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

USS Cumberland – Sink Before Surrender

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U.S. Frigate Cumberland. Lithograph. Published by Currier & Ives,
ca. 1843-1848. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

USS Cumberland, flagship of the US Navy’s Home Squadron, was dispatched to Gosport Navy Yard, Portsmouth, Virginia, upon the sloop’s return from a brief cruise to Veracruz, Mexico. It was hoped that the warship’s presence would deter any effort to capture the yard during the secession crisis. Gosport was the largest and most advanced navy yard in the United States. Besides its granite dry dock and other ship repair/construction facilities, Gosport housed 14 warships, including the steam screw frigate USS Merrimack awaiting repair and others in ordinary like USS Raritan. The Cumberland, then commanded by Captain Garrett J. Pendergrast, was anchored just off Gosport so its firepower could be utilized to defend the yard or cover the release of ships.  

Three days after Virginia left the Union on April 17, the Union abandoned the yard. Cumberland’s crew helped to destroy the facility and various ships. By 4:20 a.m. on April 21, Cumberland, loaded with sailors and Marines, was towed out of the yard by USS Pawnee supported by the tug USS Yankee. Cumberland slowly passed the burning Merrimack, not realizing that what seemed to be a burning hulk would become the sloop’s death knell less than one year later.   Read more

RAPHAEL SEMMES AND CSS SUMTER

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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

The First Ironclad Emerges: Battle of the Head of Passes

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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

Gosport Navy Yard is Recaptured

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Ruins of Norfolk Navy Yard, Virginia. Alexander Gardner, photographer, ca. 1865. Courtesy Library of Congress.
Confederate Retreat from the Peninsula 

Time was running out for the Confederate navy in Hampton Roads. On the evening of May 3, 1862, General Joseph Eggleston Johnston ordered the evacuation of the Confederate Warwick-Yorktown Line. Johnston believed that the “fight for Yorktown must be one of artillery, in which we cannot win. The result is certain, time only doubtful.”

Johnston’s retreat up the Peninsula toward Richmond forced the Southerners to make plans to abandon the port city and navy yard. When he learned of Johnston’s withdrawal, Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Russell Mallory telegraphed Flag Officer Josiah Tattnall that Virginia alone would have to prevent the enemy from ascending the James River.   Read more