Tag Archives: John L. Worden

Federals Invade Charleston Harbor

April 7, 1863 – Federal ironclads launched a doomed attack on the Confederate forts guarding Charleston Harbor.

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

The Lincoln administration had pressured Rear Admiral Samuel F. Du Pont, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, to capture the forts in Charleston Harbor, which would lead to the fall of Charleston itself. Charleston, site of Fort Sumter, was more of a symbolic than a strategic objective for the Federal high command.

Du Pont had been reluctant to attack the forts ringing the harbor because he doubted the new ironclads had the power to reduce such strong fortifications. He also could not rely on army support, as Major General David Hunter (commanding the Federal Department of the South) had no intention of attacking such a strong position.

Unable to put it off any longer, Du Pont dispatched the ironclads U.S.S. Keokuk, Montauk, Passaic, and Patapsco to the North Edisto River and positioned other gunboats in preparation for the impending assault on the 1st. Du Pont arrived at Edisto Island the next night and issued orders to his ship commanders on the 4th:

“… The Squadron will pass up the main channel without returning the fire of the batteries on Morris Island, unless signal should be made to commence action. The ships will open fire on Fort Sumter when within easy range, and will take up position to the northward and westward of that fortification, engaging its left or northeast face at a distance of from 600 to 800 yards firing low and aiming at the center embrasure… After the reduction of Fort Sumter it is probable that the next point of attack will be the batteries on Morris Island. The order of battle will be line ahead…”

Du Pont assembled his ironclad fleet on the afternoon of April 5. Federals had placed buoys in the channel off the Stono bar to mark the safe passage, with the gunboats U.S.S. Catskill and Patapsco guarding the buoys. Du Pont assigned steamers to tow off any vessels that might be disabled in the impending assault.

The attack fleet consisted of nine ironclads: the U.S.S. Weehawken, Passaic, Montauk, Patapsco, New Ironsides (Du Pont’s flagship), Catskill, Nantucket, Nahant, and Keokuk. The ships had 32 15-inch guns to face 76 guns in the harbor forts. The ships crossed the Charleston bar and prepared to attack, but hazy weather rendered pilots unable to judge the ranges, so it was postponed for a day. The ships anchored just outside the harbor that night.

The tides delayed the attack on the 7th until around noon. The fleet began advancing toward the main channel leading into the harbor single-file, with the Weehawken under Captain John Rodgers leading the way. But the raft that the Weehawken was pushing to offset Confederate torpedoes got tangled with the main ship, causing another delay. The advance finally got under way in earnest around 3 p.m.

This was the largest naval attack of the war. The Confederates knew the attack was coming, and Charleston residents lined the shore to watch the action. As the fleet headed for Fort Sumter, the Confederate garrison there raised their flag and fired a salute to the Confederacy while a band played “Dixie.”

Federal attack on Charleston | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

The Federal ships struggled to get past the obstructions and over the sandbars. Confederates had also placed markers in the water to guide the range of their guns. Federal captains had trouble navigating the strong flood tide sweeping into the harbor as they came under fire.

Intense fire opened from Fort Sumter and nearby Sullivan’s and Morris islands. The Federals returned fire, but the ironclads’ slow guns could not match the enemy’s cannonade. A witness called the Confederate cannonade, “Sublime, infernal, it seemed as if the fires of hell were turned upon the Union fleet.” A naval officer said, “Such a fire I never saw. Nothing could be heard but the whistling of shot.”

The Federal ships fired 154 rounds, hitting Fort Sumter 55 times. But the Confederates fired 2,209 rounds and scored over 400 direct hits that destroyed decks, riddled smokestacks, penetrated armor, and disabled guns. The Weehawken took 53 hits and struck a torpedo. The Passaic took 35 hits and had her main gun turret disabled. The Montauk under Captain John L. Worden took 47 hits, as did the Patapsco. The New Ironsides was disabled and sat helpless above a 2,000-pound torpedo. Confederates tried detonating the torpedo, but a faulty wire saved the ship and crew, including Du Pont.

