Monday, May 23, 2011

Stephen Mallory's Dream Operation

The Confederacy's first and only secretary of the navy Stephen Mallory had many positive leadership qualities. Among them was confidence. Throughout the war, he constantly pushed and encouraged his officers and his tiny fleet to make war on the Union, despite the overwhelming odds facing them.  Sometimes, however, Mallory's confidence was simple daydreaming and reality checked his plans.

Just a few weeks into the job as head of the Confederacy's naval forces, Mallory ordered Commander John Tucker to take the steamer CSS Patrick Henry from Richmond and make war on the Union. The Virginia State government seized the 1,300-ton steamer and armed with ten captured at the Gosport Navy Yard. With the veteran Tucker in command, Mallory believed that the ship was ready for war.

In a July 13, 1861 letter, he instructed Tucker to "make an active cruise at sea against the enemy."  Specifically, Mallory stated that Tucker should steam down the James River, run past the squadron in Hampton Roads, out into the Atlantic, engage and capture a ship of similar size to Patrick Henry (specifically mentioned the USRS Harriet Lane), and bring it back to a friendly port with all of its stores in tact.  Invoking the spirit of the old U.S. Navy sailing frigates, he believed Patrick Henry could outgun any ship of similar size and outrun any ship of large size.

While Mallory did give Tucker an escape clause in the order ("Should you find it impracticable to leave the river..."), he strongly hinted that he wanted the operation carried out. Cooler and wiser heads must have prevailed as the operation never went forward.  At the time of the letter, the U.S. Navy's Atlantic Blockading Squadron had anywhere between four to seven warships in Hampton Roads. 

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