Tuesday, February 26, 2013

CSS Florida Catches the Big One

When CSS Florida successfully made her break from Mobile, she headed towards Havana, where she captured one small vessel in the process.  After refueling in port, Florida headed back out to sea and captured two more vessels before steering east to Nassau, Bahamas.

Upon leaving Nassau, Captain John Maffitt's intentions were to take the war directly to Yankee merchants in New England waters.  This was a risky proposition at best, as the U.S. Navy established routine patrols in the Grand Banks after Alabama's Gulf Stream raids. There was also the risk of steaming right into the heavy traffic areas of Cape Hatteras and the Virginia Capes.  Maffitt understood the only way the southern guerre de course strategy would work was if the northern merchant class saw their property destroyed up close.  

As Florida approached Cape Hatteras, the cruiser encountered a major storm.  Maffitt attempted to tough it out, but eventually ordered a retreat back south towards the West Indies.  His decision paid off in a big way. After fooling what he believed to be the large steam warship USS Vanderbilt, a watch spotted a large sailing vessel on the morning of 12 February.   The cruiser sighted, chased, and overtook the New York-based ship off the coast of Puerto Rico. Owned by Abiel Abbow Low and Brothers, Jacob Bell was one of four well-designed clipper ships Low used to import black tea (and occasionally opium) directly from the Chinese port of Foochoo. 

Maffitt reported that Jacob Bell had over 17,000 cases of tea in her hold, valued at over $1.5 million (1863 dollars). Along with six boxes of coffee, Maffitt kept fifteen cases and had the rest burned.  He forwarded the captured tea and coffee to Richmond aboard the blockade runner Robert E. Lee.  Maffitt expressly requested that the tea and coffee be distributed to soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia. There are two excellent account of the captures.  One is from Maffitt's official report.  The other is from Jacob Bell's vantage point in the book, written by the wife of ambassador to China.  She was coming home from China when Florida stopped her ship.  Needless to say, she and Maffitt had words.  However, by the time Maffitt found a neutral ship to off load his "guests," Mrs. Williams and Maffitt left on good terms. 

Artifacts from this capture can be seen at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Ironclads on the Georgia Coast - Destruction of the CSS Rattlesnake

Blockade runner CSS Nashville; converted into the commerce raider CSS Rattlesnake

After two attempts by the ironclad monitor gunboat USS Montauk to destroy/defeat the Confederate fortification Ft. McAllister near the mouth of the Ogeechee River, Georgia, Montauk Capt. John Worden and his squadron commander, Adm. DuPont, took stock of what their next move would be. The next move by the Confederates helped with this decision. The evening of 27 February 1863, the former blockade runner/now commerce raider CSS Nashville (re-named CSS Rattlesnake) slipped downriver from her mooring above Ft. McAllister, hoping to evade the USN blockaders in Ossabaw Sound in the dark of night. Her captain evidently felt the time was not right, and he turned around and headed back up the Ogeechee to his protected mooring site. In a great stroke of misfortune, Rattlesnake ran aground on a shallow bar in the river, near the fort. A tug was sent down and desperate attempts were made to free the trapped ship. If “bad luck brings bad luck,” this would be it, because the Union Navy found out about the trapped raider that very night.

The morning of 28 February, Worden headed upriver with the Montauk and three wooden gunboats. The gun crews in Ft. McAllister tried their best to fend off the ironclad, but knew that she was resistant to their shot, and the other gunboats remained out-of-range. Worden opened fire on the trapped Confederate ship, and after only a few well-placed shots it was evident she was doomed. Rattlesnake caught fire, and eventually blew up when the flames reached the powder magazine. The whole affair was over in little more than an hour, and the Admiral now had one less thing to worry about. In his report to DuPont relating the incident, Worden wrote exultantly:

“I beg leave, therefore, to congratulate you, sir, upon this final disposition of a vessel which has so long been in the minds of the public . . .”

The triumphant Montauk backed out and started to head downstream, accompanied by the cheers of her gunboat consorts; then the Confederates got their revenge. Montauk struck one of the torpedoes placed in the river, which blew a gash in the iron hull of the warship. At first it appeared the pumps could keep up with the flooding, but Worden’s engineers soon told him that the ship was taking on water fast. He headed toward a shallow shoal area, fortunately out of range of the fort’s guns, and beached the monitor. The crew effected a temporary repair, and the Montauk was ultimately able to make it out and return to Port Royal for repairs and refitting.

