Commodore Josiah Tattnall

Distinguished in the Naval Services of the United States and the Confederacy

Seth W. Smith M. D. 1997 - 1998  


For almost two years during World War II, I sailed as Medical Officer on the U.S.S. Tattnall, APD 19, an assault personnel destroyer, altered from DD 125, to carry commandos.  At that time I knew nothing about Josiah Tattnall, after whom the ship was christened.  Recently, however, in 1997, approximately fifty two years after completing my sea duty on the "mighty T", I read in a book written by a friend of mine, Jo Ann Roe, that Josiah Tattnall, then a Commodore, had commanded the U.S.S. Powhatan, a United States Navy vessel that in 1860 carried the first official Japanese delegation to visit the United States.  This item sparked my curiosity about the sea-faring Captain, and his career, and led to the following biographical sketch.

The Appendix includes a brief recap of the actions of the fabled ironclads, the Monitor and the Merrimack (Virginia) in Hampton Roads, Virginia.  When the North lost Norfolk in the Civil War, they sank and burned the U.S.S. Merrimack.  The Confederates raised the hulk, converted it to the first ironclad, and re-christened it the C.S.S. Virginia.  After a commendable long stretch in the United States Navy, Tattnall, defected to the Confederacy.  Although he did not have a part in the Virginia-Monitor actions, he was, shortly thereafter ordered to command the James River squadron and the defenses of Virginia.  This included hoisting his flag on the Virginia.  He subsequently attempted, but was unsuccessful, in efforts to engage the Monitor in further conflict.

Norfolk was the home port of the Tattnall, and we sailed and maneuvered in the same waters as those Civil War combatants, knowing little of that fascinating history.  At that time we were busy preparing for our part in another war.


My thanks to Mabry Tyson, the great grandson of Catesby ap Roger Jones who commanded the Virginia in its historic battle with the Monitor.  Mr. Tyson has provided me with useful information, and the references to the books by Charles C. Jones, Jr. and J. Thomas Scharf, listed in the Bibliography.  Obtained through interlibrary loan, these original volumes of 1878 and 1887 were invaluable for the writing of this biography.

I also wish to thank Jo Ann Roe, professional writer, and daughter Barbara Logue, for their skillful proofreadings of the manuscript.

Josiah Tattnall was born two hundred and two years ago on November 9th, 1795, at Bonaventure, the family estate of the Tattnalls, a few miles south of Savannah, Georgia, in Tattnall County.  (His grandfather was also named Josiah, and his father was Josiah Jr. But for the purpose of identification of the subject of this biography, my use of Josiah will refer to and describe the grandson.)

.His father was honored by his state of Georgia having served in its military, rising to Brigadier General.  He was also a member of the Georgia Legislature, a member of Congress, a United States Senator from Georgia and Governor of the State.  He unfortunately died at the age of thirty six.  His wife died shortly thereafter leaving the future Commodore an orphan.  At the age of ten Josiah was placed in a school near London, England, where he remained for six years.

It is of interest that the Tattnall family members, although firm in their support of the English government, were unwilling to take an active part in the coercion of the Colonies at the time of the Revolutionary War.  Further, when the English rule in Georgia was overthrown, they set out for England where they resided.  Because they declined to bear arms in defense of the infant State of Georgia against the English, their family estates were confiscated and they were banished from the state forever.  However, Josiah's grandfather returned to Georgia to take up the cause of the Revolutionists.  In appreciation of the devotion and services of this member of the family, after the recognition by England of the independence of her colonies, Georgia restored the Bonaventure estate.  By an interesting twist of the political wheel, some eighty four years afterward, the personal property of Josiah, the subject of this biography, was confiscated by the Federal Government because he refused to remain in the service of the United States and take up arms against the State of Georgia.

While in England, young Josiah retained fond memories of Bonaventure and his American friends, and also had an abiding loyalty to the governments of Georgia and the United States.  On one occasion in London, the King's health was proposed at the table of his grandfather. Josiah refused to touch his glass until allowed to couple it with the health of the President of the United States

Josiah returned to Savannah, Georgia, in November, 1811.  He undertook to study medicine despite considerable aversion to it.  He was particularly repulsed by the necessity to dig up Negro bodies for dissection.

From notes left by Josiah, obtained by Charles C Jones Jr. published in 1878:

"The invasion of Negro graveyards was necessary in days when no other subjects could be obtained; and no one dared in the face of public sentiment to assume the role of a professed resurrectionist.  Although not of a superstitious nature, I was highly imaginative; my earliest years having been passed in the shade of the column old oaks of Bonaventure, and my memory there stored with the wild ghost stories of my old Negro nurse and her fellow servants.  Consequently, the post of picket on the occasion of grave-yard invasions, was not relished by me, and my boyish animal spirits were fast giving way to melancholy.  I dreaded the approach of night for it was long before I ceased to renew in my dreams the horrid scenes of the dissecting room.  It may be assumed that under such circumstances my brother students, if they found me of no assistance in other respects, appreciated my value as a vigilant sentinel.  I certainly kept as bright a lookout for 'wharlocks' as did poor Tam O'Shanter on his way home on his good mare 'Meggie,' "

Josiah took the advice of a physician with whom he lived, and gave up medicine to pursue his greater interest in a naval career.  He applied for and received a coveted naval grade of Midshipman, April 1, 1812.  The following is an item in an old newspaper clipping, date unknown, enclosed in Charles Jones book quoting Park Benjamin's: History of the United States Naval Academy. This relates an important examination of Midshipman Josiah by a Commodore.

