Sept. 13, 2022

The Union Raid of the William H Judah

The Union Raid of the William H Judah

September 13th, 1861. During the American Civil War, Union officers, sailors and marines of the USS Colorado launch a daring expedition to torch and sink a rebel schooner, the William H Judah.


Cold Open

It’s mid-September 1861 in the Gulf of Mexico, five months into the American Civil War.

In the dead of night, four Union longboats cut through the placid waters of the Rebel-held Pensacola Bay in Florida. Onboard the lead vessel is Lieutenant J.H. Russell, the officer in charge of this “cutting out” expedition. Russell’s mission is to sneak onboard a Rebel ship and burn it to ashes. Russell peers into the dark night. He can just make out the contours of his target; a 250-ton, two-mast rebel schooner, the William H. Judah. The Judah is moored to the wharf of the Pensacola Navy Yard. There’s a crew on board the ship and over one thousand rebel soldiers stationed in the Yard. Russell prays they’re fast asleep so that he and his men can get in, and get out, without being detected. But as Russell and his men close in on the Judah… a single gunshot rings across the water. Russell looks up at the deck of the Judah to see a lone rebel sentry crying for help.

In a matter of moments, rebel soldiers pour out onto the deck and open fire. Russell orders his men to row harder and faster. Soon, they reach the Judah under a hail of gunfire. Russell’s marines quickly scale the side of the ship… and overpower the rebel sailors.

Then Russell orders his marines to light torches… and set fire to the ship, sinking her to the bottom of the bay.

The raid of the William H. Judah is one of the most daring naval expeditions of the Civil War. After Russell and his men torch the ship, they row off into the night, leaving the rebel schooner in flames. Soon, the Judah burns free from her moorings and drifts down the coast before sinking into the depths.

Russell and his men achieved their objective. But this extraordinary raid is just one part of a larger union war effort; a grand plan to blockade the Confederacy’s Atlantic and Gulf Coast ports in order to choke off the South from much-needed supplies and war material from abroad. The blockade was to eventually make its way up the Mississippi River thus dividing the Confederacy in two. In the press, the plan is often called: “the Anaconda”, a Union attempt to squeeze the confederacy into submission.

From the very beginning of the Civil War, President Lincoln understood that the US could not be victorious while ports in the south were under the control of the Confederacy. A blockade was necessary. And the man responsible for putting Lincoln’s plan into action was his Navy Secretary: Gideon Welles. Welles’ implementation of the blockade plays an integral role in the overall Union Victory; in no small part thanks to the success of dangerous and daring expeditions like the raid of the William H. Judah, a mission that began on September 13th, 1861.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is September 13th, 1861: The Union Raid of the William H. Judah.

Act One: Neptune

It’s early March 1860 on a sunny spring day in Hartford, Connecticut.

Outside a bookstore, two men sit on a bench, engaged in deep conversation: a local newspaper editor with a bushy white beard named Gideon Welles. And a tall, lanky politician from Illinois: Abraham Lincoln; a man who wants to be the next president of the United States.

Welles is a lifelong Democrat. But in recent years, the newspaper editor has grown estranged from his party. Unlike many Democrats at the time, Welles is against the expansion of slavery; he’s grown frustrated with Democrats for becoming what he often calls “the party of the Southern slaveocracy.” So Welles decided to join a relatively new political party, one that’s on the rise: the Republicans. 

The Republican party’s convention is weeks away, and there are a slew of candidates competing to be the party's nominee for president; most believe the front runner is a Senator from New York named William Seward. But Welles despises Seward, a man he feels is too eager to spend the government’s money on useless initiatives. So Welles refuses to support Seward’s candidacy, but he hasn’t made up his mind on who else to vote for.

But then, this afternoon, Welles ran into Abraham Lincoln at the local bookstore. Welles has never met him before. So he took the opportunity to say hello and get to know this dark horse candidate.

As Welles listens to Lincoln prattle on about the matters of the day, he’s not quite sure what to make of this up-and-comer. He’s heard Lincoln is a powerful public speaker. Lincoln’s in town to make a speech this very evening, and Welles is excited to attend. But this afternoon, as they sit on the bench and chat, Welles is impressed by Lincoln’s manner and intellect; he’s also pleased that he and Lincoln agree on a divisive political issue: the expansion of slavery.

Welles and Lincoln both know that slavery is a moral and political wrong. They accept that it exists in certain parts of the country, but they don’t want it to grow. They believe that by containing slavery to the states where it's currently allowed, the inhumane practice will slowly die out over time.

After hours of talking, Welles and Lincoln finally part ways. And that night, at City Hall, Welles packs in with the rest of the audience and looks on as Lincoln takes the stage, railing again against the issue of slavery’s expansion.

