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"Far away over the lowlands the smoke spreads itself, and if veiling from the view those who might bewatching the annihilation of a vessel once lovely in form, graceful in her notion, and noted for her speed-a vessel for peaceful uses, but by a band of desperadoes turned into a pirate (a bloodless one). The tide of life was at an ebb, and in a short time she would be but a mass of tangled machinery and charred relics."

Harper's Weekly, March 28, 1863

 

So ended the C.S.S. Nashville, a ship whose history paralleled her times and the demands of the people who sailed her. She had begun as a 1221-ton side-wheel steamer, built at Greenpoint, New York, in 1853. As a Foretopsail schooner, 216 feet long and 34 feet in beam, she was powered by both sail and steam. Reputed to be the finest and fastest passenger liner and mail carrier on the coast, she could achieve a speed in excess of 13 knots in a calm sea. The Nashville's maritime career was further enhanced by successful voyages across the Atlantic.

As Civil War loomed, the vessel continued to ply the coastal trade nearing Charleston, S.C. harbor on a regular run and the precise time that Fort Sumter was shelled by the newly declared Confederate States of America. Witnessing the surrender of the Fort and the lowering of the U.S. flag, the Nashville was immediately involved in the conflict. In early May, 1861 her owners communicated their intent to the new Confederate government to outfit the ship as a privateer. However, the Confederate government had plans of its own. Needing a fast vessel to bring needed supplies from England and possibly transport Confederate Commissioners to England, the new nation authorized the purchase of the vessel for $100,000. Appointing as her captain, Robert C. Pegram, and others as her officers and crew, the C.S.S. Nashville became the first vessel commissioned by the Confederacy.

In this role she began her first combat cruise on October 26, 1861. Sailing first to Bermuda, she set course for England on November 5th. Unfortunately, she encountered a severe storm at sea taking some damage. Nonetheless, she arrived off the Irish coast and immediately encountered the American clipper, Harvey Birch. Moving alongside the ship, Captain Pegram ordered gunports open and demanded surrender. After allowing for the evacuation of passengers and crew, Pegram ordered the United States vessel burned. The captives were taken next day to Southampton and released to the custody of the American Consul.

 

 

Again the Nashville was present at a particularly significant point in time. Initially, the ship was greeted by a hostile crowd loudly proclaiming the aggression upon the Harvey Birch an act of piracy. Within a few day, however, the mood changed as news spread of the Trent affair. A diplomatic crisis had been created by the removal of Confederate Commissioner Mason and Slidell from the British vessel by the U.S. Navy. Midshipman Dalton recorded the shift ". . . from abuse to a more friendly attitude toward us. In fact, they wine, dined, and toasted us on every hand as heroes" (Official Records of the Civil War. Vol. XXVI, 250). The British government sought a careful course between the new Confederate government and that of the United States. Wanting to alienate neither, the British conflict of conscience is reflected in the following poem published in "Punch magazine" in 1861:

A TRIBUTE TO CAPTAIN PEAGRIM
Commander Peagrim of the Confederate war steamer Nashville was chief officer of the United States steamer Powhatan in 1855, and rendered valuable service to British fleet in the Chinese waters in capturing pirates. Sir John Stirling in his dispatches to the Admiralty, makes the following mention of him - "It is impossible to speak too highly of the American co-operating party engaged. They were with the Rattler, emulating each other in the thickest of the attack. But my warmest thatnks in particular are due to Lieutenant Peagrim, the American senior officer; his encouragement of the men, and coolness under a heavy fire, and determined bravery when surrounded by a preserving and revengeful foe, was conspicuous to all."

PACEM, PEAGRIM, PRECAMUR
Oh hear, you inopportune Peagrim,
It's not enough to give any one meagrim,
To think of the row you may get us in now.
By your conduct, inopportune Peagrim.
The ship Harvey Birch on the sea grim
You might board and might burn, Captain Peagrim
And we only should say, in a casual way,
'Twas unlucky she met Captain Peagrim.
But when in Southampton you free, grim,
The prisoners you've caught, Captain Peagrim,
We are placed in a fix, to pronounce of your tricks
Are a hero's, or pirate's, oh Peagrim,
Thus placed betwixt two fires by Peagrim,
Mr. Punch is afflicted with meagrim,
He would fain be impartial in any court-martial
That's hell on the status of Peagrim
A lieutenant's commission holds Peagrim.
But that won't on the wall stick the flea, grim;
Though lieutenant he be, that's no warrant at sea
Giving powers of capture to Peagrim.
Yet as pirate we can't give up Peagrim,
At the yard-arm straight ran up to be, grim.
Which Adams, I fear, will declare 'tis quite clear,
Is the right sort of treatment for Peagrim.
Yet to make causus belli of Peagrim-
Loose the war-dogs, by land and by sea, grim;
For a man with that name! On the annals of fame
To inscribe, not Britannia, but Peagrim!
Then let's all pray for peace spite of Peagrim
May war fears pass off like a meagrim;
And by hook or by crook, may we live to rubuke,
Those who feel apprehensions from Peagrim!

