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Mutiny Aboard the Arago and the Illinois

By Chuck Veit

On March 8, 1862 the Confederate ironclad Merrimack [1](Fig. 11) attacked the Union blockading squadron in Hampton Roads, sending the Cumberland to the bottom, burning the Congress, and running the Minnesota aground. Panic swept the North and the Rebel ship was expected in short order to appear off Washington, New York or Boston to shell them into submission. Although the Union ironclad Monitor fought her to a standstill on the following day, it was realized that some means of destroying the Merrimack would have to be devised.

Because the seaborne attack described in this article was never implemented, its details do not appear in the history books; ultimately the Merrimack was scuttled and the plan never used. The two-month career of the Merrimack also saw the Battle of Shiloh, the demotion of General McClellan from overall command of the Northern armies, the beginning of the Peninsula Campaign, and the capture of New Orleans by Admiral Farragut – major events that overshadowed an unused plan. For the Northern war effort, this may have been the best thing that could have happened, for this story involves not only the usual inter-service rivalry, but three mutinies and, evidently, the intention to use civilians on a suicide mission – perhaps without their knowledge.

In examining the evidence (mostly from the Official Records), these questions should be kept in mind:

1.   Can we be certain that civilian ships, officers and crews were in fact used?

2.   If so, why didn’t the Navy use its own vessels?

3.  Was the use of civilian vessels in combat an accepted practice during the war?

4.  Were all of the crews told beforehand about their mission?

5.  Whose responsibility was it to so inform the crews?



On March 9, 1862, Assistant Secretary of War P.H. Watson sent the following telegram to Henry B. Renwick of New York City. [2]


HENRY B. RENWICK,  Esq., 21 Fifth Avenue, corner Ninth Street, New York:

The Merrimack, an armor-clad vessel belonging to the rebels, issued from Norfolk yesterday, and captured several of the United States blockading vessels, and threatens to sweep our whole flotilla from Chesapeake Bay. Under these circumstances it is of the last [3] importance to capture or destroy the Merrimack, and the whole wealth and power of the United States will be at command for that purpose. As this movement was anticipated and the subject of discussion between you and myself last December, you have no doubt thought of various modes by which it could be met and overcome most promptly. The Secretary of War desires you quietly to call a meeting of from three to nine persons, at your discretion, of the best judgment in naval engineering and warfare, to meet immediately at your father's house or some other convenient and suitable place, and to sit as a committee to devise the best plan of speedily accomplishing the capture or destruction of the Merrimack. I would suggest the name of Abram S. Hewitt [4] as a member of the committee. You will bear in mind that every hour's delay to destroy the Merrimack may result in incalculable damage to the United States, and that the plan or plans for her destruction should be submitted at the earliest hour practicable for the approval of this Department, to the end that their execution may not be unnecessarily delayed a moment. To enable you to communicate hourly with this Department, the telegraphic company is directed to transmit all messages from you at the expense of the Government.

Acknowledge this dispatch the moment you receive it. Spare no pains or expense to get the committee together immediately. Act with the utmost energy. You and each member of the committee will consider this whole matter confidential.

 P. H. WATSON , Assistant Secretary of War.  

Although Renwick’s suggestions are lost to history, his response prompted Watson on the following day to reply:


HENRY B. RENWICK,  Esq., 21 Fifth Avenue, corner Ninth Street, New York:

Your dispatch of this morning received. Why not take, say, three large and swift steamers, drawing not more than 16 feet of water when loaded, fill their bows, and strengthen them generally, and protect their machinery with timber? Could not three such vessels be fitted up and made ready for sea in three or four days, and would they not be sufficient for the destruction of the Merrimack by running her down, if managed by volunteer commanders and crews?

P. H. WATSON , Assistant Secretary of War  

Note that the Army devised this plan and that it stipulates “volunteer commanders and crew.” Five days later, on March 15, Oliver S. Halstead [5] called on the owner of the steamship Illinois, Marshall O. Roberts [6], (Fig. 1), to inquire as to the availability of that vessel for “extra hazardous employment” in response to an “emergency at Fortress Monroe.” Halstead is told that, while the Illinois is in port, she is currently under contract to the Army; despite this he urgently asks that Roberts meet with Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox, (Fig. 2), who has been sent to New York by President Lincoln himself for this purpose. Roberts immediately hurried to the Astor House and offered his services to Fox. Despite repeatedly asking Fox directly whether he wanted the Illinois, Roberts cannot get an answer from the Assistant Secretary, who asked only general questions about which vessels were available and whether they were already under charter to the War Department. Fox was to leave for West Point and then return to Washington the next day, and did so without making any request of Roberts.

The morning of Sunday, March 16, 1862, brought a messenger to Roberts’ home with a summons from the New York office of the Quartermaster-General. Upon arriving there, Roberts received a letter dated March 15 from the Assistant Quartermaster-General, D. D. Tompkins, informing him that the Secretary of War [Edwin Stanton] had instructed him to turn the steamer Illinois over to the Navy Department. Roberts was confused by this communication, as the usual practice was for one department to discharge a chartered vessel before another branch drew up a new charter. Seeing his surprise, the bearer of the letter, Captain Stinson, asked if he had not already spoken with Mr. Fox? Roberts replied that he had, but that Fox had not shown any real interest in the ship. Stinson suggested that Roberts “get the Illinois ready for sea; I know they want her.”

