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USS Ceres – The Little Tugboat That Became A War Hero

The Ceres was a 144-ton side-wheel steam-powered tugboat built at the Keyport shipyard of Benjamin C. Terry in 1856, one of nine vessels built by Terry that served in the Civil War.  Originally a commercial tugboat working New York Harbor, the U.S. Navy purchased the Ceres in 1861 and refitted her with deck guns, addressing a dire need for armed shallow-draft vessels that could navigate southern rivers and coastal waters.  The USS Ceres was assigned to patrol the coast of North Carolina and southern Virginia.  While enforcing the blockade of the Confederacy, Ceres took or destroyed two sailing vessels and two steamers.  She also participated in several combat actions, among them the captures of Roanoke Island and Elizabeth City, N.C., in February 1862, and the defense of Federal positions around the North Carolina Sounds in 1863 and 1864.  In April and May 1864 she was involved in two fights with the Confederate ironclad ram Albemarle.

Close Encounters With A Confederate Ironclad

During the Civil War, the historic sea battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia proved that ironclad ships were the future of naval warfare.  The Confederate Navy commissioned a new steam-powered ironclad in 1864 called the Albemarle, equipped with two large deck guns and a brass ram.  Albemarle successfully dominated the Roanoke coastal area and the approaches to Plymouth, N.C., through the spring and summer of 1864.

On April 18, 1864, the USS Ceres was on picket duty, and was the first to warn the Union fleet of the appearance of the new Confederate ironclad.  The following day, the Albemarle rammed and sunk the USS Southfield, and severely damaged the USS Miami, enabling Confederate forces to take the coastal forts of Plymouth and Albemarle Sound, a major win for the South, and further proof of the effectiveness of ironclads.  The Ceres was then put on patrol to continue watching for the Albemarle.

On May 5, 1864, the Ceres saw three rebel ships including the Albemarle coming down the Roanoke River.  Ceres let the fleet advance, then turned tail and ran, hoping to lure the rebel ships into open water, where it would join the seven Union vessels that were waiting for a fight.  In what became known as the Battle of Albemarle Sound, an inconclusive engagement, ships on both sides suffered significant damage.  The confederate ironclad retreated upriver, and continued to plague Union ships for months.  The Albemarle was finally destroyed on October 27, 1864, by a small crew of Union commandos using an improvised torpedo launch.

In addition to sea battles, Ceres was used for towing, picketing, reconnaissance, carrying dispatches, transporting troops and provisioning, and carrying ammunition to Union vessels, army steamers and troops ashore.  She put down or replaced buoys and channel markers, made soundings and removed obstructions to enable larger fighting ships to complete their missions.  She aided grounded ships and chased vessels suspected of trying to run the Union blockade.

After the war, USS Ceres was decommissioned and returned to commercial operation under the same name, working the Hudson River.  She lasted until 1887, when she was finally removed from shipping registers.

Sources:

USS Ceres (1861-1865).  U.S. Naval Historical Center.  Available: https://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/OnlineLibrary/photos/sh-usn/usnsh-c/ceres.htm

Reuseille, Leon (1975). Steam Vessels Built in Old Monmouth 1841 – 1894. J. I. Farley Printing Service, Inc., Brick Township, N.J.

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