Saturday, February 25, 2012

Gunboats or Ironclads: Virginians vs. the 'Cotton Kings'

Model from of a 'Maury Gunboat.' Confederates planned to build 100 of these for $2 million to defend their coast and inland waterways. 

The Confederate government in the months following the First Battle of Manassas through that fall and into the winter found itself warring with the Virginia state government and its powerful congressional delegation led by former President John Tyler over how best to defend its Atlantic Coast, the Chesapeake Bay and the tidal rivers so crucial to its economy.
  The “one battle” war had proved an illusion.

 As the months dragged on and credit became harder to secure, choices had to be made.  The armies in Virginia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, along the Gulf Coast, and across the Mississippi had to be fed, clothed, armed, and cared for when disease struck or its soldiers were wounded in combat. They had the highest priority.

 For the Navy, the junior service in priority, the Virginians wanted gunboats to harass blockaders and hold off invaders in its coastal waters, and Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen Mallory wanted floating iron fortresses to defend ports along the 3,500-mile coast and Mississippi, vessels possibly capable of terrorizing Northern ports.

Either would be teamed with forts on land; heavy artillery, including confiscated naval  guns;   mines and other obstructions; snipers along the rivers; and civilian steamers now armed and sheathed. 

For a time, the Confederacy gambled that it could afford both.  When it became clear that it couldn’t.  Old scars from earlier political battles between Matthew Fontaine Maury and the Virginians, led by Tyler and Governor John Letcher,  on one side, and Mallory, President Jefferson Davis, and Confederate “blue water navalists” on the other would become fresh wounds that left the Confederacy’s naval efforts shattered and its treasury drained.

As we mark the150th anniversary of the Battle of Hampton Roads, the clash of the ironclads with its oft-told tales of how CSS Virginia came to be and how John Ericsson’s radically designed Monitor made its way into the Union fleet, it is time to shine light on the “gunboat war,” a bitter campaign fought solely inside the Confederate government at Richmond.

Davis -- West Point graduate, hero-volunteer from Mississippi in the Mexican War, and a former secretary of War – concentrated on fighting on land.  To him, a Confederate Navy was an afterthought. Privateers with letters of marque and reprisal were at the outer limits of his naval concepts. For the most part, he left naval matters in the hands of his former Senate colleague Mallory, a Floridian.

Now at war, Maury saw himself as a man singularly equipped to create an almost impenetrable defense of Southern ports, inlets and waterways.  As a member of the governor’s advisory council, a de facto war ministry, he layered Virginia’s defenses to his liking for months before the state’s army and navy were absorbed into the Confederate armed forces.

While Mallory thought  “small,” in Maury’s words, about coastal defense, the commander dreamed large – as he had  done in the turf wars to expand the National Observatory. After demonstrating the effectiveness of mines before First Manassas and being named head of Confederate coastal defenses, he plotted how to build a new class of gunboats.

To prepare the way, Maury, writing as "Ben Bow,” used the influential Richmond Enquirer for  guerrilla strikes against Davis and Mallory, dubbed the “Cotton Kings.” Starting in late September 1861, he blasted the  administration’s moves as “mere makeshifts” when it came to naval defense. He compared its two requests for naval appropriations to  creating “a navy without vessels  [to having] lamps without oil.”

As chairman of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee, Mallory survived a war through the press and in Congress with Maury; and he was not about to countenance another one with an officer directly under his control.  In less than a week, the secretary ordered Maury to Cuba to buy weapons. It clearly was an order to bring Maury, at the time one of the nation’s most prominent scientists, to heel.

The reaction among the Virginians and in the Confederate Congress was outrage.  With Tyler, whose political cachet remained powerful; the Virginia congressional delegation; and Charles M. Conrad, the chair of the House Naval Affairs Committee and a former United States secretary of War, setting the debate’s tone, the Confederate Congress declared the commander was too valuable where he was. The gunboat plan would live as long as Maury was in Richmond.  Mallory was working on that.

Not trusting Mallory at all, Maury turned to good listener Letcher and his allies in the Virginia Convention, sitting as the state legislature, with his "big gun and little ship” plan.  The ships became known as the "Maury Gunboats."

Maury did not want a ship "stout enough to keep the sea.”  Instead, he envisioned "steam launches each capable of carrying two rifled pivot guns and no more.  Their structure should be simple and plain and as economical as possible.  They should be literally nothing but floating gun carriages” with crews of forty men and no accommodations.

The commander wanted to build the gunboats quickly and turn them loose on the federal fleet in the Chesapeake Bay's shallow waters and North Carolina's tidal rivers and sounds. Shipwrights in the bay counties of Mathews and Gloucester would be the primary builders, and they could do the work, along with soldier-artisans about to go into winter quarters. Other yards in coastal North Carolina were also available. They already were engaged in building a “mosquito fleet” of converted tugboats for Maury’s longtime friend, Captain William P. Lynch.  

