Monday, April 30, 2012

Battle of New Orleans-One Vs. A Hundred

Lt. Beverly Kennon
As mentioned in the April 25 post, the Confederate forces afloat at New Orleans were very much outgunned and outnumbered.  With resources scarce and little chance of victory, standard naval warfare dictoms would advocate caution ("Live to fight another day," etc..).  One man who must have slept through that part of his Naval Academy training was Lieutenant Beverly Kennon, the commanding officer of the Louisiana state steamer Governor Moore.

 In his post-war account of the battle, Kennon made sure everyone knew that he did not serve in the Confederate Navy, but rather in the service of the Louisiana State Navy.    Kennon originally served with the CSN, but had a major falling out with Commodore Franklin Buchanan while serving aboard CSS Patrick Henry in Hampton Roads. He resigned his commission and returned home to New Orleans.  Thus, His Battles and Leaders account of the battle is tainted with a certain amount of bitterness.  

In the account, Kennon frequently refers to the lack of coordination among afloat Confederate units.  CSN ships operated as one, but state and Confederate army vessels operated separately from them.  Even the state vessels tended to operate independently from each other.

His ship and other Confederate gunboats were anchored upstream from the forts when the battle started.  Upon seeing Farragut's squadron pass the forts and approach the Confederate ships, Kennon decided to pit his one ship up against the entire squadron.  He implies that made the decision to attack in the hopes that other CSN or LSN ships would follow his lead.  After he personally "shot [Moore's] blue light out at the masthead with a musket," to better cloak his vessel, Kennon waited near the river's shore until the right moment.  He targeted the gunboat USS Varuna and charged.   Kennon fired the ship's forward gun through his own and then rammed Varuna, twice.  The U.S. Navy gunboat began to sink.
At this point, USS Oneida, Iroquois, Pensacola, Pinola, and Cayuga came rushing to Varuna's rescue.  This still did not deter Kennon and charged towards Pensacola.   However, his executive officer, who manned Governor Moore's helm,  did not share his captain's bravery. "Why do this? We have no men left; I'll be d---- if I stand here to be murdered," he is to have said.    The XO put the ship hard astarboard, opening Governor Moore to a murderous broadside from  Pensacola.  Moore was disabled by the shots, eventually caught fire, and sank. 

Governor Moore tries to flee, while USS Pensacola levels the Confederate steamer with a full broadside.
After the war, Kennon stood by his aggressive tactics and slammed just about everyone in the Confederate Navy's leadership team for the failure at New Orleans.  To be sure, he got no help from other Confederate ships.  Stonewall Jackson did ram Varuna, but only after Varuna was sinking and while Stonewall Jackson was beating a hasty retreat towards New Orleans.  The gunboat CSS Jackson, meanwhile, did its best impression of Captain Pierre Landais and fired at anyone.  Two of Jackson's shots hit Governor Moore.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

" matter how much pluck..."

Check out this article at the Rochester newspaper, Democrat and Chronicle, website. It briefly discusses Rochester sailors' involvement in the capture of New Orleans.

Porter's mortar schooners - failure to meet expectations

Earlier we looked at the Mississippi River mortar boats used upriver at points such as Island No. 10 and Fort Pillow.  While suitable for the inland rivers, being little more than rafts these were not capable of ocean passage.  For the lower reaches of the Mississippi, the Navy acquired several ocean going civilian vessels to form a "bomb flotilla." 

Commander David Dixon Porter, in charge of the Mortar Flotilla, set high expectations for these craft.   As with expectations upriver, many thought the 13-inch mortars would rain destruction down upon fortifications blocking passage along the Mississippi.  Those championing the heavy mortars figured no defensive work could last more than a few hours against a deliberate bombardment.  However detractors wondered if the wooden vessels could withstand the strain.

Unknown mortar schooner - typical of the type used - note mortar between the masts (Wiki Commons)
Porter received twenty schooners outfitted with mortars.  These ships retained their civilian names upon commissioning - USS Adolph Hugel, USS Arletta, USS C.P. Williams, USS Dan Smith, USS George Mangham, USS Henry James, USS John Griffith, USS Maria J. Carlton, USS Matthew Vasser, USS Norfolk Packet, USS Oliver H. Lee, USS Orvetta, USS Para, USS Racer, USS Sara Bruen, USS Sea Foam, USS Sidney C. Jones, USS Sophronia, USS T.A. Ward, and USS William Bacon.  (The barks USS Horace Beals and USS A. Houghton are sometimes cited along with the mortar schooners, but these served as guard and stores ships, respectively). 

The main armament of the schooners was the relatively new 13-inch naval mortar, identical to the Army's Model 1861 Seacoast Mortar.  Fort Pitt Foundry in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania delivered the first of these in November 1861.  Although weighing over 17,000 pounds, the mortar could fire a 227 pound projectile over 4600 yards.  Concurrently to production, the Navy built firing platforms to accommodate these massive weapons. 

