Tag Archives: Blockade

The Hunley Attack

February 17, 1864 – One of the first submarine attacks in history occurred when a “submersible” Confederate vessel confronted a Federal warship on blockade duty at Charleston Harbor.

The C.S.S. H.L. Hunley was a forerunner to the modern submarine. It had sunk in two previous test runs, killing both crews, including inventor Horace L. Hunley himself in the second run. Both times the Confederate navy salvaged the Hunley and restored her for service. Built from a boiler cylinder, the hand-cranked, cigar-shaped craft was nicknamed “the peripatetic coffin.”

The H.L. Hunley | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the Federal South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, had received intelligence that Confederates were experimenting with submersible ships to attack the Federal blockaders. He had been aware of “semi-submersible” vessels ever since the David’s attack on the U.S.S. New Ironsides last October, and he knew that new technology was being attempted to make the vessels even harder to see on the water.

Navy Secretary Gideon Welles warned Dahlgren that Confederates were developing a type of “submarine machine.” Dahlgren passed this information to his fleet commanders, instructing them to look out for a ship “of another kind, which is nearly submerged and can be entirely so. It is intended to go under the bottoms of vessels and there operate.”

A Confederate deserter informed the Federals that a vessel had been developed that could “stay underwater 10 minutes each time, and would come up 75 to 80 yards from where she went down.” Dahlgren reported, “When she does not dive, she only shows two heads above the water about the size of a man’s head. He (the deserter) thinks she is about 20 feet long and the manholes are about eight feet apart. She is made of iron.” Dahlgren stated that because he had “every reason to expect a visit from some or all of these torpedoes, the greatest vigilance will be needed to guard against them.”

Dahlgren put all his ship captains on high alert, but he assured them that only in “smooth water, and when the tide is slack, that any danger is imminent.” The waters had been rough in Charleston harbor since the beginning of the year, and by the time calm finally came on the night of the 17th, the Federal crews had grown complacent.

Lieutenant George E. Dixon, commanding the Hunley, targeted the U.S.S. Housatonic, a 1,240-ton wooden sloop-of-war. Dixon and his six crewmen waited for a strong ebb tide and favorable winds to help maximize the Hunley’s top speed of four knots. Moving out on a foggy night, guided by a near-full moon, the vessel covered the 12 miles to her target, on blockade duty just outside Charleston Harbor.

At 8:45 p.m., Captain Charles W. Pickering, commanding the Housatonic, sighted a strange object floating in the water toward his ship and notified Acting Master John K. Crosby, the deck officer. Crosby later stated, “It… had the appearance of a plank moving in the water.” The Hunley was already within 100 yards when Crosby saw that it was an enemy vessel. He ordered the crew to slip the anchor cables and back the ship away, but by that time, the Hunley was upon them. None of the Housatonic’s 12 guns could be depressed low enough to fire on the attacker.

The Hunley’s crew detonated a torpedo attached to a spar against the Housatonic’s side. According to Crosby, “The torpedo struck forward of the mizzen mast, on the starboard side, in line with the magazine.” The torpedo held 90 pounds of gunpowder, and the Federal ship sank within five minutes after detonation. Because the water was just 27 feet deep, the Housatonic did not sink completely, allowing all but five of her crew to escape. The remaining 158 crewmen were rescued by the nearby U.S.S. Canandaigua.

The Hunley signaled her success to Confederates on Sullivan’s Island but then disappeared, believed to have been sunk by the blast. There were no survivors, and the craft was finally found in 1970. However, this was the first sinking of a ship by a submarine in history, and it served to put the Federal blockaders on full alert. According to the Charleston Daily Courier:

“The explosion made no noise, and the affair was not known among the fleet until daybreak, when the crew were discovered and released from their uneasy positions in the rigging. They had remained there all night. Two officers and three men were reported missing and were supposed to be drowned. The loss of the Housatonic caused great consternation in the fleet. All the wooden vessels are ordered to keep up steam and to go out to sea every night, not being allowed to anchor inside. The picket boats have been doubled and the force in each boat increased.”

