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Red Sky at Night with JB Cornwell | The day Beaufort nearly burned down

There are towns of Beaufort in both North Carolina and South Carolina. They are pronounced differently. One is “byoufort” and the other “bowfort”; at least that is what I was told as a small boy. I have no recollection which is which.

This story is about Beaufort, South Carolina and the great fire of 22 December, 1855, the US Survey Schooner Bancroft, and my Great Grandfather, LT. D. L. Braine, US Navy.

Barely 2 months earlier, he was Passed Midshipman Braine, the Coast Survey party, US Survey Schooner, Gallatin. He had been in the Navy since May 30, 1847, his 17th Birthday. His appointment as Acting Midshipman was at the nomination of his friend and mentor, Senator Sam Houston, former President of The Republic of Texas. He was among the first graduates of the US Navy Academy at Annapolis, graduated 1 June, 1852.

Then several things happened in rapid succession.

He was appointed Sailing Master (equivalent of modern Ensign), effective 15 September, 1855 and ordered to take command of the US Survey Schooner Bancroft in Charleston.

Then he was Commissioned Lieutenant, effective 16 September.

He was advised of these changes by way of the high speed communications of the day, on 12 November.

The Coast Survey party was something of an intelligence mission. By late 1855 it was clear to certain parties in Washington that war with the southern states was a real possibility and that the south would be heavily dependent on importing war materiel and selling its cotton to European markets. In anticipation of a need to blockade the southern coasts the most accurate and current charts of southern coastal waters and ports would be needed.

I don’t find any clear evidence that the southern people perceived the motive behind the survey, but there was considerable tension over political issues I needn’t list here.

On the evening of 22 December Bancroft was moored in the harbor at Beaufort when a fire broke out on the waterfront and quickly threatened the town.

The US Navy is well known today for what is now called damage control. In those days of wooden ships sailors were well trained and regularly drilled in arresting fire. When your ship is afire there is nowhere to run, so sailors are among the best fire fighters.

LT Braine was never known to hesitate in reacting to a crisis. He very quickly joined most of his crew in boats headed for the scene.

With the help of the Bancroft’s crew the town fire fighters soon brought the blaze under control and extinguished it.

Who now knows how serious the threat was or how much help the sailors actually were? I don’t think it matters. The Town Council of Beaufort directed the Intendant of the City to communicate the following:

    December 25, 1855
    To: Lieut. Braine of the U.S. Schr. Bancroft.

    Dear Sir,
    It gives me no small gratification to communicate to you the following Resolution passed by the Town Council of Beaufort at a special meeting yesterday__. I was a witness personally of what you did for our relief and feel assured that the Public Authorities only speak in this matter the feelings of gratitude prevalent among our citizens.

    With great regard, Dear Sir,
    Edmund Rhett

    “Resolved. That the thanks of the Council be expressed by the Intendant to Lieut. Braine and through him to his Officers and men for the seasonable and effective aid rendered by him and them in arresting the progress of the calamitous fire on the night of the 22nd instant”

Similar communications were sent to the Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of the Treasury.

D.L. Braine went on through a distinguished career of many great adventures, retiring as the Senior Rear Admiral of the Navy in May of 1891 upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 62.

During WWII the destroyer, USS BRAINE, DD630, christened by my mother, served in the Pacific theater.

(JB Cornwell writes from “The Hideout” in Whitt, TX, and is also an expert moderator, instructor, and fountain-of-knowledge in the iboats.com Boating Forums, where he may occasionally share a yarn of his own.)

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