CSS Arkansas Part I

Gentlemen, in seeking combat as we now do we must win or perish.

—Lieutenant Isaac Brown

The officers and men of Farragut’s fleet, anchored above Vicksburg, were at breakfast on Tuesday, July 1, 1862, when Charles Davis’s squadron hove into sight. Winona crewman O’Neil noted its arrival in his diary: “At 6:25 a.m. during a thunder storm Capt. Davis’ ironclads Benton (F.S.) Cincinnati, Carondelet, Louisville came down river with steamers towing mortar boats.” Farragut had asked Davis, who had recently been appointed the flag officer in command of US naval forces on the Mississippi and its tributaries, to assemble all the vessels he could, steam down from Memphis, and join him in reducing the Confederate defenses at Vicksburg.

Word spread quickly, and Farragut’s men rushed to the decks to see the strange new river craft of Davis’s flotilla. Marine private Smith’s duty on board the Hartford gave him an opportunity to see Davis’s arrival. “Today has been an eventful day,” Smith penned in his diary. “The marines fell out and saluted Commodore Davis when coming and going. Captain Davis dined with our Commodore and left the ship at 1:15 o’clock.”

When the Carondelet came to anchor, coxswain Morison caught his first glimpse of Vicksburg. “From where we were lying the dome of the courthouse and the spires of two churches are to be seen. The Louisiana shore in front of the city assumes the form of two sides of a triangle (owing to the sinuous course of the river).” Morison also observed the position of Porter’s mortar boats. “Along the lower side Porter’s mortars are placed, and along the upper are ours, so that the city is placed between two fires which must eventually drive them out.”

The joining of these two federal squadrons gave rise to loud cheering from Farragut’s West Gulf Blockading Squadron and joyous celebrations by both officers and enlisted men. Most of the officers of the two squadrons had been shipmates before the war, and they welcomed the opportunity to catch up on war news and family events. However, it soon became apparent that all was not well with Farragut’s squadron. “There’s a great deal of gossip among the officers,” Phelps explained in a letter to Foote. “The lower fleet is rent with criminations and recriminations.”

Bell confided his distress about the situation to his journal. “Visited the fleet below. Bad state of feeling there. C—had received a sharp reprimand from flag-officer, which he considered unmerited and insulting, and would not be comforted.” Farragut informed Bell that he was to replace Craven and assume command of the Brooklyn. “This is a heavy blow, and interferes with my calculations for getting free of the river, for there is every prospect of the fleet summering between its steep banks, smitten with insects, heat intolerable, fevers, chills, and dysentery, and inglorious inactivity, losing all that the fleet has won in honor and reputation.” The word of Craven’s departure spread quickly among the crews of both fleets. Bell reluctantly packed his uniforms and personal gear and made a brief but poignant entry in his journal: “Found an order for me to relieve Captain Craven in command of the Brooklyn; went to bed with a heavy heart.”

Farragut’s requests that Halleck send troops to attack Vicksburg had gone unanswered, leaving only Williams’s 3,000 troops to take the Confederate stronghold defended by 12,000 rebels. Halleck could have committed his entire federal force to the taking of Vicksburg before leaving for Washington to replace George McClellan as general in chief, a change in command prompted by McClellan’s humiliating defeat before Richmond. Instead, Halleck chose to dismantle “his grand army piecemeal.” He sent Buell’s Army of the Ohio eastward toward Chattanooga, sent Grant’s Army of the Tennessee west to occupy Memphis, and recalled Pope’s army to defend Corinth.

Too few to mount a direct assault, Williams’s soldiers, assisted by a large number of slaves, were put to work digging a twelve-foot-wide canal across the peninsula opposite Vicksburg. But in the hot, dry summer weather, the Mississippi River continued to fall, and prospects for the canal project’s success dwindled.

Without the means to assault Vicksburg, Farragut had to rely on a bombardment of rebel defenses by his mortars and four mortar scows sent down by Davis. “Our mortars opened on the city this morning,” Morison wrote on July 3. “It was soon returned in the shape of a large rifled shell which came whirling through the air like a gigantic quail. Burst short, doing no harm. The firing was carried on by both parties at intervals all day. No harm to our side.”

At midnight, thirty-four guns from the big mortars began a Fourth of July greeting. They were joined by all the vessels of the fleet except for the Richmond. That ship’s sick bay and all available spaces had been taken up by the growing number of ill sailors, most of them suffering from chills, fever, and dysentery. On the morning of July 4, O’Neil wrote, “8 a.m. dressed ship as did the other vessels in the fleet in honor of the day.” Lending a sense of patriotic festivity to the day, several army bands toured the fleet in boats, playing national airs. Each federal ship flew a large American flag at the masthead in celebration of the Fourth. “Independence Day. We are fighting today for what we fought eighty-six years ago—our national existence then against King George, now King Cotton,” Morison quipped. In honor of the glorious Fourth, “the main brace was spliced on board every craft of the two fleets,” he noted, “with the exception of this one miserabile.”

Farragut and Davis celebrated the holiday by going downstream in the Benton to reconnoiter the Confederate batteries. A formidable gunboat armed with seven 32-pounders and two 11-inch and seven 8-inch rifles, the Benton could challenge the rebel batteries, in Davis’s opinion. But to his surprise, when the gunboat opened fire on the upper battery, the rebels shot back with a new Whitworth rifle. One shot went clean through the Benton’s bow gun port, exploding with a bang and injuring several sailors.

Much as Bell had feared, the hot summer of 1862 continued to generate a steady supply of sick soldiers and sailors. On July 9 a correspondent reporting from Farragut’s fleet off Vicksburg told readers: “Considerable indisposition prevails among the fleet, chiefly arising from the excessively hot weather. Bowel complaints, and various forms of bilious diseases affect all, more or less, but no deaths occur from these causes.” In his diary Bell noted the prevalence of illness: “A large sick list, the cases being a type of dengue fever (fever and chills).”

Federal gunboats plying the Mississippi also had to contend with rebel guerrillas lurking along the shore and taking potshots at passing vessels. A correspondent on board the ram Queen of the West, en route from Memphis to join the flotilla at Vicksburg, told readers: “Occasionally along the shores the dreaded guerrillas stealthily gliding from tree to tree, with the deadly intent of ‘picking off’ some of our crew, but the bright muzzle of a brace of 12 pound howitzers flashing defiance from the hurricane deck admonished the reptiles of terrible retribution.” The correspondent reported that they had met the ram Lancaster on its way up, and “she had fired into a band of guerrillas a few miles further down, wounding some and causing all to scatter.”

Off Vicksburg, Farragut and Davis’s men sweltered in the heat, pestered by swarms of mosquitoes. Canvas awnings draped over the gunboats’ spar decks provided some relief from the broiling sun, but the iron-plated decks shimmered with the heat. On July 13, a Sunday, Morison noted in his journal: “Am twenty-four years old today and the hottest this summer, the glass standing at 110 degrees in the shade.” Desperate to ease the suffering of a growing number of sailors with prickly heat, the Benton’s surgeon ordered them bathed in vinegar, and soon the pungent odor permeated the entire gunboat.

With the river level steadily falling, numerous men succumbing to illness, and his coal and provisions dwindling, Farragut began to despair. On July 4, confiding his frustrations to Welles, he wrote that he had “almost abandoned the idea of getting the ships down the river unless this place is either taken possession of or cut off.” Less than a week later, Farragut received a telegram from Welles, asking him to send twelve mortar boats and the Octorara with Porter to Hampton Roads. Porter wasted little time. He left Commander Renshaw in the Westfield with the remaining mortar vessels and departed the following afternoon. Porter ordered the vessels’ shot holes patched and painted over to conceal any damage. Then, with his officers resplendent in their full dress uniforms and the enlisted men dressed in whites, Porter took his mortar schooners downstream in parade formation, past the curious Confederate onlookers lining the riverbanks to watch what they called a “retreat.” The following day, a Thursday, O’Neil received an appointment “as an Acting Master in the U.S. Gunboat Service” and was ordered to report to the USS Cincinnati. He bid his shipmates on the Winona farewell and joined the city-class gunboat, where he took the morning and dog watches on Saturday, July 12.

The meeting of Davis’s flotilla and Farragut’s fleet above Vicksburg had forced the Confederate commander, General Van Dorn, to reassess the city’s defenses. He then made a straightforward choice, ordering that the ram Arkansas be completed, put under his orders, and sent to attack the Yankee fleets. “It was better to die in action,” he argued, “than to be buried up at Yazoo City.” The ram’s new commander, Lieutenant Isaac N. Brown, a forty-five-year-old navy veteran from Kentucky, had towed the unfinished vessel down the Yazoo River from Greenwood to Yazoo City. There, Brown pressed ahead with almost superhuman effort to turn the hulk into a powerful ram. He procured workmen and supplies to finish the vessel, which had been labeled a “bucket of bolts” by its crew, in part because Brown had plated its 18-inch-thick wooden casemate, which sloped at a 45-degree angle, with railroad iron. The 165-foot Arkansas had a lethal 16-foot-long ram, two 9-inch smoothbores, two 64-pounders, two 7-inch rifles, and two 32-pounder smoothbores for armament. A pair of unreliable low-pressure engines salvaged from the sunken Natchez powered its twin screws, giving the ram a speed of 8 knots, but with a 12-foot draft, even Brown doubted the ram’s suitability for the West’s shallow, narrow rivers.

On July 14, ordered into action prematurely, the Arkansas and its 100-man crew started down the Yazoo, stopping at Satartia to dry powder from the forward magazine that had been dampened by steam from the old, leaky boilers. The next day, which one of the sailors described as “bucolic, warm and calm,” with good visibility, the Arkansas approached the Old River channel near the Mississippi with the men at battle stations.

Late the previous evening, Phelps had come aboard the Carondelet to deliver what Walke later described as “formal, brief, and verbal” orders from Davis to make a reconnaissance up the Yazoo the following morning. Walke, who had been plagued by a fever off and on, replied that many of his crew were ill, and he could man only one division of guns. Brushing aside Walke’s objections, Phelps explained that based on information from deserters, the rebel ram would come down on July 15. Davis had dismissed these reports earlier, but now, Phelps felt, Davis believed them.

The Carondelet departed before dawn the next morning, and two hours later, with a pilot on board, it entered the Old River. To Walke’s surprise, he spotted the faster Tyler and Queen of the West passing him. They steamed a mile or so ahead of Walke’s ironclad. At about 7:00 the call “Boat in sight” interrupted the Tyler crew’s breakfast of coffee and hard biscuits. Squinting in an attempt to make out the vessel’s identity, the Tyler’s pilot exclaimed, “Looks like a ‘chocolate brown’ house.” The captain, Lieutenant William Gwin, focused on the steamer’s huge smokestack through his spyglass and immediately recognized the vessel as the rebel ram Arkansas. Through the ram’s two gun ports, Gwin could clearly see heavy guns. “The ram not having any colors flying, we fired a shot at her,” Gwin wrote in his initial report.

From the ram’s shield, Brown saw the federal timberclad and, in the light of the rising sun, two more vessels. Gathering his officers, he said, “Gentlemen, in seeking combat as we now do we must win or perish.” Admonishing them to fight their way through the enemy fleet and on no account allow the Arkansas to be taken by the Yankees, Brown told them, “Go to your guns!”

A puff of powder, followed by a cannonball whizzing over the pilothouse, prompted Gwin to order the Tyler’s forward gun deck to open fire on the rebel ram. From half a mile off, the Tyler’s gunners took aim on the Arkansas, which returned fire from a pair of bow guns. Gwin had stopped the Tyler’s engines, but he now called down to chief engineer Goble in the engine room for full speed astern. “I then commenced backing down the river, hoping that I would have speed enough to keep ahead of her and be able to fight most of my battery,” Gwin explained, “but finding she was approaching me rapidly, I rounded down the river and took a position about 100 yards distant on the port bow of the Carondelet, which vessel was standing down.”

The Carondelet’s crew had also been piped to breakfast when they heard the report of a gun. Morison recalled, “I looked through a port to see what caused all the commotion and I beheld our gunboat and ram retreating from a most formidable-looking monster which was coming down river in style, at the same time keeping up a steady fire on the Tylor.” Walke barked at the gun captain to fire a bow gun at the rebel ram, then paused to decide whether to advance or retreat. If he fought the rebel ram bow on, he risked being outmaneuvered; if he backed down, he exposed the gunboat’s vulnerable stern. Walke turned to the helmsman and ordered him to go back down the river. The Carondelet’s engines churned, and it sped down the Yazoo as fast as the stokers could feed the boilers.

When the Tyler neared the Carondelet, Walke hailed Gwin and ordered him to report the approach of the Arkansas to Davis. The Tyler’s captain shook his head and kept the timberclad’s 30-pounder stern rifle blasting away at the Arkansas. Occasionally, the Tyler’s broadside battery joined in to support the embattled Carondelet.

For the next hour, the Arkansas pursued all three federal vessels, pummeling them with fire from its bow guns. “I had got my gun cast loose and ready as I could, which I did,” Morison wrote. “I now became very warm, so I pulled my shirt and hat off, which made me feel better. The decks were very slippery and I asked for sand, which was not to be had, but I soon got a substitute in the shape of a flood of water which came pouring in through a hole in the wheelhouse, caused by an eight-inch solid shot which came through our stern, gutted the captain’s cabin, passed through the wheelhouse, steerage and several steam pipes, and knocked a twelve inch oak log into splinters and then rolled out on deck.” The Arkansas was close astern of the Carondelet now and “steadily gaining on us,” the diarist noted. When Walke saw the ram headed straight for the Carondelet, raking the gunboat with its 64-pounder guns, he explained, “I avoided her prow, and as she came up we exchanged broadsides.” As the ram swept by, the Carondelet’s bow gunners gave the rebel a few rounds. “I got several good shots at her,” Morison claimed, “but I imagine without effect, as her iron-cased sides did not look as if they were broached. She mounted ten heavy guns, three on each side and two forward and aft. Altogether she was a mighty unpleasant looking critter to be closing you up and at the same time throwing solid shot through you.” As the Arkansas steamed past, Walke could see two holes in its side and the crew frantically pumping and bailing.

“At last she touched our stern and then ranged up on our starboard side,” gunner Morison wrote. “As she touched our stern, I fired the last shot I could at her and came forward just as she poured her broadside guns into us, which stove in our plating as if it were glass.” The ram then ran across Carondelet’s bows, and Morison “fired a sixty-eight into her at less than two yards distance, with what effect I don’t know. We then tried to bring our port broadside to bear on her but she was not in range.” Fire from the Arkansas had, however, cut the federal gunboat’s wheel ropes and destroyed steam gauges and water pipes. “We had got aground, but after some work we got afloat and followed her down as fast as our disabled condition would permit us. I now had time to look around and I found that we had four killed, sixteen wounded (some very severely) and twelve missing, all in one short hour’s fight.” Many had leaped overboard to escape the steam and the enemy fire.

From the Tyler, acting master Coleman, signal officer for the day, caught a final glimpse of the Carondelet up against the bank in a cloud of enveloping smoke, “with steam escaping from her ports and . . . men jumping overboard.” Coleman and Gwin both assumed the Arkansas would pause to take the Pook turtle as a prize, but instead the ram pressed downstream. They all remembered what had happened to the Mound City on the White River, when one shot to the steam chest had inflicted so many casualties. “There was nothing reassuring in the present situation,” Coleman noted, “for we were even more vulnerable than the ‘Mound City,’ and it was evident that the ‘Tyler’ was no match for an armored vessel such as was her antagonist.”

Gwin managed to keep a lead of 200 or 300 yards on the Arkansas for a time, but then the ram began to gain on the Tyler, its bow guns raking the timberclad’s stern. Gunner Herman Peters’s stern gun crew kept firing on the rebel ironclad, but their shots merely bounced off the ram’s sloping sides. Gwin remained grimly determined to outrun the Arkansas, but shot and shell from his pursuer began to take a toll. A detachment of army sharpshooters from the 4th Wisconsin Regiment bore the brunt of the enemy fire, which killed the sharpshooters’ captain early in the engagement. Five soldiers were also killed, and another five wounded. Then, as Gwin watched, a rebel shot took pilot John Sebastian’s left arm clean off. He crumpled to the deck in a pool of blood, but the second pilot, David Hiner, took the wheel. As several crewmen carried Sebastian below to the surgeon, Gwin and Coleman realized that, with the Carondelet now out of the fight, the only other federal vessel able to fend off the rebel ram was the Queen of the West, which had been hanging back several hundred yards astern of the Tyler. Gwin “called out to her commander to move up, and ram the ‘Arkansas,’” Coleman wrote. “His only response to this was to commence backing vigorously out of range, while Gwin was expressing his opinion of him through the trumpet in that vigorous English a commander in battle sometimes uses, when thing do not go altogether right.”

Although struck eleven times by enemy shot and shell and pummeled by grape from the rebel ram, the Tyler continued moving downstream. The timberclad’s stern gun crew blazed away at the rebel ram, but many of the crewmen stood helplessly by their posts, unable to fight back. “Things looked squally,” Coleman wrote. “Blood was flowing freely on board, and the crash of timbers from time to time as the ‘Arkansas’ riddled us seemed to indicate that some vital part would be soon struck. In fact our steering apparatus was shot away, and we handled the vessel for some time soley with the engine[s] until repairs could be made.” The killed and wounded, four of them headless, lay everywhere on the Tyler’s deck, and the woodwork was spattered with blood and shreds of flesh and hair. Few of the Tyler’s crewmen escaped without bloody evidence on their clothing. A cut in the port safe pipe had enveloped the timberclad’s after section in steam. “All knew that the vessel might go down and all of us be killed, but there would be no surrender,” Coleman recalled. Gwin “made that reassuring remark to the first lieutenant in my presence, when the officer suggested such a possibility. We were fighting for existence and we all knew it.”

