Hernando De Soto, a Spanish explorer from Panama, led an expedition north from Cuba in 1539, searching for a trade route to China. After landing in Florida, the expedition marched north almost to the Ohio river valley before returning southwest to Mexico City in 1543. While enroute, De Soto's expedition explored the Appalachians, the Mississippi River valley and parts of Texas.
The first De Soto, a side wheel steamer, was purchased 21 August 1861 at New York from Livingston & Co., and outfitted by New York Navy Yard, Commander William M. Walker in command.
After fitting out, the steamer put to sea on 19 November with ordnance stores for Fort Pickens, Fla., and vessels in the Gulf of Mexico, arriving off Southwest Pass, Mississippi River, after 11 December. Joining the Gulf Blockading Squadron at that time, De Soto patrolled for Confederate blockade runners near Barataria Bay. Given the sometimes light airs of the Gulf and inshore waters, the vessels shallow draft and steam power gave De Soto an advantage over her mainly sail-powered prey. Cmdr. Walker's first month in the region began poorly, however, when his ship collided with the French war steamer Milan, then adrift off South West Pass, Mississippi River. Although damage to De Soto was slight, the Milan was disabled and thus needed a tow into the Union anchorage.
Despite the poor start, the steamers' first capture did not take long, as she and a bluejacket-crewed lugger took schooner Major Barbour off Isle. Derniere, La., on 28 January 1862. Cmdr. Walker's crew discovered 8 barrels of gunpowder and 198 cases of gunpowder, nitrates, sulpher, and percussion caps in the blockade runner. On 8 February, the steamer caught the small schooner Star out of Bayou La Fourche, taking her four-man crew prisoner.
Upon Admiral David G. Farragut's arrival at Key West in steam sloop-of-war Hartford in late February, the Gulf Blockading Squadron was split into parts, the Eastern and Western Gulf Blockading Squadrons. De Soto came under the command of the Western Blockading Squadron at that time, although she did not change her patrol station at Barataria. As the steamer continued blockade operations through the spring, De Soto also served as a mobile storeship, carrying extra bread and ordnance supplies. She remained there until early-July, when the warship made a quick run up the Mississippi, carrying letters and passengers to the warships participating in the siege of Vicksburg. Returning down river, De Soto sailed southeast along the coast of Texas, patrolling off Sabine Pass, the Brazos River and Brazos Santiago at the mouth of the Rio Grande.
Three months of hot weather and lack of maintenance facilities took a toll on De Soto's boilers and she returned to New Orleans for temporary repairs in early October. A backlog of work and lack of funds forced Rear Adm. Farragut to send De Soto north, however, and the steamer arrived at the Navy Yard at Philadelphia only on 18 November. Two months of repair work followed, during which time Cmdr. Walker was promoted to Captain. De Soto stood down the Delaware River on 3 February 1863 and, after stops at Havana and Santo Domingo, arrived back at Key West onAfter repairs at Philadelphia Navy Yard from November to January 1863, De Soto arrived at Key the 15th.
Assigned to the Eastern Gulf Blockading Squadron under Rear Admiral Theodorus Bailey, De Soto spent March and April fruitlessly cruising for C.S.S. Alabama in the Gulf of Mexico. As one of the few fast steamers in Bailey's command, De Soto possessed a speed advantage over most of her blockade running prey. This was demonstrated on 24 April, when De Soto sailors boarded and seized two sloops, Jane Adelie and Bright, sixteen hours out of Mobile and each laden with cotton. Two schooners, General Prim and Rapid, were then taken the very next day, and they too carried cotton. All four prizes were sent to Key West for adjudication. On 27 April, De Soto continued the run of good luck, seizing the British schooner Clarita enroute from Havana to Matamoras.
