Monday, November 26, 2012

The Confederate War Department Buys a Giraffe, November 1862

Blockade Runner Giraffe/Robert E. Lee
In the Fall 1862, Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon and Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance Josiah Gorgas were beginning to tire of blockade runners.  While the typical blockade runner brought in needed war supplies, they often brought other goods that were sold to the Southern public at a high mark up while doing little to help out the war effort. To fix this issue, Seddon and Gorgas formed a plan to maximize efficiency and support to the Confederate cause.  The War Department would directly own their own fleet of blockade runners.

Lieutenant John Wilkinson
With the assistance of the Confederate Treasury Department, the War Department successfully procured five steamers: Cornubia, Merrimac (sic), Phantom, Columbia, and Giraffe.  The fifth ship of this group had the most success. The iron-hulled Giraffe was a fast Clyde River ferry boat purchased by Confederate agents from bankrupt Scottish owners.

 Though the War Department owned the vessels, the Confederate States Navy was needed to man the ships.  In this respect, the CSN cooperated fully, providing the highly talented Lieutenant John Wilkinson.  One Confederate historian later wrote that Wilkinson "did more to sustain the Confederacy than any other one man. As a seaman he was unsurpassed. He knew the ocean, as a boy does his alphabet."

 As soon as Giraffe was in Confederate hands, men went to work to transfer the luxury coastal ferry boat into a ship of war.  Fancy furniture from the saloon and tea rooms were thrown out to make space for war supplies when traveling west and cotton when sailing east.  For the first journey west, workers loaded up guns and powder as well as engraving equipment.  During the war, the Confederate Treasury Department lacked the necessary tools and skilled labor to produce money.  Thus, the Confederate Treasury procured the equipment and hired thirty-two Scottish engravers.

The trans-Atlantic journey went well enough.  Wilkinson's seamanship paid off, as he maneuvered the ship in shallow waters around the Bahamas in order to evade U.S. Navy warships.  He then decided to make a run for Wilmington.  As the ship approached Cape Fear at night, either the pilot or Wilkinson panicked and made a navigation error.  Though none of the five U.S. Navy warships spotted Giraffe, the ship, going flank speed, struck an underwater sand formation known as the "Lump."  Giraffe came to a screeching halt and almost had her hull cracked.  Wilkinson immediately ordered the small boats over the side and for the engravers and their equipment out first.  They all made it to shore.

Eventually, Wilkinson and his crew freed Giraffe and the ship steamed into Wilmington.  It would the first of several adventures for the ship and her captain.  Later on in the war, the ship would have her name change from Giraffe to Robert E. Lee.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Cushing's Raid on Jacksonville, North Carolina

As written in previous posts, the U.S. Navy waged an intriguing form of strategic warfare with targeted raids against salt works in Florida. These small works produced usable salt by evaporating brine.  Salt (the "table salt" type) was a critical mineral to everyday life as it was needed for dietary reasons, to tan leather, and to preserve meat.  In late 1862, the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, under the new command of Acting Rear Admiral Samuel Phillips Lee, picked up on this strategy by launching similar raids against salt works in Virginia and North Carolina. 

USS Ellis (ex-CSS Ellis)
One such raid occurred the evening of November 23, 1862 aboard the USS Ellis, a tug captured by the U.S. Army during the Roanoke Island Campaign.  Led by Lieutenant William B. Cushing, the nominal purpose of the raid was to find the salt works near Onslow Courthouse (also called Jacksonville), North Carolina. For Cushing, however, one target was never enough.  In what would become common place in Cushing-led raids, this operation would not end until the either the Confederate forces were defeated or Cushing's ship sank. 

Lieutant William B. Cushing
Cushing later wrote that his "object was to sweep the river, capture any vessels  there, capture the town of Jacksonville (also called Onslow), take the Wilmington mail, and destroy any salt works that I might find on the banks."  This was all to be done with a tug boat armed with two 32-pounder cannons and twenty-three men. 

Ellis arrived at Jacksonville at 1:30 in the afternoon.  Finding little initial opposition, Cushing and his men proceeded to capture the post office, several stands of rifled muskets, grabbed any African American in sight to "liberate" them, and two schooners.  A salt works was also destroyed soon after.

Around 5 p.m., Confederate ground forces converged on the town just as Ellis began head back down river.  Darkness prevented any combat.  As the Sun came up, the shooting started.  Confederate infantry and cavalry would lay down fire on Cushing's little squadron while Ellis returned fire with her two guns.  During this running fight, Ellis ran hard aground.

After several attempts to free her, Cushing transferred most of his men and material to one of the schooners.  In typical Cushing-style, however, he and six volunteers stayed on board Ellis to provide covering fire.  At this point in the battle, a battery of four Confederate guns (including one Whitworth rifle) fired on Ellis.  Cushing  refused to give up on Ellis until the last minute.  Eventually, he declared Ellis a loss, set fire to her, and abandoned ship.  She blew up the following morning. 

