The Nashville Dash

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CSS Nashville

“Great excitement has been created here by the arrival in our waters this morning of a steamer of war bearing the flag of the Confederate States of America,” reported the London Times on November 22, 1861.[1]

This first such visitor to Great Britain—the CSS Nashville—squeaked through the blockade, dashed across the Atlantic battered by furious storms, and steamed into simmering controversy at Southampton.

The Queen had formally recognized a state of belligerency between the warring parties and declared neutrality, which under international law, entitled warships of the Confederacy equal treatment with those of any nation.

Nashville was a small side-wheeled steamer built in New York in 1853 for costal trade and passengers, fast under steam—reportedly twelve knots—but with light construction, limited coal stowage, small sailing rig, and only two six-pounder cannon. She had been seized in Charleston—one of the few vessels the Confederate government could get their hands on—primarily for her potential to evade blockaders and outrun pursuers.

Assigned to command of Lieutenant Robert B. Pegram, CSN, Nashville’s first mission was to convey new Confederate envoys James Mason and John Slidell to Europe. But while Pegram awaited optimum conditions of wind and tide for a night scoot down the main channel past five Union warships, Mason and Slidell became impatient. They departed on a smaller steamer out a side channel to Cuba and would catch a British mail packet from there.

Nashville departed Charleston on October 26. “The moon had already risen above the horizon as we were crossing the bar, enabling us to clearly perceive the enemy’s vessels, while the Nashville, lying in the shadow thrown by the land, was completely hidden from hostile observation,” recalled Pegram.[2] Even without Mason and Slidell, she carried important dispatches to Confederate operatives along with hopes of navy secretary Stephen Mallory to show the flag and advance the cause.

Mallory’s thinking appears in instructions to another officer on a similar mission: “A speedy recognition of our Government by the Great European Powers is anticipated….” The secretary was confident that his officers would receive due consideration as representatives of a belligerent power with which the host country desires close commercial relations. “The strictest regard for the rights of neutrals cannot be too sedulously observed; nor should an opportunity be lost of cultivating friendly relations with their naval and merchant services, and of placing the true character of the contest in which we are engaged in its proper light….”[3]

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CSS Nashville destroys clipper Harvey Birch, November 19, 1861

As Nashville approached the Irish coast two days before arrival at Southampton, she encountered the 1,482-ton Yankee clipper Harvey Birch, Havre to New York.

Pegram had no instructions to take enemy vessels, but this was too tempting. He hoisted the Confederate flag, fired a warning shot, and demanded her surrender. Crew and passengers were taken aboard and the clipper set afire. Pegram: “Before she was lost to our sight her masts had gone by the board and she had burned to the water’s edge.”[4]

As a belligerent, the Confederacy was entitled to take enemy prizes. But this was the first such act of destruction in the busy North Atlantic shipping lanes—on Great Britain’s doorstep. How would they react? Prisoners from Harvey Birch were set ashore in Southampton.

mason-slidellNews arrived five days later, November 27, that James Mason and John Slidell had been forcibly removed from the British steamer Trent near Cuba by Captain Charles Wilkes in the USS San Jacinto, igniting the infamous “Trent Affair.”

The British were outraged; this was an egregious violation of international law and an insult to national honor, which could not be tolerated. “There then appeared to be a great probability of an early rupture between England and the United States,” reported Pegram.[5] Those British inclined to view Nashville’s destruction of Harvey Birch as piracy now viewed the Confederates more sympathetically.

In the meantime, Nashville required thorough overhaul; Pegram was anxious to get her into drydock. She leaked badly; engines needed work, and the hull required caulking. He also requested permission to remove deck cabins for improved speed and safety in open ocean, and to strengthen deck and bulwarks for larger guns. These improvements would make her a good dispatch boat, blockade runner, or even cruiser. Given the mood in Great Britain, he wrote, “I am inclined to think that no impediments will be thrown in our way by the authorities….”[6] He also hoped the British would break the blockade, clearing the way for return home.

