Monday, October 29, 2012

Counter-Insurgency Operations on the Upper Mississippi, October 1862

Confederate partisan activity was not limited to Louisiana.  Wherever there was a Union incursion into the Mississippi River, Confederate partisans made themselves present, harassing Union shipping.  These insurgent operations became particularly acute in the Upper Mississippi region, an area allegedly secured earlier by U.S. Naval victories.  At the time, however, civilian shipping was being seized.   Writing to Secretary Welles, Acting Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter suspected that insurgents were secretly supplied from Confederate sympathizers in St. Louis. "The war would never end this way," he commended. 

Thus, Porter developed a three part plan to clear the area of partisans. 

1) What would be later be called in the Vietnam War a "free fire zone," Porter accounted that civilian shipping would only be allowed to dock at authorized points of the river.  Any ship found in an unauthorized landing area would be considered hostile and subject to seizure and arrest. 

2) Ships would be placed at certain locations along the river that were known to be partisan hot spots to keep them clear.  Porter admitted on this part of the plan, "I find it very difficult to comply in all causes with such demands of the squadron."

3) He used the "City"-type ironclads with armed landing parties to conduct raids against suspected partisan strongholds.  He instructed that any partisan found not be treated as a prisoner-of-war and that the partisans be punished ten fold for any stolen property found of them. 

USS Louisville
The ship's company of USS Baron DeKalb carried out one of the first raids under Porter's plan.  The ironclad docked at Hopefield, Arkansas (now called West Memphis) and twenty-five men under the command of DeKalb's carpenter (which was a warrant officer rank in the 19th century Navy) landed.  They "procured" horses from the locals and pursed ten partisans for nine miles in a dramatic running battle. The sailors eventually captured the partisans.  It is not known what was done to them.

USS Louisville carried a similar raid a short time later in relation for an incident aboard the steamer Gladiator, north of Helena, Arkansas.  Earlier, partisans captured the ship and allegedly shot several of the passengers.  Reinforced by 300 soldiers from 11th and 24th Indiana, Lieutenant Commander Meade (nephew of the Army of the Potomac general) led a detachment of sailors in pursuit of the partisans.  These partisans, however, successfully eluded Meade's force.  Either out of frustration or part of a longer term plan, Meade order his men to burn down every house and field with a two mile area.

Partisans continued their raids, in some cases as far up as the Ohio River. The Mississippi River Squadron likewise continued their's.  Porter concluded that this type of aggressive counter-insurgency was necessary.  He wrote, "This is the only way of putting a stop to the guerrilla warfare, and though this method is stringent, officers are instructed to put it down at all hazards."

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Battle of St. Johns Bluff Living History Weekend Recap

Since 2007, the Ft. Caroline National Monument in Jacksonville has hosted a Civil War Living History event to commemorate the actions of Union and Confederate military forces in the area during the war and the conditions endured by the citizens of Jacksonville. In particular, the event recalls the actions between Union Navy and Army forces and a Confederate Battery constructed on St. Johns Bluff (adjacent to the National Monument) in the late summer of 1862. This year we celebrated the fifth anniversary of this Living History event and the 150th Anniversary of the St. Johns Bluff engagement. I have profiled the Naval portions of this engagement in posts on Sept. 9, Sept. 16, and Sept. 29.

October 20; Day 1. The day dawned cool, with the first real touch of fall in northeast Florida. Present were Army units representing those which occupied Jacksonville during the war, and which participated in the final assault on the St. Johns Bluff battery, folks with the Port Columbus Museum of Civil War Naval History, representing the USS Water Witch, which was a participating gunboat in some of the St. Johns Bluff actions, Army medical and engineer units, and folks representing the civilian population in Jacksonville during the war. We had a pretty good public turn-out (the National Monument folks recorded 1,000 visitors that day), which I thought was a decent turnout, since we had some competition from another Navy group; the Blue Angels were doing an airshow at the "beaches" area right next to us along the coast. I talked to a bunch of folks about the U.S. Navy's involvement on the St. Johns River during the CW.

