Harriet Lane



Historic Civil War Ship Harriet Lane

By James Donahue

Built as a steamship for service as a U.S. Revenue Cutter in 1857, the Harriet Lane was in the right place at the right time to serve the Union forces and briefly the Confederate side during the American Civil War.

Her most memorable historic moment came on April 12, 1861, when she fired the first shot at sea in the war. The Lane, under the command of Captain John Faunch, was standing off with a Navy relief squadron during the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter and hailed the rebel steamer Nashville, designed as a merchant vessel, making a run for the open sea. When the Nashville refused to show her colors, Faunch ordered a shot fired across the bow.

The Nashville raised the United States ensign and was allowed to pass the Naval squadron, which was a mistake by Faunch. Two days later, Nashville raised the Palmetto flag and began a career as one of the most elusive Confederate privateers. Later in the war the Lane, now under the command of Lieutenant W. D. Thompson, fired the opening salvo of an engagement with Confederate naval forces when he targeted the Nashville.

The Lane, a 270-foot side-wheeled steamship, was an active vessel at first for the U.S. Treasury Department as a revenue cutter, and later, after the war began, was a Naval warship.

The cutter served a temporary duty under the Naval command in 1858 when she accompanied a squadron to Paraguay following an unprovoked attack by Paraguayan forces on the U.S. ship Water Witch in those waters. With the ships of the fleet anchored off shore, Dictator Carlos Antonio Lopez apologized, paid an indemnity to compensate the family of an American seaman killed in the attack, and signed a new commercial treaty with the United States government.

In September, 1860, the cutter was selected to carry Edward Albert, the Prince of Wales and first member of the British Royal Family to visit the United States, to Mount Vernon where he planted a tree and placed a wreath on the tomb of George Washington.

After the outbreak of the war and the incident at Fort Sumpter, the Harried Lane joined a task force sent against Fort Clark and Fort Hatteras on the outer banks of North Carolina and to stop blockade running in that area.

On August 26, 1861, the fleet conducted the first important combined amphibious operation of the war in an attack at Hampton Roads. The Harriet Lane, Monticello and Pawnee came close insore to provide direct support to troop landings while the heavier ships fired their canons at the forts from deeper water. The operation was a success and provided a badly needed boost to morale in the north, after the defeat a month earlier at the First Battle of Bull Run. More importantly, it opened the inland waterways to Union ships and provided a base deep in Southern waters for blockade operations.

Three days later the Lane went aground while entering Pamlico Sound through Hatteras Inlet and took some heavy damage while fast on the shoal. The Navy was forced to jettison the ship's armament, rigging, stores, provisions and almost everything else on board to lighten the ship enough to pull it back into deep water.

Following repair and refitting at Hampton Roads, the cutter sailed in February, 1862 to Key West where she joined Commander David Dixon Porter's Mortar Flotilla for an attack on Confederate forts on the Mississippi River Delta below New Orleans.

While involved with the Union fleet off Louisiana and Texas, Harriet Lane became part of the West Gulf Squadon under the command of Commodore David Farragut. At that time the ship was refitted and her firepower upgraded. Then under the command of Cammander John D. Wainright and Lt. Commander Edward Lea, she was used as Farragut's flagship for a few months until Farragut transferred to the Hartford in January, the next year.

After Farragut left her, the Lane was ordered to join a fleet under the command of Captain David D. Porter at the mouth of the Mississippi River. On March 4, 1862, the fleet attacked Confederate forts south of New Orleans, moving up the river and by April 8 attacked Fort Jackson. After New Orleans fell, the Harriet Lane was sent to attack the batteries at Vicksburg.

Now, deep in the heart of the Confederates, the Union ships engaged in major warfare, which was made even more difficult when the fleet encountered the new Confederate ironclad, Arkansas.

That fall the Lane was involved in an assault on Pelican Island, off Galveston, Texas. The fort was taken but held by only the warships anchored off shore. The Union forces from the ships occupied the town but fell back to the docks every night when Confederate cavalry entered the town in the evening. This strange warfare continued until January 1, when the Confederate army moved in, catching all of the ships off guard. The Harried Lane was raked by gunfire and rammed before it was seized by the southern forces. Captain Wainright was killed in the attack and Lea was mortally wounded.

The Confederates then turned the Lane's guns on the other Union ships. It was an intense battle and by the next morning the Lane was listing badly and taking heavy hits from salvos from the other vessels. In the end, the flagship Westfield was blown up and the remaining Union ships fled to New Orleans, leaving the Harriet Lane in Confederate hands.

The ship was quickly repaired and placed under the command of Captain Barney. She was stripped of weapons and sent off to Cuba to pick up a cargo of cotton. But a Union warship was sent off in pursuit and engaged the Lane at Havana. In his effort to flee Captain Barney ran the ship aground. The Lane was recaptured by Union forces, refloated, but declared unfit for further naval service.

The ship was refitted as an unarmed three-masted fore-and-aft schooner and renamed the Elliott Ritchie. The vessel operated at Philadelphia, transporting coal and general merchandise until May, 1884, when she caught fire and was abandoned at sea off Pernambuco, Brazil.


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