Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, April 6, 2022: The Forlorn Hope
Here we see the recently commissioned Hartford-class screw sloop-of-war USS Pensacola (23 guns) as she appeared in November 1861, off Alexandria, Virginia, dressed and yardarms manned as she is receiving President Lincoln. The image is labeled that the vessel, soon to be on the way to the Gulf of Mexico to join Flag Officer Farragut’s newly created West Gulf Blockading Squadron, is the “Forlorn Hope” of Farragut’s fleet. She would prove a valuable, if somewhat irritating, addition to his force.
Though dubbed sloops by the Navy, if commissioned in any other fleet of the era, the Hartfords would be considered steam frigates. Generally of 225 feet in length with a fully loaded displacement pushing 3,000 tons, they were only gently smaller than the preceding five Merrimac-class steam frigates which went 250-feet and about 4,000 tons.
Built of live oak, the Hartfords were fast on either their sail rig (three masts with two yards on each) or steam plant, capable of hitting 11 knots even with only half the horsepower of the Merrimacs. With 13 gun ports on each side of the below-deck gun deck and room for a topside pivot gun fore and aft, the class was generally able to ship about 20-24 pieces, leaning heavily on IX-inch Dahlgrens. For example and Pensacola was ultimately completed with 16 such smoothbores in broadsides as well as a single XI-inch pivot, although she would sail in late 1861 with a mix of 23 guns mounted.
Under a design by John Lenthall, Chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Construction, the five sloops of the class were built at five different Navy yards close to the cities they were named after– Hartford at Boston, Lancaster at Philadelphia, Richmond at Norfolk, Brooklyn at New York, and Pensacola at Pensacola– meaning they were all slightly different from each other. Specifically, they all had engineering plants that were to be built locally to their respective yards, which, in the 1850s, was almost as ill-fated as having two classes of littoral combat ships built simultaneously.
With that, several of the ships were completed successfully while Pensacola, her hull complete and masts raised, had to be towed in December 1859 to Washington Navy Yard for installation of machinery that was built there to a design by Edward Dickerson and noted inventor Frederick Ellsworth Sickels that was supposed to be top-notch and “produce the highest possible effect from the given amount of fuel and with the least possible weight.
However, as described through the scholarship of Edward A. Mueller in Warship International Vol. 5, No. 2 (Spring, 1968), pp. 96-111 (22 pages), it fell far short:
Following the start of the Civil War and, with all four of the other Hartfords off fighting down South, Pensacola languished in Washington, despite being listed as commissioned in full on 16 September 1861, while the bugs were worked out. This included hosting Lincoln for a short sail to Alexandria in mid-November 1861 while still fitting out.
In the end, she was only able to pass her trials on 3 January 1862, making 8.8 mph on the Potomac. Her final cost was $308,460, well over twice that of any of her sisters, with the much more mechanically reliable Hartford only running $114,400.
Her skipper, Capt. Henry White Morris, the superintendent of engines and operations at the Washington Navy Yard, seemed a logical choice. The grandson of Robert Morris, signer of the Declaration of Independence, Capt. Morris had joined the Navy at age 13 and by 1861 he had been in the navy for 41 years with 17 of those on sea duty.
Dispatched to join Farragut in the Gulf, at last, she broke down on the way in the Florida Keys for over a week– run aground– but eventually made Ship Island off the Mississippi Sound in early March 1862 and made ready to venture up the Mighty Mississip with the squadron on the push to capture New Orleans.
Headed to the Crescent City
However, her cranky machinery was in such bad shape that she was instructed to use her sails only– on an upriver trip fraught with muddy bars, confusing currents, and the very real threat of enemy action– while tugs stood by if she got stuck.
Of course, they would have to run the gauntlet that was the Confederate-held Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip 40 miles up the river from the mouth, two lines of river obstructions, a score of fire rafts, as well as a fleet of armed river craft, “cotton clads,” and the much-feared steam ram CSS Manassas, the rebel ships mounting some 33 guns between them.
