Category Archives: Navy

The Destruction of the C.S.S. Florida

November 28, 1864 – The famed Confederate commerce raider C.S.S. Florida, which had been captured under dubious circumstances in October, suspiciously sank before she could be returned.

C.S.S. Florida | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Commander Napoleon Collins of the U.S.S. Wachusett had captured the Florida while she was docked in a Brazilian port. Brazilian authorities protested that such an action violated international law because Brazil had proclaimed neutrality in the war. However, Collins argued that Brazil had allowed the Florida to bring prizes of war to Brazilian ports, making her fair game for capture. Collins and his crew towed the Confederate vessel back to America.

Collins arrived to a hero’s welcome at Norfolk on the 12th. However, Secretary of State William H. Seward was outraged by Collins’s violation of Brazil’s neutrality and demanded that he return the Florida to Brazilian authorities.

Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, docked the Florida at Hampton Roads, where she awaited her return to Brazil. During this time, an army transport crashed into the Florida and sank her.

An international court most likely would have ruled that the U.S. had wrongly seized the Florida in the first place and demanded her return. Therefore, some alleged that this was an intentional act to prevent the Florida from being returned.

Collins was court-martialed for seizing the Florida and dismissed from the navy. He defended his actions by saying, “I respectfully request that it may be entered on the records of the court as my defense that the capture of the Florida was for the public good.” Navy Secretary Gideon Welles eventually reinstated him.

The U.S. government agreed to apologize to Brazil, and in July 1866, the crew of the U.S.S. Nipsic fired a 21-gun salute as an amende honorable in Bahia Harbor, where the Florida had been seized.

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References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 486; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 12344-65; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 519; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 264; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 263; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971)

The Sinking of the C.S.S. Albemarle

October 28, 1864 – A young Federal officer led a daring raid to destroy the most dangerous Confederate vessel in North Carolina.

The Confederate ironclad ram C.S.S. Albemarle had protected the Roanoke River and Plymouth from Federals throughout the summer. During that time, Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee, commanding the Federal North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, developed a plan to destroy the Albemarle and take back control of the Roanoke. The plan was entrusted to 21-year-old Lieutenant William B. Cushing.

Lt. William B. Cushing | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Cushing planned to fit two steam launches with a 12-pound howitzer in each bow, along with a lanyard-controlled torpedo tied to a 14-foot spar. The launches would boldly steam up to the Albemarle and sink her by detonating the torpedoes. One of the launches was lost at sea, but Cushing intended to execute his plan with his remaining launch.

A bold reconnaissance revealed that the Albemarle was moored at Plymouth, giving Cushing the information he needed to proceed. However, the U.S.S. Southfield, which had been destroyed by the Albemarle and then converted into a Confederate patrol vessel, needed to be bypassed first. Cushing tied a cutter to his launch, and the force aboard the cutter “was to dash aboard the Southfield at the first hail and prevent any rocket from being ignited.”

Cushing and 14 men left the Federal blockading squadron on the night of the 26th, but their launch ran aground upon reaching the Roanoke River. The crew spent the night freeing the vessel, forcing Cushing to postpone the attack until the following evening.

The launch moved eight miles up the Roanoke in the darkness of the 27th and 28th. The crew had placed a tarpaulin over the vessel’s engine to muffle the sound. The Federals advanced close to the riverbank, undetected by Confederate pickets. They passed the Southfield unnoticed, but a guard aboard the Albemarle spotted the launch and called out to it. Cushing reported:

“Just as I was sheering in close to the wharf a hail came sharp and quick from the ironclad, in an instant repeated. I at once directed the cutter to cast off and go down to capture the guard left in our rear (i.e., the Southfield), and ordering all steam, sent the launch at the dark mountain of iron in front of us. A heavy fire at once opened upon us, not only from the ship, but from the men stationed on the shore, but this did not disable us and we neared them rapidly.”

