Ironclads in the Confederate States Navy

In contrast to the initial hesitation in the North regarding the construction of ironclads, the Confederates, beginning with the very newly appointed Secretary of Navy, Stephen R. Mallory, were quick to see the possibilities of the new weapon. In a letter to the Chairman of the Naval Affairs Committee of the Confederate Congress, Mallory enthusiastically expounded his views:

"I regard the possession of an iron armored ship as a matter of the first necessity. Such a vessel at this time could traverse the entire coast of the United States, prevent all blockades, and encounter, with a fair prospect of success, their entire Navy. If, to cope with them on the sea we follow their example and build wooden ships, we shall have to construct several at one time; for one or two ships would fall easy prey to her comparatively numerous steam frigates - but inequality of numbers may be compensated by invulnerability."

In the following weeks Mallory moved to bring his scheme to reality. Lieutenant James H. North was ordered to proceed to London, and with the assistance of Confederate agents already in England, to go to France and open negotiations with the French for the purchase, either directly or indirectly, of one armored frigate of the Gloire class, or failing this, to arrange for a similar ship to be secretly constructed. Another armored ship was to be contracted for in England. Lieutenant North was advised to consult with Captain Cowper Coles, the Royal Navy's ironclad expert, before drawing up specifications. On May 20, 1861, 2 million dollars were allocated for the purchase of 6 armored vessels abroad.

Mallory's efforts to purchase warships abroad were to be largely frustrated by the Confederate lack of hard cash, and by British and French reluctance to commit themselves until they could see how the war would go. It was possible to buy commerce-raiding cruisers, which could be passed off as merely fast merchantmen, but the construction of an ironclad frigate could not very well be countenanced by any government wishing to preserve even a pretense of neutrality. Furthermore, both Great Britain and France had embarked on ambitious ironclad building programs of their own and were not eager to supply this type of vessel to foreign nations which might be arrayed against them in the future.

Mallory also took steps at the same time to get an ironclad program under way in the Confederacy itself. Captain Duncan Ingraham, recently resigned from the U.S. Navy, was ordered to make a survey of wrought-iron platemaking facilities in the Confederacy, and to ascertain means for transporting iron to New Orleans, the principal shipbuilding center. Ingraham's reports were not encouraging. There were ironworks aplenty in the South, but rolling mills were few and far between. One of the biggest, the mill of Daniel Hillman and Co., in Kentucky, was only 40 miles from the Ohio border, and Hillman was not willing to risk having his mill seized by the Yankees.

The only dependable mills were the Tredegar Works in Richmond, and the mill in Atlanta, Georgia. Nevertheless, by October, 1861, the Navy Department had contracted for more than 18,000 tons of iron, and for construction of a rolling mill in New Orleans.

Marine steam engines were, next to armor plate, to become one of the most serious problems of the ironclad program. No marine engines of sloop or frigate size ever had been built in the South, and facilities for making them did not exist. Eventually a large steam hammer capable of working the huge forgings necessary was salvaged from Pensacola Navy Yard and erected in Charlotte, North Carolina.

As such equipment became available, the shortage of skilled workers largely nullified its usefulness. Prior to secession, most of the skilled mechanics working in the South were either Yankees or foreigners, and their departure was severely felt. With conscription, large numbers of native workmen were removed from the labor market. The Confederate Army, like every army before and since, was generally unsympathetic to the argument that a mechanic was more valuable in a war plant than on the line, or even in camp marking time. As war production of all kinds mounted, the inevitable wage price spiral made its appearance, just as it did in the North. Chaotic economic conditions led to pirating of workers among contractors, and, in some areas, resulted in an absolutely ruinous system of piecework contracting by the day, whereby a workman could make 6 to 10 dollars a day (a good week's pay in those days) and be paid at the end of every day. Under these conditions, a worker could pick and choose his work as he pleased, or stay home and loaf if he felt that he had earned enough for the week.

To a much greater extent than the United States Navy Department, the Confederate counterpart was forced to build and manage industrial facilities of all kinds in order to get its work done at all. Before the end of the war, Mallory ruled an enormous industrial complex of ordnance factories, forges, powder plants, and even mines and smelters. Building this system in a predominantly agricultural country, in the face of Northern attacks literally from all sides, was a brilliant feat. It would be necessary to turn to the accomplishments of Germany in the Second World War to find a comparable performance under fire.

Before the end of 1861, contracts for ironclads had been awarded and construction of more than ten was under way all over the South, while in the North, except for the Eads river gunboats, only the Galena, New Ironsides, and Monitor were under construction.

