Jump to content

1861: After Action report of the USS Preble, Battle of the Head of Passes.

Recommended Posts

Not many US Naval sailing ships fired their guns in anger after the War of 1812, let alone small flush-decked sloops of war like the USS Preble. Being the dimensions of the old Wasp/Frolic/Peacock Class sloops of war, the Preble was armed with only sixteen 32-pounder carronades when launched in Portsmouth, NH, in 1839. She had a long career, sailing to China and Japan. She fought in the Mexican war and served as a cadet training ship at the outbreak of the Civil War. She was immediately sent off to the Gulf of Mexico for blockade duty in 1861, rearmed with as many modern guns as she could carry: six medium 32-pounders, one heavy 32-pounder, two 8" shell guns, and one 24-pounder brass howitzer, ten guns in all.


Under the command of Captain French, she found herself part of a blockading squadron at The Head of Passes Mississippi, alongside the sailing Sloop Vincennes, the Flag Steam Sloop Richmond, Commodore Pope and the steamer Water Witch. The poor Preble was a helpless floating battery that was towed into place at the head of the line and anchored there. Their job was to stop privateers from sailing out of New Orleans. Her only movement, in case of emergency, would have been to slip her anchor and head downstream, trying not to run aground. But this was the duty required of her, as there were few steamer then available to the US Navy at that time.


Just such an emergency came one dark night when the Confederate Ironclad ram, the one gun CSS Manassas, attacked them without warning. French's Preble was the first to engage, and she fired her guns almost non-stop until ordered to retire. The Richmond was rammed, but did not sink. The Water Witch and Vincennes panicked and both ran aground, after firing very few shots, and the Vincennes's captain the ordered his crew to abandon ship, and even lit a powder train to the magazine to keep the ship from falling into rebel hands. But a clear thinking quartermaster snuffed it out. All four ships survived and escaped, but the affair caused much embarrassment in the press in what became known as "Pope's Run" or "The Great Skedaddle". Pope and the Vincennes' captain were sacked, but French was praised for his cool conduct.



The following is reproduced from 

"Report of Commanc3er French, U. S. Navy, commanding U. S. ship Preble.

U. S. Ship PREBLE,

Mississippi River, October 22, 1861.

SIR: In obedience to your order, I have to make to you the follow-

ing statement of the occurrences at the Head of the Passes on the

morning of the 12th instant:

This ship was anchored about 150 or 200 yards distant from the

Richmond and about two points on her starboard bow, being the most

advanced ship of the forces there at anchor. I had been on deck

most of the time during the night, had left it but a short time previ-

ously, and was lying in my berth asleep with all my clothes on, when

a midshipman rushed into the cabin exclaiming, Captain, here is a

steamer right alongside of us. .1 sprang instantly on deck; the order

had already been given to beat to quarters and the men were then

assembling at their guns. This was about 3:40 a. m. The moon had

set, or was obscured by clouds, and the night somewhat dark, with the

wind from the northward. As I passed out of my cabin on my way to

the deck I saw through a port an indescribable object not 20 yards

distant from our quarter, moving with great velocity toward the bow

of the Richmond. My orders from the senior officer were in the event

of discovering any danger at night to hoist a red light at the gaff.

