The [Almost But Still Could Have Happened] Court Martial of Lt George S. Dewey, Executive Officer

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Gideon Welles' Naval Board of senior naval officers convened in the early months of the Civil War to oversee the implementation of Winfield Scott's much-derided ANACONDA PLAN. Abraham Lincoln had announced the naval blockade of Southern ports within days of the surrender of Ft Sumter, requiring blue-water naval warships to bottle up the shipping lanes and harbor approaches in the Outer Banks area of the North Carolina coast, Charleston, Savannah, Fernandina, and Jacksonville. On the Gulf of Mexico side Key West, Pensacola, Mobile Bay, and New Orleans were primary blockade targets. Capturing New Orleans required employing brown-water ironclad naval vessels packing a powerful punch, shallow drafts, and good maneuverability that steam-driven sloop warships in the Union arsenal did not have within the confines of the Mississippi River and her tributaries. Some ironclads would be built in east coast naval yards, others in Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Cario, Illinois. In the early summer of 1861 Queen Victoria announced Great Britain would formally recognize the blockade, France quickly followed suit.

The Naval Board identified three key targets for their warships (coordinating with land forces when at all possible) on the Mississippi, the first being New Orleans. Vicksburg was deemed the second-most important strategic target, and Port Hudson, a river town between New Orleans and Vicksburg, was deemed a third important target. (After capturing New Orleans in April 1862 Admiral Farragut determined Mobile Bay should be his next target, but that was eventually put off for another two-plus years). There were many challenges for the United States Navy in the Mississippi River region in the first few years of the war; among them command and control--the United States Army was in charge of naval operations and held the purse strings when more ironclad ships, along the lines of USS CARONDELET, were sought. Another challenge was crew recruitment: very quickly the Navy deemed it acceptable that blacks be allowed to become members of the crew (they would enlist as "boys," the lowest enlisted ranking, and most would remain in that rank per Gideon Welles written directive in the fall of 1861). It is also estimated upwards of 35-40% of Union crews were foreign-born.

The USS MISSISSIPPI was an aging double-side wheeler steam schooner whose storied history included accompanying Oliver Hazard Perry's battle group in Tokyo Bay in 1853. She was a large ship with a deep draft, bristling with firepower that might compensate for her less-than-nimble ability to get into and out of danger. The Battle of Port Hudson planning required coordinating Admiral Farragut's warships with land forces under the control of General Nathaniel Banks, whom Ulysses Grant had detached from where his forces had gathered east of Vicksburg as the spring turned to summer in 1863. Vicksburg was now under siege. The surrender of Port Hudson came after great sacrifice by Union sea and land forces. Theirs was hardly a stellar combined effort.

Lt George Dewey was Executive Office aboard MISSISSIPPI, his CO (Commanding Officer) was Captain Melanchon Smith, USN. Like many unwieldy Union steam-sloops MISSISSIPPI could not maneuver within the confines of the Mississippi River and this time it cost Captain Smith his ship. In the heat of a long exchange of cannon-fire with Rebel shore-based batteries the MISSISSIPPI grounded hard on a sandbar. Attempts to dislodge her were not successful. The shore batteries took additional tolls, the ship was in extremis with many killed and wounded. She was hulled in many spots.

Three of the six small boats carried by the MISSISSIPPI, for ship to shore transport and boarding of commerce raiders, were damaged beyond repair. Two more were missing. There was a single small boat, that was functional, left on board ship. Without informing the Commanding Officer, XO Lt Dewey departed MISSISSIPPI in the heat of battle, was rowed to the far shoreline where he discovered a collection of the enlisted crew huddled under a bank. He ordered them to return the small boats back to the ship to commence evacuations of the survivors. The enlisted men refused to return. Dewey pulled a pistol and pointed it at them and repeated the order. The three small boats returned to the ship where Captain Smith demanded to know where Dewey had been. But he orders the crew to abandon ship after directing Dewey and Ensign Oliver A Batcheller (I am writing a book about Batcheller; 200 of his letters home from the war are now held in the Special Collections section of Nimitz Library USNA) to check the ship for survivors. They pull a powder monkey from a pile of dead sailors, all of whom were killed by one exploding shell, collapsing on the power monkey, their bodies shielding him from the blast.