Commodore:  "What would be your course, supposing you were off a lee shore, the wind blowing a gale, both anchors and your rudder gone, all your canvas carried away and your ship scudding rapidly toward the breakers?"'

Tattnall:  "I cannot conceive, sir, that such a combination of disasters could possibly befall a ship in one voyage.

Commodore:  "Tut, tut, young gentleman, we must have your opinion supposing such a case to have actually occurred."'

Tattnall:  "Well sire--sails all carried away, so you say, sir?"

Commodore:  "Aye, all - every rag."

Tattnall:  "Anchor gone too sir?"

Commodore:  "Aye, not an uncommon case."'

'Tattnall:  "No rudder either?"

Commodore:  "Aye, rudder unshiped." (Tattnall drops his head despondently in deep thought.) "Come, sir, come - bear a hand about it. What would you do?"

Tattnall (at last and desperate):  "Well, I'd let the infernal tub go to the devil, where she ought to go."'

Commodore: (joyously):  "Right, sir; perfectly right! That will do, sir. The clerk will note that Mr. Tattnall has passed."

Josiah entered naval activity against the British in the War of 1812. He was ordered to the U.S.S. Constellation, where, in his earliest naval service, he encountered the enemy.  In October, 1814, Midshipman Tattnall was ordered to the brig Epervier and remained on board until termination of the war.  After the peace with England, The Beys of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli ravaged American commerce in the Mediterranean, and the Epervier, with Josiah still aboard, sailed with a squadron of ships commanded by Stephen Decatur.  The expedition was successful against the "Barbary Pirates," and Decatur returned as a hero.

Josiah was enamored with the Mediterranean and managed to get himself transferred from the Epervier, which was homeward bound, to the Constellation which was remaining on that station.  Josiah served eighteen months aboard, then transferred to the corvette Ontario where he remained for nearly a year.  Taking advantage of visits ashore whenever possible, he found the tenure there very rewarding.  Absorbing the classical history of Mediterranean nations added to his education.

Josiah returned from the Mediterranean and was promoted to Lieutenant April 1, 1818.  He was ordered to the frigate Macedonian which had been captured from the British in the war of 1812.  After fitting out for a cruise in the Pacific, it sailed in September, 1818, but was dismasted during a severe hurricane near the Capes of Virginia.  She was refitted at Norfolk then proceeded to Valparaiso, Chile.  While there, Josiah engaged in a duel with an offensive former British naval officer who retired from the field with a bullet in his shoulder.  Tattnall was not wounded.

In 1821 the Lieutenant married his cousin, a daughter of Ebenezer Jackson, Esq., who had served with distinction as an officer in the Revolutionary War.  Jackson's wife was a former Miss Fenwick, of South Carolina, a sister of Josiah's mother.  Not being on active duty, he spent one year in intensive study of mathematics, enabling him to meet with accuracy the requirements of the naval profession.  He also became one of the best swordsmen in the Navy, an expert boxer and competent shot with a pistol, rifle and fowling piece.

Josiah sailed as a First Lieutenant on the schooner Jackal from Norfolk in 1823 to duty in the West Indies, to suppress pirating.  After a year he was ordered to the Constitution for another service in the Mediterranean.  This was uneventful naval duty but he greatly enjoyed places and friends visited before.  On return, he was ordered to report on board the corvette Erie attached to the West Indies squadron, and while on her he materially added to his reputation as a competent naval officer.

.Much later on Admiral Raphael Semmes, who commanded the dreaded Confederate raider Alabama, stated in "Recollections of the late Josiah Tattnall:"

I first became acquainted with the subject of this sketch in the year 1828.  I was a young Midshipman and Tattnall a Lieutenant in the United States Navy.  Only fourteen years had elapsed since we had come out of our late war with Great Britain, and much of the chivalry and daring which had been begotten by that war still remained among the officers of the navy.  The navy was, at this time, a fine school for discipline and for the cultivation of all the noble and manly traits of the sailor, and we had in it some as fine specimens of the naval officer, as any previous age had produced.  Prominent among these was Josiah Tattnall.  I remember him well, at the period of which I speak.  He was the first Lieutenant of the sloop-of-war Erie of twenty-two guns.  The Erie, (as were all the vessels of the navy in that day), was a sailing ship, and the science and art of seamanship were the idols of the profession.  Tattnall excelled in both.  He handled his ship like a toy in all kinds of weather, was always at his post in times of danger, and possessed in an eminent degree the confidence of both men and officers.  He was in the prime of life, being about thirty-five years of age, active, energetic, and enterprising.  If there was an expedition of any kind to be fitted out, Tattnall always claimed his right to lead it.