This had been done by the officer of the deck, instantly, on the dis-

covery of the object, which was first seen about 15 or 20 feet directly

ahead of this ship, and drifting with the current directly toward us; not

a speck of light, smoke, or any moving thing could be seen on or in it,

and it looked somewhat like a huge whale in the water. The instant the

persons on board of it discovered our movements it seemed to change

its direction to avoid us and made directly for the Richmond. In an

instant huge clouds of the densest, blackest smoke rolled up from it, and

we all expected to see her blown up, but afterwards concluded it must

have been the ram, of which we had been told so much. It next made

its appearance about a hundred yards distant, and directly abeam of

this ship, where it lay quietly for a few minutes, apparently hesitating

whether to come at us or not. 1 instantly opened my port battery

and gave her three broadsides in rapid succession, the Richmond also

firing. She then slowly steamed up the river, and when on our port

bow threw up a rocket. This ship had been lying all the time with a

range of only 15 fathoms cable, in readiness to slip in case of emer-

gen cy. While firing at him word was passed ~that the Richmond was

going ahead of us and to hold our fire. I was directing the firing at

the battery, and hearing it, looked out of a port and saw that she was

astern barely lapping my quarter, and therefore continued my fir-

ing until the ram was out of line of pointing. 1 at once manned my

deck tackle (for my capstan has been crippled since the hurricane at

Key West, and I and therefore compelled to use deck tackles) and

beo~an to heave in my chain. Immediately on the rocket being thrown

up from the ram, three bright lights were seen coming down the river

directly toward this ship, which we at first supposed to be steamers

coming to attack us. They soon, however, increased so rapidly in

size, that we were fully convinced they were fire ships, and such they

proved to be. I was then working smartly with my deck tackle, and

should have succeeded in weighing my anchor, when it was reported

to me that the Richmond was steaming down the river. 1 could not

and would not believe it possible until I ran aft and saw her astern and

heading down. The fire ships were then not more than 150 yards dis-

tant, directly ahead, and coming down upon this ship. At the urgent

suggestion of the first lieutenant and other officers, I then gave the

order to make sail and slip the cable, having first taken off the slip

buoy, so that the enemy should not easily obtain it. The ships head

was immediately headed toward the South West Pass, orders to that

effect, in the event of our being obliged to slip at any time, having

been for some time previously given by the senior officer present.

The moment this ship was discovered by the fire ships (which were in

tow of two steam tugs, one on each side) to be underway, their direc-

tion was changed toward the Richmond and Vincennes, which were on

the opposite side of the river and below this ship. Continuing down

the river I came up with the Richmond, which was burning the Cos-

ton signals, and passing within a few yards of his stern, I hailed and

said I can hear your orders; what are they? The answer was

Proceed down the Pass. We were so near my reply was made

without the use of a deck trumpet. I continued down the Pass and

soon passed by the Vincennes, which soon after signalized to Richmond,

Shall I anchor, which was answered by general signal Cross

the bar. Not long after the Vincennes was discovered to be

aground, with her stern up the river. This ship shortly after took

the bottom, and I feared would also stick, but after two or three smart

rolls worked herself over and crossed the bar, when I anchored near the

coal ships liTi thn and Nightingale, to protect them in case of necessity.

I should have stated that the fire ships were towed on shore by the

enemy at the Head of the Passes, and two or three steamers were seen

coming rapidly down the river to attack the ships. The Richmond was

at that time slowly moving down, Water Witch assisting Vincennes. The

engagement had now commenced between the Richmond, Vincennes,

and Water Witch on our side, and three of the enemys steamers, one o

them being a large bark-rigged vessel, said to be the iJfiramon, but

now called the McRae; two other steamers were also in company, but

I could perceive no firing from them. At this time signal was made

from Richmond to ships outside the bar to get underway. I, of

course, obeyed the signal, as did also the Kuhn; the Nightingale being

ashore, of course could not. It was not long before we discovered the

Richmond to be aground; the firing continued about two hours or

more, when the enemys. steamers retired up the river. About noon

received from the Water Witch 6 officers and TO men from the Vin-

cennes~, which, we then learned, had been abandoned.

The only signals I saw made by the Richmond during the engage-

ment were those made to this ship, and one other to Water Witch,

Engage the enemy.

Respectfully, yom obedient servan ~,


Commanding U S. Ship Preble.

Flag-Officer Wi~r. MCKEAN,

Commanding (Gulf Blockading /Squadron, U. S. S. Niagara.​)"

The USS Preble was relegated to guard ship duties in 1863 at Pensacola, FL, when she was destroyed by an accidental storeroom fire. The Preble and her four sister ships Decatur, Hull, Marion and Yorktown, deserve to be modeled. A full set of plans survives of her drawn by Chapelle for the Smithsonian.
Edited by uss frolick
Link to comment
Share on other sites

 Official Account of the USS Preble's destruction:

Report of Acting Master Shanleland, U. S. Navy, regarding the destruc-
tion by fire of the U. S. ship Preble at Pensacola.

NAVY YARD, PENSACOLA, April 28, 1863.
SIR: It is my painful duty to report the total destruction of the
U. S. ship Preble, while lying at anchor off the town of Pensacola, on
the morning of the 27th instant. At 9: 30 a. m. the alarm of fire was
made. I immediately started for the deck, and in passing from my
cabin saw a volume of dense black smoke and flame issuing from the
forehold. I instantly ordered to beat to quarters, and at the same time
made every effort to subdue the fire. At 9:40, finding the fire increas-
ing rapidly, 1 ordered Mr. Knowlton, acting ensign and executiv

Page 163


officer, to have the magazine flooded and to inform me when the fire
reached the bulkhead of the wardroom. At 10:15 or thereabouts the
fire had reached the wardrooni bulkhead. I instantly gave the word,
All hands leave the ship, as I found it impossible to save her. I
beg to state that all hands did their duty in trying to subdue the flames.
The officers and men lost all their personal effects.
At 10: 50 the ship blew up.
From a report from Vincent B. Clark, landsman, I learn that the
fire originated by the carelessness of William J. Wilson, ships cor-
poral, temporarily acting captain of the hold. I can not learn further
than he was emptying a barrel of tar oil into the tank; neither can I
tell if he had an open light or a lantern. My orders have been very
positive that no open light be used on any account in the hold.
For a list of casualties I respectfully refer you to the accompanying
report of Surgeon James S. Knight.
I respectfully ask that a court enquiry be called as soon as possible.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Hon. GIDEON WELLES, Acting commanding.

