Category Archives: Navy

Farragut Moves up the Mississippi

May 18, 1862 – The Federal naval squadron led by Flag Officer David G. Farragut tried following up its capture of New Orleans by pushing further up the Mississippi River. However, they met unexpected resistance.

David G. Farragut | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

David G. Farragut | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

As May began, Farragut sought to move upriver and ultimately join forces with the Federal Western Flotilla stationed above Fort Pillow, Tennessee. Farragut’s greatest obstacle would be Vicksburg, Mississippi, which was protected by batteries atop steep bluffs along the river. If the Federals captured Vicksburg, they would essentially cut the Confederacy off from the Trans-Mississippi and split it in two.

Before Farragut could take on the stronghold, he had to repair the ships that had been damaged in the operation against Forts Jackson and St. Philip. This gave the Confederates more time to strengthen their defenses. Farragut would be further handicapped by having a naval fleet more suited for the sea than a river. Nevertheless, he resolved to push as far upriver as he could.

The U.S.S. Iroquois, one of Farragut’s leading vessels headed by Commander James S. Palmer, steamed up the Mississippi and captured the Louisiana capital of Baton Rouge on the 8th. Baton Rouge was defenseless against the Iroquois’s firepower, which would soon be backed by the rest of Farragut’s fleet. Federals also seized the local arsenal after a tense exchange with the city mayor.

Four days later, the Federal squadron captured Natchez, Mississippi, 280 river miles from New Orleans. The Iroquois along with the U.S.S. Oneida under Commander Samuel P. Lee remained at Natchez while Farragut led the rest of the fleet 80 miles upriver to Vicksburg. (Confederates later regained control of Natchez and nearly executed the man who had offered to deliver the mayor’s surrender. Only General P.G.T. Beauregard’s personal intervention saved the man’s life.)

The Federal vessels reconnoitered the Mississippi between Natchez and Vicksburg over the next week. The crew of the U.S.S. Calhoun captured the Confederate gunboat Corypheus at Bayou Bonfuca, Louisiana, and the Oneida bombarded Confederates stationed at Grand Gulf, Mississippi, before the fleet continued upriver.

The Federals approached Vicksburg around 11 a.m. on May 18. The stronghold was protected by artillery atop 200-foot-high bluffs, 8,000 Confederate troops, and a gunboat fleet. Commander Lee of the Oneida, acting on Farragut’s behalf for the navy and Major General Benjamin F. Butler for the army, dropped anchor at a bend in the river and dispatched a small boat under a flag of truce.

A Confederate boat met the Federals and received their message, which demanded “the surrender of Vicksburg and its defenses to the lawful authority of the United States, under which, private property and personal rights will be respected.” A Confederate gunner fired a cannonball across the bow of the ship that had delivered the surrender demand.

A messenger returned with military and civilian responses about five hours later. Brigadier General Martin L. Smith, commanding the Vicksburg garrison, wrote, “Regarding the surrender of the defenses, I have to reply that having been ordered here to hold these defenses, it is my intention to do so as long as in my power.” Vicksburg’s mayor explained that even though the military, and not city officials, had built the defenses, “neither the municipal authorities nor the citizens will ever consent to a surrender of the city.”

Colonel James L. Autrey, Vicksburg’s military governor, offered an even stronger response: “I have to state that Mississippians don’t know, and refuse to learn, how to surrender to any enemy. If Commodore Farragut or Brigadier-General Butler can teach them, let them come and try.” (Autrey added further inadvertent insult because Farragut was a captain and Butler was a major general.)

These answers, along with the extensive armament ringing the bluffs, prompted Lee to wait for Farragut’s arrival. When Farragut arrived, he was surprised to learn of such strong Confederate defiance, and he knew that he could not destroy their defenses by himself. He opted to return to New Orleans, leaving behind some ships to watch the city for the time being. The Federals would threaten Vicksburg again soon.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (18 May 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 167, 169-72; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 371, 380; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 149, 151-54; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 17-18; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 211, 213; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 67

The Battle of Drewry’s Bluff

May 15, 1862 – Confederate batteries repulsed the advance of a Federal naval fleet on the James River, which helped ease some of the panic spreading throughout the Confederate capital of Richmond.

The day after crewmen of the C.S.S. Virginia destroyed their vessel, they assembled under their commander, Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones, at Drewry’s Bluff. Once owned by a man named Drewry, this was a 100-foot-high eminence on the north bank of a sharp bend in the James, about seven miles from Richmond. It was officially known as Fort Darling, and it was the last stronghold preventing Federal naval forces from reaching Richmond via the James River.