Dahlgren directed his captains to launch patrols and put up netting to guard against similar type vessels. He also wrote Welles proposing a Federal reward of $20,000 to $30,000 for anyone seizing or destroying any vessel like the Hunley. Distressed by this surprise attack, Dahlgren wrote, “They are worth more to us than that.”

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 139-41; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 730-31; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 374; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 898; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 399-400; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 465; 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. 179; Melton, Maurice, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 363-64; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 371; Ward, Geoffrey, Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 325-26

Federals Continue Pressuring Charleston

January 13, 1864 – Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, recommended that Federal forces use torpedo boats, like the Confederacy’s David, to attack enemy ships and defenses in Charleston Harbor.

Rear Adm J.A.B. Dahlgren – Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

By this month, the Federal blockade of Charleston Harbor was choking the city into submission. Federal troops occupied Morris and Folly islands southeast of Charleston, but Confederates still held Fort Sumter in the harbor. Dahlgren reported to President Abraham Lincoln:

“The city of Charleston is converted into a camp, and 20,000 or 25,000 of their best troops are kept in abeyance in the vicinity, to guard against all possible contingencies, so that 2,000 of our men in the fortifications of Morris and Folly Islands, assisted by a few ironclads, are tendering invaluable service… No man in the country will be more happy than myself to plant the flag of the Union where you most desire to see it.”

With Federal blockading vessels under constant threat from torpedoes and other obstructions, Dahlgren warned his commanders about a type of boat–

“… of another kind, which is nearly submerged and can be entirely so. It is intended to go under the bottoms of vessels and there to operate… It is also advisable not to anchor in the deepest part of the channel, for by not leaving much space between the bottom of the vessel and the bottom of the channel it will be impossible for the diving torpedo to operate except on the sides, and there will be less difficulty in raising a vessel if sunk.”

In recommending the Federal use of David-type torpedo boats, Dahlgren wrote:

“Nothing better could be devised for the security of our own vessels or for the examination of the enemy’s position… The length of these torpedo boats might be about 40 feet, and 5 to 6 feet in diameter, with a high-pressure engine that will drive them 5 knots. It is not necessary to expend much finish on them.”

In late January, the Federals batteries on Morris Island resumed their sporadic bombardment of Fort Sumter. The Charleston Courier reported, “The whizzing of shells overhead has become a matter of so little interest as to excite scarcely any attention from passers-by.” The barrage increased on the 29th, and over the next two days, 583 rounds were fired into the fort.

The Confederate defenders still refused to surrender. And despite the blockade’s effectiveness, blockade-runners still escaped into the open seas occasionally. Lieutenant Commander James C. Chaplin wrote to Dahlgren offering reasons why blockade running was so appealing:

“… They are provided with the best of instruments and charts, and, if the master is ignorant of the channel and inlets of our coast, a good pilot. They are also in possession of the necessary funds (in specie) to bribe, if possible, captors for their release. Such an offer was made to myself… of some 800 pounds sterling. The master of a sailing vessel, before leaving port, receives $1,000 (in coin), and if successful, $5,000 on leaving and $15,000 in a successful return to the same port.”

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References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 358-59, 362, 364; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 388, 391; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 457-58

Cotton Exportation and the Federal Blockade

July 28, 1862 – Confederates tried currying favor with France, and Great Britain suffered a severe economic downturn due to the lack of southern cotton.

Confederate envoy John Slidell | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

On July 16, Confederate envoy John Slidell met with Emperor Napoleon III of France for 70 minutes. Slidell requested that France recognize Confederate independence and use warships to help break the Federal blockade. In exchange, Slidell pledged several hundred thousand bales of badly needed cotton and an alliance with France against Benito Juarez’s regime in Mexico.

Slidell understood that Napoleon favored the Confederacy. However, the emperor was reluctant to provoke the U.S. (which supported Juarez) without Britain taking the lead. Napoleon told Slidell that he would consider the matter. Slidell wrote to Richmond, “I am more hopeful than I have been at any moment since my arrival in Europe.”

By this month, the lack of southern cotton was crippling Britain. The cotton supply was one-third its normal level, and nearly 75 percent of cotton-mill workers were unemployed or underemployed. Poverty spread throughout the working-class sections of the country as it starved for cotton, and this only helped the Confederacy. Thomas Dudley, the U.S. consul in Liverpool, wrote to Secretary of State William H. Seward:

“The current is against us and strong; and threatens to carry everything with it… They are all against us and would rejoice in our downfall… I think at this time we are more in danger of intervention than we have been at any previous period… if we are not successful in some decisive battle within a short period this government will be forced to acknowledge the Confederacy or else be driven from power.”

U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward | Credit: Wikispaces.com

Seward sought to help alleviate the cotton shortage by writing to Charles Francis Adams, U.S. minister to Britain at London:

“We shall speedily open all the channels of commerce, and free them from military embarrassments; and cotton, so much desired by all nations, will flow forth as freely as before… The President has given respectful consideration to the desire informally expressed to me by the Governments of Great Britain and France for some further relaxation of the blockade in favor of that trade. They are not rejected, but are yet held under consideration, with a view to ascertain more satisfactorily whether they are really necessary, and whether they can be adopted without such serious detriment to our military operations as would render them injurious rather than beneficial to the interests of all concerned.”

Confederate officials hoped the cotton shortage would compel Britain and France to declare that the Federal blockade was “ineffective,” and thus subject to being broken by foreign powers under international law. But instead, Britain and France asked the Federal government to send them more cotton through northern channels, after it had been seized by Federal forces in areas under military occupation. This not only dimmed Confederate hopes for foreign recognition, but it encouraged Federal forces to seize as much cotton as possible as they advanced into the South.

Meanwhile, a pro-secessionist mob attacked and destroyed the offices of the St. Croix Herald, a newspaper published in St. Stephen, New Brunswick (British Canada), just across the border from Maine. The Herald had consistently supported the U.S., and had been attacked in December as well. This was a rare instance of secessionists destroying a Unionist newspaper, and not the other way around. With the printing press thrown into the St. Croix River, publication was suspended for several months.

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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 17522-38; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 194; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 182; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 240; 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. 548, 553; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q362

Surrendering the C.S.S. Planter

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

Robert Smalls | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Robert Smalls | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References

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

The Official Inauguration of Jefferson Davis

February 22, 1862 – Jefferson Davis took the oath of office to become the first official president of the Confederacy.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Davis and Vice President Alexander H. Stephens had been elected to their posts by delegates of the Montgomery convention the previous February on a provisional basis only, pending a general election. That general election had officially elected Davis and Stephens as Confederate president and vice president in November. Under the Confederate Constitution, they were to serve one six-year term and were ineligible for reelection.

Confederate officials selected February 22, George Washington’s Birthday, as the presidential inauguration day at the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. Thousands of people attended the ceremonies, which began in the Virginia Hall of Delegates and then moved outside to a canopied platform beside the statue of Washington in the Capitol Square. Davis was escorted to the platform by his black footmen; they all wore black because, as one of them said, “This… is the way we always does in Richmond at funerals and sichlike.”

On the platform, Davis took the chief executive’s oath, kissed the Bible, and delivered his inaugural address. He declared: “Whatever of hope some may have entertained that a returning sense of justice would remove the danger with which our rights were threatened, and render it possible to preserve the Union of the Constitution, must have been dispelled by the malignity and barbarity of the Northern States in the prosecution of the existing war.” He cited as evidence:

“Bastilles filled with prisoners, arrested without civil process or indictment duly found; the writ of habeas corpus suspended by Executive mandate; a State Legislature controlled by the imprisonment of members whose avowed principles suggested to the Federal Executive that there might be another added to the list of seceded States; elections held under threats of a military power; civil officers, peaceful citizens, and gentle-women incarcerated for opinion’s sake–proclaimed the incapacity of our late associates to administer a Government as free, liberal, and humane as that established for our common use.”

Davis contrasted these Federal actions to those of his administration, stating that “through all the necessities of an unequal struggle there has been no act on our part to impair personal liberty or the freedom of speech, of thought, or of the press.”

Noting the financial troubles in the North, Davis predicted a Federal economic collapse: “The period is near at hand when our foes must sink under the immense load of debt which they have incurred, a debt which in their effort to subjugate us has already attained such fearful dimensions as will subject them to burdens which must continue to oppress them for generations to come.”

Davis expressed his view that the war was a test of what the southern people were willing to endure to defend their freedom: “It was, perhaps, in the ordination of Providence that we were to be taught the value of our liberties by the price which we pay for them.”

Trying to turn a negative into a positive, Davis cited unexpected benefits from European powers adhering to the Federal blockade:

“If the acquiescence of foreign nations in a pretended blockade has deprived us of our commerce with them, it is fast making us a self-supporting and an independent people. The blockade, if effectual and permanent, could only serve to divert our industry from the production of articles for export and employ it in supplying the commodities for domestic use.”

However, he also acknowledged the recent defeats in the Western Theater and North Carolina:

“After a series of successes and victories, which covered our arms with glory, we have recently met with serious disasters. But in the heart of a people resolved to be free these disasters tend but to stimulate to increased resistance. To show ourselves worthy of the inheritance bequeathed to us by the patriots of the Revolution, we must emulate that heroic devotion which made reverse to them but the crucible in which their patriotism was refined.”

Davis concluded:

“With humble gratitude and adoration, acknowledging the Providence which has so visibly protected the Confederacy during its brief but eventful career, to thee, O God, I trustingly commit myself, and prayerfully invoke thy blessing on my country and its cause.”

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References

Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 217-18; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 113; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 84-85; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 174; 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. 402-03, 433; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 265-67; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q162

Coastal Operations: Farragut Appointed

January 9, 1862 – U.S. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles appointed David G. Farragut to be the flag officer of the new West Gulf Blockading Squadron.

David G. Farragut | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

David G. Farragut | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The growing size of the naval force blockading the Gulf coast prompted Welles to divide it into two commands. Flag Officer William McKean, current squadron commander, was assigned to lead the new East Gulf Blockading Squadron. Farragut, 37th on the captain’s seniority list, was chosen to lead the West. Farragut’s peers respected him, but some suspected him of having Confederate sympathies. Welles recounted:

“Neither the President nor any member of the Cabinet knew him, or knew of him. Members of Congress inquired who he was, and some of them remonstrated, and questioned whether I was not making a mistake for he was a Southern man and had a Southern wife.”

Farragut’s fleet consisted of 17 steam warships and 19 mortar boats led by Commander David D. Porter, Farragut’s foster brother. The new commander’s flagship was the U.S.S. Hartford, a three-year-old, 24-gun, 2,900-ton vessel with a screw propeller and a draft of about 17 feet. His squadron’s jurisdiction was from western Florida to the Rio Grande.

When Farragut arrived to take command on January 20, he announced to his crews that their principal mission was to secure the mouth of the Mississippi River, capture New Orleans, and then move upriver to link with Federals moving southward. This mission was so secret that Farragut told his wife to burn every letter he sent to her. As the Western Squadron began preparations, an article regarding the Federal blockade appeared in the New Orleans Commercial Bulletin:

“The situation of this port makes it a matter of vast moment to the whole Confederate States that it should be opened to the commerce of the world within the least possible period… We believe the blockading vessels of the enemy might have been driven away and kept away months ago, if the requisite energy had been put forth… The blockade has remained and the great port of New Orleans has been hermetically sealed.”

