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First expeditions of the Federal Navy

The “Pawnee” --only 1,289 tons, but the heaviest Federal vessel in the Potomac when the war began — she received the surrender of Alexandria, Va., in May, 1861, and fought gallantly in the first expedition against Hatteras, August, 1861


The operations of the United States navy were almost unknown to the public during the first weeks of the war, while there was not a move of the army that was not heralded in the newspapers and made known in all quarters. But a very small proportion of the people knew that another class of men was struggling for the preservation of the Union, spending nights and days in sleepless vigilance and untiring activity. The seamen and officers of the navy should receive their due proportion of praise and honor for the ultimate victory that they helped to win.

By the force of circumstances, the Potomac River, from Washington to its mouth, drew the attention of the naval authorities in April, 1861. All thoughts were concentrated upon the protection of the national capital, and besides offering this protection on the water, the navy, at first, played scout for the land forces as well. There was a constant and painstaking inspection of the river; observations were made to see if preparations for batteries were in progress, and every effort was made to prevent communication between the northern and southern shores. It was actually the beginning of the blockade, although the Confederates were first in the field with their attempts to intercept transports and steamers on the way to Washington. On the 14th of May, Lieutenant Sproston, commanding the Mount Vernon, discovered an earth battery in the course of erection at Aquia Creek.

The Federal flotilla in the Potomac, at the time hostilities began, was composed of small vessels of light draft, whose armament precluded them from any close or lengthy action with land batteries that possessed heavier guns. The sloop-of-war [93]

The “Pawnee

The quarterdeck and starboard battery of U. S. S. “Pawnee” appear here from photographs taken in Charleston Harbor. Here on the morning of April 12, 1861, officers and crew watched in an agony of suspense the pitiless iron rain that fell upon Sumter in the bombardment that began the Civil War. The “Pawnee,” the “Pocohontas,” the “Harriet Lane,” and the “Baltic,” together with two tugs, had sailed from New York with provisions and reinforcements for Major Anderson's little garrison. As the vessels approached Charleston Harbor, before daylight of April 12th, they heard the boom of shotted guns; and in the gray dawn, smoke rose sullenly in the direction of Sumter. When daylight disclosed the Stars and Stripes still waving over the fort, amid the roar of heavy artillery, Commander Stephen Clegg Rowan, of the “Pawnee,” immediately volunteered to run his vessel in to the relief of the garrison. Lieutenant Gustavus V. Fox, later Assistant Secretary of the Federal Navy, in command of this expedition, would not consent to such a perilous undertaking, and the fleet lay helplessly by until the surrender of the heroic defenders at four o'clock in the afternoon of the 13th. The next day the garrison was taken off in the “Baltic.” The “Pawnee” was next assigned to patrol duty in the Potomac, and on May 24th, in cooperation with the zouaves of the lamented Ellsworth, compelled the Confederates to evacuate Alexandria. Lieutenant Reigart B. Lowry landed and took formal possession of the town, with a detachment of seamen. This was the first Federal foothold in Virginia.

On the “Pawnee” --the ship that saw Sumter captured

Guns of the “Pawnee

[94] Pawnee was the largest vessel in the river, and she was only of about thirteen hundred tons and carried a battery of fifteen guns. The commander of this vessel, Stephen C. Rowan, cooperating with the ill-fated Colonel Ellsworth and his regiment of Zouaves, took possession of the town of Alexandria. Virginia, May 24, 1851, and it was the navy that hoisted the Stars and Stripes once more over the custom-house.

There was an apparent fruitlessness in a naval force continually contending with shore batteries. If one was silenced and its gunners driven off, the odds were that it would be reerected the next night, and the work would have to be done all over again. Constantly did the Navy department request from the Secretary of War that a land force should act with it in the destruction of the Potomac batteries. But General McClellan declared that he could not spare the troops. As a naval writer of that day has pictured the situation, it can be well understood:

Under such circumstances, the service of the Potomac flotilla was probably among the most fatiguing and discouraging of the war. The crews of the vessels spent a great portion of their nights in rowing up and down the river on picket duty, watching for mail-carriers, smugglers, and spies of all kinds; and in the daytime the ships were often aground on the bars and shoals, in spite of all precaution. They were in hourly danger of being opened upon by masked batteries, which could be constructed unseen in the thick undergrowth of the shores; their quarters in the little steamers were exceedingly uncomfortable; their prizes were rowboats, and small, worthless river craft. . . . For their reward, these hard-working, much-enduring men received too often only the complaints of the country that nothing was done, and sneers at the inefficiency of the Navy department, and especially of the Potomac flotilla.

