Category Archives: Navy

Birth of the C.S.S. Florida

March 22, 1862 – The steamship Oreto left England, destined to become the menacing Confederate commerce raider C.S.S. Florida.

The C.S.S. Florida | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The C.S.S. Florida | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The Oreto, a twin-bladed screw steamer, had been under construction at Liverpool. U.S. officials expressed suspicions that the ship was being built for the Confederate navy. Those suspicions were supplemented by the fact that Liverpool was largely a pro-Confederate city that a U.S. diplomat claimed had been “made by the slave trade, and the sons of those who acquired fortunes in the traffic, now instinctively side with the rebelling slave-drivers.”

Building or arming warships for belligerent powers such as the Confederacy violated Great Britain’s Foreign Enlistment Act. The U.S. consul at Liverpool, Thomas H. Dudley, had discovered the ship’s true purpose as a commerce raider before she left port, but Confederate naval agent James D. Bulloch produced forged papers claiming that a Palermo merchant, not the Confederate government, owned the Oreto. The U.S. minister to Britain, Charles Francis Adams, presented Dudley’s evidence that the ship violated British law to the Foreign Office, but it was not acted upon before the Oreto was taken out of port, ostensibly just for a trial run.

Bulloch hosted a group of guests aboard the steamer on March 22. The new ship was commanded by a British captain, bore the British flag, and carried no armaments. After a short cruise in the harbor, all the guests but one were removed to smaller boats and the vessel left Liverpool. The lone remaining guest was John Low of the Confederate navy, and the ship headed for Nassau in the Bahamas to be fitted with four seven-inch guns.

She was later rechristened the C.S.S. Florida, a powerful Confederate commerce raider under Commander John N. Maffitt.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 260; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 520-21; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 145; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 126; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 264; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 187; 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. 546; 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. 112; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 121

The Fall of New Bern

March 14, 1862 – Federals occupying points on the North Carolina coast advanced to the mainland in hopes of capturing one of the state’s largest cities.

Gen. Ambrose Burnside | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Gen. Ambrose Burnside | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Since the Federal capture of Roanoke Island the previous month, Brigadier General Ambrose E. Burnside and Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough had expanded their control of the North Carolina sounds and connecting waterways. They now set their sights on the state’s mainland, primarily New Bern, North Carolina’s colonial capital, on the Neuse River. New Bern was the state’s second largest city and an important railroad center.

About 11,000 Federal troops of Burnside’s Coastal Division boarded army transports at Roanoke Island to link with 13 gunboats near Hatteras Inlet. The gunboat fleet was led by Commander Stephen C. Rowan, who took over when Goldsborough was recalled to Hampton Roads after the attack by the C.S.S. Virginia. Burnside told his men that they would be part of a major offensive designed to support Major General George B. McClellan’s upcoming Peninsula campaign.

About 4,000 Confederates defended New Bern under Brigadier General Lawrence O. Branch, a lawyer and politician whose only military experience was in the Seminole Wars. Branch’s men were posted at the several earthworks below New Bern, including Fort Thompson, the strongest work, six miles south. A lack of slave labor in the area prevented Branch from bolstering the defenses.

On the 13th, the Federal gunboats covered Burnside’s three brigades as they debarked without resistance at Slocomb’s Creek, on the west bank of the Neuse, about 16 miles south of New Bern. As the troops advanced on land, the gunboats advanced on the river, shelling the five Confederate forts in the woods as they went. Rowan later reported:

“I commenced throwing 5, 10, 15 second shells inshore, and notwithstanding the risk, I determined to continue till the general sent me word. I know the persuasive power of a 9-inch (shell), and thought it better to kill a Union man or two than to lose the effect of my moral suasion.”

Learning of the Federal advance, Branch pulled his troops out of their first line of defenses and concentrated them in a front about six miles southeast of New Bern, near Fort Thompson. This inadequate force guarded the road that Branch suspected the Federals would take.

