Military history

CHAPTER SIXTEEN


The Battle off Cherbourg and the Civil War at Sea

PARALLEL TO BUT quite detached from the land war, though potentially crucial to its outcome, was the Civil War at sea. It was a war that the North completely dominated, as could not otherwise have been the case. The United States Navy was an almost entirely Northern institution. Of its 7,600 seamen only a handful went south. The seafaring population of the United States was Northern, and provided the manpower of the country’s merchant marine, an enormous resource of trained sailors which had no equivalent in the South. True, of the navy’s 1,554 regular officers, 373 chose to side with the South; but their numbers could easily be made good from the ranks of the merchant service. At the outset, moreover, the South had almost no ships. Of the forty-two naval vessels in commission, almost all were either absent in distant waters or in Union ports. Those the North controlled were, it is true, almost all antiquated and at best obsolescent; but the South had nothing with which to oppose them. Stephen Mallory, the Confederacy’s secretary of the navy, recognised from the outset that, lacking as it did almost all shipbuilding capacity, it would have to buy ships abroad, which effectively meant from England. For that purpose he sent the former U.S. Navy captain James Bulloch to Liverpool, where he set up business in June 1861. It was not difficult to place contracts with British builders; the difficulty lay in circumventing British neutrality law. Under the Foreign Enlistment Act, which had naval provisions, British builders would be prosecuted by their government for supplying ships to the rebellious subjects of a friendly foreign state. It would therefore be necessary to represent a Confederate-commissioned ship as a merchantman, to sail it from British waters to a neutral port, and to sail its armament separately. Bulloch quickly learnt the necessary tricks but was closely watched by Union agents and diplomats, who attempted to prevent the delivery of suspected warships. The first vessel that Bulloch commissioned was launched as theOreto, supposedly for the Italian government. The American embassy correctly identified her as identical to one of the propeller-driven steam gunboats currently being commissioned for the Royal Navy, but it failed to prevent her from leaving Liverpool. She was sailed in April 1862 to Nassau, in the British Bahamas, where she was joined by a merchantman, confusingly called the Bahama, carrying her guns and ammunition. The Oreto, now known as the Florida, was sailed to Cuba, where she met the Bahama. The Spanish colonial government refused to allow the warlike stores to be installed, some but not all having been taken aboard in the Bahamas, and the captain, Commander J. N. Maffitt, of the Confederate navy, determined to run the blockade and reach Mobile, Alabama. She was fired on by Union warships while penetrating the blockade but was not badly damaged and succeeded in getting to port in Mobile, where she stayed for the next four months.

In January 1863 she slipped out, evading the blockade, and got into the Atlantic, where she took a number of vessels, using them to unblock Northern shipping. After sinking fourteen, Florida was sailed for repairs to the French port of Brest. She then cruised in the Atlantic, destroying Union shipping, eventually going into port at Bahia, Brazil. There she was cornered by a Union sloop, which attempted to simulate a collision with her. Though the ruse failed, the sloop got possession of her, and she was taken to Hampton Roads and there sank, following an apparently genuine collision.

The Confederate Navy Department succeeded in acquiring several other commercial raiders, either by commissioning them to be built or by purchase abroad. They included the Georgia, originally the British-owned Japan; during her career as a cruiser she captured only eight vessels and was eventually taken to Boston by a U.S. Navy ship which had intercepted her outside Lisbon.

