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Commerce Raider CSS NASHVILLE

The CSS Nashville was the first Confederate warship to be recognized by Great Britain when the commerce raider arrived in Southampton, Great Britain, on November 21, 1861. This caused a diplomatic estrangement between Great Britain and the United States simultaneously with the infamous Trent Affair. Virtually trapped in Southampton by USS Tuscarora, thanks to the British Foreign Enlistment Act, Nashville was able to escape and run through the blockade into Beaufort, North Carolina. The Nashville ended its commerce raiding career when it was sold to become a blockade runner at Georgetown, South Carolina. Nevertheless, CSS Nashville played an important role in the Confederate search for European recognition.

Nashville/Rebel. Pen and Ink Drawing. Samuel Ward Stanton, artist, ca. 1890-1910. The Mariners’ Museum 1988.0041.000446


The Nashville was built as a fast screw steamer constructed by William Collyer of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and it launched on September 22, 1853.Commissioned as United States Mail Steamer, the sidewheeler Nashville maintained a passenger run between New York and Charleston, South Carolina. The ship’s characteristics were as follows:

Tonnage: 1,221 tons; Length: 215.6 ft.

Beam: 34.6 ft.; Draft: 21.9 ft.

Speed: 14.5 knots

The single screw steamer’s one side lever engine and two boilers were built by Novelty Iron Works, New York. The Nashville was bark-rigged with two masts. The ship had a crew of 40 officers and men.[1]


Steam Revenue Cutter Harriet Lane.
The Mariners’ Museum 1935.0815.000001

On the late afternoon of April 11, 1861, Nashville neared Charleston harbor on its regular run from New York. The crew noticed a large squadron off the Charleston bar. As the paddler neared the channel, the USRC Harriet Lane approached and fired a shot which skipped in front of SS Nashville. Quickly raising the United States flag, Nashville steamed into the harbor unmolested. This cannon shot was the first naval fire of the Civil War.[2]

Bombardment of Fort Sumter,
Charleston Harbor: 12th & 13th of April. , 1861.
Currier & Ives, publisher, 1861.
Courtesy of Library of Congress.


The steamer was quickly seized by the Confederate government and commissioned as the CSS Nashville, transformed into a warship by its commander Lieutenant Robert Baker Pegram. A member of one of the First Families of Virginia, Pegram was appointed midshipman on February 2, 1829. He had a very distinguished naval career. Pegram served under David Glasgow Farragut during the Mexican War and participated in Perry’s Japan expedition. In 1855 he was assigned to the 16-gun sidewheeler frigate USS Powhatan in the East India Squadron. The Powhatan, along with HMS Rattler, helped capture a pirate flotilla in the Pearl River, China.

Lieutenant Robert Baker Pegram, CSN.
NavSource Archives Online.

Pegram’s heroism and leadership prompted the Commonwealth of Virginia to present him with a silver sword. He later served on the Paraguay Expedition and at the Gosport Navy Yard. Pegram assumed command of the Yard when the Federals abandoned it in the early morning of April 21, 1861. He then constructed the Pig Point Battery overlooking the entrance to the Nansemond River and fought a duel with the USS Harriet Lane, forcing that gunboat to retreat. Pegram then was detailed as commander of CSS Nashville docked at Charleston, South Carolina.[3]

View of the engagement of Harriet Lane – the batteries of Pig’s Point from the Hospital Piazza. Camp Newport News. Afternoon of June 2th[?] Pencil drawing, 1862.
The Mariners’ Museum 1982.0065.000005

When Pegram arrived in Charleston, he armed Nashville with two British-built bronze 6-pounders and strengthened the steamer’s engines. The guns were placed in pivots. No one believed that Nashville’s frame could support any heavier armament.[4] The Nashville had been selected for a special assignment: transporting Confederate commissioners to Europe — John Mason, envoy to Great Britain, and John Slidell, envoy to France.

James Murray Mason, 1861.
George Kendall Warren, photographer.
Courtesy of Library of Congress.
James Slidell, ca. 19th century.
Photograph, no later than 1871.
Public domain.

