Saturday, December 24, 2011

First Battle of Fort Fisher

147 years ago on this day, Union Admiral David Dixon Porter and Major General Benjamin Butler teamed up against Confederate Major General Robert Hoke in the First Battle of Fort Fisher in New Hanover County, North Carolina, which protected the port of Wilmington. The battle was a Confederate victory, though the fort was taken in the Second Battle of Fort Fisher in January 1865.

From the 7 January 1865 issue of Harper's Weekly:
From Richmond papers we learn that Porter's fleet, estimated by the rebels at fifty vessels, including two Monitors, made a "furious" attack on Fort Fisher about 1 P.M., December 24, and was continued through the day, and repeated the next day at 10 o'clock A.M. The enemy admits a loss of twenty-three wounded the first day. Under cover of a heavy fire Butler had succeeded in landing above the fort with his military division, consisting of portion, of the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Corps. General Butler's command still held its ground, although it had been repulsed in an assault on the fort. From a report which comes from Newborn, dated the 24th, it appears that during the night of the 23d a terrible explosion occurred. This was doubtless the explosion of the Louisiana, which had been laden with 300 tons of gunpowder, and exploded in front of Fort Fisher previous to the near approach of the fleet. The rebel reports, however, make no mention of this fact, though they admit that the situation of the fort is precarious. Fort Fisher is situated on Federal Point, on the north bank, and at the mouth of Cape Fear River, twenty miles below Wilmington. It commands the approach to Wilmington by New Inlet, and its capture will insure a complete blockade of that most important port.

First Naval Engagement at Mobile Bay

Mobile Bay and the City of Mobile, Alabama, are seldom written or talked about in Civil War Naval History except in connection with the famous Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864. I’ll be putting together a few posts on Mobile Bay, the city, and naval events transpiring there during the course of the war and leading up to the historic 1864 engagement.

On the first Christmas Eve of the war, 24 December 1861, the first naval battle at Mobile Bay was fought between the Confederate gunboat CSS Florida and the US Navy blockader USS Huntsville. The Confederate ship in this case was not the famed commerce raider, it was a civilian steamer seized by the state government and turned over to the CS Navy for conversion into a gunboat. The Florida ventured out from its anchorage near Fort Morgan and fired on the Huntsville that morning. The two ships dueled at long range for a bit less than an hour and inflicted little or no damage to one another, but the engagement did attract a considerable crowd of onlookers from Confederate Forts Morgan and Gaines and the adjacent USN blockading vessels.

The Mobile press reported elatedly (but incorrectly) that the Confederate gunboat scored a resounding victory against the Union blockader. Commander Cicero Price of the Huntsville noted in his after-action report to the Gulf Squadron Command that his smoothbore guns were entirely inadequate for the task and recommended his ship be refitted with better, rifled armament. The Florida was later renamed the CSS Selma (as shown on the illustration) and was a participant in the Battle of Mobile Bay.

Thanks to the Naval History and Heritage Command web site for the two illustrations of the naval ships involved, along with all the other resources they provide, and best wishes for the holidays and thanks to all the followers of this CWN 150 Blog.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Dinner Party Talk that Changed the Civil War

In this rendering, President Abraham Lincoln has finished reading the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet. Sitting immediately to Lincoln's right is Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, with the president's message in front of him.  The papers on the table in the far right are the Coast Survey's slave population maps that initally guided the work the Blockade Strategy Board. (Image from NOAA archives)

Far from his family in Cambridge, Mass., Commander Charles Davis was finishing his usual Tuesday night dinner with Alexander Dallas Bache at his Capitol Hill residence. It was a troubled time in Washington. In late May 1861, the capital was nearly surrounded by traitors. To the south, Virginia was to vote on secession that week.  The outcome, except in the western counties, was expected to be overwhelmingly in favor of leaving the Old Union.  To the north and east, Maryland was in riot.

There was little comfort in seeing Union volunteers from Massachusetts and New York using the unfinished Capitol as a large barracks and armory. For both men, there was even less comfort in knowing the water approaches -- up the Chesapeake Bay and on the Potomac River -- were well within the range of the large naval guns seized by rebellious shipyard workers in Portsmouth.

With that as backdrop, it was to be one of the most important "private" dinners in the Civil War because it set in a motion a flexible but well thought-out plan that eventually crushed the rebellion.

In the pre-war years when Bache, the superintendent of the Coast Survey, entertained in the survey's drawing rooms, his parties were known for "the quip and the jest." They were remembered as "noctes ambiranae," recalling his days touring Germany with Joseph Henry, now heading the Smithsonian Institution. Davis, a rarity among naval officers then, was educated at Harvard, more an an academic that seagoing war-fighter and extremely comfortable with Bache, the great grandson of Benjamin Franklin.

The West Point-educated Bache, instead of continuing the banter he was known for, outlined his ideas to the head of the Nautical Almanac on how the Union Navy could enforce the president's recently proclaimed blockade.  As matters stood that spring along the 3,500-mile Southern coast, the Confederates were correct in arguing that it was a "paper blockade," not at all interfering with shipping coming in or going out.

Behind closed doors in the survey's spartan offices even before the war broke out, Bache had his cartographers working on two maps -- one of the slaveholding states from Delaware to Texas and the other of virginia -- using 1860 census data to indicate by shading the percentage of slaves in each county.  Bache saw these maps as critical political and military tools, as important to the war effort as the survey's charts of Southern ports and waterways.

In raw form, Bache's ideas complemented those of Lieutenant General Winfield Scott's plan to strange the rebellion from the Atlantic on the east and the Gulf of Mexico in the south and drive westward and southward across land using the inland rivers.  The superintendent, on paper subordinate to the Treasury secretary, then was at the height of his political (coming from a long line of public officials on his mother's side and through marriage) and bureaucratic powers (especially through his close alliance with Henry) as he laid out his plan to "establish a military commission ... to determine military proceedings and operations along the coast."  The good bureaucrat that he was, Bache had already talked with Gustavus Fox, the Navy's ambitious and senior clerk, about systematizing the war effort.

