Saturday, April 19, 2014

Navy 'Changed Trajectory of the War'

1862 illustration shows captured British blockade runners. (U.S. Navy)
The Navy "changed the trajectory of the war" was the way one of the nation's leading historians described the service's contribution to the ultimate Union victory in 1865.

Speaking April 16 at the United States Naval Institute's annual meeting in Washington, Dr. Craig Symonds, co-winner of the 2009 Lincoln Prize for his Lincoln and His Admirals, said the blockade of Confederate ports from the Carolinas on the Atlantic to the Texas Gulf Coast "was the largest enterprise the Navy undertook," ultimately involving more than 500 ships, more than 400 of them converted merchantmen -- "the last time that was still possible," and 100,000 men.

The Union Navy transformed itself from a fleet of 42 ships scattered around the globe or in ordinary at shipyards with a few thousand officers and experienced tars in 1861 to a technologically adept force with rifled guns, iron-plated, screw propellers, etc. operating with a "changed lower deck" of "volunteers. contrabands from the South, free blacks from the North" in 1865.

When President Abraham Lincoln announced the blockade, Symonds, a professor emeritus of history at the Naval Academy, contends that he and Secretary of State William Seward understood that it "was an act of war" and implied "a kind of recognition" of the Confederacy.

But it proved hugely advantageous for the Union.  Great Britain. while acknowledging the Confederacy as a belligerent, declared itself neutral in the North American war and by doing that effectively closed off its ports, particularly important in the Caribbean, to Confederate privateers or later its commerce raiders trying to sell off their captured "prizes."

But the reality of blockade is actually far more difficult than simply declaring it.  "You actually have to do it" over 3,500 miles of coast with 189 harbors and navigable inlets. "Maintaining it was hard work.  Blockade service [meant] days that were long and tedious ... in all weather.  Usually at night and often in rain or drizzle, the blockade runners were creeping in and out of Southern ports.

It did work on a number of levels, Symonds said, including persuading a large number of foreign ship-owners never to risk their vessels in a race for safety and riches in a Confederate harbor. The blockade caused "the slow asphyxiation" of the rebellion and "very likely made the war shorter."

With the profit motive of privateering proving to be a myth, the Confederacy turned to buying ships overseas for commerce raiding.  Led by James D. Bulloch, a onetime officer in the United States Navy and experienced merchant marine officer, the Jefferson Davis government put to sea a "dozen or so" of these ships, most notably Alabama that destroyed 284 American merchantmen over the course of the war. 

Indeed, the Confederate Navy's Civil War didn't end until November 1865 when Shenandoah returned to Liverpool, having destroyed a number of American whalers operating in the Pacific -- after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox.

The commerce raiders were an interesting story all their own.  They were officered by Confederates, but the overwhelming majority of the crew were British, Scot, Irish and French "who didn't think much" of promises of future fortunes for all when the Union threw in the towel.  "They were in it for the money" immediately. When the prize money remained empty promises and the risks great, many deserted.

Commerce raiding "was a great idea for the Confederacy" because it caused maritime insurance rates to skyrocket and caused American-flagged vessels to change registry  to avoid destruction.

But in the end, the commerce raiders "did not bring Lincoln to the negotiating table" nor did they weaken the blockade.

For the greater part of the war, the Army and Navy operated separately even when fighting in the same area. Think New Orleans; think Charleston.  Yet from the war's start on the  rivers lying west of the Appalachians to the Mississippi, combined operations proved very successful at Forts Henry and Donelson and Island Number 10 -- keeping Kentucky in the Union and splintering Tennessee. Joint operations also set the stage for Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to take his army from positions west of Vicksburg, Miss., where it had been stymied for months  to crossing the river and laying a siege that closed off any escape to the east by large numbers of Confederate soldiers now trapped in the river city.

Effective but time-consuming.

More dramatically, at New Orleans, then Capt. David Glasgow Farragut didn't wait for the Army and blasted his way past the forts below the Confederacy's largest city and most important trading port to capture the city with ocean-going frigates in the spring of 1862.

Official Washington loved that dash and rewarded Farragut with promotion.  The Navy Department wanted more of it. Its leadership thought it had just the man, Capt. Samuel F. DuPont, who had captured Port Royal, S.C., and turned it into the base for the Atlantic blockade. And, more to the point, he would have ironclads. 

