Tag Archives: NCWNM

You Don’t Know Jacks

Navy Flags or Jacks

You Don’t Know Jacks

Yes, I know the picture is not in that great a focus. I had to be sneaky at this place OK?

What I think makes it interesting is that it breaks down all the different flags you would see on a warship and what they mean. I’ll provide the definitions, the picture can give you an idea of what the flags look like. While this is showing US and Confederate examples, these should be pretty universal for the time.

The definition for the terms we are going to define will be based on what is provided at Sea Talk Nautical Dictionary. The are a free site that takes donations (what a great idea!) so feel free to visit and toss them a few bucks.

Ensign

In flag terms, the ships ensign is the flag of the nation that the ship is sailing under. Sometimes it is the same as the normal flag, but with nautical symbols (like anchors) or a slightly different design. Sometimes it is just a bigger version of the normal flag. It will be the biggest flag on a ship. From far away you will know who you are dealing with.

Jacks

The smaller flags, or jacks, usually flown on the front (bow) of a ship. Again, this is a national flag and where you will see some of the cooler designs.

Commission Pennant

This long streamer designates the ship as being “commissioned”, or on active duty. It is flies at all times. With the advent of professional navies, these pennants distinguish military ships from merchant ships. They remain a source of great pride among the navies of the world.

Officers Flag

Naval officers over the rank of Captain get to fly special flags that denote their rank. If you saw a ship flying one of these you would know immediately who was in charge. Interesting enough, if you ever have heard the term “Flag Officer” this is where it comes from.

The purpose of all of these flags was to provide as much information as possible. In a time  of limited communication these visual cues were important That is of course assuming the ship is playing by the rules.

 

The Confederate Navy

The Confederate States of America started life in a pretty good position. Having just broken away from the United States it pretty much had a template for a central government, a government infrastructure to start with and even a decent economy. Building an army to defend all of it was not even much of a challenge as tens of thousands of men flocked to the colors. There was however one area that they were going to lag far behind, they needed a navy.

In February 1861 the Confederate Navy had 30 ships of which only 13 were actually considered seaworthy. This was compared to the US that had over 90 ships in their fleet. They would never really catch up so they relied on technology and tactics to make up the lost ground.

The Confederate Navy would pioneer the use of ironclads and submarines and even a rough version of the torpedo (mines).  As the United States Navy attempted to control the rivers and coast of the Confederacy and implement a blockade against them the rebels fought the best they could, but soon focused their naval efforts on two fronts.

Running the blockade with war supplies, luxury items and other sundries was their lifeline and the navy was tasked helping to make that possible. Then of course were the privateers who became the living embodiment of the struggle on the seas as they made the US economy bleed.

Eventually the Confederate Navy would number over a hundred ships with names such as Virginia, Alabama and the infamous CSS Shenandoah who fought on after the war only surrendering her colors in November 1865, five full months after the war had ended.

 

Alabama Rising

At the start of the Civil War, the Confederacy faced many challenges reminiscent to what the American Colonies did at the start of the American Revolution. Foremost among those challenges was the lack of a navy. From the start of the war, the Federal navy put a blockade on the South that was meant to keep supplies coming in, and to stop cotton going out. Without that income it was felt the South would be in for a short fight. While never able to match the Federal navy ship for ship, the Confederacy was able to do quite well in the use of blockade runners, ironclads, and river boats, but there was one particular sector that the CSA navy shined, merchant raiding.

The ship in the picture above is the CSS Alabama, the Queen of the Raiders. Built in England in 1862, this modified sloop became the most daring and successful commerce raider under the CSA flag. Sure, you could call them pirates, but they were also something else. Effective. Built by the British, powered by twin steam engines and sails, max speed of 13 knots, and a total of 8 cannon, few merchantmen could stand up to her.

So how effective? In her brief two-year career under Captain Raphael Semmes she stayed at seas of rover 534 days never once visiting a Confederate port. During that time she captured or burned 65 Federal merchantmen while taking almost 2,000 and boarding over 400 vessels. Most amazing during that span? The Alabama did not lose a single man. In June 1864 she finally meet her end at the hands of the USS Kearsarge in a battle off the coast of Cherbourg France.

