Civil War Naval History December 1861 - History

Civil War Naval History December 1861 - History

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1 U.S.S. New London, Lieutenant A. Read, captured sloop Advocate in Mississippi Sound.

U.S.S. Seminole, Commander Gillis, seized sloop Lida, from Havana, off St. Simon's Sound, Georgia, with cargo of coffee, lead, and sugar.

2 In his first annual report, Secretary of the Navy Welles reported to President Lincoln that: "Since the institution of the blockade one hundred and fifty-three vessels have been captured . most of which were attempting to violate the blockade . When the vessels now building and purchased are ready for service, the condition of the navy will be . a total of 264 vessels, 2,557 guns, and 218,016 tons. The aggregate number of seamen in the service . Is now not less than 22,000 . The amount appropriated at the last regular session of Congress for the naval service for the current year was $13,168,675.86. To this was added at the special session in July last $30,446,875.91- making for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1862, an aggregate of $43,615,551.77. This sum will not be sufficient. ."

C.S.S. Patrick Henry, Commander Tucker, attacked four Union steamers above Newport News; Patrick Henry damaged in the two hour action.

Lieutenant Robert D. Minor, CSN, reported a laboratory had been organized at New Orleans "for the supply of ordnance stores for the vessels fitting out at this station."

3 C.S.S. Sumter, Commander Semmes, captured and burned at sea American ship Vigilant, bound from New York to the West Indies.

U.S.S. Santiago de Cuba, Commander Ridgely, captured British blockade running schooner Victoria.

4 Confederate steamers Florida and Pamlico attacked U.S.S. Montgomery, Commander Thompson D. Shaw, off Horn Island Pass, Mississippi Sound.

5 Flag Officer Du Pont, regarding expedition to Wassaw Sound, Georgia, and plans for the use of the "stone fleet," wrote: "Ottawa, Pembina, and Seneca penetrated into Wassaw the 'stone fleet' are all at Savannah, and I hardly know what to do with them- for with Wassaw that city is more effectively closed than a bottle with wire over the cork . I am sending to [Captain James L.] Lardner to know if he can plant them on the Charleston bar . One good thing they [the 'stone fleet's' appearance at Savannah] did, I have not a doubt they were taken for men-of-war, and led to giving up the Wassaw defenses . ."

6 U.S.S. Augusta, Commander Parrott, captured British blockade runner Cheshire off South Carolina.

8 C.S.S. Sumter, Commander Semmes, captured and burned American bark Eben Dodge in the mid-Atlantic (30o 57' N, 51o 49' W), equipped for whaling voyage in Pacific.

U.S.S. Rhode Island, Lieutenant Trenchard, seized British blockade runner Phantom with cargo of sugar off Cape Lookout, North Carolina.

9 U.S.S. New London, Lieutenant A: Read, captured schooner Delight and sloops Express and Osceola off Cat Island Passage, Mississippi.

U.S.S. Harriet Lane, Lieutenant Robert H. Wyman, and other vessels of the Potomac Flotilla engaged Confederate forces at Freestone Point, Virginia.

10 U.S.S. Isaac Smith, Lieutenant James W. A. Nicholson, on expedition up Ashepoo River, South Carolina, landed on Otter Island and took possession of abandoned Confederate fort; Nicholson turned over command of the fort to the Army.

11 U.S.S. Bienville, Commander Steedman, captured schooner Sarah and Caroline off St. John's River, Florida.

U.S.S. South Carolina, Commander Alden, captured Confederate sloop Florida off lighthouse at Timbalier, Louisiana.

12 U.S.S. Alabama, Commander Edward Lanier, captured British ship Admiral off Savannah, attempting to run the blockade.

U.S.S. Isaac Smith, Lieutenant J. W. Nicholson, on a reconnaissance in the Ashepoo River, South Carolina, with Marine detachment embarked, scattered Confederate troops by gunfire and landed Marines to destroy their quarters.

15 U.S.S. Stars and Stripes, Lieutenant Reed Werden, captured blockade running schooner Charity off Cape Hatteras.

U.S.S. Jamestown, Commander Green, captured Confederate sloop Havelock near Cape Fear, North Carolina.

17 Flag Officer Foote, Commanding U.S. Naval Forces, Western Waters, issued General Order regarding observance of Sunday on board ships of his flotilla: "It is the wish. that on Sunday the public worship of Almighty God may be observed . and that the respective commanders will either themselves, or cause other persons to pronounce prayers publicly on Sunday. ." Foote added: "Discipline to be permanent must be based on moral grounds, and officers must in themselves, show a good example in morals, order, and patriotism to secure these qualities in the men." Since 1775 Navy Regulations have required that religious services be held on board ships of the Navy in peace and war.

Seven "stone fleet" vessels sunk at entrance of Savannah Harbor.

