Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Confederate submarines

When someone mentions Confederate submarines, everyone thinks of the C.S.S. Hunley, and rightfully so. The Hunley did become the first submersible combat vessel to sink an enemy warship. But the South’s drive to build and successfully implement innovative warships goes far beyond one ship in February 1864. There were several other Confederate submarines and attempts to disrupt the blockade of Southern ports.

An excellent resource on the subject is Mark Ragan’s Union and Confederate Submarine Warfare (1999). The only thing that could make this book more beneficial would have been an appendix, maybe a quick reference guide, listing the barest details of each submarine.

Another note: the Confederacy built both semi-submersible and completely submersible vessels. The former are at times referred to as torpedo boats or David-Class Torpedo Boats. These craft were built of wood, contained a single screw, and had a steam boiler. They were fifty feet in length, had a four-man crew, and boasted a spar torpedo on the end. They were designed to run at night semi-submerged toward a Federal vessel, to drive the torpedo inside the vessel, and to then back away. On October 5, 1863, a “David” vessel attacked the U.S.S. Ironsides in Charleston, seriously damaging the vessel. The Confederate David was able to return to harbor. (135-137)

Information on many of these Confederate submarines is extremely limited. Many of the Confederate naval records were destroyed at war’s end. 

The Hunley by Chapman

Franklin G. Smith wrote to the Columbia Herald on June 10, 1861, about building a fleet of Confederate submarines: “Excepting our privateers the Confederate States have not a single ship at sea. Throughout our southern seaports, men of a mechanical turn and of the right spirit must go to work, maturing the best plans for the destruction or the capture of every blockading ship. From the Chesapeake to the mouth of the Rio Grande, our coast is better fitted for submarine warfare than any other in the world. I would have every hostile keel chased from our coast by submarine propellers. The new vessel must be cigar shaped for speed - made of plate iron, joined without external rivet heads, about thirty feet long, with a central section about 4 x 3 feet - driven by a spiral propeller. The new Aneroid barometer made for increased pressure, will enable the adventurer easily to decide his exact distance below the surface.” Of course, there never was a fleet of submarines built, but there were a few of note.

Pioneer – built in New Orleans, Louisiana, and tested in February 1862. The ship was 34 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 4 feet high. It was powered by a hand crank that was attached to a propeller. The Pioneer was scuttled in a canal near Lake Pontchartrain when New Orleans was evacuated. The Federals raised and examined the ship, and in 1868, it was sold for scrap.

Bayou Saint John submarine – no one seems to know the name of this vessel. It was dredged out of Bayou Saint John in 1878. When it was eventually opened, three skeletons were found inside. The submarine is now on display at the Capitol Park Museum – Baton Rouge.

Shreveport submarines – there were supposedly five submarines under construction in Shreveport, Louisiana, by the Singer Submarine Corporation in 1863. One of these was sent to Houston, Texas, while the other four were scuttled toward the end of the war. The other four are still submerged but apparently “surface” in the news when they are exposed during low water levels at the Cross Bayou. See https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/01/24/mystery-of-missing-civil-war-subs-resurfaces/22288817/

Richmond submarines--these include several built by Tredegar Iron Works. One was tested on the James River below Rocketts at the end of 1861. In this test, a diver emerged from the submerged vessels and planted an explosive charge on the bottom of a barge. Once secure in the submarine, the charge was detonated, sinking the barge. On October 12, 1861, an unnamed submarine, possibly the one above or maybe a different vessel, was launched at Sewall’s Point and made for the U.S.S. Minnesota. The craft became entangled in a net and was almost captured. It is not really clear what became of these vessels.  

Pioneer II (American Diver) – built in Mobile late 1862. It started out with some type of electrical motor, and then had a steam engine, and eventually had a hand crank. On its first mission in February 1863, in an attempt to attack the Federal blocking fleet there at Mobile Bay, it foundered in heavy seas and sank. But the crew did survive.

