When Matthew Calbraith Perry joined the U.S. Navy in 1809, he entered a service of sailing ships and smoothbore cannon. Yet, by the time of his death on March 4, 1858 — from rheumatism, complicated by gout and alcoholism — Perry was known as the “Father of the Steam Navy.”
Perry guided the US Navy’s transition from sail to steam and shot to shell. It was he who recognized how these new tools would ensure the Navy’s ability to project American trade and power throughout the world. His creations became a symbol of America’s industrialization and the Manifest Destiny.Read more
New Orleans was the largest city in the Confederacy with more than 120,000 inhabitants. This cosmopolitan community was a leading shipping, shipbuilding, and industrial center. The city controlled the commerce of the entire Mississippi Valley and its tributaries, like the Ohio, Missouri, and Red rivers. While it was ever so critical for the Confederacy to maintain control of this city, events elsewhere, especially in Tennessee, resulted in New Orleans having inadequate defenses and naval support. The city’s loss would have significant implications.
Confederate Naval Preparations
Much to the dismay of Major General Mansfield Lovell and Flag Officer George Hollins, New Orleans had been stripped of most of its soldiers, cannons, and warships. Many believed that the Federals would try to take New Orleans by way of Union forces coming down the Mississippi. Hollins argued, to a level of insubordination, that every effort possible be made to block the Union fleet access into the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico. He advocated that as the Union ships were lightened to cross the bar into the Southwest passage, the Federals were very vulnerable to attack, and Hollins wished to do so. He created such an uproar that he was reassigned to Richmond, Virginia.Read more
When the Civil War erupted, Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Russell Mallory knew that the South could only counter and defeat the larger US Navy if ironclads were employed. Mallory immediately ordered the construction of ironclads. The first project was the conversion of USS Merrimack into CSS Virginia at the Gosport Navy Yard, Portsmouth, Virginia. Mallory then ordered two ironclads laid down in New Orleans, and another two built in Memphis, Tennessee. These vessels could not be built fast enough to stem the Union’s advance against Confederate ports.
The urgent need for ironclads was recognized by New Orleans Commission Agent Captain John Stephenson who also served as secretary of the New Orleans Pilots’ Benevolent Association. Stephenson went to meet with President Jefferson Davis in Montgomery, Alabama, to ask for the use of a heavy tug, altering it to make it “comparatively safe against the heaviest guns afloat, and by preparing … bow in a peculiar manner … rendered them capable of sinking by collision the heaviest vessels ever built.” With Davis’s approval, Stevenson returned to New Orleans to build an ironclad privateer, quickly raising more than $100,000 in subscriptions.Read more
As the Union warships sailed away from Cape Fear on December 27, 1864, Colonel William Lamb, Fort Fisher’s commander, wired Richmond, “This morning … the foiled and frightened enemy left our shore.”Richmond rejoiced as Wilmington, North Carolina, remained the Confederacy’s only outlet to the world.
Bragg Takes Command
Lamb quickly organized repairs to the minor damage the fort suffered during the bombardment. Both he and Major General W.H.C. Whiting knew the Federals would soon return. General Braxton Bragg had recently assumed command of the District of North Carolina. He rebuffed every request for reinforcements to the fort’s garrison. Bragg did not believe that the Federals would return and thought it more prudent to defend Wilmington.Read more
Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles had long recognized Wilmington, North Carolina, as the key blockade runners’ haven in the war. He had tried to create an expedition to capture Wilmington’s prime defender, Fort Fisher. Welles, in conjunction with Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee, conceived an attack where monitors would pass through Cape Fear’s Old Inlet and bombard Fort Fisher from the rear. A great idea: however, this mode of assault was impractical as the new Passaic-class monitors had too drafts too deep to enter the river. The Federals; nevertheless, did not forget about Cape Fear.
The Federals knew that Wilmington needed to be closed; yet, they also recognized the magnitude and extent of the Cape Fear defenses. Fort Fisher was key to General Robert E. Lee’s defense of Petersburg and Richmond. The food, weapons, ammunition, clothing, and medicines that Lee’s army relied upon all came from Wilmington, North Carolina. If this port city were to be captured, Lee would have to abandon his trenches outside of Petersburg.Read more