Friday, June 29, 2012

Florida Lighthouses in the Civil War

Jupiter Inlet Light (designed and built by Lt. George Gordon Meade):

Florida ranks seventh among the states in the number of lighthouses/light stations it has along its coast (33 total: “lighthouse” refers to the tower itself with the light, “light station” is the tower plus any accessory structures such as the keepers’ residences, workshops, etc.). Many of us know George Gordon Meade as the Union’s “hero of Gettysburg”, as he commanded the Union armies at that epic engagement. Prior to the war a younger Lt. Meade served in the U.S. Army Engineers where he designed, supervised, and/or was otherwise involved in the construction or modification of seven Florida lighthouses (Carysfort Reef, Sand Key, Seahorse Key, Cape Florida, Sombrero Key, Jupiter Inlet, and the first light on Rebecca Shoal). Meade was one of the creators of the screw pile method of anchoring the Florida Keys lights (including Carysfort Reef, Sombrero Key, and Sand Key) in which the foundations for the metal tower were embedded deeply within the limestone of the coral reefs to enable the structure to withstand the force of hurricanes.

Many of today’s Florida lighthouses were in existence at the start of the Civil War (20 plus one light ship). Before the war, all lighthouses were federal property, administered by a local Superintendent under the Treasury Department. After the southern states’ secession and the formation of the CSA, the Confederate Congress created a Confederate Lighthouse Bureau, to be commanded by a senior officer in the Confederate Navy (Captain or Commander). Partly because he happened to be in Montgomery, Alabama at the time (the capital of the CSA at the start of the war), Raphael Semmes was appointed to command the Confederate Lighthouse Bureau; prior to this he served as the naval secretary to the U.S. Light House Board until resigning his naval commission to join the Confederacy. Semmes’ tenure in this post was about 1 week, ending on April 18 (after the firing on Ft. Sumter), when he departed to begin fitting out the commerce raider CSS Sumter. Seven lighthouses (mainly the ones in the Florida Keys and off Key West) remained in Union hands throughout the war and continued in operation.

Thomas Martin succeeded Semmes as Clerk of the Lighthouse Bureau. By the latter half of 1861, he was overseeing the systematic effort to extinguish all Florida lighthouses under Confederate control and sequester critical components (mainly the lenses and the fuel that fired the light), with the optimistic hope they could be retrieved and reinstalled following the war to guide Confederate commerce. Florida lighthouses witnessed a number of naval actions during the war. The lights at Seahorse Key, Mayport Mills, and Egmont Key (off the mouth of Tampa Bay) were captured by Union Navy forces in early 1862. The tower at Pensacola was struck by Union shells a few times during the massive artillery duel in November 1861. The St. Marks lighthouse was engaged by Union gunboats in June 1862 (in retaliation for an attack on a Union shore party a few weeks earlier), and served as a landing site for army forces in 1865 in what eventually was the Battle of Natural Bridge. Seahorse Key and Egmont Key both served as important secondary bases for the East Gulf Blockading Squadron.

There are several nice resources on Florida lighthouses during the Civil War (both in print and on-line), so feel free to contact me if you want to see those. Illustrations are from the Florida Dept. of State on-line photo archives.

USS Mohawk off St. Marks lighthouse (note Confederate flags flying from the tower and the works to the left):

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The CSS Neuse Moves to New Home

I have written a rather lengthy post describing the move of the CSS Neuse, which took place yesterday in Kinston, NC. Rather than rehash here, please follow the link to the post on my personal blog. Thanks! CSS Neuse Move post

Keeping the James River in Rebel Hands

Union Navy fails to fight past  Drewry's Bluff below Richmond in May 1862. 

