USS Alpha (aka Picket Boat No. 1) (aka Tug No. 1)

   

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Editor’s Note: Do you have information on this ship’s role at the Siege of Petersburg?  Please contact us using the Contact button in the menu at the top of the screen.  We are happy to exchange information with other researchers.

Ship Information (from DANFS)1,2:

Name: USS Alpha (aka Picket Boat No. 1)(aka Tug No. 1) Type: Screw Tug Tonnage: 55
Length: 72’ Beam: 16’6” Draught: 7’
Speed: Max: 9 knots Complement: 13 men Class:
Armament: 8 Enfield rifles, 1 spar torpedo
Namesake: The first letter of the Greek alphabet.

Images:

Image Needed

 

Captain(s):
Acting Ensign Nathaniel R. Davis
Captain Image

Acting Ensign Jonathan S. Blake
Captain Image

Captain 3
Captain Image

 

First Offensive Order of Battle (June 13-18, 1864): James River, Va. | North Atlantic Blockading Squadron | Union Navy (June 17, 1864)3

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  • Note: On June 17, 1864, this ship is noted as “unarmed; fitting with torpedoes” and was located “above Wilson’s Wharf” on the James River.4

Second Offensive Order of Battle (June 19-30, 1864):

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Third Offensive Order of Battle (July 1-31, 1864): Fourth Division (James River) | North Atlantic Blockading Squadron | Union Navy (July 31, 1864)5

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Fourth Offensive Order of Battle (August 1-31, 1864): Fourth Division (James River) | North Atlantic Blockading Squadron | Union Navy (August 1 & 17, 1864)6,7

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  • Note: On August 17, 1864, this ship is noted as a “torpedo boat.”8

Fifth Offensive Order of Battle (September 1-October 13, 1864): Second Division (Hampton Roads and James River) | North Atlantic Blockading Squadron | Union Navy (September 1 & 16 and October 1, 1864)9,10,11

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  • Note:
    • On September 16, 1864, this ship is noted as “fitted as torpedo boat.”12
    • On October 1, 1864, this ship is noted as in “James River; fitted as torpedo boat.”13

Sixth Offensive Order of Battle (October 14-31, 1864):

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Seventh Offensive Order of Battle (November 1-December 31, 1864): James River, Va. | North Atlantic Blockading Squadron | Union Navy (November 1 and December 1 & 15, 1864)14,15,16

  • Captain:
    • Not listed. (November 1 and December 5, 1864)17,18
    • Acting Ensign N. R. Davis (December 15, 1864)19
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  • Note: On December 5, 1864, this ship is noted as having its name changed to “Alpha.”20
  • Note: On December 15, 1864, this ship is noted as a “Class 4” vessel.21

Eighth Offensive Order of Battle (January 1-February 28, 1865):

James River, Va. | North Atlantic Blockading Squadron | Union Navy (January 1 & 15 and February 1 & 15, 1865)22,23,24,25

Norfolk Navy Yard, Va. | North Atlantic Blockading Squadron | Union Navy (February 25, 1865)26

  • Captain: Acting Ensign N. R. Davis (January 1 & 15 and February 1 & 15, 1865)27,28,29,30
  • Crew Strength:
  • Armament: 1 x “gun” (February 15, 1865)31
  • Note: On January 1 & 15 and February 1 & 15, 1865, this ship is noted as a “Class 4” vessel.32,33,34,35

Ninth Offensive Order of Battle (March 1-April 2, 1865): James River, Va. | North Atlantic Blockading Squadron | Union Navy (March 18 and April 1 & 15, 1865)36,37,38

  • Captain:
    • Acting Ensign N. R. Davis (March 18, 1865)39
    • Acting Ensign Jonathan S. Blake (April 1 & 15, 1865)40,41
  • Crew Strength:
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  • Note: On March 18 and April 1 & 15, 1865, this ship is noted as a “Screw Class” vessel.42,43,44

 

Siege of Petersburg Battles:

  • TBD

 

Siege of Petersburg Involvement:45

The first Alpha, a screw tug built at Philadelphia in 1863 as Fred Wheeler, was one of six similar vessels purchased by the Union Navy at Philadelphia on 3 June 1864 to support its warships in widely varied ways and to help protect them and Army transports against surprise attacks by Confederate rams, torpedo boats, or other novel craft. Such raids had been a cause of great concern since the foray of the CSS Virginia into Hampton Roads, Va., on 8 March 1862 and the threat they posed had been underscored more recently by the Southern submarine H. L. Hunley’s sinking of the Federal Navy’s screw sloop of the war Housatonic and the ironclad ram Albermarle’s destruction of the Southfield.