Josiah led or participated in other actions in the West Indies and Gulf of Mexico receiving commendations.  One interesting assignment occurred.  The war that the Texans waged for independence from Mexico, culminated in the victory over the Mexicans at San Jacinto.  Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who defeated the Texan forces at the Alamo, commanded the army of Mexico and was there taken prisoner.  Fearing his assassination, the Texas authorities turned him over to the U. S. Government in Washington D. C..  There, however, it was decided to send him back to Mexico, and Tattnall was selected for this mission, commanding the barque Pioneer. 1

On his return to Mexico, President Santa Anna and his principle aide, General Almonte, fully expected to be shot on arriving at Vera Cruz.  When the anchor was dropped, a large crowd collected on the mole and several Mexican regiments were soon formed in its vicinity.  In the language of an eye-witness "matters looked squally and unstable elements were in violent commotion."  Lieutenant Tattnall, in full uniform, took Santa Anna by the arm and said "General, I will see you to your hotel."  This courageous action on the part of Tattnall changed the thoughts and emotions of the mercurial Mexicans, dispelling their resolution formed in advance to shoot the returning President on sight.  Josiah remained several days in Vera Cruz as guest of the President.

On returning to Norfolk in 1838, Lieutenant Tattnall was promoted to the rank of Commander and placed in charge of the Boston Naval Yard.  While there he was associated with Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry in ordinance experiments.  After that duty he returned to command ships of the line.  He was given the Fairfield, a corvette, and sailed for Gibraltar and Mediterranean station.  After an altercation with his Commodore, he was returned to the United States where he appealed to the Secretary of the Navy for vindication.  This was granted and he was given the command of a new corvette, the Saratoga.  On sailing to New York from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Tattnall encountered a violent hurricane off Cape Ann, so severe that he had to cut away all masts to keep the ship from beaching and foundering.

The Saratoga returned to Portsmouth where she was refitted and sailed under Tattnall to the African station, carrying Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, the brother of Oliver Hazard Perry.  Josiah returned after about a two years cruise and went on leave.  He cut this short, however, to participate in the Mexican-American War.  In June 1846 he was given command of a light division of two steamers and five schooners, called the Mosquito Division, with which he shelled Vera Cruz and the Castle of St. Juan d'Ulloa. Vera Cruz surrendered March 29, 1847.  Further operations were carried out for the capture of other town along the coast still guarded by Mexican forts.  In one action, Tattnall was wounded severely in one arm by grape or canister shot but retained command of his steamer, the Spitfire, until naval actions were no longer necessary.  Although he planned to participate in the march on Mexico City as aide to General Twiggs, because of his wounded arm and other health problems, attending surgeons deemed it necessary that he return to the United States in June 1847.

In October, 1847, Josiah was then ordered to again assume the command of the Boston Navy Yard, where he remained for two years.  In 1850, he was promoted to the rank of Captain, then returned to sea duty in command of the steam frigate Saranac.  The latter was dispatched to Cuban waters to protect American shipping caught up in efforts of Spain to put down a revolution against Spanish rule.  In 1851, he was placed in command of the Naval Station in Pensacola, Florida.  While there he developed a severe fever and was thought to be near death.  In fact his premature demise was reported and obituary notices were published, but he recovered.

In September, 1854, Captain Tattnall was ordered to command the frigate Independence and was assigned to the Pacific station.  He tangled with his Commodore regarding the methods of handling deserters and was put under arrest.  The Navy Department considered the charges against him and summarily dismissed them.  Tattnall seemed to have a penchant for contesting his senior officers but apparently got away with it.

For his next duty he was given the command, assumed May, 1856, of the Naval Station on the Great Lakes with headquarters at Sackett's Harbor, Lake Ontario.  In the following year he was ordered to command the naval forces in the East India and China seas and elevated to Flag-Officer, the first step taken by the American Navy toward establishing the permanent grade of Admiral.  This was an important berth and a considerable tribute to Tattnall to achieve it.  He never achieved the rank of Admiral, due to the fact that he defected to the Confederacy in the Civil War.

In May, 1858, in Hong Kong, he hoisted his broad pennant to the main-royal masthead of the U.S.S. Powhatan.  Although the United States was in neutral status, in 1859 Tattnall came to the aid of a British force in China attempting to forcibly transport an English Minister up the Pei-ho river to Tientsin.  This support of the British, coming not long after the 1812 conflict, had very positive political reverberations.  Tattnall was highly commended for this assistance.  The full story is more than can be addressed here.  In addition, Flag-Officer Tattnall was instrumental in the exchange of important treaties with the Mandarin Emperor of China.

