Josiah Tattnall, Jr. is a name well known to naval scholars and to students of the “War Between the States.” At one time Tattnall was held in such high regard that during the 20th century two US Navy ships were named for him. Today, however, he is more commonly considered a disgrace: He put race and kin before politics, most famously during the Second Opium War in China. What made him the toast of Britain then would today make him a pariah.
Josiah Tattnall, Jr., was born on the Bonaventure Plantation near Savannah, Georgia, in 1794. Georgia was the last of the thirteen colonies, dating only from 1732, just 44 years before the Declaration of Independence.
Tattnall’s father, Josiah Sr., was loyal to the crown at the beginning of the Revolution, but the Tatnalls were unwilling to draw swords against their Georgia kindred. The family decamped to Great Britain where young Tattnall studied at Eton. He was offered–but declined–a commission in the Royal Navy. Tattnall, Sr. finally cast his lot with the people of Georgia and returned in the closing days of that Revolution to serve with General “Mad” Anthony Wayne, expelling the British from Georgia.
After American independence, the senior Tattnall served in the Georgia General Assembly, the United States Senate, and finally as governor of Georgia. He is best remembered today for opposing the notorious Yazoo land fraud in which speculators and corrupt elites tried to carve out an enormous fortune in the undeveloped lands to the west of present-day Georgia. Grateful citizens remembered Tattnall’s fight against corruption by naming a county for him.
Tattnall, Sr., died when Josiah was only eight, and his son later made a career in the United States Navy. He served with modest distinction during the War of 1812 against the British and rose to positions of ever-increasing responsibility in the peace-time navy.
The Opium Wars against China were as disgraceful as the Yazoo land fraud. European merchants found they could make high profits selling opium from British-ruled India to the Chinese. The Chinese government banned the opium trade, but the British and French went to war to force legalization so traffickers could keep making money.
In one of the engagements in the Second Opium War, British and French forces assaulted Chinese fortifications known as the Taku Forts guarding the mouth of the Hai River–the gateway to Peking.
Now a commodore, Tattnall was in command of the Toey-Wan (or Towey Wan), attached to the United States Navy. His orders were clear: he was merely to act as an observer of the Anglo-French attack. British Rear Admiral James Hope was to send a naval force to bombard the forts and once they were silenced, land amphibious forces to capture the forts and humble the Chinese. The attack began on June 24, 1859.
The large British and French frigates were unable to take part in the bombardment because the approaches to the forts were too shallow, so the assault had to be carried out by 11 smaller gunboats with only four guns each. The British and French quickly learned their intelligence was faulty; the Chinese were much better prepared and positioned than expected.
The forts opened a murderous fire so accurate and deadly that French and English officers were convinced Europeans must be manning the guns. The H.M.S. Plover, Admiral Hope’s command gunboat, was so badly shot up that almost the entire crew was killed or wounded, and the admiral was seriously injured.
Commodore Tattnall observed all this. He was aware, of course, that his orders limited him to observation. However, according to one account, he was so sickened by the slaughter of his fellow Europeans that he exclaimed, “I’ll be damned if I’ll stand by and watch white men be murdered.” He bent American neutrality to the breaking point by sending his steam launch alongside the embattled Plover and offering to carry off the wounded. The offer was quickly and gratefully received, and Tattnall left a contingent of his men on board the Plover as he began ferrying casualties away from the scene.
When he returned to the Plover, he found that some of the Americans he had left behind were black with gunpowder. Tattnall took the scene in and asked, “What have you rascals been up to?” One replied, “Well, sir, after you left there was nothing much for us to do so we thought we would man the guns for a little bit.”
Apparently drawing inspiration from the rage that their commodore had expressed at seeing racial comrades severely used by the Chinese, the sailors expected–rightfully as it turned out–that Tattnall would not object to their taking over from the mauled British crew and firing on the Chinese.
The British and French were repulsed and the battle of the Taku Forts was a Chinese victory, but Tattnall’s impromptu action did not escape notice. There was, of course, some criticism for disobeying orders, but it did not seem to affect his career. In fact, many people point to this episode as the beginnings of the sentimental re-attachment of Americans towards Europe and most particularly towards Great Britain.
Tattnall, the son of an American who had fought in the Revolution, disdained and distrusted monarchies and European politics. Nor had he forgotten the War of 1812, in which the British were the enemy. Nevertheless, watching British and French sailors and marines being cut down by the Chinese stirred him to forget old animosities and disregard his orders. Asked to explain himself, Tattnall famously stated “Blood is thicker than water.” The comment reflected the 19th century sense of racial solidarity, and electrified Europeans on both sides of the Atlantic.
After service in the Pacific, Tattnall returned to the United States, where he observed the growing tensions between the sections. One would have thought he had comparatively little connection with Georgia, having served most of his life on the high seas in the service of the Stars and Stripes. He opposed secession and might have remained in the Federal Navy as some Southerners did. However, when Georgia left the Union–even before the Confederate States of America had been formerly constituted–Tattnall resigned his commission with the US Navy and took a commission with the Georgia State Navy. Again, blood was thicker than water.
During the war, Tattnall held a number of positions but is best known for his command of the CSS Virginia. The famous fight between the USS Monitor with the CSS Virginia (also known as the Merrimac or Merrimack) was the first combat between ironclad vessels. In a single engagement, it has often been said, the Virginia and the Monitor made the navies of every nation on the globe obsolete. Tattnall did not command the Virginia at that time, but took over after Franklin Buchanan, the original commander, was wounded.
Tattnall had great plans for the Virginia, most of which he was unable to carry out. On a number of occasions, the Virginia sent federal navy vessels scuttling for safety, but Tattnall was never able to wreak the terrible damage he hoped for. Tattnall finally had the bitter task of scuttling the Virginia to keep her from being captured. He spent most of the rest of the war organizing forces on land and was captured when Savannah, Georgia, fell to Sherman in December 1864.
When Tattnall was released from federal custody after the war he moved to Canada. He was in great financial distress, but found that his actions at the Taku Forts had not been forgotten. Blood was still thicker than water, and Englishmen took up a collection for his relief. Tattnall eventually returned to Georgia, where he died in 1871 and was buried in the Bonaventure Cemetery, one of the most elegant cemeteries in Savannah. His life was a full circle: born at Bonaventure Plantation and buried in Bonaventure Cemetery, which his father had established. He even died on his birthday.
In the 20th century, Tattnall was twice honored. During the First World War a Wickes-class destroyer was named for him. The second USS Tattnall was a guided missile destroyer that stayed on the naval roster until 1993. Today, we are more likely to get a USS Puff Daddy than a USS Tattnall.
No commander’s career would survive a similar action in today’s navy. For putting racial loyalty above obeying orders, Tattnall would surely be court-martialed. His sailors would be punished; the State Department would humble itself to the Chinese and pay reparations.
The lives of the Tattnalls have lessons for us. Both father and son began their adult lives loyal to the governments of their youth and were reluctant rebels. They both had concentric circles of loyalty: first to their immediate families, then to their extended families, and finally to their racial cousins. Blood was thicker than water–thicker even than nation or politics.