On Tuesday evening I had the real privilege of speaking again at the Houston Maritime Museum. The museum is a small place, tucked away in the shadow of the Texas Medical Center — though actively working toward moving into new digs on the Ship Channel — but what they lack in size now they more than make up for in energy, spirit and dedication. They have one of the best model collections in the region, ranging from the earliest oared craft to modern offshore work vessels and container ships. It’s a real gem.
The museum generously included me on their 2015 lecture schedule, to speak on the subject of blockade running in Texas. The timing was about perfect, as February 1865 was one of the most eventful periods in that entire story. Lots of folks came out, and I got to meet some interesting people before and after the presentation. I even got to sign some books at the end. It was a long evening, but a memorable one.
My friend Mark Lardas was there, as well. Mark is an active supporter of the museum and an avid modeler, although I don’t know how he finds the time for those activities. Mark made one correction to my presentation, which was both appreciated and needed. In discussing an incident during the war in which both sides expended a lot of powder and shot to no observable effect, I said that in this corner of the conflict, both Union and Confederate gunnery was “uniformly lousy.” Mark pointed out that there was one important exception to that rule, that was Dick Dowling’s battery at Sabine Pass in September 1863. They were very effective artillerists indeed. How could I forget that example? Do’oh!
Anyway, my talk is in the video above. Have a good evening, y’all!
My colleague Bobby Hughes from Savannah flags a new CNN video on the recovery of the remains of C.S.S. Georgia, part of a channel-improvement project being done by the Corps of Engineers. Pretty cool stuff, in my book.
I like this image from the video (above), especially. It’s a section of makeshift armor assembled from interleaved railroad iron. Several Union and Confederate ironclads were fitted with similar armor, including U.S.S. Cairo and C.S.S. Arkansas, both at Vicksburg. Is that cool, or what?
I’m off this evening to speak on blockade runners at the Houston Maritime Museum. Y’all be safe.
One item from the Merseyside Maritime Museum exhibition, Ships built in Liverpool for the American Civil War:
This cross-section is very similar to an earlier Laird-built paddle steamer, Denbigh. Around the outer edge of the hull are notations of plate thicknesses, and the column at right tallies up weights. The spacing of the frames at 21 inches is a bit more than the standard 18 inches, suggesting a willingness to trade structural strength for a saving of weight. We read recently about Wren‘s eventful arrival here in early February 1865; Lark‘s story will be told in due time.
The drawing above, rendered in three dimensions, would be something like this:
The Supreme Court announced this week that oral arguments in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., the SCV license plate case, will be heard on Monday, March 23.
The Supremes don’t allow cameras in the court room, but I believe they do release audio of the arguments soon after each hearing. For reasons I’ve discussed earlier, I don’t think this case is even a close call.
Added, February 7: Audio recordings are posted online on Fridays after arguments, so presumably on March 27.
A large “Second National” Confederate flag believed to have been flown at Galveston by Major Charles R. Benton, chief ordinance officer for the garrison there. Original image corrected for perspective by the author. Texas State Library and Archives Commission.
On the night of February 3, 1865, the blockade runner Will o’ the Wisp went aground and was wrecked on the beach, several miles south of Galveston.
Two days after that, on the evening of February 5, the ill-starred Acadia piled onto the sand just beyond San Luis Pass, some thirty miles south of town.
