Category Archives: Naval

150 years ago today… one lucky misfire! CSS Alabama vs. USS Kearsarge

And it is still there:

WNY 10 Apr 10 414

Had that shell, fired from a Blakely rifle on the CSS Alabama, exploded in the USS Kearsarge‘s sternpost, the outcome of the action would have been different.   The gun that fired it….

…was recovered from the wreck in the 1990s.

The US Navy History and Heritage Command has a resource page with more information on the Battle of Cherbourg.

“They believe in their torpedoes”: The Confederate naval threat along the James

An under-appreciated aspect of the 1864 Overland Campaign is the support given by the US Navy.  Rear-Admiral Samuel P. Lee’s North Atlantic Blockading Squadron in effect secured the water-facing flanks of the army and facilitated rapid movement of men and supplies throughout the campaign.  With secure passage through the Chesapeake Bay and various riverways, General U.S. Grant could shift his base of supply and move troops to keep the pressure on.

On occasion, such as in the Battle of Wilson’s Wharf in late May, the squadron was involved with the action on land.  But for the most part, Lee focused on threats in the water.  And a varied set those were.  On May 6, 1864, the fleet lost the USS Commodore Jones to a Confederate torpedo.

And the following day, while operating in the James River on torpedo-clearing operations, the USS Shawsheen was captured and burned by Confederates.  And aside from the torpedoes and shore batteries, Lee had to consider Confederate ironclads, torpedo boats, and other “novel” threats on the James River.

On this day (June 1) in 1864, Lee too time to detail these threats in a message to the Navy Department.  Attached, Lee offer statements from refugees and deserters.  The first of which was from John Loomis, a “white deserter from the CSS Hampton.”  Loomis related particulars of the ironclads CSS Virginia (the second, and not the more famous ironclad from 1862), CSS Richmond, and CSS Fredericksburg.  Loomis also mentioned several old schooners prepared for use as fire rafts.  He warned, “They intend attacking the Federal fleet as soon as practicable, in the night; first sending down the fire ships, and following with the rebel craft when we are disconcerted by the fire rafts.”

Another report, from a colored refugee from Richmond named Archy Jenkins, offered more details (and not only those concerning the Navy):

I am a free man, stevedore.  I was employed on the Bonita. I left Richmond Monday.  I gave a colored man $10 to show me the batteries, past the pickets. I crawled through the bushes and came down to Hill Carter’s place.

The firing was about 7 miles from Richmond, out toward Boar Swamp; the firing was rapid and heavy. The mate of the Bonita said Lee was 5 miles from Richmond and Grant about 7 miles. Opinion is divided as to Grant’s getting to Richmond. They are putting two barges and a sloop lashed together, filled with shavings and pitch with torpedoes, which they intend to set on fire, and when it reaches the fleet it will blow up and destroy the fleet. There is a vast quantity of powder on int. There are six others, small steamers…. All are fitted with torpedoes on long poles.

Jenkins noted the Confederate ironclads all drew about 14 feet of water.

They were lightened over Warwick Bar. You can carry with good tide 2 feet. You can carry about 15 feet good tide over Trent’s Reach.

There is a freshet now, a little; there is about 6 or 7 inches more than usual high water.

I don’t think they will have any trouble in bringing their ironclads over Trent’s Reach; there is plenty of water close over the left bank. They must come at high water. I am no man for steering a boat, but I know where the bars and deep water [are]. I have been running on the river five or six years, off and on. They all say they know “they can whip you all; they are certain of it.”  They believe in their torpedoes in preference to everything. They all say you haven’t sense to make a good torpedo; they reckon on them more than all else besides. They say that all they are afraid of, that you have a string of torpedoes all across at Cox’s and Trent’s reaches, and that the river is otherwise obstructed…. They say that is all they care about.

Jenkins continued on to conclude with an interesting assessment of the situation in Richmond:

They are very hard up for provisions at Richmond. If you took Petersburg “they could not fight another week.  They must give right up.”

Later that day, Lee sent a telegram to Washington, to arrive in advance of his written report:

The concurrent testimony, which seems reliable, of deserters from the rebel Army and Navy, and contrabands from Richmond, is that enemy meditate an immediate attack upon this fleet with fire rafts, torpedo vessels, gunboats, and ironclads, all of which carry torpedoes, and that they are confident of being able to destroy the vessels here, principally by their torpedoes.

