This Captain Became a Hero of the Confederate Navy (and Then Fled To Cuba)

November 2, 2020 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: American Civil WarMilitary HistoryConfederacyNaval Wafare

This Captain Became a Hero of the Confederate Navy (and Then Fled To Cuba)

A skilled, brilliant officer in the Confederate Navy, John Taylor Wood inflicted major damage on the U.S. Navy.

Here's What You Need to Know: Wood remained a loyal Confederate until the very end.

The epic battle between the Virginia (Merrimack) and Monitor might never have taken place because, as strange as it may seem, the Confederates did not have enough experienced men to man their ship. The problem was solved by John Taylor Wood, a 31-year-old Confederate naval officer of unusual skill and resourcefulness. Lieutenant Wood joined the Virginia in January 1862 and was given the responsibility of recruiting a crew for the ironclad, which was not as easy as it seemed. The Confederate Navy had plenty of former U.S. Navy officers, but lacked trained sailors. Before the war, the majority of naval officers had come from the South, while the enlisted men usually were from the North.

Because there were not enough seamen in Norfolk to man the Virginia, Wood traveled to the Army camps at Yorktown, Richmond, and Petersburg in search of volunteers who had sea or gunnery experience. These forces were themselves short on men, so it was not easy to persuade their commanders to release any of their soldiers. But through perseverance, Wood was able to get quite a few men who had the necessary experience. In a surprisingly short time, Wood managed to gather a crew of 300 men made up of seamen, gunners, and marines and filled out with Army volunteers.

Virginia Crew “as Gallant and Trusty a Body of Men as Anyone Could Wish To Command”

Wood assembled the men at the Norfolk Navy Yard and drilled them as much as he could in the limited time he had. By March 8, when the Virginia left the Navy Yard for her initial trial run and first battle, her crew was skilled. Wood described them “as gallant and trusty a body of men as anyone could wish to command.”

During the battle that day and the next, Wood was in charge of the aft pivot gun, a 7-inch Brooke rifle. It was this gun, aimed by Wood, that fired the shot that struck the Monitor’s pilothouse and wounded her captain, Lieutenant John L. Worden. Wood also came up with the idea to board the Monitor. He organized a boarding party and equipped the men not only with small arms, but also with sledgehammers and wedges to jam the Monitor’s turret, oakum-ball grenades to drop inside the ironclad, and canvas to cover the vision ports and ventilators. Unfortunately for Wood, just as the two ironclads closed, the Monitor veered away and headed into shallow water where the Virginia could not go.

Captain Franklin Buchanan, commander of the Virginia, said of Wood’s performance: “Lieut. Wood handled his pivot gun admirably, and the executive officer [Lt. Catesby Jones] testifies to his valuable suggestions during the action. His zeal and industry in drilling the crew contributed materially to our success.”

After the battle, Captain Buchanan sent Wood to President Jefferson Davis in Richmond with news of the battle and the bloodied flag of the surrendered USS Congress. Wood soon returned to the Virginia, and when the Confederates evacuated Norfolk he worked tirelessly to lighten the ironclad so she could be taken up the James River to safety. When this failed, he helped in her destruction on May 11.

Wood was born on August 13, 1830, at Fort Snelling, Iowa Territory (St. Paul, Minn.). His father was General Robert Crooke Wood, a U.S. Army surgeon and assistant Surgeon General from 1862 to 1865. His mother was Anne Mackall (Taylor), daughter of Zachary Taylor and sister of Jefferson Davis’s first wife.

Instead of following his father into the Army, Wood entered the Navy in April 1847 as a midshipman. During the Mexican War, he served on the frigate Brandywine off Brazil and the ship-of-the-line Ohio in the Pacific Ocean. After the war he continued his career in the Navy and in June 1853 he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, second in his class. In 1855, he was promoted to lieutenant and the following year married Lola Mackubin of Annapolis; they eventually had 11 children.