And one hundred fifty years ago this evening, February 6, the runner Wren ran aground while trying to enter Galveston by means of the Southwest Pass, a narrow swash channel that ran around the eastern end of the island. It was a very close call. The stranded steamer was sighted at dawn on February 7, and the blockaders moved in as close as they dared to shell her. According to one report, over the course of the morning the Federals fired 102 shells at Wren, three of which struck and passed clean through the ship without doing significant damage. Colonel Cook, commander of the First Texas Heavy Artillery that manned the batteries along the shore, visited the stranded steamer, as did Brigadier General Hawes, the Confederate commander in the island. A former Confederate military officer, J. D. Patton, went on board to serve as a backup engineer, and other volunteers from shore came out to the ship to provide assistance. The steamer’s captain, William Raisbeck, kept steam up all morning to be ready to move the moment she floated. That moment came a little after one in the afternoon, and Wren got under way again. Raisbeck did not know the coast, relied heavily on one of his passengers from Havana to serve as a pilot and to make soundings. The passenger was Commodore Leon Smith, the officer who organized and commanded the naval attack on the Federal fleet at the Battle of Galveston, more than two years previously.
Wren made it safely into the harbor, much to the consternation of the blockaders who felt certain they would be able to destroy another runner. Nonetheless, the editor of the Galveston Weekly News was certain these three incidents, so close together, were no accident:
There is hardly any room to doubt that the three steamers were wrecked on our coast by Yankees in disguise…. We should never forget that treachery, falsehood and deception are the peculiar characteristics of Yankees, and we believe we have more to fear from these traits than from all their power in open and honorable war…. The coast of Texas is the safest of any on the whole seaboard of this continent. The water shoals so gradually and so uniformly that, with the lead line in the hands of any but a Yankee, no blockade runner could be beached in the thickest fog, unless intentionally. We have no doubt that the loss of the Wisp, the Wren and the Arcadia [sic] is due to Yankee treachery.
There’s no evidence that anything other than foul weather, heavy fog and (in the case of Acadia) ineptitude caused these wrecks. Still, you can see why people were inclined to believe otherwise.
Having let Wren slip from their grasp, though, some Union officers were determined to destroy her anyway. That same day, February 7, they organized a boat expedition consisting of cutters from U.S.S. Bienville and U.S.S. Princess Royal, consisting of twenty seamen and three officers, under the command of Acting Ensign George H. French. Their order were to attempt to capture a pair of cotton-laden schooners, lying at anchor under the guns of the battery at Fort Point, and to destroy Wren. For this latter task, the expedition was provided with five gallons of turpentine and a bundle of oakum for kindling. French was also given six 32-pounder shells, to be placed in the boiler and around the engines “before you leave,” in the expectation that they would cook off and wreck the ship’s machinery when the fire reached them.
The expedition set out from Bienville at about 8:20 p.m., well after dark this time of year, but encountered a strong current pushing from west to east (i.e., out toward the open Gulf of Mexico). Although his primary objective was to destroy Wren, anchored farther up in the harbor, French decided he could not get past the anchored schooners without being spotted, so he attacked them first. Both were taken without incident, and French assigned a prize crew to each to take them out to the fleet. French continued trying to get up into the harbor, but found the current too strong. With the approach of daylight and his men exhausted from a night pulling at the oars, French allowed the cutters to drift out with the current. French arrived back alongside Bienville at about 6:10 a.m., almost ten hours after setting out.
While they had missed their first objective, the two captured schooners proved to be a nice plum. They were the schooners Pet, with 256 bales of cotton on board, and Annie Sophia, loaded with 220 bales. The Navy bluejackets also captured 20 prisoners on the two schooners. Pet was owned by Thomas W. House, who had lost most of entire steamer’s worth of inbound cargo on Will o’ the Wisp. (He was having a very bad week.) When auctioned at New Orleans in June, Pet brought in just under $20,000 total, which ultimately netted nearly $8,000 to be shared between Bienville and Princess Royal.
This was actually the second time the schooner Annie Sophia had been captured; she had been taken two years before by U.S.S. R. R. Cuyler, condemned by a prize court, sold, and put back into running the blockade. On this occasion, she was condemned by the prize court at New Orleans and sold for $29,145.69. After paying court expenses and turning half of the remainder over to the government, the crews of Bienville and Princess Royal split prize money from Annie Sophia and her cargo to the amount of $12,450.
The stretch of beach where Acadia went aground on the evening of February 5, 1865.