13-inch Mortar on Navy Platform (Naval Ordnance Instructions)

Unlike the smaller upriver boats, which might be maneuvered about to adjust the line of fire, the schooners required some means to traverse the weapons.  So the Navy designed a circular, pivoting platform.  To traverse the mortar, crews would raise the platform on four eccentric wheels using braking leavers.  Once raised, the crews used block and tackle to pivot the platform.  After heaving to the proper line, the crew released the eccentric brakes, lowering the platform back onto the base, thus ensuring the wheels would not bear the recoil force when fired. 

Mortar and platform on an unidentified schooner (Wiki Commons)
In addition to the mortars, the schooners carried self-defense batteries.  The larger vessels mounted two 32-pdr guns and two 12-pdr boat howitzers.  The smaller schooners carried only the 12-pdrs. 

The Mortar Flotilla arrived off the Louisiana coast in March 1862.  After reconnaissances, including work by a coastal survey team, Porter carefully placed his schooners downstream of Forts Jackson and St. Philip.  Since the schooners were lightly constructed wooden vessels, Porter made sure to keep them out of view and range from most of the Confederate guns.  And to prevent accurate indirect fire (as the Confederate garrisons had mortars of their own), the schooners camouflaged their masts with tree limbs.  The schooners tied up along the river banks at distances between 2800 and 4500 yards.  On April 18, the bombardment commenced at a planned rate of two rounds every minute during daylight hours.  On the first day, nearly 3,000 shells landed in and around the forts. 

Mortar schooners in action (from Battles & Leaders)
The mortars damaged casemates, broke levees, and dismounted some of the Confederate guns.  In Fort Jackson, the garrison huddled in casemates while the fort flooded.  The bombardment continued on for days.  Yet in spite of the impressive display, Porter's mortars did not reduce the forts to rubble as some predicted.  Instead, the Confederate defenders remained active and continued to return fire.  The mortar gunners had difficulty timing their fuses. Some shells burst too high, while others landed on the soft ground and buried too deeply.  Furthermore, Porter complained of the difficulty of spotting and adjusting fires (not unlike that encountered at Island No. 10).  The bombardment was not doing enough damage to suppress the Confederate defenders.
Frustrated, Captain (later Admiral) David Farragut decided to run past the forts instead of waiting for Porter's mortars to complete their task.  The mortars continued firing to cover preparations.  After Farragut forced passage on April 24, Porter continued efforts to reduce the forts.  While the mortars failed in terms of physical damage to the forts, their impact took a toll psychologically on the garrisons.  On April 29 many enlisted men in Fort Jackson mutinied and demanded the garrison surrender.  Both Confederate forts capitulated the next day. 

Summarizing the employment of mortars, Porter wrote in his official report:

If the efforts of the Mortar Flotilla have not met your expectations in reducing the forts in a shorter time, it must be remembered that great difficulties existed, first, in the soil which allowed the bombs to sink at least 20 feet by measurement before exploding; the difficulty of seeing the fort, as it is not much above the surrounding bushes, and the endurance of the casemates which were deeply covered with earth and better constructed than supposed.  But I am firmly of opinion that the moral effect of this bombardment will go far toward clearing all forts of rebels, and I draw attention to the case of Fort Livingston, which held out a flag of truce at the moment three mortar vessels appeared before it.
Certainly the mortar schooners failed to perform up to the expectations made by their proponents.  However, their detractors were not entirely vindicated.  The mortar schooners remained in service, providing support for operations on the Mississippi and with the blockading fleet right up to the end of the war.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Battle of New Orleans-Sponsored by William Waud

W. Waud's image of USS Iroquios' XI-inch gun crew hit during the battle of New Orleans
Artist William Waud, brother of artist Alfred Waud, accompanied Farragut's fleet up the Mississippi River and was present during the attack on Forts St. Phillip and Jackson.  While Alfired worked as a contract sketch artist for Harper's Weekly, William worked for the cross-town rival: Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. The Library of Congress and the LOUISiana Digital Library both have several dozen digital versions of both brothers' work online.

W. Waud's image of the heart of the fight between Farragut's ships and the Confederate forts and ships.

William's depiction of New Orleans are not for the faint of heart. Unlike many other depictions of New Orleans William's images do not show a clean, orderly battle.  The viewer of the image is thrown right into the middle of the chaos.  And this was before the engraver back in New York City got a hold of William's original sketch and added his own graphic interpretation of the scene.   In this post are  four of William's drawings as published engravings in Frank Leslie's and two are rough sketches.   In one of these engravings, William made sure the public knew the risks he was personally taking to bring them accurate depictions of the war by placing himself in one of the images.

USN mortar gun crew with identifications of assignments.

