Retracing The Water Battles Of The Civil War

By Chris Landers

Perhaps one of the best ways to see some of the most important sites of the Civil War may be from the deck of your boat, where your imagination can take you back in time.

Civil War mapHistorical Map & Chart Collection Office of Coast Survey/NOAA

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, and visitors and reenactors are gathering at historical sites to commemorate important events in the conflict that so dramatically shaped our young nation. Extraordinary battlefields such as Gettysburg draw most of the attention, but some of the most important and moving sites may be best seen and experienced from the water. The naval battles of the Civil War, fought between Union blockade forces and Confederate navies, had a lasting impact on the way wars are fought, and an immediate effect on the lives of those caught up in the conflict. Here are a few of the major events of the Civil War — as seen from the water. If you visit them this summer, aboard your boat with your family, it's a great time to imagine and reflect upon what happened there, only a few generations ago, in what historians have called "The War Between Brothers."

Charleston, South Carolina

In December 1860, South Carolina was the first state to vote to secede from the Union, and a month later turned away a Union ship trying to resupply the Federal forces stationed at Fort Sumter, where Major Robert Anderson had taken his men after departing the mainland. The Union flag flying over the island fortress was a constant symbol of Federal oppression to Charleston's rebels, and in April 1861, they decided to do something about it.

Historic photo of mortars aimed at Fort SumterMortars aimed at Fort Sumter. (Photo: Library of Congress)

A signal shot from nearby Fort Jackson began the bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12, and it ended 34 hours later with a Union surrender. As Abner Doubleday, then a captain stationed at Sumter but later more famous for his association with baseball, wrote in his memoir of the event: "The first contest of the war was over, and had ended as a substantial victory for the Secessionists. ... We had permitted ourselves to be surrounded with a ring of fire, from which there was no escape."

The only human casualty from the battle of Fort Sumter was a Union gunner killed when his gun exploded during a salute as the fort was abandoned, but Sumter became a rallying symbol for both sides after the battle. Major Robert Anderson, the Union commander of the Sumter forces, took down the Union flag as they withdrew, and Charleston would stay in Confederate hands for the duration of the conflict. In 1864, Anderson, by then a general, returned with the flag to hoist it once again over the fort.

Two years after the fall of Fort Sumter, in July 1863, Union forces returned to Charleston to attack Fort Wagner, one of the harbor's land-based defenses located on Morris Island to the south of the harbor entrance. The charge was led by the 54th Massachusetts, America's first all-black military unit. The assault was unsuccessful, but the 54th pressed onward in the face of overwhelming casualties, including their white commander, Colonel Robert Shaw. Union forces lost more than 1,500 men in the assault. After the battle, Shaw was buried in a mass grave with his soldiers, a gesture meant as an insult by the victorious Confederates. Shaw's father responded in a letter, writing, "We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company."

During the assault, former slave William Carney, a sergeant in the 54th, rescued the Union flag after the bearer had been shot, and despite his own wounds, entered the fort, and planted the flag on the parapet. When the 54th was driven back from the fort, he carried the flag to safety, refusing medical treatment. Almost four decades later, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions. The bombardment of Fort Wagner continued until September, when rebel forces abandoned it. The remains of the fort have been washed away, but a plaque remains on Morris Island, which is accessible only by boat. (

Photo of The Monitor and the Virginia (Merrimac)The Monitor and the Virginia (Merrimac). (Photo: Library of Congress)

Charleston remained an important port for the Confederacy during the years of Union blockade. Skirmishes between blockade-runners and Union ships took place up and down the coast, but it was here that the Confederacy chose to unveil their secret weapon — the H.L. Hunley, which would change the face of naval warfare. The torpedoes of the day, little more than explosive charges on the end of a sharp spar, were regularly used against blockade ships, delivered by barges under cover of night. The Hunley was submersible, capable of staying under for two hours by using a snorkel to the surface that allowed the crew to breathe. The sub sank twice before her biggest mission, killing almost everyone aboard, but each time she was raised up and re-crewed with Confederate volunteers.

In February 1864, the Hunley attacked the Union ship Housatonic, which had been blockading Charleston for more than a year. The eight crew members of the Hunley piloted their submarine through the cold water using a hand-crank to turn the propellers, discovered by the Housatonic only when they were too close to be targeted by the ship's cannons. The Hunley planted a torpedo in the side of the Union ship, sinking her. As they made their way back to Charleston, the Hunley signaled once to shore, then sank with all hands aboard. The sub's whereabouts remained a mystery for 130 years. P.T. Barnum once offered a reward to anyone who could find her, but it was not until decades later that the wreck was discovered by author Clive Cussler. The closest public boat ramp is the Shem Creek Landing in Mt. Pleasant, at the end of Mill Street. Today, the Friends of the Hunley maintain the ship in a museum in Charleston. (

Mobile Bay, Alabama

Mobile, the "Paris of the Confederacy," was a strategically important location for the South, both as a crossroads for the railroad and, particularly after the fall of New Orleans, as a key port for blockade-runners to ship Southern cotton through the Gulf of Mexico for trade. Mobile was a target for the Union, but the harbor was well defended, with three land-based forts and a string of mines across the entrance, planted so that any ship entering would have to come within gun range of Fort Morgan on the eastern side of the channel.

