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DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY -- NAVAL HISTORY AND HERITAGE COMMAND


Lehigh

A county in Pennsylvania.

(Single-turreted monitor: displacement 1,875 tons; length 200'; beam 46'; draft 11'6"; speed 4 knots; complement 75; armament [23 March 1863]: 1 XV-inch Dahlgren smoothbore, 1 XI-inch Dahlgren; armament [5 December 1863]: 1 XV-inch Dahlgren smoothbore, 1 150-pounder Parrott rifle; class Passaic)

The first Lehigh was launched on 17 January 1863 by Reaney, Son, and Archibold, Chester, Penn., under subcontract from John Ericsson, and commissioned at the Philadelphia Navy Yard on 15 April 1863, Comdr. John C. Howell in command.

Rear Adm. Samuel P. Lee intended to use Lehigh - still under construction - in a planned expedition against Wilmington, N.C., but Confederate offensive operations altered the U.S. Navy Department's priorities. Lt. Gen. James Longstreet took charge of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina on 25 February 1863 and initiated his Tidewater Operations. He directed D. H. Hill, commander of the North Carolina District, to advance on the Union stronghold of New Berne. After some initial success, the arrival of Union gunboats and the reinforcement of the city's garrison forced Hill to withdraw to threaten Washington, North Carolina in late March. Hill was eventually maneuvered out of his siege works and withdrew on April 15.

In cooperation with D.H. Hill's advance on Washington, N.C., Longstreet, with Hood's and Pickett's divisions besieged the Union garrison at Suffolk, Va., commanded by Brig. Gen. John Peck. The Union works were formidable and Peck's troops outnumbered Longstreet's by 25,000 to 20,000. The Confederacy's top priority, however, was to control the region during the spring harvest in order to bring in the foodstuffs necessary to supply Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.  

On 13 April 1863, the Confederate troops pushed their left flank to the Nansemond River and constructed a battery on Hill's Point, that closed off the garrison to Union shipping. Rear Adm. Lee committed his scarce resources to support the Union garrison at Suffolk. Lee was eager to receive Lehigh because of the threat posed by the Confederate James River Squadron, particularly the ironclad Richmond, and its potential to cooperate with Southern forces operating near Suffolk and Williamsburg.

On 21 April 1863, Lee placed the newly arrived Lehigh and the ironclad monitor Sangamon at Newport News with orders to protect the flagship Minnesota. That permitted Federal gunboats on the Nansemond to operate more aggressively in support of the Suffolk garrison. Gen. Robert E. Lee directed Longstreet on 29 April to disengage from Suffolk and rejoin the Army of Northern Virginia at Fredericksburg, and by May 4 the last of Longstreet's command had crossed the Blackwater River en route to Richmond.

On 8 May 1863, Lee received request from Lt. Comdr. Gillis to assist Army expedition up the Chickahominy River under Maj. Gen. Keyes from gunboats then at Yorktown. Lee agreed but wanted the details of the movement so that he could make suitable dispositions. Although Lee received a message on the 10th from Gillis that Keyes had cancelled the operation, Gillis arrived off Newport News later that day with detailed orders from Keyes.

Although Lee did not like the irregular status of communications with Keyes, he agreed to assist the Army expedition. The admiral sent Gillis with gunboat Commodore Jones to accompany the army transports, as well as Lehigh, towed by picket tug Young America, and Sangamon, towed by Morse, to guard the expedition from Confederate ironclads. Navigation of the James proved very difficult at night, and Union ships running aground delayed the scheduled rendezvous with army troops at James Island until noon on 11 May 1863. Keyes's expedition took place the next day when a regiment embarked from James Island and steamed a mile or two up the Chickahominy and landed. The expedition returned with a few horses and cattle in time to be landed that night at Jamestown Island. Lee returned with his gunboats and ironclads to Newport News on the 13th.

When the Army of Northern Virginia invaded the north in June 1863, Union forces in the Richmond area were directed to threaten the Confederate capital to probe for weaknesses and provide a diversion that might weaken Gen. Robert E. Lee's offensive. While the Army launched a raid up the York and Pamunky Rivers, Rear Adm. Lee led an expedition up the James, causing the South to evacuate Fort Powhatan, leaving no defenses on the river below Chaffin's or Drewry's Bluffs, some eight miles from Richmond. The situation relaxed as the southern army retreated across the Potomac, and the Union warships dropped down river to Hampton Roads. On the morning of 23 July Lehigh, towed by Circassian, got underway for New York, where she arrived two days later to undergo repairs.