Forty-eight hours after Will o’ the Wisp went aground on February 3, a few miles below Galveston, another runner was wrecked 25 miles or so farther down the coast, just west of San Luis Pass. Although the fates of Wisp and Acadia were similar, the circumstances of the latter’s destruction were somewhat different.
At the same time soldiers and civilians were picking over the wreck of Will o’ the Wisp, the runner Acadia ended her brief life on the Gulf beach about forty miles south of Galveston. Acadia had been launched at Sorel (now Sorel-Tracy), Quebec, on the St. Lawrence River in May 1864. She was a large side-wheel steamer, 211 feet long and registered at 738 tons. There was little infrastructure for the construction of iron-hulled vessels in Canada at the time, so Acadia was built of timber. Acadia was registered at Montreal on the last day of October 1864 by Jacques Felix Lincennes of Sorel and William McNaughton of Montreal, but her true ownership remains unclear. Acadia’s owners evidently intended to run her through the blockade or otherwise dispose of the ship to make a quick profit because they took the step of noting on her registry papers that her master, Thomas Leach, was empowered to sell the ship with “no minimum price named, at any place out of the province of Canada.”
Acadia sailed from Halifax for Nassau on December 6, 1864. Among her passengers was a group of men who the local U.S. consul reported were part of a “piratical gang” of Confederates traveling to Vera Cruz, Mexico, from there to go overland to California with the intent of seizing a U.S. Mail steamer on the Pacific coast. Acadia made a brief stop at Nassau, where she took on cargo for Texas, and then another at Havana, loading more inbound cargo. After a stop at Vera Cruz to land the Confederates bound for California, Acadia sailed again, this time setting a northerly course for the Texas coast.
Acadia ran hard aground in the surf between San Luis Pass and the mouth of the Brazos River around dusk on February 5, 1865, in the same heavy fog conditions that led to the loss of Wisp. Captain Leach — who by some accounts was trying to enter the mouth of the Brazos River at Velasco (an ill-conceived plan if true, given the large size of the steamer) — later claimed that he had intended to reach the coast much farther north, about fifteen miles south of Galveston, but had been pushed off course by a strong current. In fact, Acadia’s failed attempt to run the blockade seems in retrospect to have been almost doomed by incompetence. The ship’s sailing master, frustrated at his inability to get his bearings in the fog, had reportedly given up charge of piloting the vessel before the ship struck bottom, and the steamer’s magnetic compass had allegedly never been properly secured or adjusted, “no regard being had for quantity of iron and iron nails closely connected with the needle, in fact, not a binnacle in the ship, the compasses not even fixed on deck when leaving Havana.” The destruction of the ship was made complete the following morning, when she was discovered and shelled by the blockader USS Virginia.
Much of Acadia’s cargo was salvaged by the Confederates and sold at auction in Houston later in February, bringing in over $28,000. The lots, as reported by the Galveston Weekly News, included flannel cloth, Nova Scotia wool, linen and silk handkerchiefs, lead pencils, letter paper and envelopes, percussion caps, hand tools, preserved fruit, black tea, claret, playing cards, gold lace, French quinine, calomel. Also included was a quantity of “blue mass,” a mercury-based medicinal used to treat everything from constipation and syphilis to tuberculosis and birthing pain. The editor of the Weekly News was fairly disgusted at the premium paid for luxury items, even as the Confederacy was entering its death throes: “The few dozen preserved fruits…brought from four to five hundred per cent on first cost, while the necessary articles of iron brought but 10¢, but a trifle over actual cost, showing a proneness to indulge our appetites in preference to supplying the actual wants of the country.”
William Watson, an experienced blockade-running captain who made a last wartime visit to Galveston about this time as pilot of the steamer Pelican, observed that in these last, frenetic weeks of the war “the general scramble [at Galveston] seemed to have become more desperate, and blockade running was now carried on to a reckless degree.” This included ships and crews that had no business trying to run the blockade. Acadia and Captain Leach were among these, so grossly ill-prepared that it’s remarkable they didn’t get themselves killed in the process.
