RIVER FIGHTS: The Middle Years

War with Mexico

The US Navy added to its growing experience in inland operations during the Mexican War.  When hostilities began, Commodore David Conner, commanding the Home Squadron, blockaded the Mexican Gulf Coast.  The blockade forced the enemy to use inland waterways and overland routes to move supplies.  San Juan Bautista, 74 miles up the Tabasco River from Frontera, was a distribution center for contraband war materials.  The river had ample depth to accommodate large vessels but there were significant obstacles in planning for an assault.  The river’s current was strong, dense vegetation provided good cover for riflemen and snipers.  The river also took a sharp (and hazardous) “S” bend (called the Devil’s Turn) and there were two strategically placed forts guarding the approaches to San Juan Bautista.   Normally, sailing vessels alone would have little chance of success —but at this time, the US Navy was incorporating steam engines into the fleet.  The Home Squadron had several small steam-powered ships of war.

On 23 October 1846, a naval expeditionary force under Commodore Matthew C. Perry crossed the sand bar at Frontera and seized the town with little to no resistance.  Then, with three steamers and four other vessels, proceeded upriver to San Juan with a 200-man landing party.  The journey took around 33 hours.  Anticipated resistance 9 miles below San Juan never materialized because the Mexican garrisons fled as soon as they could see the American ships closing for action.

Arriving at San Juan before noon on 25 October, Perry demanded the town’s surrender.  When the Alcalde[1] returned an insolent reply, Perry fired on the central flag staff, destroying it.  Perry spared the town but to keep shipping out of the hands of insurgents and gun runners, he seized two Mexican steamers, five schooners, and several smaller craft.  When Mexican riflemen opened fire on Perry’s squadron, Perry had his cannon rake the streets, which effectively ended all interest in firing on the Americanos.  Neither of the two towns was occupied, but Frontera was blockaded for six months.  When the blockade was lifted, Mexican smugglers began their activities anew.

In mid-June 1847, Commodore Perry was ready to ascend the Tabasco River for the second time.  This time, Perry assembled a larger force.  An advocate of naval infantry drill and landing party training, Perry formed a naval brigade of 2,500 officers, seamen, and Marines.  Captain J. Mayo was appointed to command the brigade.  Perry’s squadron included four small steam warships, six schooners, bomb brigs, and numerous ships’ boats.

At the first elbow of the Devil’s Turn, lead ships encountered small arms fire from dense chaparral banks.  Ships’ fire silenced the shooters, but obstructions had been placed in the river around the turn.  Well-manned breastworks on the shore provided a Mexican firing platform.  After reconnoitering the obstructions, Perry landed his brigade for the nine-mile march overland to San Juan.

While Perry led his naval brigade through the swamps and  jungle, Lieutenant David Dixon Porter[2] assumed command of the flotilla and worked his ships through the obstructions.  Perry’s combined force successfully routed 600 Mexican troops at Accachappa and moved on to Fort Iturbide situated just below San Juan.  Fort Iturbide had a battery of six guns and 400 infantry troops.  Porter led the flotilla into Mexican fire and then, under the protective cover of ship’s cannonade, he released a landing party to assault the fort.  The Mexicans broke before the charge.  When Perry and the brigade arrived, the American flag was already flying above the fort.

In two separate instances, Perry demonstrated the value of coordinated tactical inland penetrations.  The operation against San Juan Bautista was a valuable lesson for the US Navy; it would come in handy again in the not-too-distant future.

The Rude War

The U. S. Navy’s main advantage over the Confederate States of America in 1861 was that the south had no navy at the beginning of the Civil War.  Accordingly, the Union navy had, and retained, its control of the sea at all stages of this conflict.  The U. S. Navy implemented three broad strategies: (a) naval blockade of southern coastal regions, (b) amphibious assault and capture of port cities and strong points, (c) splitting the Confederacy along the Mississippi River (and tributaries) and seizing inland waterways to crush Confederate resistance.  The Union navy’s effective 3,000-mile blockade and the imbalance of opposing naval forces resulted in its ability to focus on coastal and inland riverine operations[3].