The Confederates onshore started a fire to reveal the launch. The fire also revealed to Cushing that the Albemarle was surrounded by protective logs. Undaunted, Cushing approached the ironclad at full speed, firing the howitzer as he advanced. He directed the launch up over the slimy logs, thrust the spar below the Albemarle, and jerked the lanyard. This detonated the torpedo and sank the ship.

Explosion of C.S.S. Albemarle | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The blast also sank the launch, forcing the Federals to abandon ship and swim for it. Two men drowned and 11 were captured; only Cushing and one other man escaped. Cushing separated from the other man and hid on the riverbank until morning. He then stole a Confederate boat, rowed back down the Roanoke, and was rescued by the U.S.S. Valley City. The Federals fired celebratory rockets from their ships as news spread of the Albemarle’s demise. In his official report, Cushing wrote:

“The most of our party were captured, some were drowned, and only one escaped besides myself, and he in another direction… Completely exhausted, I managed to reach the shore… While hiding a few feet from the path, two of the Albemarle’s officers passed, and I judged from their conversation that the ship was destroyed.”

This was one of the most daring exploits of the war. Cushing was later promoted to lieutenant commander and given the thanks of Congress. The destruction of the Albemarle enabled Federal naval forces to once again try to regain control of the Roanoke and the important city of Plymouth.

The day after the Albemarle was destroyed, Commander William H. Macomb assembled a squadron of seven Federal vessels to recapture Plymouth. Six ships went up the Roanoke, while the Valley City went up the Middle River to reach a point upstream from Plymouth. The ships on the Roanoke were stopped by obstructions that Confederates had placed in the water near the Southfield. They backed down the river and instead followed the Valley City up the Middle.

After negotiating the sharp bends in the Middle throughout the 30th, Macomb’s squadron approached Plymouth the next day. The Confederates defending the town were not only without the Albemarle, but their garrison had been stripped when Major General Robert F. Hoke’s division was transferred to Petersburg. Both sides exchanged artillery fire (the U.S.S. Commodore Hull was seriously damaged) until a magazine exploded, forcing the Confederates to abandon the town.

Federals from the U.S.S. Wyalusing seized Fort Williams, taking 37 prisoners and 22 guns. Two Federal vessels moved upstream and destroyed two Confederate ironclads under construction. Both Navy Secretary Gideon Welles and Rear Admiral David D. Porter, the new commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, expressed gratitude for Macomb’s actions. The destruction of the Albemarle enabled Federals to regain control of Plymouth, the Roanoke River, and Albemarle Sound.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 97; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 199-200; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 476, 479-82; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 12470-80; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 514-16; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 589-91; 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. 185; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 5; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 83

The Capture of the C.S.S. Florida

October 7, 1864 – The Federal steam sloop U.S.S. Wachusett captured the famed Confederate commerce raider C.S.S. Florida under dubious circumstances that threatened diplomatic relations with Brazil.

C.S.S. Florida | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

The Wachusett arrived at Bahia harbor in Brazil on the 2nd to investigate reports that the Florida was nearby. In her career, the Florida had captured 36 Federal prizes totaling over $4 million in shipping, and had once caused panic by threatening New York Harbor. Commander Napoleon Collins led the Wachusett, the sister ship of the U.S.S. Kearsarge, and he had been ordered to do to the Florida what the Kearsarge had done to the C.S.S. Alabama four months before: capture or destroy her.

Two nights later, the Florida anchored in All Saints Bay in Bahia, unaware that the Wachusett had anchored nearby. The Florida’s commander, Lieutenant Charles M. Morris, assumed his ship was safe under international law since Brazil had proclaimed neutrality in the conflict. The U.S. consul, Thomas Wilson, offered peaceful assurances to Brazilian officials, but Collins believed the Florida had previously violated the neutrality by bringing prizes into Brazilian ports. He therefore resolved to confront the Confederate ship.

Through Wilson, Collins sent an invitation to Morris to duel outside the three-mile international limit. Morris declined to even receive the message because it had been addressed to “the sloop Florida,” without acknowledging that she belonged to a nation. Both Collins and Morris pledged not to fight in the neutral area, with Collins removing the shot from his cannon in accordance with international law.