19 Confederate forces demolished lighthouse on Morris Island, Charleston.

20 "Stone fleet" sunk at Charleston by Captain C. H. Davis, Steamer Gordon ran the blockade off Wilmington.

21 U.S. Congress authorized Medal of Honor, the Nation's highest award.

24 U.S.S. Gem of the Sea, Lieutenant Irvin B. Baxter, captured and destroyed British blockade runner Prince of Wales off Georgetown, South Carolina.

Confederate Secretary of the Navy Mallory wrote Major General Leonidas Polk, commanding troops at Columbus, Kentucky, requesting furlough of troops to assist in construction of ironclad gunboats at Memphis. Mallory commented: "One of them at Columbus would have enabled you to complete the annihilation of the enemy."

25 U.S.S. Fernandina, Acting Lieutenant George W. Browne, captured schooner William H. Northrup off Cape Fear, North Carolina.

26 Confederate Fleet, including C.S.S. Savannah, Commodore Tattnall, Resolute, Sampson, Ida, and Barton, attacked Union blockading ships at mouth of Savannah River. Before returning to his anchorage under the guns of Fort Pulaski, Tattnall forced the blockaders to move seaward temporarily.

U.S.S. Rhode Island, Lieutenant Trenchard, captured Confederate schooner Venus southeast of Sabine Pass, off the Louisiana coast.

27 Flag Officer Du Pont wrote regarding the "Trent Affair": "I hope now that our politicians will begin to learn, that something is necessary to be 'a great universal Yankee Nation etc.' than politics and party. We should have armies and navies and have those appurtenances which enable a nation to defend itself and not be compelled to submit to humiliation [releasing Mason and Slidell] . Thirty ships like the Wabash would have spared us this without firing a gun, with an ironclad frigate or two."

28 U.S.S. Read, captured Confederate schooner Gipsey with cargo of cotton in Mississippi Sound.

29 C.S.S. Sea Bird, Flag Officer Lynch, evaded Union gunfire and captured large schooner near Hampton Roads carrying fresh water to Fort Monroe.

30 U.S.S. Santee, Captain Eagle, captured schooner Garonne off Galveston.

Flag Officer Foote wrote Assistant Secretary of the Navy Fox of the pay scale he was using: "In the case of Masters, and Pilots, I have been obliged, in order to secure the services of efficient Men, to pay 1st Masters $150. per month, 2nd Masters $125, 3rd Masters $100, and 4th Masters $80. per month, while Pilots are paid $175. per month. These prices are much less than the incumbents received in ordinary times, while they have before been provided with table furniture and stores, bedding & c., which I have not allowed them."

31 Biloxi, Mississippi, surrendered to a landing party of seamen and Marines covered by U.S.S. Water Witch, New London, and Henry Lewis; a small Confederate battery was destroyed, two guns and schooner Captain Spedden captured.

Flag Officer Foote wrote Assistant Secretary of the Navy Fox about the delay in fitting out mortar boats: "I did say and still consider the mortar boats very defective. They are built of solid timber and when armed and manned will be awash with the deck . - all will leak more or less. Still I would have them fitted out, with all their defects." Foote made excellent use of the mortar boats later at Island No. 10.

U.S.S. Augusta, Commander Parrott, captured Confederate schooner Island Belle attempting to run the blockade near Bull's Bay, South Carolina.

Two boats, under Acting Masters A. Allen and H. L. Sturges, from U.S.S. Mount Vernon, destroyed lightship off Wilmington which had been fitted out as a gunboat by Confederates.

31-2 January Naval squadron under Commander C. R. P. Rodgers, including gunboats Ottawa, Pembina, and Seneca and four armed boats carrying howitzers, joined General Stevens' troops in successful amphibious attack on Confederate positions at Port Royal Ferry and on Coosaw River. Gunboat fire covered the troop advance, and guns and naval gunners were landed as artillery support. Army signal officers acted as gunfire observers and coordinators on board the ships. The action disrupted Confederate plans to erect batteries and build troop strength in the area intending to close Coosaw River and isolate Federal troops on Port Royal Island. General Stevens wrote: "I would do great injustice to my
own feelings did I fail to express my satisfaction and delight with the recent cooperation of the command of Captain Rodgers in our celebration of New Year's Day. Whether regard be had to his beautiful working of the gunboats in the narrow channel of Port Royal, the thorough concert of action established through the signal officers, or the masterly handling of the guns against the enemy, nothing remained to be desired. Such a cooperation . augurs everything, propitious for the welfare of our cause in this quarter of the country."

Confederate States Navy

The Confederate States Navy (CSN) was the naval branch of the Confederate States Armed Forces, established by an act of the Confederate States Congress on February 21, 1861. It was responsible for Confederate naval operations during the American Civil War against the United States's Union Navy.

