Monday, December 31, 2012

The Loss of USS Monitor/Rhode Island's Rescue, December 31, 1862

On the evening of January 3, 1863, Acting Rear Admiral Sydney Phillips Lee, commanding officer of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, dictated a telegram to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles.  As it was a telegram and not a hand written letter, Lee wrote a very matter-of-fact note that lacked any sort of emotional loss.

"Fort Monroe, VA., January 3, 1863

USS Rhode Island's Ordinary Seaman
John Jones was a member of the ship's
rescue teams. After saving several
of Monitor's sailors, his cutter
was blown out to sea.  After riding out
gale force winds for several hours,
a passing schooner saved them.
The Navy latter awarded Jones the
Medal of Honor. 
  The State of Georgia reports that the Monitor foundered on Tuesday night south of Cape Hatteras, with the loss of two officers and twenty-eight men (names not received) belonging to Monitor or Rhode Island or to both.  The Passaic is at Beaufort; all reports received will be mail to-day."

By 9:30 p.m., Welles received the preliminary report of what happened to Monitor.  Namely, after several hours fine weather, squalls hit Monitor and the steamer Rhode Island, which had the ironclad in tow. He also received a more detailed report of causalities: sixteen men loss from Monitor's company and  eight men from Rhode Island, who drowned during the rescue mission. 

Upon seeing Monitor in trouble, Rhode Island's commanding officer immediately ordered all of his ships' small boats to put into the water.  One of Rhode Island's officers, Acting Master's Mate D. Rodney Browne and his team, made three trips between the two ships.  It was on the third trip that a squall turned the cutter over and they were all believed to be lost.

A few days later, the Acting Master Mate Browne and his team turned up alive.  Their boat had not tipped over as suspected, but rather blown out to sea.  The sailors roughed out in the heavy seas for 24 hours, before a passing leaky schooner operating under an Army contract called A. Colby picked them up.  Unfortunately, the schooner ran aground at Diamond Shoals. Good fortune continued, however, as the gunboat USS Miami saw the schooner's distress signal and towed it into Beaufort. Due to men like Browne, many of Monitor's sailors were saved.

 When Lee had time to digest the loss, he composed a hand written note to Welles that started with the words "Sir: I have the painful duty to perform of reporting the loss of the Monitor at sea..."  Lee's compilation of reports of all ships involved on the lost can be read here.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Preparing for Vicksburg: The Importance of Controlling the Yazoo River

In the latter days of 1862, Admiral David Porter, General William Sherman, and their respective subordinates produced a mountain of paperwork.  The paperwork included orders, requests for guidance and information, and plans related to the fortress town of Vicksburg, Mississippi.  

One factor to a successful conclusion to any Vicksburg campaign was having officers of both services agree on the importance of controlling the Yazoo River.  This meant that Yazoo had to be completely clear of enemy ground forces, ships, and torpedoes.  

Around this time, U.S. Army cartographers produced two maps of the area that show why Porter, Sherman, and Grant placed such high value on the river.  In order for Union ground forces to approach Vicksburg and be supplied from the north, the Yazoo River had to be under the U.S. Navy's complete control.  (Note: Modern day maps of  Vicksburg are extremely misleading, as the course of the Yazoo has been shifted to the south since the war ended.)  
December 1862 Map-The Yazoo River (on the left) and its relation to Vicksburg (lower right)

January 5 1863 Map of Vicksburg and the surrounding country side and rivers.  The Yazoo River at the time
emptied in to Mississippi west of Vicksburg and flowed from north to southwest.  

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

USS Cairo Strikes a Torpedo: December 12, 1862

Sketch by Rear Admiral Henry Walke of Cairo hitting the mine.  The image is incorrect in the
 respect that the mine exploded on Cairo's port side and not the starboard.
Early on the morning of December 11, 1862, Captain Henry Walke deployed two wooden gunboats, USS Marmora and Signal, to conduct a reconnaissance of the Yazoo River.  When both ships returned, their commanding officers reported that Confederate operatives had sewed numerous torpedoes (i.e. underwater mines) in the river.  The two men also informed Walke that they could sweep and clear the river if heavier ships provided cover fire against Confederate snipers hiding along its banks.  Walke agreed and assigned the ironclads USS Cairo and Pittsburgh and the ram Queen of the West to assist.  He gave strict orders that all ships were to stay out of the main channel of the river, as Marmora and Signal were to clear mines with small boats.  Bigger ships had to stay well behind during this process.
A sketch of one of the torpedoes/mines/"infernal machines,"
discovered by Ensign Fentress' mine clearing team. 
Part "C" contained the charge and Part "D" and "E" were
contact wires that set it off. 

The mine sweeping operation began early the next morning with Marmora and Signal leading the way.  At 11 a.m., watches aboard Marmora spotted a mine and proceed to render it inert.    After that, the story line becomes muddy.  Ensign Walter Fentress of Maromora later reported that his team was in the process of clearing the mine when he "heard an explosion from the Cairo, and on looking up I saw her anchor thrown up several feet into the air."

Lieutenant Commander Thomas Selfridge, late executive officer of USS Cumberland and now commanding officer of Cairo, reported that he believed Marmora was under attack by Confederate soldiers and rushed from the back of the squadron's formation to assist.  Upon discovering the gunfire was Marmora's crew attempting to blow up mines with gunfire, Selfridge ordered them to stop and Cairo would assist with small boats.  One minute later, "two sudden explosions in quick succession occurred." 

The ship slowly sank with no human causalities.  The ship's company transferred to 

Contemporary sketch of Cairo's
sailors sitting on the remains
of their ship. 
Queen of the West.  Twelve minutes after the explosion, Cairo sank beneath the surface and into the history books (she was the first armored warship sunk by an underwater mine).  After the ironclad sank, Selfridge ordered Pittsburg and Queen of the West to open fire on the woods along the river. Each ship fired about sixty shells into the woods and stopped.  There was no return fire and it is possible there were no Confederate troops present.  Meanwhile Maromora and Signal continued to sweep for mines and removed twenty before Selfridge ordered a retreat. 