Below, assistant surgeon Cadwallader and his men worked feverishly to care for the men wounded by grape and shrapnel, many of them army sharpshooters. So far, the Tyler had lost thirteen men killed, thirty-four wounded, and ten missing in the fight with the Arkansas.

Early that morning, when the Tyler finally turned out into the Mississippi River at Tuscumbia Bend, O’Neil recorded the moment the Cincinnati sighted it. “At 5:15 heavy firing was heard up the Yazoo river which increased and apparently drew near until 7:21 when the ‘Queen’ came out of the Yazoo, followed immediately by the ‘Tyler,’ firing her stern guns and flying signal ‘I Have seen the Enemy.’”

When Gwin ducked out of the Tyler’s pilothouse to the welcome sight of the federal fleet, he supposed “they would be in readiness to give her [Arkansas] a warm reception,” Coleman recalled. “This was not the case. The heavy firing had been heard of course but it was supposed that the expedition was on its return and shelling the woods and no preparations were made to meet the emergency.”

As the Tyler and Queen of the West came closer and the gunfire grew louder, other officers in the fleet realized the Tyler’s dilemma, and cries of “Clear for action!” and “Beat to quarters” rang out. Crews raced to man their guns, and exasperated commanders swore and called down to their engine rooms to raise steam. None of the commanding officers of Farragut’s ships, Davis’s ironclads, or Ellet’s rams had anticipated the arrival of the Arkansas. Most had only enough steam up to maintain their engines. The Arkansas had caught them all napping. “Got steam up and slipped our cable immediately, stood in towards the Mississippi shore,” O’Neil noted. “No other vessel in either fleet, was yet underway with the exception of the ‘Tyler’ & ‘Queen of the West.’ Farragut made signal to two of his vessels the ‘Oneida’ & ‘Winona’ to get underway when the ‘Tyler’ first made her appearance but unfortunately he [came] upon the only two of his boats that had no steam.”

The rebel ram also surprised the men of Lieutenant Kidder Breese’s five mortar vessels, anchored just out of gunshot range on the right bank of the river. Although Breese had heard gunfire up the river, he did not raise the alarm until an officer came to the bank and hailed him. “[He] stated that the rebel ram Arkansas was attempting to run through the fleet, and she would probably succeed.” Breese immediately passed the word to the division to heave short.

Swept along by the Mississippi’s current, the Arkansas approached the federal fleet. Vicksburg was still a ways off, but Brown’s eyes rested on the enemy in every direction. “It seemed at a glance as if the whole navy has come to keep me away from that heroic city.” Observing federal rams and ironclads poised to oppose the Arkansas, Brown told the pilot, “Brady, shave that line of men-of-war as close as you can, so that the rams will not have room to gather head-way in coming out to strike us.”

As the Arkansas rounded the point at about 8:00, the mortar flotilla’s Second Division commander, William B. Renshaw, signaled the mortar schooners to get under way. They all dropped down close to the bank, except for the Sidney C. Jones, which was aground and had been left in a defenseless position. The Jones’s commander, acting master Charles Jack, signaled Renshaw, “Shall I destroy her?” Renshaw told Jack to “get ready” to blow up the Jones, but not until he received orders to do so “or the ram was actually coming down upon him.” Renshaw then went to see Bell, who reported that Farragut had directed him to bring the mortars to bear on the rebel batteries. Meanwhile, the Jones’s crew spiked the mortar and two 32-pounder guns and detonated the explosives, blowing the schooner up in a shower of fragments. It burned to the water’s edge. Despite a hail of enemy fire from guns and sharpshooters on the opposite bank, the schooners John Griffith, Oliver H. Lee, and Henry Jones managed to open fire with their mortars on the rebel batteries.

Hoping to reach the shelter of the rebel batteries on the bluffs, the captain of the Arkansas had decided to steam rapidly through the Yankee fleet. “The ‘Arkansas,’ as the Rebel Ram proved to be, held her course steadily along the Louisiana shore,” O’Neil explained, “between the fleet & the transports along the banks, firing briskly in all directions, but with apparently little effect except in one or two instances.” In the first instance, the Arkansas “got a shot into the Boilers of the ram ‘Lancaster’ killing or wounding many by escaping steam.”

CSS Arkansas Part II

The Lancaster, anchored above the fleet with some steam up, claimed to be the first to see the danger. Colonel Ellet signaled the ship to attack the rebel ram. “As she rounded to give her a little of our kind of warfare, a 64 pound ball came through our bulwarks and steam drum,” a correspondent told readers. “Our lead engineer, John Wybrant, was knocked down and badly scalded inwardly; second engineer, John Goshorn, badly scalded, jumped overboard, and missing.” Enemy fire also injured three soldiers and seven black deckhands and coal heavers. “One contraband had both arms and a leg shot off, badly scalded besides; he died a few minutes later.”

From the Richmond, Commander Alden could see the Lancaster just astern. The scalded men “jumped overboard, and some of them never came to the surface again,” he recalled. Ten or twelve men began swimming, but some just held on to the rudder. The Lancaster ordered a boat to rescue the men, but according to Alden, “By this time she had drifted astern of us, and the ‘Arkansas’ came on down, and as she passed we fired our whole broadside!” One shot knocked Brown off the platform where he stood, breaking a marine glass in his hand. Without flinching, Brown resumed his place directing the ram’s movements. When a seaman called out that the colors had been shot way, midshipman Dabney Scales dashed up a ladder, ignoring a hail of fire, to bend on the colors again. Keeping to midstream, the Arkansas ran the gauntlet of federal vessels anchored on either side and seemingly escaped damage. The Richmond fired a broadside at the ram, which momentarily disappeared in the smoke. The Hartford’s gunners eagerly watched for the smoke to lift so they could take a shot, but the Arkansas passed by the flagship and then turned to. Suddenly, when it was a half mile astern, the Arkansas fired two shots at the flagship, which missed, and the ram steamed downriver.

“The fleet kept up a brisk fire on her as she passed with all the guns practicable,” the Cincinnati’s O’Neil explained. “Our fire was, however, necessarily limited owing to the great danger of hitting our Transports ranged along the bank.” The Cincinnati, below the fleet on picket duty, still kept its position. The ram steamed off toward the Cincinnati “as if going to ram us, but probably finding the water too shoal for her continued on her former course. We opened a heavy fire on her, with apparently good effect and which she returned.”

When the Arkansas came to the end of the line of enemy ships, Brown recalled, “I now called the officers up to take a look at what we had just come through and to get the fresh air, and as the little group of heroes closed around me with their friendly words of congratulations, a heavy rifle-shot passed close over our heads; it was a parting salutation, and if aimed two feet lower would have been to us the most injurious of the battle.” To Farragut’s “mortification,” the battered Arkansas steamed on to the Vicksburg wharf and the protection of the Confederate batteries.

The Arkansas had “successfully run through a fleet of sixteen men of war, six of them ironclad, and mounting in the aggregate not less than one hundred & sixty guns,” O’Neil commented. “A far more brilliant achievement than that accomplished by the ‘Virginia’ at Hampton Roads.”

Visibly shaken by the rebel ram’s success, Farragut immediately called for a conference with Davis. In the Hartford’s cabin the flag officer told Davis that he intended to have his fleet raise steam and immediately go down to destroy the ram. Davis tried to dissuade the irate Farragut from this rash and dangerous action, arguing that the Arkansas was comparatively harmless where it was. When Davis declined to attack the ram, Farragut reluctantly agreed to wait until late afternoon to run past the rebel batteries. Davis then returned to his flagship.

The soldiers and citizens of Vicksburg greeted the Arkansas’s arrival with shouts of joy. General Van Dorn dashed off a telegram to President Jefferson Davis, announcing the ram’s safe arrival and assuring him that it would “soon be repaired, and then ho! for New Orleans.”

Late in the afternoon the rumble of thunder and a cool breeze announced the arrival of a storm. The ensuing rain and wind delayed the fleet’s preparation to run past Vicksburg, but just before 7:00 p.m. Farragut’s ships got under way in two columns. Farragut’s parting signal left no doubt about their mission: “The ram must be destroyed.” Davis sent the Sumter down to Farragut and instructed the Benton, Louisville, and Cincinnati to draw fire from the upper rebel battery.

Darkness fell as Farragut’s ships neared the upper battery. When the Confederate gunners opened fire, the Hartford’s gun crews returned fire, aiming at the gun flashes. As the ship approached the enemy, shot and shell began whistling overhead. Several enemy shots struck the flagship’s hull, and one 9-inch shell carried away the starboard fore-topsail bitts on the berth deck but did not explode. Marines stood by their gun and did not suffer any injuries, but they heard the disturbing news that their commanding officer, Captain John Broome, had suffered a bruised head and shoulder. He would recover, but master’s mate George Lounsberry; Charles Jackson, the officers’ cook; and seaman Cameron were killed by a cannonball. Six others were wounded.

Passing the rebel battery had inflicted a few casualties on the crews of the Richmond, Sciota, and Winona as well. A shell explosion killed one man on the Winona, and to keep it from sinking, the ship had to be run on shore.

As Farragut’s port column passed just thirty yards from shore, he strained to see the rebel ram in the darkness but could only make out the enemy’s gun flashes. Lee claimed he had seen the Arkansas lying under a bank in an exposed position and had fired two solid shots at it from the Oneida’s 11-inch pivot guns.

When Farragut’s vessels returned, Bell, now commanding the Brooklyn, boarded the Hartford and found a dispirited Farragut. They had not destroyed the rebel ram, and Farragut’s fleet had suffered five killed and sixteen wounded. Davis’s squadron had thirteen killed and thirty-four wounded. Bell recalled that Farragut vented his anger and disappointment, saying, “The ram must be attacked with resolution and be destroyed, or she will destroy us.”

That evening, one of the Hartford’s officers put pen to paper and wrote a letter to his family. “The fight was a hard one,” he told them, “and the firing on both sides was terrific. . . . Our decks were slippery, and in some places, fairly swimming with blood.” He revealed that in the morning he would have to bury a shipmate. “I hope and pray this war may soon be ended; but God’s will be done. This rebellion must be crushed if it costs the life of every loyal citizen in the country. The ram can be seen lying off Vicksburg, and it is expected that she will come down. But we are ready for her now, and will not be caught napping again.”

The morning of July 16 dawned cold and rainy. “Some of our missing has turned up and report three of their number drowned in endeavoring to swim ashore,” the Carondelet’s Morison wrote. “Our dead were taken ashore at noon and burned. A great many of our crew sick with the ague. In fact, all hands look dull and stupid.” Many of the Hartford’s crew had taken ill as well. “Half of the marine guard is on the medical list,” Private Smith noted. “Fifty odd are on the list.” The Carondelet remained with the fleet for several days, awaiting repairs to its steam pipes. “The number of our sick still increasing,” Morison reported, “the captain being amongst the number.” On Sunday he delivered a message to Walke, who had gone to the hospital boat Red Rover that morning. “Saw some of our wounded and sick. All seemed to be doing well. Found that some ‘Sisters of Charity’ were stationed on the boat and all the patients spoke very highly of their patience and self-denial.”

On July 21 the Carondelet began taking on coal for the journey to Cairo. “Thirty contrabands were sent to coal her and help work her to Cairo,” Morison wrote. He was put in charge of some of the contrabands “to see that they worked and to remain until the job was finished.” Supervising the coaling kept Morison up until 3:30 a.m., when he got his grog and turned in for a short nap. The next day, “the first cutter also brought whatever of our sick were able to stand the journey to Cairo. Twenty five of the contrabands were kept on aboard, the remainder being sent back to their quarters about 2 P.M. Carondelet then got under way and headed toward Cairo.”

Still smarting from his failure to destroy the Arkansas, Farragut gathered Bell, Alden, De Camp, and Renshaw the following morning for a conference. He proposed to take the three larger ships and attack at night. Bell wrote in his journal, “I was opposed to the night attack for the reason that the one just made was a failure; that a low object against the bank could not be seen.” Bell favored a daytime attack, and Alden agreed, suggesting that Davis’s ironclads and rams be given the mission. According to Bell, Farragut responded that he could not control Davis’s ships and could trust only his own vessels.

Now determined to attack the Arkansas during daylight, Farragut ordered preparations made and the Sumter fitted out to ram the rebel ironclad. On July 16 the Arkansas moved into the river, turned, and went back to the Vicksburg wharf, as if taunting the federal fleet. Farragut fired off a message to Davis, reminding him that the country would blame both of them for any disaster that occurred if the ram escaped. He proposed a combined attack on the rebel ram. Farragut promised his full support if Davis would come down with his ironclad vessels past the first enemy battery and meet him off Vicksburg to fight both the batteries and the ram.

In his usual calm, thoughtful manner, Davis replied to Farragut’s proposed attack by arguing that the Arkansas was “harmless in her present position” and would be more easily destroyed if it came out from under the protection of the batteries. Explaining that he was as eager as Farragut to “put an end to this impudent rascal’s existence,” Davis advised vigilance and self-control, “pursuing the course that was adopted at Fort Columbus, Island No. 10, and Fort Pillow.” After reading Davis’s reply, Farragut called for another council with his commanders, explaining that he had tried to prod Davis into action, sending him two more messages suggesting that a few shells might disturb the people at work on the ram, but Davis refused to move.

This council of war resolved nothing, and the Arkansas remained off Vicksburg, an ever-present reminder of Yankee ineptness. For days Farragut and Davis engaged in a back-and-forth debate on a course of action to destroy the Arkansas, but they were unable to resolve their differences. On a scorching hot July morning, Farragut crossed the peninsula to see Davis, who informed him that Colonel Ellet had agreed to have one of his rams attack the Arkansas if the navy would attack the batteries. Chagrined at his rams’ inability to resolve the situation, Ellet had written to Davis on July 20, arguing that the Arkansas’s presence “so near us, is exerting a very pernicious influence upon the confidence of our crews, and even on the commanders of our boats.” He urged that some risk be taken to destroy the ram and to “re-establish our own prestige over the Mississippi River.” Farragut then reconsidered Ellet’s proposal to have Davis’s fleet engage the Confederate batteries while he sent one of his rams to attack the Arkansas at the wharf.

An article in the Cincinnati Daily Gazette offered additional details about the plan. On Monday morning, Davis, Farragut, and Ellet had met for an hour on board the ram Switzerland, the newspaper claimed, where Ellet’s daring plan “was fully discussed and explicitly agreed upon.” According to this article, “The Commanders agreed that the Essex which is regarded as little less than invulnerable, should go ahead of the ram and attack the Arkansas, grapple her, and so distract her attention as to give the ram the least possible opportunity of butting her.” Ellet agreed to furnish the Queen of the West for the enterprise, which was set to commence the next morning, July 22, at daybreak.

The success of the attack depended primarily on Davis’s flotilla, especially Porter’s ironclad Essex and Ellet’s ram Queen of the West. Davis’s fleet would bombard the upper batteries at Vicksburg, while the lower fleet under Farragut attacked the lower batteries. “The Essex was to push on, strike the rebel ram, deliver her fire, and then fall behind the lower fleet,” Porter explained. With the Sumter in the lead, Farragut’s vessels would get in position to cover the lower Confederate batteries and await the Arkansas, which Davis expected would be driven down or destroyed by the shot-proof Essex. Davis wanted the Sumter to attack and ram the Arkansas as well, and he rejected a last-minute message from Farragut suggesting that his fleet come up past the lower batteries to assist.

The Essex took on coal and sent its crew ashore to fill sandbags, which were packed on the upper deck over the boilers. The Louisville, Cincinnati, Benton, and Bragg also prepared for the attack. Ellet selected a volunteer crew for the Queen of the West “and told his men in plain terms that he wanted no man to accompany him that was not ready to risk his life in the project.”

On Tuesday morning, July 22, Davis’s three gunboats, the Benton, the Cincinnati, and the Louisville, steamed down the Mississippi to shell the upper rebel batteries as the Essex and the Queen of the West got under way to make their assault on the Arkansas, which was moored that morning to the riverbank with its head facing upriver. “We were at anchor with only enough men to fight two of our guns,” Brown recalled, “but by the zeal of our officers, who mixed in with these men, as part of the guns’ crews, we were able to train at the right moment and fire all the guns which could be brought to bear upon our cautiously coming assailants.”

In his recollections of the engagement, Lieutenant George W. Gift wrote, “In a few minutes we observed the ironclad steamer Essex steaming around the point and steering for us.” As the Essex and Queen approached the upper battery, the rebel gunners opened fire. The ram took aim at the Essex with its Columbiad, but the Essex pressed on toward the Arkansas. Gift’s gun crew got off a shot that struck the federal ironclad, but “on she came like a mad bull, nothing daunted or overawed.” Watching the Essex head toward his vessel, with the Queen of the West following, Brown realized that Porter’s plan was to have the Queen run into the Arkansas with its flat bow and shove it aground so that his ram could butt a hole in Brown’s ram.

Porter did just as Brown expected. He brought the Essex abreast of the Arkansas, turned, and attempted to ram the rebel amidships. Brown, however, had cut the bow hawser, hoping to let the current swing the bow toward the federal ironclad. Every minute counted, and with its speed decreased by the turn, the Essex missed the lethal, pointed ram and slammed into the Arkansas at an angle. “At the moment of collision, when our guns were muzzle to muzzle,” a shot from one of the Essex’s bow guns struck the Arkansas a foot forward of the forward broadside port, “breaking off the ends of the railroad bars and driving them in among our people,” Brown wrote. The shot crossed the gun deck and hit the breech of a starboard gun, cutting down eight of Brown’s men and wounding six more. Splinters flew in every direction. As Porter brought the Essex alongside the Arkansas, the ram poured out a broadside. Brown went ahead on the port screw, turned, and brought his stern guns to bear. In the face of murderous fire from rebel batteries and riflemen, some of them only 100 feet away, Porter’s men could not board the Arkansas, so he ordered the Essex to back off and drift downstream.