Colonel E. H. Agaman – was the idea of Col. E.H. Agaman. His submarine was rocket powered. It is not clear if the submarine itself was rocket powered, or the torpedo. After the fuel for the rocket was shipped from Augusta, Georgia, to Mobile in April 1863, this vessel disappears from the pages of history.  

CSS Squib also operated in the James River. In April 1864, the Squib placed a torpedo on the hull of USS Minnesota and detonated it. The torpedo was too close to the surface, and the Minnesota was not seriously damaged. The final disposition of the Squib is unknown. The Squib is also referred to as the Infanta. There were also operating at the end of the war three others: the Scorpion, Hornet, and Wasp.

CSS Hunley – most famous. Constructed in Mobile and transported to Mobile, the Hunley sank twice and killed a crew and a half before the attack the USS Housatonic. Of course we know that the final crew of the Hunley did not return and sank as well, somewhere beyond where the Housatonic went down.

CSS Captain Pierce might have sunk the USS Tecumseh in August 1864 in the battle of Mobile Bay. The boiler of the submarine might have exploded shortly thereafter.

CSS St. Patrick was privately built in Mobile and transferred to the Confederate navy in January 1865. The St. Patrick struck the Federal ship USS Octorara with a torpedo, but the torpedo misfired and did no damage and the St. Patrick escaped.

There were at least two submarines under construction in Wilmington, North Carolina, in late 1864, early 1865. But their final dispositions are unknown.

(For more information, please check out Ragan’s Union and Confederate Submarine Warfare in the Civil War, or, Daniel Franignoul’s “Submarine Monsters of the Confederacy,” Confederate Historical Society of Belgium)

Monday, February 13, 2023

The raid on Windsor, North Carolina, January 1864.

   Windsor, the county seat of Bertie County, was just a little village off the Cashie River in eastern North Carolina. It did not have much military importance. Yet the Federals came calling in January 1864.

   Confederate forces under Maj. Gen. George Pickett were campaigning in eastern North Carolina that winter. On February 1, the bulk of his command would move from Kinston to New Bern in an attempt to wrest control of the port town from Federal occupation. When the Confederates arrived in the area, they sent out foraging parties to secure food and forage for man and beast. One of those groups, reported as two companies from the 62nd Georgia Cavalry.[1]

USS Massasoit (LOC)

   The Federals stationed at Plymouth, on the Roanoke River, soon learned of the Confederate presence and dispatched naval vessels, with 100 infantry on board, towards the town on the night of January 29, 1864.  The USS Massasoit of Lt. Com. Flusser provided the transport. The vessel proceeded up the Roanoke River before taking a right into the Cashie River. The infantry force landed about three o’clock in the morning about six miles below the town. A member of the 103rd Pennsylvania Infantry recalled that “About daylight, the advance became engaged,” with the Georgia cavalrymen. “My command was in a detachment that made a detour to the left at double quick to come in on the enemy’s flank, but we had not reached our position before they ‘skedaddled.’” Capt. John Donaghy, 103rd Pennsylvania, who had command of part of the mixed Federal infantry, lost command of his troops. The Federal infantry force was drawn from every company in the regiment. “My men were so eager to get a pop at the rebs that some of them began firing without orders, unmindful of a line of our skirmishers who were between us and them. It took some vigorous language on my part and some blows with the flat of my sword against their guns to make them cease firing.”[2]

   Donaghy eventually gained control of his men and they proceeded through the abandoned camp of the Georgia cavalry. “The enemy, except a few escaped,” Donaghy wrote, “And all that we captured was their camp, with some arms, and the musical instruments of the band. Brass must have been scarce, for the horns were made of sheet iron.” The Federals marched into town, sending out pickets on various roads while the Federal navy, presumably their land force, “practiced with their howitzers for a while shelling the country in every direction the rebels had gone.” In Donaghy’s opinion, they did nothing but “waste some ammunition.” Following that, Donaghy’s men “consumed a few rails cooking their coffee, for the halt gave us the opportunity to eat breakfast.” Donaghy heard the sound of horses nearby and ordered a lieutenant with a squad to go and investigate. They found several horses tied in the woods, removed from surrounding farms as the farmers attempted to keep the animals safe. “It was a lucky discovery for us, and Lieut. Kelly and I, and some of the boys, ceased to be foot soldiers for the time being. A saddle and bridle was found in a barn nearby, and I borrowed them,” Donaghy recalled. [3]

