AN EVALUATION OF CONFEDERATE IRONCLAD CONSTRUCTION HISTORY, SERVICE HISTORY & TACTICAL & STRATEGIC EMPLOYMENT
A little neglect may breed great mischief:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost, For want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For want of a horse the rider was lost, For want of a rider the battle was lost,
For want of a battle the Kingdom was lost, And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
Attributed to Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac of 1757
PART I. INTRODUCTION
“He is not impressed with the necessity of building ships.” John N. Maffit entered those prophetic words in his diary following a meeting with Jefferson Davis shortly after the civil war began. Future Captain of the commerce raider CSS Florida, Maffit was one of the first United States naval officers to resign his commission and offer his services to the South. Those ten words make a fitting epitaph for the Confederate States Navy, and with it, the Southern cause.
In 1861, the Union Army mustered only 16,000 men. Worse, most of the regular Army troops were scattered in small garrisons throughout the western territories. In light of the North’s initially weak position, General Winfield Scott proposed a gigantic siege of the Confederacy. First, the navy would establish a blockade of the Southern coast. Then, in joint operations the army and the navy would seize control of the Mississippi River splitting the Confederacy in two. This strategy would not only weaken the South but also give the North time to mobilize its enormous resources. Northern forces would then utilize the inland waterways and other natural invasion routes in simultaneous and concentric campaigns to further subdivide and eventually crush the South. His goal was to gain time to raise, train and equip overwhelming Union force and to minimize casualties in hope of a more amicable restoration. Much derided in the Northern press, Scott’s “Anaconda” plan proved not only sound but also remarkably prescient. The carnage of the various “on to Richmond” campaigns in 1861, 1862 and 1863 awoke the leaders North and South to the impact of the rifled musket on the modern battlefield. After three years of great expectation and repeatedly dashed hopes, President Lincoln finally found a leader in General Grant with the ability and determination to successfully execute Scott’s much maligned strategy.
For the Confederacy, the only chance of survival lay in a protracted conflict with eventual recognition by and assistance from England and/or France. Given the superiority of weapons available over tactics in use at the time, a decisive land battle leading to quick victory was highly unlikely. Strategic defensive on land, wearing down the resolve of the North and gaining recognition from Europe was, consequently, the best hope for Southern victory. As John Keegan observes in Fields of Battle:
Given the Confederacy’s strong natural frontiers, enormous size, and intermittent connection with the national communications system, there were the best of reasons for standing on the defensive, guarding the key points of northern Virginia, the head of the Mississippi, New Orleans, and the Cumberland or Tennessee rivers, while building up a navy to protect the coastline and interrupt blockade, and, at the same time pressing by sober diplomacy for recognition abroad.[i]
Successful execution of such a policy of strategic defensive required preventing the Union blockade of Southern ports; thereby, allowing the export of cotton to finance the war and import of vital war materials. For lack of skilled manpower and industrial capacity, the South could not hope to match the Union in construction of conventional ships. Success required a revolution in technology. The Ironclad was that technological revolution. Like the British with HMS Dreadnought in 1906, the Confederacy with its Ironclads had a brief window of opportunity in 1861 to negate the Union fleet. Like the German U-Boats in World War I, with the armies stalemated on land the potential war winner, the Ironclad, was at sea. In view of her limited resources, a policy of strategic defensive offered the best hope for Southern independence. The Ironclad was essential to the execution of that policy.
Between April 1861 and April 1865, the South launched over two-dozen Ironclads. During this same period, the Confederacy laid down or contracted for another thirty-six Ironclads. This was in addition to numerous conventional warships, commercial ships and river steamers, blockade-runners, commerce raiders, gunboats and smaller craft. A prodigious effort by any standard, the extremely limited shipbuilding and industrial capacity of the South in 1861 makes this feat even more remarkable. Could this effort have been more successful, even war winning? Reviewing the construction history, service history and eventual fate of the Confederate Ironclad fleet will demonstrate the unrealized potential of the Confederate Ironclad. This paper will examine those fundamental policy changes and reallocation of resources necessary for a Confederate victory in the American Civil War.
No review of the Confederate Navy would be complete without mention of the two primary figures involved in its creation, struggle for survival and ultimate demise.