Confederate gun overlooking Drewry's Bluff | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Confederate gun overlooking Drewry’s Bluff | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The crewmen were assigned to help man the eight heavy cannon on the bluff. The overall fort commander, General George W.C. Lee (oldest son of Robert E. Lee), had directed the guns’ placements, as well as the placement of obstructions (including the C.S.S. Jamestown) in a narrow point of the river. The C.S.S. Patrick Henry, a civilian steamer with heavy guns, was stationed in front of Drewry’s Bluff.

The fortification of Fort Darling was a joint effort by the Confederate army, navy, and marines, led by both Commander Ebenezer Ferrand of the navy and General William Mahone of the army. After working tirelessly in the rain for two days, the Confederates commanded all potential river approaches.

The Federal James River Flotilla, led by Commander John Rodgers, began moving up the James toward the Confederate capital on the 14th. The flotilla consisted of the ironclads U.S.S. Monitor and Galena (a new corvette), and the wooden ships U.S.S. Aroostook, Naugatuck, and Port Royal. The crews had orders from Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough to “get up to Richmond, all with the least possible delay, and shell the city to a surrender.” The navy hoped to capture Richmond as it had captured New Orleans the previous month.

Panic swept Richmond as residents realized that they were now under threat from Federal army forces on the Peninsula and naval forces on the James. Alarm bells rang in the capital as the ships continued upriver on May 15, with Confederate sharpshooters firing on them from rifle pits on shore. In a public meeting outside City Hall, Virginia Governor John Letcher declared:

“Some one said to me the other day, that the duty of surrendering the city would devolve either upon the president, the mayor, or myself. I said to him if the demand is made upon me, with the alternative to surrender or be shelled, I shall reply, bombard and be damned!”

Richmond Mayor Joseph C. Mayo told his constituents:

“I say now, and will abide by it, when the citizens of Richmond demand on me to surrender the capital of Virginia and of the Confederacy to the enemy they must find some other man to fill my place. I will resign the mayoralty. And when that other man elected in my stead shall deliver up the city, I hope I have physical courage and strength enough left to shoulder a musket and go into the ranks.”

A committee met with President Jefferson Davis to get his assurance that the Confederate government would help local officials defend the city to the end. The meeting was interrupted by a message stating that Federal warships were coming up the James River. Davis told the committee members, “This manifestly concludes the matter.”

The vessels came in sight around 7:35 a.m., with the Galena and Monitor emerging from the fog in the lead. As the Confederate gunners opened fire, the Galena dropped anchor about 600 yards from Fort Darling and began firing back. The gun noise rattled windows in Richmond.

Action at Drewry's Bluff | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Action at Drewry’s Bluff | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

With the three wooden ships staying out of range, the Monitor steamed past the Galena to draw fire but could not elevate the guns in her revolving turret high enough to hit the Confederates on the bluff. The Monitor moved back downriver, near the wooden ships, to find her range. But from that distance, her smoothbore Dahlgren guns were less effective. The Monitor also drew too much water to become fully engaged. This allowed the Confederates to focus primarily on the Galena.

Commander Rodgers reported that “balls came through, and many men were killed with fragments of her own iron.” The Galena sustained large holes in her deck from the plunging fire of shot and shell. The Patrick Henry connected with an 8-inch solid shot through the Galena’s bow port, and the ship was also running low on ammunition. At 11:05, Rodgers ordered her to withdraw, after a shot sparked a fire.

Meanwhile, the Port Royal took a hit on the forward wheel and another below the waterline, forcing her to fall back. The Naugatuck took heavy punishment and was rendered useless when her 100-pound Parrott gun exploded upon firing. The Aroostook stayed out of range.

The rest of the flotilla followed the Galena when she withdrew downriver, and the Confederates hollered three cheers for their victory. Richmond residents also celebrated, but only briefly because Major General George B. McClellan’s army still threatened them from the Peninsula.

The Federals lost 13 killed and 11 wounded aboard the Galena, along with three others wounded on the wooden ships. Some Federals had been killed or wounded by sharpshooters on the riverbanks. Paymaster William Keeler of the Monitor, which was hit three times but sustained no casualties, went aboard the Galena and later wrote his wife:

“Here was a body with the head, one arm & part of the breast torn off by a bursting shell, another with the top of his head taken off the brains still steaming on the deck, partly across him lay one with both legs taken off at the hips & at a little distance another completely disemboweled.”

