Monday, December 31, 2012

The Loss of USS Monitor/Rhode Island's Rescue, December 31, 1862

On the evening of January 3, 1863, Acting Rear Admiral Sydney Phillips Lee, commanding officer of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, dictated a telegram to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles.  As it was a telegram and not a hand written letter, Lee wrote a very matter-of-fact note that lacked any sort of emotional loss.

"Fort Monroe, VA., January 3, 1863

USS Rhode Island's Ordinary Seaman
John Jones was a member of the ship's
rescue teams. After saving several
of Monitor's sailors, his cutter
was blown out to sea.  After riding out
gale force winds for several hours,
a passing schooner saved them.
The Navy latter awarded Jones the
Medal of Honor. 
  The State of Georgia reports that the Monitor foundered on Tuesday night south of Cape Hatteras, with the loss of two officers and twenty-eight men (names not received) belonging to Monitor or Rhode Island or to both.  The Passaic is at Beaufort; all reports received will be mail to-day."

By 9:30 p.m., Welles received the preliminary report of what happened to Monitor.  Namely, after several hours fine weather, squalls hit Monitor and the steamer Rhode Island, which had the ironclad in tow. He also received a more detailed report of causalities: sixteen men loss from Monitor's company and  eight men from Rhode Island, who drowned during the rescue mission. 

Upon seeing Monitor in trouble, Rhode Island's commanding officer immediately ordered all of his ships' small boats to put into the water.  One of Rhode Island's officers, Acting Master's Mate D. Rodney Browne and his team, made three trips between the two ships.  It was on the third trip that a squall turned the cutter over and they were all believed to be lost.

A few days later, the Acting Master Mate Browne and his team turned up alive.  Their boat had not tipped over as suspected, but rather blown out to sea.  The sailors roughed out in the heavy seas for 24 hours, before a passing leaky schooner operating under an Army contract called A. Colby picked them up.  Unfortunately, the schooner ran aground at Diamond Shoals. Good fortune continued, however, as the gunboat USS Miami saw the schooner's distress signal and towed it into Beaufort. Due to men like Browne, many of Monitor's sailors were saved.

 When Lee had time to digest the loss, he composed a hand written note to Welles that started with the words "Sir: I have the painful duty to perform of reporting the loss of the Monitor at sea..."  Lee's compilation of reports of all ships involved on the lost can be read here.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Preparing for Vicksburg: The Importance of Controlling the Yazoo River

In the latter days of 1862, Admiral David Porter, General William Sherman, and their respective subordinates produced a mountain of paperwork.  The paperwork included orders, requests for guidance and information, and plans related to the fortress town of Vicksburg, Mississippi.  

One factor to a successful conclusion to any Vicksburg campaign was having officers of both services agree on the importance of controlling the Yazoo River.  This meant that Yazoo had to be completely clear of enemy ground forces, ships, and torpedoes.  

Around this time, U.S. Army cartographers produced two maps of the area that show why Porter, Sherman, and Grant placed such high value on the river.  In order for Union ground forces to approach Vicksburg and be supplied from the north, the Yazoo River had to be under the U.S. Navy's complete control.  (Note: Modern day maps of  Vicksburg are extremely misleading, as the course of the Yazoo has been shifted to the south since the war ended.)  
December 1862 Map-The Yazoo River (on the left) and its relation to Vicksburg (lower right)

January 5 1863 Map of Vicksburg and the surrounding country side and rivers.  The Yazoo River at the time
emptied in to Mississippi west of Vicksburg and flowed from north to southwest.  

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

USS Cairo Strikes a Torpedo: December 12, 1862

Sketch by Rear Admiral Henry Walke of Cairo hitting the mine.  The image is incorrect in the
 respect that the mine exploded on Cairo's port side and not the starboard.
Early on the morning of December 11, 1862, Captain Henry Walke deployed two wooden gunboats, USS Marmora and Signal, to conduct a reconnaissance of the Yazoo River.  When both ships returned, their commanding officers reported that Confederate operatives had sewed numerous torpedoes (i.e. underwater mines) in the river.  The two men also informed Walke that they could sweep and clear the river if heavier ships provided cover fire against Confederate snipers hiding along its banks.  Walke agreed and assigned the ironclads USS Cairo and Pittsburgh and the ram Queen of the West to assist.  He gave strict orders that all ships were to stay out of the main channel of the river, as Marmora and Signal were to clear mines with small boats.  Bigger ships had to stay well behind during this process.
A sketch of one of the torpedoes/mines/"infernal machines,"
discovered by Ensign Fentress' mine clearing team. 
Part "C" contained the charge and Part "D" and "E" were
contact wires that set it off. 