"Going out like a nest of hornets, they will especially, if the building and the fitting out be kept from the enemy, either sink, capture or drive away from the Chesapeake and its tributaries the whole fleet which the enemy now has or probably will in that time in these waters.” Then the "nest of hornets” could close off the maritime traffic through the Virginia capes, starve out Fortress Monroe, and  threaten Washington.

In late October, a Union fleet of more than twenty ships loaded with thousands of troops steamed to Port Royal, about halfway between Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia. With no gunboats to hinder them there and few coastal defenses of consequence, the Union Navy covered the landing and beachhead that “would serve all the future needs of the army and navy,” meaning no need to return to Hampton Roads to refit. The Union blockade was taking hold.  

Thomas Jefferson Page, a seasoned Confederate naval officer,  wrote: "Suppose a fleet of twenty of these boats in the harbor of Port Royal at the time of late attack from the enemy, can any one fail to perceive that the result would have been vastly different.”

In the wake of the latest debacle on the Carolina coast, Maury lobbied the Virginia Convention even more strenuously for his gunboats.  The Virginians' renewed insistence, especially that of Tyler, and the tightening blockade moved the Confederate Congress to approve $2 million to build one-hundred  vessels.  On Christmas Eve, Davis signed the bill putting Maury in charge of building the fleet that "shall present little more than a feather edge” to naval invaders.

Like the hundreds of thousands of dollars set aside to rebuild Merrimack and other ironclads in the South, this was a high stakes roll of the dice with no guarantee of success.

When members of the Virginia Convention approached Mallory about carrying out Maury’s plan, the secretary said even as they spoke he had agents scouring the countryside for engines.  For now, the Virginians were satisfied.  Tyler  happily reported that Maury had “woven a proud chaplet around her brow by having won a name all over the world which reflects new luster on the name of Virginia” by advocating the state’s strong defense.  

After the Christmas 1861 holiday, Maury, with his son John, set about getting the gunboats on the ways.  But supplies, especially boilers and the heavy oak for the hulls, proved difficult to come by.  Over fears of new attacks in Virginia, Maury’s idea to free soldiers with carpentry skills from Army duties in the winter was rejected. 

Despite these setbacks, construction started on the Mattaponi and Pamunkey rivers, near West Point, and also along the Rappahannock and at the Norfolk naval yard. Talbott & Brothers, a large Richmond foundry, turned over its entire business to the Confederate Navy in February 1862 and announced the delivery of five double engines for the gunboats.  The next month as the Battle of Hampton Roads loomed, Maury advertised for “negro laborers to cut timber for the vessels.” 

Ideas that flowed so easily from Maury's mind to his pen ¾ like constructing one-hundred  gunboats, or building charts for each ocean, or cataloging every star or determining the best crossing point on the Central American coast  ¾ again were proving difficult to execute, even when the ideas had Mallory's wholehearted support.  The “nest of hornets” project did not. It also was soon to lose its congressional support.

But that is a tale for another day – after the sesquicentennial observance of the Battle of Hampton Roads and the beginning of the Peninsula campaign. 


Saturday, February 18, 2012

Mobile in the Confederacy

Images of Mobile, Alabama. From Harper's Weekly:

After New Orleans, Mobile was the most important port on the Gulf coast for the Confederacy. When New Orleans fell in the spring of 1862, Mobile became the most important port on the Gulf coast.

There were a number of reasons for this port’s value. Mobile Bay was an embayment running in a north-south direction, with a narrow mouth at the south end, guarded by Forts Morgan and Gaines (which were both under construction at the beginning of the Civil War). The City of Mobile lay at the northern end of the bay. Any naval assault on the city would have to pass through the mouth, run the gauntlet past the forts, and then up the bay to the city. Two major river systems, the Tombigbee and Alabama Rivers, converged at Mobile and provided river access to the interior. Mobile itself had a foundery and ship building facilities, and upriver the City of Selma had additional industrial capability.

In addition, several major railroad lines linked Mobile to other parts of the Confederacy, and provided the main link between the eastern and western portions of the CSA. Mobile’s rail connections proved to be of immense military value to the Confederacy, enabling the movement of troops to critical areas where and when they were needed. Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg, when he was garrisoning Pensacola, Florida, considered the ability to easily move troops by rail between Mobile and Pensacola, “worth 3,000 men at each end.”

Mobile was among the last major southern cities to fall at the end of the war. Yet, this defeat had no influence on the ultimate outcome of the war, as by 1865 (when the city was taken), the war was already won by the North. If the city has been taken earlier in the war (say, in 1862), historians estimate that this would have ended the war much sooner than it ultimately did. Interestingly, it seems both northern and southern leadership acknowledged the importance of Mobile and Mobile Bay, but both sides did not allocate the military resources to take or defend the city.

