Ironclad oceangoing vessels were already in the process of revolutionizing war at sea when the American Civil War began in 1861. The main navies of the world had been experimenting with steam-powered propulsion and floating batteries for years before the advent of the Confederate casemated ironclad Virginia and the Union turreted ironclad Monitor. The earliest experiments in the use of iron plate to resist the force of cannonballs appear to have been made in France as early as 1810 by a "Monsieur de Montgery," an officer in the French Navy. Montgery proposed covering the sides of Napoleon's ships with several plates of iron of the aggregate thickness of 4 inches, but the French Emperor rejected the idea. Having lost the battles of the Nile and Trafalgar, Napoleon preferred to concentrate on his more successful land campaigns. In 1813, Pennsylvanian-born Robert Fulton designed the first US Navy (USN) vessel to use steam, which may be considered the prototype of the later steam-propelled ironclad. Although called the Demologos ("The word of the people") by its designer, the vessel was officially named the US Steam Battery Fulton. A catamaran-style hull with a centrally positioned paddle wheel, the Fulton was essentially a heavily armed and strongly-built "mobile fort" for coastal defense. Launched in late October 1814 while the War of 1812 was still in progress, she was completed shortly after Fulton's death in February 1815 and was delivered to the Navy in June 1816. However, old-fashioned Navy men could not imagine steam power replacing wind and sail. Her machinery was ignored, and she was rigged with sails. Apart from a single day of active service the following year when she carried President James Monroe on a cruise around New York Harbor, the Fulton was laid up until 1825, after which she served as a floating barracks at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and was finally destroyed when her magazine exploded on June 4, 1829.
Referred to as the father of the US steam navy, Commodore Matthew Perry commanded the second American steam frigate, also named USS Fulton, and commonly called Fulton II. A side-wheel steamer with three masts and two smokestacks, this vessel was launched at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on May 18, 1837, and was commissioned during the following December. She served along the Atlantic Coast, training officers in gunnery, conducting ordnance experiments, and aiding ships in distress. A major event in her early service occurred in November 1838 when she outmatched the British steamer Great Western in a speed contest off the New York coast. Decommissioned at New York on November 23, 1842, the Fulton was laid up until 1851 when she was redesigned with two masts and one smokestack, and given new engines and boilers. Continued service throughout the 1850s ended when she was grounded conducting antislave trading patrols off Cuba in 1859. Laid up at the Pensacola Navy Yard, Florida, she was still there in February 1861 when Florida authorities seized Federal facilities in the state. Though intended for service in the Confederate Navy, the Fulton was instead destroyed to prevent capture when Federal forces reoccupied Pensacola in May 1862.
In 1855 came the side-wheelers Mississippi and Missouri, the US Navy's first oceangoing steam-driven capital ships. Commissioned in 1841, the Mississippi served as the flagship of Commodore Perry during the Mexican War of 1846 through 1848 and during his voyage to Japan in 1851 to 1854. In later Civil War service, she destroyed the Confederate ram Manassas during Farragut s passage of Forts St Philip and Jackson at the mouth of the Mississippi River on April 24, 1862. She was finally sunk during operations against Port Hudson on March 14, 1863. The Missouri was commissioned early in 1842, and over the next year demonstrated steam propulsion
The close-range combat between the Monitor and Virginia on March 9, 1862, is captured perfectly In this engraving by J. W. Evans, based on an original drawing by Julian 0. Davidson, published In Battles & Leaders of the Civil War. The damage to the smokestack, deck rails, and boat davits of the Virginia, much of which was caused during the action the previous day, is shown to good effect. The single stern gun port on the Virginia is inaccurate as the Confederate ironclad had three gun ports at bow and stern to accommodate her two pivot guns. (Author's collection]
Published In the Scientific American on August 31, 1861, this engraving of the Stevens Floating Battery shows the arrangement of guns. This was explained as follows: "The gun carriages are very heavy, solid, hemispherical masses of iron, let into, and held in place by circular depressions in the plated deck. They are to be heavy enough to resist any known projectiles, at the shortest range. Each carriage, or turn-table, has a shaft down to the 14-feet deck, where it is trained by the necessary number of protected men. After firing, it is turned with its muzzle toward the small port in the loading house, where the charge is put In by the protected men inside. The only man not absolutely shielded from the enemy's shot is the one who aims and fires the gun, and he Is entirely shielded in front by the gun and carriage. The recoil of the guns is absorbed by rubber or other elastic substances placed behind the trunnions____The four midship guns are intended to be 10 or 12-inch rifled cannon. The four other will be the largest that can be produced - probably 15 to 18-Inch guns. The vessel will be lighted by narrow slits in the top of the loading houses and the gun deck." (Author's collection)
technology in the Washington, DC, area, operating in the Gulf of Mexico. In August 1843, Missouri left the States to convey a US diplomat to Alexandria, Egypt. While at Gibraltar on August 26, 1843, she caught fire, exploded, and sank without loss of life. The remains of her sunken hulk were later demolished to clear the harbor.
The use of floating batteries reached the height of their popularity during the Crimean War. The chief proponent was Napoleon III, the French Emperor, who built three steam-powered floating batteries that were used to great effect against stone-built Russian fortifications in the allied attack on Kinburn in the Black Sea on October 17, 1855. Efforts by the US to build a floating battery for harbor defense actually predated French developments. In 1842, Congress had authorized construction of a "shot and shell proof" armored steamer by Edwin and Robert Stevens, which became known as the Stevens Battery. When experiments showed the iron plate could not withstand cannon shot, the government rejected the proposed battery, and in 1861 the Navy once again rejected it.
Prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, the South began work oil its first floating battery in January 1861 when John Randolph Hamilton, the son of a former South Carolina governor and commander of the short-lived South Carolina Navy, was ordered to build such a vessel "to assist in the reduction of Fort Sumter." One hundred feet long and 25 feet wide, the battery had two layers of railroad iron protecting its four large naval guns. Some men refused to serve on the unwieldy battery, nicknaming it the Slaughter Pen. General P. G. T. Beauregard ordered it to the Cove at the western end of Sullivan's Island, where it participated in the bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12-13, 1861. The Confederates later broke up what became known as the Hamilton Floating Battery to use the iron plate in the construction of an ironclad.
Meanwhile, the French continued to modernize their navy and by August 1860 had launched La Gloire, the world's first truly ironclad warship, which was cased end-to-end with iron plates 4Vi inches thick. The advent of this vessel was rapidly followed by the British HMS Warrior, which went into service in October 1861. US naval authorities had observed these developments but had not yet moved toward building their own ironclads when the Civil War began.
The OS Steam Battery Fulton had side-by-side twin hulls, as in Fulton's ferryboats, with the paddle wheel in the space between the hulls and protected by an upper deck with bulwarks and stanchions. This deck also sheltered the engine, which was in one hull, and the boiler, which was in the other. What Fulton had created was a catamaran. It was ISO feet long, SO feet wide, and it had a slot, 14 feet wide, down its center. (Naval Historical Foundation photo NH 61883)
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