Roswell Lamson, Naval Hero and Clerk of the Court: “The People of Oregon Feel Proud to Call You Their Son”

By Richard Botteri

When Roswell Lamson was appointed clerk of Oregon’s federal district court in 1877, he had already lived a life story deeply engrained with the state’s and nation’s history. The Oregon Trail. Indian wars. Slavery and secession. The first Oregonian to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy. The Civil War. Recognizing him as one of its best officers in that struggle, the navy named three destroyers for him in the twentieth century.

An extraordinary life, largely forgotten now. History, however, is never settled. We study it to confirm the stories we already know, and to uncover the necessary stories yet to be told. Lamson’s story is one of these.

Roswell Lamson served as clerk of court for 17 years. He returned to Oregon in 1870; before Judge Matthew Deady appointed him clerk, he worked the family farm where he was raised, served as clerk of the Yamhill County Circuit Court and taught mathematics at Pacific University in Forest Grove.

Early Education and the Naval Academy

Roswell was born in Iowa in 1838. He was nine when his family came West on the Oregon Trail and settled near present-day Willamina. His father, Jeremiah, wanted to secure his son’s education beyond the farm and sent Roswell to the best school available, Salem’s Oregon Institute, the precursor to Willamette University.

Roswell Lamson, photo taken during his Civil War service. Detail from USS Gettysburg montage, Naval History and Heritage Command, NH 53730

Jeremiah Lamson became active in Democratic Party politics. He was elected to the territorial and state legislature several times. Senator Lamson formed a close relationship with Joseph Lane, who had become an important Oregon politician. Lane would have a major impact on Roswell’s career.

Lane had been a leading Democratic legislator in Indiana and raised and led an Indiana regiment of volunteers in the Mexican War. As a reward for his acclaimed service in the fighting, President James K. Polk appointed Lane governor of the Oregon Territory in 1849. He found Oregon amenable to his ambitions and achieved popularity for leading Oregon settlers successfully in suppressing Indian tribes in southern Oregon. Grateful residents named Lane County for him. Joe Lane quickly became the leading Democrat in Oregon, controlling federal patronage in the state.

Native American resistance to white settlement gave rise to recurrent battles and raids in the Oregon country in the 1840s and ’50s. After the loss of much of their land to an adverse treaty and provocations on both sides, the Yakama tribe, with fearless leadership, opposed new military incursions into their territory.  Other tribes joined in the fighting and battles occurred in the Washington and Oregon territories. Volunteer militia units were raised to augment regular U.S. Army troops in fighting in what became known as the Yakima Indian Wars. Roswell joined the Second Washington Territory Mounted Volunteers at the age of 17 in spring 1856 and fought in several battles.  He was discharged in September 1856 and returned to the family farm.

The experience made a lasting impression Roswell, who learned as much from the opponent as from the U.S. Army tactics, including that of inflicting a strong offensive action on opposing forces.

Isaac Stevens, governor of the Washington Territory, and commander in chief of Lamson’s militia regiment, expressed a similar sentiment to all his troops. In a general order read to his soldiers, including the future naval officer from Yamhill, Stevens told them, “[T]he fact [has been] established by experience, especially in the present Indian war, that bold and repeated charges upon the enemy, even when the disparity of numbers is great, will alone lead to results.”

Roswell Lamson’s bold tactic of repeated attacks on the Confederates—on the rivers, at sea and, on land—were undoubtedly a direct result of his formative experiences during the Yakima Indian Wars and what made him one of the most effective Union naval officers of the Civil War.

Joseph Lane, Oregon’s first U.S. Senator. Oregon Historical Society Research Library, OrHi 1703.

While serving as the Delegate of the Oregon Territory to Congress, Joseph Lane arranged Roswell Lamson’s appointment to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland in 1858. Well prepared, Roswell passed the academy entrance exams with ease and was the only member of his academy class with a prior record of military combat. His experience showed in his tactical skill and fearless leadership beyond that expected of new naval officers during the war.

