Naval Intelligence in Hampton Roads: 1861-1862

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CSS Virginia.
The Mariners’ Museum.

There was no formal naval intelligence system established during the American Civil War. While a few examples exist of Northern sympathizers, free Blacks, like Mary Louvestre of Portsmouth, sent messages to various Union commanders about the Confederate ironclad construction effort. These links were unofficial and were generally between one Union officer and an individual. The Union nor the Confederacy needed to rely on such clandestine methods since Northern and Southern newspapers provided ample information, usually in a boastful manner. Each antagonist simply needed to obtain a copy of The New York Times or Mobile Register to gather all they needed to know about ironclad development. 

Union intelligence was able to receive valuable knowledge about the construction and impending attack of CSS Virginia. The information appeared to flow back and forth across Hampton Roads. On October 6, 1861, Major General John Ellis Wool, stationed at Fort Monroe as commander of the Union Department of Virginia, wrote to Lieutenant General Winfield Scott:   Read more

Lots of Mud, a Battleship, a Ferry, a T-shirt, High Tides, and a UFO.

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USS Wisconsin (BB-63)

What do a Battleship, 1950, mud, high tides, a Hudson River Ferry, a T-shirt, and a UFO all have in common?

To find out how they interconnect, let’s start with the Battleship USS MISSOURI (BB-63). In 1950, the ship was already famous for her participation in WWII, and because the surrender that ended the war was signed on her deck. MISSOURI was nicknamed the “Mighty Mo” by her crew, but she was also known as the “Big Mo” to the public and in news reports. She would soon live up to them both names when she managed to get into a mighty big mess.

It all began on January 17, 1950. MISSOURI left Norfolk Naval Base and headed towards the Atlantic Ocean to begin a routine training cruise to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Her Captain, William D. Brown, was new to the battleship, having just joined the crew in December. While he was an experienced naval officer, his previous commands had been submarines and destroyers and he had been on shore duty since the end of World War II. Although Captain Brown had taken MISSOURI on a few short trips off the coast of Virginia after he took command, he was essentially unfamiliar with the battleship and this would be his first time taking her out for a cruise.

The Navy had set up an acoustic range to capture the signature sounds made by ships and it was close to MISSOURI’s departure point. Captain Brown had been asked to take a previously unplanned trip through the range on his way out, and he was told that buoys had been set up to mark the area. This was important since the range was very close to shallow water.

Things started to go wrong pretty quickly. It turned out that some of the buoys had been removed and the navigational charts hadn’t been updated with that information. Not all the ship’s officers knew about the plan to take MISSOURI through the range, and some of them only heard about it just before the battleship headed in that direction. Another complication was that the range area was close to a fishing channel that was also marked with buoys.

Brown spotted what he thought was the marker for the right edge of the acoustic range and ordered the battleship to the left of the buoy. He ignored warnings by the navigator and the executive officer’s attempts to alert him, not realizing until much too late that he had made a mistake. Even though the tide was unusually high that day, MISSOURI was heading into the fishing channel and shallow water.

At 8:17 am, the “Mighty Mo” hit a sandbank in the Chesapeake Bay, about a mile and a half from Thimble Shoal Light and a mile off Old Point Comfort. The battleship, traveling at 12.5 knots, plowed 2,500 feet into the sandbar, bottoming out the ship and lifting her out of the water about seven feet above the waterline.
Now the ship was stuck just off the Army base at Fort Monroe, close to Thimble Shoals Lighthouse, the shipping channel, and within sight of the Naval Base.

Within a couple days, articles would start appearing in newspapers all across the country that “Mighty Mo” or “Big Mo” had grounded. These articles were quickly followed by reports of multiple failed attempts to free the battleship over the next two weeks. Bringing not only amusement to the onlookers and readers, but also quite a bit of humiliation to the Navy. Army personnel, finding the entire situation hilarious, discovered a new hobby. Partaking in the amenities of the Fort Monroe Officer’s Club while writing letters and composing telegrams containing suggestions on how to free the battleship. The public also got involved and sent suggestions too. The Navy was inundated with ideas, including one from a five-year-old boy in Indiana who told them they just needed to fix the bottom of the ship so she could float again.

After numerous failed attempts using a large number of tugboats, military vessels, small explosive charges, dredging, large cables, and other methods, MISSOURI was finally refloated on February 1, 1950, during another unusually high tide. Even after the ship was freed, the jokes continued. For most of 1950, anytime an accident involved a large amount of mud, the nickname “Mo” surfaced again. A situation was a “Big Mo,” like a plane that slid off an icy runway into the mud. A car that imitated the “Big Mo” or two boats that went aground in mud off New Jersey on the same day and the efforts to free them was named “Operation Big Mo”.

So now on to April 1950, the ferryboat and a point on the Hudson River in New York. There, two cities are located across from each other on the river. Newburgh, located in Orange County, and just one and a half miles away,  Beacon in Dutchess County. Both cities are about 55 miles from the New York metropolitan area. The Newburgh-Beacon Ferry system provided transport between the two cities with three commuter ferries named ORANGE, DUTCHESS, and BEACON. Usually, two of the three boats were in service at the same time, each moored at the opposite side of the river and they passed each other in the middle during their runs. The first run of the day began around 7am and it took about 15 minutes to reach the other side of the river.   Read more

Ben Butler and the Contrabands

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Fort Monroe, Old Point Comfort, Virginia, ca. 1862. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

When Union general Benjamin Franklin Butler arrived at Fort Monroe, Virginia, he immediately sought to show the Virginians that his troops could go anywhere they wished on the Peninsula. On May 23, 1861, Butler sent Colonel J. Wolcock Phelps into Hampton. The Union troops marched into the town and then returned to the fort. In the ensuing confusion, three men enslaved by Colonel Charles King Mallory escaped. Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Shepard Mallory seeking their freedom, made their way onto Fort Monroe. Butler refused to return the runaways and called them ‘Contraband of War.’ Their decision helped transform the Civil War into a conflict between the states and a struggle for freedom.


