Thursday, June 27, 2013

Vicksburg Campaign-The Navy Shells Port Hudson From the River and Land

Farragut's squadron attempting to the run the guns at
Port Hudson and the destruction of USS Mississippi.
As we approach the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and the vast public interest in it, let us not forget the importance of Vicksburg.  Listen to the words of a Confederate Army engineer stationed in Vicksburg, Mississippi: "I am almost sorry to hear of Lee's progress Northward; for it looks as if the importance of Vicksburg were not understood.  What is Philadelphia to us if the Mississippi be lost?" 

Union  leaders in the West understood the importance of Vicksburg and spent considerable resources to take the town.  The "siege" of Vicksburg formally began on 18 May 1862 when Mayor L. Lindsay rejected the U.S. Navy's demand to surrender. Taking Vicksburg turned out to be more than just a simple assault.  It involved a complex process of controlling not only the Mississippi River, but its secondary rivers and nearby towns that guarded the river approaches. One of these towns near Vicksburg was Port Hudson, Louisiana.  The river town is strategically positioned on the Mississippi near the Red River.  Confederate forces used the Red River to bring supplies to Vicksburg from the west.  Thus, any encirclement of Vicksburg by Union ground forces was pointless unless Port Hudson was subdued.

The first major move on Port Hudson was to suppose to be a joint Army-Navy effort between Admiral David Farragut and Major General Nathaniel Banks.  However, Farragut grew tired of Banks' sluggish movements and delays. Since he took New Orleans with no ground forces, Farragut somewhat arrogantly believed he could push past Port Hudson and seize control of the Red River-Mississippi River junction with just his ships. 
Gunners from USS Richmond
prepare to fire the ship's forward
Parrott Rifle at Port Hudson

With USS Hartford in the lead, Farragut's seven ship squadron steamed up river in pairs with USS Mississippi bringing up the van of the squadron alone. The operation did not go well as all the seven ships ran aground as they attempted to hug the west bank of the river.  Hartford and Albatross got free and under the cover morning fog successfully passed the guns.  The other five were not so lucky as the wind blew away the fog.  Four of the ships received heavy damage, but successfully retreated back down stream. 

Mississippi, however, took several critical hits, caught on fire and sank.  The frigate's executive officer and future Admiral of the Fleet, Lieutenant George Dewey stayed on board long enough to spike the guns.  Thus ended the career of one of the Navy's most famous ships.  Farragut did not hear about Mississippi's demise until he read about it in local newspapers.  The movement was not one of the admiral's finest hours.

After that operation, the Navy was much more cautious and respectful of Port Hudson's defenses. Both Union and Confederate forces settled in for a long siege.  Banks' forces eventually encircled Port Hudson on the eastern side and U.S. Navy ships bombarded the town from positions down river.  
"Battery No. 10"-The Navy contributed four IX-inch
Dahlgrens to the Army's eighty-nine gun siege train
that encircled Port Hudson.  Sailors from USS
 Richmond manned the battery.

Steam sloops such as USS Monogahela (manned by both Dewey and  another Spanish-American War hero, Winfield Scott Schley) and Richmond, along with the ironclad USS Essex rotated in and out of the bomb line. The mortar schooner squadron that allegedly worked so well at New Orleans, returned from Hampton Roads and also began a steady bombardment of the town. 

After several failed assaults by Union ground forces on Port Hudson's extensive fortification network, Banks decided to blast the Confederates out of their position.  He brought in over eighty heavy guns to shell the Confederate defenses.

The Confederate defenders, however, had their own heavy guns.  Of particular note was a 10-inch Columbiad, which inflected heavy loses on Union ground forces.  Having nothing to respond to such firepower, the Army turned to the Navy for help.
The Navy had an answer. Originally intended for a new fort at Head of Passes (where the  Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico), the Navy had four IX-inch Dahlgrens in surplus.  The Navy agreed to transfer the weapons to the Port Hudson siege lines.  Labeled "Battery No. 10," gun teams from Richmond manned the weapons and took up positions about a mile east of the town. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

CSS Florida Spawns a Baby

Lieutenant Charles Read, CSN
Throughout the Spring and Summer of 1863, the cruiser CSS Florida continued to have success in locating and destroying U.S.-flagged merchant ships.  After the capture of the Jacob Bell in March, John Maffitt and Florida captured several more ships along the East Coast, including the converted whaling ship Onedia on its way home to New Beford, MA from China.   Between the combined efforts of CSS Alabama and CSS Florida, New England newspapers such as the New Bedford Standard demanded the resignation of Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles.