Another month passed before the Blockade Strategy Board actually met at the Navy Department's request.  The first meeting and all that followed were held secretly inside the Smithsonian's castle on the mall, a location conveniently between the War and Navy Departments by the White House and the Coast Survey on Capitol Hill.  Bache was there, as was Davis, now the board's secretary.  Samuel F. DuPont, another close friend of Bache and Davis, also was named to the "secret, important and complex service."  The "military member" was Major John Barnard, an expert in coastal fortifications and a former superintendent of the Military Academy. 

Nothing moved fast in Washington until the Union Army's calamity outside of Manassas Junction July 21.  By then, the board had only completed work on the Atlantic Coast.  Nonetheless Navy Secretary Gideon Welles and Fox called them to the Navy Department to hear the details.  The two senior Navy civilians passed the information onto Lincoln, the rest of the cabinet, and to Scott.

As the summer heated up, the board's straegy was accepted as the best way forward -- even its call for joint operations, a goal rarely met during the Civil War. It also appeared to be the fastest way to win the war.

Welles in his annual report to Congress couldn't say enough good things about the strategy and how it worked at Port Royal and the Outer Banks. It was a lonesome cheery note coming from a cabinet secretary that December.  Even if he knew, he didn't mention the private dinner party talk between two old friends where it was first rolled out in detail.

As for the blockade strategy ensuring quick victory, that turned out to be wishful yearend thinking. 



Wednesday, December 21, 2011

BOHR Watercolor Contest at HRNM

American poet Amy Lowell once wrote: "Art is the desire of a man to express himself, to record the reactions of his personality to the world he lives in."

As part of the sesquicentennial of arguably the most famous of all Civil War naval battles, the Hampton Roads Naval Museum/CWN 150 will hold a Battle of Hampton Roads Watercolor Art Contest in honor of the famed event. 

We are inviting all those in the Hampton Roads area to heed the words of Ms. Lowell and create original pieces of art.  Watercolor art may be developed anytime between now and March 8. March 8 is the deadline for drop off. Be creative!  For those of you fans of the CWN 150 who are not in the area, you are more than welcome to take pictures of your own creations (any type of art form) and post them to the CWN 150 Facebook page.  We will repost your art on this blog.  

The contest, however, only applies to watercolor..  Winners of the art contest will receive a prize package courtesy of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.  All submitted watercolor art will be unveiled at HRNM during the FREE After Hours History program on March 8, 2012, at 6pm.  More details to follow on the event.  For Civil War Navy buffs, this is a perfect kick off to the Battle of Hampton Roads Weekend! 
Take a look at the full details, rules, and the registration form for the watercolor contest on the Hampton Roads Naval Museum Blog.  If you have any other questions, please contact Laura Orr, Special Events HRNM, at

Thursday, December 15, 2011

CSS Sumter Escapes-Again

Commander James Palmer, commanding officer of the steam sloop USS Iroquois, received word in mid-November 1861 that the Confederate cruiser CSS Sumter had made anchor on the French island of Martinique. The Confederate raider and her captain Raphel Semmes had already taken eight prizes since the ship's dramatic breakout from the Head of Passes earlier in the war.

For eight days, Palmer and his company watched Sumter as French authorities showed Semmes and his company all the hospitality they could offer. Palmer informed Secretary Welles that there was a good chance that Sumter would make a break for it during a moonless night. He was right. On November 25, Sumter made her break with an experienced pilot on board.

Per international rules governing warring parities in a neutral port, Palmer had to wait a full 24-hours before taking up a pursuit. Palmer was well aware of the escape as he had spies on shore. Colonial authorities objected to use of such spies. Palmer, however, commented that the French would just "have to pocket" such objections as he believed he had followed every single protocol.

Sumter made a successful escape and proceeded to the east to the open waters of the Atlantic. Palmer received intelligence that Semmes had bought several dozen articles of cold weather gear.  This lead Palmer to believe that Sumter was heading for Europe, specifically Gibraltar, and not another tropical port (as some thought).  He was right again.

Several people, including officers on board Iroquois, accused Palmer of disloyalty and/or incompetence for letting Sumter escape.  Palmer simply responded "[if] I had committed an error of judgement, which I may have, I may be at once relieved of command."  He was not relieved and Palmer retired a commodore at the end of his career.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Blockade comes to Florida

I think historians of the Civil War Navies have established that blockade duty was boring, drudgery, tedious, taxing, (fill in your favorite adjective here ___________), and demanding on the ships and sailors who implemented it.

It was also a vital part of the Union war effort. In an earlier post I commented on one of the numerous and myriad “small victories” that the blockade accomplished (12 Oct 2011) by the destruction of the blockade runner Watson off Charleston, SC. Here’s another one.

In the early part of December 1861, Flag Officer DuPont of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron ordered Commander Charles Steedman of the sidewheel steam gunboat USS Bienville to take up station off St. Simon’s Sound, Georgia. As part of this patrol, Steedman also cruised south to the mouth of the St. Johns River, Florida. On 11 December, the Bienville sighted two blockade runners under sail off the mouth of the river. Her crew captured the pilot schooner Sarah and Caroline, and the other runner was driven ashore. The captured runner carried 60 barrels of turpentine and was evidently bound for Nassau, Bahamas.

The blockade was now officially imposed off the coast of Florida.

Friday, December 2, 2011


Photo by Margot Kline
A few months ago, we posted a short series of stories about a marker denoting the Knoxville area birthplace of historic first Admiral David Glasgow Farragut was missing.  The 111-year old marker sat  idle on the property of Farragut's supposed birthplace at Lowe's Ferry until this summer when it was reported that the marker went missing.  Speculation arose that the influx of trespassers may have taken it, according to the original report.   

It quickly became a huge discussion of history and memory and private and public ownership.  Preservationists, armchair historians, and concerned citizens alike flocked to the cause of the stone marker.  Many grew aware of the event in fear that the owner would go forward with a plan to develop parts of the birthplace into a residential area.  (Note:  No excavations have been done to verify that the house where Farragut was born is still there in some capacity)

A few weeks after the initial missing report, The Tennessean reported that the owner did in fact remove the marker, giving it to a private collector for safe keeping.  Things have changed again this week, possibly for the better.   

