Commander William A. Webb and the Loss of the Atlanta: A Reappraisal

This page was developed from selected sections of The Best Station of Them All, with additional material excised from the book for space considerations.

Michael Jordan of Cosmos Mariner Productions and Dr. Melton discuss Capt. William A. Webb and the Atlanta

In the early morning hours of June 17, 1863 the Confederate ironclad Atlanta cast off her moorings and eased down Wilmington River, below Savannah, intent on a breakout through Wassaw Sound and a raid on the Union blockade. The Atlanta‘s captain, William A. Webb, had his choice of targets. He could fall on the blockaders off Charleston; he could steam into Port Royal Sound and make a shambles of the U.S. Navy’s repair and resupply facility; or he could turn south and roll up the blockade from Fernandina through Jacksonville and St. Augustine, Fla. 1

But first he was going to have to get through two new Passaic class monitors, the Nahant and the Weehawken, sent to Wassaw Sound specifically to stop the Atlanta. These monitors featured significant upgrades, including a battery of one 11-inch and one 15-inch Dahlgren smoothbore.

Webb shouldn’t have had to open his raid with a fight against monitors. When he left Savannah on a high spring tide2 on June 2, the lone wooden gunboat blockading Wassaw Sound had been withdrawn on vague rumors of the Atlanta‘s coming out. But halfway to Wassaw, the Atlanta‘s steam valve had broken (crushed, Commander Webb said), and for two weeks the ironclad was moored off a battery, immobile, waiting on repairs3. Only as the valve was being replaced did these two monitors belatedly arrive. But Webb was determined to carry out his raid, and expected to be victorious no matter who or what he faced.

It was approximately 4:30 a.m. when the Atlanta was first spotted entering Wassaw Sound. John Rodgers, captain of the monitor Weehawken, looked at the intruder through a spy glass and saw a vessel shaped like the Merrimack. A cabin boy aboard the Nahant watched her coming on, gathering speed, and noted the white bow wave creaming before her—the bone in her teeth that showed she was making knots. And he saw the contraption on her flush deck forward—the spar torpedo that Capt. Webb intended to use to put the first of these monitors on the bottom of the sound. As the cabin boy watched, the spar torpedo swung forward and down, disappearing into the water in front of the ram4. But then the Atlanta appeared to stop; and sat in the water as if waiting for the monitors to bring the battle to her.

Wassaw Sound was shallow, tricky, and dangerous. And the Atlanta had come to a halt because her pilot, Tom Hernandez, had gotten her aground on a sand bar. When the Atlanta‘s keel was near the bottom she was a notoriously bad handling ship. She had grounded, briefly gotten afloat, but refused to answer her helm, and kept surging and swinging with the incoming tide, finally settling back on the side of the sand bar, immovable5.

This was a naval officer’s worst nightmare. Savannah’s Col. Edward Anderson, who had been a midshipman in his youth, said: My naval education had taught me that of all things most dreaded by the commanders of men of war that of being in shoal water near a coast was the greatest bug bear… The late Prof. Tom Henderson Wells, a 20th Century graduate of Annapolis, said: Nothing is calculated to make a combat commander more cautious than being in shoal water in the presence of an enemy6.

Grounding in combat was a catastrophe. In Hampton Roads the ironclad Virginia had shot the grounded Congress to wreckage and burned her. She would have done the same to the grounded Minnesota the next day but for the arrival of the original Monitor.
Now, the tables were turned. The Atlanta was aground. The two monitors came on, and the Weehawken, leading, closed on the Atlanta’s starboard quarter, a position where the Rebel’s guns couldn’t bear on her, and began to shoot the ironclad to pieces. It was her new 15-inch gun that did the damage. The 11-inch had no effect. But the first 15-inch round shot struck the Atlanta just forward of her starboard gun port, shattered four inches of armor and fifteen inches of oak and pine backing, and threw a mass of shrapnel and wood splinters across the deck, killing and wounding men at three of her four guns. Every 440 pound 15-inch shot penetrated, and it was all over in fifteen minutes. The Atlanta fired but five shots. The second monitor didn’t even have a chance to get into the contest. 7

In retrospect, we might ask of Commander William A. Webb: What was he thinking? How could he ever believe he could go out and whip two monitors? In the wake of the fight, Savannah didn’t ask. Everyone knew William Webb to be an unthinking fool. Col. Anderson noted that in the Old Navy Webb had been known as a very reckless young officer, that he had been specially promoted to command the Atlanta with the understanding that he would at once do something. And accordingly came down here very much elated at his advancement. He was boastful and disinclined to listen to the counsel of older and wiser heads. 8 A Savannah lady wrote Mrs. William McBlair, the widow of the Atlanta‘s original captain, that those older and wiser officers had been superceded (sic) by this [illegible] gentleman who went out expecting to excite every one by his exploits, and has accomplished nothing but to lead himself into captivity and those also under his command. 9


Capt. William A. Webb

So…who was William A. Webb? He came from an old Norfolk, Va. Family, and the Webb roots ran deep in Navy tradition. His father, Thomas T. Webb, was a U.S. naval officer from 1808 until his death in 1853. His brother-in-law was Commodore John R. Tucker—Handsome Jack to his brother officers in the Old Navy, the model for the hero of a popular Henry Wise novel of the 1850s, and now commodore of the Charleston Squadron. Webb was no uninformed dreamer. He knew the Navy, and he knew naval combat. 10

But because he was so ignominiously defeated, because he lost the Confederacy’s greatest warship, William A. Webb has all but disappeared from the pages of history. There is not a word to be found of him (and next to nothing on the family) in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, not a document in the Virginia Historical Society, nothing in issues of U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings. He wrote nothing of the battle for Century magazine’s Battles and Leaders series, nor for Confederate Veteran or Southern Historical Society Papers. Queries to museums and historical societies in Richmond and Norfolk turn up nothing. His defeat was so complete as to erase him, and his family, from the history of the Navy. In the wake of his defeat, all Savannah seemed to agree: Served him right. But we are still compelled to ask: How could he have been so foolish?

Perhaps he wasn’t. He had been promoted and given the plum command in the Confederate Navy with the express understanding that he do something with the Atlanta. She had been hanging around in the Savannah River for six months, and had accomplished nothing. A trip or two down toward Wassaw Sound (and running aground) and that was it. The people of Savannah were demanding action. People around the Confederacy, and the Secretary of the Navy, were all looking for some great victory with the Atlanta. And William A. Webb had personally promised Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory a victory.

What was he thinking? He had confidence in his ability to succeed, and a strong body of evidence that proved—to him—that he could. And that body of evidence seemed to suggest the same to the Secretary of the Navy. That evidence all spoke to the inflated reputation of the Union Navy’s monitors.

William A. Webb knew more about fighting monitors than any other man in the Confederacy. He’d been captain of the gunboat Teaser in the James River Squadron when the Virginia took on the original Monitor. He’d had a ringside seat at the world’s first heavyweight bout between ironclads. He knew the Virginia had gone into that fight carrying only shell, no solid shot, and had still come away with a split decision.

In preparation for the next battle with the Monitor, he trained a team to board and capture the Ericsson ironclad. To prepare a battle plan he’d studied the Monitor intently. Secretary Mallory sent him an article on the vessel from Scientific American11 that showed the ship in detail. Only the Monitor‘s refusal to come out and fight another bout kept William Webb from hurling himself and his men onto her deck. Webb didn’t realize that after that first epic battle the U.S. Navy Department had forbidden the Monitor to engage the Virginia again for fear of losing the ironclad and opening the way for the Rebels to ascend the Potomac and shell the White House.

So Webb saw the Virginia try again and again to lure the Monitor back into combat, capturing Union ships right under the Monitor‘s nose and taunting her…and the Monitor refused to come out and fight. That signified to Webb that the Monitor had taken a severe pummeling in that battle, and was afraid to come out for more.