At Charleston, DuPont certainly felt the heat from Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus Fox and to a lesser extent from Navy Secretary Gideon Welles to keep his attack on the birthplace of secession an "all Navy affair." The "attack." in spring 1863" was a disaster.  The invincible ironclads of Fox's and Welles' dreams were ineffective, at best.
Mine and obstacles channeled the vessels into deadly fields of fire from artillery ashore and in the island forts.  The ironclads minus disabled Keokuk   had no choice but to retreat to safety.  Keokuk eventually sank off Morris Island. In fact, Charleston remained in Confederate hands until the last few weeks of the war when i

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Sinking of the Union transport steamer Maple Leaf

Alfred Waud sketch of torpedoed Union Steamers Maple Leaf and General Hunter on the St. Johns River, Florida. Source:  Library of Congress Civil War photo archives.

While Union Navy gunboats patrolled the St. Johns River in Florida, the Union Army largely got around Florida by leasing civilian steamers to transport their men, animals and equipment on the rivers and coastal waters. The U.S. Steamer Maple Leaf was leased by the Army in 1862. A sidewheel steamer built in Canada to transport people and freight, she headed south from Boston for service on the St. Johns River in Florida.
In March 1864, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, in charge of the coastal defenses of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, ordered Lt. Col. M.B. Harris  to Florida to plant torpedoes (what today we call mines) in the St. Johns River to try to deter Union military activities, which were growing increasingly common on the river. He was assisted by Capt. E.P. Bryan, already in Florida.
In late March, the Maple Leaf landed troops and supplies at Jacksonville, then took aboard a group of cavalry and headed upriver, where she landed them at Palatka. She departed to return to Jacksonville the evening of 31 March. Early on the morning of 1 April, the steamer struck one of 12 torpedoes placed near Mandarin Point by Harris and Bryan a couple days earlier. The steamer went down quickly, with four crewmen killed. Sixty three other passengers, including some civilians and women, evacuated from the steamer and made their way to Jacksonville in the ship’s boats. In addition to the loss of lives, the steamer also went down with most of the personal effects of three U.S. Army regiments, the 112th New York, 169th New York, and 13th Indiana.

Jacksonville dentist Dr. Keith Holland, born and raised in the city, always had an avid interest in the history of the Jacksonville area and the St. Johns River. He became particularly interested in the story of the Maple Leaf and in his spare time, researched the details of the sinking of the steamer (which included trips to Washington D.C). After much research, in June 1984 Keith and colleagues discovered what they were sure was the wreck of the Maple Leaf in the river bottom off Mandarin Point. Much of the wreck was buried under river sediment, and after obtaining some funding, and dealing with numerous permitting and legal issues, they began to excavate the wreck, which confirmed its identity as the Maple Leaf. Notably, their interest was not profit; nothing they brought up from the wreck was sold for personal gain. All material they recovered was turned over to the State of Florida after careful preservation work.

The wreck of the Maple Leaf turned out to be an immense treasure trove of artifacts and material detailing the personal lives of Civil War Army personnel. The material recovered from the wreck includes military equipage (weapons, uniform buttons, other gear), personal effects (smoking pipes, personal grooming and other items, bottles and flasks of various types), and items plundered from raids on southern plantations (fine china, silverware, etc.). Even “organic” items such as leather, paper, etc. have been recovered. The anaerobic (=no oxygen) conditions of the St. Johns River bottom was an ideal environment for the preservation of the artifacts. National Park Service historian Dr. Ed Bearss has noted, “The wreck of the Maple Leaf is unsurpassed as a source for Civil War material culture.    . . . It is the most important repository of Civil War artifacts every found, and probably will remain so.”

Many of the artifacts recovered from the wreck are archived in the Florida Museum of History in Tallahassee, but some of the artifacts, and a nice model and paintings of the Maple Leaf, are on display at the Mandarin Museum in south Jacksonville (website below). On April 4-5, the museum opened a special exhibit to observe the 150th Anniversary of the sinking of the transport. They also had Union and Confederate living history displays on the museum grounds for folks to learn about the lifestyles of these folks during the war. Contributing blogger Seaman Rob was there with his Navy camp and display to help educate folks about the role of the USN on the St. Johns River during the war.

Living history displays at the April 4-5 commemoration of the Maple Leaf. Small Navy camp in foreground; note hammock slung beneath the lean-to. Author's photo.
 The Mandarin Museum web site:

Maple Leaf shipwreck web site: