Category Archives: Navy

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

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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

The Alabama Battles the Kearsarge

June 19, 1864 – A naval battle off the coast of France resulted in the destruction of the Confederacy’s most feared commerce raider on the high seas.

The C.S.S. Alabama had terrorized commercial shipping on the high seas since August 1862, cruising 75,000 miles and destroying 58 vessels worth $6.547 million during that time. After raiding through the Indian Ocean and South Pacific in late 1863, the Alabama’s captain, Raphael Semmes, needed to dock her for much-needed repairs. Semmes brought the commerce raider to Cherbourg, France. According to Lieutenant Arthur Sinclair:

“We have cruised from the day of commission, August 24, 1862, to June 11, 1864, and during this time have visited two-thirds of the globe, experiencing all vicissitudes of climate and hardships attending constant cruising. We have had from first to last 213 officers and men on our payroll, and have lost not one by disease, and but one by accidental death.”

The French authorities denied Semmes permission to dock the Alabama, but he docked her anyway, confident that Emperor Napoleon III would welcome a Confederate ship into one of his ports. As the Cherbourg port admiral forwarded Semmes’s application to Napoleon, news of the Alabama’s arrival spread throughout Europe.

The U.S. minister in Paris telegraphed Captain John A. Winslow of the U.S.S. Kearsarge that the Alabama was at Cherbourg to discharge prisoners and take on fuel and repairs. The Kearsarge (named for a New Hampshire mountain) was docked 300 miles away off the Dutch coast, at the mouth of the River Scheldt near Flushing. Winslow had hunted the Alabama for a year, and he was urged to hurry to Cherbourg before the raider eluded him again.

Winslow arrived off Cherbourg on the 14th, keeping the Kearsarge beyond the three-mile limit as mandated by international law. When Semmes learned of the Kearsarge’s arrival, he ordered 100 tons of coal for refueling and notified the Confederate port agent, “I desire you to say to the U.S. consul that my intention is to fight the Kearsarge as soon as I can make the necessary arrangements. I beg she will not depart before I am ready to go out.”

Semmes protested Winslow’s request to take on the 38 prisoners released from the Alabama, arguing that since the U.S. government refused to recognize the Alabama as a ship of war, Winslow could recruit the prisoners into service against her. The Cherbourg authorities refused Semmes’s request for ammunition because it would violate France’s official neutrality. The Alabama began taking on coal on the 16th, when Semmes wrote Flag Officer Samuel Barron:

“The position of Alabama here has been somewhat changed since I wrote you. The enemy’s steamer Kearsarge, having appeared off this port, and being but very little heavier, if any in her armament than myself, I have deemed it my duty to go out and engage her. I have therefore withdrawn for the present my application to go into dock, and am engaged in coaling ship.”

Semmes transferred the valuables aboard the Alabama to the Confederate agent at Cherbourg on the 18th. He notified French officials that he would give battle the next day, attended mass, and then retired early, declining invitations to be entertained by French admirers.

The Alabama set out to fight the Kearsarge on the morning of the 19th, with onlookers shouting, “Vivent les Confederates!” Semmes later wrote:

“The day being Sunday and the weather fine, a large concourse of people–many having come all the way from Paris–collected on the heights above the town, in the upper stories of such of the houses as commanded a view of the sea, and on the walls and fortifications of the harbor. Several French luggers employed as pilot-boats went out, and also an English steam-yacht, called the Deerhound. Everything being in readiness between nine and 10 o’clock, we got underway, and proceeded to sea, through the western entrance of the harbor…”

When Winslow first saw the Alabama approaching, he ordered the Kearsarge to turn away northeastward. Semmes knew Winslow was not running away; he was drawing the Alabama into the open waters of the English Channel, seven miles off Cherbourg. According to the Kearsarge log:

“At 10.20 discovered the Alabama steaming out from the port of Cherbourg, accompanied by a French iron-clad steamer, and a fore-and-aft rigged steamer showing the white English ensign and a yacht flag. Beat to general quarters and cleared the ship for action. Steamed ahead, standing offshore. At 10.50, being distant from the land about two leagues, altered our course, and approached the Alabama.”

Semmes climbed atop a gun and addressed his crew:

“Officers and seamen of the Alabama! You have, at length, another opportunity of meeting the enemy–the first that has been presented to you since you sank the Hatteras… The name of your ship has become a household word wherever civilization extends. Shall that name be tarnished by defeat? The thing is impossible!… The flag that floats over you is that of a young Republic who bids defiance to her enemies, whenever and wherever found; show the world that you know how to uphold it.”

The ships closed in and began circling each other. The Alabama had eight guns, but the salt air had deteriorated her old ammunition, and her crew did not often use the guns when confronting merchant vessels. The Kearsarge had just seven guns, but two were powerful 11-inch Dahlgrens. Moreover, she was heavier and her crew had hung heavy chains along the sides to better repel enemy fire. The Alabama had a crew of 149 men, and the Kearsarge had 163.