The Federal troops advanced to where it was believed Branch’s lines were, but the Confederates had already fallen back. The Federals continued advancing amid some skirmishing; driving rain and muddy roads not only made the march difficult, but they made it impossible for the Federals to bring up artillery. Nevertheless, Burnside planned to launch an assault the next day.

At dawn, Burnside ordered his brigades to advance up the muddy west bank of the Neuse with Brigadier Generals Jesse Reno, John G. Parke, and John G. Foster on the left, center, and right respectively. Branch’s defensive line extended from Fort Thompson on the Neuse to his left, a road leading west to his right, and the main road to New Bern in his center. Like at Roanoke Island, the Federals would have to cross a swamp to get to the Confederates.

As the Federals surged forward, the gunboats on the Neuse began bombarding Fort Thompson. The Confederates, outflanked and low on ammunition, held firm until a militia unit in the center of the line suddenly broke. The Federals exploited the gap and sent the enemy fleeing around 10:30 a.m.

Some Confederates on the right did not get the order to retreat and were captured. Those who got away crossed the Trent River into New Bern and burned the bridge behind them. But by this time, the Federal gunboats commanded the town. The Confederates set fire to New Bern without orders and continued fleeing. Branch arranged to withdraw his force by rail to Kinston, 35 miles west, but it took him nearly a week to reassemble all his remaining men.

Meanwhile, the Federals entered New Bern that afternoon and received a similar reception to the one at Winton: only blacks and poor whites celebrated their arrival. Panic spread among the other local residents, as people fled on trains to Goldsborough and other towns. Only 100 of the 1,200 New Bern residents remained when the Federals arrived.

The Federals sustained 471 casualties (90 killed and 381 wounded or missing). The Confederates lost 578 (64 killed, 101 wounded, and 413 captured or missing). In addition to capturing New Bern, the Federals also gained control of all the outlying forts along the river, including Fort Thompson. A landing party from Rowan’s fleet also seized two steamers, large quantities of cotton, and an artillery battery.

The fall of New Bern created another port and useful supply base for Federal inland expeditions. It also gave the Federals easy access to the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad. The Confederate government, realizing the importance of North Carolina too late, sent reinforcements that should have been sent months earlier.

With a foothold on the mainland, Burnside soon looked back to points on the Atlantic, particularly Fort Macon near Cape Lookout.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 33-37; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (14 Mar 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 141; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 121-23; Hubbell, John T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 524; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 184-85; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 51-53; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 294-95

The Battle of the Ironclads

March 9, 1862 – A naval duel at Hampton Roads off the Virginia coast marked the first time in history that two ironclad warships did battle.

After nearly destroying the Federal blockading fleet the day before, the C.S.S. Virginia (formerly the U.S.S. Merrimac) returned to Hampton Roads on the 9th. The Virginia’s commander, Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones, intended to finish off the grounded Federal flagship, the U.S.S. Minnesota. However, the Federal ironclad U.S.S. Monitor, designed to neutralize the Virginia, was waiting nearby.

The stationary Minnesota began firing at the Virginia as she closed to within a mile, but no damage was done. The Monitor then answered signals that the enemy was approaching by coming out to confront her. A midshipman aboard the Virginia recalled, “We thought at first it was a raft on which one of the Minnesota’s boilers was being taken to shore for repairs.”

The Monitor did not seem nearly as formidable as the Virginia, but she was iron-plated just like her Confederate adversary. The Monitor was also faster and more maneuverable than her lumbering opponent, with a more stable engine and a 10 1/2-foot draft as opposed to the Virginia’s 21-foot draft. Although the Virginia outgunned the Federal ship 10 to two, the Monitor’s two guns were on an innovative revolving turret.

The Monitor fired first, hitting the Virginia with a shot at the waterline. It did no damage, but the Confederate crewmen were startled to see such a strange craft firing on them. A Federal aboard the Monitor said, “You can see surprise in a ship just as you can see it in a man, and there was surprise all over the Merrimac.”