John Taylor Wood Supported the Confederate Cause

When the Civil War began, Wood was an instructor of tactics and gunnery at the Naval Academy. Because his sympathies lay with the South, he resigned his commission in April 1861 and returned to his farm in Maryland. As the war proceeded through the summer, Wood tried to stay neutral but gradually became a supporter of the Confederate cause and joined the Virginia State Navy as a lieutenant. Consequently, Wood and his father, who was then stationed in Washington, stopped speaking to one another. Wood’s younger brother, Robert Crooke Wood, Jr., a graduate of West Point and a U.S. Army officer, also left the Union for the South and served as a Confederate cavalry officer. Before joining the Virginia, John Taylor Wood was stationed along the Potomac at the batteries at Evansport and Aquia Creek.

In December Wood was appointed a lieutenant in the Confederate Navy by Davis, retroactive to October 4. Although Davis was his uncle, Wood was more than a mere political appointee. He was intelligent, a good planner, an exceptional leader, and was well versed in naval tactics. Despite being a strict disciplinarian, he was respected by those he commanded for his courage and skill in battle. He had much influence with the Confederate government and Navy Department, more than his rank or position would indicate, but this influence was due more to his ability and knowledge than to who his uncle was.

Wood and Crew Head to Richmond, Join Forces

With the destruction of the Virginia, Wood and the rest of the ironclad’s crew went to Richmond, where they found the city preparing for an attack by the approaching Union forces. Wood and the Virginia’s men were immediately sent seven miles below the city to a 200-foot-high prominence overlooking the James River called Drewry’s Bluff. Here they joined other Confederate forces in building earthworks and batteries and sinking obstructions in the river—an attack upon Richmond by Union gunboats coming up the James River was expected at any time.

The Confederates did not have long to wait. On May 15, just two days after Wood arrived, a flotilla of Union gunboats appeared. The flotilla comprised the new ironclad Galena and four other gunboats, including the Monitor. When the Union ships came within 600 yards of the Confederate positions, they opened fire and a hotly contested artillery duel ensued.

The battle raged for almost four hours until the Union gunboats, finding that they could not overcome the high Confederate works, retreated down the river. During the battle, Wood was in command of a company of sharpshooters entrenched along the riverbank. Despite being under constant rifle and cannon fire, Wood’s men poured out a steady and accurate fire that helped keep the Union gunboats at bay. Wood was later commended for his actions and those of his men. Wood said of the battle, “The fight at Drewry’s Bluff … was the salvation of Richmond.” The Confederate victory, indeed, had prevented the Union from reaching Richmond that day.

Embarking on Nighttime Vessel Raids

Several months later Wood embarked on the first of his feared and famous nighttime raids on the Chesapeake Bay. On the night of October 7, 1862, Wood and 13 men boarded and captured the Union transport schooner Francis Elmore, which was anchored off Lower Cedar Point in the Potomac. After taking the captain and crew prisoner, he burned the vessel.

At the end of the month Wood made another raid. With volunteers from the Confederate gunboat Patrick Henry in three small boats, Wood came upon the ship Alleganian anchored near the mouth of the Rappahannock River. He and his men boarded the ship—there was a storm raging at the time—and without a fight took her surprised crew prisoner. After seizing the ship’s stores, Wood put some of the prisoners in his boats and set the ship afire. Although several Union gunboats were in the area, Wood made it to shore safely—the Alleganian and her cargo were a total loss.

In early 1863, Wood was appointed naval aide-de-camp to President Davis and made a colonel of cavalry (near the end of 1861 the Confederate Congress allowed Davis to give naval officers Army rank). For the rest of the war Wood held commissions in both the Confederate Army and Navy, changing his rank between the two services as his duties required. As Davis’s aide, Wood inspected the South’s coastal and river defenses and ship construction and naval facilities, and acted as liaison officer between the Army and Navy. During this time Wood made some of his most important contributions to the Confederacy.

“The Absolute Necessity of the Place … Is Heavy Guns”

While on an inspection tour of Wilmington in February 1863, Wood reported to President Davis, “The absolute necessity of the place, if it is to be held against a naval attack, is heavy guns. With over 100 guns bearing upon the water, there is but one 10-inch, no 9-inch, and but few 8-inch; 24s and 32s form the armament of most of the batteries.” This report led to Wilmington receiving heavier guns. As a result of this and other recommendations he made for improving the defenses of Wilmington, and later Charleston, these important ports were able to remain open longer to blockade runners. Wood was also concerned with making improvements in the Confederate Navy, vigorously pushing to have more active, younger men placed in positions of authority.