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.