The Knoxville News reports this week that the owner of the property, Lylan Fitzgerald, would consider offering the marker up for public display either in a museum, nearby park, etc.  Ms. Fitzgerald has at least expressed interest in offering it for public display - just not on her property. 
The New York Times, 16 May 1900
Full Speed Ahead?
Craig Swain reported about the marker immediately following the initial disappearance.  At that time in August (Tuesday 39 August), MetroPulse writer Jack Neely knew very little about the marker beyond the fact that it was recently missing.  It is interesting that Neely reported that the owner did not tell her lawyer that she removed the marker and given it to a historic collector. 

Read Craig's post on Marker Hunter for more information on the legality and controversy initially surrounding the marker.  Both Craig's and the Knoxville News articles show that the loss of the marker, be it in either a physical or metaphysical sense, has drummed up support long before it went missing.  In fact, speeches, dedications, articles, and blogs have sprouted up in recent years in popular support for keeping the site there (or as a National Park, etc.).  Even Admiral DeLoach, the director of the Naval History and Heritage Command, spoke of the marker during a 2010 dedication of a nearby park in the town of Farragut. 

The Debate Continues
Where is it now?  According to the Knoxville News, it "might possibly be in Texas," presumably with the private collector she mentioned in The Tennessean.  When approached with the idea to put it near her property again, she responded that that "is not going to happen." 

Surprisingly, the reaction of the marker's possibility for public viewing has stirred up quite a bit of commentary, with 75 responses from readers in just a few days.  Ranging from the poignant to the absurd, these comments dictate how the general public truly feels about preserving a valuable piece of American and naval history.    

Admiral Farragut is one of the most famous naval officers in the history of the United States.  Nobody would dispute that.  Having the marker dedicated by an officer equally as influential (Admiral Dewey) stands reason to give this debate some national attention.  Should it stay there? Should it go?  Our collective memory is held captive by these recent events.   

What do you think?  Please your thoughts here or tweet them @civilwarnavy

Ward Room (and dogs) of USS Miami

For Friday, we present this image that is the subject of a make your own caption contest on the Hampton Roads Naval Museum's Facebook page (winner gets an HRNM challenge coin and other SWAG!).  This is the ward room of the double ender gunboat USS Miami.  With what looks like two English Springer Spaniel water dogs on hand, the officer recently returned from what looks like a duck hunting expedition in the waters of North Carolina.  The vessel is most famous for dueling with the ironclad CSS Albermarle and barely escaped with her life.

Photograph technology being what was in the 1860s, exposure times were very long.  This typically resulted in very stiff looking subjects or at the very least, obviously posed shots.  This particular image, while posed,  is unusual in that its subjects are quite relaxed (with one officer looking down right annoyed and others trying to get glimpse of the week's news).

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

New Images of USS Cumberland & CSS Florida Wrecks

USS Cumberland, starboard side

USS Cumberland, bow looking forward

CSS Florida, from top

CSS Florida, starboard side
The Hampton Roads Naval Museum (HRNM) recently received these stunning 3-D images of the sloop-of-war USS Cumberland and the cruiser CSS Florida.  The images were taken by technicians from Adavanced Underwater Surveys, Inc., using their Wrecksight(TM) software during the June 2011 stabilization survey project of the two shipwrecks. The project was sponsored by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Sanctuaries Division, the Naval History and Heritage Command's Underwater Archeology Division, and HRNM (also part of NHHC).  The Navy and NOAA conduct surveys like these to ensure that the sites have not been disturbed.

The ironclad CSS Virginia rammed and sank Cumberland on March 8, 1862 on the first day of the Battle of Hampton Roads. Shortly after being brought back from Brazil under tow, Florida sank just a few hundred yards away from Cumberland in 1864 under mysterious circumstances. 

Both wrecks under the protection of Federal law and artifacts from both vessels can be seen at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Welles considers torpedo attack on CSS Virginia

As the Union Army commanders dithered over attacking Confederate-held Norfolk and Portsmouth, the Union Navy reeled under the attack of CSS Virginia. 

What were steady rumors flowing across Hampton Roads about the Confederates building a new kind of warship out of Merrimack became published fact when a New York Herald reporter, Bradley Sillick Osbon with extensive service in the Navy, rowed “a Hellgate pilotboat” with muffled oars from Fortress Monroe to the naval shipyard.

Drawing close  to the vessel on a foggy night, “I fixed her outlines and proportions in my mind and returning undiscovered wrote a description of her for the Herald, and made a sketch for Harper's Weekly.”   Osbon reported his findings to the aged Major General John Wool, commander of the fortress and a veteran of the War of 1812, and offered to lead a boarding party to sink the ship before it could leave the yard.  Like Army officers before and after in Hampton Roads, Wool demurred. Sinking ships, even attacking warships, were what navies did.

Osbon, dismissing Flag Officer Louis Goldsborough, the senior Union Navy officer, as overly cautious, did not pursue the matter with him.  If he had probed, Osbon would have learned that  the blockade commander had warned Washington that “she will, in all probability, prove to exceedingly formidable,” especially if accompanied by fast-moving shallow-draft gunboats.


In the winter of 1861-1862, more and more naval officers in Hampton Roads wanted the Army to destroy Merrimack before it could  threaten the Union’s tenuous control of Hampton Roads by re-taking Southside Hampton Roads.  McClellan, now commanding the Army of the Potomac, eventually received the Navy’s proposal to attack the port of Norfolk and the Gosport shipyard in Portsmouth, but, like Wool on the scene, did nothing with it.

Congress and sloop Cumberland paid the price for these months of dithering.  They were the first ships sunk by Merrimack, now christened CSS Virginia,  in the Battle of Hampton Roads in March, 1862. Commander William Smith, who had turned over command to Lieutenant Joseph B. Smith a few days earlier,  was still on board when Merrimack attacked.  Congress was only able to fire two of its stern guns in its defense. It didn’t slow the ironclad down. When Lieutenant Smith was killed in the fighting, Commander Smith ordered Congress’ colors struck at 4 p.m. The frigate had been engaged with CSS Virginia for about 30 minutes.

The threat that Smith had been forced to ignore to defend against mine attacks remained a menacing force even after John Ericsson’s Monitor battled the Confederate ironclad to a draw. The Union Navy in Hampton Roads and in Washington were now frantically searching for any way to rid themselves of this enemy. It did not appear likely that Monitor was capable of sinking Virginia; and as long as it was able to fight the wooden ships of the Union Navy in Tidewater Virginia were in great danger.