The wreck of Acadia was visible from the beach for more than a century; the last bit of it reportedly blew down in Hurricane Alicia in 1983. In the last 1960s and early 1970s, the wreck was salvaged by a Houston dentist, Wendell Pierce, who collected hundreds of artifacts, mostly from remnants of the ship’s cargo that were missed in 1865. The artifacts he collected are now in the Brazoria County Museum in Angleton, south of Houston.
One hundred fifty years ago this evening, one of the better-known blockade runners of the war, Will o’ the Wisp, met her end in the surf off a Galveston beach. From the book:
At Vera Cruz, [Captain Abner M.] Godfrey turned over command of Wisp to one of his officers, a man named Stockton, who sailed again on January 30 for Galveston. On Friday evening, February 3, while running northeastward in a fog along the Galveston Island shore toward the Southwest Channel, Will o’ the Wisp was spotted by one of the blockaders, which opened fire on the side-wheeler. That shot missed, and Wisp disappeared into the fog once again. But in evading the blockader, Wisp ran aground several miles south of the city. The ship stuck fast, and the crew clambered down into the surf. They were met on the beach by Confederate sentries, who initially suspected them of being a Federal landing party. The crew eventually made it to the home of a man named Middlegger, who gave them something to eat and let them bed down for the night.
Over the next several days, the stranded ship was swarmed by Confederate soldiers and civilians, as well as the party formally assigned to salvage the cargo. The ship, according to a Union officer who later went on board, was “so near the beach as to require but a plank, which was there, for the rebels to board her.” Most of the cargo was stolen by soldiers or civilians, either for their own use or in hopes of being able to sell to others. After the fog lifted on February 6, two Union warships discovered the stranded steamer and shelled her for about two hours, but by then the vessel had been picked clean. In the predawn darkness of February 10, a week after Wisp went aground, boarding parties from USS Princess Royal and USS Antona went aboard to destroy what was left, but they needn’t have bothered. “The vessel was completely riddled in her hull from our fire on a previous occasion,” the commander of Princess Royal wrote in his report. “Her hold was full of sand and water; her after section awash, and the deck scuttled fore and aft, for the purpose, apparently, of getting out her cargo. The engine had been taken to pieces, and the vessel was a complete wreck. The wheelhouses were the only part which could be burned…Everything [else] was destroyed excepting what was under water and beyond reach.” The small part of the cargo that was successfully salvaged—estimated later to be about one-tenth of the total—was consigned to Thomas W. House, who included it (“slightly damaged”) in a big auction of “blockade importations” on February 28 in Houston. Lots recovered from Wisp included plate tin, Brazilian coffee, “gents’ half hose” and sixty reams of paper.
Image: Amy Borgens (r.) and I, diving on the wreck later identified as Will o’ the Wisp, July 2009. Image courtesy Texas Historical Commission.
On Saturday I had the privilege of speaking at the opening of the revamped Texas Navy exhibit at the Texas Seaport Museum in Galveston. We had decent (though cloudy) weather for the event, with a good turnout of folks. The highlight of the event, naturally, was a salute fired by the Texas Navy reenactors (yes, there are such!) from Brazoria County, who brought up three small field pieces. The smallest of these, oddly, was by far the loudest. (The guns, I mean, not the reenactors.) The gun crews are mostly composed of Scouts, so it’s good to see young people get involved in history in a hands-on way. I understand the carriage of the largest piece, with red wheels, was built by the kids themselves. Good job, y’all!
And finally, exhibit Guest Curator Jim Bevill (pointing), author of The Paper Republic, guides visitors through the display. The gun in the foreground is an 18-pounder pivot gun believed to have used aboard the Texas Schooner Brutus in 1836-37:
Note: This post first appeared in February 2013. I’m reprising it now on the 150 anniversary of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.
