Monday, May 30, 2016

May 30, 1861: USS Powhatan seizes a prize off New Orleans

On May 30, 1861, the USS Powhatan seized seized the schooner Mary Clinton off one of the entrances to the Mississippi River south of New Orleans. Small coastal trading vessels like brigs and schooners were the first victims of the blockade. These small sailing vessels were a crucial link in the South's prewar transportation system. Sails provided these ships with a cheap, efficient means of propulsion. Sails took up little cargo space and did not require expensive fuel like steam powered vessels. On the other hand, the small sailing ships were fatally vulnerable to steamships that could move at will, regardless of the direction of the wind.
Off South West Pass, Mississippi River, May 30, 1861.

SIR: I have the honor to inform you that I have captured and sent home the schooner
Mary Clinton, of New Orleans, for attempting to run the blockade after being warned by the frigate Niagara not to approach the Southern coast.

Gunner Duycker goes in charge of her, and is directed to proceed to New York to turn over the crew, whose times are mostly out. I beg leave to request that Gunner Duycker may be sent back to this ship by the first favorable opportunity, and if we have to send North many prizes (which is more than probable) I request that an addition may be made to our crew by the first vessel that comes out.

I desire to draw your attention to the fact that the present allowance of crews to vessels is for peace establishment and is not suited at all to times of war, if it is intended that the vessels shall be efficient. I also request that this ship may be supplied with four midshipmen, as we have no masters mates, and no one to take charge of the boats.

I am at present engaged in blockading the South West Pass of the Mississippi, which will be done effectually.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Lieutenant, Commanding.

Secretary of the Navy, Washington, D.C.
The USS Powhatan was commanded by a talented and extremely ambitious lieutenant named David Dixon Porter. Porter had been the officer who diverted the Powhatan from the expedition to relieve Fort Sumter and took her to Fort Pickens instead. With the outbreak of war and the proclamation of the blockade, Porter began operating against Southern shipping in the Gulf of Mexico.

The USS Powhatan was a sidewheel steam sloop of war commissioned in 1850. She displaced 3,825 tons, was about 250 feet long, and 45 feet wide. A fairly big ship for her day, the Powhatan nevertheless sacrificed some firepower due to her sidewheel propulsion. The Powhatan's sidewheels took up space along the vessel's broadsides, limiting the number of guns that could be sited along her sides. Powhatan nevertheless mounted a formidable armament of ten 9-inch Dahlgren guns on her broadside, a single 11-inch Dahlgren gun on a pivot, and five smaller 12-pounder cannon.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

May 29, 1861: The blockade of New Orleans begins

The Mississippi River does not have a single mouth. Instead, the Mississippi Delta extends into the Gulf of Mexico and the river forks into several passes, each of which allowed ships of various sizes access to the gulf from the Mississippi River. The geography of the Mississippi Delta made it difficult for a single ship to blockade New Orleans, as one ship could only cover one of the passes. In this report, Commander Charles Henry Poor lays out some of the many difficulties of the blockade.
Off Pass a l'Outre, May 29, 1861.

SIR: I have the honor to report that I captured as a prize the barkentine H. B. Spearing, of and for New Orleans, with a cargo of coffee from Rio de Janeiro. I have placed a prize crew on board in charge of Midshipman Manley and Boatswain Bartlett, with orders to proceed to Key West for adjudication.

I hope the Department will find it convenient to send additional men and officers to this ship, as her efficiency will be much affected by reducing her complement of either, especially the former.

I arrived off the Pass a l'Outre on the 26th instant and sent in a notification of a rigid blockade, allowing fifteen days to neutrals to depart, with or without cargo. In this I followed the precedent established at Pensacola. Under the head of neutrals I class the vessels of all nationalities at peace with the United States. I found several American vessels on the bar; all of them had loaded and cleared before the proclamation of blockade was issued, but having no instructions or precedent to except American vessels so circumstanced, I have given them the usual warning not to leave. They appear to be bona fide United States vessels and their cargoes are mostly, if not entirely, foreign property.

If they are compelled to remain they may fall into the hands of the enemy, and if I capture them for violating the blockade there is a great doubt of their condemnation, and I shall have to weaken my ship by placing prize crews on board, with officers to take charge of them. In either case I think the United States will suffer more than the other party. I should like to have more definite instructions with reference to such cases. It has happened also that emigrant vessels have arrived short of provisions and water. To turn them off without supplying them with provisions is not only inhuman, but might subject them, among whom are women and children, to starvation. I cannot well spare provisions from this ship, and it is impossible for them to procure them at New Orleans. I should like to know what course I am to pursue in such cases, especially when the vessels only contain passengers.

Several captures have been made by private armed steamers under the secession flag. Since my arrival they keep well up the river out of my reach. There is not water enough for this vessel to cross the bar, and if there was I could not take her through the intricate channel of the river without a pilot.

