Civil War Ironclads!

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Civil War Ironclad History

Ram, Casemate, and Monitor Ironclads

Civil War Ironclads
Rams, Casemates, Monitors

         During the Civil War, the Union began construction of 76 ironclads, commissioning 42 of them before May 1, 1865. On the Confederate side, 59 ironclads were begun, and only 24 were completed. Of six ironclads begun in North Carolina, four were commissioned. Very few Civil War ironclads were sunk by gunfire. Being destroyed, referred to as scuttling, to prevent capture by Union forces was the normal fate for Confederate ironclads. Of the total of 66 ironclads on both sides combined, only 12 were actually sunk by the enemy in battle.


         On the night of Saturday, April 20, 1861, the United States naval authorities evacuated the navy yard at Gosport, Va. This was one of the most extraordinary proceedings of the war. Whether the commandant of the yard was perplexed by the indecisive instructions of the authorities at Washington, or whether he was simply panic-stricken, remains a mystery to the present day. The large corvette Cumberland and the steamer Pawnee, both in commission, were there; and by keeping the latter in the lower harbor to prevent the Confederates from obstructing the channel, and the Cumberland with her broadsides sprung upon Norfolk and Portsmouth, both towns would have been overawed. The yard was under the heavy batteries of the Pennsylvania and the Merrimac, to say nothing of a force of marines. It was simply out of the power of the Confederates to capture the place. They had no heavy guns to mount in batteries, even if they could have erected them under the broadsides of the Cumberland. "The spirit of madness and folly prevailed; and I know of no better exhibition of it than the fact that while they [the United States forces] were trying to get out, our people were actually trying to keep them in by obstructing the channel! One would suppose that we would have been only too glad to see them depart. And no sooner had the United States given up this yard than they commenced making preparations to recapture it.


         Prof. J. K. Soley says:


"Though a few shops and houses were burnt, the work was done so hurriedly that the best part of the valuable material at the yard fell into the hands of the enemy. The dry-dock was not destroyed, as the fuse failed to ignite the powder; but whether from accident or from the work of other hands has never been discovered. The magazine, with great numbers of loaded shells, and 150 tons of powder, had already been seized. Two thousand guns of all descriptions were left practically uninjured, 300 of them being new Dahlgren guns of various calibers. Besides the guns, machinery, steel plates, castings, construction materials, and ordnance and equipment stores in vast quantities came into the possession of the Confederates; and severe as the loss of so much material would have been by itself to the Federal government, it was rendered tenfold greater by supplying the necessities of the enemy."


       The fuse referred to by Professor Soley was extinguished by Lieut. C. F. M. Spottswood, Confederate States navy, who was one of the first to enter the yard after its evacuation. The powder was seized and carried to Richmond by Lieutenants Pegram, Sinclair and C. Jones. The navy yard was immediately taken possession of by the Confederates. The following is a list of the guns in the yard, as given in the report of W. H. Peters to the governor of Virginia: One 11-inch columbiad, two 10-inch guns, fifty-two 9-inch guns, four 8-inch 90-cwt. guns, forty-seven 8-inch 63-cwt. guns, twenty-seven 8-inch 55-cwt. guns, one 8-inch 57-cwt. gun, four 64-pounders of 106 cwt., two hundred and twenty-five 32-pounders of 61 cwt., one hundred and seventy-three 32-pounders of 57 cwt., forty-four 32-pounders of 51 cwt., twenty-eight 32-pounders of 46 cwt., one hundred and sixteen 32-pounders of 33 cwt., forty-four 32-pounders of 27 cwt., two hundred and thirty-five 61-cwt. guns, old style, fifty 70-cwt. guns, old style, forty.four 40-cwt. guns, Shrubrick, sixty-three 42-pounder carronades, thirty-five 32-pounder carronades.

       Here we have 1,195 guns of large caliber! These guns furnished the batteries of the Confederate forts from Norfolk to New Orleans. They were to be found on all the rivers of the South; and without them it is difficult to see how the Confederates could have armed either their forts or ships.

       The vessels destroyed, or partially destroyed, were the Pennsylvania, three-decker; the Delaware, seventy-four; the Columbus, seventy-four; the frigates Merrimac, Columbia and Raritan; the sloops-of-war Germantown and Plymouth, and the brig Dolphin. The old frigate United States was left intact, and was afterward used by the Confederates as a receiving ship. The large steam frigate Merrimac was scuttled and sunk. She was set on fire and burned to her copper-line, and down through to her berth deck, which, with her spar and gun decks, was also burned. She was immediately raised, and the powder in her magazine (put up in air-tight copper tanks) was found to be in good condition. It was afterward used by her in her engagements in Hampton Roads.

       Steps were immediately taken by the Confederate authorities to convert the Merrimac into an ironclad. As early as May 8, 1861, Mr. Mallory, secretary of the navy, said in a letter to the naval committee: "I regard the possession of an iron-armored ship as a matter of the first necessity. Such a vessel at this time could traverse the entire coast of the United States, prevent all blockades, and encounter with a fair prospect of success their entire navy."

Civil War Ironclads
Civil War Ironclads.jpg
CSS Virginia (ex USS Monitor) at the Battle of Hampton Roads

       Commander John M. Brooke devised a plan for the conversion of the Merrimac, and the work was immediately commenced under Naval Constructor John L. Porter and Chief Engineer W. P. Williamson, in their respective departments. "The ship was raised, and what had previously been her berth deck became her main gun deck. She was 275 feet long as she then floated, and over the central portion of the hull a house or shield about 160 feet long was built. This shield was of oak and pine wood, two feet thick. The sides and ends inclined, according to Lieut. Catesby Jones, 36 degrees; and the roof, which was fiat and perhaps 20 feet wide, was covered with iron gratings, leaving four hatchways. Upon this wooden shield were laid two courses of iron plates, each two inches thick; the first course horizontal, and the second perpendicular, making four inches of iron armor on two feet of wood backing. The iron was put on while the vessel was in dock; and it was supposed that she would float with her ends barely submerged. So great was her buoyancy, however, that it required some 800 tons of pig iron (according to Boatswain Hasker in his account of her) to bring her down to her proper depth. I know myself that a quantity of iron was put on, though I cannot say how much. Now as this iron was put on, the whole structure sunk; and when she was ready for battle, her ends, which extended some fifty feet forward and abaft the shield, were submerged to the depth of several inches and could not be seen .... The appearance of the Merrimac was that of the roof of a house. Saw off the top of a house at the eaves (supposing it to be an ordinary gable-end, shelving-side roof), pass a plane parallel to the first through the roof some feet beneath the ridge, incline the gable ends, put it in the water, and you have the Merrimac as she appeared. When she was not in action, her people stood on the top of this roof, which was, in fact, her spar deck. "Lieut. Catesby Jones says (Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. XI).

       The prow was of cast iron, wedge-shaped, and weighed 1,500 pounds. It was about two feet under water, and projected two feet from the stem .... I may mention that it was so badly fastened that the best judges said it would certainly break off when used. It will be seen hereafter that perhaps it was as well that it was not firmly fastened .... The rudder and propeller were unprotected. The battery consisted of ten guns; four single-handed Brooke rifles, and six 9-inch Dahlgren guns. Two of the rifles, bow and stern pivots, were 7-inch, of 14,500 pounds; the other two were 6.4-inch caliber, 32-pounder, of 9,000 pounds, one on each broadside. The 9-inch gun on each side nearest the furnaces was fitted for firing hot shot. A few 9-inch shot with extra windage were cast for hot shot. No other solid shot were on board during the fight. The engines were the same the vessel had whilst in the United States navy. They were radically defective, and had been condemned by the United States government. Some changes had been made, notwithstanding which the engineers reported that they were unreliable. They performed very well during the fight, but afterward failed several times, once while under fire, Commodore Tatnall commanded the Virginia [Merrimac] forty-five days, of which time there were only thirteen days that she was not in dock or in the hands of the navy yard. Yet he succeeded in impressing the enemy that we were ready for active service.

       The chief engineer of the Merrimac, H. Ashton Ramsay, had been a shipmate of the author in the last cruise of that ship in the Pacific. He was then a passed assistant engineer. He knew the engines well, and it may be doubted if another man in the Confederate navy could have got as much out of them as he did. He deserved all the praise Admiral Buchanan afterward bestowed upon him. The Merrimac upon her first appearance in Hampton Roads drew about 21 feet. After she was docked on the 9th of March, and more iron put on, she drew about one foot more. She steamed about six knots an hour. After docking, this was somewhat reduced. Her complement was 320 officers and men. The Merrimac was named the Virginia by the Confederate authorities; but as she is rarely called by this official name, we shall continue to use the name which has become historical.