With a very few exceptions, all the ironclads built in the Confederacy followed the same pattern so closely that it is unnecessary to deal with them in detail, at least from a design point of view. They did differ in details, such as size, armor, power plant, and armament, and some were more solidly built than others, but their advantages and defects were for the most part such as were inherent in the basic design.

The Virginia (ex Merrimack) is, of course, considered to be the model of the Confederate ironclad, but in many respects she was an exception, particularly in size, number of guns, and the fact that she was converted rather than built from the keel up. As one of the very first ironclads, however, she certainly may be considered the prototype of the others to come.

The basic ironclad design was the product of two Confederate naval officers, both formerly of the U.S. Navy, Lieutenant John M. Brooke and Naval Constructor John L. Porter.

Early in June, 1861, shortly after the capture of Norfolk, Brooke, inventor of the Brooke gun, met with Secretary Mallory and showed him sketches for a proposed ironclad, a project, as we have seen, very much on the Secretary's mind. Mallory was impressed, and, at Brooke's request, sent the naval constructor, John L. Porter, to assist him in drawing up plans for an ironclad to be built at Norfolk. Porter arrived with his own design and a model, embodying concepts similar to most of Brooke's ideas. Porter, with some assistance from another officer, Chief Engineer William Williamson, had developed his ironclad design independently.

[ Formerly the senior Chief Engineer, U.S. Navy.]

Both designs made use of a rectangular casemate with slanting sides, pierced for guns on all four sides. Construction was of heavy timbers faced with iron plates. Porter's hull was a blunt, scow affair, much like the hull of Eads's Cairo class gunboats. Brooke contributed the long, low tapering hull with an iron ram on the bow which became characteristic of the Confederate ironclad. He further planned that the bow and stern sections be submerged about 2 feet under water. The Virginia followed this pattern; when under way only her casemate was visible above the water. Subsequent ironclads usually did not have this feature; their bows rode a foot or two above the water.

Compared to the conventional ironclad being built in Europe, and in the North, there is no question that the Confederate design was superior. The conventional ship, including the New Ironsides, was unarmored around the bow and stern, and, of course, had few guns pointing ahead and astern. The Confederate ships usually had only one gun pointing forward, but the powerful ram on the bow gave them a tremendous advantage. In adopting the low deck, visibility was improved, as it was feasible to build a low armored pilothouse atop the casemate.

In these respects the Confederate ironclad was an innovation, but it was not revolutionary. The most ingenious feature, and one which is in fact the basic measure of any design, but above all any design for an implement of war, was the simplicity of construction. The conventional hull of the period was a delicately curved structure requiring many calculations, quite sophisticated techniques for forming the ribs, and even specially selected parts of trees in order to give structural strength. The hesitation in using steam power to its fullest dictated an elaborate rigging and plenty of skilled seamen. The Confederate design made a complete break with all of this. The hull was flat-bottomed and flat-sided. These ships could be built wherever there was a plentiful supply of timber, even green wood. The building techniques were no more sophisticated than those required to build a house. Gilbert Elliott, builder of the Albemarle, and most of the other North Carolina ironclads, has given us an excellent description of the simplicity with which these ships could be built:

"The keel was laid and construction commenced by bolting down across the center, a piece of frame timber 8 x 10 inches. Another frame of the same size was then dovetailed into this, extending outwardly at an angle of 45A° forming the side, and at the outer end of this, the frame for the shield was also dovetailed, the angle being 35A°, and then the top deck was added, and so on around to the other end of the bottom beam. Other beams were then bolted down to the keel and to the first fastened, and so on, working fore and aft, the main deck beams being interposed from stem to stern . . .

". . . When this part of the work was completed she was a solid boat, built of pine frames, and if caulked would have floated in that condition, but she was afterwards covered with 4-inch planking laid on longitudinally as ships are usually planked and this was properly caulked and pitched, cotton being used for caulking instead of oakum. The iron plating consisted of two courses . . . the first course was laid lengthwise . . . , a two inch space, filled with wood being left between each two layers to afford space for bolting the outercourse through the whole shield (casemate) and the outer course was laid flush, forming a smooth surface.

"The inner part of the shield was covered with a thin course of planking, nicely dressed, mainly with a view to protection from splinters. Oak knees were bolted in, to act as braces and supports to the shield. "The sides were covered from the knuckle (usually) four feet below the deck."

