USS Atlanta (1861)


USS Atlanta (1861)

The first "Atlanta" was a casement ironclad, converted from a blockade runner, in the Confederate Navy, later captured and served in the United States Navy.

"Atlanta" was built at Glasgow, Scotland, by James and George Thompson in the Clyde Bank Iron Shipyard and was completed as "Fingal" early in 1861 and briefly operated between Glasgow and other ports in Scotland for Hutcheson's West Highland Service.

As "Fingal"

As "Fingal" was beginning her career as a merchantman, on the other side of the Atlantic the United States was sinking deeper and deeper into its secession crisis. Then, soon after the Southern attack upon Fort Sumter plunged the nation into war in mid April 1861, the Confederate Secretary of the Navy, Stephen Mallory, sent James Dunwoody Bulloch to England to buy the warships, ordnance, and widely varied supplies needed by the South's fledgling navy. After reaching Liverpool on 4 June, Bulloch—a former naval officer who had resigned his commission as a lieutenant in the United States Navy on 5 October 1854—quickly arranged for the construction of two fast and powerful cruisers to prey upon Union shipping. He also purchased a large quantity of naval supplies. Next—realizing that he must arrange for a steady flow of new funds before he could go much farther with his purchasing program and also prompted by the fact that the materiel of war that he had already acquired would be useless to the Confederate cause as long as it remained in England—decided to buy a steamship, to fill it with the ordnance that he and an agent of the Southern War Department had accumulated, and to sail in her to America.

To carry out this plan, the enterprising Southern naval agent chartered "Fingal" with an option to buy her upon a moment's notice if circumstances should arise which made such a move seem to be advisable. Under this arrangement, the ship would appear to be a British vessel under the command of a certified English master while she would actually be completely under Bulloch's control. Thus, "Fingal" would enjoy the protection of neutral English colors; yet, in the event she encountered an overinquisitive but none too powerful Union blockader, the English commanding officer might exercise his power of attorney as the agent of the steamer's owner and sign her over to the Confederate Government. In this way, "Fingal", under Bulloch's command, could fight for her freedom without compromising British neutrality.

In an attempt to avoid suspicious eyes, the Southern arms were carried by rail and by the coastal steamer Colletis from the vicinity of London to Greenock, Scotland, where "Fingal" was moored. When the prospective blockade runner was fully loaded, she got underway on the morning of 10 October; moved down the Firth of Clyde; transited the North Channel; and proceeded south through the Irish Sea to Holyhead, Wales, where Bulloch and other Confederate officials and passengers awaited. On the night of the 14th, as she was slowly rounding the breakwater shielding that port, "Fingal" suddenly came upon unlighted brig Siccardi, slowly swinging at anchor. Although "Fingal" barely had steerage way and despite the fact that she quickly reversed her engines, she collided with the dark sailing ship. The steamer's sharp bow pierced Siccardi's starboard quarter, and the brig went down before a boat could be lowered.

While "Fingal's" boats were carrying out rescue operations, Bulloch and the passengers embarked in the steamer. Bulloch sent a letter ashore to request that Messrs. Fraser, Trenholm and Co.—Confederate financial agents in England—settle damages with the brig's owners. Then, lest "Fingal" be held up by an investigation of the accident which might well bring his whole project to naught, Bulloch ordered the steamer to get underway immediately. She headed for the Azores and replenished her water supply at Praia on the island of Terceira. When the ship reached Bermuda on 2 November, she found CSS Nashville in port; and that Confederate side-wheel cruiser supplied her with coal and a pilot familiar with ". . . Savannah and the inlets to the southward . . . ." While "Fingal" was at Bermuda preparing for a dash to the Confederate coast, the United States consul, suspicious of her purpose, attempted in vain to persuade her crew to leave the ship.

On the afternoon of the 7th, "Fingal", cleared for Nassau in the Bahamas, got underway again. Soon after she left port, Bulloch informed the crew that the steamer's real destination was Savannah, Georgia; but he offered to take anyone who objected to the plan to Nassau. However, all agreed to join in the effort to run the Union blockade; and the ship headed for the Georgia coast. Her two 4 1/2-inch rifled guns were then mounted in her forward gangway ports, and her two breech loading 2 1/2-inch boat guns were put in place on her quarterdeck. The weather was clear as she approached the entrance to Wassaw Sound on the night of 11 and 12 November; but, in the wee hours of the morning, a heavy fog settled over the coastal waters and screened the ship from Union eyes, enabling her to slip safely into the Savannah estuary.