In September, 1859, Josiah received a communication from the Navy Department authorizing him to transport the Japanese Embassy as far as Panama on their route to the United States.  He was thus relieved of his command of the East India squadron.  He sailed the Powhatan to Yokohama, Japan, where arrangements were being made for the voyage.  There was considerable controversy in the closed society of Japan surrounding this historic event, the first visitation of Japanese officialdom to the United States, or any other country.  Many details relating to ceremonies and traditions for the nineteen officers and fifty-two attendants, had to be worked out, causing delays.  Cultural differences involving food and dress, status and proper accommodations on the Powhatan were significant and presented knotty problems.  The Japanese at that time considered Americans to be "the hairy ones" or "the barbarians!"  Flag-Officer Tattnall stated that he would not be certain that the voyage was truly underway until he saw Mount Fugi off his starboard quarter.  However, on the morning of the 13th of February, 1860, The Powhatan sailed from Kanagawa with the Japanese imperial ensign flying at the fore.

Josiah recommended a more comfortable voyage to the United States via the Cape of Good Hope, rather than to cross the northern Pacific where significant storms were more likely to be encountered.  He was overruled by the Japanese, however, who knew nothing of the vagaries of the Pacific Ocean, and were eager to reach Washington D.C.  Enroute a severe typhoon with mountainous waves. engulfed the frigate.  She took terrifying rolls and suffered considerable damage.  The samurai were battened down in their quarters where they resigned themselves to the "Will of Heaven."  Flag-Officer Tattnall said that it was the most terrible storm he had ever experienced in twenty-eight years at sea.  His earlier warning regarding that passage was certainly prophetic.

Because of the necessity for repairs, and running low on fuel, fresh water and food, all due to continuing bad weather, Tattnall diverted the Powhatan to Honolulu in the Hawaiian Islands, then known as the Sandwich Islands.  (The latter were named after the Earl of Sandwich by their discoverer Captain James Cook in 1778.  The Earl gained his name by his habit of placing a slice of meat between two pieces of bread so that dining might not disturb him from the gaming table.)

After the extremely uncomfortable voyage of twenty-three days, the amenities and sights of the Western island capitol were eagerly sought by the samurai.  While the "Embassadors" confined themselves to conducted tours and receptions, junior officials made the most of their comparative freedom to see everything possible in their first foreign landfall.  Flag-Officer Tattnall and certain Japanese ambassadors were granted an audience by King Kamehameha and his beautiful queen Emma with whom they were greatly impressed.  The King and Queen then honored the Powhatan by a visit to the ship, again with appropriate pomp and circumstance.  Because of his courageous actions aiding the British at their battle with the Chinese at the Pei-ho River, the British residents in Honolulu wished to honor Tattnall, too.  However, the ambassadors, including Tattnall, wanted to proceed to San Francisco without further delay.  After an uneventful voyage, the ship entered the Golden Gate on the 29th of March, 1860.  San Francisco rolled out the red carpet to the Embassy and the Powhatan, its officers and seamen.  The city, larger than Honolulu, further amazed the samurai with its conveniences and amenities.

Flag-Officer Tattnall was detached from the Powhatan, which then proceeded to Panama.  There the Japanese crossed the Isthmus by train and sailed to New York City. Tattnall took passage in a mail steamer, April 5th, arriving in New York earlier than the ambassadors in order to help with the arrangements for their reception.

A clip from a prominent journal of the day wrote

"Commodore Tattnall, recently in command of the East India Squadron, and who has just returned home in the Powhatan, via San Francisco (having left that vessel there with the Japanese Embassy) has been the recipient of distinguished honors since his arrival in Washington.

"On Tuesday last he was received at the Navy Yard with military honors and hospitably entertained by Commodore Buchanan in the midst of a brilliant assemblage of ladies and naval officers.  On Wednesday he was cordially received and entertained by his Excellency, the British Minister, and on Thursday, we understand, he partook, by special invitation, of the elegant hospitalities of the President of the United States."

These high marks of respect were rightly merited by the veteran officer who behaved so gallantly in the sanguinary battle on the Pei-ho between and British and French forces on the one side, and on the other the infuriated myriads of Chinamen, who hurled their missiles of death and destruction from behind invulnerable ramparts of mud upon the sinking or disabled vessels of Admiral Hope.  His humane and heroic conduct on that memorable occasion entitles him the gratitude of civilized mankind.

Flag-Officer Tattnall was present on the 17th of May, 1860, when the Japanese "Embassadors" were presented to the President and pledges of amity between the two countries were exchanged.  On the 20th of May, 1860, he was then assigned to command the Lake Station, with quarters at Sackett's Harbor, and where he was able to rest and gain needed recuperation.  He now held the rank of Captain instead of Commodore presumably because he no longer commanded the East Indies fleet.