The three major tasks of the Confederate States Navy during its existence were the protection of Confederate harbors and coastlines from outside invasion, making the war costly for the United States by attacking its merchant ships worldwide, and running the U.S. blockade by drawing off Union ships in pursuit of Confederate commerce raiders and warships.

It was ineffective in these tasks, as the coastal blockade by the United States Navy reduced trade by the South to 5 percent of its pre-war levels. Additionally, the control of inland rivers and coastal navigation by the US Navy forced the south to overload its limited railroads to the point of failure.

The surrender of the CSS Shenandoah in Liverpool, England marked the end of the Civil War and the Navy's existence.

A 'Talent for Buffoonery'

A prodigy of behind-the-lines warfare, Cushing fought with distinction at the Battle of Fort Fisher and led numerous audacious raids into Confederate-held territory, where he sank ships, freed slaves, and gathered intelligence. In his most famous exploit, a David-versus-Goliath tale made real in October 1864, the young lieutenant stood in an open boat directly under the guns of the Confederate ironclad ram Albemarle and, while exposed to a withering fire, detonated a torpedo under the lip of the ship’s armor, sinking the fearsome vessel. He then eluded Rebel posses and escaped eight miles to Union lines. Already the youngest man to be made lieutenant in the history of the Navy, Cushing was immediately promoted and became its youngest lieutenant commander eventually he would become its youngest commander. His premature death in 1874 ended a career that had recognized no limits.

In December, Lord Lyons, the British minister to the United States, met with Secretary of State William Seward (1801-72) concerning the fate of Mason and Slidell. Lyons took a hard line during the meeting, and afterward wrote to Lord Russell, the British foreign minister: “I am so concerned that unless we give our friends here a good lesson this time, we shall have the same trouble with them again very soon. Surrender or war will have a very good effect on them.”

Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) and his administration got the message–“One war at a time,” the president said𠄺nd decided not to push the issue. On December 27, Seward sent a message to Britain officials in which he disavowed the actions of Captain Wilkes and announced that the envoys would be released. Armed conflict with Great Britain thus was averted.

After Mason and Slidell were set free in early January 1862, they traveled to Europe. However, their mission ultimately was a failure, as they were unable to convince European leaders to support the Confederates in the Civil War.

Soldier's Letter, Civil War - December 1861

Chenango American, Greene, NY, January 9, 1862

Letter from J.W. White, 5th Regiment, Sickles Brigade

Camp Morgan, Md,, Liverpool Point, Dec. 29, 1861

Editors American: You will confer upon me a favor for which I will be ever grateful, by granting me the privilege, through your paper (which I see every week when I don't miss of it) of expressing my warmest thanks to those of my friends in Greene, to whom I am indebted for a box of luxuries, which I received day before yesterday, in good order. The clothing was just the thing I needed and as for those quilts (with many thanks to the donors) they are the right thing, in the right place, and at the right time. The cake and other luxuries is a feast of fat things I assure you, after having been kept for more than eleven months on iron bound crackers but what adds value to it all, is the fact that it comes from kind friends at home.

We are now encamped on the banks of the Potomac, about fifty miles below Washington. The river is so wide here that king cotton cannot shoot across into our camp. Just below and also above where we are stationed he has his batteries erected, and as our vessels pass them, he howls most ferociously, but some how the arrows from his bellowing engines of death, very seldom take effect upon the object of his wrath, but fall into the troubled waters of the Potomac or bury themselves in the ground as they strike on the Maryland shore. We are yet living in our summer tents, but are now building winter quarters. The weather has thus far been of the most favorable kind, yet we have had some days and nights which were not very pleasant for soldiers. I fancy it would be quite a novelty to you who are accustomed to sit by a warm stove at your quiet homes these long December nights, to visit our camp and see how soldiers live. It is an old adage that necessity is the mother of inventions and I am sure no one would doubt the truth of it after visiting one of our camps. We all have fireplaces in our tents' some of them are built of mud and others of logs and sticks plastered with mud. Some of them work very well while others smoke about as much at one end as the other. My chum David Hetzel of Norwich says, tell them while we warm one side, the other is highly entertained with a kind of music which the wind makes while blowing through the holes in our tent.

I have been in no battle yet and hope I will not be, until I can know whether I am fighting to crush out rebellion or to build up the accursed system of human slavery.

My health is good. I weigh ten lbs more than when I left the pleasant village of Greene and turned my face toward the land of traitors.

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In 1861, the United States faced its greatest crisis to that time. The northern and southern states had become less and less alike - socially, economically, politically. The North had become increasingly industrial and commercial while the South had remained largely agricultural. More important than these differences, however, was African-American slavery. Northerners generally wanted to limit the spread of slavery some wanted to abolish it altogether. Southerners generally wanted to maintain and even expand the institution. Thus, slavery became the focal point of a political crisis.

