On Blockade Duty: Letters from a Lieutenant on the USS Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1864, Captain Rowell H. Lamson, a prominent Union Navy officer and commander of the USS Gettysburg, took part in the Union’s naval blockade in the southern Atlantic. During his assignment, Lamson detailed his activities in a series of letters to his wife, Kate. Lamson’s ship was reputedly the navy’s fastest warship and, as such, was seen as an invaluable component of the Union’s effort to strangle the South’s Atlantic supply lines. It also played a key role in several important battles along the eastern seaboard. Lamson’s letters provide an illustration of the Gettysburg’s many engagements with Confederate blockade-runners as well as the ship’s other activity in Virginia and the Carolinas.

Summary Overview

In 1864, Captain Rowell H. Lamson, a prominent Union Navy officer and commander of the USS Gettysburg, took part in the Union’s naval blockade in the southern Atlantic. During his assignment, Lamson detailed his activities in a series of letters to his wife, Kate. Lamson’s ship was reputedly the navy’s fastest warship and, as such, was seen as an invaluable component of the Union’s effort to strangle the South’s Atlantic supply lines. It also played a key role in several important battles along the eastern seaboard. Lamson’s letters provide an illustration of the Gettysburg’s many engagements with Confederate blockade-runners as well as the ship’s other activity in Virginia and the Carolinas.

Defining Moment

At the start of the Civil War, a top priority of President Abraham Lincoln was to cut off the supply lines used by the increasingly strong Confederacy. With the Confederacy’s main ports of entry along the Atlantic and Gulf coastlines (including rivers and bays), the Union Navy launched a massive blockade that stretched across three thousand miles from Virginia to Texas. The blockade’s purpose was twofold: to destroy the burgeoning Southern economy that relied on maritime commercial shipments and to discourage any attempt by foreign nations to become involved in the Civil War.

To ensure the success of the campaign, the Union used some of its fastest ships to pursue and capture the Confederate supply ships that attempted to break the blockade. These Confederate blockade-runners held an advantage over the Union’s military vessels–although they were lightly armored, they were much lighter than warships. Blockade-runners carried cotton and other goods (as well as light military supplies) between British territories in the Caribbean and other foreign ports, and the major ports in the South. One such blockade-runner was the Banshee, which was known for carrying such supplies as well as intelligence and Confederate government documents to and from various ports along the North Atlantic. To counter such threats to the blockade, the navy therefore relied on its fastest ships and its best officers to locate, pursue, and capture blockade-runners–engagements that would often span hundreds of miles.

In addition to their efforts against blockade-runners, navy ships were used in this region to support army campaigns against major ports and supply junctions. The ships brought supplies and supporting cannon fire to critical battles in the Carolinas, Louisiana, and Mississippi–while the Confederates fought tremendously on land, the Union Navy’s participation slowly but consistently undermined their long-term success.

One of the best-known navy ships involved in the blockade was the USS Gettysburg. The ship, built as a supply boat in Great Britain, was originally used by the Confederacy as blockade-runner itself. It was one of the many ships built in British shipyards that became blockade runners. It was captured in 1863, refitted and commissioned as a gunship, and placed into service along the southern Atlantic region, where it chased and captured a number of the Confederacy’s fastest blockade-runners, including the Little Ada, Lillian, and Armstrong. Captained by Roswell H. Lamson, the Gettysburg was also involved in key battles at Norfolk, Virginia, and Wilmington, North Carolina. During this latter campaign (which involved two battles), the Gettysburg shelled Fort Fisher and delivered troops that would be used to attempt to storm the fort. Its role helped the Union take the fort and cut off a major Confederate supply junction.

Author Biography

Roswell H. Lamson was born on March 30, 1838, on a farm near Burlington, Iowa. His parents, Jeremiah and Helen Maria Lamson, were both from Massachusetts, but became part of the New England westward migration, moving to the Iowa Territory in 1838. One year after Iowa became a state, in 1847, Lamson and his parents moved westward again, settling first near Astoria, Oregon, and later on a ranch in Willamina, Oregon. There, his sister Dorinda and brother Edward were born.

