Tuesday, August 27, 2013

"So Here is a Nice Mess:" The Navy Shells Wagner and Sumter from Land and Sea at Charleston

This watercolor, titled "View of Charleston Harbor and its Defenses," shows the Navy and Army siege lines
on Morris Island.  The Navy Battery is on the left and the ironclads can be seen on the far right.
Having failed to take Fort Wagner by direct assault, Brigadier General Quincy Gilmore elected to start a formal siege operation against Confederate defenses. His plan was to blast the Confederate out of their positions in a similar manner to siege operations conducted against Vicksburg and Port Hudson. He also expanded the target list to include Fort Sumter. The problem Gilmore faced was the same problem faced by Union ground forces out West: a lack of heavy guns.  Like the sieges of Port Hudson and Vicksburg, the Navy came to the Army's aid.

Rear Admiral John Dahlgren furnished the necessary resources. He provided two English-made 70-pounder Whitworth Rifles (captured from a blockade runner), two 200-pounder Parrott Rifles, and five 100-pounder Parrott Rifles. In addition, sailors and soldiers dragged ten mortars into position (an excellent discussion on the Naval battery's particular guns and the batteries can be found at Craig Swain's "Marker Hunter" blog).
Navy gun crews with the Whitworth Rifles

Dahlgren assigned Commander Foxhall Parker, Jr. to oversee the newly designated "Naval Battery" and "Naval Brigade." Parker served as Dahlgren's adjutant for the squadron aboard USS Wabash and gave the commander leeway in finding the necessary sailors and marines to man and protect the guns. In a major concession to Army-Navy cooperation, naval units on shore fell under Gilmore's command.

This is not to say Dahlgren and his ships would stand idly by. The admiral assigned two monitors, Passaic and Patapsco, to take aim at Fort Sumter from 2,000 yards out. Four other Union monitors (WeehawkenCatskillMontauk, and Nahant) took aim at Fort Wagner, with New Ironsides and several wooden gunboats in reserve.

Harper's Weekly's Theodore Davis' interpretation of
the Navy Battery firing at Fort Sumter. 
The bombardment from land and sea on Forts Wagner and Sumter began on August 17th and last through the 24th. Dahlgren and Gilmore were cordial during the first four days of the bombardment. Things went a little sour on the 21st when Gilmore asked the monitors to suppress Wagner's sharpshooters.  Dahglren frequently stated to Gilmore that he could have the monitors at any time.  In this case, however, Dahlgren explained the finer points of tides and currents to the general and concluded that his ships could not simply charge in whenever needed.

Dahlgren's sketch of the position of his ironclads during the August
17th bombardment of Fort Wagner and Battery Gregg.
Surprisingly, Gilmore was not offended.  He changed his tune when he asked Dahlgren to leave Wagner alone, and go all in with all his ironclads at Fort Sumter at close range. Once again, Dahlgren hesitated and explained the difficulties of attacking Sumter, namely the shallow waters around the fort. He finally decided on releasing two monitors, Passasic and Weehawken, to assault Sumter at close range. Both monitors ran aground during their attack.

But, Gilmore would change his mind several times about where he wanted the Navy's resources. Though Army-Navy cooperation had improved since Du Pont left, Dahlgren expressed major frustrations with his Army counterpart. It seemed that every time Dahlgren prepared to send his monitors at Sumter, Confederate sharpshooters from Fort Wagner would take aim at Gilmore's sappers.  Angered, Gilmore would demand the monitors to return. One telegram provided proof of Dahlgren's frustration. Gilmore signaled Dahlgren during the operation to "Send [the monitors] back, they are inspecting us with their spyglasses."

The end result of the seven day bombardment looked impressive. Several sections of the brick and mortar of Fort Sumter were smashed. Yet Sumter and Wagner remained in control of their respective garrisons. Dahlgren recalled several monitors for repairs caused by Confederate guns. The Catskill in particular took several critical hits. Wagner's guns struck Catskill seven times near the pilot house, which resulted in her commanding officer Commander George Rogers' death. In his final report on the operation to Secretary Welles, Dahlgren believed that he did not have enough ironclads to attack Sumter, suppress Wagner's guns, and perform other duties in Georgia. Thus, the operation ended in failure.