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 61; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 100-01, 110; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 97; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition), p. 36

The Federal Blockade Tightens

December 24, 1861 – The Federal blockade began tightening with the capture of more blockade runners along the coasts.

The month began with the capture of the Albion and the Lida along the Atlantic Coast. The Albion, taken off Charleston, had cargo that included arms, ammunition, tin, copper, salt, and cavalry equipment such as saddles and bridles valued at $100,000. The Lida carried sugar, coffee, and lead.

Capt S.F. Du Pont | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Capt S.F. Du Pont | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Off North Carolina, Federal blockaders seized the Charity, the sloop Havelock, the schooner William H. Northrup, and a Confederate vessel converted into a gunboat. Off South Carolina, blockaders captured the British ship Prince of Wales and the schooner Island Belle. However, finding and taking these vessels still proved very difficult. According to Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron:

“The vessels that lie in wait to run the blockade, having skillful pilots, and being desperate in their attempts, can not but sometimes succeed under favor of fog or darkness… In the heavy easterly gales (our) steamers must run off or be wrecked on the enemy’s coast, giving the opportunity to vessels to run out.”

Federal landing parties made some gains this month. Lieutenant James W.A. Nicholson of U.S.S. Isaac Smith led Marines in capturing an abandoned Confederate fort on Otter Island in the Ashepoo River of South Carolina. This enabled the Federals to expand their base at Port Royal.

Federal soldiers and sailors also dispersed Confederates trying to build shore batteries at Port Royal Ferry and on the Coosaw River. This spoiled Confederate plans to use the artillery to isolate Federals on Port Royal Island. The Federal attack force, led by Commander C.R.P. Rodgers, included the Federal gunboats U.S.S. Ottawa, Pembina, and Seneca, accompanied by four boats bearing howitzers.

Confederates scored a minor victory when Commodore Josiah Tattnall led a Confederate naval squadron consisting of Savannah, Resolute, Sampson, Ida, and Barton out of the Savannah River to temporarily push Federal blockaders back into deeper waters.

Along the Gulf Coast, Federal forces from the U.S.S. Water Witch, Henry Lewis, and New London seized Biloxi, Mississippi. They also strengthened their force at Ship Island, Mississippi, with the arrival of two infantry regiments under Major General Benjamin F. Butler. The island became a staging area for a future attack on New Orleans.

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References

Channing, Steven A., Confederate Ordeal: The Southern Home Front (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 113; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 98, 104-05; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 87-88, 90, 93-94; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 145-46, 149; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition), p. 47; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 330

The Stone Fleet

December 20, 1861 – Federal Flag Officer Samuel H. Du Pont directed Captain Charles H. Davis to sink vessels filled with stones to obstruct Confederate blockade runners from entering Charleston Harbor’s main ship channel.

Capt S.F. Du Pont | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Capt S.F. Du Pont | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Du Pont, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, had initially resisted an idea from Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox to sink “stone fleets” in Confederate ports. Du Pont wrote that he had “a special disgust for this business… the maggot, however, had got into Fox’s brain.” Thus, Du Pont complied with orders, targeting Charleston and Savannah.

Federals sunk seven “stone fleet” vessels, consisting of old wooden sailing ships, at the entrance to Savannah Harbor on the 17th. Three days later, on the anniversary of South Carolina’s secession from the Union, Davis sunk 16 whaling vessels in Charleston Harbor.

The sinking of the “stone fleet” outraged Confederates because the vessels could have permanently halted shipping from those ports, thus severely crippling the southern economy even after the war. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate defenses along the coast, wrote to Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin, “This achievement, so unworthy of any nation, is the abortive expression of the malice & revenge of a people which they wish to perpetuate by rendering more memorable a day hateful in their calendar (the South Carolina secession).”

