Around We Go: In the Monitor Turret

USS Monitor and CSS Virginia

Lieutenant Samuel D. Greene, USN, had a problem. He was encased within a dim, claustrophobic, metal drum—20 feet in diameter—behind eight layers of bolted and riveted 1-inch-thick iron plates in charge of two immense 11-inch Dahlgren shell guns, each 13 feet long and weighing 9 tons.

With him were sixteen brawny sailors packed in eight to a gun, along with block and tackle to run the guns in and out, bore rammers, sponges, other gear, powder cartridges and 165-pound shells. Outside was a deadly enemy. The 22-year-old lieutenant couldn’t see the foe to point his guns. And the drum was rotating.

It was morning, Sunday, March 9, 1862. As executive officer and second in command of the revolutionary ironclad, USS Monitor, Greene supervised the weapons in the turret while his captain, Lieutenant John L. Worden, commanded the vessel from the little pilothouse some 50 feet forward of the guns. They had just sallied forth to meet the CSS Virginia (ex USS Merrimack) in the first contest between ironclad warships.

What natural light there was streamed down through ventilation holes in the iron plates over their heads. The curving walls or “bulkheads” were covered with additional thin iron sheets as shields to prevent hundreds of bolt heads and nuts binding the turret plates together from becoming shrapnel within when enemy rounds struck without. These internal surfaces were whitewashed to reflect light.

Monitor turret design by John Ericsson. (Wikimedia Commons)

Monitor was equipped with a speaking tube—a pipe through which voice orders and status reports presumably could be exchanged between the captain in the pilothouse and Lieutenant Greene in the turret—but it apparently didn’t work well, perhaps due to incessant noise of engines and guns. The ship’s paymaster and captain’s clerk were assigned as messengers running between the two stations with verbal exchanges. “They performed their work with zeal and alacrity,” reported Greene, “but, both being landsmen, our technical communications sometimes miscarried.”[1]

Samuel Dana Green (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Greene’s best and most dangerous view for aiming was through the few-inch gap between the muzzle of the gun and the top of the gun port when the gun was run out for firing. Green called down the hatch in the turret floor to the paymaster below, instructing him to go forward and ask Worden for permission to fire. The reply: “Tell Mr. Greene not to fire till I give the word, to be cool & deliberate, to take sure aim & not to waste a shot.”[2]

Finally, Worden closed Virginia to about a third of a mile, altered course, stopped the engine, and ordered, “Commence firing!” The gun port cover rumbled open; the big black muzzle protruded. Greene snatched a look over the barrel top, took aim, stepped back, and yanked the firelock string at 8:45 a.m. The entire structure throbbed and trembeled with a deafening concussion as the beheamouth gun lept inward.

“Ironclad against ironclad,” recalled Monitor’s Chief Engineer Alban C. Stimers. “We maneuvered about the bay here and went at each other with mutual fierceness.”[3] They circled tightly, awkwardly, in what would appear to a modern observer as slow motion.


Painting by J O Davidson

Guns bellowed as fast as they could be served. Choking white smoke shot with flame erupted from barrels. Rounds screamed, caromed, clanged, boomed, and splashed all around. Engines thumped and clanked; exhaust blowers roared. Black clouds billowed from stacks. Big propellers thrashed the water. Men enclosed in iron, many stripped to the waist with scraps of cloth around their ears, shouted, sweated, and struggled to manage their metal monsters.

The reverberation of Virginia’s shots against Monitor’s turret, noted Lieutenant Greene, “caused anything but a pleasant sensation.” But to the immense relief of the men therein, nothing penetrated, and the turret continued to revolve. “A look of confidence passed over the men’s faces and we believed the Merrimac would not repeat the work she had accomplished the day before” when the Rebel destroyed the wooden warships USS Cumberland and USS Congress.[4]

Acting Master L. N. Stodder was operating the crank handle on the turret bulkhead that started, stopped, and reversed the turret when he incautiously leaned against the bulkhead just as a Rebel shot whanged against the outside knocking him senseless and injuring his knee. Stodder went below. A few minutes later, Seaman Peter Trescott was sent down with a similar concussion.

Surgeon Daniel C. Logue administered small quantities of stimulants and applied cold presses; both men recovered full function and would be ready for duty by the following morning. They were the only injuries among the crew. Engineer Stimers also was flung down but not injured; he took over operating the turret.

Turret interior digital model ( The image does not include the extensive gear necessary to manage the guns.

With guns in for loading, the ports could be covered by massive, coffin-shaped iron shutters pierced with holes to allow the long-handled bore swabbing and ramming tools to pass through. The entire gun crew was required to haul on a block and tackle to hoist one of these heavy lids, but because they swung inward toward each other, only one could be opened at a time. In addition to the narrow opening over the top of the barrel, small sight holes to the left and right and directly behind the gun ports provided limited views.

White reference marks had been painted on the deck to indicate port and starboard, bow and stern, but these marks were obliterated early on. Both vessels were continuously turning, backing, and forwarding while the turret rotated independently. Greene passed a stream of “How does the Merrimac bear?” questions to the captain through the messengers. Worden replied: “On the starboard beam” or “On the port-quarter” as might be. The frequently disoriented lieutenant had difficulty not only knowing where the enemy was, but also how his own vessel was oriented relative to the guns.

Monitor post battle. Note Confederate shell indentations. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Greene had two primary worries: first, to prevent enemy projectiles from entering the turret through open gun ports; a shell exploding inside would end the fight and there were no relief gun crews aboard. And second: “A careless or impatient hand, during the confusion arising from the whirligig motion of the tower,” might fire into the pilothouse directly in front. “For this and other reasons, I fired every gun while I remained in the turret.”[5] (Later Monitor-class warships would mount the pilothouse atop the turret.)

Chief Engineer Alban C. Stimers (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Two small auxiliary steam engines just below the deck drove this movement, which like all Monitor’s machinery, were undergoing their first combat trial. The brief test run in New York six days earlier established that the mechanism turned on its central shaft at two and a half revolutions per minute under 25 pounds of steam.