The USS Water Witch/Port Columbus Camp:

Dahlgren boat howitzer at dawn; ready to do its deadly work:

October 21, Day 2. Things dawned even a bit chillier this morning. Yesterday I wore my summer white frock over blue trousers, but today donned wool winter blue frock with by blue trousers. Spectator turn-out was a bit lighter, especially in the morning, which I have learned is typical for Sunday mornings at many events. Things picked up a bit in the afternoon, but turn-out was lighter today than yesterday. Still had some good interaction. One thing I have added to my display is a rack with a couple of "single sticks" used for cutlass drill. I typically engage young men (but sometimes also young ladies) in the drill when they stop to ask questions. This is a huge hit, not only with the kids but also with their parents who get tons of "Kodak moment" photos.

An old tar in his camp:

Civilians representing the Jacksonville population during the CW:

Thursday, October 18, 2012

U.S. Naval Cowboys on the Mississippi-October 1862

In 19th century American history, the long range cattle drive is one of the great icons of the era.  One such drive of 1,500 head of cattle started in Texas in early August 1862.  The Confederate Army purchased the herd and directed the drovers to take the cattle to Camp Moore, the headquarters for local Confederate ground troops in Louisiana.  The drovers succeeded in overcoming the biggest geographic obstacle when they moved the herd across the Mississippi River at Plaquemine, Louisiana.  Here the drovers could finally rest while they waited at the local depot for the New River Railroad to take the herd the rest of the way.

USS Katahdin, one of the four gunboats that seized 1,500 head of cattle
It was then quite unfortunate for the drovers that a U.S. Navy squadron consisting of USS Kineo, Sciota, Katahdin, and Itasca (all "90-day" gunboat-type warships) happened to spot the herd during a patrol.  The squadron's commander, Lieutenant-Commander George Ransom, found Confederate Army purchase orders among the drovers' papers and declared the herd contraband property. 

Ransom, however, was unsure what to do with the cattle, as this was not the usual type of property Naval officers would condemn and send to a prize court for adjudication. He thought about destroying the herd, but then decided that 1,500 head of cattle was extremely valuable and worth saving.  He had to act quickly, as Confederate partisans were extremely active.
Lieutenant Commander
George Ransom, USN

Ransom decided to keep the herd and sent one ship to New Orleans to retrieve five Army transports.  Upon retrieving the ships, Ransom hired several African American men on the spot to help load the herd.  The loading started at 2:30 in the morning on October 3rd.  By noon the next day, 1,300 cattle had been loaded. The rest were considered too wild and the commander instructed his African American labor force to drive the rest south to Donaldsville on the eastern shore of the river.  He assigned Katahdin and Itasaca to stay with this part of the herd at all times.

 The rest of Ransom's gunboats and transports convoyed south towards New Orleans.  As the flotilla approached Donaldsville, Confederate partisans attacked with four batteries of horse artillery.  The squadron returned fire with their XI-inch Dahlgrens and 20-pounder Parrot Rifles.  After a few hours of fighting, the partisans called off their attack.  While the convoy rolled on, the partisans' artillery did cause a significant number of causalities, including the executive officer of Sciota who had a cannon ball bounce off his hip and then exploded on his right hand.  He died two hours later.  His last words to his captain were "Tell my mother I tried to be a good man."

By October 10, the convoy and the 1,300 head of cattle got through to New Orleans. A few days later, Katadhin and Itasca successfully escorted the other 200 to safety. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Playing With Fire off the Cuban Coast, October 1862

A route frequently used by Anglo-Confederate blockade runners went from Matamoros, Mexico to Havana, Cuba, ending at Mobile, Alabama.  The ships would pick up Texas cotton in Matamoros shipped across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas. They would then steam east towards the Cuban coast, hug the coastline as close as possible, and then enter the friendly, Spanish-controlled port of Havana.  From Havana, the ships would pick up guns, ammunition, and other manufactured goods and make a run towards Mobile.

Commander Charles S. Hunter oversaw the converted merchant steamer USS Montgomery, which patrolled off the coast of Havana.  One ship in particular Hunter was on the look out for was the blockade runner General Rusk (sometimes referred to as Blanche).  The ship already navigated the Matamoros-Havana-Mobile run six times. 

