May 4, 1865: “The rebel ram Stonewall” on the loose

On May 4, 1865, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren forwarded a copy of orders, posted the previous day to the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, to Major-General Quincy Gillmore.  The copy was in part a courtesy to the Army commander, to let him know of the Navy’s operational matters.  But at the same time was a warning that despite the surrender of Confederate forces, there were many loose ends left untied… and one of those was a rather important, advanced warship sailing on the high seas – the CSS Stonewall.

The Stonewall was an advanced vessel for her time.  And she entered the stage from a backdrop of intrigue and secrecy… of the type novelists love to use.  The ship was laid down at Bordeaux, France in 1863.  Designed by Lucien Arman as an ocean-going ironclad, the Stonewall boasted a 4 ½ inch armor belt along the waterline and a 5 ½ armored pilot’s compartment.  Her offensive power was one 300-pdr (10-inch) and two 150-pdr (8-inch) Armstrong rifles (and there is some indication that at least one 70-pdr (6.4-inch) rifle was also on board when she sailed from Europe).  Add to that firepower the “ram bow” for use in close combat.  And to make that ram even more useful, the Stonewall featured twin screws and rudders, affording greater maneuverability than most vessels of her time.

The Stonewall was one of five “blue water” ironclads ordered from European shipyards by Confederate agents. Two “Laird Rams” were built in England under the cover of an Egyptian customer name.  But those were seized by the British government in the fall of 1863 and then served for the Royal Navy as coast defense vessels.  An armored frigate named Santa Maria, with an impressive twelve 8-inch rifles, was started in the yards of J.L. Thompson and Sons in 1863.  But once the true nature of the work was discovered, the Santa Maria became the Danish Danmark.

In France, Confederate agents contracted for the Stonewall and a sister ship under the cover names Sphinx and Cheops, respectively.  Despite the legal setbacks in England, the work in France continued into 1864.  The intrigue pitted the French Emperor, Napoleon III, against his own government in an effort to see the vessels delivered to the Confederates.  But that was foiled by a leak of information to the US consulate.  As result, the Sphinx was sold to Denmark as the Stærkodder, and her incomplete sister ship to Prussia as the SMS Prinz Adalbert.  Though the Stærkodder received a Danish crew, the shipbuilder and the Danes failed to finalize the deal.  In the confusion, Arman completed a deal with the Confederates.  On January 6, 1865, a Confederate crew went on board the ironclad then in Copenhagen.

With several US cruisers keeping pace, the Stonewall went to sea only to spring a leak and seek a Spanish port.  After repairs, Captain T.J. Page took the Stonewall to sea, only to watch the Federal cruisers run off instead of offering battle.  Page then put in to Lisbon for provisions and fuel in preparation for a trans-Atlantic run.  Not until late April was she ready for sea.  But when she put to sea, the Federals still lacked a vessel capable of intercepting and engaging the Stonewall.  So she posed a significant threat on the high seas during the opening days of May, 1865.

Dahlgren’s copy of General Orders No. 48, forwarded to Gillmore, carried this cover:

General: I am informed by the Navy Department that the rebel ram Stonewall has left Teneriffe, and “her destination is believed to be some point on our coast.” Several vessels of the squadron are cruising along this coast and other orders have been issued.

The referenced orders included notices from the Navy Department, which not only called attention to the movements of the Stonewall, but also the flight of President Jefferson F. Davis. The two seemed connected at the time.  And was not far out of the question for Davis to flee to Cuba using the Stonewall as some executive escape vessel.  Dahlgren’s standing orders were:

The commanders of vessels stationed along the coast will use every means in their power to communicate to the iron-clads at Port Royal and Charleston the earliest intelligence of any vessel approaching the coast resembling the Stonewall, and to prevent the escape of the rebel leader and his accomplices. It is difficult to fix upon any precise point where this vessel might be expected; but once seen every effort should be made to spread the information among the squadron, and to bring the monitors within range of her, particularly to keep sight of her, so as to retain a knowledge of her locality. The Canonicus and Nantucket are at Port Royal: the Passaic and Catskill at Charleston.

