previous next

Chapter 57: the ram Stonewall.

  • Remarkable energy and fidelity of the Confederate agents abroad.
  • -- the building, purchase and fitting out of Confederate cruisers. -- the ram Stonewall built, sold to the Danish authorities, and repurchased by the Confederate government. -- the ram in commission. -- the Federal vessels-of-war Niagara and Sacramento blockaded in the port of Corunna. -- actions of Commodore Craven. -- the ram proceeds to Lisbon. -- Commodore Craven court-martialed and sentenced. -- the Secretary of the Navy censures the court, and the proceedings set aside. -- Commodore Craven restored to duty. -- the ram ends her career at Havana, and is finally surrendered to the United States by the Spanish authorities. -- remarks.

The management of the agents of the Confederate Government abroad in supplying it with cruisers was very remarkable, and shows that the Confederacy was extremely fortunate in the selection of the officers thus employed. The agents not only succeeded in eluding the supposed vigilance of the authorities in England, but were even able to contract for two powerful rams and four corvettes in France to carry the most formidable guns then known.

One of the cleverest of these officers, and, as far as we know, the best, Captain James D. Bullock, was the principal agent in England for the purchase of vessels, and though the laws were violated in the transaction of building or purchasing, the violation rested principally with the builder or seller. In all his business transactions, it is fair to say of Captain Bullock that the only charge brought against him was too great a fidelity to the cause he had espoused, coupled with the ability he manifested in getting Confederate cruisers afloat. Though it is true that he was the prime-mover in getting these cruisers to sea, it has not been charged that he ever resorted to dishonorable means to attain his ends. It is said that he made contracts fairly and openly with builders, and left it with them to deliver the ships at such time and place as they thought best. That the latter were adepts in violating their own laws, no one will doubt, and it is not to be supposed that the Confederate agents would hesitate to accept a well-fitted ship in a very irregular manner, as it seemed to the Federal Government, for human nature is too weak on such occasions to resist temptation.

Bullock was a man of ability. He never tired in his efforts, and if he met with difficulties at one turn he tried another; and when the British Government, seeing “the handwriting on the wall,” realized the importance of not becoming involved in a war with the United States, and suddenly exercised all its power to put a stop to fitting out cruisers, Bullock transferred his talents to France, or, at least, pointed the way to constructing the vessels mentioned in that country. The career of the cruisers was nearly over; but they had been so successful that the Confederate Government was determined to show that it was able to drive off the large frigates and other vessels before the Southern ports, and raise the blockade all along the coast. Perhaps, had the vessels contracted for in France all got off together, and operated in concert, they might have created some confusion along the coast of the United States.

The Emperor had failed about that time [824] in securing joint action with England against Mexico, and, seeing that the Southern rebellion was fast collapsing, felt sure that the first step of the Federal Government would be to march a large army into Mexico to drive out the French troops. That army might possibly have been composed of Federal and Confederate soldiers marching shoulder to shoulder to defeat the common enemy, who, taking advantage of an intestine war, had presumed to establish an Empire right at our doors on the ruins of a sister Republic.

The construction of the vessels for the Confederate Government in France was undertaken by the builders with the tacit understanding that the French authorities would not prevent their delivery on completion. But owing, undoubtedly, to the European apprehensions, when the rams were about ready for sea, peremptory orders were given by the French Government that all the vessels should be sold. The orders were obeyed, and the Stonewall (then the Sphynx) was purchased by Denmark, just as the Schleswig-Holstein war was closing. Delay in the completion and final delivery of the ram to Denmark made that government lukewarm in carrying out the terms of the purchase, as by this time the war was at an end and the ship was not required. When, therefore, a proposition was made by the builder to repurchase the Sphynx, after delivery at Copenhagen, the Danish authorities accepted it without hesitation, and, as a natural sequence, she passed into the possession of the Confederate agents, was by them put into commission, and christened the Stonewall. The history of the four corvettes is not pertinent, as they never came into the possession of the Confederate Government. The Stonewall was placed under the command of Captain Thomas Jefferson Page, an able officer, formerly of the United States Navy. She had, we regret to say, an opportunity of inflicting a humiliation upon the American Navy which was hard to bear, considering that its name almost throughout the conflict had been without a stain, and that the reputation it had gained in the war of 1812 had not diminished in the least.

