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Mystery aboard the USS Hatteras
Public’s help sought to identify African-American sailors

NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries wants your help to solve a 150-year-old mystery surrounding two African-American crew members who died aboard the only U.S. warship sunk in combat in the Gulf of Mexico during the Civil War. 

U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command
"The Fatal Chase", by Tom Freeman. The USS Hatteras engages the Confederate raider CSS Alabama.

The USS Hatteras was an iron-hulled side-wheel steamship that the Navy converted into a gunboat to enforce the wartime blockade of southern ports.  Twenty miles off Galveston, on Jan. 11, 1863, Hatteras was lost in a brief battle with a better-armed foe, the Confederate raider CSS Alabama.

During a 20-minute close-range exchange of cannon fire, the lightly-armed and less-armored Hatteras was hit several times, setting the warship on fire, breaking the steam engine, and penetrating the hull with shots that began to flood Hatteras even as the ship’s guns continued to fire.  Two of the crew, inside the engine spaces, lost their lives in the battle and remain entombed inside the wreck.  Others were wounded, but managed to escape the sinking ship as the battle ended.

In September 2012, a group of partners, including NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries’ Maritime Heritage Program and Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, joined forces to document the remains of the Hatteras.

Resting in sand, silt and 57 feet of water, the broken hull of USS Hatteras is largely buried in the bottom sediments with large portions of the hull and machinery protruding from the seabed.  Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, Hatteras is a nationally-significant war grave and archaeological site.  Scientists, using a high resolution sonar mapping system known as BlueView©, are working to create a detailed, three-dimensional map of the site while also conducting more research on the ship and its crew.

One of the researchers, Edward Cotham, a Houston Civil War historian and author of “Battle on the Bay: The Civil War Struggle for Galveston,” found a reference in an 1866 reminiscence by Hatteras’ captain, Lt. Commander Homer C. Blake, in which he talks of two unsung and unnamed heroes of the battle between Hatteras and Alabama:

Every broadside from the Alabama hurled upon the Hatteras four hundred and eighty pounds of iron, while at the same time one hundred and thirty-six riflemen were sweeping its decks with unerring bullets.  Still not a man flinched.  The flames were now rushing up the hatchways; there were but two inches of pine between the powder and the magazine. 

During those terrible moments when the ship was on fire, and shells were tearing through her sides and exploding with awful destruction, when the engine was destroyed, and the engine-room and deck enveloped with scalding steam, the steward of the ship, a colored man, performed an act of calm and deliberate heroism which should place his name very high upon the roll of honor.  Under the passageway there was stored a large quantity of small arms and ammunition.  As shell after shell exploded, setting the light material on fire, the room became very hot and filled with smoke.  The order had been given to “drown the magazine.”

The steward remained unflinchingly at his post, dashing water upon the ammunition, until the close of the action.  When asked if he did not find his position rather warm and dangerous, he replied:

“Yes, but I knew that if the fire got to the powder, the gentlemen on deck would get a grand hoist.” (John S. C. Abbott, “Heroic Deeds of Heroic Men,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, September 1866, Volume 33, Issue 196, Pages 458)

The article went on to note that another, unnamed African-American member of the crew, ordinarily not armed, grabbed a musket and fought bravely, and that “through the entire action could be heard its regular discharge.”

Unfortunately, the article does not give the names of these two men, even the man below the decks, whose deeds “should place his name very high upon the roll of honor.”  To help answer that question, genealogist Lisa Stansbury of Alexandria, Va., who works closely with the Maritime Heritage Program in the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, searched Navy records at the National Archives and found the final muster list of the crew of USS Hatteras, turned in to the Navy after the ship sank.  Three of the crew are identified as African-American:

Fortuno Gomes, 24, Landsman
Edward Matthews, 19, First Class Boy
John Cormick (or Cornish), 18, First Class Boy

A Landsman is the lowest professional rank on a ship, given to new recruits with little or no experience at sea.  After three years of service, a Landsman could be promoted to Ordinary Seaman. “Boys” were young men, including boys as young as eight or so years of age, who performed critical duties as runners, carrying powder or messages in battle.  The lowest rank was a Third Class Boy, and the highest rank was a First Class Boy.  Boys might also serve as stewards, serving meals to officers when not in battle.  Therein lies a clue – if Captain Blake is correct, then the “steward” who stayed at his post and helped keep USS Hatteras from exploding was likely either John Cormick (or Cornish) or Edward Matthews.  And either one of these two young men, or Landsman Fortuno Gomes was the man with the musket.

We’re hoping descendants of Gomes, Matthews or Cormick (Cornish) know of their ancestor’s service in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War, perhaps even on USS Hatteras, and can help us recognize, by name and heroic deed, the two African-American sailors. 

If you have any information, please contact Margo Jackson () at NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

The section of USS Hatteras' muster list of February 24, 1863 (filed after the ship sank) with the names and information about the three African-American members of the crew – date of enlistment, name, rate, place of birth, age, “complexion,” height, hair and eye color, where born.  (National Archives)


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