This is an excerpt from Batcheller's letter home to Edinburgh, NY which details the incidents leading to abandoning ship:

About Lieutenant Dewey’s getting credit with the public for doing what I did myself. No one is working against me that I am aware of. Mr. Dewy should have done what I did but as he was not there to do it fell to me and I was very willing to do it. He was not on board ship for at least half-an-hour before the ship was fired, having going into a boat and been employed landing the men. The boat in which we was came alongside to take Captain Smith and myself off and hence came the story that he was one of the last on board.

He left the ship without Captain Smith’s knowledge and I had to hunt the ship over twice for him before I cold convince Captain Smith that he was either killed or out of the ship. Dewey is a brave man but he got confused or something of the kind, and left the ship when he should have been the last man except the Captain to have been on board.

Captain Smith was very much displeased at his doing it and it was only his good conduct during the first part of the engagement that saved him from being censored in his (Captain Smith’s) official report. I know very well that he would be glad to have it understood that he fired the ship etc. but Captain Smith’s second official report (which I aw and sent a copy of to John, I suppose you have seen it are too) settles the matter beyond a question. So I will get the credit when it is the most valuable, at the Navy Department. So we will call that matter settled.


Dewey is very clear in his autobiography about the details above. But Captain Smith takes a different tact. In his official report he writes that Dewey was "blown over the side of the ship, but he gallantly returned to his duty and performed brave feats," etc etc. As a side note, before departing the ship Captain Smith throws his sword over the side and expects his XO to do the same thing. The next day after the battle, when Dewey is asked why he did not follow the lead of his CO in also throwing his sword over the side to avoid possible capture by Rebels, Dewey tells the CO he didn't want to. The CO was unhappy with his answer but appears not to have held it against him.

Technically speaking Dewey unquestionably deserted his station and neglected to inform his Captain. He would say he exercised initiative, made it to shore, requisitioned the small boats, and returned to the ship and saved the remaining crew members. All true. Captain Smith writes a glowing report about his XO, actually manufacturing a story to protect him. The story is NOT about cowardice. It is about failure to perform his duty, but in the end Dewey's initiative saved his shipmates and his Captain in not performing his duties as expected.

It can be argued Dewey did right because in the end he rescued his shipmates. He accomplished this by deserting his post. His Captain understood and endorsed his actions. The Captains after action report is available for viewing in the Official Navy/Army Records of the Civil War. History says that Dewey was a naval hero at Port Hudson.

As for the MISSISSIPPI, after checking below decks for survivors, they fired the ship. It floated downstream and exploded when the magazine was torched. A Navy legend tells the story of one of the ship's guns firing one last shot at the Rebel shore battery without anyone aiming it, and actually striking the target. Believe that if you wish.

Rod Haynes
 
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JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
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#2
Thanks for a great story! Wouldn't a court martial have been difficult to pursue? In the middle of an entire war, you'd have to think some board somewhere would be incredulous charges would be brought anyway?

I'm going with the Navy legend. :angel:
 
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Bellingham, WA
#3
Thanks for a great story! Wouldn't a court martial have been difficult to pursue? In the middle of an entire war, you'd have to think some board somewhere would be incredulous charges would be brought anyway?

I'm going with the Navy legend. :angel:

I think you are correct, a court martial would have been very cumbersome in such circumstances. I recently read some official records where a young Union naval officer went ashore to take inventory of a small coastal cruiser caught by a blockade frigate carrying all sorts of weapons and medicine. The officer tried to cut a deal with his captors, setting one or two free in the process. But the Commanding Officer of the Union ship that intercepted the "bark," as they referred to small ships, figured it all out and wanted to court martial this young man. His squadron commander said No, just put him on one of the steamer supply ships that regularly brought stores and coal to the blockade units on duty, and send him back. I guess the young officer got what was coming to him when the ship pulled into NY or Washington DC. My story really isn't meant to criticize Dewey. His initiative saved his CO's butt. But he broke rules to do it rh
 



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