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The American Civil War was the bloodiest conflict in the history of the United States. There were almost as many soldiers killed between 1861 and 1865 as were lost in all others from the Revolutionary War to Vietnam. At its end in May 1865, with the final surrender of the last remaining Confederate forces, approximately 620,000 soldiers on both sides were dead from wounds sustained on the battlefield or from the effects of disease. The Civil War still resonates today, though well more than a century has passed, as do the names of the great battles -- Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, Chickamauga, Gettysburg, Shiloh. The fighting raged from Pennsylvania to the New Mexico Territory, and nearly all of it occurred on land or on rivers, bays, and sounds.
But there was another little-known front, one that played itself out on the vast, empty reaches of the world's oceans. Although the Confederacy lacked the resources to field a mighty navy, its leaders understood that maritime commerce represented the lifeblood of the Union, and they quickly took steps to send a handful of men on the lonely, thankless mission to destroy as much of it as possible. Eight oceangoing Confederate commerce raiders, as well as a few of their prizes fitted out for cruising, scuttled, burned, captured, or bonded more than two hundred U.S. merchant vessels. They terrorized the maritime business community.
While few in number, Confederate commerce destroyers harpooned the U.S. Merchant Marine and spurred a decline already in progress to end in the nineteenth-century America's bid for supremacy on the high seas. It was not so much the destruction of shipping andcargoes that led to economic ruin, but the reaction of the merchants and insurance underwriters to the risk involved in maritime commerce while rebel gunboats stalked the shipping lanes of the world for Yankee victims. The rates for insuring vessels and cargoes soared. Merchants diverted business from American to foreign-flagged ships, and shipowners sold off their fleets to foreign companies. After the war, the United States calculated the financial damage to the overall economy at as much as $9 billion. No small surprise, then, that these raiders were called pirates in the North, and in coastal cities were among the most hated of the Confederates.
One of the most infamous of these pirates was a young man named Charles William Read, a second lieutenant in the Confederate Navy. Initially Read showed little promise of greatness, evidence of superior intelligence, or ability to lead, until he was given the opportunity to prove himself on the high seas when he took command of a Yankee vessel captured by the CSS Florida in 1863 and fitted out as a Confederate raider. Read then found himself locked in a battle of wits with the most senior man in the Navy Department, a wise old Connecticut Yankee serving his country as Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy. His name was Gideon Welles. Set against the backdrop of Robert E. Lee's advance toward Gettysburg in the early summer of 1863, these two unlikely adversaries squared off in a whirlwind of dramatic events that shocked the North and caused widespread panic in cities from New York to Portland, Maine. Overshadowed by the horror and bloodshed that occurred at Gettysburg between July 1 and July 3, the story of this young Confederate raider stands as an all-but-forgotten chapter of the Civil War on the high seas.
Copyright © 2004 by David W. Shaw
Chapter One: Daring Combat
Western Mississippi, Yazoo River,
2:00 A.M., July 15, 1862
Acrid smoke drifted lazily skyward from the tall funnel of the Confederate ironclad Arkansas, signifying the activity below in the fire room as the coal heavers set to their work with a will at the open doors of the furnaces beneath the boilers. The dull light of a lantern flickered in the pilothouse, but little of it was visible from outside. Only a swath of yellow penetrated the shadows from the port cut into the iron to give the commander and the two river pilots a view ahead without being exposed to enemy fire.
Arkansas was a cumbersome vessel, ugly to the seaman accustomed to the sharp lines of a full-rigged sailing ship. Her main deck hardly cleared the water's surface, and the oak-and-iron-reinforced walls protecting the guns resembled a boxlike fort. In the darkness on the water below the diminutive heights of Haynes Bluff, her form loomed above the landing -- indistinct, like a small island merged with the shore.
The spring rains had come and gone, and with the onset of summer the water level of the river began to drop. Drawing fourteen feet, Arkansas was deep for work on a tributary of the Mississippi River. On each bank of the Yazoo rose a dense forest choked with briars and vines, and blowdown was piled high from the endless cycle of passing thunderstorms and annual inundation that temporarily spread an inland sea across the Mississippi flood plain. Overhanging branches might easily snag the smokestack, or one of the many shoals might easily trap the ironclad, making her a prize of any patrols sent from the two Union fleets anchored several hours away just above Vicksburg beyond DeSoto Point on the Mississippi River.
