Stories from the Shipyard: USS Hartford

By Mike Manning, Chair – Friends of the Boston Harborwalk

In terms of notoriety, the USS Hartford is one of the best known vessels constructed in the Boston Navy Yard (in Charlestown).  The Hartford was launched on November 22, 1858 and commissioned approximately six months later. She was the first US Navy ship named for the city of Hartford – the capital of Connecticut and was rated as a “sloop-of-war.”

Sloops-of-war were a class of vessels with a displacement less than that of ships-of-the-line and frigates.  This class of warships was designed and built with three masts (fore, main, and mizzen), square-rigged sails, and a single gun deck.  The Hartford was manned by a crew of 300 officers and enlisted men – her gun deck typically armed with 26 nine-inch caliber cannon.

Sloops-of-war, in the mid-1800s, were typically hybrid vessels with both sail and steam propulsion.  Of additional local interest, the Hartford’s twin coal-fired steam engines were designed and built by Harrison Loring at his City Point Iron Works in South Boston.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, the Hartford was ordered to Philadelphia to be outfitted for wartime service.  Here, she became the flagship of Flag Officer Admiral David G. Farragut, commander of the newly created West Gulf Blockading Squadron.  The squadron’s initial mission was to blockade Confederate ports along the Gulf Coast and prevent commerce and trade.

The mission was altered in late 1861 when the Union high command decided on a plan to capture the strategic city of New Orleans.  The Union plan consisted of a northward drive of squadron warships with a simultaneous southward drive by the Union Army – the army advance to be spearheaded by a flotilla of armored gunboats.  In April, 1862, the squadron crossed the mud flats at the mouth of the Mississippi River and began to fight its way up-river against fierce Confederate resistance.

Just south of New Orleans, the river was blocked by a row of sunken hulks connected to each other with very strong barrier chains.  Beyond this obstruction, the Confederate Navy awaited the Union squadron.  The Confederates had assembled a diverse fleet consisting of ironclads, two wooden ships of the Louisiana Navy, a number of fire rafts, and a group of converted river steamers named the Confederate River Defense Fleet.  In a daring move, a Union vessel managed to cut the chain and create an opportunity for the rest of the fleet to sail northward.  At this point, while dodging an attack by the Confederate ironclad ram, the CSS Manassas, the Hartford ran aground.  The Confederates immediately seized this opportunity and sailed fire rafts directly towards the Hartford.  One of the rafts rammed the Hartford and she was engulfed in flames.  Without Farragut’s decisive command and the bravery of the firefighters on-board, she might have been lost in the maelstrom.  All during this time, her gunners had continued to fire cannons against the Confederate forts lining the Mississippi’s riverbanks.  Once the on-board fires were extinguished, the Hartford was able to reverse direction and free herself from the mud flats.

With the chain barrier removed and the Confederate naval force defeated, Farragut’s squadron of a dozen or so vessels sailed upriver to New Orleans.  The city was completely defenseless.  Farragut’s vessels anchored off New Orleans on April 25th and the city surrendered on the 29th.  Once New Orleans was secured, the squadron continued its northward campaign with Baton Rouge and Natchez surrendering in early May.

The Union’s next objective was Vicksburg – this siege lasted approximately six weeks.  In a similar fashion to the Battle for New Orleans, the Union planned a combined army-navy attack to capture the city.  While primarily army siege attack, the Union navy did play a critical role in blockading desperately needed Confederate supplies from reaching Vicksburg.  The city surrendered on July 4th, 1863.

In her final action of the Civil War, the Hartford led a fleet of four ironclads, two gunboats, and 12 wooden vessels in a plan to capture Mobile, Alabama.  The Confederates assembled a scant fleet of an ironclad ram and three side-wheel gunboats – these vessels were aligned with fort cannon along the banks of the Bay.  The naval battle began on August 5th, 1864 and lasted for approximately three hours – with an intense exchange of cannon fire.  The battle culminated with the surrender of the CSS Tennessee – a casement ironclad ram (similar in design to the CSS Virginia).  Fort Morgan, under siege for weeks, eventually surrendered on August 23rd.

After the Civil War, the Hartford experienced a series of decommissions and recommissions until 1890.  For the next ten years, she was based at Mare Island, California – during which time she underwent a substantial overhaul.  During these years, the Hartford was specifically exempted by Congress from the limits imposed on expenditures for maintenance and repair of wooden vessels – undoubtedly in recognition of her significant status as a result of her Civil War service.

In late 1899, she was recommissioned and reassigned to the Atlantic coast as a training ship.  In 1912, the Hartford was transferred to Charleston, South Carolina and utilized as a training ship.  She was decommissioned one final time in August of 1926 and remained in Charleston before being towed to Washington, D.C. in 1938.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a former navy undersecretary, wanted to create a naval museum to showcase the Hartford, the USS Olympia, and a World War I destroyer.  However, when Roosevelt died in April of 1945, the plan for a museum was abandoned.

In October, 1945, the Hartford was hauled to Norfolk Navy Yard and classified as a relic.  Unfortunately, the vessel was allowed to deteriorate and tragically sank at her pier in November, 1956.  Naval engineers determined that she could not be salvaged and was dismantled.  The Hartford was stripped of most metal fittings and hardware along with some intact wooden objects.

These artifacts are on display in a least dozen states – most notably at the U.S. Navy Museum in Washington, D.C. and the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia.  Inexplicitly, none of the Hartford’s surviving artifacts are on display in the Charlestown Navy Yard – or in Massachusetts for that matter.

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