A little more than a month after the battle and as the Union Army was descending on Tidewater in preparation for the Peninsula campaign, lawyer and self-described patriot, H.K. Lawrence offered Welles his ideas on how to sink the Confederate ironclad and two other Confederate vessels, Jamestown and Yorktown, at the naval shipyard.  With those three vessels out of action, the Union Navy would control Hampton. Roads.  At first he put the prize money he wanted for sinking the ironclad at $500,000 and the two smaller steamers at $100,000 each.

Although the price was high, Welles was interested.

If the Confederates could use submarine explosives to destroy ships so could the Union, Lawrence wrote.  He first proposed receiving 2,000 pounds of gunpowder, later reduced to 1,500 pounds, to build “four submarine armors” at the Washington Arsenal at a cost not to exceed $1,800 and in unspecified ways to ship those “armors” to Fortress Monroe and from there to destroy CSS Virginia by May 9. The attacks on Jamestown and Yorktown were dropped in later correspondence, and Lawrence reduced the suggested prize for sinking the ironclad to $100,000. 

Still unanswered in the correspondence were any details of how the attack was to be carried out.  He likely either intended to float the mines toward Virginia and have them explode on contact or draw close enough to it to place the explosives under the ironclad to detonate them electronically.

Welles was considering Lawrence’s plan out of desperation. He knew his wooden ships were no match for the Confederate ironclad, and the Monitor was doing all it could to protect the troop build-up.  Yet even knowing all that, Union Army commanders ignored the threat Virginia posed to all their operations in Hampton Roads.

Finally, at President Abraham Lincoln’s personal insistence after he surveyed the Confederates’ hold on Southside Hampton Roads from the water, the Union Army moved on Norfolk and Portsmouth May 10.

Reeling from the long-delayed attack, the Confederates scuttled Virginia and Confederate States (one of the Navy’s six original frigates) off Craney Island because they had  too deep a draught to go up the James River to safety in Richmond and burned Germantown, Plymouth, Jesup, Norfolk, Portsmouth, and William Seddon.

From July, 1861 through May, 1862, Union Navy officers had been pre-occupied with defending themselves against a mine attack or how to use mines to destroy the Confederacy’s great warship with mines before it could strike again.  Within weeks, they were confronting new mine threats past the Curle in the James River, just below Richmond. The mine ranges set in the water close by large gun emplacements on Drury’s Bluff and the south bank and Chaffin’s Farm on the north were effective and deadly.  Unlike New Orleans, the Union Navy even with its attack gunboats never succeeded in taking Richmond from the river.

Lawrence’s scheme to sink Virginia as bold as it seemed in letters and as desperate as it would have been in practice had been overcome by old-fashioned events.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Updates and Admiral's Row: Week of 21 November 2011

On This Day: 21 November 2011:

Coming from our friends at the Museum of the Confederacy:  On this day in 1861, CSA forts McRee, Barrancas, & the Pensacola Navy Yard were bombarded by Union naval guns & Ft. Pickens.

You can see a more incorporated outlook HERE via Huffington Post.

Around the Internet/Blogosphere:

"See the Elephant:"  Civil War Monitor blogger Laura June Davis posted an interesting quote from Confederate States Navy officer Douglas French Forrest last week (17 November) about his experiences aboard CSS Rappahannock.  Let's just say he was a little disturbed, but not sick. 

Admiral's Row: Week of 21 November 2011

This week's Admiral's Row features a new follower of the week (@shoosies), who has done a terrific job in re- our information via Facebook and Twitter.  Thanks a lot @shoosies! 
For more information on the "Admiral's Row" social media incentive, please go to THIS POST for more information, or email for more information.

We hope everyone has a safe and happy Thanksgiving holiday. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Union Navy Fends Off Mine Attacks in Hampton Roads.

Early in the Civil War, it wasn’t the electrically-triggered torpedoes set up in long and deadly water ranges that later so troubled Union Navy officers in the upper James River, on the Cape Fear River in North Carolina, or just outside the port cities of Charleston and Mobile. Their concerns in Hampton Roads centered on floating torpedoes or mines in wooden casks and the use of the tides and currents to carry them into their anchorages. For almost a year, mines in Hampton Roads were never far from Union Navy leaders minds – first in how to defend against them and later how to employ them to destroy the greatest menace they would face in the war.

Matthew F. Maury
The Union Navy had escaped disaster in July before the Battle of Bull Run when Commander Matthew Fontaine Maury and his raiding party had floated a number of mines toward the anchored fleet off Fortress Monroe in Hampton Roads. Maury's idea was to let the tide and current carry the powder-laden oak casks toward the ships. The pairs of casks were connected by a span of rope about 600 feet in length, and corks kept the span afloat. The explosives, contained in the barrels, were submerged, and the triggers were in the barrelheads.

The idea behind the plan was this: As the span became entangled in the ship's hawse and the barrels were pulled alongside by the tidal wash, the tightening line would activate the triggers, setting off a fuse igniting the powder that would explode below the vessels' waterlines.

When he thought he was in correct position, Maury quietly ordered the first mines released. Then the next set. Finally, all were safely off. The twenty-five Confederates tensed, waiting to hear the explosions as they hurriedly rowed back toward Sewell's Point stillunchallenged by any Union patrol vessels.

As they drew closer and closer to safety, the Confederates heard only their muffled oars. There were no shattering blasts, secondary explosions, and alarm bells and trumpet calls, only the sounds of a summer Tidewater night.

All knew the raid had failed. Ashore, Maury scrutinized each detail to pinpoint what had gone wrong. "I attributed it to the fact that such a fuse would not burn under a pressure of 20 feet of water” and vowed to try again. When Union forces found the washed ashore mines later, they had another explanation: wet powder.

In late October, another Maury-designed raid again used floating mines to attack frigate Congress off Newport News in Hampton Roads, but it too had gone awry. Nonetheless, Captain Louis Goldsborough, the senior Union officer in the area, warned the skipper of Congress, Commander William Smith, a week after the latest attack to “be on the alert for submarine infernal machines” that could be rowed close to the ship and set adrift to become ensnared in its propeller and set off the explosives in their casks.