The mine sweeping operation began early the next morning with Marmora and Signal leading the way.  At 11 a.m., watches aboard Marmora spotted a mine and proceed to render it inert.    After that, the story line becomes muddy.  Ensign Walter Fentress of Maromora later reported that his team was in the process of clearing the mine when he "heard an explosion from the Cairo, and on looking up I saw her anchor thrown up several feet into the air."

Lieutenant Commander Thomas Selfridge, late executive officer of USS Cumberland and now commanding officer of Cairo, reported that he believed Marmora was under attack by Confederate soldiers and rushed from the back of the squadron's formation to assist.  Upon discovering the gunfire was Marmora's crew attempting to blow up mines with gunfire, Selfridge ordered them to stop and Cairo would assist with small boats.  One minute later, "two sudden explosions in quick succession occurred." 

The ship slowly sank with no human causalities.  The ship's company transferred to 

Contemporary sketch of Cairo's
sailors sitting on the remains
of their ship. 
Queen of the West.  Twelve minutes after the explosion, Cairo sank beneath the surface and into the history books (she was the first armored warship sunk by an underwater mine).  After the ironclad sank, Selfridge ordered Pittsburg and Queen of the West to open fire on the woods along the river. Each ship fired about sixty shells into the woods and stopped.  There was no return fire and it is possible there were no Confederate troops present.  Meanwhile Maromora and Signal continued to sweep for mines and removed twenty before Selfridge ordered a retreat. 

Selfridge claimed that he believed that any part of the river Marmora passed through must have had no mines.  Thus, he ordered Cairo forward from the rear of the squadron's formation (against Walke's standing orders).  In his autobiography, What Finer Tradition, Selfridge only briefly mentions the incident.

U.S. Army Captain Edwin Sutherland, commanding officer of Queen of the West, provided insight into why Selfridge was so quick to have historians move along and ignore the incident. Sutherland reported to Walke that Cairo came along side Queen of the West and was asked why the ram stopped moving.  Sutherland replied that Marmora reported torpedoes ahead.  He then reported that not only did Cairo still go forward, but the ironclad entered the river's main channel (again, against Walke's standing order).

No charges or court-marital were ever filed against Selfridge.  In fact, Selfridge continued to have Porter's confidence and found Selfridge another ship to command (which he later ran aground).  The remains of Cairo can be seen in an outdoor exhibit as part of the National Park Service's Vicksburg National Military Park.

National Park Service photo of Cairo's remains

Friday, December 7, 2012

CSS Alabama Searches for California Gold, December 1862

In late November 1862, Raphael Semmes ordered CSS Alabama to steam southwest toward Cuba.  He was purposely looking to intercept steamships collectively known as the "California line."  These American-flagged steamers traveled between the port of Aspinwall (now known as Colon)--on the Atlantic side of Panama--to New York, often loaded with gold mined in California. Thus, Semmes planned to capture both Yankee merchant ships and a pirate's bounty of treasure.  He later recalled, "A million or so of dollars in gold would materially aid me, in my operations upon the sea.  I could purchase several more Alabamas, to develop the 'nautical enterprise' of our people, and assist me to scourge the enemy's commerce."

The California line vessels took two routes: one went to the west of Cuba and one that went south of Haiti.  Semmes chose to monitor the latter route, which was more heavily traveled.  He parked Alabama about 100 miles southwest of the city of St. Domingo and waited.  Several ships came in Alabama's direction, but only one, a merchant ship called Parker Cooke, was a legal target, and it did not have gold.  Semmes ordered her burned and moved on.  He was about to give up when Alabama's officer of the deck informed his captain that watches spotted another ship. 

