Captured at Fort DeRussy: A Navy trophy with the wrong inscription

On this day (March 14) in 1864, Federals under the command of Brigadier-General Andrew Jackson Smith attacked and seized Fort DeRussy on the Red River in Louisiana.  In terms of blood spilled, the action was one of the war’s smaller actions, with less than sixty total casualties.  But, with the fort in Federal hands, the lower Red River was open for the gunboats of Rear-Admiral David D. Porter.   The Friends of Fort DeRussy maintain a website (recently revamped website I would add) with many articles and resources about the battle.

There is one surviving “witness” of that battle, which now resides at the Washington Navy Yard:

WashNY 21 July 266

However the trophy inscription would lead you to believe this gun was not at Fort DeRussy during the battle on March 14, 1864.

WashNY 21 July 270

The inscription reads:

Army 32-pdr //Banded and Rifled by Rebels // Captured from them by // Admiral D.D. Porter // At Fort DeRussy // May 4, 1863

But that inscription is in error.   The Fort DeRussy website has an article explaining this error in great detail.   The short version of that story is the reference found in the naval reports (ORN, Series I, Volume 26, page 26), under a listing of “guns captured at Fort DeRussy water battery.”  Line six of that list is:

One 32-pounder U.S. rifled, marked W.J.W. No. 289. This gun is an old Army 32-pounder, rifled, with band shrunk on the breech.

The muzzle markings leave no doubt.  This is that particular gun.

WNY 10 Apr 10 304

The inspector’s mark, “W.J.W.” for William Jenkins Worth, appear at the top of the face.  The registry number, 289, appears at the bottom.

The trunnion tells a little more of the weapon’s history.

WashNY 21 July 268

“I.M” and “C.F.” are John Mason and Columbia Foundry, respectively.  This weapon was cast across town in Georgetown, D.C.   On the other side, a sample scar cuts into the stamp showing the year of manufacture, which was 1834.

The gun was cast as a smoothbore 32-pdr Seacoast Gun Model 1829.  As with many obsolete weapons, during the war its owners rifled and banded the gun.

WNY 10 Apr 10 305

Seven grooves in what I consider a “sawtooth” pattern.  While no definitive markings or documentation pin this as a Confederate modification, the rifling and profile of the band lend to that conclusion.

WNY 10 Apr 10 307

The band extended over the breech face.  And it was built up with rings of wrought iron.  However the gun retained the ring over the cascabel.

WashNY 21 July 269

The gun itself offers an interesting study.  While I cannot firmly state the banding and rifling were done by Confederates, the physical attributes give that indication.  But where and who did the modifications?  Eason & Brothers in Charleston did such modifications.  But most of their work stayed in the Charleston or Savannah areas.  Tredegar also modified weapons along these lines.  Shops in Vicksburg and New Orleans had the capacity to do this work. Skates & Company, based in Mobile, Alabama, also may have done some modifications.  But all those sources remain speculative without firm documentation or some unseen mark under the paint of old 289.

As to the question raised in the article on the cannon about relocating the gun to Fort DeRussy (linked above), I’d say that would be an excellent “loan” should the particulars be worked out.  However, keep in mind this gun is now very close to its “birthplace,” if we can say such for a cannon.  It was, after all, cast a few Metro-train stops over in Georgetown.  Columbia Foundry was a vital weapons production facility for the early decades of the 19th century.  Perhaps some interpretation on that aspect of the weapon’s history would also serve the public.

Henry Benham, pontoons, and a lot of photos: What the engineers did over the winter

On January 25, 1864, Brigadier-General Henry W. Benham, commanding the Engineer Brigade of the Army of the Potomac, completed a lengthy report for Brigadier-General Joseph G. Totten, the Chief Engineer of the US Army.  The report touched upon several subjects, but largely concentrated on improvements to bridging techniques then in use. This was not a new round of correspondence.  Benham wrote a similarly lengthy and detailed letter to Totten in November 1863, discussing changes in the drill for pontoon bridging.

The reports, including enclosures from subordinate officers, include over fifteen pages total in the printed OR.  Far too much for a single blog post.  So I might examine in fine detail at another date.  Feel free to browse the November 1863 letter or the January 1864 report if I don’t get to that examination in short order.  I suspect a detailed examination would elicit a long sigh at the discussion anchor bolts, abutment sills, and claw-balks.  So let me focus on something less “engineer-y” and perhaps a bit into the historiography side of things.  At the end of his November letter, Benham mentioned some photographs sent along with the correspondence:

I have the pleasure of inclosing you, for the further explanation of the method of laying these bridges, some photographic views taken during the progress of construction.

