Tuesday, January 31, 2012

CWN 150 Talk in Darien, GA

Ashantilly Center in Darien, GA
Last week, I had the distinct pleasure to give a talk at the Ashantilly Center in Darien, GA.  Over 50 residents of Darien and nearby St. Simon's Island were in attendance.  The place was very quaint and charming, with a wonderful space to give a lecture in the library.  The lecture was part of a series honoring and commemorating John M. Kell, the Executive Officer of the infamous CSS Alabama.  Although I did not particularly touch on Kell or Semmes specifically, a local collector was nice enough to bring several first edition books on the Alabama, Semmes, and Kell to the Center.  For that, I am grateful.  It was truly a unique experience and an honor to speak to the fine people of Darien.

The focus of the talk was the ongoing role of the Civil War navies in the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War.  Specifically, the role of the Civil War Navy in public memory was mentioned as a critical factor in the ongoing dialog of the Civil War.  Now 150 years later, it is more important than ever to commemorate all aspects of the war, both on land and at sea.  In the presentation, I discuss three major themes or "trends" that will emerge (or continue to surface) during the remaining years of the sesquicentennial.  These three trends are: 1. All Things "Battle of Hampton Roads" 2. African American Involvement and 3. Social Media Utilization.  I can only  We can see that clearly with the increased focus now on the USS Monitor.  Do you agree with these trends?  Let me know here, or on our other social media outlets (Facebook, on Twitter @CivilWarNavy). 

 A special thanks to Cary Knapp and all the folks at the Ashantilly Center/Coastal Georgia University. This trip was made possible by a generous grant from the Georgia Council of the Humanities.  I certainly look forward to working more with Cary in the near future!

First Edition Books on Semmes, Kell, and the Alabama

Speaking of the Monitor, don't forget the FREE LEGO shipbuilding program this Saturday at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, which features a model version of the USS Monitor!

Full Speed Ahead,

Matthew T. Eng

Monday, January 23, 2012

CSS Sumter Crosses the Atlantic

Once Raphael Semmes and CSS Sumter escaped from the West Indies, they headed east across the Atlantic. Along the way, he captured a few more ships, namely a whaler out of New Bedford and a schooner out of New York carrying food. By the time Sumter arrived in Cadiz, Spain, in January 1862, she had captured sixteen ships.  However, none of the ships were particularly big catches.  Semmes would later complain to his superiors that despite capturing all these ships, he only took in about $1,000 in cash.  Thus, he needed more money to refit his ship and his men. 

As for the U.S. Navy, Welles had six cruisers looking for Sumter (in some cases as far south as Brazil): USS Niagara, San Jacinito, Richmond, Keystone State, Powhatan, and Iroquois.  When Semmes read Welles' public account of the search for his cruiser, the Confederate captain wrote a letter from Cadiz to the London Times mocking the U.S. Navy Secretary. 

Semmes, however, had a more serious problem than U.S. Navy cruisers.  Sumter was falling apart. Spanish authorities only allowed him temporary repairs and no fuel.   Semmes departed Cadiz and headed to the British colony of Gibraltar, hoping to find a more sympathetic ear.  He did not.  For the next several weeks, he attempted to procure coal and supplies, but did not succeed.  With some of the enlisted sailors deserting, Semmes pondered what to do next.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Confederacy's First Ironclad and Her Attack on a Wooden Ship

As head of the U.S. diplomatic mission to the free city of Hamburg, James Anderson was quite far away from Civil War. During his daily business in September 1861, the war came to him.  One day, he encountered a German citizen who had just left New Orleans. This citizen, who had Union sympathies, provided Anderson with a sketch and description of a "turtle"-like ironclad (shown above) with a "hellish engine" under construction. The ironclad's builders, according to the information, wanted to ram the steam sloop USS Brooklyn.  Anderson quickly passed the intelligence to Secretary of State William Seward.