The Catskill was next in line, sustaining 20 hits and taking in water. The Nantucket took 51 hits that disabled her turret. The Nahant was crippled by 36 hits. The Keokuk got within 600 yards of Fort Sumter but sustained 90 hits, 18 of which penetrated the iron near the waterline. “Riddled like a colander,” the ship fell back toward Morris Island and sank later that night. Confederates later recovered the Keokuk’s signal books and learned all the Federals’ naval codes.

In addition, two Confederate spar-torpedo boats (oar-driven vessels with mines attached to a spar to ram enemy ships) went to confront the Federal ships still inside the Stono bar, but the Federals withdrew before they arrived.

The Federals sustained 23 casualties (one killed and 22 wounded), and the Confederates lost 14 (four killed and 10 wounded). Du Pont’s flagship signaled a withdrawal around 5 p.m., as the sun began setting. The harbor proved to be “a circle of fire not to be passed.” A Charleston resident wrote of the Federal ships, “It was a most signal defeat for them. We did not use half of our guns and had no recourse to rams, torpedoes, etc.” His “only regret is that the fleet did not make more of a fight so as to be more badly damaged.”

Du Pont planned to renew the assault the next morning until he received the damage reports from his commanders. Five ships were heavily damaged. Du Pont held a council of war and announced, “We have met with a sad repulse. I shall not turn it into a great disaster.” Du Pont reported to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “I determined not to renew the attack, for, in my judgment, it would have converted a failure into a disaster.” Every captain agreed, confident that naval force alone could not take the harbor.

Du Pont wrote to Hunter the next day that his suspicions about the ironclads’ abilities had been confirmed: “I attempted to take the bull by the horns. but he was too much for us. These monitors are miserable failures where forts are concerned.” Du Pont urged Welles to publicly acknowledge that the failed assault was due to the ironclads being unfit for the purpose, but Welles refused.

Lincoln was greatly disappointed by the defeat, and he ordered Du Pont, “Hold your position inside the bar near Charleston, or, if you shall have left it, return to it, and hold it till further orders.” Lincoln hoped the Federal presence would keep the Confederates anxious and prevent them from building more defenses.

News of this defeat brought tremendous criticism upon Du Pont. Charles C. Fulton, who had witnessed the battle, wrote a damning article in the Baltimore American titled, “A Disgraceful Result.” Fulton claimed the ships could have taken Fort Sumter if they were given more time before withdrawing. Fulton wrote, “Oh, that we had a (Admiral David) Farragut here to take command at once, and do what has been so weakly attempted by Admiral Du Pont.”

Du Pont blamed Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox for allowing such an article to be published because Fox had assigned Fulton to witness the battle. Welles concluded that the captains who agreed with Du Pont’s decision to withdraw would not have done so had they not been part of Du Pont’s inner circle.

Welles refused to publish any reports about the ironclads’ weaknesses because “there was no necessity for us to proclaim that weakness to our enemies… Du Pont is morbidly sensitive, and to vindicate himself wants to publish every defect and weakness of the ironclads and to disparage them, regardless of its effect in inspiring the Rebels to resist them, and impairing the confidence of our own men.” Welles and the Federal high command began seeing Du Pont as the main impediment to capturing Charleston.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 191; Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 115-18; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 230; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 270-74; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9225; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 224, 226-30, 232; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 278, 280; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 335-38; 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. 645-46; 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. 146-48; Melton, Maurice, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 131; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 640-41; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 703

The Battle of the Ironclads

March 9, 1862 – A naval duel at Hampton Roads off the Virginia coast marked the first time in history that two ironclad warships did battle.

After nearly destroying the Federal blockading fleet the day before, the C.S.S. Virginia (formerly the U.S.S. Merrimac) returned to Hampton Roads on the 9th. The Virginia’s commander, Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones, intended to finish off the grounded Federal flagship, the U.S.S. Minnesota. However, the Federal ironclad U.S.S. Monitor, designed to neutralize the Virginia, was waiting nearby.