The Galena sustained 50 hits, with 18 piercing the four-inch plating and reaching the wooden hull. The Monitor captain reported that “the action was most gallantly fought against great odds, and with the usual effect against earthworks. It was impossible to reduce such works, except with the aid of a land force.”

Corporal John B. Mackie of the Galena’s Marine Guard later became the first U.S. marine awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, for bravery under fire in this battle. Navy Department General Order No. 17, dated July 10, 1863, allowed U.S. marines to be eligible for the award.

The Confederates lost seven killed and eight wounded. After the victory, President Davis wrote his wife Varina:

“The panic here has subsided and with increasing confidence there has arisen a desire to see the city destroyed rather than surrendered. The great temporal object is to secure our independence and they who engage in strife for personal or party aggrandisement, deserve contemptuous forgetfulness.”

The Federal repulse was sudden and surprising to many who expected the ships to easily bypass the obstructions and batteries. But the Federals did benefit somewhat from the incursion: they had forced the Confederates to obstruct the river, which prevented them from going down just as it kept the Federals from coming up. It also revealed an ideal spot for a Federal army landing, just 10 miles from Richmond, if McClellan opted to move his supply base from the York to the James. Few knew at the time how important Harrison’s Landing would become.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 128-29; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13705-14; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 401-02; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 170-71; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 416; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 151, 153; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3418-30; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 296; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 211-13; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 427; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 109; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 330-31, 383-85; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 640-41; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 504; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 227, 571

Surrendering the C.S.S. Planter

May 13, 1862 – A slave handed over a Confederate vessel to the Federal blockade fleet off South Carolina, along with key information about Confederate positions around Charleston.

Robert Smalls | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Robert Smalls | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The C.S.S. Planter was a transport and dispatch steamer that operated in Charleston Harbor. The ship’s pilot was Robert Smalls, a 23-year-old slave. When the Planter docked for the night of May 12 and the white crewmen went ashore (against orders to stay aboard), Smalls and eight black crewmen smuggled several other slaves aboard, including the families of Smalls and his brother. In the predawn darkness, Smalls steered the ship out of the harbor, carrying four heavy cannon along with the human cargo.

As the Planter steamed past the harbor fortifications, her familiarity among the Confederate defenders enabled her to pass without notice. Needing permission from the Fort Sumter garrison to pass, Smalls dipped his colors and sounded the regular signal with a captain’s hat on and his back turned so the Confederates could not identify him.

The fort signaled its permission, and the Planter left the harbor. Smalls quickly raised a white flag and went full speed toward the Federal blockading ships. Lieutenant J.F. Nickels of the U.S.S. Onward reported the Planter approaching his vessel at sunrise:

“I immediately beat to quarters and sprung the ship around so as to enable me to bring her broadsides to bear, and had so far succeeded as to bring the port guns to bear, when I discovered that the steamer, now rapidly approaching, had a white flag set at the fore.”

Approaching the Onward, Smalls saluted and hollered to the watch officer, “Good morning, sir! I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!” Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont, commanding the Federal South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, later reported:

“At 4 in the morning she (the Planter) left her wharf close to the Government office and headquarters, with palmetto and Confederate flag flying, passed the successive forts, saluting as usual by blowing her steam whistle. After getting beyond the range of the last gun she quickly hauled down the rebel flags and hoisted a white one…The steamer is quite a valuable acquisition…”

A Federal officer later reported that Smalls had stolen the Planter because of “the cruel treatment his wife received” as a slave. Of the slaves aboard the Planter, the officer remarked, “They all express their firm determination not to be taken alive after leaving the wharf, and if fired into to sink rather than stop the vessel well knowing what their fate would be if taken.”

Smalls met with Du Pont and shared his knowledge of Charleston Harbor. Du Pont called him “superior to any (slave) who has yet come into the lines, intelligent as many of them have been.” Regarding Smalls’s familiarity with the harbor, “His information is thorough and complete as to the whole defenses of Charleston.” Du Pont resolved to “continue to employ Robert as a pilot on board the Planter for the inland waters, with which he appears to be very familiar.”

The other black crewmen also became pilots in the Federal navy. According to Du Pont, they demonstrated “the utmost nautical skill in piloting the gunboats and this under fire too–generally smiling and showing their white teeth when a shell exploded over their heads, while many (white pilots) brought up to the business didn’t show their white teeth.”

The information that Smalls provided to the Federals included the fact that Confederates had abandoned the fort at the mouth of the Stono River. This opened a back door to Charleston. The Federal navy exploited this by moving up the Stono and attacking Confederates on Cole’s Island. The gunboats U.S.S. Unadilla, Pembina, and Ottawa bombarded the island and forced its evacuation, with the Federals establishing a base of their own there soon after.