After reading Cushing's after-action report, Commander Davenport (Cushing's commanding officer) reported to Admiral Lee, "I think the courage of this young officer should meet the commendation of his superiors."

Indeed he would be.  It would only be the first of many commendations to come. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

USS Monitor 150th Anniversary Experience at the Mariners' Museum

Auctioned “Experience” Inside USS Monitor’s Revolving Gun Turret to Highlight 150th Anniversary of Ironclad’s Demise, 
Support Ongoing Conservation 

For Immediate Release 

Newport News, VA (Nov. 20, 2012) – The Mariners’ Museum and partners at NOAA’s Monitor National Marine Sanctuary are marking the 150th anniversary of the USS Monitor’s sinking by offering an unprecedented opportunity on December 30, 2012: the chance for six visitors to experience the stories of the ironclad’s final harrowing moments while standing inside the recovered iconic revolving gun turret. 

The Mariners’ Museum and NOAA are auctioning off the chance for six visitors to experience life inside the revolving gun turret Monitor during its final hours on December 30-31. Night-time programming will highlight specific events from the sinking based upon historical documents and personal letters from survivors. Museum staff will also ring Monitor’s original engine room gong to honor sixteen crewmembers that perished during the sinking. The event may also be streamed live via telepresence to other museums that share Monitor’s story. 

“This is the ultimate opportunity to travel back in time and immerse yourself in the final moments of the USS Monitor, arguably the most iconic vessel of the Civil War. The thought of standing inside the 120-ton recovered gun turret with your closest friends, of walking in the footsteps of these Union sailors exactly 150 years later, gives me goose bumps,” said Dave Krop, Director of the USS Monitor Center. “I cannot think of a more unique experience.” 

Lucky winners of the auction will also receive lodging near The Mariners’ Museum, as well as food and entertainment throughout the late evening. 

For more information on this exciting event, please contact Dave Krop at:
(757) 591-7763 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Chasing After CSS Nashville: November 19, 1862

A Northern newspaper cartoon mocking the U.S. Navy's inability to capture CSS Nashville.

CSS Nashville was the Confederate State government's second attempt at a commissioned commerce raider (CSS Sumter being the first).  Eliminating all Confederate cruisers became a top priority for the U.S. Navy, but the chase after Nashville bordered on obsession.  Part of the U.S. Navy's emotional tie to the ship was possibly due to the fact that Nashville successfully ran the blockade four times between November 1861 and June 1862.  Even though she only captured two prizes, her presence stirred up the emotions of Yankee merchant owners and their insurance underwriters.  For its part, the Confederate States Navy gave up Nashville as a cruiser and sold her off to a blockade running outfit.  To the U.S. Navy, it did not matter.  In their opinion, Nashville could be easily turn back into a cruiser.  They intended her to be captured or sunk.
The 400-ton USS Dawn, which carried
a 100-pounder Parrott Rifle.

In late Summer 1862, U.S. Navy intelligence discovered that the ship formerly known as Nashville dashed into Ossabaw Sound and up the Ogeechee River (about twenty miles southwest of Savanna, Georgia), instead of a larger port.  Granted, the guns of Fort McAllister protected her, but she was trapped.  Unlike Charleston or Wilmington, there was only one exit for a Confederate ship to run the blockade: back the way they came.   But trapped was not good enough.  On November 19, 1862,  the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron conducted one of several attempts to sink the Confederate cruiser.

This attempt consisted of three ships: the gunboats USS Wissahickon and Dawn and one mortar boat, simply named No.5.  Although there is no recorded strategy, it would seem that the mortar boat would be used to bombard the cruiser from afar.  

USS Wissahickon's XI-inch Dahlgren gun crew
The Confederate garrison at Fort McAllister was prepared for any Yankee assault.   With obstructions laid across the river, McAllistar's guns opened fire on Wissahickon at 8:15 a.m.  Wissahickon returned fire with her XI-inch Dahlgren.  Dawn joined in with her 100-pounder Parrot rifle.    At 9:45, the Confederate gunners found their mark and hit Wisssahickon four feet below the water line. After firing seventeen XI-inch shells and eighteen 20-pounder Parrot Rifle shells (including eight percussion shells), Lieutenant Commander John Davis ordered a retreat.  Wissahickon was taking on water badly and forced to beach farther down river to repair the hole.   With No. 5 in tow, Dawn fired off forty-nine 100-pound Parrott shells before she retreated. 