Engineer Stimers, “an active, muscular man” according to Greene, found the turret almost unmanageable as he manipulated the lever to admit or throttle steam to the drive engines—slow to start and once moving, slow to stop.

Unlike traditional broadside guns like those in Virginia, it was nearly impossible to fix the enemy in line of fire long enough to aim and shoot, a truly unprecedented dilemma. So, Greene settled on a pattern: rotate the turret away from Virginia; stop the turret and load, leaving the gun ports open to save time and effort; when ready, start revolving again and fire “on the fly” as the target swept past the muzzles.

“We could only see [Monitor‘s] guns when they were discharged,” reported Lieutenant Catesby ap R. Jones, commanding Virginia. “We wondered how proper aim could be taken in the very time the guns were in sight. The Virginia, however, was a large target and generally so near that the Monitor‘s shot did not often miss. It did not appear to us that our shell had any effect upon the Monitor.”[6]

After pounding each other for three hours with no noticeable damage to either, the contestants mutually withdrew. The battle was over, at least for the day.

Lieutenant Greene: “My men and myself were perfectly black with smoke and powder. All my underclothes were perfectly black …. I had been up so long, and been under such a state of excitement, that my nervous system was completely run down…. My nerves and muscles twitched as though electric shocks were continually passing through them… I lay down and tried to sleep—I might as well have tried to fly.”[7]

Monitor turret as recovered (inverted) from the ocean floor off Cape Hatteras in August 2002 with remains of crewmen next to the cannon. (USS Monitor Center)

Among the other technological innovations of this contest, the armored, rotating turret passed its first test in battle, but it would need improvement.

(Excerpted from a book in progress: With Mutual Fierceness: The Battles of Hampton Roads.)

[1] Dana Greene, “In the ‘Monitor’ Turret,” in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Being for The Most Part Contributions by Union and Confederate Officers, 4 vols. (New York, 1884-1888), vol. 1, 724.

[2] Robert W. Daly, ed., The Letters of Acting Paymaster William Frederick Keeler, U.S. Navy to His Wife, Anna (Annapolis, MD), 34.

[3] Stimers to Ericsson, March 9, 1862, in Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (Washington, D.C., 1894-1922), Series 1, vol. 7, 26.

[4] Greene, “In the ‘Monitor’ Turret,” 723.

[5] Ibid., 725-726.

[6] Catesby ap Roger Jones, “Services of the Virginia.” Southern Historical Society Papers 11 (January 1883), 71.

[7] Greene, “In the ‘Monitor’ Turret,” 727.

Unvexed Waters: Mississippi River Squadron, Part 2

Island No. 10 and New Madrid, Missouri

Part I of this post introduced the unprecedented U.S. Army Western Gunboat Flotilla—soon to be reorganized as the U.S. Navy Mississippi River Squadron—and carried it through the victorious battles of Forts Henry and Donelson, Tennessee, in February 1862.

The next Union objective was the northern stopper in Rebel defenses of the mighty Mississippi: Island No. 10 near New Madrid, Missouri.

This enlarged sandbar at the bottom of a tight river U-turn mounted five batteries and 24 guns backed up with 7,000 Confederates. Navy Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote supported Major General John Pope against the obstacle in March and April.

Three weeks of furious bombardment by Foote’s gunboats along with rafts mounting 13-inch mortars achieved no results. Foote was hesitant to expose his ironclads to heavy shore guns again after suffering severe damage at Forts Henry and Donelson. Going downriver with the swift current was a whole lot easier than coming back up. The cumbersome vessels could be disabled and captured, and possibly turned against friendly river cities.

But Captain Henry Walke of the USS Carondelet insisted he could make it. The ironclad was covered with rope, chain, and whatever loose material lay at hand. A barge filled with coal and hay was lashed to her side. Her steam exhaust was diverted from the smokestacks out the side of the casemate to muffle sound.

USS Carondelet running the batteries at Island No. 10

On a moonless night under a thunderstorm, Carondelet slithered downstream unscathed and almost undetected. Another ironclad gunboat followed. The dramatic passage introduced a new, and previously unthinkable, naval tactic: driving vulnerable warships through narrow channels past heavily armed fixed emplacements.

Once past the batteries, the gunboats ferried Union forces across the river below the island, isolated and captured the outnumbered garrison from behind. This process would be repeated on a larger scale three weeks later at New Orleans, and subsequently at Vicksburg, Port Hudson, and Mobile.

Charles H. Davis

Flag Officer Charles H. Davis relieved Foote as flotilla commander in May 1862 and headed on downriver for Memphis with six ironclads, accompanied Colonel Charles Ellet and his nine unarmed wooden rams.

Confederates had seized a motley collection of passenger, cargo, and tow boats to defend the river, converting them to rams armed with one or two guns—the Confederate River Defense Fleet. Like the Ellet rams, these were captained and crewed by civilian rivermen, nominally under army command, but operating independently and with little coordination.

Five of the swift Rebel steamers surprised and rammed the lumbering Union ironclads Cincinnati and Mound City at Plum Point Bend above Memphis on May 10. Both vessels were grounded and sunk in shallow water but were soon raised and placed back in service.

On June 6, eight of the Confederate converted paddlewheelers steamed out to defend Memphis cheered on from the bluffs by hundreds of citizens. After an inconclusive, long-range gunnery duel, the impatient Colonel Ellet, on his own initiative, charged through the ironclad line in his Queen of the West and struck the first Rebel vessel encountered, sinking it immediately, only to be rammed himself by another. The ram Monarch followed, while the ironclads closed to deadly range.

Battle of Memphis. Note the city and its cheering inhabitants in background.

A raging melee erupted with no command coordination on either side. The Rebel squadron, unarmored and outgunned, was destroyed, marking the near eradication of Confederate naval presence on the river.

This was the only “fleet action” of the war, the last in which ramming was a primary tactic, and the last time civilians with no military experience such as Charles Ellet commanded ships in combat. Ellet’s ram fleet would become the Mississippi Marine Brigade under navy direction, employed primarily for amphibious raiding and support tasks.