Smith wrote back in early November that he was protecting Congress as best he could with a frame in the shape of the letter A floating nearby, placing booms alongside it at night, and keeping grapnels at the ready in case a floating mine came near. Yet with all this attention paid to mines, Smith admitted that the most dangerous challenge to his ship, the raised Merrimack being outfitted with railroad iron and new powerful guns a few miles away in Portsmouth, was receiving scant attention.

“I have not yet devised any plan to defend against Merrimack unless it be with hard knocks.” - Commander William Smith

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Artillery Duel at Pensacola Bay

Artillery engagement on Pensacola Bay on 22-23 November 1861. Santa Rosa Island, Ft. Pickens, and Union batteries on the island are in the foreground; Pensacola Navy Yard and adjacent towns on the mainland are in the background. Source: Fla. Dept. of State on-line photo archive.

Angered by the Union Navy’s destruction of the privateer Judah in September 1861 (my 11 Sept 2011 post), Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg, commanding the CS Army forces garrisoning Pensacola and the Pensacola Navy Yard, sent a force of 1,200 soldiers to Santa Rosa Island. The force landed at night on 8 October 1861 and assaulted the camp of the 6th New York, a Zouave regiment. The Union troops were initially routed, but reinforcements from Ft. Pickens helped them reform and they pushed the Confederate forces back, who then departed the island by the next morning.

In response to this attack, and the increasing size of the Confederate force garrisoning Pensacola, Col. Harvey Brown, now commanding the Union forces in Ft. Pickens on Santa Rosa Island, ordered his artillery to open fire on the mainland on 22 November. The army artillery was supplemented by gunfire from the steam frigate USS Niagra and steam sloop USS Richmond. The Confederates returned the Union gunfire. For two days, the bombardment continued, with thousands of rounds expended by both sides. Ft. McRee was destroyed by the gunfire from the US Navy ships, and portions of the Navy Yard and adjacent villages were set on fire from the barrage. Richmond suffered one sailor killed and seven injured by fire from the Confederate batteries. Hostilities ceased on the night of 23 November.

Steam frigate USS Niagra. Source: USN History and Heritage Command on-line photo library.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Hampton Roads Surface Navy Association Talk: Steam and Iron

Last month (October 19, 2011), I had the fortunate opportunity to speak at the Hampton Roads Surface Navy Association meeting and luncheon at Vista Point Club (Naval Station Norfolk).  The title of my talk, "Iron and Steam: The Battle of Hampton Roads" focused on the role the event played into the creation of the modern Surface Navy. 

Here are some of the pictures from the event.  Special thanks to MC2 Martie for the photography and former staff of COMSECONDFLT for attending the lecture.  It was a special honor to meet MCPON Bushey.

HMCM Modglin presenting me with coin and SNA ballcap
MCPON Duane Bushey (ret.) and FLEET Tom Howard (ret.) chatting at event
MCPON Bushey, VADM Donnell, Matthew Eng, HMCM Modglin

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

USS Hartford Stern Emblem

Stern emblem of the Hartford today (HRNM)
During a recent trip to HRNM's collection storage, my coworker and fellow CWN 150 blogger Laura Orr snapped a photo of a recently acquired object in the collection: the stern emblem of the USS Hartford. The ship, captained by first Admiral David Glasgow Farragut at the battle of Mobile Bay, spent the remainder of its post-war career in disrepair at shipyards up and down the east coast. Decommissioned for the last time in 1926, she eventually sank at her berth in 1956 at the Norfolk Navy Yard (Portsmouth, VA).

Stern emblem visible Mare Island’s dry dock #1 in October/November 1899 (U.S. Navy)
Pieces of the Hartford scattered across the United States following its sinking, from California to Connecticut. The emblem and several sideboards were previously on display at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Ode to Civil War Naval Engineers and Firemen

USS Pensacola's engineers (center and right) talk to one of Pensacola's line officers (at left)

Attempting to cold crank the boiler
Steam propulsion was one of the great advances in marine technology.  It allowed the captain of a ship to go where he want, when he wanted.  Their countless examples in the Civil War of how steam propulsion allowed both navies to conduct operations their forefathers never could have dream of.  The technology, however, came at a steep human price as someone had to be in the boiler room manging the machines.

In their history The Steam Navy of the United States, authors Frank Marion Bennett and Robert Weir published a series of cartoons of the engineering department aboard the steam sloop-of-war USS Pensacola during the Civil War. Like any good editorial cartoon, the images were meant to both entertain and enlighten about the plight of its subject. 
"Going On Watch, Coming Off Watch"

Operating the water pump to the boiler

"A Little Oil"

"Smuggling the oil"

New Guest Blogger: John Grady

It is my pleasure to welcome aboard the newest guest blogger of the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial, John Grady.  Grady is an accomplished historian and professional.  He has contributed to USNI's Naval History on Civil War subjects,   served as lead interviewer for the Naval Historical Foundation's Oral History Program, written book reviews on CWN topics for and the Naval Historical Foundation, and served as managing editor of the Navy Times

He is currently completing a biography of Matthew F. Maury.
Welcome aboard, John!

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Navy Strikes at Belmont

With Leonidas Polk's Confederate army straddling the Mississippi in the autumn of 1861, local Union commander Brig. General U.S. Grant prepared to neutralize half the threat.

Polk had placed a significant portion of his force on the western Missouri bank near Belmont, where several regiments of infantry made camp. On the eastern side of the river towered the bluffs of Columbus, Kentucky. Atop those bluffs stood several heavy artillery emplacements, and through their elevation and the protection of more Confederate infantry in on the Kentucky shore, these guns controlled navigation on the Mississippi River. The range of the rebel artillery was even great enough to reach across to Missouri and well upriver. Grant wouldn't attack the Confederate positions at Columbus, instead he planned to assault and capture the rebel force isolated on the western shore.

Grant's 3,000-strong army was ferried by five transports south from Cairo, and escorted by the timberclads Lexington and Tyler. Grant disembarked upriver (northwest) from Belmont on November 7th, and led his men eastward and overland for a surprise attack. After sharp fighting that morning, Union troops occupied the Confederate encampment while routed enemy troops fled to the river bottoms.

