Naval History of the Civil War January 1864

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Civil War Naval History



JANUARY 1864

1 As the New Year opened, the Union once more focused its attention on Wilmington. Since 1862 the Navy had pressed for a combined assault on this major east coast port, ideally located for blockade running less than 600 miles from Nassau and only some 675 from Bermuda. Despite the efforts of the fleet, the runners had continued to ply their trade successfully. In the fall of 1863, a British observer reported that thirteen steamers ran into Wilmington between 10 and 29 Septem-ber and that fourteen ships put to sea between 2 and 19 September. In fact, James Randall, an employee of a Wilmington shipping firm, reported that 397 ships visited Wilmington during the first two and a half to three years of the war. On 2 January, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles again proposed an attack on the fortifications protecting Wilmington, the only port by which any supplies whatever reach the rebels. . . . He suggested to Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton that a joint operation be undertaken to seize Fort Caswell: 'The result of such operation is to en-able the vessels to lie inside, as is the case at Charleston, thus closing the port effectually." However, Major General Henry W. Halleck advised Stanton that campaigns to which the Army was committed in Louisiana and Texas would not permit the men for the suggested assault to be spared. Thus, although the Navy increasingly felt the need to close Wilmington, the port remained a haven for blockade runners for another year.

U.S.S. Huron, Lieutenant Commander Francis H. Baker, sank blockade running British schooner Sylvanus in Doboy Sound, Georgia, with cargo of salt, liquor, and cordage.

2 Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut, Army commander at Memphis, wired Secretary Welles: 'The Tennessee at Mobile will be ready for sea in twenty days. She is a dangerous craft. Bu-chanan thinks more so than the Merrimack Commander Robert Townsend reported the seizure of steamer Ben Franklin in the lower Mississippi River "for flagrant violation of the Treasury Regulations."

3 U.S.S. Fahkee, with Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee embarked, sighted steamer Bendigo aground at Lockwood's Folly Inlet, South Carolina. Three boat crews were sent to investigate: after it was discovered that the blockade runner had been partially burned to prevent capture and that there was seven feet of water in the hold, Lee ordered Bendigo destroyed by gunfire from U.S.S. Fort Jackson, Iron Age, Montgomery, Daylight, and Fahkee.

4 Estimating the situation west of the Mississippi, Lieutenant General E. Kirby Smith, CSA, wrote to Major General Richard Taylor, CSA: "I still think Red and Washita [Ouachita] Rivers, es-pecially the former, are the true lines of operation for an invading column, and that we may ex-pect an attempt to be made by the enemy in force before the rivers fall. . . .Within eight weeks Rear Admiral David D. Porter was leading such a joint expedition aimed at the penetration of Texas, which would not only further weaken Confederate logistic support from the West, but also would counter the threat of Texas posed by the French ascendancy in Mexico.

U.S.S. Tioga, Lieutenant Commander Edward Y. McCauley, seized an unnamed schooner near the Bahamas, bound from Nassau to Havana with cargo including salt, coffee, arms, shoes, and liquors.

5 Commander George B. Balch reported to Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, that prices continue to rocket in blockaded Charleston: " . . . . boots sell at $250 a pair."

7 Following reports from an informant, Rear Admiral Dahlgren ordered all ships of the Charleston blockading force to take stringent precautions against attack by Southern torpedo boats, and noted: "There is also one of another kind, which is nearly submerged and can be entirely so. It is intended to go under the bottoms of vessels and there to operate." Regarding the submarine H.L. Hunley, he warned: "It is also advisable not to anchor in the deepest part of the channel, for by not leaving much space between the bottom of the vessel and the bottom of the channel it will be impossible for the diving torpedo to operate except on the sides, and there will be less difficulty in raising a vessel if sunk."