As he grew older, Roswell took part in the ongoing battles against the Indian tribes of the Northwest, before his parents enrolled him at the prestigious Oregon Institute in Salem. In 1858, his father, using his political contacts, secured him an appointment at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. One of the first Oregonians to enter the academy, Roswell excelled in his education. During this time, he also became close to his cousin, Catherine (“Kate”) Buckingham, who would later become his wife. In 1861, while still a midshipman, Lamson was mustered into the navy at the start of the Civil War. While at sea in 1862, Lamson finished his studies and passed his final examinations, graduating second in his class.

Lamson quickly became well known in the navy for his capabilities, including his innovative minesweeping techniques and his command style. During his career, he commanded more ships and flotillas (fleets) than any other naval officer of the same rank or age. Among the ships on which he served was the Mount Vernon, a destroyer that played a key role in the army-navy operation to take the Hills Point batteries in Virginia. In 1861, Lamson was appointed captain of the navy’s fastest steamer, the Gettysburg. Later, he commanded the powder boat Louisiana, which would be used in the ongoing campaign to take Fort Fisher.

In 1866, Roswell Lamson retired from the navy. After being involved in a number of enterprises in the United States and Europe, he and his fiancée returned to Oregon. He married Kate a year later. The two would have seven children (five died) before Kate died as well. In 1877, he became the clerk of the US District Court in Portland. In 1895, Lamson was reappointed to the navy as a lieutenant (on the retired list). After several years of battling a debilitating spinal disease known as locomotor ataxia, Lamson died in Portland in 1903. In honor of his distinguished career, the US Navy has since named three combat ships the USS Lamson, all of which were used in World Wars I and II.

Document Analysis

Roswell Lamson’s Civil War career was indeed a storied one. Lamson was captain of the gunboat Wabash, which was a major contributor to the destruction of key forts in North Carolina. He was also captain of a flotilla that repelled a major Confederate advance on Norfolk, Virginia. He was even wounded leading a seventy-man force in an attack on Fort Fisher in North Carolina. Like many of those involved in the Civil War, Lamson corresponded with loved ones at home (specifically, his future wife and another cousin). However, Lamson’s letters stand out among the myriad letters collected from this war because of his detailed accounts of the many engagements, battles, and other experiences in which he took part.

The letters that were exchanged between then-captain Lamson (while aboard the Gettysburg during the blockade) and his fiancée, Kate Buckingham, provide a detailed illustration of the prominent naval officer’s activities during this assignment. Lamson openly discussed with Kate his engagements on the open sea as well as his staunch pro-Union opinions–the two had only written correspondence as a medium through which they could communicate, as he spent most of their five-year engagement at sea. These letters began as soon as the two said good-bye to one another as the Gettysburg put to sea on blockade duty in 1864.

Roswell Lamson had developed a reputation as an innovative and highly capable naval officer, having introduced an effective method for minesweeping in key Southern ports. He was promoted to the rank of captain and given charge of one of the navy’s newest and reputedly fastest ships, which would be used in the pivotal naval blockade along the Atlantic Coast. The 726-ton Gettysburg was built only three years before the Civil War started. It was constructed in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1858, and was used as a civilian steamship under the name Douglas. In 1862, she was purchased by the Confederate states for the purpose of blockade-running. For two years, she successfully transported goods to the ports of Charleston, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina. During this period, she was renamed Margaret and again Jessie. When she was finally captured in 1864 on her way to Wilmington, the Union Navy refitted the former blockade-runner as a fast gunboat. Expectations were high that the renamed Gettysburg would prove successful at chasing blockade-runners.

