Friday, May 25, 2012

Blockade Running at Mobile Bay

Steam sloop USS Pocahontas capturing a blockade runner off Mobile Bay (source; Library of Congress archives):

In a prior post (18 February 2012) I commented on the importance of the Port of Mobile, Alabama to the Confederacy. While Mobile had a number of major advantages, primarily its rail connections to other parts of the Confederacy, it was a difficult endeavor to run the blockade into Mobile Bay, for a number of reasons.

There were three entrances into Mobile Bay: the first, a westward entrance known as Pelican Channel. Shallow depths in this entrance generally precluded its use, The second entrance was the “Swash Channel”. This was the entrance most used by runners because even though it was shallow (12 feet), it was difficult for blockaders to move “off station” to cut out runners through this entrance, plus Confederate shore batteries could cover this entrance and keep blockaders off at a safer distance. The third entrance was the Main Channel, but this was the easiest for the blockading fleet to cover. Despite these difficulties, there was a huge amount of blockade running into and out of Mobile, especially after New Orleans was captured by Union forces in April 1862. Most of the traffic came to and from Cuba, which was the main waypoint for blockade runners in the Gulf of Mexico.

Running the blockade into Mobile really came into its own after the Confederate Navy began to contract for and acquire pure “blockade runner” ships designed for this purpose (see post by Gordon on 24 July 2010). These shallow draft, fast, “stealth” ships (low profile, painted grey or black) were able to slip in and out of the port a number of times undetected, mostly at night. The major runners operating out of Mobile were the CSS Denbigh, the Donegal, and the Mary. All were British-built side-wheel steamers, specifically designed to run the blockade.

Blockaders off Mobile Bay (source; Naval History and Heritage Command photo archive):

CWN History Announcement

The Museum of Florida History, in Tallahassee, is "the" official Florida history museum. From 1 May to 5 August of this year they are featuring a display focusing on the maritime and naval history of the Civil War in Florida, in commemoration of the Sesquicentennial of the CW. Check out the link on their web site at Museum of Florida History. I have not had the opportunity to see this exhibit, but if I can make my way over to Tallahassee this summer to check it out, I will definitely put together a post on this blog. If you are in the Tallahassee area this summer, check it out !!!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Hosptial Transport Service

Daniel Webster
In 1861, almost no one predicted the shear bloodshed that would be caused by the ground fighting during the Civil War.  Fortunately for thousands of soldiers, the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a volunteer group of civilian medical professionals and other well meaning citizens, did and attempted to fill critical gaps in the Army's medical system.   One of the gaps was there was no infrastructure set up to move wounded soldiers from the battlefield to hospitals in Washington, Philadelphia, and New York to receive long-term care.
The Commission's executive secretary Frederick Law Olmsted (most famous for his work on New York City's Central Park) noticed that the Army's Quartermaster Corps had several surplus steamers and asked if the Commission could use them as hospital ships.  At first, the Quartermaster Corps said no, when it did say yes, often pull the ships away from the Commission at the last second.  By late April 1862, however, Olmsted's persistence paid off and the Commission received the steamer Daniel Webster.  By mid-May, the Commission's Hospital Transport Service had seven ships working out of White House, Virginia on the York River and Harrison's Landing on the James  River. 

J H Spaulding
Each ship carried upwards of several hundred soldiers, many of them suffering from various diseases.  Tending to the sick and wounded on board were female nurses, many of whom had followed their husbands who were working as doctors.  Towards the end of the campaign in July, one ship, J.H. Spaulding rescued several hundred wounded soliders trapped behind the lines.  Against the advice of officers on Galena and Monitor, Spaulding flew a flag of truce and steamed past Confederate shore batteries.  Some of the nurses joked with Lieutenant Jeffers that they would be sure to put mattress in the wheelhouse for protection.  Jeffers later thought that was a good idea and took some of the mattress of Spaulding...for the Monitor!