Less than one year later, Captain Tattnall was faced with the most difficult and heart wrenching decision of his life.  For nearly fifty years he had followed the flag of his country with devotion and unswerving loyalty.  For his service in the United States Navy, in which he had excelled, he had received many honors and commendations.  In the Navy were his closest friends, whose friendship he valued highly and hoped to share for the rest of his life.  To turn his back on the latter, and to leave his career of outstanding achievements as a naval officer, was an assignment by fate that he never dreamed he would have to accept or reject.

Josiah Tattnall's native State of Georgia seceded from the Federal Union and called upon her sons and daughters to rally to her standards.  Georgians thought their cause to be just and sufficient; Tattnall's position comes from a letter written to General Robt.. E. Lee after the war.

"Although I disapproved entirely of secession, and had to give evidence to that effect before a jury at Savannah a year after the commencement of the war, still, as I accepted a commission signed by President Davis, I considered it, and still consider it my duty to support him as my Commander-in-Chief and the exponent of the political principles of the Southern Confederacy." (from Charles C. Jones Jr. Biography of Josiah Tattnall, 1878. Page 235).

From the first Tattnall was of opinion that war-a gigantic war-would be born of the act, (of secession), with all the chances of ultimate success in favor of the Northern States, with their vast preponderance of wealth and men and munitions.

Many other highly qualified officers, officials and citizens of the United States, similarly defected to the South.  Included were General Robert E. Lee, Franklin Buchanan, Stephen Mallory and others.  Some of those remaining in the Union Navy were old and close friends of Tattnall's, and taking Confederate service in opposition to them was particularly difficult.

In none of my limited sources have I learned the views of Senior Flag -Officer Tattnall regarding slavery.  As the Tattnalls possessed Bonaventure, a large Georgian estate for many years, it might be presumed that they were slave owners and opposed to abolition.

From his command of the Erie Station, Sackett's Harbor, Josiah proceeded to Washington and resigned his commission in the U.S. Navy on February 20th, 1861.  James Buchanan, President of the United States, Lewis Cass, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Navy and others, implored him to remain in the Union.

Josiah Tattnall, late Captain, United States Navy, was readily accepted into the Georgia Navy as Senior Flag-Officer, his status to correspond in all respects with that rank held in the United States service.  He was ordered to take command of the naval defense of the waters of Georgia and South Carolina.  He was directed to improvise a fleet of light steamers and river craft that he could find, his mission being to assist vessels through the Union blockade, carrying munitions for the Confederacy.  His flagship was the Savannah, a paddle steamer, and with his small naval force, he engaged the superior Union vessels in several battles but he usually was not victorious.  Tattnall planned a risky assault on Oakley Island in the Savannah River, but was dissuaded by Gen. Robt. E. Lee, who called on him personally.

Meanwhile in Hampton Roads near Norfolk, Virginia, historic naval events were occurring involving the fabled ironclads U.S.S. Monitor and Merrimack (C.S.S. Virginia).  The C.S.S. Virginia was originally the Union vessel U.S.S. Merrimack.  When Union forces were forced out of Norfolk, the Merrimack was sunk to keep it out of rebel hands.  Raised by the Confederates, it was reconstructed on order from Stephen R. Mallory, Secretary of the Confederate Navy, on a plan proposed by Lieut. John M. Brooke, C. S. N.  It became the first armor plated ship, the ironclad, and re-christened the C.S.S. Virginia. (A biography of Lieut. Brooke would be of great interest considering his pivotal role in the conversion of the worlds naval vessels to ironclads.) 2

The battle of the ironclads doomed the use of wooden vessels of war throughout the world, bringing about a great permanent landmark change in all navies.

Because of the naval importance of these events that occurred in Hampton Roads, they are described in more detail in the Appendix.

Josiah Tattnall was still aboard the Savannah in the waters of Georgia and was not a participant in the historic Monitor-Merrimack (Virginia) battle.  Following that event, however, he was ordered to command the James River Squadron and the naval defenses of Virginia, with his pennant hoisted on the Virginia.  This took place on March 29.  From March 11 to April 4 the Virginia was in dry-dock undergoing repairs for damages sustained in the actions of March 8 and 9th.  On April 11, Flag-officer Tattnall in command of the Virginia, and a small fleet of other vessels, sailed from off Norfolk into the Roads.  They had in mind some strategic methods of overcoming the Monitor, but were not afforded the opportunity.  The Monitor remained alongside the Minnesota ignoring any temptation to re-engage Tattnall on the Virginia.  Apparently other strategic reasons existed such as orders to the Monitor to protect the Minnesota and the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay accesses.  The Virginia stood ready to protect Norfolk and the James River access to Richmond.