The stationary Minnesota began firing at the Virginia as she closed to within a mile, but no damage was done. The Monitor then answered signals that the enemy was approaching by coming out to confront her. A midshipman aboard the Virginia recalled, “We thought at first it was a raft on which one of the Minnesota’s boilers was being taken to shore for repairs.”

The Monitor did not seem nearly as formidable as the Virginia, but she was iron-plated just like her Confederate adversary. The Monitor was also faster and more maneuverable than her lumbering opponent, with a more stable engine and a 10 1/2-foot draft as opposed to the Virginia’s 21-foot draft. Although the Virginia outgunned the Federal ship 10 to two, the Monitor’s two guns were on an innovative revolving turret.

The Monitor fired first, hitting the Virginia with a shot at the waterline. It did no damage, but the Confederate crewmen were startled to see such a strange craft firing on them. A Federal aboard the Monitor said, “You can see surprise in a ship just as you can see it in a man, and there was surprise all over the Merrimac.”

The Virginia opened fire at 8:06 a.m. with a shot that passed over the Monitor and struck the Minnesota. The Minnesota and Federal shore batteries returned fire as the ironclads closed in on each other. Lieutenant John L. Worden, the Monitor’s commander, stopped his engines and allowed his ship to drift alongside the Virginia, as both crews began firing as fast as they could from just a few yards apart. The Monitor’s revolving turret was struck twice, but the mechanism continued functioning properly.

Virginia (Merrimac) v. Monitor | Image Credit: thehistorybomb.com

Virginia (Merrimac) v. Monitor | Image Credit: thehistorybomb.com

The Monitor’s heavy shot managed to crack the Virginia’s iron plating in some places, but for the most part, her broadsides bounced or slid off the Confederate vessel’s armor “with no more effect… than so many pebblestones thrown by a child.” Conversely, the Monitor sat so low on the water that most of the Virginia’s shots passed harmlessly overhead.

Thousands of spectators gathered on shore to watch the ironclads battle “mercilessly, but ineffectively” for four hours. With his shots having no effect, Worden directed his men to ram the Virginia’s stern and try disabling her propeller. The Monitor narrowly missed, and the firing resumed. As the ships circled each other, the Monitor came perpendicular to the Virginia, and Jones directed his Confederates to ram her. But Worden easily evaded the larger, slower vessel.

Near noon, the Monitor disengaged to replenish her ammunition. The Virginia steamed to within 10 yards and fired a round that struck the pilot house, sending iron splinters through the viewing slit and partially blinding Worden. Thinking that the pilot house had been seriously damaged, he ordered a withdrawal and retired to quarters, relinquishing command to Lieutenant Samuel D. Greene.

Meanwhile, the Virginia’s unstable engine began struggling and she went aground. Greene ordered his Federals to reengage the Confederates, but by the time they returned, the Virginia had broken free and was withdrawing back to Sewell’s Point, under the cover of Confederate artillery. The vessel was low on ammunition and taking on water due to the engine problems, and Jones feared that she could be grounded again in the lowering tides. The battle was over.

The Monitor, which had been hit 23 times, resumed guard duty alongside the Minnesota. The Virginia’s engine proved too ineffective to pose any further threat to the Federal naval fleet on the Atlantic. Nevertheless, this began a new era in naval warfare, as the Monitor’s chief engineer Alban Stimers wrote to his father that this battle “was the first of its kind that ever occurred in history.” Captain John Dahlgren noted, “Now comes the reign of iron–and cased sloops are to take the place of wooden ships.” As of this date, the wooden navies of the world were obsolete.

Both the exhausted crews were mutually happy to be done with each other, and they both claimed victory. The Monitor may have won a strategic victory by preventing the Virginia from accomplishing her mission to destroy the Federal blockading fleet. However, the Confederates may have won a psychological victory by making the Federal navy expend large amounts of resources to defend against enemy ironclads in the future. The resources included vessels that had originally been assigned to support Major General George B. McClellan’s Peninsula campaign.