Why had Gus Fox been so circumspect with Roberts? One possibility is that he was chagrined to be following a course plotted by his opposite number in the War Department. The resurrection of the Merrimack had not been a secret in the North, and both the Army and the Navy had long ago begun working on ways to counter the threat. The Navy’s plan resulted in three ironclads of their own, from three different designers: the Monitor, the Galena, and the New Ironsides. Happily, one of these had made it to the front in time to prevent the complete destruction of the blockading squadron. For the present, the Navy seemed content to maintain the status quo -- so much so that one Union officer would later remark that the government regarded Monitor “as an over-careful housewife regards her ancient china set – too valuable to use, too useful to keep as a relic, yet anxious that all should know what she owns and that she can use it when the situation demands.” But the Army, which was eager to see McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign begin, wanted nothing short of the destruction of the Merrimack. Secretary Stanton, (Fig. 6), was frantic to see this end accomplished – literally. As Secretary of the Navy Welles, (Fig. 5), would later recall of a cabinet meeting of March 9, Stanton’s manner was “unexpressibly ludicrous . . . the wild, frantic talk, action, and rage . . . as he ran from room to room – sat down and jumped up after writing a few words – swung his arms, scolded, and raved.” He had not calmed down in the days since then. Had Stanton pushed Lincoln to employ the Army’s ram plan? [7] That the president had ordered Fox to New York specifically to talk with Marshall Roberts suggests, at best, some reluctance on the part of the Department of the Navy. Although both services cooperated well on the battlefield, at the higher levels of government there was a keen rivalry between them. Witness the testy exchange of telegrams only days before:  

Washington, March 13, 1862.

Hon. GIDEON WELLES, Secretary of the Navy:

SIR: I am directed by the Secretary of War to say that he places at your disposal any transports or coal vessels at Fort Monroe for the purpose of closing the channel of the Elizabeth River to prevent the Merrimack again coming out.

I have the honor, &c.,

 L. THOMAS, Adjutant-General


March 13, 1862.

Hon. E. M. STANTON, Secretary of War:

SIR: I have the honor to suggest that this Department can easily obstruct the channel to Norfolk so as to prevent the exit of the Merrimack, provided the Army will carry the Sewell's Point batteries, in which duty the Navy will give great assistance.

Very respectfully,

GIDEON WELLES, Secretary of the Navy  

Despite Stinson’s admonition to prepare the Illinois, Roberts was unwilling to take this responsibility without at least consulting his friend, Moses Taylor, [8] (Fig. 4). Taylor advised him to ready the ship, and, in the absence of her regular skipper, offered the services of Captain D. B. Barton, who had been in his employ for 25 years. Together the two men hurried that same day to ready the ship “without regard to expense or labor.” Returning at last to his home at 4p.m., an exhausted Roberts learned that Fox had visited twice already and was expected to return – which he did only five minutes later! Now, for the first time, the Assistant Secretary directly requested the Illinois for service with the Navy Department, asking if she could be ready to leave early the next morning. Roberts replied that, indeed, she was ready now.

At this point, Fox might have been expected to express his surprise and gratitude. Instead, he replied, "I will take her at the same rate of compensation paid by the quartermaster." Civilian ships were chartered by the government for a variety of duties during the Civil War, and rates varied. The relatively safe job of transporting troops or supplies behind the lines (which is what the Illinois had been doing for the Quartermaster-General’s office) paid only $1200 per day; service on the front lines ran as high as $3000 per day. [9] The fee was also influenced by the condition of the vessel. In contrast with Watson’s remark to Renwick, that, to destroy the Merrimack, “the whole wealth and power of the United States will be at command,” Fox’s offer to pay this low rate makes no sense.  Fox knew that Roberts understood the nature of the duty as “hazardous,” and so had a right to expect a higher fee, since he [Fox] had sent Oliver Halstead only the day before to describe the assignment. Fox’s comment makes no sense – unless it is interpreted as an attempt to throw up an obstacle to the chartering of the Illinois. This surmise is supported by the fact that, upon Roberts’ expressing his expectation of a higher fee, Fox “said he would give no more, and left the room.” Roberts followed the Assistant Secretary down the stairs, saying as he went,  

"You have succeeded in procuring the ship's discharge from the service of the War Department, and as you do not want her, I will go down and inform the people on board and discharge the crew, but regret to do it, not only because I have been put to expense and some trouble to get her in readiness for this duty, but because I wish to do the Government any service in my power."  

Upon hearing this, Fox stopped. He consented to increase the compensation to $1300 – “the same price paid for the Arago," [10] (Fig 7.), despite the Illinois being a better ship and more expensive to run. Marshall Roberts, owner of the ship that tried to resupply Fort Sumter – and who, at his own expense, had raised a regiment to defend Fort Monroe in 1861– agreed.

Knowing the purpose for which his ship and crew were intended, Roberts asked Fox what would happen should any of the men refuse to go under fire? Fox answered “that is all provided for in the contract, which you will obtain from Mr. Isaac Bell.” Yet, when Roberts called upon Bell – who assumedly drew up the contract – and inquired as to whether he [Bell] was aware of the nature of the intended service of the Illinois and the Arago, Bell replied “not one word.” Contrary to Fox’s claim, the charter evidently made no mention of the plan to ram the Merrimack!

While Marshall Roberts was dealing with the Navy, the War Department– which had just relinquished the Illinois – proceeded to approach Cornelius Vanderbilt with the following telegram:  

March 15, 1862.

