George N. Hollins’ Fall From Grace

Captain George N. Hollins, CSN. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

Circumstances change amidst battle and combat leaders often have great discretion in carrying out orders. The maxim of marching to the sound of the guns comes to mind, especially during the US Civil War. Commanders were often praised for following the spirit of their orders, if not the letter, and for showing initiative. In numerous instances such action changed battles and campaigns. In others, actions by an on-scene commander violated directives from superiors and resulted in disgrace. For Captain George N. Hollins, commanding the Confederate Navy’s Mississippi River Squadron, such activity in April 1862 shifted him from an officer held in the highest esteem to one disgraced and relieved of his command.

At the end of 1861, George N. Hollins was one of the most celebrated naval officers of the Confederacy. Dismissed from the US Navy at the start of the war, he was appointed a Confederate naval captain, ranking as the Confederacy’s sixth most senior naval officer. He quickly made headlines seizing vessels on the Chesapeake Bay, earning an appointment to command the Mississippi River Squadron in the process. He then expanded construction, conversion, and acquisition efforts on the Mississippi, seized the privateer-ironclad Manassas, and embarrassed US blockaders at the battle of the Head of Passes in October 1861 in a failed attempt to break the blockade.

As 1862 dawned, Hollins was celebrated by government leaders and civilians alike. Louisiana’s legislature voted him their official thanks and when stepping ashore, Hollins was often greeted by civilians giving him “a hearty shout.”[1] “The name of Hollins,” one newspaper editorialized, “will be mentioned with pride throughout the Southern Confederacy.”[2] An early wartime lithograph of Confederate military leadership included portraits of senior military officers like Albert S. Johnston, P.G.T. Beauregard, Robert E. Lee, and Joseph Johnston. As a testament to his standing within the Confederacy, Hollins was the only naval officer included among them.

Amidst the spring 1862 campaigns to control the Mississippi River, Hollins was left in a conundrum. At the start of the year, he was ordered to take his squadron and defend the upriver approaches from the United States ironclads descending from Cairo, Illinois.[3] Hollins’ improvised river steamers, towboats, and converted privateers spent February and March 1862 evacuating Columbus, Kentucky, defending Island Number Ten, evacuating New Madrid, Missouri, transporting supplies, skirmishing with US warships, and defending Fort Pillow, Tennessee.

Lithograph of early Confederate leaders, ca 1862. The only navy representative is George Hollins, pictured bottom right, highlighting his early wartime standing. (“Rebel officers”. Lincoln Graphics. Brown Digital Repository. Brown University Library)

Changing circumstances challenged Hollins’ directive to protect the upper river. At the Mississippi’s mouth, David Farragut’s Western Gulf Blockading Squadron was preparing to seize New Orleans. The senior naval officer at the Crescent City implored Hollins to rush downriver to challenge Farragut. This left the captain torn asunder. His orders were to protect Fort Pillow, Tennessee, but Navy Secretary Stephen Mallory admitted in a letter to Hollins on April 8 that he should “strike a blow wherever you can” and that the secretary could not “direct your movements in detail” because of his “distance from the scene” of action.[4]

The question of whether to shift downriver or remain upriver could very well decide if the Confederacy would maintain control over the Mississippi River. If Hollins kept his flotilla upriver, his improvised steamers would face the city-class ironclads that helped capture Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and Island Number Ten. If he shifted downriver, he would face Farragut’s wooden steamers that outclassed and outgunned his own. Other factors influenced his decision. Both areas had fortifications mounting heavy artillery to challenge enemy warships. The River Defense Fleet, civilian contractors of the Confederate Army manning requisitioned river steamers strengthened for ramming attacks, had detachments facing both US squadrons. Finally, two Confederate ironclads were under construction at New Orleans, with two more being built at Memphis. None were yet ready, but the New Orleans ironclads were closer to completion.

Hollins decided to proceed downriver with his flotilla. He sent Mallory a dispatch explaining why: “These boats of the enemy [the city-class ironclads] are heavy iron gunboats, either one of which is heavier than all of mine. Have passed Island No. 10. I see nothing that I can do against them in a fight. My vessels might render good service at the mouth of the river.”[5]

Not waiting for a response, Hollins proceeded downriver, leaving orders for his squadron to follow. Three days after departing the upriver defense, Hollins sent another message to Mallory from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, noting his ships could “render effective service below.”[6]

It was not an abject claim. Hollins spent his time steaming downriver fomenting a plan to stop Farragut’s ascent of the Mississippi by repeating his surprise attack at the Head of Passes the previous October, striking at Farragut’s squadron in the night as the United States flotilla crossed the river bar. This might panic Farragut’s squadron and “drive them out of the river,” delaying an assault against New Orleans until the ironclads Louisiana and Mississippi were ready.[7]

His plan was never enacted. When Hollins reached New Orleans, he found a note ordering his relief for proceeding downriver without authorization. Local civilian and military leadership begged Hollins to remain at New Orleans and lead the naval defense of the Crescent City, but he refused, departing New Orleans even as Farragut’s squadron bombarded the fortifications protecting the city.