At Washington, panic over the prospect of the Virginia steaming up the Potomac turned to jubilation when Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus V. Fox telegraphed from Fort Monroe at 9 p.m.: “These two ironclad vessels fought part of the time touching each other, from 8 a.m. to noon, when the Merrimac retired… The Monitor is uninjured and ready at any moment to repel another attack.” This meant that Fort Monroe was safe for now, McClellan’s Peninsula campaign could proceed, and Washington would not fall under naval bombardment.

Soon “Monitor fever” swept the northern states in celebration of the Monitor’s defense of Hampton Roads. Naval officials quickly focused on constructing more Monitor-class vessels for the war effort. Worden later received a vote of thanks from Congress and a promotion to captain for leading the crew of the Monitor in this fight.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 72-74; Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 85; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 179; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (9 Mar 1862); Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 46; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 385-86, 504; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 139; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 120-21; Keefer, Kimberly A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 842-43; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 131-32; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 181-82; 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. 375-76; 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), p. 101-05; Melton, Maurice, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 787; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 279; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 504; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 335; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 62; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 529-30

The C.S.S. Virginia Attacks

March 8, 1862 – The Confederate ironclad Virginia demolished the Federal naval fleet off Hampton Roads, rendering all wooden warships obsolete and threatening to permanently break the Federal blockade.

C.S.S. Virginia | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

C.S.S. Virginia | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The crew of the C.S.S. Virginia (formerly the U.S.S. Merrimac), the flagship of the Confederate James River Squadron, completed preparations for action on the 7th. The next day, the ironclad vessel steamed out of the Norfolk Navy Yard, accompanied by five other vessels.

Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan, commanding the Virginia, had been authorized to make a trial run, but he instead sent the workers ashore and took the ironclad out to confront the entire Federal blockading fleet off Hampton Roads. As the Virginia passed Sewell’s Point, Buchanan addressed his 350-man crew:

“My men, you are now about to face the enemy. You shall have no reason to complain of not fighting at close quarters. Remember, you fight for your homes and your country. You see those ships–you must sink them. I need not ask you to do it. I know you will do it.”

Although the Virginia had not been built for speed (she could barely reach six knots at full steam), her thick iron plating made her almost invulnerable to enemy fire. Crewmen also greased the sloped plating with melted pork fat to better resist the cannonballs.

As the ironclad steamed down the James, five of the Federals’ most powerful warships were stationed near the river’s mouth, 10 miles from Norfolk: U.S.S. Cumberland, Congress, Roanoke, St. Lawrence, and the flagship Minnesota. The Congress, Cumberland, and St. Lawrence were sailing vessels considered behind the times due to the advent of steam power. The Roanoke had a broken shaft and was not functional. All five were wooden warships.

The 8th was a Saturday, so Federal crewmen were drying their laundry on their ships’ riggings when the Virginia appeared. The ironclad steamed directly for the 30-gun sloop Cumberland, one of the Federals’ largest ships, and rammed her around 1 p.m. The Cumberland’s superior firepower was no match for the Virginia’s iron plating. Despite losing her metallic ram, the ironclad opened a gaping hole below the Cumberland’s waterline and sank her.

The Congress, a 50-gun frigate led by Lieutenant Joseph B. Smith, saw the action from Newport News Point and began firing at the Virginia. A witness observed several broadsides being fired into the ironclad and noted that the shots “struck and glanced off, having no more effect than peas from a pop-gun.” The Virginia took 98 hits that disabled two guns, blew nearly everything off the deck, and shot up her smokestack. But none inflicted serious damage.

In response, Buchanan directed his crew to bear down on the Congress. Smith ordered the Congress towed to shore, but she sustained heavy damage from direct fire before running aground. Many were killed or wounded, including Smith, who was decapitated by a shot around 4:20 p.m. His successor surrendered the burning vessel.

The Virginia then turned her attention to the flagship, Minnesota. However, the Minnesota’s crew grounded her off Newport News to avoid destruction. The ironclad’s deep 22-foot draft prevented her from steaming into the shallows to finish the Minnesota off.

