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1865 June 24: Gordon’s Special Squadron in Havana

June 29, 2015

Report on the U.S. Navy cleaning up after the Civil War comes from the June 24, 1865, issue of The Prescott Journal.  Commodore Gordon’s special squadron left Hampton Roads on May 17, 1865, headed for Cuba and remained one week, leaving Havana on June 6.

Visit of Our Special Fleet to Havana.

HAVANA, June 6, 1865.


The United States steamer Susquehanna, the formidable double-turreted Monitor Monadnock and the gun boats Monticello, Chippewa and Emma Henry, sailed from Hampton Roads on the morning of Wednesday, the 17th of May, reaching Charleston on the 20th and Port Royal the following morning.  Here the monitor Canonicus, the Fahkee and the Wando were added.  The squadron, having coaled, sailed on the morning of the 23rd in search of the Franco-Spanish rebel ram Olinde, better known as Stonewall,¹ the capture or destruction of which was the primary, and, indeed, the sole object of the expedition.

CSS Stonewall

Havana, being the last place at which she was heard from, was of course our immediate place of destination.

As rapidly as practicable, the Special moved southward the monitors especially the Monadnock, nobly ploughing the brine and steaming finely against the Gulf Stream.  The Monadnock is the best seagoing of our wooden vessels of the screw pattern.


At two p. m. of Sunday, the 28th, the Cuban coast was seen  a little to the westward of Matantas; and at sunset the entire squadron lay in the offing in full view of the city of oranges and cigars.  The picture from the sea was rich with grandeur.  The mountains in the background were mellow and majestic in the lambent light of the setting sun.  The Cabano, El Morrow and La Punta, representative of the home government frowned darkly and angrily upon us; while every window of the city looking seaward was radiant with golden glory, borrowed from the departing god of day as though to hail our coming. No vessels being permitted to enter or leave the harbor between sunset and sunrise, the “Special” must need drift about outside until the rising sun should bid us enter.


Early on the morning of Monday, the 26th we passed close under the walls of old Morro, and moved up the harbor in open order, the monitors following next after the flagship. The approach of an American fleet with monitors had been signaled from the tower of El Morro the previous day, and all Havana was on tiptoe to see these iron-clad monsters of the deep.  The quay and shipping, all along the city front, was one dense mass of human beings—of all ranks, colors and conditions—who had come in wild haste, hatless and coatless, from bank and bar and brokers’ boards, from parlor, counting room and store, crying out in wild excitement : “Look !  look !”  “There come the monitors !”  “How formidable they look !”  “Any one of them could whip the Stonewall in less than half an hour !”  “Truly theses Americans are devils !”  “Hurrah for the brave American nation !”

Scarcely had the Monitors anchored ere Dearborn covered boats, by the hundreds, flocked from the shore, on either side of the pent-up harbor, bearing all descriptions of human freight, and much that beggared description, and swarmed around the monitors.  The ferry-boats too (themselves the result of American enterprise, built in Philadelphia,) ran out of their course, that their officers and passengers might have a closer and clearer view of these “concentrated hells,” as one of their poets styled them, in effusion inspired by the occasion.


But these were far less a matter of curiosity to us than the Stonewall, which lay in an arm of the harbor, in full view from our anchorage, with little evidence of life about her, and without a flag to tell her nationality. And what flag could with propriety could cover her?—Not the rebel rag which has floated defiantly on land and sea for the past four years; for the flaming sword of justice and the roaring artillery of righteous retribution have consumed it.—Not the red, yellow and red bandera bearing the royal crown and escutcheon of Spain; for Spain claims not her ownership.  She is but an illegitimate offspring of sensual passion—a bastard child of a base ambition, without country, without home, without owner, and now without purpose.


The rebel Captain Page, who brought her across the Atlantic, finding the cause of his rebel master [Jefferson Davis] defunct, and that rebel leader himself a prisoner in petticoats, with charges of treason and assassination hanging over  his head, deemed “discretion the better part of valor,” and made an ineffectual attempt to sell her to the Spanish authorities at Havana.  Regarding her as a doubtful investment, these officials treated the proposition with merited disdain and stood aloof from her.  Finding this scheme unprofitable, Page succeeds it with a second, in which he proposes to deliver his vessel over to the Spanish authorities on deposit, in consideration of an advance of sixteen thousand dollars ($16,000), with which to pay off his officers and crew, and with the condition that said authorities should in no case deliver her over to the United States or any representative thereof.  This proposition was also rejected; but after being modified by the omission of the condition, and by the consent of Page to have the sum named paid directly to the officers and crew instead of himself, was agreed to, and the sum above named was advanced, the ram being received  thus on deposit until some proper authority should demand her.

The home government was immediately informed by the Captain General of the steps taken, and this information accompanied with the recommendation that the Stonewall be delivered over to the United States government on demand.

Such was the state of affairs upon the arrival of Adm’l Gordon.  Such has been, in substance, the course pursued both by Page and the Spanish officials at Havana.  Such is the present status of the Stonewall, with the addition of the Captain General’s pledge given to Admiral Gordon that she shall not be coaled, provisioned, or furnished with ammunition, nor allowed to proceed to sea until both Spanish and United States governments shall be further heard from concerning her.


