Named after the niece of President James Buchanan, the US Revenue Cutter Harriet Lane was a 750-ton side-wheel gunboat built in 1857. She served as a Revenue Cutter for only a short time before being transferred to the Navy in 1858. The Harriet Lane, under the command of Captain John Faunce, was sent to Paraguay as part of a US Squadron to help “convince” the ruling dictator, Carlos Antonio Lopez, that he should pay reparations for an unprovoked attack on the US Navy survey vessel Water Witch on 1 February 1855. The US Commissioner to Paraguay, James B. Bowlin, had been negotiating with Lopez for almost four years and had gotten nowhere with the dictator. Frustrated, President Buchanan decided to send a US Naval Squadron down to Paraguay to help speed up negotiations. After seeing the US warships off Paraguay’s coast, Lopez officially apologized for the incident, paid an indemnity to compensate the family of the American sailor killed during the incident, and signed a new commercial treaty that was highly advantageous to the United States. The Squadron Commander, Flag Officer William B. Shubrick, commended the Harriet Lane for its good work during the operation, especially when acting as a rescue vessel and towing ships that had run aground in the dangerous waters of the Parana River.
After returning to the United States, the Harriet Lane went back to the Revenue Cutter Service. From October 1859 to the start of the Civil War, the Harriet Lane was used to intercept slave ships. On 22 March 1794, Congress passed a law making it illegal for an American citizen to carry slaves from the United States to another nation or between foreign nations. On 1 January 1808, a new federal law closed all of the nation’s ports to the foreign slave trade. The Revenue Cutter Service was given the task of enforcing these laws, even though it only had a handful of wooden sailing ships (as well as the Harriet Lane) to patrol America’s enormous coastline. That, coupled with the fact that there was big money to be made in the slave trade, made it almost impossible to stop slaves from being shipped into and out of this country. The slave trade was especially rampant in Florida and Georgia, where there were few Revenue Cutters and little local support for the Federal Government or its laws.
The Harriet Lane was transferred back to the Navy on 30 March 1861, when she became part of the relief force sent to Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. The Revenue Cutter left New York on 8 April and reached Charleston on 11 April. The very next day, the Harriet Lane fired a shot across the bow of the merchant ship Nashville when she was seen flying no colors. It was the first shot fired at sea during the Civil War. The Nashville quickly hoisted the American Flag, but two days later she became a privateer sailing under the Confederate flag. When Fort Sumter surrendered on 13 April, the Harriet Lane and the other ships in the relief force headed back north to New York City.
The Harriet Lane was then ordered to join the Union’s naval blockade of the South. She became part of the invasion force sent to take Fort Clark and Fort Hatteras in North Carolina. This would eventually become the first combined amphibious operation of the war and the ships assigned to take the forts arrived at Hampton Roads on 27 August 1861. The next day, the Harriet Lane, Monticello, and Pawnee were sent close to shore to provide direct gunfire support for the troops being landed by boat, while the larger ships remained farther offshore to bombard the forts with their heavy guns. Both forts fell the next day and, as a result of this victory, the Union’s North Atlantic Blockading Squadron was able to secure a large naval base deep in Southern waters.
On 10 February 1862, the Harriet Lane was sent to join Commander David Dixon Porter’s Mortar Flotilla at Key West, Florida, where ships were gathering for the assault on Confederate Forts in the Mississippi River Delta below New Orleans. The Mortar Flotilla sailed from Key West on 6 March for what was to become the Battle of New Orleans. The Harriet Lane became Porter’s flagship during the attack on Forts Jackson and St. Philip, which guarded the entrance to New Orleans. The Revenue Cutter provided intense gunfire that enabled Flag Officer David Farragut to dash past the forts and take the port of New Orleans on 24 April. The Battle of New Orleans was a major victory for the North and it enabled the Union Navy to steam up the Mississippi, eventually cutting the Confederacy in half.
Porter’s Mortar Flotilla, including the Harriet Lane, then sailed up the Mississippi to assist in the bombardment of Vicksburg. In May of 1862, the Revenue Cutter was part of the amphibious task force sent to occupy the fortifications at Pensacola, Florida. After spending some time as part of the Union blockade of Mobile, Alabama, the Harriet Lane participated in the capture of Galveston, Texas, in October of 1862. But on 1 January 1863, while moored in Galveston Bay, the Harriet Lane was attacked and boarded by Confederate troops who were ferried out to the ship by the Confederate steamers Bayou City and Neptune. What followed was a vicious hand-to-hand battle for control of the Harriet Lane in which both the Captain of the ship, Commander Jonathan M. Wainwright, and the executive officer, Lt. Commander Edward Lea, were killed. (Coincidentally, Commander Wainwright was the grandfather of General Jonathan Wainwright, the officer who surrendered Bataan to the Japanese in World War II.) The attack on the Harriet Lane was coordinated with a land assault on Galveston and, after a brief but bloody struggle, both the Revenue Cutter and the city fell into Confederate hands. Initially, the Harriet Lane was used by the Confederate Army for supply and patrol duties off the coast of Texas. But in 1864 she was sold and converted into a blockade runner. Renamed the Lavinia, she left Galveston on 30 April 1864 and sailed to Havana, Cuba, where she was interned until the end of the Civil War. After the war she was converted into a merchant sailing vessel named Elliot Richie and remained in commercial service until 13 May 1884, when she was lost off Pernambuco, Brazil.
Few ships have seen as much action and adventure as the Harriet Lane and her amazing career spanned almost 30 years. The Harriet Lane was yet another in a long line of tough and resilient Revenue Cutters that made significant contributions to America’s maritime history in both peacetime and in wartime.
Figure 1 (top): Halftone reproduction of a wash drawing of the Harriet Lane by Clary Ray, circa 1898. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on the picture for a larger image.
Figure 2 (middle): "Bombardment of Forts Hatteras and Clark by the US Fleet, Under the Command of Flag Officer Silas H. Stringham, on the 28th and 29th of August, 1861." Colored lithograph by J.P. Newell after a drawing by Francis Garland, a seaman on board the USS Cumberland, published by J.H. Buford, Boston, Massachusetts, 1862. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on the picture for a larger image.
Figure 3 (bottom): "Surprise and Capture of the United States Steamer Harriet Lane, by the Confederates, under General Magruder, and the destruction of the flagship Westfield in Galveston Harbor, Texas, January 1st, 1863." Line engraving published in The Soldier in our Civil War, Volume II. The USS Harriet Lane is shown in the center, under attack by the Confederate gunboats Neptune and Bayou City. The USS Westfield is at the far left, being blown up to prevent her capture. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on the picture for a larger image.