Selfridge claimed that he believed that any part of the river Marmora passed through must have had no mines.  Thus, he ordered Cairo forward from the rear of the squadron's formation (against Walke's standing orders).  In his autobiography, What Finer Tradition, Selfridge only briefly mentions the incident.

U.S. Army Captain Edwin Sutherland, commanding officer of Queen of the West, provided insight into why Selfridge was so quick to have historians move along and ignore the incident. Sutherland reported to Walke that Cairo came along side Queen of the West and was asked why the ram stopped moving.  Sutherland replied that Marmora reported torpedoes ahead.  He then reported that not only did Cairo still go forward, but the ironclad entered the river's main channel (again, against Walke's standing order).

No charges or court-marital were ever filed against Selfridge.  In fact, Selfridge continued to have Porter's confidence and found Selfridge another ship to command (which he later ran aground).  The remains of Cairo can be seen in an outdoor exhibit as part of the National Park Service's Vicksburg National Military Park.

National Park Service photo of Cairo's remains

Friday, December 7, 2012

CSS Alabama Searches for California Gold, December 1862

In late November 1862, Raphael Semmes ordered CSS Alabama to steam southwest toward Cuba.  He was purposely looking to intercept steamships collectively known as the "California line."  These American-flagged steamers traveled between the port of Aspinwall (now known as Colon)--on the Atlantic side of Panama--to New York, often loaded with gold mined in California. Thus, Semmes planned to capture both Yankee merchant ships and a pirate's bounty of treasure.  He later recalled, "A million or so of dollars in gold would materially aid me, in my operations upon the sea.  I could purchase several more Alabamas, to develop the 'nautical enterprise' of our people, and assist me to scourge the enemy's commerce."

The California line vessels took two routes: one went to the west of Cuba and one that went south of Haiti.  Semmes chose to monitor the latter route, which was more heavily traveled.  He parked Alabama about 100 miles southwest of the city of St. Domingo and waited.  Several ships came in Alabama's direction, but only one, a merchant ship called Parker Cooke, was a legal target, and it did not have gold.  Semmes ordered her burned and moved on.  He was about to give up when Alabama's officer of the deck informed his captain that watches spotted another ship. 

After seeing Semmes' Confederate flag, the American steamer, a Vanderbilt-owned vessel called Ariel, tried to make a break for it.  Semmes ordered the forward pivot weapon--which Semmes referred to as his "persuader"--to fire a blank round.  The steamer stopped and he heard women screaming from the other ship.  The screaming turned out to be a precursor to his disappointment.  Hoping for gold, Semmes instead found 500 women and children.  His boarding team also found 150 U.S. Marines bound for the Pacific Squadron.  The Marines' weapons were confiscated and they surrendered without a fight.  It was not one of the prouder moments in the Corps' history.

Normally, Semmes would take the civilians on board and burn the enemy vessel.  But Alabama had no room for 650 people.  Thus, forty-eight hours later, he released the ship.  Before he released Ariel, one of Semmes' junior officers asked to speak to the ladies as a group.  In his speech, he attempted to persuade the ladies that Alabama's sailors were not cutthroat pirates.  Apparently, one of the ladies was so moved by the speech that she asked the lieutenant if she could cut a button from his jacket.  The boarding officer agreed.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Ambush on the St. Johns River

The dock and hotel at Magnolia Springs, Florida, probably after the Civil War. Source: Florida Dept. of State photo archives:

In his report to the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron on 3 December 1862, Cdr. Maxwell Woodhull of the gunboat USS Cimarron describes meeting in early October with a “Mr. Benedict” at his hotel/resort at Magnolia Springs (also called ‘Magnolia’), on the St. Johns River, Florida. Woodhull described the hotel as:

“. . . a splendid three-story hotel, covering a large space of ground, surrounded by quite a number of beautiful cottage residences (part of the establishment). It all belongs to this Mr. Benedict, and has been a favorite winter resort in past years for invalids from the north. The property is very valuable and no expense has been spared, apparently, to make it an agreeable place of sojourn.”

At this meeting, Mr. Benedict expressed his desire that the US Navy assist in evacuating his son to the north to escape the Confederate conscription (Army draft). Several weeks afterward, Woodhull sent the steam gunboat USS Uncas on a patrol up the St. Johns River, and directed her commander, Acting Master W. M. Watson, to stop by the Magnolia Springs Hotel and meet with Benedict. Arriving off the hotel on 28 November, Watson dispatched a shore party that met Benedict at the river end of the hotel’s dock (described by Woodhull as “nearly 300 yards in length” – typical of docks on the river today. There is a very broad shoal of very shallow water along the shoreline of the river in much of this reach).

Benedict told the officer commanding the landing party that he no longer wished to send his son north, but he requested that they go ashore with him to receive some mail he wanted sent north. As the sailors, accompanied by the southern man, approached the shoreline end of the dock, Benedict suddenly jumped underneath the structure. A group of Confederates in hiding (numbered at 50 men) opened fire on the landing party; it was a trap, and the Union bluejackets found themselves in an ambush. Amazingly, none were hit by the gunfire. They retreated back down the dock “in good order”, under fire the entire time. When they were safely back in the ship’s boat (and out of the line-of-fire), Watson had the Uncas open fire on the shore, pounding the attackers with shellfire. The landing party re-boarded the ship with no casualties.

After summarizing Capt. Watson’s report, Woodhull wrote in his 3 December dispatch:

I extremely regret that at the time of the above occurrence, he (Watson) had not there and then destroyed everything within the range of his guns, which would have been the proper punishment for such barefaced treachery. I indeed was much inclined to proceed up myself next morning and retaliate with fire . . .”

However, Woodhull deferred on this and reported the incident to Rear Adm. S. F. DuPont to await his orders.

A post-war (1884) navigation map of the St. Johns River is on the NOAA Historical Maps site that Gordon brought to our attention back in March on this very blog. The area that is the subject of this post is on the west (left) bank of the river in the upper left quarter of the map, north of Green Cove Springs. The area is labeled as “Magnolia”. If you zoom in on this area, you can see a dock projecting from the shoreline, which is probably the hotel’s dock, since it remained in business for at least a few decades after the war.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Confederate War Department Buys a Giraffe, November 1862

Blockade Runner Giraffe/Robert E. Lee
In the Fall 1862, Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon and Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance Josiah Gorgas were beginning to tire of blockade runners.  While the typical blockade runner brought in needed war supplies, they often brought other goods that were sold to the Southern public at a high mark up while doing little to help out the war effort. To fix this issue, Seddon and Gorgas formed a plan to maximize efficiency and support to the Confederate cause.  The War Department would directly own their own fleet of blockade runners.