At the same time Grant fought on land, Commander Henry A. Walke took the Lexington and Tyler downriver to duel the Confederate shore batteries. The first two encounters were brief, and though both sides exchanged heavy fire, no damage was done. The third duel, however, resulted in one Union sailor killed and two wounded. The Tyler even sustained damage from at least two hits. Walke realized his pair of steamers could do little to silence the bluff batteries, and though the timberclads diverted Confederate attention, the Union naval commander withdrew upriver to defend the idle troop transports.

But Union victory on land was not complete. Grant's raw troops became disorderly after their victory, and General Polk took advantage of the confusion to transfer fresh brigades from Columbus to Missouri. The Confederates attacked Grant's confused force, and the U.S. contingent made a fighting retreat to their original landing area. As Grant's men converged on the waiting transports, Polk's infantry swarmed closely behind and threatened to capture the Union army before they could depart.

Commander Walke, seeing Grant's perilous situation, maneuvered the Tyler and Lexington into firing positions and raked the closely grouped Confederates with grape, canister, and shell. The effect of the naval bombardment was great enough to halt Confederate momentum. The timberclads bought just enough time to ensure Grant's escape. Both armies suffered 600-700 casualties. Who won the Battle of Belmont? It's hard to tell, but both sides claimed victory.

Though this wasn't the first naval action in the West (the timberclads had traded a few shots with the C.S.S. Jackson in September) it was the first major engagement for the riverine fleet. More important action would quickly follow.

  • The Timberclads in the Civil War: The Lexington, Conestoga and Tyler on the Western Water, by Myron J. Smith, Jr.
  • The Battle of Belmont: Grant Strikes South by Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes, Jr.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Confederate Navy at Port Royal

Flag Officer Josiah Tattnall and his mosquito fleet saw their share of action during the Battle for Port Royal. Tattnall had a reputation for aggressiveness, and he certainly displayed it at this engagement. On 4 November 1861 Flag Officer DuPont of the Union fleet sent the survey vessel Vixen in to chart the configuration of the bars and channel into Port Royal, accompanied by the gunboats Ottawa, Seneca, Pembina and Penguin. Tattnall, on his flagship, the steamer CSS Savannah, and with three armed tugs (Lady Davis, Resolute, and Sampson), bravely headed in towards the USN vessels. Gunfire from Ottawa, Seneca, and Pembina drove him back to his anchorage in Skull Creek. The next day, USN gunboats led by Ottawa went in to probe the defensive capabilities of the Confederate shore batteries and the CSN fleet attacked again. This time the Confederate flotilla was under the command of John Newland Maffitt, who, as Robert Browning notes, “went at them” when he saw the enemy vessels steaming into the harbor. A shot from the Seneca’s forward 11 inch pivot gun struck the Savannah and again the Union gunfire forced the Confederate ships to withdraw. Tattnall was furious with Maffitt, claiming that he did not authorize an attack, and of course Maffitt believed otherwise. Tattnall relieved Maffitt of command, but the two officers later settled their dispute. The day the Union offensive began (7 November), the mosquito fleet, back under Tattnall’s command, again stood out to take on the USN attacking fleet. A flanking column of Union gunboats (Bienville, Seneca, Penguin, Augusta, and Curlew) was assigned to keep watch on the mosquito fleet and fend off any attacks, which they did. Tattnall, as he reluctantly withdrew, dipped his blue ensign three times as a salute to his old friend DuPont. Later that day, Seneca went after the Confederate vessels and drove them back to Skull Creek. After the capitulation of the forts, the CSN vessels helped evacuate the Confederate garrison.

Image of the "90-day" or Unadilla class gunboats. Ottawa, Pembina, and Seneca are all shown. Source: Naval History and Heritage Command

Friday, November 4, 2011

New Port Royal Commemorative Events

Our friends at the South Carolina Civil War 150th pointed out to us some other commemorative events coming up in the upcoming week. Here is a quick list:

The Port Royal Plantation Commemorative Event has a great full list of event details (how to get there, parking, etc.) Got to it HERE.

Mike Coker Luncheon Lecture sponsored by Powder Magazine (November 10, 2011)
Description: November 1861, the South was winning the War. The Confederacy had been victorious at Fort Sumter and Manassas and the blockade of Southern ports was a farce! The Federals needed to turn the tide. The largest fleet ever assembled by the U.S. set its sights on the SC coast! Join historian Michael Coker on the 150th Anniversary of this largely forgotten pivotal battle of the war. Lunch will be provided by AW Shucks. $18

Battle of Port Royal Boat Tour (November 12, 2011) (updated)
Time: 10:00 am - 4:00 pm
Description: The University of South Carolina at Beaufort is sponsoring this boat tour about the Battle of Port Royal in November 1861. Noted historians Stephen Wise and Dr. Lawrence Rowland will lead the tour. $115, including lectures, lunch, boat fee and handouts. Call 843-521-4147 or

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Brother Against Brother at Port Royal

Percival Drayton was born in the South, but remained loyal to the Union when war came. This resulted in a situation that is often referenced in the study of the Civil War - brother against brother. At the Battle of Port Royal, Percival Drayton commanded the Pocahontas. His brother, Thomas Fenwick Drayton, was a Confederate brigadier general and was also present at Port Royal. During the battle, the Pocahontas fired upon Fort Walker, where Thomas was in command.
Percival wrote in a letter dated 30 November 1861 from Port Royal: "To think of my pitching here right into such a nest of my relations, my brother, William Heyward, Tatnall &c it is very hard but I can not exactly see the difference between their fighting against me and I against them except that their cause is as unholy a one as the world has ever
seen and mine just the reverse."

