Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Confederate ambush and capture of the USS Isaac Smith

One hundred and fifty years ago this afternoon, Acting Lieutenant Francis S. Conover skippered the USS Isaac Smith up the Stono River outside Charleston, South Carolina.  The Smith was among the many vessels acquired by the Navy early in the war to work inside the shallow waterways.  Her armament included a 30-pdr Parrott rifle and eight 8-inch Dahlgren guns - rather formidable for 450 ton vessel.  Conover's mission entailed what had become a routine survey of the river, while looking for any new Confederate activity.  Little did Conover know, the Confederates had been very active along the Stono.

In late January, General P.G.T. Beauregard approved a plan forwarded by Brigadier General Roswell Ripley to setup an ambush of Federal gunboats operating on the Stono.  Ripley would wait until the gunboat passed up the channel.  Then using concealed batteries Ripley's men would open up a cross fire to surprise and disable the Federal ship.  Beauregard allocated five rifled 24-pdr guns from the district's siege train.  On John's Island, Major J. Welsman Brown, from the 2nd South Carolina Artillery, commanded two rifled guns.  On the opposite bank, Captain John Gary, 15th South Carolina Heavy Artillery directed three guns near Thomas Grimball's plantation.  So as the Smith made its way around the bends of the Stono, it fell into a trap.

In his report of the action, Conover wrote:

About 3 p.m. of that day I got underway form my usual anchorage in Stono Inlet, with orders from Lieutenant-Commander [George] Bacon, of the USS Commodore McDonough, to proceed up Stono River for the purpose of reconnoitering, as we were constantly in the habit of doing.  A little after 4 I anchored opposite what was known as Tom Grimball's plantation, about 4½ miles from the inlet, and although the signal quartermaster was at the masthead as usual, as well as one or two of the officers, nothing suspicious was seen in any direction.  

From his perspective Gary observed:

Between the hours of 3 and 4 o'clock on the afternoon of the 30th ultimo the gunboat Isaac Smith made her appearance and anchored off Mr. Thomas Grimball's, some 500 yards distant from my batteries.  After waiting some twenty minutes and the Abolitionists showing no disposition to land I ordered my batteries to open fire, which they did in handsome style and apparently with great precision.

 On the receiving end, Conover reacted:

While at anchor, and at 4:25 p.m., a battery upon James Island, of three 24-pounder rifled guns, some 600 yards distant, and masked by a thick clump of trees, opened upon us.  I immediately got underway and cleared for action, and in less than two minutes after the first gun was fired at us we were replying.  At the same time, however, other batteries upon John's Island, on the opposite side of the river and below us, delivered their fire.  I saw immediately that we were trapped, and that my only course was to get the vessels below the battery if possible, and fight them with a more even chance of success.  For upward of a mile, on account of a bend in the river, we were obliged to receive the raking fire of between twenty and thirty guns without being able to reply, except occasionally with our pivot.  As soon as our broadside could be brought to bear, we opened upon the enemy with shell and grape, at from 200 to 400 yards distant.  At one time I had hopes of getting by without any serious loss, but a shot in our steam chimney effectually stopped the engine, and with no wind, little tide, and boats riddled with shot, we were left entirely at the mercy of the enemy.

The USS Isaac Smith under fire
As the Smith drifted downriver, Brown's guns were about to enter the melee:

In a short time a furious cannonade began up the river, but with what effect I could not see, as the trees obscured the view.  Soon, however, the boat rounded the point into sight, evidently crippled, but keeping up a running fight with the shore batteries above my position on each side of the river.  I was about to order my guns to open upon her when I perceived that she had a white flag flying, in token of her surrender.

Brown held his fire, and prepared a party to receive the surrender.  At nearly the same instant, the McDonough appeared steaming upriver towards the fight.  After exchanging fire with Brown's battery, Commander Bacon saw no opportunity to save the Smith and retired.  Conover reported eight killed and seventeen wounded, including himself.  The Confederates suffered one man mortally wounded.

