Archives For 19th Century

Robert Holland

Robert Holland’s Blue-Water Empire is a phenomenal history of British engagement in the Mediterranean world from 1800 to the present. Holland takes the reader around the entire circumference of the Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Malta to the Ionian Islands to Cyprus to Suez and leaves the reader struck by the influence the United Kingdom exerted in places many could not even locate on a map. Instead of focusing explicitly on social, political, military, diplomatic or economic history, Blue-Water Empire masterfully weaves them all together to present a comprehensive account of Great Britain’s strategy (or lack thereof) in colonizing and policing the Mediterranean over the course of three centuries.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is how Great Britain’s actions in the Mediterranean continue to echo today. For example, Holland carefully analyzes the trajectory of Cyprus under British rule and the air fields retained by the United Kingdom after her political withdrawal from the island. Those same air fields at Akrotiri and Dhekelia have been used as staging grounds for any action against Syria in 2013 or 2014. Also addressed in the book is the perennial question of how best to deal with the flood of refugees that accompanies unrest in North Africa or the Middle/Near East. Not only has the Arab Spring resulted in the destabilization of the region, but it also has driven refugees to seek asylum in places like Malta and Italy. Tragically, many of those refugees have died en route as their vessels are overcroweded and unseaworthy and subsequently sink.

Overall, Blue-Water Empire will not only entertain the casual reader, but will also inform the curious as to some of the origins of today’s headlines.

Confederate warship

CSS Shenandoah Captures Whaling Fleet in the Arctic Ocean

A central tenet of the nascent Confederate Navy’s strategy during the American Civil War was to make Yankee merchants howl from the loss of their vessels and cargos. In order to achieve this aim, the Confederates commandeered suitable vessels in Southern ports to convert to armed merchant raiders, issued letters of marque and reprisal and procured vessels abroad. Because the Confederacy was not recognized as a sovereign nation by Great Britain or France, the ships procured or built there had to be built ostensibly as merchant vessels and later outfitted with armaments after leaving British territorial waters. Among the ships acquired by Confederate agent James Bulloch was the steamer Sea King.

Launched in Glasgow in August 1863, the Sea King was a 1,160 ton steamer equipped with auxiliary sails. After being purchased by Bulloch, the Sea King put to sea in October and rendezvoused with another ship off Madeira. On October 19, 1863 after several days of transfering cargo and mounting her guns, the Sea King was commissioned as CSS Shenandoah after the beautiful and bountiful Virginia valley. The ship’s design was perfect for raiding merchant vessels as she could raise and lower her steam funnel at will in order to change her identity from steam vessel to sailing vessel.

From the Madeiras, the Shenandoah and her new captain, commander James Iredell Waddell sailed through the South Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and captured nine US vessels. Shenandoah called at Melbourne, Australia where she re-provisioned and added forty more men to her crew. After departing Melbourne, Shenandoah ravaged her way north through the Pacific Ocean capturing four more Yankee vessels en route to the lucrative North Pacific whaling fleet. Unbeknownst to the Shenandoah and her crew, the Confederacy had effectively collapsed with Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9. The news, though, would not reach the Shenandoah until after she had wreaked havoc among the American whaling fleet, capturing 24 ships in a period of 7 days from June 22 to June 28, 1865.

After learning of the Confederacy’s surrender on August 2 from newspapers aboard an English merchantman, Waddell successfully returned his ship to Liverpool where he struck the Confederate naval ensign and turned her over to the Royal Navy. An excellent account of the voyage, Last Flag Down, was published in 2007 by a descendant of one of the Shenandoah’s officers.

HMS Fury

August 25, 2013 — Leave a comment
HMS Fury

HMS Fury’s Sister Ship Trapped in Ice

The search for the fabled Northwest Passage captivated European explorers for much of the 1500s through the early 1900s. Alas, like Ponce de Leon’s mystical Fountain of Youth, the Northwest Passage proved elusive and commercially non-existent. Not until Roald Amundsen’s journey through the passage from 1903 to 1906 was someone able to complete the journey completely by sea.

Among the numerous expeditions sent to explore the far reaches of the Arctic Sea were two led by Royal Navy officer Sir William Edward Parry. For seaborne transportation Parry relied on two bomb ketches – the sister ships HMS Hecla and HMS Fury. Only a few months before the expedition’s return to England in October 1825, the Fury was severely damaged by ice floes which had trapped the ship. Despite numerous efforts to rescue the vessel, the Fury had to be abandoned on August 25, 1825.