Then, when Norfolk was lost and the homeless Virginia had to be destroyed, he’d seen the Monitor and another, newer Union ironclad steam up the James River to Richmond, just as the Federals feared the Virginia might do to Washington. But instead of shelling Richmond into submission, the Monitor and her consort had taken a drubbing from the guns at Drewry’s Bluff, and had to beat it back down to the safety of their fleet. Webb didn’t notice that the Monitor couldn’t elevate her guns enough to fire back at the Rebels; he just saw that she’d been trounced again.

A year later William Webb was posted to Charleston to develop a small boat assault squadron to attack, board, or torpedo the monitors gathering off that port. 12 While he was there one of these brand new monitors, the Montauk, armed with one of the fierce new 15-inch Dahlgrens, was sent to attack Ft. McAllister, on Ossabaw Sound below Savannah. Three times she stood in and slugged it out with the earthwork, and her big guns couldn’t destroy the fort. When she left Ossabaw Sound, McAllister still stood, strong and defiant, while the Montauk limped off to Port Royal for repair, her bottom ripped by a small torpedo.

When Admiral Du Pont was forced, against his better judgment, to send all his ironclads into Charleston Harbor to attack Ft. Sumter, William A. Webb was there, with a ring-side seat at the next great heavyweight bout, the monitors against Ft. Sumter and the Charleston batteries. And again, he’d seen the monitors take a beating. In the slugfest off Sumter the Weehawken’s deck armor was shattered, the Nahant‘s helmsman was killed, and that odd duck ironclad Keokuk, shredded by ninety shot, sank before nightfall. 13 The monitors were whipped, and whipped badly at Charleston. They looked highly overrated. And Webb was sure he could whip them if he had command of a warship like the Atlanta.

In six months the Savannah Squadron and the Atlanta had been through two sets of commanders. None of them had succeeded in getting the ironclad into battle. And people in Savannah were getting angry. Savannah banker Gazaway B. Lamar took Secretary Mallory to task for the Navy’s saturation with old, slow, uninspired officers. Old Fogeyism, he called it in a rant to the Secretary. Why couldn’t Savannah get some young blood—someone who would do something? The Atlanta, Lamar said, was completed in December last & has done nothing—not one red copper’s worth, since—& in my opinion, she never will, under the control of Old Fogeyism here. He suggested that Mallory give the young men an opportunity…

Suppose the Atlanta does draw a lot of water, Lamar said, and suppose she doesn’t steer well when in shoal water. So what? Is she to be thrown aside as useless? If Savannah’s current naval command are not disposed to operate her, let them be relieved. Never expect a man to succeed in anything which he does not undertake with confident assurance. Lamar suggested that if no one in the Navy was willing to try to get the Atlanta into a fight, then call on Leon Smith, a colorful Confederate hero in Texas. If Leon Smith didn’t take the Atlanta and the iron battery Georgia down and recapture Ft. Pulaski within a week, Lamar said, I will agree to eat both Boats, iron & all. 14

If it was confident assurance Mr. Lamar wanted, Stephen Mallory had just the man. William Webb had always been a confident character. And Secretary Mallory summoned him to Richmond to receive a promotion and a mandate to take command at Savannah and make something happen. 15

Webb made something happen, indeed. But the Atlanta lost, the Weehawken won. John Rodgers, captain of the Weehawken, gained fame and glory, while William A. Webb sank with barely a trace.

How did it all go wrong for William A. Webb? First, there was the engine failure. Webb could have been out of Wassaw Sound and on his way to Port Royal without having to fire a shot. It was to his credit that he managed security in the immediate area so well that the Atlanta could sit immobile and helpless for two weeks, little more than a cannon shot away from the Federal garrison at Ft. Pulaki, and the Yankees never knew she was disabled. But he couldn’t manage security for the whole region. Deserters and their tales of the Atlanta coming out brought the monitors to Wassaw Sound. 16

When the monitors arrived, Secretary Mallory suggested that Webb wait for a second ironclad, the Savannah, which was fitting out. But that’s precisely the plan that had gotten his predecessor sacked. Webb hadn’t come to Savannah to wait: He’d come for action. The whole abolition fleet holds no terror for me, he famously told Mr. Secretary. 17