       Early in March, 1862, the Merrimac was commissioned as follows: Capt. Franklin Buchanan, flag-officer; First Lieut. Catesby Ap R. Jones; Lieuts. Charles C. Simms, Robert D. Minor (flag), Hunter Davidson, John Taylor Wood, J. R. Eggleston, Waller R. Butt; Midshipmen R. C. Foute, H. H. Marmaduke, H. B. Littlepage, W. J. Craig, J. C. Long, L. M. Rootes; Paymaster James A. Semple; Surg. Dinwiddie Phillips; Asst. Surg. Algernon S. Garnett; Capt. of Marines Reuben Thorn; Chief Engineer H. A. Ramsay; Asst. Engineers John W. Tyrian, Loudon Campbell, Benjamin Herring, C. A. Jack, R. Wright; Boatswain Charles H. Hasker; Gunner C. B. Oliver; Carpenter Hugh Lindsey; Arthur Sinclair, Jr.. captain's clerk; Lieut. Douglass Forrest, C. S. A., volunteer aide; Captain Kevil, commanding Norfolk United Artillery detachment; Sergeant Tabb, signal officer.

       Flag-Officer Buchanan's command included the Patrick Henry, Jamestown, Teaser (the James river squadron), Beaufort and Raleigh.

       The officers of the Patrick Henry were: Capt. John R. Tucker; First Lieut. James H. Rochelle; Lieuts. William Sharp, F. L. Hoge; Surg. John T. Mason; Paymaster Thomas R. Ware; Passed Asst.-Surg. Fred Garrettson; Acting Master Lewis Parrish; Lieut. of Marines R. H. Henderson; Midshipmen John Tyler Walker, A.M. Mason, M.P. Goodwyn.

       The officers of the Jamestown were: Capt. J. N. Barney; Lieuts. Samuel Barron, Bradford, Benthall; Surg. Randolph Mason; Chief Engineer Manning; Asst. Engineers Ahem and Gill; Lieut. of Marines J. R. T. Fendall; Midshipmen D. M. Lee, Daniel Trigg, Neal Sterling; Frank B. Dornin, captain's clerk.

       Officers of the Teaser: Capt. William A. Webb, Lieut. J. H. Rochelle. (The further names are not obtainable.)

       Officers of the Beaufort: Lieut. Comdg. William H. Parker; Midshipmen Charles Mallory, Virginius Newton, Ivy Foreman (volunteer aide); Chief Engineer Hanks; Pilots Gray and Hopkins (volunteer); Bain, captain's clerk.

       Officers of the Raleigh: Lieut. Comdg. J. W. Alexander: Lieutenant Tayloe (volunteer); Midshipmen J. Gardner and Hutter.

       The rapidity with which the Merrimac was converted into an ironclad reflects great credit upon Mr. Mallory, secretary of the navy; Commander John M. Brooke, her designer; J. L. Porter, the constructor; W. P. Williamson, engineer-in-chief; Commodore F. Forrest, commanding the Norfolk navy yard, and upon the Tredegar iron works at Richmond. The vessel was not constructed a day too soon, for the United States authorities were hurrying up the Monitor. Professor Soley says:


"It was a race of constructors; and in spite of the difficulties at the South, and the comparative facilities at the command of the department at Washington, the Confederates were the winners. The secret of their success lay in promptness of preparation."

Sources: The Confederate Military History, Volume 12; CSS Neuse A Question Of Iron And Time, by Leslie S. Bright, William H. Rowland and James C. Bardon; Ironclad Of The Roanoke, by Robert G. Elliott.

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Recommended Reading: A History of Ironclads: The Power of Iron over Wood. Description: This landmark book documents the dramatic history of Civil War ironclads and reveals how ironclad warships revolutionized naval warfare. Author John V. Quarstein explores in depth the impact of ironclads during the Civil War and their colossal effect on naval history. The Battle of Hampton Roads was one of history's greatest naval engagements. Over the course of two days in March 1862, this Civil War conflict decided the fate of all the world's navies. It was the first battle between ironclad warships, and the 25,000 sailors, soldiers and civilians who witnessed the battle vividly understood what history would soon confirm: wars waged on the seas would never be the same. Continued below…

About the Author: John V. Quarstein is an award-winning author and historian. He is director of the Virginia War Museum in Newport News and chief historical advisor for The Mariners' Museum's new USS Monitor Center (opened March 2007). Quarstein has authored eleven books and dozens of articles on American, military and Civil War history, and has appeared in documentaries for PBS, BBC, The History Channel and Discovery Channel.