Lieutenant John Wilkinson
With the assistance of the Confederate Treasury Department, the War Department successfully procured five steamers: Cornubia, Merrimac (sic), Phantom, Columbia, and Giraffe.  The fifth ship of this group had the most success. The iron-hulled Giraffe was a fast Clyde River ferry boat purchased by Confederate agents from bankrupt Scottish owners.

 Though the War Department owned the vessels, the Confederate States Navy was needed to man the ships.  In this respect, the CSN cooperated fully, providing the highly talented Lieutenant John Wilkinson.  One Confederate historian later wrote that Wilkinson "did more to sustain the Confederacy than any other one man. As a seaman he was unsurpassed. He knew the ocean, as a boy does his alphabet."

 As soon as Giraffe was in Confederate hands, men went to work to transfer the luxury coastal ferry boat into a ship of war.  Fancy furniture from the saloon and tea rooms were thrown out to make space for war supplies when traveling west and cotton when sailing east.  For the first journey west, workers loaded up guns and powder as well as engraving equipment.  During the war, the Confederate Treasury Department lacked the necessary tools and skilled labor to produce money.  Thus, the Confederate Treasury procured the equipment and hired thirty-two Scottish engravers.

The trans-Atlantic journey went well enough.  Wilkinson's seamanship paid off, as he maneuvered the ship in shallow waters around the Bahamas in order to evade U.S. Navy warships.  He then decided to make a run for Wilmington.  As the ship approached Cape Fear at night, either the pilot or Wilkinson panicked and made a navigation error.  Though none of the five U.S. Navy warships spotted Giraffe, the ship, going flank speed, struck an underwater sand formation known as the "Lump."  Giraffe came to a screeching halt and almost had her hull cracked.  Wilkinson immediately ordered the small boats over the side and for the engravers and their equipment out first.  They all made it to shore.

Eventually, Wilkinson and his crew freed Giraffe and the ship steamed into Wilmington.  It would the first of several adventures for the ship and her captain.  Later on in the war, the ship would have her name change from Giraffe to Robert E. Lee.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Cushing's Raid on Jacksonville, North Carolina

As written in previous posts, the U.S. Navy waged an intriguing form of strategic warfare with targeted raids against salt works in Florida. These small works produced usable salt by evaporating brine.  Salt (the "table salt" type) was a critical mineral to everyday life as it was needed for dietary reasons, to tan leather, and to preserve meat.  In late 1862, the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, under the new command of Acting Rear Admiral Samuel Phillips Lee, picked up on this strategy by launching similar raids against salt works in Virginia and North Carolina. 

USS Ellis (ex-CSS Ellis)
One such raid occurred the evening of November 23, 1862 aboard the USS Ellis, a tug captured by the U.S. Army during the Roanoke Island Campaign.  Led by Lieutenant William B. Cushing, the nominal purpose of the raid was to find the salt works near Onslow Courthouse (also called Jacksonville), North Carolina. For Cushing, however, one target was never enough.  In what would become common place in Cushing-led raids, this operation would not end until the either the Confederate forces were defeated or Cushing's ship sank. 

Lieutant William B. Cushing
Cushing later wrote that his "object was to sweep the river, capture any vessels  there, capture the town of Jacksonville (also called Onslow), take the Wilmington mail, and destroy any salt works that I might find on the banks."  This was all to be done with a tug boat armed with two 32-pounder cannons and twenty-three men. 

Ellis arrived at Jacksonville at 1:30 in the afternoon.  Finding little initial opposition, Cushing and his men proceeded to capture the post office, several stands of rifled muskets, grabbed any African American in sight to "liberate" them, and two schooners.  A salt works was also destroyed soon after.

Around 5 p.m., Confederate ground forces converged on the town just as Ellis began head back down river.  Darkness prevented any combat.  As the Sun came up, the shooting started.  Confederate infantry and cavalry would lay down fire on Cushing's little squadron while Ellis returned fire with her two guns.  During this running fight, Ellis ran hard aground.

After several attempts to free her, Cushing transferred most of his men and material to one of the schooners.  In typical Cushing-style, however, he and six volunteers stayed on board Ellis to provide covering fire.  At this point in the battle, a battery of four Confederate guns (including one Whitworth rifle) fired on Ellis.  Cushing  refused to give up on Ellis until the last minute.  Eventually, he declared Ellis a loss, set fire to her, and abandoned ship.  She blew up the following morning. 

After reading Cushing's after-action report, Commander Davenport (Cushing's commanding officer) reported to Admiral Lee, "I think the courage of this young officer should meet the commendation of his superiors."

Indeed he would be.  It would only be the first of many commendations to come. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

USS Monitor 150th Anniversary Experience at the Mariners' Museum

Auctioned “Experience” Inside USS Monitor’s Revolving Gun Turret to Highlight 150th Anniversary of Ironclad’s Demise, 
Support Ongoing Conservation 

For Immediate Release 

Newport News, VA (Nov. 20, 2012) – The Mariners’ Museum and partners at NOAA’s Monitor National Marine Sanctuary are marking the 150th anniversary of the USS Monitor’s sinking by offering an unprecedented opportunity on December 30, 2012: the chance for six visitors to experience the stories of the ironclad’s final harrowing moments while standing inside the recovered iconic revolving gun turret. 

The Mariners’ Museum and NOAA are auctioning off the chance for six visitors to experience life inside the revolving gun turret Monitor during its final hours on December 30-31. Night-time programming will highlight specific events from the sinking based upon historical documents and personal letters from survivors. Museum staff will also ring Monitor’s original engine room gong to honor sixteen crewmembers that perished during the sinking. The event may also be streamed live via telepresence to other museums that share Monitor’s story. 

