Another ironclad, the Georgia, also was under construction at Savannah in the spring of 1862. A monster 250 feet long, with a beam of 60 feet, and armed with 7 guns, the Georgia turned out to be worthless as a warship because of that perennial trouble - bad engines. She could barely move under her own power, so she was used as a floating battery in the Wilmington River, and had to be towed from one place to another.
Since the Georgia was a failure, construction was begun on another ironclad, the Savannah, of the same class as the Atlanta. Work on the Savannah progressed smoothly enough, with no more than the usual delays throughout the fall and winter, while Tattnall awaited her completion before moving against the Yankees. It is odd that no attempt was made to use the guns and armor of the useless floating battery in the construction of the Savannah, and also that no plans were made to make a joint attack in conjunction with the ironclads at Charleston.
Both the Georgia and the Atlanta were in commission by June, 1862, when there were still no ironclads in the Union blockading squadron. Under the command of Lieutenant Charles McBair, the Atlanta made its first tentative sortie. Now in command at Savannah was Josiah Tattnall, C.S.N., the old salt who had replaced Franklin Buchanan as flag officer in the James River Squadron, and had taken the fainthearted pilot's advice and burned the Virginia rather than attempt to take her up the James River. Flying Tattnall's flag, the Atlanta appeared at the mouth of the Savannah River on July 31,
1862, and gave the Federals in Fort Pulaski a bad scare. However she was found to steer very badly because of the tremendous weight of her armor, and so returned to her moorings without attempting any offensive action. In January of the following year, an effort to take the Atlanta out was thwarted by the discovery of obstructions in the ship channel. At the next spring tide on February 4, Tattnall headed downriver again. At this time the monitors had arrived and were sharpening their teeth on Fort McAllister, guarding Ossabaw Sound, south of the Savannah River. Tattnall returned again to Savannah, being afraid to leave the wretched Georgia unattended. For this indecision he was removed from command.
In the spring of 1863, the situation at Savannah began to deteriorate. The Atlanta broke her main steam valve, lost way, and got stuck on a mudbank. Although she was floated off the next day, a new valve had to be made at the ordnance works in Columbus, Georgia, and this took several weeks. The Savannah now was ready for sea trials; on her first trip on June 30, she appeared to steer well, but her guns and crew were still to be found.
The matter of crews was becoming serious. When the Georgia's crew was asked to re-enlist on July 1, not one of them would do so until he received all of his back pay and a guarantee of pay once a month in the future. A week later, a writ of habeas corpus, on behalf of one crew member, was served on the commanding officer of the Georgia. Flag Officer Hunter, Tattnall's replacement, after consulting with Richmond, told the Georgia's skipper to obey the writ, and the Confederate Navy Department asked the local district attorney to represent them in the case. The court ruled against the Navy and the man was released, opening the way for the release of all whose enlistments had expired.
The South Atlantic Blockading Squadron was very much interested in the CSS Atlanta. Deserters and contrabands brought frequent news of her construction and armament, and of Confederate plans for putting her to use. Early in June,
1863, Major Charles Halpine, Chief of Staff of the Union X Army Corps, sent word to Rear Admiral Du Pont that deserters from the Savannah area reported that the Atlanta soon would emerge from its berth on the Wilmington River to attack the Union fleet.
This news was not unexpected. On June 10, Du Pont ordered Captain John Rodgers, commanding the monitor Weehawken, to take up station in Wassaw Sound, at the mouth of the Wilmington River, together with the monitor Nahant, commanded by Commander John Downes. The two unarmored steamers on station in Wassaw Sound were relieved at the same time.
Actually the Atlanta was far from ready for any extended action.
[Judging from letters between Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory and Lieutenant William Webb, the captain of the Atlanta, their plans were to move up to the Charleston area and attack the main Union force outside the Charleston bar. Here the monitors would be less effective, for the Atlanta was a seagoing vessel. ( She had no difficulty making Port Royal later on.)]
Confederate plans called for the Savannah to accompany the Atlanta, but at this time the former was still far from complete. Moreover, the Atlanta's crew still needed training. Only about 20 of her crew of 140 ever had been to sea; the rest were conscripts from the Georgia hill country, inexperienced in seamanship as well as in handling the big guns.
However, when Lieutenant William Webb, Commander, Naval Forces Afloat, at Savannah, learned of the appearance of the two monitors in the sound, he immediately decided to make a limited sortie to attack them. He planned to explode the spar torpedo carried on the Atlanta's bow against one monitor and then engage the other. After their destruction, he would return to his base below Fort Thunderbolt, on the Wilmington River.
In their efforts to minimize the inconclusive action at Hampton Roads, the Confederates obviously had come to underestimate the power of the improved monitors, with their 15-inch guns. The armor of the Atlanta apparently never had been tested, nor had consideration been given to the effect, or rather lack of effect, 6and 7-inch rifles would have on the 11-inch armor the two monitors carried. If these matters had been given some thought, it would have appeared foolhardy, if not suicidal, to attempt an attack in the calm waters of the sound, where the lighterdraft monitors could outmaneuver the ironclad.
On the night of June 16, Webb confidently weighed anchor and brought the ship down the river to a point 5 or 6 miles from the monitors' mooring. He was accompanied by two unarmored gunboats. These ships were to engage any unarmored steamers which might be found in Wassaw Sound. (The captain of the Nahant reported that they were full of sightseers, including ladies come to watch the fight. Confederate reports are silent on this.)
The Atlanta anchored and waited until 3:30 A.M., when the tide was at quarter flood and the sun was coming up behind the monitors. At that time she weighed anchor and started down the river.