Lincoln acknowledges to the crowd that slavery can’t be easily eliminated where it’s already in practice. But he also insists that slavery will be dangerous to future generations of Americans if it’s allowed to spread into the new territories.

Welles is captivated, as Lincoln poses a hypothetical question to the audience: “what would they do if they found a snake in bed with their child?” Lincoln says that hitting the snake with a stick might make matters worse. The snake might bite the child. Instead, Lincoln suggests, the child should be removed and taken to a new bed. Then Lincoln asks another hypothetical: would any parent then willingly put a batch of snakes in the new bed with their child?

A member of the audience cries out, “Of course not!” And Lincoln then hammers his point home. “The new territories are the newly made bed to which our children are to go, and it lies with the nation to say whether they shall have snakes mixed up with them or not.”

As the crowd erupts into applause, Welles smiles at the cleverness of Lincoln’s metaphor. Lincoln’s oratory skills have lived up to the hype. And soon, Welles resolves to support Lincoln and use his newspaper to champion Lincoln’s candidacy. In his next edition, Welles writes that Lincoln’s “countenance shows intellect, generosity, good nature, and keen discrimination. He is an effective speaker because he is earnest, strong, honest, simple in style, and clear as crystal in his logic.”

Welles is backing the right horse. On the strength of his oratorical skill and his position on slavery, Lincoln will secure the Republican nomination on his way to winning the presidential election of 1860. And when the time comes for President Lincoln to assemble a cabinet, he will write down on a piece of paper a list of several names. One of them is Gideon Wells.

In addition to being an accomplished lawyer and newspaper editor, Welles is also an experienced man of government; he previously served as a navy administrator. Welles is thrilled at Lincoln’s victory and honored to accept the position in his cabinet as Secretary of the Navy. But not everyone shares Welles’ enthusiasm for the new president.

In the months leading up to the 1860 election, whispers began to spread that if the anti-slavery Lincoln won the White House, the southern states would break away from the Union. At the time, many dismissed these rumors as nothing more than bluster. But in the wake of Lincoln’s victory, the long-simmering tensions over slavery boil over into civil rebellion.

In December of that year, one month after the election, South Carolina secedes from the Union. By February of 1861, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas will follow. These seven states will form the original Confederate States of America, a separate nation from, and in rebellion of United States.

But Lincoln will not acknowledge the so-called Confederacy. Instead, he will try his best to keep the Union together. But diplomacy will fail, and rebellion will soon give way to war; on land, and on the open water. To win the deadliest conflict in American History, Lincoln will rely heavily on his Navy Secretary, Gideon Welles; the man he will call Neptune - his God of the Sea.

Act Two: Neptune in Action

It’s April 1861, and a cabinet meeting is underway at the White House.

Navy Secretary Gideon Welles stands in the corner of the room, his arms folded; his narrow eyes fixed on Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward. Today, Seward is imploring Lincoln and the rest of the cabinet to take drastic action against the so-called “Confederate States of America”.

Days ago, rebel forces attacked a US military garrison at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Though no one was killed, the Battle of Fort Sumter officially sparked a civil war between North and South. And now, the task of winning that war falls to Lincoln and his cabinet.

In this meeting, Secretary of State William Seward proclaims that the best way to bring the rebels to heel is to adopt a strategy previously proposed by one of Lincoln’s generals: a naval blockade. The Anaconda Plan, as it’s often called in the press, will give the Union the power to stop and seize ships, cut off the rebels’ supplies, and impede the rebel's ability to transport troops and military equipment.

But Welles listens with frustration. Several members of Lincoln’s cabinet nod in agreement, and even Lincoln seems to like the idea. But Welles disagrees. For one thing, the Navy is his department. Seward, his old political rival, doesn’t know the first thing about blockades. For another, Welles thinks the blockade will have disastrous, unintended consequences.

So Welles steps forward and takes the floor. He says he has no issue with seizing rebel ships or blocking harbors and ports. But they must not announce an official blockade against the Confederacy. Doing so would be an acknowledgment that the rebel government exists; something Welles believes Lincoln should avoid at all costs. Such an acknowledgment might open up the door for nations overseas to establish official relations with the South, and open up trade.

Welles also explains that the Navy is in a state of disrepair. They don’t have the resources - or the ships - to execute an effective blockade. For now, Welles believes, they need to focus on building up the Navy’s arsenal and preparing for war.

Welles’ opinions spark an impassioned debate, but it doesn’t bring the room any closer to a consensus. A conflicted Lincoln leans back in his chair and grapples with what to do. In the end, Lincoln will side with Seward and move forward with the blockade.

