USS Saugus was launched on 16 December 1863 by Harlan & Hollings-worth & Co., Wilmington, Delaware, and commissioned at the Philadelphia Navy Yard on 7 April 1864, Commander Edmund R. Colhoun in command.
Assigned to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, Saugus arrived at Port Monroe just as General Ulysses S. Grant was making final preparations to lead The Army of the Potomac across the Rapidan to begin his determined drive toward Richmond which, despite appalling casualties, would keep unrelenting pressure on the veteran Confederate Army of Northern Virginia until its surrender at Appomattox Court House almost a year later.
Simultaneous with Grant's overland thrust, Major General Benjamin P. Butler ascended the James in Navy-protected transports and landed on its south bank at City Point. Butler's mission was to attack Petersburg, a railroad and communications center through which life flowed to Richmond, the Confederate capital. During these operations, the Union Navy was responsible for maintaining control of the James.
Submarine torpedoes (mines), hit-and-run attacks from riverside batteries, concealed snipers, a strong Confederate flotilla built around ironclads Virginia II, Fredericksburg, and Richmond, and the tricky channel of the serpentine James itself all threatened Saugus and her sister ships as they guarded Butler's line of communications and supply. About noon on 21 June, a Confederate battery on the shore at Hewlett's joined Southern ironclads at Dutch Gap in firing on the Federal squadron which guarded the James just below a line of obstructions in Trent's Reach. Saugus was struck once, apparently by a 10-inch round shot. Her turret and some of her deck armor plates were damaged. After about three hours, the inconclusive, long-range, artillery duel ended with neither side suffering much damage. Eight days later, Saugus and Hunchback engaged a battery at Deep Bottom Creek. During the summer, as she remained upriver ready to challenge the Southern ironclads should they come down, Saugus frequently supported Union troops by shelling Confederate positions ashore. Late in the summer, she dropped downriver to Gosport for repairs in the Norfolk Navy Yard.
Admiral David Farragut's triumph in Mobile whetted Gideon Welles' appetite for Wilmington, North Carolina, the Confederacy's last major blockade running center. It had been long recognized that Wilmington must be captured and held if it were to be closed. For, despite strenuous efforts of a large blockading squadron, countless runners had managed to slip through the naval cordon throughout the war. The Federal naval service was always eager to launch an amphibious assault on Fort Fisher, the port's principal defensive work, but Army commanders had invariably felt that the troops necessary for the operation were more urgently needed elsewhere.
But, now that General Grant had assumed overall command, Welles had a sympathetic military ear. Troops were promised for the autumn; and Welles offered Farragut command of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron that he might lead the task force against the defensive works which guarded Wilmington.
Saugus was still at Norfolk, under repairs and unable to move, early in September when she received orders to proceed with Canonicus, Glaucus, and Janiata to Port Royal, South Carolina, and there await Farragut. This approach was taken in hope that Confederate intelligence would think that the attack would be directed against Charleston.
However, when poor health caused Farragut to decline the appointment, Saugus's orders south were cancelled; and she returned to duty supporting the Army up the James. In one of her engagements with Southern guns at Hewlett's on 5 December, a solid shot slightly damaged her turret. At mid-month, preparations for the expedition to the Cape Fear River were well advanced; and Saugus dropped downriver, was speedily repaired at Norfolk, and then awaited a tow to New Inlet, North Carolina. Nereus took her in tow on the morning of the 22d, and the two ships arrived off Fort Fisher about dusk on Christmas Eve. The next day, Saugus joined in the shelling of the Confederate works. After the engagement, Comdr. Colhoun reported, “...[we] had the satisfaction of seeing one gun dismounted by our fire.” Troops began landing at mid-afternoon, and a shore party of sailors and marines assisted soldiers in establishing a firm beachhead. Nevertheless, after receiving an unfavorable reconnaissance report on the Confederate fortifications, General Butler ordered his men to withdraw from the beaches, reembark in their transports, and return to Hampton Roads.
When word of Butler's indecisiveness reached Grant, he promised to send the same troops, reinforced and commanded by a new general, back to the mouth of Cape Pear. By 8 January 1865, the soldiers, now led by Major General Alfred H. Terry, were gathering at Beaufort, but their task force was delayed from sailing by a storm. It finally got underway on the morning of the 12th and headed for Fort Fisher. At 0400 the next morning, Saugus in the Ironclads Division moved within range of the fortress and opened fire. At 0800, the landings began, and General Terry quickly established a line across the peninsula from the sea to the river to secure his rear. During this work ashore, Saugus and the other warships continued to pound the Confederate works. At 1700 that evening, one of Saugus' 15-inch guns burst, severely injuring one seaman. At night, the wooden ships withdrew slightly and anchored; but the ironclads maintained a harassing fire. The next morning, the fleet resumed the full bombardment while shore parties prepared for the assault.
On the morning of the 15th, a beach party of sailors and marines went ashore to help Terry's soldiers storm Fort Fisher. The naval shock force launched the assault with a spirited thrust at the fortress's seaward wall. The Confederate defenders beat back this charge with heavy losses but so concentrated their strength on the Atlantic side that Terry's troops managed to enter the fortress through its riverside ramparts. After much bitter fighting, Fort Fisher fell and Wilmington was doomed. This closed the South's last major port.
Besides losing one of her guns during the bombardment, Saugus suffered some damage to her pilot house, turret, and armor from hits by Confederate 11-inch solid shot. On the 23d, as Saugus was proceeding to the Washington Navy Yard for repairs, the Confederate James River Squadron took advantage of the depleted Union naval force on the James and dropped down stream and attempted to slip through the obstructions at Trent's Reach for an attack on the Union gunboats and Grant's transports. Rhode Island carried orders to Saugus to turn around and head for the upper James. When the monitor reached City Point on the 27th, she learned that the Confederate fleet, plagued by the grounding of two of her three ironclads and the loss of two wooden gunboats, had already retired.
Saugus remained in the upper James until after the Confederate squadron was scuttled on the night of 2 and 3 April and Richmond had fallen. She then returned to the Washington Navy Yard. After the assassination of President Lincoln, eight of the suspected conspirators were incarcerated onboard Saugus and Montauk below decks under heavy guard. The prisoners were manacled with wrist and leg irons and blindfolded. On the 30th, they were transferred to the Arsenal Penitentiary located on the ground now occupied by Fort McNair. Three were later to be hanged, three sentenced to prison terms, and two released without being brought to trial.
Saugus was decommissioned and laid up at Washington on 13 June 1865. Recommissioned on 30 April 1869, the monitor steamed to the West Indies to investigate reports of mistreatment of Americans in Cuba during a revolt there. Thence she cruised along the Florida coast until she was decommissioned and laid up at Key West on the last day of 1870. During this service, she was renamed Centaur on 15 June 1869 but resumed the name Saugus on 10 August 1869.
After being towed to Philadelphia for repairs, the monitor was recommissioned at the navy yard there on 9 November 1872, sailed south, and was based at Key West until transferred to Port Royal in 1876. During this tour of duty at Key West, the ship was out of commission from 9 March to 10 October 1874. In 1877, Saugus returned to Washington and was decommissioned there on 8 October of that year. The monitor was condemned in 1886 and sold on 25 May 1891.
Part of the text is incorporated from the United States Navy's Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, a work in the public domain.