Federal gunboats continued up the Stono, forcing planters to abandon their lands on James and John islands. The planters tried hurrying their slaves to the mainland, with Commander John Marchand of the U.S.S. James Adger reporting:

“About 4 o’clock in the afternoon we heard the most terrific screams ashore, the lookouts at the masthead having previously reported a stampede of slaves on the cotton and corn fields to the south of the river. A company of cavalry was then seen to emerge from the pines… charging at full speed among the flying slaves… (firing) their pistols on all sides amongst the Negroes… (S)o I directed the gunboats to open fire on the mounted men and a half dozen shells… (sent them) scampering in every direction.”

The Federals rescued 71 fugitive slaves and conveyed them to Port Royal to join the thousands of other contrabands who had escaped slavery since the Federal fleet’s arrival on the South Carolina coast last November.

At Du Pont’s recommendation, the Federal government rewarded Smalls and his crew by declaring the Planter a prize whose seizure qualified them for compensation. The ship was appraised at $9,168 (a value that some considered very low), of which Smalls received $1,500 and the crewmen $400 each. Another $484 was distributed among the remaining slaves taken aboard. Smalls eventually became captain of the Planter.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (13 May 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 169-70, 173; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 152, 154; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 211; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 563; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 138-39

The Destruction of the C.S.S. Virginia

May 11, 1862 – The ironclad that had terrified the Federals was destroyed to prevent capture. This paved the way for the Federal naval fleet to advance up the James River to threaten Richmond.

C.S.S. Virginia | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

C.S.S. Virginia | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The fall of Norfolk and the Gosport Navy Yard left the mighty C.S.S. Virginia (formerly the U.S.S. Merrimac) without a port. Flag Officer Josiah Tattnall, commanding the Confederate naval squadron on the James, initially tried withdrawing the Virginia to Harrison’s Landing, 35 miles upriver. The ship’s draft was lowered from 21 to 18 feet, but she still could not clear the shoals.

Tattnall met with his officers, and they acknowledged that the Virginia could not stay at Norfolk because the Federals would capture her, she could not go upriver over the shoals, and she could not go downriver into Chesapeake Bay because the Federal blockading fleet awaited her. Therefore, they decided that the Virginia must be destroyed.

The vessel’s crew towed her to Craney Island and set her on fire. The flames burned for about an hour before reaching the 16-ton powder keg on board. The ship exploded at 4:58 a.m. After destroying the Virginia, her crew marched up the south side of the James to Suffolk, took a train to Richmond, and became part of the garrison defending Fort Darling on Drewry’s Bluff against a potential Federal naval advance up the James.

Federal crewmen aboard the U.S.S. Dakota, two and a half miles away, could see the massive explosion. An officer informed Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron from his flagship, the U.S.S. Minnesota. Goldsborough, who had planned to pit the ironclad U.S.S. Monitor against the Virginia once more, ordered his squadron to advance upriver and “reduce all of the works of the enemy as they go along.” From there, they were to “get up to Richmond, all with the least possible delay, and shell the city to a surrender.”

Commander John Rodgers headed the squadron, which included the ironclads U.S.S. Monitor and Galena. They began steaming up the James in the hopes of forcing Richmond’s surrender just as Admiral David G. Farragut had taken New Orleans in April. The Federals secured Sewell’s Point and Craney Island en route. But the Confederates at Fort Darling, eight miles in front of the Confederate capital, stood in their way.

President Abraham Lincoln was told the good news that the Virginia had been destroyed as he returned to Washington from Fort Monroe. He telegraphed Major General Henry W. Halleck in Mississippi: “Norfolk in our possession. Merrimac blown up, & Monitor & other boats going up James River to Richmond. Be very sure to sustain no reverse in your Department.”

Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula, learned of the Virginia’s demise from West Point. He concurred with Goldsborough’s order to move the naval fleet up the James to Richmond.

A Confederate court of inquiry later found that the Virginia’s destruction had been unnecessary. Tattnall argued that he and his crew had desperately tried to lighten the ship before finally ordering the explosion. He demanded a court-martial to refute the court’s findings. Confederate officials ultimately granted Tattnall’s request and exonerated him of any wrongdoing.

The fall of Norfolk had been imminent for several weeks, leading many southerners to question why Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory did not take greater precautions to ensure the Virginia’s security. Others argued that Mallory should have at least sided with Tattnall and waived the court-martial.