 The loss of the Smith proved an embarrassment to the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron and Rear Admiral Samuel DuPont.  (And even more embarrassment awaited the Federals the next day in the waters around Charleston.)  The Confederates recovered the Smith and towed her upriver to Fort Pemberton.  Under new owners, the Smith became the CSS Stono.  After service in the Charleston squadron, the Stono was outfitted as a blockade runner with a load of cotton. While attempting a run in June 1863, she wrecked off Sullivan's Island, near Fort Moultrie.  Confederates later burned the wreck when abandoning Charleston at the end of the war.

The site of the ambush and capture of the Smith is near the present day Charleston Executive Airport, along the Stono River.

(Sources for this article include ORN, Series I, Volume 13, pages 560-5 and OR, Series I, Volume 14, Serial 20, pages 199-204.)

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Ironclads on the Georgia Coast - Monitor vs. Fort I

USS Montauk (left) laid up in 1902. The proud warship would be scrapped a couple years later. Image source: Naval History and Heritage Command

This is the first in a series of posts I would like to offer on actions by US and CS ironclads on the Georgia coast in 1863. In early 1863, Adm. Du Pont of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron was preparing for a massive invasion of Charleston Harbor, using a combination of ironclad and wooden warships. The US Navy was sending him the new Passaic Class monitors and he wanted to test one of them out, simultaneously trying to get rid of a “thorn in his side” - the Confederate ship CSS Nashville/Rattlesnake taking refuge up the Ogeechee River.

Ft. McAllister was a large Confederate earthen fortification mounting 8 heavy guns and guarding the mouth of the Ogeechee River, Georgia (south of Savannah) and an important railroad crossing upstream. The fort also guarded the upstream mooring site of the Nashville, which intelligence said was being converted from a blockade runner back into a commerce raider (to be renamed CSS Rattlesnake) that would attempt to escape through the blockade and prey on Union shipping in the S. Atlantic and Caribbean. On 24 January 1863 Du Pont sent the USS Montauk, under the command of Capt. John Worden (now recovered from the wounds he received commanding USS Monitor at the first battle of ironclads), to head up Ossabaw Sound into the Ogeechee to probe Ft. McAllister and destroy the Nashville. The turreted ironclad was accompanied by three wooden gunboats (USS Seneca, Wissahickon, and Dawn), and the mortar schooner C. P. Williams to provide additional gunfire support. Heavy fog on 25 and 26 January impeded the expedition’s progress. The evening of the 26th, the Union flotilla anchored in the river downstream and out of range of the fort. That night Lt. Commander John Davis took two boats and reconnoitered the area upstream under cover of darkness; the bluejackets destroyed artillery range marks placed by the fort’s gunners, and marked the locations of obstructions, some of which were armed with torpedoes.

The morning of 27 January, Worden took the Montauk in and hove to about 1,600 yards off the fort (short of the series of obstructions at a spot marked by Davis the night before). The other gunboats followed him and anchored several hundred yards further away. Confederate battery and monitor both opened fire about 7:35 AM, and pounded away at one another for almost 4 hours. The Montauk ran out of ammunition a little after 11 AM. Hits to the monitor (13 or 14) did little to no damage, but likewise the shellfire from the USN gunboats did minimal damage to the heavy earthen and sand walls of the fortification; they simply absorbed the energy and concussions of the shells, even those from the big XV inch Dahlgren on the Montauk. Another critical weakness was the length of time it took to load and fire the huge XI and XV inch Dahlgren guns of the Montauk (roughly 7 min. between shots). The fire from the other gunboats also resulted in little damage to the fort.

Four days later, on the morning of 1 February, Worden took the Montauk in again. Accompanied by the same flotilla of gunboats as the 27 January attack, Worden anchored near the fort and opened fire. Once again, confederate fort and navy gunboats dueled for most of the morning. About 12:30 the gunboats withdrew. The only significant casualty for the Confederates was the loss of the fort’s commander, Maj. John B. Gallie, who was killed by a shell from the Montauk.

Ft. McAllister after capture by Union forces in mid-December 1864. Ogeechee River (and USN gunboats?) in the background. Image source: Library of Congress photo archives.

