Friday, January 23, 2015

150 Years Ago Today: Rebel Ironclads Make One Last Sortie

150 Years Ago Today: Rebel Ironclads Make One Last Sortie

On January 23, 1865 the last and most powerful fleet the Confederacy ever assembled made a gallant attempt to break through the Union blockade and destroy General Grant's supply base at City Point. From the mighty ironclad CSS Fredericksburg, Commodore John K. Mitchell led his James River Squadron of 11 ships into battle first against Union batteries at Fort Brady and then into action against a smaller but smartly led flotilla of four Yankee warships.  The engagement, which lasted for three days, would become known as the Battle of Trent's Reach.

For once the Confederates had not only the numbers but also the quality of ships in a naval action. In addition to his flagship, Mitchell had two other ironclads, CSS Virginia II and CSS Richmond, with five gunboats and three torpedo boats in support.  Among them they mounted more than 20 guns,  The Union James River Flotilla under Captain William Parker boasted 18 guns among its four vessels, which included the monitor USS Onondaga, two gunboats and a torpedo boat.  To reach the Yankee ships, however, Mitchell had to first navigate through the maze of sunken wrecks, nets, naval mines and other obstructions, most of the time under the fire of the 30 guns of Fort Brady and four lesser shore batteries manned by Colonel Henry Pierce and his 1st Connecticut Artillery.

Despite the odds and what one Rebel officer described as "a perfect rain of missiles," the Confederates bulled their way down the James - with a little help from two Confederate batteries which bombarded the Union positions.   As the Rebel fleet came on, Parker retreated - much to the anger and surprise of General Ulysses Grant.  The Rebels anchored for the night, ready to move on toward the big supply base at City Point with the morning tide.  Grant and Rear Admiral David Porter, however, ordered Parker to go back and engage and sink the Confederates.  

When dawn came on January 24, four of Mitchell's 11 ships were stuck in the mud.  They were easy targets for the Union batteries, which wreaked havoc on the wooden gunboats.  When Parker's flotilla arrived, the Union ships were able to maneuver and bring fire upon the Rebels, most of whom were still stuck and could not bring their guns to bear. As the tide rose, however, CSS Virginia II managed to work herself free - enough to fire a single round at the Union monitor.  The Confederate warship scored a hit - but took 70 in return from the Union army and navy gunners.  The flagship was hit 150 times or more.  The ironclads were battered and leaking but fight on they did.  One gunboat and a torpedo boat were sunk and Mitchell, realizing he could not break through, turned about and fought his way back past the Union batteries to bring his fleet home.

It was the last ride for the Rebel fleet - and for Mitchell, who  in mid-February was relieved of command and replaced by Admiral Raphael Semmes, who had led the raider CSS Alabama.  

Confederate ironclads are powerful weapons in the arsenal of the Southern player in GMT's strategic naval game of the Civil War, Rebel Raiders on the High Seas.   Although more frequently used to defend ports than to attack, they can sortie out to attempt to break the Union inshore blockade and clear the way for those blockade runners fortunate enough to sneak past the screw sloops that patrol farther out off the coast.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

150 Years Ago: The Navy Leads the Way at Fort Fisher

150 Years Ago: The Navy Leads the Way at Fort Fisher

On January 15, 1865 a column of sailors and Marines led the ground assault on the Confederate bastion at Fort Fisher.   Although their initial assault was thrown back and with heavy losses, their sacrifice was not entirely in vain;  it provided a bloody diversion that helped assist Union infantry under General Alfred Terry when they stormed the "Gibraltar of the South"later that afternoon.

The January 15 attack was the second major operation against the fort.  In December, Admiral David Dixon Porter and his fleet had pounded the sandy fortress which protected blockade runners as they dashed in and out of Wilmington, North Carolina.  General Benjamin Butler sent troops ashore to assault the fortress, but bad weather and reports that the Rebel defenses were still intact caused him to order a withdrawal back to the fleet.  A few weeks later, however, Porter was back, and with an even larger fleet, more troops and a more aggressive and more able commander for his ground forces.