Winfield Scott recognized Fort Monroe as key to his policy of bringing his native state of Virginia back into the Union. He believed that the enforcements he had already sent and the additional troops he intended to transfer to the Peninsula necessitated a change in command. Scott needed a high-ranking officer to command the growing number of troops on Old Point Comfort.  He wanted an aggressive leader who would actively contest Confederate positions threatening the Hampton Roads anchorage and secure the Peninsula as an avenue of approach against Richmond. Scott’s selection was somewhat of a surprise. Instead of detailing a veteran officer to this critical post, he chose the sharpster lawyer and slick politician turned militia officer, Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler. 


Butler was born in Deerfield, New Hampshire, on November 5, 1818. His father had fought during the War of 1812, and his grandfathers fought during the French and Indian, and Revolutionary wars. Ben Butler dreamed of a military career; but, he was frail and had a cast in one eye. He was not well suited for West Point. Instead, he attended Colby College and passed the bar in 1840. Almost from the start, Butler acquired the reputation of being a bold, astute, and none too scrupulous lawyer. He gained great success and wealth;  he purchased Middlesex Mill in Ludlow, Massachusetts, and was named to several bank boards.


Yearning for political power, Butler joined the Democratic party. He was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1852 and the state senate in 1858, making him a true power in his party. During the 1860 election crisis, he believed the Southern states had the constitutional right to practice slavery. He gave his support to the nominations of Jefferson Davis and John Cabel Breckenridge. 

Abraham Lincoln’s election put in motion the secessionist movement. Butler knew that secession meant war. Ben Butler knew that the North would fight for the preservation of the Union, which he saw as his opportunity for even greater power.

  1. B. F. Butler had always dreamed of being a soldier and had joined the Massachusetts militia as a private in 1838. Due to his political connections, he was named a brigadier general of the Massachusetts militia in 1857.  When Lincoln called for volunteers after the capture of Fort Sumter, Butler made some backroom deals hoping he would be named commander of the first Massachusetts troops taking the train south to protect Washington, DC. 

Butler would thwart the Maryland secessionist movement following the April 19 Baltimore Riot. Eventually, he occupied Annapolis, Maryland’s capital, and Baltimore. His determined actions helped maintain that slave state under Union control. This gave Butler immediate notoriety.   President Lincoln quickly named him major general. The next day, Butler received orders to report to Fort Monroe, Virginia, to assume command of the post. 


The bold Butler went to Washington to pick up his commission in person. He met with President Lincoln, stating he was unsure he should accept this promotion. Butler believed that his new assignment was a reproof for his actions in Maryland. He refused such a demotion and threatened to return home and resume his law practice. Lincoln and other cabinet members assured Butler that his new duties included the command of territory in a 60-mile radius around Fort Monroe. 

The cocked-eyed and corpulent politician, recognizing that this new assignment was another opportunity to further his political ambitions, accepted the command. The next day, Butler met with general-in-chief Winfield Scott, who confirmed Butler’s new appointment as commander of the Union Department of Virginia and North Carolina. “Boldness in execution is nearly always necessary,” the old general advised the newly minted major general. Butler intended to immediately act upon this advice once he arrived at Fort Monroe. 


During the war’s first month, Butler had created a  sensation. Torch-lit parades were held in his honor throughout the North, and despite his disagreement about the occupation of Baltimore with General Scott, President Lincoln needed Butler. The Republican administration desperately required his Democratic party affiliations to broaden public support for the war. 

Yet, Butler did not look like a general. A British journalist described Butler as a “stout, middle-aged man, strongly-built, with course limbs, his features indicative of a great shrewdness and craft, his forehead high, the elevation being of some degree due perhaps to the want of hair, with a strong with obliquity of vision, which may perhaps have been caused by injury as the eyelid hangs with pendulous droop over the organ.” 

Another observer described Butler after his triumphal entrance into Baltimore: “I found him clothed in a gorgeous military uniform adorned with rich gold embroidery. His rotund form, his squinting eye, and the peculiar puffs of his cheeks made him look a little grotesque. …Officers entered from time to time to make reports or to ask for orders. Nothing could have been more striking than the air of authority with which the General received them, and the tone of court premptorious peculiar to the military commander on the stage, with which he expressed his satisfaction or discontent, and with which he gave his instructions. And, after every such scene, he looked around with a sort of triumphant gaze, as if to assure himself that the bystanders were duly impressed.”


Butler arrived on the Old Bay Line steamer, Adelaide, on May 22, 1861. The next day, he decided to break the informal truce between the Federal and Confederate forces on the Peninsula. Butler ordered Colonel John Wolcott Phelps, 1836 West Point graduate, a veteran of the Seminole and Mexican wars, and an ardent abolitionist, to take his 1st Vermont Volunteer Regiment into the town of Hampton. His orders entailed that he was to close the polls in order to disrupt the vote on the ordinance of secession that was to occur that day.


Hampton was a small town of about 1,000 residents; however, the Confederates had not attempted to develop defenses because of the community’s proximity to Fort Monroe. Hampton was barely defended by a Confederate camp located just outside the town, commanded by Major John Baytop Cary. Cary was a graduate of the College of William & Mary and superintendent of the Hampton Military Academy.

This “Camp of Instruction” contained only 130 poorly armed men and was unable to block any Union advance. Cary already knew that the Federals would eventually march into Hampton. He had made plans to burn the Hampton River Bridge to thwart any such movement.


