Category Archives: Navy

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

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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

The Red River: Federal Disaster Looms

May 2, 1864 – Major General Frederick Steele’s Federal Army of Arkansas began returning to Little Rock, while Federal naval forces on the Red River in Louisiana were in grave danger of being stranded in shallow water.

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

By the beginning of May, the Federal mission to capture the vital cotton-producing city of Shreveport via the Red River and Arkansas had failed. Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Army of the Gulf was back where it started at Alexandria and Steele, who had been expected to meet Banks at Shreveport, was retreating from Camden to Little Rock. These two forces retreated intact, but Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s Federal naval flotilla on the Red River faced potential destruction.

The river had been falling for weeks, and the vessels that had moved upstream now did not have deep enough water to get back down. In late April, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bailey had put Federals to work building dams that would raise the water and, when burst, create a current large enough for the vessels to float over the jagged rocks in the riverbed and steam to safety.

The Federals working to get the squadron downstream were under constant attack from Confederates on shore. The Confederates destroyed the Federal transport Emma at David’s Ferry, 30 miles below Alexandria, taking the captain and crew prisoner. A few days later, they captured the Federal transport City Belle at the same spot and took over a third of the 700 troops aboard prisoner (the rest jumped overboard to escape). Meanwhile, guerrillas clashed with Federals around the plantation of Louisiana Governor Thomas O. Moore.

At Dunn’s Bayou below Alexandria, Confederate infantry and shore batteries attacked the Federal transport Warner and her gunboat escorts, the U.S.S. Covington and Signal, as they rounded a bend. The Warner carried Ohio troops going home on furlough as a reward for reenlisting. She was immediately disabled and grounded in a bend near Pierce’s Landing.

The Confederates then disabled the Signal, forcing her to surrender when the Covington lost most of her crew and ran out of ammunition. In the first five days of May, Confederates had inflicted nearly 600 casualties while destroying two gunboats and three transports.

Maj Gen Frederick Steele | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

During this time, Steele’s demoralized Federals straggled back to Little Rock from Camden. In his mission to advance to Shreveport, Steele never even got out of Arkansas due to lack of supplies and Banks’s failure in Louisiana. Steele’s army sustained 2,750 casualties while losing nine guns and nearly 700 supply wagons. In his report, Steele called his campaign the “Camden expedition” without acknowledging that it was supposed to have been the “Shreveport expedition.”

Steele’s retreat allowed General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, to shift his primary focus from Arkansas to Louisiana. Smith issued orders for his Confederates at Camden to move “by the most direct route to Louisiana” to confront both Banks’s dispirited army and Porter’s vulnerable flotilla.

Lieutenant General Richard Taylor, commanding the Louisiana district under Smith, notified him that the Confederate victory at Dunn’s Bayou had turned the lower Red River into “a mare clausum. Forage and subsistence of every kind have been removed beyond the enemy’s reach. Rigid orders are given to destroy everything useful that can fall into his hands. We will play the game the Russians played in the retreat from Moscow.”

As Confederate troops hurried from Arkansas back to Louisiana, Bailey’s Federals continued working to dam the 758-foot-wide Red River. By the 8th, the dam had been built on either side of the river, leaving a 150-foot gap in the center. This raised the water level high enough for three of the lighter-draft gunboats (the U.S.S. Fort Hindman, Neosho, and Osage) to go through the upper falls, just before the dam.

On each dam wing, Bailey directed the sinking of two stone barges to raise the water even higher. However, two of the barges broke loose under the pressure, allowing a massive flood of water to surge through the chute in the center. Porter quickly ordered the three gunboats, along with the U.S.S. Lexington, to try passing on this wave. The Lexington tried first.

According to Porter, the timberclad “steered directly for the opening in the dam, through which the water was rushing so furiously that it seemed as if nothing but destruction awaited her. Thousands of beating hearts looked on anxious for the result; the silence was so great as the Lexington approached the dam that a pin might almost be heard to fall.”