Nowhere did Matthew Fontaine Maury best deliver his service in coastal defense to the Confederacy than at Richmond during the Peninsula campaign.  His torpedoes [mines] and coastal batteries ultimately forced the Union to keep to the land as its soldiers drew closer and closer to the capital.  He had made the river a death trap for the Union Navy. The few poor roads, thick woods, and swamps to the east proved natural chokepoints and lines of defense. The fortuitous finding of miles of insulated telegraph cable along Willoughby Spit in Hampton Roads in February 1862 allowed Maury, not President Jefferson Davis or Navy Secretary Stephen  Mallory, to make the James River near the capital impenetrable by the summer of 1862, indeed for the remainder of the war.  While the press clamored for stout defenses, Maury quietly provided them.
            About six miles downstream of Rocketts Wharf, the Confederate Navy’s shipyard, Maury and his assistants, notably Hunter Davidson, like Robert Minor and John Mercer Brooke, a member of the Naval Academy’s first graduating class with service at the observatory, set their mines in the narrowest and shallowest part of the river.  They placed the mines in mid-channel at between three and a half and seven and a half fathoms of water.
            The place for the "ranges” selected was under the cover of the guns on Drewry's Bluff on the south bank and Chaffin's farm on the north.  "They were ignited by a bit of fine, platinum wire, heated by means of a galvanic current from a galvanic battery on shore.  The conducting wire having been cut the two terminals were then connected with the platinum wire making a span between the terminals of say one-half inch.  They were then secured firmly in a small bag of rifle powder to serve as a bursting charge,” Maury later reported.
            By June 1862, Maury and Davidson, who had served aboard CSS Virginia, had fifteen casks in the river, arranged in rows and spaced about thirty feet apart.  They transformed Samuel Colt’s minefield concept from an art to a science. The Confederates in Richmond were making “submarine warfare an extremely important and feared tool of war.”  Again, Maury relied on stealth to hold off  nosy Union gunboat commanders. If the Navy or Virginia Governor John Letcher had more powder, Maury and Davidson would have deployed more mines.
            The Union Navy on the James River and in Hampton Roads wanted Maury’s plans for river defense.  With them, they would know the “ranges” of torpedoes, sunken vessels, and other obstructions, and the large gun emplacements.  They reasoned snipers from the shore would be a manageable risk. This summer, they were living in the shadow of Captain David Glasgow Farragut’s daring rush up the Mississippi River with his ocean-going frigates and sloops that led to the fall of the South’s largest city and busiest port, New Orleans.
            Even after the Battle of the Ironclads in Hampton Roads, Union Navy officers in the East, unlike their Army counterparts, were used to having their way. Cape Hatteras, Port Royal, Roanoke Island, and New Bern kept hopes for a short, victorious war.  But now, they were constantly being stymied.  The ironclads were not enough to force the Union Navy’s way to attack the city and the Army of Potomac for now was operating too far  north of the river for their guns to offer support.

Friday, June 22, 2012

James River Flotilla from Harpers Weekly, 21 June 1862

The following is an excerpt from the 21 June 1862 edition of Harpers Weekly.  In it, the author remarks on the flotilla lying below Richmond at City Point.  The last sentance is especially interesting, since the James River Squadron never again attempted to assault Richmond by water. 


City Point is, or rather has been, the "port of entry" to Petersburg. It is situated on the right bank of the James River, about fifty miles below Richmond. It can hardly be called a town, having at the best of times not more than two or three hundred inhabitants, and these mostly negroes; at present it is almost entirely deserted. Being the terminus of the Petersburg Railroad, the cars frequently arrive, and are met by the United States steamer Massachusetts, both under flag of truce, to effect the exchange of prisoners. It is daily expected that Colonel Corcoran will here be restored to his anxious friends. A letter from City Point says: While coming up the river the height of the tide indicated that the heavy rains had caused a freshet. This was considerably increased yesterday, and still continues. Immense quantities of driftwood, logs, pieces of wreck, etc., have been and are still being floated down the stream by the force of the current. So strong is the tide that it is with great difficulty a boat from one of the vessels lower down can reach another higher up the river. Yesterday a vessel's hatch, and soon after a cook's galley, with the stove, were drifted down, and the corpse of a man floated past, face downward, feet forward and legs extended. The corpse was clad in a white shirt and white trowsers or drawers. As the face was downward, we could not tell whether the body was that of a white or a black man. Last night, about ten o'clock, two large canal boats were driven past the squadron by the force of the current. These appearances seem to indicate that the obstructions placed across the river above Fort Darling by the rebels are being gradually washed away by the freshet; but it is exceedingly doubtful whether they will have been so far removed as to admit of the passage of our vessels, so effectually have the sunken vessels been secured between piles driven Into the river, and such large quantities of stones have been sunk between the interstices. The weather is threatening and the current in full force, with a rushing sound like that of a waterfall, and there is no indication of the freshet subsiding for some time. Commodore Goldsborough, with a squadron as powerful as that with which Farragut took New Orleans, is at City Point or thereabouts. The country will expect to hear from him.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Lots of Civil War Navy Goings On in North Carolina