The loss of Memphis, the Confederacy’s fifth-largest city and key industrial center, opened the Mississippi all the way to Vicksburg and opened West Tennessee to Union occupation.

But strategic opportunity was lost as attempts to reduce Vicksburg from the river that summer of 1862 failed for lack of army support when the indecisive Major General Henry W. Halleck became bogged down in the siege of Corinth, Mississippi.

Rear-Admiral David D. Porter

Then a major reorganization transferred the Western Gunboat Flotilla to command of the navy and re-designated it the Mississippi River Squadron with a new and aggressive rear admiral, David D. Porter, in command.

Halleck was called to Washington and Major General U. S. Grant took over the Army of Tennessee.

Porter and Grant made a winning ream, melding the strategic flexibility of maritime power—within its limitations—with hard and smart fighting on land. But it was a learning process. In late December, Grant sent W. T. Sherman downriver with a major amphibious force for a landing at Chickasaw Bayou northwest of Vicksburg, only to be repulsed with heavy casualties.

Grant’s Yazoo Pass Expedition

That winter and spring, Grant conducted a series of fruitless operations to outflank the city by cutting canals, blowing up levees, flooding the Mississippi Delta, and pushing ironclads, gunboats, and troop transports through tiny, choked channels that must have resembled the upper Mekong in “Apocalypse Now.”

The general wrote in his memoirs that these efforts were intended primarily to keep his troops busy during the flooded and disease-ridden winter and that he had no expectation of success. This claim appears to be contradicted by his contemporary correspondence.

Grant’s final option was to march the army through the swamps down the west bank of the Mississippi, cross south of and get behind Vicksburg. Porter would have to sneak his gunboats and transports downriver past powerful Rebel batteries on the bluffs to accomplish the army crossing. This would be a one-way run. If the squadron survived the transit, it would be suicidal to steam back up against the swift current.

Mississippi River Squadron running Vicksburg batteries (Currier and Ives)

On April 16, 1863, a clear night with no moon, seven gunboats and three empty troop transports loaded with stores ran the gauntlet. Despite efforts to minimize lights and noise, the bluffs exploded with massive artillery fire. Confederates set bonfires along the banks to illuminate the scene. Union gunboats fired back.

The Union column hugged the east bank–so close they could hear rebel gunners shouting orders–to get under the line of fire with shells zinging overhead. On April 22, six more boats loaded with supplies made the run. The squadron incurred little damage with two transports lost, thirteen men wounded, and none killed.

Grant ferried his army across, laid siege to and captured the “Gibraltar of the West.” It was arguably the most brilliant campaign of the war, at least as important as the simultaneous victory at Gettysburg. The Mississippi River Squadron backstopped the army, closed the river, and provided continuous heavy artillery support. The fall of Port Hudson, Louisiana, the last Confederate stronghold on the river, followed quickly.

“The father of waters again goes unvexed to the sea,” wrote Abraham Lincoln. Other than the abortive Red River campaign in spring 1864, there would be no more major river engagements. But the Mississippi River Squadron would be busy for two additional years fighting Rebel guerrillas, suppressing enemy trade, and protecting friendly commerce.

(Extracted from a paper presented at the North American Society for Oceanic History (NASOH) Annual Conference, St. Charles, Missouri, May 22, 2018. This presentation with PowerPoint is available for interested groups. See

Artillery: Big Guns at Pulaski

Fort Pulaski Under Fire, April 1862 (Leslie’s Weekly)

“From the opening shots at Fort Sumter to the annihilating fire from Little Round Top against Pickett’s men and the months of bombardment at Petersburg, artillery played a role not really seen in American experience before the Civil War,” wrote Steven A. Wilson in his essay “Heavy Artillery Transformed.”[1] The battle of Fort Pulaski, Georgia (April 10-11, 1862) illustrates this revolution in big gun technology.

Fort Pulaski commanded the mouth of the Savannah River and approaches to the city of Savannah, a vital cotton exporting port and railroad and manufacturing center with a state arsenal and private shipyards. Union Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman surrounded and besieged the fortress for 112 days that spring while his soldiers laboriously hauled 36 big artillery pieces of various types and sizes through the swamps to finally install them in eleven batteries on nearby Tybee Island.

SE Corner Fort Pulaski (Photographic History of the Civil War, V5)

To almost everyone’s surprise, the monstrous and presumably invincible citadel succumbed after only 30 hours of bombardment that blasted great gaps in the walls.

Shells flew across the now exposed courtyard and detonated near the powder magazine threatening to obliterate the fortress, its 47 guns, and 361 Confederates inside. The white flag went up. The planned 10,000-man assault would not be needed.

Just ten innovative and experimental weapons decided the outcome: two 64-pounder and two 84-pounder James rifles and five 30-pounder and one 48-pounder Parrott rifles. Confederate Colonel Charles C. Jones, Jr.: “To the new and unexpected effect of the conical shot and percussion shells ejected from the James and Parrott rifles must be credited the breaching of the wall, the partial demoralization of the work, and the accomplishment of disastrous results which speedily rendered the fortification untenable.”

Another three thousand shells and solid shot from 10 and 13-inch mortars and from 8 and 10-inch smoothbore Columbiads “admirably served by the United States troops” did comparatively little damage. “Had these guns only been employed, the probability is that structure would have preserved its integrity and would have held out for an indefinite period.”[2]

Another view of the damage (Georgia Historical Society)

Following the War of 1812, President James Madison ordered a new generation of coastal fortifications with greater structural durability (known as the “Third System”) to defend against foreign invasion.

Many of the 42 forts built after 1816 still exist and still display scars of the war including Fort Pulaski, Fort Sumter, Virginia’s Fort Monroe, Fort Jackson downriver from New Orleans, and Forts Morgan and Gaines in Mobile Bay.

Fort Pulaski was completed in 1847 following eighteen years of construction and nearly $1 million in costs. Second Lieutenant Robert E. Lee, a recent graduate of West Point, was assigned there as an engineer in 1829 and 1830. Wooden pilings were sunk up to 70 feet in mud. Walls were built of solid brick—an estimated 25,000,000 of them—7.5 feet thick, 25 feet high with heavy reinforcing masonry piers.