Major General Benjamin F. Butler's plan to send Army steamer Brewster, Ensign Arnold Harris, Jr., into Wilmington harbor under the guise of a blockade runner "for the purpose of making an attempt upon the shipping and blockade runners in the harbor" was abandoned upon learning of the Confederates' protective precautions. Brigadier General Charles K. Graham reported to Rear Admiral Lee that while it might be possible to run past Forts Caswell and Fisher under the proposed ruse, it would be frustrated by the chain that stretched across the channel at Fort Lee; all blockade runners were required to come to at that point until permission for their further advance was received from Wilmington. Under these circumstances, Graham concluded, "it would be madness to make the attempt."

U.S.S. Montgomery, Lieutenant Edward H. Faucon, and U.S.S. Aries, Lieutenant Edward F. Devens, chased blockade runner Dare. The steamer, finding escape impossible, was beached at North Inlet, South Carolina, and was abandoned by her crew. Boat crews from both Montgomery and Aries boarded but, failing to refloat the prize, set her afire.

U.S.S. San Jacinto, Lieutenant Commander Ralph Chandler, captured schooner Roebuck at sea, bound from Havana for Mobile.

8 Captain Raphael Semmes, C.S.S. Alabama, noted in his journal that he had identified himself to an English bark as U.S.S. Dacotah in search of the raider Alabama. The bark's master replied: "It won't do; the Alabama is a bigger ship than you, and they say she is iron plated besides." Had Semmes' ship been armored in fact, the outcome of his battle with U.S.S. Kearsarge six months later might have been different.

U.S.S. Kennebec, Lieutenant Commander William P. McCann, chased blockade runner John Scott off Mobile for some eight hours and captured her with cargo of cotton and turpentine. John Scott's pilot, William Norval, well known for his professional skill and for aiding the blockade runners, was sent by Commodore Henry K. Thatcher to New Orleans, where he was imprisoned.

9 Reflecting the increased Union concern over Confederate torpedoes, President Abraham Lincoln granted an interview to one Captain Lavender, a New England mariner, to discuss a device for discovering and removing underwater obstructions. Though many ideas for rendering Confed-erate torpedoes ineffective were advanced, none solved the problem, and torpedoes sank an increas-ing number of Union ships.

Mr. James O. Putnam, U.S. Consul at L'Havre, France, notified Captain John Winslow of U.S.S. Kearsarge "that it was the purpose of the commanders of the Georgia, the Florida, and Rappahannock, to rendezvous at some convenient and opportune point, for the purpose of attacking the Kearsarge after she has left Brest." This attack never took place; six months later it was Kearsarge which met another Confederate raider, Alabama, off Cherbourg.

Rear Admiral Charles H. Bell, commanding the Pacific Squadron, advised Secretary Welles of the report that a Confederate privateer was outfitting at Victoria, Vancouver Island: "I would also respectfully suggest the expediency of having at all times a small steamer, under the direction of the [Mare Island] navy yard, ready to be despatched at a few hours' notice whenever a similar occasion arises. The want of a vessel so prepared may be of incalculable injury to the mercantile interests of our western coast.

10 While helping to salvage the hulk of grounded and partially burned blockade runner Bendigo near Lockwood's Folly Inlet, South Carolina, U.S.S. Iron Age, Lieutenant Commander Edward E. Stone, herself grounded. Efforts to get her off were futile, and, as Confederates positioned a battery within range, the ship was ordered destroyed to prevent her capture. Reporting on the loss of the small screw steamer and on blockade duty in general, Rear Admiral Lee noted: "This service is one of great hardship and exposure; it has been conducted with slight loss to us, and much loss to the rebels and their allies, who have lost twenty-two vessels in six months, while our loss has only been two vessels on the Wilmington blockade during the war."

Boat crews from U.S.S. Roebuck, Acting Master John Sherrill, captured blockade-running Confed-erate sloop Maria Louise with cargo of cotton off Jupiter Inlet, Florida.

11 Flag Officer Samuel Barron, senior Confederate naval officer in France, reported to Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory, that he had placed Lieutenant Charles M. Morris in command of C.S.S. Florida, relieving Commander Joseph N. Barney whose ill health prevented active service afloat. Florida had completed her repairs and on a trial run "made 13 knots under steam." C.S.S. Rappahannock was "repairing slowly but surely;" she would be armed with the battery from C.S.S. Georgia, no longer fit for duty as a cruiser. He concluded: "You are doubtless, sir, aware that three Confederate 'men-of-war' are now enjoying the hospitality and natural courtesies of this Empire-a strange contrast with the determined hostility, I may almost say, of Earl Russell Louis Napoleon is not Lord John Russell!"

