Archives For 19th Century

confederate fort

Fort Fisher
CC Photo Courtesy of NC Culture on Flickr

At the beginning of 1865, General Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan was slowly suffocating the Confederacy and only one major port, Wilmington, NC, remained open in defiance of the Yankee invaders. Wilmington’s location made it one of the South’s most successful ports for blockade runners. The city itself lay 30 miles up the Cape Fear River from the Atlantic Ocean and blockade runners had two islets from which to enter the Atlantic and evade the Union blockade fleet.

Early in the war, Confederate forces recognized the importance of securing the mouth of the Cape Fear. By 1865, what had begun life as a small artillery battery had become Fort Fisher, one of the largest coastal emplacements of the 19th century, and had been dubbed the Gibraltar of the South. Fort Fisher was shaped in the form of an L with a northern land face and a westward facing sea face.

In addition to its fearsome batteries of heavy guns, the fort’s commander, Colonel William Lamb, created a roving artillery unit equipped with advanced breech-loading Whitworth cannon. Colonel Lamb utilized the squadron to drive off Union warships that sought to attack blockade runners steaming through the surf zone or beached during an unsuccessful run.

On December 24, 1864 the Union Army and Navy attempted a combined operations attack on the fort, but were driven off thanks to the effective command of Colonel Lamb and the incompetence of the Union ground commander, Major General Benjamin “Spoons” Butler. Less than a month later, on January 12, 1865 a larger, better equipped Union force arrived off Fort Fisher determined to carry the fort regardless of the cost. On January 15, after a 60 hour bombardment, 8,000 Union troops surged forward and captured the fort after a fierce 6 hour battle. Fort Fisher’s capture sealed the fate of Wilmington and ensured that no more foreign war material would reach General Robert E. Lee’s beleaguered troops in Petersburg, Virginia.

Today the sea has claimed much of the fort and what little remains is a museum and historic site run by the state of North Carolina. Visitors to the museum should be sure to stop in at the world-class Fort Fisher Aquarium just down the road.


Maury River Flowing Through Goshen Pass
Photo: Brightman Thomas

Matthew Fontaine Maury is relatively unknown today, but his contributions to oceanography continue to impact modern mariners. Maury was born in Spotsylvania County, Virginia on January 14, 1806, but spent his formative years in Tennessee. Seeking to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, Lieutenant John Minor Maury, Maury attended the Naval Academy through an appointment by US Senator Sam Houston. Upon graduation, Maury was assigned to various ships throughout the Navy and was aboard the USS Vincennes when it became the first US naval vessel to circumnavigate the globe.

Maury quickly developed an interest in the scientific aspects of sailing and became even more engrossed in the subject when a leg injury rendered him unfit for duty at sea. Appointed to command the US Naval Observatory in 1842, Maury published several seminal navigational works including Wind and Current Chart of the North Atlantic, Sailing Directions and Physical Geography of the Seas and its Meteorology. Many of Maury’s achievements came through his collecting of data from whalers, merchant captains and naval warship logs.

Maury became internationally recognized for his work in the field that became known as oceanography, but unfortunately his research was interrupted by the coming of the American Civil War. Maury, considering himself a loyal Virginian, volunteered his services to the fledgling Confederate Navy. Appointed Chief of Sea Coast, River and Harbor Defences, Maury applied his brilliant mind to the protection of the Confederacy and developed a torpedo (forerunners to today’s naval mines) that wreaked devastation on invading Union ships. Maury also leveraged his international reputation and worked abroad on behalf of the Confederacy’s diplomatic efforts to procure weapons and foreign recognition.

Following the war, Maury retired to sleepy Lexington, VA where he chaired the Virginia Military Institute’s physics department. Around the same time, General Robert E. Lee arrived next door,and began his transformative presidency of struggling Washington College. Maury continued his contributions to scientific advancement with the publication of a book categorizing the mineral deposits of Virginia and how best to exploit them. Maury passed away in 1873 and was buried in Richmond. Today, Washington & Lee students (and VMI cadets when they can get off post) enjoy lazy Spring Term spring days tubing along the Maury River which was named in his honor.

CSS Florida

November 28, 2012 — 1 Comment
Confederate merchant raider

CSS Florida
19th Century Phototype Print by F. Gutekunst

During the American Civil War, an integral piece of Confederate naval strategy was the deployment of numerous unconventional merchant raiders to devastate Yankee shipping. Utilizing seaborne tactics closely akin to those employed by guerrillas such as Colonel John Singleton Mosby, Confederate raiders played a deadly game of hide and seek with Union warships and merchantmen. One of the more successful raiders was the CSS Florida, a twin-stacked ship built in the United Kingdom and commissioned into the Confederate Navy in August 1862.