Lamson traveled overland to Annapolis, riding much of the way on horseback. After arriving in the East Coast metropolis, he wrote to an Ohio cousin, Eastburne P. Buckingham:

I have not time to be homesick but I sometimes think of the mountains I have wandered over so free and I cannot help sighing as I look at the walls which I can pass once in two weeks. If I could spring upon one of my ponies at such a time I should be tempted to make a dash for the mountains again.1

Lamson had no maritime experience before arriving at the academy, but he quickly adapted to the life at sea. He wrote to his cousin Flora Lamson after a storm on the ocean:

It was perfectly fascinating to listen to the wild roar of the winds through the lower rigging and the higher notes among the small taut ropes aloft, mingled with the dash of the waves. The lightening which played around us and actually seemed to envelope us added to the scene which for a few moments was indescribably grand.2

Lamson wrote a series of such letters to family members about his experiences. His letters and papers are part of the collections of Princeton University Library. American Civil War historian James M. McPherson with his wife Patricia R. McPherson published a collection of these letters in 1997, Lamson of the Gettysburg:The Civil War Letters of Roswell H. Lamson, U.S. Navy, Oxford University Press. The McPhersons note in their preface, “Few sets of letters equal and none surpass those of Lamson for richness of description, scope of coverage or keenness of perception and analysis. They are, quite simply, the best Civil War navy letters we have ever read or expect to read.”3 The letters quoted here retain the original grammar and spelling.

Amid operations, Lamson also wrote reports to his senior officers that are clear, detailed descriptions of the actions. They stand out from typical reports of the time. He routinely identified and praised specific sailors and officers who had performed exceptional service.

As the nation faced the growing slavery crisis in 1860, the midshipmen at the naval academy debated the issues. Lamson wrote to his cousin Katie Buckingham on November 25, 1860:

They [Southern cadets] proposed to show me clearly that the Bible and the Constitution both recognize slavery as right; but of course they could not make any headway on that tack and wound up their argument with the assertion of their entire ability to “whip the Northerners five to one”…. All Southroners here will resign as soon as their states secede. For myself I shall stand by the Union as long as there is a plank afloat or a stitch of canvas that will draw.4

After South Carolina seceded in December 1860, Lamson feared the war he saw might be coming. He wrote in January 1861 to Flora:

Is it to be that this beautiful land is to experience the dreadful horrors of civil war? Heaven forbid—but if it must come my humble services shall be on the side of the right, the Union, and the North, as long as there is a plank afloat. Southerners here wish to make slavery national instead of local and to perpetuate it by Constitutional guarantee; on that point the flag must be nailed to the mast.5

He foresaw he would need to engage the Confederates fearlessly and fiercely. In April 1861, he wrote to Flora:

It is sad to think that we are obliged to arm ourselves against our Countrymen and I cannot tell you how heartsick I feel when I look at my arms and think I will probably be obliged to use them against those who till recently I regarded as brothers. But as long as there’s a star in the flag I stand by it. I have seen a little fighting without any flag and now if it must come I’ll not flinch under it.6

Oregonians in the Civil War

Federal troops raised in Oregon during the war were kept in the state to guard against Indian uprisings (which never occurred). Almost no Oregon residents fought in the conflicts between Northern and Southern forces. In addition to Lamson, two others are known. One was Oregon U.S. Sen. Edward Baker, a close friend of Pres. Abraham Lincoln, who got himself appointed as a colonel of Union volunteers. Despite his Senate duties, he insisted on leading Union troops in the fighting. He was killed at the Battle of Balls Bluff in October 1861. The other was John Lane, a son of Joseph Lane, who became one of the leading field artillery commanders in Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army. Lamson and Lane would meet in combat, in the most surprising story about Oregonians in the Civil War.

“Death of Col. Baker,” by F.O.C. Darley. Collections of the Missouri Historical Society. http://collections.mohistory.org/resource/156365

An intense debate about slavery arose in Oregon in the 1850s. Joseph Lane had dominated Oregon politics for a decade. Born into a North Carolina family, he supported slavery and its extension into the territories. When chosen as one of the first two Oregon senators in 1859, Lane went to the Senate openly favoring the extension of slavery into the territories and enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act. While in the Senate, in May 1860, he voted for five pro-slavery resolutions introduced by Sen. Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. The resolutions embraced the policy that Southern citizens should be able to take their “slave property” into the territories as a matter of constitutional right.

An 1860 Breckinridge-Lane ticket used in Virginia. No ballots were used in Oregon because the new state constitution provided for viva voce voting whereby the voters stated their choices out loud to the voting clerks and their choices were written down next to their names in the poll books. From the author’s collection.