What could possibly go wrong?
To help lighten the load, Pensacola landed most of her coal, provisions, and anything else she could sail without in an effort to raise her draft. The sloop, along with the similarly troubled paddle frigate USS Mississippi, made it over the bar at the mouth of the Mighty Miss on 8 April, then would be in the forefront of the push past Forts Jackson and St. Philip just two weeks later.
Farragut would put the ailing sloop up front, the second ship in line.
The push, which could have gone horribly wrong, was famously successful, even though the Confederate artillery boss at the forts reported firing no less than 1,591 shells at Farragut’s fleet including “675 VIII-inch solid shot, 171 VIII-inch shells, 13 XIII-inch shells, and 142 X-inch mortar shells.”
Morris’s report to Farragut, filed off New Orleans four days after the fact, making a short reference to the CSS Manassas’s failed attempt to ram the sloop and the brutal artillery duel between the warship and the forts.
Pensacola surely got some sweeping hits in on the cotton-clad CSS Governor Moore, a steamer raked with fire by the Union squadron, practically shooting away all of Moore’s upper hamper. The rebel gunboat drifted helplessly to shore, where her captain, pilot, and a seaman set her afire.
Of her 300~ man crew, Pensacola came off light for the amount of fire that was thrown her way by the Secesh, suffering four killed, and 32 wounded.
Four of her crew would earn the Medal of Honor for the fight, Quartermaster Louis Richards, Seaman Thomas G. Lyons, Captain of the foretop James McLeod, and “Boy” Thomas S. Flood.
— Richards served as quartermaster on board the U.S.S. Pensacola in the attacks upon Forts Jackson and St. Philip, and at the taking of New Orleans, 24 and 25 April 1862. Through all the din and roar of battle, he steered the ship through the narrow opening of the barricade, and his attention to orders contributed to the successful passage of the ship without once fouling the shore or the obstacles of the barricade.
— Served as seaman on board the U.S.S. Pensacola in the attack on Forts Jackson and St. Philip, 24 April 1862. Carrying out his duties throughout the din and roar of the battle, Lyons never once erred in his brave performance. Lashed outside of that vessel, on the port-sheet chain, with the lead in hand to lead the ship past the forts, Lyons never flinched, although under heavy fire from the forts and rebel gunboats.
— Captain of the foretop, and a volunteer from the Colorado, McLeod served on board the U.S.S. Pensacola during the attack on Forts Jackson and St. Philip and the taking of New Orleans, 24 and 25 April 1862. Acting as gun captain of the rifled howitzer aft, which was much exposed, he served this piece with great ability and activity, although no officer superintended it.
— Served on board the U.S.S. Pensacola in the attack on Forts Jackson and St. Philip and the taking of New Orleans, 24 and 25 April 1862. Swept from the bridge by a shell which wounded the signal quartermaster, Flood returned to the bridge after assisting the wounded man below and taking over his duties, “Performed them with coolness, exactitude and the fidelity of a veteran seaman. His intelligence and character cannot be spoken of too warmly.”
As noted of the overall operation by Capt. Theodorus Bailey, who commanded one of the gunboat divisions during the fight to pass Forts Jackson and St. Philip:
In the face of casemated forts, fire rafts, ironclad steam rams, and a fleet of gunboats, we have swept the Mississippi of its defenses as far as Baton Rouge and perhaps Memphis. The United States flag waves over Forts Jackson, St. Philip, Livingston, and Pike, and also the city of New Orleans. We fought two great battles; that of the passage of the forts and encounter with the ironclads and gunboats has not been surpassed in naval history. We have done all this with wooden ships and gunboats.
Reaching New Orleans shortly after passing the forts, at 2 pm on 25 April, Farragut formally accepted the surrender of the Crescent City from the city’s civilian leaders.
The next morning, Pensacola landed Captain Morris with two squads of marines and a few Sailors, and the small force raised the Union flag over the rebel-occupied former U.S. Mint on Esplanade Avenue in the Vieux Carre. It was the signpost that New Orleans had, unofficially at least, rejoined the Union.