On the Queen of the West, correspondent Dungannon had a ringside seat for the encounter with the rebel ram. He watched the Essex about a mile ahead of him reply to the rebel’s fire and then speed past. “This disconcerted Col. Ellet considerably for he expected to find the iron-clad vessel in close quarters with the rebel gunboat. Just at this critical moment, too, the Flag-Officer Davis waved his hand from the Benton, to Ellet and shouted, ‘Good luck, good luck!’ which Ellet understood to be, ‘Go back Go back!’ and immediately gave orders for the engines to be reversed.” When Ellet realized his mistake, he ordered the Queen to head for the Arkansas, which lay with its prow upstream. Ellet and his son Edward stood on the upper deck of the Queen of the West, and as it approached the Arkansas, a shower of bullets from sharpshooters along the shore whistled around their heads. The sound of shattering hull timbers followed as the rebel ram fired its forward and larboard guns. Dungannon braced himself as the ship struck the Arkansas just aft of the third gun on the port side. Delayed by the confusing signal, the Queen of the West managed to strike only a glancing blow on the Arkansas, stripping some of its railroad irons half off but not seriously damaging the ram. The Queen of the West drifted astern, pummeled by fire from the rebel ram, and Ellet saw that he faced a “fiery gauntlet of a mile of batteries to be run.” Newsman Dungannon gave the colonel credit as a “courageous commander” who “nerved himself to the terrible task,” coolly giving orders for the direction of his vessel and finally reaching the turning point in safety, “amid a perfect hurricane of shot and shell.”

To cover the run past the batteries by the Essex and Queen of the West, the gunboats Benton, Cincinnati, and Louisville had engaged the upper rebel batteries. According to O’Neil on the Cincinnati, “In this engagement our upper works were badly cut up, but no one on board was injured.”

Damaged but still afloat, the Arkansas slipped away upstream. The contest with the Essex had been so close that unburned powder coming through the ram’s gun ports had blackened and burned the faces of some of the surviving crewmen. And, to Gift’s astonishment, he discovered the ram’s forecastle littered with hundreds of unbroken glass marbles—the kind boys play with—fired from one of the Essex’s guns. The Essex and Sumter fled downstream, now cut off from Davis’s command. To Davis’s consternation, the Sumter had not participated at all.

This failed attempt to destroy the Arkansas brought recriminations from all sides. Ellet laid the blame on Davis, who in turn pointed the finger at Farragut. Davis argued that Farragut had not cooperated with his efforts above the upper batteries and had withheld his squadron’s support. Nettled, Farragut defended himself, reminding Bell of the letter received from Davis the night before the battle in which “he specifically told me that the lower fleet were to have no share in the affair until the ram was driven down to us.”64

Davis focused his displeasure on the Sumter, which had failed to come up. In a petulant letter to Foote, Phelps argued that Farragut should have advised the Sumter’s commander that his plans had changed and allowed him to act independently. “Because the lower fleet failed to act the whole affair failed of its purpose though the attempt was a gallant one,” Phelps told Foote. “The whole thing was a fizzle. Every day we heard great things threatened only to realize fizzles.” Phelps was not optimistic about the situation of the lower flotilla: five of the thirteen vessels were undergoing repairs, 40 percent of the men were sick, and the vessels on the river were being fired on by enemy batteries. Amidst all this, the officers and men of the two squadrons could agree on only one important fact: the second attempt to take Vicksburg had failed dismally.

With the water level in the Mississippi falling, threatening to strand his larger vessels, Farragut was eager to move downstream, so he welcomed a telegram from Welles the next day that read: “Go down river at discretion. Not expected to remain up during the season.” Farragut then called Bell, Alden, Lee, and Crosby to the flagship for a council, informing them that the Navy Department had given him permission to go downriver. The Arkansas still posed a threat, but former fleet captain Bell argued that mounting another attack with so many vessels in need of repair and so many men sick would be inadvisable. When all his commanders had spoken their mind, advising him to abandon the pursuit of the Arkansas and the Vicksburg operation, Farragut dismissed the four officers and sat down to pen a letter to Welles. He told the secretary that to attack the ram “under the forts with the present amount of work before us would be madness.”

The following day, July 24, as the thermometer climbed toward ninety degrees, Private Smith watched from his station on the forecastle as Farragut’s ships weighed anchor. “At two o’clock the whole fleet got in line and proceeded down the river. The river boats carry the troops and also tow the mortar schooners. The Richmond, Hartford and Brooklyn bring up the rear, the Brooklyn last.” No one regretted leaving Vicksburg and its debilitating climate, especially Farragut. Left behind were the slaves who had toiled in the heat and malarial swamps to dig the canal, denied their promised freedom. Their frantic, tearful pleas to be taken on board fell on deaf ears but tugged at the heartstrings of the bluejackets who had shared the arduous work with them. Farragut intended to drop Williams’s troops off at Baton Rouge and then take his fleet into the Gulf of Mexico.

Farragut was relieved to be leaving Mississippi’s infernal heat and mosquitoes, but he remained despondent over his failure to destroy the Arkansas. In his diary, Welles expressed his own opinion of the saga: “The most disreputable naval affair of the War was the descent of the steam ram Arkansas through both squadrons till she hauled in under the batteries of Vicksburg, and there the two flag officers abandoned the place and the ironclad ram, Farragut and his force going down to New Orleans, and Davis proceeding with his flotilla up the river.”

With the lower fleet gone, Davis had decided it would be safe to send his squadron away from Vicksburg. With 40 percent of his men ill with malaria and scurvy, Davis knew he had to move to a healthier climate. In his diary he wrote, “Sickness had made sudden and terrible havoc with my people. It came, as it were, all at once.” A request for gunboats from General Samuel Curtis at Helena, Arkansas, offered further enticement, and Davis knew his withdrawal “would not involve any loss of control over the river.” Davis explained that he could not have taken Vicksburg without troops, and “this being so I am as well at Helena as at any point lower down.” Recent reports from transports and towing vessels confirmed that if Davis had remained at Vicksburg any longer, he would not “have had engineers nor firemen enough to bring the vessels up. As it is we have depended very much on the contrabands to do the work in front of the fires.” A reporter also noted, “It has become an absolute necessity to employ negroes in almost every capacity in the flotilla, for they alone seemed adapted to endure the rigors of this plague-infested atmosphere.”

Illness had deprived Ellet of many of his men as well, and he told Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that he had “to employ large numbers of blacks, who came to me asking protection.” Some of these were the African Americans employed by General Williams and left on the Louisiana shore. Stanton instructed Ellet to employ “such negroes as you require on your boats, and send the others who are under your protection to Memphis to be employed by General Sherman.”

Struggling against the current, the flagship Benton, assisted by the General Bragg and the Switzerland, made it to Helena on the last day of July. After only a few days, however, Davis decided to go to Cairo, leaving Phelps in command at Helena.

1862, CSS Arkansas is destroyed by Cmdr. Isaac N. Brown, CSN, to prevent her capture by USS Essex.

Battle of Navarino

The Naval Battle of Navarino (1827). Oil painting by Garneray.

The Great Age of Fighting had then passed its peak, and there would be only one more large sailing fleet battle, the one-sided slaughter of an Egyptian-Turkish squadron by a combined fleet composed of British, French, and Russian warships at Navarino Bay in 1827. The forces were not large: 11 allied battleships and 16 other ships faced seven Turkish battleships and 58 smaller ships.

The last great naval battle of the sailing ship era arose out of the Greek War of Independence, 1822-32. In an attempt to control the conflict Britain joined France and Russia, which had wider ambitions. When Sir Edward Codrington led the combined fleets into Navarino Bay on 20 October 1827 determined to forestall a Turkish attack on the Greek island of Hydra, battle was inevitable. The numerous but smaller ships of the Turco-Egyptian fleet were almost annihilated in a savage close-range battle by the superior firepower of the allied ships, especially Codrington’s flagship the new 84-gun Asia. While a new ministry in London considered Navarino ‘untoward’ and sacked Codrington, the French and Russians celebrated a rare victory.

After initial negotiations failed with the Ottoman Sultanate, Britain, France, and Russia prepared to enforce the provisions of the Treaty of London through military action. In the summer of 1827, a large Ottoman-Egyptian fleet was being assembled in Alexandria for operations in the Greek theater, and Allied commanders sent a warning to Mehmet and Mahmud not to send the flotilla. The Ottoman-Egyptian leaders ignored what they believed to be meddling by the Allies into Sultanate affairs. As the fleet left Alexandria for Greece on August 5, 1827, the Ottoman leadership was finally in a position to finish off the remaining partisan rebel fighters and in putting an end to what had become known as the Greek War of Independence.

On August 20, 1827, Vice Admiral Sir Edward Codrington, commander of the Allied combined naval task force, received instructions from the Admiralty informing him that he was to impose and enforce the provisions of the London Treaty on both sides and to interdict the flow of reinforcements and supplies from Anatolia and Egypt to Ottoman forces in Greece. The application of military force against the Ottoman-Egyptian fleet, the communication stressed, should be used only as a last resort. On August 29, the Sultanate formally rejected the Treaty of London’s provisions, aimed at granting Greece autonomy while keeping the province within the empire. From September 8 to 12, 1827, the Ottoman-Egyptian fleet from Alexandria joined other Ottoman warships in Navarino Bay (present-day Pylos), located on the west coast of the Peloponnese peninsula in the Ionian Sea.

The Ottoman warships within the bay, in addition to imperial ships, were a combined force with warships from Algeria and Tunis as well as the Egyptian naval vessels. Ibrahim, Mehmet’s son and in operational command of Egyptian-Ottoman forces, was contacted by Codrington and agreed to halt fighting until he received further instructions from his father who was involved in communications with the Western allies at his headquarters in Egypt. However, on October 1, the Greek rebels continued operations against Ottoman forces that had been ordered to temporarily stand down, leading Ibrahim to disregard his agreement with Codrington and in resuming attacks against the Greeks.

On October 13, Codrington was joined off Navarino Bay by French and Russian warships. While Codrington believed his combined fleet had the necessary firepower to destroy the Ottoman ships arrayed in Navarino Bay, his instructions were to impose the provisions of the treaty peaceably if possible. Therefore, he sailed his fleet into Navarino Bay in single column with the British in the lead, followed by the French, and then the Russians. Eleven Allied ships-of-the-line (average 70 guns each) and 9 frigates and 4 smaller warships, bringing to bear nearly 1,300 guns, all sailed boldly into the bay where 70 warships of the Ottoman Empire lay at anchor with more than 2,000 cannon at the ready. Adding to the Turkish firepower were the shore batteries, which were under Ottoman control.

The Ottoman fleet had taken a horseshoe or arc formation with three lines, and the ships-of-the-line anchored in the first wave. The Allied forces had superior firepower in that their cannon aboard the ships-of-the-line were 32-pound guns, as most of the cannon available to the Turks were 24-pounders. Additionally, while the Allies possessed 11 ships-of-the-line, the Ottomans had only 3 and, while the Turks had more than 70 ships, 58 were smaller vessels such as corvettes and brigs. Further still, the Allied crews, particularly the British and the French, had extensive combat experience during the Napoleonic Wars, while most of the Ottoman crews’ only experience was in fighting smaller vessels. As if the superior firepower and superior gunnery expertise were not enough to tilt the odds in the Allies’ favor, the Ottomans’ ability to fight the Battle of Navarino was severely constrained by an additional and unforeseen development.

The Egyptian fleet present at Navarino Bay had largely been constructed or purchased with supervision by European naval officers, mostly French. The fleet had also been trained by a team of French officers under the overall direction of Captain J. M. Letellier,and these men served aboard the Egyptian-Ottoman warships as “shadow officers.” On October 19, the day before the Battle of Navarino, French Rear Admiral De Rigny, serving with the combined Allied fleet, convinced the French officers to withdraw from the Egyptian fleet. They removed themselves to a smaller vessel in the bay and attempted to provide logistical advice to the Egyptians, but the damage to morale and effectiveness was significant. Most of the Ottoman sailors had been pressed into service (essentially forced conscription), and, as the French shadow officers withdrew from their crews, one can imagine the sadness some of the officers must have felt for these unfortunate and unwitting souls as powerful naval artillery prepared to open fire at them from point-blank range as well as the anxiety and fear that must have permeated the young Egyptian and Ottoman sailors.

At 2 p.m. on October 20, 1827, British Admiral Codrington aboard his flagship, HMS Asia, led his combined fleet into Navarino Bay. The Ottoman shore batteries guarding the entrance to the bay were ordered to hold their fire while Ibrahim Pasha sent a launch to Codrington’s approaching vessel. The message from Ibrahim to Codrington was simple: “You do not have my permission to enter the bay.” Codrington returned the Ottoman launch with his reply to Ibrahim: “I have come to give orders, not take them.” Codrington continued on and, as his ships began to drop anchor at essentially point-blank range from the Ottoman fleet, a boat that had been lowered from the Allied ship Dartmouth proceeded in the direction of an Ottoman fire ship (a fire ship was a relatively small vessel loaded with flammable and combustible material in barrels mounted in the bow for use against an enemy target). The Ottomans opened fire on the approaching boat with musketry, and the exchanges escalated throughout the bay. In his communication with the Admiralty the following day, Codrington stated:

I gave orders that no guns should be fired unless guns were first fired by the Turks; and those orders were strictly observed. The three English ships were accordingly permitted to pass the batteries and to moor, as they did with great rapidity, without any act of open hostility, although there was evident preparation for it in all the Turkish ships; but upon the Dartmouth sending a boat to one of the fire vessels, Lieutenant G.W.H. Fitzroy and several of her crew were shot with musketry. This produced a defensive fire of musketry from the Dartmouth and La Syrene, bearing the flag of Rear-Admiral de Rigny; that succeeded by cannon- shot at the Rear-Admiral from one of the Egyptian ships, which, of course, brought on a return, and thus very shortly thereafter the battle became general.

Following two hours of battle, all Ottoman ships-of-the-line and most of the large Ottoman and Ottoman-allied frigates had been destroyed; after two more hours of fighting, the remaining Ottoman naval vessels had been sunk, scuttled, or set on fire. While no British, French, or Russian ships had been sunk, several ships had suffered significant damage; one Allied ship-of-the-line had 180 hull breaches (pierced by enemy cannon balls), while three Russian ships-of-the-line were essentially disabled, and three British ships, including Codrington’s flagship, HMS Asia, were required to sail for England to immediately undergo repairs. The Allied fleet suffered 181 killed and 487 wounded, while the Ottoman fleet incurred losses exceeding 4,000 killed or wounded.

Word of the outcome of the battle reverberated throughout the maritime-oriented community that was Greece. People, in village after village upon hearing the news, rushed to the village squares, as church bells rang out and huge bonfires were lit on the mountain tops of the Peloponnese and Mount Parnassus in Central Greece. Demoralized Ottoman garrisons in the occupied zones made little effort to curtail the celebrations. The Battle of Navarino marked that final naval engagement between sailing ships with unarmored hulls and brandishing muzzle-loading, smooth-bore cannon. It also marked the first use in naval history of a steam-powered warship, as the relatively small Greek ship, the Karteria of the fledgling revolutionary navy, propelled by steam-powered paddles (as well as sails) made its appearance during the battle.

After suffering the devastating loss of essentially his entire navy and forced to withdraw his now unsupportable infantry from Greece, Mehmet demanded extra compensation for his losses from the Sultan. Mehmet demanded of the Sultan the Ottoman Eyalet of Syria in exchange for the loss of his navy. In Arabic, the region surrounding Syria is referred to as Bilad al-Sham (the Levant), and for centuries those in Mesopotamia, Persia, Anatolia, and Egypt sought to control it, as it possessed abundant resources as well as featuring the world’s most ancient yet developed international trading communities centered on Damascus, Aleppo, and the Mediterranean coastal cities. Moreover, from Mehmet’s perspective, possession of Syria would also provide a buffer zone against Ottoman power as well as a buffer zone against any foreign power that eventually seized control of Constantinople and Anatolia. With Egyptian military capacity based in Syria, it would also provide Mehmet with a possible staging area for direct operations against the Ottomans, should at some future time Mehmet decide to march on Constantinople.

For those same reasons, the Sultan refused Mehmet’s demands. In response, Mehmet built a new navy, and on October 31, 1831, under Mehmet’s son, Ibrahim, Egypt invaded Syria in the opening phases of the First Turko-Egyptian War. Ibrahim’s forces quickly overran Syria except for the well-fortified port city of Acre, which required a six-month siege, before capitulating on May 27, 1832. However, the costs of the expedition required Mehmet to demand increases in fees and taxes from the Egyptian population, which created significant levels of domestic discontent with Mehmet’s leadership. In addition to the domestic front, Mehmet soon realized the discomfort of the major European powers with his actions against Constantinople. The slow dissolution of the empire was unfolding as the Europeans and Russians moved to control or liberate key pieces of empire property. However, both the Europeans and the Russians did not wish to see Mehmet enthroned as the new Ottoman Sultan with control in Egypt, the Levant, Anatolia, and the key port cities that dotted the Eastern Mediterranean coastline between Asia Minor (Turkey) and North Africa.