The following month, Lehigh, under the command of Comdr. Andrew Bryson, departed for Charleston to begin a lengthy assignment with the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Since the failure of the squadron's ironclads under Rear Adm. Samuel Francis Du Pont to breach the city's defenses in April 1863, the Navy Department sought to increase the odds of success in another attempt. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles relieved Du Pont on 3 June, eventually replacing him with Rear Adm. John A. Dahlgren. The new commander, determined to capture the heart of secessionist sentiment, sought additional resources from the Navy Department and closer cooperation with the invidious Army commander, Maj. Gen. Quincy Gilmore. Dahlgren wanted to roll back Charleston's defenses gradually, beginning with those on Morris Island. The Navy supported Gilmore's siege operations against the island's fortifications until the Confederates abandoned them on 6 September.

Meanwhile, Dahlgren resumed the bombardment of Fort Sumter and planned to complete its destruction with his ironclads. The monitors engaged the fort at about 800 yards during a light fog on 23 August 1863 from 3:00 a.m. to 6:30 a.m., but delivered little damage. The attack confirmed that Fort Sumter no longer possessed a strong artillery battery, but it still served to protect the line of Confederate obstructions blocking the main channel. With the arrival of Lehigh, and the promise of better coordination from the broadside ironclad New Ironsides, Lee decided on another attack on the night of 1 to 2 September.

The Union ships fired 245 rounds during a five-hour bombardment, and as reported by a Confederate general, “demolishing nearly the whole of the eastern scarp...” The ironclads received 71 rounds in return, mostly from Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island. Following the Confederate evacuation of Morris Island, Dahlgren demanded the surrender of Fort Sumter, and when the garrison refused, he sent his ironclads on 8 September 1863 to reconnoiter the obstructions and heavily engage Fort Moultrie. During the early morning, the monitor Weehawken grounded in the narrow channel, and the rest of the ironclads drew back to cover her until she was floated with the aid of a tug later in the day. The following night, Union forces attempted unsuccessfully to seize Fort Sumter with a boat expedition, landing some 400 sailors and marines. With several of his ironclads badly damaged from the prolonged engagements of the past several weeks, Dahlgren decided to suspend major operations for the time being.

Because of limited repair facilities and specialized people at Port Royal and the need to keep some ironclads on station off Charleston, only a few ironclads could be worked on at one time. The Navy Department decided on a number of modifications to the monitors based on the operational experience of the past several months, including strengthening the deck armor and constructing a raised iron ring around the turret to keep enemy shot from jamming the turret's rotation. Added to needed repairs and cleaning of the hulls, that work resulted in each vessel spending an average of thirty days at Port Royal before being ready to return to duty.

The delays gave Dahlgren time to consider his options and plan his next course of action against the Charleston defenses. Unfortunately for the prospects of capturing Charleston, Gilmore evidenced little desire to cooperate with the Navy, believing that Dahlgren should now be able to enter Charleston harbor on his own. On 26 October 1863, the admiral ordered Lehigh and Patapsco to begin a series of long-range bombardments of Fort Sumter with their 150-pounder Parrott rifles. Dahlgren hoped to use this time to clear out whatever garrison may be there. During nine days of firing, Lehigh expended 408 shells from the Parrott rifle and 24 shells from her XV-inch smoothbore, the range varying from 1,600 to 1,800 yards. Despite displacing large masses of masonry and throwing heavy timbers into the air, there was no evidence that the garrison had been seriously weakened. Lehigh received two hits during this period, but neither caused any serious damage.

On the evening of 16 November 1863, Confederate batteries at Fort Moultrie unexpectedly opened a very heavy, long-range fire on their works on Morris Island, throwing Federal troops into confusion. Gilmore immediately requested help from the Navy, and Dahlgren ordered the monitors on picket duty, including Lehigh, to move up and cover approaches to the Union position in case the Southerners intended to launch a boat attack.

Comdr. Bryson ordered his ship to anchor in three and one half fathoms of water at half-ebb tide, believing that she would be perfectly safe. During the flood tide that night, however, the vessel swung and grounded gently on a sand bar. Upon discovering after daylight that Lehigh was aground, nine different Confederate batteries opened an intense bombardment at about 2,300 yards, striking the ironclad twenty-two times, including eleven hits on the deck plating, six of which broke through the armor. One hit struck the hull, bent the plating in and eventually started a leak that let in nine inches of water per hour.

Monitors Nahant and Montauk came to her assistance, the former making three attempts to pass a line with small boats. Gunner's Mate George Leland, Coxswain Thomas Irving, and Acting Surgeon William Longshaw, Jr., twice succeeded in passing the line under heavy fire, only to have it severed by enemy guns. The third attempt by Seaman Horatio Young, Landsman William Williams, and Landsman Frank Giles succeeded as well, and that time it served to provide the tow that rescued Lehigh from her precarious position. Dahlgren praised all for risking their lives to save an invaluable warship, and the enlisted men each received the Medal of Honor. Rear Adm. Dahlgren issued a general order commending the bravery of those men, directing that it “be read on every quarterdeck of the fleet at the next general muster after its reception.”

