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Just hours away from reinforcing Ft. Sumter and hours away from saving Gosport Navy Yard, USS Pawnee eventually became a valuable blockader. This steam screw gunboat was involved in several major operations with the Atlantic Blockading Squadron, North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, and South Atlantic Blockading Squadron until the war’s end.

New technologies changed naval shipbuilding during the 1850s. The development of the screw propeller and auxiliary steam-powered engines prompted the US Navy to stop building sail-only powered ships. Only three sailing frigates were razeed into sloops of war like USS Cumberland. The Merrimack-class of steam screw frigates were large and expensive to operate. Their deep draft precluded them from entering certain navy yards. In 1857, the Hartford-class was introduced to compete with similar designs in foreign navies. Their lesser draft allowed these sloops of war to access most American ports. Yet, more ships were needed.

John Willis Griffiths was famous for his clipper ship designs. His most noted clipper was Sea Witch. The vessel was described “as the most beautiful ship of her time. Sea Witch set the record time, 74 days and 14 hours, for a voyage between Hong Kong and New York. Griffiths also wrote several books about shipbuilding. Then, Griffiths turned his attention to steam-powered ships. [1]

Black & White drawing
Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, 1874.
From “The Land We Live In, A Delineation by Pen and Pencil of the Mountains, Rivers, Lakes…with Illustrations on Steel and Wood by Eminent American Artists” Vol. II, p30.
Public domain.

In June 1858, he wrote a letter to Secretary of the Navy Isaac Touncey about the Navy’s need for shallow draft steamers to operate in foreign waters. These vessels, Griffiths wrote, could be paddlewheel or screw with drafts of 14 to 10 ft. These proposed gunboats would be capable of mounting eight IX-inch Dahlgren’s or four XI-inch pivot shell guns. The pivot guns could be deployed on either side of the ship. Touncey immediately recognized the brilliance of Griffiths’s proposal and immediately asked Congress to underwrite “the sloops of 1858.” [2]

These ships were not divided into formal classes; however, there were some similarities amongst sloops like Seminole and Dacotah. Nevertheless, USS Pawnee was a warship unto itself. John Griffiths designed the ship and supervised the steamer’s construction at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. He was appointed a temporary naval constructor for this project. Pawnee had a reduced bark rig with shorter masts and without a bowsprit. Griffiths envisioned the sloop to operate primarily under steam.[3] The future of an all-steam navy was seen 25 years ahead of its time.

SS Pawnee.
Courtesy Naval History and Heritage Command.


Namesake: the Pawnee Indian tribe.
Builder: Philadelphia Navy Yard, Philadelphia, PA
Designer: John W. Griffiths 
Laid Down: October 1858
Launched: 8 October 1859
Commissioned: 11 June 1860
Tonnage: 1,533 tons
Length: 233 ft.
Beam: 47 ft.
Draft: 11 ft.
Machinery: 2 screws, 2-cyl. Horizontal direct acting geared engine with three boilers producing 590 HP. Engines built by Reaney & Neafie, Chester, PA.
Speed: 10 knots 
Compliment: 151 to 181 men.
As designed 4 x XI-inch shell guns
June 1860: 8 x IX-shell guns
May 1863: 1 x 100-pounder rifle
8 x IX-inch shell guns
1 x 50-pounder rifle. [4]

Commander H.J. Hartstene took Pawnee on its shakedown cruise. On September 24, the steamer took Capt. Garret J. Pendergrast to assume command of the Home Squadron operating off Vera Cruz on October 15, 1860. Pawnee returned to Philadelphia on December 12, 1860. After some minor repairs, the steam sloop was then detailed to the Washington Navy Yard in early January 1861. 

Black & white portrait of a Captain
Captain Garrett J. Pendergrast.
Courtesy Naval History and Heritage Command, NH 66694.

Once in Washington, Commander Stephen Rowan assumed command of the gunboat. Rowan was born in Ireland in 1808 and came to America in 1818. After graduating from University of Miami he was appointed midshipman in 1826, He fought with great valor in California during the Mexican War, helping to secure the capture of San Diego and Los Angeles.