The man behind this turtle from Hell, was New Orleans river pilot John A. Stepheson. Having failed to get any support from the Confederate government for his idea, Stepheson raised money on his own and converted an ice breaking tugboat into an ironclad ram. He wanted to construct "such a vessel that would be able to drive off or sink the most powerful man-of-war without the use of cannon or other instrument of warfare."

Once constructed, the Confederate government came to its senses and bought Stepheson's warship. It named her CSS Manassas.  In October 1861, Confederate Naval officers took Manassas and several other small ships down the Mississippi River and attack the Union squadron  of three ships at the Head of Passes.  What is the first ironclad attack against a wooden warship, Manassas went after the steam sloop USS Richmond under the command of Commander John Pope (not to be confused with the Union Army general John Pope).  Neither side distinguished themselves in the battle as Manassas' ram attack only achieved a glancing blow, some of the rockets fired by the Confederate squadron meant to set off a series of fire rafts landed on their own ships, the Union squadron' cannon fire was erradtic, and both sides ships ran aground attempting to engage.

The Confederate squadron withdrew back to New Orelans, but not after putting enough fear into Pope to order a retreat.  "Put this matter in any light you may, it is the most ridiculous affair that ever took place in the American Navy," Gideon Welles wrote to David Dixon Porter after the war. Pope later asked for medical leave.  Welles made the request permanent and forced Pope out of the service. Manassas, in the mean time, was made ready to defend New Orelans.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Naval Actions at Seahorse Key, Florida 1862

The Cedar Keys, on the Gulf Coast of Florida (consisting of Way, Depot, Atsena Otie, Seahorse, Snake, and North Keys), was an important port at the start of the Civil War, in part because a newly constructed rail line connected the port to interior parts of the state and ran all the way up to Fernandina on the Atlantic coast. Seahorse Key had a light station (constructed in 1854 under the direction of then Lt. George Gordon Meade) which guided ships into the Port of Cedar Key and the nearby mouth of the Suwannee River. The Town of Cedar Key itself was located on Atsena Otie Key.

On 16 January 1862 the Union gunboat USS Hatteras hove to off Cedar Key and debarked ships boats which entered the harbor and burned four schooners, three sloops, a scow, a sailboat, and a launch. Some of the schooners were loaded with cotton, turpentine, rosin, and lumber, ready to run the blockade. The railroad depot and wharf, seven railroad cars, the telegraph station and a storehouse were also burned, and arms and equipment confiscated. To add to all this, the ship’s crew captured most of a small Confederate garrison manning a gun battery on Seahorse Key, including the officer and 13 soldiers. Needless to say, the bluejackets of the Hatteras earned their pay that day.

Not long after Hatteras departed, the USS Tahoma arrived off Seahorse Key on 1 February 1862 and commenced shelling the battery, just in case it had been reoccupied. Ships boats were sent ashore and the battery was found abandoned, with the destruction wrought by the crew of Hatteras still evident. For the remainder of the war, Seahorse Key with its lighthouse (which had been disabled by the Confederates) remained under Union control, and was used as a secondary base of operations by the East Gulf Blockading Squadron, thus depriving the Confederacy of the use of Cedar Key as a port for the remainder of the War. Thanks to the Florida Dept. of State and NHHC on-line photo archives for the illustrations.

USS Tahoma:

Friday, January 13, 2012

Key West and the East Gulf Blockading Squadron

Sketch of Key West in Civil War period

In a prior post ("The Blockade Begins"), I covered the formation of the Union Navy blockading squadrons. The blockade of the Gulf coast of the southern states was initially the responsibility of the Gulf Coast Blockading Squadron, under the command of Flag Officer William Mervine. In February 1862, the Gulf Squadron was divided into the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, under the command of Flag Officer David G. Farragut, and the East Gulf Blockading Squadron under the command of Flag Officer William McKean, who succeeded Mervine, possibly in part because Navy Sec. Gideon Welles thought the former Gulf Squadron commander not aggressive enough. The East Gulf Squadron initially had the sector of coast from Cape Florida (just north of the Florida Keys) around to St. Andrews Bay, east of Pensacola, FL. Protestations from the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron that their sector was too extensive resulted in the extension of the East Gulf Squadron’s sector of operations north up the Florida East Coast to Mosquito Inlet (present day Ponce De Leon Inlet), north of Cape Canaveral.

