The Civil War Naval Battle That Changed The War
An unlikely naval encounter off Galveston stunned the U.S. Navy and saved Texas from a Federal invasion.
Days after the Confederates opened fire in Fort Sumpter in April 1861, President Lincoln declared a blockade of ports in the seceded states. The blockade represented a key part of the North’s “Anaconda” strategy, designed to isolate the Confederacy from trade and foreign assistance, slowly squeezing the life out of the rebellion.
The Anaconda strategy was sound, but the Union remained woefully under-equipped to implement it. At the beginning of the conflict, the U.S. Navy possessed only a few dozen warships, and many of these were stationed over seas. To make up the deficiency, Navy department agents spread out through northern ports and shipyards, buying up every civilian vessel they could find – including some still under construction – that might be converted to a warship.
One of these new acquisitions was the iron-hulled passenger steamer St. Mary’s.
Illustration of the steamer USS Hatteras.Images courtesy of Andrew W. Hall.
Purchased new from her builder for $110,000. In addition, outfitted with a hurricane deck and wooden cabins, the 201-foot ship had a pair of enormous side wheels, driven by a single-cylinder steam engine that provided propulsion. A pivoted, diamond-shaped iron frame, known as a “walking beam,” that rocked back and forth as the wheels turned, like a leviathan child’s teeter totter, transferred the vertical motion of the engine to the side wheels.
Commissioned in October 1861 as USS Hatteras, the steamer was soon outfitted with an assort ment of obsolete smoothbore cannon and more modern, rifled guns. Hatteras’s armament typified that used by ships on the blockade but, as events later demonstrated, proved woefully inadequate against a purpose-built warship.1
If the Union had limited resources at the beginning of the war, the Confederacy fared even worse.
With limited indus trial and shipbuilding capacity available in the South, the government in Richmond invested heavily in the construction of warships overseas. The most famous of these vessels was CSS Alabama, built at the shipyard of John Laird, Son & Co. at Birkenhead, across the Mersey River from Liverpool in England.
Designed to be a commerce raider, Alabama preyed on the large U.S. merchant fleet scattered on trade routes across the globe. As built, Alabama was just ten feet longer than Hatteras, and two feet narrower in beam. But unlike Hatteras, Alabama was built from the keel up as a warship. While Hatteras was constructed of iron, she had thin plating, never intended to stand up to enemy gunfire.
Alabama had iron framing covered with heavy timber that could absorb enemy shot. The shipbuilders carefully positioned Alabama’s machinery below the waterline, safely out of the way of gunfire. Most important, Alabama carried very heavy naval artillery, including a seven-inch rifle and an eight-inch smoothbore cannon, both fitted on pivoting mounts. All of Alabama’s guns firing on one side amounted to 274 pounds of shot and shell; Hatteras’s broadside weight was only 114 pounds.
Hatteras spent her first few months patrolling the Atlantic coast off South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida and captured several small vessels that attempted to run the blockade.
In the fall of 1862, Hatteras was assigned a new commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Homer Crane Blake, a twenty-two-year Navy veteran. About that same time, the Navy reassigned the ship to the Gulf of Mexico, where Hatteras took up blockade duties off the Confederate port of Mobile, Alabama.2 While Hatteras patrolled off Mobile Bay, the new Confederate raider Alabama, now under the command of former U.S. Navy officer Raphael Semmes, had begun doing exactly what she had been designed to do – sink Yankee merchant ships. After formally putting his ship in commission at an isolated anchorage in the Azores, Semmes set a course to the west, skirting dangerously close to New England on the U.S. Atlantic coast. But the busy shipping lane proved to be very successful hunting grounds, and Alabama seized a dozen or more Union merchantmen there.
Semmes then set his course south and east, almost to the coast of Venezuela, then north and west again through the Caribbean. More captures followed, and word spread that the infamous Confederate ship stalked the region. Five days before Christmas 1862, Semmes’s lookouts spotted Cape Catoche, the northernmost point of the Yucatán Peninsula. Alabama was now loose in the Gulf of Mexico.3
In the fall of 1862, the Union Navy had captured Galveston almost without firing a shot. The Confederate commander in Texas had always deemed the barrier island, connected to the mainland by a single railroad bridge, to be indefen sible, so he had made little effort to do so. Galveston was the most important port in Texas and the terminus of a rail system that extended to Houston and
Lieutenant Homer C. Blake, a carte-de-visite. Photo courtesy Edward T. Cotham.
Semmes to strike a dramatic and spectacular blow against the Union. Semmes figured that an expedition of that size would require a huge fleet of transports and supply vessels – forty, fifty, or more – anchored off Galveston. Moreover, Semmes determined to head for Galveston, intending to take Alabama into the middle of that transport fleet at night and destroy as many vessels as he could. John Macintosh Kell, Alabama’s executive officer, consid ered this plan “the boldest of all the bold schemes of Captain Semmes.”4 During the first week of January 1863, Alabama sailed steadily north through the Gulf of Mexico, toward the upper Texas coast.
