During the Civil War, the agricultural South faced a daunting opponent in the industrialized North, and nowhere was that more apparent than on water. The Confederacy began the war without a single warship to its name.
The imminent Italian historian Raimondo Luraghi argued in his books The Plantation South and A History of the Confederate Navy that to win, the Confederacy had to industrialize, which it was able to do. Industrialization allowed the South to take advantage of, as well as contribute to, revolutionary changes that were occurring in naval warfare. The Confederacy would combat test mines (torpedoes), submarines, semi-submersibles (Davids), and rifled cannon (Brooke guns) during the war. But the modern weapon in which the C.S. Navy initially placed its greatest faith was the armored ship, and by war’s end it had commissioned and put into action a veritable fleet of ironclads.
The Confederate ironclads were neither the first commissioned, the first in battle, nor the most advanced. The concept of iron-armored ships was well known by naval officials. French ironclad floating batteries had engaged Russian shore batteries during the Crimean War. And both Great Britain and France had commissioned powerful armored warships by the time the American Civil War broke out.
Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory, aware of the South’s deficiencies in warship construction, attempted to obtain armored vessels in Europe. Despite efforts by various naval agents, only one—the Stonewall—reached Confederate hands, but the war ended before she saw any action.
Mallory had considerably more success in building ironclad warships within the Confederacy. In the summer of 1861 he accepted plans to convert the sunken Union warship Merrimack into an ironclad and contracted for an additional four Mississippi River armored ships to be constructed by private builders.
The First Five
The Merrimack, a wooden screw frigate scuttled just before Confederates seized the Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk, Virginia, was raised and converted into an armored ship under the direction of John Porter, future chief naval constructor, and Lieutenant John M. Brooke, future head of the Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography. Commissioned the CSS Virginia, the 262-foot vessel was constructed with an armored casemate inclined on the sides and whose ends were horizontally rounded. The rounded ends along with the bow and stern of the hull being submerged were unique; no other Confederate ironclad would incorporate these features. Sallying forth into Hampton Roads on 8 March 1862 to attack the blockading Union squadron, she destroyed the wooden frigate Congress and sloop-of-war Cumberland.
What has rightly been called one of the most important naval engagements in American history occurred the following day. Two iron-armored warships, the Monitor and the Virginia, met in combat, the first such battle in history. Tactically it was a draw; strategically it was a Union victory as the blockading fleet was not destroyed or forced to leave Hampton Roads, and the Confederate ironclad was unable to renew the action. The Virginia would be destroyed by her own crew on 11 May, two days after Confederate forces evacuated Norfolk, but her success in battle was a major factor in persuading the Confederate government to build an ironclad navy.
The four ironclads built under private contract were constructed on the Mississippi River—two in Memphis, Tennessee, to be named the Arkansas and Tennessee, and two in New Orleans, the Mississippi and Louisiana. The five initial ironclads (including the Virginia) were to be capable of operating on the high seas, not only hopefully to lift the Union blockade, but as Secretary Mallory wrote, to “traverse the entire coast of the United States . . . and encounter, with a fair prospect of success, their entire Navy.” In other words, Mallory’s initial ironclad strategy was offensive in nature. It was also a failure.
The Mississippi River ironclads were contracted for and constructed by individuals inexperienced in building warships. The Memphis armored vessels’ casemates had perpendicular sides rather than slanted, in contrast to the majority of Confederate ironclads. The New Orleans armored ships were both failures. The Louisiana’s center-board paddle wheels, one abaft the other, were unworkable. The Mississippi was built along straight lines—no curved hull frames, as the two brothers who designed her believed their concept was simple enough that construction would not require skilled ship carpenters. She was to be quite large, approximately 250 feet in length; to carry some 20 guns; and to be propelled by 3 engines, 16 boilers, and 3 screws.
The unfinished Louisiana was towed below New Orleans to Fort St. Philip and used as a floating battery against Flag Officer David Glasgow Farragut’s squadron as it steamed past the fort on 24 April 1862. Shortly thereafter her crew destroyed her. The Mississippi was launched, although still under construction, and set afire as the Union squadron approached New Orleans on the 25th. Charles Dufour, in The Night the War Was Lost, suggests that if these two warships had become operational, New Orleans and perhaps the Confederacy would have been saved. This is most improbable for various reasons, including the vessels’ serious defects.