Map of the Battle of Mobile Bay

In August 1864, the Battle of Mobile Bay began when Rear Admiral David Farragut sent his ships into the minefield, led by the "unsinkable" ironclad Tecumseh, which hit a torpedo and went down quickly, killing 150 sailors aboard. With his cry of "Damn the torpedoes!" Farragut and his ships followed the Tecumseh into the bay.

Farragut's gamble with the minefield paid off — after his ships were through, they were beyond the reach of the Confederate forts, and faced the rebel ships stationed on the other side. The ironclad CSS Tennessee, flagship of Admiral Franklin Buchanan, and four wooden ships engaged Farragut's fleet of 18. The four wooden ships were driven off or sunk by the superior Federal force, but rather than give in, Buchanan engaged the Union navy with his remaining ship, surrendering only after being shot and rammed by the Federal ships, no longer able to fire or move.

Photo of a young sailor in the Union NavyA young sailor in the Union Navy. (Photo: Library of Congress)

The Tennessee dealt with, Farragut turned his attention to the forts surrounding the bay, supporting land-based assaults. Forts Powell, Gaines, and Morgan were surrendered by Confederates, who retreated to Mobile, leaving the lower bay and their gateway to the Gulf. The city itself remained unconquered until the last days of the war. ( Boats can put in from ramps on Dauphin Island, at the mouth of Mobile Bay, which is accessible by ferry or by bridge.

New Orleans And The Mississippi

As the gateway to the Mississippi, New Orleans had a tremendous strategic value to anyone who wanted to control the water-borne trade, and to effectively blockade the South, the Union needed to control it. Entering from the Gulf of Mexico, they faced two major obstacles: Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip. Seized by rebels before Louisiana voted for secession, the two forts overlooked a long stretch of the Mississippi, with 11 schooner hulks strung across the river as a boom to delay attackers while the forts finished them off.

Captain David Farragut, the commander of the Union's blockading squadron in the area, led his ships into the river in April 1862, and bombarded the forts with shells. After five days, a pair of union ships managed to break through the boom. The ensuing firefight was fierce, but after the forts had been passed, the way to the city lay clear, and New Orleans surrendered to Farragut upon his arrival there (preserving the architecture of New Orleans from the destruction that many Southern cities suffered under Union attack).

Farragut proceeded up the Mississippi from New Orleans, taking Baton Rouge and Natchez, but his advance halted at Vicksburg, and his ships retreated to New Orleans. Meanwhile, Union General William Sherman was pressing down the river from the north, and arrived in Vicksburg on Christmas Eve. Sherman reportedly told an officer, "We will lose 5,000 men before we take Vicksburg, and we may as well lose them here as anywhere else." He was right. His army was repelled by the Confederate force, and it would be another six months before forces under the command of Ulysses Grant accepted Vicksburg's surrender following a devastating 47-day bombardment. The fall of Vicksburg took place in 1863 on July 4, a date that the city would refuse to celebrate for any reason, until 1945. At Vicksburg, there is a public boat ramp along the Vicksburg waterfront, at the foot of Clay Street. The nearest ramps to Forts Jackson and St. Philip are privately owned, and located along Highway 11 upriver from the forts.

Photo of Fort Sumter under the Confederate FlagFort Sumter under the Confederate Flag. (Photo: The National Archives)

Hampton Roads, Virginia

The Battle of Hampton Roads only lasted a few hours, but the meeting of the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack, a name the Union continued to use) had a worldwide effect. On March 8, 1862, the Virginia, captained by Franklin Buchanan, and several wooden Confederate ships engaged a Union fleet near Newport News. Virginia rammed the USS Cumberland, sinking her, and bombarded the ship Congress, which exploded. A third Union ship, the Minnesota, ran aground before the Virginia returned to Norfolk.

That night, the ironclad USS Monitor arrived, and when the Virginia emerged to fight again, the two ships engaged. It was a ferocious exchange, but neither was able to pierce the other's armor. The Monitor withdrew briefly when her pilot, the only one with a view to the outside, was blinded by splinters. The Virginia, thinking her opponent was leaving, also withdrew. Each side claimed victory, but the real winners were the ironclad warships themselves. Though both the Virginia and Monitor sank within a year of their battle, both sides began producing the new armored vessels, and once news of the contest reached across the Atlantic, Britain and France followed suit. The Mariners' Museum in Newport News displays artifacts from both ships and a full-scale recreation at the USS Monitor Center. ( Boats can be launched from Monitor-Merrimac Overlook Park in Newport News. 

For more information on these and many other Civil War sites you can visit by sea or by land, take a look at the National Park Service's website,

— Published: August/September 2011

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