After the fall of the stubborn port city Acre, Ibrahim took the Egyptian army into Anatolia and defeated an Ottoman army led by Reshid Pasha at the Battle of Konya on December 21, 1832. Sultan Mahmud II realized that, should Mehmet wish it, the Egyptian army could now march largely uncontested on Constantinople. Moscow, sensing opportunity, offered Mahmud military assistance and concluded the Treaty of Hunkar Iskelesi (Unkiar Skelessi) with him on July 8, 1833, to formalize the Sultan’s acceptance. With the Russians seeking to continue their push south and in creating a greater Mediterranean presence by taking advantage of Ottoman weakness, the Treaty of Hunkar Iskelesi brought a sharp reaction from Britain and France. The treaty included a secret clause that opened the Dardanelles to Russia in time of war, while precluding its use by anyone else. Both nations negotiated the Convention of Kutahya between Mehmet and Mahmud II in May 1833, which stipulated that Mehmet would withdraw his forces from Anatolia and in return would receive Crete and the Hejaz (in Arabia) in compensation. Moreover, Ibrahim would be appointed Wali or governor of Syria in return for a yearly tribute payment to the Sultan.

Inhabitants of the Syrian Eyalet chaffed at their new Wali, uncomfortable with Egyptian policies at what they perceived to be excessive taxation, forced labor, a general disarmament of the population, and military conscription. A variety of incidents and uprisings began in 1834. On May 25, 1838, Mehmet informed the British and the French that he intended to declare independence from the Ottoman Empire and Mahmud II ordered his forces to advance into Syria. Ibrahim defeated them at the Battle of Nezib on June 24, 1839, and afterward, the Ottoman fleet defected to Mehmet. Mahmud II died almost immediately following the loss at Nezib and the defection of the Ottoman navy.

On July 15, 1840, Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia signed the Convention of London, which offered Mehmet hereditary rule in Egypt provided the North African country stayed in the Ottoman Empire and provided he withdrew from Syria and the coastal regions of Mt. Lebanon. Mehmet mistakenly believed that the French were prepared to side with Egypt and was consequently dismissive of British demands. Following this, British and Austrian naval forces blockaded the Nile Delta and shelled Beirut on September 11, 1840. On November 27, 1840, Mehmet agreed to the terms of the Convention of London and renounced claims over Crete, Syria, and the Hejaz. Also instituted in the 1841 agreement, to which France also reluctantly acquiesced, was the Anglo-Ottoman Commercial Convention of 1838, which abolished Mehmet’s monopolistic control over Egyptian domestic and foreign commerce. Further diminishing Mehmet’s power was a requirement in the agreement that compelled the reduction of the Egyptian army from more than 100,000 troops to no more than 18,000.

From 1820–1840, Ali enjoyed the continuous support of France. Following his defeats of 1840–41, Ali and his successors never recovered from the effects of the European intervention, although his grandson, Ismail (1863–79) came closest to emulating the dynasty founder. Ismail’s heavy borrowing at ruinous discounts and interest rates for his ambitious schemes of military, economic, and social modernization hastened his downfall. By the time of his dismissal in 1879, Britain and France were exercising a dual control over Egypt’s finances under the authority of a public debt commission. After mounting crises beginning with the Urabi coup d’etat in September 1881, Britain backed into the occupation of Egypt the following July, without precipitating war in Europe. For more than sixty years thereafter, Whitehall decided the fate of the Egyptian army.

From 1606 to 1826 the Ottoman Empire instituted efforts aimed at reforming its gunpowder weapons-brandishing medieval armed forces. In Persia, the problem was even more acute than that faced by Constantinople. The Shah during the time of the Qajar dynasty and continuing into the nineteenth century was forced to rely on militias that constantly required extensive negotiations as well as expensive promises all contributing to an extended mobilization process. For the Ottomans, Sultan Selim III attempted to reorganize the army (Nizam-i Cedid) in the late eighteenth century but met considerable resistance from a number of entrenched interests, most notably from the infantry units known collectively as the Janissaries. As a result of his attempts at modernization and reform, the Sultan was driven from power in 1807. His successor, Mahmud II, in November 1808, only months after becoming Sultan was faced with a revolt by the Janissaries rebelling yet again at plans toward modernizing the army. The Janissaries killed Mahmud’s “grand vizier” Mustafa Bayraktar Pasha who had been ordered to spearhead the reform efforts and to modernize the Ottoman army.

These events, coupled with the difficulties experienced by a long line of predecessors, led Mahmud II to proceed with caution in his reform efforts. Eventually, however, on June 15, 1826, during the Vaka-i Haryire or “good incident,” troops loyal to Mahmud II shelled the Janissary barracks in Constantinople, killing several thousand inside. The Janissary corps was subsequently dissolved and its provincial garrisons disbanded. The event is recorded and celebrated in Turkish history as the “auspicious event,” which overcame a key obstacle and provided the opportunity to create that which eventually became modern Turkey.

What If: Britannia Rules the Waves: The Battle of Jutland, 1916 Part I

The Challenge

On 15 June 1888, the twenty-year-old Kaiser Wilhelm II was crowned emperor of Germany. Although capable of moments of brilliant insight, Wilhelm II was infamous for his obnoxious arrogance, uncontrollable temper and erratic decision making. Intensely Anglophobic, he despised the British Empire and felt that Germany was being denied ‘a place in the sun’ by a conspiracy of British and French interests. Wilhelm II was determined to redress this balance.

Germany began to build its colonial empire in the 1890s using a handful of warships, but Wilhelm II dreamed of creating a fleet that would one day topple the Royal Navy itself. In 1897 he appointed Konteradmiral Alfred von Tirpitz as Secretary of the Imperial Navy Office. Tirpitz shared Wilhelm II’s naval ambitions and had the political skill to steer the proposals through the Reichstag. Within a year, Germany had passed the First Naval Bill, which called for the construction of nineteen battleships by 1904. In 1900, Tirpitz used the pretext of strained Anglo-German relations as a result of the Boer War to increase the provision of battleships to thirty-eight vessels.

The gauntlet had been thrown down to Britain. For almost a century the Royal Navy had been the undisputed master of the oceans. Lord Horatio Nelson’s legendary victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 had established such an overwhelming sense of British naval superiority that no other major power had dared to challenge it – until now.

The British government quickly perceived that German naval building was not merely a danger to the empire, but, by virtue of Germany’s geographic position, represented a grave threat to Britain itself. The Royal Navy responded to German construction in kind. The first great arms race of the twentieth century had begun.

In 1906 the Royal Navy changed the terms of the contest with the launch of the revolutionary battleship Dreadnought. This vessel was faster, better armoured and more heavily armed than any ship then afloat. Dreadnought was so advanced compared to her rivals that from that point on battleships would be classed either as modern dreadnoughts or outdated pre-dreadnoughts.

Some strategists in Britain hoped that the launch of Dreadnought would convince the Germans that they were beaten and thus end the ruinously expensive contest. They had reckoned without the determination of Wilhelm II and Tirpitz. Germany saw the launch of Dreadnought as an opportunity, for although the new ship had rendered the German fleet obsolete, it had also done the same for the vast majority of existing British battleships. The balance sheet was cleared and it would now be a contest to see who could build dreadnoughts fastest. The arms race intensified in the years that followed as both sides strained to manufacture ever greater numbers of modern warships.

From Dreadnought onwards, each successive class of ships was bigger, faster, and more powerful than the last. Covered in thick steel plate, driven by the largest and most powerful engines available and carrying the heaviest guns it was possible to mount, the modern battleship was the most powerful weapon system in the world. The dreadnoughts were supported by battlecruisers, formidable vessels of comparable size that were built to emphasise speed and armament at the expense of armoured protection. In addition, both navies constructed numerous light cruisers, destroyers, and torpedo boats to support the heavy ships.

The naval race strained finances to the limit, but it was Britain which emerged as the clear leader. By the outbreak of war the Royal Navy had launched twenty dreadnoughts, with another twelve under construction, compared to thirteen German dreadnoughts, with seven being built.

Germany now faced a serious strategic problem. During the arms race, Tirpitz had deluded himself with the hope that the fleet would be a deterrent weapon that would intimidate Britain and convince it to stay neutral in the event of war. At its heart the policy was a bluff – and the bluff was abruptly called in August 1914. The German Hochseeflotte (High Seas Fleet) now had to consider how to overcome the numerically superior Royal Navy.

The Balance of Power

Although heavily outnumbered, the High Seas Fleet had some advantages over the rival Grand Fleet. The most obvious was that it was concentrated in the North Sea. Whereas the British had to provide vessels to police the imperial trading lanes, the Germans could focus all their attention on the main theatre of operations. The expectation of operating in the North Sea had influenced German ship design. The vessels of the High Seas Fleet tended to be less heavily armed but more heavily armoured than their British counterparts. This trade-off was considered viable given Germany’s numerical disadvantage. Each vessel was precious and therefore survivability was of foremost importance.

There was no doubt that the German ships were highly resistant to damage. However, this fact was well known to the British Admiralty, and during the naval arms race a number of measures had been taken to nullify the German advantage in armoured protection. The British had increased the calibre of their heavy guns so that their latest vessels mounted mighty 15-inch batteries. More importantly, the British had also given serious thought to the design and effectiveness of their armour-piercing shells. Firing exercises had discovered numerous flaws with existing British ammunition. The most serious was the tendency of the shells to burst against armour plating rather than tearing through the steel and exploding in the interior of the enemy ship as they were intended. The problem was traced to a combination of inadequate fuses and unreliable explosive.

Director of Naval Ordnance and future commander of the Grand Fleet John Jellicoe was at the forefront of demanding improvements in ammunition. Although promotion soon took him away from his role with the ordnance department, he continued a vigorous campaign for better shells. The Admiralty reacted with the tardiness typical of large bureaucracies but Jellicoe refused to let the matter rest. The reform of the design, testing, and procurement process for new shells was painfully protracted but on the very eve of the war a new type of armour-piercing shell was finally accepted. Jellicoe was well pleased with the improved ammunition, claiming that it ‘certainly doubled’ the effectiveness of the Grand Fleet’s big guns. However, production delays caused by the demands of war meant that it took until mid-1915 for the fleet to be fully equipped with the new shells.

At the same time that ammunition was being improved, a fierce and often ill-tempered debate was raging over the best methods of fire control. At the heart of the issue was the firebrand Captain Percy Scott, who campaigned for centrally directed fire control and a wholesale reform of gunnery training. An abrasive and arrogant character, Scott nevertheless drove his reforms through and conclusively proved the value of his methods during gunnery trials. Admiral Sir John Fisher offered a blunt assessment of Scott: ‘I don’t care if he drinks, gambles and womanises; he hits the target.’

A particularly important reform pioneered by Scott was the adoption of a ‘double salvo’ system of fire. Under this system a capital ship would fire two quick salvos spaced several hundred yards apart. The fall of shot would be observed and appropriate corrections made: for example, if one salvo fell short and the other went over the target then the distance clearly lay in the middle and could be quickly calculated. Once the double salvo had acquired the range the guns would switch to rapid fire and smother the target with shells. The advantage of double salvo was that it allowed guns to zero in far quicker than if the range was determined using a single salvo.

The combined effect of these reforms was considerable. The Grand Fleet possessed more numerous and noticeably heavier guns than the High Seas Fleet. It was clear that in a fleet encounter the mighty broadsides of the British ships would prove decisive. As a result, Germany planned to fight a klienkrieg – a ‘small war’ – using mines and submarines. These subtle weapons would whittle away at the Royal Navy’s numerical preponderance until the number of British capital ships was so reduced that a fleet action could be fought on even terms.

Unfortunately for Germany, the strategy was bankrupt from the very beginning. The Royal Navy instituted a distant blockade based on closing the exits of the North Sea and refused to charge recklessly into German waters which were teeming with undersea hazards. For their part, the Germans limited their efforts to some commerce raiding and the occasional ‘tip and run’ bombardment of British seaside towns. However, the latter operations were abandoned after the German battlecruisers of the 1st Scouting Group barely escaped from a bruising encounter with their British opposites at the Battle of Dogger Bank on 24 January 1915.

Forbidden by order of Wilhelm II from taking undue risks, the High Seas Fleet spent the rest of 1915 in a state of inertia. Meanwhile, the British blockade slowly tightened. Rationing was introduced in Germany in early 1915. The German nation was in the grip of a British stranglehold and only the navy had the power to break it.

The Ambush

In early 1916 a new commander, Admiral Reinhard Scheer, took charge of the High Seas Fleet. Scheer recognised that the naval situation was intolerable for Germany. Its attempts to use submarines to attack British commerce had succeeded only in alienating the United States. By contrast, Britain’s surface blockade was unrelenting and would remain so as long as the Grand Fleet was still afloat.

Scheer proposed a new strategy. The High Seas Fleet would take the fight to the British by returning to ‘tip and run’ attacks and aggressive operations designed to lure the Grand Fleet into an unfavourable battle. Scheer hoped to inflict stinging losses by ambushing isolated squadrons of the Royal Navy and escaping before retribution followed. The High Seas Fleet would work alongside submarines and minelayers to draw the British into ambush zones.

Yet unbeknownst to Scheer, the strategy had a fatal flaw – the British knew his every move. In August 1914 the German cruiser Magdeburg had run aground in the Baltic and been captured by the Russians. Onboard were three copies of the German naval signals book and cyphers.8 The Russians shared a copy with the British, and by November the Admiralty had established a dedicated naval cryptography department codenamed Room 40. By 1916, Room 40 could decode virtually all German naval signals traffic. Relevant information was swiftly passed to Jellicoe and the Grand Fleet.

Ignorant of these developments, Scheer spent May 1916 planning an ambush for the British. The fast battlecruisers of the 1st Scouting Group would draw out the British battlecruisers and lead them on a chase that would ultimately carry them into the arms of the German battleships. Locally outnumbered, the British would be destroyed before reinforcements could arrive.

It was a simple and effective plan that may well have worked – but the British knew of it before it had even begun. In the small hours of 31 May, before Scheer had even set sail, the entire Grand Fleet had left port and was steaming towards the ambush area. Jellicoe planned to turn the tables on the Germans. His battlecruisers, under the command of flamboyant Vice- Admiral David Beatty, would ‘allow’ themselves to be drawn into Scheer’s trap. However, as soon as the German battleships appeared, Beatty was to turn about and lead them into a head-on collision with the awesome force of the entire Grand Fleet. The trap was set.

The Chase

The Battle of Jutland started in unassuming fashion. Beatty’s vessels were cruising in the region of anticipated German activity but the disappointing absence of enemy ships was in danger of dampening the mood. At 2.20 p.m. the light cruiser Galatea noticed a small tramp steamer blowing off an unusually large amount of steam, an action consistent with suddenly being forced to stop. Curious, the Galatea turned away from her sister ships and approached the civilian vessel. It was a minor incident in what had so far been an uneventful sweep.

As she approached the steamer, Galatea observed two unknown ships approaching from the opposite direction. Several pairs of binoculars snapped onto the newcomers and less than a minute later the signal ‘ENEMY IN SIGHT’ was flying from her yardarms and an urgent message had been whisked down to her wireless station. Seconds later she fired the first shot of the great battle, hurling a 6-inch shell at the approaching German ships.

The signal had an electrifying effect on Beatty’s squadron of six battlecruisers – Lion, Princess Royal, Queen Mary, Tiger, New Zealand, and Indomitable. With Beatty’s flagship Lion in the lead, the battlecruisers swung around towards the approaching enemy. The call ‘Action Stations!’ was sounded and dense smoke poured from the funnels of the fast, sleek ships as they worked up to their fearsome top speed of some twenty-seven knots. Following close behind were the four battleships of the 5th Battle Squadron – Barham, Valiant, Malaya, and Warspite – under the command of Rear-Admiral Hugh Evan-Thomas. Ships of the Queen Elizabeth class, they were known as ‘super dreadnoughts’ due to their cutting-edge combination of armour, guns, and speed. Due to their high top speed of twenty-five knots the Queen Elizabeth class were the only heavy units capable of operating alongside battlecruisers; however, in any prolonged chase they would inevitably start to lose ground.

Fortunately for the British, Beatty had taken account of 5th Battle Squadron’s lower top speed and had kept the ships close to his battlecruisers so that they would not be left behind in any sudden change of course.9 Both battleships and battlecruisers now turned to the south-east, increasing speed and clearing the decks for action. Union flags were hoisted at the main mast and numerous white ensigns were run up the yardarms. Malaya raised the flag of the Federated States of Malaya. Ten formidable warships were now surging through the sea to meet the Germans head on.

Their opponents were the five battlecruisers of Rear-Admiral Franz von Hipper’s 1st Scouting Group – Lutzow, Derfflinger, Seydlitz, Moltke, and Von der Tann. A German gunner onboard Derfflinger recorded the approach of the British ships: ‘even at this great distance they looked powerful, massive … It was a stimulating, majestic spectacle as the dark-grey giants approached like fate itself.’ However, Hipper remained calm. His task was not to engage in a stand-up fight but instead to lure the British into reach of Scheer’s battleships. As Beatty and Evan-Thomas bore down on him, Hipper reversed course and began to race away to the south-east. The chase was on.

The range steadily decreased as the British closed in on the fleeing Germans. Beatty’s battlecruisers had reached twenty-five knots, with Evan-Thomas’s ships straining to keep up behind him. British and German destroyer flotillas rushed into the ‘no man’s land’ between the capital ships, prows bursting from the sea as they raced along at thirty-five knots. The tension was almost unbearable. A stoker in New Zealand remembered an ‘incredible thrill’ at hearing the order ‘All guns load!’ being relayed through the internal telephone system.