The East Gulf Blockading Squadron was based out of Key West, Florida, which always remained in Union hands; it never had to be re-taken by Union forces. Back in those days, the only way to get to Key West was by sea. The overseas railroad across the Florida Keys, built by Mr. Flagler, and the later overseas highway that was the old “US 1” were decades away. Key West had a US Navy base and was guarded by Ft. Taylor on the mainland and Ft. Jefferson, offshore on the Dry Tortugas. The East Gulf Squadron had low priority for the US Navy throughout the War, mainly because there were no major ports such as Wilmington, Charleston, Mobile or New Orleans, and thus little potential for major action. It was “the backwater” for USN personnel assigned to ships in the squadron. Yellow fever and malaria were constant plagues on the men who served there. Cdr. Percival Drayton, on his way from the South Atlantic Squadron over to the West Gulf Squadron to serve as Farragut’s Flag Captain, commented on his time in Key West (to a friend in the northern US):

This is rather a dreary residence I should suppose, a sand bank varied with cocoa nut and a few other trees of the tropics, but the soil so light and sandy, as to be almost unfit for gardening purposes, and for all such products as the ordinary table vegetables your city affords their only supply, . . .”

Despite the unspectacular nature of the duty, I have to think that the efforts of the sailors of the East Gulf Blockading Squadron contributed to the success of the blockade, as much as those of any other of the squadrons. Dr. George Buker chronicled the efforts of the East Gulf Squadron in his book “Blockaders, Refugees, & Contrabands. Civil War on Florida’s Gulf Coast, 1861-1865” and Robert Macomber created a compelling story of the activities of the fictional naval officer Peter Wake of the East Gulf Squadron in three novels: “At the Edge of Honor”, “Point of Honor” and “Honorable Mention.” I highly recommend all to you.

Many thanks to Sarah, fellow CWN 150 Guest Blogger, for making available a link to Percival Drayton’s letters (I have found them fascinating) and the Florida Dept. of State on-line photo archive for the old photos and illustrations of Key West.

Fort Taylor, Key West, FL:

Navy anchorage at Key West, FL:

Navy barracks at Key West after the War:

Preparing for Battle in Northeast North Carolina

The combined fleet of the "Burnside Expedition," as it left Hampton Roads for Cape Hatteras
With Cape Hatteras secured Union ground forces in mid 1861, both sides recognized that one of the next targets would be the Albemarle Sound.  Confederate forces were under the command Norfolk-native Commodore William F. Lynch (most famous for leading a U.S. Navy expedition to the Holy Land in 1840s to prove the existence of the Biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah) and the 33rd Governor of Virginia, Brigadier General Henry A. Wise. The two men did not get along very well, with Confederate Army officers not taking the threat of a Union attack seriously and not shipping more heavy guns to Roanoke Island. Most of the 179 guns guarding Norfolk and Portsmouth were geared towards an attack from Hampton Roads, not from the south.

On the Union side, Brigadier General Ambrose Burnside had begun assembling a combined task force in Annapolis and Hampton Roads.  With the blessing of General George McClellan, Burnside assembled a 12,000-man division made up of men mostly from coastal towns.  He then integrated with the division, a squadron of lightly armed steam gunboats.  The U.S. Navy under the control Flag-officer Louis Goldsborough and Dublin, Ireland-native Commander Stephen Rowan assembled their own force of more heavily armed, light draft gunboats.  By the beginning of 1862, sixty gunboats and transports had assembled in Hampton Roads.