The Confederacy suffered an irreparable loss with the Virginia’s destruction. This ensured that the Federal blockade would not only be maintained, but it would be gradually strengthened as the war went on.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 125-27; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (11 May 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 169; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 414-15; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 151; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 210; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 109; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 329; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 335, 571, 742; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 63

The Battle of Plum Run Bend

May 10, 1862 – Confederates launched a surprise attack on the Mississippi River to keep the Federals from continuing downstream and capturing Fort Pillow and Memphis.

As Flag Officer David G. Farragut’s Federal naval squadron moved up the Mississippi from New Orleans, Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote’s Federal Western Flotilla moved downriver from Island No. 10 toward Fort Pillow, Tennessee. The ultimate destination for both Farragut and Foote was the vital river and railroad city of Memphis.

After the fall of Island No. 10, Foote’s ships continued about 50 miles downriver and docked north of Fort Pillow. The fort stretched five miles and was defended by 40 heavy guns. Foote had been deprived of army support when Major General John Pope’s Army of the Mississippi was called to aid in the drive on Corinth, Mississippi. So all Foote could do was keep his ships out of the Confederates’ gun range and bombard them with siege artillery.

In addition to the Confederate garrison at Fort Pillow, opposing the Federal squadron was the Confederate River Defense Fleet, which consisted of eight vessels commanded by Captain James E. Montgomery and manned by army troops under Brigadier General M. Jeff Thompson of the Missouri militia. The ships were steamboats loaded with timber and cotton bales for protection. Known as “cotton-clads,” the ships had been brought up from New Orleans to contest the Federals’ southward drive. They only had one or two guns each, but they were fitted with iron prows to stab holes into enemy ships. And they were faster than the Federal ironclads.

On May 8, three Confederate rams from the fleet moved up the Mississippi from Fort Pillow to scout the Federal vessels. The larger Federal gunboats drove the Confederates off. The next day, Montgomery held a council of war at Memphis, where he and his officers agreed to move upriver that night and attack the Federal fleet the following day. The Confederates hoped that a surprise attack might destroy the Federals before they could join forces with Farragut.

While the Confederates planned their attack, Foote stepped down as commander of the Federal Western Flotilla. His health had deteriorated ever since being wounded at Fort Donelson in February. He selected Captain Charles H. Davis to replace him in command of the seven ironclads (the U.S.S. Mound City, Carondelet, Benton, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Cairo, and St. Louis), one timber-clad, 16 mortar boats, and two infantry regiments.

Montgomery steamed directly toward Davis’s fleet at Plum Point Bend, north of Fort Pillow, on May 10. The Federals sighted the black smoke from the lead vessel, the C.S.S. General Bragg, off Craigshead Point, two miles above Fort Pillow. Montgomery sought to destroy the Federal Mortar Boat No. 16 and her escort, the Cincinnati, as they shelled the fort unsupported. The Confederates’ speed advantage helped them in the tight bend in the river.

The Cincinnati got up steam and approached the middle of the river. The crewmen fired their three bow guns but were rammed by the General Bragg before they could reload. The impact opened a large hole in her starboard quarter. The C.S.S. General Price then rammed the Cincinnati’s port side, disabling her rudder.

The fight on the Mississippi | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The fight on the Mississippi | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The six remaining Federal ironclads came up to join the fight, knocking the General Bragg out of action as the C.S.S. General Sumter rammed the Cincinnati a third time. The Cincinnati managed to severely damage multiple Confederate ships with broadsides before finally sinking in 11 feet of water.

Meanwhile, the General Price sustained non-lethal damage as she disabled Federal Mortar Boat No. 16. The other Federal mortar boats fired exploding shells that rained iron down on the enemy ships. Montgomery’s fleet continued upriver to engage the remaining Federal ironclads coming down to meet them.

The General Sumter rammed the U.S.S. Mound City, which was then rammed a second time by the C.S.S. General Van Dorn. The Federals aboard the Mound City grounded her on a sandbar to avoid sinking. The ironclad U.S.S. Carondelet used rifled cannon fire to badly damage the General Sumter, General Lovell, and General Van Dorn.

The Confederates had inflicted severe damage on the enemy flotilla after 30 minutes of fighting. But when the Federal ships pulled back into shallower water, Montgomery’s deeper draft vessels could not pursue. He ordered a return to Memphis, with Confederate artillery and sharpshooters continuing to fire at the Federals from a distance.

