Saturday Snippet: A wild and wintry sea during the Civil War


Regular readers will recall that last year, I put up a Saturday Snippet from the memoirs of a British businessman who spent the Civil War years running contraband cargoes through the Union blockade to Confederate ports.

Earlier that same year, I posted a Snippet from what was then intended to be a fantasy naval trilogy, involving sword and sorcery as well as nautical reality.  I wrote several tens of thousands of words of the latter, but it just wasn’t working for me as a fantasy.  Eventually, I realized I could do much better by writing a naval historical novel, along the lines of very well-known series by authors such as C. S. Forester, Patrick O’Brian and Dudley Pope.

I used the research I’d already done for the nautical fantasy series, plus a lot more about the Civil War, to develop the idea of a trilogy about the Union Navy during that conflict.  It’s a field that hasn’t produced as much naval fiction as the two World Wars or the Napoleonic era, but is just as interesting from an historical point of view, as it was one of the most important “transition conflicts” between the age of sail and the age of steam.  In the Civil War, the need for speed was reinforced as fast, purpose-built blockade runners were able to slip through the Union Navy blockade, leaving their slower pursuers in their wake.  The blockade runners were the technological predecessors of the fast so-called “torpedo boats” and “torpedo boat destroyers” that began to make their presence felt during the last quarter of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.  In their turn, the warships of that period marked the main period of transition from wood to iron and steel construction, from smoothbore to rifled cannon, and from paddle-wheels to screws or propellers, on both sides of the Atlantic, and the evolution of new tactics that would require new methods of communication, command and control to execute.

My trilogy will follow the adventures of a US Navy Lieutenant, Rufus King, who’s caught in the South during the outbreak of secession.  He makes his escape to Union territory aboard a blockade-runner that he and some other stranded Union personnel manage to commandeer, and takes command of her as she’s converted into a light warship for blockade duties.  I hope the first book of the trilogy, as yet untitled, will be ready for publication later this year.  It’s already well under way.  As usual with my historical novels, I’m going to make it as historically and technologically accurate as I possibly can.

The excerpt below tells of King’s and his ship’s experience at sea during a bad storm while on her first mission, escorting transports to the attack on Port Royal in November 1861.

The ragged, straggling fleet made its shambling way down the coast towards South Carolina. By the first of November it had reached Cape Hatteras… but so had bad weather. The wind picked up all through the day, driving the waves higher and the troughs deeper. The ships wallowed, tossed, pitched and rolled, bringing seasickness and immense distress to the thousands of embarked soldiers and Marines, and not a few of their seamen too. Eventually Flag Officer Du Pont signalled all vessels to proceed independently, and rendezvous off Port Royal as and when conditions allowed.

The poor conditions made Selinsgrove very difficult to control. Her paddle-wheels lifted out of the water, first on one side, then the other, threatening to race uncontrollably and unbalance the driving beams, and nudging her head off-course as the wheel still in the water pushed her around. Her stern pitched up high enough to lift the rudder out of the sea at times, making steering very difficult. Her sails were reduced to the bare minimum, just sufficient to keep her from broaching under the pressure of wind and wave.

As night fell, Rufus consulted Lieutenant Bayard and Mr. Milligan, the ship’s Master or navigating officer. They clung to supports in the pilot-house as they pored over a chart of the coastline from Cape Hatteras southward.

“I’d say it’s likely some of the sailing vessels will be driven close to shore, and perhaps all the way onto the rocks, sir,” Milligan said thoughtfully. “The Flag Officer didn’t give any orders about keeping their offing from the lee shore, and some of their Captains are clueless enough that they won’t think to do that for themselves. Even if they did, if they don’t have steam engines, their ships may not be able to claw off to windward, heavily laden as they are.”

“That’s partly because we’ve hired most of their good officers and seamen,” Bayard pointed out. “Those that are left aren’t always the best, and there aren’t as many of them as there should be to handle the sails in a storm like this.”

“Perhaps you’re right, but there’s nothing we can do about that now,” Rufus noted. “We’ve got to decide what we can do to help them. I’m thinking we should remain near the rear of the ships, say the last third or so of the convoy – or what was the convoy before it split up. We can’t do anything tonight; the clouds will hide the moon, and there won’t be enough light to see what we’re doing. From first light, we should stand by a mile or two off the coast, and look out for ships that can’t keep their offing. If we find them, we should offer to tow them a few miles further offshore, to a point where they can proceed southward in greater safety.”