C. VANDERBILT, Esq., New York.

The Secretary of War directs me to ask you for what sum you will contract to destroy the Merrimack or prevent her from coming out from Norfolk, you to sink or destroy her if she gets out.

Answer by telegraph, as there is no time to be lost.

 JOHN TUCKER, Assistant Secretary of War.  

Vamderbilt declined to specify a sum, instead replying that he would come to Washington to discuss the matter on the 16. If the plan to ram the Merrimack had been dropped into the Navy’s lap, why was the Army still sourcing steamships for this purpose? Also, why was the job of destruction being put out for a bid to a civilian? That the Navy was willing to procure additional vessels is shown by a telegram sent by Fox to Flag Officer Louis Goldsborough, (Fig. 3), commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron off Hampton Roads:  

March 18, 1862.

Flag-Officer L. M. GOLDSBOROUGH,

SIR: The Department informed you yesterday of having chartered the steamships Arago and Illinois to assist you in running down the Merrimack. Will you need any others? If so, they shall be procured.

 G. V. FOX, Assistant Secretary.  

The Illinois arrived in Hampton Roads on March 18. Two days later, on the 20, Goldsborough sent a letter of instruction to Captain Barton in which he reminded him of the plan for the Illinois and detailed the manner of attack (emphasis added):  

Hampton Roads, Virginia, March 20, 1862.

Captain D. B. BARTON,
Commanding Steamer Illinois, Hampton Roads, Virginia.

SIR: The object in chartering the Illinois, as I am fully informed by the Government, is to use her as a ram against the vessels of the enemy, more especially and particularly against the Merrimack, or Virginia, as she is called by the rebels; and to do this effectually it is advisable that she should be made to strike that vessel with the greatest possible velocity, at right angles to her side or stern, the side to be preferred, or in case she can not be so struck, then even a severe blow, somewhat slanting, delivered on either side or stern, might, and probably would, disable her so as to insure at least her capture.

In the event of an attack occurring in these waters between the forces of the United States and those of the rebels, and of my not placing an officer of the Navy on board the Illinois to direct her movements, you will perform this duty to the best of your ability, and thus destroy the Merrimack, if possible. As to any injury the Illinois herself may sustain in carrying out the object in view, even though it should involve ultimately her entire uselessness, that is not to be regarded for a moment.

 L. M. GOLDSBOROUGH, Flag-Officer.


Of note in this letter is the fact that Barton is undeniably a civilian and that replacing him with a Navy officer is optional – not automatic. Goldsborough, who is obviously aware of the mission, reserves the right to allow Barton to continue as captain of the Illinois in the attempt to ram the Merrimack. Was this unusual or was the employment of civilian captains in combat simply accepted? Certainly a telegram of this same date suggests that civilian ship owners – and the officers they chose – had a say in their employ by the military (emphasis added):  

Washington City, March 20, 1862.

New York City, N. Y.

SIR: The President desires to turn to the utmost account your patriotic and generous gift to the Government of the great steamship Vanderbilt, and to use and employ that ship for protection and defense against the rebel ironclad ship Merrimack, and also to secure at the present time the advantage of your great energy and nautical experience; and to that [purpose], having accepted your gift of the Vanderbilt, he authorizes and directs me to receive her into the service of the War Department, and to use and employ the said steamship and her officers and crew, under your supervision, direction, and command, to aid the protection and defense of the transports now in the service of this Department on Chesapeake Bay, Hampton Roads, and adjacent waters, and wherever the said transports may be bound.

Confiding in your patriotic motives and purposes, as well as in your skill, judgment, and energy, full discretion and authority are conferred upon you to arm, equip, navigate, use, manage, and employ the said steamship Vanderbilt with such commander and crew and under such instructions as you may deem fit for the purposes herein before expressed.

Instructions will be given to the Quartermaster-General to furnish you with supplies, and to treat and recognize the Vanderbilt, her officers and crew as in the Government service and under the special orders of this Department. Whatever instructions or authority you may require for the proper conduct and efficiency of said steamship in the Government service will be given on application to this Department.

To the officers whom you may place in command of said ship you will give such instructions as you may deem proper, communicating a copy thereof to this Department for its information.

By order of the President:

 EDWIN M. STANTON, Secretary of War.  

Similarly, recall that Marshall Roberts (a civilian) shipped the crew of the Illinois. In a telegram of March 22, Stanton would notify General Wool at Fort Monroe that the Vanderbilt, (Fig. 9), was “armed, manned, and equipped for the service” – which, in addition to guarding transports, was “especially for the destruction of the Merrimack.” Again, the crew was shipped by Vanderbilt or his delegates.

By this date (March 20), Goldsborough had received the Illinois and was expecting the Arago within a day or two; at the same time, the Army had received the Vanderbilt and sent her on the same mission: destroy the Merrimack. While it seemed that a steam-driven ram fleet would be assembled in time to meet the next foray of the Rebel ironclad, things were about to become complicated by the fact that the volunteer crews of at least some of the ships had not been told of their mission when they signed on in New York. Immediately upon receiving his orders from Goldsborough, Barton (who had known the nature of the mission from the beginning, as Marshall Roberts felt he must inform at least him) communicated the information to his officers and crew aboard the Illinois. The result spawned the following letter to Goldsborough:  

Hampton Roads, Virginia, March 20, 1862.

Flag-Officer L. M. GOLDSBOROUGH, Commanding North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

SIR: Your dispatches of the 20th are received, informing me that the steamship Illinois is chartered particularly by the Government for the purpose of running down the Merrimack, or the Virginia, as she is so called by the rebels.

