|A model of the Hampton-class gunboat Nansemond at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.|
Friday, April 3, 2015
CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA
Executive Office, Richmond, Va., April 2, 1865
SIR: General Lee advises the Government to withdraw from this city, and the officers will leave this evening accordingly.
I presume that General Lee has advised you of this and of his movements, and made suggestions as to the disposition to be made of your squadron. He withdraws from his lines toward Danville this night: and, unless otherwise directed by General Lee, upon you is devolved the duty of destroying your ships this night, and with all the forces under your command, joining General Lee. Confer with him, if practicable, before destroying them.
Let your people be rationed as far as possible for the march and armed and equipped duly in the field.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Wednesday, April 1, 2015
There is something more than a little allegorical about the scene rendered by the prolific artist George P.A. Healy in 1868. With their symmetrical gestures, Lt. Gen. Grant and Rear Adm. Porter seem to be holding back an invisible curtain or veil revealing Lincoln, who has borne the responsibility for deciding nearly every major strategic decision of the war. Note that the four windows behind them seem to progress, beginning on the left with curtains and shades drawn, to the rainbow’s appearance followed by the parting of the clouds. The destructive flood of war that swept the nation is subsiding, Healy seems to say, and it seems that one merely has to open the doors located directly behind the president and step out into the light.
But of course, life after great drama and trauma is never that simple for an individual, much less a nation. Important decisions must be made about how to proceed, and that is why Lincoln pensively listens behind the closed doors, seemingly lost in thought, his mind far beyond the contemplation of tactics to bring the swiftest defeat to General Robert E. Lee's remaining forces. There were weightier strategic issues to contemplate.
The setting for The Peacemakers was the steamer River Queen, then moored near Lt. Gen Grant's headquarters at City Point, Virginia. River Queen was also the setting for a very different conference held near Fort Monroe just a few days after the fall of Fort Fisher in January. Perhaps within the very cabin depicted in the painting, Lincoln had received three other high-ranking visitors, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell, and Senator Robert M.T. Hunter, who had traveled under a flag of truce from Richmond to propose an armistice and joint expedition against Mexico.
Probably preoccupied with more profound thoughts than the three Confederate emissaries could possibly fathom, Lincoln stated flatly during the February 3 meeting that only the disbandment of the Confederate armies and the restoration of the union would bring the peace they supposedly sought; not a mere redirection of the fighting.
In the conference with Sherman, Grant, and Porter on March 28, Lincoln still seemed deep in thought, yet above the fray. Much of the discussions revolved around whether or not Gen. Lee's forces could somehow escape Central Virginia and unite with those of General Joseph E. Johnston, which Sherman's forces had bottled up in North Carolina.
According to Adm. David Porter's account of the meeting, Maj. Gen. Sherman "took a military view of the situation. He had made a long toilsome march and desired to reap the honors due a victorious general."
Thursday, March 19, 2015
"The action of the court in this case has somewhat embarrassed the Department."
Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles
March 18, 1865
Aboard the sidewheel steamer USS Baltimore, anchored on the James River a century-and-a-half ago, a 33-year naval career hung in the balance. Commander William A. Parker, who had until recently commanded the Fifth Division of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, stood accused of, among other things, "withdrawing from and keeping out of danger to which he should have exposed himself," and "[f]ailing to do his utmost to overtake and capture or destroy a vessel it was his duty to encounter."
Nearly two months before, Parker had been in command of the double-turreted USS Onondaga and eight wooden gunboats dispersed along a 70-mile stretch between Richmond and Hampton Roads when the bulk of the Confederate Navy's James River Squadron, composed of three ironclads, five wooden gunboats, and three smaller torpedo boats, staged a desperate attack on the evening of January 23 to breach Union obstructions placed across the river.
The week before, Commodore John K. Mitchell at his office within the Mechanic's Institute in Richmond faced a now-or-never decision. The grim news that Fort Fisher had fallen on January 15 hung in the frozen air. Wilmington, North Carolina; the last functioning port of the Confederacy and lifeline to Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, was effectively neutralized.
The city, buttressed by other fortifications guarding its approaches on the Cape Fear River, continued its resistance against the Union Navy some weeks afterward, leveling the odds between Mitchell's James River Squadron guarding Richmond, and the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron's Fifth Division, commanded by Cmdr. Parker, tasked with defending the Armies of the James and the Potomac. The lion's share of Rear Admiral David D. Porter's North Atlantic Squadron was still tied up in the Wilmington Campaign over 300 miles to the south, portending the possibility of the Confederate Navy snatching a victory in Virginia from the jaws of defeat in North Carolina. Change, it seemed, was in the air.