His real problem began when the ship ran aground. Why, and how, did that happen? Wassaw Sound was tricky and dangerous. The Atlanta had been built on an iron hulled Scottish blockade runner named Fingal. When she ran the blockade into Savannah in November of 1861, it was intended to take her in through Wassaw Sound. Her pilot refused—too dangerous. 18 And the Atlanta‘s pilots had no experience with a ship of the Atlanta‘s size. Through the early 1800s big ocean-going vessels came and went, linking Savannah with Liverpool, Marseilles, and other European ports. Savannah’s Commissioners of Pilotage licensed pilots in three categories, the highest authorized to pilot ships of 18-foot draft and more. That was the Atlanta‘s draft when her coal bunkers were full.

In the early to mid-1800s New York City conducted a successful campaign to capture all the country’s international trade. 19 And by the 1840s big vessels no longer cleared for European ports at Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, and other Southern ports. The South’s maritime business was reduced to what was called the coasting trade. Small steamboats and sailing schooners moved up and down the rivers and coasts of the South, much of the route through today’s Intercostal Waterway. By the time of the War Between the States, there were no pilots left on the coast who had experience with ships of the Atlanta‘s size. Her chief pilot, Tom Hernandez, and second pilot William W. Austin, had piloted shallow draft trading schooners before the war. It appears they grounded the Atlanta through lack of skill and experience.

And then, of course, there was the big gun. The Weehawken‘s 11-inch Dahlgren had no effect on the Atlanta‘s armor. But the 15-inch gun, with its 440-pound cored shot, 20 was another story. 21 Did Webb know of the existence of this monster? Since it had been used against both Ft. McAllister and Ft. Sumter, he probably did. But sand and crushed masonry absorbed this powerful projectile, masking its potential. If anything, this would have reinforced Webb’s belief in the inferiority of the whole monitor system.

Even had the Atlanta not grounded, even had she sunk one of the monitors with her spar torpedo, she still would have had to face one of these monsters. And as the Weehawken demonstrated, one 15-inch Dahlgren was all it took.

Those oriented toward conspiracy theory might be interested, too, in the report of the official survey of the Atlanta, undertaken and reported on immediately after her capture. U.S. Naval engineers reported the Atlanta‘s armor appeared to be decidedly brittle. In some of its fractures it has broken off almost as short as if it had been cast iron. Thomas G. Dyer, studying claims of unionists in Atlanta seeking damages from the U.S. government notes that Scofield and Markham, the New Jersey and Connecticut proprietors of Gate City Iron Works, which rolled the Atlanta‘s armor, bolstered their post-war claim for monetary compensation by contending that they did as little as possible in manufacturing to aid the Confederacy—only enough to keep their iron mill from being confiscated. It is entirely possible that the inferior quality armor the U.S. Navy’s engineers saw was intentionally substandard work on the part of Gate City. 22

For the most part, William A. Webb knew his adversaries. Was he confident and aggressive? Absolutely. But no more so than Lt. William B. Cushing who, with a steam launch, torpedoed and sank the ironclad Albemarle, or Gen. George A. Custer who, before his blunder at the Little Big Horn, had been so successful and such a national hero that he expected to be president.

Ironic: Webb knew his adversaries and knew they were much less than advertised. Yet it was the monitor Weehawken‘s quick, dramatic, stunning victory over the Atlanta that made the monitors the super ironclads of the war, and made William the goat of Savannah and the Confederate Navy.

1. Commander Webb to Secretary of the Navy S.R. Mallory, June 10, 1863 in U. S. Navy Department, Naval War Records Office, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865, (Washington, D.C., 1880-1891), Series I: vol. 14, 710-11.

2. Spring tides occurred twice a month, when the alignment of sun, moon and earth exerted the strongest gravitational pull and brought the largest flow of water into the coastal estuaries.