The fighting top of USS Mississippi during the battle.  Notice the
sketch artist (W. Waud himself) at right, ever so calm at work.  
Destruction of the ironclad CSS Louisiana
Final victory-Farragut's fleet off of New Orleans

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Facing the Forts: The West Gulf Blockading Squadron

Today (25 April) marks the 150th anniversary of the fall of New Orleans. In commemoration of Union control of the Crescent City, we have begun a series of posts in coordination with the Civil War Monitor Magazine, titled “Iron Men Afloat.” For each topic covered, the CWN 150 blog will focus on the machines and technology used, while the Civil War Monitor will discuss the men (i.e. living component) involved. This is the first in an ambitious series of cross posts. For the companion post at the Civil War Monitor blog, please go HERE

USS Hartford at New Orleans (Library of Congress)
United States Navy 
The ships of the West Gulf Blockading faced a daunting task in April 1862.  The Navy set its eyes on New Orleans, the South’s largest city and major port. Records show that Captain David Glasgow Farragut began planning to capture New Orleans began as far back as January and February.  The future Admiral knew that taking New Orleans meant taking or running past the powerful Forts Jackson and St. Philip, situated across each other along the Mississippi River. Farragut took command of the newly created West Gulf Blockading Squadron in late 1861, arriving with his fleet in February.  This would be his first major test as squadron commander during the Civil War. The results would give him international acclaim.

The majority of focus on ship strength during the battle centers on Farragut’s flagship, USS Hartford. Built just prior to the war, the Hartford boasted steam and sail capabilities with a top speed of 13.5 knots.  This was one advantage that proved to be beneficial for sloops when compared to sluggish ironclads. The ship was by all accounts no different than any other wooden sloop-of-war created in the antebellum Navy.  Her war service record, however, made her one of the Navy’s most recognizable ships. By 1865, the ship seemed mythical. At one point in the battle (24 April), Farragut’s leadership helped save the grounded ship from a burning barge that nearly engulfed the entire ship in flames. The above print from the Library of Congress’ collection brilliantly explains the harrowing sight of battle on 24 April.  The Hartford was just one of many Union ships involved in the battle against Forts Jackson and St. Philip. The attack utilized several different ship types of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, including sloops, schooners, mortar boats, and hastily built gunboats.

The Union plan of attack was not without its flaws.  The major obstacle standing in the way of Farragut’s fleet, besides fortifications and river barrier chain, was David Dixon Porter’s mortar ships.  Slow and relatively untested, each of the 21 mortar schooners had a single 13-inch seacoast mortar capable of hurling a 227-pound shell nearly 5,000 yards. The arched trajectory a lot the plunging fire to fall on top of the enemy target: ideal for shore-based fortifications. Although Farragut did not  ascribe to the effectiveness of the giant cannons, he would use his fleet during the upcoming engagement regardless. 
(Library of Congress)

LEFT:  Union plan of attack, sketched by William Waud. Notice the sketches of CSS Louisiana and CSS Manasseh's in the left corner of the image.

 The ongoing debate of ship vulnerability and susceptibility to shore-based fortification would be tested at New Orleans. Before April 1862, few naval engagements involved ships against heavy fortifications. Although several “gauntlets” were passed in the early months of 1862 (See “Commander Walke Runs the Gauntlet”). The Mississippi River, either at its inner corridors or its entrance, was the major objective in the West.  It was there that Farragut felt David Dixon Porter’s rag-tag mortar fleet could be utilized. If anything, the results proved to be psychologically damaging, as some of the shells with their unreliable fuses did hit the fortifications.  According to historian Chester Hearn, Porter predicted he could subdue the forts within two days of bombardment.  He did not.  During the first phase of the battle (18-23 April), Porter fired nearly 3,000 mortars over the course of five days. Civil War Monitor and CWN 150 blogger Craig Swain recently wrote about the unwieldy and inaccurate mortars for the blog.
Unadilla-Class Gunboat, 1861
Unadilla-class gunboats, commonly referred to as the “90 Day Gunboats,” were employed in every naval theater of warfare during the Civil War, from the battle at Port Royal to the triumphant Vicksburg campaign. Each ship was lightly armed with one XI-inch Dahlgren smoothbore, two 24-pounder Parrot rifles, and one 20-pounder Parrot.  The U.S. Navy used the wrought iron Parrot rifle extensively during the war, even if the design was flawed (Many of the guns burst throughout the war).  It is hard to compare the "wholesale" design of the Parrot with the tested one of Dahlgren’s, who Spencer Tucker called “the most influential figure in the development of nineteenth century ordnance.” Of the 17 ships comprising the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, nine were Unadilla-class gunboats: Cayuga, Itasca, Katahdin, Kennebec, Kineo, Pinola, Sciota, Winona, and Wissahickon.

In total, the squadron assembled below New Orleans totaled 188 guns to the 105 guns at Forts Jackson and St. Philip (75 at Fort Jackson and 30 at Fort St. Philip).  General Mansfield Lovell and other Confederate planners hoped the fortifications and ships would be enough to stave off Farragut’s wooden fleet.

Confederate Navy 
Facing the 188 guns of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron were several ironclads and cottonclad rams that comprised the Civilian-run Confederate River Defense Fleet. Three ironclads were at New Orleans at the time of the 24 April engagement: CSS Manassas, CSS Louisiana, and CSS Mississippi. Only Manassas and Louisiana were involved in the conflict, as Mississippi was incomplete at the time of battle.