Pegram fitted out his ship with these duties in mind and selected his officers:

*Charles M. Fauntleroy, 1st lieutenant

*John M. Bennett, 2nd lieutenant

*William Conway Whittle, 3rd lieutenant

*John Ingraham, master

*John L. Auchrum, surgeon

*Richard Taylor, paymaster

*James Hood, chief engineer

These men were supported by several midshipmen including: Dalton, Bullock, Sinclair, Cary, Pegram, Hamilton, Thomas, and McClintock.[5]


Despite these orders and preparations, the two envoys thought that it might be wiser to go to Cuba via the fast blockade runner Gordon (renamed Theodora). Once in Havana, Slidell and Mason booked passage on the Royal Mail Steamer Trent. The RMS Trent was a sidewheeler built in 1841 for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. As soon as the war had started the British had made a proclamation of neutrality dated May 13, 1861. This recognized the Southern rebellion. American ambassador to Great Britain, Charles Francis Adams, protested this action. Britain did nothing to resolve Adams’s complaint.

Charles Francis Adams, 1861.
George Kendall Warren, photographer.
Courtesy of Library of Congress.

The United States and Great Britain had been at diplomatic odds since the 1840s, and tensions only increased through 1861. Union intelligence thought that the two Confederate envoys had gone to Great Britain in Nashville. A fast gunboat, USS John Alger, was sent to capture the Confederate envoys before they reached Great Britain; however, this proved to be an unsuccessful mission.

It was not until mid-October that Captain Charles Wilkes of San Jacinto discovered that Slidell and Mason had reached Cuba via a blockade runner. Wilkes was a noted explorer and student of navigation, highly interested in new naval technologies. Despite his brilliance, Wilkes was controversial, very difficult to serve with, and headstrong. When San Jacinto arrived in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, on October 13, 1861, Wilkes learned about the capture of Union merchant ships by CSS Sumter near Cuba.

Captain Charles Wilkes, USN.
Mathew B. Brady, photographer.
The Mariners’ Museum 1969.0238.000001
USS San Jacinto.
“Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion,” October 25, 1851.
Courtesy of the New York Historical Society Museum & Library.

Accordingly, Wilkes steamed to the island to track down the Confederate cruiser. When he reached Cienfuegos, Cuba, Wikes learned that the two Confederate envoys were planning to sail to Great Britain aboard RMS Trent. He stopped the mail packet November 8 and removed Mason and Slidell. Eventually he took his prisoners to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor. Northerners proclaimed him a hero; however, news reached Britain of the illegal stoppage of Trent on November 21. The British protested and moved troops to Canada as war appeared eminent between the two nations. The Trent Affair was eventually settled through the efforts of British Foreign Secretary Lord Russell and the US Secretary of State William Seward. [6]

In the meantime, the Federals had stationed four blockaders off Charleston in an effort to capture Nashville and the two Confederate envoys. Pegram knew he needed to escape and plotted his attempt on the night of October 21, 1861. Even though Pegram had anchored small boats to define the edge of the main channel leading out of Charleston, he ran temporarily aground. Nevertheless. Pegram was still able to make the Atlantic as Nashville stayed within the moonshadow and evaded the blockaders. The sidewheeler reached St. George, Bermuda, on October 30. There he coaled his ship and met with Commander James Bullock of CSS Fingal.


CSS Nashville Burning the Ship Harvey Birch, 1861. From painting by Duncan McFarlane, 1864.
Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command # NH 53687

Pegram left Bermuda on November 5 and shaped a course for Southampton keeping out of the main shipping lanes. En route, Nashville encountered the clipper Harvey Birch at 9 a.m. on November 19, 1861, off the west coast of Ireland. The clipper was commanded by Captain M. Nelson sailing from Le Havre to New York in ballast. Pegram raised the Confederate flag and demanded the ship’s surrender. Once he had transferred the officers, crew and passengers, along with all of the navigation instruments, Pegram set fire to Harvey Birch. The clipper was totally destroyed. Nashville reached Southampton on November 21 and released the 41 prisoners taken from Harvey Birch. Pegram noted that his ship “enjoyed the distinction of being the first war vessel to fly the flag of the Confederate States in the waters of England.” [7]


As soon as Nashville reached the British harbor Pegram learned about the Trent Affair and thought that was “a great probability of an early rupture between England and the United States, I was determined to await the results.” [8] Pegram contacted the then-Confederate envoy to Great Britain, William L. Yancey, to offer him passage back to the Confederate States. Considering all of the turmoil over the Trent Affair, Yancey rejected the offer. The diplomatic struggle did not end until Slidell and Mason were released.