Before she was abandoned, though, the vessel’s extensive stores were moved ashore and deposited into a supply cache. Four years later those supplies would save the life of Arctic explorer John Ross and his team before they were rescued. The site of the Fury’s loss is now called Fury Beach; however, it remains unclear if the Fury slipped beneath the waves when the ice floes parted or if she drifted off to sink into the clutches of the Arctic Sea in another location.

civil war steamboat

Sultana Ablaze
Photo: Library of Congress

In the waning weeks of the Civil War, the riverboat Sultana departed New Orleans with a load of livestock and passengers bound for St. Louis. Having developed a leak in one of its boilers, the ship stopped in at Vicksburg, Mississippi for some makeshift repairs to replace the leaking boiler plates. Following this stopover, the ship proceeded upriver against the strong spring currents of the Mississippi. Aboard the ship were hundreds of recently released Yankee POWs making their way home from Confederate prison camps. On the evening of April 27, 1865, as the ship’s crew piled on steam to overcome the Mississippi’s currents, a massive explosion ripped through the wooden bowels of the ship and set the entire vessel aflame.

Ablaze and adrift, the Sultana ran aground on the west bank of the Mississippi near present-day Marion, Arkansas. Despite the efforts of several rescue ships, hundreds perished in the frigid waters of the Mississippi from hypothermia or drowning. Dozens more were killed by the initial explosion and subsequent fire. Most of the survivors were taken ~9 miles downriver to Memphis where another ~300 died from their burns. The official death tolleventually reached 1,547, however, estimates have ranged as high as 1,900. Regardless of which figure is correct, the sinking is to this day the deadliest maritime disaster in US history. Despite its high body count, the Sultana’s sinking, both in 1865 and in a historical context, has often been overshadowed by President Lincoln’s assassination and the conclusion of the Civil War.


Copenhagen Harbor
CC Image Courtesy of Tuan Hoang Nguyen on Flickr

In early 1801, the Royal Navy dispatched a fleet to the Kattegat to break up the League of Armed Neutrality – an alliance of nations helping to supply the French Revolutionary government which was at war with Britain. After much debate between the fleet’s two senior commanders, Admiral Sir Hyde Parker and Lord Nelson, the decision was made to destroy the Danish fleet by launching a daring assault on its Copenhagen anchorage. Destruction of the Danish fleet would secure British access to Scandinavian timber and render much of the Baltic Sea a British lake.

After personally reconoittering Copenhagen’s harbor, Admiral Nelson sailed his force into the teeth of the Danish fleet’s well-prepared positions. Disaster struck quickly as three British ships of the line (Agamemnon, Bellona and Russell) ran aground on the Middle Ground sand bank. Lord Nelson ignored this setback, though, and his ships began pounding the Danish line with devastatingly accurate fire. Despite being ordered to retreat by Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, Lord Nelson continued the battle and ship by ship the Danish guns fell silent. Approximately four hours after the battle began, a ceasefire was agreed upon and twelve Danish ships were turned over to the Royal Navy in addition to three more lost to British gunfire. Only one of the prizes was kept afloat and the British victory signalled the beginning of the end for the League of Armed Neutrality.

First Battle of Copenhagen

First Battle of Copenhagen

Lord Nelson not only earned his Viscount title as a result of the battle, he also enhanced the Nelsonian myth by refusing to withdraw despite Admiral Sir Hyde Parker’s orders. Legend has it that Lord Nelson raised his telescope to his blind eye to read Parker’s signal and remarked “I really do not see the signal” and therefore would continue the battle. Regardless of the truth of the tale, Lord Nelson’s actions once again proved legendary.

war of 1812

In Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron, Dr. Ronald D. Utt has produced a magnificent 500 page tome that provides readers with a well-researched and highly readable account of the War of 1812 at sea. As Utt masterfully argues, the United States Navy truly came into its own during the War of 1812, a conflict that is undergoing a renaissance in the pop history circle as the bicentennial of the war began in 2012.

Although the US Navy fought several notable battles during the American Revolution, including John Paul Jones’ famous duel with HMS Serapis, these were primarily performed with foreign crews and former merchant vessels adapted for naval service. The War of 1812 was the first time that the fledgling US Navy faced a first world power in a declared war and its spectacular results allowed the Navy to create epic lore and traditions in only three years.

Utt skillfully guides the reader from the opening salvos of the war through the US Navy’s early single-ship victories over the vaunted Royal Navy to the two squadron level clashes on the Great Lakes, privateer derring-do against the British merchant marine, and the later and lesser known naval actions of the war. Readers will be unable to put down the book at certain points, especially when reading the chapters concerning privateering and some of the lesser known single-ship voyages against British merchant and warships. The heroic and honorable actions of officers and sailors from both sides will keep readers captivated with tales of a breed of gentlemen warriors whose time has long since passed.

Among the many strengths of Utt’s work is his organization of the book into chapters that take the reader from events at sea to land and then back to sea. In most cases, Utt keeps his narration of the land war to only a few pages in order to give readers an idea of how the sea war affected the land war and vice versa. At times the land war descriptions can grow a bit tedious as Utt jumps between the numerous Indian tribes, Americans, Brits, and Canadians who intermingled in the land conflict. For readers concerned more with the war at sea, the land warfare chapters are sometimes roadbumps in the greater storyline. This minor weakness, though, does not overshadow the overall excellence of Utt’s book.

