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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 7

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Thence Round Cape Horn

Robert Erwin Johnson

published by
United States Naval Institute
Annapolis, Maryland

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 9
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p113  8. Guarding the Gold Steamers

The importance of the California gold which the mail steamers carried to Panama is evident from the order under which Flag Officer John B. Montgomery took the Pacific Squadron to war:

The difficulties that have developed themselves in certain States which have assumed an attitude of hostility to the Federal Government may extend to the Pacific and call for vigilant and energetic action on your part and that of your Command. Apprehensions having been expressed that attempts may be made by privateers or lawless persons to seize one of the Calif. steamers, your particular attention will be directed to that subject. The ports of San Francisco, Acapulco, and Panama, are points of special danger, and you will, in this crisis, concentrate your force on the route from Panama to San Francisco, unless there should be a demand for you in other quarters, of which the Department is not advised. You must exercise your judgment in discharging the responsible duties that devolve upon you.​1

The gold bullion was not only badly needed by the Union, but there was an even more pressing necessity that it be kept out of Confederate hands. The foreign credit of the Confederacy would have been strengthened greatly by the capture of a single gold steamer, and to the Pacific Squadron was assigned the task of assuring the safe arrival of the treasure at Aspinwall.

The force with which Montgomery undertook these duties included the screw-sloops Lancaster, Narragansett, and Wyoming, the side-wheel sloop Saranac, and the sailing sloops St. Mary's and Cyane.​2 The system of commerce protection adopted in the Pacific required that the warships cruise along the steamer route between San Francisco and Panama, with particular attention being given to the points where privateers would be most likely to intercept the gold steamers.  p114 Lower California also was watched, because it was feared that Confederate sympathizers might try to seize that area for the South. Vessels carrying gold from Aspinwall were escorted by gunboats on occasion, but no convoy system was adopted in the Pacific, probably because the merchant steamers were much faster than the warships. The Cyane and St. Mary's, entirely dependent on the winds, would have been useless as escorts for steamers.

The question of the loyalty of officers and men was of some concern, for approximately fifty per cent of the commissioned officers serving on Pacific Station in 1861 were natives of southern or border states. The danger of disloyalty was demonstrated in the case of Commander John K. Mitchell, commanding the Wyoming. He was about to sail from San Francisco when he received orders to cruise off the Golden Gate to protect the mail steamers. However, the Wyoming stood out through the Golden Gate and then steered a southerly course until she arrived at Panama. For this flagrant disregard of orders, Commander Mitchell was dismissed from the Navy, and next appeared leading Confederate gunboats at New Orleans as a flag officer of the Confederate States Navy. Most of the officers and men willingly took the oath of loyalty required by Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, but there was some doubt about whether or not Commander William D. Porter of the St. Mary's attention had caused it to be administered to his men. When Montgomery reported him for neglect of duty, Welles immediately relieved Porter of his command.

Montgomery's squadron was temporarily reduced by half during the summer of 1861. The St. Mary's was refitting at Mare Island; the Saranac was severely damaged by striking the bottom while anchored at Panama and had to be sent north for repairs late in July; and less than a week later, the Wyoming, leaving La Paz with a Mexican pilot on board, ran on a reef and also headed for Mare Island and dry‑docking.

Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that Montgomery asked for reinforcements, but neither is it surprising that he did not get them. Indeed, Montgomery was fortunate that none of his ships was withdrawn. By July 1861, the Pacific Station was the only one of five distant stations which still possessed a squadron. All of the American warships had been recalled from the East India and Mediterranean Stations, while the Brazil and Africa Stations were left with  p115 one vessel each. The requirements of blockading the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the Confederacy were too rigorous; the Pacific Squadron could expect no additional ships.

The situation would have been much more serious had it not been for the Mare Island Navy Yard. Thanks to this establishment, the damaged and weary ships could be thoroughly overhauled without leaving the station. Engine and boiler repairs could be made by San Francisco's Union Iron Works, but the cost was so prohibitive that its facilities were seldom used by the Pacific Squadron. Mare Island's magazine was stocked well enough so that none of the warships was forced to borrow gunpowder from a foreign government, as the Decatur had done only three years earlier. Nor was there any need for a repetition of target practice wherein the great guns were fired against a prominent cliff in order that the shot might be recovered for future use.