When Phelps’s Vermonters approached Hampton that afternoon, Cary went into action. Unfortunately, he could not locate either the firing party or the combustibles. Cary somehow started a small fire, yet it was slow to set the span into flames. Phelps saw the wisps of smoke rise from the bridge and ordered his men to the double-quick to capture the bridge. Cary learned that the Federals had no hostile intent, “but simply … to reconnoiter.” With these assurances that neither the town nor its population would be molested, some Hamptonians and Vermonters joined Cary to extinguish the flames. Cary then moved his men away from Hampton. Phelps marched into town, closed the polls, and returned to Camp Hamilton outside of Fort Monroe. Once the Federals left, Hampton residents immediately reopened the polls and overwhelmingly voted for secession — 360 to six. 


Phelps’s “reconnoitering expedition” achieved little, it appeared, beyond stopping the destruction of the Hampton River Bridge and reinforcing that Federal troops could march whenever and wherever they wished throughout the lower Peninsula. Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Stoddard Ewell, an 1832 West Point graduate, former president of the College of William & Mary, and commander of the Confederate troops on the Peninsula, had rushed toward Fort Monroe to ascertain Butler’s intentions. Ewell was captured en route by Federal pickets. 

Major Cary traveled to the fort to secure Ewell’s release and to discover from Butler “how far he intended to take possession of Virginia soil, in order that I might act in such a manner as to avoid collision between our scouts.” Butler advised that the Federals merely needed more land for their encampments and inferred that they would not act aggressively unless assaulted by Confederate troops. Cary then secured Ewell’s release and was immediately ordered by Ewell to destroy the Hampton River Bridge. Nevertheless, the May 23, 1861 expedition had far-reaching political implications that would forever disrupt the antebellum Peninsula.


While some Hampton residents may have been in an uproar over the Union advance, most African Americans were overjoyed. They welcomed the Bluecoats with “Glad to see you.” This first encounter of bondsmen and Union soldiers prompted three men of African descent, Sheppard Mallory, Fran Baker, and James Townsend (enslaved by Hampton resident and commander of the 115th Virginia Militia Regiment, Colonel Charles King Mallory), to take “advantage of the terror prevailing among white inhabitants” and escape into Union lines.


Before Butler could decide what to do with these runaways, on May 24, 1861, Major Cary returned to Fort Monroe to retrieve those three men enslaved by Col. Mallory. Cary demanded the return of Mallory’s property, citing the Fugitive Slave Law as justification.

Realizing that these enslaved men were being used to build nearby Confederate fortifications on Sewell’s Point, Butler refused Cary’s request. He informed Cary that since Virginia now considered itself an independent nation, his “constitutional obligations’’ were null and void. Butler further noted that because Virginia was at war with the United States, he intended to take possession of whatever property he needed.

Since enslaved people were considered “chattel property,” Butler called Mallory’s bondsmen “contraband of war” and assigned them to support Union operations in Hampton Roads. This was the Civil War’s first step from being a war between the states into a war about freedom.


The “contraband of war” decision brought slavery to the forefront as a wartime issue. Even though President Abraham Lincoln initially thought to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act so as not to disrupt the Border States, the war now grew far beyond an effort just to preserve the Union. Ben Butler immediately recognized the political and economic implications.

Instead of the enslaved supporting the Southern economy and war effort, Butler turned this Southern asset into a Union benefit. He put the contrabands to work, building fortifications, and other related duties. Butler believed that the work of contrabands was a good return for the food and shelter the Union provided for them.


The Union general’s radical opinion was often called “Butler’s Fugitive Slave Law.” President Lincoln did not openly embrace it; however, the Radical Republicans in Congress did. On  August 16, 1861, Congress formally approved Butler’s decision when the Confiscation Act was passed. The act “confiscated any slave who had been used for military service against the United States” and prompted the establishment of contraband communities such as the Port Royal Sound Experiment in November 1861 and the Roanoke Island Experiment in Spring 1862.


On May 27, Butler informed General Winfield Scott that since a dozen enslaved persons had escaped from Sewell’s Point to become contrabands, the value of the formally enslaved persons in Union hands exceeded $60,000. “The negroes came pouring in day by day,” Butler wrote. “I found work for them to do, classified them and made a list of them so their identity might be fully assured and appointed a commissioner of negro affairs.” 

The influx of Union troops and contrabands overwhelmed Fort Monroe as it was not designed to hold so many men. Accordingly, Camp Hamilton, on the Clark and Segar farms, was established for the overflow of Union units like the 1st Vermont and 5th New York-Duryea’s Zouaves. Next to this camp, contrabands established their first community and built a church. It was initially called “Slabtown.” When Union troops occupied Newport News Point to create Camp Butler, the armed camp quickly became another magnet for escaping enslaved people. More contrabands found their way to Newport News Point. This prompted Butler to build “two commodious buildings” to house these contrabands.

Once the contrabands began establishing their communities, they went to work for the US Army for $2 a month. Many became officer’s servants or guides for Union movements throughout the Peninsula. Others were more inventive, oystering, fishing, and growing crops to sell food to the soldiers at informal markets.   


As soon as news of the Contraband of War Decision reached the North, the American Missionary Association (AMA) ministers and teachers recognized the excellent opportunity for educating the formerly enslaved people, creating several contraband schools in Hampton.

The AMA was a New York-based philanthropic society. Reverend Oliver was one of the first missionaries to arrive at Fort Monroe just days after Butler’s decision. He later remembered passing by the “fortress chapel and adjacent yard, where most of the contraband tents were set…One young man sat on the end of a rude seat ‘with a little book in his hand.’ It had been much fingered, and he was stooping down towards the dim blaze of the fire to make out the words….Where he had learned to read I know not, but where some of his companions will learn to read I do know.”