Captained by Lieutenant John Newland Maffitt, the Florida preyed on Yankee shipping throughout the North and South Atlantic. Under Maffitt, the Florida and her crew captured or sank 22 ships until she sought safe harbor in Brest, France for a re-fit during the winter of 1863. In addition to the 22 ships Maffitt directly captured, he was also indirectly responsible for another 23 captures performed by CSS Tacony and CSS Clarence – both prizes Maffitt had equipped as raiders.

In February 1864, the ship sailed again, this under the command of First Lieutenant John M. Morris. Morris and his crew captured another 11 ships before anchoring in Bahia, Brazil. While in Bahia on October 7, 1864, Florida was boarded and towed out to sea by the USS Wachusetts. The captain of the Wachusetts, Commander Napoleon Collins, had acted in clear violation of Brazilian neutrality by capturing the ship in Brazilian territorial waters. Even though convicted by courts-martial, Collins was cleared by  Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and became a hero in the North. Less than 8 weeks after capture, on November 28, the Florida sank under mysterious circumstances after a collision with a troop transport in Hampton Roads, Virginia. Had the ship not mysteriously sunk, international law would have required for her to be handed back over to Brazil and eventually back to her Confederate crew.

coastal steamer

SS Robin
CC Image Courtesy of Paul Hudson on Flickr

Entering service in December 1890, the SS Robin is the world’s oldest coastal cargo steamer still in existence. Robin spent the first 10 years of her life shuttling between British, Irish and continental ports. In 1900, Robin was sold to Spanish owners, renamed the Maria and spent the next 72 years plying Spanish and French coastal waters. The ship survived the ravages of both World Wars as well as the Spanish Civil War and was destined for the breakers yard in the early 1970s when the Maritime Trust purchased the ship intending to restore her for use as a museum ship.

After extensive restoration from 1974-1975 the Robin was placed on display until 1991 when the ship was mothballed. The ship was purchased by the SS Robin Trust in 2002. Beginning in 2008 the Robin was subjected to a multi-million dollar exterior and interior restoration which is now nearing completion. The Robin now resides atop a custom built floating dock reminiscent of a heavy lift ship like the M/V Blue MarlinThe interior of the floating dock will house exhibits detailing Robin’s history as a coastal steamer. SS Robin’s website describes the ship as possessing True Grit for surviving as long as she has. On a slightly related note, Charles Portis, the author of the American novel True Gritresides in Little Rock, Arkansas – the location of last week’s featured museum ship. Even though the Robin won’t be open to visitors until next year, its website extensively documents the ship’s history and provides a 360 degree virtual tour of the area surrounding the vessel.

Edward Pellew

Stephen Taylor’s latest book, Commander, documents the life of Edward Pellew, a British naval officer who rose to fame during the Napoleonic Wars. Taylor builds on the work of two previous biographies to present the most complete and balanced description of a man considered to be the greatest frigate captain of the Royal Navy. Most Americans, and perhaps many British citizens, associate Pellew with the same-named fictional commander of HMS Indefatigable in C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels. Pellew, though, is considered the inspiration (along with Sir Thomas Cochrane) for Forester’s Hornblower character as well as Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey character.

Taylor meticulously documents Pellew’s entire life including his youth in Cornwall, his path to the sea, and his early service in the American Revolution on the Great Lakes. Relying on personal correspondence and the efforts of Pellew’s son at preserving his father’s legacy, Taylor reconstructs for the reader Pellew’s various single ship commands and joint operations, including his most famous command, HMS Indefatigable. Especially noteworthy is the behind the scene squabbles that occurred between Pellew and various members of the British nobility and naval establishment.

For instance, while serving as commander of the Indian naval station, Pellew engaged in rigorous conflict with the Admiralty in England as well as another commander on station. Taylor highlights how this particular conflict not only hurt Pellew’s career, but also prevented the taking of the French island of Mauritius (an idea Pellew was pursuing) until later in the war. As a result, French privateers and men of war continued to operate from Mauritius at great cost to British shipping. Taylor concludes with Pellew’s masterful victory over the Barbary Pirates at Algiers in August 1816 and his retirement in England.

Overall, Taylor presents the reader with a well-documented and readable account of Pellew’s life. While some readers may wish for more swashbuckling tales a la Horatio Hornblower, Taylor’s intent was to present a well-rounded account of Pellew’s entire life and not just the daring exploits for which he became famous. Commander is an excellent read and anyone wishing to better understand the Napoleonic Wars and a central figure from them would do well to purchase and read it.

ironclad sinking

Lt. Cushing Sinks the CSS Albemarle

Before there were the Navy’s UDT, SEAL or SWCC units, there was Lieutenant William B. Cushing. Only a few days before his 22nd birthday, Cushing led 15 men in a daring raid behind Confederate lines against the ironclad CSS Albemarle. The Albemarle had been built by the Confederate Navy in a cornfield astride the Roanoke River in eastern North Carolina. Shortly after her launch in April 1864, the Albemarle sortied down the Roanoke River in a combined operation with General Robert F. Hoke’s infantry brigade. Hoke’s brigade retook the town of Plymouth, North Carolina while Albemarle sank the USS Southfield and drove the remaining US Navy forces downriver.