Monday, January 21, 2013

MLK and the Rights of Men: A Sesquicentennial Introspective

Dr. King during the March on Washington
Today (January 21, 2013) we celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Dr. King was a gifted orator whose life was tragically cut short before he could see the fruition of the Civil Rights Movement.  It is a day of somber reflection and  introspection, as America has come a long way in its short history.

Although it would be difficult to form a natural link to MLK and African American sailors in the Civil War, his words stand testament to the strength and struggles faced by both parties ages apart.  One hundred years before King gave his now famous "I Have a Dream Speech," thousands of African American sailors fought bravely to secure their rights of freedom during the American Civil War.

In April 1963, Martin Luther King wrote from a Birmingham jail that "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."  Black sailors fought injustice at every point on the blockade, along every river bend and ocean the world over.  Staring blankly in the face of danger, they served with honor and distinction.  We continue to recognize their actions during this sesquicentennial anniversary.  If the United States Navy acted as Uncle Sam's "webbed feet," Black sailors were part of the invaluable glue that held it all together.  Sailors like Smalls, Lawson, and Carter helped pave the way for  Civil Rights leaders like King, Parks, and Abernathy to do their work.  The historical timeline for equality may not begin during the Civil War, yet it has some of its finest and brightest moments during it.  We hope to continue to highlight that on this blog.  Ultimately, equality is a battle fought by all who believe that all men women are created equal.  It is a principle instilled by our founding fathers at the time of America's creation.  It became a rallying call to preserve the Union during the Civil War.  It is enshrined in the words of Dr. King.

Let us learn and study the history and heritage of African Americans and keep Dr. King's dream alive.

African American sailors on the USS Hunchback
In preparation for Black History Month 2013, we would like to remind readers that they can download a copy of the "Blacks in Blue Jackets" pamphlet for free off this blog.  To download the pamphlet, please go HERE.

We will be posting more about the role of African American sailors next month.  Stay tuned.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Counter Offensive at Galveston and the Capture of Harriet Lane

USN map of the 1863 action at Galveston
Confederate offensives took a sharp increase in 1863.  On the western side of the Confederacy, "Prince John" Magruder kicked things off for the CSA with a New Year's Day assault on Union forces in Galveston, Texas.   Union forces captured the port of Galveston in October 1862, effectively blockading much of Texas.  When Margruder arrived from Virginia to command ground forces in Texas, he found all ports except Brownsville under the control of Union forces.  He set out to change that. Working with Texas cavalry and local steamboat captains, Magruder converted the steamers Bayou City and Neptune into makeshift gunboats protected by cotton bales.

Patrolling off the coast of Galveston was a squadron of six U.S. Navy ships: USS Westfield, Clifton, Owasco, Sachem, the sailing yacht Coruphues, and the former Revenue Cuter paddle steamer Harriet Lane.  In addition, 260 soldiers from the 42nd Massachusetts Volunteers occupied the wharf. 

Watches aboard Clifton and Westfield spotted Neptune and Bayou City in the moon light at 1:30 a.m., but discounted them as harmless civilian steamers. Soon after, pickets lines of the 42nd began passing back reports of Confederate artillery advancing on the wharf.  Confederate ground forces launched their assault on the wharf at 3 a.m.  Though they had no artillery attached to their unit, the 42nd had the Sachem and Corypheus backing them up with light Parrot rifles. 

Capture of USS Harriet Lane
An hour later, Neptune and Bayou City made their advance on Galveston and Harriet Lane turned to engage the two ships.  A newspaper later reported that someone on shore called out to Bayou City's captain during the advance to give them a "New Year's present."  The captain replied, "Well, here goes your New Year's present!" and pulled the lanyard on his ship's 32-pounder.  The gun exploded in the face of the captain, killing him instantly. 

Neptune then rammed Harriet Lane.  Lane returned fire on Neptune, causing Neptune to take on water and eventually sink.  Bayou City also rammed Harriet Lane and sent boarders to storm the Union vessel.  With revolvers in hand, Harriet Lane's commanding officer, Commander J.M. Wainwright, fought the boarders until he was shot in the head.  The rest of Lane's company soon surrendered after that.

