Confederate Navy

 

confederate navy flag

Confederate States Navy Jack

The American Civil War battles were waged all over the south, in the far west in the present state of Arizona and in the north at Gettysburg. One of the somewhat under publicized actions undertaken by the Confederate Navy were hostile events in the Atlantic as far north as Nova Scotia. Not only did significant action occur in the North Atlantic but damage to Union shipping was widespread. The navy in the Civil War was very active in the North Atlantic.

The CSS Tallahassee

This story’s focus is on the Confederate Navy’s ironclad coal powered steamer CSS Tallahassee and the nineteen days of raids during 1864. The Confederates named the ship after the Florida state capital. Interestingly enough, the CSS Tallahassee was able to obtain coal at Halifax. Neutrality laws applied to Nova Scotia but part of those laws required that a Civil War ship could only remain there 24 hours.The Tallahassee was originally named the Atalanta and had bee built on the Thames River in England. She was a fast vessel and very stable. With her twin screws, the Talllahassee was said to be able to cross the English Channel in 77 minutes. After the ship successfully ran the Union blockade in Wilmington several times, the Confederacy purchase her in 1864.

css tallahassee

Drawing of the CSS Tallahassee

The CSS Tallahassee was successful in running the Union blockade at Wilmington North Carolina on August 6th and steamed northward. The Confederate steamer was described as about one thousand tons, painted a light lead color, no bowsprit, with two smoke-stacks and a red bottom. The Commander of the CSS Tallahassee was John Taylor Wood. Wood was a relative of Jefferson Davis and a grandson of President Zachary Taylor.

The CSS Tallahassee at War

After running the Union blockade on August 6th 1864, the CSS Tallahassee under the command John Taylor Wood went on a nineteen day spree of raids along the North Atlantic seaboard. The Tallahassee was responsible for the destruction of twenty-six ships. This Confederate Navy vessel had great success finding ways to steam through the blockades.

These raids on shipping were not lost on the Union Navy. In fact, the CSS Tallahassee had two Union gunboats on her tail as she sailed northward toward Halifax Nova Scotia. When the Tallahassee entered Halifax Harbor, Wood believed that the Union war ships anchored in the sea lane just outside the port. Commander Wood was well aware that he could be in a tight situation. While in port, the Confederate vessel loaded enough coal to make it to the nearest Confederate port and did repair work to her mast. The Tallahassee skipper met with luck. After spending some thirty-six hours at Halifax because of the mast repair, Commander Wood hired at local harbor pilot to guide him past the waiting federal vessels. This, the pilot did by using another more shallow channel generally used by fishing boats. The CSS Tallahassee reached the open sea and made her way back to Wilmington North Carolina.

confederate ship css shenandoah

CSS Shenandoah

As it turned out, there were no federal war ships waiting to intercept the Tallahassee. The first federal vessel that did arrive on the scene at the harbor entrance was the USS Pontoosuc which got there a few hours after the Tallahassee departed.

The Ship that Wouldn’t be Caught

Not only did the CSS Talahassee have a successful raiding run in the northeast in August of 1864 and then return safely to Wilmington from Halifax, but this well commanded Confederate Navy vessel continued to be very active in the Confederate war effort. The vessel took on a new name, the Olustee, and was put in command of Lt. W.H. Wood.

Again, the Olustee was successful in running the Union blockades. During the last part of October 1864 she ran a blockade and destroyed six ships off Cape Delaware. This time she did suffered damage while exchanging gunfire with federal war ships, nevertheless the Olustee did make it safely back to Wilmington.

Three additional Trips Into History articles and photos you’ll be interested in are the Jeremiah O’Brien Liberty Ship in San Francisco,…Piracy on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. and a Visit to the World War Two Submarine USS Pampanito.

A New Name and the Final Confederate Voyage

For a third time, the vessel received a new name by it’s Confederate owners. When the Olustee arrived back at Wilmington after the Cape Delaware action, the Confederacy changed her name to the Chameleon and removed her battery. Her new commander was Lt. J. Wilkinson. In late December 1846, the new Chameleon steamed toward Bermuda. Her mission was to obtain badly needed supplies and return to Wilmington.

css ship alabama

CSS Alabama

The problem was that when the Chameleon tried to enter Wilmington or any other southern port she found it impossible. Commander Wilkinson decided to steam in the other direction and took the ship all the way across the Atlantic to Liverpool England.

The Chameleon arrived in Liverpool on April 9th 1864. The American Civil War was essentially over. The British seized the Chameleon and sold her to the merchant shipping fleet. Interestingly enough, the United States Government filed suit to have the vessel returned. After about one year, the Chameleon (aka Tallahassee and Olustee) was returned to the American consul in Liverpool and the U.S. government took ownership of the ship.

The CSS Tallahassee and History

There are several things that make the story of the CSS Tallahassee a significant American Civil War event. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the danger to Union shipping in the Atlantic off New England by the Confederate Navy has not been an overly publicized element of Civil War history. This alone is significant. The fact that the then named CSS Tallahassee was able to raid for nineteen days and while being chased by federal war ships was able to find shelter in Halifax Harbor is another fascinating story. Add to this the fact she escaped from Halifax and safely steamed back to Wilmington is another unbelievable twist. In addition to all of the above, this same vessel under other names and other commands was able to continue running blockades and sink more Union vessels later the very same year.

The only real end to the story of the CSS Tallahassee was when she sailed to England in April of 1865 and effectively surrendered to the British government. In many ways, this vessel ended her wartime service to the Confederacy under her own terms, not by fire from a Union war ship.