The nearly two hundred men down below, deep inside the ironclad, prepared for the battle to come as the ship's deckhands cast off the lines and the pilots muttered commands to the helmsman, who turned the wheel as directed. Orders were relayed via a tin speaking tube to the engineers on duty at the ship's two low-pressure steam engines. The 165-foot warship maneuvered away from the shore into midchannel, and started slowly downriver keeping just enough way on to maintain steerage in the current. Men moved about on the gundeck filling the tubs between the guns with fresh water for the sponges needed to swab the barrels after each shot, lest a lingering spark prematurely explode the next charge rammed home.
Other crewmen poured sand around the guns to soak up blood and help prevent the gunners and powder boys from slipping. They piled bandages and tourniquets at various locations while the surgeons below on the berth deck readied the surgery. The instruments -- scalpels, forceps, and saws -- shone brightly in the dim light. Down below, the churn of the ship's twin propellers was a dull roar.
In the aft section of the gundeck, Second Lieutenant Charles W. Read supervised the loading of the two six-inch stern rifles capable of firing exploding shells deadly to any wooden ship they might hit. The two gun crews under his command rammed home cartridge bags filled with powder, and followed them with wads and shells. When this was done, the gun captains plunged sharp metal picks down the vent holes at the breeches of the cannons to break open the powder bags. Primers and lanyards were made ready, and the guns were run out. The still air smelled of the river, dank and primal, of mud and ooze, and the heavy odor of the closely packed men, their sweat in the humid night darkening their uniforms and dampening their brows.
Standing near one of his guns, Read satisfied himself that his battery was ready for action, then leaned on the cannon and gazed out the gunport. He well understood what would come with the dawn -- the thrill and rush of war, the cries of the wounded, and the possibility that he might not live to see another day. He was already battle-hardened from bloody engagements on the upper and lower Mississippi River, and had learned under fire what he failed to at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. By all accounts of those who knew him, he was unafraid to fight. Rather than fearing war, he liked the excitement.
Read was a short man of slight build with a sharp, angular face adorned with a slender brown mustache and a goatee. A native of Satartia, Mississippi, a small town about twenty miles downriver from Yazoo City, he was soft-spoken and often taciturn, even when on liberty in the company of his fellow lieutenants, though he was fiercely loyal to his few friends. Like so many officers in the Confederate Navy, he resigned his commission in the Union Navy during the spring of 1861. His brief stint in the U.S. Navy, most of which he spent as a midshipman aboard the steam cruiser Powhatan, stationed in the Gulf of Mexico, provided him with few opportunities to better himself as an officer or to acquire important skills and knowledge of naval warfare.
Read's lackluster record at the Naval Academy in Annapolis likewise revealed nothing to indicate bright prospects as an officer in charge of ships and men in peacetime or in combat. He had taken his final examinations at Annapolis in June 1860, graduating at the age of twenty, and finishing last in his class of twenty-five cadets. During his liberal arts and military studies at the academy he racked up a prodigious number of demerits for fighting, profanity, failure to pass room inspection, and other infractions. His lack of discipline and his single-minded self-assurance came close to ending his naval career before it began. A classmate of his, Roswell H. Lamson, a lieutenant serving in the Union Navy, wrote that Read "was not considered very brilliant, but was one of those wiry, energetic fellows who would attempt anything but study."
Read's worst subject was French. No matter how hard he tried, he failed to master the language. The only word he could pronounce correctly was savez, a form of the verb "to know." He evidently took to saying it so often his classmates nicknamed him Savez. In fact, his close friends called him Savez throughout his life.
While Read may not have been a prime candidate as a French interpreter, he showed somewhat more promise in gunnery. He finished fourth from the bottom of his class in the theory of naval gunnery, a complex course of study involving voluminous charts, tables, and calculations required to figure accurate range, trajectory, and bearing for a target, the influence of windage, and, of course, a comprehensive overview of the various types of guns and projectiles found on typical warships of the day. However, when it came to actually firing cannons he exhibited a natural flair for the job. Big guns he could understand, and his instructors noticed and encouraged his affinity for them.