Just one month later in the 1860 presidential election, Senator Lane accepted nomination as the vice-presidential candidate on the pro-slavery Southern Democrat ticket, with Vice President John Breckinridge of Kentucky as the presidential nominee. Lane wrote he “cheerfully” accepted the Southerners’ nomination and supported their platform allowing slave owners to take their “property” into the territories. He also argued defeat of the Southern cause in the 1860 election would necessarily lead to secession. Reflecting the nation’s division, Abraham Lincoln, the opponent of slavery extension, won the 1860 election with only 39.8 percent of the popular vote, but with a majority of electoral votes. The Breckinridge-Lane ticket did very well in Oregon. Oregon’s first federal Judge Matthew Deady campaigned for them. They lost the state to Lincoln by only 270 votes.

John Lane absorbed his father’s philosophy and politics. Young Lane was raised in Oregon on the family farm near today’s Roseburg. He wanted a military career and his father as Oregon’s Delegate arranged for his son’s appointment to West Point. John Lane was the first Oregonian to attend the military academy.  Joe Lane put both his own son and Lamson into the military and naval academies that trained them well for the bloody battle they would fight in the future.

Two days after the 1860 presidential election, Senator Lane spoke with Secretary of War John B. Floyd, a Southerner. Floyd recorded in his memoir that Lane thought disunion was inevitable, “and said when the hour came that if his services could be useful, he would offer them unhesitatingly to the South.” With secession of the Southern states in January 1861, John Lane thought seriously about resigning his position at West Point and joining the Confederate army. He corresponded with his father to help him decide. John Lane resigned from West Point on February 16, 1861. Senator Joseph Lane did not follow up on his own emotional promise himself. He agreed with his son’s decision to go to war against the United States. Joe Lane’s term as a U.S. senator ended on March 3, 1861.

Union Navy, Confederate Army

Many Oregonians were shocked when news came that John Lane had resigned and joined the Confederate Army. Jeremiah Lamson wrote Roswell on July 6, 1861:

When the news came to Oregon that Gen. Lanes son John had resigned and joined the rebel army, Oregon was taken by surprise, and the question was asked if you go to[o] (knowing our partiality for Gen Lane) I told them no if you did I would disown you as a son.7

Lt. Col. John Lane, ca. 1865. Courtesy Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana

John Lane quickly applied to Confederate authorities for a commission to the rebel army, preferably in the infantry or artillery. He wrote to Pres. Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Secretary of War L.P. Walker. He detailed the courses he took at West Point and emphasized, “I made considerable progress in the ‘Art of War.’” He received a commission as a second lieutenant in the artillery

Confederate Col. William Hardee recognized Lane’s training in artillery and specifically asked for Lane to be sent to him at Fort Pulaski, which Hardee commanded. Hardee had been the superintendent of West Point when Lane was a student. He knew him and the training given at the academy by the nation’s two leading experts on artillery technology and tactics.

Lane was later assigned to a Georgia artillery unit, the Sumter Flying Artillery, and was rapidly promoted. This battery was later merged with others to form what became known as Lane’s Battalion. He commanded 17 cannons at Gettysburg. On July 2 and 3, 1863, Lane’s guns fired 1,082 shells into the Union lines.

Roswell Lamson quickly showed he was an excellent naval artillery commander as well. Still a student midshipman, he was posted to the USS Wabash in August 1861. Only 23 years old, he was given command of the “Forecastle Division,” consisting of seven massive guns. Lamson trained and commanded over 100 sailors and officers. His gun crews scored critical blows on rebel shore installations, rendering important assistance to landings of Union troops along the south Atlantic coastline.

One of Lamson’s first major engagements was the attack by several Union ships on Forts Hatteras and Clark at Hampton Roads, North Carolina, August 28-29, 1861.  He wrote his cousin Flora:

the captain said he wished me to direct the 10 inch pivot gun myself…. as I had already estimated the distance and trained the gun I sent them the first shell “with the compliments of Miss Flora.” They immediately returned with their rifled guns sending the shot whizzing and singing around us…. My shell struck their battery, burst within it and totally destroyed one of their board houses…. [F]or half an hour…. there was an incessant roar of guns from the ships answered from both batteries, which sent rifled shot whistling through our rigging and all around us and two came crashing into us…. For a few minutes the firing was very heavy the secession flag being shot away three or four times…. The officers all told me that I shot away the flag the first time.8

Bombardment & capture of the Forts at Hatteras Inlet, N.C. Currier and Ives. Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/90711976/

On August 29:   It was terrible to watch the large shells as they came down into the fort bursting almost as soon as they struck, scatter sand and tents, dismounting guns and tearing everything….to pieces…. [W]e fired a shell every three minutes from the forward gun, and it was nothing but a continual bursting of shell around, over and among them.9

Finally, the rebels surrendered and were taken on board a Union ship. A reporter from the North Carolina Western Sentinel interviewed them. In an an October 18, 1861 front-page story, the prisoners related:

The shower of shells in half an hour became literally tremendous, as we had falling into and immediately around the work not less on an average than 10 each minute, and the sea being smooth the firing was remarkably accurate.

