William A. Webb

Infobox Military Person
name= William A. Webb
placeofbirth= Virginia

caption=William A. Webb
allegiance= United States until 1861
Confederate States of America 1861-1865
serviceyears=USN 1838-1861
CSN 1861-1865
rank= Commander, Provisional Navy of the Confederate States
commands=CSS Teaser (1862)
CSS Atlanta (May 1863-June 17, 1863)
CSS Richmond 1864
battles=Battle of Hampton Roads
Wassaw Sound

William A. Webb was an American sailor and Mexican-American War veteran who resigned his United States Navy commission after more than 20 years of service to join the Confederate States Navy in the American Civil War. Webb was decorated for his service as Captain of the CSS "Teaser", part of the James River Squadron, during the Battle of Hampton Roads (1862).

In 1863, his orders sent him to Savannah, where he commanded a squadron that included the ironclad "CSS "Atlanta"". He was captured in June 1863 and imprisoned in Boston. He was released as part of a prisoner exchange in October 1864 and returned to action on the "CSS "Richmond"".

Early life and career

William A. Webb grew up in Virginia. He joined the U. S. Navy at an early age and attained the rank of Midshipman on January 26 1838. His young wife Elizabeth Ann Webb endured the lonely life of a navy spouse.cite web|last=Deiss|first=Jonathan Webb|url=http://www.webbdeiss.org/webb/webb_boys_w.html|title=Webb's in the Military|accessdate=2006-06-25] He was the brother-in-law to another naval officer John Randolph Tucker [Werlich, "Admiral of the Amazon", 22]

On July 2, 1845, Webb was promoted to Passed Midshipman. He served in the Mexican-American War on the 6-gun storeship USS "Southampton". Webb departed from Norfolk, Virginia on February 7, 1847, traveling to the Pacific Ocean by way of Cape Horn, eventually reaching Japan in 1854. He was afterwards appointed as Master on October 9, 1853 and Lieutenant on June 12, 1854.

Civil War

Webb resigned his commission on May 17, 1861,"Register of Officers of the Confederate States Navy", 207] four months after the Secession, enrolling instead in the Confederate Navy as a First Lieutenant in June. He served at Fernandina, Florida) in mid-1861 and then Richmond Station from 1861 to 1862.

CSS "Teaser" and the Battle of Hampton Roads

In early 1862, First Lieutenant Webb was made commander of the armed gunboat CSS "Teaser" (or "Teazer".) [Werlich, "Admiral of the Amazon", 27] Prior to the secession it was the property of the Virginia State Navy (then called the York River). The 64 ton, 80 by 18 foot tugboat was armed with a 32 and a 12 pounder rifled cannon. The CSS "Teaser" was part of the James River Squadron, operating on the homonymous river from Norfolk. The squadron's chieftain was Flag-Officer Franklin Buchanan, on the ironclad steamer CSS "Virginia" (ex-"Merrimack"). The squadron consisted of 3 steamers (24 guns in all) and 3 supporting gunboats, each with one gun.

On March 8–9, 1862, at the Battle of Hampton Roads, the Confederate flotilla tried to break a blockade maintained by two wooden Union frigates, the USS "Cumberland" and the USS "Congress". The Union ships were escorted by some gunboats and backed by shore batteries. Buchanan wrote later: "The general order under which the gunboat squadron went into action required that, in the absence of all signals, each commanding officer was to exercise his own judgment and discretion in doing all the damage he could to the enemy and to sink before surrendering."Scharf, "History of the Confederate States Navy", 210] To support the CSS "Virginia" in this action, Capt. John Randolph Tucker, commanding the rest of the James River Squadron, ran past the shore batteries to join the battle, with the CSS "Teaser" "puffing with all the energy of a short-winded tug."Scharf, "History of the Confederate States Navy", 159] They arrived just as the CSS "Virginia" had managed to sink the USS "Cumberland".