Destruction of the CSS Nashville/Rattlesnake by gunfire from USS Montauk. Ft. McAllister in the center-background. Image sources:  Naval History and Heritage Command.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Presidents' Day: Lincoln Remembered

Abraham Lincoln, The Martyr, Victorious by John Sartain
I had a hard time composing a blog post about Abraham Lincoln and Presidents' Day this morning.  Sipping my coffee, I looked through several books, hoping to find a few inspirational quotes or anecdotes about Lincoln and the role of the United States Navy.

I found them.  The quotes were great.  It was shaping up to be a great blog post.  When I got to the blogger document to compose, I froze.  Something wasn't sitting.  The problem was, most of the quotes I sifted through were all too familiar.  Either paired in small sections on the navies or wordy introductions, the stories seem to overlap over time.

His close relationship with his naval officers.  The setup of the Atlantic blockade.  Several award-winning books are published on Lincoln's relationship with the Navy.   How many times can we include his speech about "Uncle Sam's web-feet" without it becoming dry and overused?

Unsatisfied, I stared at a blank blog page for twenty minutes.  The writing cursor blinked on the screen, laughing at me.  Frustrated (and admittedly waking up), I resorted to scour the Internet to see anything newly  published.  After an unsuccessful search on some scholarly websites, I throttled back and searched the web to see what the general public had to say.  One of the top hits about Lincoln and the U.S. Navy (after sifting through Wikipedia and the usual .org's) was a simple question from an answer-based website:

I wasn't alarmed by this.  After all, it's a question often asked.   I thought of the first time I stared at a blank screen.  It was December 29, 2009 - the first blog post ever written for the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial.

Staring at that screen over three years ago, I asked the same question:  Why did Lincoln use the Navy?  Why is this important to the narrative of sesquicentennial remembrance?  Today above all others, why does Lincoln's memory hold more permanence than ever?  They say the easiest questions asked are the hardest to answer.  Perhaps there is some truth in that.

Today, we honor the men who stood resolute to foreign powers abroad and political and social change at home.  It is too easy for us to look back and judge these men by their actions.  Lincoln is not around today to tell us his introspective thoughts on the U.S. Navy, or the trials and tribulations faced by so many who gave all so some could go free.  Unfortunately, some of these stock quotes are all we have.

Today is the perfect day to reflect not on what Lincoln said, but what he did instead.  His words would be meaningless today if there was not decisive action backed behind them.  Not everyone agrees which presidents did their job to their best ability.  What we all can agree on is the impact Lincoln had for the United States and the advancement of today's greatest Navy.  

As long as people keeping asking questions, we still have plenty of work to do.  As Uncle Sam's "web-feet" should not be forgotten, nor should Lincoln.  

Full speed ahead,

Matthew T. Eng

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"What ship is that?" CSS Alabama Strikes, Sinks USS Hatteras

CSS Alabama continued her cruise west across the Gulf of Mexico, reaching its western edge by mid January 1863.  Captain Raphael Semmes received reports that Galveston, Texas was taken by Union forces (see "War on the Periphery.") Even though his information was several weeks out of date, he decided that he would liberate the Texas port from Yankee control. In doing so, he changed Alabama's modus operandi from commerce raiding to direct combat.  It is not clear why he decided to take such an aggressive and risky action, as Semmes did not give a detail explanation in his autobiography or official reports. He was unaware that local Texas forces already succeeded in reopening the port by chasing off local blockading forces.  He also did not know that Farragut quickly reestablished the blockade with a squadron of ships headed up by the mighty sloop-of-war USS Brooklyn.  As Alabama approached Galveston, watches spotted several warships on blockading stations. While he pondered whether to attack or not, Semmes got lucky.  The U.S. Navy sent a ship towards him.

On the Union side, watches spotted an unknown vessel several miles to the south at 3:30 in the afternoon.  Thinking it to be another blockade runner,  Commodore Bell dispatched the paddle steamer USS Hatteras under the command of Lieutenant Commander Homer C. Blake to investigate.  It was 7:00 in the evening when Hatteras reached the unknown vessel.  As was standard protocol when two ships approached each other, Blake call out "What ship is that?"

Upon hearing the reply "Her Majesty's Ship Vixen" (some heard  the name "Petrel"), Bell put a small boat in the water with a boarding party to investigate.  As soon as the small boat hit the water, one of Alabama's officers announced "We are the Confederate steamer Alabama!" and opened fire on Hatteras.  With two heavy guns, Alabama outgunned Hatteras' meager battery of 32-pounders. With the element of surprise, action was short and decisive. 