It was the Germans who began the firing. The broadsides of their battlecruisers rippled with flame as their sent out their first salvo at approximately 18,500 yards range – and closing fast. The British immediately returned fire. A crewman on Malaya remembered: ‘It was the most glorious sight and I was tremendously thrilled.’ Incoming shells ‘appeared just like big bluebottles flying straight towards you, each time going to hit you in the eye; then they would fall and the shell would either burst or else ricochet off the water and lollop away above and beyond you; turning over and over in the air.’

But shells soon began to smash home. Visibility favoured the Germans and they exploited their advantage to the full. Tiger was set ablaze and a direct hit on Lion blew the roof off a forward turret and started a dangerous fire that threatened to detonate the magazine – and with it the entire ship – until the chamber was flooded by order of the fatally injured Major Francis Harvey, who won a posthumous Victoria Cross for his action. Most seriously of all, the Indomitable was simultaneously struck by almost every shot of a salvo fired from Von der Tann. The damage was catastrophic: ablaze from stem to stern, Indomitable turned away from the action and tried to open the range, but within a minute she was engulfed in a huge explosion and disappeared beneath the waves.

The British battlecruisers returned fire furiously but their gunnery was wayward, for their crews were not as thoroughly trained as their Grand Fleet comrades. However, the big guns of the 5th Battle Squadron were a different proposition. A German crewman recalled of the Queen Elizabeths: ‘There had been much talk in our fleet of these ships … Their speed was scarcely inferior to ours but they fired a shell more than twice as heavy as ours. They opened fire at portentous ranges.’

The effect was swift. Fifteen-inch shells plunged down around the German ships, causing devastation wherever they struck. All of Hipper’s ships felt the force of this fire, but Von der Tann was hit particularly hard. Shells wrecked her superstructure and caused serious flooding below decks. One crewman recalled that the ‘tremendous blow’ of being hit by a 15-inch shell made the ‘hull vibrate longitudinally like a tuning fork’.

Although visibility favoured Hipper’s ships, the greater weight of British fire began to tell on the 1st Scouting Group. German vessels shuddered beneath high-calibre-shell hits that sliced through steel plate as though it were paper. Soon Hipper’s battlecruisers were cloaked beneath the smoke of the numerous fires that raged aboard. Von der Tann was so heavily damaged that she could scarcely fire a single gun, but her captain courageously kept her in the line so that the British could not concentrate fire on her sister ships. German fire slackened as the 1st Scouting Group adopted a zigzag pattern to try and throw off the aim of the British ships.

However, Hipper could endure such punishment as long as he could fulfil his part of the German plan. Every minute of the chase brought the British closer to Scheer’s battleships. The trap was about to be sprung.

What If: Britannia Rules the Waves: The Battle of Jutland, 1916 Part II

Montague Dawson paints the German High Seas Fleet, under command of Admiral Reinhard Scheer, perform a daring and untested full speed turn in unison to escape the range of the British Grand Fleet under command of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe on the horizon.

The Run to the North

At approximately 4.35 p.m. a barrage of signals burst from Beatty’s advanced light cruiser screen. The most important was ‘Have sighted enemy battlefleet SE. Enemy course north.’ Scheer and his battleships were on the way.

However, Beatty had been prepared for this due to the information relayed by Room 40. Wasting no time, at 4.40 p.m. he ordered his squadron to swing about and begin its own race to the north. In a role reversal, Hipper’s ships turned and now became the pursuers, whilst Scheer and his dreadnoughts increased their speed and strained to bring their heavy guns to bear.

Fortunately for the British the turn away from Scheer was executed with skill. The 5th Battle Squadron fell into line behind Beatty’s battlecruisers and the two squadrons raced north. The battle against Hipper’s ships continued, and the 5th Battle Squadron exchanged long-range fire with the van of Scheer’s battlefleet. A British sailor remembered that ‘their salvos began to arrive thick and fast around us at the rate of 6, 8, or 9 a minute.’ Visibility once again favoured the Germans, but both sides scored hits. By now the 1st Scouting Group was feeling the effects of an hour of fierce combat. At around 5 p.m. Von der Tann, listing and ablaze, suffered a serious hit to her engine room that brought her to a shuddering halt. Down at the bows and crippled beyond repair, she sank within the hour.

Scheer was prepared to accept these losses if he could catch and destroy Beatty’s force. Unfortunately for the Germans, every minute brought them closer to the British trap. Beatty was sending a steady stream of positional reports to the rapidly approaching Jellicoe, who was well informed as to the German course, speed, and bearing.18 At 4.51 p.m. Jellicoe had felt sufficiently confident to send a tantalising signal to the Admiralty: ‘FLEET ACTION IS IMMINENT’.

Jellicoe had a little longer to wait. It was not until around 5.40 p.m. that Beatty made contact with the advance elements of the Grand Fleet. At this point Beatty made an important and decisive manoeuvre, turning his ships on a north-easterly course and cutting across the German vessels that were running parallel to him. This caused the Germans to turn onto a similar course themselves to avoid Beatty ‘crossing the T’ and being able to concentrate the fire of his entire squadron on the first ship in the German line. A German officer later commented that this was ‘an excellent tactical manoeuvre’, for it blinded Scheer to the approach of the Grand Fleet until it was far too late.

Concealed from German view and with the element of surprise on his side, Jellicoe gave orders for his massive fleet to change from cruising formation to a battle line. This was a decision that could have momentous consequences. If Jellicoe got the manoeuvre wrong his ships would blunder into battle in a state of disorganisation and possibly be defeated as a result. The stakes were enormous. In Winston Churchill’s memorable words, Jellicoe ‘was the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon’.

If the gravity of the situation weighed on Jellicoe’s mind, his ice-cold demeanour did not betray the fact. His orders were clear and his crews thoroughly trained. With a smoothness that belied the complexity of the manoeuvre, twenty-four dreadnoughts deployed into a compact fighting line approximately six miles in length. Years after the battle, the famous fighting admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham remarked: ‘I hope I would have the sense to make the same deployment that JJ did.’

The Tables Are Turned

Scheer was about to receive the shock of his life. A fellow officer on the bridge of the Friedrich der Grosse noted that Scheer did not have ‘the foggiest idea of what was happening’. The German fleet of sixteen dreadnoughts and six pre-dreadnoughts was heading directly towards the massed broadsides of the Grand Fleet. Beatty’s sharp turn had blinded the Germans to the danger which they were about to face.

Hipper’s battered vessels were the first to feel the force of the British guns. Localised fog had descended across part of the seascape and Hipper was surprised when several fresh British battlecruisers – the vanguard of the Grand Fleet – suddenly emerged at medium range. Both sides opened fire immediately but the British gunnery was exceptionally good. Invincible rained shells on the German ships, prompting her captain to inform his gunnery officer: ‘Your fire is very good. Keep it up as quickly as you can. Every shot is telling!’ The punishment proved too much for Hipper’s flagship Lutzow, which staggered away from the action with mortal damage below the waterline. Hipper transferred his flag to a torpedo boat but was unable to get aboard a capital ship for the remainder of the battle, thus removing his dynamic leadership from the German fleet.

However, this short, violent clash of battlecruisers was only a precursor to the main event. At around 6.20 p.m. ‘the veil of mist was split across like the curtain at a theatre’ and Scheer’s battlefleet was confronted with an image of Armageddon. One officer recalled that all he could see on the horizon was ‘the belching guns of an interminable line of heavy ships, salvo followed salvo almost without intermission.’

The results were devastating. Jellicoe’s flagship Iron Duke singled out the König and fired forty-three shells at her in less than five minutes, scoring hit after hit. Shell splinters ripped through the armoured compartments, gun turrets were torn asunder, and an officer recalled being knocked off his feet as a result of ‘several violent concussions in the forepart of the ship’ that produced a drastic list to port. More hits followed until the König suddenly lurched over and capsized.

Elsewhere the courageous battlecruisers of the 1st Scouting Group finally met their nemesis. The gunnery officer of Derfflinger recalled: ‘Several heavy shells pierced our ship with terrific force and exploded with a tremendous roar which shook every seam and rivet.’ With her lower compartments flooded, her funnels shot away and her gun turrets reduced to burning wreckage, Derfflinger finally disappeared beneath the deluge of fire. Her sister ships Moltke and Seydlitz only escaped a similar fate by retreating into the mist, concealed by smoke from the uncontrolled fires that raged aboard. The 1st Scouting Group had effectively been destroyed. Seydlitz would sink later that night and Moltke was lucky to be able to limp home with severe damage.

Scheer had a single chance to save his fleet. With shells plunging down around his ships and the König vanishing beneath the waves, Scheer ordered a Gefechtskehrtwendung – a sudden, simultaneous turn away – to take his ships away from Jellicoe’s punishing fire. It is a testament to the quality of German training that the manoeuvre was carried out comparatively successfully, although Scheer’s lead ships were subjected to a hail of shells that inflicted further damage. Turning his back to the British, Scheer led his vessels away into the darkening mist.

Jellicoe was not in a position to observe the manoeuvre and was initially perplexed as to what had happened. Expecting Scheer to re-emerge from the fog at any moment, Jellicoe steered his fleet to the south to close in on his quarry. At this point, Scheer made a fatal mistake. As the firing died out, he reasoned that if he were to reverse course again then he would pass in the wake of the Grand Fleet, effectively slipping behind them while they fruitlessly cruised south. This done, he would be able to escape into the dusk and retreat to safer waters.

However, Scheer had miscalculated. Instead of slipping behind the Grand Fleet, he mistimed his turn and led his ships right into the middle of the southbound British line. The position was even worse than during the initial clash. The German line was in a state of disorganisation, many ships were struggling to put out fires caused by the earlier encounter with Jellicoe, and the 1st Scouting Group had been forced to withdraw from the action, leaving the High Seas Fleet partially blind. Visibility decisively favoured the Grand Fleet: British ships were partially concealed in the North Sea mist, but German vessels were silhouetted against the horizon and presented a perfect target.

The German situation was dire. Scheer’s vessels were closely bunched as a result of their earlier sharp turns. The congestion at the head of the fleet was so severe that some ships were forced to stop to avoid collisions with their sisters. One officer described the situation as an ‘absoluten Wurstkessel!’ A tornado of British fire swept through the German line. Salvo after salvo shrieked in from the east, with the source only visible from the constant gun flashes that illuminated the horizon.

With the 1st Scouting Group gone from the battle, the British were able to concentrate every available gun on Scheer’s dreadnoughts. The damage was catastrophic. A shell smashed into the engine room of the Markgraf and exploded with dreadful force. A survivor recalled: ‘The terrific air pressure resulting from [an] explosion in a confined space roars through every opening and tears through every weak spot. Men were picked up by that terrific air pressure and tossed to a horrible death among the machinery.’ Grosser Kurfurst was struck by a 15-inch round that blew a thirty-foot-wide hole below her waterline and caused her to list sharply to port. A shell ripped through a casemate gun battery aboard Kaiser and ignited stored ammunition, causing a huge gout of flame to erupt from the side of the ship.

With his battleships reeling under the remorseless guns of the Grand Fleet, Scheer desperately ordered a second Gefechtskehrtwendung. But the manoeuvre was no easy matter under heavy fire, with the High Seas Fleet dangerously bunched and forced to steer around the crippled Markgraf. In the confusion Kronprinz and Prinzregent Luitpold collided, with both ships suffering severe damage as a result. Attempting to buy time, Scheer ordered his torpedo boat flotillas to rush the Grand Fleet and launch a mass torpedo attack.

The small vessels raced towards the Grand Fleet, braving a barrage of fire from the secondary batteries of the battleships. Jellicoe responded by steering his ships away from the oncoming attack, causing many of the torpedoes to run out of range well short of his battle line. The few that reached the battleships were easily avoided. The manoeuvre was a ‘skilful dodge’ that left Jellicoe’s line undamaged and fully formed.

However, the turn away had broken contact with Scheer’s ships, which had disappeared into the gloomy twilight, leaving behind only the stricken Markgraf, which was swiftly ‘blotted out’ by a hail of heavy shells. Steering towards Scheer’s last position, Jellicoe’s ships sporadically opened fire at dim sightings in the mist, but the fading light prevented a renewal of battle.

The darkness saved the High Seas Fleet from complete destruction, but the German fleet experienced a harrowing night. On several occasions the picket lines of light cruisers and destroyers brushed against one another, prompting sudden, savage skirmishes in which both sides lost ships. More seriously for Scheer, British destroyer flotillas slipped through the German cruiser screen to launch daring torpedo attacks against his battleships. In the confused engagement that followed, the German pre-dreadnought Pommern was hit and sank with all hands.

As the night wore on, Scheer planned his escape route. He guessed that the British would be steaming south to try and cut off his retreat. He hoped to slip behind them and take his surviving ships home to Wilhelmshaven via the Horns Reef. He reasoned Jellicoe would be unlikely to pursue for fear of running into hidden German minefields.

But Room 40 was a step ahead. At 10.10 p.m. they had decrypted a signal from Scheer which asked for zeppelin reconnaissance over Horns Reef at first light. The message was in Jellicoe’s hands by 10.30 p.m. and he altered the Grand Fleet’s course to intercept Scheer at first light. This was not a simple manoeuvre and involved a great deal of what Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt described as ‘groping in the dark’. Tensions were high and the night was punctuated by sudden bursts of gunfire at real or imagined targets.

Both British and German officers anxiously scanned the horizon as the grey dawn began to break over the North Sea. However, it was the weather – the ultimate arbiter of naval warfare – that would define the engagement of 1 June. The sea around Horns Reef was shrouded with dense fog that gradually broke up into thick clouds of drifting mist. Visibility was poor and information sketchy.

In places the mist suddenly cleared and short, sharp actions broke out. These engagements proved fatal for several damaged German vessels. The most serious loss was the Prinzregent Luitpold. The ship was already listing due to severe damage below the waterline as a result of her earlier collision when she was suddenly engaged at long range by Benbow. Prinzregent Luitpold was hit several times in the brief exchange of fire that followed, causing further flooding and forcing her crew to abandon ship.

However, there was to be no general engagement on 1 June. Visibility was poor and although Jellicoe was aware from sighting reports that he was in rough proximity to the southbound High Seas Fleet, he was increasingly concerned that he was in danger of leading his vessels into one of the many German minefields in the area. Ultimately, a fresh Room 40 decrypt informed Jellicoe that Scheer was in the region of Heligoland to the south. The High Seas Fleet had slipped away in the mist. Jellicoe was disappointed and afterwards criticised himself for not pressing the retreating Germans harder, but he was comforted by a letter from Beatty in which the latter reminded his commander, ‘When you are winning, risk nothing.’

Nevertheless, it was clear that the Royal Navy had won a striking victory. The High Seas Fleet had been mauled, losing four battlecruisers in the form of Lutzow, Seydlitz, Derfflinger, and Von der Tann, five battleships – König, Kaiser, Grosser Kurfurst, Markgraf, and Prinzregent Luitpold – as well as the pre-dreadnought Pommern and a considerable number of lighter ships. In addition, unbeknownst to the British the battleship Ostfriesland struck a mine on its way home and sank.

The Battle of Jutland was over. The triumph was not quite on the scale of Trafalgar, but it was a great victory for the Royal Navy all the same.

The Fruits of Victory

The Grand Fleet returned home in a jubilant mood. They had inflicted a heavy defeat on the Germans and suffered few casualties in return – Indefatigable was the only British capital ship lost during the fighting. Jellicoe was the hero of the hour and was lauded by press, public, and navy. Beatty also received lavish praise, although he was heard to grumble that without the efforts of his battlecruisers the battle would never have occurred, much less been won. After almost two years of difficulties and setbacks on the land front, the British public savoured the moment of triumph. The ‘spell of Trafalgar’ had been recast.

The Admiralty soon sought to capitalise on the victory. There was bold talk of withdrawing the Royal Naval Division from the Western Front and using it in an amphibious assault against one of the small islands that dotted the German North Sea coast. Daring attacks on Heligoland and Borkum were proposed as a precursor to a landing on the coastline of Germany itself. However, the painful lessons of Gallipoli were still fresh in British minds and there was little appetite for another risky amphibious operation. Furthermore, such naval adventures would needlessly place elements of the Grand Fleet at risk and allow the Germans to extract some measure of revenge for Jutland.

Nevertheless some of the bolder officers of the Royal Navy saw merit in making feints against the German coast. They reasoned that the psychological effect of ‘demonstrations, raids, and harassment’ in enemy waters would be considerable. The inability of the High Seas Fleet to prevent such operations would be revealed, thereby harming public morale and perhaps even persuading the German General Staff to transfer additional army resources to defend the coast.

Over the course of 1916 the Royal Navy launched several raids against German coastal islands and associated shipping. The highly trained Harwich Force and its dynamic commander, Commodore Roger Keyes, were at the forefront of these operations. Although the attackers were at risk from mines and submarines, they were secure in the knowledge that the battleships of the cowed High Seas Fleet would not emerge to destroy them. Germany’s coastal defence forces consisted of small or obsolete vessels that were no match for the modern destroyers and light cruisers of Harwich Force. Several German ships were intercepted and sunk during raids in June and July. In August, Harwich Force took advantage of a captured map that revealed the swept channels in the German minefields and carried out a daring bombardment against shore installations on Heligoland. One of the shells struck an overstocked magazine and caused a huge explosion that was visible on the German coastline. The incident sparked alarm amongst the civilian population, who feared that it was a precursor to a British invasion. As a result, the army sent additional forces to Hamburg and invested considerable effort in improving Germany’s coastal defences.

