The Imperfect Art of the Ironclad




C.S.S. Richmond was one of the earliest Confederate ironclads, having been laid down at the Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk, Virginia, in March 1862, immediately after the completion of the famous C.S.S. Virginia  (ex-Merrimack). Richmond was designed by John Luke Porter, who would go on to serve as the Chief Naval Constructor for the Confederacy, but completed under supervision of Chief Carpenter James Meads. Richmond embodied many of the basic design elements that be used, again and again, in other casemate ironclads built across the South in the following three years.
When Union forces were on the verge of taking the Gosport Navy Yard, Richmond was hurriedly launched and towed up the James River, where she was completed at Richmond. Finally commissioned in July 1862, the ironclad served as a core element of the Confederate capital’s James River Squadron for the remainder of the war. Richmond, along with the other ironclads in the James, was destroyed to prevent her capture with the fall of her namesake city at the beginning of April 1865.
This model is based on plans of the ironclad by David Meagher, published in John M. Coski’s book, Capital Navy: The Men, Ships and Operations of the James River Squadron, with modifications based on a profile of the ship by John W. Wallis, particularly regarding the position of the ship’s funnel and pilot house. Hull lines are adapted from William E. Geoghagen’s plans for a later Porter design for an ironclad at Wilmington, that seems to have had an identical midship cross-section.

The Monitor and the Merrimac (or Virginia, the name under which she actually fought) weren’t the first ironclads. They were only the first to meet each other in combat.

The nineteenth-century ironclad came to be as a response to the shell-firing gun. These weapons shattered wooden hulls and then set the wreckage on fire. The British and the French sent self-propelled floating batteries with wrought-iron plates bolted to heavy wooden timbers to the Crimea to face Russian forts; they stood up tolerably well.

By 1861, Britain and France both had seagoing ironclads in commission, with more under construction. Both sides knew of these developments when the American Civil War began in 1861.

The Confederacy’s naval situation might have looked hopeless, at first. More than 90 percent of the American iron, shipbuilding, and steam engine output lay in the North. The South had only one first-class foundry, the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia. Even their railroad net was inadequate for hauling heavy ship components all over the Confederacy.

They also had two assets. One was Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory, knowledgeable and shrewd. Knowing that the Confederacy could not hope to build a conventional navy to rival the Union’s, he proposed a navy of harbor and river ironclads to keep ports and rivers open. With cotton exports, the Confederacy would pay for building commerce raiders and seagoing ironclads abroad—particularly in Britain, expected to be sympathetic to the Confederacy.

The other Confederate asset was gained by capturing the Gosport Navy Yard (now Norfolk Naval Shipyard) in Virginia. With it came a thousand heavy guns, and the sunken hull of the steam frigate Merrimac. Without these, the Confederacy would have lost the ironclad race before the starting gun was fired.

The North had more than its industrial superiority to bring to one of the first industrial armaments races. It had an equally capable secretary of the navy in Gideon Welles, ably assisted by the innovative and experienced Gustavus V. Fox, both prodded forward by the rock-stubborn genius of John Ericsson.

The Confederacy set about building an armored casemate (a slope-sided superstructure box) on the hull of the Merrimac, while laying down four more casemate ships from scratch, two in New Orleans and two in Memphis. They also commissioned the first Civil War ironclad to see action and the only ironclad privateer in naval history. CSS Manassas was a converted tugboat with a thin armored shell, and in October 1861 gave the Union blockaders at the mouth of the Mississippi quite a fright while disabling her engines in the process.

Almost tied with the Manassas was a squadron of Union river gunboats, the “Pook turtles” (for their designer). They were essentially steam river scows with armored bows, pilothouses, and paddle wheels—and also respectable gun batteries. They were slow, hard to maneuver, and hardly invulnerable, but the Confederacy had nothing like them—and could never have had them in service in less than six months from a standing start as Samuel Pook and his builders did.

Meanwhile, on the coasts both sides were hammering and bolting away at their ironclad contenders. The Union had the novel turreted Monitor well under way, as well as a seagoing armored frigate, the New Ironsides. Slow, clumsy, and drawing too much water to work close to Confederate ports, she was still the most powerful ironclad either side commissioned during the war.

