Repurposing Captured Enemy Vessels Part 3: US Vessels Flying the Confederate Flag

Lt. Charles W. Read, CSN, transfers his men from one captured enemy merchant to another. (“The Paul Jones of the Confederacy” Munsey’s Magazine, Vol. 58, No. 11, 265.)

In Part 1 of this four-part series, I examined how the United States was able to capture and repurpose three Confederate ironclad warships. In Part 2, I continued that examination, expanding it to examine wooden vessels of the Confederacy captured and repurposed by the United States. For Part 3, I will look at United States vessels captured and employed by the Confederacy.

The Confederacy was always short of warships and capturing vessels from the enemy proved a repeated effort throughout the conflict. Early captures at the beginning of the war helped establish Confederate naval forces. Several revenue cutters operating in Southern ports flew the Confederate flag because their captains surrendered their ships upon the secession of the port they were based in. When the Gosport Navy Yard near Norfolk, Virginia was abandoned in 1861, most vessels were scuttled. Some, such as the old frigate United States and the hull of the burned and sunk Merrimack ended up in Confederate service. For the most part, these early seizures amounted to little – with the exception of the rebuilding and transformation of Merrimack into the ironclad CSS Virginia.

Just as with Parts 1 and 2, here I will highlight three examples of vessels captured by the Confederacy in the middle of the war. In fact, all of the three examples I will explore today were captured in 1863. Also as with the previous parts, these captured vessels are representative of many more and are meant to serve as an overview.

The first vessel I will mention is the Revenue Cutter Harriet Lane. This ship was involved in the war from its very beginning, taking part in the failed relief expedition for Fort Sumter in April 1861. As the war expanded, the revenue cutter, part of the Treasury Department’s US Revenue Marine (precursor of the US Coast Guard), was transferred to Navy Department jurisdiction and joined the blockade.

Harriet Lane took part in expeditions to Hatteras, North Carolina in 1861 and in 1862 was the flagship of Commander David D. Porter’s mortar flotilla when it bombarded the forts protecting New Orleans. By the end of 1862, Harriet Lane helped guard the captured port of Galveston, Texas.

On January 1, 1863, Confederate military forces under Major General John B. Magruder, including a pair improvised wooden steamers manned by soldiers, launched a surprise attack and recaptured Galveston. In the confusion, one of the two Confederate steamers was destroyed, Harriet Lane was captured, and USS Westfield was blown up by its own crew to prevent its capture. Galveston once again flew the Confederate flag, and would not surrender until June 1865. Of note, two other U.S. warships at the battle of Galveston, USS Sachem and USS Clifton, were both captured by the Confederacy at the battle of Sabine Pass in September 1863.

Confederate forces capture the US Revenue Cutter Harriet Lane at Galveston, TX. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

After some repairs, Harriet Lane patrolled Galveston Bay between Houston and Galveston for the Confederacy. The question of jurisdiction soon came up however. A naval officer, Lieutenant Joseph Barney, was dispatched to command the ship and all Confederate naval forces in Texas, but General Magruder was already operating the Texas Maritime Department, an army-jurisdiction force commanding vessels along the Texas coast. Recognizing that Leon Smith, the man who captured Harriet Lane, would “render more efficient service,” Barney agreed to keep the captured ship under the jurisdiction of the Texas Maritime Department.[1]

In late 1863, Harriet Lane shifted status again, becoming a blockade runner operating between the Texas coast and Cuba. In this capacity, another blockade runner’s crew remembered it caused “considerable excitement” upon docking in Havana, but accomplished little, sitting in Cuban ports until the end of the war unable to sneak past the US blockade.[2] Harriet Lane was then returned to the US Government before becoming a merchant trader under the name Elliot Ritchie.

Another vessel captured by the Confederacy was USS Queen of the West. This vessel was originally flagship of Colonel Charles Ellet’s United States Ram Fleet that defeated the Confederate River Defense Fleet at the battle Memphis in 1862 and also took part in operations against Vicksburg in 1862. The rams were transferred to Navy Department control at the end of 1862 and Queen of the West commenced a blockade of Louisiana’s Red River, capturing three Confederate transports in February 1863.

In mid-February 1863, Queen of the West ran aground and was disabled by Confederate gunfire from Fort Taylor (later renamed Fort DeRussy). Hearing “an explosion below and a rush of steam around the boat,” its captain believed the ship’s boilers were about to blow and ordered Queen of the West abandoned.[3]

USS Queen of the West is captured by Confederate forces. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Confederate soldiers from the fort captured the ship and thirteen wounded sailors left behind. They repaired the ship quickly at Alexandria, Louisiana and a week later Queen of the West was loaded with 75 army volunteers and helped ram and sink the United States ironclad Indianola near Vicksburg. In April 1863, Queen of the West then joined a four ship Confederate expedition whose goal was to leave the Red River, steam into the Atchafalaya River, and help support the Confederate defense of Bayou Teche. In making that movement, Queen of the West ran aground and was disabled and destroyed by a US flotilla on Grand Lake, a wide expanded section of the Atchafalaya River. Interestingly, part of the US flotilla that destroyed Queen of the West was USS Calhoun, the captured Confederate privateer mentioned in Part 2 of this series. (Of note, USS Diana was another US warship captured and used by Confederate forces in the bayous and rivers of Louisiana, at least until it was destroyed on Bayou Teche the same day Queen of the West went down.

Shifting away from the Confederacy’s coast and rivers is another avenue of captures by Confederate warships, that of merchant vessels. Confederate commerce raiders scoured the seas capturing and destroying US merchant shipping in an attempt to cut off supplies from the United States, weaken the blockade, eliminate the US merchant marine, and shift New England and New York merchants to an anti-war stance. For the most part, these Confederate raiders destroyed the vessels they captured, but occasionally they instead impressed them into service flying the Confederate flag.

One such instance involved Confederate Lieutenant Charles W. Read, an officer on CSS Florida. In May 1863, Florida captured the sailing merchant vessel Clarence off the coast of Brazil. Instead of burning the ship, Read instead proposed a daring plan to use Clarence to “proceed to Hampton Roads and cut out a gunboat or steamer of the enemy.”[4] Given a crew of twenty men and a single small cannon, Read set off.

Clarence never reached Hampton Roads however, and instead captured four vessels, including one full of coal destined for resupplying US blockaders. The fourth capture was the sailing vessel Tacony, which Read transferred his crew and gun to, as it was a faster vessel than Clarence. He then continued raiding up the New England coast capturing another sixteen vessels. His final capture on Tacony was the fishing vessel Archer, which he again transferred his crew to. On Archer, Read entered the port of Portland, Maine and cut out the US Revenue Cutter Caleb Cushing Pursuing vessels then quickly captured Read’s small band on June 27, 1863, ending his cruise using captured enemy merchant ships. In a month and a half Read captured 22 US merchant ships. At least one other Confederate raider, CSS Alabama, had similar actions when it captured the bark Conrad in June 1863. A crew was loaded onto Conrad, renaming it CSS Tuscaloosa, before it too spent a couple of months raiding with little effect.[5]

The major takeaway is that the Confederacy was able to capture and put to use enemy vessels, both civilian craft and warships, just as the United States was able to do. The capture of enemy ships opened new doors for potential campaigns or helped bottle up enemy forces and both sides were eager to add to their own naval forces while depriving the enemy of ships.

In the fourth and final part of this series I will examine one captured vessel that is often forgotten about in greater detail.



[1] Barney to Mallory, February 13, 1863, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Volume 19, 839.

[2] William Watson, The Adventures of a Blockade Runner: Trade in Time of War, (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1893), 146

[3] Ellet to Porter, February 5, 1863, ORN, Series 1, Volume 24, 224.

[4] Read to Maffitt, May 16, 1863, ORN, Series 1, Volume 2, 644.

[5] R. Thomas Campbell, Sea Hawk of the Confederacy: Lt. Charles W. Read and the Confederate Navy, (Shippensburg, PA: Burd Street Press, 2000), 102-124.

1 Response to Repurposing Captured Enemy Vessels Part 3: US Vessels Flying the Confederate Flag

  1. The ingenuity and brazen audacity of the crew of CSS Florida is one of the under-appreciated stories of the Civil War. And sometimes, as revealed in the above article, ownership of a vessel (and national allegiance) is murky.
    Nearly every American with a pulse is aware of the America’s Cup yacht race, first contested in 1851 in the waters of Great Britain. The vessel that dominated that inaugural contest sported clean lines, two raked masts, and hoisted conventionally-rigged sails… in contravention of then-fashionable trends promoting ever more experimental, voluminous sail designs. Sailing Yacht America, 139 feet long and a bit over 100 tons, represented Yankee ingenuity at its finest. But, few realize that the racing legend had Civil War history, as well, serving both the Confederate States and the United States; or that everyone’s favorite political General, Benjamin Butler, was caught up in the story of S.Y. America…
    America’s Civil War: always more to the story.

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