The adversity the Confederacy faced in constructing its rag-tag fleet of ironclad warships is exemplified in its perhaps most-forgotten completed ship, the CSS Neuse. A short supply of iron and suitable transportation, compounded by a lack of skilled labor, stymied the ship’s completion. Her trials, however, sealed her fate as a hard-luck warship.
In 1862, Confederate naval constructor John Porter drew plans for shallow- draft ironclads that could be built quickly using unskilled labor. Three of these ships were built, one in Richmond—the CSS Fredericksburg—and two on North Carolina rivers. While the Albemarle on the Roanoke River became famous, the Neuse on her namesake river virtually disappeared from history.
On 17 October 1862, the Confederate Navy Department signed a contract for construction of the Neuse at White Hall (present-day Seven Springs), North Carolina, and work began almost immediately on the 152-foot-long ship. Wood for her hull came from nearby stands of pines and was prepared on site. Her construction was well along when she ran into her first misfortune. On 16 December, Union forces moving upriver from New Bern to Goldsboro discovered the gunboat under construction. They departed after damaging her hull.
By mid-March 1863, the ship, still unarmored, was launched and made her way 15 miles downriver to Kinston, where work on her continued through summer and fall, but an iron shortage held up progress. By mid-February 1864, her boiler and engines had been installed, but only the forward part of her iron armor had the requisite two layers. Her aft shield and broadsides remained unarmored. On the night of 7 March, her two 6.4-inch Brooke rifles were placed on their pivot mounts within the hull.
Lieutenant Robert Minor, sent by Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory to speed construction, had reservations about how much water the fully laden ironclad would draw. Her completed draft was estimated to be as much as seven feet, while the river for the most part could accommodate only five.
On 19 March, Second Lieutenant Richard Bacot reported “Her iron fixins [sic] are not done, her engines are not ready, her quarters and storerooms are not ready, and ‘Last but not least’ the river is falling about 12 inches a day & we will have to trust to Providence for another rise when the vessel is finished.”
In April, Lieutenant Benjamin Loyall, the Neuse’s commander, wrote to Minor: “You have no idea of the delay in forwarding iron to this place. . . . At one time, twenty one days passed without my receiving a piece.” In midmonth, Loyall sent a follow-up letter to Minor stating that the ship “can be used” within a week, but warning, “when a boat, built of green pine & covered with four inches of iron, gets under fire of heavy ordnance, she will prove anything but bomb proof.”
Despite her condition, on 22 April the Neuse proceeded downstream to rendezvous with the Albemarle in an attempt to recapture New Bern. Hard luck struck again when, barely a half-mile into the 35-mile trip, she ran hard aground on a sandbar. It took until mid-May for the river to rise high enough to free the ironclad and allow her to return to Kinston.
For the Neuse to be effective in battle she would need support from Confederate Major General Robert Hoke’s troops, but they had been pulled north. With no troop support, the ship and her crew had no mission, except to complete her construction. In August, Loyall was transferred to Richmond, and Captain Joseph H. Price took over the Neuse.
In late February, Wilmington fell, freeing Federal troops to assemble at New Bern and link up with Major General William T. Sherman’s forces. Hoke moved south to help defend Kinston but was routed at the Battle of Wyse Fork on 10 March. Lieutenant General Braxton Bragg’s forces, retreating from Wilmington, then moved against Union troops near Kinston. In ordering the evacuation of the town, Bragg added, “Captain Price, C.S. Navy, commanding the C.S.S. NEUSE, is desired to cover Major General Hoke’s movement, and if practical, before sacrificing his vessel, to move down the river by diversion, and make the loss of his vessel as costly to the enemy as possible.”
On 12 March, two days after Confederate troops had left Kinston, Union forces advanced on the town and took the gunboat under fire. The Neuse fired her weapons for the first—and last— time during the war against the Bluecoats.
Bacot described the end: “All the troops had withdrawn from Kinston & the Yankees 18,000 strong came upon us and not having any prospect of being relieved before our provisions gave out & being in a narrow river . . . we removed our powder & stores & burnt the vessel.”
The ironclad’s machinery, armor, and guns were salvaged after the war, and her remains were left in the river. Today, a large portion of her hull bottom and arti- facts are the centerpieces of the CSS Neuse State Historic Site and Governor Richard Caswell Memorial in Kinston.