During the war the U.S. Navy developed large fleets of river boats, as transports of ground troops and as gun boats. Some of these were armored. Often, they were unarmored ships purchased from civilian commercial enterprises mounted with artillery to engage enemy shipping and shore positions.

This engraving, published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, depicts scene on the foredeck of USS Mount Vernon (later renamed Mount Washington) during operations on the Potomac River in mid-1861. Note the 32-pounder smoothbore gun. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 45740

In spring 1863, Union forces had occupied Suffolk, Virginia, along the Nansemond River. Confederate troops under Gen. James Longstreet maneuvered near the town to see if the Yankees could be dislodged. Lamson was given command of a flotilla of six to ten gunboats on the Nansemond to cover federal troop positions. (“Upper Nansemond Flotilla”) His second-in-command was Lt. William Cushing with whom he engaged in several battles against the rebels. They became very close friends. Today, Cushing is also considered one of the great Union naval heroes of the war.

Word came to Union forces in early April 1863 that the Confederates had brought up a pontoon bridge across the river from Suffolk. The Northern commanders feared the rebels would use the pontoon would use the pontoons to build a bridge over the Nansemond to cross troops, surround Suffolk and attack their forces in the rear. Federal Admiral Stephen Lee assigned the mission of preventing the rebels from deploying the pontoons to Lieutenants Lamson and Cushing. Lee saw the mission as extremely hazardous. On April 11, he wrote to Major General E. D. Keyes, commanding general of the U.S. Army’s Seventh Corps whose troops occupied Suffolk:

If the enemy have the means of crossing the Nansemond and wish to do so in force under the cover of their artillery, two small navy and the small army vessels called gunboats (which are frail little river or harbor steamers, mounting in all but a few pieces of fixed artillery) should not be considered enough to prevent it. The Nansemond is a mere creek above the Western Branch, and musketry alone can command the decks and drive from their guns the crews of these little crafts which are liable to be disabled in their exposed boilers, etc., by a few discharges from small and scattered field pieces.10

Lee was able to obtain more boats and additional guns for them. On April 12, he ordered Lieutenants Lamson and Cushing on positioning their vessels: “Our vessels…must occupy the safest and most commanding positions and divide their fire in the same proportions as that of the enemy is divided…in no event must these vessels be surrendered.11 Both Lamson and Cushing reported they could defend the river. Lamson told his admiral, “If the enemy throws a pontoon bridge across I shall attempt to run it down at all hazards.”12 

On April 13, 1863, Lamson fired on Confederates coming out of woods near the river who retreated. Lamson reported he could hold off the rebels against four or five thousand infantry and cavalry if the enemy had not more than one light battery. Later that day, Lamson reported another action:

On our way down we received quite a sharp musketry fire from the enemies skirmishers. No one on board was injured. We kept up a return fire from our rifles and the guns with canister and shrapnel.13

The next day Lamson continued his patrol and fired on other Confederate infantry dug in on the riverbank. He did not know that an artillery battery in Longstreet’s Corps had just come up and been ordered to place guns on the river to impede federal ships. This unit hid in the trees behind the bank. John Lane was the commander. As Lamson’s boats approached a narrowing of the river, Lane uncovered his cannons, lobbing shells weighing twenty pounds apiece. The sudden attack severely battered Lamson’s lead boat, the Mount Washington. His gunners fired back.

With this assault, John Lane opened the only Civil War battle in which the respective commanders of the two opposing sides were Oregonians, and whose families were friends. As far as is known, neither of these men ever became aware the other was present in the fight. Much of John Lane’s Civil War experiences are presented in The Sumter Flying Artillery (2009) by James L. Speicher.

