Tag Archives: Gulf Coast

The Battle of Mobile Bay

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

David G. Farragut | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 177-78; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 195; Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 145-47, 156; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 15324; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 745; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 444; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 480-82; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 503-04; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 183-84; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 551-52; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 760-61; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 209-12; Melton, Maurice, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 504, 746; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 325-26

 

The Mobile Bay Campaign

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

David G. Farragut | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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

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

Farragut reported to his superiors:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 177-78; Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 143, 145; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 15315-24; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 444; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 479-80; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10394-414; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 183-84; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 550-51; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 209

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

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