“What if they’re already almost on the rocks, sir?” Bayard asked.

“We’ll haul them off if we can. If we can’t, we’ll have to try rescuing their crews.”

Milligan frowned. “In these seas, it’ll be almost impossible, sir. Small craft will be pitching and tossing so much that transferring from a boat to and from a ship will be deadly dangerous.”

“You’re right, of course,” Rufus was forced to agree. He thought for a moment. “We have a set of buoyancy chambers for one of our whaleboats, don’t we?”

The Master grinned. “I seem to recall that we ‘found’ a set in the Navy Yard, sir.”

Rufus passed the word for Bosun Raikes to join them. As soon as he arrived, he asked, “Bosun, what happened to that set of buoyancy chambers for one of our whaleboats?”

“They’re in the after storage area, sir.”

“Are they enough to keep the whaleboat afloat with a full load of survivors, even if the boat’s flooded to the gunwales?”

“They’re supposed to be, sir, even if she’s awash. If the boat’s flooded, I reckon it might be best to have some of the survivors stay in the water and hang onto ropes strung around the gunwales, rather than get in.”

“Right.” Rufus explained his plan for the coming day. “Get out those buoyancy chambers and bolt them in place in the seaboat’s bow and sternsheets, and beneath each thwart. Have ropes secured loosely along the gunwales, leaving big bights for men to hang onto in the water. Also, take out the mast and sail, and secure the oars along the center of the thwarts. Make sure they’re tied down well, so they won’t get washed out of the boat, and secure their rowlocks, too. Ask for volunteers for the seaboat’s crew for tomorrow morning, and warn them it’ll be risky work. I won’t send them out unless I have to, but in this storm, so close to the coast, it’s more than likely some of our ships will go ashore and their crews will need rescuing.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

“Even before you do that, get the storm trysail and jib up from the sail locker and bend them on. We’ll take in all plain sail, then hoist and set them, to let the ship ride the seas more easily.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Raikes repeated.

Rufus turned to Lieutenant Bayard. “Tell the cooks to prepare as many sandwiches as they can, enough for several meals, and make hot soup for tonight, then douse the galley fires until I tell them otherwise. We’ll be eating cold food until the weather moderates.”

“Aye aye, sir. It’s a good thing we still have plenty of bread left over from New York.”

“We won’t, after this storm! Very well, gentlemen, let’s get to work. It’s going to be a long, wet, cold night.”

It proved to be even worse than Rufus had forecast. The wind howled through the rigging all night long as the ship pitched and tossed on the rough seas. More than half the crew, even the most experienced sailors, became sea-sick, and Rufus was hard put to it not to empty his stomach into a convenient bucket kept handy in the pilot-house for those working there. Now and again they saw feeble masthead lights, but in the flying spray and pitch darkness could not determine which ships they identified, or even how far away they were. They kept Selinsgrove steaming slowly east, away from the coast, hoping that they weren’t being swept backward even as the paddle-wheels struggled to keep them moving forward at no more than one or two knots.

As the first light of dawn crept over the sky, Rufus and the Master stood ready to take bearings on any part of the coastline they could recognize. They were quickly able to identify the lighthouse on Okracoke Island, and turned north-east to head towards Cape Hatteras.  Within a couple of miles, they spotted a sailing ship that had lost her topmasts. Under reduced sail, she could not stop herself slowly being pushed by the wind and the waves towards the barrier islands. Rufus conned Selinsgrove closer to her, then had her crew haul the towing hawser across and make it fast in her bows. For three hours he pulled her out to sea, while her crew chopped loose the remaining wreckage of her top hamper and jury-rigged spars to hold more of the sails she had left. By noon, he cast off the tow and recovered the hawser. A quick conversation through speaking-trumpets identified her as the Velvet, one of the hired civilian store-ships for the Roanoke force. Her Captain assured Rufus that she could make her own way there under her jury rig, now that the storm was abating and she had a safe offing from the coast. With a wave, they left her to continue southwards while they headed back towards the shore through the still-angry waves.

Selinsgrove’s crew were munching on cold sandwiches when the barrier islands came into sight once more. They ran south-west along them, looking for any ships in trouble. It didn’t take long to find one. A lookout bellowed, “Ship aground, sir, broad on the starboard bow!”

