The United States vs the Ship Bat: A Civil War Prize Case

Today’s post is by Joseph P. Keefe, Archives Specialist at the National Archives at Boston.

When the American Civil War broke out on April 12, 1861, the newly formed Confederate States of America had no ships to speak of in its navy. In the months leading up to the war, the Confederate government sought the help of Great Britain to overcome this deficiency. Many private industries in England secretly worked with the Confederate government since much of their industry depended on cotton exports from the plantations of the South. Although officially neutral, the British became the primary shipbuilders and source of supplies for the Confederacy for the duration of the civil war.

Union General-in-Chief Winfield Scott proposed to President Abraham Lincoln the Anaconda Plan to subdue the rebellion. Scott’s plan emphasized a Union Naval blockade of the Southern ports and called for infantry divisions to advance down the Mississippi River to cut the South in two. Soon after Lincoln announced the blockade, the profitable business of running supplies through the blockade to the Confederacy began. One of the ships purchased by Confederate agents in Great Britain was the ship Bat, a fast, steel hulled, side-wheel steamer built in 1864 in Liverpool, England by The Jones and Quiggins Ship Building Company. The original plan had called for the Bat to run through the Union blockade with military supplies desperately needed by the beleaguered South and then to slip back out to sea again, laden with cotton for the idle textile mills of England. Confederate agent James Bullock, who had purchased the ship for the Confederate Government, requested that the military supplies be sent on another ship. The ship’s cargo was to include heavy machinery, food stuffs, coal, medical supplies, and a large quantity of office supplies needed immediately by Jefferson Davis’ administration.[1]

Drawing of the the Bat, dated 1864

The Bat put to sea on September 6, 1864 and proceeded to Halifax, Nova Scotia for refueling. Thomas Dudley, American consul in Liverpool, learned of the purchase of the Bat by the Confederacy and that she had already left Liverpool and immediately informed Washington. The ship sailed for the North Carolina coast after refueling in Halifax. As the Bat approached the Cape Fear River in the early morning hours of October 10, 1864, Union warships in the vicinity, which had been alerted thanks to Consular Dudley, were expecting her. As the Bat approached the coast, she encountered the USS Emma, a former blockade runner herself, the ship was a single screw steamer, built in Glasgow, Scotland and purchased by the US Navy from a prize court in New York City because of her speed. Upon spotting the Bat, the Emma gave chase, opened fire, and sent up rockets to announce the presence and course of the fleeing ship. The Bat was much faster than the Emma and quickly began to outdistance the Union ship. The captain of the Emma, James L. Williams later wrote, “I fired 11 times at her, and then ten minutes after ceasing my fire I saw a gun fired from the USS Montgomery.[2] The USS Vicksburg, a wooden steamship converted to a gunboat by the navy, took up the pursuit but the Bat quickly outran her as well. The crew of the Vicksburg soon lost sight of her prey and hove to when she reached the outer edge of her assigned area. The captain of the Bat thought he had made it, until suddenly from out of pre-dawn darkness came the USS Montgomery. The Montgomery was a wooden screw steamer built for the US Navy in 1858 and mounted one eight-inch gun and 4 large 32 pounders on her deck and could sail at 13 knots. The Montgomery had already captured eight other Confederate blockade runners and set her sights on her ninth. After coming within range of her guns, the Montgomery fired a shot which struck the Bat’s forecastle, killing one of the her crew members. The captain of the Bat attempted to outrun the Montgomery but quickly realized that another shot from the Montgomery’s 32 pounders would severely jeopardize his ship and the crew’s safety, and as a result he surrendered. Captain Faucon reported that the shot from his ship the Montgomery, “entered the forward part of the ship and took off the right leg of one of her crew, who has since died.”[3]

Map of the Site of Capture of Steamer Bat by USS Montgomery, 11/15/1864 (NAID 6925471).

Captain Faucon placed a prize crew on board the Bat under the command of Ensign Robert Wiley and sailed to Beaufort, North Carolina. When the ship reached Beaufort, Lieutenant-Commander D.L. Baines, in command at Beaufort, reported, “the Bat is a fine new steamer, built of molded steel and can sail thirteen knots but will do better when her engines are in good working order.”[4] The Bat was sailed to Boston, Massachusetts where she was condemned by an admiralty court. Among the materials found on the Bat was a box of personal effects marked “Mrs. Jefferson Davis” which contained “dolls and dresses.” The court ordered that the materials be “sold at the sailors fair now being held in Boston.”[5] The cargo also contained one steam engine and boiler, 4 coils of telegraph wire, a machine for making shoes and an assortment of desperately needed drugs for the field surgeries of the Confederate armies including 118 bottles of quinine, 14 cases of morphine and 11 pounds of opium. The ship was purchased by the United States Government for service in the Union Navy for $159,437. The contents of the ship were sold at public auction for $155,645, all of which would be distributed amongst the crew of the Montgomery. The Bat was repaired, fitted out at the Boston Navy Yard, and placed in commission there on December 13, 1864.[6]

Letter Regarding Appraisement of Box from Steamer Bat Marked for Mrs. Jefferson Davis, 11/15/1864 (NAID 6925468).

The USS Bat would be assigned to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron where she helped in the capture of Fort Fisher, off the coast of North Carolina. One of the last and most notable of its services began on March 20, 1865, when General Ulysses S. Grant invited President Lincoln to visit his headquarters at City Point, Virginia. Since Bat was the fastest vessel in the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, the Navy ordered her to Washington so that she might carry Mr. Lincoln to Grant’s headquarters on the James River. However, the Bat could not be outfitted in time to accommodate the President’s entourage, so another fast steamer, the River Queen, was found for the task. Bat’s role was changed to escorting the President’s unarmed ship during her voyage to the James. She stayed with River Queen throughout the President’s visit and then accompanied them back to Washington D.C. The Bat was decommissioned and sold at public auction in New York City on May 17, 1865.[7] 

Property List for Steamer Bat, 11/10/1864 (NAID 6925473).

Footnotes:

[1] Naval History and Heritage Command Ship Histories, Confederate Ships https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/nhhc/research/histories/ship-histories/confederate_ships/bat.html

[2] Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion Series 1, Volume 10 Pages 550.

[3] Official Records, Pages 549.

[4] Official Records, Pages 548.

[5] Record Group 21, Case Files, 1790 – 1917, U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. 1789- U.S. v. Bat, Steamer and Cargo, “Letter Regarding Appraisement of Box from Steamer Bat marked for Mrs. Jefferson Davis”, 11/15/1864, National Archives Identifier: 6812706.

[6] U.S. v. Bat, Steamer and Cargo, “Property List for Steamer Bat”. 11/10/1964.

[7] Naval History and Heritage Command Ship Histories


Sources

U.S. v. Bat, Steamer and Cargo (NAID 6812706) from the series: Case Files, 1790-1917. U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts; Record Group 21, Records of the District Courts of the United States; National Archives and Records Administration–Boston (Waltham, MA).

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion Series 1, Volume 10, Pages 548-550: http://collections.library.cornell.edu/moa_new/ofre.html

Naval History and Heritage Command Ship Histories, Confederate Ships: Bat https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/nhhc/research/histories/ship-histories/confederate_ships/bat.html

Lithograph of the Bat courtesy of the US Naval and Heritage Command, Photo NH 63846, available at: https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/nhhc/our-collections/photography/numerical-list-of-images/nhhc-series/nh-series/NH-63000/NH-63846.html


Additional prize case files from the National Archives at Boston can be found in the following parent series: Case Files, 1790-1917, (NAID 2825531), U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. Record Group 21, Records of the District Courts of the United States.