Monday, June 22, 2015

150 Years Ago: One Rebel Raider Still Burning Yankee Ships


-June 22, 1865:  The clouds of thick smoke from two burning Yankee whalers darkened the sky over the Bering Sea on this day 150 years ago.  That was the handiwork of James I. Waddell of the CSS Shenandoah, the last of the Rebel Raiders still at sea - and still at war.  Although the captains of the vessels he caught showed him newspapers that reported General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomatox in April, Waddell refused to believe that the war was over.  He pointed to paragraphs in the newspapers that commented on how President Jefferson Davis had fled Richmond as proof that the war was not over. Waddell believed that Davis would try to set up a new base or at the very least wage a guerrilla war against the occupying Union armies - a war he and the CSS Shenandoah would support by continuing to raid Union commerce.

(Ironically, the day after these whalers were burned, President Andrew Johnson formally lifted the Union blockade of Southern ports.)

The two whalers Waddell set afire, the William Thompson and the Euphrates, were but the first of a fleet of whaling ships he would destroy in the coming week.  Another 22 whaling ships would be taken in the next six days - 21 of which he burned and one, the James Maury, he bonded and set free to take the crews of the whalers back home.  

As he left the Bering Sea, Waddell set course for San Francisco:  his goal, to take on the single Union warship guarding the harbor - a ship captained by an old friend - after which he planned to bombard and hold the city ransom, and then proceed on to hunt down the California gold ships.

The CSS Shenandoah is but one of the many Confederate commerce raiders that appear in GMT's strategic naval game of the Civil War - Rebel Raiders on the High Seas.  Her exploits can be repeated as she raids across the map - or can be put to an end by the Union warships sent to hunt her down.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

150 Years Ago: Confederate Armies Surrender, But the Rebel Raiders Fight On

150 Years Ago: Confederate Armies & Leaders Surrender, But the Rebel Raiders Fight On

May 3, 1865:  As President Abraham Lincoln's body arrived in Springfield, Illinois, the Confederate leadership continued their efforts to escape the Union dragnet.  Some sought to keep the Cause alive, while others, including Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory and Secretary of State Judah Benjamin realized that the end had come.  On May 3 Mallory tendered his resignation and Benjamin separated himself from President Jefferson Davis's party, telling the Confederate leader at their last meeting in Abbeville, South Carolina, that he would attempt to reach the Bahamas to send final instructions to Confederate representatives abroad.

What was left of the Confederate armies in the field also began to dissolve.   On May 4 the largest of those, some 42,000, were told to lay down their arms by their commander, General Richard Taylor, who surrendered his command to Union forces at Citronelle, Alabama.  Five days later a force of five infantry brigades around which President Davis tried to organize resistance during his retreat through South Carolina are told to go home by their colonels.  On May 10 the guerrilla leader William C. Quantrill was killed in a skirmish at Taylorsville, Kentucky - after which the remnants of his force (which included Frank and Jesse James and Cole Younger) dissolved.  General Kirby Smith remained in the field with his army in the Trans-Mississippi, but directed his delegate, General Peter Osterhaus, to go to New Orleans to seek terms of surrender.  On June 2 Smith surrendered the last Rebel army - although his deputy, Jo Shelby, refused to give up and headed for Mexico with a band of followers.

The Confederate Navy similarly began to fall apart.  The CSS Nashville and a few gunboats and blockade runners fell back from Mobile up the Tombighee River after the city's surrender, but when Rear Admiral Thater and his Union flotilla followed,  Captain Eben Farrand struck his colors, and surrendered the Rebel fleet on May 10.

On May 11, the ocean-going ironclad CSS Stonewall reached Havana, ready to take on coal and provisions for her planned foray to break the blockade.  When her commander Captain Page learned of the surrender at Appomattox, however, he went to the Spanish captain-general and on May 19 struck a deal to sell the warship to Spain. He divided the proceeds among his crew to pay their wages.