The knuckle below the water line was quite similar in concept to Ericsson's armored raft, and caused the ships to steer badly for the same reason as did the monitors.

With adequate armor and decent engines, the performance of the Southern ironclads should have been equal to their objectives. These were lacking, however, and the designers may be criticized for not having taken this lack into consideration. A third source of trouble for Southern ironclads was their deep draft, averaging about 15 feet, acceptable for a strictly seagoing vessel, but a constant drawback for ships operating in rivers and shoal water.

Time and time again we find them running aground, unable to pursue a fleeing enemy into shallow waters (as in the case of the Virginia and the Monitor), and being forced to wait for a particularly high tide or spring flood, thereby alerting their enemy to their coming.

The average size of these ships was 150 feet by 40 feet with from 4 to 6 guns. In virtually every instance, their engines were too small to propel them adequately. Five knots was a good speed for a Confederate ironclad. The armor was usually 4 inches thick, insufficient to protect them from a 15-inch smoothbore, or even a 10-inch with a heavy charge of powder. Armor not only was inadequate but in short supply. Many - in fact most - of the ships laid down were never completed for lack of iron plating. In view of this, apparently the Confederates would have been wiser to build smaller ships with only two guns, pivot rifles if possible, of shallower draft, and with heavier, though less, armor. One such vessel was built, the Albermarle, which was perhaps the most successful ironclad of all (after the Virginia).

Matthew Fontaine Maury, "the Great Cartographer," resigned from the Federal service and was commissioned in the Confederate Navy. Almost alone he rejected the concept of the ironclad and advocated construction of a fleet of unarmored steam launches, each carrying one large calibre rifle. His idea gained some acceptance, particularly in civilian circles, until the fabulous performance of the Virginia converted everyone to ironclads, and to dreams of raids on Washington and New York. Later on, out of desperation, his idea was adopted in a modified form with the development and use of the Davids, tiny steam launches mounting a "torpedo" on the end of a spar. They were to run into the enemy and explode the "torpedo," and survive if they could. "Torpedoes," whether on spars or used as mines, accounted for many more Union warships, including the toughest kind, such as the monitor Tecumseh, than all the Confederate ironclads together, and, in addition, made the Union Navy more cautious than it would have been otherwise.

As the war progressed, the design of the ironclads was somewhat improved. The principal innovation, no doubt inspired by the monitor turret, was the use of pivot guns fore and aft, which also could fire out of side ports, enabling four guns to do the work of six. Twin screws also were used widely, enabling the ships to steer better (in principle, at least).

Strategically, the Confederate Navy was in much the same position in which the German Navy found itself in the Second World War. Not surprisingly, its reactions were very much the same, allowing for the lower level of technology, of course. To carry the parallel further, its over-all position in the war effort, both in relation to the Army and to the central government, was quite similar.

The geography of the Confederacy, combined with the complete supremacy of the Union Fleet on the open sea, tended to break up the Confederate naval establishment into a number of self-contained areas. The only "vessels" which could move from one area to another were men and ideas.

These areas were the James River, the North Carolina Sounds, Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, New Orleans, and the Yazoo River, including the stretch of the Mississippi around Vicksburg. (There was another area along the Texas coast around Galveston, isolated pockets in Florida, along the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers, and along the Red and White rivers, but since no ironclads were built or operated in these areas they do not figure in this account. )

[With one exception: the mysterious and ineffectual Missouri, built in the Red River area in 1863. Although surrendered to the Union forces at the end of the war, there is virtually no information on her.]

It is worth noting that in every one of these areas the United States Navy had a foothold ashore before the middle of 1862, and in most cases, before the end of 1861. It is also worth noting that only one area, New Orleans, was conquered from the sea. In every other instance the decisive attack was made by the United States Army, although the case of Wilmington,

North Carolina, may be argued. (In more than one instance the last action of the Confederate ships in the area was against attacking land forces coming from the interior.)

The James River

The already formidable character of the James River area, with its proximity to the industrial facilities of Richmond and its threat to Federal communications on the Potomac River and in the Chesapeake Bay, was very greatly enhanced by the capture of the great Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk. The acquisition of this base, together with enormous stores of war materials, including some 1,200 cannon, was one of the unexpectedly fortunate turns of the war for the Confederates. It was the result of a relatively rare combination of factors: hesitation, weakness of character on the part of some Union naval officers, preoccupation with more distant areas by others, together with the expenditure of more than usual energy by the Confederates. In fact, it was a very similar stroke of luck which gave the Union forces the port bf New Orleans the following year.