Reverend Lewis C. Lockwood of the AMA noted with joy that the contrabands had “a great thirst for knowledge…parents, and children are delighted with the idea of learning to read.”


Mary Smith Kelsey Peake was a free mulatto born in Norfolk in 1823. She attended school in Alexandria and returned to Tidewater Virginia, eventually moving to Hampton in the 1850s. 

Peake was the only free Black teacher of enslaved people of African descent and free Blacks in antebellum Hampton. She violated a slave code established after Nat Turner’s Rebellion which forbade the teaching of slaves to read and write.  

She worked as a dressmaker during the day, using her home next to the Hampton Military Academy to teach African Americans at night. When the AMA arrived on the Peninsula, Peake was already teaching students under what is now known as the Emancipation Oak on today’s Hampton University campus. The AMA provided her with a building known as Brown’s Cottage, where she taught 50 children during the day and 20 adults at night. Sadly, Mary Peake died of consumption in 1862.

Other schools were created nearby. Peter Herbert, the caretaker of former president John Tyler’s summer home “Villa Margaret,” operated a school for contrabands in the building’s basement. Other schools, supported by the AMA, were one-room schoolhouses. One teacher would teach all subjects with anywhere from 50 to 100 pupils.


In 1863, Butler allocated Army funds to build the Butler School, operated by the AMA. A large frame building in the shape of a Greek cross, Butler School could handle up to 600 students. 


Many contrabands wanted to serve in this conflict to expand the nation’s concepts of freedom. While the US Army refused Black enlistment in 1861, the US Navy was color blind. It had maintained a color-blind enlistment policy since the Revolutionary War. The North Atlantic Blockading Squadron’s primary base was Hampton Roads, and the squadron’s ships were constantly seeking crew members. Contrabands took advantage of these opportunities.

Sixteen formally enslaved African Americans made up the entire crew of USS Minnesota’s aft pivot gun crew. This steam screw frigate’s commander, Captain Gershon Jacques Henry Van Brunt, praised his gun crew: “The Negroes fought energetically bravely–none more so. They evidently felt that they were working on the deliverance of their own race.”

Several contrabands found their way onto USS Monitor. One was First-Class Boy, Ship’s No. 53, Siah Carter (Hulett). He escaped from Shirley Plantation. His enslaver, Colonel Hill Carter, warned his enslaved people that if they went on board any of the “Yankee ships” then cruising in the James River, “the Yankees would carry them out to sea & throw them overboard.” When  Monitor was anchored off Shirley Plantation in the James River, Siah made his decision.

He took a small skiff on the evening of May 18, 1862, and rowed his way to the ironclad. There he found not only his freedom; but also a way to help the Union achieve victory.


Most of Hampton’s white citizenry had fled the town when the Union occupied Newport News Point. Brigadier General John Bankhead Magruder was the Confederate Army commander of the Peninsula and wished to contest Camp Butler on Newport News Point on August 6, 1861. While feigning an attack on the Federal position with 5,000 soldiers, a copy of the New York Tribune was found at an abandoned Union picket and given to Magruder. 

The newspaper contained an article stating that Butler intended to use Hampton to house contraband and Union soldiers. Determined not to allow Hampton to be used by the Federals for winter quarters or to become “the harbor of runaway slaves and traitors,” Magruder realized the town’s proximity to Fort Monroe would not allow the Confederates to hold the town, so the Confederate general, with the agreement of local soldiers, decided to burn Hampton. 

On the evening of August 7, 1861, Confederate soldiers began to set the town on fire. Sergeant Robert S. Hudgins II of the Old Dominion Dragoons recounted the scene: “As the smoke ascended toward the heavens I was reminded of the ancient sacrifices on the altar to many deities, and I thought of how my little home town was being made a sacrifice to the grim god of war.” 


Hampton was now just a bleak forest of burned chimneys and heaps of smoldering ruins. Nevertheless, upon these ashes, formerly enslaved persons created the largest contraband community on the Peninsula, the Grand Contraband Camp. Also known as “Slabtown,” people built makeshift homes upon the foundations of ruined buildings. Its existence was the very circumstance that Magruder wished to stop when he ordered the town’s destruction. With assistance from US Army engineers and the AMA, contrabands rebuilt the Elizabeth City Courthouse on King Street in Hampton, establishing it as the largest school in the Grand Contraband Camp.


The Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order issued on September 22, 1862, by President Abraham Lincoln. The Proclamation became law on January 1, 1863. The first recorded public reading of this “liberation” document in the South occurred just outside Slabtown Contraband Camp under the bows of a live oak now known as Emancipation Oak. Most of the attendees were contrabands and AMA teachers, who believed that this document gave them freedom. Yet, it did not. 

The Emancipation Proclamation excluded counties in Virginia, South Carolina, Louisiana, and North Carolina, and in the new state of West Virginia. No slaves were freed in the Border States, where slavery was still legal. It only referred to those enslaved persons in land controlled by the Confederate government. 

Nevertheless, those residents of Slabtown, the Grand Contraband Camp, and other contraband camps in Norfolk, Portsmouth, and York County, knew that the Emancipation Proclamation was also about them. They were jubilant over the fact that they had learned to read and found employment or other economic activity when they became contrabands. Now, it was confirmed to every contraband and enslaved person that the war’s final course would end slavery. 


Many Union generals recognized that every contraband that came into Federal lines took manpower away from the Confederate economy and gave this resource to the United States’ war effort. The once enslaved abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, pestered Lincoln to recruit  African Americans. Douglass wrote, “Let the Black man get upon his person, US. Let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulders and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth, or under the earth, that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.”  