The Stonewall got to sea January 28th, 1865, having received her stores and crew from another vessel dispatched by Captain Bullock from England, at Quiberon Bay, Belle Isle, France, but, owing to defects in the rudder casing, the Stonewall put in to Ferrol, Spain, for repairs, where she arrived February 2d, and fell in with the Federal frigate Niagara and sloop-of-war Sacramento, under the command of Commodore Thomas T. Craven. The Niagara was a large and fast vessel of 4,600 tons displacement, carrying ten 150-pounder Parrott rifles. The Sacramento mounted two 11-inch guns, two 9-inch guns and one 60-pounder rifle, with some smaller pieces. The Stonewall carried one 300-pounder Armstrong rifle in a casemate in the bow and two 70-pounder rifles in a fixed turret, aft. Her sides were armored with 4 3/4 inches of iron; she had also a heavy ram. Such was the force of the three vessels now congregated in a Spanish port, the Confederate evidently determined to try consequences with the Federal vessels.

The commander of the Niagara, not wishing to lay in the same port with the Confederate vessel, moved his ship to Corunna, where, when her repairs were completed, she was followed by the Stonewall, which remained before the port blockading the two American ships-of-war, and, as the Commodore expressed it, “flaunting her flags in his face.” Captain Page, in fact, did everything he could to provoke an encounter; and it must have been with much mortification that the Union commodore decided to remain at his anchors, and not run the risk of a battle with a foe that was represented as built with impervious sides, and with a battery (though smaller in numbers) very much superior to his own. Unfortunately, the Spaniards looking on could not be made to understand how two large vessels, mounting between them fifteen heavy guns, could decline a contest with a much smaller vessel carrying only three guns, and hence arose some misconstruction as to the existence of that prestige which American officers claimed for their Navy. It must have required great moral courage in an officer commanding two such ships to refrain from attacking the Stonewall, on the ground that an engagement would result disastrously for the Union vessels. At the same time, no commander would be held justifiable, merely for the sake of making a reputation for himself, in neglecting other interests and attacking an enemy so superior to him that he would have no chance of success. But the question arises, was the Stonewall so superior to the Niagara and Sacramento? And it was a question that could only be ascertained by a contest at sea, when each vessel would have an opportunity of testing the other's qualities.

As the Stonewall was seen by the commander of the Niagara, who was a capital sailor, she appeared to be a most powerful antagonist, and if well handled she would probably have inflicted serious injury upon the two vessels he commanded. He thought, perhaps (and so thought other professional men), that, under certain circumstances, the ram would have sunk the two Federal ships; while others, who have [825] since seen the weak points in the Stonewall, are of the opinion that she would have been no match for the Union vessels. No results would ever be arrived at, if a commander of a vessel should be unwilling to attack another about which he knew nothing. It is very questionable whether naval actions which are based exclusively on too nice calculations, and where too much consideration is given to the risk to be run in engaging an enemy, are ever followed by any gallant results.

There was great excitement in the Navy Department on hearing the conclusion the commander of the Niagara had reached in regard to the Stonewall, and that, in consequence, the Confederate vessel had proceeded to Lisbon, coaled, and continued on her way toward the coast of the United States, without being followed further than that place. The several squadrons on the coast were warned that this formidable vessel was about to attack them, and directed to keep a good look-out for her; but, as a general rule, her advent was not at all apprehended, and, if she had appeared, steps had been taken to dispose of her as all Confederate rams had been disposed of before her.