The effects of the temporary disability of half of the Pacific Squadron were not as serious as they might have been. Montgomery himself pointed out that the areas of calm off the coasts of North and Central America would make it difficult for privateers to operate effectually under sail, and steamers would find it almost impossible to obtain fuel, for the only coal supplies were the property of governments or steamship companies, neither likely to supply a rebel vessel. Nor was there any news of hostile ships cruising anywhere in the eastern Pacific.

Secretary Welles ordered that one ship be kept at Panama at all times, both to ensure uninterrupted transit of the Isthmus and to keep in close communication with the Navy Department. Because of the unhealthy climate, he desired Montgomery to arrange for periodic relief of the vessel at that port. However, the flagship Lancaster was partially immobilized by a cracked crankshaft so the flag officer found it convenient to remain there in her.

When it would have been possible to send the flagship to Mare Island for repairs which would have enabled her to cruise under steam, Montgomery had advised Welles that she could not possibly leave Panama until a court-martial then considering charges against the commanding officer of the storeship Warren had reached a decision. The presiding officer was the Lancaster's Captain Henry K. Hoff. Thus, the most power­ful ship of Montgomery's force did not  p116 receive essential repairs. This indicates the type of war being fought by the Pacific Squadron.

Montgomery was relieved by Flag Officer Charles H. Bell on 2 January 1862. The new commander in chief introduced a more active policy than that of his predecessor, and since conditions in Panama were tranquil, soon took the Lancaster north to have her defective crankshaft replaced.

At Mare Island, the flagship's detachment of Marines replaced the army personnel lent to guard the navy yard, and Bell interested himself in the defenses of San Francisco. News of the losses caused to the blockading squadron at Hampton Roads by the CSS Virginia (ex‑USS Merrimack) reached the Pacific coast via the new Atlantic and Pacific telegraph line, and on 4 April, Bell advised the Department that "a single steam ram mounted with a few heavy guns would be sufficient to deter any wooden vessels of a hostile power from entering the Port."​3 Since it would take so long for such a ship to come out from the Atlantic coast, Bell made another suggestion:

There is now lying at this Navy Yard the hulk of the old line-of‑battleship "Independence." She was built in the strongest manner of seasoned oak and is reported to be perfectly sound below the waterline. Her planking appears sound, in all respects, up to the wales and she is, at present, with her gun deck battery and the crew of the "Lancaster" on board, as tight as any ship afloat. Her bow, above the waterline, is very full. With a false bow extending from the keel to a few feet above the water and rising from thence at an acute angle to the top of the bulwarks, or where the ports of two or three heavy guns would be placed, all this cased in iron and the ship propelled by steam power would produce a more formidable vessel than any ship which could be brought across the ocean.

I would also suggest that the steam power could be applied to two shafts, placed, one on each side of the ship, under the counter, with two propellers. This arrangement, besides rendering the vessel more manageable, would prevent the necessity of removing the sternpost. . . .​4

However, the Navy Department did not believe such an expenditure justified, and the old Independence was denied this transformation.

Flag Officer Bell was not thinking of the danger from Confederate warships when he made this suggestion. Two strong foreign squadrons were present in the eastern Pacific, and it seemed probable that at least one might become hostile to the United States. In November  p117 1861, Captain Charles Wilkes, who was commanding the San Jacinto in Atlantic waters, had compelled the British mail-packet Trent to heave to and had taken off two emissaries of the Confederate States bound for Europe to seek assistance in the cause of the South. The tension resulting from the Trent affair caused Great Britain to concentrate a strong naval force for possible use against the American Pacific coast. Furthermore, a French squadron had gathered to assist in the conquest of Mexico which resulted in the enthronement of Maximilian as emperor in 1864. Both squadrons contained ships much heavier than the Lancaster, and there could be no doubt as to the outcome of any encounter between either and Bell's small force. The Navy Department placed its reliance on the inadequate fortifications guarding San Francisco, and instructed Bell to keep a warship at Mare Island whenever possible. It is fortunate that diplomacy averted any need for these precautions; almost certainly San Francisco and the entire American Pacific coast would have been lost had Great Britain entered the war.

