150 Years Ago This Week: Confederate ironclads detained in London

September, 1863

For some time, Federal authorities in Britain and Washington had been apprehensive over official British quiet approval of the construction of Confederate ironclad vessels in shipyards in Liverpool. With two of the ships, known as Laird Rams because of their bow-mounted ramming spars, close to completion, American ambassador to Britain Charles Francis Adams wrote British Lord Russell on Saturday, Sept. 5, that if the ships were released to the Confederate Navy, “it would be superfluous for me to point out to your lordship that this is war.”

One of the former Confederate ships off Plymouth, England in 1865.
One of the former Confederate ships off Plymouth, England in 1865.

Lord Russell had, unknown to Adams, directed the day before he received the communique from Adams that the Laird Rams should be detained and not turned over to the Confederacy. This ended the last major crisis in British and American foreign relations during the war, and halted the growth of the Confederate Navy.

Amid firing in Charleston Harbor against Ft. Wagner, the Federals approached the ditch surrounding the earthen fort, and the Confederates anticipated an assault. Small attacks by small Union boats against Battery Gregg and the north end of Cummings Point on Morris Island failed.

Also in Charleston, the Mercury attacked President Jefferson Davis in an editorial: “He has lost the confidence of both the army and the people.” President Davis wired Gen. Braxton Bragg in Chattanooga: “What is your proposed plan of operation? Can you ascertain intention of the enemy? Can you not cut his line of communication and compel him to retreat for want of supplies?” The Confederate government was increasingly concerned over the Union threats to Chattanooga and Gen. Bragg’s army, as well as about Federal troops movements into east Tennessee and Knoxville.

During the night of Sept. 6, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, in command at Charleston, realized that the earthworks at Ft. Wagner had served their usefulness following a massive bombardment by Union siege guns, seven naval monitors and ironclads. He knew that a Federal infantry assault the following day would likely succeed, and he ordered the Confederate troops at Ft. Wagner and Battery Gregg to evacuate.

The other main target of the Union assaults, Ft. Sumter, which was now a mass of broken masonry and rubble, still held out, as did the city of Charleston. The next day, Federal troops moved in and occupied Battery Gregg and Ft. Wagner and found both fortifications empty. In the harbor, Adm. John Dahlgren, U.S. Navy, demanded the surrender of Ft. Sumter — a demand met by gunfire from the broken fort.

In Tennessee, fighting intensified around Chattanooga. Federal troops at the Cumberland Gap again cut the rail line joining Virginia and Tennessee. There was fighting at Stevenson, Ala., on the approach to Chattanooga. The Federal expedition led by Maj. Gen. William Franklin arrived off Sabine Pass on the Texas-Louisiana border.

When his troops moved into Sabine Pass the next day (Sept. 8), intending to gain a foothold for a drive towards Houston and Beaumont, Lt. Dick Dowling and 40 Confederates attacked the gunboats and transports from a partly-finished earthen fort. The gunboats in front were struck, ran aground and forced to surrender while the other transports hastily withdrew. It was a humiliating Federal failure and tremendously boosted morale among the western theatre Confederates.

In Richmond, Attorney General Thomas H. Watts resigned his post, having been elected governor of his home state of Alabama; he was succeeded by Wade Keyes. President Davis told Gen. Robert E. Lee of the threats against Gen. Bragg in Tennessee, and considered sending Gen. Lee and a good portion of the Army of Northern Virginia to the western theatre to reinforce Gen. Bragg, but feared what the absence of Gen. Lee and most of his command might mean in Virginia.

The next day, Gen. Bragg reluctantly abandoned the city of Chattanooga when he realized that Gen. Rosecrans and his army were cutting in behind him. With the Confederates withdrawing into Georgia, the Federal troops moved in to occupy Chattanooga. On this same day, after conferences with President Davis, Gen. Lee and others, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet and the First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia left the line of the Army of Northern Virginia on the Rapidan River south of Culpeper and marched to Richmond, intent on reinforcing Gen. Bragg in northern Georgia.


Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.