The Alabama fired the first shot at 10:57 a.m., a broadside from 1,800 yards that disabled a gun crew. The Kearsarge waited until moving within closer range before responding, and a blistering exchange ensued. The Kearsarge’s surgeon John M. Browne recalled:

“The action was now fairly begun… The firing of the Alabama was rapid and wild, getting better near the close; that of the Kearsarge was deliberate, accurate, and almost from the beginning productive of dismay, destruction, and death… The effect upon the enemy was readily perceived, and nothing could restrain the enthusiasm of our men. Cheer succeeded cheer; caps were thrown in the air or overboard; jackets were discarded; sanguine of victory, the men were shouting, as each projectile took effect…”

The Alabama fired 370 shots, but only 28 found their mark. One of them, a 100-pound shell, could have severely damaged the Kearsarge’s sternpost but it failed to explode. Others bounced off the hanging chains. Conversely, the well-trained Federals inflicted heavy casualties and destroyed the Alabama’s superstructure.

Alabama v. Kearsarge | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

After about an hour, the Alabama had been so damaged on her sides that she began taking on water. Semmes ordered the first lieutenant to put to shore, but the water extinguished the boilers. Semmes ordered the colors struck. According to Browne, “Captain Winslow, amazed at this extraordinary conduct of the enemy who had hauled down his flag in token of surrender, exclaimed, ‘He is playing us a trick; give him another broadside.’ Again the shot and shell went crashing through her sides, and the Alabama continued to settle by the stern…”

Semmes finally raised the white flag and sent a gig to the Kearsarge requesting help. The Alabama sunk stern-first at 12:24 p.m., as Semmes threw his sword into the channel and jumped overboard. He later reported:

“After the lapse of about one hour and 10 minutes, our ship was ascertained to be in a sinking condition… Although we were now but 400 yards from each other, the enemy fired upon me five times after my colors had been struck. It is charitable to suppose that a ship of war, of a Christian nation, could not have done this intentionally.”

Winslow dispatched two boats to rescue the survivors and signaled the nearby British yacht Deerhound to help as well. The Confederates rescued by Winslow’s boats were taken prisoner. The 13 Confederates taken by the Deerhound, including Semmes and First Lieutenant John M. Kell, were taken to safety at Southampton.

Winslow later wrote, “The Deerhound ran off with prisoners which I could not believe any cur dog could have been guilty of under the circumstances, since I did not open upon him.” Winslow and Semmes had been friends and messmates aboard the U.S.S. Cumberland before the war. Some noted this former friendship and accused Winslow of letting Semmes escape.

The Alabama sustained 30 casualties (nine killed and 21 wounded). Semmes commended his crew, writing, “My officers and men behaved steadily and gallantly, and though they have lost their ship they have not lost honor.” He later protested that Winslow had illegally converted the Kearsarge into an ironclad by hanging the heavy chains on her sides.

The Kearsarge lost only three men (one killed and two wounded). Fifteen sailors of the Kearsarge later received Medals of Honor, and Winslow was later promoted to commodore for his decisive victory. This was one of the most spectacular naval battles of the war, won by superior firepower.

After the war, the U.S. government demanded that Great Britain pay $419 million in damages for allowing the Alabama to be constructed on her soil. This case was adjudicated by an international court, but for now the famed and feared Alabama was no more.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 174-75; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 205; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 159; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 16104-13, 16130; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 409, 836; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 423, 425-28; 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 7970-8000, 8043-63; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 454-55, 457-59; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 6; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 519-22, 525-26; 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. 204; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 3; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 155-60; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 326

The Red River Campaign Ends

May 20, 1864 – One of the greatest Federal military disasters of the war finally ended.

Federals under Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bailey, an engineer by trade, had been building a dam on the Red River in Louisiana for the past 10 days to raise the water level. This would enable Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s naval flotilla to pass through and get to Federal lines before Confederates on shore could destroy the vessels. The dam had burst on the 10th, but four ships got through, and work began on a stronger dam at the upper falls so the rest of Porter’s fleet could pass.

Rear Adm D.D. Porter | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The new dam was breeched on the 11th, as thousands of Federal troops used ropes to pull the ironclads U.S.S. Carondelet, Mound City, and Pittsburgh over the upper falls. All three vessels, with their hatches battened down, made it through the rapids safely (the Mound City and Carondelet ran aground but were freed). Porter reported to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “The passage of these vessels was a beautiful sight, only to be realized when seen.”

The dam was then closed again to continue raising the water level. Over the next two days, the rest of Porter’s fleet successfully passed through the upper falls. Bailey and his workers then began building wing dams on the lower falls so that Porter could get his ships off the Red and onto the Mississippi River. Porter wrote Welles:

“The water had fallen so low that I had no hope or expectation of getting the vessels out this season, and as the army had made arrangements to evacuate the country I saw nothing before me but the destruction of the best part of the Mississippi squadron… Words are inadequate to express the admiration I feel for the abilities of Lieutenant Colonel Bailey. This is without doubt the best engineering feat ever performed… He has saved to the Union a valuable fleet, worth nearly $2,000,000…”

Bailey later received the thanks of Congress for saving the naval squadron.

