U.S. Steamer “Stettin”

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U.S. Steamer “Stettin”

By Alessandra Corriveau, Boston College ‘12

The Civil War helped to popularize new methods of American reporting. With the rise of the illustrated newspaper in America, the war could be reported not only with text but also with pictures illustrating pivotal events. With special artists on the front lines of the war, the newspapers could publish authentic and accurate depictions of battles and the ways soldiers lived. Even during the most difficult battles (Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Gettysburg) artist-reporters working or the illustrated newspapers were able to draw the horrors and triumphs of the Civil War. The naval aspect of the war was miniscule compared to the battles fought on land; as a result, pictorial newspapers rarely covered naval endeavors, and the public’s view of the naval war was scattered and often inaccurate.

U.S. Steamer ‘Stettin,’  (see figure 1) is one of the naval battle drawings in the Becker Collection.  It depicts a skirmish between one ironclad steamship and two other ships at night. It was submitted to Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper but was never published. One of eighty-one naval scenes in the Becker Collection, it helps to illustrate the relative importance of naval endeavors during the war. The relative lack of knowledge and documentation of the naval aspect of the Civil War make the U.S. Steamer ‘Stettin’ a resource that sheds light on an important facet of naval warfare—the Federal Blockade.

The U.S. Steamer ‘Stettin’ displays the way that a newspaper would illustrate the war, which contrasts directly with other popular art at the time. Throughout the war, professional artists, who painted for the art-buying public, avoided depicting the war or the issues of abolition explicitly. Many had very strong opinions about the war but were reluctant to show the horrors of actual battle or slavery because they hoped that wealthy patrons, who were often ambivalent about the war, would purchase their works. Some artists relied on symbolism or metaphor to represent their feelings about the war; a stormy sky could represent apprehension and approaching danger, a damaged boat could refer to the destruction of war. The issues of slavery and abolition were easier for artists to portray in an appealing way for clients by referring to them only indirectly.

Artists were just as diverse in their beliefs as the country was at the time. Some such as Eastman Johnson supported abolition, although others like William Sydney Mount warned of its potential problems. Mount, who was raised in New York, eventually softened his criticism. In his autobiographical painting, Eel Spearing at Setauket, he depicted the person who taught him how to spear eel as an African-American woman instead of an African-American man in order to make the picture seem less threatening to his patrons. Artists were able to express their views on abolition more explicitly than they were able to express their views on the war. The terrors of the war were often too graphic or offensive for art-buyers to want battle scenes in their homes; yet they were eager to see such images in their illustrated newspapers. 

Pictorial newspapers, such as Harpers Weekly and Frank Leslie’s, prided themselves on providing accurate accounts of the war. The Special Artists, sent out to observe and record the war as it happened, provided the newspapers with “the most authentic illustrations that have ever been published.”[1] Almost all of the Special Artists had never experienced warfare before, and few knew what to expect. As the war progressed “The overall change in the pictorial reporting of the Civil War was predicated at least in part on the artists' experiences in the field, where expectations and assumptions were progressively undermined by the reality of the war”[2]. Special Artists were some of the newspapers’ employees who were most affected by the war. The engravings made from their sketches frequently excluded some of the more shocking details they had drawn.

In 1861 Frank Leslie’s was sympathetic to both the North and the South, reporting without bias until the capture of Fort Sumter. After this pivotal moment at the beginning of the war, Frank Leslie’s took a firm pro-Union stance.[3] The newspaper “employed sixteen, as many artists as the two other weeklies combined,”[4] and with this large force of artists Leslie’s was able to include page-wide spreads of illustrations in almost all of their publications. Unlike contemporary paintings that only referred indirectly to the war, these illustrations were meant to inform the public, not to cloud and shroud the effects of the conflict.

Leslie’s was not solely comprised of illustrations; in addition to reports of the war, politics and advertisements, it also contained editorials. The length and toll of the war taxed the public’s patience and ability to cope with the continuing destruction. Even though the war seemed as if it would continue until one side was too exhausted to continue, “Frank Leslie's editorials, in particular, made it a policy to excoriate the upper ranks, not to mention the Lincoln administration, when battles were lost or their outcomes were indeterminate.”[5] Leslie’s editorials fed into the public’s eagerness for the war to finish and were not timid about finding faults in Union strategy and policy.

