With a service life of just 54 days, the screw sloop Adirondack had little time to make an impact on history. Her fate was determined by two of the Confederacy’s most famous raiders.
Laid down in the summer of 1861 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, she was launched in February 1862 and commissioned on 30 June under the command of Commander Guert Gansevoort.
On 11 July, as preparations were being made to join the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, Gansevoort received orders from Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to proceed to Nassau, Bahamas. The Navy had learned that the steamer Oreto had been fitted for war there, and almost simultaneously the “notorious [Confederate captain Raphael] Semmes” had arrived in that port.
Oreto was the name given by the steamer’s British constructors; she would soon be known in the Confederacy as the commerce raider Florida. Gansevoort was to ascertain her purpose and destination.
The Adirondack left New York on 17 July. Just six days out, she crossed paths with the schooner Emma, which had a British colonial registry. After a two-hour chase, Gansevoort boarded her and claimed her as a prize. He had found her laden with “articles of great need in the so-called Confederate States.”
Two days later, within sight of the Bahamas but outside its territorial waters, the Adirondack’s crew spotted a steamer standing in for Nassau. The screw sloop gave chase, but as she neared, the quarry raced away. The Adirondack fired at the steamer, but she escaped into port. After the Union ship’s arrival at Nassau, Gansevoort was informed the shelling had damaged the steamer Herald and the British government protested the action. The steamer had just run the blockade off Charleston, South Carolina, with a cargo of cotton.
Gansevoort quickly reported to Gideon Welles: “[N]early the whole population is in open and notorious sympathy with the rebels.” Large numbers of steamers from England “loaded with arms and munitions of war” were in part transshipped for delivery to Southern ports. “All the warehouses in town” were filled with the goods. Guns and munitions freely marked “C.S.A. . . . are hauled through the streets and put on board steamers . . . to run the blockade. ”
He found the Oreto under charge of a British prize crew. Her fate rested in an Admiralty court. Gansevoort relayed that Semmes was “openly and notoriously” fitting her out as a Confederate cruiser.
The Adirondack left Nassau on 28 July for Hampton Roads, where she arrived on 4 August. In a detailed report to Welles, Gansevoort provided a list of a dozen vessels “actively engaged” in blockade-running and noted Semmes had left the Bahamas for England. The same day, Welles received a report alerting him that “a new rebel steamer has escaped from Liverpool”—the Alabama.
On 13 August, Welles ordered Gansevoort to return to the Bahamas to “intercept and capture the rebel steamer.” The Adirondack departed Port Royal, South Carolina on the 18th.
Five days later, at 0355, she ran aground on the reef off Man-O-War Cay at the northeastern point of Little Bahama Bank. At the very first “thump,” the engine became disabled. Despite efforts to lighten the ship, which included dropping her two massive XI-inch Dahlgren guns over the side, little could be done to get the Adirondack off the reef. By 1800, the ship’s back was broken and she was flooded. Through the next day the crew salvaged as much government property as possible. News came the third day of the escape of the Oreto from Nassau, which prompted Gansevoort to spike the remaining guns and toss them overboard.
On 1 September, after having made arrangements for the security of the federal property, the remains of the Adirondack were left to the sea. Gansevoort received no recriminations from the loss of his ship. Welles ascertained that the captain had twice ordered the ship’s course farther to sea, but the vessel’s chronometer was slow. This led the navigator to believe the ship was farther to the east than she actually was.