One last Rebel warship, however, kept up the fight.  The CSS Shenandoah steamed on from Australia and on to the Bering Strait, where in late June she decimated the Yankee whaling fleet.  Captain James Waddell was shown newspapers by the whaling ship captains that reported the fall of Richmond and the surrender of General Robert E. Lee, but Waddell believed that Davis would continue the war, at least as a guerrilla struggle, and kept on raiding.  It was not until August 2 that Waddell, en route to San Francisco to bombard the city, learned from an English ship that the war was truly over.  That same day, August 2, as Jo Shelby entered Mexico City to a offer his sword to the Emperor Maximillian, Waddel shipped his guns and set a course that would take the CSS Shenandoah to Liverpool, where he would surrender the last Confederate command in November.

The last two Confederate warships to surrender, the CSS Stonewall and the CSS Shenandoah, appear as counters and cards in GMT's strategic naval game of the Civil War, Rebel Raiders on the High Seas.

Friday, March 20, 2015

150 Years Ago: Union Warships Play Tag With Rebel Armored Raider CSS Stonewall

150 Years Ago:  Union Warships Play Tag With Rebel Armored Raider CSS Stonewall

On March 21, 1865 the Confederate armored raider CSS Stonewall and two wooden Union warships played a potentially deadly game of "tag" off the Spanish port of Ferrol.    The USS Niagara and USS Sacramento had been shadowing the powerful Confederate vessel since she had left France for the Azores.  Their orders, however, were not to engage - and with good reason. With her armored casemates and massive ship-breaking guns the CSS Stonewall was the most powerful and most modern warship in the world.  She was built with the hope of smashing through the Union blockade and reopening one or more ports to Confederate blockade runners.

A storm cut short this deadly dance, and the CSS Stonewall went into Ferrol to seek shelter and take on supplies.  She came out a few days later, and once again USS Niagara and USS Sacramento were waiting, and shadowed her as she steamed across the Atlantic toward her beleaguered homeland.  Among those ordered to make ready to confront her was Lt. Cdr. William B. Cushing, the man who in a daring naval commando raid had sunk the ironclad CSS Ablemarle. Admiral Porter instructed Cushing to mount a spar torpedo on the USS Monticello and make ready to charge the CSS Stonewall should she appear off Norfolk or Wilmington.

The CSS Stonewall is both a card and a counter in GMT's strategic naval game of the Civil War, and if she appears can pose a powerful challenge to the Union player.

For more on the story of how, where and why the CSS Stonewall was built, and what eventually became of her, see my earlier blog entry at:

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

150 Years Ago: Charleston Surrenders & CSS Shenandoah Leaves Australia to Hunt Whalers

 150 Years Ago: Charleston Surrenders & CSS Shenandoah Leaves Australia to Hunt Whalers

Charleston Surrenders

February 18, 1865 was yet another dark and sour day for the Confederacy - and a very bright and sweet one for the Union, for on that day Charleston surrendered to Federal troops.  Northern politicians and newspapers had long put pressure on the Lincoln administration to take and punish the city which had fired the opening shots in the rebellion. The Navy had tried numerous times to batter down its defenses and did land troops on the outlying areas, but once the blockade had effectively shut down the port in late 1863, there seemed little military reason to expend so much blood and energy to attack the city, not when other more strategic targets (like Mobile and Fort Fisher) beckoned.

General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard had been in command when the guns of Charleston opened the ball by shelling Fort Sumter in April 1861, and he was in charge of its defenses as Union forces approached in February 1865.  On February 15 he evacuated what remained of the garrison and left it to the city's mayor to surrender the city to Union General Alexander Schimmelfennig three days later.  To further prick the pride of Charlestonians, the Union general chose a regiment of Colored troops,  the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, to lead the parade into the city.   Ironically, that same day Confederate General Robert E. Lee proposed recruiting and arming Blacks for service in the Confederate armed forces.