Morris and many of his crew came ashore on the night of the 6th to attend an opera and sleep in a hotel. Around 3 a.m., Collins quietly slipped his cables, backed up, eluded a Brazilian gunboat, then thrust full speed ahead and rammed the Florida in her starboard quarter. The skeleton crew aboard the Florida began firing small arms at the Wachusett, prompting Collins to claim that the Florida had “fired first.”

Though just a glancing blow, the collision crushed the Florida’s bulwarks and snapped the mizzenmast. Collins trained his cannon on the disabled ship and demanded surrender, then he ordered his men to board the Florida and seize the crew. The Wachusett pulled the Florida out of the harbor, bound for Hampton Roads, Virginia. Lieutenant Morris arrived from his hotel to see his ship being towed away.

Florida towed by Wachusett | Image Credit: Harper’s Weekly, Vol. VIII, No. 413, 26 Nov 1864

Brazilian and European officials vehemently protested this violation of international law, as the Florida’s seizure took place in a neutral port, after U.S. assurances that there would be no incident. Diplomatic tensions simmered through this month and into November.

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Sources
Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 793; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 469-71; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Locations 12303-353; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 505-07; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 264; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 263; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 579-80; 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. 205-06; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 150-51

The C.S.S. Tallahassee Raid

August 10, 1864 – A Confederate commerce raider embarked on a mission to attack Federal shipping on the North Atlantic coast, which spread panic among coastal residents.

Confederate Commander John T. Wood, grandson of former General and President Zachary Taylor, led the blockade runner C.S.S. Tallahassee out of New Inlet at Wilmington, North Carolina. The vessel left port during the night and evaded two blockaders to raid Federal shipping.

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

The Tallahassee arrived off the New Jersey coast on the 10th and captured six prizes. Wood burned five of the vessels and bonded the sixth, the Carroll, to take all the captured crewmen to New York. Federal Admiral Hiram Paulding at the Brooklyn Navy Yard reported to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “Pirate off Sandy Hook capturing and burning.”

Welles responded by dispatching three ships from New York to hunt down the Tallahassee. Soon vessels from Boston, Philadelphia, and Hampton Roads were also dispatched. Meanwhile, Wood captured merchant vessels carrying lumber and coal off the New York coast. Panic spread throughout New York and New England, and New York’s Board of Underwriters demanded that Welles do more to stop the Tallahassee’s raid.

By the 15th, the Tallahassee had moved up to the New England coast, continuing to capture and burn Federal ships. Wood next took his raider to British-controlled Halifax, Nova Scotia, to buy coal. The U.S. consul at Nova Scotia, Mortimer M. Jackson, protested the Tallahassee’s arrival, but the lieutenant governor at Halifax observed British neutrality law by granting Wood 24 hours to collect only enough coal to return him to a Confederate port. Wood was granted a 12-hour extension to repair his broken mast.

Meanwhile, Jackson notified Welles of the Tallahassee’s presence. They then alerted the U.S.S. Pontoosuc, commanded by Lieutenant Commander George A. Stevens at Eastport, Maine, that the Confederate vessel was nearby. Wood loaded the Tallahassee with 120 tons of coal and steamed out of Halifax on the night of the 19th. The Pontoosuc arrived there the next morning, seven hours too late to catch the commerce raider.

Stevens took the Pontoosuc north, thinking that Wood was headed for St. Lawrence. But Wood was actually headed back south to Wilmington. The rigid enforcement of neutrality laws in Nova Scotia prevented him from continuing his raid.

The Tallahassee ran the blockade and returned to Wilmington over the night of the 25th and 26th. She fired her way through the blockaders and anchored on the Cape Fear River, under the Confederate guns at Fort Fisher. During the raid, Wood had captured 33 prizes, burning 26 and bonding or releasing seven. This boosted southern morale, which had been shaken by the recent defeat at Mobile Bay. The Federal Navy Department came under intense criticism for allowing the Tallahassee to wreak such havoc in the North Atlantic.

