During the time President Abraham Lincoln chose to blockade southern ports in an effort to subdue the fledgling Confederacy, the USS Massachusetts and its crew made a name for themselves, capturing blockade runners at an alarming rate in June 1861.
Prior to the Civil War, the Massachusetts was a civilian steamer built in Boston, Mass. The Union navy, with only 90 vessels, was ill equipped to enforce a federal blockade of over 3,000 miles of southern coastline, including southern ports Richmond, Norfolk, Charleston, Savannah, Mobile and New Orleans.
Many vessels in the Union fleet were sailing boats. To correct this problem, 80 steamers and 60 additional sail boats were purchased to bolster the fleet. On May 3, 1861, the Massachusetts was purchased by the U. S. Navy.
On May 24, 1861, the Massachusetts was commissioned as a Union vessel with Commander Melancton Smith III in command. Smith was the son of Colonel Melancton Smith Jr., an officer in the War of 1812 and grandson of Continental Congressman, Melancton Smith.
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The Massachusetts was assigned to the Gulf Blockading Squadron which, by war’s end, patrolled the Confederate coastlines of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.
Initially, the primary focus of the Gulf Blockading Squadron was the Florida coastline. Ship Island, south of the Mississippi coastline, was also deemed a strategic asset for the Federals. Control of Ship Island would give the Federals a staging point for any campaigns against New Orleans and Mobile which were the two major cotton ports in the Confederacy.
On June 8, 1861, the Massachusetts arrived at Key West, Fla., and the following day captured the British blockade runner Perthshire loaded with a cargo of valuable cotton near Pensacola.
The Massachusetts continued its successful patrol of the gulf, capturing the Achilles on June 17, 1861 and the Naham Stetson two days later off Pass a l’Outre, La. On June 23, Confederate blockade schooners Trois Freres, Olive Branch, Fanny and the Basile were captured in the Gulf of Mexico.
While the Massachusetts was in the Gulf, the Confederacy decided to take and fortify Ship Island. Sand bags were placed on the unfinished fort on the island to improve gun placements. The masonry fort was named Fort Twiggs after General David Twiggs.
In a month’s time, the Confederate defenders of Ship Island and the USS Massachusetts were destined to engage in battle as the Union vessel passed en route to Pensacola.