Even if Hollins remained, he likely would have prevented nothing. By the time the Confederacy’s ships arrived from upriver, Farragut’s squadron was over the bar and well prepared to face a surprise attack akin to one at the Head of Passes. Cooperation among the vessels defending New Orleans was also an issue, with the River Defense Fleet contingent there refusing to follow orders from anyone “except the Secretary of War.”[8] At best, Hollins might have facilitated a better coordinated defensive plan for the Battle of Forts Jackson and Saint Philip, but this was not to be.

In hindsight, historians generally claim that Hollins was unjustifiably sacked.[9] He was, after all, simply following Stephen Mallory’s initial guidance by steaming downriver to a threat he believed his vessels were better capable of addressing. However, his unauthorized movement was just one among many growing grievances. First, Hollins’ squadron remained constantly over budget, so much so that his ordinance officer was removed after a full squadron audit. Second, Hollins had trouble with some military officers, arguing over supplies and ordnance both organizations claimed. Third, Jefferson Davis’ own brother held a low opinion of Hollins, calling him a “lying bragart [sic.]” in a letter to the president.[10] This downriver shift without orders was simply the last nail in the proverbial coffin.

Disgraced and relieved, Hollins found himself commanding shore installations for the remainder of the war. He would never receive another command afloat. When the Confederacy’s Provisional Navy was authorized later in the war, Hollins did not receive a provisional naval commission, something required to hold a position of command afloat.[11] After the war, Hollins retired to Baltimore, becoming the town crier and penning a memoir published 61 years after his death in 1878.[12] Even in that confusing reminiscence, Hollins defended his position in steaming downriver to contest Farragut’s advance on New Orleans, a decision that ultimately shifted his career from one of the most promising of Confederate naval officers to one of disgrace.

Sources:

[1] “The Naval Victory at New Orleans,” Wilmington Journal, Wilmington, NC, October 24, 1861.

[2] “The Great Naval Victory,” Daily Crescent, New Orleans, LA, October 14, 1861.

[3] Mallory to Hollins, February 19, 1862, ORN, Series 1, Vol. 22, 824.

[4] Mallory to Hollins, April 8, 1862, Ibid., 839.

[5] Hollins to Mallory, April 8, 1862, Ibid.

[6] Hollins to Mallory, April 11, 1862, Ibid., 841.

[7] Charles W. Read, “Reminiscences of the Confederate Navy,” Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 1, 341.

[8] Proceedings of the Court of Inquiry Relative to the Fall of New Orleans (Richmond, VA: R.M. Smith, 1864), 79.

[9] Charles L. Dufor, The Night the War Was Lost, (Garden City, NY, Doubleday, 1960), 324; Chester Hearn, The Capture of New Orleans 1862, (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1995), 261; Mark Bielski, A Mortal Blow to the Confederacy: The Fall of New Orleans, 1862, (El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2021), 81-82.

[10] Joseph Davis to Jefferson Davis, April 20, 1862, The Papers of Jefferson Davis, (Baton Rouge, LSU Press, 2003), Vol. 8, 147.

[11] Register of the Commissioned and Warrant Officers of the Navy of the Confederate States to January 1, 1864 (Richmond, VA: MacFarlane and Fergusson, 1864), 4, 40.

[12] George N. Hollins, “Autobiography of Commodore George Nicholas Hollins, C.S.A.,” Maryland Historical Magazine (1939), Vol. 34, No. 3, 228-243.

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4 Responses to George N. Hollins’ Fall From Grace

  1. What a waste. But, this episode also under scores that as in life, military matters are often affected by getting along with others. So many times in my military career, I knew officers who were bright, hard-working, but just hard to work with.
    Tom

    • I’ve known people who weren’t quite the brightest, get the most done by being easy to work with. When you have a team of people who can work effectively together you can get almost anything done. Hollins could’ve been an impressive commander, if he just knew how to lead and work with the people around him.

  2. mark harnitchek says:

    he was probably equally”odd” during his career in the USN … if you can’t play well with others, it really doesn’t matter how otherwise talented you are … the “lying braggart” comment from Davis’ brother also speaks volumes.

    • Neil P. Chatelain says:

      Yes, getting on the wrong side of the Davis family was not good for careers during the war. Jefferson Davis relieved army commanders (Beauregard, J. Johnston) that he could not get along with. Perhaps Hollins being pushed to a desk is another earlier example of what was to come.

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