The Virginia opened fire at 8:06 a.m. with a shot that passed over the Monitor and struck the Minnesota. The Minnesota and Federal shore batteries returned fire as the ironclads closed in on each other. Lieutenant John L. Worden, the Monitor’s commander, stopped his engines and allowed his ship to drift alongside the Virginia, as both crews began firing as fast as they could from just a few yards apart. The Monitor’s revolving turret was struck twice, but the mechanism continued functioning properly.

Virginia (Merrimac) v. Monitor | Image Credit: thehistorybomb.com

Virginia (Merrimac) v. Monitor | Image Credit: thehistorybomb.com

The Monitor’s heavy shot managed to crack the Virginia’s iron plating in some places, but for the most part, her broadsides bounced or slid off the Confederate vessel’s armor “with no more effect… than so many pebblestones thrown by a child.” Conversely, the Monitor sat so low on the water that most of the Virginia’s shots passed harmlessly overhead.

Thousands of spectators gathered on shore to watch the ironclads battle “mercilessly, but ineffectively” for four hours. With his shots having no effect, Worden directed his men to ram the Virginia’s stern and try disabling her propeller. The Monitor narrowly missed, and the firing resumed. As the ships circled each other, the Monitor came perpendicular to the Virginia, and Jones directed his Confederates to ram her. But Worden easily evaded the larger, slower vessel.

Near noon, the Monitor disengaged to replenish her ammunition. The Virginia steamed to within 10 yards and fired a round that struck the pilot house, sending iron splinters through the viewing slit and partially blinding Worden. Thinking that the pilot house had been seriously damaged, he ordered a withdrawal and retired to quarters, relinquishing command to Lieutenant Samuel D. Greene.

Meanwhile, the Virginia’s unstable engine began struggling and she went aground. Greene ordered his Federals to reengage the Confederates, but by the time they returned, the Virginia had broken free and was withdrawing back to Sewell’s Point, under the cover of Confederate artillery. The vessel was low on ammunition and taking on water due to the engine problems, and Jones feared that she could be grounded again in the lowering tides. The battle was over.

The Monitor, which had been hit 23 times, resumed guard duty alongside the Minnesota. The Virginia’s engine proved too ineffective to pose any further threat to the Federal naval fleet on the Atlantic. Nevertheless, this began a new era in naval warfare, as the Monitor’s chief engineer Alban Stimers wrote to his father that this battle “was the first of its kind that ever occurred in history.” Captain John Dahlgren noted, “Now comes the reign of iron–and cased sloops are to take the place of wooden ships.” As of this date, the wooden navies of the world were obsolete.

Both the exhausted crews were mutually happy to be done with each other, and they both claimed victory. The Monitor may have won a strategic victory by preventing the Virginia from accomplishing her mission to destroy the Federal blockading fleet. However, the Confederates may have won a psychological victory by making the Federal navy expend large amounts of resources to defend against enemy ironclads in the future. The resources included vessels that had originally been assigned to support Major General George B. McClellan’s Peninsula campaign.

At Washington, panic over the prospect of the Virginia steaming up the Potomac turned to jubilation when Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus V. Fox telegraphed from Fort Monroe at 9 p.m.: “These two ironclad vessels fought part of the time touching each other, from 8 a.m. to noon, when the Merrimac retired… The Monitor is uninjured and ready at any moment to repel another attack.” This meant that Fort Monroe was safe for now, McClellan’s Peninsula campaign could proceed, and Washington would not fall under naval bombardment.

Soon “Monitor fever” swept the northern states in celebration of the Monitor’s defense of Hampton Roads. Naval officials quickly focused on constructing more Monitor-class vessels for the war effort. Worden later received a vote of thanks from Congress and a promotion to captain for leading the crew of the Monitor in this fight.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 72-74; Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 85; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 179; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (9 Mar 1862); Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 46; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 385-86, 504; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 139; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 120-21; Keefer, Kimberly A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 842-43; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 131-32; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 181-82; 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. 375-76; 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. 101-05; Melton, Maurice, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 787; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 279; 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. 335; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 62; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 529-30

The C.S.S. Virginia Attacks

March 8, 1862 – The Confederate ironclad Virginia demolished the Federal naval fleet off Hampton Roads, rendering all wooden warships obsolete and threatening to permanently break the Federal blockade.

