Civil War Profiles: Confederate ship threatens Lewes and Fort Delaware
On Nov. 3, 1864, Pvt. Alexander James Hamilton, a member of Independent Battery G, Pittsburgh Heavy Artillery, recorded in his diary that the C.S.S. Tallahassee caused alarm at Fort Delaware when it steamed into the breakwater near Lewes. Anticipating that the Confederate raider might run up the Delaware River, Hamilton noted: “Slept with one eye open and my clothes on…”
Battery G was a part of the artillery force at Fort Delaware assigned to prevent enemy ships from moving farther upriver and attacking the cities of Wilmington and Philadelphia. Earlier in the year, the Tallahassee had enhanced its reputation as a swift vessel capable of outrunning the Union blockade of Southern ports by conducting damaging raids along the Atlantic coastline of the North.
W. Emerson Wilson relates in “A Fort Delaware Journal” (1981) that, in August, the Confederate raider had captured a number of ships and caused panic by passing Fire Island and entering New York harbor. One of those captured vessels was a schooner named for Delawarean Lammot du Pont, a chemist and grandson of E.I. du Pont de Nemours, the founder of the gunpowder manufacturing company on the banks of Brandywine Creek that bore his name.
The Wilmington, N.C.-based Tallahassee was one of many blockade runners built in Great Britain. It was originally constructed in July 1864 as an English Channel ferry named the Atalanta on the Dover, England, to Calais, France run, and the British firm E.P. Stringer Mercantile Trading Company purchased the ship as a blockade runner.
It was built on the River Thames in London by the firm of J.&W. Dudgeon, to the design of Capt. T.E. Symonds of the Royal Navy. The dimensions were 240 feet in length, 24 feet at the beam and a 14-foot draft. The fast twin-screw vessel made three round trips to Wilmington before the Confederacy decided to purchase and convert the steamer into a gunboat. It became the C.S.S. Tallahassee with Cmdr. John Taylor Wood at the helm.
Stephen Wise explains in “Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running During the Civil War” that Wood took the ship on Aug. 6, 1864, on a 19-day cruise along the northern coast. It destroyed 26 vessels and captured another seven before returning to Wilmington. As mentioned, during that cruise, it threw a scare into the residents of New York.
The Tallahassee was not effective in combat against the more powerful Union vessels; however, it contributed to the Southern war effort by attacking enemy merchant ships, which caused heavy financial losses. This swift boat and others like her forced the Union South Atlantic Blockading Squadron to deploy additional steamers off Wilmington in an attempt to keep these annoying gunboats in port.
During the ship’s second cruise northward that took it close to Lewes, they chose not to venture up the Delaware River without a pilot to guide it through potential dangerous waters. As a result, although detailed to serve one of Fort Delaware’s guns, Pvt. Hamilton’s sleep on the night of Nov. 3 “was not disturbed.” Nevertheless, the Confederate gunboat captured several ships operating near the Lewes breakwater.
Unknown to the Union soldiers at Fort Delaware, the Tallahassee was now named the C.S.S. Olustee, under the command of Lt. W.H. Ward. The name change occurred in honor of a Rebel victory over Union forces at the northern Florida town of Olustee earlier in the year, on Feb. 20, 1864. Although a relatively minor battle, it nonetheless had boosted the sagging morale of the South at that point of the war.
Perhaps appropriately, the ship was renamed again in December, as the C.S.S. Chameleon. That was not the final change, however, because it would later be known as the Amelia and the Haya Maru during the post-war period.
The proud ship of many names that had threatened Lewes and Fort Delaware was never captured by the Union blockading squadron. In April 1865, it made its way to Liverpool, England; but, as Wise describes, it was turned over to the United States by a court order, as contraband of war.
Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign: How the Critical Role of Intelligence Impacted the Outcome of Lee’s Invasion of the North, June-July 1863.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his website www.tomryan-civilwar.com.