CSS Louisiana
Louisiana loosely resembled many of the casemate-type ironclads used in the eastern theater like CSS Virginia and CSS Richmond. The ship was hastily built amidst pressure from the blockade and from skilled laborers. After she sank following the fleet’s passing below New Orleans, the Louisiana’s Executive Officer pointed out in the Official Records that, above all else, the ship was poorly designed for armament, making it only a formidable ship at close range. The armor of the ship did prove effective in battle. Louisiana briefly engaged with the Brooklyn during the engagement, having the Union vessels’ cannon balls bounced off the armor plating. The only major casualty of the Louisiana during its brief engagement at New Orleans was its commanding officer, Charles F. McIntosh.

CSS Manassas
CSS Manassas made notoriety earlier in the year when it thwarted the Federal blockade at the Head of Passes. Her design sparked much curiosity; so much that David Dixon Porter attempted to save the ship from sinking to examine it at the end of the battle. New Orleans merchant John Stevenson took the captured tow boat upriver to Algiers where it was converted into a revolutionary “turtle-backed” ironclad design, complete with 1.5-inch armor and chain complementing the iron ram and single Dahlgren gun.  The new ship was christened CSS Manassas.  During the battle, Manassas managed to ram the Mississippi and Brooklyn. The damage, however, was minimal. The vessel was eventually abandoned on the shore and burned.

Stacking Up
It is important to note the simplicity of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron in comparison to other squadrons or Confederate fleets. According to the National Park Service, the United States Navy suffered 229 casualties to the Confederacy’s 782. The Union Navy lost one vessel, the gunboat Varuna. The United States Navy ran the forts with no ironclad ships. The Confederate Navy lost twelve vessels during the run of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron past Forts Jackson and St. Philip. Of the three Confederate ironclads at the battle of New Orleans, none survived the end of April:
  • The CSS Manassas ran aground and sunk on 24 April by steam frigate USS Mississippi.
  • The crew of the CSS Louisiana set her afire to avoid capture on 28 April. 
  • The incomplete CSS Mississippi was burned by Confederates to avoid capture by Farragut on 25 April. 
Perhaps it is best to take a quote from the Ironclad Board, men who were ironically assigned to employ new naval technology against wooden ships. Once you read the quote, it is as if they read straight from an after-action report at New Orleans:
“Wooden ships may be said to be but coffins for their crews when brought in conflict with iron-clad vessels; but the speed of the former, we take for granted, being greater than that of the latter, they can readily choose their position and keep out of harm’s way.”
Steam power had much more to do with the battle of New Orleans than iron-wielded machinery. With a hearty understanding of strategy and tactics, Farragut’s fleet soundly passed the Forts at New Orleans, leaving a clear path to New Orleans with no sign of reinforcements between them and the strategic and commercial center. On 25 April 1862, Farragut’s forces accepted its surrender. Although the squadron’s sailors were not made of iron, their courage was wielded and forged at the gates of New Orleans in April 1862. Read more about the Battle of New Orleans, including a complete sequence of events of the engagement, HERE.

Where Are They Now? 
 Bruised and battered from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, both forts remain standing, albeit more in a figurative sense. St. Philip, the smaller of the two fortifications watching over the entrance to New Orleans, is only available via boat or helicopter. Both forts are part of the U.S. National Register of the Historic Places, as well as U.S. National Historic Landmarks. The many Unadilla-class gunboats created to swell the naval register immediately following the outbreak of the war were primarily sold off to foreign countries when the war ended. As for Farragut’s flagship, the USS Hartford remained in the fleet serving with distinction for the remainder of the Civil War. Falling into disrepair, the ship sank at her Portsmouth birth in 1956.  Here is a picture of the stern emblem of the ship, which is now part of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum’s accessioned collection.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

St. Andrews Bay Salt Works Raid Event 21-22 April 2012

Salt works kettle/boiler display:

Salt works historic marker:

During the Civil War, St. Andrews Bay, Florida, was an immensely important area of salt production for the Confederacy along the Florida Gulf Coast. The second annual living history event commemorating Union Navy raids on Confederate salt works in St. Andrews Bay was held this weekend (21-22 April). The event is put together by the City of Panama City, the Panama City Historical Society, and the Steam Sloop Pawnee Marine Guard (a member organization of the CWN150 Blog). Participating organizations include the Port Columbus National Museum of Civil War Naval History, the USS Fort Henry Living History Association (both member organizations of the CWN150), and the USN Sea Cadet Corps. The event recalls and informs about the importance of salt making to the Confederacy and the Union efforts to disrupt these efforts during the Civil War.

Day 1 (Saturday, 21 April) began fair and cloudy and progressively degenerated into waves of strong rain squalls pushing onshore from the Gulf of Mexico. The day was scrubbed, with some activities in the morning, but no beach landing and assault in the afternoon due to the weather and safety concerns (lightning and strong winds).