Of all the men aboard, Read was the only one with firsthand knowledge of what lay ahead of Arkansas. Several days past, under orders from his commander, Read had ridden hard across fifty miles of rugged terrain through the night to reach the stronghold of Vicksburg. Once there, he presented himself to Major General Earl Van Dorn. Read passed on his captain's concerns about the general's insistence that Arkansas should leave her easily defended position on the Yazoo to carry out the risky mission of attacking two Union fleets, then steam down the Mississippi and make for Mobile, destroying enemy gunboats along the way. Van Dorn listened to Read, but he did not change his mind. Arkansas would attack without delay and sink the enemy vessels gathered above Vicksburg or be blown up in the process. Infantry and cavalry charges against impossible odds were common in the land war, and thus far the Confederates had proven victorious in most such engagements. Van Dorn saw no reason not to apply similar tactics when it came to the ironclad.
In the company of another officer, Read rode up the east bank of the Mississippi above Vicksburg until he came within sight of the Union fleets. The undergrowth of the forest became so thick that he could ride no further. He crept to the river's edge on foot, and with a field glass surveyed the armada he and his shipmates aboard Arkansas would soon confront. The seagoing vessels of Admiral David G. Farragut were anchored in a line along Read's side of the river.
Read had fought Farragut's fleet during the battle of New Orleans the previous April, and he nursed a special grudge against one of the vessels, Gunboat Number Six. It was this ship that had fired a broadside into the CSS McRea, on which he had served as the executive officer. It was this ship that had killed his commander, Lieutenant Thomas B. Huger, a fair and brave man to whom he was devoted. Read later wrote that Huger was "an agreeable gentleman," adding that he was the sort of leader he wanted to serve under. Read watched patiently for a time, trying to see the telltale signs of smoke rising from the stacks of the wooden sloops of war.
Convinced that Farragut's ships did not have steam up, Read turned his attention to the ironclads and rams of Admiral Charles H. Davis anchored across the river from Farragut's fleet. Plumes of gray-and-black smoke rose from the stacks of most of Davis's ships. The smoke meant these ships had steam up and could get underway as soon as Arkansas hove into view. Of the two fleets, the ironclads and rams ranked as the most dangerous. They had fought their way down the Mississippi to destroy Confederate fortifications and capture cities, squeezing the Confederates from the north while Farragut did the same from the South in the Union's concerted effort to control all of the Mississippi and effectively cut the Confederacy in two. Vicksburg represented the last major Confederate fortress, a city with gun emplacements mounted on the heights above the river, and a series of defenses to protect its landward flanks. Read counted more than thirty large warships and support craft. Some of the mortar boats that had shelled forts Jackson and St. Philip, guarding the lower Mississippi before the fall of New Orleans, were also in the area. Arkansas's mission appeared doomed from the start.
The hours passed in tense silence for the dozens of men crowded into the small confines of Arkansas's gundeck, and for the others lined up below ready to pass cartridge bags, shot, and shells from the magazines along the passageways to the upper deck. The pilots worked the ship skillfully downriver, negotiating each twist and turn with care to stay in midchannel and avoid the shallows that made out from the points on the inside of bends. The first faint tinges of daylight cast the open gunports in dark blue. Soon, the men could make out the features along the shoreline as the sun rose and the warship approached the lower Yazoo.
"Daylight found us seven or eight miles above the mouth of the river," Read later wrote in his Reminiscences of the Confederate States Navy. "The morning was warm and perfectly calm; the dense volume of black smoke which issued from our funnel, rose high above the trees, and we knew that the enemy would soon be on the lookout for us. Pretty soon we discovered smoke above the trees below, winding along the course of the crooked Yazoo."
Three Union warships steamed fast upriver on a reconnaissance mission. The USS Carondelet, an ironclad mounting thirteen guns, was the most powerful. Tyler, a side-wheeler with eight guns, and the ram Queen of the West supported her. The rebel vessel came into view. The lookouts noted that she looked chocolate, rather than black, due to the patina of rust on her iron plating. The armor reinforcing her timber casemate was nothing more than railroad iron hastily fitted in place, along with boiler plate. She looked like a great brown monster pushing up a bow wave of murky river water.