The rest of the War
In July 1862, Morris, Pensacola’s first skipper, was promoted to Commodore and, in poor health, was allowed leave to return home to New York where he died soon after.
Pensacola, handicapped by her machinery, was left to the role of a sort of station ship for the next two years following the capture of New Orleans. She remained as a guard vessel on the Lower Mississippi, watching for blockade runners and policing fishing boats.
Sent to New York Navy Yard, where she decommissioned on 29 April 1864– just missing the Battle of Mobile Bay where three of her sisters ran past Forts Gains and Morgan with Farragut and fought a much stronger rebel ram than the Manassas to a standstill– Pensacola was laid up and her machinery replaced with that which had been purchased by the Navy for canceled sloop-of-war USS Wanaloset. She was still in New York when Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse.
Recommissioned 16 August 1866, the much improved Pensacola could finally stretch her sea legs.
With that, she rounded Cape Horn and became part of the Pacific Squadron, often serving as her flagship as she patrolled along the West coasts of North and South America, and as far out to sea as the Kingdom of Hawaii.
She continued this routine for the next 17 years, going into ordinary twice (1870-71 and 1873-74) during that period to refit, inheriting the only gently-used two funnels and boilers from the stricken Confiance-class screw sloop USS Benecia.
While these were the salad days of her career, members of Pensacola’s crew would earn two more Medals of Honor in this quiet peacetime era: Seaman Patrick Regan and Henry Thompson, in 1873 and 1878, respectively, each for rescuing a man from drowning.
She was extensively photographed around 1880, with views of her decks captured in detail for posterity.
Her Pacific days came to an end, at least for a while, when in June 1883 Pensacola was ordered to Norfolk, the long way. Sailing across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, she transited the Suez Canal, then steamed through the ancient waters of the Mediterranean and crossed the Atlantic to arrive in Hampton Roads on 4 May 1884. After a year of refit, she sailed to Europe with a new skipper in April 1885
Her skipper, from 1885 through 1888 while on European Station, was a young Captain George Dewey (USNA 1858), later of Battle of Manila Bay fame. Dewey of course was familiar with Pensacola as he had been a newly-minted lieutenant on the USS Mississippi when that steam frigate was behind Pensacola in line on the push past the muzzles of the guns of Fort St. Philip.
There are also superb photographs of her Bluejackets and Marines conducting gunnery training and formations, landing drills, practicing repelling boarders, and having cutlass practice on her deck in February 1888, with Dewey looking on.
Arriving back stateside from her European vacation in February 1888, Pensacola saw a further refit during which one funnel was removed and her second-hand boilers were replaced with new ones built for the canceled screw frigate USS Ontario.
Then came a lengthy cruise to the coast of Africa, to which she carried a team of scientists of the United States Eclipse Expedition.
As described by the Smithsonian, the embarked big brains included: astronomer David Peck Todd of Amherst College and the U.S. Naval Observatory, Mr. Carbutt (Photographer); Prof. Abbe (meteorologist); Eben Jenks Loomis (naturalist) from the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac office (as well as a special assistant to the USNO); William H. Brown (osteologist and naturalist) as well as his brother A. H. Brown (assistant); and Mr. Preston (“observer of magnetics and determinations of gravity”).
The 242-day scientific cruise called at St. Paul de Loanda in Portuguese West Africa, Faial in the Azores, the Cape Verde Islands, Freetown, and Cape Town before heading back by way of St. Helena, Ascension, Barbados, and Nonsuch Island (Barbados), mixing both groundbreaking science experiments and data collection with such mundane naval tasks as gunnery practice.
One Herman S. Davis, an assistant astronomer on the trip, was a bit of a shutterbug.
As described by Albert Bergman in his journal A Man Before the Mast, the crew was very involved in the experiments and collection process:
Besides the force we had working on the boats, twenty to thirty sailors were detailed to work on shore under the direction of Professor Bigelow, to dig ditches, build foundations, fitting instruments, artificial houses, etc. Another party was detailed under Lieutenant Heilner, to transport the stores to the Eclipse Station. Ten voluntary marines were sent on shore to guard the camp from wild beasts and savages. The latter were found to be plenty.