When Florida captured the bark Clarence, one of Maffitt's more aggressive junior officers, Lieutenant Charles Read, proposed to his captain that he be allowed to command Clarence.  With a few guns, Read intended to take the war to the Yankees by raiding their ports.  Maffitt agreed, gave him one gun, and a "junior" cruiser was born.  Florida headed east for France for repairs.  Clarence headed north.   

Read's original plan to was to use Clarence's papers to sneak into Hampton Roads and either capture a U.S. Navy gunboat or burn merchant ships in the harbor.  But, he wisely reconsidered the foolish plan.  He second idea was to sail to New England and hit Yankee merchants in their own back yard.  This raid began on June 12, 1863, when Read captured the bark Tacony off the coast of the Virginia Capes.  The raid alerted the U.S. Navy that Confederate cruisers were dangerously close.  A dozen ships were deployed to look for them.  Before the raid was over, Read burned twenty-two fishing schooners and a U.S. Revenue Cutter.  He surrendered when a band of armed citizens joined with soldiers from the 7th Maine Volunteers in Portland, Maine.  They mobilized a small fleet and chased after Read's ship.

 More than any other Confederate raider, Read truly brought the war home to New England merchant owners.  In the end, this is what the guerre de course strategy was suppose to do: make the war too expensive for the upper class merchants to want to continue the war.

During the Spanish-American War, Captain Casper Goodrich published a study in the Proceedings of the Naval Institute on Read's raid and the Navy's reaction to it on how not to stop a commerce raider.  Goodrich produced the following maps.  Read's ship is highlighted by the arrow.  All other names are U.S. Navy and Revenue Cutter vessels searching for him.

Situation map: June 12, 1863 (left) and June 14, 1863 (right) (click to enlarge)

Situation map: June 16 (left) and June 17 (right) (click to enlarge)

By June 21 (left), Read had successfully destroyed several fishing
vessels off the coast of Maine.  He transferred to his command to a
fishing schooner called Archer. By June 27, he captured the
USRC Caleb Cushing before surrendering. 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Marine Sgt. Christopher Nugent – Medal of Honor Recipient

We haven’t written much about the U.S. Marines on this blog. They certainly were an important part of the U.S. Navy in the Civil War. The Marines had been in existence since the Revolutionary War. Initially they mirrored the role of the Royal Marines in the British Navy; helping to defend the ship from enemy boarding parties, and providing shipboard security and suppressing mutiny. These two roles continued into the Civil War, but the Marines by now were beginning the transition into an amphibious landing force that could project power ashore. They were involved in numerous shore expeditionary actions, along with Navy seamen, in all of the blockading squadrons during the war.

The USS Ft. Henry, patrolling the Florida gulf coast between Tampa Bay and St. Marks, had a small detachment of U.S. Marines assigned to the ship’s complement. In early June 1863, ship’s boats from the Fort Henry captured the sloop Emma off Seahorse Key. Having need of an extra boat, Lt. Commander McCauley decided to keep the sloop instead of sending it to Key West as a prize. Marine Orderly Sgt. Christopher Nugent had the sloop repaired and fitted out to transport his marines, and on 15 June 1863, Sgt. Nugent and six marines from the Fort Henry’s guard undertook an expedition up the Crystal River. About six miles upriver, Nugent spotted a log breastworks. Landing with a party of four marines, Nugent and his men drove away the 11 Confederates manning the small fortification. Nugent was hit, but not injured, by a shot from the officer commanding the militia as they retreated. He ordered his marines to hold their fire due to the presence of a woman in the midst of the enemy troops as they retreated. The marines carried off the small arms found in the works and destroyed the other material found there which they could not remove.

After receiving McCauley’s report of these actions, Adm. Bailey of the East Gulf Squadron wrote to Sec. Welles:

I would respectfully suggest whether the conduct of Orderly Sergeant Nugent does not bring him within that class of men who should receive the medal of honor authorized by Congress to be given to ‘such petty officers, seamen, and marines as shall most distinguish themselves by gallantry in action,’ etc.”
On 16 April 1864, Marine Sgt. Nugent was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Crystal River (now known as the “Congressional Medal of Honor”). Today is the 150th Anniversary of his actions which earned this award. An article profiling Sgt. Nugent and his actions, written by my Ft. Henry shipmate Dave Ekardt, is on the Navy and Marine Living History "Webzine" at:

Friday, June 14, 2013

Ironclads on the Georgia Coast - Battle of the Ironclads II

Artist's sketch of the battle of the CSS Atlanta and USS Weehawken. Source:  Naval History and Heritage Command.