The distance between the opposing vessels closed. Tyler, the leading ship, fired her bow guns. Carondelet followed. The deafening impacts of the shells smashing against Arkansas's forward casemate shook the ship and sent shards of iron from her shield whizzing aft. More shot and shells hit, and the iron began to warp and bend. When her guns came to bear, Arkansas returned fire. A shell ripped through Tyler and exploded in the engine room, spraying the compartment in blood and gore from the dead and wounded. The Union ships turned back toward the Mississippi. They chose a running fight that would bring the rebel ironclad between the massed guns of the two Union fleets, where it was supposed she would be quickly destroyed.
The roar of cannons, the shriek of shells, and the tremendous explosions from each direct hit rumbled through the countryside. The noise of the cannonading could be heard more than ten miles away. Smoke drifted across the water, and created an unnatural fog that seemed to hang in the still air and spread slowly to each bank of the Yazoo. Both Union and Confederate crews took casualties, the men of Carondelet receiving the worst of it with approximately thirty killed, wounded, or missing at the close of the engagement. Queen of the West, after ineffectual attempts to ram Arkansas, steamed away with all speed, though damaged from several well-aimed projectiles.
Read described in vivid detail the destruction of Carondelet:
We had decreased our distance from the iron-clad rapidly, and were only a hundred yards astern, our shot still raking him, when he ceased firing and sheered into the bank; our engines were stopped, and ranging up alongside, with the muzzles of our guns touching him, we poured in a broadside of solid shot, when his colors came down....on we pushed, driving the two fleeing boats ahead of us, our speed decreasing all the time, owing to shot holes in the smoke stack; but in a few minutes the "Arkansas" glided out into the broad Mississippi, right into the midst of the hostile fleet.
In addition to casualties among the crew, Arkansas had sustained serious damage. Holes riddled the smokestack, reducing the flow of air available to efficiently fire the boilers. The connection between the funnel and the furnaces had been shot to pieces, and flames from the furnaces heated the gundeck. The temperature inside the ship rose to above 120 degrees, steam pressure decreased, and the ironclad's propellers turned more slowly every minute.
As Arkansas emerged from the Yazoo, the engines could hardly keep her moving fast enough to maintain steerage in the swift river current. Her captain, who had been wounded, nevertheless kept to his post. He ordered her turned downriver toward the safety of Vicksburg. In the brief interlude before the next battle, he observed the "forest of masts and smokestacks" and the "panoramic effect...intensified by the city of men spread out with innumerable tents opposite on the right bank." The Union fleets were not ready to get underway and the men aboard the ships rushed to bring their guns to bear. One of the first to slip her cable and close in was Gunboat Number Six.
Manning his station at the bow guns, Lieutenant George W. Gift recognized the ship. "The first vessel which stood out to engage us was 'No. 6', against which we had a particular grudge, inspired by Read, who desired us all to handle roughly any sea-going vessel we should see with 'No. 6' on her smoke-stack....I sent my powder boy to Read with a message to come forward, as his friend was in sight."
Although it was risky for a gunnery officer to encourage a peer to leave his post at the start of what promised to be a fierce and bloody naval engagement, Gift indeed sent for Read. Read evidently did not think there was anything wrong in temporarily abandoning his station and went forward to see his "friend." Like two boys in a schoolyard, the lieutenants watched Gunboat Number Six draw near through the gunport. All of Arkansas's officers, except the captain, were inexperienced young men. Though they had passed muster at Annapolis, they were not rooted in the discipline and training of traditional navy standards.
"[Read] came leisurely and carelessly, swinging a primer lanyard, and I think I have never looked at a person displaying such remarkable coolness and self-possession," Gift wrote years later in an article published in the Southern Historical Society Papers. "On observing the numbers ahead his eye was as bright and his smile as genuine as if he had been about to join a company of friends instead of enemies."
Read returned to his post at the stern, ever hopeful that Gunboat Number Six would stray into range of his guns. The record does not indicate if Read got his chance for revenge. However, Gift reported:
We were now getting close aboard "No. 6", and he sheered with his port helm and unmuzzled his eleven-inch pivot gun charged with grape. It was hastily pointed, and the charge fell too low to enter our ports, for which it was intended. This broke the terrible quiet which hung over us like a spell. Every man's nerves were strung up again, and we were ready for the second battle. With a sharp touch of the starboard helm Brady [Arkansas's Mississippi River pilot] showed me "No 6" straight ahead, and I gave him a shell through and through, and as we passed he got the port broadside. He did not follow us up. These two shots opened the engagement.