On the seventh attempt, one of Montgomery's watches spotted her trying to enter Havana with 569 bales of cotton (retail price of $142,000 on the English market).   Unfortunately, General Rusk's captain misread his charts and ran aground.  The captain, believing that since he was in Spanish waters and flying a Spanish flag, thought he was safe.  He was not. 

Hunter was under the impression he had Admiral Farragut's personal endorsement to get this particular blockade runner by any means necessary.  U.S. Navy sailors from two of Montgomery's small boats formally captured General Rusk.  During the boarding master's interrogation of General Rusk's captain, the ship mysteriously caught on fire, forcing everyone off the boat.  Though he did not capture the ship, Hunter thought himself a hero for finally eliminating the elusive blockade runner. 

USS Montgomery, a converted steam merchant ship and
vessel of Commander Charles S. Hunter.
A week later,  watches spotted the blockade runner Caroline in the Gulf of Mexico.  Montgomery fired seventeen shots and struck Caroline twice, who stopped running after being hit. This capture was a bit more clear cut as the ship was carrying French muskets and ammunition.  She was also caring thirty-two five-gallon demijohns of Cuban rum.  Hunter felt "it was his moral duty" to get rid of the rum immediately.  He had his company open up all the bottles and pour the alcohol out.   

Caroline's master objected to being seized, stating he was, like General Rusk, a Spanish ship bounded for Matamoros.  Montgomery's boarding officer is to have replied, "I do not take you for running the blockade, but for your damned poor navigation. Any man bound for Matamoros from Havana and coming within twelve miles of Mobile light has no business to have a steamer."

Blockade runner Caroline, later USS Arizona
For the next several months, Hunter thought himself a "master hunter" of blockade runners, capturing one more and was waiting to chase CSS Florida.  That was until he received a court-marital summons.  While Hunter was crowing, the Spanish government threatened to declare war over Hunter's violation of its territorial waters by capturing and burning General Rusk.  Secretary of State Seward was forced to issue a formal apology and pay reparations of over $300,000.  While the court-martial board cleared him of charges military misconduct (for burning the ship), it found him guilty of violating neutral waters and removed him from service. 

Hunter's brother officers, including Farragut, believed Hunter was getting a raw deal and fought to have him reinstated.  But the  civilian authorises rejected their arguments.  Sixty years later, Admiral Albert Gleaves wrote a passionate defense of Hunter in the Proceedings of the Naval Institute.  Gleaves concluded, "do what is right, even when you know its wrong."

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Alabama's Gulf Stream Raid, October 3-15, 1862

Alabama burning the ship Brilliante and her $93,000 worth of grain off the coast of Nova Scotia
When CSS Alabama and her captain Raphel Semmes could find no more whaling ships to burn in the Azores, the cruiser steamed northwest towards Nova Scotia.  On October 1, 1862, Alabama reached a point approximately two hundred miles southeast of the island in the middle of the Gulf Stream.  Semmes knew the Gulf Stream served as a major highway for eastbound trans-Atlantic traffic.  He also knew that he was taking a risk by being there.  Not because of the possibility of a U.S. Naval warship, but rather the frequent storms that were stirred up by the Stream. 
Alabama capturing the ship Towawanda near Nova Scotia

Semmes'  knowledge of the American merchant marine paid off. Between October 3rd and 15th, Semmes encountered a dozen ships within a 200 mile area.  Fortunately for Semmes, none of them were warships.  His boarding teams searched every one of them, releasing six.  As for the other six, Semmes judged them to be lawful prizes and seized them.  Among the cargo discovered by the boarding teams was large amounts of grain. On one ship alone, the ship Brilliante, the team discovered and burned $93,000 (1862 dollars) worth of wheat and flour.  

Northern merchant cargo was not the only thing the teams discovered.  A year before, several sailors from CSS Sumter (Semmes' first ship) had deserted.  It pleased Semmes mightily when a boarding team discovered one of them serving on the captured merchant ship Dunkirk.  He immediately convened a court-marital which found him guilty.  Semmes forced the sailor to serve on Alabama without pay for the rest of the cruise.  The sailor was lucky, as Semmes considered hanging him.