On informing my officers, engineers, and ship's company of the purpose she was chartered for, they all refused, with the exception of five (viz, Captain D. B. Barton, Chief Engineer Stephen H. Scott, Chief Mate John Deaken, Purser M. Otis Roberts, and Steward J. H. Doran), they having previously shipped for port or ports in the United States, West Indies, or Gulf of Mexico, and not agreeing to perform duty in the Illinois when used as a ram to run down the enemy's iron ships.

 D. B. BARTON, Commanding S. S. Illinois  

It should be remembered that the news of the slaughter aboard the Cumberland was still fresh in the minds of these men, and that this crew had thought they were signing on for service as a transport. Goldsborough sought to stiffen their spines by placing a Navy officer, Commander C. H. Poor, aboard the Illinois “to direct her movements in the event of an attack.” In Poor’s orders, the Flag-Officer made mention that this move was “in accordance with the terms of the written agreement made between Messrs. Roberts and Fox for the use of the steamship Illinois in the service of the United States." [11]

The Official Records make no mention of anything further concerning the Illinois happening on the 21 March, but evidently the crew was not reassured by the presence of Commander Poor. On 22 March, Barton notified Goldsborough that,  

As Captain Poor, of the U. S. Navy, has taken command of the steamship Illinois and has ordered the crew (who have refused duty on said ship when used as a ram) to leave the ship, and replaced them with men from the Navy, out of my control, and also out of the control of my officers, I therefore do respectfully ask you to receive the steamship Illinois, and give me a receipt for her accordingly. [12]

Otherwise, under the circumstances, I must annul the charter party and return the ship to New York.


Goldsborough replied with a blistering letter that all but accused Barton of being a traitor:  

Hampton Roads, Virginia, March 22, 1862.

D. B. BARTON, Esq., Commanding Steamship Illinois, Hampton Roads.

SIR: I have just received your letter of this date.

Your whole conduct concerning the Illinois is of a character which bespeaks anything but duty to your country, and I regard your proceedings as a willful abandonment of your charter.

How different the bearing of the captain of the Arago, [13] whose vessel's charter is similar to that of your own. As soon as Captain Poor and his men are removed from the Illinois you can go with her where you like, with the distinct understanding that you yourself annul the charter party and desert the trust confided to you.

L. M. GOLDSBOROUGH, Flag-Officer, Comdg. North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.


Goldsborough notified Welles that he was determined to release the Illinois from service, and suggested that the Department should no longer accept civilian-crewed vessels; his mention that he does not have the men to replace the crew indicates that the intention all along had been to use the civilians to carry out the mission:  

Hampton Roads, Virginia, March 22, 1862.

Hon. GIDEON WELLES, Secretary of the Navy

SIR: The conduct of the captain of the Illinois has been anything but what I expected, and his whole crew is demoralized and unwilling to run down the Merrimack. It seems to me as though he came here predetermined not to do what he was expressly chartered for. Argument and persuasion are useless upon such a character. To-day he proposes to me, in writing, to annul his charter party. I forward herewith a copy of his communication. I have not the engineers or firemen necessary for her engines, and am so much disgusted with this whole proceeding that I have determined to let him go with his vessel wherever he likes. I also forward a copy of a letter I have written to him upon the subject.

In chartering steamers for the service in view it would, I think, be infinitely better for the Government to officer and man them entirely.

Then, and then only, perhaps, can we place implicit confidence in having done what is wanted in a proper manner.

I have no doubt that volunteers in abundance, good and true, may be procured in New York to serve on board the Illinois in the way wanted.

 L. M. GOLDSBOROUGH, Flag-Officer, Comdg. North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.


The Illinois was sent back to New York; unfortunately, for Louis Goldsborough, this was only the beginning of his troubles. Despite his confidence in the newly-arrived Arago, whose captain’s attitude he had only the day before held up to Barton as being so different from his own, the morning of March 23 brought new bad news to the Flag-Officer, which he shared with Secretary Welles:  

Hampton Roads, Virginia, March 23, 1862.

Hon. GIDEON WELLES, Secretary of the Navy

SIR: The captain of the Arago informs me this morning that in consequence of a visit yesterday of the engineers of the Illinois while he was absent on board this ship engaged with me, his own engineers, except the head one, all called upon him this morning and protested their unwillingness to serve in running the Merrimack down, and that the firemen and crew go with them in this unmanly determination.

The reason they assign for their course is that they were not informed at New York of the purpose the vessel was intended to serve. The captain himself and his officers are all well disposed. He will dispatch his purser this afternoon for New York to get, if possible, volunteer engineers and firemen, and then, he thinks, his crew will not refuse to serve.

Unfortunately his chief engineer, who, I am told, is a first-rate man, and exercises great control over all under him on board, was left at New York to rejoin the vessel here. He is still absent. The captain relies greatly upon him to get another crew of engineers and firemen, and hence his reason for sending off the purser.

 L. M. GOLDSBOROUGH, Flag-Officer, Comdg. North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.


P. S.--If the purser succeeds in getting the engineers and firemen I can put enough of the other men on board in case those now there should still persist in refusing to undertake the task assigned.

Should the Merrimack appear during the absence of the purser, the captain assures me that he will, despite of all unwillingness of his men, obey my orders and run her down, but this intention he will not divulge. He strikes me very favorably, and I have no doubt he will do as he says.

The Vanderbilt has just arrived here under charter or authority of the War Department. A fine spirit prevails on board of her throughout.  