The fort was (and still is) located on Cockspur Island surrounded by wide wet marshes and broad waters of the Savannah River. U.S. Navy ships could not approach within effective cannon range and no firm ground existed on which to erect land batteries closer than Tybee Island, 1.5 miles away.

The Federal guns on Tybee Island ranged from 1,650 to 3,400 yards distant. But even the largest smoothbore cannon had little effect beyond 700 yards and no effect beyond 1,000. Expert opinion on both sides assumed long-range bombardment could only soften a target preparatory to assault. Brigadier General Joseph Totten, United States Chief of Engineers: “you might as well bombard the Rocky Mountains.”[3]

General R. E. Lee, then commanding Confederate coastal defenses, stood on the fort’s parapet with its commander, pointed to the shore of Tybee Island and remarked: “Colonel, they will make it pretty warm for you here with shells, but they cannot breach your walls at that distance.”[4] Lee believed the fort could not be reduced by bombardment or direct assault, only by starvation.

Fort Pulaski Parapet

But military technology had experienced revolutionary innovation and sustained transformation in the last half century. In the same publication, Wilson’s fellow author, Barton C. Hacker, discusses “How Technology Shaped the Conduct of the War.”

Developments like heavy, rifled artillery, the rifle-musket, the railroad–telegraph network, and the armored, steam-powered, propeller-driven warship “were in some respects typical products of premodern patterns of technological innovation. Technology, whether civil or military, was chiefly empirical.

“Vast as the accumulation of technical knowledge had become by the mid-nineteenth century, it was still normally the product of hit-or-miss experiment by craftsmen or tinkerers, laboriously augmented over many years, unevenly developed, and slow to spread….

“Ingenuity and imagination, rather than science, dominated the efforts of both sides to devise and apply new weapons and techniques during the Civil War. Military-technological innovation still relied chiefly on lone inventors and tended to be a prolonged process.” However, beginning in the late eighteenth century, a “kind of systematic empiricism” accelerated the pace of change, growing stronger as the nineteenth century advanced.[5]

Traditional smoothbores defined by shot size and recognizable to generations of gunners—6-pounder, 12-pounder, 24-pounder, 32-pounder—evolved to a bewildering array of smoothbore and rifled guns of various types and sizes known mostly by inventor’s names: Parrott guns, Dahlgren guns, Rodman guns, and so on.

30-Pounder Parrott Rifles

These guns were a different breed entirely—massive rifled weapons firing explosive shells for accuracy and penetrating power. Some Parrotts shot 300-pound projectiles; other guns grew to 10, 11, or 12-inch bores. Fifteen-inch Rodmans were cast by 1863 and 20-inch Dahlgrens by the end of the war.

Inventors were experimenting here and in Europe with built-up guns and breech loaders. Powder and shell manufacture became more reliable. Processes for rifling were refined. Iron was deployed in new ways; furnace shapes were optimized, metallurgical properties investigated, and casting processes improved. Frustrating failures, burst guns, and fatalities also littered the road of progress.

In the antebellum period, Army Lt. Thomas J. Rodman proposed an improved water-cooled casting method for large-caliber Columbiads. Navy Lt. (later Rear Admiral) John Dahlgren came up with a soda-bottle-shaped gun thicker at the breech to withstand internal pressures. Rodmans became the standard for siege and coastal defense guns as Dahlgrens did for shipboard ordnance.

Robert Parker Parrott’s solution to increased chamber pressure was to heat shrink a thick wrought-iron band around the breech of a cast-iron gun, which evolved into numerous variations—the Parrott gun. On the Confederate side, John Mercer Brooke did much the same with the Brooke rifle.

Wilson: “This frothy ferment of the mid-nineteenth century represents a relatively understudied period in the history of artillery but a crucial one for understanding how traditional ordnance could be improved so that it came to be the instrument of change in the Civil War.”[6]

Brigadier General Quincy Adams Gillmore

Brigadier General Quincy Adams Gillmore, General Sherman’s chief engineering officer, had been studying the test records of the latest experimental Army weapons.

Gillmore suggested that rifled cannon on Tybee Island could reduce Fort Pulaski, but Sherman was concerned that conical shot would not fly true to strike point first at those distances. “All that can be done with guns is to shake the walls in a random manner.”[7] Sherman would permit Gillmore to give it a try before the main assault.

Colonel Jones summarized the results: “Concentrating the fire of their James and Parrott guns…upon the pan coupe at the southeast angle of Pulaski, the Federals…had not only dismounted all the guns in that vicinity, but had succeeded in demoralizing, to a depth varying from two to four feet, the entire wall from the crest of the parapet to the moat.”[8]

Despite Intense return fire from the fort, Union guns and gunners were well protected behind low-lying sand, earth, and timber breastworks. Only one Union soldier was killed and three Confederates severely wounded.

Bombardment damage viewed today

General Gillmore reported in his after-action assessment: “Good rifled guns, properly served, can breach rapidly at 1,650 yards’ distance….

“I would not hesitate to attempt a practicable breach in brick scarp at 2,000 yards’ distance with ten guns of my own selection.” Heavy round shot also could help knock down masonry thus loosened.[9]

Department commander Major General David Hunter added his assessment: “The result of this bombardment must cause, I am convinced, a change in the construction of fortifications as radical as that foreshadowed in naval architecture by the conflict between the Monitor and Merrimac. No works of stone or brick can resist the impact of rifled artillery of heavy caliber.”[10]

Fort Pulaski National Monument

Federals occupied and repaired Fort Pulaski and controlled the South Carolina-Georgia coasts for the remainder of the war. Lee built up defenses in depth around Savannah with what forces he could muster. The city held out for two and a half years before succumbing to the encircling hosts of General W. T. Sherman, but it was strategically neutralized as a port.

This was, concluded General Gillmore, “a new era in the use of this most valuable, and comparatively unknown arm of service.”[11]

[1] Steven A. Wilson, “Heavy Artillery Transformed” in Barton C. Hacker, ed., Astride Two Worlds: Technology and the American Civil War (Washington, DC, 2016), loc. 1164 of 4472, Kindle.