Not only was the navy yard and its stores captured intact, but a number of fine ships were scuttled at their berths by the departing Federals. Among these was the great steam frigate Merrimack, one of that splendid group laid down in 1855, which, at the time of the Merrimack's destruction, was rated as perhaps the finest class of frigates in the world.

The Confederates, after occupying the yard, immediately set to capitalizing on their good fortune. The Merrimack, which had been burned to the water line, was raised and placed in dry dock. Two sloops, the Germantown and the Plymouth, also were raised and were restored to service, but, since they were equipped only with sail power, they were of little use.

Although the Merrimack's upperworks were destroyed, her engines and hull were found to be in workable condition even after a month under water. Her engines never became really reliable, however.

The decision to convert the ruined frigate into an ironclad was made in June by the board of officers already referred to in the previous chapter. While construction was begun on the hull and the casemate, Lieutenant Brooke conducted experiments at the Naval Ordnance Proving Ground at Jamestown Island in the James River, and determined that a minimum of 4 inches of armor was required. Since 2-inch bar iron was the only type available, it was laid on in two layers, and bolted through the 2-foot-thick oak sides of the casemate. Completion of the ship was halted through the winter because of a delay in the fabrication of the iron plate in Richmond. This same shortage of armor plate was to be repeated over and over again during the course of the war.

The defects of the Virginia's design were discussed in the previous chapter; they proved to be common to all Confederate ironclads. Further shortcomings were the rather poor protection given the rudder and the propeller and the lack of any protection below the water line. These defects were overcome in later designs. Of all her drawbacks, the most serious, from an operational point of view, were her excessive draft of 22 feet, and the relative weakness of her engines.

It was this deep draft which prevented the ironclad, now known as the CSS Virginia, from driving home its crushing attack on the Union ships at Hampton Roads, on March 8, 1862.

After ramming the sloop-of-war Cumberland and wrecking the big sailing frigate Congress by gunfire, the Virginia was thwarted by the ebbing tide and her deep draft from completing the destruction of the more important prey, the steam frigates Minnesota and Roanoke ( her sister ships ). These two were aground and helpless, literally 'waiting for death, but the Virginia could not get close to them without grounding herself.

Returning to her base at Norfolk for the night, the mighty Virginia returned the next morning with the tide, hoping to complete the ruin of the Union Navy. The situation, of course, was now completely changed by the dramatic appearance of our old friend the Monitor, which had weathered the trip from New York successfully, in spite of several close shaves with the heavy seas off Cape May.

Captain Marston, of the Roanoke, the senior Union Captain at Hampton Roads, had ordered the Monitor to take station alongside the grounded and helpless Minnesota, and defend her from the Confederate ironclad.

As the Virginia approached, the Monitor got under way and headed for the enemy's starboard bow. The superior maneuverability of the Monitor was immediately apparent; she closed to a few feet and passed slowly along the Virginia's starboard side, exchanging mutually ineffectual salvoes with the Confederate ship. Then the Monitor turned and attempted to ram the Virginia's exposed stern. Missing it by a few feet, she swung around and passed along the Virginia's port side, again exchanging shots.

The Virginia had lost her smoke stack in the action against the wooden ships the day before, and not being equipped with blowers ( as was the Monitor ), she had great difficulty in keeping up steam. The deep draft of her hull again restricted her movements, while the lighter draft Monitor continued to steam freely over the shoals.

The Virginia attempted to ram the Monitor at one point, but the raft successfully absorbed the shock, just as Ericsson had intended.

All things considered, the superiority in design of the Monitor over the Virginia is unquestionable. Although Confederate accounts of the battle are emphatic on the point of who quit first, etc., they concede that the Virginia's casemate was severely battered by the Monitor's shots, and it seems safer to say that, had the Monitor's gunnery been better, the Virginia most probably would have been driven aground or sunk. In this matter of gunnery the advantage was clearly with the Virginia. Although the Monitor's turret was a small target, it was hit again and again, and the tiny pilot house on the Monitor's forward deck was also twice hit squarely, disabling her captain and effectively putting the ship out of action for some minutes. Lieutenant Dana Greene, the Monitor's Executive Officer, who was in command after Lieutenant Warden had been wounded, was quite worried about the damage to the pilot house, since another shot would have certainly wrecked it and disabled the steering gear, and making it almost impossible to conn the ship.