On March 24, the Illinois arrived back in New York. Marshall Roberts lost no time in offering her once again to the Navy Department under a new charter that reflected the unusually hazardous nature of the duty. Secretary Welles accepted the vessel for service on March 25, “provided you put on board a captain, crew, and officers who are willing to attempt to run down the Merrimack.” Roberts turned to D. S. Babcock to command her and began to ship a new crew. Meanwhile, back in Hampton Roads, Henry Gadsden, captain of the Arago, fared little better with his men than had Barton with those of the Illinois. By the following day (March 25), Gadsden had to admit defeat and sent an explanatory note to Goldsborough:  

Hampton Roads, Virginia, March 25, 1862.

Commodore L. M. GOLDSBOROUGH, Flag-Officer.

 SIR: I regret exceedingly the necessity that compels me to apply to you for a supply of officers and men to make this ship at all serviceable to the Government.

Since my announcement to the men that this ship was to be used as a ram against the rebel floating battery Merrimack, a panic has seized the crew and most of the officers and men refused duty. In the engine department all refused with the single exception of the chief engineer. In the sailing department my chief officer is sick with Chagres fever and must be sent home, and the other officers and fourteen seamen refuse to serve any longer on board. I am therefore compelled to apply to you for at least 4 engineers, 12 firemen, and 12 coal passers, 4 deck officers and 12 seamen, until I can procure from New York or elsewhere other men to fill the positions vacated by those who have determined to leave this ship before 4 o'clock p.m. this day.

Again regretting the necessity of making this application, I remain, sir, yours, obediently,

 HENRY A. GADSDEN, Commander.  

This time Goldsborough retained the chartered vessel and crewed it with Navy sailors – including a number of recently escaped slaves who had signed up as landsmen only a few weeks before. Constance Brooks in her book “Civil War Sailors“ cites a man named “Williams” and what may be four brothers named “Brooks” who were assigned (along with nine other runaway Virginia slaves) to the Arago as coal heavers; they would serve for 53 days board that vessel. Although, as enlisted sailors, they would have been under orders, it would be interesting to know if the mission of the ship had been communicated to them.

By March 26, Marshall Roberts was in receipt of Goldsborough’s communications relevant to the Illinois with the Department of the Navy. As he was intent upon sending the ship back to Hampton Roads, he wired a letter of explanation to the Flag-Officer in which he took pains to explain that, while Captain Barton had come highly-recommended, he was at the same time not an acquaintance of Roberts’ and had certainly had no legal right to alter the charter under which the Illinois had sailed:  

NEW YORK, March 26, 1862.

Commodore L. M. GOLDSBOROUGH, Flag-Officer, North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, Hampton Roads.

SIR: I am in receipt of duplicate copies of your correspondence with the Navy Department in relation to the steamship Illinois, and beg to say that the charter will show for what purpose the ship was chartered, and to say further that I did not feel authorized to inform the officers or crew that she was intended to run down the Merrimack or chartered for any other purpose. But presuming under the charter party there could be no misunderstanding on the subject, I left the matter entirely with your good self. I really regret the turn things have taken, and assure you Captain Barton had no authority from me to annul the contract.

I chartered the Illinois to Mr. Fox, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, at a time when she was under employment in another service, and for an emergency that had arisen at Fort Monroe. Mr. Fox informed me there was no time to be lost. Captain Barton was recommended to me by Moses Taylor, Esq., of this city, in whose employ he had been for seventeen years past, but never before in mine.

In accordance with a letter just received from the Navy Department, a copy of which you will please find herewith, I have concluded to send the Illinois back to Hampton Roads, under directions to Captain D. S. Babcock, to comply with your orders to the fullest extent.



Roberts evidently still believed he was under orders to withhold the nature of the mission from the crew of the Illinois, for in an explanatory letter to Welles of April 15, he mentions “the difficulties of shipping a crew for the return of the Illinois to Fortress Monroe were considerably aggravated by the arrival of the crew of the Arago, who, having quit their ship, returned to New York, and prevailed upon the fresh crew of the Illinois to refuse to serve, and nearly a day elapsed before their places could be supplied.” This was the third civilian crew that had refused service. The Illinois finally departed New York for Hampton Roads on March 28.

On the same day, Major General John Wool at Fortress Monroe notified Stanton that the Merrimack was expected to sortie again, this time “somewhat better prepared to encounter the Monitor. They say that one of the guns had been replaced by one of larger caliber, with balls and fixed spikes.” Stanton contacted Wool again on March 27:  

Washington, D. C., March 27, 1862.

Major-General JOHN E. WOOL

GENERAL: Mr. Scott, Assistant Secretary, has just arrived, and brings me your note of the 24th, stating that you had turned the Vanderbilt over to Flag-Officer Goldsborough. This disposition of the Vanderbilt was not contemplated by my instructions to you, nor designed as the mode of employing that vessel. She belongs to the War Department, and is to act exclusively under its orders.

You will therefore take measures to have her placed immediately under command of this Department and relieved from duty under Flag-Officer Goldsborough.

 EDWIN M. STANTON, Secretary of War.  

Evidently Stanton had intended to maintain his own ram fleet, with the Vanderbilt as part of it. However, the Secretary of War was outranked – not by Lincoln, but by Vanderbilt:  

CHERRYSTONE, VA., March 28, 1862.

Hon. E. M. STANTON, Secretary of War.

