THE DISTORTED STORY OF THE USS PONTIAC

Posted By : manager

Posted : January 27, 2024

By: Mike Thomas

Historians seek to understand and establish the facts of the topics being studied. Often the details are elusive or in conflict making their work far more difficult and their findings inconclusive or subject to speculation. In today’s world, many factual matters are being distorted by author carelessness or by pseudo-historians bending to their prejudices and biases. The history of the USS Pontiac is a prime example.
The Pontiac was a fast, heavily armed double-sidewheeler commissioned
in July 1864 and arrived off Charleston a month later as an integral part of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. In addition to her blockading duties, Pontiac was frequently used to support raids in coastal rivers along the Palmetto State’s coast. She even captured a blockade runner in March 1865.

While her duties kept her constantly steaming, her service was fairly mundane with a single exception. Per its commanding officer’s report in the
Official Records, Pontiac slipped an anchor in an unsuccessful attempt to
intercept an inbound blockade runner entering Charleston on the night of
November 6, 1864. She returned to her previous position to recover the
anchor early the next morning. While in the process, the Confederate Battery Marshall, on the northern tip of “The USS Pontiac”, continued from Sullivan’s Island along Breach Inlet, and opened fire on Pontiac at long range. The Pontiac’s captain noted in his report the first few shots fell way short and he saw no reason to cease anchor recovery efforts. Shortly afterward, he was jolted into action when a rifled shell hit the ship near the bow wreaking much damage and causing several casualties.

The captain’s official report then reads, “Not deeming it prudent to remain longer exposed to the fire of the battery, I steamed down for the outside squadron and anchored.” In other words, he immediately discontinued the anchor recovery operation, departed the area as quickly as possible, and didn’t stop until several miles beyond the range of guns at Battery Marshall. His report states that five men were killed by the shell’s explosion with another seven wounded, one of whom died shortly afterward.

However, the ship’s history as presented by two normally prestigious naval historical organizations leaves a reader with a different impression of the event. One reads “Pontiac engaged Southern guns at Battery Marshall, Sullivans Island 7 November. One shell exploded on the steamer’s fore-castle hitting [note the word hitting, not killing] six and wounding six others.” The other site while giving a correct casualty count, also erroneously states Pontiac “engaged” Confederate batteries. Use of the word “engaged” implies there was a duel or exchange of gunfire between Battery Mar-shall and Pontiac when there was none! Its use grossly distorts the actual events. Pontiac simply cut and ran after being hit by a Confederate shell. Pontiac’s records show she never fired a single shot in combat during her wartime service!

Whether these inaccurate versions are a result of sloppiness, deliberate misrepresentation, or both, they are a major impediment to those seeking to understand an event as it occurred. This author brought the errors to the attention of each site administrator via email. One responded almost immediately with corrections and a sincere note of thanks for bringing it to their attention. The other has yet to respond at all. 

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