Archives For Civil War Shipwrecks


Eric Jay Dolin, whose previous work includes Leviathan and When America Met China, has generated yet another meticulously researched and well narrated piece of nautical history. Focusing on America’s lighthouses from inception to the current day, Brilliant Beacons is a sweeping, majestic piece that encompasses technology, material culture, engineering, personal histories and the strategic role lighthouses have played in America’s development and growth over the last three plus centuries.

Writing with the passion of someone who has long had a love affair with the sea and her incredible stories, Dolin draws the reader in with the origins of American lighthouse design and tirelessly waltzes through topics that lesser authors would render dry and boring. This is the second of Dolin’s books reviewed on this site and both have held particular meaning for me. The first being When America Met China, which, for someone who majored in Chinese language at America’s ninth oldest university, was of particular interest and is a phenomenal read. Having grown up in North Carolina, I have always had an affinity for lighthouses, especially given that I was a young teenager when the iconic Cape Hatteras light house was moved 1,500 feet to save it from being engulfed by the ravaging waves of the Atlantic. Thus, the subject of Brilliant Beacons more than intrigued me and, while I didn’t have the opportunity to read it at the beach, I read the first 25% from my home overlooking the Port of Tampa and the remaining 75% on a round-trip flight to New York City, a city forever linked with the sea.

Overall, Dolin’s narrative style enables the reader to make quick work of the book’s 400 plus pages. Saying Brilliant Beacons is the perfect beach read might sound a little cliche, however, the book is both illuminating and entertaining and the timing of its release at the height of the summer months could not have been better planned. Pick up Dolin’s latest and read away, you will be glad you did.


View of Modern Day Tampa from Ballast Point CC Image Courtesy of Matthew Paulson on Flickr

View of Modern Day Tampa from Ballast Point
CC Image Courtesy of Matthew Paulson on Flickr

On the night of October 17, 1863, the sleepy town of Tampa was awakened by the blast of Union gunboats firing on Fort Brooke at the town’s edge. The Union gunboats had been in from their blockading stations offshore to create a diversion for the landing of a 100 man Yankee raiding party. Lying at anchor six miles up the Hillsborough River were the targets of the raiding party: a barge and two Confederate blockade runners, the schooner Kate Dale and the steamer Scottish Chief. The ships had braved the Union blockade multiple times to sail between Cuba and Tampa – exchanging cotton and cattle hides for arms, munitions, and Cuban cigars and wine. The raiding party made their way up the riverbank and set fire to the three vessels, ending their blockade running careers in a ball of flames. The Kate Dale and the barge sank at anchor while the Scottish Chief sustained serious damage but did not sink. The ship was later towed down the river where its machinery was salvaged and the hulk left to sink into the river.

A Confederate response force, having been alerted to the presence of the Yankee raiding party, pursued the Union soldiers to Ballast Point near the terminus of Old Tampa Bay. At Ballast Point, now a popular pier at the end of Bayshore Boulevard, a quick skirmish ensued. Three Yankees and twelve Confederates lost their lives before the Yankee raiding party was able to embark and escape harm’s way. In September 2008, nearly 145 years after the raid, marine archaeologists announced the discovery of the wreckage of the Kate Dale in the Hillsborough River. A year later, the Scottish Chief was discovered further down the river where she had been left to rot after having her machinery stripped.


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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

civil war navy

Pulitzer Prize winning author James M. McPherson’s latest book, War on the Waters, is a concise naval history of the American Civil War. Most authors and historians focus on the great generals (Lee, Jackson, Grant, Sherman, etc.) or the great battles (Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Shiloh etc.) and often ignore the vital role the navies played in the conflict both on the rivers of the western Confederacy and the high seas. Entire books have been written on various aspects of the naval war – riverine warfare in the west, blockade running, Confederate merchant raiders, foreign intrigue in Europe and the innovations that made their debut in the conflict. McPherson neatly summarizes each of these topics and arranges them in easily digestible chapters that proceed in chronological order.

McPherson’s organization and writing style allow both the uninitiated reader and the Civil War buff to understand the ebb and flow of the conflict and the various personalities, events and inventions that influenced the war. Perhaps most importantly, McPherson accompanies his chapters with strategic or tactical level maps that enable the reader to understand the events which occur in the chapter. McPherson understands the unwritten rule that the inclusion of a relevant map is worth multiple pages of text in helping a reader establish an awareness of the events being described. Along with the maps, various etchings and photos accompany each chapter and neither maps nor illustrations are confined to a few pages in the center or the beginning of the book. This allows the reader to visually grasp the crux of each chapter and makes both the maps and the illustrations more relevant to the narrative being told.

Overall, War on the Waters is a fantastic single volume history of the Civil War’s naval history. McPherson hits all of the highlights of the Civil War – CSS Virginia vs. USS Monitor, blockade running, William B. Cushing’s daring raid on the CSS Albemarle, and the first successful attack by a submarine – in only 225 pages. War on the Waters is a welcome addition to the naval literature of the Civil War and will be enjoyed by anyone interested in American history, naval history or the Civil War.