By the end of the year, however, Pegram was discouraged. “The authorities are dreadfully afraid of doing something to incur the displeasure of the Yankees,” he grumbled while stuck in drydock and trusting of no one. Repairs to render Nashville seaworthy were in progress, but no warlike improvements or alternations were allowed. “I wish with all my heart that I could get away from this place, but I can see no alternative but to await the decision of the Government respecting the affair of the Trent.”[7]

Word of Nashville’s activities reached over the Atlantic in early December. The contract mail and passenger steamship Fulton refused to sail from New York for Havre as scheduled; they were, “unwilling to sustain the loss which would certainly accrue.”[8] The New York Board of Underwriters urged navy secretary Gideon Welles to station armed vessels on the English and French coasts.

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USS Tuscarora (Illustrated London News)

Welles immediately dispatched the brand new and powerful sloop-of-war USS Tuscarora, Captain T.A.M. Craven, from New York to Southampton with primary objective of seizing Nashville—a vessel, “without a recognized flag or authority,” which was guilty of piracy, and which now sought refuge in a British port.

Welles did not know how authorities there would treat Nashville, but, “this wanton destruction…upon the high seas requires punishment and must receive immediate attention.”[9]

Craven was to consult with U.S. Minister to Great Britain Charles Francis Adams and with consuls at Liverpool, London, and elsewhere. Several vessels already had sailed from British ports with British papers under the British flag loaded with arms, munitions, and contraband of war for the, “insurrectionary regions of our country.” Craven was to cultivate friendly relations with all, and to, “carefully avoid trespassing on neutral rights while vigilantly and firmly exercising your own.” However, “This abuse must be corrected and this traffic stopped…. Great discretionary power is given you from the necessities of the case.” Craven anchored out in the bay at Southampton on January 9, 1862, and was pleased to find the “pirate steamer” lying at the dock.[10]

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Commander T.A.M. Craven

Thus began a contest of wills between Pegram of Nashville and Craven of Tuscarora, with frustrated British officials caught in the middle, represented by Royal Navy Captain Charles Patey, senior officer of the port. Craven stationed men on the pier to watch and report every Nashville move, particularly at night. The port superintendent ordered them off.

Complaints reached up to the secretary of state for foreign affairs; he contacted Minister Adams, who admonished Craven to avoid provocations with authorities, “however disagreeable their action may be to you.”[11] Craven hired a pilot boat to stand watch; Captain Patey objected to that also and the boat was dismissed.

Under instructions to prevent hostile acts in British waters, Patey laid down his government’s rules: Each belligerent must provide written twenty-four-hour notice of intent to leave port; the first notice received would have priority, and another twenty-four hours must elapse after the first departure before the other may sail.

Once speedy Nashville got by Tuscarora’s guns, there would be no catching her. Craven’s only chance was to be underway first and lying in wait, and even then, he could not guard both exits from the port. Nashville could escape, “during any dark and stormy night,” he complained to Welles. “The whole transaction appears to me, sir, to have a strong impress of collusion on the part of the authorities to effect the escape of the privateer.”[12] He hatched a plan to depart, return within a day, and give immediate notice of departing again. Patey was advised accordingly and on January 29, Tuscarora proceeded to sea in a raging gale.

James Mason and John Slidell appeared in London that same day after enduring short imprisonment at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor. Northerners had celebrated capture of the Confederate emissaries, but the British demanded immediate release and apology while preparing for war. President Lincoln decided these Rebels would, “prove to be white elephants” and ordered their release. America must stick to her principles concerning rights of neutrals, he wrote: “We fought Great Britain [in the War of 1812] for insisting…on the right to do precisely what Captain Wilkes has done.”[13]

By then sick of both parties, Patey ordered Nashville to leave also. Pegram groused to a sympathetic duke that his movements were being made subordinate to Tuscorora: “I am thus with my weak ship and slender crew to be placed at the mercy of a powerful man-of-war with which it would be madness to attempt to cope.”[14] Craven had just returned to anchorage on February 3 when Nashville finally started out. Captain Patey ordered the frigate HMS Shannon, “with steam up and guns shotted,” to lay near Tuscorora. Craven watched in frustration as his enemy steamed by.