The most important consequence of the Battle of Jutland was the tightening of the Allied blockade. Although the naval cordon was already formidable, there were some weaknesses that allowed neutral powers to continue trade with Germany. For example, Norway had continued to trade materials such as coal, copper ore, and nickel on the basis that they were not classed as contraband under the terms of the London Naval Conference of 1909. However, the dominance of the Royal Navy after Jutland allowed Britain to pressure Norway and other neutrals into ceasing maritime trade with Germany altogether.

In addition, the victory had altered the balance of power in the Baltic. Russian and German vessels had sparred with one another throughout 1915, but Russian efforts were hampered by concerns that Germany would deploy the High Seas Fleet to the east and overwhelm Russia’s Baltic defences. Jutland removed this fear and allowed Russia to adopt a more aggressive naval strategy. Encouraged by Britain, Russia targeted Germany’s iron-ore trade with neutral Sweden. Although the delicate nature of Russo-Swedish relations made it impossible to halt the trade entirely, the efforts of the Russian Navy greatly diminished the flow of the precious raw material.

In combination, these changes applied a deep chokehold on Germany’s economic windpipe. The pressure steadily mounted in the second half of 1916 and the effects would be severely felt the following year.

Recriminations and Consequences

In Germany, the search for a scapegoat began scant hours after the battered remnants of the High Seas Fleet had limped into Wilhelmshaven. On hearing news of the disaster Wilhelm II worked himself to such a pitch of fury that witnesses feared for his health. The worst of his wrath fell upon Scheer. Citing the example of Admiral John Byng, a British officer executed by firing squad in 1757 for ‘failing to do his utmost in battle’, the Kaiser demanded that Scheer be placed on trial for his very life. The demand met with concerted opposition from officers and men of the fleet – including its new commander, Franz von Hipper – as well as from ministers and politicians.

Wilhelm II ultimately backed down in the face of threats of resignation and mutterings of mutiny in the fleet. Soon, his mood had changed from anger to despair. Depressed over the fate of his beloved navy, he refused to visit the remaining vessels of the High Seas Fleet and lost all interest in naval matters. The Kaiser’s apathy hurt the survivors of Jutland deeply, contributing to a precipitate decline in morale that would fester into open mutiny by early 1917.

The Naval Staff remained detached from the post-battle recriminations and devoted their efforts to formulating a new strategy. The possibility of an Allied landing against the German coast was studied in depth. Although the exploits of Harwich Force caused a degree of concern, the Germans judged that the British were unlikely to risk capital ships in mine-infested coastal waters. Nevertheless, the Naval Staff gratefully accepted the offer of army support and the construction of heavy-gun emplacements on the North Sea coastline.

A much more serious problem was the remorseless and intensifying blockade. Planners warned that the German economy would be brought to its knees in 1917 unless the stranglehold was broken. But how was this to be achieved? There was no prospect of defeating the Grand Fleet in battle. In the view of many key naval officers the only hope lay in the submarine. In late June, Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff produced a controversial memorandum arguing that a return to unrestricted U-boat warfare was Germany’s only hope of victory. This was a risky proposal, for a new submarine campaign would bring the United States into the war on the side of the Allies. Holtzendorff’s case rested on the belief that submarines could inflict such severe damage on maritime trade that Britain would be forced to seek terms within six to eight months. Britain would thus be defeated long before America had fully mobilised. The plan was a huge gamble, but it offered the tantalising prospect of victory.

On 1 September 1916 Germany announced the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. Despite initial successes the policy would prove disastrous. Neutral opinion was enraged and the United States declared war in November. Worse still, Britain was ultimately able to overcome the submarine menace through introducing the convoy system and assigning large numbers of destroyers from the Grand Fleet to serve as escorts. The full and terrible consequences of Germany’s policy would become apparent in 1917.

The Reality

The Battle of Jutland is one of the most studied naval engagements of all time. The debate still continues as to which side ‘won’ the battle. The Germans inflicted heavier losses, sinking the battlecruisers Indefatigable, Queen Mary, and Invincible and only losing the battlecruiser Lutzow in return. But ultimately the High Seas Fleet fled from the engagement damaged and in disorder. The experience was sufficient to convince Scheer that future surface engagements were best avoided. As a result the German Navy would not seek battle in the North Sea for the remainder of the war. After casting about for a solution for several months, Germany finally returned to submarine warfare in February 1917. The High Seas Fleet languished in harbour and was wracked by mutiny in November 1918.

There are innumerable ‘what ifs’ around the Battle of Jutland, many of which focus on the contrasting personalities and decisions of Beatty and Jellicoe. Much of the interest of Jutland centres on how close the British came to a crushing victory. Historically, the British had a tremendous advantage in the form of Room 40 and possession of the German code books. As described in the story, British intelligence on Scheer’s movements was so good that the Grand Fleet actually set sail before the High Seas Fleet had left port. Such accurate intelligence placed the initiative firmly in the Royal Navy’s hands. Beatty managed to lead the unsuspecting High Seas Fleet into range of Jellicoe’s guns and Scheer’s ships were in mortal danger, particularly when they blundered into the Grand Fleet for the second time. However, Jellicoe lost sight of the enemy by turning away to avoid a torpedo attack and was unable to regain contact in the evening gloom.

In this scenario the main change to the history is technical rather than tactical. A fundamental problem for the Royal Navy was the inadequacy of their armour-piercing shells. A detailed study of damage at Jutland discovered that British armour-piercing shells managed to penetrate heavy armour and explode internally on just one occasion (a 15-inch hit from Revenge on Derfflinger). Historically, Jellicoe was aware of the problems with British shells as early as 1910, but made little effort to make changes.

In the story these problems are corrected by Jellicoe prior to the war. I have assumed the Royal Navy are equipped with the improved shells that appeared in 1917–18, making British gunnery far more powerful. I have also had the navy adopt the ‘double salvo’ system prior to the war; historically it was introduced post-Jutland to speed up gunnery, but there is no reason why it could not have been introduced earlier.

The main tactical change in the scenario is Beatty’s performance in the opening of the battle. In reality, Beatty made a serious tactical error by leaving the 5th Battle Squadron too far behind his battlecruisers, thus denying himself their powerful support in the engagement against Hipper. Here I have assumed he handles his forces with more skill and keeps the Queen Elizabeth class close. This would have dramatically changed the nature of the fighting and probably saved the Queen Mary from destruction. Finally, I have introduced the Room 40 decrypt that revealed Scheer was heading to Horns Reef, thus allowing the Grand Fleet a few parting shots. Historically, it remains a mystery why this message was never passed on to Jellicoe.

I am very grateful to Dr Philip Weir for his assistance in researching this scenario.

By Spencer Jones


A model of the Tuman.

The Type 1934-class Z4.

It is the 10th of August, 1941. The Red Army’s front is collapsing and the Germans are closing on the most important cities of the USSR.

But we aren’t talking about that today. Our attention is drawn to the Barents Sea, 15 miles northwest of Kildin Island. There sails the hero of our story, the lone lightly armed naval trawler Tuman.

On the horizon, the little ship sights the worst thing she ever could have encountered: three German destroyers. The Z4 Richard Beitzen, the Z10 Hans Lody, and the Z16 Friedrich Eckoldt are rapidly closing in on her position. Each displaces twice as much as the little patrol boat and is armed with four 5-inch guns that seemed like weapons of mass destruction when compared to the Tuman’s two 45 mm cannons and light machine guns.

Running is out of the question, as her top speed of 9 knots is only a fourth of the destroyers’. She has no options left but to face her opponents and give them what she has. She lays down a smoke screen and begins evasive action.

The destroyers close to five nautical miles and open fire. She is prevented from returning fire due to her aft gun being knocked out almost immediately. She takes eleven 5-inch shells over the course of the battle. Her captain and commissar are both killed. Her flag is shot down from the mast. She is, by all intents and purposes, defenseless.

She is not dead yet, however. The flag is raised again and her crew continues to desperately work to keep her alive just a little longer. They all know by now that she is going to sink, but they are going to make sure that the Germans have to work all that much harder to kill her.

On Kildin Island, the shore batteries had been malfunctioning, but no longer. As the Tuman slowly slips beneath the waves, the shore batteries open fire. The destroyers, hoping to avoid damage, are forced to retreat from the now-operational cannons. The battle is over.

Of the 52 sailors on the trawler, only 15 died that day. Upon returning to shore, every one of the survivors is presented with tributes from the citizens of Murmansk. When the Alyosha Monument was erected there in 1974, a capsule of seawater from the spot of her final stand was placed inside of it.

Even today, as Russian warships pass over the spot where she sank, they dip their flags and blast their horns in salute to the brave patrol boat that faced down the Kriegsmarine.

While you can meet some abbreviation for ship classes in Russian-language literature (like LK for battleship, EM for Destroyer, etc.), they were never “officially” systemized. During WWII only “Official” abbreviation used were “SKR” (for picket ships), “TSch” (for sea-going minesweepers) and “BTSch” (for large sea-going minesweepers), and “MO” (for submarine chasers). Another note: “SKR” class was VERY different in its subclasses. One group was armed trawlers and steamers with a mix of 45-mm, 76-mm, and up to 102-mm guns, light AA, some sub chasing equipment, etc. – were used extensively for close-to-coast escort duties. Two (“Tuman” (“Fog”) and “Passat”) were sunk in surface engagements with German destroyers of Arctic group, where they had no chances at all. Another story were SKR’s of “Bad Weather” class. Specially built, excellently armed, and well-equipped, they were closer to frigate/corvette/torpedo boat classes, than to “picket ships”. Built in 1920’s-30’s, multiple units had “Bad Weather” names – “Storm”, “Snowstorm”, “Darkness”, “Strong Wind”, etc. They had 2 120-mm guns, 2 small guns, 1 3-tube 533-mm torpedo apparatus, AA’s, plenty of depth charges.


Monitor vs Merrimac. Merrimac had more guns, but monitor had heavier guns, and a turret that allowed it to always fire on the Merrimac. Merrimac was also underpowered, and very difficult to steer. Though both ships suffered some damage, the Merrimac retired first. The Merrimac never fought another battle. It was scuttled to prevent it coming into union possession. BOB HOLLAND

What If: The Confederate Navy Triumphant

Yorktown, Virginia

At Yorktown, on the James Peninsula jutting between the York and James Rivers in the sovereign state of Virginia, the thick fog had lifted by mid-morning to reveal a line of trenches separating two armies. Guns silent, regiments of both sides stood at parade rest. Promptly at 10.00 a.m., the easternmost army began to stack its weapons, then to march in what seemed unending lines through the ranks of its captors. A military band set the tone for the event, playing an old tune (one learned by the bandmaster from his grandfather, whose father had heard the same song played here years before): The World Turned Upside Down.

Later that day, as two generals met at Yorktown (the one to surrender his sword, the other to commiserate with his vanquished former brother-in-arms), another ceremony took place at a fortress on the tip of the Peninsula. Here, the commandant surrendered his sword and his command to a battered naval captain (left arm in a sling and right eye bandaged) accompanied by a rather roly-poly civilian. When the exuberant politician and his entourage posed for pictures alongside the shamed enemy officer, the naval captain slipped away to the parapet. There he gazed into the harbor at his similarly battered vessel. As the gusting wind streamed its tattered red, white, and blue banner from the ship’s oft-fished flagstaff, he tried to recall what it was that the newspapers had quoted the President as saying a few weeks ago. “In the end, it will not be the ships of iron but rather the steel wills of our loyal sons that decide the outcome of this struggle.”

“Perhaps Davis is right,” thought Catesby ap R. Jones (captain of the C.S.S. Virginia by the grace of God and the commission of the Confederate Congress), “but I rather think that we were just damn lucky, and I will take all the iron ships that I can get.”


The election of Abraham Lincoln as the sixteenth president of the United States in November 1860 launched his nation into a bloody civil war. South Carolinians had sworn that victory for the Black Republican would be followed by the secession of slave-holding states from the Union. They, and like-minded cohorts in the remaining six states of the Deep South, made good on their promise as the lame-duck President Buchanan did little (and the president-to-be even less) to prevent this fracture of a nation.

Secession tested loyalties. Military and naval officers as well as private citizens had to choose between regional affiliation and duty (often sworn duty) to the concept of an indivisible national entity. Even without consideration of duty, the choice was not always easy since ties of clan, friendship, and economics frequently crossed the Mason-Dixon Line. Here and there, voices of sanity competed with hawkish cries and strident martial airs, their pleas for logic and reason unheeded. They, too, eventually succumbed to the madness of fratricide.

One such voice belonged to William Tecumseh Sherman, President of Louisiana Seminary of Learning and Military Academy. A Northerner by birth and a graduate of West Point, Sherman had come to appreciate the cultured pace of life in the South. Despairing at the news of South Carolina’s break from the Union, he wrote a stirring and prophetic letter to his friend, Professor David F. Boyd:

“You, you the people of the South, believe there can be such a thing as peaceable secession. You don’t know what you are doing. I know there can be no such thing… You people speak so lightly of war. You don’t know what you are talking about. War is a terrible thing… The Northern people not only greatly outnumber the whites at [sic] the South, but they are a mechanical people with manufactures of every kind, while you are only agriculturalists… You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical and determined people on earth—right at your doors. You are bound to fail… At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, and shut out from the markets of Europe by blockade, as you will be, your cause will begin to wane…”

They did not listen; the general Southern populace was firmly ensnared in the rage militaire. As the break-away states began to seize arsenals and properties of the United States, some cooler heads closely considered the exact arguments that Sherman had addressed to his friend. A number of those calculating thinkers joined the secessionist congress, meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, in early February 1862. Though a constitution would not be adopted until the eleventh of the following month, the Provisional Congress of the new Confederate States of America elected Jefferson Davis as its first president, with Alexander Stephens as his vice-president. Davis immediately sought to make sense of the madness by seeking qualified men to assume the key cabinet positions in his government. When, on February 21, Congress created a Department of the Navy, Davis immediately called upon his old friend Stephen R. Mallory of Florida to become the Secretary of the Navy.

Planning the Impossible

As a former United States Senator, one of Mallory’s many appointments had been to the Senate Naval Affairs Committee, a position that he had held for a decade. There he had championed a stronger U.S. Navy, pushing programs ranging from shipbuilding to mandatory performance reviews for officers. The irony of the situation, as he assumed the title of Secretary of the Navy, was not lost on Mallory: without his efforts the mariners of his former country would have been far less able to prosecute war upon his new homeland—a homeland miserably prepared for a war at sea.

Sherman had been correct—agriculture was the South’s economy. There were few seagoing vessels based in the states of the Deep South, and it possessed no ships of war. Aside from scattered fishermen, the South produced few mariners, and those of Southern extraction had been on New England vessels for so long that even fewer would return home. New Orleans had a relatively large shipyard and Pensacola a smaller one while a number of civilian contractors existed in scattered ports, but the new nation lacked ordnance and powder factories, ironworks, machine shops, canvas lofts, and ropewalks. Sadly, the transport infrastructure in the Confederacy was almost as weak as its shipbuilding facilities. Rather than extensive railroads and macadamized roads, Mallory’s new country had long depended on its numerous inland waterways and a well developed coastal trade for its transport needs. The Secretary more than suspected that the Union Navy would soon seek to disrupt such watery highways.

Nor did it take a genius to realize the manner in which the U.S. Navy would prosecute its war against a South so absolutely dependent upon trade with Europe. With only 42 active vessels (and many of those scattered on distant stations around the globe), the Union’s Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, would put a token blockading force off each Southern port while aggressively converting to warships anything that would float and building vessels as rapidly as possible. As excess forces came available, they would be used to capture island bases to support the blockade, or simply to capture Southern ports. Meanwhile, rapidly converted gunboats would support a Union thrust down the Mississippi River, effectively isolating the Trans-Mississippi command from the remainder of the Confederacy.

As Mallory began to organize his department he carefully considered, then prioritized, the needs of his nation based upon the obvious enemy plans. First, the defense of the Mississippi River and the nation’s ports clamored for attention. Second, a means to defeat any Union blockade must be found. Third, the vulnerability of the commerce of the North, spread widely across the Seven Seas, must be exploited. And, an unlikely fourth, if possible the war must be taken to the coasts and port cities of the United States. To accomplish any of these goals, Mallory had to build a navy from scratch. At the same time, he found himself forced to wage political war against a president whose knowledge of naval matters could be “captured in a thimble, still leaving room for a lady’s thumb” and against a congress divided by the very states’ rights that had created it.

Mallory’s initial defensive plan stressed strong land fortifications at harbor mouths and along the Mississippi River and its key tributaries. At each port, and along the Mississippi, gunboat squadrons would be needed to support the fortifications and to assist defending Confederate field armies. At the same time, transports would be in desperate demand to supplement the underdeveloped rail system of the South. By early March 1861, the Confederate Navy consisted of only ten vessels, ranging from the antiquated sidewheeler Fulton (U.S.S. Fulton until taken while in ordinary at Pensacola) to revenue cutters and slavers seized by the provisional government. Altogether, they mounted only 15 guns. Incorporation of state navies would eventually add fewer than two dozen small warships to these forces, all as miserably armed as the original ten vessels. This fell far short of the hundred or more strongly armed ships needed for defensive purposes alone.

To add to the woes of the secretary, heavy artillery and munitions were in short supply. To equip new fortifications adequately meant denying strong firepower to converted warships. The South also lacked foundries and machine shops; in fact, it did not possess any of the facilities to build the steam power plants needed in modern warships, and could provide fittings such as shafts and screw propellers only with great difficulty. Of course, neither engines nor screws would be in great demand until adequate shipyards could be erected. When, on March 15, Congress approved the construction or purchase of ten additional vessels for port defense, Mallory remained uncertain as to whether engines and armament could be obtained for them.