Following the 1860 election of Republican Abraham Lincoln to the presidency, eleven southern states eventually seceded from the Federal Union in 1861. They sought to establish an independent Confederacy of states in which slavery would be protected. Northern Unionists, on the other hand, insisted that secession was not only unconstitutional but unthinkable as well. They were willing to use military force to keep the South in the Union. Even Southerners who owned no slaves opposed threatened Federal coercion. The result was a costly and bloody civil war. Almost as many Americans were killed in the Civil War as in all the nation's other wars combined.

After four years of fighting, the Union was restored through the force of arms. The problems of reconstructing the Union were just as difficult as fighting the war had been. Because most of the war was fought in the South, the region was devastated physically and economically. Helping freedmen and creating state governments loyal to the Union also presented difficult problems that would take years to resolve.

American Civil War: Northern Blockade and the ‘Trent’ Affair of 1861

Britain had approved the Union blockade of Confederacy ships in the 1860s. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Federal Ports Blocked

In 1861, the United States Government had stopped almost all foreign shipping coming into the Confederacy or Confederate shipping going out. This posed legal and political questions that were difficult for the North. European nations issued Proclamations of Neutrality in the late spring and summer of 1861, and Great Britain’s came on May 12. This, in turn meant that the nations had recognized the belligerent status of the Confederacy.

Belligerent Status for Confederacy

In the language of international law, the belligerent status of the Confederacy meant that the South could contract for loans and purchase supplies in neutral countries and exercise belligerent rights on the high seas. In other words, it could commission privateers to prey on United States shipping.

This brought rejoicing in the South and concern in the North because both sides thought that recognition of belligerency was perhaps a prelude to formal diplomatic recognition.

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Formal Diplomatic Recognition for Confederacy?

When London and Paris looked at what was going on in America, they saw a Confederate nation with a written constitution, with a formal government, with an army in the field, and with a foreign policy. They said that’s a belligerent. And the United States, after all, was blockading the Confederacy.

That also suggested that they were both belligerent. So, it seemed an easy call to the Europeans it did upset many in the North. Secretary of State William Henry Seward was livid when he heard about this. He even thought of starting a war with Britain.

But it soon became clear that the Europeans did not see belligerency as prelude to foreign recognition. Their Proclamations of Neutrality, in fact, favored the North over the long haul because they constituted official acceptance of the blockade.

According to the international law, a blockade must be effective to be legally binding on neutral nations. But, the Union blockade wasn’t as effective.

England Accepts Northern Blockade

But England did not challenge this. The reason was that as a maritime power, Britain often blockaded its enemies. And Britain always had argued that a blockade was legal if the patrolling ships, which were usually British, of course, made an attempt to prevent neutral ships from moving in and out of the ports of the nation that Britain was opposed to.

To insist that the Union blockade, in fact, cover every Southern port might come back to haunt the British down the road. So, the British accepted that the North was trying to blockade the Confederacy, even if they did not seal every port.

Continuous Voyage Doctrine

Britain also accepted the North’s application of what was called the doctrine of “continuous voyage”, which meant that the United States could intercept ships traveling between neutral harbors if there was evidence that the cargoes were destined eventually to go to the Confederacy.

For example, if a cargo was going from London to Bermuda—two neutral ports—but, in fact, was going to end up in Charleston, that would be considered a “continuous voyage” from London to Charleston, even though there was an intermediate neutral stop. And, therefore, that would be subject to being seized by the United States Navy.

Opposition to Continuous Voyage Doctrine

The British themselves used this notion when they were blockading other countries. They didn’t again want to set a precedent that might come back to work against them.

However, British merchants who wished to trade with the South raised great opposition when the British government did nothing in response to Northern seizures of British cargoes under this doctrine. But their opposition had little effect on British policies.

The Trent Affair

The closest Britain came to war with the North over maritime rights occurred with in November 1861.

An illustration shows the San Jacinto (right) stopping the British steamer Trent. (Image: Edward Sylvester Ellis/Public domain)

On 8 November 1861, Confederate commissioners James Mason, a Virginian, and John Slidell, of Louisiana, were bound for Britain and France, respectively, aboard the British ship Trent, when the USS warship San Jacinto, under the command of Captain Charles Wilkes, forced the Trent to stop.

They were about 250 miles east of Havana. Wilkes took Mason and Slidell off the Trent. He had received legal advice to not to do it, as Trent was a British vessel. But Wilkes went ahead and did it, and ended up carrying them to a Northern prison in Boston.

The North at first hailed Wilkes as a great hero. There hadn’t been a lot of good news for the North from the battlefield to this point in the war. Manassas was still a sort of festering sore for many in the North. The House of Representatives voted Wilkes a medal early on.

