Civil War Frigate Caledonia Fought Pirates And Slavers

By James Donahue

An early steam powered Navy frigate, the Caledonia, spent its years mostly chasing pirates and slave ships operating off the Atlantic Coast of the United States.

Built in 1853 at Philadelphia, the Caledonia had a steam engine that drove it, but the machinery was placed within the wooden hull of a 162-foot three-mast sailing ship. She carried a complement of 90 sailors and was armed with four 32-pound canons.

While launched in 1853, the Caledonia was not acquired by the Navy until 1858, so the vessel apparently served for its first five years under private ownership, probably as a commercial hauler. The Navy chartered the steamer in September, 1858, and sent it to South America with August L. Case in command, to participate in an 18-ship Paraguay expedition.

There was an incident in which the Paraguay Navy fired on a U.S. survey steamer, the Water Witch, and the episode nearly caused a war with the United States. That 18-ship armada, under the command of Flag Officer William B. Shubrick, arrived at Asuncion on January 25, 1859. The Caledonia took a position above Rosario on the La Plata River, while negotiations between representatives of the United States and Paraguay went on ashore. In the end, Paraguay apologized for the incident and agreed to pay an indemnity, and not a shot was fired.

After she arrived back in the United States, the Caledonia was officially purchased by the Navy in June, 1859, and she was issued a new name . . . Mohawk. With Lt. Tunis Craven now in command, the steamer operated against pirates and slavers off the east coast and in the Caribbean through 1861. During this operation, Mohawk captured the slave ship Wildfire on April 28, 1860, and delivered the prize at Key West. The crew was imprisoned and the 530 Africans on board were placed in a camp for protection, guarded by the Mohawk’s marines until they were returned home.

During the first stages of the American Civil War, the Mohawk and the steamer Wyandotte defended Forts Jefferson and Taylor at Key West, Florida, with actions by "bands of lawless men" that enabled the Union to retain that key Florida base. It played a vital role in naval operations during the war.

In March, 1861, the Mohawk escorted the supply ship Empire City to Havana, Cuba, and then north to Indianola, Texas. She then took up blockade duty off various Florida ports, and in July, 1861, captured the sloop George B. Sloat when it attempted to run the blockade.

The steamer continued on blockade duty along the East Coast, sometimes traveling north to New York, but most of the time remaining in the Florida area.

In June, 1864, Mohawk was sent to Philadelphia Navy Yard to repairs. But it was found that because of her old and damaged boilers and poor general condition from wartime duty made the vessel unfit for further naval service. She was sold to a commercial owner and renamed Alliance.

The Alliance was wrecked at Hatteras Inlet, North Carolina, on March 4, 1869.


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