The Lexington, “with a full head of steam on, pitched down the roaring torrent, made two or three spasmodic rolls, hung for a moment on the rocks below, was then swept into deep water by the current and rounded to, safely, into the bank. Thirty thousand voices rose in one deafening roar.” The next three gunboats also passed safely, after which Bailey’s Federals began working to shore up the dam for the rest of the flotilla to pass.

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References

Davis, William C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 106-07; 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. 399-400; 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 1609-29, 1658-717; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 427, 429; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 65, 68; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 490-91, 493; 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

Red River: Porter in Grave Danger

April 27, 1864 – Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s Federal naval flotilla reached Alexandria, Louisiana, but it was still faced potential destruction as the Red River continued falling.

Federal crewmen had worked tirelessly to rescue the gunboat U.S.S. Eastport after she hit a torpedo. But the vessel had grounded several times over the next five days, and, on the 26th, she grounded for the last time on the Alexandria rapids. Porter had no choice but to order the crew to destroy their ship. They used 3,000 pounds of gunpowder to blow the Eastport up before transferring to the U.S.S. Fort Hindman.

During this action, Confederate shore batteries and snipers attacked other nearby gunboats, in keeping with Lieutenant General Richard Taylor’s goal to “keep up a constant fight with the gunboats, following them with sharpshooters and killing every man who exposes himself.” Confederate forces tried boarding Porter’s flagship, the U.S.S. Cricket, but were beaten back.

As the Federal ships continued downriver, they came under artillery and rifle fire near the mouth of the Cane River (a tributary of the Red). The Champion No. 5, a transport carrying slaves to freedom, sustained a shot through her boiler that burned 100 slaves to death. The wooden gunboat Juliet was disabled but towed to safety by the Champion No. 3, also damaged.

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

Fighting resumed the next day, as the Confederate guns disabled the Fort Hindman and sent her drifting downstream. The Champion No. 5 was grounded and burned, and the Juliet sustained more damage. The heavy ironclad U.S.S. Neosho tried leading the other ships to safety under what Porter called “the heaviest fire I ever witnessed.”

Porter reached Alexandria later that day, where he met up with Major General Nathaniel P. Banks and the Army of the Gulf. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant had long sought for Banks to turn east and advance on Mobile, Alabama, and Banks had just received a message from Grant instructing him not to be “detained one day after the 1st of May in commencing your movement east of the Mississippi. No matter what you may have in contemplation, commence your concentration, to be followed without delay by your advance on Mobile.”

However, most of Porter’s fleet was still above the Alexandria rapids, which were becoming more impassable by the day. Banks assured Porter that he would not start his move on Mobile until Porter’s fleet had safely evacuated the Red River. Porter sent a pessimistic report to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles:

“… I find myself blockaded by the fall of three feet of water, three feet four inches being the amount now on the falls; seven feet being required to get over; no amount of lightening will accomplish the object… In the meantime, the enemy are splitting up into parties of 2,000 and bringing in the artillery… to blockade points below here…”

Porter acknowledged that he may have to scuttle his entire fleet to prevent it from falling into Confederate hands and wrote that “you may judge my feelings at having to perform so painful a duty.” He then offered a scathing account of the Red River campaign thus far:

“It has delayed 10,000 troops of Gen. (William T.) Sherman, on which he depended to open the State of Mississippi; it has drawn Gen. (Frederick) Steele from Arkansas and already given the rebels a foothold in that country; it has forced me to withdraw many light-draft vessels from points on the Mississippi to protect this army…”

A ray of hope appeared on the 29th when Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bailey, an engineer with XIX Corps (and former Wisconsin lumberjack), proposed building a dam across the rapids to raise the water level to the required seven feet. Then, the dam would be opened and the vessels would ride the high current over the jagged rocks, past the rapids to safety. Porter later wrote:

“This proposition looked like madness, and the best engineers ridiculed it, but Col. Bailey was so sanguine of success that I requested Gen. Banks to have it done… two or three regiments of Maine men were set to work felling trees… every man seemed to be working with a vigor seldom seen equaled… These falls are about a mile in length, filled with rugged rocks, over which at the present stage of water it seemed to be impossible to make a channel.”