Day 2 (Sunday, 22 April) dawned breezy and cloudy, but the sun was out in force by mid-morning. We had a complete day today, doing living history stuff in the morning, and in the afternoon a beach landing of marines and sailors on the Port Columbus Museum’s steam launch. The landing included pyrotechnics planted in the beach (to simulate bombardment from Union gunboats offshore); as we were about to hit the beach they went off, drenching the landing party with sand, detritus and water. Our objective was to destroy a Confederate salt works and withdraw back to our ship. After landing, the marines advanced and set up a defensive perimeter against Confederate home guard. On orders from our landing party officer, I advanced, protected by a contingent of seamen armed with pistol/cutlass and musket, set charges against the main salt works, and after orders from the landing party CO to ignite, we withdrew to the beach and watched the works blow.

I’ll be doing some posts on actions against salt works at St. Andrews Bay later this year as we hit the 150th Anniversary of these events.

US Navy steam launch landing marines and sailors to assault salt works last year (2011). Photo by Paige Creel:

Friday, April 20, 2012

USS Galena: Flawed, but Still Standing

In preparation for Drewry's Bluff, we present USS Galena.  This is the ship that is often mentioned in passing and in hush circles as that "other ironclad" that had a flawed design.  The ship served as the flagship for the squadron of U.S. Navy ships that challenged, and failed, the Confederate defenders at Fort Darling and the Bluff.

USS Galena was of the three "experimental" ironclad designs put recommended by the Ironclad Board. The ship had all the right connections.  Her designer was none other than Samuel Pook, designer of the "City"-class ironclads that dominated the Mississippi River system during the war and had a hand is designing the Merrimack-class of steam frigates.  Successful New England shipbuilder C.S. Bushnell backed the ship's design and had her built at his shipyard in Connecticut.

So what was wrong? In simple terms, Galena was a wooden ship trapped in the body of an ironclad.  Pook design a wooden steam sloop with four inches of iron slapped on the sides.  Placing iron over wood was nothing extraordinary.  Most ironclads, including New Ironsides and Virginia, had several inches of wood backing up the ship's iron plates.  The wood and iron work together as an integrated system.

 However, Galena was simply a wooden steam sloop with four inches of iron slapped on the sides.  Additionally, Galena's armor was placed in a "tumblehome" design, meaning the ship's top deck is narrower  than the beam.  The result was a odd, aircraft shelter-like, look to the ship.  The ship's iron would go on to show that just because one places iron on a ship, doesn't make the ship the next Achilles. 

However, when you read more about Drewry's Bluff in future posts, do remember this: of the three experimental ironclads,  only Galena was still floating in 1867.   Granted, this had nothing to do with superior design than the will of Neptune.   It could even be argued that because of Galena, there would never have been a Monitor.  One story goes that Bushnell asked his friend John Ericson's to consultant on Pook's design.  During the meeting, Ericsson's rejected Galena's design outright and pulled out a plan for what he thought an ironclad warship should look like.  Impressed by the design, Bushnell encouraged Ericsson to put his plan in front of the Board.

Drewry's Bluff Commemoration

Today, Laura Orr and I traveled to Drewry's Bluff to talk about some recent developments brewing with the National Park Service for the 150th anniversary commemoration.  Needless to say, we had a wonderful time walking the site and talking about the strategic importance of the battle itself, both for the Navy and the Marine Corps.  

Stay tuned for more updates and posts about Drewry's Bluff in the upcoming weeks in preparation for the anniversary.  CWN 150 staff will be there at the event.  Also, many of you may be wondering where our posts are about New Orleans.  We are in the process of doing some posts with the Civil War Monitor online blog very soon.  Keep coming back for updates!

Be sure to come to the Richmond area on May 12 and 13 to enjoy the MANY activities provided that weekend. Check out the details on the PDF at the website below. More information to come soon! (in this photo: the view of the James River from Fort Darling, taken today.)

Looking forward to the next couple of weeks!

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Unfavorable Mortar Boats

In the later fall of 1861, Captain (later flag officer) Andrew Foote inherited a squadron in the making. The warships under construction and conversion at yards along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers were far from the ocean going vessels Foote was accustomed to. In a private letter to Army Quartermaster-General Montgomery Meigs, dated November 20, 1861, Foote confessed is dislike for some of the vessels, but saved special criticism for the mortar boats being fitted out:

I have not, fortunately, committed myself in relation to them, although I have a written order from General Fremont to man, arm, and equip them. I never have thought favorably of these boats, either in construction or as an element of power. Still as they were built, and the mortars (12) built, I concluded to move in the matter and kept you informed, or rather asked your authority to go forward. (ONR, Series I, Volume 22, page 438.)
These river mortar boats, not to be confused with larger schooner mortar boats used by the blue-water navy, that Foote wrote of were little more than rafts. A pair of these boats appear in a wartime photo, tied up alongside the USS Tuscumbia.

The mortar boats were, as Foote indicated, a project begun by General John C. Fremont in the early days of the war. The mortars themselves came from Fort Pitt Foundry in Pittsburgh. These 13-inch Seacoast Mortars, Model 1861 - the Army's latest and heaviest seacoast mortars. The Army Ordnance Department designed the weapon to arm coastal fortifications. The 13-inch mortar fired a 227 pound shells fired to a maximum range of 4600 yards. Unlike standard guns, the mortars fired the shells in a high, arching trajectory to fall on top of the intended target. The army designed these seacoast mortars to drop shells upon an enemy bombardment fleet attacking coastal fortifications.