Without other vessels the blockade, I fear, will not be considered a legal one, as there are three or four entrances to watch. I can only guard the principal one (Pass a l'Outre), the only one at this time accessible to large vessels. Light-draft, swift steamers, with a gun or two of long range, are much needed, and I think it would require at least four vessels to effectually blockade the mouths of the Mississippi and New Orleans. The
Powhatan is off Mobile.

It will soon be necessary to supply this ship with coal.

Vessels are often detained on the bar, waiting for a rise to get over, for several weeks. One English ship remains fast in the mud, with a cargo she took on board two months or more since. Do vessels under such circumstances come under the strict rule of blockade?

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

C.H. POOR, Commander.

Hon. GIDEON WELLES, Secretary of the Navy, Washington, D. C.
The USS Brooklyn was a very powerful steam sloop of war. Weighing in at more than 2,500 tons, she carried twenty 9-inch guns on her broadsides and a single 10-inch gun as a pivot. The Brooklyn would have an eventful career on the Mississippi River and Gulf Coast.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

May 28, 1861: The Confederate Department of War packs for Richmond, Virginia

During the last week of May 1861, Montgomery, Alabama's brief tenure as the capital of the Confederacy came to an unceremonious end. After the decision was taken to move the Southern capital to Richmond, Virginia the various departments of the government packed up their tiny offices and set out for Virginia. Typical of these was the Confederate War Department, where clerk John B. Jones helped pack for Richmond.
May 28th.—Little or no business was done this day. The Secretary announced that no more communications would be considered by him in Montgomery. He placed in my charge a great many unopened letters, and a special list of candidates for office, with annotations. These I packed in my trunk.

As I was to precede the Secretary, and having some knowledge of the capacity of the public buildings in Richmond, I was charged with the duty of securing, if possible, suitable offices for the Department of War. I made hasty preparations for departure.

Before starting, something prompted me to call once more at the post-office, where, to my surprise and delight, I found a letter from my wife. She was in Richmond, with all the children, Tabby and the parrot. She had left Burlington about the same time I had left Richmond. At Havre-de-Grace, on the Susquehanna, which they crossed in the night, my youngest daughter was compelled with difficulty to stride over the sleeping bodies of Yankee soldiers. She writes that she deposited, very carefully, our plate in the bank! The idea that all might have been brought off if she had only known it, is the source of her wretchedness. She writes that she had been materially assisted by Mr. Grubb and his lady, prompted by personal friendship, by humanity, and by those generous instincts of the true nobility of heart imparted by the Creator. Mr. G. is true to the Constitution and the Government under which he lives—and would doubtless never consent to a rupture of the Union under any circumstances. He has a son in the army against us. And Col. Wall, another personal friend, boldly shook hands with my family at parting, while the Wide-Awake file leaders stood scowling by. I hope he may not suffer for his temerity.

These things occupied my thoughts during a sleepless night in the cars. My abode in New Jersey had been a pleasant one. I had a fine yard and garden, and many agreeable neighbors. I loved my garden, and cultivated my own grapes, pears, peaches, apples, raspberries, currants, and strawberries. I had fruits and vegetables in the greatest profusion. And the thrushes and other migratory birds had come to know me well, and sang me to sleep at night, and awakened me with their strains in the morning. They built their nests near the windows, for the house was embowered in trees, and half covered with ivy. Even my cats, for every living thing was a pet to some one of the family,—when I think of them now, wandering about unprotected, give rise to painful emotions. But even my youngest child was willing to make any sacrifice for the sake of her country. The South is our only home—we have been only temporary sojourners elsewhere.
Jones' description of New Jersey is interesting. One can only wonder if Jones ever thought about the sort of foods that would be available to his family in Richmond, Virginia.

May 28, 1861: "Howling over Ellsworth"

On May 28, 1861, Richmond's Daily Dispatch took it upon itself to rub salt in the wound that was the recent death of Elmer Ellsworth.
Howling over Ellsworth.

The howl of rage and excitement raised through the North over the death of their chief bully of the Zouaves, is second only to the uproar which they raised when they tried to intimidate Virginia from hanging that eminent Ohio saint, the late John Brown. What an exceedingly moderate, modest and rational idea, that they should invade our country, with the most horrid threats against all we hold dear, and that if we raise a weapon in self- defence, it is the most infernal outrage upon these excellent people ever recorded in the annals of mankind! They expect their men to go to war, and if one of the ‘"Lambs" ’ gets killed, it is an unheard of brutality! They expect to come on Virginia soil, and profane it with their accursed presence, and not be ‘"welcomed with bloody hands to a hospitable grave."’ We can tell them that Jackson, who fell at the thresh hold avenging nobly the infamous act of a piratical invader, is but a type of Southern millions, who are ready to die, if need be, for their flag, and who would count death a joy and triumph at any time rather than be subject to such a people. But dying, they will make their enemies pay the full cost of every life. On that certainty the invaders may as well base their calculations from the start. Our unerring marksmen will take down the leaders and officers at every crack of the rifle. We have now before us an envelope of the Young Men's Christian Association, of Rondout, New York, sent to the Young Men's Christian Association of Richmond, in which that eminently pious, saintly, meek, Christian body represents Jeff. Davis hanging from a gallows, which is guarded by the Zouaves of New York, under their chief. Their chief will not be present to superintend that operation. He has gone where a good many of his followers will ere long be, and where the Young Men's Christian Association of Rondout would join him, if their courage were equal to their malignity.

