For the most part the mighty ‘Grandfather of the Waters’ - the Missenhitti River - was under the control of the Union having been secured over a lengthy campaign through the Confederate heartland. It was not entirely free from interdiction by Confederate forces though and so required constant patrolling to ensure the safety of the river traffic. The Rebels would often launch raids from the numerous tributaries and creeks along the rivers meandering banks using a variety of craft and so a watchful eye was needed by the patrolling Union forces.
USS Hiawatha (with the white turret band) and the USS Pocahontas patrolling the mouth of the Blackwater River where it flows into the mighty Missenhitti.
One such patrol, consisting of two single turret monitors - the USS Hiawatha and the USS Pocahontas - had been tasked with ensuring that the mouth of the river Blackwater was kept free from Confederate interference. It was known that the rebels had been building a number of ironclads of various sizes and in numerous locations and that the upper reaches of the Blackwater, currently still in Confederate hands, was considered to be an likely area where such work could be undertaken.
What the Union did not know was the full extent of the rebel ironclad programme in this area.
Earlier in the year the casemate ironclad CSS Missenhitti inconclusively engaged the Union monitor the USS Admonisher. The rebel ship was damaged and withdrew but unfortunately she ran aground on an uncharted sandbar and as the river level was falling the decision was taken to salvage what could be readily removed and to fire the hulk. The armour, artillery and the all important machinery was safely taken further upstream and formed a valuable resource for the raw material challenged Confederacy. The CSS Missenhitti would fight again across not one, but three vessels.
Of the three vessels at various stages of construction the first to be completed was also the largest. The CSS Secessionist was a conventional casemate ironclad modelled after the CSS Missenhitti but larger. The decision to build such a large ship was driven by the need to break the Union stranglehold on the river but it was not without its problems. The river was currently at a high level and so was sufficient for the passage of such a large vessel but, if she could not break into the main river she would risk being trapped upstream as the waters fell. The plan was for her to break into the main stream and to head for the coast. There she would seek refuge under the guns of the Rebel port of Immobile Bay. The CSS Secessionist was accorded priority in materials, construction and manpower as the Confederates raced to get her ready for action. Work on the smaller ironclads - the sister ships CSS O’Hara and CSS Wilkes - continued as well as could be managed under the circumstances. It was fortunate for the Confederacy that both of these smaller vessels would be ready soon after the CSS Secessionist - mainly due to the efforts of the wealth and influence of the two plantation owners after whom they were named.
Hugging the banks where possible the CSS Secessionist noses along the Blackwater River, seeking an opening to make her bold dash into the Missenhitti.
As soon as she was ready the CSS Secessionist was ordered to break into the Missenhitti and make her way at best speed to Immobile Bay. Engaging the patrolling Union forces was not her primary mission but should she have to then she was to use maximum force to fulfil her orders.
At the mouth of the Blackwater River....
Captain Beauregard Gaylord surveyed the opposite bank with satisfaction. Thus far there had been no sig of any Yankee activity - either on land or on the river. It was just as well he thought, as the CSS Secessionist was not quite the mighty man of war that the ‘politicos’ thought she was. For sure she was large and spacious with a powerful battery of four heavy guns and eight mediums and well armoured with it but her machinery was secondhand and worn. It had taken a minor miracle to get her running at all but so far she was holding her own. He was counting on getting some much needed spare parts when they arrived at Immobile Bay and then he would give the Yankees something to think about! With that comforting thought in mind he went back to surveying the route they would be taking, all the while the rhythmic thump of the engine taking him closer to his destination.
Commander Douglas Mortimer of the USS Hiawatha was in good spirits. The patrol had been uneventful and he was looking forward to heading back to base for some much needed rest and relaxation as well as having a particularly nagging toothache attended to. So far he had kept the worst of it at bay with copious quantities of scotch whisky and clove oil but at long last he would be able to get it dealt with. All they now had to do was to circle the small island ahead (known locally as Gambler’s Rest as it was a favourite place for marooning card cheats and scoundrels) and his small command could head back.
Commander Mortimer’s dental woes were about to be forgotten as his pilot shouted out urgently “Smoke off the port bow!”
The opening positions
Simultaneously the same shout was made in the pilot house of the CSS Secessionist as what looking like a Union monitor hove into view, seemingly heading straight for them. Gaylord issued a flurry of orders as the guns were readied and deep in the bowels of the ship the engineers and stokers went to work with a will and a silent prayer that the ship would hold together.
Mortimer, fuelled by rather more whisky than may have been prudent immediately ordered full speed ahead and bore down on the enemy ship. Meanwhile, the USS Pocahontas, appeared puzzled by the sudden change of course that the flagship had taken - as yet the enemy ship was invisible to her - but prepared to follow her in any event. She would not have long to wait to find out why.