Through much of the war, Mobile remained an important port for blockade running, bringing critically needed supplies into the Confederacy and distributing them to where they were needed.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Upcoming HRNM/CWN 150/Mariners' Museum Events for March 2012

The Treason of Mary Louvestre After Hours Event at HRNM
March 8, 2012
6:00 P.M.

Join in the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Hampton Roads. Dr. My Haley, widow of author Alex Haley, who helped write the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Roots, will speak about her new historical novel, The Treason of Mary Louvestre. This book is based on the true story of a former slave-turned-spy who provided detailed information about the CSS Virginia to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles during the American Civil War. In addition to Haley’s talk and book-signing, the Battle of Hampton Roads watercolor contest participants’ art will also be shown during this event.

For more information, please go to the Naval Museum homepage HERE.

2012 Civil War Navy Conference Full Schedule
(CWN 150 Bloggers Highlighted in Red)

Schedule courtesy of the Mariners' Museum and the Battle of Hampton Roads Website.  For more information and conference rates, go to the weekend's website HERE.

Friday, March 9 at 7 p.m.
Award-winning Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer will present Victory Without the Gaud:
The Battle of Hampton Roads and the Transformation of Civil War Art

Ferguson Center on the campus of Christopher Newport University
Saturday, March 10 at 10 a.m.
United States Naval Academy professor and Civil War Naval scholar Craig Symonds will present
The War Along the Atlantic Coast
The Mariners' Museum
FREE with museum admission
Sunday, March 11at 10 a.m.
Local Virginia historian and preservationist John Quarstein will present his research for his latest book,
The Monitor Boys: The Crew of the Union's First Ironclad as well as information from his reissued work
Virginia: Mistress of Hampton Roads.
The Mariners' Museum
FREE with museum admission

Saturday, March 10 Sessions
Search for and Discovery and Identification of the USS Monitor Wreck Aboard the R/V Eastward
Dr. Robert Sheridan, Professor Emeritus, Rutgers University

"Where's the Starboard Beam?"  Commanding the Tin-Can From Inside an Iron Box
Francis DuCoin, Independent Historian & volunteer, USS Monitor Conservation Project

"Iron Coffin: War, Technology, and Experience Aboard the Monitor"
Dr. David Mindell, Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Frances and David Dibner Professor of the
History of Engineering and Manufacturing, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

A Brotherhood Adrift: Confederate Sailors
Laura June Davis, Doctoral Candidate, University of Georgia

"Sink the Merrimac!": Northern Plans, Schemes, and Inventions to Destroy the Rebel RamDr. David Gerleman, Assistant Editor, Papers of Abraham Lincoln Project

Naval Station New York: The Heart of the Union Anaconda
William Whyte, Doctoral Candidate, Lehigh University

Union Combined Operations in the Spring of 1862: An Examination of Leadership and Unity of Effort
J. Michael Moore, Curator, Lee Hall Mansion

Pumping YOU Up: Conservation and Replication of the Worthington Steam Pumps from the USS Monitor
Will Hoffman, Conservator, The Mariners' Museum

Palmetto Iron: The Construction of the CSS Chicora and CSS Palmetto State, 1862
Charles Wexler, Doctoral Candidate, Auburn University

The Monitor and Beyond: Updates from the Graveyard of the Atlantic
David Alberg, Joe Hoyt, Monitor National Marine

Sunday, March 11 Sessions
USS Monitor: A Historic Ship Completes its Final Voyage
Dr. John Broadwater, NOAA's Monitor National Marine Sanctuary

Hunter Davidson and the CSS Squib
Professor Ed Wiser, Naval War College

USS Cumberland: Latest Findings
Gordon Calhoun, Historian and Editor, Hampton Roads Naval Museum

Civil War Naval History: A Panel Discussion
1. CSS Florida: the Vanishing Ship (Gordon Calhoun)
2. Calling the Union's "Bluff:" U.S. Navy Operations on the James River (Matt Eng)
Matthew Eng, Gordon Calhoun, Hampton Roads Naval Museum

The Monitor’s Unknown Mission: The Appomattox Raid, June 1862
Chuck Veit, President, Navy and Marine Living History Association

Union Sailors and Alcohol
Sarah Adler, Undergraduate, American University

Bad Luck All Around: The North Carolina Built Ironclads
Andrew Duppstadt, NC Division of State Historic Sites; Jim McKee, Historic Interpreter, Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson State Historic Site;
Chris Grimes, Interpreter, The Mariners' Museum

USS Monitor to Dreamland Bell: The Foundry of James Gregory-
David Grider, Architect, New York City

The USS Monitor at 150: Conservation Insights, Observations and Adventures
Conservation Staff, The Mariners' Museum

