The North Carolina Built Jeffersonian Gunboats

Jim Greathouse, Park Ranger Historian Fayetteville Area Transportation and Local History Museum

Gunboat 166 was one of three Jeffersonian gunboats built in North Carolina prior to the War of 1812.  These small warships were meant for coastal patrolling, harbor protection, and escorting American merchant ships along the coast.  Their shallow draft and light construction restricted them to coastal waters.  Gunboat 166 and her two sister ships were the product of a rising fear of war created by the Chesapeake vs. Leopard Affair of June 22, 1807.  Citizens of Wilmington were alarmed by the unprovoked attack on the U.S. Frigate Chesapeake by the British H.M. Frigate Leopard.  These fears of war prompted a letter writing campaign to Washington demanding gunboats for the protection of the port city.  In March of 1808, the Navy issued a contract to shipbuilder Amos Perry to construct three gunboats for the protection of North Carolina waters.  Gunboats 166, 167, and 168 were soon under construction.  The history of Gunboat 166, while unique in its own way, is also very typical of the entire class of Jeffersonian gunboats.  This article on Gunboat 166 is part 1 of a 3 part series that will explore the histories of the three gunboats built in North Carolina.

Gunboat 166 (U.S. Schooner Alligator)

Gunboat 166 was built by Amos Perry near Wilmington, North Carolina around the town of Smithville (Southport).  Perry’s naval contract, issued in March of 1808, was for the construction of three sloop rigged 60′ gunboats.  They were to be numbered 166, 167, and 168.  The superintendent of construction was Navy Agent General Benjamin Smith.  Mr. Perry built Gunboat 166 with a schooner rig instead of the planned sloop rigging.  He also provided the ship with two 6 pounder cannons instead of the single 24 or 32 pounder cannon called for in the contract.  Rated at 80 tons, with a length of 60′ between perpendiculars, a beam of 16’6″, and depth of hold of 6’6″, the gunboat received her crew of forty sailors and marines.  By the time she was completed and launched on 1 April 1809, the fear of war with Great Britain had subsided and the gunboat was placed in ordinary at Wilmington two months later.

As war clouds again appeared on the horizon, Gunboat 166 was reactivated in the fall of 1811.  After being refitted and manned she began patrolling the North Carolina coast.  Soon after the declaration of war, she was transferred to South Carolina waters.  Near the end of 1812 or early 1813, Gunboat 166 was renamed, Alligator.  It was during this period that the Alligator also received two additional cannons. Over the next couple of years she would increase her armament to eight 12 pounder carronades.

Assigned to Beaufort, South Carolina the Alligator engaged in the monotonous duty of patrolling the same piece of coastline sailing back and forth on the lookout for British ships and escorting American merchant vessels.   This repetitive and boring mission played havoc on the crew and ship.  Officers yeaned for duty on one of the fast American frigates and the quest of battle against the British.  The enlisted men also sought duty in either a larger American warship or a privateer where prize money could earn a common sailor a year’s pay in a single successful capture.  Official letters from Charleston related the constant drain on manpower from desertion and death.  There might not be much fighting, but sailors were still dying from disease and injuries.  Boredom and low morale would be a constant threat to the war-fighting capability of the Alligator.

The Alligator faced her greatest danger against the British Navy on 29 January 1814.  Anchored near the mouth of the Stono River in South Carolina, the American schooner sighted a British frigate and brig just beyond the breakers.  Sailing Master Russell Bassett, the Alligator’s commander, suspected that the British would attempt a cutting out action after dark, and immediately cleared his ship for action.  At 7:30 p.m. the Americans spotted six armed boats with muffled oars rowing towards them.  The Alligator called out a challenge and received an answer of a cheer, followed by the blast of the British boats’ small carronades.  Bassett returned the favor by firing his cannons and then quickly cut his anchor cable.  With a light breeze from the Southwest the Alligator started to move away from the advancing British who were about thirty yards away.  The fire from the Alligator’s guns stunned the attackers and slowed their advance.  The Alligator slowly drifted into shallow water and ran aground.  Now in a dangerous position the Americans braced themselves for the British assault.  Fortunately for the Alligator, the British must have suffered dreadfully from the initial exchange of cannon fire.  The renewed British attack was disorganized and short lived.  Casualties on board the Alligator were two killed and two wounded.  The small American gunboat also received substantial damage to her sails and rigging.  American records do not list the number of British casualties.

The Alligator soon faced a far worse enemy than the British.  On 1 July 1814, while patrolling Port Royal Sound, she capsized during a heavy storm.  Twenty-three officers and men of the ship were lost.   Bassett, now a lieutenant, was one of the few survivors.  Plans were quickly put into place to raise the Alligator.  After being raised and refitted the schooner resumed her patrol duties; but, Lieutenant Bassett was no longer in command.  Soon after the sinking he became ill and died in September.  The remaining months of the war were once again filled with the monotonous cruising along the coast between Charleston and Beaufort.  In the late spring of 1815, she completed her last cruise.  On 12 June 1815, she was decommissioned and sold.  The naval career of the Alligator was over.

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Commemorating the 200th Anniversary of the War of 1812 in North Carolina
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