The Service ended with the end of the Peninsula Campaign in July 1862.  Several thousand men were saved because of the ships.  Two of the Commission's nurses penned an excellent first person account of the Hospital Transport Service in their memior Woman's Work in the Civil War.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Drewry's Bluff Weekend Recap

The Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial/Hampton Roads Naval Museum was in attendance at this past weekend's sesquicentennial commemoration at Drewry's Bluff.  Over 500 people came and visited our exhibit display, which included several different Special Edition Civil War Navy Daybooks, USS Alligator and Monitor posters, Blacks in Blue Jackets pamphlets, and other educational material for guests to enjoy.  It was wonderful weather on Saturday and Sunday for a slew of events, programs, lectures, and activities around the Fort and inside the eeducational tent. 

For me, the highlight of the weekend was the Saturday morning sign dedication for the USS Monitor and Confederate Marines.  It was an honor to speak at that event, and to introduce Lieutanant (junior grade) Martin K. Dineen from PCU Arlington (LPD-24).   LT Dineen spoke of the legacy of the Monitor and its significance in his own service as navigation officer on Arlington.  Dave Alberg, Superintendent of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary spoke on the discovery and recovery of the famous ironclad ship, touching on some upcoming developments in its conservation.  The wayside marker will be located on the bluffs onlooking the site where the ship moved into position to protect the ironclad Galena 150 years ago. 

Our exhibit was located in the USMC Historical Co. Tent.  Thank you Gunnery SGT Tom Williams for allowing us to use the space at the end of the tent.  It was much appreciated!  We were also delighted to talk with volunteer docents from the National Museum of the Marine Corps.  It is always fun to hear the playful banter of Navy and Marine Corps museums working side by side!  Needless to say, those gentlemen were a pleasure to work with for the weekend.  It was also Mother's Day on Sunday, so on behalf of the CWN 150 I would like to say thank you to all the mothers past, present, and future: without you, there would have been no sailors during the war to commemorate today!

Once again, we had our LEGO models of the Monitor and the Virginia out for display.  Each model was situated next to a professional model of each ship, adding to the fun and excitement of building each one.  Needless to say, they were a big hit with the kids (and more so with the adults!).  These instructions are available on the HRNM Educational Resources website.  If you at Drewry's this weekend, you probably heard me talking at our exhibit about the newest ironclad LEGO model: the USS Galena.  To show you I wasn't kidding, here is a pic of the development:
USS Galena  LEGO Digital Model Development (TBA)
It will hopefully be complete with instructions in upcoming months.  The initiative is part of the HRNM Program: Brick by Brick LEGO Shipbuilding, which has free ship buildings instructions available for FREE download HERE

Make sure to go to the Richmond National Battlefield Park Facebook Page to look at all the fantastic images that were capture from this weekend's activities.  NPS Ranger Jason Martz did a fantastic job capturing the event on camera.  Stay tuned for the Civil War Monitor cross-postings on Drewry's Bluff (Iron Men Afloat) tomorrow. 
Laura Orr Talks with Marine Living History Volunteer at USMC Historical Co. Tent (Eng)
Again, I want to give a special thank you to all the NPS Staff involved with helping Laura and I this weekend and making the sign dedication.  The official Drewry's Bluff Ceremony ("Honoring Service: Commemorating the Battle of Drewry's Bluff") will be (weather permitting) tomorrow at 6:00 at the NPS site.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Iron Men Afloat: USS Monitor Sign Dedication

This is another post to a multi-part series with the Civil War Monitor Magazine blog entitled "Iron Men Afloat."  Cross postings will highlight key battles and topics of Civil War naval history.  The Monitor will discuss the men involved, while this blog will focus on the machines and technology used during the war. 

The Civil War Monitor Blog will be posting two Drewry's Bluff posts, focusing on a summary of Battle and some commentary on the memory and commemoration of CPL John Mackie, the first USMC Medal of Honor Recipient.  Check back tomorrow to the blog HERE to read these posts. 

Below is a transcript of the speech I gave at the USS Monitor NPS Sign dedication on Saturday, 12 MAY 2012.   There was also a sign dedication to the Confederate Marines at Drewry's Bluff during the ceremony.  A very special thanks to Dave Ruth, Ed Sanders, and Beth Stern at NPS Richmond for allowing the CWN 150 and the U.S. Navy to be represented this weekend at Drewry's Bluff. 

