By November, 1863, a prodigious construction effort was in progress. At Selma, the largest ironclad ever built in the Confederacy was well under way - the Tennessee, 209 feet long, with a beam of 48 feet and a draft of 14 feet. She was framed with 13-inch yellow pine timbers and covered with 5 1/2 inches of yellow pine and then 4 inches of oak. The armor was 5 inches thick on the sides of the casemate, 6 inches on its forward end, with 2 inches of armor on the deck.
The Tennessee was built at the Naval Ordnance Works. (It is worth noting that invariably the Confederate Navy got the best results when it built its own ships rather than relying on private contractors.)
After being launched in the winter of 1863, the Tennessee was towed downriver to Mobile for completion. For once the organization was functioning, and her plating had already been shipped from Atlanta. Her guns, however, still remained to be cast at Selma. Throughout January, 1864, Catesby ap R. Jones labored to produce the necessary rifles, in the face of a severe shortage of skilled labor. The armament was to consist of two 7 1/8-inch Brooke rifles mounted in pivots at each end, and four 6-inch rifles, two on each broadside, the standard armament. The Selma Works could produce no more than one gun a week, so the 6-inch rifles had to be sent from Atlanta.
On February 16, 1864, the Tennessee went into commission, showing what energetic and capable men could do when they had to.
Buchanan now found himself with two serious problems to solve. The first was the complete lack of trained officers and men for the ship. The other was the same problem which, in one way or another, had dogged virtually every Confederate ironclad skipper: the excessive draft of his ship. In order to reach Mobile Bay, Buchanan had to get his ship, drawing 14 feet, over the Dog River Bar, which was at the most 9 feet under water. Unlike some other captains, however, Buchanan took the difference into consideration and solved the problem by building a set of camels to lift the ship 5 feet higher in the water.
[Barges, filled with sand, then lightened, while lashed to the ship they are lifting.]
The camels took two months to build, but at last, on May 18, the Tennessee was successfully floated across into the bay where she was promptly run aground! She was floated off the next morning, however, and proceeded to an anchorage near Fort Morgan, guarding the entrance to the bay, to await the impending assault by the Union West Gulf Blockading Squadron.
On August 5, 1864, Rear Admiral David Farragut's force entered Mobile Bay. He had waited many months for ironclad warships and for the Army's support in reducing the powerful forts guarding the approaches to Mobile. He now had four powerful monitors, the Tecumseh and the Manhattan of the Canonicus class, sent from the Atlantic Coast, and the Winnebago and the Chickasaw, both twin-turreted light-draft vessels of the Winnebago class.
The squadron entered Mobile Bay with the tide, the wooden ships lashed together in pairs in the port column, the monitors in the starboard column with the Tecumseh leading. The Union force was obliged to pass within 200 yards of Fort Morgan, and losses were expected, not only from the powerful guns of the Confederate fort but also from the mines offshore.
Farragut's expectations were not long in being fulfilled. As the lead monitor headed for the Confederate battle line (led by the Tennessee), which had formed in line ahead just within the bar, she struck a mine and quickly sank with a great loss of life, including that of her captain, Commander Tunis A. M. Craven.
The Confederate ships, which, in addition to the Tennessee, included the unarmored gunboats Selma, Gaines and Morgan, were drawn up behind a minefield. When the Tecumseh sank, the other monitors continued on ahead. The Brooklyn, however, leading the port column, began to back engines after her people sighted mines. The Hartford, Farragut's flagship, was immediately behind the Brooklyn, and after reversing her engines passed the Brooklyn and headed for the Confederate ships, soon coming under a severe fire from the Confederate Gaines.
The Tennessee, which had engaged only in a desultory, longrange fire at the Union ships, now headed for the Hartford, with the intention of ramming her amidships. After closing to a distance of about 200 yards, the Confederate ironclad unexpectedly turned and headed for the line of ships behind the Hartford. The Tennessee then steered for the Brooklyn, and again steered off, and so passed along the whole Union line, exchanging fire with each ship in turn. In the course of this maneuver, the Tennessee was rammed ineffectually by the Union Monongahela.
The Union column, which had not been too seriously damaged by the Tennessee's fire, continued into the bay towards the Hartford, now about four miles away. The Tennessee, after coming under the fire of the remaining Union monitors, ran under the guns of the Confederate Fort Morgan. At this time there was a lull in the fighting. The Union wooden ships attended to their wounded and cooked breakfast. The Confederate gunboat Gaines had been badly worked over by the Hartford after the Union flagship had bypassed the Tennessee. The remaining Confederate gunboats were harried by the Union gunboat Metacomet, the Selma being finally taken and the Morgan escaping to Mobile.
The Union crews had hardly finished their breakfasts when the Tennessee was seen approaching. The Union ships then got underway and proceeded to mob the slow-moving Confederate. In succession he was rammed by the Monongahela and the Lackawanna and brought under heavy fire from the Hartford. The ramming had no effect whatsoever on the heavily armored Tennessee, and the 9-inch guns of the Hartford did no appreciable damage either, but the Tennessee's unvulnerability was somewhat nullified by the failure of her own guns to fire.
By this time, the slow-moving monitors had come up, and were methodically hammering the ironclad with their 15-inch guns at pointblank range. Although only one of the Manhattan's guns was in operation, and the Winnebago's turrets were jammed, the monitors kept at it, particularly the double-turreted Chickasaw.
The bow and stern port shutters of the Tennessee were soon jammed by this fire, her smokestack was knocked down, and most seriously, her rudder chains were cut. Due to one of those inexplicable negligences of the Confederates, the Tennessee had been built with the chains which connected her rudder to the steering wheel running completely exposed across her afterdeck; thus the 2-inch deck armor gave them no protection. With no power of direction, the Tennessee drifted down the bay, hounded by the monitors. At this time, Confederate Admiral Buchanan was wounded by a splinter of iron from one of the port shutters and Captain J. D. Johnston took command. Johnston endured another 20 minutes of this fire and then, with the permission of Buchanan, hauled down his flag. Fort Gaines surrendered the next day, and Fort Morgan followed suit on August 22, thus effectively closing the port of Mobile, although the city itself was not captured for many months.
The Tennessee, after repairs, was, like the Atlanta, taken into Federal service, where she was considered a very effective addition to the West Gulf Blockading Squadron.
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