Franklin Buchanan

[Franklin Buchanan]

[This is still under construction]

See the images at the Naval Historical Center.

Franklin Buchanan was a native of Maryland, but was appointed to the Navy from Pennsylvania, entering on January 28, 1815. A well-respected officer, he helped establish the Naval Academy at Annapolis and was its first president until he resigned to be on active duty in the Mexican War.

In 1861, he was number 47 on the list of USN Captains, and was the Commandant of the Washington Navy Yard. but resigned his commission in the U.S. Navy in expectation that his native state of Maryland would secede.  When this failed to materialize, he applied for reinstatement but was refused with concerns about his loyalty.  In his early days with the Confederacy, some Southerners also questioned his loyalty because of his attempt to rejoin the US Navy.

However, Buchanan had the respect of the Confederate Secretary of the Navy, Stephen Mallory.  When Mallory needed the best officer to command the new, promising, but experimental, iron-clad CSS Virginia, he knew he wanted Buchanan.  However, a strict seniority system prevailed and Buchanan could never be assigned as Captain of the most prized ship in the CS Navy as other, more senior, officers would demand the position.  Instead, Mallory appointed Buchanan as Flag-Officer of the James River Squadron.  Later, when the Virginia was completed, Buchanan naturally chose it as his flagship and assumed command of her.  The Virginia never had a Captain appointed to her.

Buchanan was a bold commander, as were all the top commanders of the day.  This trait was evidenced by his decision to turn the "trial trip" of the Virginia into her first combat.  He alerted the Captains of his squadron but did not inform his crew until they were underway.  This secrecy led to the complete surprise of the Union ships on a Saturday morning, although they had known the Virginia might come out at any time.

Buchanan did not cautiously test this untried ship.  He immediately sailed past the broadsides one of the strongest of the Union fleet and rammed the USS Cumberland.  With that success, he turned to destroy the Congress.  Of the four ships that sailed to come to the aid of the Congress and Cumberland, three returned quickly to the safety of Fort Monroe while the fourth was helplessly aground.  The Congress, having seen what happened to the Cumberland, tried to avoid being sunk by deliberately being towed aground.  But the impregnable Virginia riddled the Congress until she surrendered.

This bold and utterly dominating attack left the Union Navy and Government in panic.  Word was sent to the major ports such as Washington, Boston, and New York to prepare to blockade their entrances by sinking barges of rocks.  Members of Lincoln's cabinet expected the Virginia to sail up and bombard the Capitol.

After the Congress surrendered, Buchanan ordered the capture of her officers, the rescue of the wounded, and directed that the others be allowed to escape overboard (an easy swim to shore).  After all were off, the Congress was to be set afire as she was aground in an enemy-controlled area and could not be easily towed away.  While the Beaufort attempted to carry out these orders and had some of the wounded on board, the Union troops opened fire on her, killing a number of Union sailors and some Confederate sailors.  The Beaufort withdrew but Buchanan did not even conceive of what had happened.  He sent his Flag Lieutenant, Minor, to set fire to the Congress.  When he saw the troops fire on the small boat despite the white flag flying from the Congress, he was incensed.  Unwisely, he started firing a musket towards the shore positions from the top deck of the Virginia.  A minie-ball hit him in the leg near the femoral artery.  After being wounded, he ordered hot shot to destroy the Congress by fire and for his Executive Officer, Catesby ap Roger Jones, to take command. Buchanan did this even knowing that his brother, McKean Buchanan, was paymaster on the Congress.

Buchanan was removed to the Naval Hospital on the Elizabeth River the next morning where he spent the next few months(?) recovering from his wounds.  He eventually recovered and had other commands in the Confederacy.  After the Battle of Hampton Roads, no Southerner ever doubted his loyalty, and he was promoted to Admiral. On August 5, 1864, he commanded the Tennessee and the fleet in Mobile Bay. He wounds were severe enough that his leg had to be amputated.

 

Microsoft Encarta (abridged version) biography of Buchanan.

 


CSS Virginia
Copyright 1998 by Mabry Tyson