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Many years ago, my Uncle told me a story of my Great, Great Grandfather Henry William Lewis and how he had witnessed the beginning of the Civil War. This story was always very interesting to me so I decided to do some research into the events of that day. There are actually many very interesting stories about Henry William Lewis that I will write about in the future, but today’s story is about his time aboard “The Nashville” and it’s role in the start of the Civil War. The history books and buffs have many versions of how things happened that day in Charleston Bay in relation to the Nashville. But thanks to an interview with H. W. Lewis, published in “The Sun”, a New York newspaper, on May 16, 1897, things become much clearer.
Henry William Lewis was a crew member of the Nashville in April 1861. It was one of several ships owned by a merchant company out of New York. The Nashville was built in Greenpoint, New York, in 1853. She was a 1221-ton side-wheel steamer and was originally built as a passenger steamer. In 1861 she was making merchant runs between New York and Charleston, South Carolina. In fact, she was due in Charleston Harbor on April 14th with a load of goods, most likely guns, the day after the South bombarded Fort Sumter.
Now, the Harriet Lane, which had been transferred to the U.S. Navy for a second time in March 1861, left New York City with the transport ship Baltic and warships Pocahontas and Pawnee. They were on an expedition, sent to Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina. Their mission was to supply and support the Fort Sumter garrison as tensions were rising between the North and South. The expedition departed New York on April 8th, 1861 and arrived off Charleston on April 11th. Now the Southerners had heard that the Harriet Lane and her sister ships were on her way, so tensions were rising fast.
Somehow, the Nashville had passed the Harriet Lane and her sister ships and arrived in Charleston Bay before them. It was 4:30 in the morning on April 12 and Henry Lewis was the lookout on board the Nashville. The Nashville was just outside Charleston harbor, near a sand bar when the confederate battery on Morris Island fired a round at the Nashville, thinking she was the Harriet Lane. After all, the Nashville and the Harriet Lane were roughly the same size and had similar riggings. Captain Murray of the Nashville gave the orders to ”retire from the bar” immediately. At this point he knew that if he had continued in, he would have faced certain destruction.
So, the Nashville began it’s move away from the bar in retreat from the harbor, when it suddenly encountered the Harriet Lane. According to the interview, Captain Murray did not want the ships paper examined. Probably because some of the goods being delivered to the southern port included ammunitions. So Captain Murray of the Nashville ordered his Chief Engineer to “shake it up” in an effort to out run the Harriet Lane. According to the many accounts, the Nashville was not flying its colors so the Captain of the Harriet Lane fired a “blank” shot in a signal for the Nashville to stop, but the Nashville continued trying to move away. So the Harriet lane swung around broadside and fired a “solid” shot across her bow. Captain Murray then ordered his Chief Engineer to stop all engines and to come around.
According to the United States Coast Guard web site, the phrase “The Desired Affect” comes from the Harriet Lane and it’s encounter with the Nashville. When the Nashville shut down its engine and came around, the captain of the Harriet Lane remarked that their shot had “had the desired effect.”
The story told by H W Lewis indicates that the Captain of the Harriet Lane simply asked some perfunctory questions of Captain Murray, and that was it. The Nashville then raised the American “colors” and was allowed on its way. But the two ships then sat on the bar together and not only watched the first shots fired against Fort Sumter, but the entire thirty-six hour bombardment.
When Major Robert Anderson surrendered Fort Sumter on Saturday, April 13th, the Harriet Lane withdrew with her sister ships back to New York. On Sunday, April 14th, the Nashville lowered its flag and entered Charleston harbor
Henry Lewis, Captain Murray and a few other crew members took a rowboat over to Fort Sumter. The only souvenir of the historic event he collected was a single dented grapeshot fired by the confederate batteries in the harbor.
In early May, 1861 her owners communicated their intent to the new Confederate government to outfit the ship as a privateer ship. However, the Confederate government had plans of its own. Needing a fast vessel to bring needed supplies from England and possibly transport Confederate Commissioners to England, the new nation authorized the purchase of the vessel for $100,000. Actually, I don’t think the company was given a choice.
Appointing Robert C. Pegram as her Captain, and others of the Confederacy as her officers and crew, the C.S.S. Nashville became the first vessel commissioned by the Confederacy. At this point it is difficult to determine what happened to Captain Murray, Henry W. Lewis and the others. They are not listed as initial crew members of the CSS Nashville so I think they were either taken as prisoners or allowed to return to their homes in New York.
Under Captain’s Pegram’s command, the CSS Nashville slipped out of Charleston Harbor in October 1861, making its first run to Great Britain by way of Bermuda. When the ship arrived in Bermuda, there is “testimony” in one source that they had to convince the Bermuda officials that it was not a warship. They apparently succeeded as they were eventually allowed to re-coal in Bermuda. This began the CSS Nashville’s career as one of the most elusive Confederate privateers.
The CSS Nashville captured and burned the sailing merchantman Harvey Birch in the English Channel on November 19, 1891, and spent some time at Southampton, England. Returning to American waters early in 1862, she captured and burned the schooner Robert Gilfillan on 26 February. Two days later, she ran the blockade into Beaufort, North Carolina, remaining there until mid-March, when she went to Georgetown, South Carolina
She was eventually sold to private interests and renamed the Thomas L. Wragg. She operated as a blockade runner, but was hindered in this employment by her deep draft. She was again later sold in November 1862, to become a privateer under the name Rattlesnake . On 28 February 1863, while still in the Savannah area, she was destroyed by the monitor USS Montauk.
What is interesting is that most books acknowledge the shot made by the Harriet Lane as the first shots fired in the Civil War. But according to my research, it was really the shot from the batteries on Morris Island that kicked off all the excitement.
Resources & References
- The Sun Interview with H.W. Lewis
- The History of The Nashville
- The Case of Great Britain as Laid Before the Tribunal of Arbitration
- The CSS Nashville
- The USS Revenue Cutter Harriet Lane
- CSS Nashville – Civil War Confederate Naval Ship
- The Cutter Harriet Lanes Fires Across The Bow Of The Nashville
- The Crest of CGC HARRIET LANE