The Arkansas was the only Memphis ironclad to be launched; the other, the Tennessee, was destroyed on the stocks with the approach from upriver of Union Flag Officer Charles Davis’ Western Flotilla in June. The Arkansas was towed down the Mississippi and up the Yazoo River to Yazoo City, Mississippi, where she was completed.
In July 1862 one of the most epic naval engagements of the Civil War took place when the 165-foot ship, clad with railroad T-rails, steamed down the Yazoo, running the Union ironclad Carondelet aground and chasing two wooden gunboats out into the Mississippi. Entering the river, the Arkansas then ran through Farragut and Davis’ anchored warships, firing as she went, before reaching Vicksburg. Later that day Farragut attempted and failed to destroy the Confederate ironclad with his oceangoing vessels as they steamed downriver past the fortified city. Weeks later the Arkansas would cooperate in a combined operation against Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but engine failure resulted in her being set afire and destroyed by her crew.
A Quartet of Conversions
Before any of the five initial Confederate ironclads had seen action, other such vessels were being constructed by private builders and even state governments. The ironclad ram Manassas was converted from a tug, her masts and superstructure replaced with a lightly armored convex shield, or casemate. Armed with a single gun, she participated in the battle with Farragut’s squadron below New Orleans, where she ran aground and was destroyed.
The Eastport, another conversion, was seized by Union forces in February 1862 while under construction on the Tennessee River. Financed by the Alabama legislature, the Baltic was converted from a lighter in Mobile. According to one of her officers, she was as “rotten as a mud scow” and worthless as a warship. The vessel was scrapped in 1864 and her armor used on the CSS Nashville.
The Atlanta was potentially the most impressive of the conversions. She was transformed in Savannah, Georgia, from the British-built blockade-runner Fingal into what was probably the most powerful armored warship built in the Confederacy. The only iron-hulled Confederate ironclad, the Atlanta was well armed with four heavy rifled guns and a spar torpedo. A 16-foot draft was the 204-foot warship’s major defect, and during a June 1863 engagement she ran aground at the mouth of the Wilmington River east of Savannah and was damaged by gunfire from the U.S. Passaic-class monitor Weehawken. Captured, she was later commissioned in the U.S. Navy and served in the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.
Armored Harbor-Defense Vessels
In 1862 the Confederate Navy changed its shipbuilding policy from one that stressed offensive warships to one that emphasized defensive ones. Various factors contributed to this change: the failure of the five initial ironclads, the belief that powerful armored vessels could be obtained in Europe, and most important, the growing threat of invasion. Until the end of the war the Confederate naval construction program would generally concentrate on small, shallow-draft, harbor-defense armored ships.
Chief Naval Constructor Porter developed basic designs for these ironclads, and in doing so probably took into account that Southern shipwrights had considerable experience building steamboats. Like those paddle-wheelers that plied the shallow waters of the Southern states, his armored gunboats were flat or nearly flat bottomed (little or no keel). However, the ironclads, unlike steamboats, carried their machinery within their hulls.
Other than the fact that they all included an armored casemate, generalizing about these vessels is nearly impossible. They were to be sheathed with four-inch double-layer (laminated) iron plate, but their armor actually varied from two to eight inches thick. While the original plan called for a 150-foot hull, the ironclads ended up ranging from the 139-foot Albemarle and Neuse to the 310-foot Nashville.
The length of the casemate varied depending on the size of the vessel, but Porter designed the shields on all of them to be smaller than the initial ironclads’. A shortage of iron and the problem of draft were at least partially responsible for this. The ironclads were to carry a battery of two to six heavy guns, but again the number varied depending on what was available as well as the size of the casemate. Some of these ironclads were even armed with spar torpedoes.
The Virginia’s success in ramming the Cumberland persuaded Porter to include rams on a majority of the ironclads. The remaining vessels were self-propelled floating batteries. The ironclads’ power trains also depended on what was available. The majority were single or double screw, but a few were designed to carry paddle wheels. The Nashville, built at Montgomery, Alabama, was the only side-wheeler that became operational. The Missouri, constructed at Shreveport, Louisiana, incorporated a wheel recessed in the after end of the casemate.
The marine engineering industry was by far the most backward aspect of the Confederate shipbuilding program. Rebel ironclad machinery, particularly engines, was primitive. Only a few of the armored ships had steam engines designed and built specifically for them; the majority were adapted from other vessels, such as steamboats and towboats. At least one, the Neuse, possibly was powered by a sawmill engine.