The Monitor's fire, on the other hand, was not nearly so effective. In part this was due to the fact that peacetime regulations still in effect limited the powder charge for the Monitors 11-inch guns to 15 pounds. This was found to be insufficient against most armor. (Later on, it was raised to 30 pounds.) In addition to this, the erratic operation of the Monitor's turret (already referred to in the account of her design) decreased the chances of concentrating her fire at any one point in the Virginia's armor.

After more than two hours of slugging, the contestants called it a day. The Monitor had withdrawn to a shoal area to replenish her ammunition supply, and the Virginia, leaking badly, but still operational, steamed back to Norfolk. Northern accounts stress the fact that the Monitor "remained in possession of the field," and Southern accounts insist that the Monitor stopped firing first and retired to shoal water, where her adversary could not follow. After a hundred years the claims as to who "won" must be evaluated in the light of less romantic criteria.

Tactically, honors must go to the Monitor, which was fighting a defensive action to protect the helpless wooden ships. The ships were saved, the enemy driven off. The Union Navy, with the responsibility of maintaining the blockade and covering McClellan's operations ashore on the Peninsula, simply could not risk losing the Monitor by attempting pursuit of the Virginia. Indeed, when, on April 11, the Virginia once more reappeared in the Roads, the Union squadron, including the Monitor, prudently declined action even after one of the Virginia's attendant gunboats brazenly captured three Union merchant ships almost within range of the squadron's guns. The Northern press was loud in its denunciation of this disgraceful action, but Lincoln and Welles, neither of whom was inclined to excuse faint-hearted behavior, had ordered this course of action, and they stood by it. Time was on the Union side; the Virginia, in any case, was doomed the moment that her base at Norfolk was taken. It was sufficient to fend off her sorties, and for this the continued existence of the Monitor was absolutely essential. Public criticism of this position, during the weeks following the engagement, was bitter and intense. The Secretary of War, the irascible Edwin M. Stanton, showed his contempt for the Navy's position by engaging millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt, the New York shipping tycoon, to save the country from the folly of Welles. Vanderbilt responded by fitting out one of his ships with cotton-bale armor and then took her to Hampton Roads where she was equipped with guns and a ram and placed under the complete charge of the Army. Once on the scene, however, Vanderbilt saw the logic of the Navy's position and returned to New York, satisfied that his presence was not required. The steamboat was left behind, but was never used.

In sum, the Union Navy's position was analogous to that of the British Home Fleet in the First World War. Earl Jellicoe's alleged statement after the Battle of Jutland, when, in answer to criticism of his failure to pursue and destroy the German Fleet, he remarked that he was "the only man on either side who could have lost the war in an afternoon," would have appealed to Welles, although the Union position was not quite that desperate.

From a strategic point of view, however, the battle takes on a different aspect. The Army of the Potomac was heavily committed in operations on the Peninsula. The presence of the Virginia at Norfolk effectively denied the use of the James River to the Northern forces. General McClellan's reports are explicit about this, as well as the fact that a large part of the naval force was pinned down at Hampton Roads and unable to participate in support operations in the York River. Although, in the light of McClellan's subsequent performance in the campaign, it is questionable whether this naval support would have been decisive, it must be conceded that the failure of the Union Navy to destroy the Virginia was a contributing factor to the Union defeat in the Peninsula Campaign.

The final, and the most decisive, point to be considered is the long-range reaction of the two navies to the events at Hampton Roads. In this matter, honors must go to the the United States Navy. Beginning with improvements in the design of the next class of monitors, the Northern commanders reacted well in every respect. Their intelligence of Confederate shipbuilding was brought to a high degree, their tactical and strategic use of Union ironclads was of the highest order, at least as far as nullifying the effect of the Confederate ironclads was concerned. If Hampton Roads was a defeat for them, it was a useful, profitable defeat. For the Confederates it was a barren victory. Not because they ultimately lost the war, but because they failed to learn. They began to build their ironclads with more protection along the water line, but that appears to be the only improvement that came out of the battle.

In addition to being forever handicapped by a belief in the incompetence of all Yankees, they failed to take heed of the limitations which the deep draft of the Virginia imposed upon her performance. It was this same deep draft which led to the burning of the Virginia by the Confederates on the nth of May, when the imminent fall of Norfolk deprived Confederate Flag Officer Tattnall of his base. He hoped to take his ship up the James River, but for that he needed no more than an 18-foot draft; even after stripping his ship, it was impossible to take her upriver.

The next encounter between a monitor and a Confederate ironclad was to be a different story, at least as far as the monitor was concerned.

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