- Bogart, Charles B.
- Early warships, Ship histories and stories
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 1980 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
WITH THE FALL OF FORT FISHER on January 15 1865, for all practical purposes, the Civil War at sea for the Union Navy came to an end. With the closing of the port of Wilmington, the last major port remaining in Confederate hands was lost to the North. No longer were there any ports or harbors left in Confederate hands which could directly influence the course of war. On the high seas, the Union Navy was confronted only with the CSS Shenandoah and the possibility of one or two warships being built for the Confederacy in Europe and escaping to sea. The Union Navy, therefore, with no major part left to play in the Civil War, set about to reconstruct its pre-war overseas naval stations. Among those stations designated to be brought back up to pre-war strength was the Asiatic Station, which was charged with protecting American interests in the Far East.
Numbered among the ships ordered to proceed to this station was the USS Wachusett, one of the Union’s modern wooden steam frigates and a sister ship to the Kearsage. Though not as well remembered today as is the Kearsage, the Wachusett was once just as famous for having cut the CSS Florida out of the Brazilian port of Bahia on October 7 1864 while the Florida laid under the protection of Brazilian guns and neutrality.
Though the United States government, once the facts were made known to it, deplored and repudiated the act, Brazilian authorities were not satisfied. They demanded that the Florida be conveyed back to Bahia where it was to be returned to its Confederate crew. Although the US government agreed to this plan of action, they never carried it out. This failure was due to the accidental sinking of the Florida in a collision at Hampton Roads on November 28 1864. Although never proven conclusively, evidence seems to bear out the accusations levelled by Brazil and the Confederacy that the sinking was no accident, but instead resulted from a deliberate ramming of the vessel by a Union ship. The result was that the Confederacy never regained the Florida and US-Brazilian relations took another turn for the worse. The Brazilian government officially promised that ‘direct penalties’ would be imposed upon the Wachusett if she ever again entered a Brazilian port.
The Wachusett was built as a wooden, steam, screw frigate at the Boston Naval Yard where she was launched on October 10 1861. Her hull was 201 feet 4 inches long with a beam of 33 feet 11 inches and a draught of 14 feet. Her screw could drive her 1,032 tons through the water at 11.5 knots if necessary, but her normal speed was 6 knots. It is doubtful if she ever made more than 10 knots under steam except on her trials as even at this speed her machinery suffered heavily from the strain. Armament consisted of two x 30 pdr Parrott rifles, one x 20-pdr Parrott rifle, four x 32-pdr guns, one x 12-pdr rifle and two x 11-inch Dahlgren smoothbores.
(Editors note: A “Parrott rifle” is a form of muzzle loaded artillery. According to Wikipedia Parrott rifles were manufactured with a combination of cast and wrought iron. The gun was made from cast iron, and a large wrought iron reinforcing band was overlaid on the breech to give it additional strength. Dahlgren guns were designed with a smooth curved shape, equalizing strain and concentrating more weight of metal in the gun breech where the greatest pressure of expanding propellant gases needed to be met to keep the gun from bursting.)
The Wachusett’s orders to proceed to the Far East were issued on February 17 1865 by Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to Commander Robert Townsend and read as follows:
‘As soon as the USS Wachusett is in all respects ready for sea, proceed with her by the way of the Cape of Good Hope to the East India station where you will remain until further orders.
‘Macao, China can be made your headquarters, and all letters for the Wachusett will be forwarded to that place.
‘Use all practicable dispatch in reaching your station and do not deviate from the most direct route, except for the purpose of pursuing piratical vessels should you hear of any in your reach.
‘Avoid entering any port of Brazil. The Navy Department has coal stored at Martinique and Loanda, and it is desirable that you should touch at those places to replenish your supply.’
To these orders Welles issued on March 3 1865 a supplementary message which read in part:
‘Regarding the East Indies as the Shenandoah’s destination, it is all important that the Wachusett should proceed thither with the utmost dispatch.’
Immediately upon receiving this last order, Commander Townsend put to sea on March 5 after sending the following message to Secretary Welles:
‘I am very grateful for the confidence the Department is pleased to repose in me, and I will faithfully endeavor to prove that it is not misplaced. Duty, as well as inclination, will induce me to follow up, within the scope of my orders, the Shenandoah, and strive to win the last sprig of laurel left for the Navy to add to its glorious chaplet gathered in this war.’