Virginia and North Carolina Ironclads
Of the approximately 50 ironclads laid down in the Confederacy, 20 of them incorporated Porter’s harbor-defense designs. The 150-foot Richmond was the first of these placed under construction, at the navy yard in Norfolk. Advancing Union forces led to the vessel being hastily launched and towed up the James River to Richmond, where she was completed. The Richmond became the nucleus of the James River Squadron, which cooperated with the batteries at Drewry’s Bluff to defend the river approach to the Confederate capital. In 1864 two additional ironclads, the Virginia II and Fredericksburg, were commissioned and joined the squadron. They had been built at the Richmond shipyards, where a fourth ironclad, the Texas, was under construction when the war ended.
The James River Squadron, with its ironclads and wooden gunboats, contributed significantly to the capital’s defense and was one of the Confederate Navy’s most powerful squadrons. Beginning in 1864, it often exchanged fire with enemy warships below obstructions Union forces had placed in the river. In January 1865 the squadron attempted but failed to pass through the obstructions and attack the Union naval force below. When Richmond was abandoned in early April, the squadron’s vessels were destroyed.
Four ironclads were built in North Carolina: two in Wilmington, one on the Neuse River, and one on the Roanoke River. The North Carolina and Raleigh were both of the 150-foot class, built in shipyards on opposite sides of the Cape Fear River, and commissioned in the spring of 1864. The North Carolina, which was employed primarily as a floating battery close to the river’s mouth, sank at her moorings on 27 September as a result of a worm-eaten bottom. In May 1864, the Raleigh, accompanied by two wooden gunboats, crossed the bar at the river’s mouth and, after exchanging fire with Union blockaders, fatally ran aground while attempting to re-enter the river.
Considering Wilmington’s importance as a major blockade-running port, it is surprising that these two ships were the most defective and decrepit of the harbor-defense ironclads. The master builders of both vessels had extensive experience in constructing vessels. The ironclad Wilmington was still under construction when her builders destroyed her in January 1865 shortly before Union forces captured the port. Approximately 240 feet long and with two small octagonal-shaped casemates, this vessel was one of Porter’s most impressive and evolved designs.
The Neuse and Albemarle, built on the Neuse and Roanoke Rivers, respectively, were smaller versions of the 150-foot ironclads. They, along with a third vessel of this class that was never completed, were designed to operate jointly in regaining control of the North Carolina coastal region’s shoal sounds and rivers. Along with other interior naval construction sites throughout the South, their shipyards were established because Federal forces had either gained control of coastal areas or were blockading outlets to the sea. They were temporary, primitive facilities on waterways considered deep enough to launch a vessel.
The Neuse was constructed at White Hall (present-day Seven Springs) about halfway between Kinston and Goldsboro. The site was selected because Union forces had seized New Bern, the most important shipbuilding center on the Neuse River. Also, it was considered safe from enemy threats, timber was available there, and perhaps most important, the location had access to a railroad with links to machinery and iron-plate facilities. Because of the shallowness of the river at White Hall, after she was launched, the uncompleted gunboat had to be towed downstream to Kinston, where she was completed and commissioned. Unfortunately, the ironclad ran aground about a half mile from her anchorage in April 1864 while attempting to steam downriver and join in an attack on New Bern. Nearly a year later, she was destroyed to prevent her capture.
The Neuse’s sister ship, meanwhile, was one of the more successful Confederate armored vessels in combat with Union naval forces. The Albemarle was placed under construction in 1863 at Edward’s Ferry. Fear of an attack from Union forces in the Roanoke Valley prompted authorities to move her farther up the Roanoke River to Halifax. There the unfinished gunboat was close to the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad.
In the spring of 1864, the ironclad’s captain, Commander James W. Cooke, received orders to cooperate with Brigadier General Robert Hoke’s attack against Union forces at Plymouth, North Carolina. Workers were still on board the ship when she set off down the Roanoke on 17 April. In the subsequent battle the Confederate ironclad rammed and sank one Union gunboat, the Southfield, and forced three others to retreat to Albemarle Sound. The next month, the Albemarle attacked a Union flotilla on the sound, mauling the double-ender gunboat Sassacus. Damaged herself, the ironclad retired to Plymouth for repairs. The Albemarle was at her berth when in the early hours of 28 October a steam launch under the command of Lieutenant William B. Cushing torpedoed and sank her (see “Firebrand of the Union Navy,” October 2012).