[2] Col. Charles C. Jones, Jr., “Military Lessons Inculcated on the Coast of Georgia During the Confederate War: An Address Delivered Before the Confederate Survivors’ Association, in Augusta, Georgia, April 26, 1883” (Augusta, Georgia, 1883), 7-8.

[3], accessed June 6, 2018.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Barton C. Hacker, “How Technology Shaped the Conduct of the War” in Astride Two Worlds, loc. 322-330, Kindle.

[6] Wilson, “Heavy Artillery Transformed,” loc. 1211-1213, Kindle.

[7] T. W. Sherman indorsement to Q. A. Gillmore to Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman, in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols. (Washington, DC, 1880-1901), Series 1, vol. 6, 195. Hereafter cited as OR.

[8] Jones, Jr., “Military Lessons,” 8.

[9] Q. A. Gillmore to Brigadier General Egbert L. Viele, OR Series 1, vol. 6, 146-147.

[10] David Hunter to E. M. Stanton, April 13, 1862, OR Series 1, vol. 6, 134.

[11] Brig. Gen. Q. A. Gillmore, Official Report to the United States Engineer Department Of the Siege And Reduction of Fort Pulaski, Georgia, February, March, and April, 1862 (New York, 1862), 7.

Unvexed Waters: Mississippi River Squadron, Part I

Ironclads at Fort Henry

Ironclads Carondelet, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Essex bombard Fort Henry

History offers few examples other than the Civil War and Vietnam of extensive operations on inland shallow waters involving specialized classes of war vessels commanded and manned by naval personnel. The struggle for the Mississippi River, the spine of America, was one of the longest, most challenging and diverse campaign of the Civil War. The river extended 700 miles from Mound City, Illinois, to the Gulf of Mexico.

Strategically, the river war was an extension of blockade, an outgrowth of the Anaconda Plan. On June 10, 1862, Major General William T. Sherman wrote to his wife Ellen: “I think the Mississippi the great artery of America, whatever power holds it, holds the continent.”[1] But in technology and tactics, river warfare was an entirely new concept. Both navies started with nothing—no warships, no experience, no tactics, no command structure, no infrastructure.

Operations would involve: Joint and amphibious expeditions; reduction of powerful shore fortifications; interdiction of enemy trade, communications, and transportation; and river patrol and guerrilla suppression, all while sustaining and protecting friendly activities.

Technology would include ironclads, steam-powered gunboats, modern fortifications and artillery, and mines, all relatively untested instruments of war. The U.S. Navy, an exclusively deep-water force, had never thought very much about any of these challenges.

Under the watchful eyes of the commander in chief, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton developed a close partnership, built a robust riverine force from nothing, and coordinated on strategy.

There was no joint staff, and no protocols or mechanisms for directing joint operations. The officers of one service, however senior, could issue no orders to an officer of the other service, however junior. Coordination at the operational level depended entirely on the willingness and abilities of field commanders to plan and execute together.

A lack of joint perspective impeded many operations and negated strategic opportunities, but Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote, Flag Officer H. Charles Davis, Admiral David D. Porter, and General U. S. Grant put differences aside. From his first battle to his last, Grant incorporated the navy as an integral combat and logistical arm, and he credited navy compatriots as a major factor in victory.


John Rodgers

In May 1861, Secretary Welles appointed Commander John Rodgers to: Establish “a naval armament” on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, blockade or interdict Rebel communications, and “aid, advise, and cooperate” with army commanders “in crossing or navigating the rivers or in arming and equipping the boats required.”[2]

This ad hoc fleet would become the Western Gunboat Flotilla, a unique “joint service” organization. Gunboats were manned by navy personnel, but were converted or built using funds from the War Department, and were under the command of the army.

Working out of Cincinnati, Rodgers purchased three commercial steamers and contracted for their conversion. The USS Conestoga, USS Tyler, and USS Lexington were the first commissioned warships dedicated to river conflict.

Boilers and steam pipes were lowered into the hold; superstructures were removed and replaced with 5-inch thick oak bulwarks; sides were pierced and decks strengthened for six or eight guns.

USS Conestoga

Tinberclad USS Conestoga

Rogers acted entirely on his own initiative, without instructions, plans, authority, and initially without funding. He was rebuked by the Navy Department for so doing. These small but powerful vessels probably saw more service than any other gunboats in the Western Theater.

The next step was to design and build gunboats from the keel up, producing the first uniform river warship class and the first U.S. ironclads to enter combat.

Rogers partnered with James B. Eads, a wealthy St. Louis industrialist and self-taught naval engineer who risked his fortune to build the vessels. He was an exceptional river navigator and would become a world-renowned civil engineer and inventor.

Union river ironclad

“City Class” ironclad built by James Eads

Noted naval architect Samuel Pook designed the ironclads, which were thereby dubbed “Pook Turtles.” They combined firepower, protection, and mobility in a manner achieved by few contemporaries, but with defects.

The armor was inadequate. Maneuverability was restricted. They had no watertight compartments to isolate damage. They were vulnerable to mines, which sank the USS Cairo and USS Baron De Kalb, and to ramming, which sank (if only briefly) the USS Cincinnati and USS Mound City.

These ironclads were the backbone of the river flotilla taking part in almost every significant action on the upper Mississippi and its tributaries.

Other ironclads included the USS Benton, a converted center-wheel catamaran snag boat (the largest and best vessel of the Western flotilla), and USS Essex, along with a few smaller and partly armored gun-boats.

Dozens of other flat-bottomed river steamers were purchased and converted into armed and armored warships to patrol, escort, transport, and communicate over hundreds of miles of rivers through occupied territory. Thin metal sheeting, usually tin, provided small arms protection, hence “Tinclads.” The luxurious USS Black Hawk became Admiral Porter’s command ship.

The United States Ram Fleet—later the Mississippi Marine Brigade—was an odd duck, a small volunteer navy commanded by a family with no military experience. It was the brainchild of noted civil engineer Charles Ellet, Jr. who was convinced that, with steam power, ramming again was a viable naval tactic.