U.S.S. Minnesota, Daylight, Aries, and Governor Buckingham intercepted blockade-runner Ranger, Lieutenant George W. Gift, CSN, and forced her aground at the Western Bar of Lockwood's Folly Inlet, South Carolina. Since Southern sharpshooters precluded salvage, Ranger, carrying a cargo for the Confederate government, was destroyed by Union forces. Aries, Acting Lieutenant Edward F. Devens, also investigated a fire observed between Tubb's and Little River Inlets and found the "fine-looking double propeller blockade runner" Vesta beached and in flames. Vesta had been sighted and chased the night before by U.S.S. Keystone State, Quaker City, and Tuscarora.

U.S.S. Honeysuckle, Acting Ensign Cyrus Sears, captured blockade running British schooner Fly near Jupiter Inlet, Florida.

Boat crews from U.S.S. Roebuck, Acting Master Sherrill, captured blockade running British schooner Susan at Jupiter Inlet with cargo including salt.

12 Under cover of U.S.S. Yankee, Currituck, Anacostia, Tulip, and Jacob Bell, commanded by Acting Lieutenant Edward Hooker, Union cavalry and infantry under General Gilman Marston landed on the peninsula between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers, capturing "a small body of the enemy and a large number of cavalry horses." The small gunboats supported the Army operations on the 13th and 14th, and covered the reembarkation of the soldiers on the 15th.

13 Captain Thornton A. Jenkins, senior officer present off Mobile, wrote Commodore Henry H. Bell, temporary commander of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron: "I must be permitted to say that, in my judgment, our present weakness at this point, and the incalculable benefits to accrue in the event of success, are a most tempting invitation to the enemy to attack us and endeavor to raise the blockade by capturing or destroying our vessels and to open the way to other successes.

Rear Admiral Farragut, who had arrived in Key West, Florida, on 12 January, was soon to resume command of the West Gulf Squadron.

Rear Admiral Dahlgren urged Secretary Welles to employ torpedo boats in Charleston harbor similar to the Confederate "David". "Nothing better could be devised for the security of our own vessels or for the examination of the enemy's position," he wrote. "The length of these torpedo boats might be about 40 feet, and 5 to 6 feet in diameter, with a high-pressure engine that will drive them 5 knots. It is not necessary to expend much finish on them."

Boat crew from U.S.S. Two Sisters, Acting master Thomas Chatfield, captured schooner William off Suwannee River, Florida, with cargo of salt, bagging, and rope.

14 C.S.S. Alabama, Captain Semmes, captured and burned ship Emma Jane off the coast of Malabar, southwest India.

Small boats from U.S.S. Roebuck, Acting Master Sherrill, chased blockade running British sloop Young Racer and forced her aground north of Jupiter Inlet, Florida, with cargo of salt. The sloop was destroyed by her crew.

Having failed in efforts to pull the grounded U.S.S. Iron Age off the beach at Lockwood's Folly Inlet, the Federal blockaders applied the torch and blew her up. "As an offset to the loss...." reported Lieutenant Commander Stone, "I would place the capture or destruction of 22 blockade runners within the last six months by this squadron [the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron]."

U.S.S. Union, Acting Lieutenant Edward Conroy, captured blockade running steamer Mayflower near Tampa Bay, Florida, with cargo of cotton.

15 Regarding Southern Red River defenses, Major General Taylor, CSA, wrote to Brigadier General William R. Boggs: "At all events, we should be prepared as far as possible, and I trust the re-maining 9-inch gun and the carriages for the two 32-Dahlgrens will soon reach me. For the 9-inch and 32-pound rifle now in position at Fort De Russy, there were sent down only 50 rounds of shot and shell; more should be sent at once. The Missouri, I suppose, will come down on the first rise.