The Captain of the Harvey Birch had no such problem characterizing the Nashville in a totally unfavorable light. Following his release at Southhampton, he reported in The London Times, November 25. 1861"

"the vessel was all out of repair; her officers were boys, who wanted as courage as much as experience; that the crew was a mixture of Irish and other foreigners, who were shipped at first on false pretenses, and then were compelled to sign other articles at the point of the bayonet. They openly talked of their discontent on the passage", and he (Captain Nelson) "did not believe they would have fought. Both officers and crew were in great fear lest they should meet some American war-ship on the ocean, and their armament was so poor that they could have made no resistance to speak of." In short, he expressed that it was plain that the Nashville was "badly fitted out, badly armed, poorly officered and badly manned, and that if she was a specimen of the southern privateer, it must be either in capacity or treachery that prevented our vessels from catching them."

 

On February 3, 1862 the Nashville received a hearty send off from large and cheering crowds as she slipped her English moorings and headed for open waters. It was reported that the Tuscarora,a Union vessel watched the departure. Apparently, the presence of the British frigate Shannon dampened any intent of the vessel to sail after the Nashville before its appointed departure time. England had again walked a neutral road by careful enforcement of maritime regulations requiring specific staggered departure of belligerent vessels from her ports.

Back in American waters, on February 26, 1862 the C.S.S. Nashville encountered the Northern schooner Robert Gilfillan. As reported by both Lt. Whittle and Francis Dawson, the Confederate vessel hoisted an American flag, ran alongside the schooner and began to converse amiably while reviewing the Captain's papers. Catching the Yankee officer off guard, the boarding party announced the seizure of the vessel by their own, the C.S.S. Nashville. Whittle wrote that the Gilfillan's commander " . . . could not have looked more surprised. He turned pale and yellow and green and finally said 'It's darn hard.'. . . I told him to strike his flag which he did. And she [the Gilfillan] was fired as soon as they got out all their personal effects."

From "The English Voyage of the Confederate Steamer Nashville, an unpublished thesis by Pegram Harrison, Dartmouth College, May 1994.

 

Despite repeated attempts by the U.S. Navy to track and capture or sink the Confederate ship, the C.S.S. Nashville, successfully ran the Union blockade of Beaufort, North Carolina to deliver its three-million dollar cargo to safe harbor on February 28. A flurry of dispatches and reports were exchanged among Union leaders trying to explain the success of the Confederate naval vessel. The explanations varied from the use of deception as well as speed. Nonetheless, the vessel was soon to end its career with the Confederate Navy.

As Union armies approached the area and the Union blockade was strengthened, the Confederate government struck a deal with private parties in Charleston, S.C. to sell the vessel. Their plan, to outfit the ship as a privateer, was set in motion with the departure of the ship in March. Again successfully running the North Carolina blockade, the ship found the Charleston harbor blocked by sunken vessels and heavily guarded by Union vessels. The vessel escaped into Georgetown, S.C. harbor. The sale was completed and the vessel, now the Thomas L. Wragg, again successfully escaped the blockading ships.

The Thomas L. Wragg continued to run blockades carrying cotton out of Southern ports and bringing needed supplies into Confederate hands. Again, official Union correspondence reflects the frustration her success generated. In June, attempting to escape chase by the federal Keystone State she successfully maneuvered into the Ogeechee River south of Savannah, Georgia. Anchoring at the railroad bridge at King's Ferry upriver, the ship was the subject of rumor and conjecture. Fearing that she was to outfitted as an ironclad, the Union blockade of the Ogeechee was reinforced.

The vessel was now modified and renamed The Rattlesnake, Fearing her escape yet again, the Union blockade was reinforced by the appearance of the Union ironclad, the U.S.S. Montauk whose chief purpose was to reduce the Fort (McAllister) at Genesis Point and destroy the privateer she sheltered. During January and February (1863) several attempts were made to escape the Ogeechee. Finally, on February 27th, then Commander Baker, withdrawing from another attempted escape, backed full-steam upriver and ran aground just beyond the protecting guns of Fort McAllister. Repeated attempts to float her failed, leaving her stranded on the bar.
On February 28, 1863 the U.S.S. Montauk approached the stranded vessel and began a heavy bombardment. The guns of Fort McAllister opened upon the ironclad, but to no effect. As other Union vessels from the blockade moved upstream to shell Fort McAllister, with equal futility, the Rattlesnake found itself in a deadly predicament. Not until firing fourteen rounds did the Montauk cease its bombardment. The former Nashville was hopelessly afire. The description of the final blows are vividly described in A Sailor of Fortune, Memoirs of Captain B.S.Osbon, p. 241.

