Category Archives: Naval

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.)

“The light-infantry drill will be best adapted to this service”: Dahlgren’s instructions for landing parties

Earlier this week, I mentioned the work of Navy landing parties in raids along the Georgia coast 150 years ago.  In the same time line, 150 years ago, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren saw the need to formalize the equipment, organization, and drill of the sailors involved with these landing parties.  On August 8, 1864 he sent around orders addressing the subject:

Boat artillery and infantry, South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

It has frequently happened that the peculiar nature of the duties in this command has required the service of bodies of men to be landed from vessels to act for a short time as infantry, assisted by light fieldpieces.

In order to meet similar exigencies commanders of vessels will take pains to select from their crews such men as may seem to have a turn for this kind of duty and have them drilled with small arms until they have attained the necessary proficiency.

In so doing it is to be borne in mind that the drill and maneuverings are to be few and exceedingly simple.

The men should be thoroughly skilled in the loading and firing of their weapon, and the firing at a mark is to be encouraged.

The light-infantry drill will be best adapted to this service, and to the habits of seamen.

The preferable arm, when it can be had, will be the new navy rifled musket, known as the Plymouth musket, because the first of this kind were made for the U.S. ship Plymouth when under my command, the pattern of which was got up by myself as most suitable for sea service.

It is a short musket, about 34 inches in the barrel, bore 0.69 inch., and rifled.

Its special bayonet is a short, broad, and stout knife, of the well-known Bowie pattern, the principle use of which I designed to be in the hand in close conflict, such as boarding.  In campaigning it would also serve many wants; but it may be fixed and used as a bayonet.

There is also a sword bayonet similar to that of the French, making the total length of the weapon, from butt to point, about equal to that of the army musket with ordinary bayonet.

The musket Dahlgren describes was also known as the Whitney Model 1861, seen here with the sword bayonet:

Click the image above to see a detailed examination of the weapon on the Civil War Relicman’s site. More views may be seen on the National Firearms Museum website.  Notice that Dahlgren preferred this weapon over the Spencer repeater, despite the later’s performance in earlier engagements… and even though Dahlgren had approved of the weapon in tests at the Navy Yard.

Dahlgren went on to praise this weapon as “perfectly balanced” when the bayonet is not fixed.  He then touched upon the ammunition used, suggesting buckshot for use at short range (not buck-and-ball, mind you).  “As a general rule we have too much neglected the use of this formidable ammunition for small arms.”  Lastly on the subject of small arms, he added, “the men should be landed occasionally for practice, especially as skirmishers.”  Again, the intent to match the Army’s light infantry drill where possible.

On the subject of artillery, Dahlgren wrote:

The artillery is to consist of the boat howitzer, light and heavy 12-pounder, rifled and smooth.

These are to be organized in sections of two, with three sections to a battery, consisting of four smooth and two rifled 12-pounders.

This, however, is designed rather as a matter of administrative organization to regulate the proportions of rifled guns and for supplies of ammunition, spare parts, etc.

I desire particularly to disabuse the naval mind of the idea which prevails as to the proper use of boat light artillery.

In designing these pieces, I never intended that they should be assembled in masses, just the contrary, as every effort has been made to simplify the peice itself so that but little practice is required to understand its manual and to use it, so it was intended to avoid the complication of them produced by combination in masses, as practice in the land service.

The boat howitzer and its field carriage is so light that it can be drawn by its crew when no other artillery can be taken, over broken ground, among woods, up steep ascents, seeking cover where a tree or a bush, ditch, or dwelling offers it.  The ammunition is carried in pouches, so that no obstacle exists on this account.

And thus, from unexpected positions, difficult of access and scattered in many directions, the navy howitzers, while dispersed, and therefore less exposed to the enemy’s guns, may concentrate or divide their own fire as may be best.

In other words, the piece is designed to bear the relation to other artillery as the light infantry does to infantry of the line.

Great analogy directly from the man who designed the weapon.

Dahlgren went on to point out the artillery crews would not carry any small arms, but only have Bowie knives for their close defense…

… and when unable to retain possession of the piece, disable it by carrying away the fighting bolt, without which the gun cannot be fired, and which is so nice of adjustment that it can only be supplied from the machine shop, and there is no substitute for it.

There was a higher purpose for Dahlgren’s orders, and he did not shy away from its mention:

The published Instructions for the Naval Academy, and the habit, so far as it has come under my observation, have been to organize and maneuver in masses, as customary in the land service with light and heavy artillery.

I have never had the means before this to give this branch of the service its proper form.  Now I am enabled to make the effort by the receipt of a number of howitzers and Plymouth muskets, with Bowie knives, etc.

