Tag Archives: Gulf Blockading Squadron

The Fall of Pensacola

May 10, 1862 – Confederate forces abandoned a key naval base on the Gulf of Mexico after holding out against a powerful Federal threat for over a year.

Earlier this year, Major General Braxton Bragg had led most of the Confederates stationed at Pensacola and Mobile west to reinforce General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Army of Mississippi. Colonel Thomas M. Jones of the 27th Mississippi began directing the withdrawal of the remaining forces. On May 7, Jones received word from Brigadier General John H. Forney, commanding the Confederate Department of Alabama and West Florida, that a Federal naval fleet was approaching to threaten Mobile.

Jones quickly prepared to lead his Confederates out of Pensacola to reinforce Mobile. Abandoning Pensacola included “the destruction of the beautiful place which I had labored so hard night and day for over two months to defend, and which I had fondly hoped could be held from the polluting grasp of our insatiate enemies.”

Pensacola Navy Yard | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Pensacola Navy Yard | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The Confederates in the area had held out for over a year against the Federal garrison at Fort Pickens, as well as various threats from the Gulf Blockading Squadron. The Federals had already destroyed the Pensacola Navy Yard’s dry dock as well as portions of Fort McRee protecting the town.

The evacuation began on the 9th. The Confederates burned the navy yard, destroying the unfinished ironclad C.S.S. Fulton and all other ships that had been under construction. In addition, the troops burned Fort McRee, the marine hospital and barracks, factories and mills, and warehouses filled with lumber and cotton.

That night, Federals stationed across Pensacola Bay saw the fires in the town and determined that the Confederates were evacuating. Brigadier General Lewis G. Arnold, commanding the Western District of the Federal Department of the South, sent his chief of staff across the bay to accept Pensacola’s surrender.

By dawn on May 10, about 1,000 Federals landed to occupy the town. Commander David D. Porter stated, “The Rebels have done their work well. The yard is a ruin.” However, the navy yard was soon rebuilt and used as an important supply base for the Federal blockading fleet in the Gulf of Mexico.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 8; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 168; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 150; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 209; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 574; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 276-77

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

Federal Attack on Pensacola Bay

November 22, 1861 – Colonel Harvey Brown, commanding the Federal garrison at Fort Pickens on Florida’s Gulf coast, directed a preëmptive attack on Confederates seeking to take back the fort.

Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Since their failed invasion of Santa Rosa Island in October, General Braxton Bragg’s Confederates had surrounded Fort Pickens, according to Brown, “with batteries and daily arming them with the heaviest and most efficient guns known to our service–guns stolen from us–until they considered this fort as virtually their own, its occupancy being only a question of time.”

Brown worked with Flag Officer William McKean, commanding the Gulf Blockading Squadron, to drive the Confederates out of their nearby positions along Pensacola Bay at Forts McRee and Barrancas, and the Pensacola Navy Yard. At 9:55 a.m. on November 22, the steamers U.S.S. Niagara and Richmond, aided by artillery from Fort Pickens, opened a massive bombardment.

The Confederates quickly abandoned the navy yard, but the Federal vessels could not get any closer than 2,000 yards due to shallow waters. Meanwhile, Confederate artillery began responding with their four-mile line of batteries facing Fort Pickens.

The Confederates in Fort McRee sustained a tremendous shelling. A soldier in the 1st Alabama at Pensacola wrote:

“On one occasion, simultaneous volleys raked the outer walls and parapets of the fort (McRee), wrapped it with flames of bursting shells, sent huge timbers and massive pieces of concrete flying through the air, swept away the flagstaff and demolished a section of wall on the right. As dimly seen from our position the whole structure seemed to bulge and sink to the earth in one general conflagration and gigantic heap of ruins.”

By 3 p.m., the Federals had disabled all of Fort McRee’s batteries while keeping up their fire on Fort Barrancas and the navy yard as well. Confederate gunners at Barrancas hit the Richmond twice, killing one and wounding eight, before the ships withdrew for the night. Brown then ordered the firing from Pickens suspended, ending the action for the day.

Bragg reported that “the number and caliber of guns and weight of metal brought into action it will rank with the heaviest bombardment in the world,” making the fight “grand and sublime. The fire of the enemy, though terrific in sound and fury, proved to have been only slightly damaging, except to McRee.” Bragg noted that fire from the Niagara and Richmond had “much greater accuracy, the fort and garrison of McRee suffered more.” The Confederates sustained 21 casualties (one killed and 20 wounded).

The Federals resumed their bombardment the next day without the Richmond, which had been put out of action. The Niagara and the guns from Fort Pickens opened on the three main Confederate positions, shooting the flags away from Forts McRee and Barrancas by noon and pummeling both the shore batteries and the lighthouse. The Niagara tried getting closer but became a prime target herself, forcing her to withdraw under heavy fire.

That afternoon, Federal gunners began firing hotshot (i.e., heated cannonballs), burning most of the nearby town of Warrington to the ground. Firing ended at nightfall, with the Confederates still holding all their fortifications despite suffering heavy damage. Federals had fired about 5,000 rounds over 28 hours. Both sides combined sustained eight men killed.

Bragg congratulated his troops on what he called a victory over the enemy: “We have crippled his ships and driven them off, and forced the garrison of Fort Pickens, in its impotent rage, to slake its revenge by firing into our hospital, and burning the habitations of our innocent women and children, who had been driven there from by an unannounced storm of shot and shell.”

Brown acknowledged that the bombardment had failed to drive the Confederates out of their menacing positions near Fort Pickens. However, he announced that “the attack on ‘Billy Wilson’s’ camp (i.e., the Confederate invasion of Santa Rosa Island), the attempted attack on my batteries, and the insult to our glorious flag have been fully and fearfully avenged.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 85; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 142-43; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 276-77

The Fall of Ship Island

September 16, 1861 – Federal forces seized an important base for future operations in the Gulf of Mexico.

Ship Island lighthouse built in 1853 | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Ship Island lighthouse built in 1853 | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Located near the mouth of the Mississippi River, Ship Island, Mississippi was deemed “indispensable” by the Federal Blockade Strategy Board. The failure of Captain William Mervine to capture Ship Island was partly responsible for his removal as commander of the Federal Gulf Blockading Squadron. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles had told Mervine that he found it “difficult to understand the reasons for the apparent inactivity and indifference that have governed in this matter. You have large ships, heavy batteries, and young and willing officers, with men sufficient to dispossess the insurgents from Ship Island.”

A week after Mervine’s removal, the U.S.S. Massachusetts under Commander Melancton Smith bombarded the partially completed fortifications on Ship Island and drove the Confederates off. A Federal landing party came ashore and took possession, marking the second successful Federal army-navy operation of the war (capturing Hatteras Inlet the previous month being the first).

Although the capture was not considered a major accomplishment at the time, Ship Island became an important staging and refueling site that enabled the Federals to patrol the entrances to the Mississippi and Mobile Bay, as well as the eastern delta outlets and passes down from Lake Pontchartrain. It also provided a base for a future attack on the Confederacy’s largest city: New Orleans.

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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. 77; 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. 66; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 119; 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. 370; 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; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 31