One of the final sidewheel paddle steam frigates to be taken on by the United States Navy (USN), USS Powhatan became an American Civil War (1861-1865) veteran by the end of her storied, ocean-going career. Unlike other warships of the conflict -who were brought about by emergency programs enacted during the war - Powhatan managed a prewar existence as her keel had been laid down as early as 1847 at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard of Portsmouth, Virginia. She was launched on February 14th, 1850 and formally commissioned for USN service on September 2nd, 1852. At the time of her purchase by the federal government, she cost taxpayers the hefty sum of $785,000 USD.
USS Powhatan was named after Chief Powhatan, a North American tribal leader of the East Virginia / West Maryland region.
As completed, Powhatan held considerable firepower for a sidewheel paddle steamer through 1 x 11" (280mm) Dahlgren smoothbore gun, 10x 9" (230mm) Dahlgren smoothbore guns, and 5 x 12-pounder cannons. Her full crew complement numbered 290 to 300 men and her dimensions of 254x45x11.5 feet made her one of the largest paddle frigates to serve with the USN. Her machinery was made up of two inclined, direct-acting steam engines driving a pair of shrouded, side-mounted paddlewheels at up to 1,500 horsepower output. The machinery exhausted through a single smoke funnel set at near-amidships. Beyond her machinery, Powhatan also retained sail power by way of a three-masted arrangement. Overall displacement of the vessel was 3,825 tons (short).
Following her commissioning in early September of 1852, Powhatan conducted the requisite "shakedown" cruise to prove her seaworthiness and train crew. She was then assigned as flagship of the Home Squadron and made stops in New York, Vera Cruz (Mexico), Havana (Cuba), and - finally - Pensacola, Florida. In 1853, she formed part of the East India Squadron and became flagship to Commodore Matthew Perry when he negotiated an important commercial treaty with Japan during a stop in Tokyo Bay on March 31, 1854. She then conducted an anti-piracy action against Chinese pirates during August of 1955 before arriving back stateside in February of 1856. Upon returning to Tokyo Bay, Powhatan served as the stage for the U.S.-Japan treaty signing on July 29th, 1858 - opening the way to the first Japanese embassy to be established in the United States.
USS Powhatan found herself at Vera Cruz, Mexico when war broke out between the states back home. She was recalled home and expected to partake in the relief of besieged Federal forces at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Instead, she was reassigned to Fort Pickens, Pensacola, Florida which reduced the available guns available to the Fort Sumter situation (while Florida siding with the South, Fort Pickens remained under the control of Federal forces).
Powhatan arrived offshore of Fort Pickens on April 20th with the intent to challenge the Confederate harbor defenses. However, the mission once again changed and Powhatan was relegated to police nearby waters for Confederate activity. With the situation at the fort contained, Powhatan was ordered as part of the force blockading Mobile, Alabama and the Mississippi River on May 26th. She managed the capture of a pair of schooners (Mary Clinton and Abby Bradford) during a period from May to August and chased the CSS Sumter throughout the West Indies into October (though this latter action without success).
From October 1862 until August 1863, Powhatan found herself in waters off of Charleston, South Carolina where she captured another enemy schooner (Major E. Willis) a sloop (C. Routereau) in two separate actions. From November 1863 to September 1864, she served as Flagship to Rear Admiral James L. Lardner before engaging the enemy at Fort Fisher in North Carolina (the Battle of Fort Fisher, December 23-27, 1864). The fort fell in January of the following year.
The American Civil War officially ended (by declaration) on May 9th, 1865 leaving Powhatan as a survivor of the long-running bloody conflict. In October of 1865, she departed Boston waters and ended at San Francisco before being made flagship of the South Pacific Squadron in 1866. She served in this charge until 1869. Powhatan was returned to the Home Squadron as its flagship and served in this position until December 1870. She managed several Caribbean cruises before being formally decommissioned on June 2nd, 1886. Her hulk was sold off for scrap shortly thereafter.