As the ships began steaming down the Red, Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Army of the Gulf left Alexandria and continued its retreat, moving parallel with the fleet. The Federals resumed their pattern of destroying nearly every town they passed by burning Alexandria before leaving. A soldier wrote that “thousands of people, mostly women, children, and old men, were wringing their hands as they stood by the little piles of what was left of all their worldly possessions.” Reportedly only two houses remained standing in the town.

Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Meanwhile, Lieutenant General Richard Taylor, commanding Confederate forces in Louisiana, hoped to destroy Banks’s army before it could return to New Orleans. But being hopelessly outnumbered, Taylor had to wait for reinforcements from Arkansas to arrive. As he waited, he dispatched cavalry and other units to harass Banks’s Federals on their retreat.

On the 16th, the Federals found themselves blocked by a portion of Taylor’s force under Brigadier General Camille A. Polignac in an open prairie outside Mansura. A four-hour artillery duel erupted, after which Banks directed Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith’s Federals to attack. Taylor withdrew in the face of superior numbers, moving southwest while the Federals continued retreating southeast.

The Federal vanguard arrived at Simmesport on the Atchafalaya River, where Bailey’s Federals began building a makeshift bridge out of transports and riverboats so the Federals could cross the 600-yard-wide waterway. Around the same time, Porter’s flotilla finally reached the Mississippi River, ending its service in the Red River campaign.

Skirmishing resumed on the 17th, during which the main part of Banks’s army fell back to Yellow Bayou, about five miles from Simmesport. Bailey continued working on the bridge, leaving the Federals to fend Taylor’s Confederates off until they could get across to safety.

Taylor approached the Federals at Yellow Bayou with about 5,000 troops the next day. Banks responded by dispatching A.J. Smith and about 5,000 of his men to meet them. The Federals pushed the enemy skirmishers back before coming up to Taylor’s main line.

Both sides attacked and counterattacked over the next several hours, giving ground and taking it back, until a brushfire compelled both sides to disengage. In this brutal clash, the Federals sustained about 350 casualties while the Confederates lost 608. By the time the fight ended, the bridge spanning the Atchafalaya was ready.

The Federals crossed the river over the next two days, ending their failed Red River campaign. Since its beginning in March, Banks’s Federals had sustained 5,245 army and 300 naval casualties. They lost eight vessels (including three gunboats) and 28 guns. The seizure of 15,000 bales of cotton during the expedition did not make up for the losses or Banks’s failure to achieve his ultimate goal of capturing the vital cotton-producing city of Shreveport. One of Banks’s staff officers described the aftermath:

“Franklin quitted the department in disgust, Stone was replaced by Dwight as chief of staff, and Lee as chief of cavalry by Arnold; A.J. Smith departed more in anger than in sorrow; while between the admiral and the general commanding, recriminations were exchanged in language well up to the limits of ‘parliamentary’ privilege.”

Combined with Major General Frederick Steele’s Camden expedition in Arkansas, the Federals lost over 8,000 men and 57 guns. General Edmund Kirby Smith’s Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, which included Louisiana and Arkansas, lost a total of about 4,275 men. The Confederates had also captured well over 1,000 supply wagons and 3,500 horses or mules. They prevented Major General William T. Sherman from receiving reinforcements for his Georgia offensive, and they stopped Banks from turning east to attack Mobile, Alabama, as Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant had ordered him to do.

The only positive result for the Federals was that they somehow escaped complete destruction. The Confederates from Arkansas finally arrived to reinforce Taylor two days after the Federals had crossed the Atchafalaya. Unable to pursue any further, Taylor issued a congratulatory order to his men for their conduct during the campaign:

“Long will the accursed race remember the great river of Texas and Louisiana. The characteristic hue of its turbid waters has a darker tinge from the liberal admixture of Yankee blood. The cruel alligator and the ravenous garfish wax fat on rich food, and our native vulture holds high revelry over many a festering corpse.”

When Banks arrived at Simmesport, he was met by Major General Edward R.S. Canby, who informed him that his Department of the Gulf, as well as Steele’s Department of Arkansas, had been absorbed into Canby’s new Military Division of West Mississippi. Banks, who had presided over disasters in the Shenandoah Valley and Louisiana during the war, would now serve in an administrative capacity under a man three years his junior in date of rank.

Canby accompanied Banks on the last 100 miles of the retreat from Simmesport to Donaldsonville. Banks, a former House speaker and Massachusetts governor, would turn his attention back to political issues, mainly restoring Louisiana to the Union. Canby, whose jurisdiction extended from Missouri to Texas, and then east along the Gulf Coast to Florida, would eventually set his sights on capturing Mobile.

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References

Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20649-57; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 619-20; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 404-08, 412; 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 1757-86, 1792-802, 1820-30, 1840-918, 1928-48; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 431, 434, 436, 438-42; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 66, 68-71; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 496-501, 505; 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. 723; 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. 195; Pritchard, Russ A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 23, 330; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 816; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 751, 846