Trent Affair: Almost Triggering a War

However, England accused Wilkes of perpetrating an act of violence against passengers on a neutral vessel, and reacted quickly and ominously. The British naval squadron in North America was reinforced, 8,000 troops were sent to Canada pending the outbreak of possible fighting with the United States, and Britain demanded an official apology and release of Mason and Slidell.

But, Britain also worried about how vulnerable Canada was to the United States. If the United States had decided, with its enormous armies in place during the civil war, to march against Canada, Britain would have been helpless to stop it. War seemed possible for a tense period, but both sides soon realized it would be against their best interests.

Wilkes had acted on his own, and Seward admitted to the British that the captain’s behavior had been improper. Abraham Lincoln ordered the release of Mason and Slidell and they were released on 1 January 1862, and soon they were on their way to London and Paris.

The crisis had passed. But it would not be the last crisis, nor the closest the Confederacy came to achieving a major diplomatic success.

Common Questions about Northern Blockade and the Trent Affair of 1861

The belligerent status of the Confederacy meant that the South could contract for loans and purchase supplies in neutral countries and exercise belligerent rights on the high seas.

On 8 November 1861, USS warship San Jacinto, under the command of Captain Charles Wilkes, forced the British ship Trent to stop near Havana. Wilkes arrested Confederate commissioners James Mason and John Slidell, who were aboard the ship.

England accused Captain Charles Wilkes of perpetrating an act of violence against passengers on a neutral vessel, the Trent . Thus, the British naval squadron in North America was reinforced and 8,000 troops were sent to Canada pending the outbreak of possible fighting with the United States. But, Britain was also aware of the might of the US army. Thus both sides realized it would be against their best interests and a war was averted.

Civil War Naval History December 1861 - History

Hard to believe, but at the eve of a war which would feature use of armored warships, steam propulsion, rifled naval guns, mines, and primitive submarines, the U.S. Navy retained several ships-of-the-line on the vessel list. Although most sat on the stocks out of commission, in 1860 the Navy counted eight 74-gun and two 120-gun ships-of-the-line.

Retention of such seemingly obsolete vessels was not as absurd as it may seem. Steam propulsion, a technology still evolving past infancy, suffered from a few tactical issues. Among those was slow speed handling in exactly the tight formations in which doctrine called for the battle divisions to fight. Yes, just as Army officers looked back to the Napoleonic wars for components of their tactics and doctrine, many naval officers considered Nelson's battle line in regard to dispositions. And certainly around appropriations time, many noted place of honor the ship-of-the-line retained even as steam power prevailed.

The USS Pennsylvania , laid down in 1822 and commissioned in 1837, was the largest sailing warship ever built in the United States. Rated as a 120-gun ship, by 1860 she was laid up in Norfolk as a receiving ship. If fitted out for war, the Pennsylvania would mount an impressive mix of 8-inch shell guns and 32-pdr cannon. But she was not ready for war as the secession crisis loomed.

Also laid up at Norfolk were the 74-gun ships USS Columbus and USS Delaware . The Columbus was completed in 1819 and commissioned in 1828, the Delaware actually carried 84 guns. A sister ship of the Delaware, the New York was, according to some sources, laid up incomplete at Norfolk. But the Naval records indicate the partially completed vessels was in the New York shipyard. Regardless the New York was never actually commissioned into the U.S. Navy.

(USS North Carolina - Wikipedia commons)

The USS North Carolina served as a storeship in at the New York Navy Yard. Another 74-gun ship, the USS Ohio which dated to 1820, lay in Boston as a receiving ship. Other ships of the rate - the Alabama , Vermont , and Virginia - lay incomplete and thus not commissioned on the stocks. And at Sacketts Harbor, New York, the New Orleans , a 120-gun rate, remained incomplete as the sole Great Lakes ship-of-the-line.

Of the American ships-of-the-line, the Columbus ,, North Carolina , and Delaware saw substantial service before the Civil War. The Columbus and Ohio were active during the Mexican War. Like the American frigates, the American 74s often carried guns in excess of their rate. The North Carolina reportedly carried over 100 guns during some Mediterranean cruises.

As indicated, at the time of South Carolina's secession in December 1860, none of these vessels were ready for service. Faced with other operational concerns, the Navy let the ships remain either on the stocks or in yard support capacities right up to the start of the Civil War. The Navy burned the Pennsylvania and Delaware when Virginia state troops took over Norfolk in April 1861, somewhat symbolically marking the end of the ship-of-the-line era.

(USS New Hampshire as receiving ship - Wikipedia commons)

However, a few of the big old sailing ships continued to serve as store ships or receiving ships until the end of the Civil War. The Alabama became the USS New Hampshire , and was commissioned as a store ship. The New Hampshire and Vermont served on station at Port Royal, South Carolina, reportedly receiving heavy caliber Parrott rifles.