The squadron immediately joined in the battle with the CSS "Virginia" against the Union blockade and shore batteries. One eye witness described the "little "Teaser"... pushed her way in between the "Patrick Henry" and "Jamestown", and advancing close to the shore fired her one gun in face of the battery of sixty guns. Probably her insignificance saved her, for now every shot seemed concentrated upon the ["Virginia"] ..." [Scharf, "History of the Confederate States Navy", 160] The Confederate squadron now concentrated their fire on the USS "Congress" and forced its surrender. When the Confederate ships charged with accepting the surrender and escorting the captured officers were fired upon by Union shore batteries, Buchanan then ordered another boat to burn her, with Webb's "Teaser" as cover. When they were also fired upon, Buchanan then ordered his men to destroy the USS "Congress" using "hot shot and incendiary shell". [Scharf, "History of the Confederate States Navy", 162-163]

The arrival of the USS "Monitor" on the following day resulted in the "world's first battle between ironclads". Neither the CSS "Virginia", nor the USS "Monitor" suffered major damage. However, the Monitor's arrival forced the Confederate ships eventually to retreat without having broken the blockade.

Webb was reported later as "slightly wounded" during the battle. Buchanan took pride in his gunboats: "Their judgment in selecting their positions for attacking the enemy was good; their constant fire was destructive, and contributed much to the success of the day." [Scharf, "History of the Confederate States Navy", 209-210] The Confederate Congress also "thanked" Webb.

"Special duty"

During 1862-1863, Webb was stationed at Charleston station for "special duty." This term was typically used to denote activity that was of a secret nature. In this case, Webb was made commander of the "Special Expedition", a squadron of small boats manned by sixty officers and men, on February 19, 1863. [Scharf, "History of the Confederate States Navy", 687] The squadron was stationed behind Fort Sumter in order to stop any Union ships that made it past the obstructions. What made this flotilla unusual, and hence its appellation of "special", was that the boats were armed with spar torpedoes, a highly controversial weapon of war that some considered "uncivilized". [Werlich, "Admiral of the Amazon", 47] Webb assembled this squadron with a few cutters and a lot of canoes and skiffs, all armed with 20-foot long poles with a 60-pound torpedo.Scharf, "History of the Confederate States Navy", 688]

The only thing the small flotilla was lacking were steamers and Capt. John Randolph Tucker ordered Webb to contact a local merchant and acquire the steamers "quietly and pleasantly if possible" or seize them, if not.Werlich, "Admiral of the Amazon", 48]

While present when Admiral Du Pont's fleet crossed the Charleston bar on April 6, 1863, Webb's squadron was not called into action that day. Eager to make use of the torpedoes, Tucker, Gen. Beauregard and Webb hatched a plan on April 10 that would "shake Abolitiondom to [its] foundation." They decided to attack each of the seven Union ironclads by three torpedo boats, but in the several days it took to get the extra boats required, the Union ironclads had left Charleston.

CSS "Atlanta"

Commodore Josiah Tattnall, Flag Officer commanded the southern region of the Confederate States, especially Savannah, Georgia. He was expected to repeat his success commanding the CSS "Virginia" in crushing the wooden Union ships in the James River. Tattnall was handicapped in bringing this to fruition because of the blockade. In May 1863, Webb replaced Tatnall as commander of the CSS "Atlanta" ironclad, launched in 1862, and flag officer of the Savannah Squadron, with "the implied condition of his appointment being that he should 'do something' with her..." [Scharf, "History of the Confederate States Navy", 643] Webb proclaimed that "the whole abolition fleet" had "no terror" for him.Werlich, "Admiral of the Amazon", 51]

Considered by the citizens of Georgia to be the most powerful Confederate warship because of its fast speed of 7 knots, as well as its armament of four Brooke rifles, the "Atlanta" was difficult to maneuver. Special difficulties were caused by its 16-feet draft in the shallow waters surrounding Savannah. Another problem was the scarce airflow of its tight, armored roof, which caused profound heat and humidity. The "Atlanta" suffered profuse leaking. The ship's helm was already difficult to steer because it was simply unwieldy: the ship frequently stalled into sand banks along the side of the river. Webb marshaled the CSS "Atlanta", though, removing the boat of unnecessary comfort - including sanitation and ventilation, as well as fully outfitting it with weaponry. Webb also had to deal with inexperienced sailors, most of whom were recruited from the Confederate Army around the mountainous regions of Georgia. ["Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion", Series 1, Volume 14, 291] For instance, his pilots arrived just two weeks before the ship engaged in battle in Wassaw Sound.

