By Horatio Loomis Wait,
Paymaster, U.S. Navy
At the commencement of the Rebellion the nominal naval force consisted of ninety vessels of all descriptions. Most of these were so old as to be unfit for any service. Only nine were efficient war ships of the best type then known, and but one of these were at a northern port available for immediate service--most of the other vessels in commission had been designedly sent to foreign stations. Nearly three hundred officers who were in sympathy with the secession movement left the service, and there were less than three hundred seaman at the northern stations ready for immediate detail, so that the loyal officers of the navy found themselves confronted with a stupendous task. The President promptly declared a blockade of the entire coast of the insurgent States, and it became necessary to improvise a navy immediately. Vessels of all kinds were purchased and constructed. Officers and men from the merchant service volunteered for service in the navy, and as fast as vessels could be armed and equipped they were sent to sea. This was done so rapidly that, in 1864, the number of vessels in commission was over six hundred, and there were over fifty thousand men afloat. The first duty performed by the navy was the establishment of the blockade by stationing armed ships before all of the southern ports, from Hampton Roads to Galveston, as fast as the vessels could be procured to perform this duty.
The scenes of the operations of the naval forces were so widely separated that it became necessary, for proper organization, to create separate fleets and squadrons, which were designated respectively as the Potomac Flotilla, North Atlantic Squadron, South Atlantic Squadron, East Gulf Squadron, West Gulf Squadron, Mississippi Flotilla, and the Cruising Fleets.Potomac Flotilla
The Potomac Flotilla was organized early in May, 1861, to keep open the approach by water to Washington, and to restrict the communication of the Confederates along the Potomac River. On May 19, 1861, one of the vessels exchanged a few shots with the Sewall's Point battery, on the Virginia shore. The first naval engagement of the war was the attack on the Confederate batteries at Aquia Creek, by Commander J. H. Ward, in the steamer Freeborn, and two other vessels, on May 31, 1861. On June 27, the little fleet attacked the batteries at Matthias Point. In this action Commander Ward and others were killed. Commander Craven succeeded him. The Confederates erected many batteries at favorable points along the river, but the Union flotilla was so active in destroying them that, in 1862, the Confederates abandoned the effort to maintain them. The work of the flotilla thereafter consisted mainly in keeping down the guerrilla warfare and the contraband trading. It also participated in all offensive operations I the other waterways of Virginia, and at all times co-operated with the army in its movements. It rendered a most important service in protecting transports and army supplies during the entire time. Commanders Wyman, Harwood and Parker were successively the commanders of the flotilla during the remaining years of the war.North Atlantic Squadron
The limits of this squadron were Cape Henry at Hampton Roads, on the north, thence south along the coast of Virginia and North Carolina. Numerous inlets exist along this coast line very favorable for the passage of vessels engaged in contraband trade. The principal port used by the blockade runners was Wilmington, N. C. the few vessels first assigned to duty in this squadron cruised along the coast until there were enough ships available to station one or more at each inlet. Flag-Officer Goldsborough was ordered to the command of this squadron on September 23, 1861. He was relieved by Rear-Admiral Lee, on September 5, 1862. Admiral Porter succeeded him in command October 12, 1864.
August 29, 1861, Commodore Stringham, with a fleet of naval vessels, captured the forts and harbor at Hatteras Inlet, N. C. In February, 1862, commodore Goldsborough, with his fleet, and an armed forced under General Burnside, captured Roanoke Island, after which active operations against the numerous rebel batteries in the sounds of North Carolina were carried on during the entire war by Commodore Rowan and others. May 9, 1862, several vessels attacked the Confederate batteries at Sewall's Point. March 8, the Confederate ram Merrimack attacked the fleet in Hampton Roads, destroyed the sloop of war, Cumberland and the frigate, Congress. The next day the Monitorcengaged the Merrimack and so disabled her that she retreated to the Elizabeth River, and was soon after blown up by her commander.
May, 1864, the Confederate ram, Albemarle, attacked the fleet in the sounds of North Carolina, but was driven back, the wooden steamer Sassacus ramming the ironclad during the fight. October 27, the Albemarle was blown up by Lieutenant Cushing in an open boat, carrying a spar torpedo. December 25, Fort Fisher, at Wilmington, was bombarded. January 15, 1865, Fort Fisher was captured by the largest fleet that ever sailed under the American flag, co-operating with the army, and the port of Wilmington, N. C., was completely closed against blockade runners.South Atlantic Squadron
The limits of this squadron were, Georgetown, N.C., on the north, to Cape Canaveral, on the Florida Coast. There were fifteen large inlets to be blockaded, besides numerous smaller passages used by the blockade runners. The principal ports to be guarded were Charleston and Savannah. After the fall of Fort Sumter a small fleet was stationed off Charleston, and all of the inlets were blockaded as fast as the vessels could be procured to perform this duty. The first large fleet collected for offensive naval operations was the expedition under Rear-Admiral S. F. Dupont, which sailed from Hampton Roads October, 1861, for Port Royal, South Carolina. The fleet was delayed by a violent storm. On November 7, after a brisk engagement, Fort Walker, Fort Beauregard, and the harbor of Port Royal were captured and held, the Confederate fleet having been dispersed.
A detachment from the fleet assisted in the capture of Fort Pulaski at Savannah River entrance, April 10, 1862, which prevented the further use of that entrance by blockade runners.
The most important port was Charleston, where, on January 11, 1863, the Confederate ram fleet attempted to raise the blockade. Two wooden blockaders were disabled, but the rams were driven back by the other vessels. On April 7 the fleet bombarded Fort Sumter. June 17, 1863 the Confederate ram, Atlanta, from Savannah, attempted to raise the blockade. She was disabled and captured by the iron-clad, Weehawken, after an action lasting just fifteen minutes.