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References

Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 741; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 445-50; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10641-71; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 482, 484-88, 490; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 554-55; 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. 200

Mobile Bay: Federals Seize the Forts

August 8, 1864 – Confederates surrendered Fort Gaines at the entrance to Mobile Bay, apparently without authorization. This enabled the Federals to focus all their attention on capturing the last fort guarding the bay.

David G. Farragut | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

After Rear Admiral David G. Farragut’s Federal naval fleet captured Mobile Bay, the Federals looked to capture the three Confederate forts at the bay’s entrance: Forts Powell, Gaines, and Morgan. Fort Powell was the smallest garrison, consisting of 18 guns and 140 men under Lieutenant Colonel James M. Williams. It guarded the secondary bay entrance west of the main channel.

Federal entry into the bay on the 5th made Fort Powell irrelevant. Colonel Charles D. Anderson, commanding the Confederates at Fort Gaines, directed Williams to “save your garrison when your fort is no longer tenable.” Williams destroyed his magazines and evacuated Fort Powell that night.

Anderson then telegraphed the ranking Confederate commander in the bay, Brigadier General Richard L. Page, stationed at Fort Morgan, regarding Fort Gaines: “The enemy are planting batteries in the sand-hills within easy range. If the fleet opens upon me from the other direction I cannot cover more than half of my men, but will do the best I can. My situation is critical.”

Page advised Anderson to “do your best and keep the men in good cheer.” On the 6th, Anderson reported that two Federal ironclads were bombarding his fort, and he consulted with several officers (none of whom were Page) on whether to surrender. The next morning, Anderson wrote to Farragut:

“Feeling my inability to maintain my present location longer than you may see fit to open upon me with the fleet, and feeling also the uselessness of entailing upon ourselves further destruction of life, I have the honor to propose the surrender of fort Gaines, its garrison, stores, &c.

“I trust to your magnanimity for obtaining honorable terms, which I respectfully request that you will transmit to me, and allow me sufficient time to consider them and return an answer.”

Page saw the boat leaving Fort Gaines delivering the message under a flag of truce and ordered Anderson, “Hold on to your fort.” Farragut received the message and consulted with Major General Gordon Granger, the army commander whose troops were closing in to lay siege to Gaines. The officers gave their terms to Anderson: “The unconditional surrender of yourself and the garrison of Fort Gaines, with all of the public property within its limits.”

As Anderson came aboard Farragut’s flagship to arrange the surrender, Page continued sending messages trying to stop the process. But Anderson did not acknowledge the messages, and on the 8th, he formally surrendered Fort Gaines to Granger. Granger reported, “I have the honor to report that the old flag now floats over Fort Gaines, the entire garrison having surrendered to the combined forces of the army and navy this morning at 8 o’clock.” The Federals seized 818 prisoners, 26 guns, and large amounts of ammunition and supplies.

Page reported, “At 9:30 o’clock the enemy’s flag was hoisted over Gaines, the evidence and the emblem of the consummation of the deed of dishonor and disgrace to its commander and garrison.” Page called the affair “painfully humiliating,” caused by Anderson’s “inexplicable and shameful” conduct. Anderson was sent to New Orleans as a prisoner of war, where the Confederate government was unable to try him for his disobedience.

Now only Fort Morgan remained in Mobile Bay. Farragut, who had been friends with Page before the war, sent him a message: “To prevent the unnecessary sacrifice of human life, which must follow the opening of our batteries, we demand the unconditional surrender of Fort Morgan and its dependencies.” Page replied, “I am prepared to sacrifice life, and will only surrender when I have no means of defense.”

The Federals began assembling warships, land artillery, and Granger’s 3,000 troops to bombard Morgan into submission. The captured Confederate ironclad C.S.S. Tennessee was towed into a position where she could join in the bombardment of her former comrades. Farragut reported, “We are now tightening the cords around Fort Morgan. Page is as surly as a bull-dog, and says he will die in the last ditch. He says he can hold out six months, and that we can’t knock his fort down.”