Semmes and Kell did not know, however, that the situation at Galveston had drastically changed. The new Confederate commander in Texas, John Bankhead Magruder, had scraped points beyond, deep into rich, inland agricultural areas. With Galveston in Federal hands, northern newspapers soon began reporting that Union General Nathaniel Banks was in New Orleans, outfitting a force of 20,000 men to land on the island, the first act in a full-scale invasion of Confederate Texas.
But northern civilians were not the only ones reading rumors about the plans for a Federal invasion of Texas; Raphael Semmes aboard Alabama read them, too. Cut off from regular communications with the Confederacy, and a little self-absorbed to boot. Semmes eagerly searched newspapers from captured merchant ships for any stories about his own vessel, or naval developments in general.
From these newspapers, Semmes picked up speculation that General Banks’s expedition would begin its push inland from Galveston around January 10, 1863. Alabama’s cruise had been a great success thus far. But Semmes longed to do something more dramatic than burn unarmed Yankee merchantmen out on the open sea.
The Banks Expedition seemed like the opportunity for together a disparate force of dismounted cavalry, civilian riverboats, and local militia and had retaken Galveston on New Year’s Day, 1863. In the process, the Confederates captured one Union warship intact. And caused another to be blown up by her own crew.
Admiral David G. Farragut, the Union naval commander in the Gulf of Mexico, called the defeat at Galveston the “most shameful and pusillanimous” incident in the history of the U.S. Navy.5 Farragut saw the Galveston debacle as a strategic setback and an insult to the honor of the Navy. He ordered a large part of his command to Galveston, under the command of Commodore Henry H. Bell, to
Illustration of the Confederate raider Alabama.
USS Hatteras (foreground, in blue) stops alongside Alabama (red) and asks her identity. Captain Semmes of Alabama stalls for time, identifying his vessel as a British warship. Illustrations by Andrew W. Hall.
begin preparations to retake the port. Bell’s force arrived on January 7, and began a daily bombardment of the city. USS Hatteras arrived soon after, late in the afternoon of January 10. Almost everything was in place for the assault on Galveston. One crewman on board USS New London confidently wrote to his father that “Galveston is a doomed town.”6
Sunday, January 11, dawned clear and beautiful. The bombardment of the city’s defenses continued. Sometime after 2:00 p.m., lookouts in the Union fleet spotted an unidentified ship approaching from the southeast. Bell ordered the closest of the Union ships, USS Hatteras, to investigate. By 3:00, Hatteras was in pursuit of the stranger.7
The unidentified vessel, of course, was CSS Alabama. Semmes had arrived off Galveston expecting to see dozens of transport vessels anchored offshore. Instead, all he saw were a handful of what looked like Union warships. While he puzzled over this, his lookouts reported seeing a shell fired from one of the warships that exploded over the town.
Semmes now realized that Galveston had somehow become recaptured and returned to Confederate hands.
While he thought about his next move, the lookouts reported one of the Federal warships had come out to intercept him. Semmes quickly revised his plan. He turned Alabama around, pointing her bow again to the south, moving slowly away from Galveston. He did not want the Union warship to close the range too quickly and so began leading Hatteras on a long chase in the fading, late-afternoon light.8
On Hatteras, Homer Blake and his officers became suspi cious. They knew of Alabama’s successes in the Caribbean and had worried for weeks that the Confederate warship would eventually make her way into the Gulf of Mexico. Though they did not know the identity of the mystery vessel they chased, they could guess. Henry Ogden Porter, Hatteras’s executive officer, remarked to Captain Blake, “That, sir, I think is Alabama. What shall we do?” Blake replied immediately and directly, “If that is Alabama we must fight her.” Blake ordered his ship cleared for action.9
By the time Hatteras had closed to a distance of about four miles, Blake could see that the stranger had stopped and was lying broadside-on, waiting for him to come up – not at all the way a skittish blockade runner would behave. It was about seven o’clock now, and nearly dark. As Hatteras came up alongside, Blake hailed the mystery ship: “What steamer is that?”
The reply shouted across the water from Alabama was that the raider was a British warship—Blake recalled that the name given was Vixen, while Semmes later said Petrel— and Semmes asked for the identity of Blake’s ship. Semmes could not make out the name, but the first words he heard, “this is the United States Ship,” sufficed. A brief pause followed while both ships jockeyed for a better position, with Blake suspecting the other ship was Alabama, and Semmes knowing that he had a Yankee warship under his ship’s guns. Blake, following standard procedure, asked for permission to send a boat with an officer to verify the other ship’s identity. Semmes, still trying to maneuver for best advantage, politely agreed. Alabama, meanwhile, had made a steaming turn to the east, running up alongside Hatteras’s port side, less than 100 yards off.