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

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

The crew of the C.S.S. Virginia (formerly the U.S.S. Merrimac), the flagship of the Confederate James River Squadron, completed preparations for action on the 7th. The next day, the ironclad vessel steamed out of the Norfolk Navy Yard, accompanied by five other vessels.

Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan, commanding the Virginia, had been authorized to make a trial run, but he instead sent the workers ashore and took the ironclad out to confront the entire Federal blockading fleet off Hampton Roads. As the Virginia passed Sewell’s Point, Buchanan addressed his 350-man crew:

“My men, you are now about to face the enemy. You shall have no reason to complain of not fighting at close quarters. Remember, you fight for your homes and your country. You see those ships–you must sink them. I need not ask you to do it. I know you will do it.”

Although the Virginia had not been built for speed (she could barely reach six knots at full steam), her thick iron plating made her almost invulnerable to enemy fire. Crewmen also greased the sloped plating with melted pork fat to better resist the cannonballs.

As the ironclad steamed down the James, five of the Federals’ most powerful warships were stationed near the river’s mouth, 10 miles from Norfolk: U.S.S. Cumberland, Congress, Roanoke, St. Lawrence, and the flagship Minnesota. The Congress, Cumberland, and St. Lawrence were sailing vessels considered behind the times due to the advent of steam power. The Roanoke had a broken shaft and was not functional. All five were wooden warships.

The 8th was a Saturday, so Federal crewmen were drying their laundry on their ships’ riggings when the Virginia appeared. The ironclad steamed directly for the 30-gun sloop Cumberland, one of the Federals’ largest ships, and rammed her around 1 p.m. The Cumberland’s superior firepower was no match for the Virginia’s iron plating. Despite losing her metallic ram, the ironclad opened a gaping hole below the Cumberland’s waterline and sank her.

The Congress, a 50-gun frigate led by Lieutenant Joseph B. Smith, saw the action from Newport News Point and began firing at the Virginia. A witness observed several broadsides being fired into the ironclad and noted that the shots “struck and glanced off, having no more effect than peas from a pop-gun.” The Virginia took 98 hits that disabled two guns, blew nearly everything off the deck, and shot up her smokestack. But none inflicted serious damage.

In response, Buchanan directed his crew to bear down on the Congress. Smith ordered the Congress towed to shore, but she sustained heavy damage from direct fire before running aground. Many were killed or wounded, including Smith, who was decapitated by a shot around 4:20 p.m. His successor surrendered the burning vessel.

The Virginia then turned her attention to the flagship, Minnesota. However, the Minnesota’s crew grounded her off Newport News to avoid destruction. The ironclad’s deep 22-foot draft prevented her from steaming into the shallows to finish the Minnesota off.

Meanwhile, Federal shore batteries poured fire into the Virginia, with the cannonballs merely bouncing or sliding off her iron plating. But one shot managed to wound Buchanan, forcing him to pass command to Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones. Jones returned the Virginia to Sewell’s Point near nightfall, with plans to resume the attack on the Minnesota and any remaining blockaders the next day.

This was the Confederacy’s greatest naval victory of the war. The Virginia destroyed two powerful warships in four and a half hours and, despite losing two guns, suffered no serious damage. They sustained 21 casualties (two killed and 19 wounded, Buchanan among them).

Conversely, this was the worst day in U.S. naval history up to that time (only Pearl Harbor, 79 years later, was worse). The Federals sustained 250 casualties, the most the navy suffered on any day of the war. The remaining vessels at Hampton Roads faced almost certain destruction the next day, until a new vessel arrived late that night to help even the odds.