Patrolling north and west of the Tortugas, the warship then captured the schooner Sea Bird on 14 May. Three days later, De Soto pursued the smoke of an unknown steamer and, after an 18-hour chase, forced her to stop in open water well south of Mobile Bay. Before De Soto's boats could board, however, the enemy steamer's crew set fires and abandoned ship, sinking what turned out to be Confederate steamer Cuba beneath the waves. De Soto continued her fast pace of operations the next day, capturing schooner Mississippian on 19 May before finally returning to Key West for repairs.
Returning to sea in mid-June, De Soto's luck held and she captured schooner Lady Maria north of Tampa Bay on 6 July, laden with 104 bales of cotton. On the 18th, while cruising near Mobile Bay, De Soto spotted a steamer and closed and took the steamer James Battle, laden with rosin and cotton. At that point, two screw steamers from the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, Aroostook and Ossipee, closed with some disappointment, as they had been chasing the blockade runner. Later that same evening, as De Soto and Ossipee independently chased a second steamer, Capt. Walker closed and took William Bagley before the other Union ship could do so. Those actions by De Soto, which put Capt. Jonathan P. Gillis of the Ossipee in mind of "a voracious aquatic bird," led to a dispute over prize claims. The controversy was resolved later in the month when Rear Adm. Bailey and Rear Admiral David G. Farragut, commander of the Western Gulf Blockading Squadron agreed to split prize shares.
De Soto continued her patrols in the Gulf of Mexico into the month of August, braving the sweltering heat to board and inspect coastal and seaborne traffic. The steamer Alice Vivian was seized on 16 August, as she had no papers, and the steamer Nita was taken the next day for the same reason. During this month, wear and tear on the steamer's boilers began to show and, despite attempts at repair, De Soto steadily lost speed. On 12 September, following a nine hour chase under steam and sail, the Union ship finally took the blockade runner Montgomery, a chase Capt. Walker claimed should have taken one fourth the time if the boilers were in good order. Tinkering helped build up steam pressure to a point, and De Soto managed to chase down the screw-steamer Leviathan on 22 September.
Returning to Key West in late October, De Soto received minor repairs and recoaled. Capt. Walker was relieved of command in early November by Capt. Gustavus H. Scott, before spending the next six weeks patrolling off N. E. Providence Channel. After coaling at Key West in early January 1864, De Soto patrolled off Mobile Bay, where she chased and captured steamer Cumberland on 5 February. The "Anglo-rebel" steamer had loaded arms, ammunition and 100 barrels of gunpowder at Havana in late 1863 and was trying to slip into Mobile when taken. De Soto proceeded to Havana in late February, for dry docking and repairs to her hull, before taking up a patrol station off the east coast of Florida in mid-March. A month later, she was back in Key West for coaling and repairs before returning to her familiar hunting grounds southeast of Mobile Bay. Sometime in April or May, De Soto's crew began coming down with yellow fever and the steamer was sent north in early June, arriving at Portsmouth, N.H., on 16 June. As was normal practice, the warship decommissioned that same day and the crew quarantined until the fever burned out.
Sent to Baltimore, Md., 12 January 1865, for the installation of new boilers, De Soto was recommissioned there 12 August 1865 with Capt. Walker back in command. The steamer stood out for Norfolk on 7 September and joined De Soto the newly organized North Atlantic Squadron, whose cruising ground covered the Atlantic Ocean south to the West Indies and the Gulf of Mexico.
At that time, "revolutionists" in Haiti were fighting the government of President Gerrard from a base at Cape Haiten and De Soto steamed to that port to safeguard Americans residing in that area. On 19 October, following a confrontation between the rebel steamer Providence and HMS Bulldog, revolutionaries in the port seized refugees out of the British Consulate, which was viewed as a "gross outrage against the British flag." On 23 October, despite Capt. Walker's attempts at mediation, HMS Bulldog attacked both the fort guarding the harbor and batteries in town. While so doing, the Royal Navy steamer ran hard aground inside the harbor. She continued to fire, however, and her cannon sank Providence and destroyed many buildings ashore. Being in cold iron, De Soto could not immediately move, but Capt. Walker did send his boats ashore to take off foreigners. A short while later, Captain Wake in HMS Bulldog asked for towing assistance, which Capt. Walker denied, though De Soto's boats did take off the sick and wounded. Following a boiler explosion, and unable to get off the reef, the British blew up their warship and withdrew from the harbor in their boats.
