Tuesday, November 27, 2007

USS Wachusett

Named after a mountain peak in north central Massachusetts, the USS Wachusett was a 1,032-ton Iroquois class screw sloop of war that was commissioned at the Boston Navy Yard on 3 March 1862. The ship was approximately 201 feet long, had a beam off almost 34 feet and had a speed of 11.5 knots. The Wachusett was heavily armed with two 11-inch guns, two 30-pounders, one 20-pounder, four 32-pounders and one 12-pounder.

As soon as she was commissioned, the Wachusett was assigned to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron during the Civil War. She reached Hampton Roads, Virginia, in March 1862 and was sent to patrol the York and James Rivers in Virginia. The Wachusett supported Major General George B. McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign during the spring of 1862 and on 6 and 7 May this ship assisted in landing troops at West Point, Virginia, while under fire from Confederate shore batteries. The Wachusett moved deeper into the James River and on 15 May was part of the Union assault on Fort Darling at Drewry’s Bluff, Virginia. The ship stayed on the York and James Rivers through August and also served as Commodore Charles Wilkes’ flagship as part of the Potomac Flotilla from 29 August to 7 September.

On 8 September 1862, the Wachusett was made the flagship of a special “Flying Squadron” that was put under the command of Commodore Wilkes. The primary mission of the Flying Squadron (which was made up of seven warships) was to hunt down and destroy the elusive and notorious Confederate commerce raiders CSS Alabama and CSS Florida in the West Indies. On 18 January 1863, the Wachusett and the USS Sonoma captured the Southern merchant ship Virginia off the coast of Mexico and on 25 March the Wachusett captured the British blockade runner Dolphin between Puerto Rico and St. Thomas Island. But even though the Flying Squadron managed to catch some Southern ships, it was unable to intercept either the Alabama or the Florida. In May the Wachusett returned to Boston for an overhaul and some badly needed repairs.

On 4 February 1864, the Wachusett was sent off the coast of Brazil to protect American merchant ships from Confederate commerce raiders, especially the dreaded Alabama and Florida, which were still on the loose. The Wachusett was now under the command of Commander Napoleon Collins, a tough US Navy veteran. Collins was born in Pennsylvania on 4 March 1814 and he became a Midshipman in the US Navy in January 1834. After being promoted to the rank of Lieutenant in 1846, Collins was very active aboard US warships during the Mexican-American War. After the Civil War started, Collins was given the command of several gunboats and was made a Commander in July 1862. Now he was in charge of a formidable Union warship that was hunting down two Confederate cruisers, both of which posed a very real threat to the Union’s shipping and commerce.

After searching off the coast of Brazil for many months, Commander Collins finally sighted one of his targets. On 4 October 1864, the Wachusett saw the CSS Florida entering Bahia Harbor in Brazil. The Wachusett stayed just outside the harbor but, since Brazil was a neutral nation during the Civil War, Commander Collins technically could not enter the port to capture the Confederate raider. Collins tried to goad Lieutenant Charles M. Morris, the Captain of the Florida, into coming out of the harbor to fight. Morris, though, wisely decided to stay inside the neutral harbor to avoid a confrontation with the Union warship. What could Commander Collins do? Sitting right in front of him was the CSS Florida, the dastardly Confederate cruiser that had captured or destroyed 33 Union merchant ships. Would he dare risk Brazil’s neutrality, risk his naval career and risk a court martial for breaking international law by entering a neutral port to destroy a notorious Confederate raider? What made matters even worse was that Brazil had positioned one of its own gunboats in between the Florida and the Washusett in hopes of keeping the two ships apart. What would Collins do if the Brazilian ship opened fire on his ship?

Shortly after midnight on 7 October 1864, Commander Napoleon Collins made up his mind. He ordered the Wachusett to quietly steam past the Brazilian gunboat and enter the harbor. Collins wanted to ram the Florida and sink it, but as the Union warship approached the Confederate cruiser it was only able to strike it a glancing blow on its starboard quarter. The impact did a considerable amount of damage to the Florida, but both ships remained afloat and seaworthy. Fortunately, half of the Florida’s crew (including her Captain, Lieutenant Morris) was ashore while the attack was taking place and only a few shots were fired between the two ships before the balance of the crew on board the Florida surrendered. The Wachusett then quickly took the Florida in tow and literally pulled it out of Bahia Harbor. As the Wachusett and the Florida were leaving the harbor, a Brazilian coastal fort at Bahia opened fire on the two ships. No hits were scored and the two ships quickly left the area and headed north. On 11 November the Wachusett and the Florida reached Hampton Roads, Virginia.

An international firestorm erupted after this event took place. Brazil strongly protested this violation of its neutrality and the United States could only admit that it had indeed acted illegally in taking the Florida. The US Navy promised to return the Confederate raider to Brazil but on 28 November 1864 the Florida was rammed and sunk by a US Army transport in Hampton Roads. Whether this was an accident or a deliberate attack was never established, even though two courts of inquiry investigated the matter. As for Commander Collins, he was promptly courtmartialled for violating Brazilian neutrality. He was found guilty and sentenced to be dismissed from the US Navy. But the bold attack on (and the subsequent capture of) the Florida made Commander Collins a hero in the North and it neutralized one of the South’s main commerce raiders. The Union’s Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, seemed to agree with what Commander Collins did because he ignored the decision of the court martial and he restored Collins to active duty. Napoleon Collins not only remained in the US Navy, but in July 1866 he was made a full Captain. In August 1874 Collins achieved the rank of Rear Admiral, but he died only a year later on 9 August 1875 in Lima, Peru, while in command of the US South Pacific Squadron.

As for the USS Wachusett, in March 1865 she sailed around the Cape of Good Hope bound for the East Indies. Once there, she joined the USS Wyoming and the USS Iroquois in searching for another Confederate raider, the CSS Shenandoah. The Wachusett stayed in the Pacific until 1867, when she was sent back to the United States. From 1871 to 1874, the Wachusett was sent to the Mediterranean and then returned to the United States to patrol the waters off the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. After being decommissioned from 1874 to 1879, the Wachusett was brought back into service to patrol the Gulf of Mexico. She also joined the South Atlantic Station in October 1879, but in May 1880 the Wachusett was transferred to the Pacific. She remained on the Pacific Station until September 1885 when she was decommissioned for the last time at the Mare Island Navy Yard in California. The US Navy sold the Wachusett to a private company on 30 July 1887.

How many naval officers today would risk their ship and their career (not to mention a court martial) to defeat a sworn enemy of this nation? Commander Napoleon Collins faced that exact problem on board the Wachusett and he decided that defeating the enemy was more important than any single person’s career, including his own. That was a tough decision made by a tough officer on board a tough ship.


Figure 1 (Top): USS Wachusett (1862-1887) off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, with the city of Vallejo in the distance, circa 1880-85. She decommissioned for the last time in September 1885, at Mare Island. Photograph from the William H. Topley Collection, Courtesy of Charles M. Loring, 1969. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2 (Middle, Top): USS Wachusett photographed at Shanghai, China, in 1867. Courtesy of Charles H. Bogart, 1973. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3 (Middle, Bottom): "Cutting out of the Florida from Bahia, Brazil, by the U.S.S. Wachusett," 19th Century phototype print by F. Gutekunst, Philadelphia. It depicts the capture of CSS Florida by USS Wachusett at Bahia, Brazil, on 7 October 1864. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4 (Bottom): Commander Napoleon Collins, USN. Carte de visite print of a photograph taken circa 1864 by E. Anthony, New York. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.