CSS Stonewall Affair
And the Court Martial of Commodore Thomas T. Craven
Part 1

     In February 1865 as the Confederate ports throughout the South were closed off eternally to all foreign support; however small their Navy had been it still thrived across the globe. Such was the case that in the final days of the month the Confederate RAM Stonewall had lay in the harbor of Ferrol, Portugal prepared for another voyage having added to the numbers of her crew and fitted herself for sea in what appeared for a long cruise.

     She left the safe haven of the harbor twice in the latter half of March, having stood out from the harbor two miles, but the condition of the sea had been too rough to suit her purpose. When the Niagara and Sacramento steamed out to oppose her; she immediately returned to her berth.

     The morning of March 24th, the rebel vessel once again made her appearance outside of Coruna, this time accompanied by the Spanish steam frigate Conception. Commodore Thomas T. Craven, who commanded Niagara, deemed any attempt to engage under such circumstances would not have given his flagship an advantage at all on inflicting injury upon his prime target, and was assured his vessel would have been utterly destroyed. In the judgment of the federal commander, the contest would have been so one sided and he could not call upon himself to engage.

     While the Niagara retired to make good on her supply bills, it was later learned that the Stonewall had made a run for it to the west. The commodore's pursuit was slow as his own ship outclassed that of the Sacramento who struggled to keep up with her.

     The Stonewall had received explicit orders from the Portuguese government to leave; furthermore the Portuguese King recommended the Niagara anchor within the harbor and not venture out before twenty four hours had passed from the departure of the rebel ram. As the rebel vessel set sail that Tuesday, March 28th the Federal Navy, once more, had been slow to give chase.

     The signal stations up and down the coast of Portugal reported that the rebel ship was seen on a course due north, just off shore and then gradually drawn off from the land altogether. Commodore Craven had been watching her movements continually for forty five days, when she had finally given him the slip. He apologized before Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles that he had lost sight of her.

     Craven had managed likewise to report to the Department that while in port at Ferrol, the Stonewall's purpose was to outfit herself with ten guns, four for each side and two pivots; her sides were to be covered with chains and covered with wood to complete its disguise. The men she was taking on amounted to that of one hundred forty and ready to set sail during the timeframe reported on by the Commodore. Regardless, the Spanish government would not allow her such renovations in their port and had ordered her to sail without them.

     What was known at the time about this formidable vessel was that her iron plating had been of the maximum thickness, she had a 300 hundred pound Armstrong rifled gun forward and the bows had two 150 pound guns a stern and on the aft quarters. She possessed a twin propeller, twin rudders, and powered by four engines. She was considered to be completely shot proof upon every quarter. Her speed was known to reach roughly 13 knots, and managed to turn within her length by working both engines in opposite directions.

     The report that accompanied that of Commodore Craven, written by Captain Henry Walke on April 1, 1865 reported that the Sacramento was still in port at Lisbon taking on coal and making repairs of the pipes and tubes, along with minor engine repairs. She would not be ready for service until the following day while, the commanding officer awaited further direction from his superior.

     Eight months had passed when in November Commodore Thomas T. Craven was tried before court martial for failing to do his utmost in overtaking, capturing or destroying the CSS Stonewall. Of these charges he lay at anchor, as per the King of Portugal's instructions for more than twenty four hours having personally witnessed his enemy leaving the bay of Coruna. Regardless of the odds, no effort was made to inflict damage upon the vessel, and as stated in a letter written in his own hand, that no one could appreciate having under gone the deep humiliation of knowing the Stonewall had been steaming back and forth flaunting her flags, and inviting him to attack. The conditions of the sea, the commodore claimed would have been utter madness for him to go out into.

     The court martial was heard by a panel of combat hardened veterans, all who had spent the last four years making household names of themselves among the annals of Naval History. Once more, they did just that. Tried for having not done his duty to sink the vessel, the court in consideration of the specification, believed it to be only proven in part, and the accused guilty in a lesser degree than initially charged. This panel of officers did not feel deprivation of discretionary power due his command authority was warranted, nor did it wish to establish the principal that under all circumstances it would become imperative that two wooden vessels should engage an ironclad. They did wish to express; however, its censure upon Commodore Craven's defective judgment arising from his want of zeal and exertion while not continually holding the rebel vessel under his personal observation; thereby endeavoring to ascertain the truth or falsehood on the received reports regarding the ship's character.

To be continued next week...

Aldie Daniel Moran
© 2006

Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a feature writer on the US-Civilwar.com writers staff. He may be contacted with your questions, ideas and requests at dmoran@us-civilwars.net