The re-capture of Plymouth and the presence of Albemarle on the Roanoke River threatened Union dominance of the North Carolina coast. A successful sally by the ironclad could break the blockade then strangling the economic lifeblood of the dying Confederacy. Desperate to destroy the threat of the Albemarle, Union commanders entertained a unique proposal by young Lt. Cushing. Cushing proposed piloting a small picket boat up the Roanoke River and destroying the Albemarle with a spar torpedo. Spar torpedoes, the forerunners of modern self-propelled torpedoes, were a new innovation consisting of crude explosive devices mounted to a long wooden pole that were detonated either manually or on impact.

On the night of October 27, 1864, Cushing and his men silently steamed up the Roanoke River. Protecting the Albemarle was a barrier of chained logs and several sentries. Cushing maneuvered his boat to strike the Albemarle and opened the throttle to full speed. As the launch struck the log boom and rode up over it, Cushing detonated the spar torpedo and blew a massive hole in the Albemarle’s hull. Two of Cushing’s men perished in the attack, 11 were captured and Cushing and another escaped. The Albemarle settled on the river bottom and, unable to raise her, the Confederates quickly lost control of the Roanoke River and were forced to cede back to the Yankees. The Albemarle was raised by the Union and later sold for scrap in 1867.

Cushing continued his exploits with the capture of 3 blockade runners after the fall of Fort Fisher in January of 1865. The blockade runners, unaware Fort Fisher had fallen, were lured into Cushing’s trap when he continued to operate the fort’s signal lights as if it were still in Confederate hands.


Admiral Nelson’s Flagship HMS Victory
CC Image Courtesy of Nigel Swales on Flickr

Today marks the 207th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar – perhaps the most noted victory by the Royal Navy in its 400 year history. Fought during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s, the battle was the result of Napoleon Bonaparte’s efforts to invade Great Britain. Napoleon dispatched a fleet to rendezvous with a Spanish fleet in the Caribbean and then return to France to provide an armed escort for Napoleon’s invasion fleet. The combined French and Spanish fleet numbered 41 ships and was commanded by Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve. After the rendezvous in the Mediterranean, the fleet sailed to Cadiz, Spain where they were found by Admiral Horatio Nelson and his 33 ship fleet.

Napoleon had changed his plans for an invasion of Great Britain and decided instead to have Villeneuve sail to the Mediterranean to support his operations there. Eager to engage the enemy, Admiral Nelson kept only a few frigates on station close to Cadiz in order to lure Villeneuve into making a run for the Mediterranean. Sensing an opportunity to break out of Cadiz, Villeneuve ordered his ships to weigh anchor.

Upon receiving the signal that Villeneuve was setting sail, Nelson laid out a daring and audacious plan to his officers in the cabin of his flagship, HMS Victory. Instead of following the traditional tactics of the day and sailing abreast of the Franco-Spanish fleet, Nelson divided his fleet into two squadrons. Each squadron was to sail perpendicular to Villeneuve’s fleet and slice through their battle line. If successful, the plan would split Villeneuve’s fleet and allow Nelson’s fleet to riddle them with broadsides from both sides.

Before engaging the Franco-Spanish fleet, Nelson ordered the signal “England expects that every man will do his duty” to be raised from the Victory. Nelson’s plan worked brilliantly and before the day was over more than 21 ships of the Franco-Spanish fleet had been sunk or captured. Tragically, Nelson paid for his triumph with his life as a French marine mortally wounded him with a musket shot.

Today, Admiral Nelson is honored as one of, if not the, greatest admiral who ever served in the Royal Navy. His statute guards Trafalgar Square in London and the HMS Victory serves as the flagship of the First Sea Lord and as a museum ship alongside the Mary Rose.

America's Cup

America Replica
CC Image Courtesy of Greg Bishop on Flickr

The America’s Cup yacht race has a storied history including a connection to the American Civil War. The race traces its origins to 1851 when the newly built American yacht America bested Britain’s finest yachts in the Royal Yacht Squadron’s annual 100 Guinea Cup.  Bringing the trophy back to the New York Yacht Club, America became the namesake for the America’s Cup – a race that is older than even the modern-era Olympics. Today the race is held in various port cities around the world.