Designated Picket Boat No. 1, the tug, commanded by Acting Ensign Nathaniel R. Davis, was assigned to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron and first appeared on its list of vessels on 1 November 186446. She served on the James River for the last months of the Civil War protecting the Union shipping which supported General Grant’s troops operating against Richmond. However, when she and her sister tugs joined their squadron at Hampton Roads, there were already six other smaller vessels on its rolls designated Picket Launch No. 1 through Picket Launch No. 6. Great confusion resulted and prompted the Navy, sometime between 1 November and 5 December 1864, to rename the former Fred Wheeler and her five sisters for the first six letters of the Greek alphabet, Alpha through Zeta. Thus, Picket Boat No. 1 became Alpha. Some sources indicate that Alpha, which was also called Tug No. 1, entered the Norfolk Navy Yard for the installation of a spar torpedo; but, since Picket Launch No. 1 did carry a spar torpedo which Lt. William B. Gushing used to destroy Albemarle, it is reasonable to assume that similarity of names caused the two vessels to be confused and Alpha never received such a weapon.

Alpha’s, most exciting service occurred late in January 1865, when most of the more powerful Union warships had withdrawn from the James to participate in an attack on Fort Fisher, N.C., which defended Wilmington, the South’s last open port. The Confederate Navy’s squadron on that river had remained between Richmond and a line of obstructions across the James, awaiting a chance to engage its Union counterpart on favorable terms. Thinking that this temporary Federal weakness afloat in the area was just such an opportunity, Commodore John K. Mitchell, CSN, removed some of the obstructions; and, on the evening of 23 January, led the Southern Navy’s James River Squadron downstream and attempted to slip through the new gap in the cordon of hulks which separated them from the Union warships. The Davis Administration joined Mitchell in hoping that a Confederate naval victory on James would break General Grant’s line of supply and communication and lift his siege of the Confederate capital.

When word of this threatening thrust reached Comdr. William Albert Parker, who commanded the Union naval forces remaining on the James, he dropped his ships downstream to a position where they could maneuver effectively during the expected battle. His vessels experienced great difficulty turning in the narrow, shallow, and meandering channel of the upper river; and Alpha assisted them to reach their new positions downstream. During the movement, several of Parker’s warships, including his flagship, the double-turreted monitor Onondaga, ran aground; and Alpha proved to be invaluable by helping to refloat them.

However, the navigational difficulties of the upper James impartially plagued both sides; and two of Mitchell’s ironclads, one gunboat, and a torpedo boat also ran aground while attempting to slip through the gap despite fire from Union shore batteries. This development prompted Parker to return upstream to join in the bombardment. A shell soon struck the stranded gunboat Drewry, detonating her magazine; and the resulting explosion so damaged Scorpion, grounded nearby, that Mitchell ordered that gunboat abandoned. Then when the stranded ironclads were again afloat, the surviving Confederate warships retired to Richmond.

The highlight of Alpha’s service on the James was her participation in the expedition upstream to Richmond immediately after General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia abandoned the desperately defended city. During this operation Malvern carried President Lincoln to the former Confederate capital where former slaves paid the President homage and showed him their warm appreciation. Alpha left the James in July 1865 and steamed to Washington. She was sold at public auction at the Washington Navy Yard on 23 September 1965 to William L. Wall and Company of Baltimore. Redocumented as Alpha on 7 October 1865, she operated as a merchant tug for more than two decades. Her career was finally ended when she was destroyed by fire on 5 June 1886. Other details of her loss have not been found.

 

Bibliography:

    Siege of Petersburg Documents Which Mention This Unit:

      Sources:

      1. “DANFS.” Naval History and Heritage Command, www.history.navy.mil/content/history/nhhc/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs.html.
      2. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 2, Volume 1, p. 33
      3. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume X, pp. 157158
      4. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume X, pp. 157158
      5. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume X, pp. 324325
      6. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume X, pp. 370371
      7. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume X, p. 326
      8. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume X, pp. 370371
      9. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume X, pp. 410412
      10. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume X, pp. 462463
      11. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume X, pp. 514515
      12. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume X, pp. 462463
      13. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume X, pp. 514515
      14. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XI, pp. 3940
      15. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XI, pp. 140142
      16. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XI, pp. 192194
      17. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XI, pp. 3940
      18. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XI, pp. 140142
      19. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XI, pp. 192194
      20. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XI, pp. 140142
      21. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XI, pp. 192194
      22. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XI, pp. 398400
      23. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XI, pp. 597599
      24. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XI, pp. 722724
      25. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XII, pp. 2021
      26. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XII, pp. 5455
      27. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XI, pp. 398400
      28. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XI, pp. 597599
      29. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XI, pp. 722724
      30. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XII, pp. 2021
      31. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XII, pp. 2021
      32. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XI, pp. 398400
      33. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XI, pp. 597599
      34. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XI, pp. 722724
      35. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XII, pp. 2021
      36. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XII, pp. 7173
      37. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XII, pp. 9394
      38. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XII, pp. 116118
      39. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XII, pp. 7173
      40. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XII, pp. 9394
      41. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XII, pp. 116118
      42. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XII, pp. 7173
      43. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XII, pp. 9394
      44. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Volume XII, pp. 116118
      45. “Alpha I (Screw Tug).” Naval History and Heritage Command, https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/nhhc/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/a/alpha-i.html.
      46. SOPO Editor’s Note: This is incorrect, as you can plainly see by a look at the vessel’s presence as early as June 17, 1864 in the orders of battle higher up on this page.

      ***



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