CSS Shenandoah: Her life, her impact
Sam Craghead, Museum of the Confederacy

Civil War Naval Chaplaincy and Rev. John L. Lenhar
Captain Thom Mitton, US Christian Commission

Civil War Public Memory in a Social Media World
Matthew Eng, Deputy Educator, Hampton Roads Naval Museum

Fighting for Their Lives: Theories on what happened when the Monitor went down
Paul Clancy, Virginian Pilot

For more information contact Anna Holloway at

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

In Case You Missed It: Black History Month Highlights

In honor of African American history month, here are all previous post links to our "African American History Month Highlights" postings over the past year.  We have also included the "Blacks in Blue Jackets" pamphlet as a .jpg so it is easy to download.  Enjoy:

Siah Carter (Originally Posted February 10, 2012)

A Trend Worth Following (Originally Posted February 6, 2012)

Honor, Courage, Commitment (Originally Posted February 27, 2011)

Aaron Anderson (Originally Posted February 25, 2011)

John Lawson (Originally Posted February 24, 2011)

Robert Blake (Originally Posted February 16, 2011)

William Tillman (Originally Posted February 14, 2011)

Lawson and Robert Smalls (Originally Posted February 7, 2010)

Introductory Post on African American Sailors (Originally Posted February 4, 2010)
Blacks in Blue Jackets: Page 1

Blacks in Blue Jackets: Page 2
A Note on African American History Month
Celebrated actor Morgan Freeman said it best in an interview o 60 minutes.  Freeman does not personally ascribe to terms like "Black History Month" or "African American History Month."  Instead, Freeman declared that "Black history is American history."  While there are those who agree and disagree on both sides, the sentiment is as true today as it was when it was originally created in the mid 1920s.  No matter what, we are all distinctly American.  The trials and tribulations of millions of citizens and soldiers both North and South 150 years ago tells us how far each side went to prove their beliefs and values.  At the cost of over 620,000 men, that dream was realized by the United States of America and Abraham Lincoln, the intrepid President who turned the country's greatest struggle into a moral, ethical, and military victory.  On the blood and toil of millions of soldiers and sailors around the world, the war ultimately brought about revolutionary change in the institution of slavery.  As a statement, the Emancipation Proclamation shifted the war's overall focus.  If there ever was doubt that the war began over the complicated nature of slavery, President Lincoln silenced any doubt with the Proclamation.  It became the necessary stepping stone to the post-war Amendments granting slaves their freedom. 

In what better anniversary lately can Americans come together and celebrate and commemorate the spirited role played by African Americans during the Civil War? 

Professor and historian Stephen Ramold, author of Slaves, Sailors, and Contrabands, summed up the role of African American sailors nicely in a 2004 interview with The Journal of African American History:  "They were Americans who didn't hesitate to fight for their country."  Whatever color you may be, we are all Americans.  Help to commemorate and honor those men and woman who fought to keep it that way.  Keep the discussion going in whatever way you can.  How do we celebrate?  Why do we celebrate?  I think the question speaks for itself. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Operations on the Savannah River - Early 1862

Tattnall's fleet engaging USN gunboats on the Savannah River (source - Naval History and Heritage Command on-line photo archive):

After taking Port Royal, South Carolina, in November 1861, the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron began looking south down the Atlantic coast for the next target. USN leadership in Washington (Sec. Welles and Asst. Sec. Fox) wanted this to be the Port of Fernandina, Florida, but miscommunication and disagreement among US Army and Navy leaders in the region eventually focused on closing down the Port of Savannah, Georgia. While the US Army began to prepare for the siege and conquest of Fort Pulaski, near the mouth of the Savannah River, Flag Officer DuPont sent Cdr. John Rogers to reconnoiter the labyrinth of channels around and upstream of Ft. Pulaski to see what US Navy ships could do in the area. After several forays, Rogers concluded that shallow depths in the channels(exacerbated by obstacles placed by the Confederates) were a major constraint on naval operations in the area. During much of this effort, DuPont and US Army General Thomas W. Sherman argued over who was impeding operations in the region.