Following the 100 Guinea Cup, the America was sold between various parties and eventually found itself in the hands of the Confederate Navy. Instead of using the ship as a blockade runner or merchant raider, the Confederates scuttled the ship as a block ship to prevent the Union Navy’s capture of Jacksonville, Florida. Despite their efforts, the Union captured Jacksonville and raised and repaired the yacht. Intending to utilize the yacht’s immense speed, the Union armed the ship as a blockader and assigned her to patrol the approaches to Charleston harbor. The yacht was successful on October 12, 1862 when it captured the blockade runner David Crockett.

In March 1863, America caught the CSS Georgiana attempting to run the blockade and helped direct other vessels into a chase that ended with the grounding and destruction of the Georgiana. Historians continue to dispute whether the Georgiana was intended to be fitted out as a merchant raider or was merely another blockade runner. Georgiana’s remains were re-discovered in 1965 and limited excavations have been carried out on the site. America completed her wartime service, slid into obscurity and was eventually scrapped in 1945. Today a replica of the yacht offers guests sailing trips throughout the San Diego bay area and is berthed at the San Diego Maritime Museum.

clipper shipWhen America First Met China provides readers with a fast paced and highly readable account of America’s first commercial encounters with China. Author Eric Jay Dolin traces the origins of America’s trade with China in the years following the end of the American Revolution through the tumultuous period of the Opium Wars and concludes with the role of Chinese laborers in tying the nation together with the Transcontinental Railroad.

Throughout the book, Dolin introduces the various American, British and Chinese personalities who made the early China trade one of the most colorful periods in maritime history. Men such as Robert Morris, Samuel Shaw, Dr. Peter Parker (no relation to Spiderman), Amasa Delano (a distant relative of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt), Charles Elliot, Lin Zexu, and Howqua all come to life through Dolin’s writing. Many of the men, while not household names today, made lasting contributions to American trade, prestige and foreign relations. For instance, a gift from one of the personalities involved in the early China trade, Stephen Girard, helped establish Girard College in Philadelphia – a school for white male orphans which has since become a full scholarship grade 1 – 12 school for children of low-income single parent families.

Additionally, the products involved in the China trade – tea, fur, silk, opium, sandalwood and beche-de-mer are all described in detail. The reader is given a thorough understanding of the economics and production techniques of each commodity without being driven to boredom. Having previously written about both whaling and the fur trade, Dolin is experienced in describing the details of 19th century industries.

Overall, Dolin does an excellent job of detailing the origins of America’s commercial trade with China and its ebb and flow through the post-Civil War Reconstruction years. The numerous illustrations of period engravings, sketches and paintings help the reader better grasp the locations, ships and products involved in the China trade. When America First Met China is accessible to readers with any level of knowledge about maritime or Chinese history and is worth the read.

New Jersey shipwreck

CC Image Courtesy of messycupcakes on Flickr

Step aside Snooki and Pauly D – Florida diver Allan Garner may be set to become the Jersey Shore’s latest celebrity. Garner has filed an admiralty arrest claim on the wreck of the SS Ella Warley. The ship sank in 1863 after colliding with the SS North Star off the New Jersey coast. The North Star, owned by Commodore Vanderbilt, survived the collision and made it safely to New York City. The reason for the collision was disputed, although there were allegations of the Ella Warley’s captain and some of her officers being drunk at the time. Concerning the accusation of drunkenness, the New York Times editorialized, “we believe [it] has not the slightest foundation in truth.” Six crew members of the Ella Warley perished while the North Star suffered no casualties.

Built in 1848 as the SS Isabel, the Ella Warley displaced 1,115 tons and carried cargo and passengers between Charleston and Havana. Following the outbreak of hostilities in 1861, the Ella Warley ran the blockade several times between Charleston and Nassau until it was captured by the USS Santiago de Cuba.

At the time of its sinking the ship was laden with a cargo worth $175,000 and a safe containing $5,000 belonging to Adams Express Company. In addition, a passenger had $8,000 in gold aboard. While the cargo, which according to contemporary accounts consisted of hay, leather, provisions, dry goods and “express matter,” is most likely worthless, the safe’s contents and gold are quite valuable. Assuming the safe’s $5,000 was in gold, then there is the possibility of ~687 ounces of gold lying on the seabed floor amidst the wreckage. At today’s prices, this would mean the wreck is worth more than $1.2 million.

If no one objects to Garner’s claim by Thursday, then the US District Court for the District of New Jersey will award full ownership of the wreck and its contents to Garner. Successors in interest to the insurance company which paid out any claims for cargoes lost on the wreck, Adams Express Company and descendants of the passenger who lost $8,000 in gold are potential claimants and could be awarded a percentage of any recovery. Considering the wreck has been known among New Jersey’s diving community for 20 years, the likelihood is quite high that Garner has found something worth arresting.

Update: The $1.2 million value is for melt value and not the value of the gold if it were in specie form. If the gold were recovered in specie form, then the wreck could be worth upwards 20x of melt value as shipwreck specie commands a significant premium in the collector market.