Montgomery had been victorious, having sunk two Federal ironclads. But the rest of Davis’s fleet remained intact, while four of Montgomery’s eight ships had been disabled. This, combined with the Confederate withdrawal, enabled Davis to claim victory as well. Davis boasted that he had driven the Confederates off after inflicting heavy damage, but the Confederates did not sustain as much damage as Davis had hoped.

Federals raised the Mound City the next day, and the Cincinnati two months later. Both vessels returned to service. However, this engagement proved that the Confederate defenses at Fort Pillow as well as Montgomery’s fleet were too strong for Davis to attack with what he had.

This marked one of the few “fleet battles” of the war. It temporarily halted Federal plans to join the squadrons of Davis and Farragut at Memphis. Montgomery informed General P.G.T. Beauregard at Corinth, Mississippi, that Davis’s fleet “will never penetrate farther down the Mississippi” at their current strength. Davis, aware of this as well, called on the Federal Navy Department to reinforce his flotilla with the speedy Ellet-class rams.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (10 May 1862); Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 612; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 168; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 380-81; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 149-51; Jensen, Les D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 587-88; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 209-10; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 416-17; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 83-85; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 486; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 303

Confederates Abandon Norfolk

May 9, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln personally directed an operation that resulted in capturing one of the Confederacy’s most important naval bases.

As elements of the Federal and Confederate armies clashed at Williamsburg, Lincoln left the Washington Navy Yard aboard the five-gun Treasury cutter Miami, bound for Fort Monroe. Lincoln’s secretary stated that the president was going “to ascertain by personal observation whether some further vigilance and vigor might not be infused into the operations of the army and navy at that point.” Joining the president were Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, and General Egbert Viele.

Part of the trip’s intent was to see if Norfolk could be captured now that Yorktown had fallen. Norfolk, on the south side of the James River estuary, housed the vital Gosport Navy Yard for the Confederacy and was home to the powerful ironclad C.S.S. Virginia. Lincoln and his fellow travelers hoped to end the Virginia’s reign of terror over the Federal blockading fleet.

Gen J.E. Wool | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Gen J.E. Wool | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The Miami reached Fort Monroe on the night of May 6, after a 27-hour trip. When Lincoln was informed that Major General George B. McClellan would not be meeting with him because he was busy directing operations at Williamsburg, he personally inspected the area around Hampton Roads. Seeing that Norfolk, now isolated due to the fall of Yorktown, could be easily taken, Lincoln turned to 78-year-old Major General John E. Wool, commanding the Federals at Fort Monroe, to lay out a plan to capture the town.

On May 8, a Confederate tugboat captain who had deserted informed the Federals that Major General Benjamin Huger was hurriedly evacuating his 9,000 Confederates from Norfolk. Lincoln ordered a naval squadron–consisting of the U.S.S. Monitor, Dacotah, Naugatuck, Seminole, and Susquehanna–to bombard Sewell’s Point, about seven and a half miles north of Norfolk, in preparation for a troop landing. However, the Virginia arrived to push the Federal vessels back to Fort Monroe.

As Lincoln inspected Hampton Roads for a potential troop landing on the 9th, the Confederates evacuated Norfolk, losing the town they had captured in April 1861. Lincoln directed the U.S.S. Monitor to see if Confederates had abandoned their batteries at Sewell’s Point. Learning that they had, Lincoln ordered Wool to land Federals on Willoughby Spit, away from the enemy batteries, on the south side of Hampton Roads. That night, about 5,000 Federals led by Wool and Treasury Secretary Chase left Fort Monroe.

The Federals reached Norfolk without resistance, with Mayor William W. Lamb and other municipal officials meeting Wool and Chase outside the city. Lamb handed keys to the city to the Federals. He then stretched out the surrender ceremony long enough for the last Confederates to destroy the Gosport Navy Yard and anything else useful to the Federals before escaping.

The loss of Norfolk devastated the Confederacy. It also threatened to end the career of the C.S.S. Virginia, which was now without a base. The Confederates retreated up the south side of the James, planning to make their next stand at Drewry’s Bluff. Lincoln triumphantly visited both Norfolk and Portsmouth the following day. Norfolk was placed under martial law, with General Viele governing, for the rest of the war.

The fall of Yorktown effectively doomed Norfolk, but Lincoln’s direct involvement made it happen faster than it otherwise would have. An officer of the Monitor credited Lincoln with “stirring up dry bones,” referring to the aging General Wool and Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. The officer wrote, “It is extremely fortunate that the President came down when he did–he seems to have infused new life into everything, even the superannuated old fogies began to show some signs of life.”