Commander John D. Rodgers, placed in overall charge of riverine operations for the navy, selected vessels and readied a force under Army control in northwestern waters with its headquarters near Cairo, Illinois (at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers).  From this location, Union vessels could influence river traffic in Illinois, Kentucky, and Missouri.  Rodgers purchased and converted river steamers into wooden gunboats: Tyler, Lexington, and Conestoga.  Through the War Department, Rodgers contracted for seven additional gunboats (named for the cities they would defend).  These “city class” vessels became the backbone of the river fleet.  They were 175-feet long, had a 50-foot beam, and the top deck was shielded with heavy armor.  Thirteen guns included old-fashioned 42-pounders (supplied by the Army), and 8-inch and 32-pound navy guns.

While the city class boats were under construction, the wooden gunboats made significant contributions to the Union effort.  These former sidewheelers, unarmored and vulnerable, could not have challenged a seagoing warship or stout fortification but they did achieve good results.  In a nation with few and exceedingly poor roads, they controlled the river highways.  Moreover, they provided mobility and speed of movement of troops and supplies, surprise attack, and flexibility in strategy and tactics, and rapid exchange of information between and among field commanders.

Strong southern sentiment permeated the Ohio and Mississippi river systems.  One effect of the gunboats was that they discouraged secessionists and gave confidence to Unionists.  Fence-sitters stayed out of the way.  Alfred Thayer Mahan[4] was convinced that the riverine force was of inestimable service in keeping alive attachment to the Union and preventing secession by Kentucky and Missouri.

The Battle of Belmont (Missouri) was joined on 7 November 1861, the first combat test in the Civil War for Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant.  On 6 November, Grant moved his 3,000 troops by riverboat from Cairo to assault the Confederate outpost near Belmont, which was across the river from the rebel stronghold at Columbus, Kentucky.  Grant and his men went ashore on the Missouri side and marched overland to Belmont.  Grant succeeded in surprising and over-powering the Confederates[5], but they were quickly reorganized and reinforced by Major General Leonidas Polk.  Grants victory was short lived as Polk endeavored to cut off Grant’s withdrawal.  It was only through the gunboats that Grant and the Union survivors made good their escape[6].

River gunships were effective, but they could not aggress rebel fortifications.  This mission would fall to the semi-ironclad ships ordered by Rodgers, who was replaced by Flag Officer[7] Andrew Hull Foote, U. S. Navy.  Foote is remembered as an aggressive officer who, along with Grant, combined their forces to attack and defeat Fort Henry.  There could be no question among Confederate officers that they had no answer to the Navy’s riverine warfare strategy.

Damn the Torpedoes

As the Mississippi River Flotilla steadily beat the CSA Army and Navy into submission, Flag Officer David Glasgow Farragut[8] prepared for service in the Gulf of Mexico.  During his assault of New Orleans, Farragut moved his entire fleet up the Mississippi River to contest the heavy guns at Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philips.  During the five-day bombardment, Farragut employed a mortar flotilla built especially for riverine operations.  The rebels put up an exceptional defense of New Orleans but were eventually overpowered by Farragut’s relentless assault and the threat of Union guns over New Orleans’ levees convinced the citizens to submit to Union authority.  What made Farragut’s victory sweet was that New Orleans was the only southern city with a chance of matching the Union’s overwhelming riverine forces.

Meanwhile, behind Foote’s gunboats, one catastrophe after another descended upon the Confederates, whose armies could not match the Union advantages in riverine operations, which were expanded into the Tennessee River and down and across the state of Mississippi.  Rather than arteries of life for the Confederacy, they became highways of death.  Advancing behind the gunboats, Grant’s army cut off western Tennessee.  More than any other factor, gunboats were the deciding factor at the Battle of Shiloh.

From New Orleans, Farragut’s heavy ships, while suffering much damage in the restricted and turbulent Mississippi, forged ahead to Vicksburg, a mighty fortress with batteries situated high on the bluff where Farragut’s guns could not effectively reach.  And, with Confederate forces numbering around 33,000, it would take more than Farragut’s 3,500 men to defeat that fortress.  Eventually, after a siege lasting a year, Vicksburg did fall to Grant’s army of  77,000 men.  Confederate casualties numbered 32,687 (3,202 killed, wounded, or missing in action, 29,495 surrendered).