It would not be fair for any one to judge harshly of the action of the Federal commander in this matter, unless he had been placed in the same position himself. No officer should be deprived of the discretionary power due to his command, or be trammelled by the opinions of those who have no responsibility resting upon them. It would never do to establish a principle that, for the sake merely of his reputation, an officer under all circumstances should attack an iron-clad with two wooden vessels. Very little was known of the power of sea-going iron-clads at that time, and the Stonewall, for all the commander of the Niagara knew, might be impervious to shot or shell, and with manoeuvering powers that were unequalled by the two ships under his command. Yet there may have been some justification for censure in the want of judgment in the commodore on the 24th day of May, 1865, in not making some exertion to obtain constant and personal observation of the Confederate ram while at Ferrol, and thus ascertain the truth or falsehood of the received reports of her character. There might also be some cause for reflection on the conduct of the Federal commander in remaining quietly at anchor in the Bay of Corunna, instead of going outside with his two vessels in the same neutral water, and there making observations of the Stonewall's speed, power of turning, etc.; and he might, with propriety, have consulted with his junior commander, Captain Henry Walke, of the Sacramento, who had boldly engaged on the Mississippi River a much more powerful ram — the Arkansas--while in command of the Carondelet, a much inferior vessel — at least, he might have formed with his consort some plan of attack. This was not done, perhaps for the reason that, as, in his judgment, no engagement should take place, it was useless to form plans he did not propose to undertake.

Some of these ideas were evidently paramount in the mind of the Secretary of the Navy when the commander of the Niagara returned to the United States, as he brought him to trial by court-martial on the following charge: “Failing to do his utmost to overtake and capture or destroy a vessel which it was his duty to encounter.” The court was composed of nine of the most distinguished officers of the Navy, with Vice-Admiral Farragut as President. The court decided that Commodore Craven had been remiss in his duties, and sentenced him to two years suspension on leave-pay. This sentence was either inadequate to the offence charged, or it was very unjust, which will be plain to the nautical reader. Secretary Welles seemed to think that, notwithstanding the opinion of nine officers of the Navy, the sentence was inadequate to the offence, and addressed a severe communication to the president of the court in returning the proceedings for revision. Whether he was right or not in doing so depends on the latitude the revising authority is allowed in disapproving the finding of a court of officers who are sworn to do their whole duty in the premises. It would seem to be an attempt to deprive them of that discretionary power which is generally a beneficent feature in a military court-martial. It also detracts from that dignity which properly belongs to such a body, holding, as it does, the power even of life and death. The following is an extract from the Department's letter, returning the record to the court for revision:

Navy Department, Washington, December 1, 1865.
Sir — The record of the proceedings of the court of which you are President, in the case of Commodore Thomas T. Craven, is herewith returned for a revision of the finding, which, in the opinion of the Department, is in conflict with law, and, if approved, would tend to render the provisions of law, which the accused is charged with violating, a “dead letter.”

Having received this letter, the court proceeded to revise its action upon the charge and specifications, and, after more mature deliberation, “doth find the charge proven, except the words, ‘as it was his duty to have done,’ and doth find the accused, Commodore Thomas T. Craven, of the charge, guilty, and doth award the following [826] punishment: That the accused, Commodore Thomas T. Craven, be suspended from duty for two years on leave-pay.” In his final revision of this finding, the remarks of the Secretary of the Navy are a severe censure on the action of the court, the proceedings were set aside and the accused restored to duty.

The above is a very important part of the history of the war, which we would be glad to be able to omit; but there are facts in the case having a very important bearing upon the future actions of officers of the Navy, and it would not be right in a historian to omit that which is unfavorable to the naval service and publish only that which is creditable. This case may be referred to hereafter as a test question, and the finding of the court and the opinion of the revising power may be adduced to show what duties are enjoined on members of courts-martial, and how far the revising power can go in virtually setting aside the sentence of a court when it is not considered to be severe enough, and in censuring a court in an official letter.