But with wartime needs along the Mississippi River, Army leaders saw an offensive potential with the mortars. Mortars, they felt, could provide a "stand off" bombardment of river fortifications. This concept gained favor in public opinion outside the military, suggesting less bloody means of opening the river.

Trouble was the eight and a half ton mortars were not very mobile. Normally the Army would move such heavy weapons as part of a siege train. But the swampy bottom lands of the river precluded employment such ponderous formations. Instead Fremont opted to float the mortars into position.

Using a typical flat bottomed barge as a basis, the constructors added a platform of timbers. The platform measured roughly 60 feet by 25 feet. Bulwarks, six to seven feet tall, formed a superstructure on top of the platform. Inside the space formed by the bulwarks was room for the mortar, its bed, and handling equipment. Contemporary drawings show the mortars placed on the center line, but in the photo the mortar sits just to starboard.

With all the mortar and equipment inside the bulwarks, there was no room for crew accommodations or any propulsion system. Tugs moved the mortar boats into position, and provided transportation for the fifteen man crew. Additional boats served as floating magazines and berthing facilities. When firing, the crews stood on the aft end of the mortar boat, or when possible, walked out onto shore, to avoid the overpressure blast when the big weapon fired.

Foote inherited the mortar boats as part of the Mississippi River Squadron. Lacking any practical experience with mortars he turned to the Army for help. Initially Captain Archibald G.A. Constable of the 11th Ohio Independent Artillery served as an adviser. Later the Army sent Captain Henry E. Maynadier, a regular army artillery officer.

Charged with supervising the completion of the mortar boats, Foote faced several delays. The progress of the mortar boats received a high level of visibility. On January 23, 1862 President Abraham Lincoln requested a daily report on the progress. The mortars themselves, being a new pattern, were slow arriving in quantity. Mortar beds were also in limited supply. As the material arrived, Foote complained he lacked another key resource - personnel. The Army eventually provided many of the gunners required. By March Foote had over thirty mortar boats ready for use.

Foote employed the mortar boats at Island No. 10. Later the mortar boats carried the fight to Fort Pillow further downstream. Progress on the river mortar boats paralleled similar outfitting for the blue-water mortar boats. Admiral David Farragut prepared ocean-going mortar schooners to bombard Confederate defenses downriver from New Orleans.

In practice the mortars failed to live up to their promise. Long range indirect fires required coordination to adjust the fall of the projectile onto the target. Although balloons were used at Island No. 10, the mortar shell trajectory was simply too unpredictable for proper fire control. Although impressive to both sides, the mortars offered little practical impact on the Confederate fortifications. Long range, indirect fire support from warships had to wait a few decades for more advanced technology - better guns, projectiles, propellants, and communications.

But those mortar boats provide a fair example of the nature of Army-Navy cooperation, even if at times acrimonious, in the early stages of the war. Both services would put the 13-inch mortars to good use later in the war.

Illustration Credits: Naval Historical Center, Battles and Leaders, Author's personal collection.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The First Year in Review

Civil War Navy and Marine Reenactors at Portsmouth Navy Birthday (October 2011)
 "Nor must Uncle Sam's web-feet be forgotten. At all the watery margins they have been present. Not only on the deep sea, the broad bay, and the rapid river, but also up the narrow muddy bayou, and wherever the ground was a little damp, they have been, and made their tracks." - Abraham Lincoln (1863)

This past Thursday (12 April) marked the end of the first year of the sesquicentennial commemoration.  What a wonderful year it has been for the Civil War Sesquicentennial and the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial!

It's been a busy year for the CWN 150 and the blog.  During the first year (12 April 2011-12 April 2012), CWN bloggers wrote 148 individual posts, reaching thousands of new and returning visitors.  The greatest benefit of doing the blog is getting the positive feedback from readers, especially those in those partnerships we have made in the past year like the National Park Service and the Civil War Monitor.
USS Cumberland Expedition (June 2011)
In between that time, the CWN 150 was involved in several events in and around the Hampton Roads area.  In October, the CWN 150 set up an informational table at the annual Navy Birthday celebration at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, VA.  Our first "series" of commemorative posts was conducted last year for the 150th anniversary of Port Royal.  Stay tuned for more special posts in the near future!

Several lectures and talks were given by CWN 150/HRNM staffers Matthew Eng and Gordon Calhoun, focusing on the role of the Civil War Navy in public memory and the vital role played by the USS Cumberland during the Battle of Hampton Roads.  The most important lecture series during 2011 was the Civil War at Sea Conference in Washington, D.C.  The CWN 150 was there to hand out hundreds of Civil War Special Edition Daybooks.  Be sure to download a free copy today!  We also were consultants for a 5 part series of videos created by Bob Rositzke about the Civil War navies titled the "Civil War Sea."  If you haven't already, take a half an hour to watch the entire thing on Youtube

HRNM/CWN 150 booth at BOHR Weekend at Mariners' Museum (March 2012)
By far the biggest event that occurred this past year was the Battle of Hampton Roads Weekend/Civil War Navy Conference in conjunction with the Mariners' Museum and the Museum of the Confederacy.  The My Hayley lecture at HRNM at the opening night of the commemoration was a huge success, much to the credit of Dr. Hayley and her wonderful book, The Treason of Mary Louvestre.  CWN 150 bloggers and Hampton Roads Naval Museum staff manned the CWN 150 table as well as spoke at several different panels.  Judging by the number of participants that were at the entire weekend of events, it will be hard to top.  Only time will tell!  The more you get the awareness out there, the better these events we have coming up (New Orleans, Hatteras, Drewry's Bluff) will be. 

