Sunday, June 22, 2014

An Unusual Civil War Cemetery

Grave site of CSN Seaman James King. Naval History and Heritage Command.

This past Thursday, June 19, was the 150th anniversary of the engagement of the USS Kearsarge and CSS Alabama, probably the second most famous ship-to-ship fight of the Civil War after the Monitor and Virginia. This leads to the CW Navy trivia question of the week; what is the only official Civil War historical site outside of the U.S.? The answer is, the City of Cherbourg, France. In a cemetery on a hillside overlooking the French port city lie the graves of three seamen, two Confederate and one Union. The Confederate seamen are George Appleby and James King, killed on the Alabama during the engagement. The Union sailor is William Gowen, who was rescued adrift in the waters of the English Channel. He was brought to shore and died eight days later, of wounds he received while serving on the Kearsarge in the combat. In September 2004, the Civil War Preservation Trust designated Cherbourg and its cemetery an official site of the American Civil War. This is the only such site outside of the U.S.

Deck scene on USS Kearsarge after the engagement with CSS Alabama. Naval History and Heritage Command.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Confederate capture of the USS Water Witch on the Georgia coast

USS Water Witch. Library of Congress archives.

The USS Water Witch was a sidewheel steam gunboat (150’ in length; 378 tons). Commissioned into the U.S. Navy in 1851, she spent her early years conducting surveys in South America. When the Civil War broke out, she was initially assigned to blockading service with the Gulf Blockading Squadron, but eventually was transferred to the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. She spent some time in the Florida theatre, participating in forays up the St. Johns River, and then served on the blockade of the Georgia coast.

In May 1864, Flag Officer William Hunter, commander of the C.S. Navy Savannah River Squadron, issued orders to First Lt. Thomas Pelot to assemble a raiding force to capture a Union gunboat stationed at the mouth of the Little Ogeechee River. On 31 May, Pelot set out with a force of 117 men and 14 officers recruited from various ships in the squadron. When they arrived at Beaulieu Battery late that evening, they found that the Water Witch, their target, had weighed anchor to take up station in St. Catherine’s Sound, to the south. Pelot did not let this dissuade him. He sent out scouts to scan the coast for the enemy gunboat, which returned to the station in Ossabaw Sound off the Little Ogeechee River the morning of 1 June. Having located their target, the CSN raiding party set out late in the evening of 2 June. They were guided by Moses Dallas, a free black pilot who had rendered outstanding service to the Confederate Navy for over two years. His knowledge of the local waters on the southeast Georgia coast was unmatched.

The Water Witch was commanded by Lt. Commander Austin Pendergrast. In one of those all-too-common twists of fate one encounters in war, Pendergrast and Pelot were classmates in the U.S. Naval academy and were shipmates as Midshipmen on the USS Independence. The night of 2 June was foggy and rainy. Pendergrast had set a deck watch to guard against a raid; the officer of the deck that night was Acting Master’s Mate Eugene Parsons. He spotted some of the approaching CSN boats and hailed them. At first the Confederates replied “Contraband,” but after repeated hails Pelot yelled “Rebels, d____ you!” Confederate seamen and officers swarmed onto the deck. Parsons spun the ship’s battle rattle as a warning, but apparently for too short a time to sound the alarm. The officers and crew of the Water Witch were awakened by the sound of gunfire and shouting on deck. The Union gunboat’s officers put up a gallant defense, but oddly, most of the crew cowered below decks, along with the engineering division. Lt. Pelot was killed in the initial rush onto the ship, and command of the CSN raiders then went to Lt. Joseph Price. Their guide, Moses Dallas, was also killed by a pistol shot from Parsons in the initial rush on the Union ship.

The Union men eventually succumbed to wounds and the overwhelming numbers of the CSN raiders, the battle for the ship lasting about 20 minutes. One of the few Union bluejackets who did attempt to help the officers defend the ship was Landsman Jeremiah Sills, an African American seaman who is said to have stationed himself at the doorway to the ship’s arms locker and kept coming out with loaded pistols which he fired at the CSN raiders. The Confederates suffered 6 dead and 17 wounded, the Union 2 dead and 14 wounded. Pendergrast was wounded but survived. He was subsequently court-martialed and found guilty of “culpable inefficiency in the discharge of duty.” The victorious Confederates steamed up the Vernon River with the ship, towards Savannah, hoping to convert her to a C.S. Navy gunboat. They never had the chance to do this and the ship was sunk at her moorings in December 1864 as Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and his men closed in on Savannah.

Today, you can board and tour a full-size replica of the USS/CSS Water Witch at the Port Columbus National Museum of Civil War Naval History in Columbus, Georgia.

USS/CSS Water Witch at the Port Columbus Civil War Naval Museum. Author's photo.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Lieutenant Gift's Raid at Apalachicola 1864

Cotton warehouses at Apalachicola in the 1800s. Florida State Archives, Florida Memory Project

As I noted in an earlier post, the Confederate Navy never really had a presence in Florida throughout the Civil War. There was some CSN gunboat activity on the Apalachicola River in Florida, mainly in association with protecting the important industrial center of Columbus, Georgia, upstream on the Chattahoochee River. The main confederate warship operating on the river was the steam sloop CSS Chattahoochee, which was sunk by a boiler explosion in May 1863. Eventually, the CSN raised the Chattahoochee and returned her to Columbus for repair and refitting.

