Repurposing Captured Enemy Vessels Part 2: Confederate Wooden Vessels Flying the US Flag

In Part 1 of this four-part series, I examined how the United States was able to capture three Confederate ironclad warships, repurposing them into the US Navy. In Part 2, I will continue that examination, expanding it to include wooden vessels of the Confederacy captured and repurposed by the United States.

The Confederate government-owned blockade runner Robert E. Lee was captured and repurposed as USS Fort Donelson. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

For the most part, the Confederacy improvised the wooden vessels that served in their naval forces or in a capacity supporting their military overall. Most of these vessels were steamers acquired, purchased, converted, or seized from civilians. Very few wooden steamers were purpose-built by the Confederacy as warships. In a way, this was similar to the United States, which besides using its ample maritime infrastructure to construct warships, also purchased and converted wooden steamers for improvised use. Unsurprisingly then, when the United States was able to capture wooden steamers of the Confederacy, they were often repurposed and put into the US fleet.

Just as with the Confederate ironclads, I will examine three vessels. By no means is this an all-inclusive list, but by looking at three in particular, it highlights overall trends and explores just how the United States was able to repurpose vessels it captured.

The first steamer examined here was one named Calhoun. This was a Confederate privateer fitted out from a merchant vessel at New Orleans in 1861. Calhoun captured several US-flagged merchant ships near the mouth of the Mississippi before the blockade solidified in the summer of 1861. In October 1861, while on loan to the Confederate Navy (the CSN paid for its use and for any repairs to damage inflicted in this period of service), Calhoun was used as a makeshift gunboat and the flagship for Captain George N. Hollins in his attack at the Head of Passes. Afterwards, the ship returned to its civilian owners who transformed the steamer into a blockade runner. It broke out of the blockade, bringing 600 bales of cotton to Cuba and loading 50,000 pounds of gunpowder to bring to Louisiana, but was captured in January 1862 on its return trip near the mouth of the Mississippi. The crew fired the steamer before abandoning it.[1]

United States sailors boarding Calhoun quickly extinguished the flames and determined the vessel was relatively intact. It was immediately armed and placed into service blockading the Gulf coast. Learning of this, Major General Mansfield Lovell, commanding the military defenses of New Orleans, wrote to Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin that Calhoun “will prove a great pest on the coast.”[2] USS Calhoun soon lived up to that prediction.  In late 1862 and early 1863 it was the flagship of a small flotilla of US warships supporting ground operations on Bayou Teche, Louisiana. The vessel developed such a reputation as a US gunboat that one Confederate captain fighting the steamer on the Atchafalaya River was known to have barked out “There is that damned Calhoun … I would rather see the devil than that boat.”[3]

After being captured, the Confederate privateer Calhoun became a US gunboat operating in Louisiana’s bayous and rivers. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

After helping secure Berwick Bay, Bayou Teche, and the Atchafalaya River for the United States, USS Calhoun spent early 1864 operating in Mississippi Sound, supporting the blockade of coastal Louisiana and Mississippi. In May 1864, the steamer was sold in New Orleans to the US Army, becoming the military transport General Sedgwick. It spent the rest of the war transporting supplies to support ground operations before becoming civilian steamer Calhoun once again when the war ended.

Calhoun was not alone in its status as a privateer or civilian owned blockade runner captured and repurposed into the US Navy. Many wooden vessels, both steamers and smaller sailing vessels, endured similar situations. Smaller sailing craft captured in this way were often converted into coastal patrol vessels, supply vessels, tenders, or dispatch boats. Steamers often ended up shifting from blockade runner to blockader.

A second captured steamer worth mentioning is General Bragg. This steamer was another civilian vessel originally named Mexico repurposed by the Confederacy, though the jurisdiction of this particular steamer highlights difficulties with the chain of command within Confederate naval forces as well. General Bragg was a Mississippi River steamer seized in January 1862 to become part of the River Defense Fleet. This collection of fourteen steamers were seized, retroactively purchased, and converted by the Confederate Army. Their crews and officers were civilian contractors working for the military, not the Confederate Navy.

Reinforced with iron on its bow, Bragg was meant to serve as a ram. Once converted, it proceeded upriver and took part in the May 1862 battle of Plum Point Bend. In that action, Bragg rammed and helped sink (temporarily) the city-class ironclad USS Cincinnati. A month later, Bragg was disabled, run aground on a sandbar, and captured in the decisive battle of Memphis.

General Bragg was originally part of the Confederate River Defense Fleet, but was captured in 1862 and joined the US Navy. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Refloated and repaired, the vessel joined the Western Gunboat Flotilla, convoying soldiers in Arkansas in the latter half of 1862. In 1863, it joined the Mississippi River Squadron as USS General Bragg and took part in the campaigns for control of Vicksburg. “She runs like a Grayhound” one Confederate observer recalled, and “was steady and quiet and swift as a Sword-fish.”[4]

In 1864, the steamer participated in the Red River campaign. In the closing months of the war, it patrolled the Mississippi River between the Red River and Natchez, Mississippi. General Bragg is also representative of other steamers in similar situations, as one other River Defense Fleet vessel (General Sterling Price) was also captured at the battle of Memphis and repurposed as a US warship.

The final vessel I wanted to highlight is the legendary government-owned blockade runner CSS Robert E. Lee. Built in England as Giraffe, the steamer was purchased by the Confederacy in 1862 and under the famed Captain John Wilkinson, became the most well-known runner between Wilmington, North Carolina, and Bermuda. Wilkinson himself exclaimed that the blockade runner held “superb qualities as a sea boat.”[5]

Robert E. Lee worked as a blockade runner directly under Confederate jurisdiction, as it was owned by the Confederate Navy instead of by civilians. That allowed Robert E. Lee to focus on transporting cargoes the government needed more instead of the luxuries that often ended up in the cargo holds of civilian runners. It also allowed the ship to be used in government missions such as transporting naval officers for international operations.

CSS Robert E. Lee was captured in November 1863, condemned, and sold as a prize. It was then purchased and renamed USS Fort Donelson by the US Navy, joining the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron in bombarding Fort Fisher in 1865. In 1866, it became the Chilean warship Concepción. Just as the other vessels represent groups, Robert E. Lee’s inclusion here represents warships and vessels operated directly by the Confederate Navy that were captured and used by US forces (another being CSS Teaser for instance).

Again, these three vessels represent different elements of the Confederacy’s wooden steamers: privateers, the River Defense Fleet, and Confederate naval warships and blockade runners. The end is the same for all however, as the United States Navy was keen to utilize captured wooden steamers that would prove useful in helping defeat the Confederacy. Even for the United States, every ship mattered in this conflict, and in the mathematics of war, every ship captured from the Confederacy and repurposed for the US only helped stack the odds more in favor of suppressing the rebellion more quickly.

In Part 3 of this series, I will examine vessels employed by the United States that were captured and pressed into Confederate service and in Part 4 I will examine one captured vessel that is often forgotten about in greater detail.



[1] McKean to Emmons, January 23, 1862, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Volume 18, 72.

[2] Lovell to Benjamin, January 28, 1862, ORN, Series 1, Volume 18, 75.

[3] Fuller to Fuller, June 14, 1863, Earl Blake Cox Family Papers, Washington State University Libraries.

[4] M. Jeff Thompson, The Civil War Reminiscences of General M. Jeff Thompson (Dayton, OH:  Morningside Press, 1988), Ed. by Donald J. Stanton, Goodwin F. Bernquist, and Paul C. Bowers, 157.

[5] John Wilkinson, The Narrative of a Blockade Runner (New York: Sheldon and Company, 1877), 117.

2 Responses to Repurposing Captured Enemy Vessels Part 2: Confederate Wooden Vessels Flying the US Flag

  1. Thank you for this enlightening article introducing several repurposed seagoing assets.
    As extension, consider the U.S. Navy action of 5 June 1861 in proximity to the Eastern Pass of Mobile Bay. The Rebel schooner, “Aid,” a two-masted sailing vessel of 100 tons had been observed for some days previous at anchor near a wrecked British merchantman, apparently with crew from the Aid intent on scavenging useful materials. The Rebel crew knew that U.S. Navy vessels enforcing the blockade outside Mobile Bay were too deep of draft to safely cross the bar, so the salvage effort, only a short distance inside the bay continued uninterrupted.
    Captain McKean, aboard USS Niagara, ordered contract steamer Mount Vernon to take station outside the Pass, on a line between Niagara and Aid (in order to obstruct view of what was about to happen) and launched three boats. The boat crews pulled for the Mount Vernon, rounded her stern, and rowed through the Pass: eighty sailors and Marines arrived alongside the Aid within minutes. Rebel sentries leapt into the shallows, making for the distant beach; the unarmed Rebel salvage crew stayed put aboard the wrecked merchantman. And the Navy raiding party, under command of Lieutenant Guest simply raised the anchor and sailed the Aid away. Not a shot was fired.
    The war prize, Aid, was delivered to Colonel Harvey Brown at Fort Pickens, who used her as troop transport in vicinity of Pensacola Bay.

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