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Along with Flag-Officer Andrew Foote and Lieutenant Seth Phelps, Commander Henry Walke is one of the under-appreciated Naval heroes whose early service on western waters supported Army victories at Belmont, Fort Henry and Fort Donelson (and Commander Walke's performance with USS Carondelet in running the gauntlet at Island No.10 is the stuff of legends.) Little known: before Henry Walke was assigned to service on the Western Waters, he was involved in an incident during the Secession Crisis, for which he was Court-Martialed (and found guilty of one charge.)

What was the action taken by Commander Henry Walke that resulted in his Court-Martial?



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               On January 10, 1861 the state of Florida became the third state to secede from the Union. One of the first items on the agenda was to send Florida state militia to seize the navy yard at Pensacola along with Fort McRee, Fort Barrancas and Fort Pickens.

                On January 9 the navy transported the command of Lt. Slemmer from Fort Barrancas to Fort Pickens due to the trouble brewing.

                On the big day, January 12, 1861, Commodore Walke was in command of a stores ship appropriately named Supply. He was anchored near Fort Pickens assisting Lt. Slemmer in delivering supplies and preparing to defend Fort Pickens. Walke was to proceed to the port of Vera Cruz, Mexicio after dropping supplies at Fort Pickens. The Wyandotte, armed with at least some guns was also nearby.

                The navy yard was under the command of Captain James Armstrong. The yard had a small force of marines, soldiers and civilian workers along with some of their families. There had been no pay received for several months.

                A Florida militia force of 600 to 800 men arrived at the fort and Armstrong capitulated without a fight. Armstrong was court martialed for “neglect of duty” and suspended from service for five years.

                The plight of the men and families in the navy yard was dire. They had no money and no way to subsist in what was now enemy territory. Of course, some of the individuals were Southern supporters and did not need a ride home.

                Walke steamed into the harbor the next day under a flag of truce to take aboard all persons wanting to return to the north. A total of 106 men, women and children boarded the Supply. Nineteen days later the Supply arrived at New York and Walke’s human cargo disembarked the ship. The passengers included the wife and child of Lt. Slemmer.

                Walke was promptly court-martialed for disobeying orders and leaving his station because he was supposed to go to Vera Cruz.

                 Walke was found not guilty of leaving station since New York was a navy port but he was found guilty of disobeying orders. His punishment was a letter of admonishment from the Secretary of the Navy.

                On January 16 the Florida authorities demanded the surrender of Fort Pickens by Lt. Slemmer. He told them to pound sand and Fort Pickens remained in Union hands throughout the war.

                Everything I wrote here I just learned in the last couple days so I hope it is accurate.

                For those interested the story is related in the beginning of Walke’s Naval Scenes and Reminiscences of the Civil War of the United States on the Southern and Western Waters.



                Volume 4 of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies has a transcript of the court martial of James Armstrong which I found interesting but did not read the whole thing.







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Bravo Zulu, Hank! Answer correct, and excellent summary of the January 1861 “situation” at Pensacola, provided for extra credit. For everyone else wondering, “What does Florida have to do with the Battle of Shiloh?” a reminder:

  • Twenty percent of the Confederate participants at Shiloh had been members of Bragg's Army of Pensacola.

  • Notable senior officers Withers, Jackson, Anderson, Ruggles, Gladden, Chalmers (and perhaps SAM Wood) all had experience in Pensacola/ Mobile.

  • The regiments trained by Bragg at Pensacola were sent from Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida and Louisiana.

But the situation in regard to U.S. Navy officers sent west following outbreak of war in April 1861 is not generally considered:

  • Andrew Hull Foote entered military service in 1822 and at the outbreak of the Secession Crisis was second-in-command at Brooklyn Navy Yard, biding his time, with retirement from the Navy in 1862 his likely future.

  • Henry Walke “ruined” his Naval career with the Atlantic Squadron as result of being Court Martialed for “failure to follow orders.” Instead of continuing service with the deepwater Navy, Walke was “sent away west” and took command of USS Tyler (one of the early “stop-gap” gunboats, derisively termed “timberclads” (before the contracted ironclads were ready for service.)

The point:  "Did the U.S. Navy send their A - Team?"

[From results achieved, one would claim, "YES!" ...however, surviving documents indicate otherwise.]

Yours to ponder...




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Seth Ledyard Phelps


I hate to admit it, but a few years ago I “drank the Kool-aid” and subscribed to the sanitized biographies available, concerning Foote and Walke and Phelps. But these biographies were written after 1862, AFTER meritorious service had been recorded (and previous “anomalies” scrubbed from their records.)

So, what was the real story of Seth Ledyard Phelps?

