Monday, February 17, 2014

St. Andrews Bay Salt Works Raids Again

Historic marker in a public park in Panama City describing the salt works raids. Author's photo.

In a post in December (December 2013 post), we called attention to a major Union Navy raid on the Confederate salt works in St. Andrews Bay. Because of the critical importance of salt, the Confederates very quickly rebuilt the salt works in St. Andrews Bay after the Union forces departed. The southerners would not give up!  Escaped slaves told Acting Master W.R. Browne of the bark USS Restless about this, and that additional material was being transported down the Wetappo River to build larger works in the Bay. He sent in two parties of his men to again destroy these works. Browne reported on 17 February 1864:

Learning that the rebels had erected new Government salt works on West Bay, on the site of the old salt works destroyed by us in December, and that they had a force of 50 men armed and stationed there for protection, I fitted out the first cutter, manned with 13 men, under charge of Acting Ensign James J. Russell, with orders to proceed up the Gulf coast 20 miles, and march inland 7 miles to the salt works and attack them in the rear, while Acting Ensign Henry Eason with 10 men, in command of the second cutter, would proceed by the inside passage and attack them in the front at the same time.

The expedition was entirely successful, the works being abandoned upon the appearance of our men, Messrs. Russell’s and Eason’s party joining at the appropriate time, and immediately proceeded in the destruction of everything in the manufactories, consisting of 26 sheet-iron boilers, averaging 881 gallons, and 19 kettles, averaging 200 gallons, making an aggregate of 26,706 gallons, which cost in Montgomery $5.50 per gallon.”

The redoubtable Browne would send in additional raiding parties in March and April 1864. His determination and initiative earned him a promotion to Acting Lieutenant.

More on the Hunley and the Housatonic

As a follow-up to fellow blogger Craig Swain's neat post on the sinking of the USS Housatonic by the submarine CSS Hunley, here is a sketch by Alfred Waud of the event from the Library of Congress archives.

Friday, February 14, 2014

"There being every reason to expect a visit...": Dahlgren's countermeasures against torpedo-boats

Monday marks the 150th anniversary of the sinking of the USS Housatonic by the H.L. Hunley. Rightfully so, the event is mainly remembered as the first successful submarine attack, foreshadowing the weapon's wide spread and significant use in the 20th century. At the same time the Confederates were preparing the H.L. Hunley alongside "David" torpedo boats, the Federal South Atlantic Blockading Squadron prepared and employed some of the first submarine and torpedo-boat countermeasures.

Many of those countermeasures were described in an order from Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren, issued on January 7, 1864:

I have reliable information that the rebels have two torpedo boats ready for service, which may be expected on the first night when the water is suitable for their movement. One of these is the "David," which attacked the Ironsides in October: the other is similar to it.

There is also one of another kind, which is nearly submerged and can be entirely so. It is intended to go under the bottoms of vessels and there operate.

This is believed by my informant to be sure of well working, though from bad management it has hitherto met with accidents, and was laying off Mount Pleasant two nights since.

There being every reason to expect a visit from or all of these torpedoes, the greatest vigilance will be needed to guard against them.

The ironclads must have their fenders rigged out and their own boats in motion about them.

A netting must also be dropped overboard from the ends of the fenders, kept down with shot, and extending along the whole length of the sides; howitzers loaded with canister on the decks and a calcium [light] for each monitor. The tugs and picket boats must be incessantly upon the lookout, when the water is not rough, whether the weather be clear or rainy.

 I observe the ironclads are not anchored so as to be entirely clear of each other's fire if opened suddenly in the dark. This must be corrected, and Captain [Stephen C.] Rowan will assign the monitors suitable positions for this purpose, particularly with reference to his own vessel [USS Ironsides].

It is also advisable not to anchor in the deepest part of the channel, for by not leaving much space between the bottom of the vessel and the bottom of the channel it will be impossible for the diving torpedo to operate except on the sides, and there will be less difficulty in raising a vessel if sunk. 

Nets, patrolling boats, close-range guns, and spotlights - all components used to counter submarines in later conflicts. While convoy formations were not applicable to station-keeping off Charleston, the orders specified a defensive formation designed to repel attacks. In short, a respectable list of anti-submarine measures. Everything save perhaps some depth charges.

Clearly directed to the skippers of the ironclad vessels, which primarily operated in the main ship channel off Morris Island, the orders did not address those ships operating further out from the harbor mouth on blockade duty. This was a miscalculation. One way to look at the sinking of the USS Housatonic, as the Hunley scored the first submarine victory in history, the Federals suffered the first failure to defend against that weapon.  In that light, Dahglren's orders of January 7, 1864 are among the first pages in a long story about countermeasures taken to defeat the submarine.

(Citation from Official records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. ; Series I - Volume 15: South Atlantic Blockading Squadron (October 1, 1863 - September 30, 1864), pages 226-7.)