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).