Secretary Mallory ordered Commander James W. Cooke to command C.S.S. Albemarle at Halifax, North Carolina, and to complete her. Under Cooke's guidance she was rapidly readied for service and played a major role in Albemarle Sound from April until her destruction in October.

Commodore H. H. Bell wrote confidentially to Commander Robert Townsend, U.S.S. Essex, off Donaldsonville, Louisiana: "The rams and ironclads on Red River and in Mobile Bay are to force the blockade at both points and meet here [New Orleans], whilst the army is to do its part. Being aware of these plans, we should be prepared to defeat them. The reports in circulation about their ironclads and rams being failures may be true in some degree; but we should remember that they prevailed about the redoubtable Merrimack before her advent." Of the ironclads, however, only C.S.S. Tennessee could be regarded as formidable.

U.S.S. Beauregard, Acting Master Francis Burgess, captured blockade running British schooner Minnie south of Mosquito Inlet, Florida, with cargo including salt and liquor.

16 Secretary Mallory wrote Captain John K. Mitchell of the Confederate James River Squadron urging that action be taken against the Union squadron downriver at the earliest opportunity.

I think that there is a passage through the obstructions at Trents' Reach. I deem the opportunity a favor able one for striking a blow at the enemy if we are able to do so. In a short time many of his vessels will have returned to the River from Wilmington and he will again perfect his obstructions. If we can block the River at or below City Point, Grant might be compelled to evacuate his position. . . . The clamor for action increased as the months passed- On 15 May Lieutenant Robert D. Minor, First Lieutenant and ordnance officer for the Squadron, wrote his wife: "There is an insane desire among the public to get the iron dads down the river, and I am afraid that some of our higher public authorities are yeilding to this pressure of public opinion- but I for one am not and in the squadron we know too much of the interest at stake to act against our judgement even if those high in authority wish to hurry us into an action unpre-pared and against vastly superior forces. . . ."

The Richmond Enquirer reported that 26 ships on blockading station off Wilmington "guard all the avenues of approach with the most sleepless vigilance. The consequences are that the chances of running the blockade have been greatly lessened, and it is apprehended by some that the day is not far distant when it will be an impossibility for a vessel to get into that port without incurring a hazard almost equivilant to positive loss. Having secured nearly every seaport on our coast, the Yankees are enabled to keep a large force off Wilmington."

Henry Hotze, commercial agent of the Confederate States, wrote from London to Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin suggesting complete government operation of blockade running: "The experiments thus far made by the Ordnance, Niter, and other Bureaus, as also the Navy Depart-ment, demonstrates that the Government can run the blockade with equal if not greater chances than private enterprise. But the public loses the chief advantages of the system, first, by the competition of private exportation; secondly, by the complicated and jarring machinery which only serves to grind out large profits in the shape of commissions, etc.; thirdly, by confounding the distinctive functions of different administrative departments. If blockade running was con-stituted an arm of the national defense, each would perform only its appropriate work, which therefore would be well done, The Treasury would procure without competition the raw material and regulate the disposition of the proceeds; the Navy, abandoning the hope of breaking the blockade and throwing all its available energies into eluding it, would purchase, build, and man the vessels for this purpose. . . . As the war progressed, more and more blockade runners commanded by naval officers did operate under the Confederate government.

Boat crews from U.S.S. Fernandina, Acting Master Edward Moses, captured sloop Annie Thomp-son in St. Catherine's Sound, Georgia, with cargo of cotton, tobacco, and turpentine.

U.S.S. Gertrude, Acting Master Henry C. Wade, captured blockade running schooner Ellen off Mobile with an assorted cargo.

17 Rear Admiral Farragut, eager to attack at Mobile but needing ironclads to cope with Confederate ram Tennessee, wrote Rear Admiral Porter: "I am therefore anxious to know if your monitors, at least two of them, are not completed and ready for service; and if so, can you spare them to assist us? If I had them, I should not hesitate to become the assailant instead of awaiting the attack. I must have ironclads enough to lie in the bay to hold the gunboats and rams in check in the shoal water."