The Militia Act of 1862 enabled the recruitment of African Americans for service in the US Army as members of the United States Colored Troops. White officers commanded these USCT soldiers, and the Black servicemen could only rise to the rank of Sergeant Major. 

These regiments were created to serve in combat and did so with great valor. The USCT fought during such critical engagements as the battles of Honey Hill, Fort Wagner, the Crater, and New Market Heights. More than 180,000 African Americans served in USCT units, and 14 received the Medal of Honor. Many had connections to the contraband camps in Tidewater Virginia. 

Corporal Miles James escaped from Princess Anne County. He made his way to Camp Craney Island, established for the overflow of contrabands from Norfolk, Princess Anne County, and Nansemond County. The opportunity of enlistment in the USCT prompted Cpl. James to join the 36th USCT. He fought during the September 29, 1864 Battle of New Market Heights.  While advancing against the Rebel works, he was shot and ‘“had his arm mutilated making immediate amputation necessary. He loaded and discharged his piece with one hand and urged his men forward.” 

Other contrabands served at this battle. Edward Ratcliff became a contraband when the Union occupied Yorktown; he enlisted in the 38th USCT. He received a Medal of Honor as he  “gallantly led his company after the commanding officer had been killed.’” 

Twelve USCT soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor due to their service at New Market Heights. Two of these men,  Alfred B. Hilton and Robert Veale, are buried in the Hampton Veterans’ Cemetery.


Ben Butler did not come to Hampton Roads to free slaves; nevertheless, his astute legal mind set a precedent. His Contraband of War decision changed the very purpose of the war, transforming it from a war between the states into a conflict defending the United States’ concept of freedom. It was the beginning of the nation’s struggle to secure Civil Rights and equality for all Americans. 


Yorktown’s Civil War Siege: Drums Along the Warwick, John V. Quarstein and J. Michael Moore. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2012.  

The Monitor Boys: The Crew of the Union’s First Ironclad, John V. Quarstein. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2011.  

Fort Monroe: The Key to the South,  John V. Quarstein and Dennis Mroczkowski. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 1999. 

Civil War on the Virginia Peninsula, John V. Quarstein. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 1997.   



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

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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.

The First Aircraft Carrier


Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler, commander of the Union Department of Virginia, headquartered at Fort Monroe, was anxious about his precise knowledge, or lack thereof, of the actual whereabouts of the Confederate positions surrounding the Union enclave on the Peninsula. The Union general arranged for the famous balloonist, John LaMountain, to come to the Peninsula to serve as the Union’s aerial observer.

LaMountain became an aeronaut in 1859 when he worked with the noted balloonist John Wise. They attempted to cross the Atlantic Ocean in the balloon, Atlantic, leaving from St. Louis, Missouri, on July 1, 1859, but they crash landed in Henderson, New York. Their partnership was later dissolved. LaMountain, who kept the balloon, attempted another long distance flight; but, once again, failed. When the Civil War erupted, LaMountain endeavored to become the chief aeronaut for the Union army. Without any political support, he did not secure that appointment.

LaMountain, the aeronaut, arrived at Fort Monroe on July 25, 1861. Due to high winds, LaMountain was unable to make a successful flight until July 31, when he reached the height of 1,400 feet. From there, he was able to observe a radius of more than 30 miles. His next ascension on August 1, 1861, enabled him to see the Confederate camp at Young’s Mill and to note that this position held between 4,000 and 5,000 men. He also reported that the Confederates had an advanced position on Waters Creek on the Warwick Road as well as fortifications on Sewells Point, Craney Island, and Pig Point.

On August 3, 1861, LaMountain lifted his balloon from the deck of the USS Fanny using a windlass and mooring ropes. The balloon reached the height of 2,000 feet and enabled thorough inspection of the Confederate positions defending Norfolk. A second flight was made on August 10 from the deck of the tug Adriatic. La Mountain had by now used all of his hydrogen gas-making materials and needed to secure these supplies from elsewhere. Before he departed Fort Monroe, La Mountain proposed to General Butler that he could return with a balloon capable of destroying Norfolk. LaMountain further advised Butler that “ballooning can be made a very useful Implement in warfare.” [1]

Out of the Sky Comes Professor Lowe

When LaMountain returned to Fort Monroe, Butler had already been replaced by Major General John Ellis Wool who determined he did not need LaMountain’s services. The US Army had named Professor Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe as its chief aeronaut.

Lowe, a native of New Hampshire with only a limited education, became an expert in applied science. He readily took to aeronautics and built his first balloon in 1858. He and his balloons went on tours and he  was celebrated throughout the nation. Lowe invented a coal-gas generator to produce hydrogen.

While he twice attempted a cross-Atlantic voyage, his fame increased when he made a nine-hour, 900-mile flight from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Unionville, South Carolina, on April 19-20, 1861, just after the capture of Ft. Sumter. As soon as he landed, he was arrested as a spy. After his release, Lowe rushed to Washington, D.C., to secure his appointment as chief aeronaut of the US Balloon Corps in early July 1861. On June 18, he sent the first telegraph message from a balloon. Shortly after the First Battle of Manassas, Lowe observed Confederate positions south of the Potomac. He became the first aerial observer to fire direction for artillery. [2]

1862 Peninsula Campaign: The Height of Military Aerial Observation

On April 4, 1862, Major General George Brinton McClellan’s 120,000-man Army of the Potomac began its march up the Virginia Peninsula toward Richmond. The next day, the Union army was stopped by Major General John Bankhead Magruder’s Confederate Warwick-Yorktown defensive line and his 13,000-strong army.