After seeing Semmes' Confederate flag, the American steamer, a Vanderbilt-owned vessel called Ariel, tried to make a break for it.  Semmes ordered the forward pivot weapon--which Semmes referred to as his "persuader"--to fire a blank round.  The steamer stopped and he heard women screaming from the other ship.  The screaming turned out to be a precursor to his disappointment.  Hoping for gold, Semmes instead found 500 women and children.  His boarding team also found 150 U.S. Marines bound for the Pacific Squadron.  The Marines' weapons were confiscated and they surrendered without a fight.  It was not one of the prouder moments in the Corps' history.

Normally, Semmes would take the civilians on board and burn the enemy vessel.  But Alabama had no room for 650 people.  Thus, forty-eight hours later, he released the ship.  Before he released Ariel, one of Semmes' junior officers asked to speak to the ladies as a group.  In his speech, he attempted to persuade the ladies that Alabama's sailors were not cutthroat pirates.  Apparently, one of the ladies was so moved by the speech that she asked the lieutenant if she could cut a button from his jacket.  The boarding officer agreed.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Ambush on the St. Johns River

The dock and hotel at Magnolia Springs, Florida, probably after the Civil War. Source: Florida Dept. of State photo archives:

In his report to the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron on 3 December 1862, Cdr. Maxwell Woodhull of the gunboat USS Cimarron describes meeting in early October with a “Mr. Benedict” at his hotel/resort at Magnolia Springs (also called ‘Magnolia’), on the St. Johns River, Florida. Woodhull described the hotel as:

“. . . a splendid three-story hotel, covering a large space of ground, surrounded by quite a number of beautiful cottage residences (part of the establishment). It all belongs to this Mr. Benedict, and has been a favorite winter resort in past years for invalids from the north. The property is very valuable and no expense has been spared, apparently, to make it an agreeable place of sojourn.”

At this meeting, Mr. Benedict expressed his desire that the US Navy assist in evacuating his son to the north to escape the Confederate conscription (Army draft). Several weeks afterward, Woodhull sent the steam gunboat USS Uncas on a patrol up the St. Johns River, and directed her commander, Acting Master W. M. Watson, to stop by the Magnolia Springs Hotel and meet with Benedict. Arriving off the hotel on 28 November, Watson dispatched a shore party that met Benedict at the river end of the hotel’s dock (described by Woodhull as “nearly 300 yards in length” – typical of docks on the river today. There is a very broad shoal of very shallow water along the shoreline of the river in much of this reach).

Benedict told the officer commanding the landing party that he no longer wished to send his son north, but he requested that they go ashore with him to receive some mail he wanted sent north. As the sailors, accompanied by the southern man, approached the shoreline end of the dock, Benedict suddenly jumped underneath the structure. A group of Confederates in hiding (numbered at 50 men) opened fire on the landing party; it was a trap, and the Union bluejackets found themselves in an ambush. Amazingly, none were hit by the gunfire. They retreated back down the dock “in good order”, under fire the entire time. When they were safely back in the ship’s boat (and out of the line-of-fire), Watson had the Uncas open fire on the shore, pounding the attackers with shellfire. The landing party re-boarded the ship with no casualties.

After summarizing Capt. Watson’s report, Woodhull wrote in his 3 December dispatch:

I extremely regret that at the time of the above occurrence, he (Watson) had not there and then destroyed everything within the range of his guns, which would have been the proper punishment for such barefaced treachery. I indeed was much inclined to proceed up myself next morning and retaliate with fire . . .”

However, Woodhull deferred on this and reported the incident to Rear Adm. S. F. DuPont to await his orders.

A post-war (1884) navigation map of the St. Johns River is on the NOAA Historical Maps site that Gordon brought to our attention back in March on this very blog. The area that is the subject of this post is on the west (left) bank of the river in the upper left quarter of the map, north of Green Cove Springs. The area is labeled as “Magnolia”. If you zoom in on this area, you can see a dock projecting from the shoreline, which is probably the hotel’s dock, since it remained in business for at least a few decades after the war.