12 April 1861: The American Civil War Begins


On April 12, 1861, the Civil War begins with the Confederates firing on Fort Sumter, S.C.. The Union Navy was an integral part actively blockading the Confederates and kept them diplomatically and economically contained from other nations. Along with the river war battles, notable naval battles were Battle of the Hampton Roads, Battle of Mobile Bay, and the capture of Fort Fisher. Nearly four years later, on April 9, 1865, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Va.


“Destruction of the Tin-Clad No. 48, April 1, 1865”. Line engraving published in “Harper’s Weekly”, 29 April 1865, page 268, depicting USS Rodolph being sunk by a mine in the Blakely River, Alabama, near Mobile, on 1 April 1865. At the time, Rodolph was towing a barge with equipment to salvage the monitor USS Milwaukee, which had been sunk by a mine on 28 March. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 42363.


Sweeping for torpedoes and buoying in a channel in Cape Fear River. In this mission, Rear Admiral Porter’s gunboats steamed seven miles up the river to Big Island Shallows to clear the river for the gunboat fleet which would close in on Fort Strong the following day, 19-20 February 1865. Image extracted from the NHHC Publication, “Chronology of the Civil War,” page V-46. Courtesy of the NHHC Navy Library.


Capture of Fort Fisher, North Carolina, 15 January 1865. Watercolor by eyewitness Ensign John W. Grattan, of Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter’s staff, depicting Porter’s fleet bombarding the fort prior to the ground assault. Side-wheel steamer in the right foreground is Porter’s flagship, USS Malvern. USS New Ironsides and USS Monadnock are in the right distance. Courtesy of the Naval Historical Foundation, Grattan Collection, NH 50468-KN (Color).


USS Kearsarge vs. CSS Alabama, 19 June 1864. Painting by Xanthus Smith, 1922, depicting Alabama sinking, at left, after her fight with the Kearsarge (seen at right). Courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, K-29827 (Color).


“Capture by the Confederate war ship Sumter of two Federal merchantmen. Captain Semmes” Oil on hardboard, 18 7/8″ x 12 7/16″, bearing the above title on its back. It is signed and dated on the front: “W.H. Moody, 1877”; and on the back “W.H. Moody, 3/3/77”. The painting depicts Sumter flying what appears to be an Argentine flag. Courtesy of Nigel Burgess, 1981. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 91859-KN (Color).


Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren, USN, standing by a Dahlgren 30-pdr rifle on the deck of USS Pawnee in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina during the Civil War. Photographed by Matthew Brady. Courtesy of the Library of Congress LC-B8171-3417. Dahlgren is known as the “father of US Naval ordnance.” USS Dahlgren, (TB 9), 1900-19; USS Dahlgren (DD 187), 1920-45; and USS Dahlgren, 1961-1992, were named in honor of Rear Admiral Dahlgren.


Landsman William R. Pelham, USN. Halftone reproduction of a photograph, published in “Deeds of Valor”, Volume II, page 72, by the Perrien-Keydel Company, Detroit, 1907. William R. Pelham received the Medal of Honor for his conduct on board USS Hartford during the Battle of Mobile Bay, 5 August 1864. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 79931. Medal of Honor citation of Landsman William R. Pelham (as printed in the official publication “Medal of Honor, 1861-1949, The Navy”, page 43): “On board the flagship U.S.S. Hartford during successful actions against Fort Morgan, rebel gunboats and the ram Tennessee in Mobile Bay, 5 August 1864. When the other members of his gun crew were killed or wounded under the enemy’s terrific shellfire, PELHAM calmly assisted the casualties below and voluntarily returned and took his place at an adjoining gun where another man had been struck down. He continued to fight his gun throughout the remainder of the battle which resulted in the capture of the Tennessee.”


Accession: 07-235-A Medal of Honor, USN Type I 3.91″H x 2.1 W Medal was awarded to Hugh Hamilton Coxswain 1864, for “personal valour”. Hamilton took part in the Battle for Mobile Bay, on the USS Richmond . The Type I medal has a fouled anchor design and was awarded from 1862-1882. Collection of Curator Branch, Naval History and Heritage Command.


Battle of Mobile Bay, 5 August 1864. Engraving published circa 1864. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 50217.


“The Iron-Clad Frigate New Ironsides and Two Ericsson Batteries going into action at Charleston”. Hand-tinted copy of a line engraving by Smyth, depicting USS New Ironsides and two monitors in action at Charleston, South Carolina, circa 1863. Courtesy of the Navy Art Collection, Washington, D.C. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 85573-KN (Color).


“Destruction of the Clipper Ship ‘Jacob Bell’ by the British Pirate ‘Florida.'” Line engraving from Harper’s Weekly, January-June 1863, page 189. It is signed “G. Perkins” in the lower left. The merchant ship Jacob Bell was in the West Indies, bound from Foochow, China, to New York, with a valuable cargo when she was captured by CSS Florida on 12 February 1863. She was burned the next day. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 59293.


Rear Admiral Samuel Francis Dupont, (1803-1865). Dupont commanded the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron during the Civil War. Artwork by Alonzo Chappel. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 95533. USS Dupont (TB 7), 1897-1919; USS Dupont (DD 152), 1922-46; and USS Dupont (DD 941), 1957-1993, were named in honor of Rear Admiral Dupont.


CSS Alabama (1862-1864). Captain Raphael Semmes, Alabama’s commanding officer, standing by his ship’s 110-pounder rifled gun during her visit to Capetown in August 1863. His executive officer, First Lieutenant John M. Kell, is in the background, standing by the ship’s wheel. The original photograph is lightly color-tinted and mounted on a carte de visite bearing, on its reverse, the mark of E. Burmester, of Cape Town. See photo numbers NH 57256-KN for the colored image and NH 57256-A for a reproduction of the carte de visite’s reverse. Collection of Rear Admiral Ammen C. Farenholt, USN(MC), 1931. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 57256.


USS Galena (1862-1872). Photograph looking forward along the ship’s port side, shortly after her 15 May 1862 action with Confederate batteries at Drewry’s Bluff, on the James River, Virginia. Among the items visible are the muzzles of two of Galena’s IX-inch Dahlgren smoothbore guns; her unique horizontally-laid interlocking iron side armor; armored gunport shutters; boat davits; members of her crew; and at least one plugged hole from enemy shot (near the waterline in bottom left center). NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 53984.


Confederate Submarine H.L. Hunley (1863-1864). Sepia wash drawing by R.G. Skerrett, 1902, after a painting then held by the Confederate Memorial Literary Society Museum, Richmond, Virginia. Courtesy of the Navy Art Collection, Washington, DC. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 999.


USS Red Rover (1862-1865). Line engraving after a drawing by Theodore R. Davis, published in “Harper’s Weekly”, January-June 1863, page 300, depicting a scene in the ward. Red Rover served as the U.S. Navy’s hospital ship on the Western Rivers during the Civil War. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 59651.


John Jones, former Ordinary Seaman, USN. Halftone image published in “Deeds of Valor”, Volume II, page 40, by the Perrien-Keydel Company, Detroit, 1907. Ordinary Seaman Jones was awarded the Medal of Honor for his conduct while rescuing crewmen from the sinking USS Monitor, off Cape Hatteras during the night of 30-31 December 1862. He was a member of the crew of USS Rhode Island at the time. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 79914. Medal of Honor citation of Landsman John Jones (as printed in the official publication “Medal of Honor, 1861-1949, The Navy”, page 32): “Served on board the U.S.S. Rhode Island, which was engaged in saving the lives of the officers and crew of the Monitor, 30 December 1862. Participating in the hazardous rescue of the officers and crew of the sinking Monitor, JONES, after rescuing several of the men, became separated in a heavy gale with other members of the cutter that had set out from the Rhode Island, and spent many hours in the small boat at the mercy of the weather and high seas until finally picked up by a schooner 50 miles east of Cape Hatteras.”


Bombardment of Fort Darling, Drewry’s Bluff, Virginia, 15 May 1862. Contemporary pencil sketch, with colors of flags and smoke lightly worked in, depicting the Union ships Galena, Monitor, Aroostook, Port Royal and Naugatuck (listed as shown, left to right) bombarding the Confederate fort at Drewry’s Bluff. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 82580-KN (Color)


“Fight with the Forts and Fleet defending New Orleans”. Small line engraving, depicting the action between USS Mississippi (center) and CSS Manassas during the battle off Forts Jackson and St. Philip, below New Orleans, 24 April 1862. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 1063.


“Terrific Engagement Between the ‘Monitor’ 2 Guns, and ‘Merrimac’ 10 Guns, in Hampton Roads, March 9th 1862.” “The First Fight between Iron Ships of War.” “In which the Merrimac was crippled and the whole Rebel Fleet driven back to Norfolk.” Color halftone copy of a lithograph by Currier & Ives, based on a drawing by F.E. Palmer, reproduced in the “U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings”, December 1941. This view of the battle between USS Monitor and CSS Virginia (ex-USS Merrimack) also depicts these features: Newport News (far left distance); USS Minnesota (left middle distance); Fortress Monroe (left center distance); CSS Jamestown & CSS Yorktown (right middle distance); Sewalls Point (far left distance). NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 42213-KN (Color)


66-318-A Fragment of Shell, CSS Virginia Accession: 66-318-A Shell Fragment, CSS Virginia 2.5″ H x 3.75″ W Shell fragment fired from the CSS Virginia into the USS Congress during the Battle at Hampton Roads on the 8th of March 1862. The Virginia also engaged the USS Cumberland which sank. Collection of Curator Branch, Naval History and Heritage Command.


USS Cumberland sunk by CSS Virginia (ex-USS Merrimack), 8 March 1862. Colored lithograph by Currier and Ives, 1862, entitled “The Sinking of the ‘Cumberland’ by the Iron Clad ‘Merrimac’, off Newport News, Va., March 8th 1862. ‘Cumberland’ went down with all her Flags flying: — destroyed, but not conquered. Her gallant Commander Lieut. Morris calling to his crew ‘Given them a Broadside boys, as she goes’.” Courtesy of the Beverly Robinson Collection, U.S. Naval Academy Museum, Annapolis, Maryland. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 64088-KN (Color).


Sinking of the Stone Fleet in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, 20 December 1861. Copied from Harper’s Weekly, NH 59294.


USS San Jacinto and the Trent Affair, 8 November 1861. “The seizure by Captain Wilkes of the US Navy San Jacinto of Messrs Slidell and Mason, Confederate Commissioners, on board the British mail steamer Trent.” A German lithograph in colors, published circa 1862 by Isidor Rocca in Berlin. Courtesy of the Beverly R. Robinson Collection, U.S. Naval Institute Collection. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 76556-KN (Color).


Rear Admiral David G. Farragut, USN, 1801-1870, photographed at New Orleans, Louisana, by E. Jacobs in 1863. Note cocked hat with uniform. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 73615. Note: Farragut was the first Rear Admiral in the US Navy and said his famous quote at the Battle of Mobile Bay, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” USS Farragut (TB-11), 1899-1919; USS Farragut (DD 300), 1920-30; USS Farragut (DD 348), 1934-35; USS Farragut (DDG 37) -lead ship of her class, 1960-89; and USS Farragut (DDG 99), 2006-____


Commodore Silas B. Stringham, USN. Commanding Officer of the U.S. Atlantic Squadron in 1861. Copied from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated, 1861. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 51927. USS Stringham (TB 1), 1905-13, and USS Stringham (DD 83), 1922-45, were named in honor of Commodore Stringham.


“Bombardment of Forts Hatteras & Clark, by the U.S. Fleet”. “Under the command of Flag Officer Silas H. Stringham, on the 28th and 29th of August 1861” Colored lithograph by J.P. Newell after a drawing by Francis Garland, Seaman on USS Cumberland, published by J.H. Buford, Boston, Massachusetts, 1862. Features identified below the image are (from left to right): USS Susquehanna; transport Fanny; Fort Hatteras; USS Harriet Lane; Fort Clark; USS Cumberland; steamer Adelaide; USS Minnesota; steamer George Peabody; USS Wabash; USS Pawnee; and USS Monticello. Courtesy of the U.S. Navy Art Collection, Washington, D.C. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 66576-KN (Color).


Gustavus V. Fox, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, 1861-1866. Engraved portrait, published during the 19th Century. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 49410.


Capture of the Hatteras Inlet, August 1861. “The Bombardment of Fort Hatteras and Clark by the United States Fleet under Flag Officer Stringham, USN, 27 August 1861. Copied from Harper’s Weekly, 1861. The two larger ships are: USS Wabash and USS Minnesota (Stringham’s Flagship). NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 59134


Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, 7 March 1861-3 March 1869. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 54625.


Shows Union and Confederate positions at “Battle of Bull Run, July 21st 1861.” Relief shown by hachures. Depths shown by soundings. In right margin at bottom: Guide to Mount Vernon by the Road Maker. Gift (copy 1); Edward Stead; 25 Oct. 1991. Includes index of “U.S. encampments at Arlington Heights” and hand col. ill. of U.S. Capitol in upper half of sheet. Courtesy of the Library of Congress: G3851.S5 1861 .M3


Burning and Scuttling of U.S. Ships and destroying of buildings at Norfolk, Virginia by order of the Federal Government, 20 April 1861. Copied from Frank Leslie’s “Illustrated Newspaper,” 1861. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 73729.


Washington Navy Yard, District of Columbia. Sketch of the Navy Yard, looking north from off the waterfront in 1861. USS Pensacola is fitting out at left, near the western shiphouse. The eastern shiphouse is at right and the Commandant’s Office is in the right center, next to the flagpole. Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Institute Photographic Collection, 1981. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 91937.


Confederate Navy Leaders. Painting by Creative Arts Studio, prepared for use in an official film on Naval history, circa the early 1960s. It depicts an imaginary meeting of some of the Confederacy’s naval leaders, including (seated, left to right): Captain Franklin Buchanan, Captain Josiah Tattnall, and Commander Matthew F. Maury. Shown standing (from left to right) are Captain George N. Hollins, Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes, and Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory. Courtesy of the Navy Art Collection, Washington, DC. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 44520-KN (Color).


Secretary of the Navy, Stephen R. Mallory, Confederate States of America. Civil-War period photograph. NHHC Photograph Collection 48060.


Civil War U.S. Navy Recruiting Poster. Poster published on behalf of the Naval Rendezvous, Salem, Massachusetts, offering U.S. Navy service as an attractive alternative to the wartime military draft. Photograph from the Naval Records Collection in the U.S. National Archives, 45-X-9.


Civil War U.S. Navy Recruiting Poster. Poster published on behalf of the Naval Rendezvous, New Berne, North Carolina, 2 November 1863. Photograph from the Naval Records Collection in the U.S. National Archives, 45-X-10.


The Bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, 12 & 13 April 1861, part II. Copied from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1861. NHHC Photographic Collection, NH 73745.


The Bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, 12 & 13 April 1861, part I. Copied from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1861. NHHC Photographic Collection, NH 73744.


Confederate battery at Morris Island fires on the United States steamer Star of the West attempting to provision Fort Sumter. These were first shots fired by the South at a vessel flying the United States Flag, 9 December 1860. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 59261.


Containing a map of the vicinity of Washington, Baltimore, Harper’s Ferry and Annapolis, with five mile distance lines from Washington. Map showing the railroad routes, coast lines and forts, between Boston and Norfolk harbor; map of Norfolk harbor, Fort Monroe and vicinity, with 1 mile distance lines from Ft. Monroe; Map of the vicinity of Richmond. Small map of the Atlantic states, showing the R.road connections; diagram of the camp at Cairo. Plan of Haper’s Ferry! Portraits of Gen. B.F. Butler, the late Col. E. Ellsworth, &c. Includes portraits of Andrew Jackson and Gen. Winfield Scott rather than those of Gen. B. F. Butler and Col. E. Ellsworth. Courtesy of the Library of Congress: G3851.A1 1861 .L64 CW 17.


President Jefferson Davis, Confederate States of America, 1861-65. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 50501.


District of Columbia and the seat of war on the Potomac. Low-angle bird’s-eye view. Shows cities of Washington and Alexandria in foreground. Includes index of military positions with regiment names. Courtesy of the Library of Congress: G3851.S5 186- .B6 CW 678.


President of the United States Abraham Lincoln. A Civil War Period photograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 48127.

On the Web: 

President Lincoln

Jefferson Davis

USS Red Rover

H.L. Hunley

Captain Semmes

Watch History of the Civil War, Part I and Part II on YouTube