Although beset by problems, Webb was still excited about his prospects. He formulated ambitiously elaborate plans for the CSS "Atlanta"'s first mission to clear the region of nearby Union forces. Webb was supposed to await reinforcement: the Confederate Congress voted to reinforce his squad with another ship still under construction: the CSS "Savannah" ironclad. Webb, however, waged action in Wassaw Sound against orders on June 17, 1863. He was escorted by two wooden steamers, the CSS "Isondiga" and the CSS "Resolute". A percussion torpedo was attached to a large, projecting ram, which Webb later described: "I knew [it] should do its work to my entire satisfaction, should I but be able to touch the Weehawken."Fact|date=February 2007

The Union noticed Webb's bold move and dispatched Captain John Rodgers in the USS "Weehawken", escorted by the USS "Nahant". The "Atlanta" suddenly ran aground and swayed at an angle which made it difficult to shoot.Luraghi, "A History of the Confederate Navy", 215] The USS "Weehawken" held fire until it was at 300 yards and then pounded the immobile ship, basically turning into target practice for the Union ship.Scharf, "History of the Confederate States Navy", 644] After receiving five of the "Weehawken"'s 350-pound shots, which knocked a hole in her casemate, crushed the pilot house and port shutter and severely wounded its pilots and several helmsmen, Webb was compelled to surrender immediately. The "battle" lasted only a few minutes, and the "Atlanta" became the first Confederate ironclad to surrender to the Union. [Luraghi, "A History of the Confederate Navy", 215] He told his crew: "I most earnestly wish that it had happened otherwise, but Providence, for some good reason, has interfered with our plans ..." Meanwhile, the two boats escorting the "Atlanta" scurried upriver for safety. The USS "Nahant" had watched the action without firing a shot.

However, the news stunned the South and Webb faced criticism even after the war from experienced naval officers. He was brave, yes, but lacked good sense. [Luraghi, "A History of the Confederate Navy", 215] Criticism also fell on Secretary of the Navy, Stephen R. Mallory for his policy of replacing older officers with younger ones and for not firmly opposing Webb in his decision.

The CSS "Atlanta" suffered the sole fatality of the battle, as well as 16 wounded.cite web|last=Foenander|first=Terry|year=2003|url=http://home.ozconnect.net/tfoen/atlantatrivia.htm|title="CSS Atlanta" Trivia|accessdate=2006-06-25] From 136 to 165 men were taken captive and moved to the ships USS "Cimarron" and USS "Oleander". These travelled to Fort Lafayette, in New York harbor, and arrived in late June at Fort Warren on Georges Island in Boston Harbor.

Fort Warren was a relatively modern jail where the prisoners were registered and photographed. However, they were deprived of blankets, food, and clothing. Among the captive sailors, there were 12 deaths due to injuries, as well as death by pneumonia and dysentery, caused by the poor conditions in which they were held. Three healthy crew members escaped. Webb was the first to gain parole, in September 1864, and was later exchanged in October of the same year.

CSS "Richmond"

Webb was paroled on September 28, 1864, and exchanged at Cox's Wharf, Virginia on October 18, 1864. He was then again fighting on the James River, as Commander of the CSS "Richmond" from October through November 1864. [cite web|url=http://www.wideopenwest.com/~jenkins/ironclads/confed.htm|title=Confederate Ironclads|accessdate=2006-06-25] [Coski, Capital Navy, 253] Webb was in command of the "Richmond", when the James River Squadron, of which Richmond was a member, during a routine patrol of the James River, were surprised on the morning of October 22, 1864, when the Union Army revealed their new battery at Boulware House, two miles from Chaffin's Bluff.Scharf, "History of the Confederate States Navy", 736-737] To cover the retreat of the wooden vessels of the fleet, the flagship "Virginia II" approached the battery, followed by the "Richmond" and "Fredericksburg", and effected the retreat upstream to Chaffin's Bluff. Though they were caught by surprise, this small action helped determine the effectiveness of the ironclads' casemates against close rifled fire, and in the case of the "Richmond" the results were favorable: her armor withstood the fire, though her smokestack was shot off.



* [http://cssvirginia.org/vacsn3/crew/teaser/ Teaser]

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