A Turning Point

It must have galled Mallory to realize that each day over a dozen modern commercial steamships entered and exited the ports of his nation and that the seizure of even a few of them would have provided the nucleus of a blue-water navy for the Confederacy. However, they flew the flags of European nations, and Mallory knew that recognition by and support from those very nations provided the only hope for final independence of the Confederacy. It was his concern with the perception of his homeland by these foreign countries that led to heated words between President Davis and his Secretary of the Navy at a Cabinet meeting on the afternoon of March 18.

It was after the discussion of old Sam Houston’s refusal to swear an oath to the new Confederate government of Texas and the steps to be taken to force the surrender, preferably without bloodshed, of Fort Pickens in Pensacola and Fort Sumter in Charleston that Jefferson Davis announced his intention to issue Letters of Marque and Reprisal to Southern ship owners.4 Mallory reminded the president that privateering had been labeled illegal by the Declaration of Paris of 1856. Davis responded that neither the United States nor the Confederate States had signed that agreement, and thus he was not bound to follow it. Furthermore, South Carolina’s congressmen thought privateering a fine idea—in fact had suggested it to him because privateering had been profitable for Charleston in the past. Then the tone of the meeting intensified.

Mr. M. {Secretary Mallory} questions: “These are naval men?”

President {Davis}: “Well, no, at least I don’t think so.”

Mr. M.: “Do they have extensive connections with European governments, then?”

President: “No, but they…”

Mr. M. (growing red in the face, interrupting): “Then I must say that this is idiocy! We have no ships! We have no engines! We have no cannons! And we cannot anger the very people that we hope to sustain us in our hour of need! Such action would be as asinine as this proposal for a cotton embargo of European markets that is spreading through the newspapers!”

President (agitated): “I will not have…”

[At this point, the handwriting of the note taker becomes illegible as if scribbled hurriedly, though “Damn you!” appears at least once.]

Mr. M. leaves the room after threatening to tender his resignation.

President: “My apologies gentlemen, but better ended now than later. Let us move on to the discussion of the cotton embargo proposed by the representatives from Texas…”

The next afternoon, Secretary Mallory approached the president in private (resignation in hand, it should be added). Though their meeting is not recorded, President Davis’s appointment book for that day notes that all meetings after Mallory’s appearance were canceled. It can be assumed that both men realized that the pressure of forming a new nation had led to the harsh words of the preceding day. Apparently, Mallory managed to sway the often unswerving Davis to his point of view, as two days later (and with the support of Davis), he addressed Congress on naval matters. If a nexus can be identified wherein the course of the Confederacy turned sharply from potential disaster to possible success then this speech marks that juncture of time and action:

“Honored representatives of this Confederacy, I thank you for the time to discuss the needs of our naval establishment and the situation in which the coming conflict—and have no doubt that it will come—finds us. We are a newly birthed nation whose life blood is commerce. We lack the self-sufficiency of a long established country, and we require access to Europe. Our cotton must reach the markets of the old countries, and we must have European goods unloading in a constant stream at our wharves if we hope to see this great endeavor succeed.

Sadly, our seaports and rivers are vulnerable to any aggressor. The loss of even one major port, once overrun by an enemy army supplied from the sea, will be a dagger aimed at our heartland. Already, the United States refuses to surrender the forts at Charleston and Pensacola—bastions that by right belong to our nation. Two of our great ports are thus already plugged, and near a hundred ships under the Stars and Stripes ready to blockade the rest.

Yet we do not have a single ship capable of challenging potential blockaders. Our handful of gunboats mount fewer guns than one first-rate screw frigate. Yes, we have gunboats building, but there is no guarantee that we can find the engines to power them or the cannons to give them teeth. We have neither foundries nor machine shops, though they do exist—in Europe.

Now two bills, the one for the establishment of privateers and the other for an embargo, and both quite damaging to our maritime position, may well appear before you. They must not be passed. International law, as observed by the great nations of Europe, prohibits private vessels of war. For us to flaunt that law would be viewed as the naive arrogance of mere children and would not create the friends that we so dearly need. If any man would serve this nation rather than seek to line his own pockets, then let him enlist himself and his ship in this glorious cause! There will still be prizes, but let us not anger our friends across the Atlantic with the legitimacy of their taking.

As for this cotton embargo, do not allow it! When has an embargo succeeded? Did those of the founding fathers prevent their bloody struggle against tyranny? Did Jefferson’s embargo (and the hardship that it caused, you learned at your father’s knee!) stop a war? Did Madison’s embargo during that same war do ought but make the common people hate him? Now is the time that we must establish our credit abroad! We must show the nations of Europe that we value our economic ties! We must let them know that the mills of Lancashire and the looms of France will not wait on us! And if the bales stop flowing and their mill workers cry of hunger and need, it will not be on this Confederacy that those powerful Admiralties turn their ire. Oh no, gentlemen, to us they will extend their hands to reach the one that we have already given them.

The issues in this naval bill now before you are self-evident. But I would like to summarize the key items. The bill proposes the immediate establishment of a National Naval Arsenal at New Orleans, to include a powder mill, a naval cannon foundry, a general purpose foundry, four new slips for large vessels, a drydock, and boiler and engine manufacturies. As the manufacturies will not be ready for at least a year, agents will be authorized to purchase engines and miscellaneous accoutrements abroad for the building of four warships at New Orleans capable of challenging and defeating any blockading force on our coasts. Nor will we neglect our Atlantic coast while this force is building; large gunboats will be bid to private contractors in the ports designated by this bill. Again, agents dispatched to Europe will endeavor to purchase engines for these vessels. Artillery and munitions for coastal fortresses must be ordered as well. Sundry other items also appear in the bill.

Honored representatives, this will not come cheaply. No navy ever has. We may well mortgage our future for a generation—but, I promise you, there will be a future to mortgage. Without this effort, without this great outlay of wealth, that future may not arrive at all. Let us not quibble over dollars. They are small things when stacked beside our freedom. Had the Athenians quibbled when Themistocles asked that their silver be turned into warships, then the iron heel of a Persian tyrant would have trampled that glorious democracy. Had the Roman senate held close the coins needed to build a navy (and to build another when storms destroyed the first!), that fair Republic would have fallen to the mercantile tyranny of Carthage. I do not know exactly what lies before us, but I do know this: To surrender the sea is to surrender our democracy and our republic. And we must not let that happen.”

Within days, newspapers began hailing Mallory as the “Southern Themistocles.” The passage of the new naval appropriations was never in doubt, and though the price of “Mallory’s Navy” would create a national debt that would not be repaid during his lifetime, at least there would be a nation to repay it. Within a week of the speech, the first naval purchasing agents sailed for Europe, but by then the Confederacy’s prominent Secretary of the Navy had turned his attention to other opportunities.

Yards for the Confederate Navy

By the end of March, even faint hopes of reconciliation between the Confederacy and the United States had evaporated. Lincoln decided, in the waning days of that month, to hold Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens. The border states, especially North Carolina and Virginia, had already rejected secession once—now their loyal and disloyal citizens alike waited nervously for the first fratricidal shells to fall. Of course, some citizens alleviated their nervousness with action, especially in the organizing of militia and “volunteer” units. In wavering Virginia on the third day of April, one such unit, the Washington Rifles, elected a 37-year-old graduate of West Point as its captain. William Edmundson Jones, better known as “Grumble” to those around him, was an experienced soldier and local politician. Little could he have imagined on that day that his loyalty to Southern ideals would place him first on the field of battle for his state.

In Montgomery, Mallory still wrestled with creating a navy. Delegating minor tasks such as the creation of uniforms, flags, and forms to his growing staff, he focused on placing ships and men on the water. To lure those who would have become privateers, Mallory offered generous bounties for prizes taken by the Confederate Navy—75 percent of auction value, as well as gun money and head money for enemy warships, to be divided among crew and officers. To encourage ship owners to risk their vessels in national service, Mallory promised 20 percent of the auction value of each prize for division among the owners of vessels loaned to the national government for conversion to warships. By the end of the first week of April, a dozen large steamers and three times as many smaller vessels had been deeded to the government. Hundreds of men—including far too many whose only experience of salt water had been that prescribed by a physician for sore feet—had flocked to recruiters in ports throughout the Confederacy, ready for their share of the prize money.

Over the following months, the Confederate naval apparatus would take shape, but in those first weeks Mallory and his subordinates faced overwhelming logistical restraints: no uniforms, few barracks or tents, little preserved food and naval stores, a severe shortage of artillery and munitions, a lack of drydocks and experienced artificers to convert their new found wealth of vessels to something resembling a navy, and a shortage of experienced naval officers to bring order to the chaos in every Southern port.

When, on April 7, Davis notified his secretary of the navy that the governor of South Carolina had ordered communications between Fort Sumter and Charleston cut in preparation for forcing the issue of ownership of the bastion, Mallory requested permission to initiate what in modern parlance would be called a “black op.” With the president’s approval, Mallory dispatched a trusted lieutenant to Virginia with a written plea to an old acquaintance, the governor of that wavering state. Though the actual missive was destroyed by the governor, its contents remain well known: if Virginia should join the Confederacy, then every effort must be made to secure the Gosport Naval Yard near Norfolk. If the yard could be taken quickly, the Confederacy would gain a well-stocked, first-class naval facility. And Mallory did not trust the United States simply to turn it over to its rebellious sons. The governor shared Mallory’s concern, and quietly called upon an old and trusted friend, Grumble Jones (breveted to major), to begin shifting his company to Norfolk. There Jones would take command of local militia. Working with Southern sympathizers stationed at the yard, Jones was ordered to seize the facility if Virginia prepared to leave the Union.

At 04.30 a.m. on April 12, the first shots struck Fort Sumter. The following day, Major Robert Anderson surrendered his battered command. Two days later, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers as a force to march south and end the rebellion. Missouri and Kentucky refused to send soldiers against their sister states, while Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas took the first steps to leave the Union and join the Confederacy. On April 17, Virginia’s legislature officially voted in favor of secession, and its governor telegraphed Grumble Jones to act immediately. By 11.00 p.m. Jones had led his forces through the main gate at Gosport, skirmishing as they went with a small guard of Marines and sailors. As Jones wrote:

“Forming the Rifles into a volley line in the field across from the gate, I called upon the officer of the guard to surrender his small force in the name of the Sovereign State of Virginia and the Confederate States of America or I would order my men to fire. Before he could reply, the boys being a mite high strung had heard the word fire, released a shamefully ragged volley, and headed for the gate in what they thought was a charge. The Union boys took off, and a race commenced that did not end until my boys had followed some of them onto a big ship docked in the harbor. Following at a more sedate pace, I took the color guard to the quarters of Commodore [Charles S.] McCauley and allowed him to change from his nightshirt to a uniform before accepting his sword. The next morning we locked up 107 prisoners, all those who refused to swear allegiance to Virginia or the Confederacy, and began to organize batteries to receive the expected Yankee visitors. Losses all around were about 23 wounded or injured—mostly from fist fights and stumbling around boats.”

It was well that Jones organized his defenses so quickly, as Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles had already dispatched Captain Hiram Pauldry’s Pawnee with a force of Marines from Washington to burn the yard. Pauldry’s arrival at Norfolk was met with enthusiastic though inaccurate fire from shore batteries. Unwilling to risk his ship and Marines against an obviously prepared defense, Pauldry returned to Washington.

According to his clerks, Mallory danced in delight when he first heard the news of the capture of the yard, complete with its large drydock, ropewalks, foundry, machine shop, boiler shop, covered ways, and overflowing store houses. Some 1,200 cannon, including over 50 of the new Dahlgren guns, and tons of munitions were among the booty. Best of all, along with several old sailing ships stored in ordinary and the yard’s steam tugs, Jones had captured the seven-year old screw frigate Merrimack. Docked for repair of its ailing steam engine, the ship had been rigged for scuttling, but the headlong charge of the Washington Rifles had captured the vessel before its captain could react. Mallory wasted little time in shifting war materials from the naval yard to his scattered squadrons forming at Southern ports.

Though Mallory could immediately use the materials captured at Gosport, the use of the vessels captured there was a tad more perplexing. Those ships ranged from the antique frigate United States (of War of 1812 fame) to the old 74-gun ship of the line Pennsylvania and, of course, the modern Merrimack. The non-steam warships were so vulnerable as to be useless, except as floating batteries. Even the Merrimack, despite being a first-rate steam frigate, did not stand a chance against an entire fleet and could only be used as a raider if it could escape the Union vessels soon to invest Hampton Roads. Similarly, the yard itself remained relatively useless unless the blockaders could be defeated. Mallory foresaw only one answer to this dilemma, proposing on April 26:

“… to adopt a class of vessels hitherto unknown to naval service. The perfection of a warship would doubtless be a combination of the greatest known ocean speed with the greatest known floating battery and power of resistance…”

That answer was to build, to convert, or to acquire seagoing ironclad vessels.


Ironclads and Gunboats

Mallory’s role took on increased urgency when Davis approved a bill on May 3 that proclaimed a formal state of war existing between the Confederacy and the United States. Forced to act by this declaration, European nations officially recognized the Confederacy as a belligerent, though not as a nation in its own right. Britain’s Queen Victoria declared her nation a neutral in the conflict, though the world knew that the day’s greatest maritime and industrial state’s definition of “neutrality” could be somewhat flexible.

Mallory’s decisive actions in the first weeks of his tenure began to bear fruit during May. At Gretna, Louisiana, the first naval cannon was cast on May 4, while 2-inch wrought iron plates followed by the end of the month from a new mill in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. These fruits of hard Southern labor wended their way to New Orleans and the rapidly expanding naval yard in that city. There, two private shipbuilding firms would be authorized to build the first ironclads in the western Confederacy, the Louisiana and the Mississippi.

Slowly, but steadily, naval squadrons began to emerge from the initial chaos in Southern ports. By the end of May, some 20 gunboats, equipped with one or two guns each, patrolled the Mississippi, supported by a transport squadron of six fast steamers. Squadrons of six to ten steam vessels of varying sizes, configurations, and capabilities trained at each of the major Southern ports. Additionally, state navies such as the “Mosquito Fleet” of North Carolina patrolled coastal estuaries and sounds. The command situation improved dramatically with the secession of Virginia when over 100 officers and nearly as many enlisted ranks decided to “go South.” Several former Union officers would quickly prove worthy of the task at hand.

On June 9, lookouts aboard the U.S.S. Massachusetts, part of the small squadron supporting Fort Pickens and the blockade of Pensacola, spotted a plume of smoke on the horizon. Investigation revealed it to be the British registered steamship Perthshire, its holds laden with cotton. After seizing the neutral ship (the first such seizure of the war) for carriage of contraband, an examination of its log and manifests shocked the American captain. The ship had unloaded six steam engines, six screws and shafts, and sundry machine parts at New Orleans a week earlier. Worse, a copy of the New Orleans Picayune dated June 6 revealed that a Confederate squadron of three steamers under the command of Commodore Franklin Buchanan had sunk or captured the two small Union warships blockading the mouth of the Mississippi.

Unfortunately for the Confederacy, the Union Navy was growing by leaps and bounds. Welles purchased or purloined anything that floated, from trans-Atlantic steamers to ferryboats to private yachts, and the yards of the North quickly converted them to warships with the addition of weapons and naval officers. Within weeks, New Orleans was again blockaded, and the interdiction of the Southern coast as a whole stiffened day by day as the war progressed. Twice, once at Charleston and once at Mobile, small Confederate squadrons challenged the blockaders. In both cases, lives were lost and ships damaged, but the blockade remained. Until ironclads could be completed, the blockade would only strengthen.

On July 11, plans and money for conversion to ironclads of the captured Merrimack as well as the United States and the Pennsylvania were approved by the Confederate Congress, though modifications to the Merrimack had been underway since June 10, the day that it was renamed C.S.S. Virginia. The two larger ships would have the upper decks cut away and replaced by iron casemates amidships. Angled so as to deflect enemy shells and meant to extend below the waterline to protect vital machinery, the casemates featured two layers of 2-inch wrought iron plate backed by over a foot of oaken timbers. The hulls, armored by a layer of 2-inch plate extending six feet below the waterline, showed only a foot of freeboard. The Virginia would mount six 9-inch Dahlgren smoothbores, three to each broadside, and four heavy rifled guns as bow and stern chasers. Pennsylvania, now known as Alabama, would carry two fewer broadside guns. Both vessels would be fitted with heavy iron rams.

Knowing that the casemate-ironclads would be slow and ponderous, Mallory selected a different design for the conversion of the old United States. Renamed Hart of the Confederacy, the vessel would be built for speed. With masts and upper works cut away, the hull would be plated with 2-inch wrought iron over its old (but relatively sound) oaken timbers. Its new freeboard of eight feet demanded additional armor amidships where its vulnerable boiler and engine would rest. Thus, the designer added an additional belt of 2-inch plate extending five feet below the waterline. Six 9-inch Dahlgrens fired to each broadside, but their gunports were only two feet above the water in order to lower the vessel’s center of gravity. This limited the usefulness of the cannons in any but the calmest seas. The true killer for the Hart would be the spar torpedo—a 20-foot pole, dropped at the last minute before contact to project from the bow, with a keg of gunpowder triggered by a percussion cap at its end—and its ram-tipped, heavily reinforced prow.

