Historical Adventure in the Confederate Navy


The Hazardous Reefs of Bermuda

A recent post by my blogging friend Indiana Jen inspired me to think about history, seamanship and careers. In it she recommends what turns out to be an outstanding article in Archaeology Magazine about a shipwreck a few hundred yards offshore from the island of Bermuda, a small island protectorate surrounded by treacherous reefs. The articulate author blends his team’s recovery efforts with a marvelous recap of the ship’s history. The Mary Celestia was an iron-hulled, steam-driven Confederate blockade runner, and her story is one that would have been worthy of the talents of history’s greatest writers of maritime adventure, writers like Richard Henry Dana, Herman Wouk and Joseph Conrad.

Adventures at sea have always held a special magic for me. Ships provide a unique setting when the subject is the test of human mettle. A ship’s physical space is limited, and every crew is unique. Thus each becomes a defined laboratory within which flawed humans strive with all the variabilities of character, equipment, design, circumstance, military actions (sometimes), and perhaps most of all, unpredictable weather. And to top it off, by tradition and practical necessity each ship is ruled by a single Captain whose personality, strengths and weaknesses color all that happens. The Mary Celestia’s story has all of this in spades.

The story of blockade runners in the Civil War leads to questions about human motivations, strengths and needs, and, not least, about the economics of that terrible war. As you will see in the article, the South was in desperate need of basics like ” . . . uniforms, boots, medicine, weapons, and ammunition.” And yet, there was a thriving black market for “luxury” goods like wine, perfume, china, silverware, and manufactured goods of all kinds. As you will see in the article, link to follow, this dichotomy had serious legal ramifications. This is the raw material of human adventure that Joseph Conrad handled like the master he was.

When the Mary Celestia ran aground and sank, it was a failure of navigation. She was under control of a pilot who claimed to know the Bermudian waters. But it is an axiom of naval tradition that the Captain always retains ultimate responsibility for his ship, pilot or not, and the ship’s navigation team should not have been without responsibility. Was this firmly in place in the Confederate Navy? I don’t know. The event caused me to recall some of my own Naval experience in that regard.

USS Saint Paul (CA 73)

In 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War, I transitioned, involuntarily, from submarines to surface ships and was assigned as Navigator on the heavy cruiser USS Saint Paul (CA 73). Saint Paul was the last of the all-gun heavy (armored) cruisers, the others having transitioned at least in part to missiles. Our main battery was nine eight-inch guns. As Navigator for that size ship I was a Department Head, albeit a minor one, but except for the family separation in that frenetic time I found pleasure and some challenge in my job because it was traditional seamanship.

Unlike most other ships we had only the most basic of navigation equipment – sextant, radio time, and gyro compasses. There was no satellite navigation, and what electronics we had, radar and Loran, the latter being so unreliable as to be almost useless. So I fell into a routine of doing it the old-fashioned way: morning stars, a sun line, noon LAN (Local Apparent Noon), afternoon sun line, evening stars, all weather permitting of course. The book (Bowditch) calls that “a day’s work in navigation”. One time I still recall a tingle of pleasure in getting a sun line, a moon line (mid-morning!), and LAN all to cross in a point. With GPS in the Navy now I wonder if anyone still has the old skills?

Weather is a huge variable in traditional navigation – rain, fog, high sea states, obscured horizons, identification of navigation lights. Weather almost surely played a role in the sinking of the Mary Celestia on that Bermudian reef in 1864, although you will see from the account that it may have been more than that, it might have been perfidy. Her story is rich. It is the kind of detail all too often lacking in the dry, rote material of many a public school history curriculum. If students could be exposed to more stories like the Mary Celestia’s, perhaps the Navy recruiters might have a lot more applicants. Some might even be inspired to become teachers of real history, like Indian Jen. I’d like to think so. Such is the rich tapestry of life at sea, fully as exciting and interesting now as then.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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17 Responses to Historical Adventure in the Confederate Navy

  1. PiedType says:

    I read a lot of the novels about ships and sailing when I was much younger. I was fascinated by the idea of being able to navigate across huge oceans with no landmarks to speak of. And in such tiny little ships. Or boats (I was fascinated by Kon Tiki and Aku Aku). And I’m sure you’re right; it’s a dying art. GPS sure changed that.


  2. ansonburlingame says:

    Several thoughts on this excellent blog, all about “seafaring”,

    While not stated directly, the first thing that came to my mind is that of the unique RESPONSIBILITY of Command At Sea, be it a tug boat, a heavy cruiser, a submarine or a fishing boat. Absolutely NOTHING that happens on any ship, anywhere or at any time does not fall under the COMPLETE RESPONSIBILITY of the “skipper” of such seagoing vessels.