Porter's fleet of more than 60 vessels began pounding the fort on January 13.  It was a steady bombardment that at times increased in tempo to where more than 180 rounds a minute were being fired into the fort.  Porter sent ironclads close in shore to bring near point-blank fire on the defenders, most of whom huddled in bombproofs, emerging only occasionally to return fire at the Union fleet.  Determined to "redeem the Navy's honor" after the December debacle, Porter asked for volunteers to form a naval column to aid the Army in its ground assault.  Over 2,000 sailors and Marines, including many captains and other officers from the ships, did so.  Unfortunately, except for the Marines, most were armed as if going on a boarding party - with cutlasses and pistols.   When the naval bombardment ceased in the early afternoon of January 15, the Navy led the way on land - only to be cut down and pinned down in the sandy ditches in front of the fort, too far away for their side arms to do much more than make noise.

Terry's troops fared better, in part because of close-in fire support from the Navy.  More than 8,000 Union infantry charged the fort, whose defenders numbered less than a quarter of that number.  Overwhelmed at the outer defenses, the Confederates fell back, fought on and even launched a brief counterattack before succumbing to overwhelming numbers.

Fighting the forts and other defenses raised by the Confederate player to protect the ports for blockade runners is a big part of my strategic naval game of the Civil War, Rebel Raiders on the High Seas. Admiral Porter and many of the warships that took part in the attack on Fort Fisher are included in the game, and are represented by cards and counters.   These include the mighty  "unsinkable" screw sloop USS Brooklyn, the armored steam frigate USS New Ironsides, the side-wheel frigate USS Powhattan, the double-ender wooden sidewheeler USS Osceola and the comparatively tiny "90-day gunboat" USS Unadilla.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

150 Years Ago: CSS Stonewall Rides the Waves

150 Years Ago: Monster Ironclad Ram CSS Stonewall Rides The Waves

On January 6, 1865 new life was breathed into the monster ocean-going ironclad ram CSS Stonewall, and the North trembled.  Better armored and more powerful than any Union warship afloat, the ironclad was dubbed by the press the "Yankee Nightmare."  That Washington had thought the nightmare put to rest a year earlier only made things worse - and more urgent - in January 1865.

The Confederacy's chief naval officer in Europe, James Bulloch, and Richmond's commissioner to France, John Slidell, had through middlemen arranged for the CSS Stonewall and her sister ship to be built in Bordeaux at the yards of Lucien Arman.  Union agents and diplomats were not fooled by Arman's claims that they were being built for the Khedive of Egypt.   In February 1864, bowing to diplomatic pressure from Washington, the Emperor Napoleon III intervened and forbid Arman to turn the ships over to the Confederacy.  Arman sold the CSS Stonewall, then being built under the cover name Sphynx, to Denmark, where she was armed and christened as Staerkodder.  

After their loss to Prussia in the brief Second Schleswig war the Danes decided they could not afford to keep the big expensive warship.(Ironically, the Sphynx's sister ship, Cheops, which was also being built for the Confederates in the same yards in France, had been sold to Berlin). Acting in secret on behalf of the Confederacy, Arman purchased the vessel, helped smuggle a group of Confederate naval officers on board and on January 6 the warship left Copenhagen for Quiberon, France. 

Confederate Captain T. J. Page commissioned her at sea as CSS Stonewall and and set out for the Azores to hunt Federal merchantmen.  The primary goal - or at least hope - was to cross the Atlantic to Havana, and from there steam west, attack the Union naval supply base at Port Royal and if possible then go on to break the  blockade at Wilmington.

Unfortunately for the Confederates, a storm and some serious leaks forced the CSS Stonewall back into port at Ferrol, Spain, where she was watched by two powerful - yet wooden - Union warships:  USS Niagara and USS Sacramento.  In late March the CSS Stonewall left port, daring the Union captains to try to stop her.  Their orders, however, were to merely shadow the monster ironclad - whose thick hull even their most powerful guns could not hope to penetrate.   They followed the ironclad to Lisbon and then across the seas to Cuba - which she reached in May without ever having fired a shot in anger.  Upon learning of the surrender of Confederate armies and the capture of Jefferson Davis, Page surrendered his vessel to Spanish authorities.

That, however, was not the end for the mighty ocean-going ironclad ram.   

The Spanish government turned the CSS Stonewall over to the U.S. Navy. She sat in the Washington Navy Yard for the next few years and was then sold to the Shogun in 1868.  Christened the Kotetsu, she set sail for Japan.   She arrived just as civil war broke out.  The United States minister in Japan ordered the U.S. Navy to intervene and seize the ship, which was then turned over to the emperor.  Kotetsu fought for the imperial forces at Hakidote.  After the war the ironclad was renamed Azuma, and remained in active service until 1888.

