From Capture to Victory: The SS Republic's Role in the Civil War
“WAR” proclaims the letters scrawled across the face of a silver coin found aboard the SS Republic shipwreck. The stark declaration, mirrored the headlines in Union North and Confederate South newspapers across the nation over 150 years ago.
Cannon roared across Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861, igniting the American Civil War with a Confederate attack on Union-held Fort Sumter. Four years to the day later, the last major Confederate redoubt at Mobile, Alabama, surrendered, after nearly 600,000 Americans spent their blood in the bitter struggle.
As generations of Americans commemorate the 150th anniversary of that unforgettable war, we look back on the amazing history of the SS Republic and her role in that national drama.
The mighty SS Tennessee (later known as the USS Mobile in 1864 and the SS Republic in 1865) served on both sides of the Civil War, beginning in January, 1862, when she was forcibly sold into the Confederate Navy. A few months later, she was seized by the Union for whom she would serve throughout the duration of the war. In 1865, having survived several important conflicts, the storm-battered USS Mobile was decommissioned, sold and eventually named the SS Republic. Later in October 1865, she would depart New York bound for New Orleans, the very port in which the ship was captured three years earlier. On her southward journey, she encountered the devastating hurricane that would sink the Republic approximately 100 miles off the coast of Georgia.
In 2003, Odyssey Marine Exploration discovered the shipwreck site of the Republic, and recovered over 51,000 gold and silver coins and 14,000 artifacts—a massive shipment of goods and money—in high demand after years of war had starved the South of commerce. Unfortunately, this priceless cargo never reached its destination.
Among the incredible array of artifacts, one particular coin caught the attention of the Odyssey crew. It was an 1861 silver half dollar minted in New Orleans with the hand-carved inscription: “WAR!” and 1861 on the front and “E C” on the reverse side. Although it may never be known who “E C” was, perhaps a soldier heading off to war, or how the coin found its way aboard the Republic, it’s a remarkable discovery that captures the spirit of the era and the legacy of the Republic.
When the Civil War broke out over 150 years ago, the SS Tennessee (later known as the SS Republic) was trapped in harbor at New Orleans’ port. Early the next year she was purchased for service by the Confederate Navy to penetrate the Federal blockade of the Gulf of Mexico. Confederate Navy Commander W.H. Hunter described the Tennessee as a “very strong and fast going vessel. Loaded with cargo, the Tennessee was to set sail for Havana, with her decks adapted to military necessity, including installation of heavy guns. However, her deep draught and the vigilance of Union warships outside the delta of the Mississippi doomed every attempt to send her to sea.
Yet rumors of this noted vessel abounded. On January 22, 1862, Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles received a telegram from the U.S Consulate in Havana stating that the Tennessee and eight other ships in the Confederate Navy had either broken their blockade or would do so shortly. Furious, Welles sent his fleet into the Gulf demanding that the ships be captured or sunk. Union ships were sent to hunt down the Tennessee as it was suspected that she would attempt to return to a Southern port from Havana. Gulf Blockading Squadron Commander David G. Farragut reported back to the Union that the Tennessee had not been successful in slipping out of the harbor.
Later, unbeknownst to the Union, the Confederacy devised a complex plan to send the Tennessee to France, swap her cargo for war materials, and transfer ownership of the vessel to the French. The Tennessee would make a dash for the ocean as soon as her escort of gunboats distracted the Union blockade ships. But the gunboats never showed, and Tennessee finally returned to the New Orleans docks.
On April 25, 1862, Union forces took over New Orleans. Miraculously, the Tennessee escaped the horrific destruction caused by the retreating Confederates who blew up and burned large parts of the harbor. Farragut, in his formal report of the battle for New Orleans, on May 2 wrote to Secretary of the Navy Welles that he had “seized all the steamboats and sent them down to Quarantine (a bay within the New Orleans harbor area) for General Butler’s forces. Among the number of these boats is the famous Tennessee, which our blockaders have been so long watching, but which you will perceive never got out.”
As the Mississippi battles subsided, Farragut sent the Tennessee out on blockade duties in the Gulf of Mexico in order to stop commerce between the South and foreign ports. Prize ships taken alone or partially by Tennessee also included the steamships Jane and Friendship and the sailing ships Allison, Annie Verden, Louisa, and Emily.
Tennessee continued to perform courageously in the face of danger. Off of Galveston, Texas and the Mexican border, she saw action on blockade duty. During the famous Battle of Mobile Bay, she participated in the reduction of Fort Morgan the massive stone fortress at the mouth of the bay. With her speed and powerful armament, the ship fought vigorously in the conflict, which resulted in one of the greatest naval victories of the Civil War.
After this battle, in September 1864, the Tennessee was renamed the USS Mobile, allowing the Union to reap a propaganda victory with the capture of the powerful Confederate iron-hulled ram ship named CSS Tennessee, which upon her surrender was re-named USS Tennessee.
Soon after, the ship’s military career would come to an end. In October 1864, the Mobile was caught in a storm, near the mouth of the Rio Grande. With a damaged hull, she sailed north for repairs, arriving in New York before the end of the year. On March 30, 1865, a board of surveyors concluded that the USS Mobile was too badly damaged to remain in military service. In an auction at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, she was sold to steamship entrepreneur Russell Sturgis and a group of other investors for the relatively cheap price of $25,000. Sturgis sent her out for refit and repair and renamed the ship SS Republic.
The Republic now began a new career transporting passengers and cargo on the New York - New Orleans route. Sturgis chartered the comfortable ship to William H. Robson’s line and she made her first postwar departure on May 13, 1865, barely 34 days after Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse.
On October 25, 1865, the legendary SS Republic sank 1,700 feet to the bottom of the Atlantic. With Odyssey’s 2003 discovery of the SS Republic, the ship’s remarkable legacy lives on as her story is chronicled in publications, television documentaries and exhibits. As America commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, we remember how the events of the four year conflict played a momentous role in United States history. Significantly, the SS Republic had a pivotal role during this period of time, serving both sides of the conflict, and at the conclusion of the war, continuing to provide support for a country determined to heal its wounds.
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