As we look back upon these times, when North and South were on tiptoe with excitement, it was remarkable that the Government had not made, before the end of May, any really [95]

On dangerous duty — officers on the “Philadelphia This river vessel was early pressed into service for one of the most important and dangerous performances of the navy in the war. After Virginia seceded, the Confederates promptly removed all lightships and buoys from the Potomac, completely cutting off Washington from the North. Selected by ballot of a board made up of the chiefs of departments at Washington, Lieutenant Thomas Stowell Phelps was entrusted as an officer “skilled in surveying” with the perilous task of resurveying the channel and replacing guiding marks. He was given the armed tender “Anacostia” and the “Philadelphia” for this work. Four 12-pound army field-pieces were mounted at either end of the latter vessel and covered with old canvas to conceal them. The crew and a company of the Seventy-first New York were kept carefully concealed below, while on the deck Phelps stood fearlessly at work. Near Aquia Creek it was particularly important that the river should be surveyed. Phelps ran boldly up under the guns of the Confederate batteries and worked for two hours, with the Confederate gunners, lock-strings in hand, plainly visible. Years afterward Colonel Wm. F. Lynch, C. S. A., who commanded the battery, explained that he had not given the order to fire because the “Philadelphia” seemed to him to be “the property of some poor devil who had lost his way and from her appearance was not worth the powder.” The “Philadelphia” was also flagship in the expedition, March 13-14, 1862, to Albemarle Sound, North Carolina, where Commodore S. C. Rowan invaded the Southern inlets.

[96] hostile move except that of occupying Alexandria. But, at the time of this occupation, the Confederates had already erected three strong earthworks at the railway terminus at Aquia Creek, Virginia, and other batteries were protecting the landing, three being mounted in positions on the higher ground, back of the river.

On the 29th of May, the Thomas Freeborn, a paddle-wheel steamer of about two hundred and fifty tons, mounting three guns, with the Anacostia, a small screw steamer of about two hundred tons, and the Resolute, less than half the latter's size, came down the river. Commander James H. Ward was at the head of the little squadron, whose largest guns were but 32-pounders. Upon reaching Aquia Creek, Ward engaged these batteries. Little damage was done, but these were the first shots fired by the navy in the Civil War. On the 1st of June, the action was renewed with great vigor. The Pawnee had joined the squadron, every vessel of which had been hit more than once, but although Commander Ward relates that more than a thousand shot had been discharged within range, he had no damage to report, which was, as he wrote, “truly remarkable,” and later in the war, when gunnery practice had improved, it would have been impossible. Again, on the 2d of June, the Pawnee attacked the batteries, and though struck a number of times, had no casualties to report.

On the 5th, the steamer Harriet Lane, of historic memory, attacked the Confederate batteries at Pig Point, near Hampton Roads, and Captain John Faunce, while bearing testimony to the gallant conduct of the officers and men under his command, regretfully announced that he had five casualties on board his little vessel.

On the 27th of June, the navy lost its first officer and it was no other than the gallant Commander Ward, of the Freeborn, who was shot and mortally wounded while in the act of sighting the bow gun. A party had been landed in order to clear the ground at Mathias Point, and this had been surprised [97]

On the “Freeborn” showing how Ward, the first Federal commander, was lost This photograph of 1861, long in the possession of the family of Commander James Harman Ward, and here reproduced for the first time, is the only vestige of a visual record of his brave deed on June 27th, the same year. In the picture, taken on the deck of the little improvised gunboat “Freeborn,” the man sighting the gun has reverently donned the blouse and straw hat of Commander Ward to show how that brave officer stood when he received his mortal wound. After the firing on Sumter, the lull in the excitement had brought no respite for the navy, and the duty of patrolling the Potomac night and day devolved first upon Commander Ward. In addition to the “Freeborn,” a side-wheel steamer carrying but three guns, his squadron consisted of the “Anacostia” and the “Resolute,” carrying two guns each. With these vessels, on May 31st, he boldly attacked the Confederate batteries at Aquia Creek and next day, with the assistance of the “Pawnee,” the Confederates were driven from their works. Again supported by the “Pawnee,” on June 27th, Commander Ward attacked the Confederates at Mathias Point. While a body of sailors from his consort, under command of Lieutenant James C. Chapman, effected a landing, the gunboats kept up a rapid fire. Commander Ward, in his anxiety that this should prove effective, was in the act of sighting a gun himself when he was suddenly wounded in the abdomen and soon expired.