Chase told Lincoln about the operations and then wrote his daughter: “So has ended a brilliant week’s campaign of the President, for I think it quite certain that if he had not come down, (Norfolk) would still have been in possession of the enemy and the Merrimac (i.e., Virginia) as grim and defiant and as much a terror as ever.” McClellan did not acknowledge either Norfolk’s fall or Lincoln’s involvement.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 124-25; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (10 May 1862); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 15279-89; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 167-68; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7408-19; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 414-15; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 149-50; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3405-18; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 436-39; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 209-10; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 108; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q262

The New Orleans Occupation Begins

April 28, 1862 – Flag Officer David G. Farragut tried to end the standoff between his Federals and New Orleans officials by threatening the bombard the city if they did not surrender. Meanwhile, Federal occupation troops were on the way.

David G. Farragut | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

David G. Farragut | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The stalemate continued between Farragut, who wanted New Orleans to surrender unconditionally, and Mayor John T. Monroe, who consented to Federal occupation but would not disavow his Confederate allegiance. On the morning of the 26th, Farragut wrote Monroe again requesting that he surrender and assuring him, “It is not within the province of a naval officer to assume the duties of a military commandant. The rights of persons and property shall be secured.”

Farragut then demanded “that the emblem of sovereignty of the United States be hoisted over the City Hall, Mint, and Customhouse by meridian this day. All flags and other emblems of sovereignty other than those of the United States must be removed from all the public buildings by that hour.” He warned that if his men saw any other flag other than that of the U.S. waving in the city, it “may be the cause of bloodshed.”

Captain Albert Kautz delivered Farragut’s messages by passing through the crowd that was still enraged by the Federal presence. He was supported by 20 marines, city police, and the threat of naval bombardment. Meanwhile, the U.S.S. Pensacola docked opposite Esplanade Street and a Federal detachment came ashore. They went to the nearby Mint undetected and raised the U.S. flag over it.

Meanwhile, Monroe met with Kautz at City Hall. Backed by the city council, Monroe maintained that he had no authority to surrender and declared:

“The city is yours by the power of brutal force and not by any choice or consent of its inhabitants. I beg you to understand that the people of New Orleans, while unable at this moment to prevent you from occupying this city, do not transfer their allegiance from the government of their choice to one which they have deliberately repudiated, and that they yield simply that obedience which the conqueror is enabled to extort from the conquered.”

Monroe continued:

“The city is without the means of defense, and is utterly destitute of the force and material that might enable it to resist an overpowering armament displayed in sight of it… To surrender such a place were an idle and unmeaning ceremony… As to hoisting any flag other than the flag of our own adoption and allegiance, let me say to you that the man lives not in our midst whose hand and heart would not be paralyzed at the mere thought of such an act; nor could I find in my entire constituency so wretched and desperate a renegade as would dare to profane with his hand the sacred emblem of our aspirations… Peace and order may be preserved without resort to measures which I could not at this moment prevent. Your occupying the city does not transfer allegiance from the government of their choice to one which they have deliberately repudiated, and they yield the obedience which the conqueror is entitled to extort from the conquered.”

As discussions continued, a shredded U.S. flag was tossed through a City Hall window, having been torn down from atop the Mint by protestors. Kautz was hurried back to his ship before the protestors turned their wrath on him. The city council approved a resolution stating that “no resistance would be made to the forces of the United States,” despite loud pleas to resist. That night, Monroe declared martial law and imposed a 9 p.m. curfew.

Meanwhile, more details about the virtual capture of New Orleans reached Vicksburg, another city on the Mississippi River. This prompted more residents there to hurry packing and leaving. Mahala Roach, a Vicksburg resident, wrote in her diary on the 27th, “This has been a singular Sunday, no Sabbath stillness has pervaded its air, but bustle and confusion have prevailed everywhere!”

On Monday the 28th, Farragut wrote Monroe threatening to fire on the levees, which would flood the city, if the U.S. flag was not raised over City Hall, the Mint, and the Custom House. Farragut gave Monroe 48 hours to either raise the flags or evacuate women and children. Monroe responded:

“If it is deemed necessary to remove the flag now floating from this building, or to raise United States flags on others, the power which threatens the destruction of our city is certainly capable of performing those acts.”

Monroe later sent a second message:

“Sir, you can not but know that there is no possible exit from this city for a population which still exceeds in number 140,000, and you must therefore be aware of the utter insanity of such a notification. Our women and children can not escape from your shells if it be your pleasure to murder them on a question of mere etiquette; but if they could, there are but few among them who would consent to desert their families and their homes and the graves of their relations in so awful a moment. They would bravely stand the sight of your shells rolling over the bones of those who were once dear to them, and would deem that they died not ingloriously by the side of the tombs erected by their piety to the memory of departed relatives.”