Thank you especially to fellow CWN 150 bloggers (and ALL out-of-towners) Craig Swain, Seaman Rob, and Sarah Adler for making it to the anniversary.  I think we all had a fantastic time, learned a lot, and made some fantastic connections.  

On the horizon for the CWN 150:
  • Commemorative posts on New Orleans, Drewry's Bluff, and the river war in the West
  • More LEGO ship model designs courtesy of HRNM's "Brick by Brick: LEGO Shipbuilding" Program
  • More trivia contests and ways to get involved
  • Stay posted to the blog, Facebook, and Twitter for the latest updates!
As always, we are looking forward to the remaining sesquicentennial years.

Full Speed Ahead!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Ft. Pickens and the Pensacola Navy Yard III

Reinforcement of Ft. Pickens by Union forces in mid-1861 (source: Fla. Dept. of State):
In prior posts, I covered the events transpiring at the Pensacola Navy Yard (Florida) and Ft. Pickens through 1861:

Takeover of Pensacola by Confederates and Union withdrawal to Ft. Pickens (26 Aug 2011)

Additional reinforcement of Ft. Pickens and destruction of the privateer CSS Judah (11 Sep 2011)

Confederate landing on Santa Rosa Island and massive artillery duel (20 Nov 2011)

This post closes out the major events at Pensacola during the war, culminating in the reoccupation of the town and the Navy Yard by the Union in mid-1862. At the beginning of 1862, the Confederates had amassed a force of 16,000 troops at Pensacola, under the command of Major Gen. Braxton Bragg. Reinforcements could be brought in by rail from Mobile, Alabama, as needed. In January 1862 another, smaller artillery duel was fought between Union forces on Santa Rosa Island and Confederate forces on the mainland.

Events out west eventually dictated what the Confederacy would do at Pensacola. In February 1862, Forts Henry and Donelson fell to the Union, by a joint Navy/Army operation. In March 1862, US Navy and Army forces began to move on the Mississippi River, taking ports and important fortifications. These Union activities forced the Confederacy to have to deploy forces to the western theatre to meet the Union threat. Bragg was ordered to move his forces westward to bolster the Confederate military effort there. Preparatory to abandoning Pensacola, Bragg ordered his XO:

I desire you particularly to leave nothing the enemy can use; burn all from Fort McRee to the junction with the Mobile road. Save the guns, and if necessary destroy your gunboats and all other boats. They might be used against us. Destroy all machinery, etc., public and private, which could be useful to the enemy; especially disable the sawmills in and around the bay and burn the lumber. Break up the railroad from Pensacola to the Junction, carrying the iron up to a safe point.”

Another skirmish between Union and Confederate troops was fought in late March/early April 1862 at Pensacola Bay. By then, withdrawal of Confederate forces was in full swing, although surprisingly the Union did not have detailed knowledge of these actions. In early April 1862, Bragg suffered a repulsing and bloody defeat by Gen. U.S. Grant at Shiloh, Tennessee, while later that month, Farragut bypassed Forts St. Philip and Jackson on the Mississippi and took New Orleans. These Union victories spelled the ultimate doom for any hope of holding on to Pensacola by the Confederacy, as well before then (approx. February 1862) the strategic decision had been made to withdraw all Confederate troops from Florida for use elsewhere.

By early May 1862, the evacuation of Pensacola and the Navy Yard was complete. The retreating Confederates set fire to any public property that “. . . could be of use to the foe.” Seeing the blaze, the US Army commander at Ft. Pickens dispatched his aide-de-camp and a small force to take possession of the Navy Yard and the town. Commander David D. Porter arrived at this time as well, hearing of the possible abandonment of the Navy Yard. For the rest of the war, Pensacola remained in Union hands and became a main base of operations for the West Gulf Blockading Squadron.

In retrospect, I think major kudos must go to young Army Lt. Adam J. Slemmer, who steadfastly obeyed his orders and retained possession of Ft. Pickens back in early 1861. Union control of this fort and Santa Rosa Island essentially bottled up the harbor at Pensacola and denied use of the Navy Yard by the Confederacy. In the words of Florida historian George F. Pearce (the title of his book on these events), Pensacola was "A Thorn in the Side of the Confederacy."

My USS Ft. Henry shipmate marine Sgt. Dave Ekardt has a great article summarizing all Union naval/marine actions at Pensacola on the Navy and Marine Living History web site.