Rufus and his officers raised their telescopes as one and peered at the stricken vessel. She’d struck rocks less than half a cable from the shore of Portsmouth Island. Her masts had gone by the board, and she’d broken her back. She hung there helpless as the waves pounded her.

As they drew closer, several voices yelled in unison, “There’s survivors, sir!” Rufus could see seven figures clinging to the topmost point of the wreck’s stern as it lay cocked up against the rocks, grinding up and down against them. Peering beyond them, he could see a boat on the beach of the island, with several figures gathered around it; but they were making no effort to launch the boat to rescue the men still on board. Looking at the violence of the waves as they pounded the ship and the shore, he couldn’t blame them.

He turned to the Bosun. “There’s no way we can send the seaboat in there under oars. She’d be swamped in a heartbeat. However, what d’you think about this? We can launch the seaboat under our lee, with the towing hawser led out through the stern fairlead and made fast to her bow. We can gradually pay out the hawser until she’s half a cable astern of us, then back the ship down towards the wreck. The seaboat’s cox’n can use the tiller and the direction of the waves to ease her up to the stern, then those aboard can jump down into her as the seas allow.”

Raikes grimaced. “It’s taking a hell of a chance with the seaboat crew’s lives, sir. If they’re thrown out of the boat, they won’t be able to get back to her against these waves.”

“What if they rig lifelines, to haul themselves back?”

“Ah… maybe, sir, maybe… but I’m not sure about the survivors jumping down, either. If they miss, they’re likely to break bones or brain themselves against the gunwales. What if they jumped into the sea, and our boat crew hauled them in on lifelines?”

“Let’s talk to the seaboat’s crew and ask them what they think.”

There were almost twenty sailors gathered near the seaboat, to Rufus’ surprise. “We all figured to lend a hand, sir,” a petty officer reported. “It’s going to take more than one crew to launch and recover the whaleboat if she’s needed.”

“Thank you all very much,” he told them all very sincerely, and explained what he and Raikes had discussed. “You’re all experienced seamen. Do you think it can be done?”

There was a long silence as they glanced at him, then each other, then the ruined vessel on the rocks. At last one man shrugged. “Sir, if we don’t do it, those men will be dead within an hour or two as the ship breaks up under them. We’ve got to try. If we were over there, we’d want someone to come for us. At least the seaboat has those buoyancy chambers. Even if she’s swamped, we’ve got a chance.”

Rufus nodded. “Very well. Bosun, you’re in charge. Pick volunteers for the crew, including an experienced cox’n. Have them make up lifelines for themselves, plus more to haul survivors aboard. Send word to the towing party to pay out the hawser through the stern fairlead, then lead it around to the seaboat. Make good and sure it’s made fast properly! If it comes loose, her crew won’t be able to row their way clear of the rocks in these heavy seas. When you’re ready, let me know.”

There was a chorus of “Aye aye, sir!” from all those standing around. The gathering broke into purposeful bustle as Rufus headed back to the pilot-house.

It took twenty minutes to make all the arrangements, during which time the wreck grew visibly smaller as pieces were smashed and ground off its hull against the rocks. The seven men on the stern had been waving frantically, but now clung silently to whatever handholds they could find as they stared across the seemingly uncrossable gap between them and safety. At last, Raikes sent word that the seaboat and its crew were ready.

Rufus conned Selinsgrove at a forty-five-degree angle to wind and waves, creating a small sheltered spot in the lee of her hull into which the seaboat was launched from its davits. Raikes supervised the towing crew as they slowly, carefully paid out the hawser, letting the whaleboat trail out astern of the ship. As they’d expected, within minutes the boat was half-full of seawater from waves breaking against and over it, but the buoyancy chambers kept it afloat as its crew bailed frantically with buckets.

When the boat was about a hundred yards away – half a cable’s length – Rufus put the paddle-wheels dead slow ahead, allowing the wind and waves to slowly push Selinsgrove down towards the wreck. He used paddle-wheels and rudder to adjust his course so that the seaboat remained on track to come up to the wreck. As soon as it was within a few oars’ length of the ship, he put the engine slow ahead again, and used the paddle-wheels to juggle Selinsgrove’s speed, trying to keep the whaleboat as close as possible to the wreck without actually letting them collide.