As it happened, the air was literally changing. A warm front sweeping across Virginia that week had also made conditions optimal for a naval attack against Union targets. During the middle of January, much of the snow across the river basin suddenly melted, unleashing a freshet, or sudden rise of fresh water, temporarily surging the river. Intelligence that the freshet had damaged Union obstructions at a bend in the river called Trent's Reach had also reached the Confederate commodore's desk.
If Mitchell had not yet made up his mind about attacking, Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory made up his mind for him. "I deem the opportunity a favorable one for striking a blow at the enemy, if we are able to do so. In a short time many of his vessels will have returned to the river from Wilmington and he will again perfect his obstructions," Mallory wrote to Mitchell.
Time was of the essence to take advantage of the spring thaw, the destructive water surge and the elevated river levels that came with it, as well as the apparent parity in opposing forces. These factors were temporary, but the James River Squadron's mission was simply to do what the Confederate Navy did best throughout the war: Wreak havoc upon the Union's commercial shipping.
The plan entailed cutting off both the Army of the James and the Army of the Potomac from their base of supplies at City Point, Virginia, only about 15 miles south of Richmond, which was also the location of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant's headquarters. "If we can block the river at or below City Point, Grant might be compelled to evacuate his position," Mallory wrote.
Thanks to the freshet, Confederate Lieutenant Charles W. Read, the daring young officer commanding the James River Squadron's torpedo boats, was able to inform Mitchell after his men scouted the area:
On the Union side of the now-fraying obstructions, the news was remarkably similar, if not quite as enthusiastic.
"The condition of the river obstructions above us is bad; they are washed away by the freshet," Cmdr. Parker telegraphed City Point from his base at Aiken's Landing, replying to a query from Major General John Gibbons, commanding XXIV Corps of the Army of the James. "I do not consider our naval forces sufficient to prevent the possibility of the enemy's gunboats coming down at high water, should they make the attempt. I believe it impossible to replace the obstructions unless Howlett's battery [also known as Battery Dantzler] be first captured."
Two days before the attack, Cmdr. Parker received word from Brigadier General John A. Rawlins, Grant's chief of staff, that the Confederate order to attack had been given, and that he should "exercise more than usual vigilance to defeat any plan the rebels may have in contemplation upon the river." This would be easier said than done. No less than 10 of Parker's vessels were laid up at Norfolk Navy Yard with no word as to when repairs would be complete, and he had just given up two of his needed tugs to the Potomac Flotilla in Maryland.
On January 23, the day of the attack, Parker sent a request to Maj. Gen. Gibbons that more vessels be sunk and torpedoes put in place that evening to make up for what had been lost, but by that time, it was too late. The confederate squadron got underway from its base at Drewry's Bluff at 6 pm, and about 5 hours later, Lt. Read began sounding out the north channel in a small boat as a team of Confederate Sailors hacked away at the remaining chains of the obstruction. Two hours after that, Commodore Mitchell ordered CSS Fredericksburg, the ironclad with the shallowest draft, through the obstruction.
The Confederate Ironclads Fredericksburg, Richmond, and Virginia II of the James River Squadron lead eight other vessels including the gunboat CSS Hampton past the guns of Fort Brady at about 8 pm on the evening of January 23, 1865. (Harper's)
Make-or-break time had once again come to Commodore Mitchell. He decided to recall the only vessels that had any hope of carrying out the mission. Both ships retreated past their marooned shipmates under what Lt. Read called "a perfect rain of missiles," to relative safety under the guns of Battery Dantzler.
Parker waited until around 8:30 to go back up the James. Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. Grant continued sending furious cables to Parker, but after hearing an explosion coming from the direction of Trent's Reach (which was actually the result of a direct hit upon the ammunition stores of gunboat CSS Drewry, abandoned and aground after the effort to free CSS Richmond), he moved up to Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus Fox. Shortly after that, Grant issued "Special Orders to GUNBOAT COMMANDERS," which were ostensibly issued "By authority of the Secretary of the Navy," to "proceed to the front above the pontoon bridge, near Varina Landing."
"This order is imperative," continued Grant, "the orders of any naval commanders notwithstanding."
It is to be inferred from the opinion of the individual members of the court, as stated in their individual recommendations for clemency, that the sole offense of Commander Parker... was "error of judgment." The Department is at a loss to understand whether the court considered "error of judgment" a crime in itself, or, under some circumstances, a valid defense against a proved crime. Neither can be sanctioned by the Department. The findings of the court ...and its specifications are not approved, and as the sentence... can now be modified, it is necessarily set aside, and Commander Parker is hereby relieved from arrest.
