Coastal Ironclads Other Than Monitors

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Inventor John Ericsson, ca. 1862. Photographer unknown.
Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command # NH 305.

The American Civil War is often considered the first modern industrial war. Both North and South endeavored to mobilize their resources to wage total war. This experience revolutionized naval warfare, and in doing so, forever changed America’s political, social, and economic fabric. 

Proponents of seapower had witnessed significant changes in ordnance, motive power, and ship design during the first half of the 19th century. Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Russell Mallory was the first to recognize that a new class of vessels, hitherto unknown in naval service, was needed. Mallory knew the possession of an armored ship was a matter of first necessity. The question then begged an answer: How could the agrarian South create such a warship? [1]   Read more

River Monitors

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Map of Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.
Courtesy OhioRiverCorridor.com.

At the onset of the Civil War, General Winfield Scott noted that a Union victory could be achieved by controlling the Mississippi River. Scott believed the entire Mississippi Valley could be controlled using only 12 to 20 gunboats and 60,000 soldiers. More resources would eventually be needed; however, the Federals ultimately enabled, as President Abraham Lincoln said, the ‘Father of All Rivers to flow unvexed to the sea.’ 

Because the Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles was preoccupied with establishing a blockade of the Confederate coastline, he placed control of the Western Gunboat Flotilla to the War Department. This action would give a strong unity of command as the Union army and naval forces endeavored to wrestle the river from the Confederacy. Commander John Rodgers was initially placed in command of the flotilla; however, he was soon replaced by Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote.    Read more

Naval Intelligence in Hampton Roads: 1861-1862

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CSS Virginia.
The Mariners’ Museum.

There was no formal naval intelligence system established during the American Civil War. While a few examples exist of Northern sympathizers, free Blacks, like Mary Louvestre of Portsmouth, sent messages to various Union commanders about the Confederate ironclad construction effort. These links were unofficial and were generally between one Union officer and an individual. The Union nor the Confederacy needed to rely on such clandestine methods since Northern and Southern newspapers provided ample information, usually in a boastful manner. Each antagonist simply needed to obtain a copy of The New York Times or Mobile Register to gather all they needed to know about ironclad development. 

Union intelligence was able to receive valuable knowledge about the construction and impending attack of CSS Virginia. The information appeared to flow back and forth across Hampton Roads. On October 6, 1861, Major General John Ellis Wool, stationed at Fort Monroe as commander of the Union Department of Virginia, wrote to Lieutenant General Winfield Scott:   Read more

USS Cumberland – Sink Before Surrender

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U.S. Frigate Cumberland. Lithograph. Published by Currier & Ives,
ca. 1843-1848. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

USS Cumberland, flagship of the US Navy’s Home Squadron, was dispatched to Gosport Navy Yard, Portsmouth, Virginia, upon the sloop’s return from a brief cruise to Veracruz, Mexico. It was hoped that the warship’s presence would deter any effort to capture the yard during the secession crisis. Gosport was the largest and most advanced navy yard in the United States. Besides its granite dry dock and other ship repair/construction facilities, Gosport housed 14 warships, including the steam screw frigate USS Merrimack awaiting repair and others in ordinary like USS Raritan. The Cumberland, then commanded by Captain Garrett J. Pendergrast, was anchored just off Gosport so its firepower could be utilized to defend the yard or cover the release of ships.  

Three days after Virginia left the Union on April 17, the Union abandoned the yard. Cumberland’s crew helped to destroy the facility and various ships. By 4:20 a.m. on April 21, Cumberland, loaded with sailors and Marines, was towed out of the yard by USS Pawnee supported by the tug USS Yankee. Cumberland slowly passed the burning Merrimack, not realizing that what seemed to be a burning hulk would become the sloop’s death knell less than one year later.   Read more

The Capture of Hatteras Inlet

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Map of Cape Hatteras. Courtesy of weather.com

The first combined operation of the Civil War was the capture of Hatteras Inlet. This inlet was used by Confederate gunboats and privateer merchantmen sailing around Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. These Southern commerce raiders’ depreciation was lucrative for the Carolinians; however, Northern losses became so significant that several major maritime insurance brokers demanded something be done about this situation. This prompted the development of the Union’s Hatteras Inlet operation. [1]

North Carolina’s Outer Banks

The North Carolina Sounds reached from the Virginia border to Cape Lookout, the eastern border of North Carolina. Four major inlets could be used to reach the Atlantic Ocean from the Sounds: Hatteras, Oregon, Ocracoke, and Beaufort (Old Inlet). Hatteras Inlet was best situated for commerce raiding. Cape Hatteras was the easternmost point within the Confederacy, overlooking the Gulf Stream. This current was very popular with merchant ships trading between Northern ports like New York, the Caribbean, and South America. Using the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the Confederates could signal waiting raiders about tempting merchantmen targets. “The enemy’s commerce,” wrote North Carolina governor John Ellis on April 27, 1861, “could be cut off by privateers on the coast of No. Carolina.” [2]   Read more