Friday, May 27, 2016

May 27, 1861: The diary of Mary Boykin Chesnut

In Charleston, Mary Boykin Chesnut records the news of Elmer Ellsworth's death and the comings and goings of South Carolinian soldiers.
May 27th. - They look for a fight at Norfolk. Beauregard is there. I think if I were a man I'd be there, too. Also Harper's Ferry is to be attacked. The Confederate flag has been cut down at Alexandria by a man named Ellsworth, who was in command of Zouaves. Jackson was the name of the person who shot Ellsworth in the act. Sixty of our cavalry have been taken by Sherman's brigade. Deeper and deeper we go in.

Thirty of Tom Boykin's company have come home from Richmond. They went as a rifle company, armed with muskets. They were sandhill tackeys - those fastidious ones, not very anxious to fight with anything, or in any way, I fancy. Richmond ladies had come for them in carriages, feted them, waved handkerchiefs to them, brought them dainties with their own hands, in the faith that every Carolinian was a gentleman, and every man south of Mason and Dixon's line a hero. But these are not exactly descendants of the Scotch Hay, who fought the Danes with his plowshare, or the oxen's yoke, or something that could hit hard and that came handy.

Johnny has gone as a private in Gregg's regiment. He could not stand it at home any longer. Mr. Chesnut was willing for him to go, because those sandhill men said "this was a rich man's war," and the rich men would be the officers and have an easy time and the poor ones would be privates. So he said: "Let the gentlemen set the example; let them go in the ranks." So John Chesnut is a gentleman private. He took his servant with him all the same.

Johnny reproved me for saying, "If I were a man, I would not sit here and dole and drink and drivel and forget the fight going on in Virginia." He said it was my duty not to talk so rashly and make enemies. He "had the money in his pocket to raise a company last fall, but it has slipped through his fingers, and now he is a common soldier." "You wasted it or spent it foolishly," said I. "I do not know where it has gone," said he. "There was too much consulting over me, too much good counsel was given to me, and everybody gave me different advice." "Don't you ever know your own mind?" "We will do very well in the ranks; men and officers all alike; we know everybody."

So I repeated Mrs. Lowndes's solemn words when she heard that South Carolina had seceded alone: "As thy days so shall thy strength be." Don't know exactly what I meant, but thought I must be impressive as he was going away. Saw him off at the train. Forgot to say anything there, but cried my eyes out.

Sent Mrs. Wigfall a telegram - "Where shrieks the wild sea-mew?" She answered: "Sea-mew at the Spotswood Hotel. Will shriek soon. I will remain here."

Thursday, May 26, 2016

May 26, 1861: Confederates short of arms in Virginia

On May 26, 1861, Major General Robert E. Lee wrote to Georgia's Governor Joseph E. Brown to raise the issue of arms for Georgia troops. Many of Georgia's troops had arrived in Virginia without weapons, unready to fight. Lee notes that the best the local Confederate authorities have been able to provide to Georgia troops are flint-lock muskets.

Richmond, Va., May 26, 1861.

His Excellency Governor BROWN,
Of Georgia:

SIR: I deem it proper to call your attention to the fact that many of the volunteer companies from your State have arrived at Richmond without arms. The demand upon Virginia has been so great that all arms have been exhausted, except the old flint-lock muskets. It is apprehended that the troops thus provided will not do themselves justice, opposed to an enemy whose arms are so much superior. I thought it probable that you would like to provide the men of your State with such better arms as may be at your disposal, and therefore take the liberty of bringing this matter to your notice. The proximity of Virginia to the scene of action has induced the organization of a large force of cavalry, in consequence of which all the cavalry arms and equipments have been exhausted. If, then, you have to spare any pistols, carbines, or equipments for that arm, you would greatly further the common cause by sending them to Richmond. Allow me to express the hope that you will give these matters your early attention.

I am, & c.,

Major-General, Commanding.
This letter is an early sign of troubles to come. Joseph E. Brown would be a constant thorn in the side of Confederate national authorities. Time and again Brown would act to withhold men, weapons, and supplies from the national armies of the Confederacy. Citing states' rights, Brown would hoard key military supplies inside Georgia, refusing to release them for use by Confederate armies elsewhere. The attitude of Brown and some other Southern governors would cripple Lee's efforts to fight the war in coming years.