By far the most successful and best known of the Confederate cruisers was the CSS Alabama. She was built at Liverpool at the same time and under the same subterfuge as the Florida. In August 1862 she was sailed to the Portuguese Azores, where her guns and ammunition were transhipped, and she began her raids on United States shipping under the command of Captain Raphael Semmes. As a Union officer he had shared a cabin during the Mexican War with the future captain John Winslow, who would command the Union ship that sank the Alabama in battle at the end of her commerce-raiding career. Semmes was a sailor and leader of great ability. Soon after the start of his cruise he began to capture prizes, but while making for the entrance to New York harbour, theAlabamaran into heavy weather and suffered damage. He accordingly decided to sail to the Gulf of Mexico, where he got intelligence of a Union seaborne invasion of Texas and determined to intercept the enemy fleet. To his consternation, however, Semmes ran not into a large body of merchantmen but into a squadron of five U.S. warships and had to beat a hasty retreat. He was pursued by the USS Hatteras and brought to action but successfully defended himself, sank the Hatteras, and escaped first into the South Atlantic, then to the Pacific, where he successfully terrorised Northern shipping in that ocean. The Alabama’s operations in the Pacific caused all Northern shipping there to take refuge in local ports and so brought U.S. commerce in those waters to a standstill.Alabama’s eventual tally of prizes taken totalled sixty-four, one of the largest successes ever recorded by a commerce raider. Finding no more victims, Semmes therefore sailed the Alabama first to the East Indies, then to East Africa, and eventually to Brazil. He continued to attack Union shipping on the way. On arrival in Brazil, Semmes decided that his ship needed repairs, since her boilers were burnt out and she was shedding the copper from her bottom. Accordingly he proceeded to Europe, where in June 1864 he entered the French port of Cherbourg and secured permission for the Alabama to be docked. Soon afterwards his old shipmate Captain Winslow appeared in command of the USS Kearsarge. Kearsarge was almost the twin of the Alabama, same size, same horsepower, almost the same armament. Winslow declared his purpose to be the embarkation of the Union prisoners Alabama held. Semmes objected to Kearsarge getting permission from French authorities to do so, since she would thereby add to her crew. AsKearsarge left harbour, however, Semmes sent word that he would follow her and fight, apparently as a point of honour that he needed to demonstrate that Alabama was also a ship-of-war and not merely a commerce raider.

Alabama departed from Cherbourg on the morning of Sunday, June 19, and spotted Kearsarge lying about seven miles to the north. Semmes cleared for action and delivered a stirring address to his men in which he reminded them that they were about to fight in the English Channel, scene of so much naval glory of their race. By this he meant the English race; Americans commonly regarded themselves as sharing a common ethnicity with the English, even eighty years after the War of Independence. The two ships closed to a distance of about a mile and began to circle. The ships completed seven circles, keeping up a heavy fire. They were almost perfectly matched, the Alabama mounting one 100-pounder pivot gun, one 8-inch pivot gun, and six 32-pounders. TheKearsarge mounted, besides 32-pounders, two 11-inch pivot guns. Her advantage was that her hull was covered with chains, to serve as armour; these chains were concealed by pine planking. The Alabama had no armoured protection. Improvised asKearsarge‘s armour was, it proved effective against the Alabama‘s shot and shell. Alabama suffered heavy damage when three 11-inch shells entered through a gun port. After over one hour’s action, at just before one o’clock, the chief engineer of the Alabamareported to Semmes that the boiler fires were out; the ship was settling rapidly and was in a sinking condition. Semmes therefore ordered that the colours be struck and gave the order to abandon ship. Although Kearsarge had suffered only three casualties, the decks and below-deck spaces of the Alabamawere crowded with dead and wounded. Winslow sent his two undamaged ship’s boats to rescue men from the water. An English steam yacht, the Deerhound, commanded by John Lancaster, flying the ensign of the Royal Mersey Yacht Club, which had been watching the action at close hand, came down to pick up survivors also. News of the confrontation of the Alabama and the Kearsarge had brought by train hundreds of spectators from as far away as Paris. The crowd watching the sea battle from shore and headland was estimated at about 15,000.

Alabama was the most successful of the Confederacy’s twelve commerce raiders. Collectively they inflicted about twenty million dollars of damage on Union shipping and permanently altered the balance in world trade to Britain’s advantage. So high did insurance costs rise on U.S.-flagged ships that traders generally, and American exporters in particular, took to shipping cargos in non-U.S. bottoms, progressively reducing the size of the U.S. merchant fleet, until, from having been larger than and a vigorous competitor with Britain’s, it ceased to be an important part of world commerce carrying. It never recovered from the damage done by the Confederacy’s raiders.

The commerce-raiding campaign was a Confederate success, as was its blockade-running. The losses, however, made the effort too costly to be really worth the candle. The Confederacy’s personnel, from Secretary Mallory to Semmes, were men of ability; to Mallory is due the credit of inaugurating ironclad warfare in world naval affairs. The base of the effort, however, was too small to have offered the Confederacy any prospect of success in offsetting the strategic balance.

The enormous length of the American coastline, the extent of its territorial waters, and the importance of seaborne trade to the American economy would have led to a pre-war appreciation that naval combat would play a crucial role in any war between North and South. So it did, to an extent. That extent, however, was limited, for simple reasons. The North was vulnerable to attack at sea, but the South’s naval power was too small to do the necessary damage. The South was also vulnerable but succeeded in evading the North’s much greater power by resort to irregular methods of sea warfare, commerce-raiding and blockade-running.