Growing up in Ohio on the shore of Lake Erie, Seth Phelps decided at an early age to “have a life on the sea,” and left home aged 17 to enlist. Although experiencing seasickness during his first sea assignment, he worked through it, overcame the seasickness, and pushed himself to become educated and experienced in all things nautical. His tendency to volunteer for assignments no one else wanted (and excel, and afterwards be rewarded with plum positions) stirred resentment among his peers, who sought to undermine now-Midshipman Phelps. Somehow, Phelps avoided the “white ants,” and saw service aboard USS Bonita and USS Jamestown during the Mexican War. But, his observations of how military and naval duties were conducted during the war (and being too outspoken in his belief “things could be done better”) led to removal from sea service after the Mexican War, instead assigned to one shore posting after another. [This was at a time when duty at sea, and especially command at sea was difficult for aspiring captains to acquire, “senior officers” kept in those roles while aged in their 60s and 70s .]

Finally, in 1857 Lieutenant Phelps returned to sea aboard USS Susquehanna, his first at-sea assignment in ten years. Duty was performed in the Mediterranean, briefly; and then the side-wheel steamer was tasked with helping lay the transatlantic telegraph cable between Ireland and Newfoundland. But after laying 275 miles of cable, the cable broke. Efforts to recover the end were unsuccessful; and the Susquehanna was ordered to Plymouth to “await further orders.” In 1858, the end of the cable was recovered, spliced to a new spool, and the effort resumed (and completed in August 1858.) But Phelp's ship (under command of Captain Sands) was no longer involved in the cable project, instead ordered to new assignment off Central America (where the filibuster, William Walker, was active). While on station south of Aspinwall in 1858, much of the crew of Susquehanna (including Lieutenant Isaac Newton Brown) came down with a tropical fever. With over one hundred members of the crew down with, “the black vomit,” Captain Sands turned his ship east and headed for the closest naval hospital (a Royal Navy Hospital in Jamaica). After removing the sick men, it was decided the “best course of action was to get the Susquehanna out of the tropics because tropical diseases tended not to persist in Northern climes.” So Captain Sands made for New York; and during the voyage from Jamaica 75 more men came down with the disease. (Seth Phelps later marvelled that he somehow avoided it; and he was one of the few officers able to stand watch and navigate the ship north.) New York was reached 15 April 1858 and everyone aboard went to hospital, or into quarantine.

[Not knowing that mosquitoes were responsible for yellow fever, the Susquehanna was emptied and “disinfected through cooling.” Tons of ice were loaded aboard and the ship was sealed; and special pumps “drew out the contaminated air” and discharged it, well away from New York City. ] While awaiting the end of the disinfecting process, Lieutenant Phelps was assigned temporary duty in Washington, D.C. But before the end of 1858 he received orders to the Pacific coast of Panama, to meet USS St. Mary. Phelps and the eighty men with him arrived November 1858, but St. Mary was not due to arrive until February 1859. When February came and went, Phelps and the men with him booked passage aboard another ship and went in search of the St. Mary (and found her in Acapulco.) The crews were exchanged, and Phelps commenced duty aboard USS St. Mary... but only briefly. New orders arrived, and Phelps was assigned to USS Cyane. Not long after reporting aboard Cyane, new orders came, rescinding the earlier orders: Lieutenant Phelps was directed to return to USS St. Mary (but until that vessel returned to Panama, Phelps was assigned aboard USS Saranac.) The Captain of Saranac had no need for Lieutenant Phelps, so he was “detached,” and after a few months Lieutenant Phelps found assignment aboard the mail steamer, Washington, bound for San Francisco, as her Captain. [S.S. Washington was a “spare” steamer kept at Panama in case of emergency and the emergency arrived when the scheduled mail steamer, J. L. Stevens, was disabled in transit.] Five hundred passengers were put aboard the Washington, and Phelps “babied” the leaking ship with poorly functioning boilers to San Francisco, arriving there in October 1860. After a few days in California, Seth Phelps booked passage to Panama, and upon arrival found orders to return to Washington, D.C. He booked passage on another steamer from Aspinwall to New York, and arrived in Washington in January 1861.

So, what was it Lieutenant Seth Phelps did to deserve “banishment to the western rivers?”

In 1855, during ten years of shore duty, Phelps had been assigned to a “Fitness and Competency Board,” tasked with scrutinizing senior Naval Officers and their performance. Upon completion, 170 senior officers were found “unfit for continued service.” Orders were issued removing those Commanders and Captains to the Retired List.