Forty minutes later, lookouts on the monitor Weehawken sighted the Atlanta near the mouth of the river, about a mile and a half away. The Weehawken beat to quarters and slipped her cable at 4:20. The Nahant weighed anchor a few moments later. Both ships stood out to sea, toward the northeast point of Wassaw Island, drawing the Atlanta out into the channel. At 4:20, the Weehawken turned and headed for the Confederate ironclad, the Nahant following about a half-mile behind her. While they were about this, the Atlanta grounded on a bar off the southeast corner of Cabbage Island, to the north of the river. Webb ordered engines backed while the monitors turned and bore down on him. The ironclad was now broadside to the channel. After backing frantically for 15 minutes while the monitor closed, the Atlanta, helped by the incoming tide, backed off the bar. Now Webb ordered hard right rudder and engines ahead, in order to turn his ship into the sound. The tide, still increasing, pushed against his starboard bow, nullifying the effect of the rudder and causing him to run even farther on the bar.
The Weehawken was now only three quarters of a mile away, with a confident, cold-blooded captain, a competent, professional crew, and a big 15-inch gun.
Hoping to gain a few minutes, Webb fired one shot at the Weehawken. The shot passed over her and splashed near the Nahant. Rodgers declined to be provoked into a duel at long range and came on. It was now 4:55 A.M.
When the Weehawken had closed to 300 yards, she opened fire on the Atlanta, which was still lying crosswise in the channel, her bow fast on the bar, her stern in deep water. It was now 5:15 A.M.
In rapid succession, the Atlanta was hit on the sloping casemate just below the pilothouse, on the edge of the deck, on the pilothouse itself, and on one of the gunport covers. The armor was shattered on the casemate, and, although the shot did not penetrate the compartment, it smashed and tore the brittle pine backing along the whole side, hurling great splinters, as well as the solid shot in the racks, through the compartment, Almost 40 men were wounded and disabled.
The cast-iron framework of the pilothouse was shattered and the armor plating pierced, seriously wounding both pilots and stunning the helmsman. The starboard gunport was shattered, and fragments were driven into the compartment.
Now both the Weehawken and the Nahant were on the Atlanta's quarters, in the zone where no guns could be brought to bear on them. Realizing that he was helpless, Webb hauled down his flag, to the chagrin of the commander of the Nahant, which so far had had no opportunity to fire a shot. It was now 5:30 A.M.
A prize crew from the monitors was put aboard, while the Atlanta's two consorts wisely streaked back upstream. By 8:30 A. M., the tide had come in and the Atlanta was off the bar, on her way to Port Royal. After a refit she was taken into Federal service, and eventually served in the Union James River Flotilla.
Webb went into captivity until the fall of 1864. He appears briefly in Confederate records as commanding officer of the ironclad Richmond in the James River, where perhaps he had occasion to see his old ship.
Ironically, while the Atlanta went on to a useful career in the U.S. Navy, the victorious monitor Weehawken did not have long to live. On December 6, 1863, she foundered while moored inside the Charleston bar, and drowned most of her crew.
The Confederates were at a loss to explain the defeat of the Atlanta, their finest ironclad. Lieutenant Kennard, the captain of the Isondiga, one of the accompanying steamers, could only surmise that her crew had mutinied. No one seems to have been able to account for the fact that the Atlanta's commanding officer, with 22 years active service in the "old Navy," had managed to run his ship aground in waters with which he should have been thoroughly familiar, at a time when it was vital to take special pains to stay afloat.
Following the loss of the Atlanta, the situation at Savannah became hopeless. The Savannah was completed, and another ironclad, the Milledgeville, was begun at Columbus, Georgia, and never finished. On the 13th of December, 1864, forces of General Sherman captured Fort McAllister and began closing in on Savannah itself. Helpless in the face of an attack from the interior, the squadron, once more under the command of Josiah Tattnall, could do no more than shell the Union forces along the river. The Milledgeville and the Georgia were blown up on December 20, but the Savannah, which could still move, gallantly went upriver to Hutchinson, and harassed the rear of Sherman's columns. She was still fighting on the 21st when, sometime that day, her ammunition ran out and she was blown up to prevent capture.
Unlike the other centers of naval activity in the Confederacy, there were virtually no shipyards or machine shops in Mobile at the outbreak of the war. Before a serious shipbuilding program could be launched, it was necessary to acquire and construct these facilities.
Nevertheless, Mobile was the second cotton port in the country, with an excellent harbor and good water communications with the interior. There were iron and timber available in northern Alabama, needing only to be processed. The Confederate Navy Department, however, had other preoccupations. Although construction of an ironclad was authorized by an Act of the Alabama Legislature in November, 1861, nothing was really done in the Mobile area until the spring of 1863. By that time, Union control of the Mississippi Valley was almost complete, and the prospect of operations against Mobile began to take on serious proportions.
Rear Admiral Franklin Buchanan, who had briefly commanded the James River Squadron in the spring of 1862, was appointed to the command of the naval forces at Mobile. At Selma, 150 miles up the Alabama River from Mobile, the Navy had enlarged the privately owned iron foundry - begun in 1861 by Colin McRae - into the enormous Naval Gun Foundry and Ordnance Works, under the capable direction of Commander Catesby ap R. Jones, who had commanded the Virginia in her great days at Hampton Roads. This plant was capable of casting and finishing rifles up to 7 inches (later to 10 inches) and could produce a fair amount of armor plate.
The unfinished ironclad begun by the state of Alabama was turned over to the Confederate Navy for completion. Records on this ironclad are very sketchy, but it appears that it was the Baltic, a sidewheel steamer 186 feet long, and that the armor was quite light, along the lines of a Federal tinclad.
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