Yesterday afternoon I visited the Vanderbilt and found her preparations far advanced and that she is at any moment ready for action. Her steam is kept constantly up. There are seven steamers here, all ready to act as rams, with more or less efficiency, but by their combined operations abundantly able to destroy the Merrimack. In my judgment, it is impossible for the Merrimack to come down to Fort Monroe without being sunk by the rams. . . . Commodore Goldsborough is fully awake to the importance of destroying the Merrimack, and has a clear comprehension of the manner in which that can best be done with the means at his command. I think he will do his duty both skillfully and bravely, and I have no doubt with success. Mr. Vanderbilt fully approves Commodore Goldsborough's plan of battle, and desires the steamer Vanderbilt to remain under Goldsborough's command. I have directed her so to remain until otherwise ordered by you.

 P. H. WATSON, Assistant Secretary of War.  

While it may be argued that the case of Cornelius Vanderbilt was a special one, other instances exist of civilian captains either refusing Navy orders or choosing to interpret them in their own way. For example, local Navy officers were repeatedly forced to deal with civilian skippers of colliers who refused to proceed past New Bern, NC up the rivers to where Union gunboats were operating; their doing so would have greatly facilitated refueling these warships. But, having arrived at New Bern, the captains considered that they had fulfilled the terms of their charters and would go no closer to the combat zone. [14]

On March 30, the Illinois – with her third crew, which we can assume was the first to be informed of what they were expected to do – arrived again at Hampton Roads. Goldsborough reported to Welles that she was “in a condition as reported to me” and  “ready for the service she is to perform.” On the same day, Assistant Secretary Watson sent a telegram to Washington reporting “The fleet of steam rams is ready to receive the Merrimack;“ if this did not reassure Stanton, perhaps McClellan’s note of April 3 did: “Have seen Goldsborough, and feel sure that he will crush the Merrimack if she appears.” For its part, the Navy Department continued assembling more rams, with Welles requesting of Dunham & Company on April 7 that they “direct the captain of the Ericsson to proceed with that vessel as early as possible to Hampton Roads.” This vessel, (Fig. 8), under Captain A. B. Lowber, left New York two days later (April 9) and arrived in the Roads on April 11 – just in time for the next meeting with the Merrimack. After the momentous events of March 8 and 9, that of April 11 was anti-climatic, best (and most tersely) explained by General Wool:  

April 11, 1862--5. p.m.

Hon. E. M. STANTON, Secretary of War:

Merrimack came down toward the Monitor and Stevens. The latter fired four or five rounds and the Merrimack one round, when she, with her consorts, returned to Craney Island. Thus ends the day. What the night may bring forth I am unable to say.

 JOHN E. WOOL, Major-General  

The reluctance of the Confederate ironclad to engage may be based on the fact that her captain, Josiah Tatnall, knew quite well what was waiting for him. Although evidently unaware of the other rams, Tatnall mentioned the Vanderbilt by name in an April 30 letter of explanation to General Joe Johnston:  

“I enclose you a copy of the opinion of the two pilots of the ship, which, condensed, is that on a day clear enough for the land to be seen there would be no difficulty in reaching York River, but that at night it could not be undertaken with a reasonable prospect of success. This would, of course, oblige me to pass the forts by daylight, after which I should have to contend with the squadron of men-of-war below the forts, which is large and includes the Minnesota, the ironclad steamers Monitor, Naugatuck, and Galena, and the powerful steamer Vanderbilt, fitted with a ram expressly to attack the Merrimack.  

In a report of the following day (April 12) to Welles, Goldsborough reiterated that he was prepared to “run her down,” but that “this experiment, however, must not be made too rashly or until the right opportunity presents itself, as to fail in it would be to enable the Merrimack to place herself before Yorktown, etc.” Expecting another run by the Merrimack that evening, the Flag-Officer sent a message to his entire squadron, citing specifically the civilian rams:  

Hampton Roads, April 12, 1862.



There are many indications to my mind that the Merrimack and consorts intend an attack upon us to-night. Be thoroughly prepared, therefore. She must be run down at all hazards, and if she attempt to go to Yorktown she will have to go around the Horseshoe, where she must be followed and run down. The salvation of our army now before Yorktown greatly depends upon the accomplishment of her destruction, or at least crippling her. All commanders of vessels, those of the Vanderbilt, Arago, Illinois, and Ericsson included, will do their very best in the premises, and none will be considered as having disobeyed orders who will bring about the end in view, whether signals be made to them or not for the purpose. All are to exercise a sound discretion and to bear in mind that at night it is very difficult, if not impossible, to tell any one vessel, other than the flagship, particularly what to do. Destroy the Merrimack by running her down is what I want all to do, and this, whether the attack be made to-night or on any other night.

 L. M. GOLDSBOROUGH, Flag-Officer.  

Why call out these ships unless they were somehow otherwise already differentiated from the military vessels in the Roads? This was the last sortie of the Merrimack for almost a month, until on May 9 she came down the river toward the Monitor – then turned around and went behind Sewell’s Point, where the Federal ships could not reach her. The squadron on duty – Minnesota, Vanderbilt, and Arago – had worked slowly towards the Rebel ironclad, but were unable to ram. Given that Tatnall knew what they were about, the rams may be what decided him to retreat – certainly the few rounds fired by the Monitor and the Stevens would not have. Two days later – unable to retreat up the shallowing James, Tatnall chose to destroy the Merrimack. If any Yankee can be credited with her destruction, it must be General John Wool, who, by capturing Norfolk, forced Tatnall’s decision.