18 Rear Admiral Farragut arrived off Mobile Bay to inspect Union ships and the Confederate de-fenses. He had sailed from New York in his renowned flagship Hartford after an absence of five months, and was to officially resume command of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron on Janu-ary 22 at New Orleans. Farragut was concerned about the reported strength of the Confederate ram Tennessee, then in Mobile Bay, and determined to destroy her and silence the forts, closing Mobile to the blockade runners, To this end, he immediately began to build up his forces and make plans for the battle.

Secretary Welles directed Captain Henry Walke, U.S.S. Sacramento, to search for "the piratical vessels now afloat and preying upon our commerce," adding: "You will bear in mind that the principal object of your pursuit is the Alabama." Alabama had by this date taken more than 60 prizes, and the effect of all raiders on Union merchantmen was evident in the gradual disappearance of the U.S. flag from the ocean commerce lanes. Boat crews from U.S.S. Roebuck, Acting Master Sherrill, captured sloop Caroline off Jupiter Inlet, Florida, with cargo of salt, gin, soda, and dry goods.

U.S.S. Stars and Stripes, Acting Master Charles L. Willcomb, captured blockade running steamer Laura off Ocklockonee River, Florida, with cargo including cigars.

19 Boats from U.S.S. Roebuck, Acting Master Sherrill, seized British schooner Eliza and sloop Mary inside Jupiter Inlet, Florida. Both blockade runners carried cargoes of cotton. Three days later Mary, en route to Key West, commenced leaking, ran aground, and was wrecked. The prize crew and most of the cotton were saved. In ten days, Sherrill's vigilance and initiative had enabled him to take six prizes.

Thomas E. Courtenay, engaged in secret service for the Confederacy, informed Colonel Henry E. Clark, that manufacture of "coal torpedoes" was nearing completion, and stated: "The castings have all been completed some time and the coal is so perfect that the most critical eye could not detect it." These devices, really powder filled cast iron bombs, shaped and painted to resemble pieces of coal, were to be deposited in Federal naval coal depots, from where they would eventu-ally reach and explode ships' boilers. During the next few months Rear Admiral Porter, commanding the Mississippi Squadron, became greatly concerned over Confederate agents assigned to distribute the coal torpedoes, and wrote Secretary Welles that he had "given orders to commanders of vessels not to be very particular about the treatment of any of these desperadoes if caught- only summary punishment will be effective.

21 U.S.S. Sciota, Lieutenant Commander George H. Perkins, in company with U.S.S. Granite City, Acting Master Charles W. Lamson, joined several hundred troops in a reconnaisance of the Texas coast. Sciota and Granite City covered the troops at Smith's Landing, Texas, and the subsequent foray down the Matagorda Peninsula. From the war's outset this type of close naval support and cooperation with the army had been a potent factor in Union success in all theaters of the conflict.

22 Rear Admiral Dahlgren wrote Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus V. Fox regarding Charles-ton: '. . . do not suppose that I am idle because no battles are fought; on the contrary, the blockade by four monitors of such a place as this, and the determined intentions of the rebels to operate with torpedoes, keep all eyes open.

Acting Ensign James J. Russell, U.S.S. Restless, accompanied by two sailors, captured blockade running schooner William A. Kain in St. Andrew's Bay, Florida. Russell and his men had intended originally to reconnoiter only, but after discovering and capturing the Captain and several of the crew members of the blockade runner in the woods near the vessel, he determined to take her himself. Compelling his prisoners to row him out to Kain, Russell captured the remaining crew members and managed to sail Kain from Watson's Bayou out into the bay and under the protection of Restless's guns.

23 Rear Admiral Dahlgren in a letter to President Lincoln wrote: "The city of Charleston is converted into a camp, and 20,000 or 25,000 of their best troops are kept in abeyance in the vicinity, to guard against all possible contingencies, so that 2,000 of our men in the fortifications of Morris and Folly Islands, assisted by a few ironclads, are rendering invaluable service. . . . No man in the country will be more happy than myself to plant the flag of the Union where you most desire to see it." The Union's ability to attack any part of the South's long coastline from the sea diverted important numbers of Confederate soldiers from the main armies.