By the 17th, all the Federal artillery was in position to lay siege to Fort Morgan. It consisted of 36 cannon and the guns of Farragut’s naval fleet. Page noted that “our brick walls were easily penetrable to the heavy missiles of the enemy, and that a systematic concentrated fire would soon breach them.”

Page ordered the destruction of his ammunition to prevent it from being exploded by Federal shells. During the five days of heavy bombardment, Granger’s troops inched their way to within 200 yards of the fort. A furious bombardment opened on the 22nd that “cut up the fort to such extent as to make the whole work a mere mass of debris.” Page, now with just two functioning guns, reported:

“My guns and powder had all been destroyed, my means of defense gone, the citadel, nearly the entire quartermaster stores, and a portion of the commissariat burned by the enemy’s shells, it was evident the fort could hold out but a few hours longer under a renewed bombardment. The only question was: Hold it for this time, gain the éclat, and sustain the loss of life from the falling of the walls, or save life and capitulate?”

At 6 a.m. on the 23rd, a white flag was raised over Fort Morgan as Page sent the Federals a message: “The further sacrifice of life being unnecessary, my sick and wounded suffering and exposed, humanity demands that I ask for terms of capitulation.” Farragut and Granger required unconditional surrender, “with all of the public property within its limit and in the same condition that it is now.”

However, the Confederates spiked their guns, troops destroyed their rifles, and officers broke their swords to render them useless to the Federals. Farragut angrily reported:

“The whole conduct of the officers of Fort Gaines and Fort Morgan presents such a striking contrast in moral principle that I can not fail to remark upon it. General Page and his officers, with a childish spitefulness, destroyed the guns which they had said they would defend to the last, but which they never defended at all, and threw away or broke those weapons which they had not the manliness to use against their enemies, for Fort Morgan never fired a gun after the commencement of the bombardment…”

The Federals took 400 prisoners, and now all the forts at the entrance to Mobile Bay were under their control. Farragut advised against continuing north to capture the city of Mobile itself because it was too heavily defended. Farragut’s men soon went to work clearing the floating mines (torpedoes) out of the bay. One of them exploded, killing five sailors and wounding nine. Nevertheless, the Federals had complete control of Mobile Bay, which was forever closed to blockade runners. Now only Wilmington, North Carolina, remained as a major functioning Confederate seaport.

As August ended, an exhausted Farragut asked Navy Secretary Gideon Welles for a sick leave:

“It is evident that the army has no men to spare for this place beyond those sufficient to keep up an alarm, and thereby make a diversion in favor of Gen. Sherman… Now, I dislike to make a show of attack unless I can do something more than make a menace, but so long as I am able I am willing to do the bidding of the Department to the best of my abilities. I fear, however, my health is giving way. I have been down in this Gulf and the Caribbean Sea nearly five years out of six, with the exception of the short time at home last fall, and the last six months have been a severe drain on me, and I want rest, if it is to be had.”

Meanwhile, the news of the spectacular Federal victory at Mobile Bay sparked massive celebrations throughout the North. One of Farragut’s New York neighbors informed him that his actions were “doing a great deal more than perhaps you dream of, in giving heart to the people here, and raising their confidence. Your victory has come at a most opportune moment, and will be attended by consequences of the most lasting and vital kind to the republic.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 177-78; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 445, 447, 449, 451; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10588-630; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 483-84, 489, 491; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 553; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 183-84; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 553, 556, 559; 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. 212; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 276

The Battle of Mobile Bay

August 5, 1864 – Federal naval forces under Rear Admiral David G. Farragut won a sensational victory that closed a vital Confederate seaport to shipping and boosted sagging northern morale.

David G. Farragut | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Farragut had been assembling a naval fleet and planning to capture Mobile Bay since January. His flotilla consisted of 14 wooden warships and four ironclads. To access the bay, the ships had to pass through a narrow, 200-yard channel guarded by Confederates at Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island to the west and Fort Morgan to the east. The secondary bay entrance to the far west was guarded by Fort Powell.