Here is a little bit of trivia and one last piece of history on the Alabama. After the war the US went after Great Britain for the damages caused by the CSS Alabama to its merchant fleet in the International court, and won back much of the damages. The wreck of the Alabama was found in 1984 and with cooperation of the French government is considered an archaeological site that is under study by several organizations, most privately funded.

Her story is captured forever in an enduring sea chantey, that may resemble something else about Alabama, we’ll have to think about that:

“Roll Alabama, roll!”
When the Alabama’s Keel was Laid, (Roll Alabama, roll!),

‘Twas laid in the yard of Jonathan Laird (Roll, roll Alabama, roll!)

‘Twas Laid in the yard of Jonathan Laird, ’twas laid in the town of Birkenhead.

Down the Mersey way she rolled then, and Liverpool fitted her with guns and men.

From the western isle she sailed forth, to destroy the commerce of the north.

To Cherbourg port she sailed one day, for to take her count of prize money.

Many a sailor laddie saw his doom, when the Kearsarge it hove in view.

When a ball from the forward pivot that day, shot the Alabama’s stern away.

Off the three-mile limit in ’64, the Alabama was seen no more.

 

The Stainless Banner

On May 1, 1863 the flag you see above became the official national flag of the Confederate States of America. The version seen in the picture above has a slightly different design for use as a naval flag. Which works because this flag flew over one of the ships of the Confederate Navy.

The name “The Stainless Banner” came from the large white field that takes up most of the flag. White, seen as a symbol of purity, was chosen by the designer to symbolize the “supremacy of the white man and he often referred to the flag as “The White Mans Flag”. That man, William T. Thompson, was a newspaper editor in Savannah, GA who also doubled as a blockade runner.

When the Confederate Congress passed the official act naming that design as the national flag the white field was not given any special explanation, certainly no recognition of what Thompson believed it stood for. In fact because there was no special meaning attached many in the legislature put their own spin on it.

While initial well received by the public, after a time it was felt that the flag was, ironically, “too white”. Some thought that having the battle flag sitting on top of a white flag, which traditionally meant surrender, was sending a bit of a mixed message.

In 1865, near the end of the war the design was changed to include a red vertical stripe at the far edge, a bloodline to symbolize those lost in the war.

The flag was last flown in an official capacity on the CSS Shenandoah that was based out of Liverpool, England. On November 7, 1865 is was lowered, but lives on as a symbol of wrong and right. One thing is for sure, 150 years later the flag still has an impact.

 

 

 

CSS Jackson Remains of the Ram

CSS Jackson 1

CSS Jackson Remains of the Ram

 

When you think about the naval aspect of the Civil War you probably don’t often think about Columbus, Georgia. However in Columbus, not far down the way from Ft. Benning is the National Civil War Naval Museum. Filled with many fantastic exhibits of the naval war there is one that stands out. Taking up well over half the display area is the remains of the CSS Jackson. An ironclad ram that was scuttled at the end of the war and raised from the river a hundred years later.

The building of the Jackson was started in Columbus in 1862.  Originally it was to be named the Muskcogee. Lack of materials and delays in the building kept it from being commissioned until December 1864. She was then officially named the Jackson. Further lack of men and material kept her out of the fight. April 1865 she was burned and scuttled by a Union raiding party. She never got to see any action in her brief career.

Built to Ram

 

The Jackson was designed to be a ram, which is basically as it sounds. Its main weapon was a reinforced prow that would be aimed at an enemy ship. The goal was to hit it hard enough and do enough damage to cause it to sink. It was a lot like how ships in Ancient Greece fought their battles, without all the boarding parties. Besides being an ironclad, which was basically sheets of iron placed on a wooden frame for protection, she was also a screw steamer, which meant instead of wind, she used a propeller for locomotion.

The remaining hull is on display in the museum with a white steel frame hanging over to give you an idea of what the ship looked like back in the day.

For a little more on the CSS Jackson click here.

Click here for a short YouTube Video on the project to raise the ship from the riverbed back in the 1960’s.