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Civil War Ironclads

The American Civil War, fought between 1861 and 1865, came at a time of transition from ships of wood and men of iron to ships of iron and men of less sturdy composition. The war occaisioned a unique outburst of experimentation in ship design, with a great variety of new types of ships entering service. While the USS Monitor foreshadowed subsequent developments, most of the vessel archetypes of this epoch did not survive the Civil War.

In 1972 Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge proposed a theory of punctuated equilibrium, wherein evolutionary change occurs relatively rapidly in comparatively brief periods of environmental stress, separated by longer periods of evolutionary stability. In the 1989 book Wonderful Life, Gould explores the fauna of the Burgess Shale, animals from just after the Cambrian explosion, half a billion years ago. The creatures from this one quarry exceeded, in anatomical variation, the entire spectrum of invertebrate life in the ocean today. Most of Burgess animals left no descendants, representing "roads not taken" in the history of life. The marvelous diversification of warship archetypes during the Civil War represents a similar outburst of innovation.

The great Civil War was remarkable in many ways, but in no way more remarkable than for the extraordinary mixture of inventive mechanical genius and of resolute daring shown by the combatants. After the first year, when the contestants had settled down to real fighting, and the preliminary mob work was over, the battles were marked by their extraordinary obstinacy and heavy loss. In no European conflict since the close of the Napoleonic wars has the fighting been anything like as obstinate and as bloody as was the fighting in our own Civil War. In addition to this fierce and dogged courage, this splendid fighting capacity, the contest also brought out the skilled inventive power of engineer and mechanician in a way that few other contests have ever done.

This was especially true of the navy. The fighting under and against Farragut and his fellow-admirals revolutionized naval warfare. The Civil War marks the break between the old style and the new. Terrible encounters took place when the terrible new engines of war were brought into action for the first time; and one of these encounters has given an example which, for heroic daring combined with cool intelligence, is unsurpassed in all time.

Both sides, but especially the Confederates, used stationary torpedoes, and, on a number of occasions, torpedo-boats likewise. During earlier wars several efforts had been made by the Americans to destroy British vessels with torpedoes; some very nearly succeeded, and although they failed it must not be supposed that they did no good. On the contrary, they made the British in many cases very cautious about venturing into good anchorage (especially in Long Island Sound and the Chesapeake), and by the mere terror of their name prevented more than one harrying expedition.

Torpedoes had been tried in the Revolutionary War, but their failure prevented much notice from being taken of them, and, besides, at that time there was a strong feeling that it was dishonorable to blow a ship up with a powder-can concealed under the water, though highly laudable to burn her by means of a fire-raft floating on the water -- a nice distinction in naval ethics that has since disappeared.

The Confederate torpedoboats were sometimes built to go under the water. One such, after repeated failures, was employed by the Confederates, with equal gallantry and success, in sinking a Union sloop of war off Charleston harbor, the torpedoboat itself going down to the bottom with its victim, all on board being drowned. The other type of torpedo-boat was simply a swift, ordinary steam-launch, operated above water.

At the outset of the War Between the States, neither side possessed the material or manpower required for what would prove to be the first modern industrialized war. The North at least had a navy, and over 250 Union warships were soon on active duty blockading the coasts and rivers of the South. The Confederates conversely had no adequate shipyards except the captured naval yard at Norfolk and not one workshop capable of building an engine large enough to power a warship.

The Union Navy performed three important functions during the Civil War. It closed the Southern ports, either through blockades, or by attacks on the ports. Its gunboats opened the Western rivers for the Union forces. With less success, the federal Navy also tried to end the attacks on Northern commerce by Confederate raiders, such as the Alabama. Using any available vessels, the Navy expanded sufficiently to perform these missions. After the war, however, the Navy rapidly disposed of its wartime ships and personnel. Soon it returned to its antebellum composition, even though European navies were modernizing rapidly.

In 1861, the US Navy had a three-point strategy to help win the Civil War. The first was to blockade the Confederate coastline, the second was to support the army in river operations, and the third was to counter Southern advances in technology, especially ironclad warships. The Union navy approached the new threat of ironclad warships by building vessels of three experimental classes. The first ship was the USS Galena. While representing an attempt at innovation, she was still a conservative design and proved to be not very successful. The second effort was the class that began with the USS Monitor. These ships were small, inexpensive, and quick to build. However, their high-risk design was viewed with some reservation by the Navy Department leadership. Therefore, for security, the US Navy contracted for a third design, which became the USS New Ironsides.

The infant Confederacy faced many problems-one of the more pressing ones being that the Navy had only a handful of ships-most of which were old, wooden river steamers lightly built for commercial purposes. In order to survive, the Confederate Navy would need to borrow, build, buy, or capture a fleet, and they would have to do it quickly. The Confederacy assembled a fleet at each major port, including any small wooden vessels that could be bought, commandeered, or built, and large locally-built ironclads. These ragtag assemblages quickly earned the nickname "mosquito fleets."

Led by the effective (but largely disliked) Stephen Mallory, the Confederate Navy Department was able to overcome its inherent deficiencies with some remarkable innovations, ideas that nearly turned the tide several times during the Civil War. The Confederates felt with ironclad vessels they could take on the Union navy and possibly open up the Union naval blockade. By the second year of the war, it became obvious that a "miracle weapon" was not within the South's means. His new policy was based on four essential pillars: armored ships, rifled guns, commerce destroying, and submarine weapons. Luraghi notes that it was in the areas of commerce raiding and submarine weapons that the South was largely (if only temporarily) able to negate the maritime superiority of the North.

In 1861, the Confederate War Department had established a "River Defense Fleet" in New Orleans, consisting of fourteen commercial riverboats converted into rams by strengthening their bows and stacking cotton bales on their decks as a form of armor (giving birth to the term "cottonclad"). Elsewhere on the Mississippi and its tributaries, about twenty-five other riverboats had artillery mounted on their decks making them into gunboats. In 1861 the Confederates laid keels for six new ironclad gunboats and began converting an existing boat into a seventh. This imposing river force met with disaster in 1862. Two full-scale naval battles, one fought down river from New Orleans and the other upstream from Memphis, broke the back of Confederate naval power on the Mississippi. Thus, at the time of the Vicksburg campaign, there were no Confederate ironclads and only a handful of gunboats on the western rivers.

The Union naval force that played such a large role in the Vicksburg campaign began its existence as an Army organization known as the Western Flotilla. Union commanders requested and received ironclads mounting huge rifled guns capable of piercing the thickest Confederate armor. A grand total of approximately thirty-three Union combat vessels participated in the Vicksburg campaign at one time or another-thirteen ironclads, seven rams, eleven light draughts (commonly called "tinclads"), and two "timberclads." The variety of vessel types reflects the diversity of missions that the squadron executed.

Rear Admiral Farragut Naval Forces working with Major General Grant's Army of Tennessee captured the city of Vicksburg, MS. In effect cutting the Confederate States in half.

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Page last modified: 22-07-2011 17:36:57 ZULU