But Welles fears the president is making a mistake. Still, he also believes in the chain of command. An order is an order. And when Lincoln announces the blockade on April 19th, Welles gets to work.

But the task before him is colossal. The blockade is intended to stretch across more than 3,000 miles of coastline. His fleet is in tatters. He is short on men, short on ships, and supplies. Welles knows there’s no time to build a new fleet from scratch. So he gets creative. In addition to launching a ship-construction program, Welles recalls warships from abroad and purchases merchant vessels and all manner of watercraft. Then, with ruthless efficiency, he has them converted into warships and gunboats. By June 1861, Welles’ navy has wrangled or built nearly 50 armed ships which are immediately put in the service of the blockade. By the end of the year, Welles expects to have five times that number. He divides his fleet into two squadrons, one in charge of the Atlantic coast, and one in charge of the Gulf.

The effects of the blockade are immediate and severe. Welles’ squadrons drastically reduce imports to the South of much-needed items like tea, coffee, salt, and other foodstuffs. In order to obtain the supplies they need, the Confederacy is forced to resort to the use of blockade runners - light and speedy merchant vessels built to outrun and evade warships. The rebels have some success, but the missions are risky, and often, Welles’ fleet is able to intercept the runners and seize their cargo. The rebel merchant vessels are helpless to fight back. But eventually, the rebels seek to remedy this deficiency.

In the fall of 1861, Union Spies in Pensacola, Florida report the arrival of a rebel merchant vessel that made it past the Gulf fleet’s blockade: a 250-ton, two-mast schooner, known as the William H. Judah. Soon, the Union agents learn that the rebels intend to convert the ship into an armed privateer capable of inflicting damage on Union ships. Before long, the agents urge Naval Command to dispatch a warship to Pensacola with the primary objective of destroying the Judah before the conversion is complete. In response, Welles’ Navy will launch a daring mission to thwart the rebels' plans and sink the Judah to the bottom of the bay.

Act Three: The Battle

It’s the evening of September 13th, 1861 just off the coast of Pensacola, Florida in the Gulf of Mexico.

John Smith - a Union marine - hurries across the deck of a warship known as the USS Colorado. Smith is one of roughly 100 marines, sailors, and officers who’ve been tapped to be a part of a dangerous expedition.

Soon, John and his fellow marines stand at attention on deck as Lieutenant J. H. Russell - the officer in charge of the mission - reviews the plan. The officers will split the sailors and marines into two groups. One will sneak into the Navy Yard and destroy a battery of Confederate guns there. Russell will lead the other toward the Judah.

John is excited. Just days ago, he was locked away in confinement for behavior unbecoming a marine. But tonight, he was let out. And his commanding officer told him that if he conducted himself with honor on this mission, all would be forgiven. John replied, “sir, you shall have no cause to regret releasing me. I will do my duty.” But John is not naive. He knows this mission is risky. There’s a chance that he and the others will not come back alive.

Later, as midnight approaches, John and the rest of the sailors and marines climb into four longboats floating alongside the Colorado. Then, at Lieutenant Russell’s command, they push off into the dark night.

When they approach the Navy Yard, they’re met with enemy fire. But still, Lieutenant Russell sticks to the plan. One group makes land for the guns, the other makes for the Judah. John is the first marine to step foot upon the enemy deck, and the first to meet his death. John dies immediately in a blaze of rebel gunfire.

Lieutenant Russell and the rest press on and finish the mission. Soon, the Judah is destroyed along with the battery of guns in the Yard. The Union raiders escape and make it back to the Colorado. But the mission's success comes at a cost. John Smith is one of at least three men who died during the raid; and as many as 10 were wounded.

Weeks later, in early October, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles issues a written statement, reading: “To those who were engaged in the expedition, not only the department, but the whole country, is indebted for one of the brightest pages that has adorned our naval record during this rebellion.” Welles concludes with a heartfelt note, writing, “The loss… of those who fell… is… painful; but the memory of those brave men should not be lost in the hearts of all true patriots, but ever be cherished therein.”

Over time, the blockade contributes to the South’s waning resolve and ultimately, its defeat. Even today, most historians agree that the North could not have won the war without the Anaconda Plan, a strategy put in place to strangle the South - one that was successful, thanks to the leadership of Gideon Welles, and the sacrifice of marines like John Smith who gave their lives on a daring expedition to sink the William H. Judahthat began on this day, September 13th, 1861.


Next onHistory Daily.September 14th, 1814. The morning after the British attack Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key writes a poem that will become the “Star Spangled Banner.” 

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Mischa Stanton.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is researched by Erik Archilla and written by Steven Walters.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.