President Abraham Lincoln had just formed his cabinet when war clouds darkened the American sky. Seven states had already left the Union. The new Confederate States of America demanded control of the coastal defense forts defending Southern harbors. While many of these brick and stone forts were surrendered, two federal forts defending Charleston, SC and Pensacola, FL remained under Union control. 

Drawing of Fort Sumter
Fort Sumter in December 1860.
Courtesy National Park Service.

Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles wished to organize an expedition to relieve Ft. Sumter. Former naval officer Gustavus Vasa Fox was a man of determined energy and quickly gained Lincoln and Welles’s support for forcing supplies into the beleaguered Ft. Sumter. Fox’s scheme was to send three ocean-going tugs, Yankee, Uncle Ben, and Freeborn, to force their way with the supply ship Baltic to re-supply the fort. This entire operation was to be covered by three warships: the sidewheel frigate Powhatan from Brooklyn Navy Yard, the screw sloop Pocahontas from Gosport Navy Yard, and Pawnee from the Washington Navy Yard. This was a secret mission and all of the ships were supposed to leave their ports at different times and rendezvous 10 miles off the Charleston Light on April 11, 1861. 

Lithograph of Washington Navy Yard, 1862.
Washington Navy Yard, ca. 1862.
E. Sachse & Company, lithographer.
Public domain.

The secret ship sailings were:

  • USRCS Harriet Lane, 2 guns, departed New York on April 8
  • USS Pawnee, 8 guns, departed Washington on April 9
  • USS Pocahontas, 6 guns, departed Norfolk on April 10
  • USS Powhatan, 16 guns, never departed from New York to join the Fox expedition
  • SS Baltic, supply ship with G.V. Fox went too. Fox aboard, departed New York, April 9
  • SS Freedom, tug, never departed New York
  • SS Yankee, tug, departed New York April 8
  • SS Uncle Ben, departed New York April 7

This mission was so secret and sensitive that most of Lincoln’s cabinet were not aware of this bid to hold Ft. Sumter. [5]

Meanwhile, Secretary of State William Seward was organizing an effort to maintain Union control of Ft. Pickens on Santa Rosa Island, Ft. Jefferson on the Dry Tortugas, and Ft. Taylor on Key West. Col. Harvey Brown, USA was to assume command of the newly created Union Department of Florida. Seward believed that these actions would secure the Gulf of Mexico from intrusion by foreign powers during this inter-American conflict. 

This plan was being concocted by Capt. Montgomery C. Meigs, USA and Lt. David Dixon Porter, USN. Seward, along with Meigs and Porter, met with President Lincoln and convinced him of the merits of the Ft. Pickens relief plan. This concept was created without the knowledge of Gideon Welles. Seward drafted orders for Lincoln to sign authorizing and assigning the paddlewheel frigate Powhatan to support the Pensacola plan rather than Fox’s Charleston plan. Orders were immediately sent to Capt. Andrew Hull Foote, commandant of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, detailing Porter to assume command of Powhatan from Capt. Samuel Mercer as “it was bound on secret service, and you will under no circumstance communicate to the Navy Department that she is fitting out.” Foote was surprised to receive a similar message from Gideon Welles ordering Foote to get Powhatan ready for sea. [6]

The frigate left the Brooklyn Navy Yard on April 6 when Foote received a message from Seward stating, ”Give up the Powhatan to Captain Mercer.” The telegram was taken out to Porter and he refused to honor it stating, “I received my orders from the President and shall proceed and execute them.” Meigs had already sailed earlier that day with troops and SS Atlantic. The Porter-Meigs task force did not arrive in Pensacola until April 17. By then, the crisis regarding  Ft. Pickens was over. Gideon Welles had sent Lt. John Lorimer Worden on a secret mission to the fort with orders to debark troops from USS Brooklyn on April 12 to reinforce the fort. All of Porter’s subterfuge did nothing to advance the Union control of these key Florida forts; however, it did impact Fox’s effort to re-supply Ft. Sumter.[7]