One of the Union’s effective strategies to deplete the Confederacy’s supplies and income was the Federal Blockade. President Lincoln ordered the blockade on April 19, 1861, just one week after the Confederacy laid siege on Fort Sumter. General Winfield Scott developed the “Anaconda Plan” as a strategy to slowly choke the South’s supply lines. The blockade covered 3,500 miles, stretching from the Chesapeake Bay to Texas. Union ships monitored major ports including Mobile, New Orleans, Richmond, Wilmington, Charleston, and Savannah to prevent exports, such as cotton, as well as imports of supplies.[6]

There were approximately five hundred Union ships that were assigned to the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, Gulf and West Gulf Blockading Squadrons. The biggest threats to these ships were not Confederate ships but rather British ships, which attempted to bring supplies into the ports. These British ships, known as blockade runners, were based in the British ports of in Bermuda, the Bahamas, and Cuba and tried to evade the blockade. Throughout the course of the war approximately fifteen hundred blockade-runners were captured or destroyed. The blockade was dismantled in 1865 after General Lee surrendered.

At the beginning of the war both the Union and the Confederacy needed to quickly build more complex, durable, and effective ships. The ironclad was the most effective and newest warship of the time; it could withstand an attack that would have destroyed an average wooden ship. One of the main reasons why the Union was much more successful in naval endeavors was that “the less industrialized South produced no new ironclads [and their] most powerful ironclads, Arkansas and Tennessee, were soon defeated.”[7] However, even with the inequalities in ship strength of the two sides, many blockade-runners, especially the British ships, were able to evade capture or destruction throughout the war.

In preparing for the Siege of Charleston, Union troops spent months at Folly Island staging the attack and planning parallel attacks on the Confederate stronghold, Fort Wagner. U.S. General David Hunter decided that Folly Island, situated ten miles South-West of Charleston, was a suitable area for the incoming Union troops to occupy[8]. Admiral Samuel DuPont, commander of the South Atlantic Blockade Squadron, had known that the Navy would not be able to take Charleston alone and that reinforcements would be needed.[9] In March of 1863 the first regiments were stationed on the island. The troops, having few duties while their commanders planned the siege, were urged to avoid disturbances that would draw attention to the island. The estimated number of soldiers that were stationed on the island in April range from five thousand to sixteen thousand; however, it is commonly believed that there were closer to five thousand troops.[10]

Throughout May of 1863, low-ranking troops were placed on the island while their superiors retreated to the more “comfortable” Hilton Head Island, forty miles south.[11]  As troops tried to keep their presence on the island as secret as possible, General Israel Vogdes ordered that a fort be built. Troops began to build a fort on the southernmost part of the island as they kept away from the land that thinned toward the north.[12] The island was soon covered with a long picket line with defenses that could withstand shrapnel. During the entire building process, the only protection the island had were two gunboats.[13] The island played an integral part in the Siege of Charleston (August 17-Setptember 7, 1863) as a staging ground and home fort.

 The drawing, U.S. Steamer ‘Stettin’ depicts the skirmish between the ‘Stettin’ and the Anglo-Confederate ship the Havelock. Stationed outside of Charleston, near Folly Island, the ‘Stettin’ was part of the South Atlantic Blockade Squadron. The actual ship had been a blockade-runner that was captured and later purchased by the Union.[14] The ‘Stettin’ had a crew of one hundred and five men and a total of eight guns.[15] After arriving in Port Royal, it was assigned to the Blockade.[16] From late 1862 to the spring of 1863 the ‘Stettin’ participated in the capture of two blockade-runners.[17] On June 11, 1863 with fellow ships the Memphis and the Ottawa, the ‘Stettin’ helped to take down the Havelock.

After the Havelock was attacked, it ran aground on the northern end of Folly Island. The surviving crewmembers removed some of the goods from the ship and escaped offshore. Because the ship was of interest to both sides, other Confederate ships tried to fire on the remains of the Havelock before Union troops could find it. In spite of these efforts, Union troops found the wreckage and celebrated by climbing through what was left of the ship. By the next morning the remains of the Havelock had been destroyed.[18]

The Acting Ensign (midshipman) of the ‘Stettin’, identified by his initials G.R.B., forwarded the drawing of the battle to Frank Leslie’s. He included a short paragraph of information about the skirmish. G.R.B. incorrectly identified the ship as the Ruby, which was a common error. Frequently neither side could confidently identify enemy vessels until the ship was disabled. This incorrect information was published in the July 4, 1863 issue of Frank Leslie’s when the account written on the drawing was printed almost word for word in the newspaper. Leslie’s never ran a correction about the ship’s name. Although records indicate that many commanders assumed that the ship was the Havelock[19] and this information was presumably common knowledge, the confusion seemed trivial in light of other major military endeavors such as Vicksburg happening at the same time.