Admiral Gordon and Captain Taylor visited Stonewall, in company with the Captain General of Cuba, and found her far less formidable than she had been represented.  They agreed in the opinion that the Susquehanna alone would have proved more than a match for her as she was officered and manned and that the Susquehanna and Monadnock would sink her in less than half an hour.  Nor can she be considered seaworthy.  Her officers, who are still vagabonds in Havana, declare that three times on her passage over, they collected together their personal effects and valuables, and had all the boats prepared for leaving her, she being almost momentarily expected to sink.  Other competent judges, who have visited her, declare her very far inferior, even in offensive power, to representations made of her, and that as a defensive battery, she is little less than a complete failure.


The impression produced by the visit of this squadron to Havana has been very marked.  The Captain General visited the flagship and monitors in company with his entire staff, a token of respect that neither he nor any of his predecessors had ever shown to any foreign man-of-war.  The fluency and elegance with which Admiral Gordon commands the Spanish language gave him a power and influence here that few could have exerted.  The tokens of respect—amounting even to marks of distinction—paid by the Spanish officials were public as well as private and general as well as individual.


On the evening of the 1st inst. the Admiral commanding the station gave a brilliant reception to the officers of the squadron, at which were gathered the beauty and ton of the Spanish society of the island.  Sweet music, tastefully discoursed gave its charms to the occasion, and refreshments in rich variety abounded.  This was followed on Friday evening, the 2nd, by a dinner at the palace of the Captain General, given to Admiral Gordon, his staff and the commanding officers of the vessels composing the squadron.  This was elaborate costly and sumptuous in the extreme. This occasion too, was enlivened by cheery notes of sweetest melody from the best band on the station.


Meanwhile the citizens were by no means idle.  Numerous individuals of American interests and sympathies dispensed their hospitality lavishly to such members of the squadron as could be secured by them at the convenient seasons to receive it.

Among these the reception of Wm. Fairchild, Esq., on the evening of Wednesday, May 30, deserves special mention.  Mr. Fairchild is an American citizen to whose energy and enterprise Havana owes much of her improvements and prosperity.  He has been chiefly instrumental in securing a beautifully constructed passenger railway, extending the entire length of the city, on which first class American cars are drawn by splendid American horses.  Indeed the very granite blocks that pave the streets he has brought from New York.

Every day during the stay of the “Special” at Havana the Dearborn covered boats continued to flock to and swarm around the monitors, the visitors strewing their decks with mangoes, limes, bananas, oranges, pine-apples and genuine Havana sugars.  “Jack” says “God bless the Cubans !” and we all respond “Amen !”


But the crowning feature that marked the good feeling toward us—rather towards the great United States which here, we were supposed to represent—was a magnificent ball given to the officers of the squadron by the Creole, or Cuban portion of the people, on Monday evening the 5th inst., at a beautiful romantic spot, eight miles in the country, called Glorietta Marianao.  This is said to have surpassed everything else of the kind ever seen of the island of Cuba.  The officers who could be spared from the squadron, some fifty in number, were met at the landing by the committee, with carriages and rolantes in which they were conveyed to the depot of the Matanzas Railroad—another American Institution. Tickets had already been furnished us to and fro over the road.  A few minutes’ home-like “riding on a rail” sufficed to bring us to the romantic spot, where were assembled beauty, grace and elegance of the entire city and vicinity, save that which belonged officially to the home government, and even embracing a part of that.  As we entered, the orchestra struck up “Yankee Doodle” with which to welcome us to our friends.  The ball-room was a spacious rectangular building, entirely open on three sides, thus avoiding narrow and dangerous draughts, and was roofed in studded cottage style.  It was brilliantly illuminated and the decoration was truly magnificent.  At the head or closed end of the room, the American and Spanish flags hung side by side, with a small American flag of silk between them—had it been Spanish it would have represented the island of Cuba.  Was it meant to be prophetic?  The studding was entwined, and the ties and braces were festooned with the Star Spangled Banner with small Spanish banderas modestly peeping out here and there at intervals.  Superbly massive boquets [sic] of beautiful flowers standing in large urns mounted on pedestals contributing largely to the ornamentation.  Groves of oranges and bananas surrounded the building, and the fresh air that bathed the beauty and brilliancy of that hall was bountifully laden with the fragrance of the trees and flowers which it had kissed on its way hither.  Refreshments here too superabounded, and were dealt out with a lavish hand.  Wit and mirth ran riot,

“And eyes looked love to eyes that spake again.”

The small hours stole on apace until the clock struck three, when exhausted nature began to assert her rights, and the guests to seek their houses. The orchestra again played “Yankee Doodle;” the Cubans gave three cheers for “The Special Squadron,” which was returned with three for “Havana Society;” and we returned to the cars, the volantes, the boats and the hammocks.

Eight days the “Special Squadron” has been in Havana; eight days devoted to securing the blessings of “peace on earth and good will towards men.”  The words of fraternal affection, the pledges of mutual friendship and the farewells have been given and received; and we are again homeward bound, a little the wiser and none the worse, we trust, for what we have seen and heard in Havanna [sic].

1.  Not to be confused with the 1862 CSS Stonewall Jackson, the 1865 CSS Stonewall was constructed at Bordeaux, France, in 1864, ostensibly for the Danish Government, but really for the Confederates. The image shows the Stonewall leaving Lisbon, Portugal, on March 28, 1865, en route across the Atlantic to America. The line engraving appeared in the May 13, 1865, issue of Harper’s Weekly. The University of Wisconsin-River Falls’ Chalmer Davee Library has microfilm copies of Harper’s Weekly for 1858-1865 (UWRF online catalog).

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