Confederate Pirates: Capture of Steamer St. Nicholas

Posted on
Commodore George N. Hollins, CSN. Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command NH 49028

On June 28, 1861, the Union’s first charge of Confederate piracy since the Civil War erupted took place in the Potomac River when the passenger steamer St. Nicholas was captured. Captain George Hollins developed a daring scheme to capture the ship. Using the flamboyant Lt. Colonel Richard Thomas Zarvona masquerading as Madame La Force, the ship  was taken over by the Confederates and used to capture three other Union merchant ships. Hollins and Zarvona were proclaimed vicious pirates in the North and treated like heroes throughout the South.

THE DARING VETERAN: CAPTAIN GEORGE HOLLINS, CSN   Read more

USS Mississippi: Ship of the Manifest Destiny    

Posted on
Battle of Port Hudson, J.O. Davidson, artist. Facsimile print by L.. Prang & Co., 1887. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

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

Capture of New Orleans: Farragut’s Rise to Fame

Posted on
Map depicting the delta of the Mississippi River and approaches to New Orleans. Printed by Government printing office in 1904 as part of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies.

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

The First Ironclad Emerges: Battle of the Head of Passes

Posted on
Confederate 6.4-inch banded rifle, 1862. This is the weapon type used as the bow pivot gun on CSS Ivy. Note the 100-pound conical projectile at the right rear of the gun carriage.  Courtesy of Library of Congress, CWPB 01053.

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.

Ironclad Imagined

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

Fort Fisher: Gibraltar Falls

Posted on
Map of the Cape Fear River and the approaches to Wilmington, N.C. from C.S.A. Engineer Surveys. [Washington, DC: The Norris Peters Co., ?, 1862] Map. Courtesy Library of Congress.

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