Magruder, although outnumbered almost four to one, bluffed McClellan into believing that the Confederates had more than 100,000 soldiers defending the Peninsula. “It was a wonderful thing,” recorded diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut, “how he played his ten thousand before McClellan like fireflies and utterly deluded him.”[3]


April 6, 1862 was a day of reconnaissance. Thaddeus Lowe’s balloon, Intrepid, made its first appearance over the Confederate lines. Lowe operated his heavily varnished harvest moon orange balloons using a mobile hydrogen gas generator. Lowe had brought two balloons,  Intrepid and Constitution, to the Peninsula on his balloon barge, George Washington Parke Custis. The balloons were typically operated using three to four tether ropes and two men, an operator and observer, who would go aloft in a wicker basket festively decorated with star bunting.


The Intrepid was based at Yorktown. Flights became a familiar sight, with Brigadier General Fitz-John Porter taking several trips above the siege lines.

On the morning of April 10, Porter went up in the balloon alone. He had wished to achieve a higher elevation, so only one tether rope was used.



Unfortunately, just as the operator, James Allen, prepared to get into the basket, the rope broke with a loud snap, like the sound of a gunshot, and up went Intrepid, out of control. Porter, who had observed how to operate the balloon, remained calm. As the balloon floated over Confederate lines, he took notes, and when it drifted back over Union lines, he was able to land it safely.

McClellan wrote his wife about the incident: “I am just recovering from a terrible scare. Early this morning I was awakened by dispatch…stating that Fitz had made an ascension in the balloon. That the balloon had broken away & had come to the ground some three miles SW which would have been within the enemy lines. You can imagine how I felt! I was at once off various pickets to find out what they knew & try to do something to save him–but the order had no sooner gone–then in walks Mr. Fitz just as cool as casual–he had luckily come down near my camp after actually passing over that of the enemy!! You may rest assured of one thing; you won’t catch me in that confounded balloon nor will I allow any other generals to go up in it.”[4]

Custer on the Ride of His Life

Porter and Brigadier General John Gross Barnard, chief engineer of the Army of the Potomac,  continued to make use of balloon observations to aid their locating Union siege-guns. A second balloon camp for the Constitution was established at Warwick CH on April 10. Lieutenant George Armstrong Custer enjoyed the dubious honor of making several ascents in this balloon to observe the Confederate defenses between Lee’s Mill and Dam No. 1.

At first, Custer “ridiculed the system of balloon reconnaissance” when he was ordered to go up in the Constitution with Lowe’s assistant, John Allen. As  a cavalryman, Custer thought, “I had a choice as to the character of the mount, but the proposed ride was far more elevated than I had  ever desired or contemplated.” When asked by Allen if he wished to go up in the balloon alone, Custer replied that his desire, “if frankly expressed would not have been to go up at all.”


Custer was nervous about the basket construction and as the balloon rose into the sky, the young lieutenant noted, “I was urged to stand up also. My confidence in balloons at that time was not sufficient however to justify such a course so I remained in the bottom of the basket with a firm hold on either side.” Once the Constitution had reached the proper attitude altitude, Custer was able to overcome his fears and stood up to make observations. He recounted, “To the right it could be seen the York River, following which the eye could rest on the Chesapeake Bay. On the left at about the same distance flowed the James River…Between these two rivers extended the most beautiful landscape, and no less interesting than beautiful.”

Custer recorded the Confederate positions below him at the “point over which the balloon was held was probably one mile from the nearest point of the enemy’s line. In an open country balloons would be invaluable in discovering the location of enemy camps and works. …The enemy camps like our own were generally pitched in the woods…the earthworks along the Warwick River were also concealed by growing timber. Here and there the dim outline of an earthwork could be seen more than half concealed by the trees which have been purposely left standing on their front. Guns can be seen mounted and peering sullenly through the embrasures, while men in considerable numbers were standing in and around the entrenchments, often collected in groups, intently observing the balloon, curious, no doubt, to know the character or value of the information its occupants could derive from their elevated post of observation.”[5]

Though Custer took several flights, he could never accurately estimate Confederates defending to prove or disprove Allen Pinkerton’s reports that more than 100,000 soldiers were supporting the Warwick-Yorktown defenses. Pinkerton, who would gain a grand reputation for prewar detective work, set up the Secret Service, after the First Battle of Manassas. Using contrabands and deserters, he presented McClellan with a high valuation of Confederate troop strength that only supported the Union general’s belief, based on his scholarship about sieges, that Magruder would have only defended the Warwick-Yorktown line if he had at least 100,000 men per mile. Nevertheless, Lowe’s balloons were extremely helpful as the Federal officers developed their siegeworks and built batteries to eventually bombard Yorktown.

The Confederates Fly Back

The Confederates responded, not only with artillery (cannons, elevated by the Confederate artillerist Edward Porter Alexander, to serve as anti-aircraft guns), but also with their own balloon. It was a roughly made hot air device rather than Lowe’s gas type, and was commanded by one of Magruder’s aides, John Randolph Bryan of Gloucester County, Virginia. Actually, Bryan had volunteered for a special assignment and was surprised to learn from General Joseph Eggleston Johnston at his temporary Lee Hall headquarters that flying in a balloon was to be his reconnaissance duty. Bryan protested at first, noting “I have never even seen a balloon, and I knew absolutely nothing about the management of it.”