Map of the siege of Suffolk, drawn by Orrin S. Allen, a carpenter from Harmony, N.Y., who served in Company H of the 112th New York Volunteer Infantry of the U.S. Army. The upper right corner shows the position of Lamson’s (and then Cushing’s) boats on the Nansemond River during the battle with John Lane. Allen climbed a pine tree to watch the battle, then drew this map. Allen settled in Oregon with his family in the 1870s. Beaverton’s Allen Blvd. is named in his honor. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/resource/gvhs01.vhs00399/?r=-0.413,-0.219,1.694,0.693,0

Lamson wrote of the opening of the battle:

As we turned the bend below Norfleets Point, I discovered a fresh work on the point and commenced shelling it. Seeing nothing but riflemen behind it I gave the signal to run past, and when within four hundred yards, the enemy opened fire from seven pieces of artillery which they rolled into the work from the woods. One of the pieces was a 20 pdr Rifle, the first shot from which entered our boiler. Other shots struck in quick succession, raking our bow and the forward part of the decks. The engines immediately stopped, the vessel drifted against the bank, and the escaping steam and hot water drove almost everyone out of the vessel, but, at my order the returned and opened fire from all our guns. 14

[In his report of the event, Lamson noted “the only men who stayed at their post in the engine room were William Jackson and James Lody, both colored.”]

1st Conn. Artillery at Ft. Richardson, Arlington Heights, Va. They are working
with a 20-pounder Parrott rifle. Library of Congress, ppmsca 32727

The Mount Washington grounded on a mud bar and a following vessel, the Stepping Stones tried to pull it off, with theenemy’s sharp shooters firing from almost every point”. The Mount Washington grounded again. John Lane brought up more guns. Lamson wrote:

…almost immediately the enemy opened upon us with ten pieces of artillery, six planted in a strong earth-work on Hills Point, and four in the woods to the right throwing a cross fire into our vessels.

Lamson ordered the evacuation of most of his men except some to serve the cannons. Once again:

The enemy kept up a heavy and well directed fire from his artillery and sharp shooters, posted in the bushes and rifle pits that lined the banks, and was replied to by all our guns, and by those of the “Commodore Barney,” [under] Lieut. Cushing who came as near the bar as his draft of water would permit, and supported me throughout the action in the most gallant manner.  The enemy soon obtained our range, his artillery told with fearful effect on the timbers and machinery of these slightly built vessels. By 1:30 p.m. we had silenced the enemy’s battery and dislodged his sharp shooters, using from the Mt Washington’ canister and 2-second shrapnel [exploding shells with two second fuses].

Lane did not give up and attacked Lamson again.

About 3 p.m. the enemy reopened with a less number of pieces from a new position a little to the right of the first one, and his sharp-shooters poured in a most galling fired from the trees and rifle pits.

I had a 12 pdr howitzer mounted on the hurricane deck, and with the assistance of Masters Mate Birtwistle and Seamen Sullivan and Jourdan worked it till the bow guns could be brought to bear. The gun was struck several times by the enemy’s shot and the wood work near it was much cut up…. A little after five, the “Stepping Stones” came up to tow me off, when she received the entire attention of the rebel battery, and had her pilot house and decks much cut-up and one gun dismounted.15

The hawser Stepping Stones had fixed to tow the Mount Washington slipped off, and Lane again turned his artillery on the Mount Washington.

The “Barney” still remained engaging the enemy and continued to fire till the enemy ceased and withdrew. Towards the close of the action, the “Mount Washington’” flag staff was shot away even with the upper deck when Mr Birtwistle and Seaman Henry Thielbery assisted me to haul it up out of the water by the ensign halliards, raise it and lash it alongside the stump.16

As Lamson later wrote his cousin Kate:
It was only through the kind providence of God that were not all killed or wounded. I saw a number of escapes that seem almost miraculous. After the action was over, the sailors gathered around me on the deck, took hold of my hands and arms, threw their arms around me and I saw tears starting from the eyes that had looked the rebel battery in the face unflinchingly.17

The fight had lasted 30 minutes. The ship had received 189 strikes by bullets and artillery shells; more than one tenth of the men of the three vessels were killed or wounded.

Lamson reported, “The “Mount Washington” is so completely riddled in hull and machinery that I cannot attempt to give a statement of her damages.”18

John Lane removed his battery and went into reserve some distance from the river. In part he needed to repair his 20-pounder gun.  He never encountered Lamson again.