In the spring of 1862, Union forces looked for a direct route to Richmond, both on land and by water.  While the Union Army floundered its first attempts during the Peninsula Campaign, the Union Navy saw relative success.  In May, the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron guarding the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay dispatched a small flotilla of vessels in an attempt to take Richmond by naval force up the James.  If Richmond was the heart of the Confederacy, the James River was the arterial vein that crept from the Chesapeake Bay to its heartland.  Such success might result in an early end to a war which had already cost the lives of thousands of men on both sides of the conflict. 

All seemed desperate for the Confederate capital.  By mid May, the Confederacy had suffered a series of defeats in the West to combined Federal Army-Navy cooperation culminating in a daring gamble by future Admiral David Glasgow Farragut to take New Orleans, the South’s largest city.  In the east, the Confederacy’s mightiest warship, CSS Virginia, lay in pieces near Craney Island at the mouth of the James, unable to traverse its deep draft upriver. Now a large Army waited patiently for the Union flotilla to attempt to break into Richmond.  Only a few obstacles stood in the way for the Union reaching their goal, the most formidable being Fort Darling, situated along Drewry’s bluff just seven miles below Richmond.  It was here on May 15th that a force of naval ships was repelled by its Confederate defenders.  The victory marked the last attempt for a direct assault into Richmond by water.   
Two of the three original Ironclad designs were part of that James River Flotilla:  the USS Galena and USS Monitor.  Of all the ships that served during the American Civil War, few truly stand out in the annals of American naval history.  Of these, one in particular sits high above all others, the USS Monitor.  The ship is best known for its historic engagement with the CSS Virginia on March 9, 1862. 
For all the acknowledgement and support in the collective memory of the Battle of Hampton Roads, it nonetheless tells an incomplete story to the epic saga of the Monitor and Virginia.  These machines that spurred the ironclad revolution would be dead in the water without its sailors.  It was here at Drewry’s Bluff where the crews of the Civil War’s most famous ships last battled.  The Virginia’s gun crew, now homeless with the loss of their ship, fired on their adversary downriver as she sought to protect the weaker yet equally heroic ironclad Galena.  In the end, few shots seriously affected the Monitor, adding to its aura of impenetrability.

The Monitor was what one Richmond Daily Dispatch reporter called after the battle an “infernal gunboat” capable of “forces of evil.”  Even the Confederacy viewed the Monitor as something much more than a ship.  It became a symbol of power and prestige, a near mythological force of Union naval might capable of inflicting heavy damage on its enemies.  Had the bluffs been lower and the angle of her guns able to reach them, the outcome of the Confederate victory here might be drastically different.  

Many contemporary officers and officials looked at the Monitor with comical amusement, calling it a “cheesebox on a raft” and “tin can on a shingle.”  Yet that insignificant looking object floating along the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay and the James River became the most powerful warship in the world, worthy of envy and praise.   

Samuel Dana Greene, Executive Officer of the USS Monitor, said it best about the legacy of the ship which rings true to this day: “No ship in the world's history has a more imperishable place in naval annals than the Monitor.”  Without the Monitor, the modern Navy would not be the same.  The ship became a rubric and design for subsequent ships of the 19th and 20th century, thus ushering in the creation of a modern surface Navy that survives to this day.  

Fifty years from now, how will the Civil War be remembered? What about the Monitor?  It is you, the people who are actively involved and present with this current sesquicentennial commemoration, who will keep the memory of it alive and thriving.  Today, we are all here to dedicate the honor, courage, and commitment of the USS Monitor in its last engagement.  Today, we make history.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Battlefield Lost: Plum Point Bend

Old river-men say each bend in the Mississippi River has at least one story to tell.  Well Plum Point and Craighead Bends collectively have several hundred.  One of those occurred on May 10, 1862.

After the fall of Island No.10 on April 8, 1862, the Federal Mississippi River Squadron moved down stream to the next Confederate bulwark.  Roughly thirty miles north of Memphis, Tennessee, the river made a series of sharp bends - first west, then east, then west again - as the river flowed around Plum and Craighead Points.  Inside these bends were a maze of snags and sandbars.  Pilots considered this stretch of the river one of more dangerous sections.  Mark Twain described it as "the famous and formidable Plum Point."