Satisfied with his position and that all was ready, Semmes turned to his first lieutenant and said, “Don’t strike them in disguise; tell them who we are and give the broadside at the name.” Kell raised his speaking trumpet and announced, “This is the Confederate States Steamer Alabama!” And then, to his crew, “Fire!”10
Alabama’s first broadside went high, passing harmlessly over Hatteras. Blake immediately ordered his aft guns, the only guns that would bear, to return fire and rang the bell for full speed ahead. He turned the ship to port, trying to get into a position where he could fire all of his port guns at Alabama. On the deck below, Executive Officer Porter of Hatteras did not wait for Blake’s orders; he yelled, “Alabama! Boys, now give it to her!” and the gun crews on Hatteras began firing away.11
A running fight followed, Hatteras firing to port and Alabama to starboard. At some points, only twenty five yards of black water separated the ships; Kell later described it as “a sharp fight.”
Blake soon recognized his disadvantage in firepower, and tried to turn his ship to enable Hatteras to get alongside the enemy vessel, where his crew could attempt to board.
Alabama steadies herself on a parallel course while Hatteras tries to keep her distance.
But Semmes used his ship’s superior speed and maneuverability to keep Hatteras at a distance.12 About eight minutes after the action began, a shell entered Hatteras above the water line forward and burst a quantity of stored turpentine, setting that part of the ship on fire. Soon after, another shell hit the forward part of the “walking beam” and knocked it out of alignment. The walking beam was a critical part of the connection between the steam engine and the paddle wheels, and the damage caused Hatteras to slow its forward motion. At almost the same time, a shell entered amidships and set fire to the vessel near the magazine. Yet another shell had entered the engine works and damaged part of the steam machinery.13
Executive Officer Porter went below to check on the damage and asked the ship’s engineer about the condition of the machinery. The engineer simply replied, “We are pretty near played out, I think.”
With the engine room quickly filling with water, crew members tried unsuccessfully to plug the holes with rolled hammocks. Porter headed back up the ladder to Captain Blake with the bad news.14
One of the heroes that night aboard Hatteras – unmentioned in any official report of the action – was an unidentified African American officer’s steward who Blake later described in an article for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.
The man knew of a small locker of arms and ammunition under a passageway off the wardroom. And when the ship caught fire, the steward remained at his post, continually dashing the ammunition with water. When later asked whether he found his position dangerous. The steward replied that he had, “but I knew if the fire got to the powder them gentlemen on deck would get a grand hoist.”15
Fearing that the fire might ignite the ship’s primary magazine, Captain Blake ordered that two feet of water be pumped into the compartment. At that moment, a shot knocked a hole in the engine’s main cylinder. Flooding the engine room and deck nearby with scalding steam. The engine ground to a halt, having been struck six times in different places. Hatteras was dead in the water and begin ning to roll steeply to port.16 Blake ordered that a lee gun, facing away from the enemy, be fired to signal his surrender.
The entire fight had lasted only thirteen minutes.
Blake and Porter knew that Hatteras was doomed; their worry now centered on whether Alabama would leave them to sink without attempting to rescue survivors.17 Hatteras had rolled so far over on her port side that it appeared she might capsize completely, so Blake ordered the guns on that side to be thrown overboard. Hatteras was heeled so far over by then that the men did not have to use block and tackle to coax the guns over the side. Freed of the weight of the artil lery on the port side, the ship righted herself at once but she continued sinking.18
Porter could not believe that Alabama had left a disabled foe. He yelled into the darkness, demanding that Alabama send boats to save Hatteras’s crew. Finally, Semmes dispatched two of his boats to help transfer the Union ship’s crew, now prisoners, to Alabama. As Porter supervised the orderly loading of the boats, Blake carefully counted the men leaving the ship. When everyone other than Porter and Blake had been evacuated, two crewmen last seen in the coal bunkers remained unaccounted for. Both Porter and Blake tried to go below to search the bunkers, but the smoke and fire stopped them; Porter even burned off the bottom of his shoes on the hot deck.
Finally, Blake concluded that the missing men could not be recovered and reluctantly left for Alabama to surrender formally to Semmes.
Ten minutes after they reached the enemy ship, Hatteras went down, bow first.19 Alabama had survived the battle with only minor damage, and one man slightly wounded, but Semmes now faced another set of problems. More than 100 prisoners roughly doubled the number of men on board the Confederate raider. They took up space, consumed rations and fresh water, and needed guarding. More importantly, every available Federal warship in the region would now be sent to find and engage Alabama. Semmes needed to leave the Gulf of Mexico and dispose of his prisoners quickly, so he set a course for Jamaica, south of Cuba. Alabama anchored off Port Royal, across the harbor from Kingston, after dark on January 20, nine days after the encounter with Hatteras.
By Andrew W. Hall and Edward T. Cotham Jr.
Original publication of this article appeared: A Sharp Fight | Houston History Magazine
We thank the Houston History Magazine & Dr. Debbie Z. Harwell for their graciousness in letting us reprint this article. So as to better educated the next generation of Americans about our amazing history!
The Civil War Naval Battle That Changed The War