Eventually DuPont and Sherman agreed that a demonstration “in force” against the City of Savannah would buy some time while preparations were being made for the siege of Ft. Pulaski. In late January 1862, DuPont sent two squadrons, one under the command of Rogers and the other under Flag Capt. Charles H. Davis, up separate channels flanking the Savannah River (and eventually joining its mainstem). The Confederates interpreted this as an assault on Ft. Pulaski, and Commodore Josiah Tattnall, now commanding CSN Navy forces on the Georgia coast, assembled his Mosquito Fleet to resupply Ft. Pulaski. Tattnall’s flotilla steamed downriver from Savannah on 27 January, following the river mainstem. As they approached Pulaski, Tattnall found himself “in the gauntlet”; his ships were right in between Rogers’ and Davis’ squadrons in separate channels of the river delta, separated by marshy tidelands. Davis tried to get his ships through so he could directly engage Tattnall’s ships, but obstructions placed by the Confederates and shallow depths impeded him. Both Davis and Rogers thought that they could get behind Tattnall and block him from returning to Savannah when he made the run to Pulaski, but the crafty old Commodore in gray sent his smaller, shallow draft gunboats and transports on to aid the Fort and kept his flagship (CSS Savannah) and larger gunboats back in safer waters. When Rogers and Davis realized they were stymied, they both opened fire on Tattnall’s ships, which “returned the favor” in the best spirit. The firing continued for about an hour, and resumed in the afternoon after a break. Relatively little damage was caused to ships and crews on both sides.

By early February 1862, the siege of Ft. Pulaski was beginning to solidify as the US Army mounted batteries on adjacent islands and points. Much of the construction was done at night under the cover of darkness, and USN gunboats provided important cover and acted as a “force multiplier” (as Robert Browning aptly put it) during the day when tide and water depth permitted. Tattnall actually met with General Robert E. Lee in late February to discuss an effort to provide relief to the fort, but by then the Union force in the area would have pulverized the expedition they envisioned and they abandoned this idea. Pulaski eventually surrendered to Union forces in early April 1862.

Fort Pulaski after the Union siege. Source: US National Park Service web site

Black History Month Highlight: Siah Carter

Siah Carter aboard USS Monitor
Like many other African American slaves, Siah Carter sought freedom adn refure in the Union Navy along the  myriad waterways of the southern interior.  At the time he joined the Union Navy, Carter was a slave at the Shirley Plantation in Charles City, Virginia.  He became the first of eigtheen slaves to escape from Shirley Plantation in 1862,  Twenty-two year old Carter fled down the James River two months after the Battle of Hampton Roads, finding USS Monitor laying at anchor.  He enlisted aboard the ironclad as a "first class boy," serving as a coal heaver and cook's assistant for the duration of the ship's short existance.  Carter survived the sinking of the famed vessels in December 1862, going on to serve on several other Union ships until the end of the war.  He was discharged from the Union Navy in May 1865 and returned to Shirley Plantation to wed former slave Eliza Tarrow.  They eventually settled in Bermuda Hundred, Virginia, and raised thirteen children. 

Siah Carter's in children's popular literature

Monday, February 6, 2012

Protecting CSS Virginia -- At All Costs

Harper's Weekly sketch of submarine attack on USS Minnesota in Hampton Roads in fall of 1861. (Library of Congress)

Acting Master William Cheeney was extremely anxious March 12, 1862, as he began writing a letter to Commander John Mercer Brooke in Richmond.  The arrival of the Union Monitor had dramatically altered the naval situation in Hampton. The blockade remained in place and a feared buildup of Union forces around Fortress Monroe seemed imminent. But if the underwater explosives engineer could get the support of  Brooke, the inventor of a revolutionary deep sea sounding device, a powerful Navy cannon, and one of the fathers of the ironclad CSS Virginia, Cheeney believed he had the means in hand to dispose of the wooden Union Navy's radically-designed defender.

Cheeney had already approached Commodore French Forrest, commander of Confederate naval forces in Hampton Roads, about securing a "little sheet iron cigar boat" about 12-feet long and 2 1/2- feet wide to do the job.

"When  done, I shall make the first trial on the Monitor which is the only enemy our noble Virginia has to fear.  I believe I shall succeed."

Asking for Brooke's patience if the project ran into a delay, Cheeney, who was born in New York and had served in the United States Navy, assured him that unlike the ironclads and Matthew Fontaine Maury's gunboats, "It will cost very little and will require about one week to complete it."

Why would Cheeney seem so assured that he could succeed and he would receive Brooke's support? He had done it before. Since the earliest days of the war, he had worked with submersibles and had built a "sub-marine boat" then in Richmond.  But speed was necessary now. It "would take too long" to  ready the submarine and send it to Norfolk for an attack on Monitor. He had won Brooke's support in the past to build the submarine, and he had every reason to believe he would have it now when the stakes were so high.

The Union Navy also had every reason to believe that such an attack by a submersible or a "sub-marine boat" was possible in Hampton Roads. In the fall of 1861, Cheeney had probably launched at least one attack against USS Minnesota, now aground following the Battle of the Ironclads. Shortly after that, the commander of USS Congress, now sunk, had positioned A-frame defenses around his ship to protect it from torpedoes (mines) or rip apart the floats of spar-tipped submerged Confederate attackers.