In March 1862, he persuaded Secretary of War Stanton to appoint him a colonel of engineers with authority to build his own flotilla. Ellet converted several powerful river towboats, heavily reinforcing their hulls for ramming. Boilers, engines and upper works were lightly protected with wood and cotton. Originally not armed, they later were fitted with several guns.

Ellet RamsColonel Ellet reported directly to the Secretary of War, operating independently of the squadron and theater commanders. When Ellet received a mortal wound at the Battle of Memphis in June 1862, command passed to his younger brother, Alfred, and to his son, Colonel Charles R. Ellet. The rams figured prominently in actions around and below Vicksburg into 1863 and performed supporting roles for the remainder of the war.

Andrew H. Foote

Andrew H. Foote

In February 1862, Flag Officer Andrew Foote succeeded Rodgers as flotilla commander. He and Grant formed a potent army-navy team against Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland, blowing open the Confederacy’s heartland, exposing Nashville, Shiloh, and eventually Chattanooga along a wet highway into northern Mississippi and Alabama.

The main Rebel defense line in the west collapsed, abandoning all of Kentucky and most of middle Tennessee along with crucial economic resources such as iron and pork. These were perhaps the deadliest strategic strokes of the war as well as the greatest single supply disaster for the Confederacy.

Foote’s gunboats pounded the poorly sited and constructed Fort Henry into submission before Union troops even arrived.

At Fort Donelson his ironclads took considerable damage until “Unconditional Surrender” Grant surrounded and battered the Rebels into capitulation, bagging an entire Confederate field army and beginning Grant’s rise to supreme command.

Together they achieved a strategic outcome George McClellan would fail to obtain during the Peninsula Campaign that spring.

Part 2 will complete the story.

(Extracted from a paper presented at the North American Society for Oceanic History (NASOH) Annual Conference, St. Charles, Missouri, May 22, 2018. This presentation with PowerPoint is available for interested groups. See

[1] Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman to Ellen Sherman, June 10, 1862, University of North Dakota, Sherman Family Papers.

[2] Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, vol. 22 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1894-1922), 280, 284-285.

Sea Power at Port Royal Sound: A Missed Opportunity?

Port Royal bombardment

Bombardment of Port Royal Sound, South Carolina, November 7, 1861

On November 5, 1861, the Confederate Secretary of War established the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and East Florida as a military department, assigning one of his most senior and experienced officers, General R. E. Lee, to command it.

No Federal armies were marching anywhere near that far south. The threat was from the sea, from the dangerous flexibility overwhelming command of the sea provided their adversaries. The general was to consolidate scarce resources and improve defenses along that vital coast.

Lee warned from Savannah in January 1862: “The forces of the enemy are accumulating, and apparently increase faster than ours.” He feared, given maritime capabilities of speedy transportation and concentration, “it would be impossible to gather troops necessarily posted over a long line in sufficient strength, to oppose sudden movements. Wherever his fleet can be brought no opposition to his landing can be made except within range of our fixed batteries. We have nothing to oppose to its heavy guns, which sweep over the low banks of this country with irresistible force.”[1] He could not mount a cordon defense.

President Lincoln and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles had every intention of employing that sea power. However, in hindsight, their strategic vision was limited, and opportunities were lost for potentially decisive joint army/navy campaigns into the Southern heartland.[2]

A central component of Union strategy was to interdict trade with seceded states, starving them of funds, war materials, and necessities. On April 19, 1861, ten days after Fort Sumter, Lincoln issued a “Proclamation of Blockade Against Southern Ports.”

It was the most extensive naval blockade ever attempted, covering over 3,500 miles of low lying sand and swamp from Cape Hatteras to Matamoros. The blockade eventually would employ more than five hundred vessels manned by a hundred thousand sailors. But it required secure local bases from which to repair, resupply, and refuel blockaders, and to rest crews without long, wearying retreats to secure Norther harbors.

The Civil War demanded operations new to the U.S. Navy, employing innovative tactics and technology. These included: joint and amphibious operations; reduction of powerful shore fortifications; capture and control of heavily defended harbors, inland waterways, and contiguous coastal areas; interdiction of enemy trade, communications, and transportation—all while sustaining and protecting friendly forces. The navy, heretofore an exclusively deep-water force, had never thought very much about any of these power projection challenges.

There were no protocols and no mechanisms for directing joint operations between land and sea services. The sole joint commander was the commander-in-chief; he was still learning the ropes in the winter of 1861-62. The command environment was muddled by George McClellan’s machinations to supersede Winfield Scott as commanding general. Army and navy secretaries managed separate fiefdoms. Officers of one service, however senior, could issue no orders to any officer of the other service, however junior.

army navy joint operations

Coordination depended entirely on the willingness and abilities of service secretaries to cooperate strategically, and of respective field commanders to mutually plan and execute operationally. Much depended on personalities. The Union was not ready to fully exploit weak Confederate coastal defenses.

After months of discussion, Port Royal Sound, South Carolina, was selected as the target of an expeditionary force consisting of 17 warships and 60 transports under the command of Flag Officer Samuel F. DuPont ferrying 13,000 troops commanded by Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman (no relation to W. T. Sherman).Port Royal 1861Port Royal—one of the finest natural harbors on the east coast, situated inland from Hilton head between Savannah and Charleston—would be a wonderful base for blockading and for denying the Confederacy a major blockade-running port. Two major sand forts, Walker and Beauregard, with 3,000 Rebels and mounting about twenty guns each guarded the entrance.

The forts were incomplete and poorly designed; a shortage of heavy 10” Columbiads was partially offset by a larger number of smaller caliber guns. The fledgling Confederate Navy contributed one small converted coaster and three former tugs, each mounting two guns—the “mosquito fleet.”

DuPont and Sherman demonstrated excellent cooperation in planning and executing. As it turned out, however, Sherman’s troops were not needed; it was an all-navy show.

battle of port royal 3On November 7, 1861, DuPont steamed his squadron onto Port Royal in line ahead and ran a race-track course up and down the harbor blasting in succession the fort on one side and then on the other with all his broadsides.