“This is the ultimate opportunity to travel back in time and immerse yourself in the final moments of the USS Monitor, arguably the most iconic vessel of the Civil War. The thought of standing inside the 120-ton recovered gun turret with your closest friends, of walking in the footsteps of these Union sailors exactly 150 years later, gives me goose bumps,” said Dave Krop, Director of the USS Monitor Center. “I cannot think of a more unique experience.” 

Lucky winners of the auction will also receive lodging near The Mariners’ Museum, as well as food and entertainment throughout the late evening. 

For more information on this exciting event, please contact Dave Krop at:
(757) 591-7763 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Chasing After CSS Nashville: November 19, 1862

A Northern newspaper cartoon mocking the U.S. Navy's inability to capture CSS Nashville.

CSS Nashville was the Confederate State government's second attempt at a commissioned commerce raider (CSS Sumter being the first).  Eliminating all Confederate cruisers became a top priority for the U.S. Navy, but the chase after Nashville bordered on obsession.  Part of the U.S. Navy's emotional tie to the ship was possibly due to the fact that Nashville successfully ran the blockade four times between November 1861 and June 1862.  Even though she only captured two prizes, her presence stirred up the emotions of Yankee merchant owners and their insurance underwriters.  For its part, the Confederate States Navy gave up Nashville as a cruiser and sold her off to a blockade running outfit.  To the U.S. Navy, it did not matter.  In their opinion, Nashville could be easily turn back into a cruiser.  They intended her to be captured or sunk.
The 400-ton USS Dawn, which carried
a 100-pounder Parrott Rifle.

In late Summer 1862, U.S. Navy intelligence discovered that the ship formerly known as Nashville dashed into Ossabaw Sound and up the Ogeechee River (about twenty miles southwest of Savanna, Georgia), instead of a larger port.  Granted, the guns of Fort McAllister protected her, but she was trapped.  Unlike Charleston or Wilmington, there was only one exit for a Confederate ship to run the blockade: back the way they came.   But trapped was not good enough.  On November 19, 1862,  the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron conducted one of several attempts to sink the Confederate cruiser.

This attempt consisted of three ships: the gunboats USS Wissahickon and Dawn and one mortar boat, simply named No.5.  Although there is no recorded strategy, it would seem that the mortar boat would be used to bombard the cruiser from afar.  

USS Wissahickon's XI-inch Dahlgren gun crew
The Confederate garrison at Fort McAllister was prepared for any Yankee assault.   With obstructions laid across the river, McAllistar's guns opened fire on Wissahickon at 8:15 a.m.  Wissahickon returned fire with her XI-inch Dahlgren.  Dawn joined in with her 100-pounder Parrot rifle.    At 9:45, the Confederate gunners found their mark and hit Wisssahickon four feet below the water line. After firing seventeen XI-inch shells and eighteen 20-pounder Parrot Rifle shells (including eight percussion shells), Lieutenant Commander John Davis ordered a retreat.  Wissahickon was taking on water badly and forced to beach farther down river to repair the hole.   With No. 5 in tow, Dawn fired off forty-nine 100-pound Parrott shells before she retreated. 

For the moment, Nashville (she also went by the names Rattlesnake and Thomas L. Wragg while operating as a privateer) was safe.  However, she was still trapped. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

CSS Alabama Migrates South For the Winter, November 1862

While raiding Gulf Stream merchant traffic near Nova Scotia, Confederate Captain Raphael Semmes was well aware that the weather could turn nasty quickly.  Well versed in oceanography and meteorology, much of Semmes' autobiography, Service Afloat, is devoted to the science behind weather his ships encountered.   A storm packing 50 knot winds in the middle of October prompted (shown above) him to exit the Grand Banks region and head south for warmer temperatures and calmer winds.  A search on NOAA's Historical Hurricane Tracks website shows that Alabama had been been caught up in a dying Category One hurricane. 

Raphael Semmes' diagram of the tropical storm
CSS Alabama went through in October 1862.
Just as Alabama was exiting the region, the U.S. Navy finally sent warships in.  New York and New England's businessmen were expressing their concern to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles about Alabama's presence.  The New York City Chamber of Commerce even inquired if Welles would be willing to empower the Chamber of Commerce to arm their own private ships to hunt Alabama!  As both a symbolic and real response to the merchants' concerns, Welles dispatched railroad tycoon's Cornelius Vanderbilt's donated steamer USS Vanderbilt to search for the Confederate cruiser in the Grand Banks. 

By the time Vanderbilt reached her patrol zone, Alabama had already burned three more merchant ships and was half way to the West Indies.  Having found friendly reception on the French colony of Martinique with CSS Sumter, Semmes decided to make port there in early November 1862.  The same French colonial governor was still in power.  He gave Semmes and his company another hearty welcome.  The only issue Semmes faced was a minor, liquor-induced munity.  About twenty drunk sailors threatened the officers.  Fortunately, Semmes and his officers were able to get them under control.  Semmes ordered the men to be dumped in cold water until they sobered up. 

USS San Jacinto
Much like the 1861 visit, a U.S. Navy cruiser spotted Semmes' ship.  In this case, it was USS San Jacinto under the command of Commander William Ronkendorff.  Knowing the 24-hour rule was in effect (San Jacinto could not leave Martinique until 24-hours after Alabama left), Ronkendorff enlisted the help of two New England-based whaling ships to watch the harbor exits. 

Semmes realized that San Jacinto out-gunned him two-to-one and did not seek out a fight.  Fortunately, French naval officers gave the Confederate captain accurate charts of Martinique's harbor and advice on the best escape route.  The French naval officers also warned Yankee whaling ships not fire off any signaling rockets while in harbor or face a stiff fine.The result was an easy escape for Alabama.  Early in morning of November 19, Alabama slipped her anchor and quietly steamed out.  When the sun came up, Ronkendorff and his staff saw no sign of the enemy cruiser.   While the U.S. commander wrote out his apology/defense of the Alabama's escape in a note to Welles, the Confederate cruiser headed south towards Venezuela. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

USS Passaic-Bringing a Bigger Gun to the Fight

USS Passaic testing her XV-inch Dahlgren towards the Palisades.
When asked by a Congressional panel investigating the outcome of the Battle of Hampton Roads and the U.S. Navy response to future Confederate ironclads, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox simply replied, "build a bigger gun." Indeed, a bigger gun had been built: the XV-inch Dahlgren.  At the time, there was no platform to use it on.  Fortunately, engineer/inventor John Ericsson provided one. 