Work began on the 30th, as 3,000 Federals started building a dam of logs, rocks, and dirt spanning the 758-foot-wide Red River. The Federals also sunk four barges filled with stones to raise levels. The work continued into May, as Porter relied on this desperate engineering effort to save his naval flotilla.

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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; 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. 396-97; 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 1247-57, 1276-96, 1629-49; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 424-26; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 68; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 488-89; 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. 194; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 292

Red River: Banks Tries Returning to Alexandria

April 21, 1864 – Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Federals moved out of Grand Ecore, Louisiana, while struggling to salvage one of their best gunboats.

Major General Nathaniel P. Banks | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

After his solid victory at Pleasant Hill, Banks decided not to press his advantage but instead retreat to Grand Ecore. As his troops and Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s naval flotilla on the Red River fell back, the U.S.S. Eastport was severely damaged by a torpedo. Federal carpenters worked nonstop for six days to try refloating the Eastport, and she was finally relaunched on the 21st. However, the gunboat grounded eight times over the next 60 miles.

Porter’s massive flotilla was in serious danger of being stuck in the falling Red River. Moreover, Banks feared that Lieutenant General Richard Taylor’s Confederates would attack again, unaware that three of Taylor’s divisions had been sent to Arkansas. This left just 5,000 Confederates to face Banks’s 30,000, but Taylor still looked to attack and Banks still looked to retreat.

In addition, Banks was being pressured by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to end his campaign, as Grant had told Banks over a month ago that Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith’s 10,000 troops borrowed from Major General William T. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee had to be returned by April 15. Banks argued that he could not return the men until Porter’s flotilla was out of harm’s way.

News of Banks’s failure to capture Shreveport had not yet reached Grant at his Culpeper, Virginia, headquarters, when he wrote Banks on the 18th. Grant expected Banks to turn east as soon as he captured Shreveport and advance on Mobile, Alabama. Grant wrote, “You cannot start too soon. All I would now add is that you commence the concentration of your force at once. Preserve a profound secrecy of what you intend doing, and start at the earliest possible moment.”

The next day, Banks issued orders for his force to fall back to Alexandria. They began moving out on the 21st, discarding any equipment that might slow their march. That same day, a messenger from Sherman arrived to request that Banks return A.J. Smith’s Federals to Vicksburg. Banks gave him a message for Sherman: “He refused to return Smith’s command. The naval force is caught in low water with shoals above and below.”

When this news reached Grant, he told Sherman that it “satisfies me of what I always believe, that forces sent to Banks would be lost for our spring campaign. You will have to make your calculations now leaving A.J. Smith out. Do not let this delay or embarrass, however. Leave for him, if he should return, such directions as you deem more advisable. He may return in time to be thrown in somewhere, very opportunely.”

Banks’s Federals stopped at Grand Ecore long enough to burn the main warehouse there. The fire quickly spread to other buildings until the entire town was destroyed. Meanwhile, A.J. Smith’s Federals moved out from Natchitoches and burned that town as well.

The Federals moved quickly amid rumors that Taylor was closing in on them with 25,000 men. They reached Cloutierville on the 22nd, having retreated 32 miles since the Battle of Mansfield. Vengeful Federal soldiers burned nearly every home, barn, warehouse, and cotton gin in their path. Such wanton destruction enraged Confederate Louisianans, most notably Taylor.

The outnumbered Confederates could not give battle, but they harassed the Federals on the retreat, forcing A.J. Smith to deploy his rear guard to fend them off. Meanwhile, a Confederate cavalry division under Brigadier General Hamilton P. Bee worked its way around to Banks’s front and secured high ground overlooking Monett’s Ferry on the Cane River, a tributary of the Red. The Federals needed the ferry to cross the Cane.

On the morning of the 23rd, Brigadier General William H. Emory’s Federals approached Monett’s Ferry (also known as Cane River Crossing). His cavalry “skirmished handsomely and briskly, driving in the enemy’s pickets until they got to the line of battle occupied by the enemy, which was very strong and defended by two batteries of eight pieces each, which crossed their fire on an open field, through which it was necessary to pass before we could reach the enemy’s position.”