Some ships found they could stop and enfilade the water battery at Fort Morgan in a position safe from return fire.

The mosquito fleet withdrew after lobbing a few shells toward the Yankees. Fort Morgan defenders had difficulty hitting moving targets while losing their guns to enemy fire and running out of ammunition. They abandoned their positions.

Fearing isolation from retreat, those at Fort Beauregard followed. DuPont’s sailors rowed ashore, occupied the forts, and then turned them over to the army. Port Royal would be a Federal bastion for the remainder of the war.

“Both Sherman and Du Pont, to their credit, saw that Port Royal’s fall had potential that went far beyond serving as a logistical base for the navy’s blockading operations,” noted one historian.[3] A few months later Du Pont wrote that “the occupation of this wonderful sheet of water, with its tributary rivers, inlets, outlets, entrances and sounds, running in all directions, cutting off effectually all water communications between Savannah and Charleston, has been like driving a wedge into the flanks of the rebels between these two important cities.”[4]

The Confederate high command agreed, which is why President Davis dispatched Lee to take charge of coastal defenses. In the report cited above, Lee considered the aftermath of the Union victory at Port Royal: “I have thought [the enemy’s] purpose would be to seize upon the Charleston and Savannah Railroad near the head of Broad River [flowing into Port Royal Sound], sever the line of communication between those cities with one of his columns of land troops, and with his other two and his fleet by water envelop alternately each of those cities. This would be a difficult combination for us successfully to resist.”[5]

Lee improved fortifications and built up a defense in depth around Savannah with what forces he could muster. The Rebels blocked Federal land advances in the area for two and a half years. But the attention of Washington leaders was elsewhere; they did not try to exploit the potential for further joint operations at Port Royal.

USS Wabash

USS Wabash, flagship for Flag Officer DuPont at Port Royal

Two factors contributed to DuPont’s success there. The first was technology. For centuries, the sailing warship—subject to vagaries of wind—had little chance against shore batteries firing bigger guns from stable and usually higher platforms protected by stone ramparts and capable of employing heated shot.

But the navy had come a long way, demonstrating technical innovation and excellence in warship production. It was advancing rapidly in steam and propeller propulsion and was leading the ordnance revolution of the era. Larger steam men-of-war armed with heavier and longer range guns firing explosive shells were evening the odds.

9 Dahlgren gun

9″ Dahlgren cast-iron shot and shell gun

Like DuPont at Port Royal, Admiral David G. Farragut would blow past powerful fortifications below New Orleans (April 1862) and again in Mobile Bay (August 1864) with greater but manageable casualties, isolating the forts into surrender.

Sea power did not always work alone, however. Farragut (in July 1862) and Admiral David D. Porter (in April 1863) could sneak their squadrons past massed batteries on Vicksburg heights with manageable damage but could not take the city on their own. Charleston Harbor became a cul-de-sac of fire and destruction for another Union squadron (April 1863)—including presumably impregnable ironclad monitors—defying all attempts at capture from the sea.

Given lack of institutionalized coordination and an incomplete appreciation of sea power or power projection, victory at Port Royal and elsewhere also depended on close and personal partnerships between senior commanders. U. S. Grant would agree that much of his success was due his relationships with salty compatriots like Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote (Forts Henry and Donelson, February 1862), Farragut and Porter.

From Grant’s first engagement at Belmont, MO (November 1861), through Henry and Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and finally on to Richmond, the navy provided heavy artillery support and pushed aside all Rebel water forces while transporting, supplying, and feeding Federal armies along all rivers and coasts.

Grant’s and Porter’s Vicksburg campaign culminating in its surrender on July 4, 1863, would become the most prominent example of joint operations. Under the leadership of Admiral Porter and Major General Alfred Terry, the bloody capture of Fort Fisher, North Carolina (January 1865) was the ultimate Civil War amphibious operation.

Savannah and Charleston finally fell to the encircling hosts of General Sherman (December 1864, February 1865), but he rushed from Atlanta to Savannah for the express purpose of reestablishing logistic support from the sea and depended upon it from then on. What if these cities had been taken by joint operations in the spring of 1862?

[1] R. E. Lee to General S. Cooper, January 8, 1862, OR, Ser. 1, vol. 6, p. 367.

[2] Williamson Murray and Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh, A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War (Princeton & Oxford, 2016), Chapter 5, Stillborn between Earth and Water: The Unfulfilled Promise of Joint Operations.

[3] Murray and Wei-siang, A Savage War, 128.

[4] John D. Hayes, ed., Samuel Francis Du Pont: A Selection from His Civil War Letters, vol. 1, The Mission: 1860– 1862 (Ithaca, NY, 1969), p. 285.

[5] R. E. Lee to General S. Cooper, January 8, 1862, OR, Ser. 1, vol. 6, p. 367.

From the ECW Archives: Queen of Delphine, Part II

Lillias Nichols

(Continuing the story from Part I of Lillias Nichols as prisoner of war and her captors aboard the CSS Shenandoah.)

New Year’s Day 1865 continued clear and balmy. All sails were set with just enough breeze to fill them, the first really fine weather they had experienced since entering the Indian Ocean.

Mrs. Nichols’s canaries sang delightfully all day. New Year’s dinner in the wardroom included two splendid hams adorned with Confederate flags.

It seemed a pity to cut them, wrote Lieutenant Chew, “however, looking at them was not sufficient for the voracious appetites of some of my messmates.” Hopes for the future were tempered by thoughts of home. “What a waste of waters between me and the shores of my country!”[i]

They had a nice dinner, noted Lieutenant Whittle. “This is a day upon which all persons however separated think of their absent dear ones more than on any other. Oh! How my heart feels for my dear ones.” He invoked God’s blessing and wished for a better and happier new year. “My constant prayer is that a merciful God will guard, protect and cherish our dear country. That he will open the eyes of our enemies to the cruelty of the war they are waging against us and that he may teach them that they are wrong.”[ii]

With the dawn, the near-barren volcanic island of St. Paul rose above the horizon. Masters Mate Hunt claimed to have observed Mrs. Nichols in some distress over the prospect of being marooned there, and to have comforted her. (Hunt had a tendency to embellish his memoirs.)

