry on Ft. Wagner in late August,1863. There are others but less spoken. A minor episode happened on August 5th that affected 13 men.

Union Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren conveyed to Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles that his fleet was tighening the grip for entering and departing Charleston Harbor in hopes of breaking the Confederate hold on the important port. The USS Wabash was a Union Steam screw frigate with the Atlantic Blockade Squadron and positioned near the harbor entrance. Twice in the past month, the Wabash had been harassed by Confederate crafts attempting to damage or sink her. John A. Griffen was a member of the Wabash crew. Many of the coastal squadron’s ships were deep draft and could not navigate the shallow channels so Dahlgren employed launches mounted with howitzers picketing areas to watch the close-in

areas for movement. The Wabash was ordered to put two launches out. Landsman Griffen, from St. Charles, Michigan, got one of the jobs of manning one of the launches along with 11 other crewmen. At the same time, Confederate officers from CSS Palmetto State and Chicora were seeking to interrupt an unfinished battery in the making at Vincent’s Creek on Morris Island and launches in the harbor that could direct artillery fire on relief boats from relieving Ft. Wagner.

Rear-Admiral Dahlgren later wrote to Secretary of War, Gideon Welles, “On the night of the 5th one of the launches designed to guard the right flank of our shore batteries having been drawn out into the harbor in observation of a rebel steamer…[when the launch] was suddenly attacked … eight of her crew were picked up and … the launch had been sunk.”

There were reports the launch had been run over by the steamer and it had fired on the men in the water. The report went on to state that upon communication with [Union] General Gillmore, the launch had actually been captured with the acting commander of the launch, Acting Master Haines and twelve men. The problem was two men were missing. Things were not matching up. The rebel steamer was the C.S.S. Juno. First Engineer, J.H. Tomb, of the steamer, Juno described his ship as a 65-foot vessel “that carried a large spar on her bow and attached with a 65-pound torpedo and…we had a cotton bale attached to the stem to act as a fender if we had a chance to strike one of their ships.” It had been rigged to become a blockade runner, originally built by Tod & McGregor, in Glasgow, England. In August 1863 the Confederacy employed her as a torpedo boat.

Two days later on August 7, Lt. Commander E. P. Williams of the U.S.S. Powhatan (sidewheel steam frigate) reported to Dahlgren that his Lt. Edward Haines was missing and believed to be on the lost launch. In William’s report, Haines had switched with Master’s Mate Howland of the Wabash. Haines took the Wabash boat and continued on its patrol and “pulling farther up the harbor to reconnoiter. The clarity of the encounter worsened and then came another version.

U. S. IRONCLAD CATSKILL, Off Morris Island, August 9, 1863.

Sir :

In obedience to your order of August 3, I have to state that after dark on the evening of August 5, I anchored abreast of Fort Wagner and sent out the tug and four picket boats. the tug to lay 200 or 300 yards above me between the Moultrie House and Fort Sumter, two picket boats in charge of Master Hogue to keep in sight and close to her, and the other 2 inshore between batteries. A boat which came up from the [New] Ironsides with Ensign Porter went to Cumming's Point, and about 10 o'clock signaled that a steamer was coming out. I went to quarters, have up my anchor, and remained so nearly an hour…Ensign Porter, who was at the upper pick et boat, came on board and reported this steamer, describing her, and that she was lying under Sullivan's Island, but as the moon was up, thought she could not possibly get out without being seen.”

Porter returned to Cumming's Point, with orders to tell the tug to lay more a stern of me, when I saw a dark object go rapidly past her. Carpenter hove anchor and was concerned for the launches. He was even more concerned as to the intent of the object and fired. The steamer turned toward “Moultrie House light” and Carpenter fired again. “In a short time the tug returned with Ensign Porter and one launch, reporting that the other had been run down…”

The information was enough to alarm Dahlgren and under a truce dispatched a letter to Confederate General Beauregard regarding the matter. In it, he stated the following to Beauregard:


Last night, one of your steamers succeeded in running down a boat of this squadron, and it is stated by several of our men that they were fired at in the water after the steamer had passed over the boat. Of course it was obvious to everyone that under the circumstances our men were entirely helpless.

Such a practice is entirely in violation of every rule of civilized war, and I call upon you to punish whoever can be convicted of having perpetrated such an act, otherwise it will be impossible for me to prevent retaliation by our men whenever the opportunity may occur.

I am respectfully, your obedient servant.

John A. Dahlgren

Dahlgren received a denial to the clam and the war went on in the harbor as before. The story was not fully known to the full world until 1864. Haine’s report of October 9,1864 described his version. An August,1863 report by the Juno’s commander Lt. Philip Porcher made slightly different report that only the Charleston Military and Richmond had until after the war.

On October 29, 1864, a full year later, Acting Master Haines wrote his report.

On the 5th of August, 1863 the steam sloop Powhatan, Lieutenant-Commander E.P. Williams left her station of Charleston, SC…leaving me with the fleet in charge of her first launch and a crew of 24 men, armed with small arms, the launch having a twelve-pound howitzer; I was assisted by Masters mate Charles Howland of same ship. My orders were to proceed on board of USS Canandaigua and remain until dark, then to take any station inside the bar as a picket boat. At 5 o’clock PM, I left the Canandaigua and was taken and was taken in tow by the U.S steam tug Rescue as was one of the launches of the USS Housatanic. We went alongside of USS Wabash and took in tow her first and second launches they being armed similar to my own launch. The Wabash’s launches were commanded by an acting master’s mate and he remained in her second launch. I being the senior officer, took command of the Wabash’s first launch, leaving masters mate Howland in command of the Powhatan’s launch...