George W. Gift joined the U.S. Navy in 1847 as a Midshipman. He resigned his commission a few years later (1851) to go into business for himself in the California territory on the west coast of the growing United States. When the war broke out, he traveled back to the south to join the Confederate Navy. He was an energetic and ambitious officer who served in multiple theatres, including on the Mississippi River, in North Carolina, and in Florida. He even caught the attention of Adm. Franklin Buchanan, who regarded him highly. He served as an officer on the Chattahoochee in 1863 under Lt. John J. Guthrie, left to serve in North Carolina (where he was a participant in the CSN raid on the USS Underwriter), then returned to Florida where he was given command of the refitted Chattahoochee.

During his first term of service on the Chattahoochee, he proposed to Lt. Guthrie a plan to take a CSN raiding party downriver into Apalachicola Bay to attempt to capture the Union gunboat USS Port Royal. He never got the chance to do this, but now back in Florida, and still flush with the success of the raid on the Underwriter, he determined to implement his earlier plan. On 3 May 1864 he set out from Georgia in the steamer Swan with a force of Confederate sailors and some soldiers. The force assembled at the Town of Apalachicola on 12 May. That night, they set out in boats to try to capture the USS Adela; a fast, sidewheel steamer that was itself a captured confederate blockade runner. Unfortunately, on this night Lt. Gift’s luck ran out. As the CSN raiding party set out from the docks, they were spotted by ship’s boats from the USS Somerset under the command of Acting Volunteer Lt. W. Budd. Most of the CSN raiding party returned to land and escaped through town. Gift and the men remaining with him were able to outrun the USN boats in their launch and escape back upriver. Thus ended one of the rare C.S. Navy military activities in Florida during the war.

CSS Florida. The CSS Chattahoochee looked similar to this. Naval History and Heritage Command.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Ambush of the USS Columbine on the St. Johns River, Florida

Confederate cavalry Capt. John J. Dickison. Florida State Archives, Florida Memory Project.

One of the Confederate heroes of the war in Florida was Capt. John Jackson Dickison. He was born in Virginia, but moved to Florida prior to the war and established a plantation north of current-day Ocala. At the start of the Civil War, he joined the Confederate military effort and established two army units before finally assembling Company H of the Second Florida Cavalry, C.S. He acquired a detailed knowledge of the back roads and terrain of the Florida peninsula, which made him a constant threat to Union military actions, and time and time again, he waged an audacious guerilla campaign which constantly embarrassed and defeated the Union Army.

In April 1864, Union General George H. Gordon received intelligence that his troops garrisoned in Volusia, Florida, might be besieged by Confederate forces. He marshaled his resources and on 21 May 1864, he departed Jacksonville with troops upriver on Army transports, accompanied by the gunboat USS Ottawa (a “90-day” gunboat) and the armed tugboat USS Columbine. They arrived at Volusia, and found that the garrison there was not at all threatened.

Gen. Gordon departed northward by land with his forces to return to Jacksonville, and had the navy flotilla accompanying him return by river to the city. The Ottawa headed downriver with the Army transports and left the Columbine at Volusia for another day or so to provide additional fire support “just in case.” Capt. Dickison actually attacked the Ottawa and its transports while they were at anchor off Picolata on 22 May 1864. He found out from intelligence picked up by some sly southern ladies that the Columbine would be coming back downriver in the next couple days.

Dickison deployed two field guns and his sharpshooters in the swamps on the banks of the St. Johns River near a location known as Horse Landing. The afternoon of 23 May 1864, a smudge of coal smoke on the upriver horizon indicated that the Columbine was coming down.  Surprisingly, her commander, Acting Ensign Frank Sanborn, expected a possible ambush at Horse Landing and had his guns fire a few shells into the adjacent swamps. Dickison and his men took cover and re-manned their positions after the USN gunboat ceased firing. As the tug passed by at a range of about 60 yards, Dickison’s men opened fire. The first salvos were deadly, disabling the ship’s rudder, killing most of the men in the pilothouse, and causing other damage. Although Sanborn and his crew put up a gallant defense, many of the men on board were African-american soldiers and feared for their lives, so they began to jump overboard and try to make their way to shore. Sanborn surrendered the ship and remaining crew to Dickison, who confiscated all of the weaponry and supplies he could off of the ship, including its two Dahlgren boat howitzers. He then burned and sank the ship due to fears that the Ottawa would be back upriver soon to provide defense/revenge.

This was the first known defeat/sinking of a U.S. Navy vessel by a land based force. “Urban legend” has it that Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest heard about this action and, determined to not let some “Florida cracker” get all this glory, attacked and sunk a number of Union vessels (both warships and transports) on the Mississippi. I’m not so sure about this, myself. I think both Dickison and Forrest were “cut from the same type of cloth” and conducted their actions independently. Any thoughts or clarification from our devoted readers out there would  be welcome.

Dickison and his forces attacking the Columbine on the St. Johns River. Florida State Archives, Florida Memory Project.