At twenty-two minutes after seven we landed a fifteen-inch shell close to the Nashville, and five and one-half minutes later we sent another-it was our fifth shot-smashing into her hull, just between the formast and paddlebox. Almost immediately followed the explosion. Acting Master
Pierre Geraud was working both guns finely, considering that from his position in the turret below only the masts and smokestack of the vessel could be seen. We were proud to show the enemy that we had a gunner, too. They gave us up, presently, and directed their fire at the
wooden gunboats. Smoke settled about us, and after the eigth shot we ceased firing, to let the air clear. Presently a breath of wind swept
the drift aside, and we say to our great joy a dense column of smoke rising from the forward deck of the stranded vessel. Our exploding shell
had set her on fire. A few minutes more, and flames were distinctly visible, forcing their way up, gradually creeping aft until they had reached nearly to the base of the smokestack.

Hence, the Nashville had finally been stopped. As the ship settled to the bottom of its grave in the Ogeechee River within sight of the Fort that still stands silent guard over her, her story seemed to have ended. Yet, the vessel that had performed so effectively for the Confederacy as naval vessel, blockade runner and privateer brought in death the grudging respect of at least one victorious member of the Montauk crew:

"As these silent witnesses of the havoc drifted past us, they seemed to show a
determination that, if we would not allow the NASHVILLE to run the blockade
as a whole, she was going to run the blockade in pieces."




The evolution of a vessel and its special adaptation to its times and fortunes is ably illustrated by the Nashville, as it is most often known. Over the course of the American Civil War, the vessel would change its name, structure and armament and function.

Originally built in 1853 as a privately owned ship with both steam and sail capacity, the S.S. Nashville operated the coastal waters of the Atlantic as well as trans-Atlantic crossings. She was a 1235-ton Foretopsail schooner, 216 feet long and 34 feet in beam. Her white oak, chestnut and cedar frames were square and fastened with copper. Although she was capable of sail with two large masts, she also was powered by steam and fitted with a large side-mounted paddle wheel.




Thirty-two feet in diameter, her water wheels were designed with twenty-eight blades, each ten feet long and twenty inches deep. Her iron bunkers were capable of carrying 185 tons of anthracite coal. Her smoke pipe was 38 feet tall and six feet in diameter. Her engine was a single-lever type driven by one cylinder having an 86-inch bore and an 8'0" stroke. The cylinder stood vertically and had one piston rod. Its stroke raised and lowered the aft ends of side levers, which, in turn, imparted rotation to the paddle wheels. The result was a speed in excess of 13 knots in a calm sea. She was soon reputed to be the finest and fastest passenger liner and mail carrier on the Atlantic coast.

 

Following the secession of Southern states and the creation of the Confederate States of America, the vessel witnessed the first shots of that war while at Charleston, South Carolina. Her owners, though planning to outfit her as a privateer, gave into the urging of the new government to sell the ship to the CSA. As such, she was renamed the C.S. S. Nashville and modified for war-time duty as a ship of the Confederate Navy. Though initially planned as a fast transport for a special diplomatic mission by the CSA to Great Britain, she was, instead, sent to that nation to maintain Confederate presence in the area to counter United States' pressures for Britain to declare war on the new rebel American states. As such, she captured the Harvey Birch and shortly later, also captured the Robert Gilfillan, proving her worthiness as a naval vessel.



In her final capacity, she was again to be modified to work the coast as a privateer. One reason given for thetenacity of the U.S. Navy to sink the vessel despite the guns of Ft. McAllister was the rumor that she was to be outfitted with iron plates. Of course, this change did not happen, but eventually the determination of the U.S. Montauk paid off. After repeated attempts to run the gauntlet of the federal vessels which included the Passaic, the Nahant, the U.S.S. Seneca, U.S.S. Wissahickon and the U.S.S. Dawn, she ran aground backing upstream. The effort of crew and locals to lighten the vessel did no good. And so, the Nashville, now renamed the Rattlesnake, was sunk where she floundered.



Journal of the Franklin Institute
Steamer Nashville

HULL
Length on Deck 216 ft.
Breadth of beam at midship 34 ft. 8 inches
Depths of hold 22ft.
Length of engine and boiler space 64 ft. 6 inches
Capacity of coal bunkers in Tons 185 tons
Draft of water at load line 12 ft.
Floor timbers moulded 14.5 inches
Floor timbers sided 14.5 inches
Distance of ramps apart at centers 29 inches
Masts and Rig Foretopsail Schooner
Tonnage 1235
   
ENGINE - One - Side Lever
Diameter of Cylinder
86 inches
Length of Stroke 8 ft.
Max pressure of steam in pounds 28
Max revolutions per minute 19
   
BOILERS - Two - Miller's patent return fluid
Length of boilers 24 ft.
Breadth of boilers 24 ft.
Height of boilers exclusive of steam chimney 12 ft. 3 inches
Number of furnaces in each boiler 5
Length of grate bars 7 ft. 2 inches
Number of flutes 33
Interpal diameter of return flutes 10, 11, 13, and 15 inches
Diameter of smoke pipe 6 ft. 4 inches
Height of smoke pipe 39 ft.
Free surface in each boiler 2274
Description of coal Anthracite
   
WATER WHEELS
Diameter of water wheel 32 ft.
Length of blades 10 ft.
Depth 20 inches
Number 28


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