Mt. Pleasant man witnesses the sinking of the sub, C.S.A. H.L. Hunley
Editor’s note: As part of the nation’s 150-year anniversary of the Civil War, the Henry County Civil War Sesquicentennial Task Force will be publishing a monthly column, written by Henry County historians. The research for the articles comes from Henry County newspapers published between 1861-1865, as well as diaries, journals and letters written by Henry County Civil War soldiers and their families.
By Pat Ryan White
Overwhelmingly, Henry County men enlisted in the infantry or the cavalry during the Civil War. At least one Henry County man chose to serve in the United States Navy.
John Simson Woolson was born in Erie County, N.Y., on Dec. 6, 1840. At the age of 16, he came to Mt. Pleasant with his parents, Theron Woolson and Clarissa Simson Woolson, arriving in June 1856. Woolson completed his education, graduated from Iowa Wesleyan University with the class of 1860 and began studying law in his father’s law office.
This extensive description of Woolson’s service in the Navy is taken from the 1888 Portrait and Biographical Album, Henry County, Iowa:
“Woolson forsook the peaceful paths of the law for a position in the United States Navy. He was appointed Assistant Paymaster of the United States Navy in February 1862 and was assigned to the United States sloop-of-war “Housatonic,” of the South Atlantic squadron. He continued to serve on the “Housatonic” till she was sunk by a Confederate torpedo boat off Charleston Harbor, Feb. 17, 1864.
(Note: The USS Housatonic had been sunk by the infamous Confederate Submarine, the H. L. Hunley. Naval historians recognize this moment as “history’s first successful submarine attack on a warship.” See note below about the Confederate Submarine H.L. Hunley.)
The sloop sank within 15 minutes after the torpedo was exploded. Woolson succeeded in securing himself to a floating spar which proved but a precarious support, as it was overloaded and submerged by the numbers clinging to it. By the timely arrival of a boat from another vessel of the squadron, he and his companions were rescued from their perilous position.
He was next assigned to the double turreted monitor “Monadnock,” then in service in the North and South Atlantic squadron. He participated in all the attacks on Ft. Sumter and both attacks on Ft. Fisher. He served at different times as signal officer of the squadron and during the attacks on Ft. Fisher had command of one of the pilot-houses of the monitor. He was up the James River at the taking of Crow’s Nest and the capture of Richmond. He was also at “Butler’s Dutch Gap Canal,” and served till the surrender of the Confederate army and the close of the war. He was previously sent with an expedition to Havana to capture a rebel ram in those waters. The ram failed to accept the challenge, but sought protection under the guns of the Spanish forts. Woolson resigned his position in the regular service in December 1865, and returned to Mt. Pleasant.
John S. Woolson resumed the study of law, was admitted to the bar in 1866 and formed a law partnership with his father. From 1866 to 1891, he was in private practice in Mt. Pleasant. During this time, he partnered with W.I. Babb and also served as a member of the Iowa State Senate. In 1891, President Benjamin Harrison appointed Woolson as a federal judge in the US District Court for the Southern District of Iowa.
In 1867, Woolson married Mira T. Bird, daughter of Dr. Wellington Bird, a prominent Mt. Pleasant physician. Five children were born of their union: Paul, Ralph, Miriam, Grace and Ruth.
The Honorable John Simson Woolson died in Des Moines on Dec. 4, 1899. He is interred at the Forest Home Cemetery in Mt. Pleasant, where his tombstone notes his military service.
NOTE: The Confederate Submarine H.L. Hunley was launched in July 1863. The Hunley played a large role in the history of naval warfare and was the first combat submarine to sink an enemy warship. On Feb. 17, 1864, the Hunley attacked and sank the USS Housatonic on Union blockade duty in Charleston’s harbor. Soon after, the H.L. Hunley sank, killing all eight of her crew.
Located in 1995, the Hunley was recovered in 2000 and is on display in Charleston, S.C. It’s been determined that the Hunley was only 20 feet from the USS Housatonic, when its deployed torpedo exploded. This most likely caused the demise of the Hunley.
The USS Housatonic’s anchor is privately owned and is located at the office of Wild Dunes Resort on Isle of Palms in the Charleston Harbor near where it sank. The rest of the ship was salvaged and used by local citizens from Charleston Harbor in the 1870’s. Only the anchor remains.