The Naval Battery recorded mixed results as well. Parker reported that his four gun battery fired 703 Parrott shells, 373 of which struck Sumter.  Over two hounded solid shots came from the Whitworth rifles. More shots would have come from the Whitworths if it wasn't for one that exploded, killing four sailors. A shell exploded after it became jammed half into the barrel. Sailors attempted to ram the shot further into the gun.

When Dahlgren heard that Passaic ran aground, he wrote in his diary, "So here is a nice mess."  It should have been his final conclusion for this particular operation.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Battle of Grant's Pass - Mobile Bay 1863

Captured blockade runner USS Calhoun. Source:  Naval History and Heritage Command archives.

The first naval engagement at Mobile Bay was an exchange of fire between the Union gunboat USS Huntsville and the Confederate gunboat CSS Florida (not the commerce raider) on Christmas Eve 1861. The Confederate Navy made or attempted to make sorties against the Union blockaders in April 1862 and February 1863.

On 24 August 1863 the Union gunboats USS J.P. Jackson and Genesee (both sidewheel steamers) attacked Confederate Ft. Powell at Grant’s Pass. This was an inside entrance into Mobile Bay via the sounds along the Mississippi Coast. Ft. Powell was constructed to guard this “back door” and prevent Union incursions via this route. It was initially named Ft. Grant, but renamed Ft. Powell after the death of its commander, Confederate Col. William L. Powell, commanding the defenses of lower Mobile Bay. The USN gunboats lobbed a number of shells at the fort, but only 6-8 hit the fort or the island it was built on. Eventually the Union warships withdrew.

A second sortie against Ft. Powell by the Union Navy was made on 13 September 1863 by the warships Jackson, Genesee, and the USS Calhoun (a captured blockade runner steamer). The USN gunboats kept up a fire from 10 AM to about 4 PM. Again only a small percentage of the shells fired actually hit the fort or its island. In both engagements no Confederate casualties were caused by the Union Navy gunfire and no damage was done to the fort.

U.S. Navy gunboats USS J.P. Jackson (top) and USS Genesee (bottom). Source:  Naval History and Heritage Command archives.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Mission Accomplished: Sort of. British Block Sale of Birkenhead Rams

(Library of Congress photo) Gideon Welles wanted the rams being built at the Laird shipyard in Birkenhead in Union hands -- at almost any cost.
(Third of Three Parts)

As the correspondence flowed from London to Washington and back, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles and his assistant Gustavus Fox became increasingly interested in what progress was being made in buying the  “swift privateers” for the Union.  This was an astounding turn of events for a clandestine mission ordered by the secretaries of the Navy and the Treasury to disrupt Confederate shipbuilding  plans to deliver ocean-crossing rams that could sail as commerce raiders like CSS Alabama [built in the Laird shipyard] and be strong enough to wreak havoc on Northern ports and break the blockade of Southern ports.

For the public, including the United States Senate, the mission was still secret.  When Charles Sumner, the Massachusetts abolitionist  who had been viciously attacked on the Senate floor by a cane-wielding South Carolina congressman, wanted to know if the United States was trading in the British arms markets, as John Laird alleged in Parliament. When he took office, Laird resigned his position as head of one of the most innovative shipyards in Europe.

Welles called the statements “destitute of the truth,”  coming from “a mercenary hypocrite without principle or honesty.” For their part, the Confederates “were protesting before high Heaven that they had no concern or interest in the Birkenhead iron-clads.” They waved the legal papers saying the vessels belong to “Mr. Bravay and Co., of Paris, agents for the Pasha of Egypt.”

True, Adrien Bravay’s brother manned an Alexandria office and had bought war materiel and ships for the Egyptian in the past; but the Bravays and James Bulloch, the most innovative Confederate ship-buyer overseas; the Laird yard in Birkenhead; and the Confederate banking house Fraser, Trenholm in Liverpool understood who had the real claim on the rams, despite their new names – El Tousson and El Monassir.

They even had a plan in place if the British seized the rams, a concern of Bulloch’s for months with all the Union spies snooping in the Mersey River’s yards and Paradise Street bars in Liverpool.  Francois Bravay, as a French parliamentarian, would appeal to the emperor whose diplomats would sing a sad chorus in London and Liverpool at how wronged this French company had been.  Didn’t the British understand that a contract was a contract, a sacred trust?

