Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Setting Up a Navy Yard in Charlotte, 1862

1877 map of Charlotte, "Carolina Central R.R.,"
"R.M. Oates," and Hutchison were the location 
of the Charlotte Navy Yard from 1862-1865
If you happen to be in Charlotte, North Carolina, be sure to stop by and read North Carolina's Historical Marker "L-56/Confederate Navy Yard."  The sign is near the Charlotte Transportation Center/Arena Station on Front Street.   Other than the sign, there is nothing left to indicate that one of the more important pieces of Confederate Navy infrastructure used to stand there.  At first glance, one would think that Charlotte would be an odd place to set up a navy yard.  After all, navy yards are supposed to be linked to water.  Ideally, yes.  But, as with many aspects of the Confederate States Navy, a combination of necessity and shortages birthed innovation. 

The idea to set up shop in southwest North Carolina  came from H. Ashton Ramsey, chief engineer of the late CSS Virginia.  With Union ground and naval forces moving in on Gosport Navy Yard, Ramsey had his men pack up as many industrial tools and machines they could carry and load them onto rail cars.  Working with ordnance expert John Brooke, the two men identified an abandoned machine shop located on the main line of the North Carolina Central railroad.  Most important to Ramsey, it was safe from interference of both Union ground and naval forces.

 After convincing the property owner to sell on a promise to pay when the war ended, workers from Gosport immediately started unloading several pieces of heavy industrial equipment.  The workers’ families arrived a short time later.  Many of the families settled down permanently in Charlotte after the war. 

For the rest of the war, Ramsey’s men manufactured and assembled several shafts, propellers, ordnance, and torpedoes for use by the Confederate Navy.   Most of the parts were used in building mid to late war ironclads such as CSS Virginia II, CSS Albemarle, CSS Georgia, and CSS TennesseeRead more about the operations of the yard here.
CSS Albemarle, one of several ironclads whose parts were assembled by the Charlotte Navy Yard

Friday, August 24, 2012

CSS Alabama is Commissioned

Before the cruiser CSS Alabama could begin her famous campaigns, she had to get out of England without being impounded by British authorities.  Once completed at Laird's shipyard, a ship known only as No. 290 left Liverpool, England on August 17, 1862 with a group English businessman, shipyard workers, custom officers, and well-dressed women for a "trial cruise."  After a few hours at sea, a tugboat came alongside and removed all the passengers except a skeleton crew needed to operate the ship.  The ruse was necessary to avoid British neutral laws and get the ship to sea as quickly as possible.  With this part of the ruse complete, the ship headed southwest for the Azores. 

Further cloaking, however, was necessary.  When No. 290 arrived in the Azores, she met up with the steamer Bahama and the sail barque AggripniaBahama left Liverpool about the same time as No. 290, carrying Captain Raphael Semmes and his staff (most of whom were previously on CSS Sumter) on board.  The sail barque carried several large naval weapons. 

Semmes' officers on board Alabama.
The transfer of guns and men began immediately. There were some tense moments during the weapons transfer.  Early one morning, Semmes was awoken by three guns being fired.  The watch believed it was a Portuguese sloop trying to persuade the ships to move out of their local waters.  Semmes convinced everyone on board that the ship would never find its mark and went back to sleep.  Semmes' judgement was correct, as the "warship" turned out to be a passenger steamer that used cannon fire as an alarm clock to notify sleepy passengers that the ship had arrived at port. 
The transfer was completed on August 24.  Semmes assembled twenty-four officers and 120 enlisted sailors (the vast majority being Englishmen) to announce his intentions. He said, "We are going to burn, sink, and destroy the commerce of the United States."  He then added, "There are only six ships that I am afraid of in the United States' Navy," without mentioning which ones. 

Once the speech was complete, most of the enlisted men accepted his leadership and signed on.  No. 290 was renamed CSS Alabama.  The English colors were pulled down and the Stars and Bars were risen aloft.   Semmes ordered Alabama west towards known whaling grounds off the coast of the Azores.  A week later, Alabama caught her first of many prizes, a Massachusetts-based whaling vessel named Ocumulegee.  The crew of the whaler was in the middle of gutting a large sperm whale when Alabama came upon her.  The whale ship captain later admitted to Semmes that he wished the U.S. Navy provided protection for whalers, since there was only a handful of known spots in the world to catch whales. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

CSS Arkansas is Lost: August 1862

The castemate ironclad CSS Arkansas was a one ship wrecking crew on the Mississippi River.  The ironclad interfered with Union plans to take Vicksburg and complete their control of the Mississippi River.  Thus, the U.S. Navy made several attempts to eliminate the ironclad.  While the attempts succeeded in damaging Arkansas, the ironclad remained  a "fleet-in-being."  Even if she was only one ship, she was still a threat to any Union offensive in the West.