Naturally, some of those retired officers fought their removal from active service. And in process of appeal, the records kept by the Fitness and Competency Board were determined to have been “misplaced,” never to be found. And every officer who appealed his retirement was returned to active service. And the names of the members of the Board were made known. With those “restored” Captains and Commanders back in charge of ships of the line and major shore installations, Lieutenant Phelps found his career in the deepwater Navy in jeopardy. In March 1861, while “awaiting orders,” Lieutenant Phelps wrote directly to new Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, explaining his situation. And in May, Welles assigned Lieutenant Seth Phelps to duty with Commander John Rodgers at Cincinnati, where a trio of wooden river gunboats was being constructed. And after frequent trips from Cincinnati to Pittsburg Pennsylvania (where the naval artillery was acquired) and testing the seaworthiness of the new timberclads, Phelps was assigned command of USS Conestoga.


 https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uva.x001866812&view=1up&seq=159  The Union Army: a history of military affairs during the War of 1861 - 1865 vol.7 "The Navy" (published 1908 in Wisconsin by Federal Publications Company) pp.159 - 165.

Seth Ledyard Phelps: Ironclad Captain by Jay Slagle (1997) Kent State University Press, Ohio.

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Returning to Henry Walke... The incident for which Commander Walke got into disciplinary trouble with the U.S. Navy occurred in January 1861. As commanding officer of USS Supply (a sail-powered collier and supply vessel running between Pensacola and Vera Cruz, delivering coal and provisions to the fleet) CDR Walke happened to be in Pensacola Bay when the State of Florida pressed for Federal arsenals and forts to be handed over; and before Commodore Armstrong turned over the Pensacola Navy Yard to Florida, he ordered CDR Walke “to sail USS Supply to Vera Cruz.” And Henry Walke did not follow those instructions, so he was obviously disobeying orders when he did not comply.

The full truth, however, is convoluted:

  • Commodore James Armstrong (some questioned his loyalty; others believed he was having a nervous breakdown). How valid were his orders?

  • The situation at Pensacola was “fluid.” How does one “follow orders” when the orders may be illegal, or illegitimate?

  • Commodore Armstrong received orders by telegram on 9 JAN 1861 ordering him to “cooperate with the Army in maintaining possession of the public property.” As part of this cooperation, Armstrong tasked Walke (and Supply) with delivering foodstuffs to Fort Pickens (where Army Lieutenant Slemmer had transferred his force of artillerists from Fort Barrancas.) Because the foodstuffs were not unloaded January 10th the USS Supply remained at Fort Pickens Wharf overnight. [Florida seceded from the Union January 10th.]

  • Commodore Armstrong surrendered the Navy Yard at 1:30 p.m. on January 12th. Before surrendering “the property under his command,” USS Supply and USS Wyandotte were sent away: Supply to Vera Cruz; and Wyandotte to Cuba. [Neither vessel went more than a few miles south, before reversing course.]

  • Both ships left Pensacola Bay and were “beyond Commodore Armstrong's control” when the Pensacola Navy Yard was surrendered. As result of the surrender, 34 Marines and fifty sailors (including Commodore Armstrong) were taken prisoner “by the State of Florida.” Many of these men had their families in Florida with them, living on base (as did the Army and Navy defenders still at Fort Pickens.) In all, over 100 Union citizens were in limbo after the surrender of January 12th. [CDR Walke's family was NOT in Florida, (for the sake of clarity).]

  • On 16 JAN 1861, operating under flag of truce, CDR Walke sailed back inside Pensacola Bay and took the paroled prisoners aboard USS Supply. As well, the stranded wives and children, and civilian contractors (and their families) were taken aboard, removing all United States citizens who wished to evacuate.

  • Outside Pensacola Bay, CDR Walke (the senior U.S. Government officer present) met with Lieutenant Berryman (USS Wyandotte) and Second Lieutenant Gilman (Slemmer's deputy) and confirmed that the Army would attempt to remain in possession of Fort Pickens. Then Walke tasked Berryman with remaining on station, to assist with defending Fort Pickens to the last (and evacuating the 82 men there, should that become necessary.) [The 81 men at Fort Pickens gained the service of a Hospital Steward.]

  • Commander Walke sailed away, and reached New York Navy Yard nineteen days later (where he was charged, and his Court Martial took place in March 1861.)




  • What constitutes “valid orders?”

  • What happens when the commander is no longer able to command, due to death, capture or incapacity; (when do his orders “die”)?

  • Taking the initiative: “When disobeying orders, you had 'better be right.'” [Was Commander Henry Walke “right?”]

  • Sometimes, things happen that cause “the plan” to be abandoned, by necessity. (You cannot plan for every situation; sometimes you must trust the judgment of trained junior officers and “acting” commanders.) [It is a common expression: “No military plan survives first contact with the enemy.” But, the plan then becomes a “framework” from which to operate and deviate.]

  • “Better to beg for forgiveness, than to ask for permission.” [Time and distance can have unanticipated impact. The leaders in Washington, reliant on the telegraph for relaying orders (and still-active Military officers, following the surrender of Commodore Armstrong, over-reliant on electronic guidance) all suddenly found themselves unable to communicate... which illustrates the need to develop Trust, and sound decision-making, in junior officers before the telegraph line is cut.]

Just a few observations...



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