From its date of approval, numerous problems confronted the conversion efforts. A shortage of artificers and shipwrights meant that work on the vessels had to proceed sequentially. Tredegar Ironworks in Richmond, slated to produce the 2-inch wrought iron plate for the ironclads, had to convert its facilities from 1-inch plate production before it could begin to roll the required size plates. Then, as plates began to accumulate, Mallory had to squabble with the army, engaged in its own buildup of supplies and men, for train engines and cars to move them to Gosport. Most seriously, capture of the Perthshire by the U.S.S. Massachusetts had led to a diplomatic protest by the United States to Great Britain, forcing the British government to stop the shipment of twelve additional steam engines and other materials to the Confederacy. Fortunately for Mallory, Britain, in immediate response to the Trent Affair of November 1861, released six of the engines for immediate delivery to the Confederacy. Escorted by H.M.S. Warrior, the shipment arrived in Wilmington, North Carolina, on November 24. By Christmas, two of those engines had arrived at Gosport for installation in Alabama and Hart—a most acceptable present for Secretary Mallory.

As Mallory wrestled with building a navy to challenge the blockade, his nation’s fortunes on land and at sea twisted and turned. In the east, Confederate forces had stopped a premature advance from Fortress Monroe through the James Peninsula to Richmond at the Battle of Big Bethel on June 10. At Manassas, Virginia, green Confederate troops had outlasted green Union soldiers on July 21. The routed Yankees fled to the defenses of Washington without pursuit by the disorganized Southern army. Success in eastern Virginia offset losses in the western portion of the state, which eventually allowed the admittance of West Virginia to the Union.

In August, a U.S. fleet commanded by Flag Officer S.H. Stringham supported the troops of General Ben Butler in capturing Forts Hatteras and Clark on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Unable to face an overwhelming force on the open sea, Rebel naval forces under Flag Officer W.F. Lynch continued to challenge Union control of the (now closed) Pamlico Sound. On October 1, C.S.S. Curlew, Raleigh, and Junaluska captured the Union steamer Fanny (later C.S.S. Fanny) with enemy troops aboard. This Mosquito Fleet continued to sting the Union until overwhelmed by constantly increasing numbers of warships. It had, for all practical purposes, ceased to exist by the time Union forces under Flag Officer L.M. Goldsborough and General Ambrose Burnside captured Roanoke Island in February 1862, effectively closing Albemarle Sound. The lack of effective naval opposition then allowed Union forces to establish themselves on the mainland at New Bern during early March. By that month, Northern amphibious forces had seized several points along the Southern coasts, including Port Royal, South Carolina and Fernandina, Florida.

In the western Confederacy, Rebel gunboats and fortifications had proven no match for their opponents. Union forces repulsed a Confederate invasion of “neutral” Kentucky, then, spearheaded by seven armored riverboats commissioned in January 1862 (others would quickly follow), smashed Confederate defenses along the Tennessee and upper Mississippi Rivers. By the end of February, Confederate forces had abandoned Nashville, Tennessee, to consolidate in northern Mississippi. The Trans-Mississippi theater witnessed a seesaw war for control of Missouri, eventually decided by the Union victory at Pea Ridge, Arkansas, in March 1862. Forced back on both banks of the Father of Waters, Confederate defense of that mighty river appeared doomed.

By late February 1862, Mallory found himself under considerable pressure from Congress and the public to break the tightening blockade of Southern ports, free the coasts of North Carolina, and to provide additional naval support for the upper Mississippi. Mallory promised decisive action in March and April as his ironclads at New Orleans and Norfolk became available. Meanwhile he continued to send raiders to sea, hoping to force the Union Navy to react, thus weakening the blockade. Welles refused to respond, however, claiming that the losses would be small and those few raiders that slipped through the tightening cordon would be captured upon their return. This did little to console Northern businessmen, who claimed some $10,000,000 in shipping and goods destroyed in the opening months of the war. Quietly but steadily they began to shift vessels and cargoes to foreign flags. In fact, some clandestinely supported blockade running into the Confederacy.

Another officer receiving considerable pressure from his administration was General George McClellan, commanding the Union’s Army of the Potomac. McClellan had trained his army hard since becoming its commander; now Abraham Lincoln wanted him to use it to capture Richmond and end the rebellion. The North’s “Little Napoleon” did not wish to waste his men on a march through northern Virginia against prepared Confederate defenses. Instead, he proposed to move his army by sea to the James Peninsula, then, with Fortress Monroe secured as his base of supply, swiftly advance the 60-odd miles to the Rebel capital. His flanks protected by naval forces advancing up the York and James Rivers, McClellan’s outflanking maneuver would nullify the strong defensive positions in northern Virginia and guarantee a victory. His plan approved by a president desperate for any form of advance, McClellan began chartering the 400 merchant ships needed to move and supply his army. Then, at around 12.45 p.m. on March 8, his efforts paused as a strangely shaped vessel approached Union blockaders in Hampton Roads—the C.S.S. Virginia, supported by the wooden gunboats Beaufort and Raleigh, also of the Gosport Squadron, was about to place its mark on naval history.

Mallory had hoped to commit his Gosport Squadron of ironclads in mass, but delays in acquiring engines, shafts, and armor plates had slowed the conversions. By early March, only Virginia was ready for combat. Even it lacked the heavy iron shutters for its gunports, while newly minted Captain Catesby ap R. Jones (promoted for his fine effort in readying the vessel) seemed less than happy with the top speed of eight knots that its old engine could produce. Trials had revealed additional problems: awkward turning ability (30 minutes to turn through 180 degrees), vulnerability of the hull armor (covered with readily available 1-inch instead of 2-inch plate due to shortages) when the vessel rode light, and the Virginia’s deep draft which led to tricky maneuvering in shallow water. On the other hand, Mallory’s early recruiting efforts had given Jones time to whip a rather lubberly bunch of men into something resembling a naval crew.

Lieutenant Lucien W. Carter, late of the Mosquito Squadron’s Curlew, would captain Alabama, which floated at Gosport on March 8. Only some three weeks from readiness, the converted two-decker would become the squadron’s flagship. Filling the slot of commodore had been a difficult choice for Mallory. He would have preferred shifting the experienced and aggressive Buchanan from New Orleans for this critical role, but that city was a logical target for Union assault. Instead, the secretary chose another veteran of North Carolina’s Mosquito Fleet, Captain W.F. Lynch, for the role. Delayed by the conflict raging in the Carolina sounds, Lynch would not arrive at Gosport until March 14.

Raphael Semmes had accepted command of Hart of the Confederacy in mid-February. Semmes had already gained a reputation for boldness while commanding the raider C.S.S. Petrel out of Charleston. As a lieutenant, he had twice ran the blockade of Charleston to capture a total of 15 prizes—including a Union blockader. Unlike other raiders, Semmes had returned home with his vessel, boarding and capturing the enemy warship that stood in his way on the last trip. While recovering from a slight wound received in the action, he had requested a large, heavily armed steamer for his next raid. Instead, Semmes found himself promoted to captain and hustled to Gosport to command the vessel he later described as “the fastest, deadliest little ship in the world.” However, as Virginia steamed into Hampton Roads, Hart, the most difficult of the three conversions, still lacked most of its armor. The chief architect had informed Mallory that it could not possibly be seaworthy, even for trials, before the end of April.

First Battle of Hampton Roads

Lincoln’s North Atlantic Blockading Squadron mustered over 50 vessels, and five floated in Hampton Roads on March 8. Closest to the Elizabeth River and Gosport anchored Cumberland, a 24-gun sailing sloop, and the 44-gun sailing frigate Congress. The 50-gun screw frigates Roanoke and Minnesota, as well as the 44-gun sailing frigate St Lawrence were in positions to support the two vessels that would be the first target of the untested Confederate ironclad. It took the slow-moving Virginia more than an hour to reach gunnery range. Confident in their ability and without knowledge of the capabilities of the enemy, the Union officers of the Cumberland and Congress beat to quarters, but remained at anchor (powered only by sails, their maneuvering would have been severely limited in the tight confines of the Roads at any rate).

Shortly after 2.00 p.m., the ships exchanged their first shots. Jones, determined to destroy the more dangerous of his enemies first (though smaller than its mate, Jones knew that Cumberland carried the heavier battery), used his under-gunned wooden consorts to distract Congress. As Virginia closed the range, the superiority of its iron-plated casemate became evident. The heaviest Union shells failed to penetrate its thick hide, while Confederate artillery wrecked the sloop’s hull and created carnage among its crew. Finally, the Rebel ram pierced the side of the doomed ship. Splintered beams and suction pinned the Rebel ship in place as Cumberland rapidly settled to the bottom. At the last moment, as water sluiced across the ironclad’s deck, Jones’s straining engines managed to pull Virginia free. Its ram remained embedded in the wreckage of its victim. Even as their vessel settled beneath them, frustrated Union gunners continued to exchange fire with the Rebel cannoneers. Still unable to penetrate Virginia’s armor, they did manage to disable one of its broadside guns before, around 3.30 p.m., Cumberland slid beneath the waves.

Reinforced by the wooden gunboats Teaser, Jamestown, and Patrick Henry of the James River Squadron, Jones turned his attention to Congress, whose captain, endeavoring to gain the cover of Union shore batteries, had deliberately grounded his vessel. Taking position a mere hundred yards from the stern of the grounded frigate, Jones pounded it into submission in little over an hour. Unable to take possession of the surrendered craft as shore batteries and Union marksmen continued to target his ships, Jones ordered shot heated in his boilers. Around 5.00 p.m., Jones signaled his squadron to make for his next target, leaving the once proud Congress in flames.

The three remaining Union vessels in and near Hampton roads had rushed to join the fracas—perhaps a bit too quickly, as all three had run aground. Once freed, the outclassed Roanoke and St Lawrence had scurried for the safety of Fortress Monroe’s massive batteries, but Minnesota remained firmly aground. Jones aimed his command at that vessel, but a falling tide and shoal water prevented him from closing the range. Instead he retired to an anchorage beneath the Confederate guns at Sewell’s Point. For the price of some 60 dead and wounded, two cannons damaged, a few iron plates buckled, and an iron ram lost, Virginia and its wooden consorts had destroyed two Union warships with heavy casualties to their crews. Despite a pesky leak in the bows, munitions and coal remained to destroy the last three Yankee blockaders on the morrow. Then, perhaps, there would be time to test his vessel in the wider waters of the Chesapeake before returning to Gosport.

At 6.00 the next morning, Virginia and the five gunboats of the James River Squadron upped anchors and steamed through the mists to destroy the still grounded Minnesota. There they found a tiny vessel, a mere “cheesebox on a raft,” awaiting them. It was another ironclad, the U.S.S. Monitor. Welles had not stood idle at the threat of Mallory’s conversion of Rebel ironclads. Rather, he had solicited bids for a number of these vessels for his own navy, several of which were already performing superbly on western rivers. The most unique of the designs, however, was the Monitor. Relatively fast and maneuverable, the shallow draft vessel carried only two heavy guns, but both were protected by a thickly armored, revolving turret. The only major flaw in the design was that the deck, mere inches above the waterline, would be continually awash in any but calm waters. In fact, the warship had almost sunk during heavy seas on its journey from Long Island to Hampton Roads.

For four hours that morning, the two marvels of the age of steam and iron fought, with neither gaining an advantage. Once, Jones managed to ram his enemy, but the only result was increased leakage in Virginia’s already damaged bow. Then, the Rebel ironclad shuddered to a halt, aground on a mud bank. For an hour, the two ships pounded away, Monitor working closer and closer to the immobile behemoth. At the last minute, a shell struck the pilothouse of the tiny warship, temporarily blinding its commander. For 20 vital minutes, Monitor abandoned the battle while an inexperienced officer took the con. During that time, Jones managed to ease his battered vessel from the mud. Listening to the council of his officers that the dropping tide and leaky condition of Virginia could combine to see the vessel again aground, the frustrated Confederate captain abandoned the field and returned to his anchorage at Sewell’s Point. The following day, he steamed for Gosport and a drydock, temporarily conceding Hampton Roads to the enemy.


Though the first day of battle had sown panic in Washington, it had calmed after the standoff of the second day. McClellan queried Welles as to the U.S. Navy’s ability to contain the Rebel ships in Hampton Roads. Receiving a positive response, he began to shift his army to the Peninsula, knowing that the commitment of Union naval assets to the blockade of the Roads meant that he would have little support for his flanks along the James and York Rivers. By April 4, over 100,000 men of the Army of the Potomac were prepared to advance against weakly held Confederate fortifications stretching from Yorktown along the Warwick River. The next day, Little Mac, receiving reports of inflated Confederate strength from his intelligence agents, upset with the Navy’s refusal to support his advance along the York River, and angry at President Lincoln for keeping General McDowell’s I Corps in front of Washington instead of releasing it to the Army of the Potomac, prepared to besiege the Rebel defensive lines rather than lose men to direct assault. In the weeks it took McClellan to ready his siege guns, the besiegers became the besieged.

As Welles concentrated 21 warships near the James Peninsula, including the new ironclad Galena, the iron-hulled Naugatuck, and three fast steamers converted into rams, dockyard workers and ship crews at Gosport worked 24 hours a day to repair Virginia and to finish the conversion of Alabama and Hart. On April 1, Alabama began its trials. Its newer engine gave it a top speed of ten knots, though the same concerns with draft and maneuverability as plagued Virginia still existed. Three days later, Jones’s command (proudly bearing many of the scars remaining from its two days of battle) left drydock. Two additional inches of plate had been added to its hull, the two damaged cannon had been replaced, its heavy gunport shutters were added at last, and several damaged plates on its casemate were repaired. With a new ram attached to its bow, Virginia seemed to tug at its moorings, anxious again to face the enemy.

Semmes’s Hart, though he had briefly tested its engine and screw, remained in the hands of the workers. By April 10, the installation of its hull plating complete, only the armored pilothouse needed to shield its still exposed wheel and command station on the quarterdeck remained to be added. Semmes had already ballasted and coaled his vessel, though powder and spar torpedoes remained to be shipped as soon as workers finished the wheelhouse.

At 10.00 a.m. that day, Commodore Lynch met with his captains, including those of the seven wooden gunboats assigned to his support. Glancing at a telegram from Mallory, the commodore informed his officers that the situation did not look good on the James Peninsula. Though the army was being concentrated as rapidly as possible opposite the Yankees, they would be outnumbered almost two to one, and any hard push could well reach Richmond. Unless the pressure could be relieved, the army would be forced to abandon Norfolk. The abandonment of the Confederacy’s only fully developed naval yard was not only unpalatable, it was unacceptable; and in the eyes of the Secretary of the Navy, such a disaster could well mean the loss of the war. The only possible resolution to the conundrum in Virginia was the defeat of the blockaders standing off Fortress Monroe and a Confederate naval blockade of McClellan’s forces in Virginia.

Having been ordered to accomplish that feat, Lynch proposed to stage his ships immediately to Craney Island at the mouth of the Elizabeth River. There they would load five companies of militia, split among the vessels to serve as marines, then steam to engage the enemy on the morning of April 12. The meeting ended, and one by one ships began to leave the yard. Last in line was the Hart, its crew dangerously shifting barrels of powder from a hoy towing alongside while the noise of saws and hammers still echoed from its quarterdeck. By 6.00 the next morning, workers had completed a makeshift bulwark of 4-inch wooden beams chest-high around the vulnerable wheel and three-quarters plated it with poorly fastened 1-inch wrought iron. Most of them then tumbled into boats as Hart eased from its anchorage, though several sought and gained Semmes’s permission to remain aboard as crewmen.

Union Commodore Louis M. Goldsborough, Flag Officer of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron and personally commanding the fleet off Hampton Roads from the deck of Minnesota, possessed an excellent defensive position for his ironclads. The channel between Fortress Monroe and Confederate-held Willoughby’s Point stretched for less than four miles, flowing around an island known as the Rip Raps on which he had mounted heavy batteries of artillery. Shoals further reduced the space for maneuver. Rather than risk his vulnerable wooden vessels in the channel, Goldsborough had placed only his strongest hulls—Monitor, Galena, and Naugatuck—there, keeping the bulk of his fleet two miles to the east. If hard pressed, his first line could withdraw for a battle of maneuver; if it managed to hold the Rebel ironclads, he could run down in support.

Second Battle of Hampton Roads

At 8.00 a.m., the Galena’s lookouts spotted the approaching Confederate ironclads, Alabama and Virginia abreast and Hart of the Confederacy lingering astern. The vulnerable Rebel gunboats followed, wary of closing the range too swiftly, though at six knots (the best that Virginia’s struggling engine could do against a making tide), the range seemed to close slowly indeed. At 9.00 a.m., Monitor’s big Dahlgrens opened the ball. A few minutes later, Galena scored first blood, its opening broadside shattering Alabama’s starboard quarterboat, splinters wounding a Confederate sharpshooter crouched by the ship’s funnel. By 9.30, the firing was general as shells glanced from the armor of both sides. Closer and closer crept the casemated leviathans, obviously intent on ramming the Union vessels. But all three were nimble, and maneuvered to escape collision while they themselves ineffectually pounded the enemy. Then, seeming to leap from between the larger Confederate ships, Semmes’s Hart, black smoke streaming from its stack and the very deck vibrating with the revolutions of its single shaft, arrowed towards Monitor at the amazing speed of 17 knots.

Semmes intended to combine his untried spar torpedo with a ramming attack. As conceived, the spar torpedo was a simple weapon. Mounted on a pole held upright above the ship’s bow until released seconds before impact, the pole would fall forward into a slot on the bulwark. Projecting downward to or immediately below the waterline of the enemy ship, contact would ignite a percussion cap, thus triggering the barrel of powder and, ideally, opening a hole in the side of the enemy ship. The weapon’s operators had been trained to wait until the last minute to drop the infernal device, as the force of the waves could snap the spar or even trigger the torpedo early. Once fired, it would be the crew’s job to mount another torpedo as Hart maneuvered for the next attack.