[98] and was in danger of being absolutely annihilated when Ward and the Freeborn opened fire on the concealed Confederates in the thickets. It was necessary to row this landing-party off to the ships, and Commander Rowan makes report of a bit of fine conduct that shows of what stuff the men of the old navy were made. After speaking of the gallantry of Lieutenant J. C. Chaplin, commanding the landing-party, and of his deep regret at the death of Commander Ward, he writes as follows, “I must also call the attention of the department to the bravery of John Williams, captain of the maintop of the Pawnee, who told his men while lying off in the boat that every man must die on his thwart sooner than leave a man behind, and when the flagstaff of his boat was shot away and the ensign fell, he (although suffering from a gunshot wound in the thigh) seized it in his hand and bravely waved it over his head.”

The shores of the Potomac were almost one continuous ambush, and not until Aquia Creek was taken and land forces cooperated with the little river flotilla, was life safe. The first use of the torpedo occurred here, when, on the 7th of July, two large casks were discovered floating down toward the Pawnee, whose commander, sending out a boat to investigate, found two eighty-gallon casks supporting a boiler-iron torpedo containing enough powder to have blown his vessel from the water. The fuses, fortunately, had gone out.

Despite the early declaration of the blockade, the Confederacy possessed for months an unbroken line of defenses from a point but a short distance below Alexandria on the Potomac, down that river and from its mouth to Norfolk, southward thence to Florida, along the Gulf to the mouth of the Mississippi, and along the entire coast of Texas. Besides this, of inland waters they were in possession of the Mississippi and held the mouths of the Cumberland and the Tennessee rivers. Well indeed was it time for something to be done. If the blockade was to be successful, and not the mere farce that [99]

Aquia creek landing, on the Potomac--one of the first Federal navy objectives This little landing on the river became at the very outbreak of the war one of the chief objectives of the Federal navy. After the firing upon Sumter, the Confederates seized commanding points from Alexandria southward and mounted batteries of heavy guns as rapidly as possible. Aquia Creek, which was the terminus of the Aquia Creek & Fredericksburg Railroad, was fortified with twenty guns from the captured Norfolk Navy-yard, and was the chief menace to navigation of the Potomac by the Federal vessels. It was the first important duty of the navy to open and maintain the water communications of Washington with the North. If the Confederates could succeed in closing up the Potomac, their boast that the Confederate flag would fly over the National Capitol would not be an idle one, and thus the very first operations of the gunboats in the Potomac were of vital importance to the success of the Federal cause. Under the guns of the two batteries at Aquia Creek, Lieutenant Phelps performed the difficult and dangerous though unsung task of surveying the channel and replacing the buoys in the Potomac. The little flotilla of small vessels in the river carried only a light armament, and until joined by the “Pawnee,” a sloop of less than 1,300 tons, was almost powerless against such heavy ordnance as had been mounted by the Confederates. Yet when the “Freeborn” and the “Anacostia” and the “Resolute” boldly advanced to attack Captain W. F. Lynch's batteries at Aquia Creek on May 29, 1861, the guns of the navy spoke out the brave determination which ever characterized that arm of the service throughout the four years of war.

James Harman Ward

[100] many European countries believed that it would be, some naval base must be established and held permanently south of Hampton Roads, and even below Cape Hatteras, if possible. This was the report of the board of officers that had been commissioned to draw plans for the furtherance of the blockade, and whose members consisted of Captain Samuel F. Du Pont and Captain Charles H. Davis, of the navy; Alexander D. Bache, of the coast survey, and Major John G. Barnard, of the army.

From their report, the Navy Department had organized and fitted out a squadron under the command of Flag-Officer Silas H. Stringham, which sailed under sealed orders on the 26th of August, 1861. It was composed of the Minnesota (flagship) under command of Captain G. J. Van Brunt; the Wabash, under command of Captain Samuel Mercer; the Monticello, the Susquehanna, the Pawnee, the Harriet Lane, and the Cumberland. In addition there were the chartered transport steamers Adelaide and George Peabody, and the ocean-going tug Fanny. These vessels had in tow a number of schooners and surf-boats to be used in landing a small body of troops, less than a thousand in number, that accompanied the expedition. The land force was under command of Major-General Benjamin F. Butler. It was soon known that the destination of the fleet was Hatteras Island, where Forts Clark and Hatteras were situated, commanding the approach to Hatteras Inlet.

This was the first expedition of the navy in the Civil War, and a most important experiment, in that it was proposed to engage well-mounted batteries on shore with the broadsides of wooden vessels; but risks had to be taken.

