Monday, August 25, 2014

150 Years Ago: Guns Blazing, Rebel Raider Returns Home

150 years ago today, August 25, 1864CSS Tallahassee battles its way back home.

Historical Event:  On the night of August 25, 1864 CSS Tallahassee became one of the few Confederate raiders to exchange fire with Union warships – and one of the fewer to live to tell the tale.  Running the blockade back to Wilmington, she ran afoul of a pair of Yankee gunboats.   The raider easily outdistanced them – for the sleek, iron-hulled, two-stacker could make 14 knots, even weighed down by her three heavy guns.  Unfortunately, the gunboats were but the hounds, herding the raider to the hunter: USS Monticello.  As Captain John Taylor Wood heaved his ship about to avoid that mighty man of war, another pair of gunboats appeared – and opened fire, expecting that what they believed to be an unarmed blockade runner would heave to and strike her colors. 

Wood’s ship may have begun her career as a blockade runner, having made four highly profitable runs from Wilmington to Bermuda and back under the name Atlanta, but as the raider CSS Tallahassee she carried a potent battery:  a Parrott Rifle aft, a 32-pounder forward and a massive 100-pounder amidships.  Wood ordered his gunners to return fire – and then to reload and fire again.  The battle attracted the attention of Fort Fisher, whose guns added their booming voices to Wood’s own battery, which convinced the Yankee squadron to break off the chase. 

Returning to port after a three-week raid that captured or burned over 30 Union ships, many in sight of the coastal towns of New Jersey, New York and New England, the  CSS Tallahassee, and her captain and crew, were given a heroes’ welcome – and a 21-gun salute from Fort Fisher, an honor which the raider returned.  Those were the last shots she fired as CSS Tallahassee.

The rest of the story:  Wood was ordered to Richmond, and North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance and his local officers agitated to have the coal-gobbling iron warship disarmed and her guns distributed to local forts.  They argued that while still active, the raider was only drawing more and more Yankee ships to Wilmington – making it even harder for other vessels to run the blockade. (The week after CSS Tallahassee battled her way back into port, seven blockade runners were intercepted by the now reinforced blockading squadron).   President Jefferson Davis and Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory intervened. They saved the ship, had her rechristened CSS Olustee, and sent her back out to sea for a brief raid in November, where the raider burned, bonded or scuttled six merchant ships.  Governor Vance, however, finally won out – as by 1865 the Confederacy needed food more than it needed to wreck Union commerce.  Disarmed and renamed (again) as the Chameleon, she ran out to Bermuda – but upon her return found that Wilmington and even Charleston had fallen.  Her captain, John Wilkinson, set course for Liverpool – arriving there the day Lee surrendered at Appomattox.

Game Connection:  Confederate raiders and blockade runners are vital to the Southern cause in GMT’s strategic naval game of the Civil War: Rebel Raiders on the High Seas.  Many of the more famous raiders appear by name on counters and cards, while others, like the CSS Tallahassee (in her many incarnations) are represented by generic ship counters of that type.

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