Confederates placed 67 floating mines (or torpedoes) in the main entrance, which were marked with buoys. The Federals could avoid them, but they would have to steer closer to Fort Morgan and its 46 guns. Confederate Admiral Franklin Buchanan had a small naval fleet in the bay consisting of the wooden sidewheel gunboats C.S.S. Morgan, Gaines, and Selma, and the ironclad C.S.S. Tennessee. The 18 Federal ships outgunned the four Confederate vessels 147 to 22.

The Federal vessels began advancing on the flood tide at 5:30 a.m., with the ironclad monitors in a column closest to Fort Morgan that protected the wooden vessels. The wooden ships were lashed together in pairs so that if one was disabled, the other could pull her along. The U.S.S. Tecumseh led the ironclads, and the U.S.S. Brooklyn lashed to the Octorara led the wooden ships. The Brooklyn had a “cowcatcher” used to dredge for torpedoes. The admiral’s flagship, the U.S.S. Hartford, was behind the Brooklyn, lashed to the Metacomet.

Buchanan’s crew aboard the Tennessee woke him at 5:45 a.m. Buchanan assembled them on the gun deck and announced: “Now, men, the enemy is coming, and I want you to do your duty. If I fall, lay me on the side and go on with the fight.” Farragut reported, “The attacking fleet steamed steadily up the Main Ship Channel, the Tecumseh firing the first shot at 6:47.” An officer aboard the Hartford recalled:

“The calmness of the scene was sublime. No impatience, no irritation, no anxiety, except for the fort to open; and, after it did open, full five minutes elapsed before we answered. In the mean time the guns were trained as if at a target, and all the sounds I could hear were, ‘Steady boys, steady! Left tackle a little; so!’ then the roar of a broadside, and an eager cheer as the enemy were driven from their water battery.”

The Federal momentum temporarily halted as the fleet came under heavy bombardment from Fort Morgan, and the Tecumseh struck a mine and sank. Captain James Alden of the Brooklyn wrote:

“I observed the ill-fated Tecumseh which was then about 300 yards ahead of us and on our starboard bow, careen violently over and sink almost instantaneously. Sunk by a torpedo! Assassination in its worst form! A glorious though terrible end for our noble friends, the intrepid pioneers of that death-strewed path! Immortal fame is theirs; peace to their names.”

As Farragut sent the Metacomet to collect the Tecumseh survivors, the Brooklyn began reversing, which halted all the ships behind her. Farragut asked Alden why he was reversing, and he replied, “Torpedoes.” Farragut yelled, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead, Drayton! Hard astarboard; ring four bells! Eight bells! Sixteen bells!”

Farragut climbed the rigging to see better, and a boatswain lashed him to the shrouds to prevent him from falling. The Hartford moved directly through the minefield, hitting some torpedoes. However, they did not detonate because they were waterlogged. The remaining 16 vessels followed the Hartford into the bay by 8:35 a.m., in time to serve breakfast to the crew.

Soon after the Federal vessels entered Mobile Bay, Buchanan brought his small fleet forward to give battle. Farragut said, “I did not think old Buck was such a fool,” and trained his ships on the Confederates. The Morgan was grounded, the Gaines was sunk, and the crew of the Selma surrendered. This left the Tennessee alone to face Farragut’s 17 ships.

The fight in the bay | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Buchanan had moved the Tennessee under the guns of Fort Morgan, but now he brought her out in a last-ditch effort to drive the Federals out of the bay. The Hartford and two other vessels rammed the enemy vessel at five-minute intervals. Three more Federal ships converged with broadsides that destroyed Buchanan’s smokestack. And when fire destroyed Tennessee’s steering gear, a wounded Buchanan finally raised the white flag around 10 a.m.