A female spy had tipped the Union Navy and Union Army off.  Allan Pinkerton, head of the Secret Service, had taken "Mrs. E.H. Baker," one of his Chicago operatives with connections in Richmond, directly to Major General George B. McClellan and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles when she arrived in Washington in November 1861.  There, she handed over her notes of a demonstration of the submarine's power that she had witnessed as the guest of a Confederate Army officer and a sketch of work being done on a much larger submarine at the Tredegar Iron Works that she made after touring the facility the next day.

Through field glasses, Mrs. Baker watched the "float," a green device atop the model submarine allowing air into the vessel, approach a scow.  As the Army officer explained to her, two or three men operate the boat.  They are "provided with submarine diving, armor, which enables them to work under the water and attach the magazine to the ship intended to be blown up."

For a few moments, the "float " stopped "within a few rods of the scow" before moving away.  For a few more moments, nothing happened.  She believed the experiment had failed.

"Without any previous warning, there was a terrific explosion, and the scow seemed lifted bodily out of the water and thrown into the air.  Her destruction was complete."

The officer then told her that the plan nearing fruition was to have the larger submarine being fitted out at Tredegar taken to Norfolk and paired up with Patrick Henry and Yorktown, both converted steamers, in a coordinated attack on the water and below upon the Union fleet.

Pinkerton's memoirs can be troublesome when it comes to facts vs. hyperbole concerning himself and his agents and even dates.

On Oct. 12, more than a month before Mrs. Baker is said to have reported to Washington, the New York Herald published an account of a foiled attack on Minnesota, possibly using a submarine. Harper's Weekly reprinted the account with a sketch of the two vessels. Flag Officer Louis Goldsborough, commander of the Atlantic Blockading Squadron, reported to Welles several days earlier that "an attempt, no doubt, was made by the insurgents to get an infernal machine among our shipping" in Hampton Roads, but whether he was referring to a submarine or floating mines is unclear.

What is known is that Lieutenant Robert Minor failed in an attack on Congress off Newport News Point on the day Goldsborough wrote Welles, but he used floating mines.

Yet Pinkerton wrote, "One of the vessels of the blockading fleet ... had discovered the float, and putting out her drag-rope, had caught the air-tubes and thus effectually disabled the vessel from doing any harm, and no doubt drowning all who were on board." He didn't name the vessel saved the Federal fleet from destruction.

There also are no known surviving records of Cheeney's "sub-marine boat" engaged in combat in Hampton Roads either in 1861 or 1862. Torpedo boats, cigar boats, "Davids," CSS Hunley, and other similar vessels appear in a number of other accounts of later engagements at New Orleans, Mobile, and Charleston.

What Cheeney's letter clearly shows is the Confederate Navy's heightened interest in devising new technologies and techniques to frustrate the Union Navy's wealth and numbers. Often its grasp exceeded its reach.

But with Monitor on station and other ironclads on the way, the massive Army and Navy buildup for the Peninsula campaign was safely under way.

As matters turned out, there is no record of Cheeney's cigar boat attacking Monitor, either. In fact by the fall of 1862, he switched sides again -- rejoining the Union Navy where his work remains shrouded in secrecy.


ORN, Ser. 1 Vol. 6, pp. 363,  392-393
"A Rebel Infernal Machine," Harper's Weekly, Nov. 2, 1861
Allan Pinkerton, The Spy of the Rebellion, G.W. Dillingham Co., New York, Google e-Book, pp. 396-403
John M. Coski, Capital Navy, Savas Woodbury Publishers, Campbell, Calif., 1996. pp. 116-121

African American Sailors and the Sesquicentennial: A Trend Worth Following

The social history of the sailor will take priority in how we continue to interpret the navy’s role.  Scholarship continues to detail how sailors dealt with the tedium of the blockade and the horrors of close-quartered combat on western rivers.  Sailors who fought were a historically diverse group of individuals dating back to the Revolutionary War.  When you begin to narrow down the focus of social history in the navies, one critical aspect merges each commemorative anniversary of the past to the current one: African American sailors.  Problems of race and reconciliation during the semi-centennial and centennial are now rectified in a bevy of recent events, including the 2010 Signature Conference of the Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission at Norfolk State University.  Their involvement during the war will likely take center stage throughout the next four years.

National recognized organizations like the National Park Service’s Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System (CWSS) are working to document and record the names of every Civil War sailor, black and white.  Pushing this index forward is a historian’s steering committee comprising historians and researchers representing Howard University, the Naval History and Heritage Command, National Park Service, and other academic experts.  According to the CWSS website, the online database, which features African Americans sailors as its primary focus, has approximately 8,000 names to search through.  With over 18,000 African Americans serving in the Union Navy during the war, their work so far covers almost half of those accounted for.

Even if the Union Navy’s rank and file were not always progressive towards the abolition of slavery, one blogger commented that “the demands of war caused them to adapt to the vagaries of war and they were soon singing the praises of the African Americans serving on their vessels.