The Confederacy was also doing all that could be done with hard work in spite of problems with the supply of timber and iron, not just for armor but for things like bolts and boilers. They also discovered that one of their creations in New Orleans needed a longer propeller shaft than anybody in the Confederacy could forge.

The builders tried the expedient of bolting two shorter shafts together—but hadn’t finished that job by April 24, 1862. That night, Union Admiral David G. Farragut steamed past the forts below New Orleans, routed its river fleet (Manassas included), and kicked open the southern door to the Confederate heartland. Both New Orleans ironclads were scuttled, without ever moving under their own power.

The Union riverine fleet, meanwhile, was kicking in doors farther north. They had such numerical superiority that they would hardly have needed ironclads, but they had the turtles and an increasing number of riverboats hastily covered with boilerplate or heavy timbers. These were some of the most grotesque warships ever built, but they were floating gun platforms when the Union needed them.

Imperfect as they were, the Union gunboats were strategically decisive in 1862. They opened not only the upper Mississippi, but the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers. The “internal lines of communication,” which European observers thought would give the Confederacy a decisive advantage, rapidly fell into Union hands. It was Union troops and supplies that moved along the rivers—and even that gifted cavalryman Nathan Bedford Forrest couldn’t burn a river.

But what about that famous first duel between ironclads? It certainly grabbed headlines then and historians since, but what else?

Not much, actually, except for giving the Union Navy its worst day of the war. On April 8, 1862, Virginia came down the Elizabeth River, with two tugs helping her to steer. (She took half an hour to turn around, and drew too much water to leave the main channel without running hard aground.)

Once in Hampton Roads, she ambled toward the anchored Union blockaders. Just as well they were anchored—Virginia still had Merrimac’s original engines, condemned before the war and not improved by being submerged for several months. But her top speed of about five knots was enough to let her ram the sailing sloop Cumberland and burn the sailing frigate Congress. She did not escape without casualties, including losing her ram and smokestack and having her captain and two guns disabled. But the honors of the day were hers.

When she came back the next morning, however, to destroy the grounded Union steam frigate Minnesota, the Union champion had entered the ring. Monitor had made a storm-plagued voyage south from New York, nearly sinking twice and proving that her low freeboard made her only marginally a seagoing vessel.

As a gun platform, however, she proved herself in a four-hour duel with her heftier opponent. Both ships were handicapped—Virginia by her deep draft, slow speed, and lack of armor-piercing shot for her rifled guns, Monitor by the need to protect Minnesota and the inability of her eleven-inch Dahlgren smoothbores to penetrate Virginia’s casemate armor with a standard full charge. It still might have been all over when Virginia ran aground, but she struggled off before Monitor up a position that let her beat the Confederate’s casemate in with repeated hits in the same place.

The second day’s fighting was almost a draw—but any edge went to the Union. And both ships had passed their baptism of fire, even though it was the equivalent of sending a modern warship into combat on her shakedown cruise.

Both ships had also demonstrated how much Americans did not know about building ironclads, and neither survived to the end of the year. Virginia drew too much water to go up to Richmond when the Union Army advanced on the city and had to be scuttled. Monitor was sailing south to join the blockade of Charleston when she ran into a storm. This time the armored raft of her upper hull began separating from the wooden lower hull. Leaks started and finally overwhelmed the pumps. Monitor went down with sixteen of her crew.

On the Mississippi, 1862 ended with the brief career of a refugee from Memphis, the Arkansas. Cobbled up to battleworthiness in an improvised yard on the Yazoo River, she ran through the Union fleet blockading Vicksburg. Then her engines gave out (beginning to sound familiar?) and her crew scuttled her.

On the plus side, a Confederate torpedo (what we would call a mine) sank the turtle gunboat Cairo. This misfortune was about to become familiar to Union sailors.

In 1863 the Union was commissioning ironclads by the squadron, the Confederates by one and twos. This is not to say that in the rush to keep up the numbers, the Union avoided all major flubs. Converted into a super-monitor, the steam frigate Roanoke proved so top-heavy that she had to spend her career defending Union harbors against raids that never came. And the Cascio-class river monitors were so overweight that they couldn’t safely navigate a duck pond, let alone a river, and in the end they were all scrapped (along with their designers’ careers).

