United States Civil War (1861-1865) – Naval Warfare II

USS Kearsarge

On 19 June 1864, one of the most famous nineteenth-century naval battles occurred, but on the other side of the Atlantic. By the spring of 1864 the Alabama had traveled an incredible 75,000 miles over nearly two years and was in need of repair. On 11 June the Alabama arrived at Cherbourg, France. Her captain, Raphael Semmes, hoped he might be able to use French government repair facilities for an overhaul. While Semmes waited for official word, the Union screw steam sloop Kearsarge under Captain John A. Winslow arrived. The two ships were nearly equally matched, and Semmes decided to do battle. In the ensuing fight the Alabama succumbed to superior Union gunnery. In October the Florida was also taken, in violation of Brazilian neutrality.

The Union navy, meanwhile, was capturing the remaining Confederate seaboard ports. Early on the morning of 5 August 1864, Rear Admiral Farragut led 18 ships against the heavy Confederate defenses guarding Mobile Bay, Alabama, in the process securing the surrender of the powerful CSS Tennessee. For all practical purposes, this battle ended blockade-running in the gulf.

Along the South Atlantic coast the Confederate ironclad ram Albemarle for months dominated the North Carolina sounds. In April 1864 she sank one Union gunboat, and in May she dispersed a squadron of seven Union gunboats. The ram was a considerable threat to Union coastal operations, but in a daring boat expedition up the Roanoke River in October, young Lieutenant William B. Cushing sank the ram with a spar torpedo.

Wilmington, North Carolina, was now the last remaining principal Confederate port for blockade-runners and a main overseas supply link for Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. With the Albemarle disposed of, aggressive Vice Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the largest number of ships in U. S. Navy history to this point, moved against Wilmington in conjunction with a sea lift of troops. One attack at the end of December failed, but a second in mid-January was successful.

On land new Union general in chief Grant accompanied his field army as it drove south toward Richmond in 1864. Lee parried Grant’s blows and inflicted casualties equivalent to the size of his own force, but his forces never recovered from the relentless Union attacks. Grant sought to get in behind Lee at Petersburg south of Richmond, but Lee was too quick for him and the two sides settled down to a long siege.

As Grant attempted to take Richmond and destroy Lee, Major General William T. Sherman took Atlanta and then drove east to the sea, cutting a swath of destruction through Georgia to Savannah. He then turned north through the Carolinas to join Grant. Lee then broke out of Petersburg and attempted to escape west. Cornered at Appomattox Court House, he surrendered on 9 April 1865. Some Confederate ground units held out for weeks, and the Confederate raider Shenandoah continued her depredations against the Union whaling fleet until the end of June, but the war was over and America soon disarmed. The U. S. Army went from 1,000,000 men under arms at Appomattox to only 25,000 by the end of 1866. In January 1865 U. S. Navy blockading squadrons had 471 ships mounting 2,455 guns; by December they numbered 29 ships carrying 210 guns.

Albemarle (Confederate Navy, Ironclad, 1864)
Confederate ironclad ram during the 1861-1865 U. S. Civil War, one of a number of powerful Confederate ironclad casemated vessels. The Albemarle was the first of a two-ship class constructed by Gilbert Elliot at Edward’s Ferry on the Roanoke River, the other being the Neuse. Laid down in April 1863, the Albemarle was launched in July and commissioned in April 1864. She was some 376 tons, 139′ between perpendiculars (152′ overall length) x 34′ x 9′, was driven by two screws from two steam engines with 400 horsepower, and could make in excess of 4 knots. She had a crew complement of 150 men. Armed with only 2 x 6.4-inch rifled guns, she had 6-inch armor. Damaged at launch, she was taken to Halifax, North Carolina, for repairs and completion.

The Albemarle was finished in time to participate in a Confederate Army assault led by General Robert F. Hoke on the Union blockading base at Plymouth, North Carolina. Early on the morning of 19 April 1864, the Albemarle attacked and sank one Union gunboat, the Southfield, and drove off another. She now controlled the water approaches to Plymouth and could provide valuable assistance to Confederate Army moves ashore. In the afternoon of 5 May, accompanied by the gunboats Bombshell and Cotton Plant, she engaged a squadron of seven Union gunboats off the mouth of the Roanoke River. The Bombshell was captured early in the action and the Cotton Plant withdrew up the Roanoke. The Albemarle continued the action alone, disabling the USS Sassacus. Fighting continued for some three hours until darkness halted the action.

The Albemarle posed a great threat to Union coastal operations because her shallow draft enabled her to escape the larger Union ocean-going ships, and she easily outgunned smaller Union coastal craft. For months she dominated the North Carolina sounds. On the night of 27 October 1864, 21-year-old Lieutenant William B. Cushing sank the Albemarle at her berth, using a spar torpedo mounted on a steam launch. Destruction of the Albemarle enabled Union forces to capture Plymouth and gain control of the entire Roanoke River area. It also released Union ships stationed there for other blockade duties.