If that was not enough, terrain on the Tennessee side of the river made the Confederate defenses even more formidable.  After passing around Craighead Point, the river turns west against the foot of the First Chickasaw Bluff.  The crest of this rise is about 125 to 150 feet above the river level.  And on top of that bluff, the Confederates built Fort Pillow with some forty heavy guns. 

For a month and a half during the spring of 1862, these river bends were the front lines of the war along the Mississippi.  Federal mortar boats lay on the downstream reach of Plum Point Bend, lobbing shells at Fort Pillow.  Federal gunboats covered the bombardment.  On the morning of May 10, a flotilla of Confederate rams rounded Craighead Point, aiming to disperse the Federal fleet.  And they came close to accomplishing that goal.  The USS Mound City and the USS Cincinnati, both ironclad river gunboats, were so seriously damaged they sank along the river banks.  Other Federal boats moved into the shallow waters, where the rams could not go.  So with a tactical victory, the Confederate rams fell back to the protection of Fort Pillow.  The siege continued until the early days of June when the Confederates withdrew to Memphis.

Today, changes to the river's course have drastically altered the terrain over which the siege of Fort Pillow and the naval battle of Plum Point Bend occurred.   The map below provides a rough outline of the river channel as it ran during the Civil War (very rough):

View Plum Point Bend in a larger map

There are three points, marked on the map, that provide visitors glimpses of a battlefield lost.

Just south of Osceola, Arkansas, a state road leads out to old Sans Souci landing (blue push pin) on the river's bank.  Several interpretive markers discuss the history of the river bend to include the naval battle.  The view up river from there takes in what remains of Plum Point.

Riverboat and barges heading past Plum Point

During the Civil War, the river turned to the northeast.  Today it bypasses the old bend, running more southeasterly.  So the bend in the river, where the mortar boats tied off and Confederate rams fought the Federal gunboats, is now isolated in the swampy bottom land on the Tennessee side.
Looking "across" Plum Point Bend
The straight line distance from Sans Souci to Fort Pillow is between three and four miles.  But, illustrating the remoteness of the site even today, the driving distance is over 100 miles.  Fort Pillow State Park includes a river overlook (red push pin), with a view back to Sans Souci.

View from Fort Pillow Overlook
The smokestack in the distant left is a steel mill at Osceola.  Sans Souci is just below that mill in this view.  As mentioned above, the river flows southeasterly - off to the left of this view.  But in 1862, the river turned northeast, across this view to the right.  It then turned sharply south around Craighead Point (out of view to the right) and then flowed west along the base of the Chickasaw Bluff.  The overlook is roughly a mile from the actual site of the Confederate batteries.  But the point is made in this view - the Confederate defenders had the advantage of elevation.

Fort Pillow (green push pin) today is configured to optimize interpretation for the April 1864 battle.  As such, the works orient to the land side.

Interior of the Fort Pillow reconstruction

But the park visitor center/museum exhibits some artifacts from the 1862 fighting.

Mortar fragments at Fort Pillow
The bluffs on which the original Confederate batteries stood has collapsed in several places since the war.  Dense forest prevents a clear view of the old river channel from what remains. However miles of the Confederate outer works remain today.

Section of Confederate outer works

River channel shifts.  Collapsing bluffs.  It's Old Man River, not development, which has altered this battlefield.

Richmond Press Blasts Mallory on Capital Defenses.

Navy photo: The Richmond press and soon the Confederate Congress questioned Stephen Mallory’s competence as Navy secretary.

For all Navy Secretary Stephen Mallory's spending on ironclads, the Richmond press complained, “The enemy commands the water.” 

The newspapers were reflecting the growing sense of dread that gripped the capital of the Confederacy as the Army of the Potomac massed at Fortress Monroe. Norfolk had fallen. The Gosport Naval Shipyard was back in Union hands. CSS Virginia was lying in the mud off Craney island.  Richmond seemed ripe for attack from the river.          

For months, the Dispatch, the Examiner, and the Whig demanded the James River be obstructed. They wondered what lessons – if any ¾ had been learned from the defeats at Forts Donelson and Henry, Island No. 10, which fell in a combined naval and land attack and put much of Tennessee under Union control. Worse yet was what happened below  New Orleans. The ironclads being built to defend it were not ready for battle, and the Union Navy captured the South’s largest city in a daring strike up river. Along the Atlantic coast, matters were no better.  Fort Macon in North Carolina was taken in a combined sea and land assault as was Fort Pulaski, defending the water approaches to Savannah, Georgia.