A few days later after Lane had withdrawn, Confederates moved new artillery into a larger work farther down river. Union General George Washington Getty commanding the federal infantry in Suffolk saw the rebel fort as a major threat to his position. He thought it endangered supply boats and could cover a major Confederate attack across the river.  Lamson was more sanguine about the danger. He and Cushing had already harassed the new battery severely on April 15.

About 5 p.m. the “Barney” shelled the point above us. I ran up to dislodge the enemy by taking them in rear. The guns were loaded with canister and primed, and the men kept under cover till we rounded the point when we saw his reserve of about 100m behind the bluff and completely uncovered. They ran and we fired five charges of canister directly into their flank and rear I saw quite a number fall.19

Lamson offered to lead a larger attack and eliminate the work. The general feared it would take 10,000 infantry to cross the river to invest the fort. Lamson replied he could capture the fort in an afternoon.  He did.

Roswell’s superiors trusted his imaginative tactics and aggressive combat skills. They gave him command to carry out his brilliant plan of a combined naval and infantry attack on the enemy’s works. The lieutenant saw he could move a gunboat directly under the fort’s cannons where the rebels could not depress the muzzles of their guns to hit his ship. Then, sailors and soldiers hidden on Lamson’s boat would rush off and attack the fort, forcing its surrender.  He reported the action to his superiors on April 20, 1863:

Sir: I have the honor to report that the gun boats under my command in conjunction with 300 men under Gen. Getty captured the rebel post at this place and opened our communications with the river below.

At 3 P.M. of yesterday I received on board this vessel parts of the 89 N.Y. Vols, Lt Co. England and 8th  Conn. Vols under Colonel Howard. I had canvas screens [hung] from the awning ridge ropes to conceal the men and my battery of four 12 pounder Boat Howitzers ready for land, manned by my own men with a detachment of soldiers to assist in hauling them up the bank.

Near six oclock at a preconcerted signal from our Steam Whistle a heavy fire was opened upon the rebel batteries from all our gunboats which had been placed in position previously and from Gen Gettys to batteries… I then steamed slowly down the river as though I intended to run the battery as I have done several times, until I got nearly abreast of it…. [The Confederates saw Lamson’s ship sailing down and had their guns loaded and ready to fire when the boat reached the expected point.] [Instead] I gave the signal for the gunboats and batteries to cease firing, put the helm hard a starboard and into the bank directly under the upper end of the battery and so close they could not bring a gun to bear. The screens were tied up, gang way boards launched, and with a cheer from all the boats and batteries the 89th rushed ashore followed by my howitzer battery and the 8th which got ashore about the same time by jumping from the after end of the boat. The rebel works consisted of two lines with an impossible ravine between. We carried the first line at once but while the 89th were running around the head of the ravine, the enemy swing round some of their guns and poured a discharge of grape into our men, which was instantly replied to by cannister from my guns which I had planted on the crest of the ravine pointing directly into the rear of their battery. The brave 89th were in their works by this time and they did not fire a shot afterwards. We took 161 prisoners and five pieces of artillery…and a large amount of ammunition.

Not a man escaped.20

Lamson received the sword of the commander of the rebel fort.

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Lamson’s commander Admiral Lee, and others wrote Roswell Lamson congratulating him on his successes on the Nansemond river. Another admiral referred to him as “one of the most gallant officers in the Navy.”

His very satisfied commanders promoted Lamson to command a warship in the blockading squadron off the North Carolina coast and named the ship Nansemond in recognition of his success on the river. Lamson captured several blockade runners in the Nansemond. Through superior maneuvering he caught one British-built ship that was the fastest afloat at the time. The Navy decided to arm the ship as a naval vessel to enforce the blockade, named it the USS Gettysburg, and gave command to Lamson.

Montage featuring a painting of the USS Gettysburg (by De Simone, Naples, 1878) and views of officers who served on her in 1864-1865. Lamson was listed as Robert rather than Roswell. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. NH 53730


An Oregon Naval Hero

Roswell’s actions were featured in the press in Oregon and the governor expressed his admiration. Lamson’s father wrote him, “The people of Oregon feel proud to call you their son.”

After several assignments including his duty on the James River, Lamson was sent to participate in the siege of a large Confederate installation, Fort Fisher, that protected the mouth of the Cape Fear River where it flowed into the Atlantic. Above the mouth lay the city of Wilmington, North Carolina which in the latter part of 1864 was the last major blockade-runner port the south had open.