The Federal ironclad U.S.S. Monitor completed a harrowing journey from New York, during which she was nearly swamped several times. The Monitor’s primary mission was to stop the Virginia. Captain John Marston, acting commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron aboard the U.S.S. Roanoke, directed Lieutenant John Worden, commanding the Monitor, to protect the grounded Minnesota.

The Monitor steamed to the Minnesota’s side around midnight, using the light from the burning Congress to find her way. The Congress’s magazine ignited shortly after 1 a.m., sparking several explosions and destroying the vessel. Lieutenant Samuel D. Greene, the executive officer of the Monitor, reported: “Her powder tanks seemed to explode, each shower of sparks rivaling the other in its height, until they appeared to reach the zenith–a grand but mournful sight.”

Within two hours of the Congress’s explosion, Major General John Wool, the Federal army commander at Fort Monroe, telegraphed the War Department that the Confederacy’s “floating battery” had sunk two frigates and would sink the remaining three before assaulting the fort itself. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton read the dispatch with terror and hurried to the White House to notify President Abraham Lincoln. The news soon spread panic throughout Washington, with Lincoln repeatedly looking out windows to see if the Virginia was coming up the Potomac.

An emergency cabinet meeting began at 6:30 a.m. on the 9th, where Stanton paced “like a caged lion” and declared: “The Merrimac (i.e., Virginia) will change the whole character of the war. She will destroy, seriatim, every naval vessel; she will lay all the cities on the seaboard under contribution.”

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles expressed concern but shared a message from Lieutenant Worden announcing that the Monitor had arrived at Hampton Roads. Stanton, unimpressed, went to a window and said, “Not unlikely, we shall have a shell or a cannonball from one of her (Virginia’s) guns in the White House before we leave this room.”

Welles argued that the Virginia drew too much water to come up the Potomac. He later recalled that there was “something inexpressibly ludicrous in the wild, frantic talk, action and rage of Stanton.” Lincoln shared Stanton’s concerns but remained calm. Later that day, Stanton telegraphed the coastal state governors: “Man your guns. Block your harbors. The Merrimac is coming.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 72-74; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 139; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 258; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 119; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 131-32; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 180-81; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 697; 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. 375; Melton, Maurice, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 787; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 275; 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. 335; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 49, 57-58; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 99-100; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 529-30

The Battle of Elizabeth City

February 10, 1862 – Federals confronted the Confederate “mosquito” fleet north of Albemarle Sound on the North Carolina coast, threatening nearby Elizabeth City in the process.

Map of area around Elizabeth City | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Map of area around Elizabeth City | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

After the fall of Roanoke Island, Flag Officer William F. Lynch’s Confederate vessels withdrew northward, up the Pasquotank River. They stopped at Elizabeth City, the North Carolina terminus of the Dismal Swamp Canal and the gateway to many vital waterways connecting North Carolina and southern Virginia. Lynch resolved to defend the town with his six ships, which comprised the entire Confederate naval force left in the North Carolina sounds.

Meanwhile, the Federal captors of Roanoke Island looked to expand their occupation zone. Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, commanding the Federal naval fleet, directed a top subordinate, Commander Stephen C. Rowan of the U.S.S. Delaware, to lead 13 gunboats in pursuit of Lynch’s “mosquito” fleet. Rowan had orders to “bag them all if possible.” At dawn on February 10, Rowan’s vessels entered the mouth of the Pasquotank.

Lynch could arm just two of his ships due to lack of ammunition. He arranged his fleet in a line of battle across the river, with the flagship Sea Bird placed opposite the Confederate fort and battery at Cobb’s Point. Finding the fort manned by just eight volunteers, Lynch personally took command upon receiving word that the Federals were approaching. He ordered his ship captains to hold firm until they ran out of ammunition.

The Federals advanced within range of the Confederate guns around 8:30 a.m. They continued moving forward despite coming under enemy fire from both Lynch’s fleet and the fort. When the ships advanced to within three-quarters of a mile from the Confederates, Rowan signaled: “Dash at the enemy.”