Chance and the Civil War

From the moment the first shots were fired in 1861, gambling and the Civil War embarked on a volatile relationship. Strategic and tactical gambles became commonplace for Civil War commanders. Soldiers gambled with their lives every time they set foot on the battlefield. Secession and the opposing governments’ decisions to contest it by force were gambles that would claim over 650,000 lives before they were finally settled.

Gambling in its more traditional forms represented a darker side of the soldiers’ and sailors’ everyday lives. The war’s many terrifying battles were shock points, but the tedium and monotony of camp life in many ways dominated the typical combatant’s experience. Card games, horse races and virtually anything else that could be wagered on were popular methods of relieving boredom in every army, Northern and Southern.

Most states had passed antigambling statutes before the Civil War due to widespread corruption in state-chartered lotteries. In 1860 only Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri allowed lotteries. In addition laws were passed in most states, including the wild west of California, that made it illegal to gamble against a bank or a house. Although lotteries and house gambling were banned, horse racing and gambling in private clubs were still allowed.

Even though soldiers on both sides believed they were fighting for the good and moral cause of either defending their homes and property or preserving the Union, many Federals and Confederates quickly discarded their morals when they took off their civilian clothes and donned their new blue or gray uniforms. Union Private Delos W. Lake warned his brother who was about to enlist that “The army is the worst place in the world to learn bad habits of all kinds. there is several men in this Regt when they enlisted they were nice respectable men and belonged to the Church of God, but now where are they? They are ruined men.” At the end of 1863, T.C. Holliday of Mississippi also warned his brother who was enlisting: “The temptations that will beset you will be very great…of all the evil practices in Camp, gambling is the most pernicious and fraught with the most direful consequences.” Gambling, along with profanity, drunkenness and whoring, swept through the armies as the men left the influences of family and community at home.

Adam Rader of the 28th Virginia was appalled by “the most onerest men…I ever saw, and the most swearing and card playing and fitin and drunkenness.” Musician Henry E. Shafer of the 103rd Illinois had the same reaction, observing: “It looks to me as though some men try to see how depraved they can be. Gambling, Card Playing, Profanity, Sabbath Breaking &c are among the many vices practiced by many of the men.”

But despite this intolerance, gambling was prevalent. Some soldiers and sailors would bet on anything: horse races, cockfights, athletic competitions and boxing and wrestling matches. Although horse racing was popular, it was particularly frowned upon, as it ran the risk of ruining good horses. Soldiers beset by lice threw their tormenters on blankets and pitted them against one another in races fueled by wagering. Raffles were popular for blockaded Southerners, who faced stretched budgets. As one Confederate noted near Yorktown in December 1861, there was “raffling of any and everything—watches, gold pins, coats and blankets. You can hear on every side someone saying, ‘Do you want to take a chance for a watch?’ or something else.”

In addition to wagering on races and competitions, the men in blue and gray also amused themselves with dice. A blanket thrown on the ground and a pair of six-sided cubes was all that was needed to establish a craps parlor.

But the most popular form of gambling was “throwing the paper,” or card games. Playing cards were produced in the North as well as Europe during the war, and manufacturers made a fortune. English cards, which were brought in on blockade runners, carried patriotic Southern designs. Cards North and South would have stars, flags, shields and eagles replacing spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs. Presidents Lincoln and Davis, their generals and other notables were often represented in the designs.

Poker, 21, faro and euchre brought forth wagers from most troops, even those who had little idea of the rules or odds of winning or losing. In October 1864, one Union soldier noted that “nine out of ten play cards for money.” Virginian Alexander Hunter believed five of six soldiers played cards. He wrote: “Some soldiers gambled day and night draw poker of course being the game. When out of money, a man stayed in the game by resorting to the use of ‘O.P.s’” These were IOUs on the Order of the Paymaster. Despite their meager pay, as Private Newton of the 14th Wisconsin observed while in the trenches outside of Vicksburg: “Since we were paid off a person cannot go five rods in any part of our camp without seeing someone gambling. The day after we were paid there were a good many of the boys to be found who had not a cent left of their two months pay.” Southerners, whose pay was infrequent and as the war went on increasingly worthless, gambled for pocketknives, jewelry, clothing and rations.

Some Southerners would even play for their lives. During the Second Manassas campaign, Allen C. Redwood of the 55th Virginia fell in with the 6th Louisiana, a unit dominated by immigrants (most of them Irish) who had made New Orleans their home. They had proved their valor to Maj. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson during the Shenandoah Valley campaign and had lost their colonel in an impetuous charge at Gaines’ Mill. As Redwood settled in, he marveled at the “congress of nations only the cosmopolitan Crescent City could have sent forth, and the tongues of Babel seemed resurrected in speech English, German, French, Spanish, all were represented, to say nothing of Doric brogue and local ‘gumbo.’” The Louisianans, as Redwood observed, “burned little powder that day,” spending most of August 29, 1862, countermarching and supporting a section of Wilfred Cutshaw’s battery. He noted further: “The tedium of this last service my companions relieved by games of ‘seven up,’ with a greasy, well thumbed deck, and in smoking cigarettes, rolled with great dexterity, between the deals. Once, when a detail was ordered to go some distance under fire to fill the canteens of the company, a hand was dealt to determine who should go, and the decision was accepted by the loser without demur.” Redwood did not record the outcome of the detail.