           The Whig was scathing:"The amiable somnambulist who presides over naval affairs has contented himself ... without once putting his foot outside the city to see that work.”     

The cries for Mallory’s head were soon echoing inside the Confederate Capitol.

Monday, May 7, 2012

CSS Virginia's Firestorm

After many unsuccessful attempts to bring Monitor to battle in April 1862, Commodore Josiah Tattnall and CSS Virginia faced a major crisis during the first week of May.   As Union ground forces landed at Ocean View and began to march towards downtown Norfolk and Portsmouth, Confederate ground forces evacuated.  The only problem was that no one in the Confederate Army told Tattnall of the evacuation plan.  His junior officers reported that both the Gosport Navy Yard and the batteries at Sewells Point had been abandoned, and the fort at Craney Island was in the process of being abandoned. 

No stranger to a hard fight (see the "Blood is Thicker Than Water" incident), Tattnall was prepared to make a last stand, but instead elected to move the ironclad up the James River.  He solicited the advice of two local harbor pilots.  Both stated that if Virginia's draft was lightened to draw only 18 feet of water (as opposite to her normal 22 feet), the ironclad could make it to safety near City Point.  The commodore went with the plan and had all the guns and stores removed.  On May 10, 1862, Tattnall was ready to make the attempt.  The pilots, however, changed their mind and informed Tattnall that the attempt could not be made.   John Taylor Wood would later remark "Moral: All officers should learn to do their own piloting."

Knowing the Union forces were closing in, and with great reluctance, Tattnall ordered Virginia to be put to the torch.  Virginia's executive officer, ap Roger Jones, did the honors and set the ship on fire.  The ship's company marched to Suffolk and boarded a train for Richmond where they would live to fight another day.

The veteran flag officer knew the move would be controversial and fully expected to be grilled by his superiors, but not second-guessed.  Three of the Confederate Navy's senior officers and Tattnall's personal colleagues, French Forrest, Duncan Ingraham, and William Lynch, blasted the commodore for incompetence and accused him of being "panic-stricken."  Many officers came to Tattnall's defense and counter-accused the Board for speaking about things they knew nothing about.  Tattnall demanded and received a formal court marital to clear up his name. 

Two months later, a board of twelve officers including Franklin Buchanan, Syndey Lee, and Mathew Murray heard three charges against Tattnall.  After listening to Tattnall's account of the scuttling and the dire situation in Hampton Roads, the court unanimously cleared the commodore of incompetence.  Tattnall was allowed to continue his new command in Georgia. 

A more complete record of both hearings can be found here in a biography of Tattnall (chapter 15). 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

St. Johns River Steamboats in the Civil War

Confederate steamboat Darlington, captured by Union forces near Fernandina and converted into a Union gunboat of the same name:

Here's a post to keep you tuned to Florida events as we transition from observing the Battle for New Orleans to the Battle of Drewry's Bluff.

The St. Johns River, running along the east coast of Florida, served as a main route of transportation for centuries. It was used by Native Americans, by French, Spanish and English colonists, and by the US after Florida became a state. As the northeast coast of Florida developed, the St. Johns was “the Interstate Highway” of the time. A thriving steamboat traffic developed on the river, transporting mail, freight and passengers from Jacksonville to Enterprise (near Lake Monroe), reaching a high point just prior to the start of the Civil War. After secession, many river steamboats (and their owners/captains) were converted into blockade runners, either running contraband goods between Florida and the Bahamas or “coastal blockade running” between ports in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas.

As Union forces occupied Fernandina, Florida, in March 1862, Commander C.R.P. Rogers pushed up a small creek near the town in a ship’s launch and captured the Confederate steamer Darlington, captained by Jacob Brock. Brock was a well-known steamboat captain on the St. Johns River prior to the war, who cast his lot with the Confederacy after Florida seceded. He initially refused commands to heave to, forcing the Union bluejackets to fire on the steamer, which eventually did stop and surrender. After boarding, the Union Navy officers were enraged, as there were a number of women and children aboard, who had been begging the captain to surrender as they were fired upon. Fortunately, no one was injured.

