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Volume 29, No. 2 – February 2016

Volume 29, No. 2
Editor: Stephen L. Seftenberg

The President’s Message

Dues Are Due! Thank you to everyone who has already paid. For the most efficient operation of the Round Table, dues must be paid in a timely matter. The January election results were President: Gerridine LaRovere, Vice-President: George Nimberg, Secretary: Stephen Seftenberg, Treasurer: Robert Krasner, Directors: Morris Ball, Monroe Ackerman and Craig Freis.

Every member is asked to bring a refreshment once a year. The sign up sheet will be passed around at the monthly meetings.

February 10, 2016 Meeting

William T. Sherman once stated that the key to military operations is grub and mules.  After a long tedious march Civil War soldiers hoped to chow down on a hardy meal.  Instead they were served “blue beef,” “sheet-iron” crackers and a liquid erroneously called coffee.  Learn how soldiers and civilians ingeniously endured the struggle for survival.  Enjoy a mouth-watering taste of vinegar pie. It’s really delicious.

January 13, 2016 Meeting
Bill Hines: “The Union Navy in the Civil War”

Bill Hines comes to us after 25 years service in the United States Navy and the National Park System.

In the 1840s naval construction was revolutionized, but the U. S. Navy did not pick up on it.  As was often said of our navy, “200 years of tradition unmarred by progress.”  The two basic components of the revolution were the steam engine and the propellor.  A glimmer of progress went dark when the experimental gun on the deck of the navy’s US Navy's first screw-propelled steam-frigate USS Princeton exploded, killing the Secretaries of State and Navy, and the old guard unfairly blamed John Ericcson, who helped design the steam-frigate and who is now regarded as one of the most influential mechanical engineers ever.  Faced with a “warship gap,” in the 1850s, Congress authorized the money for two ironclad steamships.  Red tape delayed design and construction.  By 1860, our navy was nearly mothballed.  A further setback was that most of the high ranking Naval officers were Southerners and over 200 resigned and went South when secession began.

The new president, Abraham Lincoln had to tread carefully as he considered how to curtail imports and exports to and from the seceding states under international law.  He labeled their residents as “rebels” and not a “nation.”  After a brief plan of a “boycott” to combat a rebel “insurrection,” he signed papers invoking Gen. Scott’s “Anaconda Plan” and establishing a blockade.  The North did not try to shut the ports, which would in sense have recognized the South as a separate nation. In any event it was doubtful that at this stage of the war the North could have taken any of the Southern ports.
Gideon Welles (7/1/1802-2/11/1872) was a good Secretary of the Navy.  Following secession, Welles sent his brother-in-law North to buy up every sloop, small ship, etc. available, to flesh out his navy while new ships were being built.  Despite initial misgivings about the Anaconda Plan, his efforts to rebuild the Navy and implement the blockade proved extraordinarily effective.  From 76 ships and 7,600 sailors in 1861 (and despite significant manpower losses to the Confederate Navy after secession), a massive ship construction campaign embracing technological innovations from civil engineer James Buchanan Eads and naval engineers like Benjamin F. Isherwood and John Ericsson, allowed the Navy to expand almost tenfold by 1865.  The Naval portion of the Anaconda Plan eventually weakened the Confederacy's ability to finance the war by limiting the cotton trade, and while never completely effective in sealing off all 3,500 miles of Southern coastline, it was a major contribution to Northern victory.  Lincoln nicknamed Welles his "Neptune."  Welles was also instrumental in the Navy's creation of the Medal of Honor.

Jefferson Davis had to start the Confederate Navy from scratch.  Matching the North’s manufacturing advantage was impossible, so he resorted to issuing Letters of Marque authorizing the seizure or sinking of Northern merchant ships.  When one Northern ship was captured and taken to Mobile, one brave black cook killed the guards and sailed his ship to New York!  When Lincoln said he would hang captured Southern privateers as pirates, Davis countered by threatening to hang one Northern prisoner for each privateer hung. Lincoln backed off.

GosportDavis had one initial advantage; Southern forces took over the Gosport Shipyard (built on 16 acres on Hampton Roads in 1767 and purchased by the federal government in 1801 for $12,000).  On the eve of war, the Northern commander tried to burn the shipyard but was only partially successful before the South took the yard by ruse.  The capture of the shipyard allowed a tremendous amount of war material to fall into Confederate hands, including 1,195 heavy guns used elsewhere, including the Mississippi.

In early 1862, the ironclad warship CSS Virginia was rebuilt using the burned-out hulk of USS MerrimackVirginia sank USS Cumberland, USS Congress, and engaged the Union ironclad USS MonitorMonitor was the odd result of the contract authorizing the US Navy to build three “ironclads.”  Plans to build ironclad sailing ships were delayed and Welles ordered John Ericcson’s design of a “cheese box on a raft” built over the objections of three admirals, who agreed it would never float after taking the design to Lincoln, who loved technology.  Virginia was really underarmored (2 1/4 inches vs. Monitor’s 8 inches!), but its design was clever (slanted sides greased with tallow so the solid balls would bounce off).  Monitor had some serious design problems.  It’s “freeboard” was only 6 inches, so it could not go outside the 12-mile limit or risk being swamped (which eventually happened in a storm).  The Confederates even thought about capturing Monitor.  At a later point, Welles vetoed a plan by the US Navy commander to sail Monitor up to Richmond lest it be captured.