The remains of the Confederate ironclad CSS Neuse are scheduled to be moved from the current site to a new location in downtown Kinston, NC this Saturday, June 23. This move is a long time in coming and will place the hull in a climate controlled facility after many years of being displayed in an open air shelter. The latest details can be found in this article from the Kinston Free Press. You can also visit the new CSS Neuse landing page put up by the NC Department of Cultural Resources last week. The other event happening in North Carolina this month revolves around the 50th anniversary of the recovery of artifacts from the blockade runner Modern Greece. The collection represents one of the most extensive collections of artifacts from a blockade runner. For more info see the web page dedicated to the Modern Greece.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Naval Siege of Vicksburg Begins

When attempting to capture a city, fortress, or other strongpoint, the formal rules of siege craft require the opposing force to ask the authorities if they would kindly surrender. The commanding officer of the garrison or civilian authorities would either accept a surrender and negotiate the terms or reject it. Upon a rejection, the siege would formally begin. While many sieges did not follow such strict rules of protocol, the epic siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi could said to have begun on May 18, 1862.

In May, U.S. Naval Commander Samuel Phillips Lee, cousin of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, proceed up the Mississippi River on the sloop-of-war USS Oneida. Upon arriving under a flag of truce, Lee formally delivered a request to Lazarus Lindsey, the mayor of Vicksburg, to surrender his city. Lee wrote

Mayor of the City of Vicksburg:

SIR: It becomes my duty to give you notice to remove the women and children beyond the range of our guns within twenty-four hours, as it will be impossible to attack the defenses without injuring or destroying the town, a proceeding which all the authorities of Vicksburg seem determined to require. I had hoped that the same spirit which induced the military authorities to retire from the city of New Orleans rather than wantonly sacrifice the lives and property of its inhabitants would have been followed here.

Respectfully, yours,


Lindsey responded to Lee twenty-four hours later:

S. P. LEE, U. S. N.,

Commanding Advance of Naval Division:

...I will state that neither the municipal authorities nor the citizens will ever consent to the surrender of the city.

Respectfully, yours,


Confederate Lieutenant Colonel James Autrey, military governor of Vicksburg, was a bit more blunt in his rejection letter to Lee:

I have to state that Mississippians don't know and refuse to learn how to surrender to an enemy. If Commodore Farragut or Brigadier-General Butler can teach them, let them come and try.

Thus, Vicksburg would be no New Orleans. Upon getting the rejection, Farragut brought up more ships and shelled the city on May 27.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Navy Cutlasses in the Civil War

One of the many things I like about portraying a US Navy Seaman at CW living history and re-enactment events is that we get to wear and use more “stuff” than a US Army soldier. Your basic soldier has his musket, leathers, and bayonet. Sailors were similarly armed, but we also get to wear pistol and cutlass. Up to the Civil War, the cutlass had always been a basic weapon for sailors, dating back to at least the 1700’s. The name is derived from the French word for knife, “cutler”. Because sailors in combat often found themselves in close quarters, surrounded by fallen spars, lines, blocks, etc., the cutlass was designed with a shorter blade than a typical army sword or saber, so that it could be swung freely without getting hung up. The shorter blade also prevented tripping as a sailor boarded an enemy ship; its blade was heavier than a standard saber, because a seaman did not have the force of a galloping horse behind him.