Scuttling of USS Westfield

The rest of the U.S. squadron was a confused mess.  Westfield ran aground amidst the confusion.  Owasco also ran aground, but attempted to sink the now captured Harriet Lane with gunfire.  Corypheus' company came under a hail of musket fire from shore, doing all they could to keep their heads down while they sailed out; Clifton went to help Westfield, then turned around to help Harriet Lane.  But, by this point Harriet Lane had a white flag of truce flying above her.  Instead of trying to recapture Lane or destroy her, Clifton's commanding officer accepted the truce. 

Westfield's commanding officer saw what he believed were more Confederate warships.  He lost his nerve and ordered the ship to be scuttled.  All of the men of the 42nd Massachusetts were killed or captured when Confederate forces overran their positions.  The Confederate ground forces also captured two coal barks.   Clifton became the senior ship in the squadron.  Her commanding officer ordered the remaining Union ships to withdraw to New Orleans.

Admiral Farragut was naturally furious at the loss.  He had Clifton's commanding officer brought up on charges for ordering the withdrawal and failing to recapture Harriet Lane.  The decisive victory led Magruder to proclaim the blockade lifted.  The USS Brooklyn arrived a few days later to put the blockade back in place.

 Read Farragut's official report to Secretary Welles here.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Gideon Welles' Thoughts on Emancipation

First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of Lincoln, by Francis Bicknell Carpenter (Welles is seated in the middle next to Abraham Lincoln)

As many people know, Steven Spielberg’s recently released Civil War biopic Lincoln tells the story of the pivotal moments faced by the 16th president during the drafting and passing of the 13th Amendment.  One of the necessary steps to its passing was the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.  Taken in tandem with the 13th Amendment, the Emancipation Proclamation was arguably the most political/socially-fueled document in the United States since the Declaration of Independence.  The General Order announced the Emancipation Proclamation written by Lincoln, which was signed on 1 January 1863. 

Part of the film’s appeal was its close ties to the wildly popular book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.  In large part, the film is an adaptation of her work.  In the film, actor Grainger Hines portrays Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles.  Although Welles played a small role in the film, in reality Welles had many interesting observations about the abolition of slavery from the Emancipation Proclamation through the passing of the 13th Amendment.  The Emancipation Proclamation made the abolishment of slavery a joint political/military goal, one that Welles could no longer ignore. 

The following are excerpts from the Diary of Gideon Welles in the months and days before and after the issuance of General Order No. 4.  You can see through his diary entries a reactionary timeline of thought that matches perfectly with the social and political climate of wartime America.  “Father Neptune” was a concise and calculated thinker, able to weigh the implications of combat equally with that of political choice or necessity.  In many cases, especially in the last quote included here, Welles was absolutely right in his thoughts on Emancipation and the slavery question. 

You can see the documents association with General Order No. 4 at the Naval History and Heritage Command Facebook Page

(It is important to note that the Proclamation did not apply to the five states not in rebellion, as well as regions controlled by the United States Army.  Individual rights for emancipation would occur on a state-by-state basis with the passing of the 13th Amendment.)

The President Broaches the Subject of Emancipation to his cabinet (Fall 1862):
“It was a new departure for the President, for until this time, in all our previous interviews, whenever the question of emancipation or the mitigation of slavery had been in any way alluded to, he had been prompt and emphatic in denouncing any interference by the General Government with the subject.  This was, I think the sentiment of every member of the Cabinet, all of whom, including the President, considered it a local, domestic question appertaining to the States respectively, who had never parted with the authority over it.”

Post-Antietam Public Sentiment (September 24, 1862):
“As I write, 9 P.M., a band of music strikes up on the opposite side of the square, a complimentary serenade to the President for the Emancipation Proclamation.  The document has been in the main well received, but there is some violent opposition…”

Emancipation Proclamation (1 January 1863):
“The Emancipation Proclamation is published in this evening’s Star.  This is a broad step, and will be a landmark in history.  The immediate effect will not be all its friends anticipate or its opponents apprehend.  Passing events are steadily accomplishing what is here proclaimed. 