Another person impressed into Semmes' service was an African American steward on the ship Tonawanda.  Upon discovering the steward was still legally a slave (being from Delaware), Semmes made him a steward on his ship. 

The October 5, 1862 edition of the New York Herald-.
 Semmes obtained a copy from a merchant ship and
gathered intelligence on U.S. Navy  ship movements.
Papers and documents were also among the items seized.  This included boxes of Bible tracts written in Portuguese from the American Tract Society and the New York Bible Society, which were being sent to American missionaries operating secretly in Portugal.  Semmes spoke very angrily both in his daily journal and memoir of service of the two Societies claiming the organizations were run by men whose "business it is to prey upon the credulity of kind-hearted American women and make a pretense of converting the heathen!"  He felt he was doing Portugal a great national service by intercepting the Biblical materials.

The second group of papers were newspapers, which Semmes found to be the perfect intelligence source.  After reading recent copies of the New York Times and New York Herald, Semmes knew the exact location of every U.S. Navy ship.  How? The papers printed a complete list (click on image at right).  Even Semmes was stunned by the inability of the U.S. Navy to keep secrets.  He commented, "Perhaps this was the only war in which the newspapers ever explained, before hand, all the movements of armies and fleets, to the enemy."

By October 16, the storms Semmes feared came upon his ship.  Having had a productive raid in waters so close to Yankee shores, the Alabama headed south. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

War on the Periphery-U.S. Naval Forces Capture Galveston, Texas

The port of Galveston, Texas represented the far western edge of Civil War Naval activity.  Before the war, the port did brisk business in the coastal cotton trade.  Dominated by the Morgan Lines shipping company, the port hosted upwards of 600 small ships a year, taking Texas cotton to New Orleans and bringing back manufactured goods. 

USRC Harriet Lane
When the war started, the U.S. Navy would occasionally send over one or two warships to blockade the port.  The presence of the ships caused anxiety among the locals that the city's defenses were inadequate.  They feared they would have to surrender without a fight if Union forces attacked.  Many Southern newspaper writers attempted to downplay local anxiety. Channelling the future Winston Churchill, one local writer stated, "That this city and island of Galveston will in case of an attack by an enemy, that every foot of soil will be contested, every acre of channel and harbor be struggled for, while over a hundred thousand can be rallied.  Galveston shall survive the shock and a monument to Texas valor."

On October 4, 1862, the local Confederate commander Colonel John J. Cook noticed eight ships off the coast of Galveston.  The ships were: USS Owasco, Westfield, Clifton, USRC Harriet Lane, and a few mortar schooners.  At 7 a.m., Harriet Lane approached the city under a flag of truce.  There was a delay in the Confederate response.  Namely, Cook could not find a suitable boat,which led to nervous Confederate gunners to open fire with older 24-pounder cannons at Harriett Lane.   Gunners on Owasco replied with a shell from the ship's XI-inch Dahlgren which bursted over the Confederate garrison.  The garrison quickly withdrew. 
USS Owasco

At 3:30 p.m., Commander William Renshaw, commanding officer of the U.S. Navy eight ship flotilla finally  got his formal demand of surrender delivered to Cook.  The colonel replied that he would surrender the city, but needed four days to evacuate.  Cook planned to not only withdraw all military units from the city, but all civilians as well.  Renshaw agreed.

After the evacuation was complete, Renshaw took over Galveston.  He informed Admiral Farragut that he needed more ground forces if the Union were to hold on to the port.  Farragut agreed in principle, but concluded that the Army would never provide the necessary resources.  As for the Confederates, Cook did not withdraw far.  His forces only went as far as Virginia Point on the other side of Galveston Bay.  Here, a garrison of 3,000 men took up positions.   

