Captain Richard T. Renshaw, USN
A Short Biography by Donald McCurry
Richard was born in Princeton, New Jersey, on 22 March 1822, the son of Commodore James Renshaw, who served with Captain William Bainbridge in the Tripolitan War. Two years later he moved to Norfolk, Virginia, when his father became the commanding officer of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.
Richard grew up around sailors, ships, and the sea. He qualified as a midshipman at the age of 16 and received orders to the new 22-gun second class sloop Levant on 10 March 1838. A year later he was ordered to the symbol of American sea power, the 44-gun, 1576-ton frigate Constitution.
After several cruises in Constitution, and a well-earned shore leave, Renshaw reported to the new 10-gun side-wheel steam frigate Missouri as a member of the commissioning crew. She was the first steam-powered ship to cross the Atlantic.
Richard received an appointment to the newly formed Naval School, the forerunner of the present day Naval Academy, and entered the establishment at the former Naval Asylum, near Philadelphia on 29 June 1843. He completed instruction a year later and began a two-week tour in the 225-ton brib Somers before reporting to the former Army side-wheel steamer Colonel Harney on 10 October 1844.
After several cruises between ports on the eastern seaboard and New Orleans, he received orders to report for a year tour of coastal survey duties. His next assignment took him to Brazil aboard the 250-ton sailing yacht Onkahye, where he terminated his naval career on 29 June 1852 in favor of more lucrative earnings as a master in the merchant marine trade.
At the onset of the Civil War, Richard was appointed Acting Lieutenant in the converted side-wheeled ferryboat Whitehall. His first action of the Civil War came on 29 December 1861 against the C.S.S. Sea Bird in an inconsequential battle at Hampton Roads. His superb seamanship and leadership under fire earned him his first command on 22 February 1862 in another converted side-wheeled ferryboat, U.S.S. Commodor Barney.
The accuracy of his guns against the forts on Roanoke Island earned him a letter of commendation from Flag Officer L.M. Goldsbrough, Commanding Officer of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron and orders to his next command. He took command of the iron-hulled, three-masted schooner U.S.S. Louisana on 20 May 1862.
Renshaw patrolled the inland rivers of North Carolina and on his first day of command a boat crew from his ship captured an un-rigged schooner up the Tar River in Tranter's Creek and named her the U.S.S. R.T. Renshaw to honor their new Commanding Officer. She served as an ordnance hulk in North Carolina waters through the end of the Civil War and was later renamed U.S.S. Renshaw to honor both Richard and his fallen brother, William.
Richard took up his blockading position at Washington, North Carolina and frequently engaged vessels on the Pamlico and Tar Rivers. His relatively peaceful patrols ended in the spring of 1863 when he was left to "fight it out alone" against several shore batteries lining the Tar River across Chocowinity, N.C. After several days of intense fighting, he emerged as the victor and once again secured his stronghold on Washington, N.C.
A year later, his command was taken under fire again from shore batteries around Washington, and on 30 April 1864, he evacuated Union ground forces and set fire to the town. A present day sign on the Tar River going into Washington from Chocowinity describes the action.
Renshaw departed Louisana and took command of the U.S.S. Miami on 12 May 1864. The old Louisana had her final day in naval history when she was packed with powder, towed near Fort Fisher with fuzes lit and sailing under her own power. The explosion was felt some 70 miles away, but when the smoke cleared, the fort was found undamaged. The analysis of this embarrassing result showed that the shape of the charges caused the force of the explosion to blow skyward rather than laterally into the fort as planned. Louisana was a brave ship to the end.
Richard's command of Miami was followed by command of the U.S.S. Wyalusing and U.S.S. Massasoit, both side-wheeled steamers armed to the hilt.
Richard's final action of the Civil War came on 20 July 1865 when he was ordered to seize all naval property at Richmond, under a proclamation from President Lincoln.
He was promoted to the rank of Captain on 20 September 1868. He commanded the U.S.S. Worchester, U.S.S. Canandigua, and U.S.S. Ticonderoga, in addition to a tour as a lighthouse inspector prior to his retirement from naval service on 10 December 1874.
He married the former Ella Godley of Chocowinity, N.C., on 15 July 1862 and enjoyed his children Moriah, Durham, and Blanche.
He died peacefully at his home in Portsmouth, Virginia, on 22 March 1879 and was buried with honors at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital cemetery.
Commander William Bainbridge Renshaw, USN
William B. Renshaw was born in Brooklyn, New York, on 11 October 1816 and was appointed a midshipman in November 1831. He was appointed to the rank of Commander on 26 April 1861 and was attached to Admiral Farragut's squadron during the Civil War. He was commended "for the handsome manner in which he managed his vessel," Westfield, during Mortar Flotilla operations on the Mississippi in 1862. At Galveston, he refused to surrender his ship on 1 January 1863 and set fire to her to keep her out of Confederate hands.
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