Navy secretary Gideon Welles fretted about the safety of California after the outbreak of war in 1861. The threat of rebel privateers preying upon mail steamers loaded with treasure and secessionists seeking to take the southern part of the state was real. Welles had but six vessels in the Pacific Squadron to patrol an immense area.
The flag officer in command of the Pacific Squadron, John B. Montgomery, summarized the situation to Welles on August 23, 1861, “My very limited force of four steamers and two sailing ships will prove wholly inadequate for the protection of our commerce with the numerous ports along this coast, extending from Talcahuano to San Francisco, a distance of 7,000 miles.”
Montgomery asked Welles for four additional steamers. In the meantime, Montgomery assigned the ships at his disposal to cover critical areas. He dispatched one of his most reliable vessels, the Narragansett, to a 400-mile stretch of Mexican coast from Acapulco Bay to Manzanillo.
The Narragansett, a screw-propeller sloop that had joined the Pacific fleet a year earlier after a stint in the Atlantic Ocean, was armed with five guns. Her crew of 50 men and officers included John Sullivan, pictured her, center, a career navy man known for honesty and integrity.