Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“The blockade at last.”

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on July 17, 2011

On July 2, 1861, the U.S. Steamer South Carolina appeared off the bar at Galveston, the first Federal warship to be positioned on the Texas coast since the state declared its secession several months before. South Carolina‘s commander, Captain James Alden, Jr. (right, 1810-77), later summarized the event in three brief sentences in a dispatch to the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles (ORN 16 576):

I have the honor to report that I arrived here on the 2d instant, and immediately hoisted a signal for a pilot for the purpose of communicating with the shore. In a short time a pilot boat came off, bearing a flag of truce and a document, a copy of which is herewith sent. In reply to it I enclosed a copy of your declaration of blockade, with a single remark that I was sent here to enforce it, which I should do to the best of my ability.

Fortunately we have a fuller picture of the events of that day. The war was a new, untested thing — the shocking casualties of First Manassas were still almost three weeks off — and both sides were still feeling each other out. From the Galveston Civilian and Gazette Weekly, July 9, 1861:

The Blockade at Last.

Yesterday forenoon the lookout on Hendley’s buildings ran up the red flag, signalizing war vessels, with the token for one sail and one steamer beneath, bringing groups of curious observers to the observatories with which Galveston is so well provided. In due time the dark hull of a large steam propeller loomed up above the waters, followed by a “low, black” but by no means “rakish looking schooner,” and approached the anchorage outside the bar.

By order of Capt. Moore, of the Confederate States Army, Capt. Thomas Chubb, with the pilot boar Royal Yacht, with our fellow citizen John S. Sydnor, proceeded to board the steamer, which proved to be the South Carolina, formerly in the New York and Savannah trade, but now converted into a war vessel.

The Royal Yacht, in answer to the pilot signal of the steamer, hoisted a flag; but the steamer evidently intended to force them to board the schooner; but this was not the intention. Capt. Chubb, on seeing the jack was down, put about for the city, being at the same time out of range, when the steamer hoisted a white flag. The Yacht then sent a boar alongside, bearing Col. Sydnor and Capt. Chubb. They were received with due ceremony and marked politeness. Col. Sydnor having delivered Capt. Moore’s letter, Capt., Alden gave him written notice of the blockade. A conversation of about an hour ensured, during which Capt. Alden was assured of the entire unity of our people in reference to resisting the oppression of the North. Capt. Alden expressed great regret that matters had reached such a pass, but said he was here to do his duty to his government, and that the intention was to enforce obedience to it. He gave no assurances as to the means which would be adopted to carry out his intentions as far as we are concerned.

The hatchways being closed and guns all covered, it was impossible to form any exact conclusions as to the strength of the steamer. She has six large guns, evidently 42 pounders, one large swivel near her bow, and at her stern two brass 6-pounders, all ready mounted for use as flying artillery. But a few men appeared on deck, and the only clue furnished as to her complement was in her clothing hanging up today. Capt. Chubb thinks there are about 150 on board.

Capt. Alden expressed the belief that his Government would soon be able to bring the Southern States into subjection, and, on being told that all classes of our people would suffer extermination first, seemed much surprised. He seemed disposed to converse freely in relation to our troubles, and received the plain talk and patriotic response on our two citizens on good humor. He said he was able to enforce the demands of his Government, and, if necessary, shell us out. He was assured that, whenever it came to that, we would give him a warm reception.

There was one feature in this affair worthy of note. Col. Sydnor is a native of the South, while Capt. Chubb was raised in the same town (Charleston, Mass.) with Capt. Alden. He was thus able to hear from his lips the unmistakable evidences that all our citizens of Southern, Northern, as well as foreign origin, are determined to fight to the last sooner than submit to the detestable rule of Lincoln.

