It’s well known that the Harriet Lane was captured on New Year’s Day, 1863, in the Battle of Galveston during some of the darkest days of the Civil War.
Less well known is the rest of the copper-clad, double-masted, side-paddle steamship’s ill-fated history, including her role in the war’s onset — and her uncertain demise.
Originally placed in the service of the U.S. Treasury as a revenue cutter, ideal for coastal patrol, the Harriet Lane was part of a Union armada assigned to Charleston Harbor to reinforce Fort Sumter in the run-up to the war.
She had been commissioned in 1858 in New York and named for the orphaned niece of James Buchanan, in whose custody the lovely and cultured Harriet Lane had been raised and, too, by the good sisters of the Visitation Convent, in Georgetown.
Buchanan, of course, went on to the White House, the nation’s only president who never married and the last to serve before the Civil War. Harriet served as his de facto first lady.
Her namesake, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Harriet Lane, was a formidable ship, muscular at 619 tons, capable of 11 knots under joint steam and sail, and well-armed, with seven howitzers able to heave 24- and 32-pound munitions at its challengers.
Given her capabilities, the cutter was, from time to time, pressed into naval service, including during the Confederate siege of Fort Sumter.
The Harriet Lane, which was among several Union ships charged with reinforcing the beleaguered fort, heaved on April 11, 1861, a 32-pound shell at an unmarked merchant ship entering the harbor, the Nashville, which quickly raised a banner signifying its loyalty to the Union.
The following day, Fort Sumter, prominent at the mouth of South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor, came under withering bombardment by Confederate forces — and the war began.
The fort’s commander, Major Robert Thompson, surrendered on the 13th, and the Union naval force withdrew to fight another day.
In September, the Harriet Lane officially became a U.S. Navy ship and took part in key skirmishes along the Carolina coast and up and down the Mississippi River — she was involved in the failed first attempt to take Vicksburg, her heavy guns covering the Union’s retreat — and then was assigned to help blockade Galveston Island, under Confederate control.
The Harriet Lane and four other Union steamships on Oct. 4, 1862, pounded the Confederate positions and seized the gateway to Texas.
It proved a short-lived triumph.
On Jan. 1, Confederate Maj. Gen. John Magruder stunned the Union flotilla in mounting a coordinated attack by land and sea, regaining control of the island’s heavy guns and before dawn began cannonading the blockaders.
Meanwhile, Confederate cotton-clads — ships efficiently armored with nothing more than bales of the fiber — rammed the Harriet Lane. Within minutes, rebel forces boarded the Union ship, killing her captain, her executive officer and three of her crew members.
The survivors surrendered, and a sister ship, the Union’s Owasco, attempted to sink the Harriet Lane by detonating her powder magazine. The effort failed.
So it was that the Harriet Lane spent the next year in the service of the Confederacy, its speed and maneuverability employed to outrun the blockade, its hold loaded with cotton, the South’s primary revenue source and one coveted by European mill owners.
For the next three months, the Harriet Lane served under the Confederacy’s Marine Department of Texas until, on March 31, 1863, she was placed under the jurisdiction of the rebels’ Department of War.
It was then that the Harriet Lane began her new career as a blockade runner under a new name, Lavinia.
And so continued her misfortunes.
Having managed to flee the Gulf with a load of cotton, she docked in Havana, Cuba, where the Spanish authorities detained her and not until two years after the war ended was she returned to the custody of the United States.
With no clear military need, she was refigured in 1867 to serve as a freighter and, for the third time in her then decade of existence, was renamed, now as the Elliott Richie.
While the Elliot Ritchie, née Harriet Lane, continued as a working ship until the early 1880s, her precise demise remains uncertain.
By one account, she was scuttled after a fire broke out in her hold in 1881. By another, she sank during a storm off the coast of Brazil in May 1884.
Either way, her obituary was complete, the other aspects of her history intact.