In May the Confederate Congress authorized the issuance of Letters of Marque to privately owned ships. One of the results of this was the design and construction of the very first Confederate ironclad ram, the Manassas. This ship was converted from the tug Enoch Train, built in Boston in 1855. She was purchased by a syndicate of New Orleans businessmen for conversion to a privateer. Under the direction of J. O. Curtiss, a local ship designer and builder, she was strengthened longitudinally, and given a ram some 20 feet long, built solidly of 17-inch timbers and plated with 1 1/2 inches of iron. The entire deck was arched over with 12-inch timbers and also plated with 1 1/2-inch boiler iron. Rechristened the Manassas, she carried only one gun, a 68-pound smoothbore mounted in the bow. This ship also was equipped with hoses to throw scalding water over the sides in case she was boarded.
Her weakest feature was her engines, which drove her at a speed of no more than 4 knots. This made her far too slow for a privateer, and in October, 1861, she was taken into Confederate service as a warship.
To the little Manassas goes the distinction of being not only the first ironclad in commission on either side, but the first ironclad to see action. On the night of October 11, 1861, the Manassas attacked the Union force on station at the Head of Passes, in the Mississippi River below New Orleans.
The force was made up of the Vincennes, a sailing sloop of 18 guns; the Richmond, a propeller-driven sloop of 24 guns; the sailing sloop Preble, 18 guns; and the side-wheel steamer, Water Witch, 3 guns.
The Federals had no picket boats out, and evidently not much of a watch was being kept, for the Manassas came in boldly and rammed the Richmond amidships.
It happened that the Richmond had a barge with coal alongside, and the Manassas, instead of striking the side of the Richmond, crashed into a solid wall of coal. Although the sloop was damaged slightly, the Manassas was badly hurt. The shock of impact knocked her funnel down and shook her engines loose, and she drifted downstream without power and full of smoke. The Union ships fled, most of them by simply cutting their cables and drifting downstream.
Eventually the Manassas got her engines to work again and limped home to New Orleans. The next time she went into action was in April, 1862, against Farragut's fleet at New Orleans, where, after ineffectually ramming the Brooklyn, she was finished off by two broadsides from the Mississippi.
The same bad luck that dogged the Manassas was to follow every Confederate ironclad, without exception, during the entire war.
Although the record does not especially reflect it, the fact remains that the Confederate ironclads as a whole were rather good ships. The Union Navy captured three of them in the course of the war and was quite happy to make use of them against their former owners. While it is doubtful that any of these ships could have stood up to a Passaic class monitor at close range, most of them should have been able to defeat, or, what was almost as effective, to drive away any other type of Union warship. It is true the Confederate ironclads generally were slow, but they were also good sea boats, judging from reports of the Atlanta and the Tennessee after they were taken into Federal service. When armed with Brooke rifles, they were capable of long-range action, and their rams, of course, spelled doom to any class of ship to which they got close.
However, they could not be effective when the Confederate Government appeared to have no ideas about how to use them, or when the Confederate Army would not give their builders any priorities on use of the railroads, or iron plating, or trained seamen conscripted into the army. Nor could they be effective when their commanders were either foolhardy or hesitant, or ran them aground, or when their crews couldn't shoot.
The story of these ships is a pathetic one of opportunities missed, ignorance - particularly on the part of the Confederate cabinet and the Army - and, with some notable exceptions, of plain incompetence. The most wonderful thing which runs through the entire story is an almost lunatic optimism and confidence on the part of all the Confederates, from the Secretary of the Navy to the landsmen at the guns. Regularly, and without fail, they expected the Yankees to make every mistake possible in the given situation and to make no mistakes themselves. And more often than not, they expected the Yankees to be fainthearted and cowardly.
Now with all due respect, this assumption might have had some validity in relation to the Union Army, which, after all, was filled with amateurs on all levels, and which had been known to execute some colossal blunders, to say the least. The Union Navy was quite another story. There were no rear admirals and commodores of volunteers, nor aldermen turned captains or commanders, or even lieutenant commanders, in the Union Navy. They were professionals to a man, and, with the exception of the affair at the Head of Passes just mentioned, they were almost never stupid, and never cowards. As far as their being lethargic and fainthearted, in this matter the Union Navy Department was completely ruthless. The merest suspicion of such behavior meant professional ruin for officers of any rank or position.
On the other hand, the Union Navy rarely underestimated the Confederates. Although success followed success as far as attacking and destroying Confederate ironclads were concerned, each new one was treated as a dangerous enemy. The progress of their constructions was followed assiduously; their probable employment was anticipated, and usually they were expected to put in an appearance sooner rather than later. They were conceded all possible efficiency, and their commanders always were expected to be courageous and competent.
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