Capt. Jacob Brock, probably after the Civil War:

Perhaps in retaliation, Brock was arrested and sent to prison (even though he was not a member of the Confederate military), and his ship confiscated. In addition to the refugees, the steamer contained “military stores, and wagons, mules, forage, etc.” and a surgeon in the Confederate Army. The captured steamer was converted into the gunboat USS Darlington, and was a participant in an expedition up the St. Johns River in October 1862 (more on that to come this fall).

Another role played by the St. Johns River steamboats during the war was part of the “inside blockade running” (as described by George Buker in an article in “North and South” magazine, Vol. 4, No. 2). When the Union blockade closed down Fernandina, Jacksonville, and St. Augustine, blockade runners from the Bahamas ran their cargoes into Mosquito Inlet (present day Ponce De Leon Inlet, north of Cape Canaveral). The cargo was then transported overland by wagon or rail to points along the St. Johns River, where steamboats carried the goods to other rail points for shipment north to areas of the Confederacy where they were needed. Some of these steamboats were built by Mr. Hubbard Hart for his pre-war tours on the Ocklawaha River (a major tributary of the St. Johns River), which included the James Burt and the Silver Springs, along with Jacob Brock’s other boat, the Hattie.

After the war, Capt. Brock was paroled and was able to reacquire the Darlington and resume his occupation running steamboats on the St. Johns River. Mr. Hart resumed his Steamboat Line on the St. Johns and Ocklawaha Rivers, and many other entrepreneurs and industrialists rebuilt the steamboat trade on the St. Johns to its pre-war height. Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant both took trips on St. Johns River steamboats after the war. The rise and development of the railroads eventually doomed the river steamboats, and they faded into history by the mid-1900’s.

Steamboat Hattie at a wharf (possibly after the war). Illustration sources – Florida Dept. of State archives:

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Battle of New Orleans-USN Takes Over the City

With the forts bypassed and the Confederate/state ships either destroyed or put to flight, Farragut's squadron steamed north.  Smaller forts upstream were destroyed and his ships anchored off of New Orleans' docks.   As there were no fortifications or garrison guarding the city proper, Farragut demanded the city surrender.  However, the U.S. Army's ground force was not ready to provide immediate help.  So, the Navy did it alone.  What happened over the next four days was a mixture of anxiety and awkwardness. 

Captain Theodorus Bailey, commander of Farragut's second division, adamantly volunteered for the job.  Accompanied only by his aide, Lieutenant George Perkins, Bailey marched past hostile crowds to City Hall looking for someone in charge to make his demands.  He could not find anyone and returned to Hartford. This was the first of several attempts by the U.S. Navy to get the city officials to accept the fact that there was a large squadron of U.S. Navy ships in the Mississippi River and they were not going away.

Attempt number two was tried by Hartford's Lieutenant Albert Kautz (who wrote a very detailed account for Battles and Leaders), a midshipmen, and twenty Marines.  Assisted through the crowds by the City Guards (the city's police force), the Mayor of New Orleans granted Kautz an audience under truce.  After reading Farragut's written demand to surrender, the Mayor claimed he had no military right to give up the city.  Confederate General Mansfield Lovell (a native of New York), commanding officer of Confederate ground forces, also refuse to surrender on the grounds he worked for the Mayor.  New Orleans city councilmen admitted they were clueless on how to properly surrender the city. Even though local officials knew that Farragut could level the city at any time, they stalled. This went on for three days.

Finally, Farragut had lost his patience. Under the command of his chief of staff/flag captain Henry H. Bell (a native of North Carolina), all of the squadron's Marines were assembled with two boat howitzers and marched into the city towards the Custom's House on April 29.  With the Mayor standing coldly in front of one of the howitzers and the city mob looking on in silence, Kautz struck the Louisiana state flag and raised the American flag. The Marines, with the assistance of local authorities, maintained order until General Ben Butler's troops arrived in early May to assume formal occupation. As humiliating the situation might have been for New Orleans residences, the Confederacy's largest city was spared the fate that would befall other Confederate urban areas such as Atlanta, Charleston, Columbia, Jackson, Richmond, and parts of Hampton Roads.