Emory noted the Confederates on the bluffs across the river and bombarded them with artillery while two brigades went looking for another crossing. Troops under Brigadier General Henry W. Birge found an unguarded crossing about three miles upstream but, as Emory reported:

“The ground over which Birge had to pass was exceedingly difficult, traversed by muddy bayous, high and sharp ridges covered by a dense growth of pink, and other topographical difficulties. His progress was necessarily very slow and tedious, and he did not get into position until late afternoon.”

Birge’s Federals began firing on Bee’s left flank. This unexpected attack and the artillery fire in front compelled the Confederates to retreat. The Federals built a pontoon bridge across the Cane, allowing Banks’s army to cross the next day and continue their retreat to Alexandria. Federals suffered about 300 casualties in this fight, while Confederates lost about 50.

Taylor lodged several complaints against Bee’s conduct in the engagement, such as sending a brigade to guard a wagon train “for the safety of which I had amply provided for,” building no earthworks or other defenses, massing his troops in the center “where the enemy were certain not to make any decided effort,” and falling back 30 miles instead of counterattacking.

By the 25th, Banks’s exhausted, demoralized troops arrived at Alexandria, the starting point of their failed effort to capture Shreveport. But Taylor’s Confederates still operated in the vicinity, and Porter’s flotilla was still in danger of being trapped above the Red River rapids. Confederate forces attacked the vessels from the riverbanks, inflicting serious damage.

Federal Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck notified Grant of Banks’s failure, which had been relayed to Halleck by Porter. Halleck told Grant, “Whatever may be said, the army there has met with a great defeat and is much demoralized.” Actually, the army had not met with any defeat except at Mansfield, but Banks retreated anyway. Halleck wrote that Porter “speaks in strong terms of Banks’ mismanagement and of the good conduct of A.J. Smith and his corps. He fears that if Smith is withdrawn Banks will retreat still farther.”

Grant replied, “A.J. Smith will have to stay with General Banks until the gunboats are out of difficulty… Banks ought to be ordered to New Orleans and have all further execution on the Red River in other hands.” Grant then stated that he had received two reports giving “deplorable accounts of General Banks’ mismanagement.” These, along with Banks’s own report on the campaign “clearly show all his disasters to be attributable to his incompetency.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20649; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 111; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 395; 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 1139-68, 1197-217, 1237-57; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 420, 422-24; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 66-67, 70; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 485-88; 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. 194

North Carolina: Confederates Reclaim Plymouth

April 20, 1864 – Confederate army and navy forces regained a town that enabled them to open the vital Roanoke River to commerce on the North Carolina coast.

By dawn, the C.S.S. Albemarle had cleared the Roanoke River of Federal gunboats, enabling Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke’s Confederate infantry to launch an all-out assault on the Federal fortifications at Plymouth. Hoke’s troops had spent the 19th getting into assault positions, with one of his brigades poised to attack Fort Williams from the east. Brigadier General Henry W. Wessells, commanding the Federal forces, reported that–

“… the enemy was very active, moving in different directions, withdrawing most of his force from the vicinity of Fort Gray, and apparently making a serious demonstration on my right. This state of things continued until dark, when the enemy in strong force succeeded in effecting the crossing of Coneby Creek below the town, and massed his column on my left. This disaster was unexplained, and placed me in a most critical position.”

Gen R.F. Hoke | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Hoke planned for his troops to demonstrate against the Federal right while attacking the Federal left. Wessells spent the night shifting troops to prepare for attacks from either direction, even though he was outnumbered by more than two-to-one. When the Confederates charged on the left and pushed the forward Federal line back, Wessells asked to confer with Hoke.

Wessells wrote that Hoke demanded unconditional surrender, and, “In failure of this, indiscriminate slaughter was intimated.” Despite Hoke’s efforts to be “courteous and soldierlike,” Wessells refused the demand. He reported:

“I was now completely enveloped on every side, Fort Williams, an inclosed work in the center of the line, being my only hope. This was well understood by the enemy, and in less than an hour a cannonade of shot and shell was opened upon it from four different directions. This terrible fire had to be endured without reply, as no man could live at the guns…

“This condition of affairs could not be long endured without a reckless sacrifice of life; no relief could be expected, and in compliance with the earnest desire of every officer I consented to hoist a white flag, and at 10 a.m. of April 20 I had the mortification of surrendering my post to the enemy with all it contained.”