When the Lancaster was ready for sea, Bell sailed for southern waters once more. He touched at the important ports on the way, and continued on down the South American coast, carrying out the recommendation he had made to the Navy Department earlier:

. . . In the present state of affairs I think it desirable to send each of the Squadron in succession to cruise down the coast as far as Valparaiso, touching at the principal places, not only to give security to our countrymen engaged in business but to let these South American Governments see that notwithstanding our difficulties at home, we still have the power to punish any infraction of our Treaties, and to afford ample protection to any commerce along their coasts. . . .​5

Just before the flagship departed San Francisco in June 1862, the Navy Department telegraphed that Confederate privateers were operating in the Far East, and ordered Bell to dispatch the Wyoming to the Orient to protect American commerce. Commander David McDougal was so informed, and the Wyoming weighed anchor on 21 June with orders from Secretary Welles to proceed with utmost speed, and from Bell to realize the greatest economy in coal, cruising under sail whenever possible. McDougal made what he could of these conflicting orders and sailed to the Orient.

A year later, the Wyoming was called to Japan by reports that  p118 rebellious feudal lords had fired on the American merchant steamer Pembroke. In spite of obvious navigational hazards, much more dangerous because he had no chart, McDougal steamed the sloop into the Strait of Shimonoseki and caused considerable damage to the offending forts in an hour's brisk fighting.​a Americans took little part in the later attacks which finally opened the strait, for the Wyoming went on to the Indian Ocean in fruitless search for the CSS Alabama. McDougal rejoined the Pacific Squadron with his ship in 1864.

Meanwhile, Bell continued Montgomery's requests for more warships, but had to be satisfied with promotion instead. After Flag Officer Farragut's brilliant victory at New Orleans, Congress had established the rank of rear admiral, and at the same time, the rank of commodore was revived to replace the awkward designation of flag officer. Bell was directed to assume the rank of acting rear admiral for the remainder of his command of the Pacific Squadron; doubtless, he would have preferred more vessels. His squadron was ridiculously small, and all of the ships, particularly the steamers, were showing the effects of long service. However, Rear Admiral Bell did convince Welles that he had to have a shallow-draft steamer to visit small Central American ports. The little side-wheeler Saginaw, the first warship built at Mare Island, had been refitting in her home yard after a cruise in the Far East, and she was assigned to the Pacific Squadron.

Personnel shortages also annoyed the commander in chief. He felt that the bad state of engines and boilers which held his steamers to a six‑knot top speed was intensified by the lack of skilled mechanics and engineers. Benjamin F. Isherwood, Chief of the Bureau of Steam Engineering, replied from Washington that the vessels built and purchased for the blockade required more engineering personnel than he could provide; Bell would have to be content with what he had. Somewhat later, Bell reported numerous desertions, and recommended that Negroes be enlisted for the Pacific Squadron. Their ability to withstand heat would make them valuable in tropical waters. Permission was granted, but there is no evidence that many Negroes served in warships on Pacific Squadron.

In response to another of Bell's requests, Welles ordered some one hundred and forty Marines sent to the Mare Island Navy Yard for guard duty. The steamer Ariel, in which they sailed, was intercepted by the CSS Alabama in the Caribbean Sea on 7 December 1862.  p119 It was an unfortunate capture for Confederate Captain Raphael Semmes. Had the Ariel been bound in the opposite direction, she would have carried a fortune in California gold; as it was, he had captured only some five hundred civilian and military passengers. Making the best of the situation, Semmes released the ship after obtaining paroles from all the military personnel.

The Ariel proceeded on to Aspinwall, and soon Bell had his Marines, but they were pledged not to fight against the Confederacy until exchanged. Wily Welles thought that they might still guard Mare Island, since the "so‑called Confederacy" had neither military nor naval force in the Pacific. What might have been an interesting case for experts in international law failed to develop, however, as the Marines were exchanged soon after they arrived at Mare Island.

Eighteen sixty-three passed with no great change in policy and little excitement save that in San Francisco on 15 March when the Cyane's Commander Paul Shirley sent a boarding party of Marines to seize the schooner J. M. Chapman which was thought to be fitting out as a Confederate privateer. The warships cruised as before for the protection of the gold steamers, one vessel remained at Panama, and an occasional cruise along the South American coast served to remind the governments in that area that United States interests must be respected. French activities received close scrutiny; the Pacific Squadron was too small to interfere effectively, but the Saranac was present at Acapulco in January when Admiral E. C. Bouet's squadron bombarded the town. After the departure of the French warships, the Saranac remained to assist in maintenance of order while the inhabitants were returning from the interior whither they had fled to escape the French fire.