However, land battles worsened for the Confederacy.  Norfolk was abandoned by the rebels thus cutting off all supplies--such as coal, provisions and water--from the Virginia.  She could not steam back up the James River for the protection of Richmond as her draft of twenty-three feet six inches, even though lightened, was too great.  Further, Tattnall stated that he could not operate for more than a week if he was unable to refuel.  Thus Flag-officer Tattnall was forced to make a decision regarding the Virginia.  To keep her from falling into the hands of the enemy, and to save the crew for further service, he decided to destroy her.  After a survey by First Lt. Catesby Jones, the ship was accordingly put on shore as near the mainland, in the vicinity of Craney Island, as possible.  The venerable historic ship was then fired and blown up on the morning of May 11th., 1862.

There was considerable clamor and second guessing over Tattnall's destruction of the Virginia.  Scharf wrote regarding Confederate reaction.

"The destruction of the Virginia on the 11th of May, 1862 was the most distressing occurrence of the war up to that time The people ignorant of her defects, but having witnessed her prowess and gone wild over her triumphs, believed her capable not only of whipping any enemy but of steaming in any waters."

"Therefor when the news flashed over the country that the gallant vessel which had done so much, and of which so much more was expected, had been destroyed, the public indignation knew no bounds. The wildest clamor broke forth, and the manifestations of public dissatisfaction were so great and outspoken, that Flag-officer Tattnall asked for a Court of Inquiry to investigate the cause of the destruction of the Virginia.

The Inquiry was granted and Tattnall vigorously defended himself.  (His long testimony is given verbatim in both Richard Jones' and Thomas Scharf's books). The finding of that court, however, was adverse to Tattnall, stating that the destruction of the Virginia was unnecessary at the time and place it was effected.  This decision seemed to be so much at variance with the evidence that it was considered unjust by many.  Tattnall himself, then demanded a General Court Martial trial, which not only completely and honorably acquitted, him but resulted in high commendations.  Admiral Franklin Buchanan, who commanded the Virginia and was wounded in battle in the Roads, March 8th, was a member of the Board.  Mabry Tyson has written me that he found a statement in a letter from Robt. E. Lee to General Joseph E. Johnston, written nine days before its destruction, that the Virginia should be destroyed if Norfolk fell to the Federals.

On the 19th of May, Tattnall received orders from Stephen Mallory, Secretary of the Confederate Navy, detaching him from his command of the waters of Virginia and to resume command of the naval defenses of the State of Georgia.  He returned to Savannah and resumed command of the naval defenses but there was little that the Confederate navy could do.  The waters of the entire coast of Georgia were in possession of the Federals.  In March 1863, the Confederate ship Atlanta was converted to an ironclad but later captured.  The Commodore made efforts to build vessels of a class superior to the Atlanta.  The Federal Navy had constructed monitor-type ships and some that operated in the waters off Georgia were superior to Tattnall's small inadequate fleet.

Then in December 1864, Captain Tattnall, rank changed after being relieved of command of station afloat, received orders that: "Should Savannah fall, do not permit vessels under construction, or any of the public property in your charge, to fall into the hands of the enemy.  Destroy everything when necessary to prevent this."

Captain Tattnall was among the last to leave Savannah when she was captured by General Sherman's advancing columns.  Prior to this, however, he destroyed the ironclad Savannah.  He then marched to Hardesville where the retreating rebels were ordered to concentrate.  From there he went to Augusta, Georgia, by way of Charleston, South Carolina.  There he remained, awaiting orders, until the surrender of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston.

On the 9th of May, 1865, he was paroled as a prisoner of war shortly after which he returned to Savannah.

President Abraham Lincoln offered amnesty and pardon after the war, but required, in return, an oath of allegiance to the Union.  Josiah strongly objected to this course of action as admitting treason.  Learning that General Robt. E. Lee had applied for a pardon, and desiring his opinion, he wrote the General the following letter

Savannah, Ga., 23rd August, 1865


I am a paroled prisoner of war under the capitulation of General Joseph E. Johnston.

I am, occasionally, consulted by junior officers of the navy as to the proper course to be adopted in the present crisis, and have advised those who are privileged, to frankly accept the President's amnesty, and to take the oath of allegiance in good faith.  I, however, and others, specially debarred the benefit of the amnesty, are placed on a different footing, and, as I understand it, are required to apply for pardon or clemency, two words which imply a crime was committed.  Now, when in due course of law it shall be decided that the South has committed treason, I shall readily acknowledge the validity of the decision and make all honorable amends in my power; but, until then, I have thought it due to my self respect not to acknowledge the authority of any man, however exalted (meaning the President), or of any body of men, however august (meaning the Congress) to denounce me as a traitor.

There is, however, another consideration, stronger than a personal one, which has hitherto been an insurmountable obstacle to my becoming an applicant for pardon.  Although I disapproved entirely of secession, and had to give evidence to that effect before a jury at Savannah a year after the commencement of the war, still, as I accepted a commission signed by President Davis, I considered it, and still consider it my duty to support him as my commander-in-chief and the exponent of the political principles of the Southern Confederacy.  He is, it seems, to be tried for treason, and I cannot consent to take a step, for my personal benefit, which may jeopardize his safety.  To apply for pardon is to acknowledge treason, and this acknowledgment by the leading political men and the senior officers of the army and navy of the Confederacy, in advance of his trial, may seriously influence the jury, and seems to me equivalent to turning States evidence against him.

