Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Rhett Butler-Romantic Blockade Runner

Rhett Butler is the legendary character and heart throb of the Civil War novel Gone With the Wind.  During the war, dashing and handsome Butler takes up the occupation of a blockader runner captain.  Because of
the book's and character's status in American lore,  when many people today think of the men of blockade runners, they usually think of Butler first.  There has provoked a discussion around the Hampton Roads Naval Museum of the accuracy of this statement. What do you think? I provided Two You Tube clip from the 1939 Gone With the Wind.  The first is the "practical" Rhett Butler and the second is the "romantic" Rhett Butler.
Practical Butler
Romantic Butler

Sunday, September 26, 2010

"Blacks in Blue Jackets" pamphlet available for download.

This past Friday (24 September), the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial debuted its first publication at the 2010 Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission's annual signature conference, "Race, Slavery and the Civil War: The Tough Stuff of American History and Memory." The conference, hosted by Norfolk State University, seemed a fitting place to hand out information on the role of African Americans in the Union Navy. Acclaimed author James McPherson gave an interesting and informative speech on the role of Black sailors in the Union Navy.

The pamphlet, titled "Blacks in Blue Jackets: African Americans in the Civil War," is a brief but concise picture into the crucial role played by Black sailors in the Union Navy. From the blockade fleet to the inland waters of the Mississippi, African Americans touched every naval theater of conflict.

If you would like copies of the brochure or further information on this topic, please email Matthew T. Eng at

Thursday, September 23, 2010

New Blog Title Image

The new title image for this blog is a 1864 oil painting titled Battle of the U.S.S. Kearsarge and the C.S.S. Alabama, by Belgian artist Jean Baptist Durand-Brager. In contrast to the more famous Manet painting of the battle, Brager's painting is more straight forward and action oritented.

To me, the Kearsarge/Alabama battle is the most epic naval battle of the Civil War. Unlike Monitor/Virginia, both ships and captains went into the contest with the attutiude that one of the two vessels was not coming out of the fight alive. Both captains, Raphel Semmes of Alabama and John Winslow of Kearsarge, had also served with each other on USS Cumberland during the Mexican-American War, adding to the symbolism of the fight.

In this respect, Durand-Brager's painting captures the true essence of the battle.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

USS Tyler: A Rather Useful Timberclad

Early in the war, the Army had requirement for light-draft, armed vessels to escort riverboats transporting troops and supplies along the western waterways. In the summer of 1861, the Navy barely had the notion of a production program, much less actual vessels to meet the need. An early example of cross-service coordination, in June 1861 Commander (later Captain) John Rogers consulted with Army officers and purchased three side-wheel steamers for conversion to gunboats. These were the USS Conestoga, Lexington, and Tyler. The trio cost $62,000.

Rogers complained the vessels lacked fittings and arrangements for warship service. After experimenting to find the appropriate thickness, Rogers ordered five-inch thick bulwarks placed around the vessel to provide minimum protection for the crew against small arms. This and other modifications added $41,000 to the total cost of the modified river boats, informally classed as "timberclads."

Originally named A.O. Tyler, the Tyler was the largest of the three, measuring 178 feet long with a 45 foot beam. The modified steamer displaced between 420 to 575 tons, drawing 6 to 7 feet of water. Her two cylinder engine gave a speed of 8 knots.

The Tyler's armament included six 8-inch guns and one 32-pdr initially. And these guns were put to use shortly after the ship's conversion. Part of the Western Flotilla, technically under Army control with Naval officers on board, the Tyler supported reconnaissance operations in the waters around Cairo, Illinois. In one of the earliest contest between Federal and Confederate warships, the Tyler and Lexington exchanged shots with a rebel gunboat off Hickman, Kentucky on September 4. Later in November, under Commander Henry Walke the Tyler supported General U.S. Grant's landings and assault on Belmont, Missouri.

When Grant moved down the Tennessee River in February 1862, the Tyler was among Commodore Andrew Foote's flotilla which reduced Fort Henry. Afterward, while the ironclads moved around to the Cumberland River to support operations against Fort Donelson, the three timberclads continued down the Tennessee to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, clearing the river of rebel shipping.

The high-point of Tyler's wartime career was on April 6-7, 1862. Along with the Lexington, Tyler protected Grant's river flank at Pittsburg Landing in the battle of Shiloh. During the night, the gunboats intermittently shelled Confederate positions, depriving them of much needed rest and reorganization.

Following Shiloh, Tyler along with the other timberclads operated against Confederate positions around Vicksburg. While patrolling the Yazoo River on June 15, 1862 in conjunction with the USS Carondelet and the USS Star of the West, the Tyler came under fire from the CSS Arkansas. With the Carondelet taken out of action and the Star of the West in retreat, the Tyler alone faced the rebel ironclad. The Tyler managed to reach the safety of the main Federal fleet, but was damaged.

For the remainder of the war, Tyler patrolled the lower Mississippi Valley, occasionally engaging rebel batteries. Formally, the ship was not transferred to the Navy until October 1862. In 1863, her armament increased with three 30-pdr Parrotts replacing the 32-pdrs, augmenting the 8-inch guns. Still later four 24-pdrs were added. The ship often carried a 12-pdr howitzer for landing duties. As with most of the Mississippi Squadron, the Navy sold the Tyler at the end of the war.

