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.