Although most lost their pay, a few lucky or skilled players, not to mention some cheats, became rich. C.W. Bardeen joined the Union cause as a fifer when he was just 15. He quickly became so skilled at cards that none of his comrades would play against him. On August 22, 1863, after getting paid he sat down to a week of gambling during which he won several hundred dollars playing bluff. He sent over a hundred dollars home, bought a watch for $25 and took a trip into New York, where he had his picture taken, went to the opera and saw the sights. Despite his continued success throughout 1863, the teenager’s conscience bothered him. On December 31, after a year in the Army, he recorded: “I bear witness to its [the Army’s] contaminating effects. Many an evil habit has sprung up in me since Jan. 1st 1863. God grant that the year in which we now have entered may not be so.” By February, Bardeen had begun attending church services, and gave up alcohol and gambling.

Ministers sent into the field to tend to the souls, character and moral fiber of the soldiers would frequently preach against the sins of gambling. They ofen carried tracts with them like Pitching the Tent Toward Sodom, which warned of gambling’s dangers.

The Gambler’s Balance Sheet compared the pros and cons of gambling. The gains were described as “lewd and base companions, idleness and dissipation poverty and mental anguish.” The losses were described as “time money—which ought to be sent home to your wife and babies, or to an aged father or a widowed mother feeling—a young man in New York not many years ago played cards on his brother’s coffin love of truth—the gambler will try to cover up his loss by a falsehood self-respect character—your friends will disown you, your mother will be ashamed of you, your sisters will blush when your name is mentioned happiness, and soul.” On balance, the author suggested that gamblers would receive nothing but “ETERNAL MISERY.”

Often such sermons fell on few ears. One Sunday the colonel of the 7th Wisconsin, finding the regiment’s church service poorly attended, sent a note to the adjutant saying: “There is a large crowd of soldiers in the grove below, engaged in the interesting game called chuck-a-luck. My chaplain is running his church on the other side of me, but the chuck-a-luck has the largest crowd. I think this is unfair, as the church runs only once a week but the game goes on daily. I suggest that one or the other of the parties be dispersed.” And of course not all men of the cloth set a good example, as a company of the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery found when a cleric entered their stud-poker game one evening and proceeded to take all their money.

Although many soldiers played games of chance, most believed it was sinful. The approach of battle caused many a gambler to empty his haversack of cards and dice and open his Bible to ensure that if he should die on the field that day such sinful tools would not be found on his person. For some the repentance lasted no longer than the battle, and when it was over they would return to the fields or woods and, as one observer noted, “gather up the cards until they had a full deck.” The moral ramifications of gambling often seemed to carry more weight with the soldiers than the fact that it was forbidden by Army regulations.

Through the fall and winter of 1861 Southern municipal governments ordered gambling houses to be closed. As the New Orleans Commercial Bulletin commented in January 1862, “The excitement among the sports, in consequence was exceedingly great, and all expressed astonishment at so sudden a move on the part of his Honor.” These houses were closed partly in support of the military and in reaction to eligible men being in gambling houses as opposed to the army. But such actions were always temporary.

Many proprietors of Southern gambling halls contributed generously to the Confederate Army in an effort to obtain public support, and also because their winnings provided funds for such charity. During the Peninsula campaign of 1862, members of the faro fraternity pledged “to contribute a liberal sum ($20,000) for the purchase of any articles which may be needed for the sick or wounded soldiers.” In November Richmond’s “Knights of the Faro Table” contributed another $5,000 for the support of the Army.

Such efforts failed to buy acceptance. In October 1863, Virginia passed laws to suppress all gambling. As the Richmond Examiner reported in February 1864: “The gambling halls of Richmond were closed because their extravagant suppers were exhausting the supplies of provisions. Men who should have frowned down such unreasonable hilarity were the very persons who encourage and support them. But we hope the sin has run its course, and that there will be no more of them.”

The halls did not remain closed, as a refugee reported in September 1864: “Faro and Gambling Establishments…are numerous and are plying a brisk business. They are patronized by government officials who are said to squander away the public funds. A recent law against the keeping of these places subjects the proprietors to severe punishment. They have accordingly adopted the plan of dealing in iron marks so that they may not be recognized.”