After repairs and modifications at Port Royal, Lehigh rejoined the fleet off Charleston on 13 January 1864. On 2 and 3 February, the monitor participated in the destruction of the blockade runner Presto, which had been run ashore off Fort Moultrie. The Parrott rifle from Lehigh fired forty-two times from 2,400 to 2,500 yards, hitting the wooden vessel nine times, setting her ablaze.

The Confederates added several vessels to their squadron at Charleston during the winter of 1863-1864, including David and H.L. Hunley, which both conducted successful spar torpedo attacks on Union warships. As the defenses of Charleston grew stronger, Dahlgren and the Navy Department grew more pessimistic about the chances of a successful assault on Charleston. The station soon became one focused on maintaining the blockade.

Lehigh remained assigned to the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron for the rest of the year 1864, engaging in only one more major operation. Hearing that Confederate forces were about to move against the blockaders off Charleston, Dahlgren and Maj. Gen. Foster planned a diversionary expedition up the Stono River, intending to cut the important Charleston-Savannah railroad. From 2 to 9 July, Lehigh, now under the command of Lt. Comdr. Alexander A. Semmes, participated in the joint raid with the monitor Montauk, providing effective fire support against enemy rifle pits and preventing construction of earthworks along the shore. 



While a lookout with a telescope looks on from Lehigh's dented turret,
his shipmates carry out a gun drill with a 12-pounder Dahlgren howitzer mounted on an iron field carriage on the monitor's deck,
probably while the ship was serving on the James River, circa 1865.
Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph NH 59436



Lehigh arrived at Fort Monroe on 14 March 1865, and was immediately sent up the James River to increase the strength of Union forces guarding against a sortie by the powerful ironclads in the Confederate James River Squadron. Six days later, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant telegraphed President Abraham Lincoln and asked him to meet him at City Point, Virginia. There, on 24 March the chief executive joined Grant on the James below Trent's Reach where the Union ironclads stood guard. With the fall of Richmond imminent, Rear Adm. David Dixon Porter ordered Comdr. William Ronckendorff (Monadnock) to send an expedition up the James immediately, to clear the river of torpedoes all the way to the city.

Ronckendorff charged Lt. Comdr. Ralph Chandler (Sangamon) to carry out the mission. Pairs of boats from ten ships, including Lehigh, formed a line in echelon across the river equipped to drag for torpedoes, while parties of armed sailors kept just ahead of the boats to cut torpedo wires encountered along each river bank. Lt. John H. Reed from Lehigh led the party on the northern shore. The armed steamer Commodore Perry covered the expedition that took place on 3 April.

On 11 April 1865, Porter placed several ships along the James for the protection of vessels navigating the river. Porter directed Lt. Comdr. Semmes to station Lehigh at Windmill Point. Ordered to Hampton Roads at the end of April, Lehigh, along with the ironclads Sangamon, and Atlanta were sent on 29 May to watch over the captured Confederate ironclad Columbia at Norfolk.

On 31 May 1865, Acting Secretary of the Navy Gustavus V. Fox ordered the commander of the newly designated North Atlantic Squadron, Acting Rear Adm. William Radford, to reduce the size of his command. Lehigh, among those vessels sent north, was decommissioned at League Island Navy Yard, Philadelphia, on 9 June 1865.

Laid up and under repairs at League Island for a decade, Lehigh was recommissioned on 15 December 1875 at Norfolk, Comdr. George A. Stevens in command. The monitor served as a practice and school ship at the U.S. Naval Academy for a year before being assigned to the North Atlantic Station in April 1876, operating in the vicinity of Port Royal, S.C.

Lehigh lay in the James River at City Point and off Richmond from 1879 to 1895. Taken to League Island in 1895 to be repaired, the ironclad was recommissioned on 18 April 1898 under the command of Lt. Robert G. Peck. Lehigh was stationed off New England for coastal defense during the Spanish-American War.



Lehigh, most likely photographed at the Boston Navy Yard in the summer of 1898, while she was in commission during the war with Spain.
Ship on the opposite side of the pier is the auxiliary gunboat Governor Russell, a wooden-hulled ferry acquired by the Navy in May 1898 and commissioned on 24 June 1898.
Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph NH 51301


Decommissioned on 8 September 1898, the now obsolete monitor remained at League Island until sold for scrapping on 14 April 1904.


Mark L. Hayes
October 2008