150 years ago: A privateer meets an untimely end on the Ogeechee

The steamer Nashville came to a fiery end on this day in 1863.

The ship began her career as the US Mail Steamer Nashville doing service between New York and Charleston. In that capacity on April 11, 1861 she entered Charleston harbor (having been fired on by the USRC Harriet Lane in the process). After the firing on Fort Sumter, Confederates seized the Nashville, turning her into an cruiser. The CSS Nashville was the first warship to fly the Confederate flag in Europe, making a run to England. On return, she was sold for service as a blockade runner, and a turn under the name Thomas L. Wragg. But she ran too deep in the water for that role. So she began a refit for service as a privateer, and received a new name – the Rattlesnake. By early 1863, the Rattlesnake sat upstream of Fort McAllister on the Ogeechee River.

Regardless of the outfit, her Federal opponents knew her as the Nashville. And they considered her a great threat that must be be neutralized if not destroyed. On the morning of February 28, 1863, Commander John Worden took the ironclad USS Montauk into familiar waters near Fort McAllister, followed by a few wooden the USS Seneca, USS Wissahickon, and USS Dawn – all veterans of the earlier bombardments of the fort.

By moving up close to the obstructions in the river I was enabled, although under a heavy fire from the battery, to approach the Nashville, still aground, within the distance of 1,200 yards. A few well directed shells determined the range, and soon [we] succeeded in striking her with XI-inch and XV-inch shells. The other gunboats maintained a fire from an enfilading position upon the battery, and the Nashville at long range. I soon had the satisfaction of observing that the Nashville had caught fire from the shells exploding in her several places, and in less than twenty minutes she was caught in flames forward, aft, and amidships. At 9:20 a.m. a large pivot gun mounted abaft her foremast exploded from the heat; at 9:40 her smoke chimney went by the board, and at 9:55 her magazine exploded with terrific violence, shattering her in smoking ruins. Nothing remains of her.

However Worden was incorrect. Something did remain of the Nashville. And those remains are on display at Fort McAllister today.

Ft McAllister 5 May 10 011
Salvaged parts of the CSS Nashville

The Montauk almost came to ruin herself. While backing down from the obstructions, she encountered a Confederate torpedoe. At 9:35 a violent explosion under the Montauk prompted the evacuation of the starboard side of the engine room. Damage included bent ribs, sheared rivets, and buckled plates under a boiler.

Engineer’s Diagram of the Damage

Despite fears, the boilers did not burst. Although taking in water, the crew managed to pump out enough to get the boilers re-fired. That afternoon the Montauk made safe anchorage in the sound.

While the Federals were able to repair the Montauk, the Nashville, or Rattlesnake if you prefer, was but an obstruction in the river.

(Citation from Naval OR, Series I, Volume 13, pages 697-8.)

A lost gun at Chalk Bluff on the St. Francis

A long time back, I wrote about the battle of Chalk Bluff on the St. Francis River at the Arkansas-Missouri border. Since that battle occurred close to my boyhood home, it has always been a favored research topic. Even if scant resources exist for that nearly forgotten battle.

As I mentioned in the earlier posts, Confederate forces under Brigadier-General John S. Marmaduke managed to slip over the St. Francis in the evening of May 1, 1863. A bridge constructed by Colonel M. Jeff Thompson allowed Marmaduke to cross the rain swollen St. Francis and thus escape to fight another day. During the crossing, Thompson dismounted several artillery pieces in order to move them by rafts across the river.

Growing up in southeast Missouri, I had often heard stories about buried Confederate “stuff” – be that treasure or cannons. With time, I reconciled those stories with what I knew of the records. I’d never accounted for any lost cannons (and don’t even get me started on the treasure stories).

But yesterday my father forwarded a newspaper clipping of an article run in the Daily Dunklin Democrat (our newspaper in Kennett, Missouri) on February 2, 1929. The article read:

To Remove an Old Cannon from the St. Francis River

Bloomfield, Mo, Jan 28. – An old cannon, dumped into the St. Francis river 60 years ago, during the Civil War, is to be removed from the river bed. It was recently located at what is known as Chalk Bluff, near the Missouri-Arkansas state line.