Defending South Carolina and Savannah
Charleston, South Carolina, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, witnessed a coordinated attack by Confederate ironclads against Union blockaders. The 150-foot Chicora and Palmetto State were commissioned in the fall of 1862. In the early hours of 31 January 1863, at the urging of local commander General P. G. T. Beauregard, the two armored vessels crossed the bar at Charleston Harbor’s entrance and in a night action attacked nearby enemy warships.
The Palmetto State rammed the Mercedita, forcing the apparently sinking wooden gunboat to surrender. However, she did not sink, and after the ironclads moved on to other targets and her crew made emergency repairs, the injured ship escaped. The Chicora meanwhile engaged a second blockader, the Keystone State. One Confederate shell burst her boilers, while others exploded on her deck or crashed through her hull before she limped out of the fight. The ironclads next bloodied the Quaker City and exchanged fire with three other gunboats before retiring back into the harbor.
The blockade was temporarily broken. But with the arrival off Charleston of the armored ship New Ironsides and several monitors, it was quickly back in stronger force than before, and the Confederate ironclads reverted to their more realistic role of harbor defense.
Two additional armored warships were commissioned in the South Carolina port: the Charleston and Columbia, both larger and more powerful than the Chicora and Palmetto State. The four alternated guarding the channels between the harbor’s forts. But the Columbia ran aground in January 1865, to be later salvaged by the U.S. Navy, and the other three were destroyed on 18 February as Confederate forces evacuated Charleston. Self-destruction was also the fate of Confederate ironclads defending Savannah, Georgia.
That port’s importance led to Union naval forces blockading it early in the war. For more than a year after secession, wooden Confederate gunboats defended the river approaches to the city. In the fall of 1862, the C.S. Navy commissioned two ironclads: the converted Atlanta and the self-propelled floating battery Georgia (see “Naval History News”). The latter was apparently designed by a local foundryman with no experience in naval architecture. Although the Georgia theoretically was steam powered, in reality she had to be towed to defensive positions several miles below the city. One additional ironclad, the 180-foot Savannah, was added to the local squadron in 1863. The Milledgeville, a twin-screw ironclad, was launched in 1864 but never completed. Another armored ship was on the stocks in late 1864. With Sherman’s approach that December, Savannah’s wooden gunboats escaped upriver, but the ironclads were destroyed by their crews and workers.
Other Deep-South Ironclads
After the capture of New Orleans, Confederate defenses along the Gulf Coast included one ironclad built at Columbus, Georgia, and several others to protect the important port of Mobile, Alabama. Columbus, on the Chattahoochee River, was the location of both a naval yard and the Columbus Naval Works, which became one of the most important industrial facilities in the Confederacy. Machinery for a number of the Southern naval vessels, including ironclads, was manufactured there.
The river port was the site for the construction of the ironclad Jackson, originally named the Muscogee. Porter designed the vessel to carry a centerboard paddle wheel, but when efforts to float her failed she was redesigned and completely rebuilt; her hull was lengthened to 225 feet and a new power plant featuring twin screws installed. Near the war’s end, Confederates destroyed the still-unfinished Jackson to prevent her capture.
Several others ironclads of the Jackson’s original design were planned, but only one, the Missouri, was actually constructed. Commissioned in 1863, she was 183 feet in length but with an unusually long casemate, more than likely because of her 22-foot recessed wheel. Built far up the Red River at Shreveport, Louisiana, she never saw action and surrendered on 3 June 1865.
After the fall of New Orleans, Mobile became the most important Confederate port on the Gulf. The naval force there included several armored vessels. Four were built along the Alabama River: three at Selma and one at Montgomery. Others were laid down at Oven Bluff, on the Tombigbee River, but never completed. Franklin Buchanan commanded the Mobile naval defenses. Wounded as he led the Virginia in her engagement with the Cumberland and Congress, he was promoted to rear admiral and ordered to Mobile. Two Confederate forts guarded Mobile Bay’s mouth, some 30 miles south of the port itself.
In 1864 Buchanan on paper had an impressive squadron of four ironclads in addition to wooden gunboats. But the Nashville was weak because of her slow speed, exposed paddle wheels, and inadequate armor, and the floating batteries Tuscaloosa and Huntsville were unseaworthy. In reality the admiral considered only the 213-foot Tennessee, one of the Selma ironclads, capable of challenging Rear Admiral David Farragut’s monitors and wooden gunboats. But she proved no match for the Union squadron when it passed the forts and entered the bay on 5 August 1864. The Confederate ironclad was battered into surrendering. Mobile’s three remaining armored vessels would intermittently engage Union warships and ground forces until the city surrendered on 10 April 1865. They were then scuttled.