However, the Confederates had sunk hulks in their own harbors to obstruct them before the war. Du Pont noted this when he wrote:

“I should probably not have recommended such a measure had I been consulted, but that we had not the right is simply absurd. So it is all right for the rebels to obstruct, but it is dreadful for us. Then the idea of pretending to believe that these are permanent obstructions shows great ignorance of the nature of outside bars forced by the sea action.”

Du Pont wrote that if the obstructions remained effective until spring, “it will be worth all the trouble.”

Ultimately, the sea water eroded the vessels and reopened the ports for shipping much sooner than anticipated. Moreover, the “stone fleet” only closed one of Charleston’s three channels, and it revealed that the Federals had no plan to attack the city; they merely sought to close the city’s access to trade. Nevertheless, Lee continued building defenses just in case.

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 268; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 720; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 102-03; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 91-92; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3056; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 149-150; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition), p. 48

The Port Royal Campaign

October 29, 1861 – A massive Federal army-navy expedition left Hampton Roads to capture Port Royal, South Carolina, located between Charleston and Savannah.

Capt S.F. Du Pont | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Capt S.F. Du Pont | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Captain Samuel F. Du Pont, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, considered various locales to establish a refueling and servicing port for his Federal naval fleet. After weighing the options, Du Pont informed Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles that Port Royal would be the most useful site for that purpose. Port Royal was the best natural harbor on the Confederate coast, guarding the important harbor of Beaufort, South Carolina, and possessing formidable defenses.

After months of planning, the Federals organized a joint expedition. Du Pont assembled an attack fleet in New York, while Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman gathered 13,000 troops in three brigades at Annapolis. These combined army-navy forces arrived at Hampton Roads on October 21. Storms delayed the launch, which actually helped the commanders by giving them more time to plan and prepare.

The armada consisted of 19 warships with 157 guns, 25 supply vessels, and 33 transports. It was the largest joint operation ever attempted up to that time, even though several ships were not suited for oceanic navigation. President Lincoln had promoted Du Pont to flag officer, which equaled a major general in the army, so he would outrank Sherman. However, neither commander could “assume any direct command, independent of consent, over an officer of the other service.”

No one but Du Pont and Sherman knew that Port Royal was the ultimate destination. As the fleet left Hampton Roads on the 29th, the captain of each ship held sealed orders from Du Pont revealing the objective, to be opened only if the fleet became separated at sea.

Captain Charles H. Davis, secretary of the Blockade Board and Du Pont’s fleet captain and chief of staff, wrote that “the sea is covered with lights at every point of the horizon… I think of similar expeditions that have figured in history… and as I looked abroad on the ocean covered with our ships and transports… I participated in the glow and ardor and elation of heart inspired, no doubt, by the armada of Spain.”

A lieutenant aboard the U.S.S. Wabash noted, “Never did such a heterogeneous squadron venture upon the waters, nondescripts ad infinitum; vessels without shape before known to the maritime world… Had some homeward bound vessel haplessly got within our lines, surely would the bewildered skipper have imagined that ‘Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane’ had come against him.” Although the Confederates were not yet aware where the fleet was headed, they alerted all coastal defenders that the ships had departed.

By early morning on the 31st, Du Pont’s fleet began rounding Cape Hatteras in warm waters. When a troop transport ran aground on the shoals, the rest of the fleet adjusted their course by moving further out to sea. This dissatisfied Flag Officer Du Pont, who felt that the Cape could be rounded closer if navigated properly. He later wrote that the land was “too close for careless, stupid skippers or second-and-third class merchantmen.”

Heavy gales would soon turn the sea violent as the armada progressed down the coast.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 50-51; Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20, 110; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 90; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 116; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 77; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 127, 132; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 37-38; Melton, Maurice, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 597

Mason and Slidell Escape

October 11, 1861 – Confederate envoys James M. Mason and John Slidell boarded a steamship in the hopes of eluding the Federal blockade and reaching Europe to gain Confederate recognition.