At the same time 150 years ago, the Stonewall was nearing Nassau.  She would reach that port on May 6.  Unsure of the situation, Page would then make for Havana, Cuba.  There word of the Confederate surrenders caught up with the Stonewall.  Page opted to “sell” his vessel to Spanish authorities there.  Weeks later, US officials purchased the Stonewall from the Spanish and sailed her to the Washington Navy Yard.  There she studied in detail but generally found to be unsuitable to the needs of the post-war navy. But this did allow for some interesting photos with the Stonewall anchored near some of the Federal monitors for comparison.

The Stonewall‘s mission, when the Confederates first took possession of the ship, was to break the blockade.  She might have raided Port Royal and disrupted the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.  Had she arrived in late January, Page might have even stalled Sherman’s march through South Carolina for a while.  But by itself, the Stonewall was simply not enough to do more than play the fly to the Federal elephant’s advance.  She might have made headlines, but could not have done anything substantial  (as by that time the Confederates had no ports to open!).  As events unfolded, the legal and logistic snags ensured the Stonewall was late even for that minor role.

But the “What if” question remains for us to play around with.  Was the Stonewall, on paper a superior ship to the monitors, a potential game changer?  Well, speaking to the negative of that question, her sister ship in Prussian service was found to leak badly and was deemed a poor handling ship on the seaways.  The Prussians refitted the ship, adding better structures, armor, and Krupp cannons.  Still she was destined to play no role in two wars (Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian) fought during her service period.  The Prinz Adalbert was broken up in 1878.

However, on the positive side of that question, the Stonewall herself went on to a successful career, of sorts, under a different flag in a different kind of civil war.  In 1867, the Stonewall was sold to the Tokugawa Shogunate (for a substantial profit, by the way) and sent off for Japan.  Before arriving, the Shogunate lost ground and the Americans took control of the vessel when it arrived in Yokahama (April 24, 1868).   A deal with the Meiji government delivered the ironclad, then renamed Kōtetsu.  Over the following years, the Kōtetsu fought in several engagements as part of the Boshin War between Shogunate and the Imperial Court.   The most important of which was the battle of Hakodate in May 1869 (but four years removed from her last Confederate days).

There, the Kōtetsu dominated a force of unarmored ships.  That episode might provide some insight into what “might have been” at Port Royal.  Though the Kōtetsu appears to have remained in the coastal waters of Japan throughout these operations, never testing her ability to fight on ocean waters.

The French built ex-Danish, ex-Confederate, ex-American, ex-Shogunate Japanese ironclad was renamed Azuma in 1871 and rated coast-defense battleship.  She was finally stricken in 1888 and used as an accommodation hulk.  But, looking many decades into the future at that time, the former CSS Stonewall was the first rated “battleship” used by the Imperial Japanese Navy.  Many decades later the Azuma‘s descendants would contest an ocean with the descendants of the American monitors, in some of history’s largest naval battles.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part III, Serial 100, pages 299-300.)

“Portion of this island will be required hereafter for permanent fortifications”: War transforms Hilton Head

In 1860, as the secession crisis began, Hilton Head Island, just as most of the barrier islands from the Chesapeake to the toe of Florida, lacked any military presence. The infrastructure on the island differed little from that depicted on an 1825 map:

HiltonHeadIsland1830s

Although Port Royal offered good anchorage, the lack of major port facilities diminished its importance to military authorities who had prioritized coastal defense projects.  Instead Charleston received the lion’s share of the attention… and funding.

At the start of the war, the Federals needed anchorages in order to maintain the blockade.  Thus Port Royal was posted high on the list of objectives. And at the same time the Confederates recognized the vulnerability of Port Royal and fortified Hilton Head and Phillip’s Island across the sound.

HiltonHead1862

In November 1862, Federal actions demonstrated those defenses were not complete, especially against steam powered navies.  With Port Royal in Federal hands, Hilton Head became an important base.  The island became a sprawling “city” within the span of a year.  By mid-war, outposts and fortifications extended out from Hilton Head to protect Port Royal and approaches.