And with that, the sentence that Parker be dismissed from the Navy was vacated, and he was moved to the retired list.
Tuesday, March 10, 2015
Fifty years ago this week, the scope of American military involvement in supporting the 10-year-old Republic of Vietnam (created in the wake of the Geneva Accords between French and nationalist Vietnamese officials in 1954) broadened in a visually dramatic way. Reminiscent of the D-Day images of Normandy, or, more comparably, those of Douglas MacArthur and his forces returning to the Philippines a generation before, the first battalion-sized American combat unit came ashore near the strategic air base at Da Nang, and the images of those Marines have symbolized the massive expansion of America's footprint in the country ever since. The year 1965 opened with roughly 23,000 military advisors and support personnel, ballooning to around 181,000 by year's end, much of the increase made up of combat forces.
Special Landing Force (SLF) Marines of Battalion Landing Team, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment (BLT 3/9), come ashore about four miles northwest of Da Nang Air Base on March 8, 1965. (Official US Marine Corps Photo/ mcu.usmc.mil/historydivision)
On February 26, President Lyndon Johnson authorized the deployment to Vietnam of two Marine battalion landing teams, a medium helicopter squadron, and headquarters elements of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade.
And of course, they didn't just appear out of nowhere.
The Seventh Fleet Amphibious Force Flagship Mount McKinley (AGC-7) prepares to depart Naval Station Subic Bay, Philippines, in 1966. (Rich Draves/ USS Estes.org)
On March 1, South Vietnamese government officials had, through diplomatic channels, agreed to the deployment of American combat troops to protect Da Nang, yet, conscious of the image it would convey to the Vietnamese public, requested that they be deployed "in the most inconspicuous way possible." Two days later, US Ambassador Maxwell Taylor received word from Assistant Secretary of Defense John T. McNaughton that deploying the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade from Okinawa would satisfy this desire for a lighter footprint. Parachutes gently falling through the tropical air over the airfield would not present as forceful a picture as Marines storming a beach.
In Hawaii, Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, Commander in Chief, Pacific, was of one mind with General William Westmoreland, Commander, MACV, in rejecting this change to a plan that was already in motion. Brigadier General Frederick J. Karch, commander of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, and his staff had already wrapped up preparatory visits to Saigon and Da Nang in February, meeting with Westmoreland and Vietnamese Major General Nguyen Chanh Thi, senior commander of the Republic of Vietnam's five northern provinces. BLT 3/9 was already aboard the ships of Task Force 76, off the coast.
Sharp cabled the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), "The CG, 9th MEB is presently in Da Nang finalizing the details for landing the MEB forces in such a way as to cause minimum impact on the civilian populace... I recommend that the MEB be landed at Da Nang as previously planned."
High-level reservations about what picture the landing would convey to the Vietnamese people were swept aside, and the decision to go ahead with the landing was handed down from the JCS on March 7.
The task of delivering BLT 3/9 to Da Nang the momentous morning of March 8 was the job of the Seventh Fleet's Amphibious Task Force commander, Rear Admiral Donald W. Wulzen, who gave the order to "land the landing force" at 6 am. The four ships involved in delivering the Marines that morning consisted of the flagship Mount McKinley (AGC-7), Amphibious Transport Dock Vancouver (LPD-2), Attack Transport Henrico (APA-45), and Attack Cargo Ship Union (AKA-106).
LCU 1476 disembarks Marines, vehicles and equipment on Red Beach near Da Nang Air Base on the morning of March 8, 1965. (Official US Marine Corps Photo/ mcu.usmc.mil/historydivision)
Attack Transport Henrico (APA-45), with a Landing Craft, Mechanized (LCM) and a Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel (LCVP) alongside. Date and location unrecorded. (Chief Signalman Ronald Roy/ Navsource.org)
Marines from BLT 3/9 come ashore on March 8, 1965 at Red Beach 2 from a Landing Craft, Mechanized (LCM), northwest of Da Nang (Official US Marine Corps Photo/ mcu.usmc.mil/historydivision)
...and by that afternoon had made it under the welcoming signs (and the curious stares of local children) of the City of Da Nang.
|Attack Cargo Ship Union (AKA-106) in 1966. (Richard Dawson/ Navsource.org)|
In October 1965, Naval Support Activity, Da Nang, also known as Camp Tien Sha, would be established, later becoming the Navy's largest overseas logistics command, staffed at its peak by over 4,000 naval personnel. It would be disestablished in 1973.
Rear Admiral (Upper Half) Donald Wesley
Wulzen finished his active duty career
in 1969 as deputy director of the Directorate of
Inspection Services, Office of the Assistant
Secretary of Defense (Administration). (Official
US Navy Photo)