By April 11, 1861, the side-wheeler Harriet Lane arrived at the rendezvous site. The next day, the steamer Baltic and gunboat Pawnee joined the revenue cutter. These ships had steamed through very heavy weather to reach Charleston; unfortunately, there was no sign of USS Powhatan. Capt. John Faunce from Harriet Lane and G.V. Fox went to Pawnee to meet with Commander Rowan. Rowan was insistent that he follow his orders, which were to wait for Powhatan’s arrival before taking any action. Fox returned to Baltic and moved his ship toward the Charleston bar. Pawnee’s captain armed a cutter and a launch to endeavor to support Fox’s efforts; however, it was too late as the Southern bombardment began to take effect upon the fort. Commander Rowan took his gunboat into the main channel leading to the outer harbor. He was dissuaded by Fox from doing so. [8]

“Map of Charleston Harbor showing Union and Rebel Batteries, 1863.”
Courtesy Library of Congress.
“Map of Charleston Harbor showing Union and Rebel Batteries, 1863.” Courtesy Library of Congress.

The next day, April 13, there was still no sign of Powhatan. Nevertheless, the sloop Pocohantas arrived off Charleston. Fox realized that his small squadron did not have the firepower to force a re-supply of Ft. Sumter. The fort, with its barracks blazing and flames reaching toward the magazines, appeared desperate. Major Robert Anderson, the fort’s commander, decided he had no choice but to surrender. The Civil War had begun.

USS Pawnee returned to the Washington Navy Yard awaiting its next assignment, when President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion in the Deep South states on April 15, 1861. This proclamation prompted Virginia to leave the Union on
April 17, 1861. There were two major military installations in Hampton Roads: Fort Monroe on Old Point Comfort and Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth. Fort Monroe was too well defended for the Virginians to attempt to attack; however, the largest navy yard in the United States, Gosport, seemed ripe for the picking. Gideon Welles, alert to all of the rising tensions in the Deep South, recognized how vulnerable the shipyard was to capture. Now that a blockade had been proclaimed of the Southern coastline, he needed all of the ships and resources found at Gosport Navy Yard to enforce it. 

On April 10, 1861, the Secretary of the Navy wrote the yard’s commandant, Flag Officer Charles Stewart McCauley, advising him that “great vigilance should be exercised in guarding and protecting public interest and property….” Welles reinforced the need to get the steam screw frigate USS Merrimack, then decommissioned, to sea and added that McCauley was to do nothing to anger the Virginians. McCauley telegraphed a reply stating that it would take more than a month to revitalize Merrimack’s dismantled engines. Welles was shocked by McCauley’s reply, calling the yard’s commandant “feeble and incompetent for the crisis.” McCauley was 67 years old and had served in the US Navy for 55 years. He appeared incapable of dynamic leadership or decision-making qualities. McCauley was rumored to have taken to drink and was often ridiculed for being too old for active command. Furthermore, the flag officer was being advised by many officers, like Commander John Randolph Tucker and Naval Constructor John Luke Porter, who would soon resign their commissions and join the Confederate Navy. Welles was furious about McCauley’s lack of exercising any form of command qualities. He sent Chief Engineer Benjamin Franklin Isherwood and Commander James Alden to get the frigate ready for sea. Alden was to take command of the steam screw frigate once it had been repaired.[9]

Gosport had almost $10 million of property including weapons, machine shops, granite drydock, ship houses, and warships including the 140-gun ship of the line USS Pennsylvania and the forty-four gun frigate USF United States. Once Lincoln declared that all Southern ports were closed, the US Navy needed every ship, cannon, and repair shop available to enforce the blockade. Likewise, the Confederacy needed Gosport to help build a navy. The yard was surrounded by pro-Confederate crowds and troops. The only avenue of escape was the Elizabeth River.

The Navy Yard at Norfolk, Virginia, 1861.
Courtesy Library of Congress.
The Navy Yard at Norfolk, Virginia, 1861.
Courtesy Library of Congress.

