Friday, September 14, 2012

Rear Admiral Wilkes and his Magical Flying Squadron

Steam sloop USS Wachusett

In mid-1862, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles had a serious problem on his hands.  Intelligence indicated that at least two Confederate cruisers (CSS Florida and Alabama) were either en route or already situated in the West Indies, with more on their way.   He could not ignore the problem of Confederate steam cruisers any longer. On September 8, 1862, he stood up the "West Indies Squadron."  The name itself was not new.  The Navy always maintained a squadron since the 1820s with that name, to handle real life "pirates of the Caribbean" that tended to pop up from time to time. 

Rear Admiral Charles Wilkes
Naval histories of the Civil War often referred to the squadron as "Wilkes' Flying Squadron," as it was supposed to react quickly to a Confederate cruiser sighting. The term was used frequently in the Age of Sail to refer to a squadron composed of light and fast warships.  The term "Flying" did not appear in Welles' letters until AFTER the war.  During the War, it was simply referred to as the "West Indies Squadron." 
Welles placed the intellectually brilliant, but obstinate, Commodore Charles Wilkes to be charge of the Squadron.  The appointment came with his promotion to "Acting Rear Admiral." Welles drew a few ships from each of the blockading squadrons to give Wilkses' squadron seven steamers: USS Wachusett, Dacotah, Cimarron, Sonoma, Tioga, Octorara,and Santiago de Cuba.  This gave Wilkes, two steam sloops, four double-ender gunboats, and one converted passenger steamer.  Many of them were powerfully armed with XI-inch Dahlgrens and 100-pounder Parrots.  Their speed, however, was  modest at best.   

Given Wilkes' history with boarding foreign flag ships (see the Trent Affair), Welles gave very specific orders on neutrals rights.  The one exception was British-flag ships suspected of participating in the slave trade.  After decades of discussion, the United States and Britain agreed to a mutual right of search treaty, allowing each side to search the other side's ships for slaves without need for further diplomatic follow up.
Paddle Steamer USS Cimarron

Upon arriving in the region with USS Wachusett, Wilkes and his ships began frequent port calls from Bermuda down to the southern end of the Lesser Antilles looking for Confederate cruisers.  Their strategy was one of "search-and-destroy;" that is, ships patrolled areas where cruisers were last seen.  This strategy stands in contrast to the more passive convoy strategy, where friendly merchant ships were escorted from Point A to Point B, challenging enemy cruisers to find them.  Wilkes, however, adopted the more aggressive strategy that proved a failure.  No Confederate cruisers were even spotted for several weeks.  His ships, however, discovered  the patterns of several blockade runners and ran many of them down.

Meanwhile, CSS Alabama was thousands of miles to the east in the Azores Islands.  On September 18, she wrapped her campaign there by burning her eighth U.S.-Flagged whaling ship in thirteen days.


  1. Hi Gordon! Here's the question of the day - when did Cimarron report to the West Indies Squadron? See my latest post (Sept. 16); Cimarron was a participant in the St. Johns Bluff engagement on 17 Sept 1862 and continued to serve on the St. Johns River patrol through at least early October, so she must have reported to her new patrol later in '62??

  2. Commodore Wilkes was trouble to everyone around him. Wilkes repeatedly violated orders and the neutrality of other nations, including Great Britain, Spain, and Denmark. Repairing the breaches he made in international relations was almost a full time job for the State Department. Often blockaders under order from the Secretary of the navy to ports in the Gulf of Mexico were grabbed by Wilkes as a senior officer and not returned until repeated demands and orders from Washington forced their release. Ships under his orders fired on blockade runners well within neutral waters, with shells landing on shore and even destroying houses. Ships of this squadron stayed in a virtual blockade of neutral harbors until more powerful neutral squadrons arrived. The squadron stayed in the Danish port of St. Thomas for many months, using the harbor as a coaling base until forced to leave. On one Cuban beach the crew of one of Wilkes's squadron vessels physically threw the local Spanish government representative overboard from a grounded blockade runner, tore down the Spanish flag and trod upon it before setting the ship afire. At sea, most of the complaints of illegal captures of ships suspected of intent to run the blockade were made by his squadron and more of their captures were ruled illegal and returned to their owners by prize courts than for any similar group of blockaders. Despite the success of the prewar U.S. Exploring Expedition under his command, Wilkes was no hero for his role in the Civil War.

  3. Hi Rob!

    I am looking at the ONR Volume I Series I, and it seems that Commander Woodhaull (commanding officer of Cimarron) was given a barrage of orders. On September 3, 1862, Welles told him to go from Hampton Roads to Key West to be a part of the East Gulf Blockading Squadron. Forty-eight hours later, CSS Florida was spotted in the Gulf and Cimmaron was told to go directly to the blockade station off of Mobile. It would seem by the actions in Flordia, that she never made it to Wilkes' squadron. Being a "double ended" gunboat, Cimmaron was an odd to choice to begin with for cruiser duty to begin with.