(The 55th was the sister regiment to the famous 54th, which had served so gallantly and suffered so greatly assaulting Battery Wagner - as depicted in the film Glory.  The 55th had spent much of the war  on Morris and Folly Islands outside Charleston harbor, and fought in the last engagement around the city, the battle of James Island on February 10.)

CSS Shenandoah Leaves Melbourne

Even as Charleston surrendered, the Confederate raider CSS Shenandoah began the final leg of her wartime voyage, leaving Melbourne, Australia. Having spent nearly a month making repairs, acquiring supplies (and, surreptitiously, recruiting 40 sailors) the raider left port on February 18.  Her mission was to seek out and destroy the New England whaling fleet - a mission she began to carry out in April, just as Richmond fell and Lee was surrendering.  The CSS Shenandoah sank four whalers in April, captured and burned a merchant vessel in May, and in June burned or destroyed another two dozen whaling ships - well after the war was over.  It was only after destroying those ships and while en route to bombard San Franciso that her captain, James Waddell, learned for certain that hostilities had ended.  He immediately disarmed his ship and set a course for Liverpool, where he surrendered in November.

Charleston is a key port in GMT's strategic naval game of the Civil War, Rebel Raiders on the High Seas.  Its blockade or, worse, capture, by the North can be devastating to the Southern player.  The CSS Shenandoah is one of the titular raiders in the game, and with its special abilities can wreak havoc on Union shipping - and give great solace to the Confederate player.   Generals Lee and Beauregard, along with many other leaders, North and South, are also present in the game, for while primarily focused on the ships and naval strategies of the era, Rebel Raiders is also a strategic game of the entire war.


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

150 Years Ago: Rebel Raider Captain Makes Admiral (and General)

150 Years Ago:  Rebel Raider Captain Makes Admiral (& General)

February 10, 1865 -    Perhaps no Confederate naval officer did more to hurt the North and give hope to the South than Raphael Semmes, and in February 1865 President Jefferson Davis turned to Semmes once more for salvation - promoting him to rear admiral and giving the former raider captain command of the rebel ironclad fleet on the James River.

As captain of the rebel commerce raider CSS Alabama,  Raphael Semmes had taken or destroyed more than 60 Yankee merchant ships. He had also had twice fought Union warships - one of which (USS Hatteras) he sank.  Although defeated in his engagement with the USS Kearsarge in June 1864, Semmes was rescued by an English yachtsman and managed to make his way back home to the Confederacy.  After Commodore James Mitchell failed in an attempt in late January to fight his way down the James River to attack the Union base at City Point, President Davis called in Semmes, promoted him to admiral and gave him  command of Mitchell's fleet.   Semmes flew his flag from the ironclad CSS Virginia II, oversaw repairs to flotilla and made preparations to launch another attack down the river.

Semmes never got to lead the squadron into the epic battle he sought.  When General Robert E. Lee was forced to give up Richmond on April 2,  Semmes gave the order to scuttle and burn his squadron, then formed his men into the "Naval Brigade."  Cut off from Lee, Semmes put his men on a train and headed south to joined General Joseph E. Johnston.  As effectively there was no longer  a Confederate Navy to be an admiral of, Davis commissioned Semmes a brigadier general - making Semmes the only Confederate officer to hold the rank of both admiral in the navy and general in the army.

Semmes and his men surrendered along with Johnston's army to General William Tecumseh Sherman at Durham, N.C.  Initially held as a prisoner of war, he was charged with treason and expected to also be charged with piracy - but all charges were dropped the following April and he was released from custody.   Semmes became a professor of literature and philosophy at what is now Louisiana State University and served as a judge.  He died of food poisoning in 1877 - the victim of a batch of bad shrimp.

The CSS Alabama is one of the Confederate warships represented in GMT's strategic naval game of the Civil War, Rebel Raiders on the High Seas,   Semmes' famous ship appears as a card and a counter and also graces the cover of the game.  Generals Lee, Johnston, Grant and Sherman are also present as cards in the game, which although focused on the naval side of the conflict also allows players to fight the entire war on land and at sea.


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.