Like the Port Royal expedition, Confederate intelligence saw the task force forming in Hampton Roads.   Unlike the Port Royal expedition, they had know idea where it was going.  Speculation ran from targets in North Carolina, South Carolina, or even an assault down the Elizabeth River and Norfolk.  This was due to better secrecy on the Union side as individual ship commanders did not receive their orders until the day they left Hampton Roads.   In early January 1862, the fleet deployed.  Their target: Roanoke Island.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Upcoming Events for the CWN 150

Wow.  A new year for all of us.  For the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, it is the follow up to the most cataclysmic series of events which led to the outbreak of hostilities between the United States and Confederacy.

2011 (1861) was an excellent start to the events and activities surrounding the role of the Navy's during the war.  2012 promises to be an important year, if not the most important one, for the CWN 150. There are tons of events planned and scheduled for this commemorative year, so stay tuned.  In the near future, however, there are two that are directly on the radar for January (not to mention the CWN 150 Watercolor Contest and LEGO shipbuilding program!).

2012 SNA Conference in Crystal City, VA
The CWN 150 will have a booth in the exhibitors room at the 2012 Surface Navy Association at the Hyatt Regency in Crystal City.  The conference will be held from Tuesday, January 10th to Thurs, January 12th.  Come stop by and get a FREE copy of the CWN 150 Special Edition Daybook or have a chat with me about anything related to the exciting Civil War Navy commemoration this upcoming year.  I will also have some prize drawings to win a copy of the Civil War at Sea DVD which just came out in coordination with Bob Rositzke and Bill Erickson of the Surface Navy Association. 

It will also be the debut of the new CWN 150 traveling exhibit panel which highlights the history and heritage of the Civil War navies, noting how the war itself was the beginning of the creation of a modern surface navy.  Come check it out. 

See the full list of exhibitors, events, and speakers for the SNA Conference HERE.

 Lecture at Ashantilly Center in Darien, GA (January 22, 3:00 pm) 
I will also be speaking next Saturday at the Ashantilly Center in GA.  The fine folks at Coastal Georgia University helped to put together this event, which also includes lectures from several of our friends at the National Civil War Naval Museum im Columbus.  According to the Ashantilly Center's website, the description is as follows:

"Matt Eng, Deputy Educator at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum and an expert on American Naval History, will discuss the importance of commemorating the Civil War’s Sesquicentennial, focusing much of his presentation on the Navy during that period."

Flattering as the description is, I will be discussing the overall scope of the CWN 150 and its role in the ongoing narrative of memory during the war.  For more information on the event, please go to the full link/details HERE or the Mcintosh County Homepage HERE.

I look forward to an excellent year for the CWN 150 and the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  Let's make it the best one yet!  Stay tuned for more info on the March 2012 Battle of Hampton Roads events at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum and the Mariners' Museum. 

Full Speed Ahead,

Matthew T. Eng

The Confederate Navy's Favorite Shipyard -- Birthplace of CSS Alabama, 'Birkenhead Rams.'

(U.S. Navy Library)
'Birkenhead Ram:' Called El Tousson because it was supposedly being bought by Egypt, the ship was seized at the Laird shipyard across the River Mersey from Liverpool in 1863.

James D. Bulloch was the most important Confederate naval agent working in Europe.  His experiences as an American naval officer and in the merchant marine proved invaluable  in buying blockade runners that kept war materiel flowing into the South, designing commerce raiders, like CSS Alabama, that caused Union shipowners to switch flags with a neutral country to protect their cargoes and ocean-going ironclads like the "Birkenhead Rams" powerful enough to attack Union blockaders and speedy enough to terrorize Northern ports.

Working out of a small office in the impressive mansion of Fraser, Trenholm & Co., the Confederacy's fiscal arm in Great Britain, Bulloch soon made the acquaintance of the Laird Brothers across the River Mersey from Liverpool. The company already was known as a first-rate shipbuilder and a technological pioneer, one that Charles Prioleau, a transplanted South Carolinian and in charge of Fraser, Trenholm in Liverpool had already done business with. He bought blockade-runner Herald and possibly a few others early in the war to operate out of the company's home port of Charleston, S.C.