De Soto withdrew the next day as well, carrying the wounded British sailors to Jamaica before putting in to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to debark the many foreign refugees picked up at Cape Haiten. After consultations with the American Consul, Capt. Walker took De Soto back to Cape Haiten on 7 November. There, he negotiated with a British squadron under Captain Macguire in HMS Galatea in the hopes of averting a retaliatory bombardment of the town, particularly as the Americans feared such an act would provoke widespread unrest and attacks on foreigners throughout Haiti. These talks failed and on 9 November, the British squadron bombarded the town in conjunction with an attack by President Geffard's forces. With the defensive works destroyed and the town falling to government forces, the rebel leaders took refuge on De Soto. Capt. Walker then carried them to Monte Christo in the Dominican Republic. De Soto returned to Cape Haiten to keep an eye on events until 13 December when she sailed for home, arriving in Hampton Roads on 19 December.
Three days later, De Soto stood up the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River to the Washington Navy Yard, where she picked up letters for delivery to the West Indies. Steaming south on 1 January 1866, the warship stopped at San Domingo, Port-au-Prince and Havana before returning to Washington, D.C., on the 28th. She remained there until 19 March when she proceeded down river and into the Bay, reaching Hampton Roads on the 23d. On 10 April the warship was placed under the command of Captain Charles S. Boggs.
As the revolutionary disturbances in, and friction between, Haiti and the Dominican Republic continued apace, De Soto returned to the West Indies in June, arriving at Port-au-Prince on the 19th. The steamer also patrolled in the Gulf of Mexico, with an eye on the unsettled conditions in Mexico, where a guerilla war raged against the French occupation of the country. De Soto remained in the region through the rest of the year before returning to Hampton Roads in the spring of 1867.
Following a repair period at the Navy Yard in Norfolk, De Soto conducted a cruise to New Orleans in May and June, putting in at the Navy Yard in Philadelphia on the 21st. She stood down the Delaware Rive five weeks later, this time sailing to Mexico. Off Vera Cruz on 17 September, the steamer watched the last of the French occupation end before sailing to Pensacola for repairs in mid-October. De Soto proceeded south along the Florida coast on 22 October, stopping at Tampa Bay and Key West before arriving at St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, on 17 November. The ship, in company with side-wheel steamer Susquehanna and screw sloop-of-war Monongahela, were there as part of Secretary of State William H. Seward's plan to purchase the Danish West Indies. The day after De Soto's arrival, however, a magnitude 7.5 earthquake struck the region and a tsunami swept the steamer from her moorings and threw the ship onto a wharf. Luckily, the next wave lifted the ship and carried her back to deep water. With her bottom damaged and leaking badly, De Soto's sailors and carpenters spent the next ten days pumping water and repairing the hull. On 5 December, the steamer sailed north with the Danish Commissioner on board and the ship arrived at Norfolk on the 17th.
After completing more substantial repairs over the winter, De Soto sailed to Venezuala on 3 March 1868, to secure the release of crewmen from the whaling schooner Hannah Grant, who had been captured on the peninsula of Paraguano. At Curacoa, Cdr. Boggs learned that the crew had already been released but he remained in Venezualan waters in support of the American minister during interviews with the Venezualan vice-president and other officials of the republic. The steamer steamed to Philadelphia on 28 August, and then proceeded to the Navy Yard in New York in early September. De Soto was decommissioned there 11 September 1868 and sold 30 September 1868.
Online images of U.S.S. De Soto
18 January 2004