It is a well-established principle in military or naval law, that when charges are brought against an officer to any one of which the penalty of death is attached, no other sentence can be awarded. The law is imperative that courts-martial shall adjudge a punishment adequate to the offence committed and only leaves it discretionary with the court to recommend the convicted person to clemency, that clemency to be exercised only by the revising authority. The court has no discretion but to make its finding accord with the law. In the case under consideration, the court may have deemed that the law under which the accused was tried was one of a harsh character, as, no doubt, it was as far as regards the case in question, but it was bound by a solemn obligation to administer it as it stood on the statute-books, and not to modify it to suit their own views of justice. They had full authority to make recommendations to mercy that the revising power would hardly feel justified in disregarding, especially as a similar case had never been presented to a court during the war, and when it was a question whether an officer had any discretionary power in avoiding a combat with a vessel of an entirely different character from his own, and constructed on principles many years in advance of vessels of the class he commanded.

The great mistake the court made was in endeavoring to modify the charge of which the accused was or was not guilty. They had either to say one thing or another, and that in accordance with their opinion such was the case, and the revising power could say no more. No ill results followed the “flaunting” of the Stonewall's flag, and it was in some respects a very doubtful case. Three of the officers of the court, Vice-Admiral Farragut, Rear-Admiral Davis and Captain Melancton Smith, had had some rough experiences with iron-clad rams, and, under the circumstances, were, no doubt, disposed to judge leniently, and willing to allow the commander of the Niagara discretionary rights in regard to attacking the Stonewall. The court made a grave mistake in not more carefully considering this matter, and in not inquiring more closely into the points of law; and for this reason it may be said that the court jeopardized, in a measure, the interests of the accused by finding him guilty of that which was not proved; inasmuch as they declared by implication that it was not his duty to have attacked the Stonewall, the finding being as follows: “Specification of the charge proven, except in so far as the words, ‘as it was his duty to have done,’ declare it to have been the imperative duty of the accused to join battle with the Stonewall on the 24th day of March” --(1865).

How, under the finding of the court, the commander of the Niagara could be censured for “want of zeal and exertion in not making constant and personal observation of the Stonewall while at Ferrol, and thereby endeavoring to ascertain the truth or falsehood of the various reports of her character,” does not appear; for, while qualifying their finding, they reflect upon him in three several instances: First, in the words just quoted; second, “on the conduct of the accused in remaining quietly at anchor in the bay of Corunna while the Stonewall was parading about in neutral waters, flaunting her flags,” etc; and, third, in that no plans were formed for concerted action between the Niagara and Sacramento by the accused. Under the circumstances, and considering the inconsistency of the court, the revising power found it impossible to determine whether the accused was guilty or not, the finding on the charge declaring him guilty, but that on the specification, not guilty. As the court adhered to its finding when the proceedings were returned for revision, the Secretary of the Navy concluded to set the proceedings aside, and restore the commander of the Niagara to duty.

As this case ended, the matter is left in abeyance, and it may yet happen that an officer may be tried under the same circumstances which present the simple question, Shall an officer be allowed any discretionary power in deciding whether or not to join battle with an enemy's ships or with an enemy's forts?--for the principle applies to [827] both. In the light of later events, the leniency of the court at that time is generally approved, and, taking into consideration the high character of the officers who composed it, it would have been but courteous to them had the revising power yielded to their opinion, which was, without doubt, the result of their honest convictions. It has been conceded that Admiral Byng, of the British Navy, was unjustly shot, to satisfy public opinion. There was no necessity on this occasion for such an example. No man could know whether or not the affair at Corunna was an error of judgment — in fact, no one could tell whether it was not the right course to pursue. Any officer commanding two wooden ships of the same kind to-day could feel perfectly justified in avoiding a battle with a modern iron-clad ram — whether the cases are analagous, the reader must be the judge.

After all the trouble and excitement created by the Stonewall, she never succeeded in getting beyond Havana, where, at the termination of the war, she was given up to the Spanish Government by her commander in an honorable manner and surrendered to the United States.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
Thomas T. Craven (8)
James D. Bullock (4)
Thomas Jefferson Page (2)
David G. Farragut (2)
Gideon Welles (1)
Henry Walke (1)
Melancton Smith (1)
Holstein (1)
Charles H. Davis (1)
Byng (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
December 1st, 1865 AD (1)
May 24th, 1865 AD (1)
January 28th, 1865 AD (1)
1865 AD (1)
1812 AD (1)
March 24th (1)
February 2nd (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: