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Under Six Flags: The Curious Career of the CSS Stonewall

(The following is a post by Juan Manuel Pérez, Reference Specialist, Hispanic Division)

During the American Civil War (1861-65), as the Union Navy of the North was putting a chokehold on the Southern Confederacy by its naval blockade, the Confederate government of the South sought to break it by trying to purchase or build warships in Europe. With that in mind, John Slidell, the Confederate representative in France, approached Emperor Napoleon III in June 1863 about the possibility of building armored ships, or ironclads, in France for the Confederacy. The Emperor agreed only if their final destination were to remain secret, so as not to appear to violate French neutrality laws.

Captain Thomas Jefferson Page, CSN (Confederate States Navy).

With secrecy and misinformation, James D. Bulloch, a Confederate agent in France, immediately reached an agreement with Jean-Lucien Arman, one of France’s top shipbuilders, for two ram ironclads. These ships were called “rams” because they were built to slam into enemy ships in order to sink them. The guns were to be manufactured separately in England, and the ships were to be called the “Cheops” and the “Sphynx,” so that people would think that they were being built for the Egyptian Navy.

Despite all efforts at secrecy, the U.S. Minister in Paris got wind of the scheme and the French government, under pressure from the United States, blocked the ships’ sale to the Confederacy. Nonetheless, Arman was able to sell the two ironclads, the “Cheops” to Prussia, and the “Sphynx” to Denmark (each country fighting for dominance of the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein). The “Sphynx” left Bordeaux, manned by a Danish crew on June 21, 1864. Negotiations between Arman and the Danish government on the final price stalled until they finally broke down. The Danes at first refused to relinquish the ship, but by the time the ship arrived at Copenhagen, the war was over and they were no longer interested in it. Arman secretly resold it to the Confederacy in December 1864. (Kevin J. Foster, “The Diplomats Who Sank the Fleet: The Confederacy’s Undelivered European Fleet and the Union Consular Service.” Prologue: The Journal of the National Archives, Fall 2001, Vol. 33, No. 3, p. 4.)

On January 6, 1865, the ship took on a Confederate crew at Copenhagen under Captain Thomas Jefferson Page, CSN (Confederate States Navy), a true Virginia blue blood, whose maternal grandfather was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and who had a brilliant naval career in the U.S. Navy before the war.

The boat, now named “Olinde,” left Copenhagen on January 7 with a Danish captain and crew to maintain secrecy. After reaching a rendezvous point off the Brittany coast on January 24 with a Confederate blockade runner for men and supplies, and after letting the Danish crew off, Page recommissioned her at sea as the “CSS Stonewall,” in honor of Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

Unable to get fully loaded in France, it put off for Madeira in the Azores on January 28. However, it was caught in a storm the following day, and after it sprung a leak, Captain Page had to seek refuge in A Coruña, in the northwestern Spanish region of Galicia, on February 3. From there he moved to El Ferrol, a major Spanish naval base, nine miles away. The following day, the “Stonewall” arrived at El Ferrol, where it remained until March 24, 1865 undergoing repairs, under the careful watch of the two wooden-hulled boats “USS Niagara” and “USS Sacramento.” The American Legation in Madrid requested that the “Stonewall” be considered a pirate ship, rather than a belligerent ship, and as such, not afforded rights under international maritime law. They also asked that it be denied permission to undergo repairs. Horatio Perry, the American Chargé d’Affaires, met 19 times with Spanish officials during the seven weeks that the “Stonewall” was in El Ferrol, but he could not sway them and the Spanish allowed the repairs to continue. (Lee Kennett, “The Strange Career of the Stonewall,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, February 1968, pp. 79-81.)

The Spanish government maintained that allowing the ship to undergo repairs to make it seaworthy, and allowing for the transfer of stores for the crew’s basic necessities, did not constitute a violation of neutrality, while assuring the U.S. that the repairs would be made by civilians and not Spanish Navy personnel. Captain Page had nothing but praise for the base commander, the local authorities, and the workers at the yard, who afforded him every courtesy possible under the circumstances.

The news of the three warships in El Ferrol and A Coruña spread, not only throughout Galicia, but the rest of the country as well. Newspapers informed their readers about the comings and goings of the three ships almost daily. Even 33 years later, interest remained high as reflected in a retelling of the episode in an article in the newspaper “El Correo Gallego” on Sunday April 17, 1898.

Once repairs had been completed, the “CSS Stonewall” left El Ferrol on March 24, 1865, with its colors flying high, determined to do battle. Years later, Captain Page said:

“The day was very fine, earth, sky and sea were alike beautiful, and nothing could be more lovely and picturesque than the mountains behind Ferrol and Corona [sic], alive with human beings; the whole population of Ferrol, Corona [sic] and the neighboring villages and hamlets seemed to have gathered there to witness the battle of the little “Stonewall” and the two goliaths” (R.S. Crenshaw, “Autobiographic Sketch of Thomas Jefferson Page,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, October, 1923, p. 1682.)

The people were disappointed, however, because even though the “Stonewall” taunted the two U.S. Navy ships all day by steaming back and forth before A Coruña, the Navy did not engage because they thought their wooden ships were inferior. Commodore Thomas T. Craven, commander of the “Niagara,” who, by his inaction on that day was court-martialed months later, said: “With feelings no one can imagine, I was obliged to undergo the deep humiliation of knowing that it (the “Stonewall”) was there, steaming back and forth, flaunting its flags, and waiting for me to go out to the attack. I dared not to do it!” (Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Vol. 3. “Operations of the Cruisers – Union, April 1, 1864 to December 30, 1865,” pp. 453-500.) And so, without even firing a shot, the “Stonewall” inflicted the greatest embarrassment on the U.S. Navy during the Civil War off the Galician coast. Captain Page never understood why the heavily armed federal ships didn’t engage. (“Two Against the Stonewall” Southern Historical Society Papers, vol. XXVII, January-December, 1899, pp. 228-229.)

But Commodore Craven was afraid of the “CSS Stonewall” as reflected in his reports to his superiors: “The ‘Stonewall’ is a much more formidable vessel than any of our monitors … in smooth water and open sea it would be more than a match for three such vessels as the ‘Niagara’.” (Official Records, op. cit., pp. 435-436). Stories had been circulating of the supposed capabilities of the ship, and everybody believed them.

After the non-battle at El Ferrol, the “CSS Stonewall” arrived in Lisbon on March 27 for additional supplies before it started the Atlantic crossing on March 28. It was shadowed all the while by the “Niagara” and the “Sacramento.” A few hours after the “Stonewall” left, the “Niagara” started to change its anchorage. The commander of the Belem tower mistakenly believed that the “Niagara” had resumed its pursuit in violation of the 24-hour internationally recognized window after a belligerent had left a neutral port, and opened fire on the ship. This was the only time a foreign country fired upon a U.S. warship during the Civil War. (Kennett, op. cit., p. 82).

Rebel Ram Ship Stonewall, DC,” 1867. Washington Navy Yard. Prints and Photographs Division.

After the non-battle at El Ferrol, the “CSS Stonewall” arrived in Lisbon on March 27 for additional supplies before it started the Atlantic crossing on March 28. It was shadowed all the while by the “Niagara” and the “Sacramento.” A few hours after the “Stonewall” left, the “Niagara” started to change its anchorage. The commander of the Belem tower mistakenly believed that the “Niagara” had resumed its pursuit in violation of the 24-hour internationally recognized window after a belligerent had left a neutral port, and opened fire on the ship. This was the only time a foreign country fired upon a U.S. warship during the Civil War. (Kennett, op. cit., p. 82).

Captain Page’s intention was to attack the U.S. base at Port Royal, North Carolina. The “Stonewall” arrived in Nassau, Bahamas, on May 6 and then sailed for Havana, Cuba, where Page learned that the Civil War had ended. As the “Stonewall” was now a ship without a country, or without a flag, Captain Page sold it to the Captain-General of Cuba for $16,000. It was later turned over to the U.S. for the same amount. The “Stonewall” was temporarily de-commissioned and stationed at the Washington DC Navy Yard 1865-1868.

In 1869 it was sold to the Japanese Navy and recommissioned as the “Kotetsu.” In 1871, it was renamed the “Azuma” and remained in the Japanese Navy until 1888. It was scrapped in 1908 and, thus, ended the career of the ship that served under six flags: French, Danish, Confederate States, Spanish, United States, and Japanese.

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