    That remains, I hope to God, a bedrock of “going to sea” and it is not easily understood by people that have not done so as part of a crew. Just go to sea as a passenger on a large cruise ship today and think about the complete responsibility of that skipper for every life on board that ship, weather, rocks and shoals, technical failures in the engine room, no matter WHAT. It is all on HIS shoulders.

    Now for technology and such responsibility, unwavering and unrelenting responsibility. Does anyone think that if we have a real “war at sea” tomorrow that GPS systems will stay up and running for the duration. Any warship so engaged in a “war at sea” a real one had better have a sextant on board and someone that knows how to use one, period. And you can believe every Naval vessel still has a copy of “Bowditch” on board and someone still trained and “qualifed” to use it, along with a sextant. And if it “rains” then someone, like the skipper MUST know how to make hard choices when technology is “lost”. Hell, if the ship is in shallow waters someone should know how to use a “lead line” for “soundings” primitive as such may be, today.

    The great authors mentioned by Jim, give us glimpses of such a life, “at sea”. But such views are NOTHING compared to having “been there, done that” as a real remember of a crew on ANY kind of ship. And when the s… hits the fan everyone on board will inevitably “look to the skipper” to “bail them out”. But WHO can the skipper look to in such cases.

    The simple answer is NO ONE, not another single soul, anywhere.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Actually, Anson, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, which I may be, but I seem to recall that the complete command authority we have in our Navy is not the same in some other navies, such as the Royal Navy of the U.K. Isn’t it true that the Chief Engineer on a U.K. ship is autonomously and separately responsible for the engineering plant? I ran a search for this but came up empty.


      • ansonburlingame says:

        Sort of Jim, but not completely,

        I served for three weeks aboard a British ship and we had frequent discussions between the skipper, the Chief Engineer and me over just that point. ULTIMATELY the skipper is the decider.

        Now watch out “landlubbers” as you may not grasp this point.

        Say the ship is standing into danger, like going aground on the rocks and shoals ahead. The skipper orders up “All Back Full”.

        At the same time the engineer says “I have a low lube oil alarm on the main engine and cannot answer the bell”.

        Now who makes the decision to answer the bell, to hell with the bearings on the main engine or simply say OK and suffer a grounding with attendant loss of life?

        You bet. The skipper decides as the engineer scribbles into his log about why the “skipper made him destroy the main engines”.

        So ULTIMATELY, you bet, on any ship in any “NAVY” skipper reins supreme and if the engineer refused to answer the bell as shown above despite demands from the skipper to do so, well…….

        The skipper would be courts martialed and found guilty for going aground and the engineer would have the same consequences for protecting his main engines at the expense of the whole ship!!!



        • Jim Wheeler says:

          Well, Anson, in terms of operational control I think that’s just common sense. But, in your example you prove my point – the British C.O.’s administrative authority and responsibility does not extend to the engineering plant, whereas I believe a great deal of your command attention was absorbed on just such matters. If you had to put a percentage on attention time between operational control and engineering administration (including the personnel aspect) for a U.S. commander, what numbers would you assign?


  3. John Erickson says:

    While the movie “U-571” has historical holes you could drive a battleship through, it does have some great scenes, including a scene where an “old hand” CPO counsels a young Lieutenant on how to be a “skipper”. I believe the line goes something like “Being a skipper in the Navy is a lonely and powerful thing, and those boys are going to look to you to make the right decision. And it WILL be the right decision, because the skipper can never be wrong and never show fear”. (I probably mangled that, it’s been a while since I saw the movie.) A nice insight for non-military types like me into the absolute power of command.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Right, John. I recall the exact same scene, and what the Chief told the Lt. is true stuff. IMO, U-571 is an excellent war movie. I have had many C.O.’s in my time – all had that self-confidence and some had more of it than others. I had one who had too much of it – he was a tyrant verging on insane.

      In my opinion the power of the Navy C.O. at the time I retired was greatly diminished from what it once was, and that is because of modern communications. I’m sure that trend has continued. There was a steady increase in communication efficiency over the years and thus you have a continuum of decreasing autonomous power by the Naval Commanding Officer.

      When I was first commissioned in 1959, radio communications with ships at sea were by slow morse code. Classified messages were sent the same way, but they also had to be decrypted by hand by officers using a typewriter-like device. This severely limited real-time control. Nowadays, the encryption/decryption is all automatic, virtually instantaneous.

      The C.O. still has authority over the careers of his subordinates through personnel evaluations, and that is powerful, but, increasingly, shore-based brass can monitor and direct the activities of a ship’s C.O. with great micromanagement. They direct course, position and actions because of GPS and instant encrypted messaging, including demanding inspections and reporting requirements on everything you can imagine.