At the beginning of the Civil War, most Navy ships (both US and CS) stocked the Ames model 1841 Navy cutlass in their small arms locker (also sometimes listed as the M1842 cutlass). Somewhat resembling an old Roman broadsword, it was a heavy weapon with a 21” straight double-edged blade and a total length of about 26”. It had a brass strap as a knuckle guard and was sheathed in a black leather scabbard with brass tip. It has been described as “unwieldy”, probably because of its weight.

Semi-circular rack of M1841 cutlasses on the bulkhead of the USS Water Witch at the Port Columbus Museum of Civil War Naval History:

In 1860, the Navy contracted with Ames to produce the model 1861 cutlass (I have also seen it referred to as the M1860 cutlass). These were patterned after the French naval cutlass. This weapon was 32” in total length with a 26” single-edge curved blade and a more substantial brass knuckle guard. It was also sheathed in a black leather scabbard with brass tip. This was a superior weapon to the M1841, and during the war 25,000 of these were purchased by the US Navy. The cutlass saw service on both sides during the CW. The weapon remained in use in the USN through the Spanish-American War and WW1 and a few M1861 cutlasses could still be found on USN ships at the beginning of WW2, largely for traditional purposes.

M1861 Cutlass and scabbard:

The cutlass is a close-range weapon, used for defense of the ship (“repel boarders”) or for boarding and capturing the crew of enemy ships as a prize. Photos of sailors at gun drill show the gun crews armed with pistol and cutlass for defense against boarders.

Gun drill (possibly USS Miami); note sailors center-right (bending over with big wrench) and standing on the gunwale (far right) wearing pistols, cartridge boxes and M1861 cutlasses (source NHHC on-line photo archives):

Sailors would drill with single sticks on a regular basis to learn how to wield the cutlass in hand-to-hand combat; sometimes for up to 2 hrs.

Another edged weapon which saw occasional use by USN sailors in the CW was the Dahlgren bayonet or bowie knife:

Dahlgren designed this knife to be fitted as a bayonet on a .69 caliber Plymouth-style musket he also designed. It had a 12”, Bowie-style blade. I have found mixed evidence regarding the USN adopting his musket for widespread use, but it appears that at least 500 Dahlgren knives were separately ordered by the Navy and some sailors may have preferred using those rather than the M1861 cutlass.

With the eventual phasing out of the practice of capturing ships for prize money, and the more advanced weaponry with greater killing power at longer range, the pistol and cutlass were rapidly becoming obsolete by the end of the Civil War. According to the NHHC web site, the last time a bluejacket swung a cutlass in combat is unknown. It was officially declared an obsolete weapon by Naval Order in 1949.

Photos of 1841 and 1861 cutlasses (good comparison) can be viewed at: and also in McAulay, John D. Civil War Small Arms of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. 1999. Andrew Mowbray Publishers, Lincoln, RI.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Iron Men Afloat: Rams at the Battle of Memphis

6 June marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Memphis.  The short yet decisive battle was one of the only fleet vs. fleet actions during the American Civil War.  NHHC defines a "Ram" as a "ship whose principal weapon is its own bow, hardened and reinforced to penetrate the hull of an enemy ship, and usually strengthened internally to avoid or reduce self-inflicted damage from the collision."  

This post, focusing on the technology of naval warfare, is part of the "Iron Men Afloat" series with the Civil War Monitor blog.  Make sure you check out fellow CWN 150 guest blogger Craig Swain's post on Marker Hunter

The fleet that steadily approached the Memphis levee was a powerful one.  Much in the same taste of the Confederate River Defense Fleet, the Union navy christened their five ironclad warships operating along the upper Mississippi in homage to the great river cities of the North.  Flag Officer Davis, commanding the flagship Benton, trekked alongside the USS Carondelet, St. Louis, Cairo, and Louisville on their way to Memphis with an air of confidence bordering egotism.  The newly installed leader intended on commanding the Western Flotilla “like an orchestra without an instrument out of tune,” devoid of outside distraction or influence.  These gunboats, built by acclaimed St. Louis engineer and Mississippi River salvager James B. Eads, were strong and powerful but lacked some early inefficiency in design and speed.  If the Federal War Departments “listened attentively” to Eads’ design, the Mississippi River Ram Fleet functioning alongside Davis was the exact opposite.