Isaac Brown, commanding officer
of CSS Arkansas
Arkansas' gallant commanding officer, Issac Brown, decided the ship needed a break to regroup.  Brown barely slept or ate during the month of July.  Worse, he fell ill to the "swamp fever" epidemic that swept both Union and Confederate camps and ships during the months of July and August.  Because of this, he was granted four days of shore leave.  Before he left, Brown gave strict orders to his executive officer Lieutenant Henry K. Stevens to repair and refit Arkansas and not to let anyone move the ship until he returned from liberty. 

Unfortunately for Stevens, senior Confederate leadership had other plans. Confederate General Earl Van Dorn, whose skill set as a general were highly suspect, demanded Stevens immediately prepare Arkansas for battle.  Van Dorn planned to use the ironclad in a counter-attack against Union lines at Baton Rouge.  Stevens refused and recited Brown's orders to not move the ship.  The decision was referred to Flag Officer William Lynch, a man whose two greatest claims to fame were getting his squadron destroyed at Roanoke Island in early 1862 and claiming to have scientific proof of the existence of the lost Biblical cites of Sodom and Gomorrah (read more about that here).  Lynch agreed with Van Dorn.  Now being faced down by two flag officers, Stevens' will broke and agreed to make Arkansas ready. 

Stevens wrote to Brown about the situation.  Despite running a high fever and barely being able to walk, Brown jumped out of bed and took two trains to get to Vicksburg.   He was too late.  Arkansas already left four hours after he got there.

As Arkansas approached Baton Rouge, the ship's engines began to fail. Upon seeing Arkansas head south, Essex followed in hot pursuit and opened fire.  Arkansas' engines eventually gave out.  Unable to maneuver and bring any guns to bear on Essex, Stevens ordered the ship beached so that she could be scuttled. 

With Essex bearing down her, Stevens set  Arkansas on fire.  Brown was able to get transportation south just in time to see his ship explode.  Brown later stated that he did not blame his executive officer for what happened.  He squarely placed blame on Lynch and Van Dorn for not being very smart with their side's limited resources. (Read Brown's entire account in Battle and Leaders here)  The explosion destroyed the Confederacy's last major warship on the Mississippi River.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Farragut's Punitive Raid on Donaldsonville

If siege craft could be classified as an occurrence where ancient rules of war still applied and honor still existed, guerrilla/partisan activity would be its polar opposite.  The activity tended to bring out the worst in partisans trying to do anything they could to harass an enemy that possessed superior firepower and numbers.  Likewise, the uniformed sailor/soliders' attempts to suppress the partisan activity bore little fruit.  This led to more extreme measures.

One of many such exchanges came to a head in early August 1862 in Donaldsonville, Louisiana.  Located on the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Donaldsonville once served as Louisiana's state capital in the 1830s.   Farragut's ships and U.S. Army transports frequently passed by the town, moving back and forth from the front lines near Baton Rouge. 

As the Union ships passed by Donaldsonville, a group of "partisan rangers," led by local businessman Captain Phillippe Landry, frequently took pot shots at them. On the evening of August 6, 1862, Landry's men escalated their attacks by firing several volleys of musket and small cannon fire at the Union army transport Sallie Robinson.   A few minutes later, a second group of partisans fired at another ship that they thought was an unarmed transport.  It turned out to be the powerful steam sloop USS Brooklyn.  The warship responded with one shot from her aft pivot IX-inch Dahlgren, but the partisans had already withdrawn. 

Upon being told of these attacks, Farragut issued a short and stern warning to the citizens of Donaldsonville "Every time my boats are fired upon, I will burn a portion of your town." 

USS Hartford
The citizens either didn't receive the message or willfully ignored Farragut.  The partisans attacked the transport St. Charles the following night.  True to his word, Farragut advised Donaldsonville to evacuate all women and children on August 10. USS Hartford and Brooklyn then opened fired.  The ships' gunners specifically targeted Landry's hotel, his private residence, and any other home or business of a known partisan.  Several buildings were destroyed and burned to the ground. Farragut also accepted a dozen slaves seeking freedom and seized several heads of cattle and sheep. 

As uncivilized as it seems, the punitive action worked.  Realizing that they had no effective means of fighting back against such firepower and that future partisan attack would only bring more destruction and loss of property, plantation owners from the parishes of Accession and St. James passed a resolution demanding Governor Thomas Moore do all he could to stop partisans from attacking U.S. Navy ships.  The river raids stopped and so did the Navy's retaliations.  The plantations even swore a loyalty oath to the U.S. Government (so they could keep their slaves).  However, they secretly supported the partisans' ground operations for the rest of the war. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

CSS Florida is Commissioned and Puts to Sea

In late July, Confederate Lieutenant John Newland Maffitt arrived in Nassau, Bahamas aboard one of his blockade runners.  Soon after arriving, he received sealed orders to take command of the Oreto, anchored six miles from Nassau.  Raphael Semmes, late of CSS Sumter, also happened to be in town.  Maffitt handed him his own sealed orders to return to England and take command of a ship known only as No. 290 (future CSS Alabama). 

Maffitt was ready to take charge of his ship, except she had been placed under arrest by British authorities. Either because he was bribed by Federal agents or had a change of heart, one of his junior officers that helped bring Oreto over from Liverpool announced to British authorities that Oreto was truly a Confederate warship, thus in violation of Queen Victoria's neutral proclamation.

John Newland Maffitt
With Maffitt laying low and keeping out of sight, the local Admiralty court spent the next weeks investigating the claim.  Making matters worse, a serious yellow fever epidemic struck Nassau.  The epidemic struck Maffitt hard, but he still tried to make arrangements for his ship. 

On August 7, the British courts concluded that Orteo was not an armed ship and released her.  Only a few hours after the decision, Maffitt got out of bed and assembled his company on the ship.   Ideally, the ship needed 120 men.  Maffitt only had 22 on hand, some of whom were very ill.  Regardless, the ship slipped out of Nassau harbor at night to Green Quay.  Here, she met up with the British schooner Prince Alfred.  With a skeleton crew, the Confederate ship received her eight guns (two 7-inchs and six six-inches) and ordnance.  Maffitt declared that she was no longer Oreto, but the Confederate cruiser CSS Florida.  He made plans to raid Union shipping along the Gulf of Mexico and ordered his company to began training on the main guns.  At this point,  his executive officer, Lieutenant Stribling, made an unfortunate discovery.

In their haste to break out of Nassau and away from the U.S. Navy, Florida's company accidentally left naval artillery equipment like sponges and ram rods in storage.  As the ship would be totally helpless in combat, Maffitt changed his mind.  Instead of starting his raids, he decided to make for Mobile, Alabama and run the blockade.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

New Book Out on Blockade Runners

It's always important to let readers know when scholarship on the Civil War navies is available.  With the anticipated release of James McPherson's new work on the naval war, it is a good time to be talking and writing about the Civil War Navy.   Here is a brief description of a new book on Blockade Runners and the Denbigh Court.  Check it out and let us know what you think.

Civil War Blockade-Runners: Prize Claims and the Historical Record, Including the Denbigh's Court Documents by Gerald R. Powell, Matthew C. Cordon, J. Barto Arnold III

Institute of Nautical Archaeology
ISBN-13: 978-0979587436
ISBN-10: 0979587433
342 pages

This book considers the legal structure for the Union navy taking as prizes of war the vessels that ran the blockade. It discusses international laws, customs, and steps of the court action. Detailed examples are provided for a few particular ships taken off Galveston. Archival documents are illustrated. As the Civil War commenced, the Confederacy was short of cash and manufactured goods, while its exports were blockaded. The South turned to Europe for weapons, clothing, tools, and medicines that could be paid for with cotton. Mobile and Galveston were the ports of call for the famous blockade-runner Denbigh, a shipwreck excavated by the Institute of Nautical Archaeology located at Texas A&M University. The incidents and documents in this book concentrate on the Denbigh and the rest explain the activities of this ship and her sisters in the runner's trade. Understanding the rules of the prize game enhances greatly the understanding of blockade-running.