Recommended Reading: Civil War Ironclads: The U.S. Navy and Industrial Mobilization (Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology). Description: "In this impressively researched and broadly conceived study, William Roberts offers the first comprehensive study of one of the most ambitious programs in the history of naval shipbuilding, the Union's ironclad program during the Civil War. Continued below...

Perhaps more importantly, Roberts also provides an invaluable framework for understanding and analyzing military-industrial relations, an insightful commentary on the military acquisition process, and a cautionary tale on the perils of the pursuit of perfection and personal recognition." - Robert Angevine, Journal of Military History "Roberts's study, illuminating on many fronts, is a welcome addition to our understanding of the Union's industrial mobilization during the Civil War and its inadvertent effects on the postwar U.S. Navy." - William M. McBride, Technology and Culture"

Recommended Reading: Reign of Iron: The Story of the First Battling Ironclads, the Monitor and the Merrimack. From Publishers Weekly: The Monitor-Merrimack showdown may be one of the Civil War’s most overhyped chestnuts: the two ships were by no means the first ironclads, and their long awaited confrontation proved an anticlimactic draw, their cannon fire clanging harmlessly off each other’s hulls. Still, the author of this lively history manages to bring out the story’s dramatic elements. Nelson, author of the Revolution at Sea series of age-of-sail adventure novels, knows how to narrate a naval crisis. He gives a harrowing account of the Merrimack’s initial onslaught, in which it destroyed two wooden Union warships in a bloody and chaotic battle the day before the Monitor arrived, and of the Monitor’s nightmarish final hours as it foundered in a storm at sea. Continued below…

Equally arresting is his retelling of the feverish race between North and South to beat the other side to the punch with their respective wonder ships. He delves into every aspect of the ships’ innovative design and construction, and draws vivid portraits of the colorful characters who crafted them, especially the brilliant naval architect John Ericsson, one of that epic breed of engineer-entrepreneurs who defined the 19th century. The resulting blend of skillful storytelling and historical detail will please Civil War and naval engineering buffs alike.


Recommended Reading: The Battle of Hampton Roads: New Perspectives on the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (Mariner's Museum). Description: On March 8 and 9, 1862, a sea battle off the Virginia coast changed naval warfare forever. It began when the Confederate States Navy’s CSS Virginia led a task force to break the Union blockade of Hampton Roads. The Virginia sank the USS Cumberland and forced the frigate Congress to surrender. Damaged by shore batteries, the Virginia retreated, returning the next day to find her way blocked by the newly arrived USS Monitor. The clash of ironclads was underway. Continued below…

After fighting for nine hours, both ships withdrew, neither seriously damaged, with both sides claiming victory. Although the battle may have been a draw and the Monitor sank in a storm later that year, this first encounter between powered, ironclad warships spelled the end of wooden warships—and the dawn of a new navy. This book takes a new look at this historic battle. The ten original essays, written by leading historians, explore every aspect of the battle—from the building of the warships and life aboard these “iron coffins” to tactics, strategy, and the debates about who really won the battle of Hampton Roads. Co-published with The Mariners’ Museum, home to the USS Monitor Center, this authoritative guide to the military, political, technological, and cultural dimensions of this historic battle also features a portfolio of classic lithographs, drawings, and paintings. Harold Holzer is one of the country’s leading experts on the Civil War.


Recommended Reading: Iron Afloat: The Story of the Confederate Armorclads. Description: William N. Still's book is rightfully referred to as the standard of Confederate Naval history. Accurate and objective accounts of the major and even minor engagements with Union forces are combined with extensive background information. This edition has an enlarged section of historical drawings and sketches. Mr. Still explains the political background that gave rise to the Confederate Ironclad program and his research is impeccable. An exhaustive literature listing rounds out this excellent book. While strictly scientific, the inclusion of historical eyewitness accounts and the always fluent style make this book a joy to read. This book is a great starting point.


Recommended Reading: Confederate Ironclad vs Union Ironclad: Hampton Roads 1862 (Duel). Description: The Ironclad was a revolutionary weapon of war. Although iron was used for protection in the Far East during the 16th century, it was the 19th century and the American Civil War that heralded the first modern armored self-propelled warships. With the parallel pressures of civil war and the industrial revolution, technology advanced at a breakneck speed. It was the South who first utilized ironclads as they attempted to protect their ports from the Northern blockade. Impressed with their superior resistance to fire and their ability to ram vulnerable wooden ships, the North began to develop its own rival fleet of ironclads. Eventually these two products of this first modern arms race dueled at the battle of Hampton Roads in a clash that would change the face of naval warfare. Continued below…

Fully illustrated with cutting-edge digital artwork, rare photographs and first-person perspective gun sight views, this book allows the reader to discover the revolutionary and radically different designs of the two rival Ironclads - the CSS Virginia and USS Monitor - through an analysis of each ship's weaponry, ammunition and steerage. Compare the contrasting training of the crews and re-live the horrors of the battle at sea in a war which split a nation, communities and even families. About the Author: Ron Field is Head of History at the Cotswold School in Bourton-on-the-Water. He was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship in 1982 and taught history at Piedmont High School in California from 1982 to 1983. He was associate editor of the Confederate Historical Society of Great Britain, from 1983 to 1992. He is an internationally acknowledged expert on US Civil War military history, and was elected a Fellow of the Company of Military Historians, based in Washington, DC, in 2005. The author lives in Cheltenham, UK.


Recommended Reading: Confederate Ironclad 1861-65 (New Vanguard). Description: The creation of a Confederate ironclad fleet was a miracle of ingenuity, improvisation and logistics. Surrounded by a superior enemy fleet, Confederate designers adapted existing vessels or created new ones from the keel up with the sole purpose of breaking the naval stranglehold on the nascent country. Her ironclads were built in remote cornfields, on small inland rivers or in naval yards within sight of the enemy. The result was an unorthodox but remarkable collection of vessels, which were able to contest the rivers and coastal waters of the South for five years. This title explains how these vessels worked, how they were constructed, how they were manned and how they fought.


Recommended Reading: Gray Raiders of the Sea: How Eight Confederate Warships Destroyed the Union's High Seas Commerce. Reader’s Review: This subject is one of the most fascinating in the history of sea power, and the general public has needed a reliable single-volume reference on it for some time. The story of the eight Confederate privateers and their attempt to bring Union trade to a halt seems to break every rule of common sense. How could so few be so successful against so many? The United States, after Great Britain, had the most valuable and extensive import/export trade in the world by the middle of the 19th century. The British themselves were worried since they were in danger of being surpassed in the same manner that their own sea traders had surpassed the Dutch early in the 18th century. Continued below…

From its founding in 1861, the Confederate States of America realized it had a huge problem since it lacked a navy. It also saw that it couldn't build one, especially after the fall of its biggest port, New Orleans, in 1862. The vast majority of shipbuilders and men with maritime skills lived north of the Mason-Dixon Line, in the United States, and mostly in New England. This put an incredible burden on the Confederate Secretary of the Navy, Stephen R. Mallory. When he saw that most of the enemy navy was being used to blockade the thousands of miles of Confederate coasts, however, he saw an opportunity for the use of privateers. Mallory sent Archibald Bulloch, a Georgian and the future maternal grandfather of Theodore Roosevelt, to England to purchase British-made vessels that the Confederacy could send out to prey on Union merchant ships. Bulloch's long experience with the sea enabled him to buy good ships, including the vessels that became the most feared of the Confederate privateers - the Alabama, the Florida, and the Shenandoah. Matthew Fontaine Maury added the British-built Georgia, and the Confederacy itself launched the Sumter, the Nashville, the Tallahassee, and the Chickamauga - though these were generally not as effective commerce raiders as the first four. This popular history details the history of the eight vessels in question, and gives detailed biographical information on their captains, officers, and crews. The author relates the careers of Raphael Semmes, John Newland Maffitt, Charles Manigault Morris, James Iredell Waddell, Charles W. Read, and others with great enthusiasm. "Gray Raiders" is a great basic introduction to the privateers of the Confederacy. More than eighty black and white illustrations help the reader to visualize their dramatic exploits, and an appendix lists all the captured vessels. I highly recommend it to everyone interested in the Confederacy, and also to all naval and military history lovers.


Recommended Viewing: The First Ironclads - Into the Modern Era (DVD) (2008). Description: This is the story of the great vessels, the formidable warships, the epic ironclads (early battleships), that changed forever naval ship design as well as naval warfare: the Monitor, the Merrimack (later renamed the Virginia) and it presents a fascinating animated reconstruction of their epic battle during the American Civil War. Continued below...

The Battle of Hampton Roads, aka Duel of the Ironclads, which made the world's navies tremble as well as obsolete, is handsomely depicted in this video. The First Ironclads – Into the Modern Era is a welcome addition for the individual interested in the Civil War, U.S. Naval Warfare, and shipbuilding and design. It also includes footage from aboard the world's most devastating “sailing ironship” the HMS Warrior.

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