On April 17, the very day Virginia left the Union, Isherwood reported to the yard’s commandant that Merrimack’s engines would be repaired and the steam screw frigate would be ready to leave the yard on the next day. The next morning, April 18, Isherwood had steam up in Merrimack’s boilers and Commander Alden had organized enough men to take the frigate at least as far as Ft. Monroe. McCauley, as the senior officer present, would not give permission for Merrimack to leave the yard. Frustrated by McCauley’s incompetence, Isherwood and Alden immediately took a packet to Washington, D.C., where they explained the deteriorating situation at Gosport to Welles. 

Gideon Welles realized that more resolute action was required. The Secretary dispatched Flag Officer Hiram Paulding, the most senior ranking officer in the US Navy, to take some qualified ordnance experts and 100 Marines to Gosport aboard USS Pawnee. Commander Rowan was to steam with all haste to Hampton Roads. Unbeknownst to Paulding and Rowan, McCauley had lost his nerve on the evening of April 19 when Fort Norfolk was captured by Catesby ap Roger Jones and the United Artillery. McCauley believed all was lost and began making plans to burn all of the warships in the harbor by the afternoon of April 20.[10] Meanwhile, Pawnee reached Ft. Monroe on that same afternoon and embarked 350 men of the 3rd Massachusetts, commanded by Colonel David W. Waldrop. 

“Destruction of the U.S. Navy-Yard at Norfolk, Virginia, by Fire, by the United States Troops, on April 20, 1861.” 
Engraving, Harper’s Weekly, 1861. 
Courtesy Naval History and Heritage Command, NH 59179.
Destruction of Gosport Navy Yard, J. Rogers, engraver, ca. 1861. 
The Mariners’ Collection, 1950.0244.000001.

Rowan then steered Pawnee into the Elizabeth River; however, it was too late, as flames had already engulfed ship houses and the many ships in ordinary. Paulding recognized that the yard could now not be saved and ordered his men to commence the destruction of valuable property. Commander John Rodgers and Captain Horatio Gouverneur Wright were tasked with the destruction of the drydock. Lt. Henry A. Wise was given the task of completing Merrimack’s destruction. Marines tried to damage the guns laid along the quay to no avail. As the Marine Barracks went up in flames about 4:20 a.m., the Union ships left the navy yard. Pawnee went first and the tug Yankee towed Cumberland with the destination Ft. Monroe. Pawnee was now the witness to two Union disasters; yet, the gunboat was prepared for further service. [11]

“Destruction of the U.S. Navy-Yard at Norfolk, Virginia, by Fire, by the United States Troops, on April 20, 1861.” 
Engraving, Harper’s Weekly, 1861.
“Destruction of the U.S. Navy-Yard at Norfolk, Virginia, by Fire, by the United States Troops, on April 20, 1861.” 
Engraving, Harper’s Weekly, 1861. 
Courtesy Naval History and Heritage Command, NH 59179.

After the tragic loss of the Gosport Navy Yard, Pawnee returned to Washington and joined the newly formed Potomac Squadron. Rowan accepted the surrender of Alexandria, Virginia on May 24 and then fought during the battle of Mathias Point. The Confederates built a battery on a bluff that closed the Potomac River to Union ship traffic to and from Washington, D.C. The capital city was blockaded. On June 27, 1861, flotilla gunboats Thomas Freeborn and Reliance, supported by Pawnee, endeavored to capture the Confederate batteries but were repulsed.

“Engagement between the Gunboat Flotilla…at Mathias Point…” June 27, 1861.
Courtesy Naval History and Heritage Command, NH 59242.
“Engagement between the Gunboat Flotilla…at Mathias Point…” June 27, 1861.
Courtesy Naval History and Heritage Command, NH 59242.