Along with other Union vessels, the Gettysburg shelled the fort, but the rebels did not surrender. The Federals attempted to destroy the fort by exploding a ship loaded with hundreds of tons of gun powder in front of it. Lamson was given the delicate task of towing the boat into position and then taking off the men who activated the fuses before the ship exploded. He completed the mission, but the massive explosion failed to damage the fort.

“Capture of Fort Fisher” by J.O. Davidson ; Facsimile print by L. Prang & Co. 1887, Fort Fisher, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/93510336/

Lamson had a leading role in the next attempt to subdue the fortification. The plan comprised a ground attack in two waves after an amphibious landing. Sailors and marines would attack one corner of the fort while infantry would attack a different angle. Lamson and other lieutenants led a force of several hundred sailors in an attack diverting the fort’s defenders from seeing the infantry movement of the Union army troops. The sailors were shot down in large numbers, but Lamson urged on the attack until he was wounded and his best friend from the academy was killed before him. Meanwhile, the infantry successfully penetrated the fort and forced its surrender.

Life Beyond Wartime

The Civil War ended the following spring in 1865. Lamson subsequently resigned from the navy and married Kate Buckingham, the cousin who received so many of his thrilling letters. After working in business with relatives in the East, Lamson returned to Oregon with his wife and children in 1870. In 1877 Judge Matthew Deady appointed him clerk of the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon.  During his tenure, his son Roswell Lamson, Jr., became a lawyer and eventually practiced before the court. While Lamson was serving as court clerk, John Lane had returned to Oregon and was practicing law in Roseburg.

In the 1890s former Confederate Gen. James Longstreet visited Portland, and Lamson met him at a reception. When the general learned that Roswell Lamson had commanded the attack on the large fort on the Nansemond, he congratulated him on his “handsome” action.

Unfortunately, Lamson and members of his family suffered from serious ailments and several children died. His wife also passed in 1892. Lamson retired from the court for health reasons in 1894. Tragically, he buried his twelve-year-old daughter in 1897.

Roswell Lamson was succeeded as court clerk by Joseph Sladen, also a Civil War veteran with his own fascinating connections to American history. You can read about him, starting on p. 9 here.

By 1901 Lamson was in frail health. Nevertheless, he arranged for return of the sword to the Confederate officer who had surrendered it to him in 1863.  Lamson died on August 14, 1903. Through their research into an application Lamson made to President Grover Cleveland for a disability pension, Lamson of the Gettysburg authors James and Patricia McPherson believed the cause of his death to be a syphilis infection that likely spanned several decades. He was buried in Portland’s Riverview Cemetery.  The flag of the Mount Washington covered his casket.21

The navy did not forget his heroic service. It launched a destroyer in 1908; President Theodore Roosevelt approved naming the ship after Lamson. It served in World War I. A second destroyer named USS Lamson was built and operated in the 1930s. A third destroyer named for him was constructed in 1939 and saw active service throughout the war in the Pacific. Court clerk Roswell Lamson holds an honored place in American history.

Richard Botteri is a retired Portland attorney and has an MA in history.  He appreciates the research assistance he received from Jeffrey Becker PhD and Andrew Haugen.

  1.  James M. and Patricia R. McPherson, Lamson of the Gettysburg: The Civil War Letters of Roswell H. Lamson, U.S. Navy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 7. All quotations from Lamson of the Gettysburg are reproduced with the permission of Oxford University Press through PLSclear.
  2. Ibid., 21.
  3. Ibid., xi.
  4. Ibid., 8.
  5. Ibid., 9.
  6. Ibid., 13.
  7. Ibid., 21.
  8. Ibid., 34.
  9. Ibid., 35.
  10. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. Series I, Volume 8. “North Atlantic Blockading Squadron from September 5, 1862 to May 4, 1863.” (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1899), 712.
  11. Ibid, 714.
  12. Ibid., 733.
  13. Ibid., 719.
  14. Ibid. 723.
  15. Ibid., 723-24.
  16. Ibid., 724.
  17. James M. and Patricia R. McPherson, Lamson of the Gettysburg, 103.
  18. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies. Series I, Volume 8, 725.
  19. Ibid., 727.
  20. Ibid., 746-47.
  21. James M. and Patricia R. McPherson, Lamson of the Gettysburg, 233 FN1, and 234.


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