Thus far, the Navy demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of naval warfare on inland waters.  The Navy’s ability to control the sea made riverine warfare possible.  The Navy’s exercise of its control made riverine warfare flexible.  Seagoing ships were adapted to fight in lakes and rivers to oppose shore batteries.  The Navy learned not only how to build riverine vessels, it learned how to fight them through an appreciation for local environments and conditions and devising appropriate circumstantial responses.

In 1898, the U. S. Navy-Marine Corps was ready for the Spanish-American War.  The U. S. Army was not.  A few years later, the Navy dusted off the lessons it learned from previous periods and addressed head-on the challenges associated with the Philippine Insurrection and the Boxer Rebellion.  In the Philippines, riverine warfare facilitated an end to the violence.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, a flotilla of shallow draft gunboats protected American life and property in war-torn China.  Along more than 1,500-miles of the Yangtze River, riverine patrols faced hostile Chinese war lords, snipers, and bandits; landing parties were kept on a moment’s notice for intervention or defense.  Natural dangers, such as swift currents, fast rising tides, and navigational obstacles were as formidable as any encountered by Commodores Barney, Perry, or Farragut.

Sources:

  1. Affield, W. Muddy Jungle Rivers: A River Assault Boat’s Cox’n’s Memory of Vietnam. Hawthorne Petal Press, 2012.
  2. S. Army Field Manual 31-75: Riverine Warfare. Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Army, 1971
  3. Friedman, N. US Small Combatants.
  4. Fulton, W. B. Vietnam Studies: Riverine Operations, 1966-1969.  Washington: Department of the Army, 1985
  5. Joiner, G. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron.  Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
  6. Marolda, E. J. Riverine Warfare: U. S. Navy Operations on Inland Waters.  Annapolis: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2006
  7. Rowlands, K. Riverine Warfare: Naval War College Review, Vol 71, No. 1. Art. 5., Annapolis: Naval War College, 2018

Endnotes:

[1] Mayor.

[2] Porter was a rather extraordinary naval officer from a prominent American family.  Porter began his naval career at age 10.  In 1824, after receiving a reprimand, Porter’s father resigned from the US Navy and accepted Mexico’s appointment as their navy’s commander-in-chief.  David Dixon Porter became a midshipman in the Mexican navy at age 12.  In 1829, Porter received an appointment to the USNA.  He was then 16 years old and a bit too salty for the culture of the Academy.  Were it not for the intervention of Commodore James Biddle, Porter would not have received his commission in the US Navy.  The second naval officer to achieve the rank of admiral, Porter served with distinction for over  62 years.

[3] There is no intent to suggest that the Confederate navy didn’t offer considerable challenges to the Union navy … only that it lacked the experience and traditions of the US Navy.  The CSA navy made a gallant attempt to offset its disadvantages with technological innovation (iron clads, submarines, torpedo boats, mines) and a stout defense of ports and harbors.  In February 1861, the CSA navy had a total 30 vessels; 14 of these were seaworthy.

[4] Mahan was a Navy captain (advanced to rear admiral after retirement) and historian who is generally regarded as the most influential American strategist of the 19th century.  He served as president of the Naval War College and became a close friend of Theodore Roosevelt.

[5] Grants men were so elated by their victory that they began celebrating and drinking strong beverages.  To regain control over his men, Grant ordered the rebel camp set afire.  Unbeknownst to Grant, wounded rebel soldiers were burned to death inside medical treatment tents.

[6] Grant suffered 607 casualties (120 KIA, 383 WIA, 104 captured or MIA), the Confederates 641 (105 KIA, 419 WIA, 117 captured or MIA).

[7] Flag Officer was an impromptu rank.  Foote was promoted to captain in 1861.  When assigned to command the Mississippi River Squadron, which technically came under the War Department, he was advanced to flag officer (equivalent to Commodore) in recognition of his authority and responsibility.  Foote was a heroic officer with long distinguished service.  In 1862, Foote was promoted to Rear Admiral.  He died unexpectedly while on active service in 1863.

[8] Farragut was the adopted brother of D. D. Porter.  He was the nation’s first rear admiral, first vice admiral, and first full admiral in the U. S. Navy.  In April 1862, Farragut captured New Orleans, which gave the Union control of the lower Mississippi.

RIVER FIGHTS: The Early Days

The purpose of the United States Navy is to defend America’s shores; the best way of doing that is by prosecuting war in the other fellow’s backyard.  American sea power achieves its greatest advantage by keeping an enemy’s main force away from America’s shore.  Our Navy controls the oceans for America’s use; it denies to our every foe access to the oceans and skies.  The enemy’s coastline is America’s naval frontier.  Our history over the past few hundred years tells us that our Navy’s strategy has worked out quite well for the American people.

The U. S. Navy is no one-trick pony and naval warfare isn’t confined to vast oceans or hostile coastlines.  Whether projecting naval power at sea, in the air, or ashore, the Navy is prepared to employ the full spectrum of its arsenal: surface ships, submarines, amphibious ships, naval guns, sophisticated aircraft, missiles, and shallow draft watercraft.  And then, whenever our enemies need a real ass­-kicking, the Navy asks for a handful of Marines.

Our understanding of the past helps us to better serve the future.  Naval technology in our early days was somewhat limited to ships of the line, cutters, barges, experimental submarines, and small boats (craft suited to rivers and estuaries).  Today we refer to combat operations on rivers as “Riverine Warfare,” and the US Navy has been doing this since the Revolutionary War.  In the modern day, watercraft intended for this purpose is designed and constructed for a specific operational environment.  In earlier times, watercraft used for riverine operations involved whatever was readily available at the time. 

Revolutionary War

The first significant example of riverine operations occurred on Lake Champlain in 1775-76.  Lake Champlain is a 136-mile long lake with connecting waterways north into Canada and southward toward New York City.  They were waterways that offered a prime invasion route to early settlements and colonies and involved a bitter struggle through the end of the War of 1812.  Our revolutionary-period leaders understood that the British would attempt to separate New England from other colonies by controlling Lake Champlain waterways.  Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold seized Ticonderoga on 19 May 1775 and Crown Point a few days later.  These were audacious operations that provided American patriots with badly needed cannon and munitions.

Arnold made a bold move to control Lake Champlain.  He hastily armed a captured schooner, pressed north to St. John’s on the Richelieu River, and in a pre-dawn riverine raid, surprised the British garrison.  He captured a 70-ton British sloop, seized numerous small boats, and helped himself to military stores, provisions, and arms before returning to Lake Champlain.  In one  stroke, the Americans had gained control of Lake Champlain, which thwarted British plans for their upcoming campaign season.

Arnold’s success at St. John’s was followed up with failure at Quebec, which precipitated the American evacuation of that city.  British and American interests initiated a vigorous ship/boat-building effort on Lake Champlain.  In the British mind, control of Lake Champlain had not been finally settled, but they did look upon Arnold as someone who needed their close attention.  For the British to utilize the Lake Champlain-Lake George-Hudson River highway to split the colonies, they had to first dispose of Arnold’s naval force.

From their base at St. John’s, the British rapidly constructed 29 vessels (some had been built in England and assembled in St. John’s).  The British squadron included Inflexible, Maria, Carleton, Thunderer, Loyal Convert, twenty gunboats, and four long boats.  Under Captain Thomas Pringle, the squadron commander, were 670 well-trained sailors and Marines.  In total, Pringle commanded 89 6-24-pound cannon.

The arms race of 1776 was on.  Spurred by the restless driving force of Benedict Arnold, the Americans sought to keep pace with the British at their Skenesborough shipyard, near the southern end of Lake Champlain.  They worked with scant resources, green timber, and a hastily assembled force of carpenters.  Drawing on his own experience as a sailor and his newly acquired knowledge of the waters in which he would fight, Arnold prepared specifications for a new type of gondola particularly suited to his task.  He wanted a small vessel of light construction that would be fast and agile under sail and oar. He hoped to offset the disadvantages of restricted waters with greater maneuverability against the slow moving, deeper draft British ships whose strength he could not match.