James M. Mason and John Slidell | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

James M. Mason and John Slidell | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Mason and Slidell, two former U.S. senators, had recently been appointed as envoys to England and France respectively, with a mission to persuade those countries to recognize Confederate independence and provide supplies for the war effort. U.S. State Department officials were aware that the men would try to leave the country to fulfill their mission, and they hoped that the blockading fleet would prevent their departure.

U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward received daily reports on the envoys’ whereabouts and knew that Mason and Slidell had arrived at Charleston on October 1. That harbor was patrolled by three Federal steamers and a sloop-of-war, making it difficult for Mason and Slidell to find a captain willing to risk capture by running the blockade.

Seward was informed that the men would try leaving aboard the C.S.S. Nashville, a ship fast enough to escape and strong enough to reach Europe. However, Mason and Slidell chartered the private steamer Theodora, formerly known as the Gordon, for $10,000. This 500-ton side-wheeler could not reach Europe, so the envoys planned to go to Havana, Cuba, and from there charter a British ship to take them to England.

Boarding a neutral British ship would allow Mason and Slidell to travel to Europe with no fear of U.S. interference. If a U.S. vessel tried seizing the ship as contraband of war, the Confederacy would be granted belligerent status under international law, which the U.S. would be forced to acknowledge. If a U.S. vessel tried seizing the ship for carrying traitors, boarding a neutral ship to get to them would violate international law.

Mason and Slidell, with their secretaries and families, boarded the Theodora on the 11th and waited for nightfall to try leaving. The ship steamed out of Charleston at 1 a.m. through a dark storm that shielded her from the view of Federal blockaders. Confederate statesman William H. Trescot telegraphed the Confederate State Department that afternoon:

“Charleston, October 12, 186(1). Our friends left here last night at 1 o’clock. A fast steamer, good officers, and very dark night, with heavy rain. The guard boat reported that they crossed the bar about 2 o’clock, and that they could neither have been seen nor heard by the fleet. A strong northwest wind helped them, and the fleet this morning seems not to have changed position at all. As soon as we hear further I will telegraph. The steamer ought to be back in about a week, and nothing said until her return. Communicate to Mrs. Mason.”

The Theodora was bound for Nassau in the Bahamas, the first leg of the envoys’ journey. She arrived two days later, when Mason and Slidell discovered that they had missed connecting with a British steamer. The Theodora then took them to Cuba, where Spanish authorities informed them that a British mail packet had just left Havana. The next ship, the paddle-steamer R.M.S. Trent, would not arrive for three weeks.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials still believed that Mason and Slidell had boarded the Nashville. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles cabled Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont commanding the blockading squadron: “It is reported that the steamer Nashville has run the blockade at Charleston, with Messrs. Mason and Slidell on board. Have you a fast steamer that can be spared? If so, let her be dis-patched to intercept the Nashville.” Du Pont dispatched the U.S.S. James Adger and Curlew, unaware that the envoys had taken the Theodora instead.

As Mason and Slidell waited for the next British steamer to arrive at Havana, the Curlew stopped her search for the Nashville due to lack of coal, and the James Adger patrolled around Queenstown, Ireland. Both crews remained unaware that 1) the envoys never boarded the Nashville, and 2) the Nashville was still in Charleston Harbor.

Hiram Paulding, commander of the Federal Navy Yard at New York, received intelligence on October 30 that Mason and Slidell had reached Havana aboard the Gordon, now known as the Theodora. That same day, the U.S.S. San Jacinto docked in southern Cuba where her commander, Captain Charles Wilkes, learned that Mason and Slidell were in the country. He refueled and steamed northward.

The next day, Wilkes was informed that Mason, Slidell, their wives, and their secretaries had reached Cuba via the Theodora and were awaiting the arrival of the Trent on November 7. Since he was unable to seize the envoys from a neutral port, Wilkes resolved to refuel the San Jacinto and capture them once they entered international waters.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 87; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 136; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 72; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (New York: Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 252; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 126; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Vol. VI, p. 738; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 116