Arkansas steamed slowly between the two lines of ships, running a gauntlet of heavy fire that her captain compared to a "volcano." The pounding of shot and shell was continuous, as was the return fire from the crews at the rebel ironclad's ten guns. Smoke obscured the surface of the river and the vessels as well. It hung in a thickening cloud, and blinded the gunners on both sides. They found their targets by the flashes of cannons. The noise deafened them. Inside Arkansas, the men panted for breath in the furnace that was their ship, and coughed and gagged from the smoke of the guns. On she steamed, dodging and disabling rams, ripping apart Farragut's wooden ships, and hotly engaging Davis's ironclads.
The Union fleets closed in, surrounding Arkansas. Bits of her armor blew off the casemate and allowed projectiles to breach the ship's shield in the bow section. One shell alone killed sixteen men and wounded many more. Gift described the inside of the casemate as a slaughterhouse. "A great heap of mangled and ghastly slain lay on the gundeck, with rivulets of blood running away from them. There was a poor fellow torn asunder, another mashed flat...brains, hair and blood were all about." Read, who was far less descriptive in his recollections, simply said the shells and shot had done "fearful execution amongst our men."
Arkansas's port side weakened. The fasteners holding the iron in place ripped away under the continuous pounding of the Union guns. As the entire ship shuddered, inching her way downriver, the shield of armor threatened to fall to pieces and expose the crew to the full fury of the cannonade. The pilot strained to see ahead. DeSoto Point hove into view. Riding the current, the steam pressure in her boilers almost gone, the ship drew under the protective guns of Vicksburg to the cheers of thousands of jubilant residents gathered on the heights above the river.
The Union fleets attempted to destroy Arkansas later that same night and for some days afterward, but with no success. Davis and Farragut abandoned Vicksburg, earning them reproach from Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. On August 10, 1862, Welles received word that Arkansas's crew had run her aground and blown her up to keep the ship from falling into Union hands. She had been pinned down on August 6 during a Confederate counteroffensive to retake Baton Rouge, an effort that failed in large part because of the presence of U.S. gunboats firing in support of the hard-pressed army forces fighting at the river's edge. Welles knew that the failure to capture Vicksburg meant the war would be prolonged, and he blamed the army for it. While Arkansas's role in the battle represented more an irritating embarrassment than a decisive factor contributing to the Union's withdrawal, he looked on it as a black mark against both flag officers, and indirectly, on his own reputation as well.
Vicksburg should have been taken by the first of June, but no adequate cooperating military force was furnished, and as a consequence our largest squadron in the Gulf and our flotilla in the Mississippi have been detained and injured. The most disreputable naval affair of the War was the descent of the steam ram Arkansas through both squadrons till she hauled in under the batteries of Vicksburg, and there the two flag officers abandoned the place and the ironclad ram, Farragut and his force going down to New Orleans, and Davis proceeding with his flotilla up the river. I have written them both, briefly but expressively, on the subject of the ram Arkansas....
There were other disreputable naval affairs just over the horizon. On the evening of September 3, 1862, the Confederate commerce destroyer Florida reached the waters off Mobile, Alabama, and the next day ran through the flotilla of Union warships blockading the port. She had only a skeleton crew -- men stricken with yellow fever while fitting the raider out with gun batteries transported to Bahamian waters aboard a British-flagged vessel operating on behalf of the Confederacy. When she was safely anchored in the bay, though badly damaged during the transit, her captain, John Newland Maffitt, began organizing men to make repairs.
Maffitt also started his search for young officers to assist him in his future mission. He wanted brave, capable men, sailors whom he could rely on to follow orders and do their duty while facing the uncertainties of a ship that must live on the spoils of her victims, a ship that would be hunted and pursued wherever she went. In his quest for such men, the name of a young Mississippian came to his attention. That man was Charles W. Read, and Maffitt put his influence to work to have him transferred to his command. The decision had far-reaching consequences that Maffitt never could have foreseen, and that Welles would find far more threatening than simply an irritating embarrassment.
Copyright © 2004 by David W. Shaw