In addition to civilian efforts to check gambling, the military also tried to eradicate it. On November 14, 1862, General Robert E. Lee issued General Order No. 127, which read:

  1. The general commanding is pained to learn that the vice of gambling exists, and is becoming common in this army. The regulations expressly prohibit one class of officers from indulging in this evil practice, and it was not supposed that a habit so pernicious and demoralizing would be found among men engaged in a cause, of all others, demanding the highest virtue and purest morality in its supporters. He regards it as wholly inconsistent with the character of a Southern soldier and subversive of good order and discipline in the army. All officers are earnestly enjoined to use every effort to suppress this vice, and the assistance of every soldier having the true interests of the army and of the country at heart is invoked to put an end to a practice which cannot fail to produce those deplorable results which have ever attended its indulgence in any society.

During the dreary winter of 1864, Federal General John C. Cleveland issued a directive: “Gambling within the limits of this division is prohibited. The attention of the brigade and regimental commanders is called to the suppression of this evil.” Of course the enforcement of these rules was complicated by the participation of officers in these games. When an officer was sent to break up an after-taps gambling party, he failed to follow orders when he found a fellow officer in the game. Throughout the war the command would be repeated that gambling had to be stamped out.

In addition to trying to stamp out gambling among their own troops, both sides struggled with eradicating games of chance between the two armies. In March 1863, Union Brig. Gen. Henry Lockwood complained that the Navy, which was responsible for patrolling the Potomac River and stopping the contraband trade, was failing in this task because naval officers were “going on shore every night and carousing and gambling with the ‘Secesh’” engaged in blockade running. During the siege of Petersburg a Confederate officer found a large number of pickets missing because they had crossed over the lines to play cards with the Federals. Such fraternization created significant problems.

In an effort to eliminate fraternization, Federal forces attempted to close Southern civilian gambling institutions. On July 3, 1863, Union Brig. Gen. William Emory issued an order in New Orleans that, in addition to limiting public gatherings only to church services and closing all bars by 9 p.m., stated, “All club rooms and gambling houses are hereby closed until further orders.”

In January 1864, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman approved the destruction of a Southerner’s home in occupied Memphis, writing: “General Veatch was justified, as commander of a city in time of war, to destroy a gambling house, as it is the cause of crime and disorder. His right to destroy involves the minor right to fine and exact bond.” Part of the problem was that Union soldiers would go into such gambling houses, get drunk and end up indebted to Southerners suspected of being “traitors, spies, smugglers, robbers and house burners.”

Another serious problem with gambling was that some officers embezzled government funds to pay for their losses. In March 1862, Confederate Adjutant and Inspector General Samuel Cooper complained of “Captains getting drunk and gambling off commutation money” intended to pay for uniforms.

In reaction to embezzlements by Union dispersing officers in June 1865, after the end of the war, General Ulysses S. Grant ordered all gambling houses in both the South and North that had entertained U.S. dispersing officers to be “broken up.”

Despite efforts to stamp out gambling, it survived the war. In fact, in the 1880s the Gettysburg & Harrisburg Railroad completed a spur to the Round Tops south of Gettysburg to provide access to this part of the battlefield, which still lay in private hands. To entertain the multitude of daytrippers, refreshment, souvenir and photography stands were set up along with pavilions for dancing, a shooting gallery and a casino.

In the 1890s William H. Tipton, a Gettysburg entrepreneur, laid a trolley line from town to the Round Tops. New tourists coming to Gettysburg to escape the cities often visited Round Top Park, where they could dance, drink, gamble and not be bothered by the monuments or history. Enraged veterans had Tipton sued, and in 1896 the Supreme Court “affirmed…that the government could protect the shrine’s primary function of civic instruction over other uses.” In 1901 the War Department bought out Tipton’s property.

Over the years gambling came and went, often exiting in a lottery or racing scandal. By 1910, Civil War veterans and their children joined other antigambling interests in successfully championing laws and state constitutional amendments that banned most forms of gambling across the country. In 1931 one of the most depressed states in the Union, Nevada, approved many forms of gambling, including casino gambling, in an effort to bring some prosperity to the desert. In 1978 New Jersey passed a law allowing gambling in Atlantic City, another depressed community. For the next decade people watched the Atlantic City experiment.

Then in the 1990s legalized gambling exploded across the country to a point where it now exists in one form or another in almost every state, and many states now have legal casinos. In places like Vicksburg, Miss., this has put casinos close to Civil War sites.

In 2004 Pennsylvania passed a law authorizing slots casinos in 14 locations. Chance Enterprises is proposing to bring gambling back to the hallowed ground of Gettysburg, where it was last seen a century ago. Protests to this plan have emerged from the Civil War community, and the fight continues today. It is clear that even 141 years after the last shots were fired, the uneasy relationship between the Civil War and gambling lives on.

Keith Miller, who writes from Ridgefield, Conn., is a volunteer for the nonprofit “No Casino Gettysburg” organization.

Originally published in the June 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.

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