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

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 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

Gosport Navy Yard is Captured

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The Navy Yard at Norfolk. Harper’s Weekly, 1861. Courtesy Library of Congress.

The crisis at Gosport had reached its zenith by the morning of April 20, 1861. Flag Officer Charles Stewart McCauley appeared to have given up all hope of saving or defending Gosport Navy Yard. Early that morning, he learned that militia troops had seized Fort Norfolk and an extremely useful magazine filled more than 250,000 pounds of gunpowder. Therefore, McCauley believed he had no choice but to destroy the shipyard so that it would not fall into the hands of the Virginians. 

Escape Plan    Read more