Two good books on the subject of the Civil War navies are Blue and Gray Navies:The Civil War Afloat, by author Spencer Tucker and the book The Civil War at Sea, by author Craig Symonds.

(Photos are from the public domain)

 

 

 

Deadliest Storm on the Great Lakes / The 1913 Storm and the Loss of the SS Wexford

The Great Lakes have always been treacherous to navigate on during the fall period. Many ships have been lost both in the 1800’s as well as the 1900’s. The storm that hit the entire Great Lakes basin in the year 1913 was unlike any other storm in it’s destructive fury. The storm has been given many different names including being called the “Big Blow“. All in all, more than 250 people lost their lives and some 19 ships were lost. The estimated loss of ship value alone was some $5 million dollars in 1913 money. A particularly peculiar facet of the 1913 storm was that it lasted some sixteen hours where most Great Lakes storms tend to last about four hours. No doubt that this added to the death total and loss of vessels. The storm was most powerful on November 9, 1913 with waves battering and overturning ships on four of the five Great Lakes. Lake Huron appeared to be the hardest hit..

cleveland 1913 storm

Cleveland Ohio during the November 1913 Great Lakes Storm

The Great lakes region often has a confluence of different weather fronts meeting together and as a result has some unpredictable and fierce storms. Most come during the months of October through December. It’s a well known fact that that Great Lakes seamen have long felt that the storms and wave action are equal to or can surpass anything experienced on the oceans. Lake Michigan as an example can be quite dangerous. Most shipping travels on a north to south direction and storms coming from the west, which is more common, hit the vessel with waves from the side. Lake Michigan, especially on it’s southern half, offer few harbors or bays to take refuge. The modern day breakup and sinking of the Carl D. Bradley was just one example. Anyone living in the Great Lakes Region for an extended period of time can become all too familiar with the tremendous storms, or low pressure areas, that can settle over the Great Lakes Region in the fall. In short, as Polar outbreaks become more regular and intense, surging south into the Great Lakes area, they meet up with the warmer, moisture laden air from the Gulf of Mexico.

The story of the SS Wexford and it’s fatal demise on Lake Huron in 1913 exemplifies the dangers. Remember, that in 1913 maritime weather forecasting and warnings were not as sophisticated as what we now have in the 21st century. According to records from NOAA, the November 1913 weather map pattern of storm development was  not unlike the storm development of another more recent monster low pressure system that formed during the period of January 25-27th, 1978. Both systems involved an Arctic shot of cold air moving south across the Lakes area, while at the same time, an intensifying low pressure area took shape over the southern Appalachians. The 1913 great storm produced 90 mph winds, waves over 35 feet, and whiteout snow squalls.

ss wexford

SS Wexford

The SS Wexford was a steel hulled, propeller driven bulk freighter that was built in Great Britain in 1883. She was 250 feet long and 40 feet wide. At the time the SS Wexford went down on November 10, 1913, she was hauling a load of steel rails and was owned at the time by the Western Steamship Company of Totonto.  According to NOAA, eight out of eighteen ships that battled the 1913 storm on Lake Huron were lost. In the  book, The Wexford: Elusive Shipwreck of the Great Storm, 1913, author Paul Carroll points out that there was a lot of evidence pointing to the fact that the SS Wexford had actually traveled further north heading up Lake Huron than where she eventually sank. The speculation is that the ship was pushed far southward by the fierce northerly winds before she went down. All 22 of her crew were lost in the sinking. Bodies, life jackets and debris washed up on the shores of Ontario for some time afterwards. Another vessel, the 524-foot steamer, the Charles S. Price was found floating upside-down off Port Huron Michigan. Some artifacts of the SS Wexford were actually discovered along the Canadian shoreline some years later. Another good book regarding this storm is White Hurricane by author David G. Brown.

detroit news 1913 great lakes storm headline

Detroit News headline, Nov. 1913

The story of what exactly occurred with the eight lost vessels on Lake Huron will never be completely known since there was not one survivor from any of them.

Very interesting is that the wreck of the SS Wexford was actually discovered in the year 2000, 8.6 miles NNE of Grand Bend Ontario Canada. The ship was lying upright in 75 feet of water. Of the eight ships lost on Lake Huron to the November storm of 1913, the Wexford is the only ship sitting fully upright. It sits on the bottom of Lake Huron in a north/south orientation. The wreck is being explored today by divers although I have read of a few prosecutions made for removing artifacts from the wreck. At the relatively shallow depth that the SS Wexford lies, it affords a excellent experience for skilled divers.

The Great Storm of 1913 not only devastated Great Lakes shipping but rained havoc on Great Lake communities as shown on the photo on top of Cleveland Ohio which had a 22 inch snowfall. Power was out in vast areas of Michigan and Ontario. In regards to lake Erie shipping during the brutal storm, Buffalo New York on the east end of Lake Erie offered shelter and an end to Lake Erie’s constant, brutal wave action.

You will want to read two additional articles relating to Great Lakes shipping disasters. The sinking of the Carl D. Bradley in Lake Michigan and the G.P. Griffith tragedy on lake Erie.

Michigan is a vacation wonderland during the summer and there are several Great Lakes museums that offer a lot of information about the history of this shipping region. One is the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum located at Whitefish Point on the very southeastern part of Lake Superior on Michigan’s upper peninsula. Another is the  Steamship William G. Mather Maritime Museum in Cleveland Ohio. The museum is located just north of the Great Lakes Science Center at Dock 32. Detroit Michigan offers the Dossin Great Lakes Museum  located on at Belle Isle which is in the middle of the Detroit River.

(Photos are from the public domain)