The naval “melting pot” on both sides best represents how the majority of Americans want to remember the Civil War.  The title of the 2010 Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial was “Race, Slavery, and the Civil War: The Tough Stuff of American History and Memory.”  Despite disagreements over the institution of slavery by both sides, all different races, colors, and creeds marched to the flag.  For the Union Navy in particular, the role of the African American sailor is a way for Americans today to connect with their history and heritage.  African Americans made the conscientious choice to fight for their freedom, regardless of conditions they faced.  “African American sailors were needed,” historian Stephen Ramold remarked in the closing comments of a 2004 interview with The Journal of African American History.  According to Ramold, “they were Americans who didn’t hesitate to fight for their country.” He goes on to say that the Union Navy “was remarkably modern [. . .] where everything was not a racial struggle.”

In the century before Executive Order #9981 ordered the full racial integration of American armed forces in 1948, sailors operating around the world during the war fought and died amongst their black brethren.  Military equality paved its way on the shoulders of these sailors, although some are more notable than others within the public consciousness.  The armed forces couldn’t ask for better PR today.  Robert Smalls, the South Carolina slave pilot of the Planter who escaped with his family to the Union lines for freedom, became “the closest thing to a national black war hero from the Civil War.”

Long before the 54th Massachusetts gloriously attacked Fort Wagner, African Americans forged the identity of today’s Navy through their service.  Blacks in blue jackets represented the fighting spirit for the cause of freedom.  This will undoubtedly arise and draw interest from the public in an ever-increasing time of uncertainty with military service in general.  The story of black sailors serves as a constant reminder to Americans how far we have come.

Jimmy Price, “James Mcpherson - Slavery, Freedom, and the Union Navy,” The Sable Arm, entry posted September 24, 2010, (accessed December 13, 2011).

Helen Hannon, “African Americans in the Navy during the Civil War,” The Journal of African American History 89, no. 4 (Autumn 2004), 361.

David Blight, Race and Reunion, 195.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Birth of the Brown Water Navy

One-hundred and fifty years ago this week, an important component to the Federal efforts in the Western Theater came to the fore - the Mississippi River Squadron.

At the onset of war both the Army and Navy officers recognized the need for river gunboats complementing land operations along the Mississippi River and tributaries. The requirements for river operations - or "brown water" - differed significantly from the more traditional "blue water" navy's warship designs. On the Mississippi, the Navy needed light draft ships capable of maneuvering within the river channels. Likely tactical scenarios placed those gunboats in close proximity to enemy river defense batteries. So on that light draft, the boats had to carry structural bracing, armor, and heavy armament. Given these and other requirements, the ironclad river gunboats evolved almost independently of the contemporary "blue water" monitors.

Complying with immediate demands, the first river gunboats were conversions of existing river craft. Three riverboats became "timberclads" with the addition of heavy oak "armor" and a battery of naval guns. While useful for river patrols and action against less well defended points, these ships lacked the armor to deal with heavily fortified river bastions or the anticipated Confederate ironclads.

In September 1861 the Army acquired the ferry New Era for conversion into a timberclad. When turned over to the Navy for operations, Commander William D. "Dirty Bill" Porter renamed the ship USS Essex in honor of the famous War of 1812 era frigate commanded by his father. Porter also had light iron plating installed on the forward casemate and sides, making the Essex an "iron-plated" gunboat. She carried three 9-inch Dahlgren guns. While more formidable than the "timberclads," the Essex was not the all the Navy required. (Of note, the Navy completely rebuilt the Essex later in 1862 transforming the ship into a proper river ironclad.)

The solution came in the form of a class of armored gunboats, designed specifically for use on the rivers. Working from a description offered by the Army, naval chief constructor John Lenthall designed a vessel with very light draft. Lenthall then recommended the Army further consult with Samuel M. Pook, a shipbuilder of note, to refine the design. Pook would do more than just refine the design, . What emerged was a vessel uniquely adapted for riverine warfare.

Pook's design featured a hull 175 feet long and 50 feet wide, but drawing a draft of only 6 feet. A central casemate, not unlike later Confederate rams in appearance, housed a battery of heavy naval guns - three 8-inch, four 42-pdrs, and six 32-pdrs as designed. Five boilers, placed low in the hull, powered a central paddle wheel. Iron plate, some 2.5 inches thick, covered the forward casemate, sixty feet of the sides, and the pilot house. Because of the incomplete armor arrangements, these were not ironclads in the strict sense of the word. Although weighing 512 tons, Pook's gunboats could make nine miles-per-hour with a head of steam.

