George Charrette: Lowell Medal of Honor Recipient

Medal of Honor Citation: George Charrette – Spanish American War – US Navy.

In connection with the sinking of the U.S.S. Merrimac at the entrance to the harbor of Santiago de Cuba, 2 June 1898. Despite heavy fire from the Spanish batteries, Charette displayed extraordinary heroism throughout this operation.

The streets of Lowell are dotted with hundreds of small black signs located near road intersections.  Each sign bears a man’s name: some who died in war, others who performed heroic deeds or provided long and faithful service in the military or to the community, and others – well I’m not really sure why some of the names are there but no matter.

Of all the signs in the city, however, the one that represents the most dramatic achievement, a story that exceeds in excitement and daring the best of historical fiction, is the one located at Salem and Pawtucket Streets that bears the name George Charrette.  Fortunately for us, the Franco-American War Veterans will re-dedicate this memorial on this coming Saturday, September 26, 2009 at 10 a.m. giving us all an opportunity to learn about this brave man from Lowell and his companions.  In the meantime, here’s some background from more than a century ago:

After several years of escalating insurgency by Cuban nationalists against the Spanish authorities, a January 1898 riot prompted the United States to dispatch the battleship Maine to Havana Harbor to protect American citizens and property.  After two uneventful weeks at anchor, on February 15, 1898 the Maine suddenly exploded and sank with the loss of 266 crew.  Convinced that the Spanish were responsible for the sinking, the United States declared war on April 21, 1898.

One of the first objectives of the U.S. Navy was the destruction of the Spanish Caribbean Fleet.  Seeking to avoid battle with the more powerful U.S. fleet, the Spaniards fled to the safety of Santiago Harbor, a large port with only a narrow opening to the sea that was protected by numerous forts and gun emplacements.  Arriving off Santiago on June 1, 1898, the American commander, Admiral William T. Sampson, immediately devised a bold plan that would send a stripped down US ship into the narrow harbor channel where it would be scuttled by its volunteer crew, thereby closing the channel and trapping the Spanish fleet in the harbor

To command this hazardous mission, Admiral Sampson selected Richmond Pearson Hobson whose rank, Naval Constructor, suggests expertise in ship construction and repair.  Sampson instructed Hobson to formulate a detailed plan of how the mission was to be accomplished, adding that because of favorable moon and tide conditions, the operation had to begin within 48 hours.  The ship to be used was the USS Merrimac, steam powered cargo ship built in Norway in 1894 and purchased by the Navy in April 1898 for use as a collier (a ship that carried extra coal for the other ships of the fleet).  The Merrimac was named for the river that passes through our city, despite the difference in spelling.

Because the width of the channel to be blocked ran from 350 to 450 feet wide, Hobson would have to steam the 333-foot long Merrimac up one side of the channel, suddenly turn it 90 degrees and then sink it, all with a strong tide pushing at the ship below the waterline and Spanish guns pulverizing it above the waterline.  To sink the ship, Hobson would use “torpedoes” which in no way resembled the self-propelled versions launched from submarines familiar to us from World War Two films.  Hobson’s torpedoes were more like massive pipe bombs – 18-inch wide metal canisters filled with gunpowder that would be ignited by electricity.  (In his writings, Hobson does refer to the self-propelled devices but calls them, oddly enough, automobiles).

While igniting explosives underwater using electrical charges might be an elementary undertaking for a 21st Century Navy SEAL, it was a novel and not completely reliable technique back in 1898.  For instance, to make the open end of his torpedoes watertight, Hobson used a hot gummy substance of melted pitch and tallow an eight inch thickness of it to render the open end of the pipe watertight even with the insulated electrical wire passed through it.  To ignite the charges, Hobson scoured the fleet for an electric machine (I think he is referring to a generator  something that turns mechanical into electrical energy), but none were available.  Instead, he had to use less reliable batteries to provide the power to ignite the powder.

Based on the size and inner design of the Merrimac, Hobson decided to attach ten of these torpedoes to the port (left) side of the ship, twelve feet below the waterline.  He would race the ship up the left side of the channel, then turn hard to starboard (to the right) which would cause the football field length ship to cut across the channel and head for the opposite bank.  By detonating the torpedoes on the left side of the ship as the right turn began, Hobson expected to the ship’s forward momentum to speed the inflow of seawater through the resulting holes and sink the ship in the middle of the channel.  To keep the ship in place, Hobson caused the massive portside anchor to be repositioned to the right side of the stern, giving the ship two anchors that could be dropped during the maneuver to aid the placement of the ship in it’s blocking position in the channel.

