War on the water

The navies of the North and South played big parts in the strategies of Union and Confederate commanders. President Lincoln's sailors blocked Southern seaports and fought Confederates on the rivers. President Davis's navy commissioned privateers, vessels that attacked Union merchant ships all over the world and stole their cargoes. Both warring navies used America's lakes, bayous, and streams to transport soldiers to battlefields and forts, and fought to keep their opponents off the nation's waterways. The navies also changed the technology of warfare. The South produced the world's first modern ironclad warship. Built from the burned remains of the U.S. Navy vessel Merrimac, Confederates named it the CSS Virginia. Union inventor John Ericsson built an ironclad ship to fight it. His vessel was named the Monitor. Many other ironclads were made after that and fought battles along America's coasts and rivers. To defend against these and other vessels, Southern engineers perfected floating explosive mines. These devices threatened any ship entering Confederate waters.


Iron armor was no guarantee of safety for navy fighting men. This newspaper illustration of the fight between the Union's iron-covered Carondolet and the South's armored Arkansas shows how the blast of one vessel's guns rocks the other. Shells fired at close range tore at the iron and splintered the metal plates' wood backing. Flying shards of metal and wood often killed or wounded the sailors inside.

Lock plate


Lock plate


Wood stock

Trigger guard Edged upper tip

Trigger guard Edged upper tip

Wood stock

The Alabama seized sixty-four Union merchant ships with cargoes valued at more than $6.5 million.

Folding smokestack


In Civil War navies, larger ships sometimes carried marines. These soldiers used rifles to defend the vessel. Sailors were often given short-barreled carbines because these weapons were easier to load in the cramped confines of a ship. This carbine is a potent .54 caliber Jenks breech loader. Both navies distributed this weapon in small numbers.


The telescope was a basic tool of both navies. It allowed crews to observe enemy ships or survey a coastline from a safe distance.

This Civil War spyglass is U.S.

Navy issue.


Commanded by Admiral Raphael Semmes, the Confederate raider Alabama was built secretly in Great Britain and had a crew of foreign volunteers. It attacked and sank Union merchant ships in the Atlantic and stalked the waters around Africa and the Mediterranean. The ship was sunk off Cherbourg, France, in a famous battle with the USS Kearsarge.

The Alabama seized sixty-four Union merchant ships with cargoes valued at more than $6.5 million.


The Confederate vessel in this photograph is called a David. This class of vessel was semisubmersible. This means it took on some ballast and settled low in the water so that only its top was visible. It carried an explosive device attached to a wood beam. The beam jutted from the David's nose and was rammed into the side of an enemy ship. These vessels usually operated at night. Many attacked Union ships blockading South Carolina's Charleston Harbor.

Folding smokestack

Bulkeley Bridge Hartford

Iron plates, held \ Armored paddle-on with rivets wheel cover

Sloping iron sides to deflect cannonballs


Civil War sailors were expected to defend their ship from boarders. Though they carried carbines r _ and revolvers, seamen in the

1860s still relied on "cold steel" in a fight. This Union ^ navy cutlass was one of dozens of blades stored in a rack on a ship's main deck.


This ten-gun Confederate vessel served on the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers, fighting around Vicksburg. It was armored with railroad rails and iron plates, and was pushed along by two propellers. As a Union fleet approached the ironclad near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in August, 1862, its engines broke down. To keep it out of Union hands, the crew set it on fire and abandoned it. The Arkansas floated downriver and sank.


This newspaper illustration shows how wood mines were floated just below the surface of the water. America's use of mines during its civil war caused international debate. Many nations believed that the use of submerged explosives was cowardly, as well as a violation of the rules of warfare.


Wood or tin containers of explosives were positioned in harbors and rivers. Called torpedoes or mines, some of them were fitted with detonators. If a passing ship struck one of the mines, it exploded and sank the vessel. Other mines had insulated electrical wires that ran to a spot on the shore. An operator hiding there could touch the ^^taUSE^* wire to a crude battery and ^^^Sctt**»'yf g W* If ''

\plode the mine, sinking ^^^^flHHr y ™ W W ship. The mine shown " .¿J '"j w tad. jkJtijjm^^^^m ith iron strapping. ^jnMhgJQ^^^


This is the Union ironclad Saugus on Virginia's James River. It is fitted with a crude net that juts from its prow. A brave Union naval officer stands on a platform above the net. He directs the ironclad left or right to net or sweep up an explosive mine. If the device explodes, the officer could be injured or killed.

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