The cargo which she brought to the munitions-hungry South consisted of 14,000 Enfield rifles, 1,000,000 cartridges, 2,000,000 percussion caps, 3,000 cavalry sabers, 1,000 short rifles with cutlass bayonets, 1,000 rounds per rifle, her own ordnance, 400 barrels of coarse cannon powder, medical supplies, much military clothing, and a large quantity of cloth for sewing still more uniforms. Recalling the voyage after the war, Bulloch proudly stated that "No single ship ever took into the Confederacy a cargo so entirely composed of military and naval supplies ..." and every bit of it was desperately needed by Southern forces.

While "Fingal" was discharging her most welcome cargo, Bulloch went to Richmond to confer with Secretary of the Navy Mallory and other Confederate leaders seeking approval of what he had done and what he intended to do. His plans called for him next to return to his ship, to fill her with cotton and naval stores, then to escape through the blockade to sea, and finally to steam on to England.

Bulloch returned to Savannah on 23 November heartened by Mallory's approval of his past performance and of his projected course of action, and he promptly went to work to obtain a cargo of cotton and rosin for "Fingal's" outward voyage. However, the very next day, the first of a series of events occurred that would keep "Fingal" in port and ultimately would make her useless to the South.

Optimistic because of his great victory at Port Royal, South Carolina, earlier in the month, Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont—the commanding officer of the newly established South Atlantic Blockading Squadron—ordered a Union naval force to waters off Savannah. On the 24th, in response to Du Font's instructions, Comdr. John Rodgers led a party of Union sailors and marines ashore on Tybee Island, which controlled the mouth of the Savannah River, closing to Fingal that avenue of escape. The next day, Bulloch wrote Mallory reporting this development, explaining that "the only egress left for Fingal is through Warsaw [sic] Inlet . . ."and warning that". . . it can scarcely be supposed that the enemy will permit it to remain open many days . . . ."

Yet, despite the urgency of loading the steamer and preparing her for sea, other pressing demands upon Southern railroads delayed the arrival of her coal and cargo. Thus, she was not ready to sail until 20 December; and, by that time, Union blockaders had sealed off Wassaw Sound, ending the steamer's last chance to reach the Atlantic.

Slow to abandon hope that changed conditions might yet enable him to slip out to sea, Bulloch remained on board the steamer until mid-January 1862. Then, yielding to the inevitable and prodded by pressing business abroad, he turned her over to Lt. George T. Sinclair, CSN, so that he might proceed to England independently and resume his duties there.

Under Sinclair, "Fingal" for a time continued to seek an opportunity to dash out to sea; but this hope was abandoned before spring; and the ship was taken into the Confederate Navy. She was stripped to her deck; covered with a slanted, armored roof, flat at the center; and fitted with a sharp reinforced-steel bow which could be used to pierce the hulls of wooden enemy vessels. The contract for converting her into an ironclad ram was awarded to the Tift brothers, Nelson and Asa F.; and her metamorphosis— financed largely by contributions from the ladies of Savannah— was completed during the summer. The new warship was renamed "Atlanta".

As "Atlanta"

However, in her new configuration as a fighting ship, "Atlanta" suffered from several serious shortcomings. Her new armor and ordnance increased her draft to almost 16 feet, making it difficult for her to operate in the inland waters approaching Savannah. Moreover, her modifications made her extremely slow to respond to her helm and reduced her speed from 13 to 10 knots. She also leaked significantly, and her armored roof all but eliminated circulation of air, turning her into a humid oven during hot weather.

On 31 July, "Atlanta"—under the command of Lt. Charles H. McBlair, CSN—steamed down the Savannah River toward Fort Pulaski to a point where she could be seen from Union blockaders, but she soon retired above the obstructions. Efforts were then made to correct her defects but with poor results.