Secretary of tite Navy.


From all I can learn, no blame can be attached to the conimanding
officer of the Prebie.
A. GiBsoN,
Gommander and Senior (officer A/bat.


PENSACOLA NAVY YARD, April 28, 1863.

SIR: In compliance with your request, I beg to report the following
casualties which happened during the burning of the U. S. ship Preble
on the 27th instant:
John Norris, boatswains mate; hand, feet, and face badly burned.
William King, master at arms; hand burned slightly.
William Vetterline, marine; contusion of great toe.
William J. Wilson, ships corporal; suffocated.
Assistant Surgeon, U. S. Navy.
Acting master, commanding.


At the time, the Preble had been rearmed with 18 heavy guns: twelve medium 32-pounders, four 8 inch shell guns and two 20-pounder parrot rifles, a battery which she could not have born at sea, but suited her status as a stationary guard ship.


Edited by uss frolick
Link to comment
Share on other sites

An unidentified officer recalled the fire in the Portsmouth Journal of May 30, 1863:

"Those on the lower deck had barely time to escape with their lives, many of them being quite severely burned ... In 15 minutes the ship was untenable, and the order was given to leave. It was impossible for many of them to reach the gangway, and they were obliged to throw themselves overboard, to be picked up by the boats.

In less than an hour after the fire broke out, the magazine exploded, and all that remained of the Preble was in mid air. It was the most sublime and fearful sight I ever witnessed. The flames seemed to shoot upward for nearly a mile, and writhed and wriggled like so many fiery serpents, and near the top of the flames a second explosion took place, caused by a shell or large box of ammunition. The three masts were still standing when the explosion took place, and up they went into the air, whole, with the guard flag still flying at the fore."

See "Constructing Munitions of War: the Portsmouth Navy Yard Confronts the Confederacy", By Richard E. Winslow III, Portsmouth Marine Society, page 164.

Burned bits of the Preble reportedly wash up after heavy storms. The wreck was discovered by the navy in 1963, when artifacts were recovered, but its location was forgotten. Currently, archeologists are searching for her again.

Edited by uss frolick
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Here is a interesting, yet sad letter written by Commander French concerning four runaway slaves that sought US Navy protection. Note that the USS Preble and the USS Marion were identical sister-ships! How often did that happen?


"Report of Commander French, U. S. Navy, requesting instructions

regarding the disposition of four contrabands.


head of the Passes, Mississippi River, October 5, 1861.

SIR: While lying at anchor with this ship and the U. S. ship Marion

at Ship Island, and being momentarily on board the last-named ship, on

the afternoon of the 24th of September ultimo, a small rowboat wa

reported as pulling from the mainland in the direction of the ship.

Not certain whether they were coming there or intending to land on

Cat Island, where rebel steamers had been passing, I directed Lieu-

tenant-Commanding Bryant to dispatch a boat either to pursue or

relieve them, as the case might be. In a short time the boat returned,

bringing with them a small boat and four contrabands, or runaway

slaves. They had made their escape from Handsboro, Miss., and were

seeking refuge on board our ships. Their names and names of their

masters are as follows: Parker Hamilton, Toney Graves, Stephen

ONeil, belonging to R. C. Cowens; William Sanders, belonging to

Robert Carr. Upon their statement that they were being almost

starved to death, and worked to death, and that they wanted to stay

with us, I directed Lieutenant-Commanding Bryant to retain them on

board the Marion and to supply them with rations, and to send the

other two on board this ship.

On the arrival of Commander Smith in the steamer Massachusetts,

with orders for me to report to you at Pass ~ lOutre, I reported the

circumstances to him and received his orders to bring them all to you.

I have them all here, and await your orders as to the disposition to be

made of them.

From these contrabands I learn the rebels have a powder mill in

full blast at a place called Red Bluff, in Landsboro, on Bernards

Bayou. They say it is working night and day and that daily trips are

made by carts and wagons, bringing the raw materials, I presume, and

taking& away the manufactured article. They state there are soldiers

at Biloxi, a place 2 miles distant, and also at Ocean Springs, another

landing place on the bayou, below the powder mill. One of them

says a revenue cutter guards the entrance of the bayou, while the

others know nothing about it.

