A key piece of Confederate Mobile’s defensive strategy was its naval squadron. Like the army, the navy changed commanders several times, but by September of 1862 it had settled on Adm. Franklin Buchanan. The experienced hand had served in the Mexican War, superintended the U.S. Naval Academy and commanded the Virginia at Hampton Roads, Va., besting two Federal ships (a wound forced him to miss the renowned fight with the Monitor). Perhaps most importantly, Buchanan got along well with the army and was widely liked and respected.
No one envied his task of protecting these waters, however. The Federals held undisputed sway over the Gulf, had a large base on Ship Island off the Mississippi coast and occupied Pensacola, with its navy yard and deep harbor, and New Orleans, with its vast maritime resources and shipyards. To top it all off, the Union navy had the services of Adm. David G. Farragut, one of the most accomplished seamen of the age. Simply defending Mobile Bay promised to be an enormous task, but Buchanan was nothing if not aggressive, and he nurtured the hope of eventually taking his vessels into the Gulf and slugging it out with his enemy. Certainly, Farragut expected nothing less — he and Buchanan had been messmates in the old navy — and he admonished his captains that if his former comrade sailed out, they were to “bag him and do not let him get back into the bay.”
The Mobile River served as the epicenter of Confederate naval efforts. A naval yard was established at the foot of Charleston Street near Hitchcock’s Press, with a dry dock and marine railway, and other wharves were utilized at Dauphin and St. Anthony streets. The mostly undeveloped riverbank along Blakeley Island proved handy for some of the work, too. The government also arranged deals with independent civilian contractors to build new vessels or fit out partially constructed ones at private yards, and a few patriotic citizens pursued their own maritime schemes in machine shops. During the war, two vessels were converted into warships at Mobile, two others were built outright, four were armor-plated and fitted out and three were armed. Additionally, several smaller boats were constructed, and private interests launched a few torpedo boats (called “Davids” because their small size and deadly ability was likened to that of the Old Testament hero) and bona fide submarines.
Farther upstream, a naval yard was established at Oven Bluff on the Tombigbee River, and several ironclads known as Bigbee Boats were begun there but not finished due to material shortages. On the Alabama River, far from the coast, the Selma Ordinance and Naval Foundry constructed vessels, most famously the Tennessee, that were floated down to Mobile, finished and manufactured with cannons like the 6.4-inch Brooke, an 11-foot-long instrument of death that weighed more than 10, 000 pounds. The guns had to be shipped separately and mounted in Mobile lest their awesome weight ground the vessels en route. Lastly, the biggest ship of them all, the Nashville, a 270-foot side-wheeler that one of her officers called a “tremendous monster, ” was begun in Montgomery and then sent downstream. Had time and resources allowed, the Confederates could have counted on a sturdy little fleet of at least eight ironclads and three gunboats, enough in fondest Rebel dreams or darkest Yankee nightmares to break the blockade, retake Pensacola and New Orleans, and steam into New York harbor with defiant banners waving.
Fraternal Twin Vessels
In the beginning there were no ironclads, however. Other than some armed launches, hardly worth consideration, Mobile’s first decent Confederate vessels were a pair of wooden side-wheel steamers christened the Morgan and the Gaines. Otis Shipyard privately built these ships: the Morgan completed between Charleston and Texas streets and the Gaines between Canal and Madison streets. Each was about 200 feet long with a 38-foot beam, north of 800 tons with a draft of roughly 7 feet, steam-powered and capable of about 10 knots, armed with 10 guns and crewed by a little more than 100 officers and men.
As they lay alongside the river, these ships were the object of much public interest. On Feb. 14, 1862, the Mobile Daily Advertiser reported on the launch of the Gaines. “Every available space in the neighborhood was filled up to the very ways, ” the article began, “and though the deck was crowded there were nearly as many persons under the boat’s bottom as on board.” Carpenters cut away the supports, but the vessel “hung for some time” until other vessels and jack screws could coax some movement, “but when she started she went, the smoke rising from the ways as if in answer to the signal gun that announced her in motion.” Amid cheering, the Gaines settled into the river close by her sister the Morgan, and the paper noted that the ships were “near enough alike to pass for twins to an unskilled eye.”
A few weeks later, after test runs in the rivers and the Bay, the newspaper followed up, announcing that “the Gaines is the best sea boat, but the Morgan can run where nothing else can.” The Rebel brass decided to celebrate its growing flotilla with a procession. This took place on March 9. “The Morgan led off from the wharf in front of the Independent Press, ” according to the paper, “and was followed by the Gaines, which lay a little above.” Their crews lined the rails and colorful flags flapped from their diminutive masts, while small boats crowded the river and crowds exulted.
Eager to directly participate and help, the public materially contributed to Mobile’s shipbuilding efforts. A Women’s Gunboat Fund was established, and the press approvingly listed contributions from all over the state. One lady sent a gold chain in memory of her father, and local belles “gave their jewelry and table plate, their pin cushions and fancy articles to the ‘women’s gunboat.’” Glad to encourage the public, officials invited the newspaper’s editor to tour the Morgan and Gaines and take a little cruise on the latter. “The new boats are a splendid success, ” he crowed, “a triumph of the ship building capabilities of this city and the South.”
Anxious to exploit the new boats, the high command ordered that they be sent to break the blockade at once. Accordingly, they steamed out on April 3 and met two Federal vessels just beyond the bar. Shots were exchanged with no damage or casualties on either side until the Rebel vessels sought the protection of Fort Morgan’s guns. If what one of her officers said about the Morgan was true, discretion was definitely the better part of valor. “Her steam pipes are entirely above the water line, ” he remarked, “and her boilers and magazines partly above it, so we have the comfortable appearance of being blown up or scalded by any chance shot that may not take off our heads.” Mobilians were disappointed, and some were critical, but until they had ironclads in their fleet, there was little chance of achieving anything decisive.
John S. Sledge is the author of “The Mobile River, ” to be published in 2015 by the University of South Carolina Press.
text by John S. Sledge