Meanwhile, Federal shore batteries poured fire into the Virginia, with the cannonballs merely bouncing or sliding off her iron plating. But one shot managed to wound Buchanan, forcing him to pass command to Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones. Jones returned the Virginia to Sewell’s Point near nightfall, with plans to resume the attack on the Minnesota and any remaining blockaders the next day.

This was the Confederacy’s greatest naval victory of the war. The Virginia destroyed two powerful warships in four and a half hours and, despite losing two guns, suffered no serious damage. They sustained 21 casualties (two killed and 19 wounded, Buchanan among them).

Conversely, this was the worst day in U.S. naval history up to that time (only Pearl Harbor, 79 years later, was worse). The Federals sustained 250 casualties, the most the navy suffered on any day of the war. The remaining vessels at Hampton Roads faced almost certain destruction the next day, until a new vessel arrived late that night to help even the odds.

The Federal ironclad U.S.S. Monitor completed a harrowing journey from New York, during which she was nearly swamped several times. The Monitor’s primary mission was to stop the Virginia. Captain John Marston, acting commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron aboard the U.S.S. Roanoke, directed Lieutenant John Worden, commanding the Monitor, to protect the grounded Minnesota.

The Monitor steamed to the Minnesota’s side around midnight, using the light from the burning Congress to find her way. The Congress’s magazine ignited shortly after 1 a.m., sparking several explosions and destroying the vessel. Lieutenant Samuel D. Greene, the executive officer of the Monitor, reported: “Her powder tanks seemed to explode, each shower of sparks rivaling the other in its height, until they appeared to reach the zenith–a grand but mournful sight.”

Within two hours of the Congress’s explosion, Major General John Wool, the Federal army commander at Fort Monroe, telegraphed the War Department that the Confederacy’s “floating battery” had sunk two frigates and would sink the remaining three before assaulting the fort itself. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton read the dispatch with terror and hurried to the White House to notify President Abraham Lincoln. The news soon spread panic throughout Washington, with Lincoln repeatedly looking out windows to see if the Virginia was coming up the Potomac.

An emergency cabinet meeting began at 6:30 a.m. on the 9th, where Stanton paced “like a caged lion” and declared: “The Merrimac (i.e., Virginia) will change the whole character of the war. She will destroy, seriatim, every naval vessel; she will lay all the cities on the seaboard under contribution.”

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles expressed concern but shared a message from Lieutenant Worden announcing that the Monitor had arrived at Hampton Roads. Stanton, unimpressed, went to a window and said, “Not unlikely, we shall have a shell or a cannonball from one of her (Virginia’s) guns in the White House before we leave this room.”

Welles argued that the Virginia drew too much water to come up the Potomac. He later recalled that there was “something inexpressibly ludicrous in the wild, frantic talk, action and rage of Stanton.” Lincoln shared Stanton’s concerns but remained calm. Later that day, Stanton telegraphed the coastal state governors: “Man your guns. Block your harbors. The Merrimac is coming.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 72-74; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 139; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 258; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 119; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 131-32; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 180-81; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 697; 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. 375; Melton, Maurice, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 787; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 275; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 504; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 335; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 49, 57-58; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 99-100; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 529-30

Launching the U.S.S. Monitor

January 22, 1862 – Lieutenant John L. Worden reported satisfactory progress on construction of an unnamed vessel slated to become the first Federal ironclad warship.

The U.S.S. Monitor | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The U.S.S. Monitor | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The vessel had been under construction since September 1861 at Long Island, New York. Swedish inventor John Ericsson had pledged to build the ship in just 90 days at a cost of only $275,000. The Federal Naval Ironclad Board, hoping to develop a craft that could challenge the Confederate ironclad C.S.S. Virginia (also under construction), enthusiastically approved the plan and even gave Ericsson an extra 10 days to complete it.

Worden, still recovering from several months of Confederate captivity as a prisoner of war, received a message from Joseph Smith of the Ironclad Board on January 11:

“I have only time to say I have named you for the command of the battery under contract with Captain Ericsson, now nearly ready at New York. This vessel is an experiment. I believe you are the right sort of officer to put in command of her.”