I know but little of Mr. Davis personally, having met but thrice, and each time but for a few minutes.  I should not, I think, be likely to recognize him on the streets.  I am influenced solely by the considerations I have stated.

I have taken the liberty to address you in consequence of a statement in a New York paper (the National) that you had applied for a pardon, but had made no abject submission, but had accompanied the petition for pardon with a full statement of those things which had made his (your) past conduct seem right and proper, and had avowed his (your) unchanging devotion to his (your) former principles.  In view of the politics of the paper in which this was published, I discredited it, but from a letter of General Wade Hampton, recently published, I am led to believe there may be some truth in it.

I am induced, therefor, to hope that you have happily suggested a course which removes the obstacles from my path; and feeling assured that a step which you have taken must be honorable and a fitting example, I beg that you will, at your leisure, favor me with your views on the subject for the benefit of myself and those who consult me.

I am out of the word here, and have no one with whom I can interchange views, and while tenacious on a point of honor and official propriety, I do not wish to appear so in regard to mere forms or trifles.

I am, General,
     Very respectfully and truly yours,

Josiah Tattnall

General R. E. Lee,
         Cartersville, Virginia

The following is General Lee's reply:

Near Cartersville, Va., 7th Sept., 1865

Sir:  I have received your letter of the 23rd ultimo, and in reply will state the course I have pursued under circumstances similar to your own, and will leave you to judge of its propriety.  Like yourself, I have, since the cessation of hostilities advised all with whom I have conversed on the subject, who come within the terms of the President's proclamations, to take the oath of allegiance and accept in good faith the amnesty offered.  But I have gone farther, and have recommended to those who were excluded from their benefits, to make application, under the proviso of the proclamation of the 29th May, to be embraced in its provisions.

Both classes, in order to be restored to their former rights and privileges, were required to perform a certain act, and I do not see that an acknowledgment of guilt is expressed in one more than the other.

The war being at an end, the Southern States having laid down their arms, and the questions at issue between them and the Northern States having been decided, I believed it to be the duty of everyone to unite in the restoration of the country and the re-establishment of peace and harmony.  These considerations governed me in counsels I gave to others, and induced me, on the 13th of June, to make application to be included in the terms of the amnesty proclamation.  I have not yet received an answer, and cannot inform you what has been the decision of the President.  But whatever that may be, I do not see how the course I have recommended and practiced can prove detrimental to the former President of the Confederate States.  It appears to me that the allayment of passion, the dissipation of prejudice, and the restoration of reason, will alone enable the people of the country to acquire a true knowledge and form a correct judgment of the events of the past four years.  It will, I think, then be admitted that Mr. Davis has done nothing more than all the citizens of the Southern States, and should not be held accountable for acts performed by them in the exercise of what had been considered their unquestionable right.  I have too exalted an opinion of the American people to believe that they will consent to injustice; and it is only necessary, in my opinion, that truth should be known, for the rights of every one to be secured.  I know of no surer way of eliciting the truth than by burying contention with the war.

I enclose a copy of my letter to President Johnson, and feel assured that however imperfectly I may have given you my views on the subject of your letter, your own high sense of honor and right will lead you to a satisfactory conclusion as to the proper course to be pursued in your own case.  With great respect and esteem,

I am your most obedient servant               
R. E. Lee

Captain Josiah Tattnall
            Savannah, Georgia

Tattnall apparently did not apply for pardon as he decided to move to Nova Scotia, first finding out if the move would violate his parole.  Permission was granted and he, with his family, changed residence to Halifax.  He remained there for four years, but then returned to Savannah where he was given the post of Inspector of the Port of Savannah, a position created for him.  He held that office seventeen months, ended by his death in Savannah, June 14, 1871, at the age of 76.  For some months he had been in failing health and the immediate cause of death was given as general debility and congestion of the brain.

The loss of Commodore Josiah Tattnall, Savannah's, if not Georgia's favorite son elicited great mourning in Savannah.  All vessels in the harbor displayed their flags at half mast.  All city offices were closed on the day of the funeral, and citizens were requested by the City Council to close their businesses as far as practicable.  A public funeral was voted by the Council to be conducted under the direction of a large committee of Aldermen and citizens.  Confederate General Joseph E. Johnson attended among other officers.  An elaborate and impressive funeral service was conducted at Christ Church, one of the largest funerals that had ever taken place in Savannah.

The place of burial was the family lot at Bonaventure, where, for more than a century and a quarter, his ancestors had found a resting place.  Military honors were rendered by presentation of sabers and a Commodore's salute of thirteen guns.