Early in 1864, Bell's force was strengthened by the arrival of the iron side-wheel double-ender gunboat Wateree. Few stranger ships ever served in the Pacific Squadron. She was one of the vessels built especially for service on the sounds and rivers of the southern states, and had no pretensions to seaworthiness or to efficiency as a cruiser. Sail power had been virtually forgotten in her design, and her lack of endurance under steam made this an unfortunate omission. She burned the last of her coal soon after leaving the Strait of Magellan; consequently, her crew cut and dried wood on a Chilean island while the sailmaker worked feverishly to convert awnings into sails for the  p120 jury spars contrived by the carpenter and his mates. Sail and wood fuel together just sufficed to get her to the nearest Chilean port where coal could be obtained. Rear Admiral Bell cannot have been reassured by the addition of a river gunboat to his squadron. The Wateree was armed with heavy guns, but she possessed no other qualities which would fit her for duty on Pacific Squadron.

Even so poor a vessel, however, was welcome in light of French activities on the west coast of Mexico. Admiral Bouet proclaimed a blockade of Acapulco early in 1864, but this was eased to permit Pacific Mail steamers to touch there for coal and supplies. Bell thought the situation was serious enough to require his presence, so the Lancaster observed the blockade for a time and then was relieved by another American man-o'‑war. The Saginaw was present at Acapulco when the French occupied the town on 2 June 1864. Mexican forces evacuated the area before the French landed, and shore parties from the Saginaw prevented looting during the interval when neither combatant controlled the town. In November, Mazatlán was occupied, but soon afterward the French evacuated Acapulco. Inhabitants feared that the town might be subjected to Indian attacks before an effective local government could be re‑established, and the USS Saranac helped to prevent such an occurrence by her presence during the month following the French evacuation.

Rear Admiral Bell was relieved by Acting Rear Admiral George F. Pearson in October 1864. The squadron which Bell turned over to his successor was not markedly different from that of which he had assumed command nearly two years earlier. The addition of the Saginaw and Wateree has been noted, and the sailing bark Farallones (formerly the Pacific Squadron's steamer Massachusetts, with engines and boilers removed) had been obtained for use as a storeship. The Warren, completely worn‑out, was sold at Panama in 1863, and the Narragansett went to the Atlantic coast in 1864 for extensive machinery repairs.

Rear Admiral Pearson's orders were short and direct:

Your aim and object will be, in a few words, to protect as far as the means in your command will permit, our countrymen residing abroad, to preserve our commerce in the Pacific from the depredations of piratical cruisers, to maintain the honor and discipline of the Navy, and to advance, by all proper means, the interests of your government.​6

 p121  Like his predecessors, Pearson was also impressed with the importance of guaranteeing the Panama route against interruption.

Reports that a party of Confederates intended to board the Pacific Mail steamer Salvador as passengers and then seize her at sea, led Pearson to order the Lancaster's Commoner Henry K. Davenport to take preventive action. The steamer was scheduled to sail on 10 November 1864, and after all her passengers had been embarked, the Salvador received a boarding party from the flagship. She then weighed anchor and stood out, followed by the Lancaster. All of the passengers were mustered on the upper deck while naval officers examined their baggage, and found ample evidence that the plot did exist. The next morning, when the Salvador was beyond the territorial waters of New Granada, the American flag was hoisted, and naval officers arrested seven passengers whose leader was Acting Master Thomas E. Hogg, CSN. The prisoners were transferred to the Lancaster, and the Salvador continued her passage to the northward.

Hogg and his men were tried by general court-martial at Headquarters, Army of the Pacific, at San Francisco, on a charge of "Violation of the laws and usages of civilized war," and were found guilty. All were sentenced to death by hanging, but the sentences were commuted to life imprisonment for the leader and ten years imprisonment for each of his men. All were released, however, soon after the end of the Civil War.

So ended the one serious attempt by Confederates to seize a steamer for use as a commerce raider in the Pacific Ocean. The situation was handled admirably, with a minimum of confusion and a proper regard for the rights of neutrals, but it would not have been possible without the warning furnished Pearson by loyal American citizens residing in Panama. Other plots of the same sort were dealt with before they could become serious, again due to the information supplied by private citizens. After the Salvador incident, masters of merchant steamers became much more vigilant in the matter of baggage inspection, and the danger was lessened accordingly.