They couldn’t hear what was said between the boat’s crew and the survivors on the wreck, but clearly there was a discussion going on. At last one of the survivors stood, let go his handhold, and jumped as hard and as far away from the wreck as he could, falling into the sea. As his head broke water, a lifeline from the seaboat landed across his face, and he seized it with both hands. The seaboat’s crew hauled him in like a big fish, and pulled him over the gunwale. He tried to shake their hands, but they pushed him towards the bows and turned back to the wreck, gesturing to the next survivor to repeat the process.

It took a quarter of an hour for the seven survivors to all make the hazardous jump into the sea and be hauled aboard the whaleboat. As soon as the cox’n waved to Selinsgrove to signal that they were ready, Rufus put the engines half ahead and slowly pulled the seaboat clear of the wreck. When it was far enough away, he ordered the towing party to pull in the hawser using the ship’s stern capstan. As the whaleboat approached, he slowed the engine and again turned the ship at forty-five degrees to wind and wave, creating a lee into which the seaboat’s crew rowed her briskly. The men at the davits hauled her upward, water streaming from her hull as those aboard continued to bale her, and swung her inboard.

Rufus handed over the conn to Lieutenant Bayard and hurried aft, to find the seaboat’s crew being congratulated by the rest of their party and the seven survivors ecstatic at still being alive. One of them seized Rufus bodily and hugged him, to the raucous amusement of his crew. “Gawd bless ’ee f’r comin’ to our aid, skipper! We thought we were dead for sure!”

“What about the rest of your crew?” he asked. “Did they get ashore safely?”

“Aye, they did, sorr. The cap’n was puttin’ us all in our cutter when a big wave knocked loose a part o’ the bulwarks to which it was made fast. All of ’em in the boat was washed ashore. It turned over in the surf, but it was close enough to the beach that they all got out. That were first thing this mornin’, soon’s we could see the land. Us seven… well, there weren’t no way we could get clear o’ the wreck without bein’ dashed agin the rocks by the waves. We’d just about given up hope when ’ee came along.”

“I’m very glad we did. What’s the name of your ship?”

“Mary Louise, sir. We was carryin’ supplies for th’ Army.”

“Very well.” He turned to Raikes. “Bosun, my thanks to everyone involved, including all those who helped with the seaboat and the towing party. Take them all below, get buckets of hot water from the condenser for everyone to wash themselves and rinse their clothes, find dry clothes for those who don’t have them, and tell the Master-at-Arms, on my authority, to issue all of you with a half-gill of Navy whiskey.” *

There was a roar of cheers as the sailors heard his last order. Rufus found it hard to keep his feet as the enthusiastic seamen hurried forward, and laughed aloud as he found himself carried along with them. He was still grinning as he climbed the stairs to the pilot-house.

Bayard and the Master greeted him with something like awe. “I tellee, sir, in all my thirty-two years in the Navy, I’ve never seen better ship-handling,” Milligan said as he offered his hand.

“I agree, sir,” Bayard added, grabbing for a support as an errant wave kicked Selinsgrove sideways and he lost his balance. “I don’t see how you were able to judge your engine speed so nicely by eye alone. I’d have worn out the engine-room telegraph with constant adjustments.”

“That’s exactly the wrong thing to do,” Rufus rejoined. “Make an adjustment, then give it time to take effect. If it doesn’t do exactly what you want, give it enough time to see what it’s actually doing, then order a new setting to correct that. If you rush to change settings without knowing for sure what each is doing, you’ll wear out your engines and your firemen before long.”

The weather was still too rough to allow the cooks to re-light the galley fires, so they had another cold supper of the last of the sandwiches, and went through another rough night with minimal sleep and constant attention to the motion of the ship. However, by dawn the storm was abating sufficiently that Rufus allowed the cooks to prepare a hot breakfast, to loud cheers from the crew. They spent the next day cruising up and down the coast, looking for more ships in trouble, but they didn’t find any. That evening, they shaped course for Port Royal.

*  A quick historical note:  the Union Navy did not eliminate the daily issue to sailors of four ounces [one gill] of whiskey until 1862.  The Confederate States Navy retained the custom until the end of the war.

Well, there you have it.  I hope you liked that snippet.  Whether you did or you didn’t, please let me know in Comments, because I do take reader input into account as I write my books.  Thanks in advance.



  1. Since Peter will not toot his own horn guess I'll have to.
    The tale of how Rufus King and a gang of like sailors stuck caught in New Orleans at the start of the Civil War winkled a British merchantman out of the port and escaped to the North can be found in:
    Tales Around the Supper Table- Volume 2
    in the short story: Piracy in a Good Cause.
    As is consistently the case in anything Peter writes, it's entertaining, informative, and historically as accurate as his research and hindsight can make it.