She told him of stories in the Northern press describing outrages committed upon defenseless men and women by Rebel cruisers, and produced a sample from an illustrated New York publication. The article compared the men of the infamous CSS Alabama with dastardly pirates and renegades, but was, according to Hunt, full of blunders and absurdities that provided amusement in the wardroom for days.[iii]

They dropped anchor at the southern end of the island while eight officers rowed to the beach for a day of exploration and fishing, returning in the evening loaded with fish and in the best of spirits. But they paid dearly, recalled Hunt, with bright sunburns and hands blistered at the oars.

They had hoped to capture a seal or two but failing this, found a penguin and, “brought his aquatic fowlship off in triumph.” The penguin had the bray of an ass, was covered by gray down, and walked with military erectness. Someone pinned a rag around its neck resembling a shawl like an old lady, which amused them all, including Mrs. Nichols. Waddell shaped course for Cape Leeuwin at the southwestern tip of Australia.[iv]

CSS Shenandoah

The men (and woman) of Shenandoah settled into underway routine for the next three weeks with everyone anxious to get ashore. Friday, January 6, 1865, was Surgeon Lining’s thirty-first birthday. He enjoyed conversing with Mrs. Nichols and viewing her family photographs, but Captain Nichols got jealous and came poking around whenever the doctor was with her. “The fool and ass…. I shall now go on talking to her to plague him, if nothing else.”

Nichols frequently walked the quarterdeck with his wife, a privilege extended to no other prisoners. According to Hunt, “the old fellow made himself so continually and unmitigatedly disagreeable that our officers perforce avoided him.” They were as anxious to be rid of him as he was to be elsewhere.[v]

Lieutenant Chew noted the crossing of the meridian exactly opposite his home on the globe and was amazed to find himself in such a far off place. He calculated that Melbourne, Australia, and Lexington, Missouri were distant from each other by the Cape of Good Hope 238 degrees of longitude, equal to 12,600 miles.

They had enjoyed summer and fall in Europe and now in the southern hemisphere were having summer over again. “I suppose by the coming of the winter months, we will have [re-]crossed the line, thus having continual summer.”[vi]

Lieutenant William Whittle reported an uncomfortable encounter with Mrs. Nichols one morning in the wardroom:

“Well Mr. Whittle, I trust that we may soon have peace,” she said, a sentiment to which he concurred.

“Do you think we can ever be friends?”

“No Madam, never,” he responded.

“But Mr. Whittle, if after the peace was made you were to meet me, would you speak to me?”

“Certainly, Madam, I would speak at any time to a female.”

“But would you not speak to my husband?”

“I might do so as he has never served against us.”

The lady expressed admiration for the Confederate Navy uniform cap and asked if she could have one. Whittle felt bound as a gentleman to acquiesce; he could say no to men but not to a woman. But they were Yankees, and their motives could only be mercenary. Whittle had no doubt she would hand the cap, if provided, over to her husband and he would sell it.

He thought no woman with so little delicacy as to place a gentleman in such a fix should expect him to comply, “and on this principle I will let the cap alone.” Mrs. Nichols apparently developed a grudging fondness for some of the officers, but never took to the somewhat stuffy Virginian. She undoubtedly enjoyed teasing him.[vii]

Shenandoah in Hobson’s Bay, February 1865 (State Library of Victoria, Melbourne)

A new parole form was prepared for signature by the prisoners before release upon arrival in Melbourne, in which they promised not to serve against the Confederacy, and not to provide information tending to the detriment of the Shenandoah. Captain Nichols signed the form without protest, but not his wife.

Dr. Charles Lining

“She let loose with her tongue, pitching directly into her husband for telling her to sign it & say nothing,” reported Lining. The lady would not feel bound by parole given under duress and would pass on whatever information she pleased (which she subsequently did to the U.S. Consul in Melbourne).

After signing the document, Mrs. Nichols turned to Lieutenant Lee and pointedly inquired: “Is there anything you want [my son] Phiny to sign?” Lee replied: “No, Madame, we are much more afraid of you than we are of him.” Dr. Lining: “She went out in a towering rage. Not to get the vials of her wrath poured out on me, I kept quiet.”[viii]

On the morning after arrival, Captain Waddell was awakened by voices in the adjoining cabin. Mrs. Nichols was preparing for departure and loudly demanding restitution of every book taken from her ship Delphine. All were returned except Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which Lieutenant Whittle threw overboard.

The lady thanked them for their kindness, declaring she liked all the officers except Doctor Lining and Lieutenant Whittle. “I thought I was a kind of chicken of hers,” concluded the embarrassed lieutenant, “anyhow I was very kind to her.” The Nichols family loaded their luggage into boats and shoved clear of Shenandoah. Her parting shot: “I wish that steamer may be burned.”[ix]

(Extracted from A Confederate Biography: The Cruise of the CSS Shenandoah (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015) by Dwight Sturtevant Hughes)

[i] Francis Thornton Chew, “Reminiscences and Journal of Francis Thornton Chew, Lieutenant, C.S.N.,” Chew Papers #148, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina Library (not paginated), 1 January 1865.

[ii] William C. Whittle, Jr., The Voyage of the CSS Shenandoah: A Memorable Cruise (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005), 99.

[iii] Cornelius E. Hunt, The Shenandoah; Or, The Last Confederate Cruiser (New York: G.W. Carelton, 1867), 87-89.

[iv] Ibid., 84-86.

[v] Charles E. Lining, Journal, Eleanor S. Brokenbrough Library, Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, VA. (not paginated), 6 January 1865; Hunt, Shenandoah, 91.

[vi] Chew, “Reminiscences and Journal,” 12 January 1865.

[vii] Whittle, Voyage, 105-06.

[viii] Lining, Journal, 23 January 1865.

[ix] Whittle, Voyage, 106; James I. Waddell, “Extracts from notes on the C.S.S. Shenandoah by her commander, James Iredell Waddell, C.S. Navy,” in The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1896), 1, 3:809.