Farther south, at Wilmington, two more ironclads, the North Carolina and the Raleigh, were laid down in the spring of 1862, at the yard of Berry and Brother. Here conditions were more favorable to success. Wilmington was guarded by powerful Fort Fisher, and, having excellent communications with the interior, could stand off any Union amphibious thrust. Work progressed steadily on the two ironclads, to the intense interest of Rear Admiral S. P. Lee, U.S.N., Commanding the Union North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.
Much of the population of the coastal regions of North Carolina was lukewarm in its loyalty to the Confederacy, and Lee received frequent and accurate reports of the construction of the two ironclads from deserters and contrabands, including carpenters who had worked on the ships. From these reports, it appears that the North Carolina and the Raleigh followed Naval Constructor Porter's basic design: length about 150 feet, beam about 23 feet, draft about 12 feet, with a squarish deepwater hull protected by a knuckle of armor-plated timber below the water line and topped by a heavy sloping casemate. The armament was to consist of four guns: two Brooke rifles fore and aft, pivot guns if possible, to fire on center line, or out of ports abeam. Amidships were two smoothbores, one firing to port and one to starboard.
First reports indicated that the two ships would be in commission by the middle of October, 1862, in spite of a series of strikes and walkouts by the workmen. There were delays in shipping the armor from Richmond, and, by April, 1863, Flag Officer Lynch only could hope to have the Raleigh ready in eight more weeks, and then only if he could muster a crew. (At that time there were about 60 men on the Navy muster rolls in the entire state of North Carolina.) There were many competent seamen serving in the land forces, but under the provisions of General Order 77 of the Confederate Army, only blue-water sailors could transfer to the Navy. Men who had worked in the sounds as fishermen and pilots were not eligible. The Army, while balking at supplying men and railroad cars to transport the armor from Richmond, proceeded to borrow the Raleigh's two 6.4-inch Brooke rifles for emplacement in one of the forts guarding Wilmington.
Throughout the summer and fall of 1863, construction on the ironclads progressed in fits and starts. By October the North Carolina was completed and in commission, but she was so poorly built and shaky that Lynch doubted her ability to put to sea, and further doubted the loyalty and reliability of her conscript crew. The Raleigh was still not completed at this time. Fears of a yellow-fever epidemic had caused many workers to leave the area, and Confederate Army control of the railroads still delayed the shipment of armor. Records are vague as to exactly when the Raleigh finally was finished. Her destruction, however, took place on April 7, 1864.
On the evening of the 6th she crossed the bar at New Inlet, between Fort Fisher and Smith's Island, and engaged in an inconclusive night action with the Union ships on station, hitting the USS Howquah's smokestack once. At dawn she was still at it, handling well, exchanging shots at long range, but not doing any particular damage to anyone. At about 7 A. M. she headed back across the bar, grounded, and the weight of her armor broke her back. Her guns and most of her armor were salvaged by the Confederates, and several days later she was burned to the water line.
A court of inquiry decided that "the loss of the Raleigh cannot be attributed to negligence or inattention on the part of anyone on board." Perhaps they felt that Flag Officer Lynch had endured enough in the past two years.
On July 2, 1864, the redoubtable Lieutenant Cushing, U.S.N., made a night reconnaissance of the Cape Fear River and reported the North Carolina peacefully at anchor near Smithville, still too rickety to be trusted. Early in September, in justification of Lynch's fears, or possibly through some negligence or sabotage, she sprung a leak and sank at her mooring, without ever having harmed a soul.
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