The firm's name reflected its history. Its offices were spacious and stately. Fraser had long since left the Liverpool enterprise, and George Trenholm, a future Confederate Treasury secretary, was one of the wealthiest men in the South.

In late 1861, Bulloch presented the Lairds with a design for a wooden screw steamer capable of cruising at 13 knots.  On paper, the 210-foot vessel could be a special merchantman or it could be what it really was destined to be the Conferacy's second commerce raider. He expected to delivery in the spring of 1862.

Bulloch consistently denied that John Laird, who left the active business for a seat in Parliament in 1860, or any of his sons knew that "No. 290," the 290th ship on their order books, was a warship, violating Great Britain's Neutrality Proclamation concerning the war in North America and its Foreign Enlistment Act. The denial seems a stretch, particularly in light of other business the yard conducted with the Confederacy, all through subterfuges.

Who were these Lairds and their shipbuilding company courted and cursed by the United States for building CSS Alabama and the rams and cmbraced by the Confederacy?

The Napoleonic wars catapulted the Lairds into a leading position among Scotland's maritime businesses.  They soon cast  about for ways to expand the family business of ropeworks and niche elements of shipbuilding.  When the first William Laird arrived in Liverpool, the thirty-year-old was like a number of young Scots trying their business hand across the gamut of maritime commerce still open in Great Britain's busiest Atlantic port. The Channel ports were threatened from the start by invasion.

When the wars finally ended in 1815, William moved the family business into new ventures.  By 1822, he was a stockholder in the St. George Packet Co., offering steamer service between Liverpool and Glasgow.  Soon enough, the company expanded its service to Dublin and other ports on the Irish and North Seas.

But the most important step William Laird took occurred in 1824 when he, John Hamilton and John Forsyth -- "all clever men" -- bought a sandy strip of riverfront property in a fishing village of fifty souls across from Liverpool for a rew hundred pounds.  Laird's plans for Birkenhead were grand -- an ironworks first and then a shipyard "less tied by the trammels of old thinking."

Early on, the Lairds were committed to large vessels, using iron, propelled by steam and screw propellers.  New ideas flowed into their yard like the twice daily tides.  For instance, William Laird worked with John Ericsson on a steam wheel and rotary steam engine; and one of its first vessels was the Robert F. Stockton, built on the order of the rich American naval officer of the same name.  Stockton was the principal force behind the American Navy's screw propeller Princeton. 

By the late 1830s, Laird and Sons, the company's name changed several times before the Civil War, was building ships for East India Company, transatlantic steamers, gunboats for duty on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, small vessels and warships for the Royal Navy, and a paddle-wheeler for the Mexican Navy.

When the Crimean War began in the mid-1850s, the grandsons were monitoring French shipbuilding techniques in Toulon and the British fleet's performance on the Black Sea.  The company with its 2,000 workers was ready for the Admiralty's buy orders for a fleet of ironclads in its "new yard" immediately after the fighting ceased.

Business again was booming.

When John Laird left for Parliament, he proudly announced Laird and Sons was in capable hands with a worldwide reputation of quality and innovation.

The yard's work with the Confederacy started small with Prioleau's order for a blockade runner, paid for out of Fraser, Trenholm's funds; but as the war dragged on,  Bulloch with the Confederate Navy's orders plus credit from Fraser, Trenholm promised more work -- all done through false fronts and masked buyers.

While Charles Francis Adams, the Union minister to Great Britain, and Thomas Haines Dudley, the Union consul in Liverpool filed objection upon objection with British customs officials, the Royal Navy, and Foreign Minister John Russell about Laird's work with the Confederacy, Gustavus Fox, the Union's assistant secretary of the Navy, looked for ways to do business with the yard -- using his own false end-buyers.

Likely the thinking among the Lairds was: Someone had to profit from a civil war. Why shouldn't it be one of the world's premier shipyards, theirs?