For such a small service with a short history, the United States Navy had already acquired a formidable reputation by 1861. Although it had only forty-two warships in commission, the fleet had won victories far from home in its seventy years’ existence. Its frigates had triumphed in several notable single-ship actions against the Royal Navy during the War of 1812, and it had operated as far away as the Mediterranean in the campaign against the North African beys at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Its seamen were of outstanding quality and its officers equal in competence to those of the Royal Navy. Long ago its ships had been at the forefront of the builder’s craft. At the outbreak of conflict, however, the survivors were all antiquated. None had been launched later than 1822. Some dated from the eighteenth century. Almost all were sailing vessels, armed with broadside-firing cannon. The South’s raising and rebuilding of the USS Merrimack as the armoured warship CSS Virginia revealed starkly how outdated all were. Only the almost miraculous appearance of the USS Monitor averted the Union fleet’s complete destruction when the two ironclads met in Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862.

Riverine warfare, particularly on the Mississippi and its tributaries, was dominated by the North, which controlled and built the largest number of armed river craft. On the high seas, however, it was the South that was most active, because of its recourse to blockade-running and commerce-raiding, with fast ships built or bought abroad. Though it did not rescue the South from shortage, blockade-running was essential to its war economy. There were several thousand blockade-runners active during the war, of which 1,500 were captured by the several hundred U.S. Navy ships searching for them. Still, five out of six blockade-runners got through; it was very much in their captains’ and crews’ interests to take the risks, since the return on a successful voyage was enormous, several hundred dollars even for ordinary seamen. On the outward voyage the blockade runners shipped cotton, on the inward military supplies but also luxury goods, usually the private property of the captain. The danger of interception chiefly arose near the home port, of which the number open dwindled as the war drew out. The U.S. Navy became very skilled at setting traps for the runners, its task considerably eased because destinations were so predictable. The blockade-runners, with the assistance of shore parties, also became successful at avoiding interception. They made use of bad weather and the hours of darkness to run close inshore, where the removal of navigation markers and lights put their pursuers at risk.

As the blockade heightened, the South turned to active measures. At the outset the Richmond government had issued letters of marque, in effect licences to sail as pirates, to private shipowners. Twenty-four privateers sailed under the Confederate flag. Privateering, however, died out when the European powers closed their ports to them and their prizes. The privateering had the effect, however, of driving up maritime insurance rates to exorbitant levels and forcing U.S. shipowners to reflag their vessels under non-American flags. As privateering lost effectiveness, the Southern government, at the behest of Secretary Mallory, a pre-war chairman of the U.S. Senate’s naval affairs committee, began to commission official commerce-raiders. The first was the CSSSumter, commanded by Raphael Semmes. Beginning in June 1861, he captured six Northern merchantmen, which he took into ports in Cuba. His campaign, however, was frustrated by the Spanish colonial government, which returned the prizes to their crews. He was also hampered by Spanish restrictions on his freedom to refuel. He transferred to the coast of South America, where he was intercepted by the USS Powhatan, under Captain David Porter, and forced to flee across the Atlantic as far as Gibraltar. There he was blockaded by a Union squadron and obliged to abandon his command. He made his own escape to the South, having captured eighteen ships during his cruise in Sumter.

Other Confederate commerce-raiders were the CSS Florida, which captured thirty-five prizes but was eventually cornered in Brazilian waters in 1864 and towed to Hampton Roads. The circumstances of her capture were so clearly illegal that the Federal government agreed to return her to a Brazilian port, but she was, again illegally, disabled by a U.S. ship before she could depart. The CSS Georgia cruised in the Atlantic in 1863, reaching as far as Morocco, where she fought a ship-to-shore battle with Moors. She had captured nine prizes and was eventually decommissioned in Cherbourg. The CSS Nashville cruised off Britain during 1862, taking no prizes before being sunk by the USS Montauk in 1863. The CSS Tallahassee captured forty Atlantic prizes before taking refuge in Liverpool in April 1865 and being sold. The CSS Shenandoah had an adventurous career, sailing round the Horn to Australia in 1864, where she recruited many Australians. In early 1865 she made captures among the whaling fleet in the Bering Straits, off Siberia, but on hearing of the war’s end she sailed for England and hauled down the Confederate colours on November 6, 1865. She had taken thirty-eight prizes. The CSS Chickamauga cruised in the Atlantic in late 1864, taking seven prizes, but was deserted by many of her crew in Bermuda and forced to return to Wilmington, North Carolina, where she was burnt to escape capture in February 1865.