Pegram raced back across the Atlantic, taking as his only other prize a schooner out of Philadelphia, and slipped into Beaufort, North Carolina. Nashville was converted to a blockade runner. Nashville set vital precedents in international law, securing belligerent status for Confederate warships. Disregarding vociferous Union protests, the British stated officially that she was not a pirate, but a commissioned ship-of-war with rights to a safe port and repair facilities. These rulings were crucial to the work of subsequent Rebel raiders including Florida, Alabama, and Shenandoah. Nashville’s brief cruise provoked the first of many bitter political exchanges over the subject of British support for Confederate cruisers, which would extend long after the war.

[1] Chester G. Hearn, Gray Raiders of the Sea: How Eight Confederate Warships Destroyed the Union’s High Seas Commerce (Camden, ME: International Marine Publishing, 1992), 45

[2] R. B. Pegram to Hon. S. R. Mallory, March 10, 1862, in The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1896), (Hereafter cited as ORN), I, 1, 745.

[3] James D. Bulloch, The Secret Service of the Confederate States in Europe; or, How the Confederate Cruisers Were Equipped, 2 vols. (Kindle Edition), location 2055.

[4] R. B. Pegram to Hon. S. R. Mallory, March 10, 1862, ORN I, 1, 746.

[5] Ibid.

[6] R. B. Pegram to Captain J. H. North, November 30, 1861, ORN II, 2, 112.

[7] R. B. Pegram to Captain J. H. North, December 23, 1861, ORN II, 2, 117.

[8] Geo. Mackenzie to Hon. M. Blair, December 2, 1861, ORN I, 1, 228.

[9] Gideon Welles to Commander T.A.M. Craven, December 6, 1861, ORN I, 1, 230-31.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Charles Francis Adams to Commander T. Augustus Craven, January 29, 1862, ORN, I, 1, 295.

[12] T. Augs. Craven to Hon. Gideon Welles, February 3, 1862, ORN, I, 1, 299-300.

[13] Dean B. Mahin, One War at a Time: The International Dimensions of the American Civil War (Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 1999), p. 62.

[14] R. B. Pegram to Hon. S. R. Mallory, March 10, 1862, ORN I, 1, 752.

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4 Responses to The Nashville Dash

  1. Bob Ruth says:

    Dwight:

    Fascinating post. ECW posts on the blockade, the war at sea and other naval operations are much appreciated. This is an area of the CW that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

    England’s deference toward Confederate raiders was a major sticking point with the Lincoln administration throughout most of the war. As I recall, after the war, England agreed to pay the U.S. $15 million in damages caused by Confederate raiders that were built by the British. However, the $15 million was only a fraction of the estimated damage caused by these British-built raiders, as I recall.

    • dwightshughes says:

      Bob: Thanks for the comments. The Brits maintained they were exercising their rights (a reversal of roles from 1812); the vessels were legitimate items of neutral trade. The U.S sued, called “The Alabama Claims” after the most famous Rebel raider. The Brits wanted to repair relations and agreed to international arbitration, which in 1872 awarded damages, a small price to pay for the near elimination of Yankee competition in ocean trade.

  2. Rob Wilson says:

    Very interesting and very well written! I only knew the basics about the Trent Affair. Thanks for filling me in on the details of that and enlightening me about the fascinating story of the Nashville, the USS Tuscarora and what transpired in England.

    • dwightshughes says:

      Thanks Rob! The Trent Affair is of course a much more detailed and fascinating story in itself, but is often considered an isolated incident when it was part of much more serious and ongoing issues concerning British neutrality and Confederate and Union naval operations. So, thought I would come at it from a different angle and a lesser known episode.

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