The Nashville and Tuscarora at Southampton. Line engraving. Harper’s Weekly, Jan.-June 1862.
Naval History and Heritage Command #NH 59348

Pegram recognized that Nashville was in serious need of overhaul. The steamer had been damaged during its Atlantic crossing and entered drydock at Southampton. The British Foreign Enlistment Act forbade Pegram from strengthening his ship for military purposes. Nevertheless, he was allowed to make repairs to place the ship in the same condition as when the sidewheeler left Charleston.


Pegram had also realized during the trip across the Atlantic that there were several disloyal crew members. Shortly after the sidewheeler’s arrival in Southampton, an attempt was made to set Nashville afire. The perpetrator was not discovered. Pegram noted that within days of the fire several crew members deserted and he was sure the the culprit was one of those deserters. [9]


USS Tuscarora in Southampton Water.
“The Illustrated London News,“
25 January 1862. NavSource Online.

The Federals dispatched USS Tuscarora to Southampton to capture or sink Nashville. The steam sloop was a ninety-day gunboat built by Merrick & Sons of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The ship was laid down on June 27, launched on August 24, and commissioned on December 5, 1861. The Tuscarora was a Wyoming-class screw sloop able to make 11 knots.

When this warship encountered Nashville its armament consisted of :

1 XI-inch Dahlgren; 6 32-pounders; and 1 30-pounder Parrott rifle[10]

Tunis Augustus Macdonough Craven,
Commander, US Navy.
Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage
Command # NH 79201

The cruiser was captained by Commander Tunis Augustus Macdonough Craven. Craven had entered the US Navy as a midshipman in 1829 and was promoted to lieutenant in 1841. Even though he had served with distinction aboard USS Dale in the Pacific Squadron and later commanded the schooner Libertad, Craven was best known for his 20-year service with the US Coast Survey. When the war started, Craven commanded the screw bark Crusader in 1861 during which time he secured Key West for the Union. [11]

Craven’s ship arrived on January 8,1862, and maintained a very close blockade of Nashville. The Tuscarora’s commander stated his “intention was to await the egress of Nashville ”[12], then destroy the raider. Craven kept such a close watch on Nashville that Pegram filed a complaint with the Admiralty as he believed it was a violation of the British Act of Neutrality: one belligerent vessel could not blockade another vessel within a British port. The Tuscarora’s actions raised indignation amongst the British government and the public at large in light of the recent Trent Affair.


“The Modern Janus.” Civil War era political cartoon depicting Janus enforcing British Maritime Law. Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command # NH 098646614

The Admiralty warned the sloop’s commander not to violate the neutrality laws. To avoid any conflict, both ships were ordered to leave British waters within a specific time. Pegram, who knew that Tuscarora could easily outgun his ship, requested that the British implement the 24- hour rule. This meant that the ship that left first forced the other warship to wait one day before chasing their enemy’s vessel. So, when Nashville left Southampton on February 3, 1862, “to prevent any breach of faith, the English frigate HMS Shannon, with steam up and guns shotted, lay alongside of the Federal vessel.”[13]

HMS Shannon.
Engraving, ca. 19th century. Forster & Co., engravers. National Maritime Museum. Public domain.

The Nashville reached St. George, Bermuda, on February 20. There, Pegram obtained coal and secured a skilled pilot, Mr. J. Beveridge, to guide the steamer into Beaufort, North Carolina. The Confederate paddler left Bermuda on February 24 and at dawn on the 26th, Pegram spotted a schooner off his bow. It was Robert Gilfillan, commanded by Captain Smith, sailing from Philadelphia to Haiti with a load of provisions. Pegram hoisted the United States flag as did Robert Gilfillan. The Nashville’s commander sent Lt. John Ingraham to board the schooner to review the ship’s papers.