Lee continued on to request Washington forward torpedoes for him to use, both in the channel and on the ironclads.  He further requested the USS Tecumseh, which at the time was ordered to proceed on to support operations in the Gulf of Mexico, be retained until the crisis passed.

These Confederate threats on the James were considerations which weighed upon decisions made by both army and navy leaders through the spring campaign.  If Grant opted to move south of the James, Lee would have to provide a shield against that threat.  And south of the James, just as Jenkins related, lay the opportunity to cut off Richmond from supplies.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 10, pages 111-3.)

“My artillery officers are not sailors”: Gillmore requests gunnery training for his steamers

As my blogging pal XBradTC likes to point out on occasion, the U.S. Army owns and operates a number of watercraft.  These are mostly for intra-theater logistic support.  The LCU 2000 class is an example of such:

These are, as sharp observers will notice, very similar to the Navy’s landing craft in layout to include the bow ramp.  And bringing me back to the Civil War topic, the Army christened many of these vessels after Civil War battles:  Aldie, Brandy Station, Bristoe Station, Broad Run, Cedar Run, Chickahominy, and others. In fact, I think that is USAV Broad Run closest to the camera in the view above.

The Army’s use of boats and ships for these roles is nothing new and dates for all practicality to the Revolution.  During World War II, the Army operated thousands of vessels.  But few of those were armed with anything more than anti-aircraft weapons.  However, during the Civil War the Army operated what was for all considerations “gunboats.”  These operated along inland waterways, patrolling and transporting.  Those familiar with the Mississippi River campaigns will recall the numerous steamboats and rams operated by the Army in support of operations there.  Likewise along the Atlantic Coast, the Army operated a small fleet of vessels to support operations.

The history of these boats in the Department of the South was varied, in some cases very interesting, but generally obscure.  The steamer Darlington was originally employed by the Confederates. After capture by the USS Pawnee in March 1862, the Navy used the Darlington for a few months then passed the ship to the Army.

Well known is the steamer Planter, which Robert Smalls piloted in his famous escape from Charleston in 1862. The Navy used that vessel for a few months before passing it to the Army.  And the Army used Planter actively right to the end of the war.

In an earlier post I covered the loss of the steamer Washington in South Carolina waters.  Other vessels, such as the steamer Island City, I’ve never found illustrations and scant few details about their history.  But these names show up occasionally in the reports and correspondence from the Department of the South. (And some day I will compile a list of such and post for review.)

So why do I bring this up on the first full day of spring?  Well 150 years ago today, Major-General Quincy Gillmore sent an interesting request to his naval counterpart, Commodore Stephen C. Rowan, acting in place of Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren (who was on leave at that time, due to the death of his son).  Gillmore asked for a naval officer to help train his steamer crews on the operation of guns on these vessels:

Sir: I have now in use in this department five armed steam transports, their service being chiefly picket duty; they are also used for transportation or convoys along those of our inland routes of communication where there is danger of meeting the enemy, also for scouting. These operations are not deemed important enough to call for the co-operation of your branch of the service. I have experienced, as you well know must be the case, the inconvenience of  having no officer possessing sufficient experience to properly outfit and command such vessels. My steam-boat masters are citizens and know nothing of artillery. My artillery officers are not sailors and are not acquainted with naval gunnery.

It would be of advantage to this army if I could avail myself of the services of one of the young officers of your squadron for the duty above indicated. I take the liberty of suggesting Acting Ensign William C. Hanford, now executive officer of the U.S. brig Perry, on the Fernandina Station, as a most suitable officer for this duty, from his large experience in similar service to that above designated in our Western rivers under Admiral Porter. If you will order him to report to me for temporary duty I will esteem it a favor.

The Army and Navy did share some cannon types, notably the Parrotts.  And often guns were used interchangeably between the services.  But form did follow designed function, with naval guns often carrying external fixtures, such as breeching loops, to support handling.  When mounted afloat, guns required naval carriages for better operation on the ship’s deck.  Likewise, ammunition storage and handling were different on board a ship, compared to a fortification.  And perhaps more importantly for the actual use of the weapon, aiming a gun from a moving ship against a fixed target required an adjustment in gunnery practice.

So indeed, artillery officers are not sailors.  So training was in order.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 24-5.)