Commanding the Regiment – Navy Edition: Lieutenant Thomas B. Huger, CSS McRae

When Emerging Civil War announced a series spotlighting regimental commanders, they kindly expanded it to include warship captains. Since my first book was a unit history of the Confederate war-steamer McRae, it seemed fitting to take some time to dive a little deeper into that vessel’s captain, Lieutenant Thomas Bee Huger. It is understandable if the names of the man or ship are unfamiliar, but Huger encapsulates the hardline secessionists of the Civil War’s early months while showcasing the Confederate Navy’s attempts to forge conventional naval forces.

Born in South Carolina, Huger was a typical antebellum naval officer. He joined the naval service as a teenager in 1835 serving on ships across the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Mediterranean Sea, including during the Mexican War at Veracruz. In 1845, Huger married Marianne Meade, sister of George Gordon Meade. They had five children together before Marianne died in December 1857.[1]

Lt. Thomas B. Huger, likely dressed in an antebellum uniform. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

As South Carolina threatened secession Huger was not in his home state, or even the United States at all. As 1860 closed, he was in the Mediterranean Sea assigned to USS Iroquois. His home state loyalty was not deterred however, and when word reached Europe of South Carolina’s secession, Huger immediately acted. On January 4, 1861, he requested “permission to return to the United States for the purpose of resigning.”[2]

Huger returned to South Carolina, with resignation approved before the Navy Department shifted to dismissing officers tendering them. Reaching Charleston, and with no warships yet flying the Confederate flag, Huger was assigned to land defenses of Charleston “inspecting ordinance.” He was present on April 12, 1861, commanding “the batteries of the south end of Morris Island,” ready to fire on the US Navy relief force offshore.[3] Since those ships never closed Sumter, Huger’s guns remained silent during the bombardment.

In May, Huger was reassigned to New Orleans to command the newly purchased ship McRae with orders to “exert every means in your power to get her ready for sea.”[4] Originally Marquis de la Habana, McRae was a wooden steamer captured by United States warships at the 1860 battle of Antón Lizardo during Mexico’s War of the Reform. Taken to New Orleans, the ship was condemned as a prize and became a merchant trading between Louisiana and Cuba. Purchased for $53,000, McRae was intended to act as a commerce raider attacking United States merchants.

Wartime photograph of Lt. Thomas B. Huger, likely taken at New Orleans in 1861, Note the painting of a Confederate ship in the back and how in this image Huger sports a beard. Perhaps he grew one when he went to sea on USS Iroquois in 1860 or perhaps he joined the club of Confederate officers that vowed to never shave until the war was won. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Huger spent May, June, and July 1861 preparing McRae for sea. There was great respect for Huger amongst his crew. Midshipman Charles Read found his captain “an agreeable gentleman” while engineer John H. Dent believed he would “never give up without a desperate struggle.”[5] “My joy knew no bounds,” teenage Midshipman James Morgan recounted upon receiving orders “to report to Captain Huger.”[6]

During trials in July 1861, McRae encountered engineering casualties requiring extensive repairs. In the mean time, Midshipman James Morgan was often called to pass notes between Huger and his new fiancée in town, so many in fact that Morgan remembered “the young lady made such a pet of me.”[7] It was not until early October that the ship was again ready. Instead of proceeding to sea however, Captain George Hollins kept McRae at New Orleans as part of the growing Mississippi River squadron.

McRae participated in the October 12, 1861, battle of the Head of Passes where Huger led his ship through “anxious moments” engaging US blockaders “from a very respectful distance.”[8] In February 1862, Huger accompanied Captain Hollins upriver to Columbus, Kentucky, by train. There they organized naval defenses of the upper Mississippi, all while CSS McRae and the rest of Hollins’s squadron steamed to join them.

Lt. Thomas B. Huger commanded CSS McRae in the Civil War’s first year. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

With the ships upriver, Huger commanded McRae in the Island Number Ten campaign. Well directed fire from McRae halted an assault on New Madrid, Missouri, on March 3, lending weight to the opinion by US commanders that another such assault would result in “heavy loss” because of the “destructive fire of the [Confederate] gunboats.”[9] When New Madrid was evacuated on March 13, Huger oversaw loading Fort Bankhead’s garrison of “poor soldiers, covered with mud and drenched with rain.”[10] Afterwards, McRae supported running transports past the now fortified US positions at New Madrid to keep Island Number Ten supplied.