A lieutenant from the U.S.S. Manhattan went aboard the Tennessee to collect her colors and later wrote that “her decks looked like a butcher shop. One man had been struck by the fragments of one of our 15-inch shot, and was cut into pieces so small that the largest would not have weighed 2 lbs.”

Without their ironclad, the Confederates could do little to stop the mighty Federal fleet from entering the lower bay and capturing the last port in the Gulf of Mexico east of Texas. The Federals suffered 145 killed (93 drowned on Tecumseh, including Commander Tunis A.M. Craven), 170 wounded, and four captured. Confederates lost 12 killed, 20 wounded, and 270 captured.

Northern morale, which had been at its lowest point of the war, was greatly boosted by this sensational Federal victory. However, the Confederates still held the forts at the bay’s entrance and the city of Mobile, 30 miles north. The Federals soon began working to take the forts.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 177-78; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 195; Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 145-47, 156; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 15324; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 745; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 444; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 480-82; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 503-04; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 183-84; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 551-52; 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. 760-61; 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. 209-12; Melton, Maurice, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 504, 746; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 325-26

 

The Mobile Bay Campaign

August 4, 1864 – Federal naval forces under Rear Admiral David G. Farragut prepared to attack one of the last remaining Confederate seaports open to blockade runners.

David G. Farragut | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Farragut had sought to capture Mobile Bay ever since he took New Orleans in April 1862. Farragut intended to not only close the port, but to divert attention from Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal threat to Atlanta. However, blockading duty and the opening of the Mississippi River took precedence until January, when Farragut finally began planning in earnest to take this vital seaport.

Capturing Mobile Bay meant subduing the forts defending the channel. These included (from east to west) Fort Morgan on the western edge of Mobile Point, Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island, and the smaller Fort Powell, all commanded by Brigadier General Richard L. Page. The forts lacked sufficient firepower, but the Confederates made up for this by placing 67 floating mines (i.e., torpedoes) in the bay, as well as a small defense fleet under Admiral Franklin Buchanan. The fleet included the wooden gunboats Morgan, Gaines, Selma, and the ironclad ram C.S.S. Tennessee.

Farragut reported to his superiors:

“I am satisfied that if I had one ironclad at this time I could destroy their whole force in the bay and reduce the forts at my leisure, by cooperation with our land forces–say 5,000 men… Without ironclads we should not be able to fight the enemy’s vessels of that class with much prospect of success, as the latter would lie on the flats, where our ships could not go to destroy them. Wooden vessels can do nothing with them, unless by getting within 100 or 200 yards, so as to ram them or pour in a broadside.”

Farragut spent the first half of 1864 assembling his attack fleet, but the ironclads were slow in coming. He wrote pessimistically in May, “One thing appears to be certain, that I can get none of the ironclads. They want them all for Washington.” Farragut also reported on the Confederate progress in gathering a fleet during that time:

“I am watching Buchanan in the ram Tennessee. She is a formidable-looking thing, and there are four others and three wooden gunboats. They say he is waiting for the two others to come out and attack me, and then raid until New Orleans. Let him come. I have a fine squadron to meet him, all ready and willing.”

However, Buchanan would not bring his fleet out to confront the Federals, and Farragut soon became frustrated:

“I am tired of watching Buchanan and Page, and wish from the bottom of my heart that Buck would come out and try his hand upon us. The question has to be settled, iron versus wood; and there never was a better chance to settle the question as to the sea-going qualities of ironclad ships. We are today ready to try anything that comes along, be it wood or iron, in reasonable quantities. Anything is preferable to lying on our oars.”

In July, Farragut directed his fleet commanders, “Strip your vessels and prepare for the conflict. Send down all your superfluous spars and rigging. Trice up or remove the whiskers.” Farragut had 14 wooden ships and three ironclads–the U.S.S. Chickasaw, Manhattan, and Winnebago–with a fourth, the U.S.S. Tecumseh, on her way from Pensacola. Farragut wrote on July 31:

“The Confederates at Fort Morgan are making great preparations to receive us. That concerns me but little. I know Buchanan and Page, who commands the fort, will do all in their power to destroy us, and we will reciprocate the compliment. I hope to give them a fair fight, if I once get inside. I expect nothing from them but that they will try to blow me up if they can.”