The retaking of Plymouth was the greatest Confederate joint army-navy victory of the war. It was also the Confederates’ greatest victory in North Carolina after a series of defeats that dated all the way back to February 1862. The Federal blockade of the Roanoke River was now broken, allowing the Confederates to receive much-needed supplies from this key waterway.

Hoke received the official thanks of the Confederate Congress and a promotion to major-general. His aide-de-camp reported, “The prisoners will number about 2,500, 300 or 400 negroes, 30 pieces of ordnance, complete garrison outfit, 100,000 pounds of meat, 1,000 barrels of flour, and other provisions… Our loss about 300 in all.”

Major General John J. Peck, commanding the Federal District of North Carolina, frantically notified his superior, Major General Benjamin F. Butler, “The ram (Albemarle) will probably come down to Roanoke Island, Washington, and New Bern. Unless we are immediately and heavily reinforced, both by the army and navy, North Carolina is inevitably lost.” As Peck feared, the Confederates planned to target New Bern next.

Many of the North Carolina Unionists, perhaps recalling that Major General George Pickett had executed their comrades, fled the ranks before the Confederates took over the works. Some black troops also fled to avoid being sent into slavery. Northern newspapers quickly published eyewitness accounts of Confederate troops murdering surrendered black soldiers in cold blood. Sergeant Samuel Johnson of the 2nd U.S. Colored Cavalry later recalled:

“When I found out that the city was being surrendered, I pulled off my uniform and found a suit of citizen’s clothes, which I put on, and when captured I was supposed and believed by the rebels to be a citizen. After being captured I was kept at Plymouth for some two weeks and was employed in endeavoring to raise the sunken vessels of the Union fleet…”

“Upon the capture of Plymouth by the rebel forces all the negroes found in blue uniform, or with any outward marks of a Union soldier upon him, was killed. I saw some taken into the woods and hung. Others I saw stripped of all their clothing and stood upon the bank of the river with their faces riverwards and there they were shot. Still others were killed by having their brains beaten out by the butt end of the muskets in the hands of the rebels. All were not killed the day of the capture. Those that were not were placed in a room with their officers, they (the officers) having previously been dragged through the town with ropes around their necks, where they were kept confined until the following morning when the remainder of the black soldiers were killed.”

Confederate officials denied the accusations, and the southern press backed them. An editorial in the Richmond Daily Examiner declared, “General Hoke, judging from the large number of his prisoners, does not seem to have made such thorough work as that by which Forrest has so shocked the tender souls, and frozen the warm blood of the Yankees.”

Confederate Chief of Staff Braxton Bragg wrote North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance that President Jefferson Davis–

“… directs that the negroes captured by our forces be turned over to you for the present, and he requests of you that if upon investigation you ascertain that any of them belong to citizens of North Carolina you will cause them to be restored to their respective owners. If any are owned in other States you will please communicate to me their number and the names and places of residence of their owners, and have them retained in strict custody until the President’s views in reference to such may be conveyed to you.”

“To avoid as far as possible all complications with the military authorities of the United States in regard to the disposition which will be made of this class of (black) prisoners, the President respectfully requests Your Excellency to take the necessary steps to have the matter of such disposition kept out of the newspapers of the State, and in every available way to shun its obtaining any publicity as far as consistent with the proposed restoration.”

Thus, the official Confederate policy would be to send all captured black troops into slavery, regardless of whether they had been free before joining the Federal army, and the press would not report on the matter.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 95-96; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 394; 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 2444-73; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 422; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 487; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 365; 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. 793; 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. 184; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 5

North Carolina: Confederates Target Plymouth

April 19, 1864 – Confederates prepared to attack an important Federal post on the North Carolina coast, with help from a new ironclad.