Worden responded that he was “induced to believe that she might prove a success.” Five days later, Worden arrived at New York and reported to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles: “… I have this day reported for duty for the command of the U.S.S. Steamer, building for Capt. Ericsson.”

The ship was revolutionary in that she contained 47 patentable inventions. The 172-foot-long vessel was encased in nine layers of iron and operated like a floating raft, with most of the body below the waterline. An inch of iron plating protected the wooden deck, with more iron on the sides to protect against rams and fire.

Topping the deck was a nine-foot-high revolving turret, protected by eight layers of one-inch iron plating. The turret, 20 feet in diameter, housed two cannon that could be fired in any direction. When Ericsson could not get 12-inch guns for the turret, he borrowed two 11-inchers from other ships in the harbor.

Another of Ericsson’s innovations was the engine, which connected to a crankshaft and turned the four-bladed propeller. Capable of reaching a speed of six knots, the smokestack venting the exhaust could be removed during combat.

On January 30, Ericsson launched the vessel from the Greenpoint Shipyard on Long Island. Although Ericsson missed his completion deadline, he still built the warship in 101 days, a timeframe that many thought impossible. In fact, Ericsson completed work on his ship before Confederates completed the C.S.S. Virginia, even though they had a three-month head start.

The warship steamed down the East River in Manhattan on her maiden voyage with a draft of 11 feet, just as Ericsson had predicted. Thousands of onlookers cheered as the strange vessel, with some comparing her to a “cheesebox on a raft.” Ericsson suggested that she be named the Monitor, as “one who admonishes and corrects wrongdoers.”

Worden recruited 57 volunteers to serve as crewmen aboard the U.S.S. Monitor, whose launch would change the course of naval history.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (January 16); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 111, 113, 116, 119; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 98, 103; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 184-85; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 164; 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. 374-75; 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. 99; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 246; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 52-53; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 99

Breaking the Fort Pickens Truce

April 12, 1861 – Federal Lieutenant John L. Worden delivered President Abraham Lincoln’s order to break the unofficial truce with local Confederates by reinforcing Fort Pickens, Florida.

General Braxton Bragg | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

General Braxton Bragg | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Pickens lay two miles offshore from Pensacola, surrounded by Confederates under Brigadier General Braxton Bragg. The Confederates had seized nearby Forts Barrancas and McRee, as well as the Pensacola Navy Yard. Pickens held great importance because it had access to the best harbor and naval repair yard besides Norfolk, Virginia, but Bragg’s men threatened to starve out the Federal garrison at the fort if more supplies and reinforcements did not arrive.

Through Worden, Lincoln directed that soldiers, artillery, and supplies be transferred from the naval squadron of U.S.S. Brooklyn, Sabine, St. Louis, and Wyandotte to the fort. Brooklyn moved behind Santa Rosa Island to disembark 200 Federal soldiers under Colonel Harvey Brown at Pickens’s rear. Inside the fort, Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer transferred command of the garrison to Brown. The “Fort Pickens Truce” that had been in effect since January 29 was no more.

Confederates could not prevent the Federal landing due to its location. When word reached Confederate officials at Montgomery that the Federals might try reinforcing Pickens, Secretary of War Leroy P. Walker telegraphed General Bragg to warn him. Bragg responded: “Mr. Worden had communicated with fleet before your dispatch received. Alarm guns have just fired at Fort Pickens. I fear the news is received and it will be reinforced before morning. It cannot be prevented…” The strengthening of Federal defenses compelled the Confederates to cancel plans to invade Santa Rosa Island.

The next day, Confederate authorities apprehended Lieutenant Worden near Montgomery as he was returning to Washington by train. However, they caught him too late to prevent him from delivering Lincoln’s order to reinforce Fort Pickens and blockade the harbor. Worden was ultimately released due to lack of evidence.