The Rev. R.L. Allen of Bloomfield has obtained permission from the War Department to take charge of the cannon and keep it until such time as the department wishes to take charge of it.

An interesting history is attached to his old war machine. It was one that J.W.R. Allen and his company captured during the war between the states. Allen was an uncle of the Bloomfield minister.

The exact date of the engagement is not exactly known here, but circumstances under which the fight took place has been handed down by tradition so that it is known it was a hand to hand battle with breastworks enclosing the old court house here.

Mr. Allen’s uncle was captain of the company which captured the old cannon. After taking this cannon according to the old stories, the Confederate troops started south. They were hard pressed by the Union forces and when crossing the St. Francis river they decided to dump the cannon overboard from an improvised raft upon which they were crossing.

Inquiry has brought out that the cannon never was taken from the river. Allen planned to make a search for the instrument until reports were received here that it had been found by people living along the river.

The War Department made it plain that it would bear no expense of having the cannon removed from the river or reconditioning the historic relic.

From what is provided in the article, nothing definitively links the cannon to the May 1, 1863 battle of Chalk Bluff. But the account details, to include the use of rafts, mirrors the accounts of Thompson’s handling of the guns. And of course the place name matches. However, Marmaduke did not mention losing any guns.

And more importantly, what happened to this artifact… er… instrument of war? I don’t know of any surviving guns laying about. So I suspect the cannon was scrapped at some point, perhaps during World War II.

One-hundred and fifty years after the war, how many times do we find a new piece of information that only leads to more questions?

Tactical Exercise: Analysis of yesterday’s “game”

First off, yesterday’s exercise went over better than I expected.  Thanks to everyone who commented and voted.  I’ll have to do more of such exercises.

Now what about the placement of those guns?

Our Map

Of the responses, about a third preferred to put cannons on the flanks (positions 4 and 7).  Of the reset, the second most favored was alined, but within, the main infantry line (positions 5 and 6).  But massed to the front (position 2) and “Other” received their share of votes.

That “other” was perhaps a flaw in the exercise.  I didn’t build any way to provide a description of what “other” was supposed to be.  From the comments on the post, many folks were looking to mix and match approaches and positions. Part of that is due to the incomplete description I provided.  Not enough information on the enemy, the nature of the friendly force, or even the overall situation.  Just a stack of playing pieces on the chess board.

That leads to the real solution to the exercise – no “right” answer exists.  Rather there are preferences, alternatives and options.  So what would what were a good battery commander’s preferences 150 years ago?  Well billiard table flat chessboards aside, I would offer John Gibbon’s answer:

Batteries are usually placed at least 60 yards in front of the intervals between regiments and brigades, and upon their flanks, so as not to offer two marks for the fire of the enemy, or subject the troops placed in rear to a fire directed against the artillery….

I would translate Gibbon’s preferences to be positions 1, 3, 4 or 7.  But to be sure, Gibbon was not merely positioning guns where the supporting infantry were safe from enemy counter-battery fire.  The other part his selection was to “clear” the guns to allow the best possible field of fire.  He recognized that long before the infantry begins to engage, the artillery must bring fire upon the advancing enemy.  “The greatest cannonading takes place at from 800 to 900 yards.”  So placing the guns out in front of, or to the side of, the infantry line would clear the batteries for that long range fire.  It is line of sight the battery commander needs.  And in this unnaturally flat terrain offered in the scenario, we didn’t have to account for terrain.

Personally, I’m not much into armchair generalship. I wasn’t there 150 years ago, so how can I contend to have a better vantage over those who were.  However, what I get out of contemplating gun placement, in hypothetical exercises like this, is a template to lay across time and space.  It becomes a tool to help interpret the actions on the battlefield.  What was done and why was it done?  What were the factors driving decisions?  What turned those decisions into success … or failure?

Oh, but for a artillery version of Gray’s Cavalry Tactics!