USS Hatteras: The First Warship Sunk by CSS Alabama

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CSS Alabama, Confederate States Steam Auxiliary Sloop-of-War, 1862. Builder’s Model. The Mariners’ Museum 1985.0024.000001A

When President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a blockade of the entire southern coastline, the US Navy only had 93 warships, and almost half of these were outdated or unusable. So, the US Navy went on a buying spree purchasing every steamer that could mount cannons. One of these vessels was the St. Mary which was soon commissioned as USS Hatteras. In turn, the Confederacy did not have a navy and sought to obtain ships overseas to attack Northern merchant ships. The most successful of these commerce raiders was CSS Alabama. These two warships would have a fatal encounter on January 11, 1863, off Galveston, Texas, resulting in the sinking of USS Hatteras.

From the Steamer St. Mary to USS Hatteras    Read more

Capture of New Orleans: Farragut’s Rise to Fame

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Map depicting the delta of the Mississippi River and approaches to New Orleans. Printed by Government printing office in 1904 as part of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies.

New Orleans was the largest city in the Confederacy with more than 120,000 inhabitants. This cosmopolitan community was a leading shipping, shipbuilding, and industrial center. The city controlled the commerce of the entire Mississippi Valley and its tributaries, like the Ohio, Missouri, and Red rivers. While it was ever so critical for the Confederacy to maintain control of this city, events elsewhere, especially in Tennessee, resulted in New Orleans having inadequate defenses and naval support. The city’s loss would have significant implications.

Confederate Naval Preparations

Much to the dismay of Major General Mansfield Lovell and Flag Officer George Hollins, New Orleans had been stripped of most of its soldiers, cannons, and warships. Many believed that the Federals would try to take New Orleans by way of Union forces coming down the Mississippi. Hollins argued, to a level of insubordination, that every effort possible be made to block the Union fleet access into the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico. He advocated that as the Union ships were lightened to cross the bar into the Southwest passage, the Federals were very vulnerable to attack, and Hollins wished to do so. He created such an uproar that he was reassigned to Richmond, Virginia.   Read more

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