Very respectfully, H. FRENCH,


Flag-Officer WM. W. MCKEAN,

Commander/ Gulf Blockading Squadron, U. S. S. Niagara."


Edited by uss frolick
Link to comment
Share on other sites

The attack of the CSS Ram Manassas was actually the Preble's second "battle' of the week.


Two days before the battle of Head of Passes, a rebel steamer, CSS Ivy, chugged down river and opened fire on the Richmond and the Preble with her rifled 32-pounder, performing a sort of recon by force.  The Union ships returned fire, but to no avail, their smoothbores just could not reach.


Here is the report of Captain Pope, U. S. Navy, regarding the attack by Confed-
crate steamer Ivy upon the United States vessels at the Head of the
Passes, MissIssippi River.

Mississppi River, October 9, 1861.
SIR: I have to report that the Ivy (steamer) has been down this
afternoon and made an attack upon these ships, throwing shot and
shell over this ship and the Preble, keeping herself entirely out of
the range of any guns on board either of the ships, her shot passing
some 500 yards over this ship, which makes it evident that we are
entirely at the mercy of the enemy. We are liable to be driven from
here at any moment, and, situated as we are, our position is untenable.
I may be captured at any time by a pitiful little steamer mounting
only one gun. The distance at which she was firing I should estimate
at 4 miles. with heavy rifled cannon, throwing her shot and shell far
beyond us. This may have been an experiment to ascertain the rang
of our guns, which they now have, and of oourse will quickly avail
themselves of the knowledge.
The guns for the battery have not yet been landed.
It would be the height of folly to send coal or provisions, as they
could not be taken on board under the fire of the enemy.
Respectfully, your obedient servant,
Flag-Officer Y~T W. MCKEAN
Commanding Gulf Blockading Squadron."


I suspect that shot flying 500 feet over the deck of the USS Richmond from the distance of four miles (from a 32-pounder) was a bit of an exaggeration. 

Edited by uss frolick
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Report of Captain Pope, commanding U. S. S. Richmond. Note no mention is made of the Preble signaling and firing her broadsides prior to the Ram striking the Richmond.


South West Pass of Mississippi River, October 13, 1861.

SIR: I have the honor to make the following report:

At 3:4~ a. in., October 12, 1861, while the watch on deck were

employed in taking coal on board from the schooner Joseph IL Toone,

a ram was discovered in close proximity to this ship. By the time the

alarm could be given, she had struck the ship abreast of the port fore

channels, tearing the schooner from her fasts and forcing a hole

through the ships side.

Passing aft, the ram endeavored to effect a breach in the stern, but

failed. Three planks in the ships side were stove in about 2 feet

below the water line, making a hole about 5 inches in circumference.

At the first alarm the crew promptly and coolly repaired to their

Page 704


quarters, and as the ram passed abreast of the ship the entire port

battery was discharged at her, with what effect it was impossible to

discover, owing to the darkness. A red light was shown as a signal of

danger and the squadron was underway in a very few minutes, hav-

ing slipped their cables. I ordered the Prebie and Vincennes to proceed

down the South West Pass, while I covered their retreat, which they

did at about 4:50 a. m. At this time three large fire rafts, stretching

across the river, were rapidly nearing us, while several large steamers

and a bark-rigged propeller were seen astern of them. The squadron

proceeded down the river in the following order: First, Preble; second,

Vincennes; third, Richmond,,~ fourth, Water Witch, with the prize

schooner Frolic in tow. When abreast of the pilot settlement the pilot

informed me that he did not consider it safe to venture to turn this ship

in the river, but that he believed he could pass over the bar. 1 accord-

ingly attempted to pass over the bar with the squadron, but in the

passage the Vincennes and Richmond grounded, while the Preble

went over clear. This occurred about 8 oclock, and the enemy, who

were now down the river with five steamers, commenced firing at us,

while we returned the fire from our port battery and rifled gun on the

poop, our shot, however, falling short of the enemy, while their shell

burst on all sides of us and seven 1 passed directly over the ship. At

about 9:30 Commander Handy, of the Vincennes, mistaking my sig-

nal to the ships outside the bar to get underway~ for a signal for

him to abandon his ship~ came on board the Richmond with all his

offlcers and a large number of the crew, the remainder having gone

on board the Water Witch. Captain Handy before leaving his ship

had placed a lighted slow match at the magazine. Having waited a

reasonable time for an explosion, I directed Commander Handy to

return to his ship with his crew, to start his water and, if necessary, at

his own request, to throw overboard his small guns, for the purpose of

lightening his ship, and to carry out his kedge with a cable to heave

off by. At 10 a. m. the enemy ceased firing and withdrew up the

river. During the engagement a shell entered our port quarter port,

and one of the boats was stove by another shell. At 10: 30 a. m.

dispatched Acting Master Devens, of the Vincennes, in the ]4olic,

with orders to the South carolina, in Barataria Bay, to come down to

our assistance.