On the morning of August 27th, the squadron was off Cape Hatteras, and preparations were soon made for the landing of the troops. There was a fresh wind blowing from the south and a heavy surf was rolling up on the shore. On the morning of the following day, the troops prepared to disembark, and the Pawnee, Monticello, and Harriet Lane were [101]

Aquia creek where the first shots were fired by the navy The importance of Aquia Creek Landing, on the Potomac, to the navy grew steadily as the advance offensive line which the Confederates had seized upon at the outbreak of the war began to be pushed back into Virginia. As a strategic position the little landing was the scene of many stirring events during the ebb and flow of the military operations. The navy, in cooperating, came to know it as a point of supply. Long before February, 1863, when these pictures were taken, the Potomac flotilla had had its full of the abundance of toil by night and day in the arduous and perilous task of patrolling the great river. Both banks in 1861 were lined with hostile non-combatants; goods were smuggled across constantly by Maryland sympathizers to their fighting friends in Virginia. Federal merchant-vessels were captured in attempting to get up the river to Washington. The suppression of all this fell to the lot of the little flotilla on the Potomac; and the task, which was the real beginning of the blockade, though devoid of glory and fame, was well and thoroughly accomplished and was one of the most praiseworthy achievements of the navy in the war.

[102] ordered to cover their landing. Now the difficulties increased; the iron surf-boats were rolled broadside on the beach, and what men got ashore had to wade through the heavy surf. But three hundred or so succeeded in reaching dry land, a rather forlorn end to the land expedition, as it had no supplies and the ammunition was soaked through. But in the mean time, the Wabash got under way, and towing the old Cumberland with the Minnesota following, led in toward Fort Clark. Soon the battle was on between the land and sea. Flag-Officer Stringham deserves great praise for the way he handled his small squadron; ships were kept in constant movement, and, though well within range, suffered little or no damage from the shots of the fort. The concentrated fire of the vessels upon the little battery, which mounted but five guns, soon bore results. Shortly after noon Fort Clark was abandoned, and the shivering troops that had reached the beach took possession and hoisted the Federal flag.

It was at first thought that Fort Hatteras had surrendered after the short bombardment, but on approaching closer the Confederate batteries once more reopened. The next morning, however, the bombardment being resumed, the Fort was seriously damaged, and the powder magazine, having been set on fire, the Confederates hoisted the white flag shortly after eleven o'clock. There was an amusing little note added to the morning's work by the fact that Flag-Officer Barron, who lately had been an officer of the United States navy, refused to surrender the Fort to the land forces that now came up from the direction of Fort Clark, the Confederate commander claiming that they had taken no part in the action. Therefore he was rowed off to the flagship, where he gave up his sword to his former friend, Flag-Officer Stringham.

Six hundred and fifteen men and officers were captured at Fort Hatteras, and twenty-five guns, all of which had come from the navy-yard at Norfolk. The moral effect of this easily earned victory was great throughout the North. The real [103]

The “Wabash”

Here are two groups taken on board the “Wabash,” which took part in the first real expedition of the navy — to Hatteras. In the lower picture appears the pivot-gun, one of the largest that at that time was fired from the deck of any vessel — a 200-pounder Parrott rifle. The crew are not at quarters, but the condition of the gun shows it was the pet of the forward watch. This gun was on the topgallant forecastle, and had a sweep in every direction except directly aft. At Fort Fisher this gun's crew showed magnificent practice, as they had at Fort Walker, the first engagement at which the big gun had been fired. In the upper picture the little vine growing out of the flower-pot is an evidence of the sailor's desire to make a cabin as much of a home as is possible.

Du Pont and officers on the “Wabash”

The forward pivot-gun

[104] importance of the conflict had not yet been fully realized, but the spirits of all the Northern people were still drooping after the disastrous defeat at Bull Run. They required some salve for their wounded pride, and the successful conclusion of the first naval expedition gave them this and restored confidence, as well. But the most important features were the realization of the plans of the naval committee, and the fact that the victory had gained a base upon the Southern coast for the support of the blockading squadrons, while, at the same time, a foothold was afforded for military invasion.

Stringham's fleet had now almost complete command of the most important passage to the North Carolina sounds. More than one port of entry of the blockade-runners was closed. The important capture of the Hatteras forts was quickly followed by operations along the coast that extended into the various sounds, and a little Fort on Beacon Island, Ocracoke Inlet, some twenty miles further south, was captured. It was in an unfinished condition, and was practically abandoned upon receipt of the news of the fall of Forts Clark and Hatteras. Lieutenant Maxwell landed with a small force on Beacon Island and destroyed the guns found there--four 8-inch navy shell-guns and fourteen 32-pounders; then setting fire to a store-ship that he found a few miles beyond, near the little town of Portsmouth, he regained the fleet.

Thus was secured, from Hatteras Inlet southward to Cape Lookout, virtually the entire possession of the coast to the Cape Fear River; northward the occupation of Hatteras controlled the coast as far as Hampton Roads.

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