Sunday, September 30, 2012

US Navy Patrols on the St. Johns River, Florida

The take-over of the Confederate battery on St. Johns Bluff opened the St. Johns River to US Navy forces to conduct patrols up the river. This they did, destroying or taking possession of every small boat, scow, or barge they could find in order to impede the ability of Confederate troops and supplies to be ferried across the river. In 4 October 1862 the USS Cimarron, Water Witch, and E. B. Hale made an expedition up the river. Cdr. Woodhull of the Cimarron reported that 200-300 small vessels were destroyed.

Arriving off Palatka on 5 October, Woodhull reported that he met aboard Water Witch with former Florida Gov. Moseley and a unionist named Blood. During this meeting, a party of armed horsemen were spotted approaching the town by lookouts in the tops of the gunboats. Woodhull signaled for his boats to return to the ships and ordered Snell in the Hale to open fire on the mounted party. The fire was accurate and deadly, apparently killing 3 or 4 of the horsemen. The fire of the gunboat forced the mounted party to retreat back into the adjoining forests and swamps. Blood and his family and the families of black pilots who had assisted the Navy ships with navigation on the river were evacuated for their safety.

A cutting out expedition set out on 6 October to capture the Confederate steamer Gov. Milton, and another steamer. It was known that the Milton was responsible for ferrying Confederate troops and guns to the fortifications on St. Johns Bluff, and that it was also important in conveying supplies run through the Blockade to Confederate forces. Under the command of Lt. Cdr. E. P. Williams, the recently captured Confederate steamer Darlington (rechristened a US ship with the same name, and armed with two 24 pdr boat howitzers) steamed upriver, accompanied by the gunboat Hale. At the entrance to Lake George, shallow depths wouldn’t allow Hale to proceed further, so the Darlington continued upriver through Lake George, leaving Hale to patrol the entrance to the Ocklawaha River, nearby.

At Hawkinsville, 168 miles upstream of Jacksonville, Williams and his men found indications that the Milton was in the area. Taking a party of sailors and soldiers of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Rgt., Williams proceeded up a small creek in ships boats and found the Milton, manned by only two engineers. They took possession of the steamer and reconnoitered up the creek further in search of the other steamer, then out into the St. Johns River as far up as Lake Beresford. When the steamboat could go no further due to river depths, running low on rations, and deep in Confederate territory, Williams decided to proceed back downriver to rejoin the Hale and return to his base. Along the way up and back down river, numerous small vessels and other enemy property was destroyed or confiscated by the Union expedition.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

St. Johns Bluff Part III - Taking the Battery

Sketch of the configuration of the Confederate Battery on St. Johns Bluff following capture. From the "Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies" on-line at Cornell University.

As a result of the naval actions of 11 and 17 September 1862, the Union leadership in the region decided it would take a combined Army/Navy amphibious operation to conquer the battery on St. Johns Bluff. US Gen. John M. Brannan was dispatched from Hilton Head, SC with a force of infantry, cavalry and light artillery, about 1,500 men in total. The expedition departed on 25 September. The gunboats USS Paul Jones, Cimarron, Uncas, E. B. Hale and Water Witch rendezvoused with the transports carrying Brannan’s forces at the mouth of the St. Johns River on 1 October. They proceeded upriver to Pablo and Mt. Pleasant Creeks, where they began landing the troops, backed by US Marines armed with Dahlgren 12 pdr boat howitzers.

On 2 October, concurrent with the developing Army assault on the Bluff fortifications, Cdr. Charles Steedman (Sr. Navy officer in charge of the gunboat flotilla) ordered Cdr. Maxwell Woodhull, to take his gunboat, the Cimarron, accompanied by the Water Witch and Uncas, to conduct a reconnaissance of the Bluff. The battery fired on the Union ships as they passed the mouth of Sisters Creek, the gunboats returning fire. The firing from the battery was well aimed, and the Cimarron found it difficult to maneuver due to a combination of strong tidal currents, wind, and the poor handling characteristics of the ship. All of these made it difficult for Woodhull to bring his guns to bear on the battery. Both Cimarron and Water Witch ran aground, during which times they continued to receive fire from the battery. The fight continued for about an hour and a half, after which the three ships received a signal to return downriver and help cover the troop landing. No casualties were suffered on any of the three Union ships, to Cdr. Woodhull’s relief and astonishment.

The Army forces were all landed by 3 October, and the soldiers pushed west towards St. Johns Bluff. As they approached, no flag was seen flying over the battery. Although this suggested the works had been abandoned, Steedman was skeptical, since no flag was flying the day before, when the battery fired on three of his gunboats. In consultation with Gen. Brannan, Steedman sent the Hale and Uncas upriver to conduct another reconnaissance. Approaching the battery, Acting Master Alfred T. Snell of the Hale ordered his guns to open fire, but received no return fire. He dispatched an armed shore party in the ship’s gig to the battery, where they found that the Confederate garrison had evacuated the works. Snell ordered the US flag raised over the fortification on 3 October 1862. The Confederate battery upriver at Yellow Bluff was also evacuated on or about this date.

An account of the St. Johns Bluff events in the fall of 1862 (which these posts are excerpted from) is in an article by me on the Navy and Marine Living History web site at:

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The U.S. Navy's Newest Weapon-USS New Ironsides

In late August 1862, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran the above headline and sketch of the U.S. Navy's newest ironclad that just left the Philadelphia shipyard of William Cramp & Sons for Hampton Roads: New Ironsides.  The ship was the last of three armored vessels recommended by the Ironclad Board (Monitor and Galena being the first two).  It was by far the largest and most heavily armored of the three.   Unlike many Northern newspapers that had a bad habit of disclosing operational and technical secrets, the Inquirer attempted to take the high road when it wrote, "No persons were allowed to visit the vessel previous to her departure, and it is not deemed desirable to make  public the various particulars of her construction, and the manner in which her guns and machinery operate."

However, when New Ironsides arrived in Hampton Roads in mid-September 1862, a reporter for the New York Times spotted her from his position at Fort Monroe.  This particular reporter and his newspaper had become somewhat notorious for reporting everything the U.S. Navy was doing in Hampton Roads (see the Port Royal Expedition).  New Ironsides' arrival was no different.  However, the Navy had only itself to blame as Captain Thomas Turner, New Ironsides' commanding officer, invited the reporter on board and gave him a personal tour.

The reporter wrote: "She is 240 feet in length, 56 feet width of beam, and some 17 feet out of the water.   When fully armed and equipped, she draws 15 feet of water, and easily made 7 knots. The armament of the Ironsides is terrific.  Besides sixteen XI-inch guns, she carries two enormous 200-pounders, that must crush to pieces anything made with human hands."

Several of the Confederacy's leading dailies such as the Charleston Mercury reprinted the New York Times' article.   The ship remained in Hampton Roads for a few more days to guard against a rumored "Merrimack 2." She then proceed south to join the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

Friday, September 21, 2012

CSS Florida's Mad Dash into Mobile

To say Confederate Lieutenant John Newland Maffitt had a tough decision to make would be an understatement.  After the Florida's release from a British admiralty court in Nassau, Maffit's executive officer reported their vessel lacked the proper equipment to fire the main guns.   After being denied the equipment in Havana, Cuba, Maffitt decided the only thing to do was to run the blockade and make port in Mobile, Alabama.  Adding to Maffitt's difficulties was yellow fever.  The dreaded tropical disease had incapacitated or killed half of his company, including Maffitt.  This decision caused Florida's executive officer, Lieutenant John Stribling, to question his captain's wisdom.  He commented to Maffitt, "Sir, in this attempt we cannot avoid passing close to the blockade-squadron, the result of which will be our certain destruction."

George Prebble after the war
Maffitt acknowledged the risks, but felt he had no choice.  Watching the approaches to Mobile were the steam sloop-of-war USS Oneida (commanded by Commander George H. Prebble), the "90-day gunboat" USS Winona, and the fast sailing schooner USS Rachel Seaman. 

With a British flag raised, Florida approached the blockading squadron at high speed.  Florida and Oneida passed within 90 yards of each other before Prebble realized the ruse.  Oneida opened fire at Florida, but missed.  Winona joined in and put an XI-inch shot into Florida's boiler room, decapitating one of the fireman and injuring several others.   Florida continued steaming.  The two U.S. Navy ships switched over to shrapnel shot in an attempt to take out Florida's sails.  The shrapnel injured several more of Florida's sailors, but failed to stop the cruiser from making it to the safety of Fort Morgan. 

Maffitt was safe.  Prebble, however was not. Upon hearing about the incident via Farragut and Welles, President Lincoln personally ordered Prebble to be removed from command and dismissed from the Navy.  Welles wrote a letter informing Prebble of his dismissal.  Being what communications were in 1862, Prebble learned about his firing in a newspaper article. 

Prebble was furious and fought the charges.  Coming from one of the U.S. Navy's most famous families (he was the nephew of Commodore Edward Prebble), he had major political clout to work with.  For the next six months, he sought to be reinstated.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Naval Engagement at St. Johns Bluff - Part II

USS Paul Jones (From Naval History and Heritage Command archives)

Reports of the firing on the gunboats USS Uncas and Patroon on 11 September 1862 by a Confederate battery on St. Johns Bluff outraged Flag Officer Samuel F. DuPont, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. He sent orders to Cdr. Charles Steedman to assemble a task force to “. . . make a thorough reconnaissance of the (St. Johns) river as far as you deem it advisable. . .” and to “. . . warn responsible persons of the consequences.” Steedman’s squadron consisted of his big gunboat, the USS Paul Jones, plus the gunboats USS Cimarron, Uncas, E. B. Hale, and Patroon. Assembling at Mayport Mills on 16 September, the flotilla headed upriver the morning of 17 September 1862.

Paul Jones and Cimarron opened fire on the St. Johns Bluff battery at a range of 2,000 yards with their 100 pdr Parrot rifles. The battery began returning fire when the ships came within about 1,600 yards. Steedman later reported that the fire from the other three gunboats was “of little, if any, service”, although he does not indicate why. It may be that they followed the two larger gunboats, misunderstanding Steedman’s orders to go into action in line-ahead formation, instead of closing with the battery at a range more suitable for their guns. Dr. Ed Bearss, in an article in the Florida Historical Quarterly indicates that the smaller gunboats could not fire because the Cimarron and Paul Jones were in their line of fire. The exchange between the battery and the gunboat flotilla continued for several hours, with the USN ships expending about half their ammunition. Both Paul Jones and Cimarron took hits from the guns of the battery. As on 11 September, the battery crew was driven off for a period of time by the substantial naval gunfire. Steedman decided to withdraw downriver back to his base, instead of continuing upstream to Jacksonville. He believed that to do the latter would allow Confederate forces to reoccupy the battery and threaten his ships on the return journey downstream. The USN ships returned to their base at Mayport Mills by the close of day on 17 September.

This was probably the largest naval action of the Civil War in Florida, in terms of the number of warships involved, but the failure to defeat the battery solely by naval means prompted DuPont to realize that it would take a combined Army-Navy operation to silence the battery. A Union force of about 1,500 soldiers was dispatched from Hilton Head, SC on 25 Sept 1862. Under the command of Gen. John M. Brannan, it was bound for the St. Johns River. Stay tuned for more.

USS Cimarron (From Naval History and Heritage Command archives)

Friday, September 14, 2012

Rear Admiral Wilkes and his Magical Flying Squadron

Steam sloop USS Wachusett

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Naval Engagement at St. Johns Bluff - Part I

Harper's Weekly drawing of the Confederate Battery at St. Johns Bluff (Source: Florida Dept. of State Archives)

In prior posts, I highlighted the US Navy’s establishment of the blockade off the St. Johns River, Florida and creation of their base of operations at Mayport Mills in spring 1862. In an effort to prevent the Navy’s use of the river, during the late summer of 1862 the Confederates constructed a substantial earthworks and battery of guns on St. Johns Bluff, 3 miles upstream of Mayport Mills on the south bank of the river. This appears to have been done at the command of Gen. Robert E. Lee, whose orders to Brig. Gen. Joseph Finegan were to secure the Apalachicola and St. Johns Rivers from use by the Union forces. Work on the battery was completed in early September 1862, and it was placed under the command of Capt. Joseph A Dunham of the Milton Light Artillery Battalion. A smaller, secondary battery was also constructed upstream at Yellow Bluff, on the opposite bank of the river.

An escaped slave brought the existence of these batteries to the attention of USN forces at Mayport Mills. Although skeptical of this information, Acting Master L. G. Crane, commanding the gunboat USS Uncas, decided to conduct a reconnaissance of the Bluff. Proceeding upriver on 10 September, accompanied by the gunboat USS Patroon (Acting Master W. D. Urann commanding, who received the initial report from the escapee), Crane arrived off the Bluff that evening. He anchored, set out a kedge anchor to enable him to bring his broadside to bear, and fired nine rounds into the Bluff, receiving no return fire from the battery. Because of his initial skepticism, this may have led him to believe that perhaps things were not as the contraband portrayed.

The night passed uneventfully, but things changed radically the morning of 11 September 1862. At dawn, the Confederate battery opened fire on Uncas, which had her guns run in so the sailors could swab the decks. An utterly surprised Crane ordered the main anchor slipped and cut loose the kedge anchor. Uncas was hit five times by rounds from the battery, before she could begin maneuvering; one shot even penetrated the magazine of the gunboat. Crane finally got his guns loaded and run out and signaled for Patroon to come upriver and lend support. It took the latter ship an hour and a half to get there due to the strong tidal currents in this part of the river. Uncas and Patroon dueled with the battery for about four hours, and even managed to drive the battery’s crew off for a period of time. After expending much of their ammo, the two Navy ships retired back to their base at Mayport Mills.

Views of the St. Johns River from St. Johns Bluff, looking downstream. Confederate earthworks and battery were located roughly in this area. Note how a battery in this location would have near-total command of the river from this vantage point:

Thursday, September 6, 2012

News and Events: Week of 2 September 2012

Ah, yes.  It's that time of year again.  The slight chill in the air.  Leaves falling on the ground.  Children playing in school yards around the country.  The Sunday sound of football on the television.  Fall is here.

Do you feel it?  Me neither.   Between the heat and the recent bad weather in the South, Fall seems far away.  It might not feel like its the end of summer.  There is one truth to the above statement: kids are back to school.  Down here in Virginia, we are getting more mosquitoes and muggy weather than anything else.  But alas, time moves on and so does the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial.  Here are some interesting articles and news pieces that popped up on the internet this week about the Civil War navies.

Under Two Flags Lecture Announced 
Historian and author William Fowler (Northeastern University) will be speaking at the Dedham Historical Society in April next year.  He will be discussing the role of the Union and Confederate navies during the American Civil War.

For more information on the lecture, please go HERE.  The event is listed on the Civil War Navy Calender of Events portion of the blog (top right side of blog).

Commander Preble's Very Bad Day
Great blog article from a few days at the New York Times' Disunion Blog.  The article discusses Commander George Henry Preble's "bad day" off the Union Blockade.  You can access the article HERE.

Civil War Navy-Related Sites Listed on CNN's "12 Fascinating Civil War Sites"
Two of the 12 sites listed in CNN's latest must-see "Fascinating Civil War Sites" involve the Civil War Navy: Mobile Bay, Alabama and Vicksburg, Mississippi.  Click this link to see all 12!

(Meyer Vacation Rentals/Facebook)
Mysterious Shipwreck on Alabama Shore
By far the most interesting piece of Civil War Navy-related news this week.   In the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac, a mysterious wooden ship washed up on the Alabama shoreline.  Many believe it to be a ship used during the Civil War.  Other think it was a rum runner that sank during Prohibition.  More to follow on this interesting news story.  Check here or the Birmingham News for the most up to date information on this developing story.