CSS Nashville steaming away from schooner Robert Gilfillan, 26 February 1862. Wash drawing. R.G. Skerritt, artist, 1901.
Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command # NH 57824

Ingraham sent a signal back to Nashville which prompted Pegram to replace the US flag with that of the Confederate States of America. Thus, Robert Gilfillan was made a prize. The seas were too heavy to transfer the cargo, so Pegram took the captain and crew, a total of seven men, along with their personal effects. Then the merchant ship was set ablaze and Nashville steamed on toward Beaufort. [14]


The War in North Carolina. Map of the Entrance to Beaufort Harbor, N.C., showing the position of Fort Macon, etc. George Woolworth Colton, artist. Published 1861. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

At dawn on February 28, Nashville neared the entrance to Bogue Sound. Pegram noticed only one ship, the USS State of Georgia.Commander James Armstrong, just like the captain of Robert Gilfillan, had thought the ship was the steamer USS Keystone State as the Confederate steamer was then flying the United States flag. “As soon, however,” Pegram noted, “as I passed her I ordered the United States flag to be hauled down and hoisted the Confederate flag at the foremost head and at the peak, while my pennant was run up at the main.”

Boat or Storm Flag, CSS Nashville, 1861.
The Mariners’ Museum 2016.0015.000

Realizing the trickery before him, Armstrong fired twenty-one shots at Nashville, all missing. Pegram “answered the enemy’s salute by firing one gun, finding it useless to waste more powder.” The Nashville passed Fort Macon and shortly thereafter docked at Morehead City, North Carolina. [15]

Fort Macon, NC, as viewed from one of the shoreward sides.
Kevinbercaw, photographer, 21 June 2011.
CC BY-Share Alike 3.0 license.


Cartoon. Lithograph. Currier & Ives, publisher, 1862. The Mariners’ Museum 1947.0533.000001

Upon arrival in Morehead City, Pegram went to Richmond for instructions about Nashville’s future. He returned to the ship and informed the officers and crew that the commerce raider had been sold for use as a blockade runner. Pegram stripped the ship of all of its charts, navigational instruments, and armament. He then took most of the crew to Richmond. They boarded one of the last trains to leave Morehead City as Major General Ambrose Burnside captured New Bern, North Carolina, on March 14, closing off any escape via train through that city.

William Conway Whittle.
Find a Grave Memorial no. 71621560,
accessed November 24, 2020.

Pegram had left Lieutenant William Conway Whittle Jr. in command of Nashville. Whittle was born in Norfolk, Virginia, on January 16, 1841. His father, William Conway Whittle Sr., was a true naval hero. The younger Whittle graduated from the USNA in 1858. When Virginia left the Union, he left the US Navy and joined the Virginia Navy which would quickly become part of the Confederate Navy. He first served in water batteries on the York and James rivers until he was detailed to CSS Nashville as 3rd lieutenant.

Burnside’s troops were rapidly headed toward Morehead City and Nashville’s capture seemed inevitable. Whittle had no charts, navigational instruments and just a skeleton crew to help him escape. Although he made preparations to destroy his ship, the young officer decided to make an attempt to get out to sea. He obtained a pilot, Captain Gooding, to aid his escape.


On March 17 (the Federals would arrive to besiege Fort Macon six days later), Whittle met with the commander of Fort Macon, Colonel Moses White. Whittle advised White that he intended to try to run past the blockaders that evening and hoped that Fort Macon would not fire on his sidewheeler. White assured he would not.