For the remainder of the Civil War, the Pacific Squadron continued its usual cruising duties. The gunboats Mohongo and Suwanee, near-sisters of the Wateree, arrived from the Atlantic coast to join Pearson's flag, but neither attracted the attention given to a warship launched by the Union Iron Works at San Francisco late in 1864.

 p122  This vessel, the monitor Camanche, had the distinction of sinking before she was launched. She was constructed on the Atlantic coast and disassembled for shipment to the Pacific in the merchant ship Aquila. The latter sank alongside a wharf in San Francisco Bay before the monitor sections could be landed. Thus Camanche had to be delivered from Aquila's hold by a sort of maritime Caesarian operation before being assembled and launched.​7 The monitor's two 15‑inch guns, iron armor, and seven-knot speed fitted her for the defense of San Francisco, but for no other duty on Pacific Station.

News of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox had hardly reached the Pacific coast before Captain McDougal at Mare Island received a telegram from Secretary Welles which plunged the whole region into mourning:

President assassinated yesterday and died today. Fire a gun each half hour from yard and vessels from sunrise to sunset. Put flags at half-mast — direct officers to wear crape.​8

But the Civil War was not yet ended in the Pacific Ocean. Months after affairs had slowed to a leisurely peacetime gait, officials at San Francisco received news of a mysterious raider which was burning American merchant vessels in the Pacific. She was readily identified as the CSS Shenandoah. Admiral Pearson was watching the French at Acapulco when he heard of the raider's depredations early in August 1865. He promptly dispatched the Saranac and Suwanee in search of the Shenandoah, and ordered the Saginaw from San Francisco to relieve him at Acapulco.

San Franciscans feared that the Shenandoah might be lurking just off the Golden Gate to intercept the mail steamer Colorado which was about to sail with a gold shipment. McDougal ordered the little Saginaw out as an escort, a measure of dubious value since the side-wheeler was much slower than the Colorado and was hardly heavy enough to stand up to the larger Shenandoah. But the escort was not needed, and the hunters Saranac and Suwanee returned empty-handed for the very good reason that the Confederate raider had left the Pacific by the time the hunt started. After ruining the American whaling industry by burning some thirty-seven whaleships taken in the North Pacific and Arctic Oceans, her commander learned in August that the Confederacy had in fact surrendered in April, so the  p123 Shenandoah returned to Liverpool under British colors. She was surrendered to British authorities, and they turned her over to the United States government.

With this unsuccess­ful hunt for the last of the Confederate raiders, the Pacific Squadron's part in the Civil War ended. In retrospect, it was not an exciting role, but the few ships assigned to the Pacific Station carried out success­fully the major task ordered by the Navy Department. This was the duty of ensuring the passage of the steamers from San Francisco to Panama and the transit of the Isthmus. To be sure, there were few attempts at interference, but the constant presence of a warship at Panama was essential in preventing the organization of an anti-Union movement by Confederate sympathizers.

It is true that the Pacific Squadron did not keep the Shenandoah from destroying a major American interest in the North Pacific. However, Admiral Pearson's orders made no specific mention of the whaling fleet, and he could spare no warships for commerce protection in the remote waters of his station. Communication difficulties were responsible for Pearson's failure to intercept the Shenandoah; when he did learn of her presence, it was too late for any measures he might take.

In waters far removed from the war zone, the Pacific Squadron had performed its duties as satisfactorily as had all of the United States Navy in the Civil War — however unspectacular and routine these duties might have been.

The Author's Notes:

1 Welles to Montgomery, 27 April 1861, "Confidential Letters Sent, September 1843–December 1879," V, 79.

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2 Dudley W. Knox, Captain, USN, op. cit., p195, states that all but three American steam warships were recalled to the Atlantic coast on the outbreak of the war, but this is in error as none of Montgomery's steamers left the Pacific in 1861.

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3 Bell to Welles, 4 April 1862, "Pacific Squadron Letters."

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4 Ibid.

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5 Bell to Welles, 10 March 1862, "Area Nine File, 1814‑1910."

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6 Welles to Pearson, 4 October 1864, "Letters to Officers commanding Squadrons or Vessels, September 1861–May 1886," IV, 338‑339.

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7 Arnold S. Lott, Lt. Cdr., USN, op. cit., pp85‑86. Lott spells the monitor's name "Comanche," but all contemporary records read "Camanche."

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8 Telegram, Welles to McDougal, 15 April 1865, "Area Nine File, 1814‑1910."

Thayer's Note:

a For exhaustive details, see George R. Clark et al., A Short History of the United States Navy, Chapter 22: The Wyoming at Shimonoséki.

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