The newly formulated Ram Fleet commanded by Charles Ellet, Jr. matched well with the eight Confederate rams.  The Ram Fleet that Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton commissioned Ellet to develop in April encompassed his vocational skills by converting Ohio River steamers into faster and stronger counterparts to the River Defense Fleet.  Given the character of Ellet’s design, one might assume Federal Secretary of Navy Gideon Welles would accept the new plans at face value.  Quite the contrary, Welles never completely accepted Ellet’s concept of a ramming fleet, and summarily dismissed the idea in favor of John Ericsson’s Monitor design.  Moreover, Welles wrote in his personal diary that Ellet himself could not be trusted because he was “not a naval man,” leaving Secretary of War Stanton as the only person who acknowledged the idea in early 1862.  It was not until the CSS Virginia’s deadly discourse with the USS Cumberland that many officials in Washington started to take Ellet serious.  Stanton invited Ellet to Washington on 14 March for a preliminary discussion of details and supplies.  Inevitably, Stanton would use the guise of the War Department to construct, outfit, and run Ellet’s project.

Seeing the success of the Confederate ironclad Virginia’s first day performance at Hampton Roads in early March, officials in Washington grew convinced that Ellet’s design might provide the answer to the Confederate naval forces in the west.  Reports from Major General Henry W. Halleck in the West speculated that the Confederates had “one or more river boats [. . .] like the Merrimack” in New Orleans increasingly hastened the necessity of immediate action.  Ellet did not personally care for Ericsson’s Monitor design in the wake of its clash with the Virginia, and instead stood convinced his enterprise superior.  His 1855 pamphlet on the use of steam-driven rams, which fell on deaf ears during the Crimean War and the Civil War’s outset, finally came to fruition when its implantation proved more important than ever.

These rams, ranging from 170 to 180 feet in length, used 12 to 16 inches of iron-braced timber to reinforce the ramming bow.  Ellet’s one directional design intended to use the entire weight of each vessel to crush opposing forces upon impact, akin to the Greek triremes of antiquity.  Ellet was extremely confident that the aid of the Mississippi River current would “run these rams into them, and if possible, sink them.”  Indeed, Ellet’s background as an author of several studies of flood control on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers further solidified his pronounced expertise.  With four rams ready for service by the beginning of May, the Union navy now possessed both firepower and ramming speed.

For sources and more information, please email the author at

Friday, June 1, 2012

CSS Sumter Cruise Comes to an End

After a successful cruise across the Atlantic, the Confederate cruiser CSS Sumter made port in Cadiz, Spain to fix a leaky hull in January 1862. Her captain Raphel Semmes expected a friendly greeting (as he always did at European ports), but in this case he did not. Spanish authorities expelled the cruiser from the port. The rejection did not phase Semmes as he simply took his ship over to the British port of Gibraltar (captured two more ships along the way, pictured above) where he and his company recieved a much warmer welcome.
Unforuntaley for Semmes, events started to go wrong a short time later. While travelling back to Cadiz to buy coal, two of Sumter's officers were arrested by Morrican authorities after the American consulate filed a formal complaint with local authorities. Then, two U.S. Navy warships, the steamer USS Tuscarora and USS Ino, an "extreme clipper" design sail ship, entered Algeciras Roads near Gibraltar. A few days later, the brand new steam sloop USS Kearsarge, follwed by the sail sloop-of-war USS St. Louis arrived to reinforce the squadron. The four ship squadron proceed to set up a blockade of sorts to prevent Sumter from escaping. With little coal left (and none at Gibrlatar to be purchased), the ship in bad shape, and the military odds against him, Semmes wrote to James Bolluch in Enlgand that he intended to sell Sumter and simply walk away from the ship. He did what he could to harras U.S. Naval officers diplomatically, but the Confederate captain concluded Sumter was done for. In April 11, 1862, Sumter's cruise officially came to an end. Sumter's officers made their way north to England where a ship titled "Hull No. 290" awaited them. Sumter (and later Alabama's) executive officer John Keel wrote a very good account of Sumter's cruise in his work Recollections of a Naval Life.