At 1 p. m. made a steamei~ standing down from Pass  de Outre

toward us, which proved to be the army transport 2W~ (ilellan, with

rifled guns from Fort Pickens for this ship. At4 p. m. sent the Water

Witch down to Barataria Bay for the South Carolina and Huntsville,

with orders to order the latter to Pass ~ lOutre and the former to this

place. At 5 p. m. received on board the guns and ammunition from

the Ate Clellan. My object in dispatching the Water Witch for the

above-named steamers was for the purpose of having them up as soon

as possible, and to send the Huntsville to guard Pass ~ lOutre and the

South Carolina to assist in towing this ship and the Vincennes over

the bar to prevent us being fired or sunk. I have this morning suc-

ceeded in getting this ship over the bar. The McCellan and South

Carolina are using all exertions to get the Vincennes off. The Night-

imgale is hard ~and fast ashore to the northward of the bar. I have

succeeded in reducing the leak of this ship, so that our small engines

keep the ship free. This is only temporary, and the ship will have to

go to some place and have three planks put in. I have received th

Page 705


rifle guns, and placed the 32-pounder on the forecastle and the

12-pounder on the poop. The coal schooner Joseph IL Jioone fell into

the hands of the enemy, having about 15 tons of coal on board. Could

I have possibly managed this ship in any way than keeping her head

up and down the river, I would have stopped at Pilot Town to give

battle, but this was found too hazardous, owing to her extreme length.

The attempt was made, but the broadside could not be brouoht to

bear without running the ship ashore. I then concluded, as advised

by the pilot, to run for the bar, and trust to chance of finding water

enough to cross.

The schooner Jo/tn ~V Ceni,~ is at anchor outside of the bar. As

soon as I can discharge her, the guns, etc., the charter party will be

endorsed as you directed. In narrating the affair of the river, I

omitted to state that the ram sunk one of our large cutters and a shot

from the enemy stove the gig. I am pleased to say that the Vincennes

is afloat and at anchor outside on my starboard quarter. I send by the

life (lellan the detachment of men belonging to the Niagara and Colo

rado. I have ordered Assistant Surgeon Robinson froni the Vncennes

to temporary duty onboard of this ship.

At the advice of the surgeon of this ship, I have permitted Assistant

Surgeon Howell (condemned by survey) to return in the iVic (ic/lan,

all of which I hope you will approve.

I have also directed Commander Alden to proceed with all dispatch

to Pass ~ l~Outre, and as soon as relieved by a steamer to return to his

station. I also loaned to him the rifled howitzer sent out for the Pow-

/atan. I have ordered the master of the Nightingale to deliver 50

tons of coal to the 11Th Clellan. This, together with what I will take

out, will, I trust, lighten her so that I will be enabled to haul her off,

when I shall put the guns, etc., from the schooner on board.

Very respectfully, your obedient serVant,


Flag-Officer WM. W. MCKEAN, Captain, commanding Blockading Squadron."

"Nice of Capt. Pope to name the prize schooner after me!

Edited by uss frolick
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Here are Captain French's subsequent sailing orders, should anyone find them of interest:



Order of Flag Officer McLean, U. S. Navy, to commander French,
U. S. Navy, commanding U. S. Ship Preble, regarding the cruising
ground of that vessel.
Off Fort Pickens, November 26, 1861.
SIR: You will cruise in the ship under your command between Ship
Island Shoal and Sabine Pass until further orders. Commander T. D.
Shaw, in the U. S. S. Montgomery, is ordered to blockade Berwick
Bay. He will occasionally supply you with water. Should he not be
able to furnish you a sufficient quantity, you will, when necessary,
proceed to the South West Pass of the Mississippi for a supply, but
are only to leave your cruising ground in case of necessity. About
the time of the expected arrival of the supply steamer, you can run
into Allafalaya Bay or to the anchorage off Galveston, for the pur-
pose of obtaining from her a supply of fresh provisions, etc., and will
resume your station as soon as that is accomplished.
I am, respectfully, your obedient servant, ~ MCKEAN,

