The First Ironclad Emerges: Battle of the Head of Passes

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Confederate 6.4-inch banded rifle, 1862. This is the weapon type used as the bow pivot gun on CSS Ivy. Note the 100-pound conical projectile at the right rear of the gun carriage.  Courtesy of Library of Congress, CWPB 01053.

When the Civil War erupted, Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Russell Mallory knew that the South could only counter and defeat the larger US Navy if ironclads were employed.  Mallory immediately ordered the construction of ironclads. The first project was the conversion of USS Merrimack into CSS Virginia at the Gosport Navy Yard, Portsmouth, Virginia. Mallory then ordered two ironclads laid down in New Orleans, and another two built in Memphis, Tennessee. These vessels could not be built fast enough to stem the Union’s advance against Confederate ports.

Ironclad Imagined

The urgent need for ironclads was recognized by New Orleans Commission Agent Captain John Stephenson who also served as secretary of the New Orleans Pilots’ Benevolent Association.  Stephenson went to meet with President Jefferson Davis in Montgomery, Alabama, to ask for the use of a heavy tug, altering it to make it “comparatively safe against the heaviest guns afloat, and by preparing … bow in a peculiar manner … rendered them capable of sinking by collision the heaviest vessels ever built.” With Davis’s approval, Stevenson returned to New Orleans to build an ironclad privateer, quickly raising more than $100,000 in subscriptions.   Read more

Fort Fisher: Gibraltar Falls

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Map of the Cape Fear River and the approaches to Wilmington, N.C. from C.S.A. Engineer Surveys. [Washington, DC: The Norris Peters Co., ?, 1862] Map. Courtesy Library of Congress.

As the Union warships sailed away from Cape Fear on December 27, 1864, Colonel William Lamb, Fort Fisher’s commander, wired Richmond, “This morning … the foiled and frightened enemy left our shore.”Richmond rejoiced as Wilmington, North Carolina, remained the Confederacy’s only outlet to the world.

Bragg Takes Command

Lamb quickly organized repairs to the minor damage the fort suffered during the bombardment. Both he and Major General W.H.C. Whiting knew the Federals would soon return. General Braxton Bragg had recently assumed command of the District of North Carolina. He rebuffed every request for reinforcements to the fort’s garrison. Bragg did not believe that the Federals would return and thought it more prudent to defend Wilmington.   Read more

First Assault on Fort Fisher: Ben Butler and the Powder Boat Scheme

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Fort Fisher, N.C., Interior view of first three traverses on land face, 1865. Timothy H. O’Sullivan, photographer. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles had long recognized Wilmington, North Carolina, as the key blockade runners’ haven in the war. He had tried to create an expedition to capture Wilmington’s prime defender, Fort Fisher. Welles, in conjunction with Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee, conceived an attack where monitors would pass through Cape Fear’s Old Inlet and bombard Fort Fisher from the rear. A great idea: however, this mode of assault was impractical as the new Passaic-class monitors had too drafts too deep to enter the river. The Federals; nevertheless, did not forget about Cape Fear.

CONCEPT CONCEIVED

The Federals knew that Wilmington needed to be closed; yet, they also recognized the magnitude and extent of the Cape Fear defenses. Fort Fisher was key to General Robert E. Lee’s defense of Petersburg and Richmond. The food, weapons, ammunition, clothing, and medicines that Lee’s army relied upon all came from Wilmington, North Carolina. If this port city were to be captured, Lee would have to abandon his trenches outside of Petersburg.   Read more

Without Fear: The Loss of CSS Albemarle

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The “Albemarle” Ready for Action, 19th-century engraving. Courtesy Naval History and Heritage Command # NH 57266.

CSS Albemarle remained a thorn in the side of the Union at its dock in Plymouth, North Carolina. Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter had replaced Rear Admiral Samuel Lee as the commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. And Porter was determined to destroy the Confederate ram.

How to Attack a Defiant Ironclad Ram

Admiral Porter wrote his commanders:   Read more

Battle of Albemarle Sound: CSS Albemarle Remains Defiant

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CSS Albemarle, R. G. Skerrett, artist, 1899. Courtesy Naval History and Heritage Command # NH 57815

The ironclad CSS Albemarle’s stunning victory at Plymouth gave the Confederacy tremendous hope to expand their control of eastern North Carolina. Major General Robert Hoke was given permission to march against New Bern. However, the Confederate plans became disrupted when the Kinston-based ironclad, CSS Neuse, ran hard aground in its attempt to steam down the Neuse River to attack New Bern.

General P.G.T. Beauregard, head of the Confederate district of North Carolina, believed that Albemarle could be used to support the New Bern assault. “With its assistance,” he wrote, “I consider capture of New Bern easy.”   Read more