On 17 June 1863, another “battle of the ironclads” was fought between the CSS Atlanta and the USS Weehawken and Nahant. This Monday marks the 150th Anniversary of that engagement. In November 1861, the Confederate steamer Fingal ran the blockade into Savannah. Afterward she was refitted as a casemated ironclad and renamed CSS Atlanta. At the time, she was considered to be the fastest, most powerful ironclad yet built by the Confederacy. The Confederates believed she could whip any ship in the Union Navy fleet. Early on the morning of 17 June, the Atlanta came steaming down the Wilmington River. She was accompanied by two other steam gunboats. Capt. John Rogers of the USS Weehawken got steam up in his Passaic-class turreted ironclad. He headed towards the Confederate ship and when in range, ordered his guns to open fire. The sister ironclad USS Nahant, under Commander John Downes, came following behind the Weehawken.

The Confederate warship got off the first shot at a range of about 1½ miles, which missed the Weehawken and landed near the Nahant, doing no damage. Rogers ordered “open fire”. After only a few shots, the Union sailors saw the Confederate colors on the Atlanta hauled down and replaced by a white flag; she had surrendered ! The Nahant never got off a shot, intending to slip by the Weehawken, run alongside the Atlanta and slug it out gun-to-gun (a.k.a. the Monitor and the Virginia). Rogers had the Weehawken approach the Atlanta and called for a boat to be sent over to his ship. Confederate Navy Lieutenant Alexander arrived shortly afterward to confirm the surrender of the CSN ironclad, and shortly after her captain, William A. Webb, came on board to deliver his sword. Rogers sent a boarding party over under the command of Lt Cdr D. B. Harmony of the Nahant, along with one of his officers and an engineer to oversee operation of the captured ship’s engine room.

For reasons we may never know, it only took five shots from the Weehawken to disable the Atlanta. Rogers went over to inspect the damage after the fight, and reported that he found they had hit the Confederate ship four times. A XV-inch cored shot “broke in the armor and the wood backing, strewing the deck with splinters, prostrating about 40 men by the concussion and wounding several by broken pieces of armor and splinters.” Another hit from a XV-inch cored shot “struck the top of the pilot house, knocking it off, wounding two pilots, and stunning the men at the wheel.” Two shots from the Weehawken’s XI-inch Dahlgren did some damage to the armor on the overhang of the casemate and shattered a “stopper” (a shield?) protecting one of the gunports. 16 Confederate seamen were wounded in the engagement, at least one died. These were cared for by the Atlanta’s surgeon, assisted by U.S. Navy surgeons, and ultimately all officers and men of the Confederate vessel were sent to Port Royal as prisoners of war.

The Atlanta was well-armed, with two 6-inch rifles mounted in broadside and two 7-inch rifles mounted “in pivot” at the bow and stern so they could fire in three directions. Ammunition was described by Rogers as “a large supply”, and the ship could reportedly do 10 knots, which was very fast for a Confederate ironclad. The captured Confederate officers told Rogers that they believed they could take out both Union ironclads. The captured CSN vessel was renamed the USS Atlanta and turned into a Union ironclad.

CSS/USS Atlanta after her capture. Source:  Naval History and Heritage Command. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Civil War Navy Special Edition Daybook-Sea Stories-Now Online

The next issue of The Daybook is now online.  This issue is our third "Special Edition" installment on the Navy's role in the American Civil War.  This issue took a different approach than most of Daybooks.  Inside the reader will find the Civil War at Sea unfiltered.  The participants of the war are going to speak to you directly without a historian interpreting the events.  All parts of the war at sea are covered.  From the shores of France where two cruisers battle it out, to the siege lines of Charleston, to the corner of the Confederacy where a lone blockade runner attempted to put to sea. 

Some of the articles one will find are March 9, 1862 log book entry of USS Monitor (which sums up the entire Battle of Hampton Roads in ten sentences); excerpts from the logs books U.S. Navy ironclads on the front lines; excerpts from an African American sailor serving in the U.S. Navy; the day the Navy took a dog and sheep into custody; letters to home from a grief stricken officer; and Admiral David Dixon Porter's surreal conversation with a plantation overseer.

If you would like a print copy of the Daybook, head on over to the Hampton Roads Naval Historical Foundation's page and become a member!