Interpretive marker at Fort Walker
Civil War Letters of Percival Drayton

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Storms off the South Carolina coast

The morning of 3 November 1861 off the coast of Port Royal, SC was stormy, both literally and figuratively. The coast was still being brushed by the trailing remnants of a hurricane that had gone by over the past few days (post by Matt on 29 August), and the storm clouds of war were beginning to gather. After weathering the hurricane on their journey south from Hampton Roads, elements of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron were assembling off Port Royal in preparation to take the anchorage for use as a base of operations. As detailed by Matt in that prior post, the expedition was beat up somewhat by the storm, but managed to make it through with relatively minimal loss of life and ships. The Army suffered the greater loss, in terms of ships carrying equipment and supplies and the failure to make the rendezvous of the small steamers which were to tow the surfboats loaded with soldiers to the beaches. Flag Officer Samuel F. DuPont arrived the afternoon of 3 November in the flagship USS Wabash, and during the day, other warships of the squadron and US Army transports carrying troops under the command of Gen. Thomas W. Sherman rendezvoused with the flagship. During this time they were being watched by Confederate soldiers in Forts Walker and Beauregard and by Flag Officer Josiah Tattnall of the Confederate Navy, with his “mosquito fleet.” The stage was set for the Battle of Port Royal to begin. Illustration source: US Naval History and Heritage Command.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Navy Leadership at Port Royal

As described in our previous post, this week we will be highlighting the Battle of Port Royal.  This was an historic event for the United States (Union) Navy, as it was the first major test of the fleet against formidable, shore based defenses (Forts Walker and Beauregard).  Today's post centers around the two commanders responsible for coordinating the naval attack and defense of the port: Samuel Francis Du Pont and Josiah Tattnall.

Union Navy Leadership: Samuel Francis Du Pont

Union forces specifically needed an adequate and well executed naval component in order for the mission to be successful.  This would prove a daunting task for officials in Washington as well as the newly installed South Atlantic Blockading Squadron Commander Samuel Francis Du Pont.  Du Pont knew about blockade strategy already in his naval career, serving on the blockade of California in the twighlight days of the Mexican American War.  The seasoned Flag Officer, who served  in the United States Navy since 1815, took command of the SABC on 18 September 1861.  He would uphold the command until June 1863.  Port Royal would arguably be his greatest test, now in the waning years of his life. 

For the aging Squadron Commander, preparations were anything but slow.  Decisions were made so fast that Du Pont felt officials in Washington, including President Lincoln, were not being realistic to the start date of the expedition (originally in early October).  The burden of leadership indeed weighed on Du Pont.  In coordination with Brig. General Thomas Sherman's 13,000 troops, 77 ships under Du Pont would assemble at Port Royal. 

If all went well, this early engagement would be a hallmark of combined Army/Navy operations utilized by Union forces during the war.       

Confederate Navy Leadership: Josiah Tattnall

For the Confederacy,   Captain Josiah Tattnal would be responsible for the Southern naval defense of Port Royal.  Although Tattnall opposed secession, he nonetheless resigned his U.S. Navy commission and became a senior naval officer for the state navy of Georgia, his home state.  As the war progressed, he soon found himself in command of the Georgia and South Carolina coastline, which included Port Royal.  He would have very little resources to put against the amassed fleets: several converted tugboats and harbor vessels with 2 mounted cannon. 

It would seem that any subsequent defense of Port Royal would have to rely on its hastily built up forts (Walker and Beauregard).  The forts would become the focus of both Union and Confederate forces in the days to come before the attack.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Port Royal Week for CWN 150 Bloggers

We are less than a week away from commemorating the sesquicentennial anniversary of the battle of Port Royal. Although we are a few days away from the official assemblage of the force responsible for the assault, it is nonetheless important to begin documenting this important (if not THE most important) naval event of 1861. This is the first of several posts chronicling the Port Royal Expedition.

If you haven't looked yet, there are already several posts about the Port Royal Expedition published earlier this year (29 August and 21 October). This week will focus on the historical significance and implications of the successful Union attack and

According to the Island Packet, Port Royal Plantation will hold a sesquicentennial commemoration of the battle on November 5th from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Hilton Head Mayor Drew Laughlin will began the formalized festivities at 12 p.m. with an introductory welcome to guests. This will be followed by several events, including a historical presentation by Charleston author Michael Coker, stories by local resident John Witherspoon, Civil War music, colors presentation by Hilton Head HS NJROTC, salvos from Fort Walker, and a final presentation of "TAPS." It looks to be an exciting day. The event is free to the public. For more information, please go to the article HERE.

For more information on the Port Royal Plantation event, here is the information:

Port Royal Plantation
10 Coggins Point Rd
Hilton Head Island, SC 29928

According to the Beaufort County Historical Resources blog, two events hosted by the BDC (Beaufort District Collection) on the 7th of November will also highlight the sesquicentennial anniversary of the battle. As posted on the blog:
  • BDC@ Bluffton Branch Library – Mike Coker, author of The Battle of Port Royal will speak about the players, actions, and aftermath of the battle at 2:00 pm. The Bluffton Branch Library is located at 120 Palmetto Way.
  • The BDC@ Penn CenterMike Coker will be joined by Dr. Lawrence Rowland, Stephen Hoffius, and Neil Baxley in Frisell Community House to discuss the Battle and the Civil War as it transpired here in Beaufort District. Program begins at 6:30 pm. Meet and greet the authors, get them to sign their books after the session.
If you are attending these events, please send your photos or any information to or tweet us @civilwarnavy. We will repost it here on the blog.

Full Speed Ahead,

Matthew T. Eng

Friday, October 28, 2011

Drawings of a Mad Man/Genius-John Ericsson's Monitor Concept

Ericsson first drew a traverse sketch of his idea and then drew over it with a long view. As one can see Ericsson "showed his work" by working out the math on top of the drawings.
While these look like sketches drawn by a mad man at 3 in the morning who had not been to bed in over 72 hours, these are actually inventor/designer/engineer John Ericsson's 1854 concept of a "monitor" type warship. After much political stalling, the Ironclad Board would formally endorse his design in 1861. The idea behind Monitor, however, had been shuffling around in Ericsson's head long before the outbreak of war.
A rough idea of his monitor's submerged propeller system.
According to a 1911 biography The Life Of John Ericsson, the Swedish-born engineer had the idea from early on  in his professional career.  Monitor, according to Ericsson, was not just a class warship, but rather a fundamental shift in the way architects should look at warship design.  He wrote "The monitor of 1854 was the visible part of my system, and its grand features were excluded from its published drawings and description...An impregnable and partially submerged instrument for destroying ships of war has been one of the hobbies of my life. I had the plan matured long before I left England. As for protecting war engines for naval purposes with iron, the idea is as old as my recollection."