In all, Arnold fought fifteen American vessels, including the sloop Enterprise, the schooners Royal Savage, Revenge, and Liberty, eight of his newly designed gondolas, and three galleys.  He manned his squadron with 500 men from troops made available to him by General Philip Schuyler and from whatever was available from along waterfront taverns. With pitch still oozing out from the planking in his ships, Arnold, now a brigadier general, set a northward course.  On 10 October, Arnold stationed his flotilla west of Valcour Island where the water was deep enough for passage yet narrow enough to limit British access.  Pringle’s main failure was in conducting a proper reconnaissance of the area, so his fleet sailed past Valcour Island under a strong north wind, which required that he return direction from a leeward position.  The battle raged for most of the afternoon.  Arnold expended 75% of his munitions and his ships were badly cut up.  Taking advantage of the north wind and a foggy night, Arnold slipped through the anchored British ships and escaped.  By the 13th, British ships began to overhaul Arnolds fleet, or ran them aground.  Arnold managed to escape to Ticonderoga with six ships and the loss of (an estimated) 80 men.

Having regained control of Lake Champlain, the British quickly seized Crown Point.  General Horatio Gates and Arnold prepared to defend Ticonderoga but the British instead returned to Canada and went into winter quarters.  Circumstantially, Arnold had been thoroughly beaten on the “inland sea” but had scored a strategic victory.  A British advance southward was delayed for another year and the Continental Army had additional time to build its strength.

During the War of 1812, restricted naval warfare was again seen on Lake Erie and Lake Champlain.  This strategy also focused on inland waterways.  Initially, the British controlled the Great Lakes, which facilitated their capture of Detroit and the invasion of Ohio.  In September 1812, Commodore Isaac Chauncey, USN took command of the lakes along the Erie-Ontario frontier in order to thwart a British invasion from that direction.  Both sides strengthened their positions.  Master Commandant Oliver H. Perry, USN assumed command of all naval activity on Lake Erie, under the direction of Commodore Chauncey from Lake Ontario.  Commanding British naval forces was Commodore R. H. Barclay, RN operating on Lake Erie.  Barclay and Perry both began vigorous ship-building programs; neither side could well afford men or supplies, so corners were cut whenever possible.  Barclay had an advantage over Perry in ships, but through remarkable leadership and effort, Perry closed that gap.

On 10 September 1813, Perry joined Barclay in a desperate battle.  Perry had nine ships to Barclay’s six and an advantage in weight of broadside.  Barclay’s guns had a greater range, however, and Perry was always in danger of being destroyed.  In fact, Perry’s star came very close to setting on Lake Erie.  One of his two heavy ships failed to close with the British, rendering Perry’s flagship Lawrence a shamble.  Decks ran red with blood; 80% of his crew became casualties; defeat seemed inevitable—but not to Master Commandant Perry.  Embarking with a courageous boat crew, he rowed across the shot-splashed water, boarded the uninjured Niagara issued his orders, and steered the ship to victory.  Within a few short months, Perry had assembled a fleet, gave the United States control of Lake Erie, the upper lakes, all adjacent territory, and guaranteed to the United States its freedom of movement on these vital waterways.  Through Perry’s efforts, the United States also laid claim to the Northwest Territory.

Commodore Joshua Barney distinguished himself during the War of 1812, as well.  See also: The Intrepid Commodore.

In the defense of New Orleans, Commodore Daniel T. Patterson demonstrated keen insight and raw courage against attacking British ships.  Patterson correctly predicted that the British would assault New Orleans rather than Mobile and further, that their advance would be along the shortest route, through Lake Borgne and Lake Ponchartrain.  He deployed a riverine force of five gunboats, two tenders, and his two largest ships as a means of forcing the British to delay their arrival in New Orleans.  In doing so, he gave General Andrew Jackson time to complete his defensive works in Chalmette.  See also: At Chalmette, 1815.

The shoreline of the modern United States is 12,383 miles.  Even in America’s early days, the US shoreline was a considerable distance to protect and control.  Before and after the War of 1812, buccaneers, filibusters, and other intruders plagued the United States.  Using longboats, the Navy hunted down pirates through coastal estuaries, Caribbean inlets and lagoons, or waging guerrilla war against hostile Indians.  Their mission took sailors and Marines into the dank and dangerous swamps and bayous of Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.  Whether employing large ships, ironclads, tin cans, rafts, or canoes, the Navy proved time and again that it had flexibility and adaptability in riverine operations, which has become part of the Navy’s proud heritage. 

