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A House Divided:

The Southern Rebellion, 1850-54


By Chris Oakley

Part 5


adapted from material previously posted at Othertimelines.com




Summary: In the first four episodes of this series we looked at the causes of the Southern Rebellion War, the early battles of the war itself, the Union’s introduction of ironclad naval vessels in an attempt to get the upper hand over the Confederacy; how General Ethan Allen Hitchcock’s death led to a shakeup in the Fillmore presidential cabinet; the Confederate invasion of Kentucky in the summer of 1852; and the Union counteroffensive that drove out the invaders. In this chapter we’ll relive the Battle of Knoxville and witness the first major combat engagement between ironclad naval vessels.


Tactically, the battle between the USS Plymouth Rock and the CSS Savannah on September 22nd, 1852 was a relatively insignificant affair. But strategically, that clash ranks in importance alongside Lepanto, Trafalgar, and Midway as a turning point in the annals of naval history; it provided the first concrete proof of the viability of ironclad warships as an instrument of naval combat and dealt a setback to Confederate hopes for ending the Union blockade of the CRA. Even now, in an era when a typical naval vessel boasts enough destructive power to vaporize Buckingham Palace, the engagement is still a topic for thorough study at naval academies throughout the world.

The Plymouth Rock was on a routine interdiction patrol off the Carolinas when her lookouts sighted the Savannah trying to sneak past the blockade line; details of Savannah’s mission are still a bit sketchy, but the information that is available implies she was at the very least testing the Union’s resolve to maintain the blockade. If so, it was a test she fatally flunked.

At 3:32 on the afternoon of September 22nd Plymouth Rock’s first officer made this notation in the ship’s log: "Enemy vessel sighted...captain has ordered us to pursue same." Within an hour of that entry the two ironclads were close enough to each other that their respective captains could have called out to one another from their quarterdecks had either of them been so inclined. A few minutes after Plymouth Rock caught up with Savannah, the two ironclads started exchanging broadsides. For what seemed like an eternity Plymouth Rock and Savannah went at each other hammer and tong, trading gunshots like there was no tomorrow. "We thought we’d be fighting the Rebs right up until Judgment Day." one Rock crewman would recall in an interview for a Maine newspaper thirty years after the fact.1

As it turned out, however, the struggle between Rock and Savannah would be terminated much sooner: at 6:04 PM on the night of September 22nd, the Union ironclad made a direct hit on the Confederate vessel’s boiler room. The unlucky ship broke in two as massive fires raged all throughout her hull, killing many of the crew and causing deadly panic among the rest; a number of Confederate sailors were trampled to death as their desperate shipmates tried to escape the doomed ironclad. At 6:48 PM, the Savannah disappeared underneath the chilly waters of the Atlantic. The first battle between ironclad warships in the history of naval combat had ended in a Union victory.

It took at least two days for word of Savannah’s sinking to reach the White House in Washington and the Confederate president’s office in Charleston, but when the news finally did arrive it quickly became clear to the more perceptive men in President Fillmore’s and President Toombs’ respective cabinets that the ironclad could potentially change not only the course of the Southern Rebellion War but also the way in which naval battles would be waged into the future. When Confederate Secretary of War Charles Magill Conrad learned of the Savannah’s loss, he fell into what one modern historian has described as "a pitch-black depression"2 and seriously considered resigning his post.

Naturally, the mood in the offices of Union Navy Secretary William A. Graham was considerably more cheerful. As he’d hoped, USS Plymouth Rock had passed its first combat test with flying colors; within weeks of Rock’s victory against Savannah the Union Navy had submitted orders to shipyards for new ironclads and work was being accelerated on those already under construction. As the Southern Rebellion War went on, the Union Navy’s edge over its Confederate opposite would be enhanced with every ironclad that sailed out from the drydocks of Boston, New York, and Baltimore.


But just as the Union’s fortunes were changing for the better at sea, they suffered a major if temporary reverse in the ground war. The Union Army found itself encountering heavier-than-expected resistance in its efforts to capture Knoxville. Regular Confederate troops and Tennessee volunteer militiamen were putting up a ferocious struggle in the city’s defense; they were supported by men from Knoxville’s civil population who’d decided to stay and fight rather than join the masses of refugees which had previously fled the city. "It was like fighting the legions of Hell." one Union infantry major would later remember of the bitter contest for possession of one of the Confederate Republic’s most important cities. Knoxville’s defenders would have much the same recollections about their Union foes; a Confederate Army sergeant who was on the front lines at Knoxville at the time of the battle would say of the Union troops that they were "meaner than a pack of rabid dogs and far more willing to bite".3 These quotes are not an exaggeration, or at least not very much of one-- there are confirmed instances of men on both sides of the Battle of Knoxville killing an enemy soldier with their bare hands.

The artillery exchange between Union and Confederate cannon crews was perhaps the most brutal element of the Battle of Knoxville. Throughout the Southern Rebellion War the Union Army’s artillery corps consistently had more and better cannons than its Confederate nemesis, and in most circumstances that would have tipped the scales of battle in the Union’s favor; however, the Union Army forces trying to capture Knoxville had outdistanced their supply lines and disagreements among some of the Union officers about where the bulk of the cannons should be deployed made it difficult to get any cannons deployed in a timely or effective fashion.

The Confederate defenders of Knoxville took full advantage of this situation; lining up their best cannons along one of the weaker points in the Union Army battle lines outside the city, they opened a massive barrage against Union forces which tore Union infantry formations to shreds. As Union troops tried to recover from this unexpected blow, the Confederates launched a do-or-die assault on the Union Army left flank; within an hour and a half, the Union forces were in retreat. At mid-afternoon on September 25th, three days after the sinking of the CSS Savannah and approximately one day after word of that sinking had reached the White House, the Union Army pulled its last remaining men in the Knoxville area back to safety behind the Union lines.

For the Confederates, their army’s victory at Knoxville was welcome news; it took some of the sting out of CSS Savannah’s loss and gave the Toombs government hope that it might yet prevail against the Union. Confederate morale soared in the days immediately following the collapse of the Union assault on the city. Union morale, of course, suffered a corresponding decline and a number of Union Army officers’ reputations would be tarnished by the defeat at Knoxville. Two Union Army regimental commanders would in fact be cashiered in the aftermath of Battle of Knoxville....


...and the first seeds for a radical transformation in American attitudes on race relations would be planted. Seeing an opportunity to further advance their cause, abolitionist groups throughout the North began advocating a step that the Fillmore Administration had so far resisted taking: the recruitment of freed blacks into the Union Army. With manpower at a premium, the abolitionists argued, Fillmore needed all the soldiers he could get-- and the black man, they were quick to point out, had a considerable stake in helping  the Union to win the war.

Not surprisingly, their arguments at first met with a good deal of resistance in the White House and in Congress. Much of the public also had strong objections to the idea of all-black army regiments; in one especially notorious instance, a rally held near Buffalo, New York in favor of such regiments ended in a near-riot when a gang of local malcontents began hurling rocks at the keynote speaker. It would take another serious Union land defeat-- and a certain plain-spoken Illnois lawyer --to convince the nay-sayers to change their minds....


To Be Continued



[1] “Former Navy Man Recounts His Days In Battle Against The Southern Rebellion”, from the October 1st, 1882 edition of the Oxford County Advertiser.

[2] Hard About!: The True Story Of The Battle That Began The Modern Era Of Naval Warfare, copyright 2005 University of Georgia Press.

[3] Quoted from the Southern Rebellion War memoir I Was At Knoxville by Sgt. J.E. Driver, copyright 1894 by Fowler & Dawkins Printing, Charleston.


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