Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Ships of Rebel Raiders - The Gunboats

 Rebel Raiders on the High Seas is a strategic game of the Civil War which focuses on the role of the navies on the rivers, along the coasts and on the oceans.  While most ships are represented by generic counters for Ironclads, Blockade Runners, Gunboats, Screw Sloops and, of course Raiders, there are cards and corresponding counters for many individual vessels.  This series presents those cards and offers a glimpse into the history of these storied ships.

Part II – The Gunboats: The Mosquito Fleets Swatted:  Du Pont, Port Royal & Roanoke Island

“The Mosquito Fleet” (CSN Card 81) represents the rag-tag little squadrons the South hastily cobbled together to defend their ports from the Union Navy. While Montgomery at Memphis and “Old Buck” at Mobile put up grand if doomed fights (see my blog postings for July 15 and 16, respectively), the Mosquito Fleets at Port Royal and Roanoke Island never even had a chance.

The term “Mosquito Fleet” dates from the Mexican War, when the U.S. Navy formed a “Mosquito Division” of steam gunboats for coastal patrols and close in operations around Vera Cruz.   Its first known application in the Civil War came when a Union naval officer spied Commander Josiah Tatnall’s Rebel Squadron during the attack by the Navy in Port Royal Sound on November 7, 1861.  Tatnall, ironically, had commanded one of the ships of the “Mosquito Division” off Vera Cruz (USS Spitfire).

For the operation against Port Royal Captain Samuel Francis Du Pont  (represented in Rebel Raiders by USN Card 54) had amassed what historian James McPherson in his new book War Upon the Waters describes as “the largest fleet in American history to that time: seventeen warships with 157 guns, twenty-five colliers and supply ships, and thirty-three troop transports carrying 12,000 soldiers and 600 marines.”

(In order to place Du Pont on at least equal footing with the major general commanding the Army units, President Lincoln authorized his promotion to the rank of “Flag Officer,”  thus making Du Pont, the senior captain in the Navy, America’s first de facto admiral - he would eventually be promoted to rear admiral in July 1862.

Commander Josiah Tatnall had far, far less to defend Port Royal.  His small flotilla of six ships, most converted tugs, mounted less than a dozen guns among them – and weak guns at that.   Du Pont pealed off five of his gunboats to drive them back up the Beaufort River while his main battle fleet pounded Forts Walker and Beauregard into submission.

Three months later, another Mosquito Fleet tried to oppose the Union landings at Roanoke Island.  Captain William F. Lynch led eight small gunboats against Commander Stephen Rowan’s 13 much larger Union gunboats.  (These were part of Commander Louis M. Goldsborough’s flotilla that was supporting the landing by General Ambrose Burnside on the island).

Lynch sought to slow the Yankees with sunken hulks (similar to the Hulks, Rafts and Chains of CSN Card 110).  He fought valiantly, but briefly, and after one of his ships was sunk Lynch began to retire from the unequal contest.  Rowan, however, was not about to let him retreat.  He signaled his ships to “Dash at the enemy” and “dash” the Yankee gunboats did, chasing the Rebels up to Elizabeth City and the Dismal Swamp Canal, sinking six of the seven retreating Rebels in the process – thus in effecting “swatting” the mosquitoes by the very swamp from which they had spawned.

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