The powerful "Yankee Nightmare" appears in my strategic Civil War naval game, GMT's Rebel Raiders on the High Seas.  With the luck of the draw the mighty warship might serve as intended, giving hope to the Confederate player and putting further strain on the already overstretched naval forces of the North.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Rebel Raider and the Lady: 150 Years Ago

The Rebel Raider and the Lady: 150 Years Ago

or Captain Waddell meets his a "tall, finely proportioned woman of twenty-six years..."

150 Years Ago on December 29 the Confederate raider CSS Shenandoah stopped, captured and burned the commercial bark Delphine.  Captain James Iredell Waddell, however, got more than he expected or bargained for, as among his captives as he wrote in a his private journal, was "a tall, finely proportioned woman of twenty-six years, in robust health, evidently possessing a will and a voice of her own." 

That woman was Lillias Lervene Nichols, and she was the young wife of William Green Nichols, captain of the Delphine.  The raider found their ship just west of St. Paul Island in the Indian Ocean,  The Delphine was en route from London in ballast to Aykab, Burma, where the ship was to pick up a cargo of rice to take back to her home port of Bangor, Maine.  Claiming that his wife was deathly ill, Captain Nichols pleaded with Waddell to spare his ship so that he could take her to the nearest port for much-needed medical attention.  Mrs. Nichols and her maid put on quite a little melodrama to try to convince the Confederates that she was on death's door - but Waddell saw through the ruse.  He was, however, apparently quite smitten with the young beauty, and gallantly offered her the comforts of the best quarters aboard the warship.   When she asked him what he intended to do with her, Waddell said he would put her and her family ashore on the little island of St. Paul, which they would reach on January 2.   

Lillias and James became quite the shipboard item over the next few days as the CSS Shenandoah made for Australia and much-needed repairs.  The two were often seen strolling on deck or deep in quiet conversation.  Other officers mumbled that she had become the captain's "confidante."  (Lt. William Conway Whittle apparently was also quite fond of her, noting that she was a "fine-looking person, rather pretty."  Whittle added that although initially a "little frightened," the officers were able to "soon drive fear away by providing kindness" and showing her that "we are gentlemen.")

Waddell and his officers fell under her charms and put on a special New Year's Eve party for Lillias and her little boy Phineas (or "Phinizy" as the crew came to call the playful lad).    When they reached the little French colony and whaling station at St. Paul, Waddell again offered to put her ashore.  Her response? "Oh, no, never. I would rather remain with you."

...and so she did for nearly a month, until the raider reached Melbourne on January 25.  

Captain Nichols was not entirely amused by his wife's flirtations with Waddell.  He wanted off the ship quite badly, and gladly signed a pledge not to reveal any information about the raider to the American consul ashore.  Lillias, however, balked when her husband demanded she also sign the document.  As the Shenandoah's ship's surgeon Charles Edward Lining reports, "she let loose with her tongue, pitching directly into her husband for telling her to sign it and say nothing, by telling him that she did not intend to hold her tongue, nor did she consider herself bound by what she was going to sign, that she would talk, for at least they could not stop her tongue."

When she finally did give in to her husband's demands, Lining says she asked the Confederate officer if he wanted her little boy  Phineas to sign as well.  "No, madame," Lt. Sidney Smith Lee replied, "we are much more afraid of you than we are of him."  Lining reports that she was not amused, and "went out in a towering rage."

Although Lillias Nichols had flirted with the Rebel captain, she was a Union lass through and through.  Once ashore she hurried to the offices of U.S. Consul William Blanchard, who reported to his superiors in Washington that while Capt. Nichols kept mostly silent in an attempt to honor the terms of his parole, that "Mrs. Nichols felt no such constraints."   Blanchard reports that Mrs. Nichols provided a great deal of information as to the layout and condition of the CSS Shenandoah,  These included reports on Waddell's difficulties with his crew and officers, and how that the vessel was so "leaky" and in such poor condition that she could not take the strain of firing all of her guns at once.

The CSS Shenandoah remain in Australia for a month to undergo badly needed repairs.  She set out again on February 26, and would take no prizes until April 1, when she captured and burned four ships.  On June 22, however, she reached the whaling grounds in the Bering Sea, and over the next week burned 20 ships and bonded four others, inflicting over $1 million in damages - and in the process dealing a death blow to the New England whaling industry.   Sadly, it was all for naught, as the war had been over for nearly two months....