HiltonHeadDistrictApril64

But with the close of the war, the military would not need Port Royal, and thereby Hilton Head would fall back down the list of priorities for post-war coastal defense appropriations.  However, military minds had reason to rethink that prioritization given the experience of the Civil War.  If the Federals could use Port Royal as a base and lodgement, then a foreign power might also.  That in mind, On April 29, 1865, Major-General Quincy Gillmore sent a letter to the Army’s Adjutant-General, Brigadier-General Lorenzo Thomas, in Washington:

General: I have the honor to call your attention to the following statement in relation to the north end of Hilton Head Island, S. C., bordering upon Port Royal Harbor. This, in common with some other portions of the island, has been reserved by the United States Government for military purposes during the war. The fact that it is the headquarters of the department, and its occupation by troops, has drawn thither a large number of sutlers, army followers, and others, until quite a city has grown up. Most of the buildings erected thus far are owned and occupied by the parties above mentioned and have been put up only on condition of their removal at any time when, in the judgment of the military authorities, the interests of the public service demand it. But the impression is gaining ground that after the war this property will no longer be needed for public purposes and that a city will be located here. In my opinion this portion of the island will be required hereafter for permanent fortifications. Therefore, that this may be understood, I desire the authority of the War Department to announce officially that all the lands now reserved at this post for military purposes will be permanently occupied by the Government. Such announcement will remove all grounds for damages in case at any time it should become necessary to require the removal of the buildings. I have the honor to request that this matter may receive your early attention.

Some of the buildings in question were quarters inhabited by former contrabands… a term being discarded in the correspondence with “refugee” or “freedmen.”

Despite Gillmore’s urgings, the War Department would make no significant efforts to maintain or improve the fortifications left behind on Hilton Head.  In the decades that followed, one experimental battery was placed on Hilton Head Island.  But that was more so to provide trials for new weapons than any scheme of defense.  Changes in military technology allowed for different arrangements than that employed during the Civil War.  In 1898, construction began on Fort Fremont featuring a battery of 10-inch disappearing guns on Saint Helena Island.  Those heavy guns could cover the sound, entrance channel, and Hilton Head with ease.  (Earlier in that decade, a coaling station was established on Paris Island.  And that post eventually grew into a substantial military presence around Port Royal by the early 20th century.)

But the US Government retained control of significant portions of Hilton Head Island after the Civil War.  Some of the pre-war plantation owners returned and reclaimed property.  Portions of the lands held by the Government were passed to the freedmen or sold to speculators.  But the War Department still held significant holdings on the island as the century closed.  And those holdings were used again during World War I and World War II as the military again saw the need to garrison Hilton Head.

However, the most significant change would occur in the decades after World War II.  A highway bridge and other improvements transformed the once sparsely populated island where Gullah lived, and occasionally the military garrisoned, into a resort community.  In the span of 100 years, Hilton Head went from being a major military base, to a small community living on the margins of the land and society, and then finally to a place of leisure and luxury.

Such is the passing of history.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part III, Serial 100, page 351.)

 

December 9, 1864: Another attempt at the Charleston & Savannah Railroad falls yards short

Earlier I mentioned the operation launched by Major-General John Foster to gain the Charleston & Savannah Railroad by an attack near Coosawhatchie, South Carolina.  Again, this was an effort to support Major-General William T. Sherman’s march to the sea by cutting the rail link between Savannah and Charleston.  Earlier efforts failed to break the rail line due to Confederate defenses at Honey Hill.  But not throwing in the towel, Foster launched several expeditions, leading up to a landing on the peninsula between Coosawhatchie River and Tulifinny Creek.  By December 7, Foster could report a lodgement three-quarters of a mile from the railroad (the closest of any of the various attempts over the last three years had reached to this railroad, mind you!).

On December 9, word passed down from Foster to Brigadier-General Edward Potter (commanding the troops on the ground) that one more “go” at the railroad was required.  For this, Potter ordered a “skirmish brigade” formed that would advance toward the railroad and feel out the Confederate defenses.  The hope was that would find an unguarded point, at which the break could be achieved.  Colonel William Silliman, detached from his regiment, the 26th USCT, commanded an ad-hoc formation consisting of the US Marine Battalion, the 127th New York and 157th New York.  The formation had the Marines on the right, with the 157th in the center and the 127th on the left.  Of the movement, Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart Woodford, of the 127th New York reported:

We formed in front of the rifle-pits in the open field, at 9.10 a.m., in one rank–the marines having the right, the One hundred and fifty-seventh New York Volunteers the center, and the One hundred and twenty-seventh New York Volunteers the left. The men were deployed at a distance of two places from each other, and one company of the One hundred and twenty-seventh was formed as flankers on the left. The line covered a front of near three-quarters of a mile, reaching from a point 100 yards to the left of the dirt road that runs into the Coosawhatchie turnpike. We advanced under cover of a heavy artillery fire, moving almost due north. The line was maintained with great regularity, and struck the rebel pickets about 350 yards from the railroad. These, after a few shots, fell rapidly back upon their reserves. These reserves, opposite our center and right, retired upon their main line, which immediately opened a heavy fire, both with musketry, grape, and canister. The rebel pickets upon our left appeared to rally upon their reserves, which were near their line, and these being sheltered by a heavy growth of young pines, main-rained for some time a sharp and well-directed fire, which enfiladed our left.

With the initial success, the Federals rolled back the Confederate line to within a couple hundred yards of the railroad.  Robert Sneden later penned this depiction (oh, you know I hesitate to say “map”) of the action from descriptions:

TilifinnyCr2

Notice the position designations listed for the 127th New York.  He didn’t show the 157th or Marines on the map.  But the gist of the movement is there, with the Federals crossing some low ground in front of the railroad to press the defenses on the railroad.

Just as the skirmish line reached the Confederate entrenchments, Silliman was hit in the leg.  For the second time in four days, Woodford assumed tactical command of an operation under such circumstances.  And he continued to press the advance:

The skirmish line pushed steadily forward, pressing the place occupied by the rebel pickets, and took up position within about 200 yards of the railroad. The marines upon the right, under command of First Lieutenant [George] Stoddard, U.S. Marine Corps, approached quite close to the rebel battery and made a gallant attempt to flank and charge it. They were exposed to a very severe fire; became entangled in a dense thicket between the forks of a creek upon the right, and were compelled to fall back. They retired upon the reserves, where they reformed and again moved to the front.

The Marines had hit a portion of the line held by the cadets from the South Carolina Military Academy, the Citadel.  The entire student body was in the field that morning, manning the works (the only time an entire college body has fought as a unit).  So this brings a bit of notability to this otherwise small action – one of the few times the US Marine Corps operated at more than a company strength during the Civil War, and they happen to run against the Citadel cadets.  And as Woodford indicates, the Marines got the worst end of the deal.  At that point, the attack began to break up.

The two New York regiments remained in their advance positions for much of the day.  Around 2:30 that afternoon, the regiments began to retire.  As they did, the Confederates sortied and attempted a flank attack on the left.  This was repulsed.  Both sides finally retired completely at dark.

In the action, the Marines suffered eleven casualties.  The 157th reported the same number of wounded from their rolls.  The 127th suffered much worse with 8 killed and 51 wounded.  Brigadier-General Beverly H. Robertson, Confederate commander in the sector, reported 52 casualties.  However those numbers do not include any mention of casualties the cadets may have suffered.

Assessing this action, if at all, most sources draw attention to Foster’s failure, again, to break the Charleston & Savannah Railroad. This is cited as the reason the Confederates were able to resupply Savannah and later retreat. So the failure is reflected as a strategic blunder to close those last few hundred yards on December 9, 1864.

But let’s talk about the nuts and bolts of reality here.  Consider the “big map” again (for simplicity, I’ve left out the Federal coastal garrisons and the Confederate defensive positions confronting Hilton Head, but factor those in.)

Dec9Situation

Sherman’s left most columns were but twenty-five miles or so from the site of Woodford’s skirmish. Likely they even heard some of the firing.  As the sun sat on December 9, the Twentieth Corps had leading regiments within an easy morning march from the railroad, just outside Savannah.  So close were the Federals at that point, General P.G.T. Beauregard, who was visiting Savannah to consult with Lieutenant-General William Hardee, opted to take a ferry over the Savannah River that afternoon instead of risking the train.  For all practical purposes, the railroad was cut even while Woodford pulled his men back.  From that, there are some grand points to consider… but I’ll save that for the moment.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 441-2.)