Major General Benjamin F. Butler | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Major General Benjamin F. Butler | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

As the tense standoff continued, Farragut met with Major General Benjamin F. Butler, who arrived ahead of his Federal troops that would soon occupy New Orleans. Farragut told Butler about the protestors who tore the U.S. flag down from the Mint two days prior, and how yesterday’s city newspapers celebrated their action and cited a gambler named William Mumford as their ringleader.

Butler said, “I will make an example of that fellow by hanging him.” Farragut countered, “You know, General, you will have to catch him before you can hang him.” Butler replied, “I know that, but I will catch him, and then hang him.”

The next day, the foreign consuls of England, France, Spain, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Russia, Portugal, and Brazil, having learned of Farragut’s threat to shell New Orleans, wrote him requesting a meeting “before you proceed from the threat of a bombardment to the realization of such an unheard of act against a town of open commerce without military defenses of any kind and virtually surrendered by the municipal authorities.”

George-Charles Cloué, commanding the nearby French gunboat Milan, also wrote to Farragut:

“I venture to observe to you that this short delay is ridiculous, and, in the name of my Government, I oppose it. If it is your resolution to bombard the city, do it; but I wish to state that you will have to account for this barbarous act to the Power which I represent.”

Farragut opted not to bombard the city, but he did not want to appear weak by waiting for Butler’s troops to arrive to end the standoff. Therefore, he directed a detachment of sailors and marines, supported by artillery, to go ashore and haul down all state and Confederate flags and raise U.S. flags over the Federal buildings. Angry and frustrated residents looked on helplessly.

A surgeon aboard the U.S.S. Hartford wrote in his diary:

“Our ships were placed in position to bombard the city. At noon one hundred and twenty marines… and fifty sailors with two howitzers… landed and marched to City Hall and hauled down the flag of Louisiana… They hoisted the U.S. colors over the custom-house and mint… New Orleans silent and sullen, citizens insolent and abusive and our marines on shore guarding colors.”

At City Hall, the Federals offered Mayor Monroe the honor of lowering the Confederate flag in favor of the U.S. one, but he declined. The Federals opted not to place the U.S. flag over that building since it was not Federal property. Near the waterfront, a marine guard protected the flag over the Custom House.

Meanwhile, Brigadier General Johnson K. Duncan and his Confederate garrisons arrived at New Orleans after surrendering Forts Jackson and St. Philip. News of the surrender spread quickly and dealt the defiant city residents and officials a major blow. Many had hoped that the Confederates in those forts could save them from Federal occupation. The protests quieted significantly.

On the 30th, Farragut finally responded to Monroe’s message two days earlier about Farragut’s apparent willingness to murder women and children. Farragut wrote that Monroe’s language alleged that it was “proper to construe into a determination on my part to murder your women and children, and made your letter so offensive that it will terminate our intercourse.” When Butler’s occupation force arrived, Farragut would “turn over the charge of the city to him and assume my naval duties.”

Farragut also tried explaining to the foreign consuls of New Orleans that he was only trying to protect his men by threatening to bombard the city. Farragut “would not permit any flag opposed to my Government to fly in the city while I had the power to prevent it. It is with great pleasure that I anticipate no further difficulty or inconvenience to your families from my acts.” Regarding the hauling down of state and Confederate flags, “The authorities confessed their inability to do it, and I did it for them.”

By April’s end, New Orleans was, for all intents and purposes, a fallen city. Its defending forts had been captured, naval forces held the city under threat of bombardment, and Federal occupation troops were on the way. The Confederates’ loss of New Orleans virtually lost them all of Louisiana as well. It gave the Federals a vital base of operations and some measure of control over the important Mississippi River Valley.

Confederate officials began a long argument over why New Orleans fell. President Jefferson Davis cited two main reasons: the failure to light the channel when Farragut’s ships attempted to bypass Forts Jackson and St. Philip, and the failure of Confederates to obstruct the channel with hulks, chains, artillery, and/or gunboats to keep the Federals from passing. But few in the South disagreed that New Orleans was indeed gone.

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References

Bearss, Edwin C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 281-82; Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 75-77; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 15501-10, 15517-26, 15604, 15721-30, 15736; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 164-65; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 144; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 450, 784; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 17; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 204-05; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 420; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition), p. 64, 66; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 323-27