Monday, February 13, 2017

The Destruction of the Mosquito Fleet

By Julius Lacano
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

"Destruction of the Mosquito Fleet."  (Harper's Weekly Archives)
The combined Navy and Army operation that set out to clear Roanoke Island of Confederates had been successful, but its job was not complete. While the Army would continue to extend their control to the rest of the Outer Banks, the job of the US Navy would be to seek out the vessels of the Confederate Navy defending the Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds and destroy them or capture them.
Elizabeth City, North Carolina, appears the upper left of this 1850 survey map of the Pasquotank River. (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration)
While the ships of the Confederate Navy fought well during their attempt to prevent the taking of Roanoke Island, they also used up all the ammunition and powder and had to retreat north to Elizabeth City to repair battle damage and resupply. Unfortunately, this trip would prove to be a fruitless effort, as there was no powder or shot in the town. The commander of the Confederate naval forces in the area, Flag Officer William Lynch, dispatched men and two vessels north to Norfolk in order requisition the needed supplies. This effort would also prove futile due to the limited amounts of powder and shot available in Norfolk. The officer who commanded the group sent to gather supplies was only able to secure enough ammunition to restock two of the six ships of the “Mosquito Fleet.” This left Lynch with a major problem. He decided his best course of action was to spread the ordnance out among his ships, what would amount to ten shots per ship, and to position his vessels so they could be supported by a Confederate battery of four cannon on Cobb’s Point east of the town. 
Stephen C. Rowan. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Unbeknownst to Lynch, the Union flotilla commander, Stephan C. Rowan, also faced a shortage of ammunition. His fourteen ships, though, carried 37 guns, almost two and a half times the number of pieces the Confederates had at their disposal. Because of this shortage, Rowan elected to ignore and bypass the Confederate battery altogether and concentrate on the main target of the Union offensive, the ships of the “Mosquito Fleet.” The Union commander also directed his ships to fire judiciously and, if possible, sink or disable the vessels by ramming or boarding.

After spending a day at anchorage north of Roanoke Island, the Union flotilla weighed anchor and got underway at dawn. The Cobb’s Point battery, manned by North Carolina Militia and gunners from the CSS Beaufort, were the first ones to engage the oncoming Union warships. Their shots were ineffective and poorly aimed, and this issue was compounded by the fact the militiamen abandoned their post as soon as the action began. Lieutenant Commander William Harwar Parker, commanding the battery, watched helplessly as his shots splashed wildly around the Union flotilla that was slowly heading towards the Confederate gunboats beyond. 
USS Commodore Perry. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
The first Confederate vessel to meet her demise was CSS Black Warrior, a civilian schooner pressed into service by the Confederacy after the outbreak of hostilities. The fact that she was formerly a civilian owned ship was not unique. All Confederate and Union ships engaged this day, as well as many of the warships in both navies at this time, were originally civilian ships that had been requisitioned by their respective governments and armed. Many of the Union ships commanded by Rowan were former paddlewheel ferries, steamers, or tugs. Next to go was CSS Ellis, captured and saved from destruction by a boarding party off the USS Ceres. After the vessel struck her colors, a Confederate sailor alerted the Union men that the former commanding officer had set charges in an attempt to blow up the vessel to avoid capture, and these were extinguished. CSS Sea Bird, the flagship of Confederate Flag Officer Lynch, was destroyed by fire from the USS Commodore Perry.
The armed tug Fanny, seen here after her capture by Union forces in the James River, bore a strong resemblance to CSS Beaufort. (Harper's Weekly Archives) 
Not all the ships of the “Mosquito fleet” met the same fate that day. CSS Beaufort and CSS Appomattox escaped up the Great Dismal Canal heading to Norfolk. Appomattox had to be burned after she was found to be two inches too wide to fit through the lock in what is now the city of Chesapeake. Beaufort made it safely to Norfolk and would later serve as a tender for CSS Virginia in the Battle of Hampton Roads, which took place March 8-9, 1862.

With the capture of Roanoke and with the Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds firmly in Union control, the flow of supplies to Norfolk dwindled to a trickle. The Confederates would try to break the blockade with the CSS Virginia, but with the arrival of USS Monitor, this would also prove unsuccessful. The Confederates, knowing their position was untenable, began to leave Norfolk, and by May it was completely abandoned. The Confederates attempted to move Virginia up the James River, but her 22-foot draft made it impossible to cross the sand bars at the mouth of the James. The Union Army entered the city on May 10th, 1862, and it stayed in Federal hands for the remainder of the war. CSS Virginia, having lost her home port and with no options for escape remaining, had her cannons removed and was blown up off Craney Island in the early morning hours of May 11th, 1862.

A mass-market postcard from the early 1900s showing the scuttling of CSS Virgina. (HRNM Collection, HR98-2870-001)

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