The Federals moved full steam ahead. Ignoring Lynch’s order to hold, the Confederate vessels quickly turned and tried to flee. Within a half-hour, the Federals had destroyed four ships (the C.S.S. Beaufort, Black Warrior, Fanny, and Sea Bird), and captured the C.S.S. Ellis. The Confederates scuttled the C.S.S. Appomattox when she could not get through a lock in the Dismal Swamp Canal. The C.S.S. Forrest, under repairs and not part of the battle, was also destroyed. This virtually wiped out the “mosquito” fleet.

The Confederate forts and batteries at Cobb’s Point were destroyed as well, leaving Elizabeth City defenseless. The Federal vessels arrived at the town a few hours later. By that time, most white residents had fled, leaving behind several burning buildings and a throng of cheering slaves. The Federals sustained nine casualties in the operation (two killed and seven wounded), and the Confederates lost four killed.

In his report to Flag Officer Goldsborough, Rowan singled out Quarter-Gunner John Davis for bravery:

“I would respectfully call your attention to one incident of the engagement which reflects much credit upon a quarter gunner of the Valley City and for which Congress has provided rewards in the shape of medals. A shot passed through her magazine and exploded in a locker beyond containing fireworks. The commander, Lieutenant Commander Chaplain, went there to aid in suppressing the fire, where he found John Davis, quarter gunner, seated with commendable coolness on an open barrel of powder as the only means to keep the fire out, all the while passing powder to provide the division on the upper deck while under fierce enemy fire.”

Davis received the Medal of Honor for this action under General Order No. 11 on April 3, 1863.

Less than two weeks after taking Elizabeth City, Rowan led a fleet of eight gunboats up the Chowan River toward Winton. The Federals withdrew under heavy artillery fire, but they returned the next morning and bombarded the town into submission. Federal troops, supported by the U.S.S. Delaware and Commodore Perry, came ashore and burned buildings, churches, and homes.

The Federals then turned their attention to New Bern. With no more naval support, the Confederates turned to planting obstructions in the waterways to stop the Federal naval advance. This proved moderately successful, as Goldsborough reported to Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox, “At Washington (N.C.), and also at New Bern the obstructions in the river are very formidable, and admirably placed…”

However, this only delayed the Federal push toward New Bern, which continued into March.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 31-32, 34; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (10 Feb 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 126, 132; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 231; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 108-09, 112; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 169; 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. 372; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 51

Federals Target Fort Henry

February 1, 1862 – The Federal invasion of Tennessee began with a joint army-navy operation against Fort Henry on the Tennessee River.

Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote’s Federal gunboat flotilla had been observing Confederates building Forts Henry and Donelson on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers respectively since the previous fall. Foote became convinced that his vessels could, with army help, subdue these forts and threaten the rear of General Albert Sidney Johnston’s Confederate defensive line across Kentucky.

In late January, both Foote and Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant requested permission to launch a joint operation against Fort Henry from Major General Henry W. Halleck, commanding the Federal Department of Missouri. Halleck had considered a move against Fort Henry as a first step to a drive on Nashville, but he was reluctant to put Grant in charge of army operations due to his past reputation for drunkenness. Halleck finally went along with it on Foote’s recommendation.

Grant assembled about 17,000 troops for the mission, but he soon learned that winter rains had made the roads unusable for marching. Therefore, Grant planned to use river transports to move his men, horses, supplies, and equipment. The transports would be escorted by Foote’s gunboat flotilla of three wooden (timber-clad) vessels (U.S.S. Conestoga, Lexington, and Tyler), and four ironclads (U.S.S. Carondelet, Cincinnati, Essex, and St. Louis).