Before taking my station, I reported to Rear-Admiral Dahlgren. He ordered me to report to the officer commanding the US monitor Catskill, she being the guard ship for that night. The Admiral informed me that two or three of the enemy’s steamers were in the habit of coming down to Cumming’s Point every night, and if they came within range, to fire upon and sink them if possible, and that Ensign B.H. Porter would be out in a small boat and to be careful not to fire at him.

About 11 o'clock p. m. Ensign Porter came alongside and reported that a steamer had come down to Cumming's Point and was now lying close in; and that he thought she was a blockade runner… I immediately got my anchor and let my launch drop up toward Cumming's Point, in order to get a view of the reported steamer. Soon after getting underway I made out a steamer standing down the channel close to Morris Island. I immediately opened fire on her from my howitzer, and made signals as agreed upon to the fleet, at the same time pulled my boat toward shallow water to avoid colliding with her. Finding I could not escape, I determined to board and try to take her, at the same time expecting answers from the other launches, or Catskill, they being in sight. I succeeded in boarding her under heavy fire of musketry. After a short resistance, we were compelled by the superior numbers of the enemy to surrender."

First Engineer Tomb of the Juno had it slightly different. in his report, “we laid below Ft. Sumter, waiting. And had just started the engines ahead when a large launch came toward us and hailed us , ordering us to surrender, and the next moment fired into us from a 12-pound howitzer in her bow.”

CSS Juno

Juno had been reconnoitering the harbor with her torpedo in the event she should meet a Union ship was otherwise unarmed. She did have small arms, muskets. The only defense the Juno had was running down the launch. The steamer struck the launch amidships but because Juno’s speed was not fast enough, simply swung the Juno to port above the wheel and it enabled Haines’ crew to board the Juno.

Unfortunately, two of Haines’ crew were missing (one of the men was Griffen) and presumed dead in the scuffle.

The Juno was manned by a crew of 50 men and the damaged Wabash launch had no chance whatsoever of taking the steamer. With the launch in tow, and Haines and her crew stashed aboard, the Juno cruised back up the harbor where the crew was dropped off onto the CSS Chicora ironclad.

The next day found the Yankee sailors in the Charleston jail, where Haines and his surviving crew happened to run into the two missing crewmembers who had been knocked overboard and where they swam to Sullivan’s Island. On the tenth, the prisoners except for one (Amos Kane) were sent to Columbia, and then on the fifteenth sent to Richmond. Haines went to Libby Prison, the rest of the crew went to Belle Island across the river. Haines reported:

“The 30th of September I learned that my men were all exchanged, except Seaman Edward R. Clark, who died while a prisoner on Belle Isle. “

Haines’ imprisonment continued and was sent to Macon in May,1864 in poor conditions and the on 28 July sent back to Charleston where 600 other officers were housed according to Haines. Based on his report, conditions were significantly worse and to escape the conditions they accepted parole and exchanged in late September,1864. Upon his release, he wrote his report. He conveniently left out an entry in his report that 1st Engineer Tomb put into his report:

“As he [Haine] came over the rail he had his sword in one hand and one of his boots in the other. One of my firemen got hold of the boot and I ordered him to return it. We marched them aft as prisoners. At this time there were three or four floating on the port side swimming. Lt Porcher wished to pick them up, but the position of the ship was such we were afraid to stop the engines and had to continue into the harbor.”

During the rowing over to the Chicora, Tomb continued, “acting master in the United States Navy had little to say but the coxswain, who was seated near me remarked loud enough for his officers to hear him: ‘This comes from placing an officer in charge of a boat who gets you into trouble but can’t get you out.’ The officer said nothing.”

Haines acknowledged in his extract the men captured with him. They were:

Charles Fellick, Coxswain

Alex Morring, Robert Armstrong, John Kolchue, John Hammond, George Boardois, Edward R. Clark, all rated Seamen

Henry Hockslein, Nathan A. Bailey, rated Ordinary Seamen

Charles H. Saulsbury, Amos A. Kane, Landsmen

And “one man whose name I have forgotten, having lost the list during my imprisonment.”

The forgotten man was Griffen, his other Landsman, from St. Charles, MI and while he missed fame in an official report, he might have wished he missed the experience.

The war ended. John joined the local GAR chapter #169 of St. Charles and was the post commander for an unknown period of time. John married Marcia. They had two children, George and Edith. he became a big man in the growing town of St. Charles as the town’s druggist from 1887-1894 and everyone called him "Doctor. George died two years after his retirement as druggist in 1896. Their daughter, Edith married a doctor and lived in Los Angeles. John and Marcia’s departure to California was probably to be with them. In the end, Edith brought John and marcia back home to rest with George in Riverside Cemetery.

John A. Griffen Born in 1841 and died Feb 23, 1917. Marcia died just over two months earlier on Dec 6,1916. He enlisted the first time in the Navy on October 2,1862 and was discharged while he was in prison on October 2, 1863. He was exchanged (unspecified time) and he enlisted a second time as a nurse on 8/30/1864 and discharged June 27,1865 with the war’s termination.

Note: Provenence for this was the Saginaw Evening News of the times, the St. Charles Gazeteer who reported his experience in the 1890's, and his obituary all who mentioned his surviving the capture in the Juno incident and swimming with one other man.


Note: Special thanks to Chris Czopek, Michigan Historian.

Official Records, Naval, Series I, Volume 14, Civil War Naval Chronology, 1861-65, Naval History Division, Office of Chief of Naval Operations, Navy Department, Washington, D.C., 1894 pp421-427.

United States Naval Academy Library.

Saginaw Gazeteer.

St. Charles Union May10, 1917

127 views0 comments


bottom of page