For the moment, Nashville (she also went by the names Rattlesnake and Thomas L. Wragg while operating as a privateer) was safe.  However, she was still trapped. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

CSS Alabama Migrates South For the Winter, November 1862

While raiding Gulf Stream merchant traffic near Nova Scotia, Confederate Captain Raphael Semmes was well aware that the weather could turn nasty quickly.  Well versed in oceanography and meteorology, much of Semmes' autobiography, Service Afloat, is devoted to the science behind weather his ships encountered.   A storm packing 50 knot winds in the middle of October prompted (shown above) him to exit the Grand Banks region and head south for warmer temperatures and calmer winds.  A search on NOAA's Historical Hurricane Tracks website shows that Alabama had been been caught up in a dying Category One hurricane. 

Raphael Semmes' diagram of the tropical storm
CSS Alabama went through in October 1862.
Just as Alabama was exiting the region, the U.S. Navy finally sent warships in.  New York and New England's businessmen were expressing their concern to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles about Alabama's presence.  The New York City Chamber of Commerce even inquired if Welles would be willing to empower the Chamber of Commerce to arm their own private ships to hunt Alabama!  As both a symbolic and real response to the merchants' concerns, Welles dispatched railroad tycoon's Cornelius Vanderbilt's donated steamer USS Vanderbilt to search for the Confederate cruiser in the Grand Banks. 

By the time Vanderbilt reached her patrol zone, Alabama had already burned three more merchant ships and was half way to the West Indies.  Having found friendly reception on the French colony of Martinique with CSS Sumter, Semmes decided to make port there in early November 1862.  The same French colonial governor was still in power.  He gave Semmes and his company another hearty welcome.  The only issue Semmes faced was a minor, liquor-induced munity.  About twenty drunk sailors threatened the officers.  Fortunately, Semmes and his officers were able to get them under control.  Semmes ordered the men to be dumped in cold water until they sobered up. 

USS San Jacinto
Much like the 1861 visit, a U.S. Navy cruiser spotted Semmes' ship.  In this case, it was USS San Jacinto under the command of Commander William Ronkendorff.  Knowing the 24-hour rule was in effect (San Jacinto could not leave Martinique until 24-hours after Alabama left), Ronkendorff enlisted the help of two New England-based whaling ships to watch the harbor exits. 

Semmes realized that San Jacinto out-gunned him two-to-one and did not seek out a fight.  Fortunately, French naval officers gave the Confederate captain accurate charts of Martinique's harbor and advice on the best escape route.  The French naval officers also warned Yankee whaling ships not fire off any signaling rockets while in harbor or face a stiff fine.The result was an easy escape for Alabama.  Early in morning of November 19, Alabama slipped her anchor and quietly steamed out.  When the sun came up, Ronkendorff and his staff saw no sign of the enemy cruiser.   While the U.S. commander wrote out his apology/defense of the Alabama's escape in a note to Welles, the Confederate cruiser headed south towards Venezuela. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

USS Passaic-Bringing a Bigger Gun to the Fight

USS Passaic testing her XV-inch Dahlgren towards the Palisades.
When asked by a Congressional panel investigating the outcome of the Battle of Hampton Roads and the U.S. Navy response to future Confederate ironclads, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox simply replied, "build a bigger gun." Indeed, a bigger gun had been built: the XV-inch Dahlgren.  At the time, there was no platform to use it on.  Fortunately, engineer/inventor John Ericsson provided one. 

Inside Passaic's turret, the XV-inch gun is on the far side.
While USS Monitor was a wonder of engineering, she did have flaws exposed during the Battle of Hampton Roads.  Ericsson sought to fix that with his next generation of "monitor"-type ironclads.  The first of the new generation of monitors was Passaic.  Named for the town of Passaic, New Jersey, the ship displaced 400 more tons than the original Monitor.  It housed a larger engineering plant and a wider hull for better sea keeping traits.  The pilot house was constructed on top of the turret, instead of the front like the Monitor.  With the bigger ship, workers placed one 42,000-pound XV-inch Dahlgren in the turret, along side one XI-inch Dahlgren.  Firing a 352-pound shell, the gun itself was one of the largest weapons ever deployed during the war. 

The new gun did have its problems.  The barrel was purposely built short to protect the muzzle from being exposed to enemy fire.  This led to the issue of smoke from each shot fired building up inside the turret.  To deal with this issue, Ericsson designed a special "smoke box" to protect the gunners.  While it worked, the box did slow down the rate of fire.

After launching at the Contential Iron Works (same builder as Monitor), Passasic steamed up the Hudson river to the Palisades cliffs, north of New York City, in early November 1862.  Here, to a booming echo up and down the river, gunners test-fired the monster XV-inch gun with increasing amounts of gunpowder (topping out at forty-five pounds of gunpowder per shooting) and shot.  Observers deemed each test a success, and determined Passaic was ready for action.  The Passaic soon set sail for Hampton Roads to join up with Monitor.  The Northern press boldly and brashly claimed that the Navy finally had its weapon against the forts of Charleston.