On July 31, 1864, Lamson writes to Kate of his first test of the Gettysburg’s speed. The boat had been patrolling the Atlantic waters off the coast of North Carolina when it caught sight of a blockade-runner in the distance. Lamson and his crew gave chase, pursuing what he thought was the City of Petersburg–believed to be one of the fastest of the eighty-four steamers used for the purpose of running through the blockade during the entire Civil War. When he first arrived aboard the Gettysburg, Lamson says, the ship appeared in a poor state, seemingly incapable of chasing any blockade-runner. His opinion changed quickly, however. In this letter to his fiancée, Lamson says that the two-day pursuit of the fast-running steamer gave him a glimpse of both the Gettysburg’s speed and durability. He says that ship chased the City of Petersburg through rough seas with gale force winds. Although his ship did not succeed in this pursuit, Lamson remains confident that there was no blockade-runner capable of outrunning the Gettysburg.

The July 31 letter to his fiancée also shows the growing friendship between Lamson and his superior officer, Rear Admiral Samuel Phillips Lee. Lamson describes his meeting with Lee, wherein the navy’s fleet of blockade ships was being divided into four categories. The first three groups stayed near the coastline, while Lamson’s ship would be considered an “outside cruiser,” staying farther out to chase the runners. Lamson says that he was going to visit Lee aboard the USS Malvern, but that Lee had come aboard the Gettysburg while Lamson was on his way to the admiral’s ship. When Lamson returned to his boat, he learned that Lee was in the captain’s stateroom. Lee had been the individual responsible for delivering Kate’s letters to Lamson and vice versa, and he told Lamson that he was there to look for her picture. Lamson seems humbled by this encounter, wherein the admiral told him that he hoped that Lamson’s fiancée would consider the commanding officer her friend.

On the same day Lamson was describing his encounter with the City of Petersburg, Kate was writing to him as well. She queried him about the Union’s pursuits of the unconditional surrender of General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army (led by General John Bell Hood). The major focus at the time was Union Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman’s efforts at Petersburg, Virginia–a major supply port. She also mentions reading of Confederate claims that they were winning in the Battle of Atlanta, mocking what she claims is misinformation designed to keep up the Confederate public’s morale. Her letters and up-to-date comments on developments in the war demonstrate the speed at which news from the Eastern seaboard spread through the Union’s media outlets.

Kate Buckingham was from Mount Vernon, Ohio, a town through which her cousin Roswell traveled on his way to the Naval Academy. She remained there while he served in the war, working with her family to clear and develop their land. In her July 31 letter, she gave an update on the work she and her family were doing. Buckingham also recalls the last time she saw Lamson, as he and the Gettysburg put to sea only a few months earlier. She respects his duty and the “cause” that keeps him at sea. However, she also expresses her anticipation for the day when he can perform his duty without leaving her at the shore.

Two weeks later, Lamson writes to Kate from Norfolk, Virginia, where the Gettysburg came to port for repairs, including cleaning the hull of sea grass that grows on ships that have been at sea for a long period. When the ship had departed New York several months earlier, she was in much better condition, but over time, this sea grass slowed the boat’s maximum speed. This issue (which was exacerbated by the fact that the boat had received “very poor” coal at Beaufort, North Carolina) had hampered Lamson significantly over the last ten days, he says, as they sighted four blockade-runners and gave chase after three. Unfortunately, they ran at least two knots slower because of the grass and coal, and the runners eluded the Gettysburg. The pursuits were not entirely fruitless, however–in order to increase its speed, one of the larger runners, filled with cotton, dumped its cargo, which was worth about $20,000.

Although they were unable to catch these blockade-runners, Lamson maintains that his ship is an exceptional one, capable of catching at least some of the Confederates’ fastest ships. He notes that he has become quite adept at tracking enemy boats, pursuing one almost all the way to Bermuda. Lamson happily reports that his 130-member crew’s morale, despite the lengthy cruise, is positive, with most of them eager to remain on board. When they arrived at Norfolk, Lamson gave most of the crew (save himself) several days of shore leave.

He adds his regret about pay, however–during the Civil War, naval crewmembers and officers were paid “prize money” as their share of the proceeds from the sale of the blockade runners they captured. Captain Lamson’s money would have been substantial, having commanded several ships prior to and including the Gettysburg. However, Lamson says that this prize money has not been significant at all and that due to recent legislation, were likely to be further lowered. As the war drained the country’s financial resources, the bonuses due naval officers became minimal, if not nonexistent. Lamson therefore states that defeating the South (particularly at the key port city of Wilmington, North Carolina) was imperative, not just for the Union, but to suit Lamson’s financial needs as well.

