The Civil War term “blockade duty” invokes stirring imagery of Navy warships prowling off Southern ports as lookouts strain to detect well-camouflaged Southern blockade runners sneaking past at night or during murky weather. Place names like Charleston, Mobile, and Wilmington come to mind.
But Brashear City? Where the heck was that?
Over in Louisiana, on the Atchafalaya River southwest of New Orleans. Numerous inland waterways feed into the Atchafalaya, and in 1864 Confederate guerrillas and supplies flitted through the bayous and lakes near Brashear City, renamed Morgan City in 1876.
To help secure the western approaches to New Orleans, Union troops attempted to clear Confederate troops out of the Brashear City region. The Army garrisoned the town, Confederates recaptured it in a daring nighttime attack on June 22, 1863, and Union troops soon etook the place.
The Navy stationed small gunboats — often purchased steamboats equipped with a few cannons — at Brashear City to patrol the nearby waterways and transport Union infantrymen who, after landing in out-of-the-way places, chased guerrillas to and fro and destroyed the flatboats, launches, and other smallcraft the enemy used to cross the myriad waterways.
One such gunboat was the shallow-draft USS Nyanza, a 203-ton steamer bought at Cincinnati in early November 1863 and commissioned at Mound City, Illinois in early December. All Nyanza references in the Official Records described her as a “stern wheel.” Non-OR references call the ship “side-wheel,” but the OR cites reports filed monthly during the Nyanza’s service, so a stern-wheeler she was.
Armed with six 24-pounder howitzers, the Nyanza went down the Mississippi River and served in Louisiana, operating primarily near Brashear City, Berwick Bay, and the Atchafalaya River.
Her first commander was Acting Volunteer Lt. Samuel Benjamin Washburn, hailing from Livermore in Androscoggin County. Yes, he was one of those Washburns, a younger brother to Maine Governor Israel Washburn Jr. and Illinois lawyer and congressman Elihu Washburne, close friend and confidante of President Abraham Lincoln.
A sailor at age 18, Samuel Washburn later became a ship’s master, so joining the Navy as an acting master made sense. The adjective “acting” identified him as a volunteer. Uust as the Royal Navy visually identified reservists with specific rank insignia in both 20th-century world wars, so did the hide-bound United States Navy identify volunteer officers with the title “acting” in the Civil War.
And a volunteer officer could be an acting master or acting lieutenant, but no way would he become a lieutenant commander, commander, ad infinitum, no matter if he could steam circles around the so-called “professionals.”
The Army suffered the same myopic attitude, the West Point graduates — the “ring knockers” — often vying for generals’ slots, and the capable volunteers be darned.
Sam Washburn was wounded in a hip and lamed while serving aboard the USS Galena during the May 8, 1862 fight at Drewry’s Bluff. Sometimes complaining about superior officers he thought incompetent, he was not above lobbying for higher command.
He got it when assigned the Nyanza.
Operating from Brashear City, Washburn and the Nyanza steamed where needed. On Friday, May 6, 1864, the similarly armed USS Glide left at 7 a.m., steamed up the Atchafalaya River to Grand Lake, and returned at12:30 p.m.
“A boat [messenger] came on board [Nyanza] from the Berwick side and reported that rebel cavalry were in sight behind the sugar houses,” reported the Nyanza’s abstract log. Up clanked the anchor and away steamed the gunboat, which “fired into the sugar houses” and drove off some 30 cavalrymen.
On Saturday, May 13, upon receiving the signal “‘Enemy in sight toward Pattersonville,’” Washburn steamed “up river as far as Doctor Rhodes’, shelled the bank and drove the rebels away, consisting of about 50 cavalry, then returned and anchored off Brashear City.”
Amidst the excitement, “Mr. J. Wilson fired the three starboard guns over to Brashear by mistake,” and “he was ordered under arrested by” Washburn, the ship’s log reported.
Although such expeditions seem small-time compared to blue-water blockading duty, Washburn and other skippers avoided the tedious tacking back and forth done by offshore warships. He need not worry about a larger Confederate warship (or worse, an ironclad) slipping out to pound his ship to smithereens.
His replacement, Acting Lt. Charles Addison Boutelle of Maine, fought an ironclad, but that’s another story.
If you enjoy reading the adventures of Mainers caught up in the Civil War, be sure to like Maine at War on Facebook and get a copy of the new Maine at War Volume 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg, available online at Amazon and all major book retailers, including Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble. —————————————————————————————————————–
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.