Flawed But Significant Warships
Confederate ironclads, perhaps with the exception of the European-built Stonewall, were not things of beauty. In many ways they were rather primitive men-of-war with serious defects in design and construction. Most of them, however, were serviceable and contributed significantly to the Confederate war effort. Moreover, they had some notable successes in defending Southern rivers and harbors.
Of the five Confederate seaports captured during the last six months of the war—Savannah, Charleston, Wilmington, Mobile, and Galveston—two were taken by Union land forces from the rear and two others indirectly as a result of pressure from the rear. Ironclads figured prominently in the defenses of all of the ports but one, Galveston. In the end, innovation, ingenuity, and hard work enabled the Confederacy to put into service the strongest ironclad navy possible given the South’s limitations.
Fate of the Confederacy’s Ironclads
- Albemarle Sunk, 28 October 1864
- Arkansas Destroyed, 6 August 1862
- Atlanta Captured, 17 June 1863
- Baltic Dismantled, 1864
- Charleston Destroyed, 18 February 1865
- Chicora Destroyed, 18 February 1865
- Columbia Ran aground, 12 January 1865
- Fredericksburg Destroyed, 4 April 1865
- Georgia Scuttled, 21 December 1864
- Huntsville Scuttled, 12 April 1865
- Manassas Sunk, 24 April 1862
- Missouri Surrendered, 3 June 1865
- Nashville Surrendered, 10 May 1865
- Neuse Destroyed, 14 March 1865
- North Carolina Foundered, 27 September 1864
- Palmetto State Destroyed, 18 February 1865
- Raleigh Wrecked, 7 May 1864
- Richmond Scuttled, 3 April 1865
- Savannah Burned, 21 December 1864
- Tennessee Captured, 5 August 1864
- Tuscaloosa Scuttled, 12 April 1865
- Virginia Destroyed, 11 May 1862
- Virginia II Destroyed, 3 April 1865
This article is primarily based on the author’s Iron Afloat: The Story of the Confederate Armorclads (1971; repr., Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1985).
Others sources include:
Richard E. Beringer, et. al., Why the South Lost the Civil War (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986).
Saxon T. Bisbee, “‘How A Vessel of This Magnitude Was Moved’: A Comparative Analysis of Confederate Ironclad Steam Engines, Boilers, and Propulsion Systems” (master’s thesis, East Carolina University, 2012).
Leslie S. Bright, William H. Rowland, and James C. Barton, CSS Neuse: A Question of Iron and Time (Raleigh: North Carolina Division of Archives and History, 1981).
John M. Coski, Capital Navy: The Men, Ships and Operations of the James River Squadron (1996; repr., El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beaty, 2005).
Charles F. Dufour, The Night the War Was Lost (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960).
Robert G. Elliott, Ironclad of the Roanoke: Gilbert Elliott’s Albemarle (Shippensburg, PA: White Mane, 1994).
Robert A. Holcombe Jr., “The Evolution of Confederate Ironclad Design” (master’s thesis, East Carolina University, 1993).
Robert A. Holcombe Jr., “Types of Ships,” in William N. Still, ed., The Confederate Navy, The Ships, Men and Organization, 1861–65 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997).
Raimondo Luraghi, A History of The Confederate Navy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996).
Maurice Melton, The Best Station of Them All: The Savannah Squadron, 1861–1865 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012).
William N. Still Jr., Confederate Shipbuilding (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987).
William N. Still Jr., “The Battle of Hampton Roads,” in Jack Sweetman, ed., Great American Naval Battles (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998).
William N. Still Jr., “The New Ironclads,” in William C. Davis, ed., The Guns of ’62, vol. 2 of The Image of War, 1861–1865 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1982).
William N. Still Jr., John M. Taylor, and Norman C. Delaney, Raiders and Blockaders: The American Civil War Afloat (Dulles, VA: Brassey’s, 1998).
William N. Still Jr. and Richard Stephenson, “Maritime North Carolina: A History of Ship/Boat Building 1682–1917,” manuscript in author’s possession. See chapter 8.
Maxine Turner, Navy Gray: A Story of the Confederate Navy on the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1988).