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Salt Works Raid at Cedar Key

Drawing of USS Ellen, a converted New York ferryboat; USS Somerset would likely have looked similar. Note that ship is firing on a target on shore, which the Somerset could have done with one of its IX inch Dahlgren smoothbores mounted in pivot fore and aft (as opposed to the 32 pdrs mounted in broadside):

In an initial post, I noted that a major task of the men and ships of the East Gulf Blockading Squadron was the location and destruction of Confederate salt works along the Florida Gulf coast. During the latter part of 1862, USS Tahoma (a 90-day gunboat) and USS Somerset (a converted New York ferryboat) patrolled the waters around Cedar Key, Florida. After receiving intelligence from escaped slaves that Confederate troops in the area had been withdrawn, and knowing of the existence and location of a sizable salt works on Depot Key, Lt. Cdr. Earl English brought his ship the Somerset close inshore on 4 October 1862 and began shelling the facility with the ship’s big guns. On seeing a white flag hoisted, he dispatched two ship’s boats under the command of Acting Master Dennison, his XO. When they landed, they approached a house over which the white flag flew with “several women”, which made the bluejackets hold their fire. Suddenly, Confederate troops in concealment opened fire on the landing party, wounding several sailors (two were subsequently described by the ship’s surgeon as “dangerously wounded”, four as “severely wounded” and two more as “slightly wounded”). The landing party returned fire “. . . killing and wounding several” of the defenders. Prior to withdrawing, the landing party “. . . destroyed several barrels of salt, a number of boats; captured one launch and a large flat.” and also apparently destroyed some of the salt works boilers (quotes from Lt. Cdr. English and Ship’s Surgeon reports in the “Official Records of the Navies”).

The Tahoma arrived on the scene later that day (Cdr. J.C. Howell, captain), and on 6 October, a large landing party (8 boats and about 111 men), armed with two Dahlgren boat howitzers, went ashore to the works. After deploying the howitzers and firing shell, shrapnel and canister into the works, driving off the Confederate defenders, the landing party spread out and began their destructive work. Cdr. Howell reported that a total of 50 to 60 salt boilers were destroyed (estimated by Lt. Cdr. English to produce 150 bushels of salt a day working around the clock), and all structures at the site were burned to the ground in retaliation for the ambush attack on the landing party on 4 October. As the USN forces withdrew to their ships, a train carrying Confederate reinforcements arrived at Cedar Key and the gray troops deployed and fired on the landing party with muskets, but by then the USN boats were out of range. No seamen or marines were killed or injured in this larger expedition.

Cdr. Howell sharply punctuated his after-action report to the East Gulf Squadron command by noting that “The rebels here needed a lesson and they have had it.” Officers of both ships were highly complementary of the conduct of their men during these raids. After reading the officers’ reports of this mission in the “Official Records”, it struck me that we don’t think of sailors dying in the war or being wounded tragically, like we so often do the CW soldiers. Yet reports like these, along with accounts of the engagements of Union Navy ships with Confederate forts and ships, such as on the Mississippi River and Mobile Bay, bring home vividly the fact that sailors were exposed to perils and death, and that many did die in combat during the war.

USS Tahoma:

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

CSS Virginia LEGO Ship Instructions Available for Download

Click on the above image to download the instructions (.pdf)

The wait is finally over!  As part of the new "Brick by Brick: LEGO Shipbuilding" initiative at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum/Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial, we have created FREE downloadable instructions to famous naval ships in American naval history.

Arguably one of the most famous ships during the American Civil War was the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia.  In her honor, we have created a model of that ship for you to build!  All you need to do is supply your own bricks, and start building.

This is just a taste of what will be offered both online and in the HRNM Gallery at next year's LEGO Shipbuilding Program.  We are firming up the date at the moment, but look to early next year for a day of fun, education, and naval history!  Make sure to come out to the event, as we will be offering QR codes of LEGO models not offered online.

The instruction will also be available on the HRNM website soon under: Resources --> Educational Resources --> LEGO Shipbuilding Instructions.

If you do build it, or want to modify it, send us the pictures via email at  We will post them on the blog and on the CWN 150 Facebook Page.  Any questions about next year's Lego Shipbuilding Program?  Contact Laura Orr at  Enjoy and happy building!  Stay tuned for more info and more ships.  Can you guess the next CWN 150 LEGO ship we offer?  Hint: It is in the HRNM Gallery!

- CWN 150