On a flight, as the balloon rose up above the treetops, Bryan remembered how the Federal shells and bullets “whistled and sang…a most unpleasant music” around him.[6] “Yesterday, the rebels sent up a balloon directly in front of us,” New York artillerist David Ritchie commented from Warwick CH, “but it was not in the air more than five minutes when it suddenly descended much faster than it rose, having received a sharpshooter’s bullet.”[7]

The Confederate balloon was never struck by enemy fire, however, and Bryan made several flights from Lee Hall, Wynnes Mill, and Yorktown to observe Federal siege preparations. Even though Bryan made his subsequent aerial observations “with somewhat less trepidation,” the young aeronaut’s last voyage nearly resulted in disaster when a severed tether rope sent him off on a free flight. Bryan remembered how “the balloon jerked upward by great force for about two miles or it seemed to me. I was breathless and gasping and trembling like a leaf from fear without knowing what had happened beyond the surmise that the rope which held me to the earth had broken.”

The Confederate aeronaut was blown over the camp of the 2nd Florida Regiment. The Confederates mistook Bryan’s balloon for a Federal spy device and began shooting at him. The balloon then drifted over the York River and “began to settle quite rapidly,” Bryan recalled: “It was evident that I would be dumped in the middle of this broad expanse of water.” Bryan stripped off his clothes and boots preparing for a swim. He could hear the tether line on the water when another breeze blew the balloon back over the banks of the York River and he landed near an apple orchard. It was Bryan’s last flight.[8]

The End of Civil War Aerial Observation

Bryan’s balloon was then transferred onto the CSS Teaser. This former tug, commanded by Lieutenant Hunter Davidson, was armed with one 32-pounder rifle and one 12-pounder howitzer. It also had onboard electronic torpedo equipment. On July 4, 1862, the Teaser was attacked by the ironclad USS Monitor and the gunboat USS Maratanza. The Maratanza’s first shot was high; however, the next shot of canister forced the Southerners to abandon their ship. Accordingly, this marked the end of the Confederate air force.[9]

Time was also running out for Professor Lowe’s balloon corps. Lowe had supported McClellan’s army throughout the Peninsula Campaign and the Seven Days Battles. He had proved the value of aerial reconnaissance with the important information he gleaned from the sky. Nevertheless, Lowe fell out of favor with later commanders of the Army of the Potomac. He resigned his position as chief aeronaut on May 8, 1863.[10] Observation balloons would not return to the Virginia Peninsula until World War I.



1.Chester D. Bradley, “The Fanny: First Aircraft Carrier,” vol. 2. Ft. Monroe, VA: Casemate Chronicles, 1968.

  1. Patricia L. Faust, ed., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harpers Perennial, 1991, pp. 451-452.
  2. C. Vann Woodward, ed., Mary Chesnut’s Civil War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981, p. 401.
  3. Stephen Sears, ed., The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan, New York: Da Capo Press, 1992, p. 235.
  4. George Armstrong Custer, “War Memories.” The Galaxy—A Magazine of Entertaining Reading, 22, 1876.
  5. John Randolph Bryan, “Balloon Used for Scout Duty in CSA.” Southern Historical Society Papers, 33, April 1914, p. 33.
  6. Norman L. Ritchie, Four Years in the First New York Light Artillery: The Papers of David R. Ritchie. Hamilton, NY: Edmonston, 1997, p. 43.
  7. Bryan, pp. 34-35.
  8. Robert W. Daly, ed., Aboard the Monitor: 1862: The Letters of Acting Assistant Paymaster William Frederick Keeler, US Navy, to His Wife Anna. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1962, p. 184.
  9. Faust, pp. 451-452.



Bradley, Chester D. “The Fanny: First American Aircraft Carrier,” vol. 2. Ft. Monroe, VA: Casemate Chronicles,1968.

Bryan, John Randolph. “Balloon Used for Scout Duty in CSA.” Southern Historical Society Papers, 33. April 1914. Richmond, Virginia.

Custer, George Armstrong. “War Memories.” The Galaxy–A Magazine of Entertaining Reading,   22, November 1876.

Daly, Robert W., ed. Aboard the Monitor: 1862: The Letters of Acting Assistant Paymaster William Frederick Keeler, US Navy, to His Wife Anna. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1962.

Faust, Patricia L., ed. Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991.

Ritchie, Norman L., ed. Four Years in the First New York Light Artillery: The Papers of David R. Ritchie. Hamilton, NY: Edmonston, 1997.

Sears, Stephen, ed. The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan. New York: DaCapo Press, 1992.

Woodward, C. Vann, ed. Mary Chesnut’s Civil War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

First Assault on Fort Fisher: Ben Butler and the Powder Boat Scheme

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Fort Fisher, N.C., Interior view of first three traverses on land face, 1865. Timothy H. O’Sullivan, photographer. Courtesy Library of Congress.

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.

As 1864 neared its close, Fort Fisher became a major target. General U.S. Grant could spare the troops as the campaigning season in Virginia was over due to winter’s arrival. And since Mobile Bay had been captured, Wilmington was now the Confederacy’s outlet to the world. This doorway had to be closed so that the great Federal snake Anaconda could finish its work.

As General Ben Butler’s Army of the James was ‘bottled-up’ at Bermuda Hundred, Grant decided to send Major General Godfrey Weitzel’s division to join with Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter’s North Atlantic Blockading Squadron in efforts to capture Fort Fisher. When Butler learned of this decision, he insisted that he should personally command the expedition as he was the commander of the Union Department of Virginia and North Carolina. Despite his misgivings, Grant agreed to let Butler take charge.


Benjamin Franklin Butler was an unscrupulous lawyer and slick politician from Lowell, Massachusetts. Originally a Democrat, he changed his party affiliation to Republican when the Civil War erupted. In 1861, Butler was a militia general who tricked his way into command of the 6th and 8th Massachusetts regiments to open the way through Maryland to Washington, D.C. The 6th Massachusetts’ march toward Washington resulted in the April 19, 1861 Baltimore Riot.