July 6, 1863, Admiral John a. Dahlgren relieved Admiral Dupont in command of the Squadron. On the 10th, a combined army and navy attack commenced on the defenses of Charleston. August 17, the Confederate torpedo boat, David, attacked the New Ironsides but was repulsed. September 7, the confederates were driven out of Forts Wagner and Gregg, and all of Morris Island occupied. The siege of Fort Sumter by the Army and Navy was commenced. Two monitors, the Weehawken, and Patapsco, were lost. The steam sloop Housatonic was blown up by a submarine torpedo boat. December, 1864, the Army and Navy attacked the Confederate defenses upon Broad River, South Carolina, to create a diversion when Sherman's Army was approaching Savannah. Several attacks on Charleston were made by the Army and Navy, upon the Stono River. February 18, 1865, the fleet occupied the harbor of Charleston, while the Army took possession of the city.East Gulf Squadron
In May, 1861, vessels commenced to blockade Mobile, Galveston, and the passes of the Mississippi. Commodore Mervine was the first flag officer. He was succeeded by Commodores McKean, Gardner, Bailey and Stribling. The fleet was divided into the East and West Squadrons, in February, 1862, when Admiral Farragut assumed command of the West Gulf Squadron, extending from Pensacola to Galveston, the East Gulf Squadron extending from Cape Canaveral, on the east coast of Florida, to Pensacola, on the west coast. Its duties were chiefly blockading the numerous inlets.West Gulf Squadron
The West Gulf Squadron, under the command of Admiral Farragut, engaged and passed Forts Jackson and St. Phillip, on the Mississippi, April 24, 1862, destroyed the Confederate fleet, and occupied New Orleans on the next day. A portion of the fleet ascended the river, capturing Baton Rouge and Natchez. June 28, the fleet ran past the batteries at Vicksburg, and a few weeks later ran pas them again. On the return to the gulf, March 14, 1863, Farragut's fleet ran past the batteries at Port Hudson. July 7, Port Hudson surrendered. February 28, 1864, Fort Powell, in Mississippi Sound, was attacked by the fleet, to create a diversion. August 5, 1864, Farragut's fleet captured Fort Morgan, Fort Gaines, the Confederate ram Tennessee also the fleet of wooden vessels, and occupied Mobile Bay.Mississippi Flotilla
May, 1861, Commander John Rodgers commenced the formation of a flotilla on the Mississippi River, by purchasing the river steamers, Tyler, Lexington and Conestoga, which were hastily converted into gunboats. In the fall of the year J. B. Eads constructed seven gunboats for the river service, and the fleet was constantly increased by the purchase or construction of vessels for use on the river. On September 6 Commodore A. H. Foote relieved Rodgers in command of the flotilla. Soon after, brisk encounters took place between the fleet and the Confederate batteries on the Missouri shore.
November 7, the gunboats engaged the batteries at Belmont and Columbus, Kentucky. February 6, 1862, the fleet capture Fort Henry. February 16, participated in the capture of Fort Donelson. March 1, destroyed Confederate batteries at Pittsburg Landing. April 4, Carondelet ran the batteries at Island No. 10. April 6, Tyler and Lexington shelled Confederate Army at battle of Shiloh. April 7, fleet and army captured Island No. 10. May 10, defeated Confederate fleet at Fort Pillow. June 4, destroyed confederate river defense fleet at Memphis and captured the city. June 17, destroyed Confederate batteries at St. Charles. July 15, Confederate ram, Arkansas, engaged. August 5, ram Arkansas destroyed. November 21, Yazoo River expedition. January 10, 1863, engaged Vicksburg batteries. April 16, Porter's fleet ran past Vicksburg batteries. April 29, attacked Grand Gulf batteries. May 4, Red River expedition and capture of Alexandria. July 4, capture of Vicksburg. On the same day, Confederates repulsed at Helena, Arkansas. July 6, action at Milliken's Bend. The flotilla was kept actively engaged upon the Mississippi and its tributaries during the remaining years of the war in destroying the batteries constructed by the confederates, driving away the guerrilla bands, and protecting the vast fleet of transports needed in conducting the military operations in the Mississippi Valley.The Cruisers
The equipment of privateers by the Confederates was commenced soon after the beginning of the war, sailing vessels were used at first. June 18, 1861, the Confederate privateer, Sumter, a steamer commanded by Raphael Semmes, sailed from New Orleans. After destroying many merchant ships, she was abandoned at Gilbraltar. A new fast cruiser was built and fitted out in England, called the290 or Alabama. August 20, 1862, Semmes took command of her, and commenced the burning and sinking of American merchant vessels.
The Oreto or Florida, the Shenandoah, Rappahannock, and many other vessels engaged in the work of destruction. So many merchant vessels were destroyed by these active enemies that the vessels of the American merchant marine were entirely driven from the ocean as commercial carriers, because shippers would not risk cargoes in American ships. Many Federal vessels were sent in pursuit of the privateers cruising in every ocean. In the efforts to find them, this pursuit continued during nearly the entire period covered by the war. The Alabama was destroyed by the Kearsarge near Cherbourg. The Oreto was captured by the Wachusett and afterwards destroyed. Many other small privateers were captured by the naval vessels.
In addition to the vessels engaged in blockading the ports and inlets along the coast of the Confederacy, a large number of Federal vessels were constantly cruising off shore, as well as in the vicinity of Bermuda, Nassau, Havana, and other resorts of the blockade runners, for the purpose of preventing the contraband trade as much as was possible. The blockaders and cruisers captured over 1,500 blockade runners during the war, besides destroying many more, and causing the throwing overboard of many contraband cargoes in the efforts to escape made by the fugitive vessels.