Flag- Officer, Commanding Gulf Blockading Squadron.
Commander H. FRENCH,
Commanding U. S. Sloop Preble.
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Commander McKean was not Happy:

"Second report of Flag-Officet McKean, ~J. S. Navy.
Off South TVcst Pass ~Mississippi [River], October 25, 186].
SIR: On the 15th instant I had the honor to address to you, from the
anchoiage off Fort Pickens, a short and hasty dispatch (No. 4) inform-
Ing you of the disastrous intelligence received from this place by the
army steamer life Olcllan.
This dispatch I forwarded by the hands of Commander Ronckendorff,
who took passage in the McClellan for New York.
I left Fort Pickens at 2 p. m. on the 15th instant, spoke the U. S. S.
South Carolina off Pass ~ lOutre at 2 a. m. on the 16th, and at
8:30 a. m. came to anchor off this Pass.
I immediately commenced an investigation for the purpose of learn-
ing all the circumstances of the affair, and I am sorry to be obliged to
say that the more I hear and learn of the facts the more disgraceful
does it appear.
N w Il------YOL 16 4

Page 706


My first impulse was to place another officer in command and order
a reoccupation of the position, but upon mature reflection I decided to
await the arrival of some of the Government-built gunboats, which I
can not bitt hope are now on their way to join this squadron.
My reasons are as follows: The Richmond, owing to her great
length, is difficult to handle in a narrow channel with a strong current,
and the ~9~tyler not having arrived, I had no steamer to support her
unless I withdrew the South carolina from Barataria.
This I was unwilling to do, having received informhtion from the
crews of the schooners captured near that place that other vessels
belonging to the same owner were loading with arms i p Havana.
I say, no steamer, for I am convinced from experience that sailing
ships in that position are worse than useless.
On the arrival of snitable vessels I shall at once, unless otherwise
instructed, again take possession of the Head of the Passes.
I found on my arrival that the sloop Preble had been dispatched to
Ship Island to obtain wood, though a supply can be procured on any
of the mud banks at the entrance of this river. I can not but express
surprise that any officer should have asked permission, or been allowed
to leave at such a time, more especially, as I find that the Pass ~ lOutre
was left unguarded for twenty-four hours, rendering it possible that
armed vessels of the enemy may have escaped, though I have no
information that such is the case.
1 had prepared a precept for a court of enquiry that I might be
enabled to report legally ascertained facts to the Department, but I
found that it would be impossible to assemble a court and obtain the
testimony of the witnesses without diverting too many vessels and
officers from the far niore important duties of the blockade. ..."
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Pope wrote another report trying to clarify matters:



Additional report of Captain Pope, U. S. Navy, commanding U. S. S. Richmond


Q~ Pass i~ (Ontre, lJfississippi River, October 17, 1861.

SIR: My report to you in regard to our leaving the Head of the

Passes having been made iii a great hurry, in order to acquaint you

as soon as possible of the leading facts of the case many incidents

vere omitted which I will now report.

After the first blow given to this ship by the ram, on the morning

of the 12th instant, it remained under our port quarter, apparently

endeavoring to fix herself in a position to give us a second blow, but

the slipping of our chain, and the ship ranging ahead under steam,

frustrated the object. The ram dropped astern, but soon gathered

headway and ranged our port beam, receiving the fire of our port bat-

tery, some guns of which were discharged twice. It then ranged

ahead, passing up the river, receiving the fire of the port battery o

Page 710


the Preble, disappearing in the darkness. Owing to the darkness I

was unable to see the effect of our shot upon her, but some officers are

of the opinion they heard shot strike the ram. I passed the Preble

and stood up the river, when Acting Master Wilcox reporting we were

getting too close to the starboard shore, the helm was put up and

the ship rapidly fell off, presenting her broadside up and down the

river. As soon as she had drifted near the Head of the Passes, inef-

fectual attempts were made to get her head upstream, when I found

myself a mile and a half down the South West Pass. I then put the

helm up, continued down the river, hoping to be able to get her head

round off Pilot Town. In doing this she drifted some distance below,

grounding broadside to. Soon after this the enemy opened their fire

upon us, which was kept up for about two hours. The day before

leaving the Head of the Passes I had succeeded in placing one of our

IX-inch broadside guns on the topgallant forecastle, giving a long range,

and it was continually fired during the engagement.