Butler was able to occupy Maryland’s capital, Annapolis, and eventually Baltimore. His efforts stopped the secessionist movement in Maryland. Promoted to major general of volunteers, he was assigned as commander of the Union Department of Virginia, headquartered at Fort Monroe. There he proclaimed three escaped slaves as ‘Contraband of War,’ which helped to move the war towards ending slavery. Despite his astute political decisions, he was a terrible army commander. His defeats at Big Bethel and Bermuda Hundred are prime examples of his military ineptitude. Besides his poor leadership qualities, he also had many suspicious financial dealings while in command of New Orleans and the Union Department of Virginia and North Carolina.


When Butler received his assignment, he knew that Fort Fisher was the largest earthen fortification in the world. Rather than be encumbered by a lengthy siege, he formulated the Powder Boat Scheme. While Butler was serving at Bermuda Hundred, an ammunition barge was exploded by a Confederate secret agent on August 9, 1864, at City Point, Virginia. City Point was the primary supply base for the Army of Potomac during the siege of Petersburg. The blast killed and wounded 184 people, destroyed docks, buildings, and other barges, causing $4 million in damage.

Butler believed that a similar type of explosion could knock down the walls of Fort Fisher. Against naval ordnance experts’ advice, but, with President Lincoln’s approval, Butler proceeded with his scheme. Admiral Porter thought it was an “experiment worth trying.”

So, USS Louisiana was selected to carry the explosives. This gunboat was built at Harlan & Hollingsworth yard in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1860. The screw iron-hulled steamer, armed with five cannons, was purchased by the US Navy on July 10, 1861.

Louisiana’s first action was receiving the surrender of Chincoteague, Virginia, on October 14, 1861, as well as capturing numerous Confederate schooners. Then the steamer participated in several US North Atlantic Blockading Squadron expeditions in North Carolina waters, including the 1862 Roanoke Island Campaign and the capture of New Bern.

Butler selected Louisiana to deliver 215 tons of gunpowder to Fort Fisher. The vessel was re-confirmed while in Hampton Roads, and was towed south by USS Sassacus beginning December 13 to Beaufort, North Carolina. There the final tons of powder were loaded, and the powder boat was towed 75 miles south to the Cape Fear.


The fleet was assembled in Hampton Roads, Virginia, on December 10, 1864; however, a harsh winter storm delayed the fleet’s departure until December 14. Butler’s transports had already left Virginia and arrived off the Cape Fear River’s New Inlet on December 15. The North Atlantic Blockading Squadron did not arrive until three days later. Porter had assembled a fleet of 57 ships, mounting over 600 cannons. Upon the squadron’s arrival, the weather deteriorated, and Porter sent the transports back to Beaufort. Porter advised Butler to return to Cape Fear on December 23. Butler replied that his troops would arrive on December 24.

Instead of waiting for Butler’s arrival, Porter initiated the attack. That day, Porter’s ships fired almost 10,000 shells into Fort Fisher: but, with little effect. The naval bombardment only damaged four Confederate cannons and inflicted 23 casualties. Meanwhile, the Federal fleet suffered 45 injuries from exploding Parrott rifles. Fort Fisher’s artillery had direct hits on three Union ships. As the evening approached, Porter decided to send Louisiana to position before the fort. The bomb ship was towed by USS Wilderness and reached to within 250 yards of the beach. (Note: this distance is disputed. Some accounts state the powder boat was anywhere from 500 yards up to a mile off the shoreline.)

Union naval officer Alexander Rhind, former commander of the ironclad USS Keokuk and steam screw frigate USS Wabash, and some volunteers rowed to Louisiana and lit the fuses and started a small fire in the aft cabin. They then quickly rowed back to Wilderness. Porter, fearing the explosion would be so powerful that it would knock down houses in Wilmington, took his fleet 12 miles out to sea. While the fuses failed to detonate the charges at the appointed time, the wood fire eventually ignited the powder and the bomb ship blew up at about 1:40 a.m. on December 24.

A mighty flame reached up the night sky which quickly turned into a huge, dark sulfurous cloud which drifted out to sea. The powder was defective and Fort Fisher’s defenders hardly thought anything had occurred. Porter, unfazed by this failure, continued his bombardment of the fort, firing another 11,000 rounds into the earthwork. But the range was too far to make any major impact on the fort.


Butler and some of the transports arrived late afternoon on Christmas Eve. The rest of his command came the next morning. The landing of Brigadier General Adelbert Ames’s division was achieved without difficulty. Ames then prepared to assault the fort. Butler, however, was beginning to lose his nerve. The Union general thought that the Louisiana explosion had warned the Confederates about the impending attack, and that the naval bombardment had not destroyed Fort Fisher’s land face defenses. Furthermore, Butler had received intelligence indicating that Major General Robert Hoke’s 6,000-strong division had just arrived at Wilmington from Virginia and would soon be in position to attack the Union’s rear. Faced with worsening weather conditions, Butler decided to withdraw his troops on December 27 in heavy surf and return to Hampton Roads.



When Butler returned to Virginia, Grant confronted the failed general and fired him for not following orders. Butler’s military incompetence had finally overwhelmed his political connections. Nevertheless, Grant was determined to capture Fort Fisher. He named Major General Alfred H. Terry to take command of the expeditionary force and return to the Cape Fear. He made it clear that Terry was not to return until Fort Fisher was captured.

Excerpted from A History of Ironclads: The Power of Iron Over Wood, John V. Quarstein. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2006. Available in the Museum’s Web Shop: and Confederate Goliath: The Battle of Fort Fisher, Rod Gragg. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1991.