Whittle then described his escape, “Steaming toward the bar, I found three vessels congregated close together underway and covering the close channel….We were going at full speed….The blockaders underway and broadside to me, were across my path. I ran for the furthest to the northward and eastward, with the determination to go through or sink both ships. I was given the right of way and passed through under heavy fire from three vessels.[16]

Somehow, Nashville escaped and plotted a course to Charleston. When Whittle neared the harbor’s entrance, he noted that it was heavily blockaded and decided to make for Georgetown, South Carolina. When Nashville neared the entrance to Winyah Bay, he noticed more blockaders and stopped his ship before they disappeared over the horizon. As Whittle tried to enter the bay, Nashville ran aground. Confederate soldiers guarding the coastline hailed the steamer and Whittle replied, “This is the Confederate States steamer Nashville.”


Brig. Gen. Arthur Middleton Manigault, CSA,
before 1886. Photographer unknown.
Public domain.

The soldiers could not believe that it was the famous commerce raider. Accordingly, the steamer’s commander met with Colonel Arthur Manigault, commander of the 10th South Carolina Infantry, who was also head of the First South Carolina Military District headquartered at Georgetown. Manigault provided Whittle with a pilot and Nashville reached Georgetown. Once there, Whittle entrained to Richmond where he met with Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Russell Mallory. Whittle was then sent to Charleston where he turned the ship over to the buyers, Fraser, Trenholm & Company. Renamed Thomas L. Wragg, the vessel was a successful blockade runner until trapped in Savannah in late 1862. [17]


The CSS Nashville was a unique ship. The steamer received the first naval fire during the Civil War, was the first Confederate commerce raider to serve in the North Atlantic, and the first Confederate warship to be recognized by Great Britain. This paddlewheeler was poorly armed; yet extremely fast, enabling Nashville to run the blockade five times. This warship was a symbol of the fledgling Confederate navy’s efforts to gain recognition from European powers.

Blockade Running on Board Confederate S.S. Nashville. Watercolor, 1861. Earl of Dunsmore, artist. The Mariners’ Museum 1936.1443.000001

Once in Georgetown, South Carolina, the steamer became a successful blockade runner, Thomas L. Wragg. Once the runner was trapped near Savannah, it was sold to become the privateer Rattlesnake until destroyed in 1863 by the ironclad USS Montauk. Nevertheless, the original CSS Nashville served the Confederacy well and remained a commerce raider laden with laurels in the early days of the war.


1 Paul H. Silverstone, Civil War Navies, Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2001,p.160.

2 Virgil Carrington Jones, The Civil War at Sea: The Blockaders, vol. 1, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960, p. 74.


4 Explanatory note: Many refer to Nashville’s armament as two 12-pounder brass howitzers. Pegram details the armament in his official report (ORN, p. 748) stating that Nashville had two 6-pounders in pivot near the bow. Nevertheless, Silverstone (p. 160) and Scharf (p. 785) state otherwise.

5 J. Thomas Scharf, History of the Confederate Navy: From Its Organization to the Surrender of Its Last Vessel. New York: Gramercy Books, 1996, p. 785

6 Patricia L.Faust, ed. Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row,1986, pp. 762 and 827.

7 Scharf, p.785.

8 Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. (Hereinafter known as ORN), series I, vol.1, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1894, p. 746.

9 Ibid. p. 748.

10 Silverstone, p. 24.

11 Faust, p. 191.

12 ORN, p. 746

13 Ibid, p. 747.

14 Ibid

15 Ibid, p. 748

16 R.A. Brock, ed. The Southern Historical Society Papers. vol. XXXVIII, “Cruise of the Confederate States Steamer Nashville.” Richmond, Virginia: The Southern Historical Society, 1910, p. 334.

17 Ibid, p.336.


Brock, R.A., Ed. The Southern Historical Society Papers, Ser. 1. Vol. 1. “Cruise of the Confederate States Steamer Nashville, ” Richmond, Virginia: The Southern Historical Society,1910.

Faust, Patricia L., Ed. Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harpers & Row, 1986.

Jones, Virgil Carrington. The Civil War at Sea: The Blockaders, Volume I. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960.

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Volume 1. Washington: Government Printing Office. 1894.

Scharf, J. Thomas. History of the Confederate Navy: From Its Organization to the Surrender of Its Last Vessel. New York: Gramercy Books, 1996.

Silverstone, Paul H. Civil War Navies: 1855-1883. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2001.

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