Inside Passaic's turret, the XV-inch gun is on the far side.
While USS Monitor was a wonder of engineering, she did have flaws exposed during the Battle of Hampton Roads.  Ericsson sought to fix that with his next generation of "monitor"-type ironclads.  The first of the new generation of monitors was Passaic.  Named for the town of Passaic, New Jersey, the ship displaced 400 more tons than the original Monitor.  It housed a larger engineering plant and a wider hull for better sea keeping traits.  The pilot house was constructed on top of the turret, instead of the front like the Monitor.  With the bigger ship, workers placed one 42,000-pound XV-inch Dahlgren in the turret, along side one XI-inch Dahlgren.  Firing a 352-pound shell, the gun itself was one of the largest weapons ever deployed during the war. 

The new gun did have its problems.  The barrel was purposely built short to protect the muzzle from being exposed to enemy fire.  This led to the issue of smoke from each shot fired building up inside the turret.  To deal with this issue, Ericsson designed a special "smoke box" to protect the gunners.  While it worked, the box did slow down the rate of fire.

After launching at the Contential Iron Works (same builder as Monitor), Passasic steamed up the Hudson river to the Palisades cliffs, north of New York City, in early November 1862.  Here, to a booming echo up and down the river, gunners test-fired the monster XV-inch gun with increasing amounts of gunpowder (topping out at forty-five pounds of gunpowder per shooting) and shot.  Observers deemed each test a success, and determined Passaic was ready for action.  The Passaic soon set sail for Hampton Roads to join up with Monitor.  The Northern press boldly and brashly claimed that the Navy finally had its weapon against the forts of Charleston. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Counter-Insurgency Operations on the Upper Mississippi, October 1862

Confederate partisan activity was not limited to Louisiana.  Wherever there was a Union incursion into the Mississippi River, Confederate partisans made themselves present, harassing Union shipping.  These insurgent operations became particularly acute in the Upper Mississippi region, an area allegedly secured earlier by U.S. Naval victories.  At the time, however, civilian shipping was being seized.   Writing to Secretary Welles, Acting Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter suspected that insurgents were secretly supplied from Confederate sympathizers in St. Louis. "The war would never end this way," he commended. 

Thus, Porter developed a three part plan to clear the area of partisans. 

1) What would be later be called in the Vietnam War a "free fire zone," Porter accounted that civilian shipping would only be allowed to dock at authorized points of the river.  Any ship found in an unauthorized landing area would be considered hostile and subject to seizure and arrest. 

2) Ships would be placed at certain locations along the river that were known to be partisan hot spots to keep them clear.  Porter admitted on this part of the plan, "I find it very difficult to comply in all causes with such demands of the squadron."

3) He used the "City"-type ironclads with armed landing parties to conduct raids against suspected partisan strongholds.  He instructed that any partisan found not be treated as a prisoner-of-war and that the partisans be punished ten fold for any stolen property found of them. 

USS Louisville
The ship's company of USS Baron DeKalb carried out one of the first raids under Porter's plan.  The ironclad docked at Hopefield, Arkansas (now called West Memphis) and twenty-five men under the command of DeKalb's carpenter (which was a warrant officer rank in the 19th century Navy) landed.  They "procured" horses from the locals and pursed ten partisans for nine miles in a dramatic running battle. The sailors eventually captured the partisans.  It is not known what was done to them.

USS Louisville carried a similar raid a short time later in relation for an incident aboard the steamer Gladiator, north of Helena, Arkansas.  Earlier, partisans captured the ship and allegedly shot several of the passengers.  Reinforced by 300 soldiers from 11th and 24th Indiana, Lieutenant Commander Meade (nephew of the Army of the Potomac general) led a detachment of sailors in pursuit of the partisans.  These partisans, however, successfully eluded Meade's force.  Either out of frustration or part of a longer term plan, Meade order his men to burn down every house and field with a two mile area.

Partisans continued their raids, in some cases as far up as the Ohio River. The Mississippi River Squadron likewise continued their's.  Porter concluded that this type of aggressive counter-insurgency was necessary.  He wrote, "This is the only way of putting a stop to the guerrilla warfare, and though this method is stringent, officers are instructed to put it down at all hazards."

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Battle of St. Johns Bluff Living History Weekend Recap

Since 2007, the Ft. Caroline National Monument in Jacksonville has hosted a Civil War Living History event to commemorate the actions of Union and Confederate military forces in the area during the war and the conditions endured by the citizens of Jacksonville. In particular, the event recalls the actions between Union Navy and Army forces and a Confederate Battery constructed on St. Johns Bluff (adjacent to the National Monument) in the late summer of 1862. This year we celebrated the fifth anniversary of this Living History event and the 150th Anniversary of the St. Johns Bluff engagement. I have profiled the Naval portions of this engagement in posts on Sept. 9, Sept. 16, and Sept. 29.

October 20; Day 1. The day dawned cool, with the first real touch of fall in northeast Florida. Present were Army units representing those which occupied Jacksonville during the war, and which participated in the final assault on the St. Johns Bluff battery, folks with the Port Columbus Museum of Civil War Naval History, representing the USS Water Witch, which was a participating gunboat in some of the St. Johns Bluff actions, Army medical and engineer units, and folks representing the civilian population in Jacksonville during the war. We had a pretty good public turn-out (the National Monument folks recorded 1,000 visitors that day), which I thought was a decent turnout, since we had some competition from another Navy group; the Blue Angels were doing an airshow at the "beaches" area right next to us along the coast. I talked to a bunch of folks about the U.S. Navy's involvement on the St. Johns River during the CW.