Portrait of US Army Lt. Adam J. Slemmer (source: Fla. Dept. of State):

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Commander Walke Runs the Gauntlet

The Union Navy was busy during the early months of 1862.  With commanders Andrew Hull Foote and Major General John Pope fresh off recent success, Union forces looked to Island No. 10 as their next step to securing the Mississippi River. 

Flag Officer Foote was against the idea of running past the batteries at Island No. 10, as his gunboats from the flotilla were still wounded from the repulse at Fort Donelson earlier in the year.  Foote himself already revered service on the Western rivers as "anomalous," as he never fully felt comfortable with the Navy under the direction of the War Department (this did not change until later in the year - at the time, all Western theater operations were under the orders of Henry Halleck).  Despite his apprehension, the gunboats sailed downriver from Cairo in the middle of March to make preparations for their attack at New Madrid and Island No. 10, complete with additional mortar rafts for a siege. 

Foote and Pope could not agree on a successfully strategy for the siege.  Foote, always calculated and methodical, laid up the fleet in the river bend just above Island No. 10.  Pope requested that the separated forces join together by running past the batteries at Island No. 10.  Foote, still dealing with the injuries inflicted at Fort Donelson, declared the idea foolish.  He did not feel his gunboats were capable of running the myriad batteries along the low bend in the river.  Thus, the next few weeks saw bombardment, not movement of the fleet downriver.  The mortars were less than satisfactory, however.  Something else had to be done to defy the batteries at Island. No. 10.  Union forces created a canal in haste to allow transports and supplies to flow downriver out of sight from the guns.  It was not deep enough for the gunboats to move past.  Pope demanded gunboat projection, which was communicated to Foote from General Halleck.  Foote would have to go against his own judgement and run past the batteries.

Commander Henry Walke volunteered his ship, the Carondelet, to run past the batteries.  Walke retrofitted the ship with anything available to help it stay together, including rope and chain.  He also went to great lengths to dampen the sound of the ship itself, diverting exhaust steam from the smokestacks to make it as silent as possible. The ship was made dark enough to blend in the water as it sought the opportunity of pitch black night to aid its escape from the batteries. 

On the unusually dark night of April 4, 1862, Walke found that chance to act.  Moving downriver, everything seemed to be going smoothly until it was spotted near the second battery. A fire ignited from the buildup of the diverted smokestacks, giving away her position.  Thankfully, the fire from shore was highly inaccurate and the ship was able to escape without major damage.

The Carondelet, accompanied by the Pittsburg two days later, spent the next few days firing at Confederate shore batteries below New Madrid.  They also took the opportunity to spike the guns on the rebel shore batteries at Watson's Landing.  This allowed Pope's Army of the Mississippi to move up the rear of Confederate forces, cutting them off completely from outside contact.  It was only a matter of time before the surpised troops surrendered. 
7, 1862.
Maj. Gen. JOHN POPE, Commanding U. S. Forces, New Madrid.
        SIR: Agreeably to your instructions of the 6th instant, I proceeded down the Mississippi about 6.30 this morning. Attacked, silenced, and spiked all the guns of the rebel batteries opposite your batteries. The lower one made a desperate resistance. It consisted of two 64-pounder howitzers and one 32-pounder gun. Two were dismounted and the other disabled by our shots. I then took and spiked temporarily a 64-pounder howitzer about half a mile above, and a quarter of a mile above that found a 64-pounder spiked. I took on board a man who reported himself to me as a spy, whom I send to you. The rebels had set fire to a house on the shore.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
H. WALKE,Commander, U. S. Navy.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

No Fools in April: Some Sunday Fun and News

It's been a few days since the last post.  The education staff (including myself) at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum was busy this past week doing some outreaches in Bath County, VA.  No, there will be no April Fools here.  Getting back to the office this morning, the first email I opened was from HRNM historian and fellow CWN 150 blogger Gordon Calhoun.  I clicked on the link and saw this:
Twitter Photo Credit @JasonDurden; Matt Hardigree (Jalopnik)
It is a tweeted pick from Atlanta's NewsChopper2 pilot Jason Durden on Interstate 20 west bound.  The main article that released the news story, Jalopnik, said that the image represented something "so American."  Perhaps he was talking about the idea that the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, or the replicated Hunley, a testament to Confederate ingenuity.  Although that is likely not the case,  it is still interesting to see these types of news pieces and vignettes sprouting up around the Internet.  
How about that for Civil War memory of the Navy? 

In other news, just a few more links to keep you busy this fine Sunday:
  • There is a relatively new blog that is out about the Civil War Navy, titled "Running the Blockade." Might be an interesting read for you CWN 150 fans, especially since it is updated frequently with day-to-day accounts.
  • Here is a recent news article from Appen Newspapers about a book about the Confederate mastermind James D. Bulloch.
  • CWN Guest Blogger and Marker Hunter Craig Swain writes a clever article on incorporating Civil War history into Google's latest and greatest.
We have a very exciting month coming up for CWN 150 commemorations, including the Battle of Shiloh and Farragut's gamble at New Orleans. Stay tuned.

Have a wonderful Sunday,

Matthew T. Eng