One of Alabama's guns put shots into Hatteras' hull, which caused the gunboat to take on water and sink.  Bell put up the white flag and ordered all hands to abandon ship.  Causalities from the battle were light. Two of Hatteras' firemen, both recent Irish immigrants, died when one of Alabama's shots hit the engine room.  The rest of Hatteras' company was saved by Alabama except for the sailors in the small boat that deployed right before the battle.  Seeing Hatteras defeated, those men quietly drifted away from Alabama, before rowing back to the Galveston blockade.  Brooklyn later picked up the wayward boarding team and saw the remains of Hatteras sink.  Thus, in the course of one month, the U.S. Navy lost three ships (Hatteras, Harriet Lane, and Westover) off the coast of Galveston to Confederate forces. Meanwhile, Alabama slipped away and headed towards Jamaica.

sonar of Hatteras
A three dimensional sonar image of the remains of
USS Hatteras (NOAA picture)
The Hatteras wreck site is currently under Federal protection and has been the subject of groundbreaking court decisions.  In Hatteras Inc. v. USS Hatteras, Federal courts ruled that salvages can not claim U.S. Navy, Confederate States Navy, or any other government ship in American waters, simply on the fact that government authorities have not made an attempt to salvage the ship.  The opinion has led Congress to pass several laws, namely the Sunken Military Craft Act, to protect government-owned ship wrecks in American waters.

NOAA has since surveyed the wreck site with three dimensional sonar, released several images of the wreck site: http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/news/press/2013/pr011113.html#photo

Monday, February 11, 2013

African American Sailors of the Civil War Navy

February is African American History Month.  The celebration commemorates the many achievements of figures throughout the experience of the African diaspora.  It is a time to honor and reflect on the struggle faced by countless men and women over the last four hundred years.  Today, we remember those who had a voice, and others who did not.

Over the past two years, blog posts written about African American sailors included those individuals often featured in Civil War historiography.  More often than not, specific names pop up when discussing the role they played in the Union Navy.

On the website "Real African American Heroes,"  their list of notable figures includes a majority of Black Medal of Honor winners:  Robert Blake, William H. Brown, Wilson Brown, John Lawson, James Mifflin, and Joachim Pease.  The official NHHC website offers several other notable additions, including Robert Smalls, William Tilghman, and Aaron Anderson.  Although these men served "above and beyond the call of duty" during the war, they represent only a small fraction of the thousands of Black sailors who fought and died beside them.  Nearly two years into the sesquicentennial, have these familiar stories become familiar?  

Monuments are erected around the country to honor individual units, regiments, and divisions of soldiers.  Sailors of the United States Navy did not have this luxury, as their "battle flag" was universal: the Naval Jack and Ensign (United States Flag).  Any monument or statue commemorating their role is relegated to specific individuals, such as Robert Smalls in Beaufort, SC.   The story of the ship's crew will undoubtedly stay that way.  As certain ships like the Monitor and Hunley receive more attention than others today, many individuals like those listed above will likely do the same.

Many of the images used to show Black sailors of the Civil War have also become repetitive.  Think about the collection of images describing Black sailors in the war.  A select few will stand likely out in your mind:  Siah Carter on the deck of the USS Monitor; crews on the decks of the Hunchback and Miami; "Kroomen" aboard the Sacramento.  The list goes on.  These images, frequently used in on book covers and program announcements, are branded in the minds of Civil War enthusiasts today.  

Other problems deal with depiction.  How can you actively depict a sailor when  no image exists?  The posters produced by the Navy in the 1970s are drawn from whatever scant accounts of the individual survived the war.  Some are better than others, while others show a poor depiction of the individual or their actions.  This is clearly shown in Medal of Honor winner Joachim Pease's poster shown below.

How can you depict the story of the African American sailor if no written documentation exists?  Besides the specific sailors listed above, one must take the story of the collective over the individual.  In many cases, it all comes back to the amount of documentation present in the historic record.  

Unfortunately, much of that documentation does not exist.  Much of their memory is preserved today in commentary or correspondence between flag officers and government officials.  The Federal Writers project did not come around to capture oral histories until the New Deal era, when many of these sailors were already deceased.  There is no time machine to go back and take more pictures or record oral histories of crew members.  It is simply not there.  We must go by what we have.  

Perhaps that is the beauty of history; taking the mass of photographs and accounts that survived the war and turning it into a narrative of history and heritage.  This is an ongoing project for CWN 150 staff and historians everywhere.  It is more important than ever to keep the memory alive of these men who fought one hundred and fifty years ago.

Share your thoughts with the CWN 150 staff here on the blog or on Twitter: @civilwarnavy.  Let us know what you would like for us to highlight this month on the CWN 150 blog.