Turn 1. As the CSS secessionist rounds the point she spies the Union ship bearing down on her.
Gaylord weighed up the situation in an instant. He ordered full ahead to ensure that he would be able to engage the enemy with a full broadside rather than with only his forward guns. Whilst the broadside battery was lighter there was more of them and the rate of fire was higher. He hoped to be able to deluge his opponent in a storm of fire. Mortimer meanwhile ensured that the turret was kept centred on the enemy ship which required constant adjustment as the range closed. The USS Pocahontas then had her first glimpse of the enemy.
Turn 2. As the range closes both sides ready for action as best as they can.
Almost simultaneously the CSS Secessionist and the USS Hiawatha opened fire to telling effect as both scored a single hit apiece. The USS Pocahontas desperately tried to close on her sister ship to provide support and made ready to engage as soon as she was able. Meanwhile the rebel ship turned to run along the opposite bank whilst the USS Hiawatha closed in.
Turn 3. Like two prize fighters the engaged ships circle one another, each looking to secure an advantageous opening. Note the white hit markers signifying a single hit.
Aboard the USS Hiawatha all was not well. The pounding she has taken at virtually point blank range had caused a myriad of minor problems that had threaten to overwhelm her crew. Armour plates had buckled, leaks had sprung just about everywhere and casualties were beginning to mount.Commander Mortimer new that it would be inviting disaster to go in so close again so reluctantly he ordered the ship’s helm over to try and move out of range of his tormentor. The USS Pocahontas, racing to follow has also engaged the rebel ship at extreme range and was delighted to see her shells strike home. The gunners on the CSS Secessionist had been magnificent and the pounding they had given their Union opponent was rewarded by her turning away. Under normal circumstances Gaylord would have turned the ship to finish off her opponent but his orders, and the rapidly closing second enemy warship determined otherwise. However, In their haste to engage the rebel ship the Union force had committed a grave error.
They had left the black door open....
Turn 4. The battered USS Hiawatha turns away from the CSS Secessionist whilst the USS Pocahontas makes ready to engage more closely.
Despite her damage the USS Hiawatha manages a parting shot against the CSS Secessionist along with the speedily arriving USS Pocahontas. Commander Mortimer, praying that his battered ship will hold together long enough for him to be able to fall back, urges his crew onwards - ‘Don’t give up the ship!’ He exclaims, his voice hoarse from shouting over the din of battle and two many cigars accompanying his whisky. Meanwhile, aboard the CSS Secessionist, Captain Gaylord surveys the wreckage of the gun deck and plans his next move. He has much to think about.
The CSS Secessionist was ordered to breakout into the Missenhitti river but this early encounter Has left her captain in a quandary. His ship is sorely pressed and has extensive damage. Should he turn back or press on and trust to luck that he can evade any further entanglements? With the noise of battle, the clang of shot and shell striking metal, the cries of the wounded and the ever present strident crack of naval artillery, Gaylord makes the only decision he can.
Turn 5. The USS Hiawatha limps away from the fight as the equally battered CSS Secessionist attempts to blast her way past the fast approaching USS Pocahontas.
Almost as quickly as it started the action dies away to a tarnished and violated quiet. The CSS Secessionist trades passing shots with the fast approaching USS Pocahontas and such is the accuracy and effect of her fire the Union ship swerves away from her collision course. Did she ever intend to ram the rebel ship? Certainly the subsequent court of enquiry felt that she should have. As a result her captain never served afloat again despite the fact that ramming a ship that was not only larger than you but that also muster a crew to board far more readily than a monitor could. The USS Hiawatha continued to limp away from the scene but her commander’s fate was a very different one to that of his former colleague - higher command and accolades followed (as well as the much needed dental work).
The CSS Secessionist was a wreck, a moving wreck to be sure but still a wreck. Her captain marvelled at the fact her engines had held up under the strain of action but she was in no condition for a rematch. Fortunately for her the nearest Union ship was heading in the opposite direction and the other was too knocked about to be a threat. Gaylord would head at best speed to Immobile Bay and hope that he could make it unchallenged.
Turn 6. Endgame. The CSS Secessionist has found the open door but at what cost? She has gotten to the Missenhitti River but is a parlous condition. Her captain will be hoping for a safe and uncontested passage to Immobile Bay and also that the necessary repairs could be effected. Given the current situation the Confederacy found itself in the likelihood of either was slim.
It was a fun game to fight and I shall post an after action, after action review in my next post. The models looked really effective and the simple styling and paint job will be my standard going forwards.