Very low freeboard, mastless, turreted coastal ironclads developed in the U. S. Navy during the 1861- 1865 U. S. Civil War. Swedish-American inventor John Ericsson’s monitors were utterly unlike any previous U. S. warship. Captain Cowper Coles of the British navy, however, had designed and had built two mastless, coastal ironclads that actually preceded the Monitor. Further, Coles’s ship design and turret technology were superior to those of Ericsson. Ericsson’s turret rotated on a spindle and was thus liable to jam, but Coles’s rested on rollers below the waterline and rotated freely. Further, the first Monitor and its initial follow-on class had a unique “raft” upper body that worked water through the joint with the underwater hull, a fault that doomed the original Monitor during a moderate gale. Finally, U. S. armorclads were protected by laminated 2-inch thick plates; U. S. mills could roll nothing thicker. By contrast, British mills at the time could manufacture plates of up to 6 inches.

The Monitor’s ability to hold her own against CSS Virginia in the first ironclad-to-ironclad clash in history, the 9 March 1862 Battle of Hampton Roads, caused the U. S. Navy to contract quickly for some 55 ironclads along her lines. The first, the Passaic-class, numbered no less than ten units and were the first ironclads anywhere to have more than two built from one set of plans. They were awkwardly armed with one 11-inch and one 15-inch Dahlgren smoothbores (SBs). The Passaics were followed by nine Canonicus-class monitors, distinguishable by the removal of the objectionable upper-deck overhang and an armament of two matching 15-inch smoothbores.

Roanoke (2 x 15-inch SB; 2 x 11-inch SB; 2 x 150-pounder Parrot rifles), a cut-down wooden sloop, mounted no fewer than three turrets. But this top weight was too much for the wooden hull, and Roanoke was limited to harbor defense duties at New York. Large, iron-hulled, twin-turreted Onondaga mounted one 15-inch smoothbore and one 150-pounder Parrott rifle in each turret and served as a powerful deterrent to Confederate ironclads on the James River. None of the later large Union monitors, iron-built Dictator and timber-constructed Monadnock, Agamenticus, Miantonomah, and Tonawanda, saw battle.

Eminent engineer James Eads designed four whale-back, double-turreted monitors of the Milwaukee-class, a hybrid design featuring one turret on Ericsson’s system and the other on Eads’s unique design (4 x 11-inch SBs), in which the guns’ recoil would actually drop the entire turret floor below the waterline, where the ordnance could be safely reloaded, then elevated and run out by steam power.

Two single-turret monitors designed by Eads for work on Western rivers, Osage and Neosho (2 x 11-inch SBs), were unique as the world’s only paddle-wheel monitors. A slightly different version, Ozark (2 x 15-inch SBs), was screw propelled.

The Union Civil War ironclad program ended on a note of farce with the 20 light-draft Casco Monitor class. Ericsson drew the original plans, but they were greatly modified by Inspector of Ironclads Alban Stimers. All drew far more water than designed and proved useless.

Timberclad (U. S. Navy, Ships, 1861)
Early Civil War warships, part of the river navy created by the U. S. government to fight on the inland waters in the West. Commander John Rodgers was sent to the western theater with instructions to secure such a force. By 8 June 1861 he had negotiated contracts to buy and convert three wooden side-wheel freight-and-passenger Ohio River steamers into gunboats. These were the Tyler (four years old and weighing 420 tons), the Lexington (one year old and weighing 362 tons), and the Conestoga (two years old and weighing 572 tons). Their conversion was carried out at Louisville, Kentucky, by the Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company of Cincinnati.

The three were paid for and under the control of the War Department. Commanded by navy officers, they were later controlled by the navy. The steamers were reinforced to enable them to carry heavy guns, and 5-inch-thick oak was installed to provide protection against rifle fire. This resulted in their being known as “timberclads.”

The three gunboats arrived at their base at Cairo, Illinois, in mid-August 1861, and were soon in service. On commissioning, the Conestoga mounted 4 x 32-pounders; the Lexington had 2 x 32-pounders and 4 x 64-pounders (8-inch shells); and the Tyler had 1 x 32-pounders in the stern and 6 x 64-pounders (8-inch shells) in broadside.

USS Tyler Gunboat

The three gunboats were an effective stopgap measure until new ironclads could be brought into service. They saw useful service in battles and operations along the Cumberland, Tennessee, and Mississippi Rivers. The Conestoga was lost in a collision in March 1864; the other two survived the war and were sold in August 1865.

USS Pittsburgh (1862-1865) stern wheeler, ironclad gunboat.

A steam-powered vessel driven by a stern-mounted paddle wheel and developed primarily for inland waterway systems. Until eclipsed by the railroad, the stern-wheeler, along with the side-wheeler, represented a near revolution in inland transportation. Inland river systems have numerous hazards to navigation, including shallow depth, swift currents and rapids, sandbars, underwater snags, seasonal changes in water depth, rocks, and twisting channels. The stern-wheeled riverboat with a shallow draft, flat bottom, and narrow beam, driven by a high-pressure steam engine, made river shipping and travel not only regular but relatively swift.

Stern-wheelers had four key advantages over side-wheeled vessels: They drew much less water, had less beam for superior maneuverability on smaller waterways, and were quicker and cheaper to build. Although often associated with the trans-Appalachian American West and rivers such as the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, and Columbia, stern-wheelers were reliable vessels for both freight and passenger service throughout much of the world. In the United States the 1850s were the “Golden Age” of the stern-wheelers in terms of speed, quality, and grandeur.

As naval vessels during the American Civil War, stern-wheelers and side-wheelers played a key role in the Union successes of the western campaigns. Besides serving as gunboats, the river fleets served as troop transports and munitions carriers. They ferried wounded and prisoners of war in addition to carrying food and forage for the field armies.


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