The Conestoga had previously steamed up the Tennessee to remove obstructions and explosive mines known as “torpedoes” that Confederates had placed in the river. Foote telegraphed Halleck on the 1st: “I leave early to-morrow with four armored gunboats on an expedition cooperating with the Army. Senior officer will telegraph you during my absence…”

Grant initially instructed his division commanders, Brigadier Generals Charles F. Smith and John A. McClernand, to leave a skeleton force and most of their supplies back at their camps at Paducah, Kentucky, and Cairo, Illinois, respectively. This was partly due to rumors that Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard was leading 15 regiments westward from Virginia. However, Halleck instructed Grant, “Make your force as large as possible. I will send more regiments from here (St. Louis) in a few days.”

The expedition began on the 2nd, as Federal troops began boarding the transports at Cairo. Since they could not accommodate all Grant’s soldiers at once, McClernand’s men went first and then the vessels came back to Paducah and collected Smith’s division. Meanwhile, Foote sent his three timber-clads up the Tennessee to clear the way and issued instructions to the gunboat crews:

“Let it be also distinctly impressed upon the mind of every man firing a gun that, while the first shot may be either of too much elevation or too little, there is no excuse for a second wild fire, as the first will indicate the inaccuracy of the aim of the gun, which must be elevated or depressed, or trained, as circumstances require. Let it be reiterated that random firing is not only a mere waste of ammunition, but, what is far worse, it encourages the enemy when he sees shot and shell falling harmlessly about and beyond him…”

In St. Louis, Halleck exchanged messages with General Don Carlos Buell, commanding the Federal Department of the Ohio. Halleck and Buell had found it difficult to coordinate their efforts, but when Buell learned that one of Halleck’s armies was targeting Fort Henry, which was technically within Buell’s department, he quickly offered assistance.

Maj Gen H.W. Halleck | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Maj Gen H.W. Halleck | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Halleck responded that “co-operation at present not essential” because it was “only proposed to take and occupy Fort Henry and Dover (Fort Donelson), and, if possible, cut the railroad from Columbus to Bowling Green.” Halleck continued:

“If we take Fort Henry and concentrate all available forces there, (Confederate) troops must be withdrawn either from Bowling Green (under Buell’s department) or Columbus (under Halleck’s) to protect the railroads. If the former, you can advance, if the latter, we can take New Madrid (in Missouri) and cut off the (Mississippi) river communication with Columbus.”

Grant reported to Halleck on the 3rd: “Will be off up the Tennessee at 6 o’clock. Command, twenty-three regiments in all.” McClernand’s Federals reached the Tennessee aboard nine transports, escorted by the U.S.S. Essex and St. Louis. Among those participating in the expedition, only Grant and Foote knew that capturing Fort Henry was the mission. The Federals were to disembark several miles below the fort, beyond Confederate artillery range. They would then march overland and, with gunboat assistance, attack and capture the fort.

Confederate Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman commanded Fort Henry. The fort stood across the Tennessee from Fort Heiman, named for Colonel Adolphus Heiman, Tilghman’s second-in-command. Fort Heiman stood on higher, more defensible ground, but its works were incomplete. Thus most of the Confederate garrison was stationed at Henry. Tilghman had about 3,400 Confederates in Henry, most of whom were armed only with shotguns or obsolete flintlock muskets. The fort had just 12 cannon.

Tilghman observed the advancing Federal gunboats and telegraphed A.S. Johnston that if he received reinforcements immediately, he had “a glorious chance to overwhelm the enemy.” But no reinforcements were on the way, and the river began rising into the fort’s lower tier due to the heavy rains. Tilghman left Colonel Heiman in charge and went to inspect defenses at Fort Donelson, 12 miles east on the Cumberland River.

McClernand’s Federals reached their debarkation point at 4:30 a.m. on the 4th. They landed about eight miles north of (or downriver from) Fort Henry, just south of the Kentucky-Tennessee line on the east bank of the Tennessee River. Considering the terrible roads, Grant considered this too far for an overland advance and tried to find a closer landing.