26 William L. Dayton, U.S. Minister to France, noted in a dispatch to Secretary of State Seward: "I must regret that, of the great number of our ships of war, enough could not have been spared to look after the small rebel cruisers now in French ports. It is a matter of great surprise in Europe, that, with our apparent naval force, we permit such miserable craft to chase our commerce from the ocean; it affects seriously our prestige."

28 Captain Henry S. Stellwagen, commanding U.S.S. Constellation, reported from Naples "It is my pleasant duty to inform you of the continued [friendly] demonstrations of ruling powers and people of the Kingdom of Italy toward our country and its officers." When the problems of blockading the hazardous Atlantic and Gulf coasts and running down Confederate commerce raiders compelled the Navy Department to employ its steamers in these tasks, sailing warships were sent out to replace them on the foreign stations. These slow but relatively powerful vessels, the historic Constellation in the Mediterranean, St. Louis west of Gibraltar on the converging trade routes, Jamestown in the East Indies, became available to escort merchant ships and, more important, to deter the approach of raiders. Though they received few opportunities to carry out their military missions, these veterans of the Old Navy rendered most effective service pro-tecting American interests and maintaining national prestige abroad.

U.S. Army steamer Western Metropolis seized blockade running British steamer Rosita off Key West with cargo including liquor and cigars. Acting Lieutenant Lewis W. Pennington, USN, and Acting Master Daniel S. Murphy, USN, on board as passengers, assisted in the capture.

U.S.S. Beauregard, Acting Master Burgess, seized blockade running British sloop Racer north of Cape Canaveral, Florida, with cargo of cotton.

29 Commander Thomas H. Stevens, U.S.S. Patapsco, reported to Rear Admiral Dahlgren on an ex-tended reconnaissance of the Wilmington River, Georgia, during which Confederate sharpshooters were engaged. Stevens concluded: "From what I can see and learn, an original expedition against Savannah at this time by a combined movement of the land and sea forces would be prob-ably successful." Though the Navy kept the city under close blockade and engaged the area's defenses, troops for the combined operation did not become available until late in the year.

Lieutenant Commander James C. Chaplin, U.S.S. Dai Ching, reported to Dahlgren information obtained from the master of blockade runner George Chisholm [see 14 November 1863 for capture]: ,'. . . vessels running out from Nassau, freighted with contraband goods for Southern ports . . . always skirt along on soundings and take the open sea through the North East Providence Channel by Egg and Royal Islands, steering from thence about N.N.W. course toward Wilmington or ports adjacent on the Carolina coast, while those bound to Mobile run down on the east side of Cuba through Crooked Island Passage, sweeping outside in a considerable circle to avoid the United States cruisers in the vicinity. The vessels bound to the coast of the Carolinas take their point of departure from a newly erected light-house in the neighborhood of Man of War Cay. They are provided with the best of instruments and charts, and, if the master is ignorant of the channels and inlets of our coast, a good pilot. They are also in possession of the necessary funds (in specie) to bribe, if possible, captors for their release. Such an offer was made to myself . . . of some £800. The master of a sailing vessel, before leaving port, receives $1,000 (in coin), and, if successful, $5,000 on his return; those commanding steamers $5,000 on leaving and $15,000 in a successful return to the same port."

31 In planning the strategy for the joint Army-Navy Red River Campaign, Major General William T. Sherman wrote to Major General Nathaniel P. Banks: "The expedition on Shreveport should be made rapidly, by simultaneous movements from Little Rock on Shreveport, from Opelousas on Alexandria, and a combined force of gun-boats and transports directly up Red River. Admiral Porter will be able to have a splendid fleet by March 1." The Army relied on Porter's gunboats both to spearhead attack with its powerful guns and to keep open the all-important supply line.

An expedition comprising some 40 sailors and 350 soldiers with a 12-pound howitzer, under command of Lieutenant Commander Charles W. Flusser, marched inland from the Roanoke River North Carolina, "held the town of Windsor several hours, and marched back 8 miles to our boats without a single shot from the enemy."