No. 1 shows the pontoons ready with the material, and the boat squads ready for the construction (at foot of East Fifteenth street).

No. 2 shows the progress of construction of the raft after four to five minutes’ labor.

No. 3 shows the progress of the bridge raft after six to seven minutes’ labor.

No. 4 shows the bridge completed, with the bridge squads formed ready to march off. Parts of a trestle and canvas pontoon bridge across a cove along the shore are in view here.

No. 5 shows, from a nearer point of view, the pontoon bridge ready for service.

No. 6 gives the view down the Eastern Branch with pontoon bridge to beyond Navy-Yard Bridge, and oarsmen having oars raised ready to move the bridge for dismantling. Parts of pontoon balk-head used for laying the bridge raft are shown in foreground as it was placed to save the men from the water, though rather delaying than expediting the work. (emphasis added)

Believing that they would also be interesting at the Department, I have also added two other photographic views.

No. 7, showing the old or generally practiced method of laying bridges by successive pontoons.

No. 8, a view of the pontoon bridges laid by the engineer brigade under my command on the morning of April 29, 1863, at Franklin’s Crossing, 2½ miles below Fredericksburg. This shows in the distance the ruins of the villa of Mansfield, the site of General Bayard’s death.

Photo “No. 8” referenced by Benham may be one of those examined by John Hennessy and Eric Mink in 2011.   Of the others described (or is it “captioned”) by Benham, I’ve found no direct matches.  However this photo from the Library of Congress collection is a close match to “No. 6”:

This shows two pontoon bridges across the Anacostia River, looking from the Navy Yard.  Lots of neat stuff to discuss in this photo.  But for today, let’s just consider this as establishing Benham’s practice of using photographs to support his suggestion (and I bet Benham would have loved PowerPoint!).

That in mind, consider a section from the January 25, 1864 report:

The modification I propose (of which I inclose sketch) in the French pontoon is to take off 3 feet in length from the bow and 2 feet from the stern, while the “floor” remains of the same length, the ends to the depth of one plank downward to be of a thick plank or timber, with a shield or bunter which should slope about 3 inches outward.

Benham went on to say this modification would prevent some of the damage to the pontoons while on the march and make handling much easier.  Here’s the line drawing included with the report:


Fairly typical comparison diagram, using dotted lines to demonstrate the differences between the original and proposed modification.  Probably sufficient to demonstrate the particulars for an engineer of Totten’s experience.  But what do they say – “A picture is worth a thousand words”?  How about this picture, might it offer a thousand words comparing two types of pontoons?

Notice the difference between these two pontoons, particularly at the bow end.  While not precisely matching the dashed lines in Benham’s drawing, the pontoon on the right is close to his proposed modification.  Was this a photograph taken for the benefit of Benhan to demonstrate his suggested changes?

Working against my suggestion, the Library of Congress record for this photo does not provide a location.  The original caption on the back of the stero-view card does not mention any special nature of the two boats:

This view shows two of the boats (of which the army bridge is made) on wheels ready for the march.  Each pontoon wagon is drawn by six mules.  These pontoons were always getting stuck in the mud, and the soldiers, struggling along under their own burdens, were obliged to haul on the drag ropes, and raise the blockade.  Probably no soldier will see this view without being reminded of the time when he helped to pull these pontoons out of the mud, and comforted himself by searing at the mules.

Doesn’t sound as if this photograph captured a comparison of two type of pontoons. Maybe the studio felt the public would not appreciate the comparison, and thus offered a “pedestrian” caption.

However there are several other views of pontoons dated to the winter of 1864, taken at the Engineer Brigade camp at Rappahannock Station.  And some seem ready made for a comparison of the two types.  This photo carries the Library of Congress caption “Pontoon wagon and boat, 50th New York Engineers, Rappahannock (i.e. Brandy) Station, Va., March, (i.e. Feb.) 1864.”:

So the right time and place.  And this appears to be a standard “French Pontoon.”

Compare to this photo, also citing the 50th New York Engineer camp at Rappahannock Station in March 1864:

If not an exact match for Benham’s drawing, it does look like the pontoon on the right side of the photo above.  And another photo must have captured the same (or similar) boat from the front:

With more of these in the background… see them?

There’s even a photograph of a wagon without the pontoon:

And let’s not forget the canvas pontoon:

That photo, in particular, just stands out as if tailor made for illustrating some manual.  The men are in the background, not the foreground.  The subject here is the equipment, not the personnel.  These pontoon photos are like some “walk around” we would use today to demonstrate the particulars of a piece of equipment.