The commerce-raiders destroyed about 5 percent of the American merchant fleet and, though small in number, severely disrupted the Union’s seaborne commerce, with permanent effect. Because of reflagging and the sale of American merchantmen to foreign owners, the U.S. merchant marine, a potential rival to that of Britain, never recovered its place in world trade after 1865. The South’s naval effort was remarkable. Yet the real naval achievement of the Civil War was the North’s. By effectively closing down the South’s maritime commerce, it not only denied the Confederacy the possibility both of resupplying and of funding its war effort, but it also denied Richmond the diplomatic recognition it craved.

The crux of the North’s naval dominance was its imposition of blockade. Blockade had legal as well as military substance. To be recognised as having force in international law, blockade had to be effective. Mere declaration of blockade did not invest it with legality. It had to be demonstrated as working. The blockading squadrons of the U.S. Navy, therefore, had to actually be capable of closing the South’s ports of entry. As the South had over 3,500 miles of coastline and hundreds of harbours large and small, the task of imposing effective blockade was considerable. Most of the South’s harbours could, however, be ignored, since they were too small or deficient in lines of communication inland to be useful to blockade runners. In all there were only ten Southern ports sufficiently deepwater or with adequate facilities to count: New Orleans; Mobile, Alabama; Pensacola and Fernandina, Florida; Savannah, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; Wilmington and New Bern, North Carolina; and Norfolk, Virginia. Most of these places were taken early on, New Bern and Fernandina in March 1862, and Savannah was closed by the capture of its approaches in April. New Orleans was also taken in April 1862. Pensacola was abandoned, because the Federal fort guarding its entrance refused to surrender, in May 1862. By mid-1862 the only Atlantic ports left to the South were Charleston, Wilmington, and Norfolk. Norfolk, closely watched by the Northern fleet operating in Chesapeake Bay, was too well blockaded to be useful as a port of entry. Charleston was invaded from landward in 1865; eventually only Wilmington survived as a port of entrance and exit.

The Confederate naval effort was remarkable not for what it achieved but for what it attempted, with revolutionary naval means that permanently altered the nature of war at sea, not only with ironclads but also with “torpedoes,” as mines were then called, and submarines. The Confederacy’s first submarine was an experimental model, the Pioneer, built at New Orleans in February 1862. It was abandoned and sunk in Lake Pontchartrain the following month. The development team, including its leader, Horace Lawson Hunley, then transferred their work to Mobile, Alabama, where they built the American Diver. It was ready to make an attack on the Union blockading fleet by January 1863, but proved to be too slow for practical use, and after its failure, it sank in a storm in the mouth of Mobile Bay and was not recovered.

Very soon after its loss, Hunley began work on its replacement, which was to be known by his name. Earlier experiments with steam and electromagnetic propulsion were abandoned and it was built with a hand-cranked propeller shaft, turned by its seven-man crew. It was submerged by admitting water to its two ballast tanks.

Hunley was ready for trials in July 1863 and sunk a coal barge in Mobile harbour. It was then sent by rail to Charleston, South Carolina, where it twice sank while undergoing trials in the harbour, drowning five of its crew in the first instance and the whole crew in the second, including its inventor. In each case it was raised and volunteers found to continue work. On the night of February 17, 1863, it attacked the twelve-gun USS Housatonic, five miles off Charleston, and sank her, by a spar torpedo rammed into her hull. The Hunley, perhaps herself damaged in the attack, sank afterwards, again drowning her crew. The wreck of the Hunley was discovered by divers in 1979 and raised on August 8, 2000. Postmortem examination of the crew’s remains later revealed that four of the eight were American-born, four of European origin. They were buried, with military honours, in the Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston, on April 17, 2004, in the presence of a crowd of 35,000 to 50,000, in what was described as “the last Confederate Funeral.” Hunleywas to be remembered as the first submarine to commit an act of war in naval history. The Confederate navy was an insignificant strategic asset but one of the most innovative ever to have been organised.

Americans were the pioneers of submarine warfare, having constructed and operated an experimental submarine during the War of Independence. It was an understandable initiative by a people who were in rebellion against the world’s foremost naval power and were unable to challenge the vast British surface fleet. It was also understandable that the Confederacy, lacking any hope of confronting the Union navy on equal terms, should have resumed the submarine experiment.

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