The drawing is mistakenly attributed to G.R.B., who clearly forwarded it from an unknown party to Leslie’s. The person who made the drawing undoubtedly had formal art training but was not one of Leslie’s Special Artists. The techniques used are advanced and the artist was able to depict the scene very clearly. Because an Ensign from the ‘Stettin’ forwarded the drawing to Leslie’s, the artist could not have worked for the newspaper himself.  A Special Artist would have sent it to the New York office himself. In all probability the artist was one of the five thousand soldiers who were camped on Folly Island when the incident occurred. He most likely thought the scene was interesting and decided to depict it. It would be almost impossible to identify him due to poor record keeping and the fact that the drawing has no other name or initials besides G.R.B.

The naval side of the Civil War played an integral part in the weakening of the Confederacy. Without the blockade the South would have been constantly resupplied with the help of the British and might have outlasted the Union in battle.  Naval endeavors became a sideshow for army battles because there were few naval battles and the skirmishes resulted in relatively few casualties. Furthermore, the drama and romance of military life lost most of its charm in a cramped ironclad ships. The navy was small and often seemed less interesting to a general public that wanted more exciting news. Although the navy was crucial to the Union’s victory, many naval efforts have been forgotten because of the general public’s disinterest, poor record keeping, and lack of coverage.


[1]Witness to the Civil War p. xii

[2] Beyond the Lines p. 54

[3] Beyond the Lines p. 48

[4] Beyond the Lines p. 23

[5] Beyond the Lines p. 54

[6] Ironclads at War p. 188

[7] Witness to the Civil War p. 58

[8] To Take Charleston p. 12

[9] To Take Charleston p. 7

[10] To Take Charleston p. 14

[11] To Take Charleston p. 14

[12] To Take Charleston p. 16

[13] “The Siege of Charleston”

[14] The Union Navy p. 565

[15] Official Records p. xviii

[16] The Blockade and the Cruisers p. 115

[17] The Union Navy p. 565

[18] To Take Folly Island p. 24

[19] Official Records p. 252

 

Appendix

Figure 1

Figure 1. U.S. Steamer ‘Stettin’. From Becker Collection.

 

Bibliography

Brown, Joshua. Beyond the Lines: Pictorial Reporting, Everyday Life, and the Crisis of Gilded-Age America. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002.

Greene, Jack, and Alessandra Massignani. Ironclads at War: The Origin and Development of the Armored Warship, 1854-1891. Illustrated ed. New York, NY: Da Capo Press, 1998. 21 Apr. 2009 <http://books.google.com/‌books?id=RO7-ubDQCUwC&printsec=frontcover&client=safari>.

Hagy, James William. To Take Charleston: The Civil War on Folly Island. Charleston, WV: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company , 1993.

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. Comp. Dudley Wright Knox, Navy Department, and United Sates Naval War Records Office. Vol. 14. I. Washington : U.S. Government Printing Office, 1902. 3 Mar. 2006. University of Michigan. 29 Apr. 2009 <http://books.google.com/‌books?id=cCvaDNaqnSkC&client=safari>.

“The Siege of Charleston: The Preliminary Operations on Folly Island.” New York Times 24 Sept. 1863: 4. 29 Apr. 2009 <http://query.nytimes.com/‌gst/‌abstract.html?res=9C04E4D8163EEE34BC4C51DFBF668388679FDE>.

Soley, James Russell. The Blockade and the Cruisers. London: Sampson Low, Marston, & Co., 1898. 30 May 2008. Harvard University. 29 Apr. 2009 <http://books.google.com/‌books?id=OyMdAAAAYAAJ&client=safari>.

U.S. Steamer “Stettin.” Graphite, black ink wash, white guache . 1863. Becker Collection. The Becker Collection. Boston College. 29 Apr. 2009 <http://idesweb.bc.edu/‌becker/‌details?pid=64450&jpg2=64401&label=U.S.+Steamer+%22Stettin.%22>.

Witness to the Civil War. Ed. James G. Barber. New York, NY: Collins,  1895. 21 Apr. 2009 <http://digilib.bc.edu/‌reserves/‌fa240/‌book/‌fa24001.pdf>.

Wylie, Arthur. The Union Navy. Lulu.com, 2007. 29 Apr. 2009 <http://books.google.com/‌books?id=OyMdAAAAYAAJ&client=safari>.