Final Thoughts Prior to General Order No. 4 (10 January 1863):
“Some things have taken place which will undoubtedly for a time exasperate the Southern mind, for they will affect Southern society, habits, labor, and pursuits.  For a period emancipation will aggravate existing differences, and a full generation will be necessary to effect and complete the change which has been commenced.”

Sunday, January 13, 2013

CSS Florida Escapes Out of Mobile Bay

CSS Florida during the height of her career. Image source: US Navy History and Heritage Command

After being partially outfitted in the Bahamas, the Confederate raider CSS Florida (a.k.a., “Oreto”) made a bold and audacious dash into Mobile Bay in September 1862 (post by Gordon in Sept. 2012). A large portion of the crew, including commander John Newland Maffitt, were stricken with yellow fever. Maffitt was so weak from the sickness he had to be lashed up to keep upright to direct the ship. After receiving a hero’s welcome in Mobile Bay, a two-week quarantine period had to be enforced before the ship could sail up to the docks at Mobile for repair and refitting. During this time in Mobile, Maffitt recruited additional officers, engineers, and crewmen to give his vessel a full complement.

By January 1863, Florida was ready to begin her predatory career. Seven USN gunboats patrolled the mouth of Mobile Bay (USS Susquehanna, Oneida, R. R. Cuyler, Pembina, Aroostook, Kennebec, and Pinola). Early on the morning of 16 January, Maffitt made his move. Under cover of heavy mists (but with strong winds blowing), he slipped by five blockaders (literally duplicating his trip into the Bay, when he evaded two out of 3 gunboats) before he was sighted. The officer commanding the Union blockaders, Commodore R. B Hitchcock, issued specific orders regarding signals to be used if the raider was sighted, and which ships should give chase, but the various ship captains’ reports in the ORN suggest that some confusion reigned as the Florida ran through the blockading vessels (some were not even sure it was the Florida making a run for it).

Maffitt ordered all sail set, and Florida made 14 knots in the gale-force winds under a full spread of canvas and her engines at full speed ahead. The blockader USS Cuyler pursued Florida all that day. During this chase, Florida also slipped by several other outside blockade vessels, one believed to be the sloop USS Brooklyn (close enough that a broadside from the Union ship could have blown Florida out of the water), along with “a large armed ship” and a “fast gunboat”. Maffitt believed he was mistaken by these for one of their own gunboats. The chase continued into the evening. Realizing that his new, white sails showed up well in the dark, giving the pursuing gunboat an easy target to track, the wily officer in grey ordered all sails in and stopped engines. The ship drifted off with the wind and heavy seas in the dark and became “invisible” to the pursuing Cuyler, who continued after what they thought was the raider. After confirming that he eluded his pursuer, Maffitt headed south. The morning of 17 January dawned sunny and clear. Lookouts in the tops reported “Nothing in sight but sky and water.” The Florida had once again slipped the blockade and embarrassed the US Navy.

The “Official Records” of the Navies are an immense treasure trove of facts and information on actions of the Union and Confederate navies during the CW. That said, they can be pretty dry and not exactly compelling reading. However, if you look carefully, occasionally a real gem pops up: in one of his reports to Commodore Hitchcock after the “Florida incident,” Cdr. George F. Emmons of the Cuyler noted laconically “From fancying myself near promotion in the morning, I gradually dwindled down to a court of enquiry at dark, when I lost sight of the enemy.” How much better can it be said??

Many thanks to Gordon for providing a link to “The Life and Services of John Newland Maffitt” on Googlebooks. Published by Maffit's widow, it includes extensive excerpts from his letters, reports, and diary from throughout his career, and was a wealth of information for this post.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The U.S. Navy's Three Headed Monster-USS Roanoke

One perceived flaw in the design of the original USS Monitor was its lack of firepower. With only two XI-inch guns, many in the U.S. Navy felt the need to upgrade the design. Many engineers felt this could be solved by putting a bigger gun in the turret, or by adding a second turret. USS Monitor's original designer, John Ericsson, was not in favor of a second turret as he saw no need for it.  He also believed the turrets would get in the way of the line of fire.