The following is the reply of Capt. Alden to Capt. Moore’s note:

U.S. Steamer South Carolina
Off Galveston, July 2, 1861

Capt. John O. Moore, C.S.A., & c.:
In answer to your communication of this date, I take the liberty of enclosing a declaration of blockade, which I am sent here to enforce, and am

Respectfully your obedient servant,
James Alden, Com’r U.S. Steamer South Carolina


Declaration of Blockade

To all whom it may concern:

I, William Mervine, flag officer, commanding the United States naval forces comprising the Gulf squadron, give notice that, by virtue of the authority and power in me vested, and in pursuance of the proclamation of His Excellency the President of the United States, promulgated under date of April 19 and 27, 1861, respectively, that an effective blockade of the port of Galveston, Texas has been established, and will be rigidly enforced and maintained against all vessels (public armed vessels of foreign powers alone excepted) which attempt to enter or depart from said port.

Signed, William Mervine,
Flag Officer U.S. Flag Ship Mississippi, June 9, 1861.
I certify that the above is a true copy, James Alden, Com’r U.S. Navy.

Neutral vessels will be allowed fifteen days to depart, from this date, viz., June [sic.] 2, 1861.

James Alden, Com’g.

The Hendley Buildings on Strand Street, Galveston, in the 1870s and in 2011. As one of the tallest commercial buildings in town at the time of the Civil War, the Hendley Buildings (or Hendley’s Row) were a natural lookout point for observers watching both the Gulf of Mexico and Galveston Bay. A red flag flown from this building on July 2, 1861 announced the much-anticipated arrival of the Federal blockade. Upper image: Rosenberg Library.

U.S.S. South Carolina, as drawn in 1948 by Eric Heyl. Via U.S. Naval Historical Center. South Carolina was built as a civilian packet steamer to operate on the Atlantic seaboard between Savannah, Charleston, Norfolk and Boston. She was iron-hulled, 217 feet long, 1,165 tons burthen. She served in the Gulf Blockading Squadron in 1861 and 1862, and spent the balance of the war with the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Sold out of the Navy after the end of hostilities, she became the civilian steamer Juanita in 1886. Her hull survived until 1902 when, as a barge, she foundered in a blizzard.

Additional details of the meeting between Alden, Chubb and Sydnor appeared in the New York Herald Tribune of July 31 quoting another Galveston paper:

In the course of the conversation, Capt. Alden expressed a desire to receive friendly visits from our citizens, and stated that he should especially be glad to have a visit from Gen. Houston. Col. Sydnor informed him, in reply, that though Gen. Houston had been a devoted Union man to the last, yet that now he had declared that he could no longer support the Stars and Stripes, but would fight to the last for the flag of the Confederate States. Capt. A. expressed his surprise and regret at this, and that his Government has no friends in Texas. But he said, nevertheless, he desired a friendly intercourse with our city, and hoped he might be hospitably received should he make us a visit.

Col. S. replied that he could not promise what kind of reception our authorities would give him. Capt. Alden inquired if there was not plenty of fish along our shore; he had heard there was, and he desired to catch some. He was informed that they were abundant along the beach, but that it might not be altogether prudent for his men to approach to near. Much of the conversation was in a jocular vein.

For all the strained humor about Alden’s interest in catching “fish,” both sides were in deadly earnest. Alden and South Carolina‘s crew wasted no time, celebrating the Fourth of July by capturing six small schooners, Shark, Venus, Ann Ryan, McCanfield, Louisa, and Dart. After providing his unwilling guests a large dinner in honor of the date, he sent them into Galveston under a flag of truce on Venus, McCanfield and Louisa, after judging those vessels worthless as prizes. The others Alden retained in hopes of fitting them with armament and using them for work in shallow water, close inshore.

One of the freed passengers, curiously enough, was John A. Wharton (right, 1828-65), who would later command the 8th Texas Cavalry, Terry’s Rangers, and eventually rise to the rank of Major General in the Trans-Mississippi Department.  According to the Herald Tribune, Wharton was allowed to keep his personal valise, but the military goods he was coming back to Texas with — two boxes of arms purchased for Brazoria County, ten gross of military buttons, cloth for military uniforms “and a six-shooter” — were all seized by Alden’s men as contraband.

But these initial moves were still just a prelude; a few weeks later, Captain Alden and South Carolina would open the war for real along the Texas coast.

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