Welles’ letter to Sumner and the Confederate-Laird documents had little bearing on the truth. (1)

Businessman John Murray Forbes during a breakfast meeting with Charles Francis Adams, the American minister of the Court of St. James on April 23 laid out a “general review of the ship-yards of the island, and a description of every suspicious vessel. …I do not know that any anxiety I have is heavier than this.” The British and Scots’ shipyards appeared to be the winners in all these machinations.  As demand went up and supplies were limited, prices rose like Congreve rockets, as Adams predicted and Forbes and William Aspinwall, the businessmen entrusted with $10 million by the Lincoln administration to disrupt Confederate shipbuilding plan acknowledged to Welles in putting the ship-buying program on hold. (2)

Forbes now headed to Germany, ostensibly to recruit volunteers for the Union Army, and Aspinwall crossed the channel to work with Union officials there on Confederate activities with French yards and arms manufacturers and the intentions of Napoleon III’s government in Mexico. They were gone from May into June.

Work at the Laird yard was nearly complete on the first ram by the time they returned to Great Britain. The only hope in keeping the rams out of rebel hands lay in Adams’ protestations having an effect on Lord Palmerston’s government or the government itself acknowledging that Bravay’s claimed ownership was too murky to be allowed to proceed. (3)

In the end, the British government acknowledged that the ownership was too clouded to let the rams leave Liverpool.  Foreign Minister Lord John Russell confessed to the prime minister that it was time for a public investigation  into the ownership of the “Birkenhead rams.” Before that got under way,  the ships were detained at gunpoint. By February 1864, the House of Commons approved their seizures.  Adams diplomatic protestations fueled by Consuls Thomas Haines Dudley’s and Freeman H. Morse’s reports, paid for in large measure, by drawing on the Union deposit at Barclays made by Aspinwall, had paid off.

The two businessmen began closing out their affairs in July 1863. They left $4 million in bonds with Barings to cover the bank’s loan at the start of the mission and also to finance Haines and Dudley’s growing network of spies that continued gathering evidence that was the backbone of the Union’s “Alabama Claims” case against Great Britain.  It also went to other agents working the arms market until the war ended.

The other $6 million was packed into three trunks and steamed back across the Atlantic with them aboard the Great Eastern, the world’s largest passenger vessel.  They arrived in New York in the early evening July 12, as news of Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg was arriving. 

After leaving the ship, clearing customs, and gathering his baggage, Aspinwall barely had time to catch a train to his home on the North River.  After sundown, Forbes, his son, and a servant landed on a wharf crowded with a “as bad-looking a lot of roughs as I ever saw.” With the Forbes party were the trunks of bonds.  “We did not know that the great [draft] riot was about breaking out, nor luckily did the gentry around know what a prize lay within their grasp.” An Irish cab driver recognized Forbes from a visit he had paid his regiment and offered the party his services.  “Over the rough, dark streets,” the party made their escape to the safety of the  fashionable Brevoort House.

As for the $6 million in bonds, they eventually were “returned to the Treasury in the original packages, with the seals of the Treasury unbroken.” (4) 

Although Forbes and Aspinwall returned without ships to show for their time, other agents using the money in Barings continued shopping in the European arms and ship markets, still using guises of private investors buying neutral goods or private investors buying war goods for neutral foreign governments.  They talked, bought, and acted like their Confederate counterparts. In the late summer of 1864, an exasperated Judah P. Benjamin, Confederate secretary of State, ordered Henry Hotze in London to print every new case of Northern arms buying that he could find in his pro-Confederate paper’s next edition.

Enlightening as this news was to Southern supporters in Great Britain,  the facts were the United States’ credit was better than the Confederacy’s after Gettysburg and Vicksburg,  its ports were open, and its manufacturing sector having turned to the war effort was running in high gear. Three weeks after the Battle of Hampton Roads, Seward wrote, “We can build our iron clad steamers (like the Merrimack or CSS Virginia) and build them quicker” than the Confederacy could in its few yards or in buying them abroad. As the year was ending, Fox was even more confident than the secretary.  He was ready to take on the Great Powers of Europe.  “In two years we can take the offensive with vessels that will be superior to any England is now building.” They were right but with an asterisk. (5) 

End Notes

(1) Charles Adams, Studies Military and Diplomatic, 1775 – 1865, MacMillan Company, New York, 1911,  Official Records of the War of the Rebellion – Navy, Bulloch to Mallory, March 30, 1863, Ser. 2 , Vol. 2, p. 397.