USS Roanoke as a Merrimack-class steam frigate, 1855
John Lenthall, the Navy's long time chief of the Bureau of Construction and Repair, decided that two turrets were insufficient. Shortly after the Battle of Hampton Roads, Lenthall got the idea in his head that if the Confederacy could convert a ship like Merrimack into an ironclad, the U.S. Navy could do the same.

With the Secretary's approval, Lenthall sent shipyards and ironworks in New York City plans to convert Roanoke into an ironclad monitor-type warship with three turrets. Lenthall's design called for the turrets to be armored with single iron plates each twenty-two feet long, 4 1/2-inches thick, and weighing four tons. Each turret housed either XV-inch Dahlghrens or a 150-pounder Parrott Rifle. If that was not enough firepower, Lenthall wanted a "huge axe" on the bow of the ship in order to ram.

USS Roanoke underway in smooth seas as imagine by an artist.
The Common Council of New York City saw the ship and lobbied the Navy hard to assign the vessel as a harbor defense ship for New York harbor. As it usually did to local government requests, the Navy rejected the idea and pencil the ship in for fort suppression duty off of the coast of Charleston.

The conversion was a remarkable feat of American engineering. Iron forges in four different states provided the huge plates to the Novelty Iron Works in New York City. Each plate then had to be heated and bent to correct curvature. In all, workers placed 1,000 additional tons of armor.

 While she was a marvel of engineering, the brains at Scientific American magazine were skeptical of Lenthall's design. "If she makes nine knots, we shall be agreeably disappointed," they wrote. "As the Roanoke will sit very low in the water, we hope that proper arrangements will be made for ventilation on the main deck. The defects of the Galena and Monitor, so clearly pointed out in the Scientific American of last week, by an intelligent correspondent, will be reproduced in the Roanoke. [This will render] her very deficient as a 'sea boat,' unless this advice is heeded."

The advice was not taken. The Navy charged forward and Roanoke put to sea as the most powerful warship in the world. Sent to Hampton Roads, her captain quickly discovered what Scientific American writers predicted. Monitor-type ships in general did not have very good sea-keeping traits to begin with, and Roanoke had the worst of them all.

USS Roanoke tied up as she spent most of her career.
First, she lacked speed. Scientific American was hoping for nine knots. Captain Sanders, however, reported to Secretary Welles that the ship would not go more than five knots. He concluded that he could "not consider the Roanoke adapted to fighting a battle at sea, on account of her rolling render her guns unserviceable and exposing her to shot below her iron plating."

All Sanders could recommend was that the ship serve as a coastal defense vessel. Welles agreed, but did not assign the ship to New York City. Once the ship arrived in Hampton Roads, she remained there for the rest of the war.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Brick by Brick: LEGO Shipbuilding at HRNM

Participants from last year's LEGO Event building the USS Monitor

Calling all ship builders!  Bring your LEGO ships to the Hampton Roads Naval Museum on Saturday, February 2, 2013.  The Hampton Roads Naval Museum, in partnership with the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial, HARDLUG, and Bricks 4 Kidz, is holding a FREE program about building ships with LEGOs on Saturday, February 2, from 10am to 5pm.  

Several staff of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum/Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial have been getting emails about the event.  To clear the air, here is a breakdown of what you can expect in February. 

What is the same about the event from last year?

  • First and foremost, it is FREE and open to the public.  No registration or sign up necessary!  If you must though, you can HERE.
  • Bring your creativity!  Free play area to build ship designs for fun or to enter our shipbuilding contest.
  • Local Hampton Roads LEGO user group HARDLUG will return with a display of LEGO ships (kit-built and original designs).
  • Instructions for ship designs in the shipbuilding gallery will be available - follow the guidelines and build each ship from the keel on up!

What is new?