The Pirates

Pirates had long infested the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, fueled in no small measure by the rapid growth of American commerce.  In the early 1820s, pirates attacked merchant ships nearly 3,000 times.  The associated financial losses were staggering; murder, arson, and torture were commonly inflicted upon American seamen.  Commodore James Biddle, USN, took on the pirates, filibusters, and free-booters.  In command of the West Indies Squadron, Biddle mounted raids in open longboats, manned by sailors for days at a time in burning sun or raging storm.  He reached into uncharted bays, inlets, and small but treacherous rivers—to locate, close with, and destroy the buccaneer menace.

Biddle utilized his heavy ships as the backbone of his riverine force and as sea-going bases for smaller craft.  This strategy steadily reduced piracy through such stellar efforts of Lieutenant James Ramage, USN and Lieutenant McKeever, who commanded the Navy’s first steamship to see combat action on the high seas, USS Sea Gull.  McKeever levelled the pirate base at Matanzas, Cuba in April 1825.  When buccaneers realized that their occupation was becoming less profitable and increasingly hazardous, they started looking around for other work.

Swamp Wars

Between 1836-42, Seminole and Creek Indian wars in the Florida Everglades produced a conflict uncannily like that waged in Southeast Asia 125 years later.  In 1830[1], the US Congress passed the Indian Removal Act to remove Florida tribes to reservation lands west of the Mississippi River.  Shockingly, many of these Indians refused to cooperate with the Congress.  Unsurprisingly, a band of Seminoles attacked and massacred a US Army detachment under the command of Major Francis Dade.  The event occurred in Tampa in December 1835.  Almost immediately, the US government moved more soldiers into Florida and Commodore A. J. Dallas’ West Indies Squadron landed parties of Marines and seamen to add weight to the military presence there.

The frustration of fighting a shadowy enemy who was completely at home in the swampy wilderness and rivers in West Florida prompted the Army to ask for naval assistance delivering supplies, establishing communications, and mounting operations along the Chattahoochee River.  One of the first naval units assigned was led by Passed Midshipman[2] J. T. McLaughlin.  In addition to his duties, McLaughlin served as Aide-de-Camp to Lieutenant Colonel A. C. W. Fanning.  McLaughlin was seriously wounded by Indians at Fort Mellon in February 1837.

As the pace of war quickened, the Navy’s riverine force grew.  The Navy purchased three small schooners in 1839, which operated in the coastal inlets to chart the water, harass the Indians, and protect civilian settlements.  In addition, McLaughlin, then a lieutenant, commanded many flat-bottomed boats, plantation canoes, and sharp-ended bateaux which he used to penetrate the Everglade Swamps.  In effect, McLaughlin commanded the “mosquito fleet,” a mixture of vessels manned by around 600 sailors, soldiers, and Marines.

Sources:

  1. Affield, W. Muddy Jungle Rivers: A River Assault Boat’s Cox’n’s Memory of Vietnam. Hawthorne Petal Press, 2012.
  2. S. Army Field Manual 31-75: Riverine Warfare. Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Army, 1971
  3. Friedman, N. US Small Combatants.
  4. Fulton, W. B. Vietnam Studies: Riverine Operations, 1966-1969.  Washington: Department of the Army, 1985
  5. Joiner, G. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron.  Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
  6. Marolda, E. J. Riverine Warfare: U. S. Navy Operations on Inland Waters.  Annapolis: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2006
  7. Rowlands, K. Riverine Warfare: Naval War College Review, Vol 71, No. 1. Art. 5., Annapolis: Naval War College, 2018

Endnotes:

[1] In 1830, Democrats controlled the US House of Representatives.  Another shocker.

[2] In the 19th century, this term was used to describe a midshipman who had passed the examination for appointment to ensign but was waiting for a vacancy in that grade.  A passed midshipman was also occasionally referred to as a “sub-lieutenant,” but neither of these were ever official naval ranks.