Another strength is Utt’s strong documentation and endnotes – he has clearly worked to craft a book that is both historically accurate and accessible to the everyday reader. Overall, in Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron, Utt has created a fantastic piece that opens the naval battles of the War of 1812 to a wider audience.

clipper ship

Clipper Blue Jacket Aflame
Photo: Wrecksite

In 1869 the clipper ship Blue Jacket embarked 71 passengers and crew and departed Lyttelton, New Zealand bound for Liverpool. On March 9, off the coast of the Falkland Islands, the ship caught fire and was abandoned. A total of 39 survivors were picked up with 36 having spent a week adrift and 3 spending 3 weeks subject to the vagaries of the South Atlantic. While March 9th may have signaled the end of the Blue Jacket’s voyage, it marked the beginning of a voyage of a different sort for her figurehead. For nearly 20 months the Blue Jacket’s figurehead floated with the currents and on December 8, 1871 washed ashore on Rottnest Island near Perth, Australia – 6,000 miles from where the Blue Jacket was abandoned.

Remember the Maine!

February 15, 2013 — Leave a comment
USS Maine

Remember the Maine!

In many ways, today marks the 115th anniversary of the beginning of the American “Empire.” In early 1898, the battleship USS Maine was dispatched to Havana, Cuba to protect American interests as Cuba was wracked by a war for independence from Spain. On the evening of February 15, 1898, an explosion ripped through the forward section of the Maine. The ship quickly settled to the bottom of Havana’s harbor taking with her 261 of 355 man crew.

Six weeks after the catastrophe, a US Naval Court of Inquiry determined that the sinking could be attributed to a naval mine. Popular opinion was quickly inflamed by the popular press and “Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain” became a rallying cry for war with Spain. Two months later, in April 1898, war began as Spain declared war on the United States after the US issued an ultimatum to Spain demanding it grant Cuba independence. The war was an overwhelming American victory and had numerous domestic and international consequences. First, the war helped heal the wounds of the War Between the States as former Confederate General Joseph Wheeler (along with Robert E. Lee’s son Fitzhugh Lee, himself a former Confederate commander) proudly led US troops into battle. Second, the war helped propel Teddy Roosevelt to national prominence and ultimately the White House. Finally, the war in many ways marked the rise of the US as an international power as the US gained control of Cuba, Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico.

The true cause of the sinking of the Maine remains a mystery, but modern inquiry by none other than the US Navy’s own brilliant Admiral Hyman Rickover has led many to conclude that the sinking was the result of spontaneous combustion of the ship’s coal bunkers and not a Spanish mine. The Maine was later removed from Havana harbor and scuttled off the coast of Florida in 1912.

royal navy painting

Battle of Santo Domingo
Nicholas Pocock, National Maritime Museum

After the defeat of the French fleet at Trafalgar on October 20, 1805, the British Admiralty pulled back its close blockade of the primary French naval base at Brest. Sensing an opportunity to wage war on the British merchant fleet, Napoleon dispatched two naval squadrons to the West Indies. Ordered to prey on merchant shipping and avoid engaging naval forces of equal or greater strength, the two squadrons weighed anchor for the West Indies and escaped initial detection by the Royal Navy.

After discovering the escape of the French, the Royal Navy dispatched a force of six ships of the line under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir John Duckworth to destroy the French. Admiral Duckworth’s force detected a French squadron of five ships of the line and two frigates near Santo Domingo in the West Indies on February 1, 1806 and Admiral Duckworth quickly gathered additional ships to his command. Early on the morning of February 6, Admiral Duckworth made the decision to engage the French and his squadron set upon the French squadron in Santo Domingo’s harbor. By end of the afternoon, all five of the French ships of the line had been captured or destroyed. The Royal Navy lost no ships and suffered less than a hundred killed while the French lost approximately 1,500 men. Only the two frigates and some lesser ships of the French squadron were able to escape.

The victory at Santo Domingo made Admiral Duckworth a hero in Britain and signaled the end of any effective offensive capability by the French Navy. As a random historical side note, author Jane Austen’s brother Captain Francis Austen, served at the Battle of Santo Domingo as captain of the 80-gun ship of the line HMS Canopus. Austen weaved the battle into the background of a character in her book Persuasion. Canopus’ successor would later fight farther south during World War I at the Battle of the Falklands when another belligerent raiding squadron was annihilated by a Royal Navy squadron.

For All the Tea in China

January 17, 2013 — 1 Comment
clipper ship

Tea Clipper Hallowe’en Aground

The ghostly image above resulted from the wreck of the record breaking clipper ship Hallowe’en on January 17, 1887. The Hallowe’en was loaded with 1600 tons of tea from Shanghai, China and she ran aground in a storm off Soar Mill Cove in the United Kingdom. Tea clippers were designed to quickly bring the latest crop of tea leaves from China to western markets. The Hallowe’en briefly held the record for fastest voyage from Shanghai to London in 1874 when she made the voyage in a mere 91 days. The ship eventually sank and can now be visited by divers.