But the personnel is wanted, as a preparatory step I desire that commanders will select their men and drill them to their muskets, and to the howitzer if they have them.

Dahlgren was stepping back into his familiar role of weapons development.  In this case, refining the tactics used in the employment of the weapons.  He was indeed trying to prove his assertions about tactics correct.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 622-4.)

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.)

Grounding of the schooner Arletta and the “ingenuity of men who have a passion for whiskey”

Despite Federal strongholds outside Savannah, Georgia and presence of the blockading ships, blockade runners still attempted to make that port in the winter of 1864.  One such attempt occurred during the first days of March that year.  The 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery, which garrisoned Fort Pulaski and Tybee Island at that time, saved details of the event in their regimental history:

March 2. During the night a small fast-sailing schooner, of thirty-five tons, loaded with coffee, pepper, alcohol, and whiskey, commanded by John N. Wicks, of Brooklyn, N.Y., assisted by a crew of four, direct from the neutral docks of John Bull, at Nassau, in trying to dodge into the mouth of the Savannah under cover of the night-fog, struck the shoals east of the Roads towards Braddock’s Point, and disabled her rudder, but succeeded in getting to sea again.

Braddock’s Point is the southern end of Hilton Head Island:


The ship was the schooner Arletta.  And she was not out of danger:

March 3.  During the night the disabled schooner was swept by the winds and currents upon the southern extremity of Tybee Island, where Captain [David ] Churchill and his Company (F), captured crew, vessel, and cargo.  The navy coming in after the ceremonies were over, wished to gain possession of the prize.  But Major [James E.] Bailey, Captain Churchill, and Quartermaster [Frederic] Wilcoxson were unable to see the point. The craft had an English flag – neutral of course – and claimed to be named the Artella [sic].  The cargo was safely landed by our men and stored, in part, for the time, with Captain Churchill at the Martello Tower.  In a few days the whole was removed and stored in Fort Pulaski.

The navy officer mention, Lieutenant William Kennison, seemed more concerned with saving the Arletta itself.  While the army officers insisted they needed no help, Kennison looked for means to work the schooner off the beach.  But he later assessed that impractical, leaving the potential “prize” for the army.

The real concern from the Navy’s perspective was not the cargo or the vessel. Rather it was the number of blockade runners still active.  An enclosure to Kennison’s report called this out, “Three-fourths of steamer blockade runners get through, and about one-fourth of sailing vessels.”  One steamer was at that time in Savannah, waiting to make a run out.  Two sailing schooners had earlier used Ossabow and Wassaw Sounds to clear Savannah for Nassau earlier in the year.

While the naval officers fretted over the blockade, the army officers gladly added the cargo to the garrison’s stores.  While some of the coffee was damaged, much of the remaining cargo was eventually shipped to Fort Pulaski.  Including the whiskey:

The ingenuity of men who have a passion for whiskey was well illustrated by some of the prisoners then in the fort who were detailed to roll the casks of liquor from the south wharf up the plank causeway and into the fort. The men worked in pairs two to each cask, one at each chime.  Before the men started on this duty some genius initiated them into the mystery of drawing the liquor while the casks were in motion.  They furnished themselves with gimlets and pine taps, and went on duty with empty canteens.  Starting from the jetty with a cask, the man at the left chime would shortly insert the gimlet into the centre of the head of the cask, and hold it firmly till the revolutions of the cask carried it through; then withdrawing the gimlet he held his canteen till it was full, when his pine tap was inserted, driven hard, broken off, and the scar smoothed over with dirt from the sides of the cask.  The art was handsomely practiced, and probably would have passed undetected had it not been for one man who drew his canteen full from a cask of alcohol, from which he took so heavy a drink that it made him wild and —-.

There’s always one at the party who spoils it for everyone!

(Citation from Frederic Denison, Shot and Shell: The Third Rhode Island Heavy Artillery Regiment in the Rebellion, 1861-1865, Providence, R.I.: Third Rhode Island Artillery Veterans Association, 1879, page 230; ORN, Series 1, Volume 15, page 355.)

“The expedition was a failure, caused by a defective tube”: USS Memphis eludes CSS David

Last night I posted another entry at the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial site.  That installment discussed a failed attack by the CSS David on the USS Memphis, in the North Edisto River on March 6, 1864.

Please head over the the CWN 150 site for details on that action.

As I mentioned in “my take” on the H.L. Hunley, I find the countermeasures employed by the Federals against the torpedo-craft to be a significant overlooked story.  And at the same time, the weapon employed by the Confederates was ineffective even given the standards of the time period.  In the action of March 6, the spar torpedo device suffered from exposure and didn’t fire when struck.  Otherwise, the Memphis would probably have become another shipwreck in the waters of South Carolina.