The Confederates had challenged an industrial power to a high-tech armaments race, but the only question for the rest of the war was how badly they would lose. They got some help from new arsenals established at Selma, Alabama, and Columbiana, Georgia, including the excellent Brooke rifle, but no ships in time to prevent the Union river fleet from running the batteries of Vicksburg and letting Grant’s army cross the river for the final act of the Vicksburg campaign, which made the river Union property.

Nor did the plan to buy state-of-the-art ironclads abroad bear much fruit. Commerce raiders, yes—Confederate agents in Britain procured the Alabama, the Florida, and the Shenandoah. But the “Laird rams” (two formidable seagoing turret ships under construction in Liverpool) left such a paper trail that it was easy for Union diplomats to trace it and pressure the British not to let them sail. (Since this was after Gettysburg, the British did not need too much pressuring.)

From the James River south, the Confederates kept trying. The three ironclads of the James River squadron lasted until the fall of Richmond, when they were scuttled. Savannah’s pride and joy, the Atlanta, ran aground on her first sortie and became the first armored target for a monitor with the new fifteen-inch Dahlgren gun. She surrendered after four devastating hits.

Charleston deployed Chicora and Palmetto State, which effectively raided the Union blockading squadron early in 1863. When the Union sent a whole squadron of monitors into the harbor to try to batter the forts into submission, the ironclads remained in reserve. The forts could fire ten shots to the monitors’ one, and while the monitors could not be hurt much, neither could they hurt land targets. Charleston and its ironclad squadron fell to the Union in 1865.

Mobile, Alabama, had for its defense the Selma-built Tennessee, probably the most formidable warship of the Confederacy. She had six-inch armor and heavy rifled guns; but unfortunately she also had surplus riverboat engines, steering chains that led over the stern and so were completely exposed to enemy gunfire, and gunport shutters hinged at the top, ready to slam shut if damaged.

Admiral Farragut took precautions against her. When he steamed into Mobile Bay on August 5, 1864, he had four monitors with him. One, the Tecumseh, struck a mine and sank with most of her crew, leading to Farragut’s damning the torpedoes. Tennessee then came out to challenge Farragut, one ship against eighteen, and the Union fleet battered her into submission over the next three hours, with the three surviving monitors doing most of the damage.

Ton for ton, the most combat-effective Confederate ironclad was the Albemarle. The smallest of the casemate ironclads, she was built in a cornfield on a river flowing into her namesake sound, and armored with railroad iron. (One wonders how many rails went to outfit ironclads that would have been better used keeping the Confederacy’s ramshackle railroad net from collapsing completely.)

In her first battle, she sank a Union gunboat and helped recapture Plymouth, North Carolina. In her second battle, she gave better than she got—but before she could be repaired for a third try, the Union sent a steam launch with a spar torpedo upriver and sank her at her moorings.

The last Confederate ironclad afloat was the only foreign-built one to fly the Confederate flag. The Stonewall was a small French-built ram, barely seaworthy enough to cross the Atlantic to Cuba, where her captain learned that the war was over. He sold her to the Spanish, who sold her to the Japanese, and so the last ironclad of the Confederacy became the first to fly the Rising Sun.

The last of the Union’s Civil War ironclads, the Canonicus, served until 1908. The success (however qualified) of the monitors helped win the war, but also gave the U.S. Navy a fixation on the type, which delayed by nearly a generation the construction of modern seagoing warships.

The Confederacy’s ironclad fixation was more serious. Fighting an essentially defensive war, the Confederacy needed many more mines and spar-torpedo boats, since it was not short of barrels, tar, and gunpowder, nor hopelessly short of locomotive boilers to drive the torpedo boats.

If Farragut had come upriver to New Orleans to find all the defending vessels from Manassas on down ready to ram two-hundred-pound charges of powder into his ships, and a minefield in front of the forts, he might have enjoyed less success—and the Confederacy might have had time to complete its ironclads. Or at Mobile Bay, victory might have been too costly to ease Union war weariness if the torpedoes had been strewn a little too thickly to be safely damned and torpedo boats had been ready to sneak out at night.

The Confederacy could not have won a war on the water. But it might have fought a more effective delaying action under it with some of the resources devoted to the ironclads.


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