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USS Narcissus: the Ship That Sank Twice

USS Narcissus was a screw steamer that began life as Mary Cook in July 1863. The ship had a brief but fascinating history that contributed to it being designated as an Underwater Archaeology Site.

Mary Cook was bought by the Union Navy from James Stevenson in September of 1864 and later commissioned as USS Narcissus at the Brooklyn Naval Yard on the 2nd of February 1864.

The stunning tugboat was named after the mythological Greek hunter Narcissus, who was so impossibly beautiful that he fell in love with his own image when he happened to chance upon his reflection in a pool of water.

USS Narcissus was a fourth-rate, wooden-hulled screw tug that would go on to serve the Union Navy in the Civil War. She featured a hull that measured 81 feet and 6 inches, a beam that slightly exceeded 18 inches, and a hold of 8 feet.

USS navy destroyer

The Life and Times of the USS Narcissus

The new tug was deployed to the Gulf of Mexico soon after being commissioned. She was assigned to patrol the waters as part of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron – a naval strategy tasked with preventing Confederate ships from supplying their troops.

Under the command of Rear Admiral David Farragut, Narcissus was used to ferry messages between ships and was successful at capturing several Confederate vessels, including the sloop Oregon in Biloxi Bay. At the time, she was armed with one 20-pounder Parrot rifle and a 12-pounder smoothbore Cannon and could reach speeds of 12 knots in the shallow waters of the West Gulf on a good day.

After conveying the Oregon to New Orleans for adjudication, Narcissus was commissioned to the Battle of Mobile Bay for clean-up operations. After the battle, she struck a Confederate torpedo while laying out its anchor line. Admiral Farragut uttered the now-famous words “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!" before the ship sank into the waters on 7 December 1864. Although the vessel sunk in 15 minutes, there was no loss of life. The crew was rescued, as were the ammunitions and arms aboard the ship.

USS Narcissus was refloated three weeks later in the closing days of 1864 and was taken to the Pensacola Naval Yard to undergo repairs, where she would spend her days until the end of the War. With the war concluded, the Union Navy no longer had need for many of its shipping vessels. As a result, USS Narcissus, accompanied by the USS Althea, began its journey to New York on New Year's Day, 1866, where she was to be decommissioned and sold.

On 4 January, both Narcissus and Althea encountered a fierce storm off Tampa Bay. Althea took the northwest route against the tide while the commander of the Narcissus opted for the somewhat easier route to the west. However, Narcissus didn’t have an easy time as she faced the brunt of the wind coupled with the tide on its starboard beam. As a result, she ran aground the heavy seas while traveling at full speed.

The crew on Althea stood by and watched in disbelief as the boiler on Narcissus exploded, killing all on board. The ship broke into pieces and sank into the water at Egmont Key along with her entire crew. Althea waited two days as her crew searched for survivors and ultimately continued her journey to New York when it became clear that no one had survived.

It seems Narcissus was fated to unfortunate demise, just like the handsome hunter she was named after.

The sunken shipwreck of the USS Kittiwake

The USS Narcissus Wreck Site

USS Narcissus now rests on a sandy bottom just outside of Tampa Bay. Despite the violent boiler explosion, much of the ship is still preserved in its original state. You can still see several features of the original tug, including the engine and stern assembly, which have both fallen over to port. What remains of the Narcissus is now home to sponges, schooling fish, and the occasional Goliath grouper.

Under the Sunken Military Craft Act of 2005, Narcissus is designated as property of the U.S. Navy, meaning she's protected by law. Visitors are allowed to dive to the site on local dive charter boats. It's important to treat the site with honor since the shipwreck is both a historical site and military graveyard.

USS Narcissus has since been dedicated as Florida’s twelfth Underwater Archeological Preserve and is one of the most incredible sites you can visit.

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