  2. Good story! I enjoyed the whole idea. As a retired USN sailor I really like the realism, until you have really experienced a storm at sea it is really hard to imagine how powerful and dangerous a storm can be!

  3. Looking forward to it.
    Also, have you ever considered doing something, even alternate history, with Nathan Bedford Forrest? Yes, there are histories of him and his troopers but something with a Grant touch? I would buy that.
    The South had such great horse soldiers, most, to my knowledge, operating as almost independent bands loosely directed from Richmond. Forrest and Moseby raiders come to mind. Probably others. Though, apparently, the calvary screen and scouts attached to the Army of Northern Virgina dropped the ball at Gettysburg. You usually cannot do a complete win with just the horsemen, infantry is needed. Meanwhile, the calvary can really be a pain to the opposing forces. Just ask anyone trying to fight Forrest.

  4. If you can replace Dudley Pope, you have my deepest thanks. After the short story and this snippet I believe you can.

    The idea from Mr Ward also would interest me.

  5. I'll second the comment of Fred Mallison regarding the sand and shoals of North Carolina. I have sailed around all three of the capes. I know of no area with rocky shoals. I would get some actual navigational charts of the area to check that aspect. I enjoyed the sample and very much look forward to the full story.

    John Crane

  6. I will third the comments by Fred Mallison and second the comments by Observer.

    As a native of the Southeastern NC Coast, and a descendant of a 5 generation boat building family in the same area, I can tell you there are a very few "rocky outcrops" (prized for fishing), but NO rocky shoals.

    You have shifting sandbars and tricky currents, but rocks? Nope.

    Diamond Shoals (off Hatteras) is a 12 mile long sand bar into which prevailing currents will force south bound traffic.

    Frying Pan Shoals, off Cape Fear (Bald Head Island) is a 28 mile long sandy shoal.

    Think of the Texas coast off Galveston, flat, sandy with shallows extending far out to sea.

    Fix the narrative to eliminate the mention of rocks/rocky shoals and it's a good read.

  7. Thanks to all who commented about rocks vs sand. I'll update the manuscript accordingly. The book is still a work in progress, so I'm sure there'll be more issues like that. Thanks for helping me fix this one.

  8. My gawd, that was gripping! Iron men and wooden ships, indeed! Thank you Peter.

    What is the correlation 'twixt heavy seas and cold food? I understand the smoking lamp is out during the handling of gunpowder, but wonder how rough seas precluded warm food back then. I have a "fond" memory of tilting my food tray to keep my soup in the bowl while eating… Good times.

  9. @Robert: The galley stove(s) used wood for fuel, and cooked over fires. In rough weather, there was no way to guarantee that an ember or burning stick might not escape the stove and set fire to the ship (which, being made of wood, was highly flammable). Therefore, in rough weather, the galley fires were usually ordered to be extinguished, and not lighted again without the captain's permission.

    For more information about sailing ship galleys (kitchens), see:

    There's also information about the galley aboard the replica sailing ship HMS Surprise at:

    Being a ship's cook at sea was an art as much as a science. Everything for the entire ship's company (sometimes many hundreds strong) had to be cooked over an open flame in a cast-iron structure that incorporated ovens for roasting, boilers for steeping and boiling meat and vegetables, and a boiler for producing hot water. In rough weather the cooks would have to keep their feet despite the sometimes violent motions of the ship, and also hold down seasickness (or void into conveniently placed buckets, to the detriment of kitchen hygiene).

    It was cramped, noisy, unpleasantly smelly, and definitely far more challenging than a kitchen on land.

  10. That snippet was excellent!

    I love historical Naval fiction and that piece was first rate. I can’t wait to read the whole series.

  11. More please, much more.
    The atmosphere which you generated in so few words about the intensity and ferocity of the storm made my hair stand on end!

  12. As a Navy vet, I enjoyed that very much! As Wandortx wrote, a storm at sea can be a frightening thing! I had the fun of a Westpac during typhoon season. It was interesting, to say the least! This was in a 453-foot, single screw frigate: a large and comfortable ship compared to the one you described.

    In short: yes, please complete the book! I'll buy it! Your latest Western was very good as well. Thank you, Peter! You're a treasure.

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