Pawnee was then assigned to Flag Officer Silas H. Stringham’s Atlantic Blockading Squadron. The squadron sailed from Hampton Roads on August 26, 1861, to capture Hatteras Inlet. Hatteras was being used by Confederate commerce raiders to capture Northern merchant ships. Stringham placed his squadron in a rotating loop which enabled his ships to keep moving, firing their guns when they passed the forts and reloading while rounding the outer part of the loop. Forts Clark and Hatteras were unable to withstand this bombardment. Clark surrendered on August 28 and Hatteras on August 29.[12]

Capture of Hatteras Inlet, first day. Alfred Waud, artist, August 28, 1861.
Courtesy Library of Congress.
Capture of Hatteras Inlet, first day. Alfred Waud, artist, August 28, 1861.
Courtesy Library of Congress.

The gunboat Pawnee stayed on station at Hatteras Inlet, during which time the steamer captured four blockade runners — Mary Wood, Ocean Wave, Harriet P. Ryan, and Susan Jane on September 9. Pawnee would capture five other runners during the course of the war. The gunboat was soon assigned to the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron while Rowan would remain in North Carolina as commander of the North Carolina Squadron. Commander George B. Balch would eventually replace Rowan as Pawnee’s captain. Pawnee would participate in the Battle of Port Royal Sound as well as the capture of Fernandina, FL and Georgetown, SC. The gunboat also helped to capture Brunswick, St. Simons, and Jekyll Islands and operated up several South Carolina rivers and creeks.[13]

Bombardment of Port Royal. 
Engraving published in "Harper's Weekly", July-December 1861 volume, pages 760-761.
Public domain.
Bombardment of Port Royal. 
Engraving published in “Harper’s Weekly”, July-December 1861 volume, pages 760-761.
Public domain.

When the war ended, Pawnee would eventually be assigned to the Brazil Squadron from 1867 to 1869. The warship was converted into a sailing hospital/receiving ship in 1870 and then  stationed in Key West from 1871 to 1875. It was towed to Port Royal Sound, where it served as a receiving ship from 1875 to 1882. Pawnee was sold for scrap on May 3, 1884. [14]

USS Pawnee was there when the botched attempt to re-supply Ft. Sumter failed to achieve its goals. The gunboat did its duty; however, Commander Stephen Rowan did not have sufficient firepower to pass the Confederate batteries blocking the path to the fort. USS Powhatan became a pawn sought evenly by G.V. Fox and David Dixon Porter. They both believed that the paddle frigate was key to each of their missions. Their egos clashed so that neither expedition made a difference in April 1861. Likewise, Pawnee serves as an example of how North and South were unprepared for total war when the gunboat was sent to Gosport Navy Yard. It arrived too late for the Union to save this naval base. It was a critical resource that the Confederacy gained due to poor leadership and divided loyalties. USS Pawnee did its duty to the utmost in both of these untenable circumstances as a witness to failure in command.

Bird’s Eye View of Key West, FLA, 1884.
Courtesy Library of Congress.
Bird’s Eye View of Key West, FLA, 1884.
Courtesy Library of Congress.


  1. Melbourne Smith (June 1980), “To See Which Is The Sea Witch.” Nautical Research Journal, Vol. 26 (2). P.62.
  2. Donald L. Canney, The Old Steam Navy. 1815-1885: Frigates, Sloops, and Gunboats. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1990, pp. 84-85
  3. IBID.
  4. Paul H. Silverstone, Civil War Navies: 1855-1883. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001, p. 23.
  5. Virgil Carrington Jones. The Civil War At Sea, Vol. 1, New York: Holt, Rineart, Winton, 1960, pp. 64-65.
  6. Richard S. West, Jr., Mr. Lincoln’s Navy, Longman, Green, Co., Inc., 1957, pp. 21-25.
  7. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Ser.1, Vol. IV, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1900, pp.109-112.
  8. Jones, pp. 71-75.
  9. John V. Quarstein, CSS Virginia: Sink Before Surrender, Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2012, pp. 32-36.
  10. Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr., Memoirs of Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr.: Rear Admiral, U.S.N., New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1924. Pp. 32-33.
  11. Quarstein, CSS Virginia: Sink Before Surrender, pp. 40-42
  12. John V. Quarstein, A History of Ironclads: The Power of Iron Over Wood. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2006,pp. 67-69.
  13. Silverstone, 23.
  14. IBID.
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