About 9 oclock a. ni., during the firing, it was reported to me that

several boats filled with men were leaving the I79~ce~2~es; some went

on board the lYater TVUeL, others came to this ship. In a few nun-

utes Commander Handy, with several of his officers, canie on board,

Commander Handy having wrapped around his waist in broad folds

an American flag, and upon being asked, stated he had abandoned his

ship in obedience to signal. Being told no such signal had been made,

he insisted he so read it; that Captain Winslow had so read it. The fol-

lowing day Lieutenant Commanding Winslow, being asked, remarked,

he saw no such signal; that when he was asked by one of Captain

Handys officers if that was the meaning of the signal, sent word to

Captain Handy that it was impossible to get guns out of his stern ports

and fight his ship. As soon as it was thought from the description of

the slow match that it had gone out, Captain handy, his officers and

crew, returned to their ship. In the evening I received a note from

Captain Ilandy. a copy of which, and my reply, is enclosed.

After I had taken the guns and ammunition from the i1I~ Clellan she

was sent to the assistance of the T7ineeiines, and endeavored to get her

afloat; in the meantime I carried out a stream anchor from this ship

astern, and after unsuccessful attempts for two or three hours the

il/c (Yellan returned to this ship and was lashed alongside to wait until

a rise of the tide. At early daylight of the 13th instant the South

Garolima, Commander Alden, came in, and I directed him to proceed

and if possible get the Vincenne8 afloat. Soon after, this ship was got

afloat, her head downstream, and the McCeilan was instantly cast off

and went to assist in getting the Vincennes afloat. As there was not

room for this ship to lay at anchor, or to turii to point her head up the

stream, I had no other alternative than to cross the bar and anchor

outside. My mind was very much relieved, knowing that the arma-

ment of four rifled guns on board the iJilc (leilan, together with the

long gun of the South carolina, would keep the enemy at bay. At

about 2p. m. the Vincennes was got afloat, crossed the bar, and anchored

near this ship, and the South Uarolina was immediately dispatched to

Pass ~ lOutre to guard that place until I could send him a relief.

My retreat down the Pass, although painful to me, was to save the

ships, by preventing them being sunk and falling into the hands of the

enemy, and it was evident to me they had us in their power by the

operation of the ram and fire rafts. If I have erred in all this matte

Page 711


it is an error of judgment; the whole affair came upon me so suddenly

that no time was left for reflection, but called for immediate action

and decision.

The ram having made its appearance the next day at the mouth of

the river, the inipression is she sustained no injury from our shot,

only waiting an opportunity to destroy the ships.

ft having been rumored there was a panic on board this ship at the

time she was engaged with the enemy, I state it to be false; both offi-

cers and men exhibited the utmost coolness and determination to do

their duty. My orders and those of all the officers were carried out

with as much coolness as if it had been an everyday affair, and their

whole conduct merits high commendation, and they would feel grati-

tied to prove their bravery by being permitted to take part in the

contemplated attack on Pensacola, as requested in notes from me to

you on this subject. In both engagements with the enemy the whole

fire appeared to be directed to the destruction of this ship, most of

the shot being apparently directed to the quarter of this vessel, pre-

sumed for the purpose of disabling our rudder and propeller.

I omitted in my hasty report to mention the essential aid I have

received from Captain Gray, commanding the army transport M~ Ciel-

lam, in getting this ship and the Vineennes afloat. From Lieutenant

Commanding Winslow, commanding the Water TI7tck, I received every

possible assistance that could be rendered.

I directed Commander French, of the Preble, as soon as it could be

done, to pr~eed to Pass ~ lOutre to guard that entrance. This he was

unable to do at the time; the wind being ahead and a strong current

to leeward, he was barely able to hold his own. He came in and

anchored, and reported to me he was quite out of wood and coal. I

told him he could procure wood off the North East Pass, where he

would be stationed after the arrival of one of the steamers at Pass ~


He replied it was impossible to get wood there, and earnestly

requested to go to Ship Island, where he would, in two days, procure

wood sufficient for himself and the Vincennes. 1 reluctantly consented

to his doing so, knowing that one of the steamers, either the South

Carolina or huntsville, would reach Pass ~ lOutre in advance of him.

All of which is respectfully submitted.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,


Flag-Officer WM. W. MCKEAN, (aptain.

(~ovmnandinq Gulf Blockadinq Squadron.

P. 5. This and my first report to you embrace all the facts to my

best recollection, and if they are not satisfactory I respectfully ask

for a court of enquiry in the matter; and if it can not be granted with-

out detriment to the service at this time, that it may be referred to the

honorable Secretary of the Navy.


[Enclosure i.]

Edited by uss frolick
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Let's let Captain Robert not-so-Handy of the Vincennes chime in:




Report of Commander Handy, ~. S. Navy, Commanding U. S. ship Vincennes.