Grant personally reconnoitered Fort Henry from Foote’s flagship Cincinnati, flanked by two other gunboats. The Federals sought to test the enemy artillery range, and the Confederates obliged by opening fire. Nearly every shot missed except one that struck the cabin of the U.S.S. Essex. The vessels pulled back, Grant having learned what he needed. Federals also retrieved some of the torpedoes moored in the river and examined them.

Returning to his men, Grant directed the transports to take them further upriver to about three miles within Fort Henry. McClernand called this debarkation point Camp Halleck. C.F. Smith’s troops soon came up to join McClernand’s. Grant and Foote developed a plan of attack by which the gunboats would bombard the fort while the troops attacked from the rear to prevent escape. However, the operation was delayed by heavy rain and deep mud.

Meanwhile, with Tilghman still at Fort Donelson, Colonel Heiman received word that a large Federal force had landed five miles away. He called on General Leonidas Polk, commanding all Confederates in the region, for reinforcements but soon realized that they would probably not arrive in time. Heiman began pulling all available nearby troops to take up the defense of Fort Henry.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 12518-26; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 280-81; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 119-21; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 183-85, 187-88; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 104-05; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 417; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 147-48; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 165-66; 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. 74; Nevin, David, The Road to Shiloh: Early Battles in the West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 61-62; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 243

Launching the U.S.S. Monitor

January 22, 1862 – Lieutenant John L. Worden reported satisfactory progress on construction of an unnamed vessel slated to become the first Federal ironclad warship.

The U.S.S. Monitor | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The U.S.S. Monitor | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The vessel had been under construction since September 1861 at Long Island, New York. Swedish inventor John Ericsson had pledged to build the ship in just 90 days at a cost of only $275,000. The Federal Naval Ironclad Board, hoping to develop a craft that could challenge the Confederate ironclad C.S.S. Virginia (also under construction), enthusiastically approved the plan and even gave Ericsson an extra 10 days to complete it.

Worden, still recovering from several months of Confederate captivity as a prisoner of war, received a message from Joseph Smith of the Ironclad Board on January 11:

“I have only time to say I have named you for the command of the battery under contract with Captain Ericsson, now nearly ready at New York. This vessel is an experiment. I believe you are the right sort of officer to put in command of her.”

Worden responded that he was “induced to believe that she might prove a success.” Five days later, Worden arrived at New York and reported to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles: “… I have this day reported for duty for the command of the U.S.S. Steamer, building for Capt. Ericsson.”

The ship was revolutionary in that she contained 47 patentable inventions. The 172-foot-long vessel was encased in nine layers of iron and operated like a floating raft, with most of the body below the waterline. An inch of iron plating protected the wooden deck, with more iron on the sides to protect against rams and fire.

Topping the deck was a nine-foot-high revolving turret, protected by eight layers of one-inch iron plating. The turret, 20 feet in diameter, housed two cannon that could be fired in any direction. When Ericsson could not get 12-inch guns for the turret, he borrowed two 11-inchers from other ships in the harbor.

Another of Ericsson’s innovations was the engine, which connected to a crankshaft and turned the four-bladed propeller. Capable of reaching a speed of six knots, the smokestack venting the exhaust could be removed during combat.

On January 30, Ericsson launched the vessel from the Greenpoint Shipyard on Long Island. Although Ericsson missed his completion deadline, he still built the warship in 101 days, a timeframe that many thought impossible. In fact, Ericsson completed work on his ship before Confederates completed the C.S.S. Virginia, even though they had a three-month head start.

The warship steamed down the East River in Manhattan on her maiden voyage with a draft of 11 feet, just as Ericsson had predicted. Thousands of onlookers cheered as the strange vessel, with some comparing her to a “cheesebox on a raft.” Ericsson suggested that she be named the Monitor, as “one who admonishes and corrects wrongdoers.”

Worden recruited 57 volunteers to serve as crewmen aboard the U.S.S. Monitor, whose launch would change the course of naval history.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (January 16); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 111, 113, 116, 119; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 98, 103; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 184-85; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 164; 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. 374-75; 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. 99; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 246; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 52-53; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 99