On August 31, Lamson berthed at Beaufort, North Carolina, where he found a large number of letters from Kate waiting for him. His response would speak in general to the number of topics she broached in her letters, he says. He also tells her a story of a major accomplishment he and his Gettysburg crew had during their most recent cruise. While monitoring the horizon that morning, Lamson’s crewmembers saw smoke over the water, indicating some type of large vessel. In fact, they were seeing two boats in the distance, one of which was another Union ship–the Keystone State–and the other an as-yet unidentified blockade-runner. Lamson ordered full speed, and quickly overtook the Keystone State and gave chase to the Confederate supply ship. After only two hours of traveling at fifteen to sixteen knots, they caught up with the runner, which was ejecting its cargo to prevent being captured. The Gettysburg came alongside the runner and, after a brief exchange of cannon fire, the latter surrendered.

To the great and happy surprise of Lamson, this ship turned out to be the Lilian, one of the Confederates’ fastest ships. She had left Wilmington on her way to Great Britain when the Keystone State caught sight of her. Lamson and the crew boarded her and, while making repairs to the Lilian after the gunfight, made a great discovery–the blockade-runner was carrying five hundred bales of cotton and about $175,000 in gold. Additionally, she was carrying Confederate “cotton” bonds (which the Southern states used as currency during the war), which were to be sold to potential investors in Great Britain. In total, the Lilian was carrying about $600,000 worth of cargo, which Lamson calls “the most valuable prize ever captured on this blockade.”

By September of 1864, it was becoming clear to many in the North that the Civil War was coming to a positive close. Kate Buckingham, in a September 14 letter to her fiancé, echoed this sentiment, as she shared her excitement that the port of Wilmington had been effectively stifled and that the port at Mobile, Alabama, could be taken soon (“When we can spare the men to go and take it,” she writes). She also shares her exuberance that her fiancé’s assignment, blockade duty, was also seeing success against runners. She had read in the newspapers that the Confederate-owned A. D. Vance (also known as the Advance) and the Eliza had been captured by Union Navy vessels near Wilmington. She adds that she anticipates hearing news of the Gettysburg’s next capture.

On September 25, Lamson writes of his return to Beaufort after a brief stop in Norfolk for repairs. Once the boat was cleared for relaunch, Lamson says, it went back to sea, leaving any unnecessary equipment or items on the shore. This time, he writes, the Gettysburg would focus its attention on blockade-runners traveling to and from Halifax, Nova Scotia. The Canadian maritime provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia were important Confederate destinations during the latter years of the war, and the Union’s success in cutting off Bermuda and the Caribbean ports left these ports as the Confederacy’s last resort for trade with the British.

Although he remained equal to the tasks and confidence given him by his superior officers, Roswell Lamson was becoming tired after such a long period at sea. In his September 25 letter to Kate, Lamson tells her how he would like to return to the North. He adds that he is growing tired and weary, and his that his health was deteriorating after so many months in pursuit of the Confederacy’s best blockade-runners. It is possible, he states, that he might ask for some leave, during which he might get some rest and recuperate from his fatigue. However, he tells her, such a request would be unlikely to be granted. The “exigencies” of war and his own service, he says, are what will determine his ability to take some much-needed rest.

Lamson appears to accept the fact that he will not be able to rest until the end of the war. Although by this time, the tide of war was turning in the favor of the Union, the continued success of the blockade was integral to finally bringing the war to a close. Admiral Lee, Lamson says, remains impressed with the Gettysburg’s capabilities: “The Admiral says no other ship does as much as mine does,” he tells Kate. In fact, Lee consistently delivers glowing reports on the Gettysburg’s performance to his superiors in the War Department, Lamson says–such accolades reflect on the ship’s crew and its captain. Lamson implies that it is his duty to continue to perform to Lee’s lofty expectations, whether he is rested or not.