Ericsson's "monitor system" not only was about designing ships with armored turrets, but also building them with a submerged screw propeller that was safe from hostile fire. In Ericsson's mind, the water surrounding a ship was just as important as any metallic armor protecting the exposed area.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

CWN 150 Updates

Farragut Statue Undergoing Much Needed Restorations (Dnainfo/Mary Johnson)
Augustus Saint-Gaudens, sculptor

Long overdue, the David Glasgow Farragut Monument in New York City is currently undergoing an annual checkup and cleaning.  The monument, made by master sculptor and "American Renaissance" pioneer Augustus Saint-Gaudens, depicts a brave and courageous Admiral standing 15.5 feet tall in Madison Square Park.  According to Mary Johnson from New York's, the statue was due for a "much-needed bath."  Many who are unfamiliar with Saint-Gaudens work will easily recognize his most famous piece, the Robert Shaw/54th Mass. Monument. 

Originally dedicated in 1881, the monument still rests peacefully, if not a big dirty, in the "Big Apple."  The sculpture is now part of the Municipal Art Society's "Adopt-a-Monument" program.  The cleaning will consist of cleaning the sculpture and its base.  Armed with bamboo skewers, dedicated individuals like Cameron Wilson take the time to notice the blowing drapery as depicted in the sculpture.   It is as if Farragut is still standing on the rigging shouting those famous words at Mobile Bay.  They are doing some fine working to restore some of our nation's most treasured monuments in the five boroughs.  The article includes an excellent picture gallery of the restoration process.   

Read the full article from HERE.

Around the Blogosphere

The Monitor Begins
This week marks the 150th anniversary of the USS Monitor's construction.  According to Mariners' Museum VP of Museum Collections & Programs Anna Holloway's Facebook account: "‎150 Years ago today, with the ink barely dry on the construction contract, workers at Continental Iron Works in Greenpoint, Brooklyn began work on Ericsson's Battery. You might know her better as the USS Monitor. :)."  We couldn't have said it any better.  Shoot over to the Civil War Connections blog to read more about the Monitor's sesquicentennial construction.

USS Onondaga Ship Model
There is an excellent post by historian and CWN 150 blog contributor Gordon Calhoun on the Hampton Roads Naval Museum blog page.  The article focuses on the model of the double-turreted USS Onondaga, which is located in the HRNM Civil War gallery. The post includes a contemporary sketch of the ship by Aldred Waud.  Go to the blog post HERE.

Admirals Row: Week of 24 OCT (What is Admiral's Row?)

Friday, October 21, 2011

The River War in Florida

Union Navy steamer skirmishing with Confederate sharpshooters "near Fernandina, Fla." Possibly the Amelia or St. Marys Rivers. Source: Fla. Dept. of State online photo archive.

CWN 150 Coordinator Matt Eng had some neat links in his “October Updates” post of 13 Oct 2011. One featured an article in the Washington Post that concluded in part “. . . the Civil War was a river war.” This got me thinking about the role of the US Navy in Florida during the war, and that to a great extent we can say the same thing; it was very much a “river war.” For most of the conflict, Confederate militia and home guard controlled much of the interior of the state (roads and railroads), and so the US Army depended a lot on the Navy to transport their men, animals, and material. The US Navy made a number of expeditions up the St. Johns River on the Florida east coast, which I will detail much more on the appropriate dates in 2012. Numerous cutting out expeditions to go after blockade runners and/or contraband were conducted by the US Navy on the rivers of both coasts in Florida. Even fictional accounts highlight the river war in Florida. In the novel “At the Edge of Honor” by Robert Macomber, a Union armed sloop commanded by Master Peter Wake engages in a nighttime firefight with two Confederate blockade runners on the Peace River, in southwest Florida:

Now they could get a bearing on the enemy sounds, coming down the southern shore of the river, to the right of the Rosalie, and almost dead ahead of Thorton's boat. . . Without warning, a blast exploded on the right, followed by a volley of more blasts, as the men in Thorton's boat fired at the enemy. The light of the musket blasts flared out over the water and illuminated the (enemy) schooner for a brief moment. . . . Men on all the vessels were now shouting and screaming. Blasts and flames were coming from everywhere. . . Wake, seeing that the schooner was now just about at the line of anchored vessels and was firing into Thorton's boat, stood up and yelled as loud as he could, 'Fire, Durlon, fire!' The roar of the twelve-pounder overwhelmed all other noise and action. The flame it spewed out carried for twenty feet and lit up the entire river, clearly showing the damage along the starboard side of the schooner from the dozens of small rounds that had been packed into the canister ammunition. . . . The sound of the screaming and yelling and shooting from the schooner made it sound like a ship from hell as it continued out of control toward Wake's sloop.

Captured schooner crewed by USN sailors from the USS Stars and Stripes skirmishes with dismounted Confederate cavalry on the Ochlockonee River, Florida. Source: Fla. Dept. of State online photo archive.

The Port Royal Expedition and the New York Times

America's Armed Forces and the New York Times have not had the best of relationships over the years (see the Pentagon Papers and more recent spat over leaked e-mails from the National Security Agency to the newspaper).  It is possible that the sour relationship began not in the 1960s, but rather the 1860s. 

In September and October 1861, Flag officer Samuel Du Pont began assembling a fleet of warships, transports, and ground troops in Annapolis and Hampton Roads in preparation for a major offensive in South Carolina.  The offensive's goal was take the excellent natural harbor of Port Royal, South Carolina and make it a base for the newly established South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. 

As the engraving illustrates, the fleet was huge (94 ships) and in sight of the southern shore of Hampton Roads where any Confederate solider could see it.  Nonetheless, Du Pont was furious when he saw this headline in the October 23, 1861 edition of the New York Times:

The article printed not only the number of ships in the fleet, but also the names of the ship's commanding officers and the names of regimental commanders.  The fleet cleared Hampton Roads on October 25.  Whether through the article or their own intelligence efforts, Confederate Secretary of War Judah Benjamin telegraphed his generals in South Carolina "the enemy's expedition is heading to South Carolina."