Maybe the photographer was just hanging out with the engineers taking in shots of the equipment.  But this is not some point-and-shoot camera we are talking about.   These were expensive (relatively speaking) glass plate photos.  So why waste a plate on some static equipment displays?  On the other hand, perhaps these and similar photos taken at the 50th New York Engineer camp were intended to help Benham illustrate his reports.

Something I’ve learned over the years – when studying Civil War photographs, it is just as important to know the “why” story as the “what” of the subject.

Howitzers recovered from Legareville

When the Confederates withdrew from their positions around Legareville on December 25, 1863, they left behind two 8-inch siege howitzers among other equipment.  Later that day, Brigadier-General George Gordon, commanding a Federal division posted to Folly Island, sent Captain Henry Krauseneck, of the 74th Pennsylvania Infantry, with 250 men to clear the Confederate positions.  With reports of Confederate forces returning to the batteries, Krauseneck had his men recover what equipment could be carried.  But the Federals had no way to pull off the howitzers.  Instead they damaged the carriages sufficiently to prevent Confederate recovery.  That night, Major John Jenkins, 3rd South Carolina Cavalry, sent scouts to the position and found the howitzers dismounted.

The problem facing both sides was the 2,600 pound (give or take) weight of the howitzers.  Even when mounted on a carriage, the howitzers were hard to handle in the marsh.  The Confederates ordered up sling carts with the intent to recover the howitzers under cover of the night.  But the Federals didn’t give them the time to work out those arrangements.

Commander George Balch ordered Lieutenant-Commander Richard Meade, of the USS Marblehead, to recover the howitzers on December 28.  Meade set out mid-afternoon with eight boats and some ninety men, including twenty-two marines to provide security.  Meade first landed men at the Lower Battery location to recover the howitzer there.  He and the rest of the party went to the Upper Batteries.

The marines were thrown well out in advance as pickets, to prevent surprise. The gun in the most northern work being dismounted, it proved an immense labor to raise it and lash it on the siege carriage; the trail of the carriage was then lifted by the main force of 30 men onto the 12-pounder howitzer carriage, brought for the purpose, then lashed there.  A rude wagon was thus formed.

It being impossible to drag the gun through the marsh (knee deep in stiff mud), which was the way we came in, a detour of over a mile was necessary.  Plank was laid along the edge of the marsh and the gun was hauled with great exertion to the bayou and gotten into the Marblehead’s launch. ….

Remarkable improvisation by the sailors. By 4 p.m. both howitzers were on the launches and proud trophies for the naval party.  As Meade put it, “The expedition returned in good order, and the rebels can boast two guns less than they had on December 24, 1863.”  Wartime photographs place one of these two trophies on the USS Pawnee:

Though it is erroneously identified as a 24-pdr howitzer (result, I think of identification in Meade’s initial report).  The howitzer is definitely an 8-inch Siege Howitzer Model 1841.  The two howitzers ended up as part of the Navy’s trophy collection at Washington Navy Yard. This howitzer is likely the same photographed on the Pawnee‘s deck:

WNY 10 Apr 10 550

The other howitzer in the pair exhibits considerable damage:

WNY 10 Apr 10 544

Both carry an inscription on the breech describing the action at Legareville in short words:

WNY 10 Apr 10 543

But aside from the inscription, there are only traces of some markings on the muzzle.  Nothing that might better identify the source of these howitzers.  Prior to the war, four vendors produced forty-six howitzers of this type (with Fort Pitt Foundry adding four more in 1861 to make it an even fifty).  Survivors of that lot exhibit standard markings as prescribed in pre-war ordnance instructions – inspector initials and registry number on the muzzle; foundry on the right trunnion; year of manufacture on the left trunnion; and weight stamp under the cascabel.

Looking carefully at the muzzle and trunions in the wartime photograph on the Pawnee, I see no markings.  So very likely these howitzers never had the standard set of markings.  That said, just after the war began, Tredegar Foundry produced two dozen of the same make and model for Confederate orders. Four of those went to Charleston in September 1861:

Page 91a

Signed over to Major, later Brigadier-General, J.H. Trapier in fact.  Tredegar foundry markings are notorious for being shallow and easily eroded with time.  And of course, Tredegar disregarded the “Yankee” ordnance instructions for markings early in the war.

Four 8-inch howitzers sent to Charleston in 1861.  Four howitzers of the same type used in the Christmas Day ambush in 1863, with two abandoned and captured.  Now two unmarked howitzers at the Washington Navy Yard.  While not positive proof, there’s enough to suggest the trophies were of Confederate manufacture and not of pre-war Federal stocks.

Regardless of origin, those two howitzers are surviving artifacts from the action at Legareville.

WNY 10 Apr 10 546

Those speak to the action for which four Medals of Honor were awarded, to include the first to an African-American sailor.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 194-6.)