The USS Water Witch/Port Columbus Camp:

Dahlgren boat howitzer at dawn; ready to do its deadly work:

October 21, Day 2. Things dawned even a bit chillier this morning. Yesterday I wore my summer white frock over blue trousers, but today donned wool winter blue frock with by blue trousers. Spectator turn-out was a bit lighter, especially in the morning, which I have learned is typical for Sunday mornings at many events. Things picked up a bit in the afternoon, but turn-out was lighter today than yesterday. Still had some good interaction. One thing I have added to my display is a rack with a couple of "single sticks" used for cutlass drill. I typically engage young men (but sometimes also young ladies) in the drill when they stop to ask questions. This is a huge hit, not only with the kids but also with their parents who get tons of "Kodak moment" photos.

An old tar in his camp:

Civilians representing the Jacksonville population during the CW:

Thursday, October 18, 2012

U.S. Naval Cowboys on the Mississippi-October 1862

In 19th century American history, the long range cattle drive is one of the great icons of the era.  One such drive of 1,500 head of cattle started in Texas in early August 1862.  The Confederate Army purchased the herd and directed the drovers to take the cattle to Camp Moore, the headquarters for local Confederate ground troops in Louisiana.  The drovers succeeded in overcoming the biggest geographic obstacle when they moved the herd across the Mississippi River at Plaquemine, Louisiana.  Here the drovers could finally rest while they waited at the local depot for the New River Railroad to take the herd the rest of the way.

USS Katahdin, one of the four gunboats that seized 1,500 head of cattle
It was then quite unfortunate for the drovers that a U.S. Navy squadron consisting of USS Kineo, Sciota, Katahdin, and Itasca (all "90-day" gunboat-type warships) happened to spot the herd during a patrol.  The squadron's commander, Lieutenant-Commander George Ransom, found Confederate Army purchase orders among the drovers' papers and declared the herd contraband property. 

Ransom, however, was unsure what to do with the cattle, as this was not the usual type of property Naval officers would condemn and send to a prize court for adjudication. He thought about destroying the herd, but then decided that 1,500 head of cattle was extremely valuable and worth saving.  He had to act quickly, as Confederate partisans were extremely active.
Lieutenant Commander
George Ransom, USN

Ransom decided to keep the herd and sent one ship to New Orleans to retrieve five Army transports.  Upon retrieving the ships, Ransom hired several African American men on the spot to help load the herd.  The loading started at 2:30 in the morning on October 3rd.  By noon the next day, 1,300 cattle had been loaded. The rest were considered too wild and the commander instructed his African American labor force to drive the rest south to Donaldsville on the eastern shore of the river.  He assigned Katahdin and Itasaca to stay with this part of the herd at all times.

 The rest of Ransom's gunboats and transports convoyed south towards New Orleans.  As the flotilla approached Donaldsville, Confederate partisans attacked with four batteries of horse artillery.  The squadron returned fire with their XI-inch Dahlgrens and 20-pounder Parrot Rifles.  After a few hours of fighting, the partisans called off their attack.  While the convoy rolled on, the partisans' artillery did cause a significant number of causalities, including the executive officer of Sciota who had a cannon ball bounce off his hip and then exploded on his right hand.  He died two hours later.  His last words to his captain were "Tell my mother I tried to be a good man."

By October 10, the convoy and the 1,300 head of cattle got through to New Orleans. A few days later, Katadhin and Itasca successfully escorted the other 200 to safety. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Playing With Fire off the Cuban Coast, October 1862

A route frequently used by Anglo-Confederate blockade runners went from Matamoros, Mexico to Havana, Cuba, ending at Mobile, Alabama.  The ships would pick up Texas cotton in Matamoros shipped across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas. They would then steam east towards the Cuban coast, hug the coastline as close as possible, and then enter the friendly, Spanish-controlled port of Havana.  From Havana, the ships would pick up guns, ammunition, and other manufactured goods and make a run towards Mobile.

Commander Charles S. Hunter oversaw the converted merchant steamer USS Montgomery, which patrolled off the coast of Havana.  One ship in particular Hunter was on the look out for was the blockade runner General Rusk (sometimes referred to as Blanche).  The ship already navigated the Matamoros-Havana-Mobile run six times. 

On the seventh attempt, one of Montgomery's watches spotted her trying to enter Havana with 569 bales of cotton (retail price of $142,000 on the English market).   Unfortunately, General Rusk's captain misread his charts and ran aground.  The captain, believing that since he was in Spanish waters and flying a Spanish flag, thought he was safe.  He was not. 

Hunter was under the impression he had Admiral Farragut's personal endorsement to get this particular blockade runner by any means necessary.  U.S. Navy sailors from two of Montgomery's small boats formally captured General Rusk.  During the boarding master's interrogation of General Rusk's captain, the ship mysteriously caught on fire, forcing everyone off the boat.  Though he did not capture the ship, Hunter thought himself a hero for finally eliminating the elusive blockade runner. 

USS Montgomery, a converted steam merchant ship and
vessel of Commander Charles S. Hunter.
A week later,  watches spotted the blockade runner Caroline in the Gulf of Mexico.  Montgomery fired seventeen shots and struck Caroline twice, who stopped running after being hit. This capture was a bit more clear cut as the ship was carrying French muskets and ammunition.  She was also caring thirty-two five-gallon demijohns of Cuban rum.  Hunter felt "it was his moral duty" to get rid of the rum immediately.  He had his company open up all the bottles and pour the alcohol out.   

Caroline's master objected to being seized, stating he was, like General Rusk, a Spanish ship bounded for Matamoros.  Montgomery's boarding officer is to have replied, "I do not take you for running the blockade, but for your damned poor navigation. Any man bound for Matamoros from Havana and coming within twelve miles of Mobile light has no business to have a steamer."

Blockade runner Caroline, later USS Arizona
For the next several months, Hunter thought himself a "master hunter" of blockade runners, capturing one more and was waiting to chase CSS Florida.  That was until he received a court-marital summons.  While Hunter was crowing, the Spanish government threatened to declare war over Hunter's violation of its territorial waters by capturing and burning General Rusk.  Secretary of State Seward was forced to issue a formal apology and pay reparations of over $300,000.  While the court-martial board cleared him of charges military misconduct (for burning the ship), it found him guilty of violating neutral waters and removed him from service. 

Hunter's brother officers, including Farragut, believed Hunter was getting a raw deal and fought to have him reinstated.  But the  civilian authorises rejected their arguments.  Sixty years later, Admiral Albert Gleaves wrote a passionate defense of Hunter in the Proceedings of the Naval Institute.  Gleaves concluded, "do what is right, even when you know its wrong."