The Smithsonian notes:
Along with the magnetic, gravity, and astronomical observations performed, specimen collecting included, but was not limited to entomology, zoology, and ichthyology. A large number of fish were collected at the island locations by William H. Brown. Myriapoda, spiders, and other insect specimens were also brought back by the expedition team.
Layup and semi-retirement in sunny California
In August 1890, Pensacola was dispatched back to her old stomping grounds on the West Coast, arriving at San Francisco on 10 August 1891.
Following a short cruise to Hawaii, the aging steam sloop decommissioned at Mare Island on 18 April 1892.
After a six-year layup, she was reactivated as part of the naval surge that came with the Spanish-American War.
While Dewey was busy in the Philippines, however, Pensacola was destined to be used only as a training ship for Naval apprentices, then, transitioned to a receiving ship at Yerba Buena Training Station.
Decommissioning on 6 December 1911, Pensacola was struck from the Navy Register on 23 December.
The old girl was unceremoniously stripped and burned near Hunter’s Point the following May.
Little exists of Farragut’s Forlorned Frigate these days.
Her helm wheel was saved and, after being on display on the decks of the old Truxtun-Decatur Naval Museum for decades, is now mounted on a wall of the National Museum of the United States Navy at the Washington Navy Yard.
She is also remembered in period maritime art.
Meanwhile, assorted logs and research from the 1889 United States Eclipse Expedition are in libraries and collections around the country.
Her sisters likewise lived very long– and lucky– lives.
- Hartford, Farragut’s flagship, was kept as a relic by the Navy until she literally sank at her moorings in 1956.
- Brooklyn— the scourge of the Mississippi Sound and the Biloxi fishing fleet– retired in 1889 and was sold after having well served her country for over three decades.
- Lancaster, who served in the Pacific during the Civil War, like Pensacola was recommissioned in 1898 and saw one last war (albeit as a receiving ship) then continued to serve as a quarantine ship on the East Coast as late as 1933.
- Richmond, who past the Forts in 1862 with Pensacola and company, served as an auxiliary to the receiving ship USS Franklin until after the end of World War I and was sold for breaking in 1919.
As for the old U.S. Mint in New Orleans, the flag Pensacola rose was hauled down almost immediately by troublemaking New Orleanian William Mumford, along with three other men. As noted by the Louisiana State Museum, “Mumford, a well-educated but reckless man with a love of drink, defiantly wore shreds of the flag in his buttonhole. He eventually was arrested and sentenced by U.S. Army General Benjamin Butler to be hanged in front of the mint on June 7, 1862.”
Butler is not well-liked in New Orleans to the current day.
The Mint building, after the facility closed in 1909, was used by the Veterans Bureau as well as both the Navy and Coast Guard for decades, along with other federal agencies, until the state took it over– peacefully this time– in the mid-1960s. Under the stewardship of the Louisiana State Museum Board is now the New Orleans Jazz Museum.
Finally, while our USS Pensacola was the first U.S. Navy ship to carry the name, the has not been the last, followed by a Great War transport ship (AK-7/AG-13), a “Treaty” cruiser (CL/CA-24) that saw so much service in WWII that she was nicknamed the “Grey Ghost” by Tokyo Rose on her way to earning 13 battle stars, and a Cold War-era Anchorage-class dock landing ship (LSD-38) that served 28 years with the Navy and is still in service with Taiwan after at least 22 years under that country’s flag.
In my opinion, it is past time to reinstall a USS Pensacola to the Navy List.
Displacement 3,000 t.
Length 130′ 5″
Beam 44′ 5″
Draft 18′ 7″
Speed 9.5 kts.
Complement: 259 officers and enlisted (1861)
1 x 11-inch Dahlgren smoothbore
16 x 9-inch Dahlgren smoothbores
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