In August 1861, James Buchanan Eads won the contract to construct these vessels. Working at yards in Carondolet, Missouri and Mound City, Illinois, Eads' project move rapidly (mostly due to stiff penalties for late delivery!). First to roll off the ways was the USS St. Louis in mid-October at Carondelet. The USS Carondelet, USS Louisville, and USS Pittsburgh followed from the Missouri yards. The USS Cairo, USS Cincinnati, and USS Mound City came out of the yards in Illinois.

These seven "City-class" gunboats became the core of the Mississippi River Squadron. The St. Louis first went into action at Lucas Bend, just above Columbus, Kentucky, alongside the Essex, on January 11, 1862. Encountering three Confederate gunboats escorting a floating battery into position, the two Federal gunboats drove off their unarmored opponents. In the first engagement these "ironclad" gunboats established ascendency on the rivers.

During the first week of February, the Essex, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Carondelet moved down the Tennessee River in support of a Federal force under General U.S. Grant. The Army didn't have much to do after the Navy's gunboats silenced Confederate defenses at Fort Henry. But assumptions about the gunboats effectiveness against shore defenses proved a bit premature. Later on February 14, at Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River four city-class gunboats could not pass the Confederate batteries. The problem was just as much tactical as technical.

Despite the Valentine's Day setback, the "brown water" gunboats figured prominently in Federal plans. The force continued to grow with the addition of more gunboats, such as the converted USS Benton at the end of February. In months to follow the gunboats pressed the Confederate defenses along the Mississippi. The Mississippi River Squadron provided the mobile striking force for the combined Army-Navy team that eventually drove the wedge through the Confederacy.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Salt Works Raids

Destruction of a salt works by the US Bark Kingfisher on the Florida Coast. Source: Fla. Dept. of State on-line photo archive.

As the Civil War progressed, salt became one of the most vital commodities for the Confederacy. Salt was the primary means of preserving meat at that time, along with many other critical uses. By the end of 1861, the CSA recognized that it required a reliable supply of salt, as the tightening US Navy blockade was beginning to severely cut off imports from Europe. Every year, the states making up the Confederacy required 6 million bushels of salt, over half of which was imported. Before the war, salt sold for 50 cents a bushel (sack) off the ships at New Orleans; it sold for $25 per bushel in Savannah in January 1862. By October of that year, it was selling for $140 per bushel in Atlanta. Production of salt became so important that if you worked in a salt works, it meant an exemption from conscription into the Confederate Army.

While some salt was produced along the coasts of many of the southern states, its remote coastline made Florida the ideal place for this enterprise. Salt production was particularly prolific along Florida’s Gulf coast, and a large number of Confederate salt works were established, where sources of saltwater and wood (for stoking fires) were abundant. It eventually became a major task of the Union Navy blockaders to locate and destroy these works, much of this responsibility falling to the East Gulf Blockading Squadron, responsible for most of the Florida Gulf coast. As runner after runner was captured and its cargo examined, the USN blockaders almost always found salt in the cargoes. This led the Squadron command to realize that crippling the supply of salt, both brought in by runners and produced locally, would be a major strategic blow to the Confederacy.

The "Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies" contains a wealth of reports on raids on Gulf Coast salt works during the war. I will be posting updates on significant raids on the appropriate CWN 150 dates as we hit those in the coming years. Stay tuned !!

A good overall summary of the Union raids on salt works is by my USS Ft. Henry shipmate Marine Sgt. Dave Ekardt on the Naval and Marine Living History web site at:

Thursday, February 2, 2012

CSS Nashville in England

The second Confederate commerce raider to put to sea was the steamer CSS Nashville. It was a problematic cruise and not nearly as successful as Sumter's.  Under the command of Lieutenant Robert Pegram, Nashville made a dash out of Charleston to Bermuda in October 1861. She had to remain in Bermuda until November to repair damages after striking a reef in Charleston Harbor.  After leaving Bermuda, the ship headed east towards England. She found the clipper ship Harvey Birch and burned her.  It was the only capture of the eastward journey.  High seas severely damaged the upper deck, washing away the wheelhouse a portion of the hurricane deck.  She arrived in Southampton, England, battered and bruised, on November 21.

The stay in Southampton was not a happy one. British authorities refused any assistance beyond fixing Nashville enough to get her back to sea. Unknown arsonists then attempted to torch the ship while she was in dry dock. Finally, the steam sloop USS Tuscarora arrived in Southampton with the express intent of engaging and capturing Nashville (image at right is Nashville at Southampton with Tuscarora in the background).

USS Tuscarora as depicted in the London Illustrated News

Fortunately for for Pegram, the British did not play favorites.  They informed Tuscarora's commanding officer, Commander Tunis Augustus Macdonough Craven, that he would have to wait a full twenty-four hours after Nashville left before his ship could leave.  With the steam frigate HMS Shannon standing a close watch next to Tuscarora, Pegram put to sea on February 3.  Nashville steamed west towards Bermuda.