Monday, December 22, 2014

Porter Unleashes Hell on Ft. Fisher, Xmas Eve 1864

Porter Unleashes Hell on Ft. Fisher, Xmas Eve 1864

The largest U.S. naval force yet assembled unleashed hell on Ft. Fisher on Christmas Eve, 1864.  Admiral David Dixon Porter's fleet of over 60 warships, including five ironclads, mounted 624 guns - and Porter intended to use every one of them to bury the Rebel fort under a torrent of iron.

Porter's ships fired over 8,100 rounds - with a combined weight of more than half a million tons - into the sandy bastions guarding the approaches to Wilmington, N.C.   Colonel William Lamb had only 44 guns inside the fort, and Porter hoped to so batter the defenses that General Benjamin Butler's troops could just walk into Fort Fisher unopposed.

Porter's massive bombardment was the greatest the Western Hemisphere had ever seen, yet it had minimal effect on the brilliantly designed fort.  Three guns were dismounted, and four defenders were killed and another 19 wounded.  Porter's fleet sustained heavier losses, with three ships forced to retire due to accurate fire from the fort.  Most of the 91 sailors killed or wounded in the action were victims of their own guns, a number of which exploded.

The Navy landed a portion of Butler's troops, but the assault never went in.   Reports from the advanced guard that the defenses were nearly intact convinced Butler, still offshore, to call off the attack. Much to Porter's fury, Butler re-embarked most of his men, except for about 700 who were forced to spend Christmas Day huddled on the beach, without food or water, due to a sudden storm.  Despite pleas to General Braxton Bragg for permission to attack and capture the remnants of the landing force, Bragg refused to give the order.  The last of Butler's men were pulled off by the Navy on the 26th, and the fleet retired to Beaufort.   

Less than a month later, Porter would return - and with troops commanded by the much more aggressive and competent General Terry.  Porter's fleet bested its own record, firing over 180 rounds a minute in a sustained and much more accurate bombardment that began on January 13 and continued through the day and night of the 14th and into the early hours of the 15th.  Porter's guns fired close support right up until Terry launched his assault - with ironclads and gunboats coming close in shore to rake the defenders when they came out of their bombproofs to battle Terry's infantry and a column of 2,000 sailors and marines that Porter had landed to support the assault.   Although the naval landing force was handily repulsed and with heavy losses, the infantry carried the fort - with help from the Navy's guns.

In GMT's strategic naval game of the Civil War, Rebel Raiders on the High Seas, the Union player can build powerful fleets of screw sloops, ironclads and gunboats and recruit key admirals, Porter among them, to wear down the Confederate player's coastal defenses, which, through card play and careful planning, can be every bit as resilient as those constructed by Col. Lamb at Ft. Fisher.

150 Years Ago Today: Savannah, Sherman's Christmas Gift to Lincoln

150 Years Ago Today:  Savannah, Sherman's Christmas Gift to Lincoln

On December 22, 1864  President Abraham Lincoln received an early Christmas present from General William Tecumseh Sherman - the city of Savannah.  He announced this in a now famous telegram which stated:

"I beg to present you, as a Christmas Gift, the city of Savannah, with one-hundred and fifty guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton."

Sherman's army reached the outskirts of the city on December 20.  Confederate General William Hardee could not hope to hold Savannah, as his small force of 10,000 was outnumbered six to one.  Hardee managed to save his army and their field artillery, but was forced to abandon the many guns in the harbor forts.  One of his final orders was to scuttle and burn the CSS Savannah, a powerful casemate ironclad that had been built to help defend the city and harbor. Union forces entered Savannah on December 21, just as the ironclad was blown up by her crew.  Sherman officially took possession of the city on the following day.

Confederate ironclads play a vital role in the defense of ports in GMT's strategic naval game of the Civil War - Rebel Raiders on the High Seas - at least when those ports are attacked from the sea by the Union Navy.  When city's such as Savannah are taken from the land side, as Sherman did, they are lost.  Although Rebel Raiders is primarily a game of naval strategy, the land war is represented, and the Union player has many cards at his disposal, including Sherman himself, to help replicate that general's famous March to Sea.