Under the direction of Stephen R. Mallory, Secretary of the Confederate Navy, from a plan by Lieut. John M. Brooke, the Virginia was reinforced adding iron plates covering her sides down to and beneath the waterline. She was also fitted with an iron ram on the bow which turned out to be a formidable appendage to the ship.  On the construction site at Norfolk, work was relentlessly driven by her executive officer, Lt. Catesby ap Roger Jones, who was the great grandfather of my e-mail source of information for this biography, Mabry Tyson.

It was known that the Union was feverishly building the Ironclad Monitor. Thus fitted, it was anticipated by the Confederates. The Virginia was feared by the Union, that it could smash the Union blockade of the Atlantic Coast, as well as raise havoc on northern seaports, and possibly sail up the Potomac and shell Washington, DC. On March 8, 1862, the Virginia got under way from Norfolk to engage superior Union vessels in Hampton Roads which were part of the blockade, and were guarding the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay.  The Virginia was said by some to resemble a house submerged to the eaves, or to others, a crocodile, a monstrosity none had ever seen before.  On entering the Roads, the Virginia, under the command of Flag-Officer Franklin Buchanan, the Confederate's most experienced officer, headed straight for the U.S.S. Congress, a twenty year old wooden frigate carrying fifty guns.  She was raked severely and driven aground where she burned.  Franklin Buchanan's brother, McKean Buchanan, purser on the Congress, survived the battle. The Virginia proceeded on to attack the Cumberland, a twenty-four gun wooden sloop of war and flagship of the Union fleet.  Cannonfire from the Cumberland caused little damage to the Virginia which proceeded to ram a large hole, which along with gunfire sank, the Cumberland.  Flag-Officer Buchanan on the Virginia was wounded and relinquished command to Lt. Catesby ap Roger Jones. 3

The effects on the Union fleet were alarming and catastrophic.  Three other ships, the Minnesota, Roanoke and St. Lawrence, all went aground attempting to go to the assistance of the Congress and the Cumberland.  Lt. Jones then directed his attention to the grounded Minnesota, but because of the 23 foot draft of the Virginia, he was unable close the Union vessel.

The events of that one day, March 8, 1862, scuttled the wooden navies of the world forever.

Because of darkness, Lt. Jones withdrew for the night.  During that same night the U.S.S. Monitor, commanded by J. L. Worden, arrived in the Roads and dropped anchor alongside the Minnesota.  A strange looking craft to those on the Virginia, looking like an immense cheesebox on a raft, as every school boy knows--no sails, no wheels, no smokestack, no guns.  The Monitor was finally identified as the Union ironclad which they knew was being constructed.  At 8 A.M., March 9th, the Virginia stood toward the Minnesota and opened fire.  With much lighter twelve foot draft, the Monitor moved forward and around the Virginia, being much more maneuverable.  They fought for over three hours sustaining some damage.  Most of the damage to the Virginia occurred in her battle with the Cumberland the day before, when the iron ram was twisted off her bow.  The Monitor sustained damage to the pilot house at which time Commander Worden was blinded.  The Monitor withdrew into shoal water where the Virginia could not follow, and the rebel vessel returned to Norfolk.  In the protracted fight, seemingly resulting in a draw, the Monitor emerged as the superior ironclad and allegedly the victor.  Thus was completed the fabled battle of the Monitor and the Merrimack, as it is usually known.  


Jones, Charles C. Jr. The Life and Services of Commodore Josiah Tattnall.  Savannah: Morning News Steam Printing House. 1878.

Mokin, Arthur. Ironclad The Monitor and the Merrimack. Presidio Press Novato, CA. 1991.

Naval History Division. Navy Department. Civil War Naval Chronology 1861-1865. Washington, 1971

Roe, Jo Ann. Ranald MacDonald. Pacific Rim Adventurer. Washington State University Press, Pullman, Washington. 1997.

Scharf, J. Thomas A. M., LL.D. An Officer ot the Late Confederate States Navy.. History of the Confederate States Navy from Its Organization to the Surrender of its Last Vessel. Vols. I & II, New York.

Select Bibliographies Reprint Series. Books for Libraries Press. Freeport, New York. 1887

Ward, Geoffrey C., with Ric Burns and Ken Burns. The Civil War. An Illustrated History.  A Borzoi Book. Alfred A Knopf, Inc. 1990

Editor's Notes (Mabry Tyson)

1Tattnall was recommended for this by Admiral Thomas ap Catesby Jones, uncle of Catesby ap Roger Jones.  Catesby Jones would be the executive officer on the C.S.S. Virginia.

2 The C.S.S. Virginia was not the first ironclad ship.  However, it use against the wooden ships of the U.S. Navy, dramatically showed that the days of wooden warships were numbered.  For a biography of John M. Brooke, see John M. Brooke; Naval Scientist and Educator, by George M. Brooke, Jr., University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1980.

3 Actually, the Virginia first passed the Congress enroute to ramming the Cumberland. The Congress was then attacked and surrendered.

CSS Virginia
Copyright 1997-1998 by Seth W. Smith M.D.