3. Webb to Mallory, May 31, June 1, 1863; to Assistant Engineer E.J. Johnston, June 1, 1863, ORN, I, 14, 704-5.

4. Robert Erwin Johnson, Rear Admiral John Rodgers, 1812-1882 (Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute, 1967), 253; Alvah F. Hunter, A Year on the Monitor and the Destruction of Fort Sumter Reprint: Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987), 73.

5. Dr. Robert R. Gibbes, The Loss of the Atlanta, Charleston Daily Courier, December 29, 1863, 652. For Pilot Hernandez, his bad luck and questionable skills, see Roger S. Durham’s High Seas and Yankee Gunboats: A Blockade-Running Adventure from the Diary of James Dickson (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005).

6. William Stanley Hoole, Confederate Foreign Agent: The European Diary of Major Edward C. Anderson (Tuscaloosa: Confederate Publishing Company, 1976), 95. Tom Henderson Wells, The Confederate Navy: A Study in Organization (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1971), 63-64.

7. Hunter, A Year on the Monitor, 73; Jim Dan Hill, The Civil War Sketchbook of Charles Ellery Steadman, Surgeon, United States Navy(San Raphael, Ca.: Presidio Press, 1976), 154; Johnson, Rear Admiral John Rodgers, 253-54. Pamela Chase Hain, A Confederate Chronicle: The Life of a Civil War Survivor (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005), 96; Webb to Mallory, ORN, I, 14, 290-93.

8. Edward C. Anderson Journal, as quoted in William N. Still, Iron Afloat: The Story of the Confederate Armorclads (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1971), p. 135.

9. Among the captives was Mrs. McBlair’s son, Master’s Mate Willie McBlair. Unidentified correspondent to Mrs. Virginia McBlair, June 21, 1863 in Virginia Myers McBlair Letters, Archives and Rare Book Library, Emory University.

10. Melton, The Best Station of them All, 217-18.

11. The Steam Battery Monitor, Scientific American, 6, no. 12 (1862).

12. Mallory to Webb, Feb. 13, 1863, ORN, I, 13, 829-31.

13. Robert J. Schneller, Jr., A Quest for Glory: A Biography of Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1996), 240.

14. Gazaway B. Lamar to S.R. Mallory, Apr. 23, 1863, G.B. Lamar Letter Book. National Archives and Records Administration II (College Park, Md.), Record Group 366, Records of Civil War Special Agencies of the Treasury Department. Fifth Special Agency.

15. Mallory to Webb, National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 45, Area 8, microfilm roll 414, #0905. The promotion, to rank from Apr. 29, 1863, was in the Confederacy’s Provisional Navy. It was, therfore, for the war, and would not have placed Webb above those senior to him in years of service had the Confederate Navy survived beyond the war. U.S. Navy Department, Office of Naval Records and Library, Register of Officers of the Confederate States Navy, 1861-1865 (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1931. Revised ed. Originally published 1898), 207.

16. William N. Still, Iron Afloat: The Story of the Confederate Armorclads (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1971), 136. Admiral S.F. Du Pont to Commander John Rodgers, Commander George Rodgers, Commander A.J. Drake, Lieutenant Commander L.H. Newman, June 10, 1863, ORN, I 14, 249-50.

17. Mallory to Webb, June 10, 1863, ORN, I, 14, 710-11, June 15, 1863, ibid., I, 15, 287.

18. Hoole, Confederate Foreign Agent, 93.

19. The classic work on this transfer of economic maritime power on the United States’ east coast is Robert G. Albion’s The Rise of New York Port, 1815-1860 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1939).

20. The ball was cast around a hardened wrought-iron core, a technique intended to make it extra strong for penetrating armor.

21. These monitors were intended to each carry a battery of two of the new 15-inch Dahlgrens. But production of the cannon couldn’t keep pace with the production of the new generation of monitor, so the battery was modified to the 11-inch, 15-inch pairing. Johnson, Rear Admiral John Rodgers, 226.

22. Survey of C.S.S. Atlanta, ORN, I, 14, 275-76. For Unionism in Confederate Atlanta, including the work of Scofield and Markham’s vital gate City iron mill, see Thomas G. Dyer, Secret Yankees: The Union Circle in Confederate Atlanta (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).