  • For those of you who enter the shipbuilding contest, we have upped the ante this year!  More age groups = better prizes.  Win your own set o the ships debuted at this event, which include  the Monitor and Virginia!   
  • LEGO Group Bricks 4 Kidz will be int he back of the museum with a fun demo of their programs.  
  • We have all new ship designs to build this year.  This year, you will be able to build a miniature version of the CSS Virginia!  Other new designs include: LST-342, LCVP "Higgins" Boat, USS Norfolk, and USS Ranger.  
  • Two SPECIAL EDITION sets for prize winners (USS Wisconsin and USS Connecticut)

All ship designs are based on real models or images of ships included in the HRNM Gallery.  Come and see if you can find them all!

This year's prize packages, which include the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia (bottom of image)
The Hampton Roads Naval Museum encourages all those interested to come and check it out.  Last year, over 800 people attended the event.  If you can't make it, please let us know what Civil War ships you would like to see built this upcoming year by commenting on the CWN 150 or HRNM Facebook pages/Twitter (@hrnm/@civilwarnavy)

Want to get started early? Building Instructions for USS Monitor and CSS Virginia.  All instructions are available on the HRNM website to download for FREE. 

For all questions and inquiries, please contact Laura Orr at or 757-322-3108, or visit HRNM’s Facebook page at  A similar blog post on the LEGO event can be found on the HRNM Blog HERE.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Defensive preparations at Mobile Bay

Water batteries on Mobile Bay. Source: State of Alabama photo archives.

In prior posts, I introduced you to the port of Mobile, Alabama and its importance to the Confederacy (18 Feb 2012 and 25 May 2012). Based on a visit to the City of Mobile in October 1862 and his inspection of the defenses, Gov. John G. Shorter of Alabama wrote to CSA President Jefferson Davis, observing “(Mobile is) the only Gulf port of any importance which is left us and one of the most important lines of communication in the Confederacy.” Davis’ response indicated he did not think there was any immediate threat to Mobile, plus he did not have any spare troops to send.

In Mobile Bay and the navigation channels leading into it, work proceeded to try to make it difficult for Union gunboats to get through. Part of the strategy was to slow them up enough to enable the big guns of Forts Morgan and Gaines to pound them and drive them off or sink them. Much of the defensive effort was conducted under the supervision of Major Danville Leadbetter of the CS Army Engineers. Work began in 1862 on Ft. Grant, in Grant’s Pass, to deny a Union expedition through the “back door” into Mobile Bay via the sounds of the Mississippi coast. Rows and rows of piles were driven into navigation channels leading into Mobile Bay to punch holes in the wooden hulls of Union gunboats. A large, heavy chain supported by rafts was proposed to block the main channel into Mobile Bay near Ft. Morgan. In addition to the armament in the masonry forts, earthworks and batteries were emplaced around the forts to repel any land assaults on them.

By mid-1863, the first torpedoes arrived to begin a program of extensive mining of the entrance channels, leaving only narrow gaps through the mines that the pilots of blockade runners knew about. These were placed under the direction of CSA Major Gen. Dabney H. Maury, who had seen their effectiveness against Union gunboats on the Mississippi River. Under the command of Adm. Franklin Buchanan, floating batteries, two of which were ironclad (CSS Huntsville and Tuscaloosa) were placed to support land-based defensive works. Floating batteries and earthworks were also constructed on the river approaches to deter movements by the USN on the rivers. Efforts to make the masonry forts more resistant to USN shelling involved construction of sand/sod embankments in front of the masonry walls and attaching cribs (wood boxes) filled with sand to detonate shells and prevent their penetration of the brick masonry.

Confederate torpedoes placed in Mobile Bay. Source: Harper's Weekly (courtesy

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Civil War Navies page at Civil War Trust

The Civil War Trust, a non-profit organization focused on battlefield preservation, announced their new Civil War Navies page at the end of last month.  The page includes a wealth of resources, interviews with historians, and a Civil War on the Water quiz. Thinking of our sesquicentennial march, the page includes an interview with historian Terry Winschel discussing Federal naval operations in the Vicksburg Campaign