Up, Up and Away: Civil War Ballooning in Hampton Roads

Posted on
General Benjamin Franklin Butler, USA, ca. 1862-1865. Mathew Brady, photographer. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, courtesy of Library of Congress.

The Civil War introduced many new technologies to achieve victory in a total war. Although  balloonists like John LaMountain and Thaddeus Lowe achieved considerable fame during the war, they were not the first military balloonists. The Chinese used paper balloon ‘lanterns’ sometime between 229 to 234 AD., when Chancellor Zhuge Lang’s army was surrounded by Mongolian troops. Lang employed hot air balloon lanterns to signal for reinforcements. It was the French who first employed a hot air balloon in combat. The Montgolfier brothers tested balloon flight between 1782 to 1784. Using a balloon made of silk or cotton stretched over a wooden frame, they proved the feasibility of flight.

During the French Revolution’s War of the First Coalition, the French employed their Aerostatic Corps using the balloon l’Entreprenant to observe the Austro-Dutch army during the June 26, 1794 Battle of Fleurus. Napoleon disbanded the Aerostatic Corps in 1799. When Venice attempted to free itself from the Austrian Empire, the Austrians used hot air balloon bombs during the siege of that city. About 200 balloons were launched from the deck of the SMS Vulkan. Only one hit a target as the wind shifted to send the bombs back over the Austrian lines. These ballooning activities set the stage for balloon advances during the American Civil War.   Read more

Battle of Port Royal Sound

Posted on
Samuel Francis du Pont, ca. 1863. Carte-de-visite. Mathew B. Brady, photographer. National Library of Brazil/World Digital Library online. wdl.org. Accessed October 27, 2020.

The Civil War’s second major amphibious operation was the capture of Port Royal Sound on  November 7, 1861. Flag Officer Samuel Francis Du Pont was the newly minted commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. He needed to capture Port Royal Sound, South Carolina, to use as a base for his squadron. Du Pont placed his warships on an elliptical course and forced forts Walker and Beauregard to surrender. The Sound enabled the Federals to maintain a blockade of Charleston and Savannah. The Union’s occupation of South Carolina’s Sea Islands resulted in the Port Royal Experiment. Abolitionists toiled to assist these formerly enslaved people become literate and self-reliant wage earners. Once the Emancipation Proclamation was made law, this coastal region became a recruitment center for African American soldiers.

Blockade Strategy Board

When Fort Sumter fell to the Confederates on April 14, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln declared a blockade of the southern coastline from Virginia to Texas. Winfield Scott, then general in chief of the US Army, suggested the Union’s primary war aim be a blockade of southern ports, including the capture of the Mississippi River. Scott knew that  the closure of  these ports would end the cotton for cannon trade which was so necessary for the South’s survival. A commission was formed known as the Blockade Strategy Board, also known as the  Du Pont Board.   Read more

Battle of Galveston

Posted on
Map of Galveston Battlefield, 1863. Courtesy of Battlefield Protection Program and National Park Service.

Major General John Bankhead Magruder arrived in Texas in late October 1862 and immediately sought to regain the laurels he had earned on the Virginia Peninsula. Galveston, Texas’s major port, had been conquered by Union naval forces earlier the same month. Consequently, Magruder decided to organize a land sea operation to break the Union grip on Galveston thereby reopening this port to Confederate blockade runners. Galveston would remain in Confederate hands until the war’s conclusion.

Welcome to Galveston    Read more

RAPHAEL SEMMES AND CSS SUMTER

Posted on
Raphael Semmes. The Mariners’ Museum P0005—UPP434

The CSS Sumter was fitted out as a cruiser by the CS Navy at New Orleans, Louisiana. Commander Raphael Semmes, a former US naval officer who had served with distinction during the Mexican War, had resigned his commission and joined the Confederate navy. Immediately, he sought an active command. He met with Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Russell Mallory seeking the command of a cruiser that could harass Union shipping. Consequently, Mallory gave Semmes command of a ship in the making, CSS Sumter. The Sumter’s cruise  launched the career of one of the greatest commerce raider commanders in history.

EARLY DAYS

Raphael Semmes was born in Charles County, Maryland, on September 27, 1809. Orphaned at   an early age, he was raised by his uncle, Raphael Semmes. The young Raphael was a cousin of Brigadier General Paul Semmes and Union Captain Alexander Alderman Semmes. He attended Charlotte Hall Military Academy and at age 17, thanks to the influence of another uncle, Benedict Semmes, he was appointed to the US Navy as a midshipman. He took a leave of absence to study law and was later admitted to the Maryland Bar in 1834. Continuing on shore duty he was able to expand his law practice. Semmes was promoted lieutenant in February 1837. During the same year he married Anne Elizabeth Spencer of Ohio. The happy union produced six children. [1]   Read more

USS ROANOKE: THE THREE-TURRETED MONSTER

Posted on
USS Roanoke during service as a steam frigate. Lithograph, artist and date unknown. Courtesy of Naval History & Heritage Command #NH 45364

The USS Roanoke was a Merrimack-class steam screw frigate built at the Gosport Navy Yard. The frigate was commissioned in 1857 and became the flagship of the Home Squadron. When the Civil War erupted, Roanoke captured several blockade runners and fought during the March 1862 Battle of Hampton Roads. Noting how the Confederates had transformed Merrimack into the ironclad CSS Virginia, the wooden Roanoke was converted into an ironclad at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The new Roanoke featured three turrets; however, the extra weight of the iron made the vessel unstable and it spent the rest of the war in Hampton Roads, Virginia, and was scrapped in 1883.

A Novel Example of Naval Architecture   Read more