Thomas L. Hernandez Pilot of the C.S.S. Atlanta

Thomas L. Hernandez Pilot of the C.S.S. Atlanta

Durham, Roger

Thomas L. Hernandez was a native of St. Augustine, Florida and was apparently a member of a family who migrated to the Savannah area at some point in the early 1800’s. He was born in 1821 although not much is known of his early life at this point in time. He worked as a river pilot while residing in Savannah. He married Maryann Lamstad Cazier, a native of Maryland in 1845, and was the father of 5 children.

When the Civil War broke out, Thorn enlisted as a private in Captain Gordon’s company of the 1st Georgia Infantry, but later transferred to Company C of the 13th Battalion Georgia Infantry. With the need for river pilots who could assist in bringing blockade runners through the naval blockade of the Georgia coast, Thorn soon found himself detailed to that duty. He served on a number of blockade runners early in the war. On 25 November 1861 he was aboard the runner Albion trying to enter Charleston, SC when it was captured by the US gunboat Penguin. Thom was sent with the crew of the runner to New York City where the case was adjudicated. He was apparently released in New York City, as by December he was smuggled out of the country and taken to Halifax, Nova Scotia where he signed on the Brigantine Standard, that was bound for the southeast coast. Hernandez brought the Standard safely through the blockade, but the vessel was eventually confiscated by Confederate forces and sunk after it was pursued by US Navy gunboats who had learned of its location.

After leaving the Standard, Thom signed on the runner Agnes from Nassau, which was at Darien, GA awaiting a chance to run out. In late May of 1862 Thom piloted the Agnes out through the blockade of Doboy Sound and made a successful run to Nassau. On the return trip they were successful in penetrating the blockade into Savannah. On 5 July 1862 Thom piloted the Agnes out of Savannah, but it was captured three days later off Hole-in-the-Wall near Nassau.

The Agnes was taken to Key West, FL and sold. The disposition of the passengers and crew is unknown, but Hernandez eventually ended up in Nassau where he once again found the Agnes awaiting a return cargo. Thorn took the vessel out once again. On the afternoon of 25 September 1862. the Agnes was captured again as she tried to slip into St. Andrew’s Sound, GA.

By December of 1862 Thorn was back in Savannah, where he was officially transferred from the 13th Battalion, Georgia Infantry to the Confederate Navy. As such he worked at the Savannah Navy Yard where a former blockade runner, the Fingal, was being converted to an ironclad warship named the CSS Atlanta. Thorn was assigned to be one of the two pilots for the vessel.

On the night of 16 June 1863. the Atlanta left its anchorage at Thunderbolt and proceeded downriver toward Wassaw Sound to engage the Federal blockaders. Two US monitor ironclads, the Weehawken and the Nahant, were lying in wait. On the afternoon of 17 June 1863 the Atlanta steamed into Wassaw Sound and maneuvered into firing position while closing with the Federal ironclads. Suddenly the Atlanta ran aground on a mud bank near Cabbage Island and nothing could extract the ironclad from the mud. The Weehawken sent several shells at the Atlanta, which could not return fire because the list of the vessel prevented its guns from being brought to bear. One of the Weehawken s shells struck the Atlanta s pilot house atop the vessel, taking off the roof and wounding the two helmsmen and two pilots inside.

Just how badly Thorn was wounded has not been determined, he was captured with the Atlanta and its crew and detained at Hilton Head, SC where he was hospitalized with other wounded Confederate sailors. When Thorn began to recover he was sent to rejoin the crew of the Atlanta, then being held at Ft. LaFayette in New York City where he was further hospitalized. On 23 June 1863 they were all transferred to Fort Warren on George’s Island in Boston Harbor for further incarceration. In the Fall of 1864, just prior to an exchange of prisoners, some of the crewman and officers of the Atlanta sat for group photographs while at Ft. Warren. Some of the only known photos of Thomas L. Hernandez are from these sessions. Several years ago, a photo album of individual photos of the crewmembers of the Atlanta surfaced and an image of Thorn was among these. This carte de visite photo shows him to be wearing a smoking jacket, a type of fez hat, and smoking a rather ornate pipe.

Thorn was exchanged on 1 October 1864 and was back in Savannah by month’s end. On 27 October 1864 he was ordered to the ironclad CSS Savannah as pilot. On 4 December 1864 he was ordered to the gunboat Isondiga and was serving at the Savannah Navy Yard when Sherman’s army closed upon the city. When Savannah was evacuated on the evening of 20 December 1864, Hernandez was sent to the Charleston Navy Yard where he was for a short time before being ordered to the Augusta Navy Yard on 5 January 1865.

After the war, Thorn returned to Savannah where he continued to work as a river pilot for many years. He died on 7 March 1903 at the age of 81 and was buried in Laurel Grove Cemetery.

Article submitted by Nancy Pelletier

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