Off sSomtA West Pass, ifississippi River, October 14, 1861.
SIR: I have to report my safe arrival at this place, having left the
Head of the Passes on the 12th instant in company with the Richmond
and Preble. On my route down it was my misfortune (as anticipated)
to ground some distance from the bar, going head on. The three ves-
sels were pursued by rebel armed steamers, who, after awhile, com-
menced a brisk firing. The Vincennes not being able, from her situ-
ation,to bring her broadside guns to bear on the enemy, I took down
all the cabin bulkheads and caused two of the 8-inch shell guns to be
run out of the stern ports; continued a sharp flung with them until
the signal, No. 1 (as understood on board this ship), was displayed
from the Richmond. I continued my firing, however, for some time
afterwards. I then directed the officers and crew to repair to the
Richmond and Water Witch.. Previously to leaving this ship I caused
a slow match to be placed in the magazine, which fortunately did
not cause an explosion. I then reported myself to Captain Pope.
Ascertaining from him that there was a misunderstanding about the
signal, I repaired with the officers and crew on board the Richmond
to the Viveewnes, obtaining his permission to throw overboard the
fourteen 32-pounders, round shot, and any articles that might have a
tendency to lighten the ship, as I was more than anxious to save her
from the grasp of the rebels, feeling that the vessel was of more value
to the Government than the guns. Although the ship was lightened
by the operation, still it was not sufficient to float her, but the day fol-
lowing I was relieved from my embarrassing situation by the steamers
ASOTht/t (Jarokna and life Ole/lan.
I trust, sir, that my conduct will meet with your entire approbation,
governed as I was from a strict sense of duty.
I am, sir, respectfully, your obedient servant,
Flag-Officer MCKEAN, IT. S. Navy.
Link to comment
Share on other sites



They seem to have had just as much trouble. During the Revolution, it apparently was nightmare where excellent commanders with seatime and experience were by-passed to some with "connections".  From the little I've read, this was pretty rampant in all of the military up to and through the "Recent Unpleasentness" of the 1860's.  It might have continued on but I'm not up on my reading towards the 'newer' eras...

Edited by mtaylor
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Mark, thanks. Sort of figured there had to be outside influence for some naval commanders, too. Most of my study has been on the Brown Water ships along the Mississippi, which were novel with the Army built and run City class ships.


I've also heard it called the "War between the States", "War of Northern Aggression" and "War of Southern Arrogance". I usually call it the American Civil War or ACW for a quick reference.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I used the "Recent Unpleasantness" as that's what some wonderful 'older' ladies I've met down in South called it.  Kinda' weird in some ways since they were volunteers at several museums and battlegrounds I visited.   The younger ones just called it the Civil War or in one case:  "The Uncivil War".  


If you look at the trouble Lincoln had with Generals (the usual politically connected ones), there was some (much?) with the Navy by inference.  The only reason the incompetence didn't come out in the news of the day was there were no major battles fought on the blue water.  The rivers, as you say were the Army's turf and they had issues.  Things got messy when the Confederates were on the cliffs overlooking one of the rivers as they could never bring guns to bear.  Part of the issue was procurement for the guns and mounts... run by politics not by the guys who knew what they needed.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

It's been driving me crazy, I've been trying to find a specific source I saw about the Dale-class 3rd-class sloops Preble was a member of.


I wanted to give a little background to the Dales though. They were small, trying to do too much on the tonnage and mounted medium 24-pounders initially. Later on they recieved small 32-pounders (27 cwt) to replace them. Several of the class existed well towards the end of the 19th century and there's a few good pictures of them. The drawing here is based on Chapelle's reproduction of the class draught. I've been piecing together the sail plan from the spar dimensions for Yorktown, it's still a work in progress.




The source I've been yanking out my hair to find is a report from Commodore Thomas Ap Catesby Jones to Congress informing them of what was going on in his Pacific Squadron. He complained about not having a single shell-firing gun and how most of the cannons on his ships were old (I think only one of his sloops only had the newer percussion locks). He had two Dales under his command, the name ship and the Yorktown. He said they sailed well and were weatherly and how that was a good thing....because they were horrible in every other respect. He compared their strength very unfavorably to the small British sloops and brigs on the west coast and commented that they were especially bad for Pacific use because they could only barely wedge in 4 months worth of supplies and a proper patrol in the region took closer to six. I'm going to keep looking for it and when I find the report, I'll post a transcript of it. It's up on Google Books somewhere.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    • No registered users viewing this page.
  • Create New...