For all practical purposes the Tyler and her timberclad sisters were limited ersatz warships built in a period of emergency. With many river miles and battles recorded in the logbook, the Tyler turned out a rather useful warship despite this.

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. Volumes 22-24. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1908-1910.

Canney, Donald L. The Old Steam Navy - Volume Two: The Ironclads, 1842-1885. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1993. Pages 36-37.

Silverstone, Paul H. Warships of the Civil War Navies. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1989. Pages 159-160.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Upcoming Conference

The North Carolina Maritime History Council will hold its annual conference Thursday, September 30 through Saturday, October 2 in the colonial capital of New Bern. While very little of the conference program focuses on the Civil War, the featured keynote speaker at Friday evening's dinner will be Dr. Craig Symonds. He will be discussing the naval war in North Carolina. Also, on Saturday morning, yours truly will be presenting a talk on the USS Underwriter Expedition in February 1864 and the impact that raid had on the officer corps of the Confederate ironclad CSS Neuse. Take a look at the Council's website linked above and click on the Annual Conference link for more information. Anyone interested in maritime history is sure to find something of interest.

Friday, September 17, 2010

On this date in Florida CW Naval History

On 17 September 1862, five Union Navy gunboats (Paul Jones, Cimarron, Uncas, E.B. Hale, and Patroon), under the command of Cdr. Charles Steedman, engaged a Confederate earthworks on the St. Johns River at St. Johns Bluff. The battle lasted for several hours and succeeded in temporarily driving the rebels from the battery, but ultimately it took a combined Navy/Army land assault to take the fortification in early October.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Brief History of the USS Constellation

The Constellation associated with the Civil War was the second ship of that name; the first was a frigate built in Baltimore that was in use from 1797 to 1853. The sloop-of-war Constellation was constructed in Norfolk in 1855. During the prewar years, the Constellation was part of the Mediterranean Squadron and the African Squadron, where she “safeguarded American commerce” and captured slave ships.

On May 21, 1861, a little more than a month after the declaration of the blockade, Constellation captured Triton, a brig obviously outfitted for the transport of slaves. For the next few years of the war, Constellation sailed around the Mediterranean protecting Union ships from Confederate cruisers and raiders. During the sloop-of-war’s journey back to the United States she tried to capture privateers in the West Indies. Finding that the Confederate Navy believed the Constellation was still in European waters, she had an advantage and was easily able to approach rebel vessels without any suspicion.

On Christmas Day of 1864, Constellation found herself at Fort Monroe. Most of the crew’s terms of enlistment expired in January and those sailors were discharged at that time, while the rest of the crew was transferred to St. Lawrence. Constellation acted as a receiving ship at Norfolk, where she remained until the end of the war.

Constellation is a unique Civil War vessel because she has been restored and opened to the public as a museum. She can be found in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, her home since 1968.

Friday, September 10, 2010


Perhaps one of the most versatile pieces of gunnery used by the US Navy during the Civil War was the Dahlgren boat howitzer. Designed by Capt. John A. Dahlgren of the Navy Ordinance Bureau, these were constructed with a bronze barrel and iron carriage. Two 12 pdr models were produced (a light and a heavy model) and a 24 pdr version as smoothbores. Rifled versions of the gun in 3.4” (12 pdr) and 4” (20 pdr) were also produced. Note the lack of trunions on the barrel (used on other field pieces to secure barrel to carriage). The barrel was secured to a fitting on the carriage by a removable bolt through a matching fitting on the bottom of the barrel. The barrel could be removed from the carriage and mounted on a similar fitting on the bow of a ship’s boat (Canney, pg. 176). The carriage could be disassembled and carried easily in the boat and by personnel on foot. In this way, the gun could be used on the boats for fire support during amphibious landings, then reassembled on land and transported by hand along with the attacking amphibious force to continue to provide fire support. Spencer Tucker referred to the Dahlgren boat howitzer as “undoubtedly the finest boat guns of their day in the world.” Boat howitzers were found in the arms complement of all US Navy ships, although they were not listed as part of the rating or official armament. On smaller ships, such as schooners and armed tugs, they could be used as the main deck guns.
NOTES ON ILLUSTRATION: The "live photo" of a Dahlgren boat howitzer is a replica owned and used by the Ft. Caroline National Monument in Jacksonville, FL. Part of their site includes the St. Johns Bluff area, which was a site of a significant naval engagement in Florida in the fall of 1862. The National Monument has a Civil War Living History event in November on the weekend before Thanksgiving to emphasize this element of the history of Jacksonville.

Donald L. Canney, Lincoln’s Navy. The Ships, Men and Organization, 1861-65 (London, UK: Conway Maritime Press, 1998), Chapter 11.

Spencer C. Tucker, Blue and Gray Navies. The Civil War Afloat (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2006), pp. 52-53.

Ibid, The Navy Dahlgren Boat Howitzer, Naval History Vol. 6, No. 3, 1992