Maine naval officer fights on the Mississippi

When the Lincoln Administration announced its intent to blockade Confederate ports, the U.S. Navy sorely lacked the ships and men to stopper every coastal wharf from Tidewater Virginia all the way around to Brownsville, Texas.

Gearing up to meet the demand, the Navy bought ships galore. Recruiting qualified officers was not as easy, as Rockland sailor John F. Harden noticed in summer 1861.

The Confederate warship CSS Sumter (foreground) slips past the USS Iroquois after dark on November 23, 1861. Acting Volunteer Master John F. Harden of Rockland was aboard another American warship chasing the Sumter at the time. (Public Domain)

Born to Freeman and Ruth (Spear) Harden in Thomaston in 1829, Harden lived in Rockland (formerly East Thomaston) when the war began. A competent sea captain experienced in merchant shipping, he “was the first volunteer line officer who entered the navy from this city,” crowed the pro-Union Rockland Gazette.

Any self-styled skipper could apply for position as “acting master” in the Navy, a position created to eliminate any confusion between enthusiastic volunteers and professional naval officers. “The Naval Board in New York” thoroughly tested 200 applicants on August 16, 1861; Harden was among the 66 “who were passed by the Board.”

Appointed an acting master on August 26, Harden visited his wife, the former Sarah Jane Pillsbury, and their son, 7-year-old Charles, for a week before reporting “at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.” Learning a navy officer’s duties, he finally reported aboard the USS Shepherd Knapp “as Sailing Master” on November 9.

Acting Volunteer Master John F. Harden of Rockland transferred aboard the steam sloop USS Iroquois in March 1862. He soon got all the combat action he could want. (U.S. Navy)

Mounting eight 32-pounders, the 838-ton gunboat typified the expanding Navy. The Shepherd Knapp was a civilian sailing ship (no steam power) purchased in New York City on August 28 and quickly converted to naval service. With a hull only 161 feet long, she was a small warship, carrying only 93 crew members.

Harden’s first commander was Acting Volunteer Lieutenant Henry S. Eytinge, a former actor and an experienced sea captain. Before leaving NYC “in search of C.S.S. Sumter,” Eytinge requested “at least 150 to 200 tons more ballast,” because the Knapp was regarded “as one of the most crank ships out of the port.”

Commanded by Raphael Semmes, the Sumter was capturing American merchant ships left and right in latter 1861. Picking up Semmes’ trail near Martinique, Eytinge and Harden followed the Sumter to St. Pierre, but learned that Semmes had given the USS Iroquois, a Union blockader, the slip after dark on November 23.

Eytinge then ran into St. Thomas, loaded “at least 200 tons stone ballast,” and apologized to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles that “my orders will not let me follow the Sumter where I feel assured she has gone.”

Thus went Harden’s first naval cruise.

A shell likely fired from Confederate-held Fort St. Philip in Louisiana explodes amidst a USS Iroquois gun crew on April 24, 1862. The incident killed seven sailors and wounded eight others. (Public Domain)

In March 1862 Harden requested a transfer to the USS Iroquois, a steam sloop assigned to the West Gulf Blockading Squadron. Placed in “charge of the powder division,” he “discharged the duties of his post with coolness, efficiency and precision.”

Mounting six cannons, including a 50-pounder, the Iroquois participated in David Farragut’s April 1862 attack on forts Jackson and St. Philip, the stationary Mississippi River roadblocks protecting upriver New Orleans. “Farragut went up in the Iroquois for a reconnaissance” prior to the attack, “and the ship was under fire of the forts for two hours and a half,” reported the Gazette.

As Farragut’s squadron pounded the forts on April 24, “a ram and the rebel gunboat McCrea” attacked the Iroquois “upon her quarter and poured in a most destructive fire..” Harden’s ship put “one 11-inch shell into the McCrea, and one stand of canister, which drove her off.”

The Iroquois “suffered severely from the cross-fire of Fort St. Philip,” but steamed upriver, tore apart “five or six rebel steamers” with broadsides, and “captured a rebel gunboat, and forty rebel soldiers,” the newspaper reported.

After the squadron steamed past Vicksburg, Harden transferred on July 14 to the USS J.C. Kuhn, an 888-ton bark built in Portland in 1859 and bought by the Navy in July 1861.

The CSS Arkansas shoots her way through a Navy squadron on the Mississippi River on July 15, 1862. Rockland officer John F. Harden was involved in this particular battle. (Public Domain)

The next day Harden returned to the Iroquois “to remove his clothing,” but the ironclad CSS Arkansas unexpectedly “came down past the fleet.” Briefly resuming “command of his old division” aboard the Iroquois, he fought during the wild action involving the ironclad.

Serving as executive officer aboard the Kuhn during its subsequent duty as a New Orleans store-ship, Harden took command in autumn 1863. He took the ship to Pensacola, Florida in late winter or early spring 1864, and the vessel continued serving as a store-ship.

On March 29, the Navy promoted Harden to acting volunteer lieutenant, the highest rank attainable for a non-professional sea officer.

Post-war naval down-sizing pushed Harden off the poop deck. He returned to the sea as a shipmaster before dying in Rockland in 1877. Sarah buried him in the Achorn Cemetery in Rockland.

Sources: A Meritorious Officer, Rockland Gazette, Saturday, May 7, 1864; Acting Volunteer Lt. Henry S. Eytinge, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Vol. 1, pp. 222-223

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Brian Swartz can be reached at He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at