Although the Merrimac was a large vessel, to accomplish the mission, Hobson decided on a crew of only six men: one for the engine room, one for the boiler room, one for each of the two anchors, one at the wheel and one to fire the torpedoes plus himself in command.  It wasn’t to be a suicide mission: they would tow a small boat and once the Merrimac was in position, they would all jump overboard, swim to the boat, and slip out the channel to a US gunboat waiting outside the harbor.

George Charrette, c.1898

With almost everyone in the fleet volunteering for the mission, Hobson selected three members of the Merrimac’s own crew Machinist First Class George F. Phillips, Watertender Francis Kelly, and Coxswain Osborne W. Deignan.  Hobson reasoned that men already familiar with the ship’s engines, boiler and steering were preferred.  From the crew of the USS New York, Hobson selected Chief Master-at-Arms Daniel Montague to handle the stern anchor (Montague was a senior enlisted man who would be Hobson’ second in command) and Gunner’s Mate First Class George Charrette who was familiar to Hobson from a previous assignment together on another ship.  Charrette would fire the torpedoes.  Initially, the sixth man was a sailor named Mullen who so exhausted himself during the intense and strenuous preparation for the mission that he was replaced by a sailor named John E. Murphy form the USS Iowa.  At the last minute, Hobson added a seventh man to help fire the torpedoes.  He chose Claus K. R. Clausen, the coxswain of the barge that was shuttling supplies to and from the Merrimac.

Hobson and his men worked feverishly through the day of June 1 and into the early morning of June 2 getting the Merrimac ready for the mission.  Only an hour before dawn, Hobson got the Merrimac underway and headed for the entrance to the harbor at full speed.  Soon they were overtaken by a US gunboat bearing orders from Admiral Sampson to abort the mission, presumably because the Merrimac would have been fully visible to the Spanish gunners in the breaking dawn.  Admiral Sampson did agree to allow the mission to proceed the next night.

Throughout June 2, Hobson and his men remained on board the ship, testing the firing circuits and resting for that night’s mission.  After dark they again got underway and headed for the harbor channel at full speed.  Despite a relatively bright moon, the Spanish did not begin firing until Merrimac was only 500 feet from the entrance to the channel.  Once the shore batteries opened up, however, their firing was heavy and sustained and the ship was struck repeatedly by shells of all size.

As the Merrimac approached the narrowest part of the channel, Hobson shut down the engines and ordered the helmsman to turn sharply to starboard.  Although the wheel on the bridge turned, the rudder did not: the steering gear had been shot away.  Hobson ordered the torpedoes fired and the anchors dropped, but the stern anchor and all but two of the firing mechanisms had been shattered by Spanish gunfire.  Two torpedoes did explode but the resulting holes in the side of the ship weren’t large enough to sink the ship rapidly, and the remaining anchor, though dropped, could not halt the Merrimac’s forward momentum.

Instead of sinking quickly while stretched across the channel, the Merrimac slowly sank as the tide pushed it towards the riverbank.  With the Spanish fire still intense, Hobson ordered his men to lie flat on the deck where they remained until the ship slipped beneath the water.  The resulting suction pulled the men under, but the life jackets they all wore caused them to immediately pop to the surface where they grabbed hold of a small raft and floated amidst the debris throughout the day.  Early in the afternoon, a boatload of Spanish soldiers spotted them and the Americans surrendered.  Miraculously, all eight Americans survived the night’s action.

With the channel still open, the American fleet remained offshore for another month.  Finally, on July 3, the Spanish Fleet ventured out into the open ocean where it was destroyed by the American fleet in the Battle of Santiago de Cuba, the largest naval engagement of the war.  Three days later, the Merrimac’s crew was handed over to the advancing American Army as part of a prisoner exchange.  Hobson and each of his men were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

While still imprisoned in Cuba, George Charrette was promoted to Gunner (a Warrant Officer rank).  For the rest of his Navy career, he alternated shipboard assignments with time ashore, mostly at the Charlestown Navy Yard.  He was promoted to Lieutenant in 1917 and retired in 1925 at age 58.  He lived the rest of his life in Lowell, dying on May 7, 1938 at age 70.  He is buried at Arlington national Cemetery.

Grave marker of George Charrette at Arlington National Cemetery

One Response to George Charrette: Lowell Medal of Honor Recipient

  1. Jennifer F. says:

    Very interesting story, enjoyed reading about the heroism of George Charette and the others who fought alongside him, thanks so much for sharing.

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