After Island Number Ten surrendered in April, McRae and its fellow ships withdrew to Fort Pillow, Tennessee. Hollins left Huger temporarily in charge of naval defenses there after he decided to move downriver to aid New Orleans. On April 13, 1862, Huger’s flotilla prepared a surprise attack against US ships upriver. The Federal ships were ready and waiting, and when the Confederate ships approached, Huger found “their whole fleet, consisting of eleven gunboats and eight mortars,” and abandoned the surprise assault.[11]

Days later, Huger followed Hollins bringing CSS McRae downriver to defend New Orleans from David Farragut’s Western Gulf Blockading Squadron. The ship fought ferociously in the April 24 battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip, perpendicularly crossing the river maneuvering around two enemy ships attempting to steam past Confederate defenses. Huger ordered broadsides fired on one of them. Fort Jackson’s commander saw the exchange, later writing how he “observed the McRae gallantly fighting at terrible odds-contending at close quarters with two of the enemy’s powerful ships.”[12]

The ship McRae fired into was none other than USS Iroquois, the same vessel Huger served on when he resigned his commission. Iroquois returned fire, with one shell starting a fire in McRae’s sail room, another piercing the smokestack, and a third penetrating the fire room. As Iroquois continued upriver, it fired a devastating parting round of canister which disabled McRae’s steering, ripped the Confederate flag from its halyard, wounded the ship’s river pilot, and wounded Lieutenant Huger in the groin. Summoning now-Lieutenant Charles Read to assume command, Huger gave his final order: “Mr. Read, don’t surrender my little ship. I have always promised myself that I would fight her until she was under the water!”[13]

A third image of Lt. Huger, also sporting his beard. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Huger was taken below for medical care, but his condition worsened. On April 27, McRae arrived at New Orleans flying a flag of truce to deliver wounded soldiers and sailors to the city’s hospitals. The next day McRae sank because of its battle damage. Huger was taken to his fiancée’s home. Doctors extracted canister ball from him, but his wound, just like those sustained by his ship, proved mortal. He died on May 10, 1862, “surrounded … by friends.”[14] His funeral on May 12 included “an immense and spontaneous gathering of the people of New Orleans,” transforming the ceremony into one of the city’s last major wartime pro-Confederate acts.[15]

With connections to New Orleans and the navy, CSS McRae has always interested me and though I do not agree with all his decisions or choices I have found that Lieutenant Thomas B. Huger stands out as a Confederate naval commander worth studying. One of the first to resign from the US Navy, his pro-South Carolina secessionist sympathies were unquestionable. Present commanding artillery in Charleston in April 1861 and one of the Confederacy’s first warships, his willingness to fight for the Confederacy was unquestioned. Mortally wounded in battle, his resolve remains unquestioned. When taken together, Lieutenant Thomas Huger’s Civil War career provides a unique lens into the Confederacy’s early months, its quest to build an early navy, and the resolve of those taking leadership positions in the fledgling country.



[1] Register of Commissioned and Warrant Officers of the Navy of the United States, (Washington: William A. Harris, 1859), 34; Neil P. Chatelain, Fought Like Devils: The Confederate Gunboat McRae, (Bloomington, IL: Authorhouse, 2014), 11.

[2] Huger to Bell, January 4, 1861, Mediterranean Squadron, Letters Received by the Secretary of the Navy from Commanding Officers of Squadrons, M89, RG 45, US National Archives.

[3] “Bombardment of Fort Sumter,” Keowee Courior, May 18, 1861.

[4] Mallory to Huger, May 14, 1861, Confederate Navy – Area 4 & 5, Mississippi River, Area File of the Naval Records Collection, 1775-1910, M625, RG 45, US National Archives.

[5] Charles W. Read, “Reminisces of the Confederate States Navy,” Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 1, 332; Chatelain, Fought Like Devils, 11.

[6] James Morris Morgan, Recollections of a Rebel Reefer, (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1917), 52.

[7] Ibid., 54.

[8] Read, “Reminisces,” 335; Morgan, Recollections, 57.

[9] Pope to Cullum, March 14, 1862, OR, Series 1, Vol. 8, 81.

[10] Read, “Reminisces,” 337.

[11] J. Thomas Scharf, History of the Confederate States Navy from its Organization to the Surrender of its Last Vessel, (New York: Roger and Sherwood, 1887), 253.

[12] Higgins to Bridges, April 27, 1862, OR, Series 1, Vol. 6, 548.

[13] Morgan, Recollections, 201.

[14] “Another Brave Man Gone,” New Orleans Daily Crescent, May 13, 1862.

[15] “Death of Lieut. Thomas B. Huger,” Charleston Mercury, May 20, 1862.

1 Response to Commanding the Regiment – Navy Edition: Lieutenant Thomas B. Huger, CSS McRae

  1. Enjoyed the analysis, Neil. We can disagree with the cause, but need to separate it from the professional sailor, and discussing the skills he brought to the table.

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