Nevertheless, Lamson expresses regret that his turn on blockade duty will not come to an end in the foreseeable future. He states his disappointment that September 25 is a Sunday: “a day of rest in most parts of the Christian world, but is not that here,” he observes. The war, he says, has taken center stage, while the American way of life–at least for Lamson and his military compatriots–is placed in a secondary position.

Essential Themes

Of the countless pieces of individual correspondence collected from the Civil War, the letters of Roswell Lamson stand out because of Lamson’s extensive experience in some of the conflict’s major events. His service during the naval blockade, for example, is captured in great detail as he took command over the navy’s fastest ship, the USS Gettysburg.

The Gettysburg, itself a former blockade-runner, was introduced into the blockade with high expectations. Its stellar crew, led by one of the navy’s best commanders in Lamson, was anticipated to help turn the tables on the many Southern ships that ferried products and money to and from the Confederate states’ various ports. Lamson’s letters to his fiancée, Kate Buckingham, show that Lamson and his ship met those expectations, as the boat captured a number of the South’s finest blockade-runners and took part in a number of important battles along the Eastern seaboard.

Because both Lamson and Buckingham held great interest in the events of the Civil War, their letters also provide an account of several of the battles and engagements taking place along the Atlantic coast. Among them are engagements Wilmington, Mobile, Atlanta, and the various shipping routes along which the Confederate steamers traveled to avoid the blockade. Furthermore, Lamson and Buckingham reference several of the key figures of the war, including Union generals William Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee and John Bell Hood. Their correspondence even includes news on the success of the Union’s efforts to stifle the Confederate economy and drive back rebel forces in Virginia and the Carolinas.

Lamson’s letters to his fiancée also show the challenges of the war for their relationship. Kate and Roswell got to know each other (when she was fifteen) as he was on his way to the Naval Academy. Their engagement was delayed–five years–while he performed his duties as a naval captain. While Kate makes an effort to demonstrate her inner strength and overt support for her fiancé’s responsibilities, it is clear from their correspondence that they greatly anticipated the end of the war and their eventual marriage.

The Gettysburg captain’s correspondence also tells the tale of the exhilaration of the pursuit of blockade-runners. The Gettysburg’s speed gained the trust and admiration of Lamson’s superiors as well as Lamson himself. While Lamson clearly relishes his tenure aboard the Gettysburg, however, his letters show the effects several years at sea have on even the most intrepid of seamen. Lamson’s exhaustion and deteriorating health toward the end of the war are manifest in his letters to his fiancée, to whom he is eager to return as soon as his responsibilities to the Union are fulfilled.

Bibliography
  • Bonner, M. Brem, and Peter McCord. “Reassessment of the Union Blockade’s Effectiveness in the Civil War.” North Carolina Historical Review 88.4 (2011): 375–95. Print.
  • Livingston, Rebecca. “Civil War Cat-and-Mouse Game: Researching Blockade-Runners at the National Archives.” Prologue Magazine 31.3 (1999): n. pag. Web. 3 Mar. 2013.
  • McPherson, James M., Henry Davis, and Patricia R. McPherson, eds. Lamson of the Gettysburg: The Civil War Letters of Lieutenant Roswell H. Lamson, US Navy. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. Print.
  • “USS Lamson.” Destroyer History Foundation. Destroyer History Foundation, 2013. Web. 3 Mar. 2013.
  • Wise, Stephen R. Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running During the Civil War. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1991. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Cochran, Hamilton, and Robert M. Browning Jr. Blockade Runners of the Confederacy. Montgomery: Fire Ant, 2005. Print.
  • Watson, William. The Civil War Adventures of a Blockade Runner. 1892. College Station: Texas A&M UP, 2001. Print.
  • Watts, Gordon P., Jr. “Runners of the Union Blockade.” Archaeology 42.5 (1989): 32–39. Print.
  • West, L. “The Blockade Is Much the Same.” America’s Civil War 20.5 (2007): 46. Print.
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