He chose the 4th “as the day for landing of the troops and my entrance into the bay,” but he began panicking as the day approached and the Tecumseh had not yet arrived. Farragut planned to land about 1,500 Federal troops under Major General Gordon Granger on Dauphin Island while the ships advanced in two lines. The ironclads would move between Fort Morgan and the wooden vessels, with gunboats protecting the wooden ships’ western sides.

Granger’s Federals landed on the 3rd, but instead of assaulting Fort Gaines, Granger directed his men to deploy artillery and besiege the fort. That day, Farragut’s fleet captain, Percival Drayton, sent an urgent message to the Federal commander at Pensacola:

“If you can get the Tecumseh out to-morrow, do so; otherwise I am pretty certain that the admiral won’t wait for her. Indeed, I think a very little persuasion would have taken him in to-day, and less to-morrow. The army are to land at once, and the admiral does not want to be though remiss.”

Farragut postponed his attack for a day in hopes that the Tecumseh would arrive. He wrote:

“I have lost the finest day for my operations. I confidently supposed that the Tecumseh would be ready in four days, and here we are on the sixth and no signs of her, and I am told has just begun to coal. I could have done very well without her, as I have three here without her, and every day is an irretrievable loss.”

Farragut followed up Drayton’s message with one of his own: “I can lose no more days. I must go in day after to-morrow morning at daylight or a little after. It is a bad time, but when you do not take fortune at her offer you must take her as you can find her.”

That night, Federal vessels made their final reconnaissance of the bay in a heavy storm, as men tried deactivating as many torpedoes as possible and marking the locations of those they could not. Gunboats fired on Fort Powell, situated on the secondary channel west of the main bay entrance.

Major General Dabney H. Maury, commanding the Confederate Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana, reported, “Thirty-seven vessels have already assembled off Mobile Bar. A large force of infantry landed on Dauphin Island last night and reported moving on Fort Gaines.” A correspondent from the Richmond Examiner wrote on the 4th:

“Yesterday and last evening, the enemy threw an infantry force upon Dauphin Island, 7 miles from Fort Gaines. The fleet outside is larger this morning… General Maury call on all to enroll themselves in battle. Great confidence prevails.”

The Winnebago briefly shelled Fort Gaines, as Farragut called a council of war to review the attack plan for the next day. Farragut explained:

“The service that I look for from the ironclads is, first, to neutralize as much as possible the fire of the guns which rake our approach; next to look out for the ironclads when we are abreast of the forts, and, lastly, to occupy the attention of those batteries which would rake us while running up the bay.

“After the wooden vessels have passed the fort, the Winnebago and Chickasaw will follow them. The commanding officer of the Tecumseh and Manhattan will endeavor to destroy the Tennessee, exercising their own judgment as to the time they shall remain behind for that purpose.”

Farragut planned to bypass the forts and occupy Mobile Bay, which would then starve the Confederates in the forts into surrender. Granger’s troops on Dauphin Island “will simultaneously attack Fort Gaines with our passage into Mobile Bay. What torpedoes or obstructions are in the ship channel we are ignorant. An effort on our part to pass in will be made, but the result is in the hands of the Almighty, and we pray that He may favor us.”

That night, Farragut wrote his wife: “I write and leave this letter for you. I am going into Mobile Bay in the morning, if God is my leader, as I hope He is, and in Him I place my trust… The Army landed last night, and are in full view of us this morning. The Tecumseh has not yet arrived.”

The Tecumseh finally arrived late that night and joined the line of battle. To succeed, the Federals had to enter a channel only 200 yards wide and avoid the torpedoes while under fire from Fort Morgan and the Confederate vessels in the bay.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 177-78; Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 143, 145; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 15315-24; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 444; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 479-80; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10394-414; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 183-84; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 550-51; 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. 209