   On returning to the town, Donaghy encountered Flusser, who “had a bottle with him, and we drank several times to his favorite toast, ‘Confusion to the rebels, and damn the Roanoke sheep.’ By the sheep he meant the ram that the rebels were building up the river. We left the captured horses at the landing, without having any harrowing doubts but that their owners would find them. We were back in Plymouth by nine o’clock at night, with nobody hurt on the expedition.”[4]

   Another member of the 103rd Pennsylvania wrote that “Horses, mules, wagons, clothing, ammunition and two soldiers were captured. Several prominent citizens were brought away to be held as hostages for certain loyal persons incarcerated in Richmond.” Who were those citizens captured? Several North Carolina newspapers commented on the raid. On wrote that the Federals had ‘burnt up some meat and destroyed some salt. . .and captured and carried off Rev. Cyrus Watters [Walters], of the Episcopal church; also Dr. Turner Wilson and L.S. Webb, Esq., Cashier of the Bank and some one or two others.” Both the commanding officers of the 62nd Georgia Cavalry, and the newspaper articles, reported that the Confederate cavalry was reinforced and “after some sharp firing, the Yankees retired.” What became of Walters, Wilson, and Webb is unknown,  and more research needs to be done on the “loyal persons incarcerated in Richmond.”[5] 

[1] ORs, Vol. 33, 107.

[2] Dickey, History of the 103rd Regiment, Pennsylvania, 54.

[3] Dickey, History of the 103rd Regiment, Pennsylvania, 51.

[4] Dickey, History of the 103rd Regiment, Pennsylvania, 55.

[5] Dickey, History of the 103rd Regiment, Pennsylvania, 51; The Charlotte Democrat, February 16, 1864; ORs, Vol. 33, 107.

Tuesday, February 07, 2023

Changing Sides


“There are very few unexplored topics concerning the history of the American Civil War,” is how Patrick H. Garrow starts Changing Sides: Union Prisoners of War Who Joined the Confederate Army (2020). Yet Garrow has found and explored one of those topics. Garrow makes a conservative estimate of 4,000 Federal soldiers who joined the Confederate ranks. These men were mostly, but not entirely, foreign-born - Irish and German immigrants. While confessing that it is difficult to trace the service of men who filtered into various regiments, Garrow concentrates on four: Brook’s Battalion, Tucker’s Regiment/1st Foreign Battalion, 2nd Foreign Battalion/8th Confederate Infantry; and the 10th Tennessee Infantry. The first three were recruited as organizations entirely made up of former Federal soldiers. The latter was an early war Confederate regiment whose ranks were depleted and received an influx of these recruits. Garrow examines the war-record of these late war regiments. Brook’s Battalion, while stationed near Savannah, had several members arrested and executed for mutiny. The 8th Confederate Infantry fought amazingly well at Salisbury in April 1865. Many members of the 10th Tennessee Infantry were captured at Egypt Station, Mississippi, and instead of being executed as deserters, were given the chance to re-enlist in the Federal army, surviving in the 5th United States Volunteers. Garrow then follows by tracing the lives of a few of the former Federal/Confederate soldiers into the post-war years, showing how many of these men (but not all) disappear from the pages of history. This is followed by an examination of some of the Confederate officers who commanded the members of the various battalions and regiments listed above. Garrow has accomplished what he set out to do: tell the story of an unexplored aspect of not just the war, but American history. This book is highly recommended!