Naval Actions and their effects

Submitted by C.J. Johnson

The events of early May 1862 included several naval encounters. Historyofwar.org provides the following account of Union and Confederate naval actions in early May. “Fort Pillow was a Confederate fort on the Tennessee bank of the Mississippi River…After the fall of Island No. 10 (7 April 1862), Fort Pillow was the main barrier to Union capture of Memphis. After an army expedition against the fort was abandoned, the burden of capturing the position fell to the Western Flotilla, a collection of ironclads and gunboats created by Flag-Officer Andrew Foote…On 9 May, the flotilla was taken over by Flag-Officer Charles H. Davis. Davis inherited an ongoing attack on Fort Pillow…By early May, the Confederates were ready to strike back. The American Civil War saw a brief resurgence of the ram as a major element in naval warfare. Steam power had increased the speed and manoeuvrability of the warship and iron armour had greatly improved their durability. Naval gunnery briefly lagged behind. In these circumstances, the Confederates had produced the C.S.S. Virginia. Despite being better armed that her Union counterpart at Hampton Roads, the Virginia had also been designed to be a powerful ram… The Confederate defenders of the Mississippi had constructed their own fleet of rams. On 10 May, those rams launched a surprise attack on the Union fleet attacking Fort Pillow. The Union fleet’s response was not well coordinated. Two of their ironclads were badly damaged by ramming attacks, before the Confederate fleet retreated back into the shelter of Fort Pillow’s guns.” Meanwhile on the Virginia Peninsula, the Confederates had retreated on May 9, leaving the port at Norfolk to the Federal troops. This was the home base of C.S.S. Virginia, the Confederate ironclad. According to data at blueandgraytrail.com, “Without its base, the ironclad’s deep draught made the vessel unable to steam up the James to Richmond. Consequently, the Virginia was destroyed by its crew off Craney Island on May 11, 1862. “Still unconquered, we hauled down our drooping colors … and with mingled pride and grief gave her to the flames,” Chief Engineer Ashton Ramsay reflected. The door to the Confederate capital via the James River now lay open. A Union fleet, including the ironclads Galena and Monitor; slowly moved up the river to within seven miles of Richmond. On May 15, 1862, hastily constructed Confederate batteries perched atop Drewry’s Bluff repelled the Union naval advance. Obstructions limited the mobility of Federal vessels as plunging shot from Confederate cannons severely damaged the Galena.”