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Alabama's Gulf Stream Raid, October 3-15, 1862

Alabama burning the ship Brilliante and her $93,000 worth of grain off the coast of Nova Scotia
When CSS Alabama and her captain Raphel Semmes could find no more whaling ships to burn in the Azores, the cruiser steamed northwest towards Nova Scotia.  On October 1, 1862, Alabama reached a point approximately two hundred miles southeast of the island in the middle of the Gulf Stream.  Semmes knew the Gulf Stream served as a major highway for eastbound trans-Atlantic traffic.  He also knew that he was taking a risk by being there.  Not because of the possibility of a U.S. Naval warship, but rather the frequent storms that were stirred up by the Stream. 
Alabama capturing the ship Towawanda near Nova Scotia

Semmes'  knowledge of the American merchant marine paid off. Between October 3rd and 15th, Semmes encountered a dozen ships within a 200 mile area.  Fortunately for Semmes, none of them were warships.  His boarding teams searched every one of them, releasing six.  As for the other six, Semmes judged them to be lawful prizes and seized them.  Among the cargo discovered by the boarding teams was large amounts of grain. On one ship alone, the ship Brilliante, the team discovered and burned $93,000 (1862 dollars) worth of wheat and flour.  

Northern merchant cargo was not the only thing the teams discovered.  A year before, several sailors from CSS Sumter (Semmes' first ship) had deserted.  It pleased Semmes mightily when a boarding team discovered one of them serving on the captured merchant ship Dunkirk.  He immediately convened a court-marital which found him guilty.  Semmes forced the sailor to serve on Alabama without pay for the rest of the cruise.  The sailor was lucky, as Semmes considered hanging him.

Another person impressed into Semmes' service was an African American steward on the ship Tonawanda.  Upon discovering the steward was still legally a slave (being from Delaware), Semmes made him a steward on his ship. 

The October 5, 1862 edition of the New York Herald-.
 Semmes obtained a copy from a merchant ship and
gathered intelligence on U.S. Navy  ship movements.
Papers and documents were also among the items seized.  This included boxes of Bible tracts written in Portuguese from the American Tract Society and the New York Bible Society, which were being sent to American missionaries operating secretly in Portugal.  Semmes spoke very angrily both in his daily journal and memoir of service of the two Societies claiming the organizations were run by men whose "business it is to prey upon the credulity of kind-hearted American women and make a pretense of converting the heathen!"  He felt he was doing Portugal a great national service by intercepting the Biblical materials.

The second group of papers were newspapers, which Semmes found to be the perfect intelligence source.  After reading recent copies of the New York Times and New York Herald, Semmes knew the exact location of every U.S. Navy ship.  How? The papers printed a complete list (click on image at right).  Even Semmes was stunned by the inability of the U.S. Navy to keep secrets.  He commented, "Perhaps this was the only war in which the newspapers ever explained, before hand, all the movements of armies and fleets, to the enemy."

By October 16, the storms Semmes feared came upon his ship.  Having had a productive raid in waters so close to Yankee shores, the Alabama headed south. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

War on the Periphery-U.S. Naval Forces Capture Galveston, Texas

The port of Galveston, Texas represented the far western edge of Civil War Naval activity.  Before the war, the port did brisk business in the coastal cotton trade.  Dominated by the Morgan Lines shipping company, the port hosted upwards of 600 small ships a year, taking Texas cotton to New Orleans and bringing back manufactured goods. 

USRC Harriet Lane
When the war started, the U.S. Navy would occasionally send over one or two warships to blockade the port.  The presence of the ships caused anxiety among the locals that the city's defenses were inadequate.  They feared they would have to surrender without a fight if Union forces attacked.  Many Southern newspaper writers attempted to downplay local anxiety. Channelling the future Winston Churchill, one local writer stated, "That this city and island of Galveston will in case of an attack by an enemy, that every foot of soil will be contested, every acre of channel and harbor be struggled for, while over a hundred thousand can be rallied.  Galveston shall survive the shock and a monument to Texas valor."

On October 4, 1862, the local Confederate commander Colonel John J. Cook noticed eight ships off the coast of Galveston.  The ships were: USS Owasco, Westfield, Clifton, USRC Harriet Lane, and a few mortar schooners.  At 7 a.m., Harriet Lane approached the city under a flag of truce.  There was a delay in the Confederate response.  Namely, Cook could not find a suitable boat,which led to nervous Confederate gunners to open fire with older 24-pounder cannons at Harriett Lane.   Gunners on Owasco replied with a shell from the ship's XI-inch Dahlgren which bursted over the Confederate garrison.  The garrison quickly withdrew. 
USS Owasco

At 3:30 p.m., Commander William Renshaw, commanding officer of the U.S. Navy eight ship flotilla finally  got his formal demand of surrender delivered to Cook.  The colonel replied that he would surrender the city, but needed four days to evacuate.  Cook planned to not only withdraw all military units from the city, but all civilians as well.  Renshaw agreed.

After the evacuation was complete, Renshaw took over Galveston.  He informed Admiral Farragut that he needed more ground forces if the Union were to hold on to the port.  Farragut agreed in principle, but concluded that the Army would never provide the necessary resources.  As for the Confederates, Cook did not withdraw far.  His forces only went as far as Virginia Point on the other side of Galveston Bay.  Here, a garrison of 3,000 men took up positions.   