In January 1863, Flag Officer Josiah Tattnall—who then commanded the naval defenses of Georgia and, although residing ashore, flew his flag in Atlanta—felt pressure from Mallory to engage Northern naval forces. The Confederate Secretary of the Navy and other officials in Richmond were highly impressed by the performance of "Virginia"—the former screw frigate Merrimack rebuilt as an ironclad ram—in Hampton Roads the previous March and hoped that "Atlanta" could boost Southern morale by repeating "Virginia"'s, victory over wooden-hulled Union warships. Accordingly, Tattnall made plans to have "Atlanta" descend the Savannah. However, obstructions blocking the channel leading to sea prevented Tattnall from launching the operation. In March, the disappointed and frustrated Mallory reacted by relieving Tattnall from the command afloat and later placed Lieutenant William A. Webb, CSN, in command of "Atlanta", leaving no doubt that he expected great accomplishments from the ironclad ram in the near future.

On 10 June 1863, Rear Admiral Du Pont—sensing that "Atlanta" was about to descend the Wilmington River for a foray into Wassaw Sound and remembering that "Monitor" had ended "Virginia"'s destructive rampage—ordered monitors USS "Weehawken" and USS "Nahant" to enter Wassaw Sound to stop the Southern ironclad ram's attack, should she make one, and to prevent her escape. Captain John Rodgers in "Weehawken" had overall command of this Union force.

Five days later, in the early evening of the 15th, "Atlanta" got underway and passed over the lower obstructions in the Wilmington River to get into position for a strike at the Union forces in Wassaw Sound. Webb dropped anchor at 8:00 p.m. and spent the remainder of the night coaling. The next evening ". . . about dark . . .," Webb later reported, he ". . . proceeded down the river to a point of land which would place me in 6 or 7 miles of the monitors, at the same time concealing the ship from their view, ready to move on them at early dawn the next morning."

"Atlanta", accompanied by wooden steamers CSS Isondiga and CSS Resolute, got underway before daylight on the 17th. A percussion torpedo was fitted to a long spar projecting forward from the ram's bow, "which," Webb wrote, "I knew should do its work to my entire satisfaction, should I but be able to touch the "Weehawken" . . . ." "Atlanta" grounded coming into the channel, was gotten off, but repeatedly failed to obey her helm and ran hard aground again. "Weehawken" poured five shots from her heavy guns into the Confederate ram, and "Nahant" moved into attacking position. With two of his gun crews out of action, with two of three pilots severely injured, and with his ship stranded and helpless, Webb was compelled to surrender to prevent further futile loss of life. His two wooden escorts had returned upriver without engaging.

Captain Rodgers reported, "The "Atlanta" was found to have mounted two 6-inch and two 7-inch rifles, the 6-inch broadside, the 7-inch working on a pivot either as broadside or bow and stern guns. There is a large supply of ammunition for these guns and other stores, said to be of great value by some of the officers of the vessel." At the time of capture, 21 officers and 124 men, including marines were on board.

In the United States Navy

After completion of temporary repairs at Port Royal, Du Pont placed the prize in temporary commission on 26 September and sent her to Philadelphia where she was condemned by a prize court, repaired in the Federal navy yard, and commissioned again on 2 February 1864. Still bearing her Confederate Navy name while in the Federal Navy, "Atlanta" was assigned to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

During most of her career under Union colors, "Atlanta" was stationed up the James River helping other Northern warships support General Grant's operations against Richmond. Under the command of Acting Lieutenant Thomas J. Woodward, her main service was to guard against a foray from the Confederate capital of the small fleet of Southern warships. On 21 May 1864, she and the schooner-rigged screw steamer "Dawn" shelled Confederate cavalry which was attacking Fort Powhatan on the James. Their gunfire broke up the assault and dispersed the Southern troopers.

After the collapse of the Confederacy, "Atlanta" steamed north to Philadelphia where she was decommissioned on 21 June 1865. She was sold at auction at the Philadelphia Navy Yard to Sam Ward on 4 May 1869. No record of her subsequent fate has been found.

See USS Atlanta for other Navy ships of the same name.

References

External links

* [http://ga.water.usgs.gov/olympics/sav.yacht.250drg.html Map of Wassaw Sound area]
* [http://home.ozconnect.net/tfoen/atlantaprisoners.htm List of prisoners from the CSS Atlanta on June 17, 1863]


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