On May 12 Goldsborough wrote to Welles and informed him that, while he had intended to discharge the Arago, Illinois, and Ericsson on that date, Lincoln himself had ordered him to retain them until he should write and instruct otherwise. On the following day orders were telegraphed from the Navy Department to Goldsborough ordering him to discharge the rams, although Lincoln made the disposition of the Illinois and the Ericsson contingent upon the Army wanting them. Goldsborough released the Arago, but retained the other two vessels. A week later Welles again ordered Goldsborough to discharge the rams – and he finally did on May 21.


What conclusions can be drawn from the evidence presented here? Certainly the months of March and April 1862 can be characterized as confused and unique, and these terms probably explain the unusual manner in which the Merrimack crisis was approached.

The first question posed in this article was, can we be certain that civilian ships, offices, and crews were actually used and, if so, why didn’t the Navy use its own ships to form a fleet of rams? The forms of address used in the letters and telegrams exchanged by Goldsborough, Welles, and the ship captains indicates the rams are all civilian vessels – every communication is sent to “S.S. Illinois” or “Steamer Vanderbilt,” never “U.S.S.” as is the case throughout the rest of the Official Records. The ram captains are also civilians, as they sign their names and are addressed by Goldsborough as “Esq[uire]” rather than with a rank. Goldsborough states plainly in their orders “and of my not placing an officer of the Navy on board the Illinois to direct her movements.” And the crews themselves were also civilians: they were shipped by the owners of the chartered vessels, were exempt from military law in that they were permitted to return freely to New York after refusing orders, and are referred to as civilians in Goldsborough's note to Welles of March 22:  

In chartering steamers for the service in view it would, I think, be infinitely better for the Government to officer and man them entirely. Then, and then only, perhaps, can we place implicit confidence in having done what is wanted in a proper manner. I have no doubt that volunteers in abundance, good and true, may be procured in New York to serve on board the Illinois in the way wanted.  

As to why civilian vessels and crews were employed, I believe this comes down to a shortage of both. Despite already impressive growth in the first year of the war, the Navy simply did not have that many steam-powered ships on hand in Hampton Roads – and it was very leery of losing any of them. Using sail-driven vessels was out of the questions, and the use of too-few rams would allow the Merrimack to easily evade them. The rams had to be steamers and there needed to be a number of them. Chartering civilian ships was an established practice and the natural solution. Similarly with crews. The Navy was plagued by manpower shortages throughout the war; this deficiency was most pronounced among the ranks of engineers. When the Illinois crew first mutinied, Goldsborough did not have enough men to consider retaining the ship. When the men of the Arago refused orders (3/23), Goldsborough had sufficient men to inform Welles that “If the purser succeeds in getting the engineers and firemen, I can put enough of the other men on board.” A newly-arrived draft of men (3/25) allowed him to crew that vessel when it finally became apparent that no more civilians would be coming.

While I could find no other instances of the intentional use of civilian-owned and crewed ships in combat situations, the fact that civilian ship owners and ship’s officers prepared for battle is shown by both the letter of instruction to Vanderbilt of March 20, in which he is told, “full discretion and authority are conferred upon you to arm . . . the said steamship Vanderbilt,” and by the photographs of the Arago crew at gunnery drill, (Fig. 10a & 10b). This was an armed merchant marine not unlike that of World War Two – while not looking for trouble, they were prepared for it. Certainly, Roberts was not surprised by Halstead’s initial request (3/15) to supply a ship and crew for an “extra hazardous mission” – the problems began only when Fox refused to compensate him on a scale appropriate to the danger. If not the usual practice, the use of civilian ships and crews in this unique instance was at least accepted by the owners.

The question remains as to whether the civilian crews understood the nature of their mission – and whose responsibility it was to explain it to them. While it can be theorized that the ram fleet may well have succeeded in sinking the Merrimack, the odds of accomplishing this with little or no loss were long – especially to potential recruits for the rams. It is well to remember that, to such men, the destruction of the Cumberland and Congress was still fresh news. As Welles pointed out, even Flag-Officer Goldsborough was terrified by the Merrimack. If this was not perceived of as a “suicide mission,” certainly it was truly “extra hazardous duty,” such that three crews refused to carry it out. There seems to have been no attempt at “sugar-coating” or misrepresenting the situation on the part of the military. This is evidenced by the fact that no problems were recorded with the crews of either the Vanderbilt or the Ericsson, whose men evidently understood their orders when they signed on. [15] Assuming that Vanderbilt and Dunham & Co. agreed to charters similar to those that sent the Illinois and Arago forth, does the fault lie with Marshall Roberts, as Fox insists? Certainly Goldsborough believed the men on the rams already knew they were to attack the Merrimack, and was shocked when they refused. The Navy evidently expected Roberts would inform his officers and crew; Roberts, however, believed himself under “implied” orders to keep the mission secret – even to the point of not telling his own son, who went aboard the Illinois! That Roberts expected the Navy to explain the mission is indicated in his letter of June 6: “If it was expected the crew would be shipped expressly to run down the Merrimack, why provide in the charter for the emergency of their refusing, on reaching their destination, to go under fire?” This misinterpreted clause probably explains the whole situation. The charter was probably a “boiler plate” document, edited only by the inclusion of a description of the “extra hazardous duty.” The Navy either missed this clause or expected it would be meaningless when applied to a crew of volunteers; Roberts, on the other hand, evidently believed the clause underscored the “gag order” he believed himself to be under – it was to be the safety valve that would allow his crewmen to opt out of the mission. It should be noted that only the crews of the ships owned by Marshall Roberts refused service; both Vanderbilt and Dunham & Co. understood and recruited men willing to undertake the mission.