Gen R.F. Hoke | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

By this time, Federal forces controlled most of the coast from garrisons at New Bern and Plymouth. Confederates under Major General George Pickett had failed to reclaim New Bern in February, so now they turned to reclaiming Plymouth. Confederate Chief of Staff Braxton Bragg bypassed Pickett and entrusted the operation to Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke, who had performed well during the failed New Bern expedition.

The Plymouth garrison was stationed near the mouth of the Roanoke River, on the southern bank. It consisted of about 2,800 troops, including black soldiers and North Carolina Unionists under Brigadier General Henry W. Wessells. The Federal defenses ran from east to west, with their backs to the Roanoke. Four forts guarded Plymouth, along with the gunboats U.S.S. Ceres, Miami, and Southfield, and the army transport Bombshell. To retake Plymouth, the Confederates would need help from their navy.

After months of construction near Edwards’ Ferry on the Roanoke River, the Confederate ironclad C.S.S. Albemarle was finally ready for action. Led by Commander James W. Cooke, the ship was patterned after the C.S.S. Arkansas and expected to drive the wooden Federal fleet out of North Carolina waters. Her first mission was to support Hoke’s infantry assault on Plymouth. As the Albemarle chugged down the Roanoke toward Plymouth on the 17th, Hoke’s 7,000 troops advanced on the town.

The Confederates knocked the Federal pickets and cavalry back to their fortifications. Federal artillery from the forts and gunboats opened on the approaching Confederates near sundown, which Hoke countered with his shore batteries.

Meanwhile, the Albemarle was unable to support Hoke’s planned assault on the 18th due to repairs. Hoke instead concentrated most of his guns on Fort Gray on the Federal right (west) while he divided his infantry for a two-pronged assault. One prong would attack Fort Wessells to the west, while the other would keep the Federals pinned in Fort Williams, the Federals’ strongest work, in the center.

The first prong began its assault around 6 p.m. and captured Fort Wessells within two hours. General Wessells reported:

“This work, after a desperate resistance, was surrendered, and, as I have understood, under a threat of no quarter. Its gallant commander, Captain Chapin, 85th New York Volunteers, fell nobly at his post, and Colonel Mercer, commanding the attacking column was killed.”

Hoke sent a message to Wessells demanding the surrender of the rest of the Federals at Plymouth. Wessells replied that he would only surrender if Hoke treated the black troops and North Carolina Unionists as prisoners of war. Since this violated the Confederate government’s policy regarding enemy combatants, Hoke refused.

Around 2:30 on the morning of the 19th, the Albemarle resumed her advance down the Roanoke. An hour later, she encountered the wooden gunboats Southfield and Miami. The Federals, led by Lieutenant Commander Charles W. Flusser aboard the Miami, knew the Confederates had been working on an ironclad and expected her; Flusser chained the Southfield and Miami together to block the Albemarle from getting past them.

Naval assault at Plymouth | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Under heavy fire, the Albemarle plowed through the Southfield and “tore a hole clear through to the boiler.” As the Southfield sank, Flusser personally fired a gun point-blank into the Albemarle, but the shot ricocheted off her iron plating and killed Flusser. His successor ordered the chains between the two ships cut. A young surgeon’s assistant aboard the Miami later wrote, “We fired about 30 shells at the ram but they had no effect on her,” while the Albemarle’s fire tore into the wooden vessel. The assistant continued:

“As fast as the men were wounded, they were passed down to us and we laid them one at a time on the table… and extracted the balls and pieces of shell from them… Dr. Mann and I looked like butchers… our shirt sleeves rolled up and we covered with blood… The blood was over the soles of my boots… When Captain Flusser fell, the men seemed to lose all heart, and we ran away from the ram into the sound.”

The other Federal vessels at Plymouth followed the Miami downriver, out of the Albemarle’s way. The Confederate ironclad spent the rest of the day bombarding Fort Gray and the other Federal works, softening them up for Hoke’s planned all-out assault. The Federals now had no gunboat support, and the Confederates controlled the Roanoke all around Plymouth.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 94-95; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 394; 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 2405-15, 2444-54; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 420-21; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 486-87; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 365; 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. 183-84; 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. 78-79