Artifact Spotlight: USS Hartford

USS Hartford
Built by Mr. Keith Ward Reynolds
Gift of Mrs. Jayne Mayntz

We’ve been very fortunate to add several beautiful wooden ship models to our collection in recent months. Among them is this 3 ½ foot-long model of USS Hartford, a ship most famous for its role as the flagship of the Union fleet at the Battle of Mobile Bay, but which also has a connection to Newport and the Naval Training Station.

click to enlarge
Hartford was launched on November 22, 1858 at the Boston Navy Yard. She was built as a sloop-of-war, meaning that she mounted all guns on a single deck and carried square-rigged sails. Her armament consisted of two 12-pounders, two 20-pounder Parrott rifles, and twenty 9-inch smoothbore Dahlgrens. Following her commissioning on May 27, 1859, Hartford became the flagship for the East India Squadron and sailed to the Far East on a diplomatic mission.

click to enlarge

With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Hartford returned home to Philadelphia where she was readied for wartime service. One week after Confederate forces fired on Ft. Sumter, President Lincoln directed the U.S. Navy to establish a blockade of all states that seceded from the Union. The plan was for the Navy to starve the South of the resources necessary to fight the war while the Army brought about a decisive battle on land. To that end, the Navy divided up the Confederate coastline and assigned responsibility for each section to an independent squadron. In January 1862, Hartford became the flagship for the West Gulf Blockading Squadron under the command of Flag Officer David G. Farragut. His area of responsibility began at the mouth of the Mississippi River and ran west to the Rio Grande.

Before Mobile Bay, Hartford participated in two other decisive actions of the war. From April 18 to May 1, 1862, the West Gulf Blockading Squadron fought its way past two forts on the Mississippi as well as a collection of ironclads, fire rafts, and river steamers to reach the city of New Orleans. With the closure of that city’s port facilities, the Confederacy lost the use of the Mississippi River as a conduit for overseas trade. That left Vicksburg as the last significant river port remaining in southern hands. The high bluffs overlooking the river gave the Confederate gunners there a distinct advantage. They could fire plunging shot down on enemy ships as they passed, while Union naval crews could not elevate their guns high enough to fire back. Farragut’s ships worked to isolate Vicksburg and helped ferry General Ulysses S. Grant’s army over the Mississippi in order to attack the defensive works from the rear. Vicksburg finally fell on July 4, 1863.

Map of the Battle of Mobile Bay (click to enlarge)
Courtesy of  Civil War Preservation Trust
On August 5, 1864, Farragut once again took Hartford into battle, this time at Mobile Bay. Just as at New Orleans, he faced a combination of coastal fortifications supported by a small flotilla of enemy ships. Chief among them was the ironclad CSS Tennessee. The rebel commander, Franklin Buchanan, had been the first Superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy when it opened in 1845. He commanded CSS Virginia until just before its historic battle with USS Monitor and was subsequently promoted to full admiral, the only officer in the Confederate navy to achieve that rank. Farragut was a rear admiral at the time of the battle.

The attack got underway early in the morning with the Union vessels advancing in two columns. Farragut’s ironclad monitors sailed closer to Fort Morgan, the larger of the two shore defenses, in order to screen the wooden warships in the second column. As the lead ironclad, Tecumseh, entered the bay, Tennessee appeared out of the morning mist. Tecumseh’s captain turned to intercept the Confederate ironclad, but the new course took his ship directly into a minefield. Tecumseh struck a torpedo (as floating mines were called then) and sank by the bow in less than thirty seconds. Brooklyn, the ship directly ahead of Hartford, slowed to a halt while her captain signaled to Farragut asking for instructions. It was at this moment that Farragut supposedly gave his famous order, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” His actual words have been lost to history, though most eyewitnesses stated that he said something to that effect. More importantly, the rest of his ships passed by the forts and negotiated the minefield without suffering any critical damage.
With Hartford now in the lead, Tennessee turned to attack the head of the Federal line. Her slow speed greatly hindered Buchanan’s attempts to ram the Union ships, and he decided to withdraw after realizing that he could not outmaneuver his opponents. Buchanan pulled away to inspect his ship for damage and feed his crew. Having satisfied himself that Tennessee was still capable of fighting, he once again turned to engage. Hartford and Tennessee steamed for each other on opposite courses and passed port-to-port at point blank range. Having withstood Hartford’s broadsides, Tennessee now found herself surrounded by the rest of the Union fleet. A hail of incoming shot destroyed her funnel, severed her steering chains, and severely wounded Buchanan, forcing him to turn over command of Tennessee to his flag captain. Unable to steer or raise steam, Tennesse bowed to the inevitable and surrendered. When the garrison of Ft. Morgan finally capitulated on August 23, Mobile Bay was firmly in Union hands and remained so for the rest of the war.

An August Morning with Farragut; the Battle of Mobile Bay, August 5, 1864
William Heysham Overend English
Oil on canvas
Wadsworth Athaneum

Hartford survived the war and became the flagship for the newly-formed Asiatic Squadron in July 1865. After transferring to the North Atlantic Squadron in 1875, two of her enlisted crew members earned the Medal of Honor the following year for rescuing drowning shipmates. Hartford’s captain at that time was an officer well known to anyone familiar with the history of the Naval War College – Stephen B. Luce. While in command of Hartford, Luce argued for reform within the Navy and championed the establishment of an advanced school for officers. His ideas eventually bore fruit with the founding of the College in 1884. Hartford went on to serve as a training ship for apprentice seamen, another program begun as a result of Luce’s efforts.

Captain Stephen B. Luce (seated on the right) aboard USS Hartford
Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command

This beautifully detailed model of Hartford arrived last month courtesy of Mrs. Jane Mayntz. Her father, Mr. Keith Ward Reynolds, built the model over two decades beginning in the 1930s. Financial hardship brought about by the Great Depression forced him to improvise with some of the building materials. One example is the copper plating on the hull which was made from a toilet bowl float! We are fortunate that Mr. Reynolds persevered for so many years to finish the Hartford and are grateful to Mrs. Mayntz for donating it to the museum.

Rob Doane
Curator, Naval War College Museum


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