Meanwhile, Confederate officials received a dispatch stating the Federals “have violated their agreement. Reinforcements thrown into Fort Pickens last night by small boats from the outside. The movement could not even be seen from our side, but was discovered by a small boat reconnoitering.”

This news outraged the Confederates, who considered Federal forts to be state property on loan to the Federal government. To reinforce Pickens was to invade sovereign territory with foreign troops, an act of war. President Jefferson Davis, not expecting the Lincoln administration to commit such a dubious act, lamented that he did not order Confederates to attack Pickens along with Fort Sumter.

Within a week, a second naval relief expedition led by Lieutenant David D. Porter’s U.S.S. Powhatan arrived at Pickens to land more reinforcements. Powhatan had flown a British flag to deceive nearby Confederates. Federal presence in the Pensacola area now totaled 1,000 troops and four warships. Colonel Brown soon established headquarters at Pickens as the commander of the new Federal Department of Florida.

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Sources

  • Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 8
  • Davis, William C., First Blood: Fort Sumter to Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 17-18
  • Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 34-36
  • Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 22-23
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 56-61
  • Longacre, Edward G, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 264-65
  • Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 276-77
  • 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), Q261

Working to Reinforce Fort Pickens

April 6, 1861 – President Abraham Lincoln learned that his order to reinforce Fort Pickens in Pensacola Bay, Florida had not been obeyed.

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

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

Lincoln had intended to resupply both Forts Pickens and Sumter. On April 1, he signed a secret executive order dispatching the U.S. navy’s most powerful steamer, Powhatan, to the Navy Department. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles had intended to place Powhatan in Gustavus V. Fox’s fleet going to Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, but Secretary of State William H. Seward had different plans for the ship.

Seward hoped that reinforcing Pickens could be done without provoking hostilities, and once done, it could allow him to save face on his pledges to evacuate Sumter by lobbying Lincoln to stop the expedition to that fort. Seeking to add Powhatan to Montgomery C. Meigs’s fleet going to Pickens, Seward placed an order to divert the steamer into a pile of other documents requiring Lincoln’s signature.

Welles issued orders on the 5th for Powhatan, Pawnee, Pocahontas, and the revenue cutter Harriet Lane to proceed to Fort Sumter on Fox’s mission. However, he was unaware that Seward had ensured that Powhatan would not be part of the Sumter expedition. The Federals at Fort Pickens had an informal truce with surrounding Confederates since January, but Lincoln considered that voided when Confederates began laying siege to Fort Sumter.

The next day, Lincoln learned that the commander of the naval squadron offshore from Pickens had refused to break the informal truce, which relied upon the Federal pledge not to reinforce the fort. Lincoln responded by ordering Lieutenant John L. Worden to travel overland as a secret messenger to Fort Pickens and deliver orders for the offshore squadron to land reinforcements.

Lincoln also learned that Powhatan had been diverted from Pickens to Sumter. He directed Seward to change it back to Sumter, and Seward reluctantly complied. However Lieutenant David D. Porter, commanding Powhatan, refused to obey because the order had been signed by Seward, not the president. Thus, Powhatan prepared to leave New York as part of Meigs’s mission to Pickens, along with transport ships Atlantic, Baltic, and Illinois. Meigs’s expedition would not arrive at Pickens before Fox’s arrived at Sumter.

Brigadier General Braxton Bragg, commanding Confederates at Pensacola, requested permission from Secretary of War Leroy P. Walker to prevent any Federal attempt to reinforce Pickens. Walker granted Bragg permission on the 8th, warning the general that a Federal attack was imminent.

Lieutenant Worden arrived two days later with explicit orders for Federal naval officials to land troops at Fort Pickens. Worden assured General Bragg that he had been sent from Washington to deliver a “verbal message of a pacific nature” to the Federal commander of Fort Pickens. Bragg, unaware of the reinforcement order, granted Worden permission to meet with the garrison in the fort.

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Sources

  • Davis, William C., First Blood: Fort Sumter to Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 17
  • Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 32-34
  • Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6120, 6131-43
  • Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 20
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 52-55
  • Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 58
  • 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), Q161