      Navy C.O.’s like John Paul Jones and Lord Horatio Nelson were once virtually autonomous, but that kind of freedom of action has steadily eroded over the years. I would say that Navy C.O.’s still are more autonomous than Army commanders, but the gap has greatly narrowed. One symptom of this, and only one of many, is that more Commanding Officers than ever before have been “fired” of late than ever happened in the old days. Is this bad? I’m not sure, but I do know that power can and often does corrupt. Misdeeds that might have been forgiven in the past in favor of mission accomplishment are now probably less likely to be.

      Thanks for your comment, John – it gave me a chance to expound on thoughts I had left out.


  4. ansonburlingame says:

    Well, Jim and I will now disagree on this point, the COMPLETE RESPONSIBILITY of the skipper, whatever the communications might entail.

    Actually on a submarine it has changed little at all over the years. Once a submarine submerges it is cut off from almost ANY communications unless the ship “goes shallow” to receive such communications. There are exceptions to such, like an SSBN “on alert” with ballistic missiles “on target” 24/7. Such a ship is in continuous receipt, but not able to transmit, communcations unless landbased systems “go down” (in a nuclear attack scenario).

    But take a submarine “under the ice” or 12 miles off an “enemy coast”. NO WAY does such a skipper get ANY “rudder orders”. He and his crew are simply and always “on their own” in such cases.

    THAT by the way still makes submarines UNIQUE, unlike say a destroyer serving in the ‘screen” of a carrier. That destroyer at any moment comes under the “gaze” of the Battle Group Commander, a flag officer. And the destroyer CO might well “get a message” to put his crew in “whites” if they go “topside”. The “admiral” may no want to see “dungarees” topside!!! Extreme maybe but has probably happened.

    Long ago during MY time, we tried very hard to “integrate” submarines into the Battle Group organization to “protect the carrier”. No one “on the surface” could understand why they could not “instantly change the course (literally) steered by a sub” in such a situation. WE, the whole navy went “crazy” trying to accomodate submarines into real world protection of a carrier and it took years to figure out how to do so. And many surface flags thought we, the submariners, were just being “stuborn” to refuse to be on a “string” like a screening destroyer, regarless of any technolgy changes in communications.

    But even the beleaguered destroyer CO was NEVER relieved of his COMPLETE RESPONSIBILITY of his command, in the engine room, topside, on the bridge, on the mess decks, whereever. Yes he got a helluva lot more “rudder orders” than I did on my submarine, but we shared the same complete responsibility of our “own” ships.

    And again I HOPE that concept has NOt changed since I “came ashore” some 25 years ago.



  5. On your point:
    “With GPS in the Navy now I wonder if anyone still has the old skills?””

    Wouldn’t a solar flare of large enough size put GPS at risk in addition to perhaps war? Hopefully the old ways are forgotten.


  6. ansonburlingame says:

    Did any of you note the Ginrich comment in a recent debate when he listed the three biggest concerns about national security?

    One of them was a massive man-made Electomagnetic Pulse (EMP). Such can be “easily” created by an exoatmospheric nuclear detonation and can literally shutdown the entire electrical and electromagneticf spectrum in the U.S. Now electricity, no cars (that use computers) no phones, no internet, etc. etc. And such conditions can technically last a long time.

    40 years ago we in the Navy were concerned about such an event as a precusor of a nuclear attack. An EMP would eliminate essentially all radio communications and the Navy would be back to flashing light and flag hoists to order fleets around the world. Today an EMP could be used with only a very few nuclear weapons (that would not kill anyone directly) that could essentially “shutdown” the U. S. as we know it today. Imagine no computers to handle any financial transactions today!!

    It is not that hard to do technically today. Deterence and political will are the restrictions to prevent such from happening by and large.



  7. Jim Wheeler says:

    Indeed, Anson, it is alarming. It is a technical reality that an EMP could bring civilization as we know it to a screeching halt! It makes me reflect on the politics of the situation. I feel a post coming on – thanks for the notion.


  8. Check out a solar flare in 1859, that I think is the apparently strongest in times with recorded history. I don’t think we’ve had any thing of similar strength since electric grids and electronics became critical (say the 1930s).


  9. I expect good records on solar activity don’t go back much over 75 years, if that. Who knows what the sun might be capable of on a really bad day.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Exactly so, Bruce. It would be logical that Mass Coronal Ejections would be randomly aimed – according to Wiki it means that we get on every 500 years, plus or minus. (Doubt if anyone knows the standard deviation.)


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