Bill then told us he had been there when Monitor’s upside-down turret (which had been located in 1973) was raised by the US Navy’s Salvage Team in two months and taken to the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia.  Many skeletons were found but not the pet cat!  The South was fortunate that Stephen R. Mallory (1812-11/9/1873) was its Secretary of the Navy.  One of his better decisions was to concentrate on ironclad “rams” to open up the Southern ports and its 185 rivers, both for blockade runners and to combat Union forces along and West of the Mississippi.  He also fostered the use of “torpedos” (really mines) and submarines (he noted that CSS HL Hunley was not the only submarine used in the war (USS Alligator was to be used in an attack on Charleston Harbor but sank off Cape Hatteras in bad weather).

Mallory also unleashed naval raiders built in England.  The most famous raider, CSS Florida built a squadron of captured and converted ships that altogether took sixty prizes.  Confederate sailors circumnavigated the globe and some landed in ports as far-flung as Singapore, Australia, South Africa, and Brazil.  Although the Northern merchant fleet began the war with roughly 5,000 ships, many were sunk and many more were sold to foreigners by frightened owners, or preregistered in England or Russia, reducing the total to less than 2,500 by the end of the war.  Lloyds of London was almost bankrupted by claims.  This feat was accomplished by less than twenty Confederate ships.

Bill reminded us that the senior officers of the US Navy in 1861 were “lifers” who had been serving since the War of 1812, and were a “dead weight” on novel strategy and designs.  Stars such as Farragut only made captain after 50 years!  The seniority rules blocked the promotion by merit and after the war the Navy reverted to the old style.  Fortunately there were two US navies – Regular and Volunteer and the latter brought new blood into the system.  Farragut was no technological innovator, initially disliking ironclads as “abominable machines,” but he realized they were useful in taking New Orleans.  The US Navy mostly ignored the US Army and fought its own war.  In April 1862, Farragut led an attack up the Mississippi River, aiming to get his ships past Forts Jackson and St. Philip and in a position to bombard the city with impunity.  After twelve days of combat, Fort Jackson was in shambles and the Union fleet had its cannons trained on New Orleans.  With no organized infantry defense, New Orleans fell to an expeditionary force of 5,000 men on May 1, 1862.  Its capture catapulted Farragut to fame, including a promotion to become the nation’s first admiral, and dealt a severe blow to the Confederacy.  Farragut then wanted to take Vicksburg without the Army’s help, but was denied by the city’s guns.  Exception to this “go it alone” philosophy include Gen. Benjamin Burnside’s successful amphibious campaign against Roanoke Island, February 7-8, 1862) and Farragut’s eventual capture of Mobile in August 1864 in a successful Army-Navy plan.

St. LouisThe second prong of the Anaconda plan called for capturing Southern strong points up and down the Mississippi River, effectively cutting the Confederate territory in two while also robbing the South of its main artery of transport.  A new force of gunboats and river ironclads, together with regular army units, would take, or at least lay siege to, the Confederate forts and cities along the Mississippi.  In the early days of the war, these boats were built and crewed by the U.S. Army, with the naval officers commanding them being the only direct connection to the U.S. Navy.  By the autumn of 1862, the boats and their mission were transferred to the Department of the Navy.  Because of the river's murky brown water, the ships that participated in these Mississippi campaigns were quickly referred to as the brown-water navy, as opposed to the regular US Navy (which was henceforth referred to as the deep-water or blue-water navy).

Ulysses S. Grant claimed that he could not have taken Vicksburg, Mississippi, without the navy.  Successful river operations demanded high-tech ironclad and steam powered fleets and led to the development of naval strategies that are still used by the American military.  In terms of the number of sailors involved and the miles of river contested, the scale of the Civil War on “brown water” exceeds all other American wars, with Vietnam second.

After Vicksburg was captured, Farragut and Grant wanted to capture Mobile and mop up theBlue-Jackets balance of the South’s forces West of Virginia, but Halleck sent him to Texas instead to shut down trade between the Confederacy and the French who controlled Mexico.  The so-called “Red River Campaign” (March-May 1864) was a nearly-total failure due to the incompetence of Nathenial P. Banks, one of Lincoln’s “political generals.”

What about the sailors in the Civil War?  The average age of a “blue-jacket” was 26, mostly urban, 92% from the Northeastern states and recruited from the merchant marine but the promise of prize money (salt, slaves, and cotton).  One problem facing the Union fight against blockade runners was their practice, if trapped, of jettisoning their cotton. The Union ships would stop to save the cotton, worth $200/bale!  Beginning in 1863, the US Navy began to recruit freed slaves, putting their families in safe US naval bases. This lasted until World War I.  The US Navy was not segregated until after the Civil War and remained segregated until the Truman Administration after World War II.

Bill now turned to his Park Service experiences related to the Civil War.  He specialized in archaelogy in Yorktown, Fredericksburg and The Wilderness.  There was scant effort in this speciality until FDR put people to work in the 30’s.  The Park Service relied upon aerial photographs to locate specific battle sites, but the park “battle fields” are substantially smaller than they were in the war.  Originally, spent shells, etc., were plentiful but eventually just about everything was dug up.  A serious problem exists with the effort: originally admission to the park system was intended to cover maintenance.  But Congress has been seriously underfunding the park system, with predictable results.

Bill received a number of questions and a warm round of applause for his interesting talk.

Last changed: 02/03/16

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