U.S. Representative Joe Coutrtney (D-Connecticut) is very unhappy that Spielberg’s film depicts one of his state’s House delegation as voting against the 13th Amendment. All four House members from that state voted in favor of the measure, so he’s right on the facts. But his argument is silly:
We need to get beyond visions of the past based on what seems obvious or logical or rational in hindsight, and take time to look at what people actually did and and said at the time, which often turns out to be irrational, illogical, self-defeating, and completely out of touch with modern values. In fact, almost five dozen members of the House of Representatives, every one from a Union state, voted “on the wrong side of history” that day. Connecticut was hardly a hotbed of abolitionist sentiment, either; it had hung on to the institution until 1848, and there was great apprehension there about the impact universal emancipation would have on white labor in the state’s cotton mills. These are aspects of Connecticut’s history in the 19th century that Rep. Courtney may not know, but they were very real parts of the political landscape in 1865.
Courtney would have done better to tell the story of Rep. James E. English (right, 1812-90), the lame-duck Democrat who had voted against the measure when it first came up the previous year, but went to rather extraordinary lengths to help pass it when it came up for a vote again in January 1865:In 1863 President Lincoln, by virtue of his authority as Commander-in-Chief, issued his Emancipation Proclamation. This was a military measure, and the general question of slavery had still to be met by legislative action. Mr. English had voted for the bill abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia, and he had told the President and others that he would vote for a constitutional amendment which should forever put an end to slavery in the United States. The bill was introduced in the House of Representatives in May, 1864, by Mr. Ashley, of Ohio ; but even the Republicans were not yet united on the measure, and it was defeated — Mr. English, by the advice of Mr. Ashley himself, voting against it. But in February, 1865 [sic.], the Amendment was again proposed. The Thirty-eighth Congress was shortly to expire, and, although the next House would be strongly Republican, President Lincoln was deeply anxious to have the measure passed during this session. Mr. English had been recalled to New Haven by the serious illness of his wife, and he was in attendance upon her sick-bed when word was sent him from Washington that the Thirteenth Amendment was to come up on the following day. He set out at once for Washington, arriving in time to hear the final speeches of the debate, and to vote with the ten Democrats who helped to carry the bill by the required two-thirds vote. “Well, English,” Mr. S. S. Cox, of New York, said to him when they met, “I am afraid that I cannot vote for the Amendment.” “Ah,” said Mr. English. “Well, I intend to vote for it.” When the count was called and his emphatic ” Yes ” rang forth, applause sounded throughout the House. The announcement that the Amendment had been passed by a vote of 119 to 56 was received by the members on the floor and the visitors in the galleries with an outburst of enthusiasm rarely witnessed in the Capitol. Republicans sprang from their seats, and, regardless of parliamentary rules or the Speaker’s efforts to enforce silence, cheered and applauded. The men in the galleries joined in the uproar, while ladies clapped their hands, waved their handkerchiefs, and uttered exclamations of delight and enthusiasm. Mr. English remarked to a New Haven friend, while talking over this experience, ” I suppose I am politically ruined, but that day was the happiest of my life.”
That’s one helluva story, right there. And English was not politically ruined; he went on to serve two terms as the Governor of Connecticut, and served briefly in the U.S. Senate as an interim appointment in 1875-76.
As many folks have pointed out, much of the criticism of Spielberg’s film from historians has amounted to the latter whinging that he and Tony Kushner didn’t make the movie they themselves would have made. Fine, whatever. Rep. Courtney’s criticism is much more valid, even if it’s motivated as much by home-state boosterism as it is by an interest in historical accuracy. Spielberg and Kushner could have — should have — avoided this business altogether by simply depicting the “nay” votes in the House as they really were, explicitly by name, without worrying about what their great-great-great-grandkids might think.