Confederates from Iowa:

Not to Defend, but to Understand

Ramblin’ Man: An Impatient Iowan in the Confederate Navy

For two years at the U.S. Naval Academy, Midshipman William H. Wall had shown “a good aptitude for the naval profession.”  But the 20-year-old longed for a business career.  He resigned in 1858 and went back home to New London, Iowa.  His life would never be the same.

Wall’s timing was terrible.  He became a clerk as Iowa’s economy ground to a halt.  After a year in financially depressed New London, he tried to regain his place at the naval academy.  No luck:  The vacancy had been filled.  Wall went to Mississippi in summer 1860 where job prospects were brighter.

Political aptitude

Wall quickly made political contacts in Sardis.  He enjoyed “the full confidence of the entire community” in less than a year.  In spring 1861, before the war started, local residents asked President Jefferson Davis to appoint Wall a Lieutenant in the Confederate Army.  The men stated, “You will greatly oblige your friends.”

But Wall didn’t wait for an appointment.  Instead, he enlisted as sergeant in the 12th Mississippi Infantry.  The unit was too late to fight at Bull Run, so they returned to Mississippi.  Wall served as adjutant in Col. Henry Hughes’s partisan cavalry.

Back in New London, Wall’s younger brother, Charles – an Iowa native — enlisted in the Sixth Iowa Volunteer Infantry.

A commission at last

Unidentified midshipman in Confederate uniform.  (Library of Congress)

Unidentified midshipman in Confederate uniform. (Library of Congress)

Wall told Confederate Senator A.G. Brown that he was determined to be a career officer.  Wall’s first choice was a commission in the army, his second choice, the navy.  He was quickly appointed to serve on the gunboat Atlanta, outside of Savannah, Georgia.

The Atlanta’s commander, William McBlair, complained:   “The lieutenants I have now are from civil life, miserable sticks.  I would not give a penny for a cord of them.”

Wall moved to Charleston, South Carolina, serving two years aboard the ironclad Chicora. The next stop was Richmond, Virginia, where Wall commanded the gunboat Drewry until Union artillery destroyed her in January 1865.

WallWilliamH  Alleged_wreck_of_CSS_Drewry_in_Jan 1865 WIKIPEDIA

An audacious plan

Wall and superior officer, Capt. Charles W. Read, headed across the shrinking Confederacy for Shreveport, Louisiana.  They had a bold plan.  They would run the gunboat Webb down the Red River, past New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico, “to be used as a privateer.”

The Union Navy controlled the Mississippi River.  Federal gunboats lined its banks “every 10 to 15 miles.”

Wall and Read crossed the river into northern Louisiana and found the Webb, a side-wheel boat, docked in Shreveport.

Outfitting a new cotton-clad

They loaded the Webb with firewood and coal, and used 190 cotton bales as armor to protect the machinery.  The Webb bristled with weapons:  a 30-pound Parrot gun, two 12-pound howitzers, and five torpedoes, one of which was “projecting from the bow, supported by a long pole.”

On April 7, 1865, the Webb left Shreveport, northwest Louisiana, chugging toward Alexandria in the center of the state.  Two days later, Lee surrendered at Appomattox.  By late April, the future of the Trans-Mississippi Department was in doubt, and Louisiana residents were increasingly demoralized.

Two weeks after Appomattox:  The race begins

On April 23, 1865, under a murky pre-dawn sky, the Webb shoved off from Alexandria, disguised as a Federal boat.  Slipping past a squadron of Union vessels below Simmesport, it entered the Mississippi River.  The Webb’s crew cut telegraph lines as they traveled.

Federals identified the Webb as Confederate outside of Donaldsville, but she faced no opposition until she approached New Orleans.  Raising a U.S. flag, she went full speed ahead (25 miles per hour) past the city.  Dodging cannon balls from Union picket boats, she took three minor hits.  Pursued by a Federal gunboat for twenty miles, the Webb raised the Confederate flag.

Practically tasting freedom, the Webb sailed within range of the Federal steam sloop Richmond.

As the Richmond opened fire, Capt. Read headed back north but was trapped between the two Federal vessels.  Battered by shells, Capt. Read ran the Webb aground on the east bank of the river.   Read and Wall set the Webb on fire.

Captured later that day, April 25, 1865, they were sent to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor.  Wall took the oath of allegiance to the U.S. government on June 13, 1865, and returned to Mississippi.

Putting down roots

Thereafter a Mississippian, Wall married, had children, and worked in business and banking.

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 Thanks for reading my blog!  Please let me know what you think about this story.

11 Comments

  1. Nice story telling. The Webb’s last voyage sounds like a fool’s errand. What’s known of their objective?

    • Thanks, Iowa Peace Chief! Their objective reportedly was to reach the Gulf of Mexico and become a privateer, capturing and/or destroying Northern merchant vessels.

      • Any evidence of a commission from—or any communication with—whatever remained of their CSA government?

        • Hi again, Iowa Peace Chief. I haven’t found any commission from the Confederate government, authorizing Wall and Read to undertake their mission in Louisiana. But I have found a transcript of Read’s early report (dated April 2, 1865) to the Confederate Secretary of the Navy, listing guns procured for the Webb. I also found a transcript of a letter from Lt. J.H. Carter, Commanding Naval Defenses, Western Louisiana (dated May 8, 1865), to the Confederate Secretary of the Navy, noting that the Webb had left Alexandria, La., on April 23. Both of these documents are in the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series One, Vol. 22. These documents agree with William H. Wall’s biographical sketch. Thanks for asking about my sources!

  2. Ray Wetherell

    Fantastic as always.

  3. markrinker

    25mph? What was the ships’ length, beam, displacement?

    • Hi, Mark.
      Thanks for reading my blog! I can’t answer your good questions because I didn’t look for the Webb’s length, beam, and/or displacement.
      However, I found a transcript of a letter from Lt. Read to Confederate Secretary of the Navy, Stephen Mallory. Lt. Read describes the Webb: “The great amount of wood I have been obliged to stow, with the cotton, causes an average draft of 9 feet, about 2 feet more than when light.” (Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series One, Vol. 22, pgs. 15-17).

      I’m sorry I couldn’t be of more help.

    • Hi, Mark.
      Thanks for reading my blog! I can’t answer your good questions because I didn’t look for the Webb’s length, beam, and/or displacement.
      However, I found a transcript of a letter from Lt. Read to Confederate Secretary of the Navy, Stephen Mallory. Lt. Read describes the Webb: “The great amount of wood I have been obliged to stow, with the cotton, causes an average draft of 9 feet, about 2 feet more than when light.” (Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series One, Vol. 22, pgs. 15-17).

      I’m sorry I couldn’t be of more help.

  4. George Wunderlich

    Great article!

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