What is confusing, however, is why the second crew recruited for the Illinois also refused service – while still in New York harbor! After all that had happened, did Marshall Roberts still believe himself under orders to withhold information from the crews? It may be that events simply unfolded too quickly for him to control. On March 24, the Illinois arrived back in New York. On March 25, Roberts offers the ship to the Navy Department again; Welles accepts, providing Roberts can find a crew willing to execute the mission. It can be assumed that Roberts immediately began shipping men – but on the very next day, March 26, the crew of the Arago returned and lost no time in warning their peers away from the Illinois. But, if Roberts had begun recruiting under Welles’ instructions to explain the mission, why did the men of the second crew refuse the duty? Evidently the mission had not been explained to them when they signed on. Only on the following day, March 27, was Roberts successful in crewing the Illinois with men who understood the mission.

By April 11, with the arrival of the Ericsson, Flag-Officer Goldsborough finally had his ram fleet assembled. It had taken a full month to gather the ships and crews. Ultimately, their only contribution was to deter the Merrimack from making another sortie; they never had the opportunity to attempt a ramming. In the panorama of larger events, this small episode was forgotten.

Appendix A




1 Although properly named the “Virginia” by the Confederacy, I have chosen to use “Merrimack” throughout this article to avoid confusion. As will be seen from the communications that follow, this is the name most commonly used among the Northerners quoted.

2 Renwick’s principal occupation was “the examination of machinery, inventions, and patents.”

3 utmost

4 Abram Stevens Hewitt was a New York industrialist, specifically an iron manufacturer. Though a Democrat and consequently not totally in accord with President Abraham Lincoln’s policies, Hewitt contributed to the Union cause during the Civil War by manufacturing gun barrel iron for the government at virtually production cost. He would go on to become mayor of New York City.

5 In the following year, Halstead would help form the American Submarine Company. With Scovel Meriam he is credited with the design of the Intelligent Whale, a submarine that did not see action in the war and was condemned in trials by the Navy in 1872.

6 Roberts was a self-made millionaire with wide financial interests in shipping, rails and the Atlantic telegraph cable; he was also owner of Star of the West, the ship sent to resupply the garrison at Ft. Sumter in 1861.

7 To be sure, Stanton was not the only person afraid of the Merrimack. Welles would later comment, “I have never been satisfied with the conduct of the flag-officer [Goldsborough] in those days, who was absent in the waters of North Carolina – purposely and unnecessarily absent, in my apprehension, through fear of the Merrimack, which he knew was completed and ready to come out.”

8 Taylor was an exceedingly wealthy New York financier, who had backed Roberts in the first Atlantic Cable venture, and who strongly supported the Lincoln administration, heading the bankers' committee that took the first Federal loan in 1861.

9 Fox himself would use this figure in a telegram to Goldsborough of March 24: “The President has sent you the Vanderbilt. Are you in want of any more for rams? They charge $3,000 per day for those boats.”

10 Not to be confused with two other vessels also named Arago. One, a steamboat built in 1860, operated on the Mississippi; its claim to fame is that Samuel Clemens served aboard her from July 28 to August 31 of that year. Another Arago, a sail-driven schooner of the Coast Survey, served with DuPont as part of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. “Our” Arago was chartered to the military three times during the war, in 1862, 1863, and 1865, operated briefly in the transatlantic service after the war, and was sold to the Peruvian government in 1869.

11 Communications recorded in The Official Records are dated but not time-stamped as to their hour of delivery. It is possible that Commander Poor was placed aboard the Illinois immediately upon her arrival in Hampton Roads, and that his coming aboard was the occasion for Captain Barton to explain his presence and the mission to his crew – as a result of which the civilian crew refused the duty and Barton communicated their intentions to Goldsborough.

12 This covers Barton and the owners for any damage done to the Illinois, which evidently was not expected to be “out of [his] control.”

13 Just arrived that day.

14 In Browning’s “From Cape Charles to Cape Fear,” (see Sources).

16 The letter to Vanderbilt (3/20) supports the assumption that they, too, were all civilians.


From Cape Charles to Cape Fear: The North Atlantic Blockading Squadron during the Civil War, Robert M. Browning, Jr., Univ. of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, 1993.

Gideon Welles: Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy, John Niven, Louisiana State Univ. Press, Baton Rouge, 1973.

The Army’s Navy Series, Vol. II. Assault and Logistics – Union Army Coastal and River Operations, 1861-1866, C. Gibson & E. Gibson, Ensign Press, Camden, 1995.

Center for Legislative Archives -- Records of the Committee on Claims, 1816-1946

(information on Marshall O. Roberts)

(information on John F. Winslow)  

World Submarine History Timeline at http://www.submarine-history.com/NOVAone.htm  

History of the New York City Marble Cemetery at http://www.nycmc.org/hist.htm
(information on Moses Taylor)  

The Forges and Manor of Ringwood at http://www.ringwoodmanor.com/ch/ah.htm
(information on Abram S. Hewitt)

Palmer List of Merchant Vessels at http://www.geocities.com/mppraetorius/com-er.htm

(information on Marshall O. Roberts)

  The Ships List:  Steamships on the Panama Route at http://www.theshipslist.com/ships/descriptions/panamafleet.html

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