(2) Charles Francis Adams, Laird Rams (hereafter Adams, Laird), Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Vol. 33, Google e-Book,  pp. 191-192.

(3) James D. Bulloch,The Confederate Secret Service in Europe, Vol. 1, Google e-Book, pp. 404-405.

(4) Adams, Laird, p. 195.  John Murray Forbes, Drawing on Letters and Recollections of John Murray Forbes edited by his daughter Sarah Forbes Hughes , Google e-Book,, Vol. 2, pp. 44-49. Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy under Lincoln and Johnson with an introduction by John L. Morse Jr., Vol. 1. 1861-March 1864, Boston entries for May 2 and May 19, 1863.

(5) John Bigelow, Retrospections of an Active Life, Vol. 1, Google e-Book, pp. 410-411. Bigelow, Retrospections, Vol. 2, p. 207. “Mr. Laird and Secretary Welles,” New York Times, Aug. 10, 1863.

Friday, August 2, 2013

CSS Hampton Flag Finds a Home

“In the museum business, if you are lucky, you occasionally have an opportunity to experience what we call ‘wow’ moments.” – Elizabeth A. Poulliot, HRNM Director

Timing is everything.  At least in light of recent events, it is.  If it wasn’t for the quick thinking of two Federal Army officers, we might not have the Civil War Navy’s most recent and prized artifact, the flag of the CSS Hampton.

Richmond, Virginia: 1865
Virginia stood wounded and defeated in the last two years of war.  After suffering heavy casualties throughout Grant’s Overland Campaign, Virginia’s army braced their backs to the south of Richmond at Petersburg in June 1864.  To the west, Virginia’s lush and vibrant Shenandoah Valley burned, denying much needed food and supplies to the starving at Petersburg.  By March 1865, the Petersburg campaign was over.  One month later, approaching Federal armies captured the Confederate capitol.  Richmond remained a burned-out husk of its former self.  The Confederate military was gone and much of its population deserted.  It seems that the war would be over.  Yet victory did not come without its spoils. 
CSS Nansemond, one of Hampton's sister ships.
In the midst of the desolation and destruction, Lieutenant William J. Ladd of the 13th New Hampshire Regiment stood alone in the deserted city Capitol.  According to the History of the regiment, Ladd rode towards Rocketts landing and found a Union cavalryman.  The two rowed out onto the James, where they pulled down two flags off of the CSS Hampton, one of two Maury that saw action during the American Civil War.  Little did they know, the Confederates rigged the ship to explode.  Minutes after they rowed back ashore, the ship went up in a fiery blaze; symbolic of the Navy’s demise and that of its most prized city. 

Dayton, VA: 2011
Ladd kept the flag after the war at his home in Milton.  In the 1960s, the flag made its way to Dayton, VA and into the hands of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Historical Society (HRHS).  The flag that once flew defiantly against the government of the United States lay in a collections box.  Nancy Hess, Vice President of the society, came across the discovery in 2011.  Included with the flag was a handwritten inscription sewn onto the flag:
"That of Confed gun boat Hampton burnt in James River at the taking of Richmond.  The flag was taken from the burning ship by Liet. Ladd (13th N. Hampshire), Ge. Devens Staff."
The flag was a terrific find.  Yet it remained in extreme disrepair.  The board at the HRHS decided to look for a new home for the flag, eventually reaching Captain H.J. Hendrix, Director of the Naval History and Heritage Command.  Captain Hendrix offered to see to the flag’s conversation and care. 

Dayton, VA: 2013
In front of a crowd of nearly fifty people, Captain H. J. Hendrix, NHHC Director, accepted the flag of the Hampton on behalf of the U.S. Navy.  After a long journey, the flag will be preserved and displayed at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum (HRNM) in Norfolk, VA.  Elizabeth Poulliot, HRNM  Director, will gladly work with Washington, D.C. to see the flag make it to Norfolk.  What better place to preserve the history of the gunboat than near the place where it was built across the Elizabeth River? 
NHHC Director Captain H.J. Hendrix inspects the flag of CSS Hampton
The flag is an important piece that helps us understand the importance of the Confederate Navy in Hampton Roads.  Poulliot plans to  “to prominently display it in our Civil War gallery.”  She added that visitors will “want to learn more about the Civil War, and how the Confederacy build Maury gunboats.  The acceptance of this ensign from CSS Hampton is an honor for our institution.”

For information on the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, please visit the website HERE or go to their BLOG.