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Salt Works Raid at Cedar Key

Drawing of USS Ellen, a converted New York ferryboat; USS Somerset would likely have looked similar. Note that ship is firing on a target on shore, which the Somerset could have done with one of its IX inch Dahlgren smoothbores mounted in pivot fore and aft (as opposed to the 32 pdrs mounted in broadside):

In an initial post, I noted that a major task of the men and ships of the East Gulf Blockading Squadron was the location and destruction of Confederate salt works along the Florida Gulf coast. During the latter part of 1862, USS Tahoma (a 90-day gunboat) and USS Somerset (a converted New York ferryboat) patrolled the waters around Cedar Key, Florida. After receiving intelligence from escaped slaves that Confederate troops in the area had been withdrawn, and knowing of the existence and location of a sizable salt works on Depot Key, Lt. Cdr. Earl English brought his ship the Somerset close inshore on 4 October 1862 and began shelling the facility with the ship’s big guns. On seeing a white flag hoisted, he dispatched two ship’s boats under the command of Acting Master Dennison, his XO. When they landed, they approached a house over which the white flag flew with “several women”, which made the bluejackets hold their fire. Suddenly, Confederate troops in concealment opened fire on the landing party, wounding several sailors (two were subsequently described by the ship’s surgeon as “dangerously wounded”, four as “severely wounded” and two more as “slightly wounded”). The landing party returned fire “. . . killing and wounding several” of the defenders. Prior to withdrawing, the landing party “. . . destroyed several barrels of salt, a number of boats; captured one launch and a large flat.” and also apparently destroyed some of the salt works boilers (quotes from Lt. Cdr. English and Ship’s Surgeon reports in the “Official Records of the Navies”).

The Tahoma arrived on the scene later that day (Cdr. J.C. Howell, captain), and on 6 October, a large landing party (8 boats and about 111 men), armed with two Dahlgren boat howitzers, went ashore to the works. After deploying the howitzers and firing shell, shrapnel and canister into the works, driving off the Confederate defenders, the landing party spread out and began their destructive work. Cdr. Howell reported that a total of 50 to 60 salt boilers were destroyed (estimated by Lt. Cdr. English to produce 150 bushels of salt a day working around the clock), and all structures at the site were burned to the ground in retaliation for the ambush attack on the landing party on 4 October. As the USN forces withdrew to their ships, a train carrying Confederate reinforcements arrived at Cedar Key and the gray troops deployed and fired on the landing party with muskets, but by then the USN boats were out of range. No seamen or marines were killed or injured in this larger expedition.

Cdr. Howell sharply punctuated his after-action report to the East Gulf Squadron command by noting that “The rebels here needed a lesson and they have had it.” Officers of both ships were highly complementary of the conduct of their men during these raids. After reading the officers’ reports of this mission in the “Official Records”, it struck me that we don’t think of sailors dying in the war or being wounded tragically, like we so often do the CW soldiers. Yet reports like these, along with accounts of the engagements of Union Navy ships with Confederate forts and ships, such as on the Mississippi River and Mobile Bay, bring home vividly the fact that sailors were exposed to perils and death, and that many did die in combat during the war.

USS Tahoma:

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

CSS Virginia LEGO Ship Instructions Available for Download

Click on the above image to download the instructions (.pdf)

The wait is finally over!  As part of the new "Brick by Brick: LEGO Shipbuilding" initiative at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum/Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial, we have created FREE downloadable instructions to famous naval ships in American naval history.

Arguably one of the most famous ships during the American Civil War was the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia.  In her honor, we have created a model of that ship for you to build!  All you need to do is supply your own bricks, and start building.

This is just a taste of what will be offered both online and in the HRNM Gallery at next year's LEGO Shipbuilding Program.  We are firming up the date at the moment, but look to early next year for a day of fun, education, and naval history!  Make sure to come out to the event, as we will be offering QR codes of LEGO models not offered online.

The instruction will also be available on the HRNM website soon under: Resources --> Educational Resources --> LEGO Shipbuilding Instructions.

If you do build it, or want to modify it, send us the pictures via email at  We will post them on the blog and on the CWN 150 Facebook Page.  Any questions about next year's Lego Shipbuilding Program?  Contact Laura Orr at  Enjoy and happy building!  Stay tuned for more info and more ships.  Can you guess the next CWN 150 LEGO ship we offer?  Hint: It is in the HRNM Gallery!

- CWN 150

Sunday, September 30, 2012

US Navy Patrols on the St. Johns River, Florida

The take-over of the Confederate battery on St. Johns Bluff opened the St. Johns River to US Navy forces to conduct patrols up the river. This they did, destroying or taking possession of every small boat, scow, or barge they could find in order to impede the ability of Confederate troops and supplies to be ferried across the river. In 4 October 1862 the USS Cimarron, Water Witch, and E. B. Hale made an expedition up the river. Cdr. Woodhull of the Cimarron reported that 200-300 small vessels were destroyed.

Arriving off Palatka on 5 October, Woodhull reported that he met aboard Water Witch with former Florida Gov. Moseley and a unionist named Blood. During this meeting, a party of armed horsemen were spotted approaching the town by lookouts in the tops of the gunboats. Woodhull signaled for his boats to return to the ships and ordered Snell in the Hale to open fire on the mounted party. The fire was accurate and deadly, apparently killing 3 or 4 of the horsemen. The fire of the gunboat forced the mounted party to retreat back into the adjoining forests and swamps. Blood and his family and the families of black pilots who had assisted the Navy ships with navigation on the river were evacuated for their safety.

A cutting out expedition set out on 6 October to capture the Confederate steamer Gov. Milton, and another steamer. It was known that the Milton was responsible for ferrying Confederate troops and guns to the fortifications on St. Johns Bluff, and that it was also important in conveying supplies run through the Blockade to Confederate forces. Under the command of Lt. Cdr. E. P. Williams, the recently captured Confederate steamer Darlington (rechristened a US ship with the same name, and armed with two 24 pdr boat howitzers) steamed upriver, accompanied by the gunboat Hale. At the entrance to Lake George, shallow depths wouldn’t allow Hale to proceed further, so the Darlington continued upriver through Lake George, leaving Hale to patrol the entrance to the Ocklawaha River, nearby.

At Hawkinsville, 168 miles upstream of Jacksonville, Williams and his men found indications that the Milton was in the area. Taking a party of sailors and soldiers of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Rgt., Williams proceeded up a small creek in ships boats and found the Milton, manned by only two engineers. They took possession of the steamer and reconnoitered up the creek further in search of the other steamer, then out into the St. Johns River as far up as Lake Beresford. When the steamboat could go no further due to river depths, running low on rations, and deep in Confederate territory, Williams decided to proceed back downriver to rejoin the Hale and return to his base. Along the way up and back down river, numerous small vessels and other enemy property was destroyed or confiscated by the Union expedition.