Jefferson Davis did not seek the presidency of the Confederate States. A graduate of West Point, class of 1828, Davis served in the North West from 1828 to 1833, fought in the Black Hawk war and left the army a Lieutenant. Resigning his commission in 1835, he became a planter, read extensively and eventually entered politics. Davis took a seat in Congress December 1845 only to resign in 1846 to re-enter military life at the outbreak of the Mexican – American war. Joining his regiment in New Orleans he succeeded in arming them with the latest percussion rifles, prepared a drill manual, devised tactics for employing the new arm and drilled his officers and men diligently in its use. Thanks to his thorough preparation, Davis added to Zachary Taylor’s army one of its most effective volunteer regiments. He led his well-disciplined command in a gallant charge at Monterey, 21 September 1846, winning a brilliant victory in the assault on Fort Teneria. At Buena Vista, his Mississippi riflemen and some Indiana volunteers, expertly supported by a young artillery Captain named Braxton Bragg, turned the course of battle into victory for the Americans with a bold charge under heavy fire against a much larger body of Mexican troops. Although severely wounded in the foot during this engagement Davis remained on the field until victory was assured. General Taylor’s dispatch of 6 March 1847 makes special mention of the courage, coolness under fire and successful service of then Colonel Davis and his command. At the end of the war, President Polk appointed Davis Brigadier General but he declined the commission. Davis returned from the war a hero and soon re-entered political life. Sent to Congress in 1847, he was an advocate of compromise in the increasing factionalism between North and South. Appointed Secretary of War by his friend in Congress and comrade in arms from the Mexican War President Pierce, Davis served with distinction in that post. He returned to the Senate in 1857 acknowledged as a statesman in counsel, a leader of the people, ranking among the most respected of living Americans. Until January 1861 he continued to fight for compromise introducing a series of seven resolutions he hoped would appease the factions and preserve the Union. When reason failed, Davis, like so many others, reluctantly followed his state into secession. Governor Pettus of Mississippi immediately commissioned Davis a Major General in overall command of the state forces, a position he earnestly sought and for which he was eminently qualified. A few weeks later however, Davis became President of the Confederacy – a responsibility he earnestly shunned. Accepting his fate, Davis fought for his new country with all the vigor and loyalty he had once given the Union. Davis devoted most of his time and energy organizing an army. His years at West Point, service in Mexico and experience as Pierce’s very capable Secretary of War served him well in this work. Unfortunately for the Southern cause, in times of crisis, this frustrated Major General frequently interfered with his generals in the field, often changing or countermanding their orders. Furthermore, Davis never fully appreciated the critical role the Confederate States Navy, especially the Ironclad, would have to play if the South were to survive. From his landlocked point of view, Davis could not understand the importance of sea power. Davis was astute enough to appoint his former colleague in the Senate, Stephen Mallory, Secretary of the Navy but not astute enough to give him the support he needed to help the Confederate Navy realize its full potential.
If Jefferson Davis was well suited by training and experience to organize the Confederate Army, Stephen Mallory was equally well qualified to develop the Confederate Navy. The Mallory family moved to Key West, Florida in 1820 when Stephen was nine. From 1830 to 1834, he read the law, specializing in Admiralty Law and passed the Bar in 1834. Appointed Customs Inspector for Key West in 1833, while still a student, Mallory left that post to take command of a small vessel in the war against the Seminole Indians in 1836. Returning to private life Mallory served as county judge from 1837 –1845. At that time, he resumed his post as Customs Collector at Key West. Elected to the United States Senate in 1850, Mallory returned for a second term in 1856. Appointed Chairman of the Naval Affairs Committee in 1853 Mallory became a major spokesman for naval personnel policy reform, a vocal proponent of naval power and a dedicated advocate of new technology. During this period, Mallory strongly supported the Stephens Battery, an early attempt to create a seagoing ironclad warship. Its design called for an armored casemate and an armament of heavy rifled guns. Ignored by the pre-war U. S. Navy, the Stephens Battery became the prototype Confederate Ironclad. Like Davis, Mallory opposed secession. He reluctantly resigned his seat in the Senate 21 January 1861 after Florida left the Union. Recognizing his experience, Davis lost no time appointing Mallory Secretary of the Navy. He was confirmed 4 March 1861. Realizing the enormity of his task, Mallory, in turn, lost no time organizing the nascent Confederate Navy.
Mallory faced a daunting task. According to the 1860 census the southern population was 9 million, the northern 20 million. White males aged 15 – 40 numbered 1,140,000 in the south, 4,070,000 in the North. Industrially the statistics were even worse. The north had 110,000 manufacturing plants of all kinds, the south 18,000 – 1,300,000 industrial workers compared to 110,000. Massachusetts alone produced over sixty per cent more manufactured goods than the entire Confederacy. Pennsylvania produced nearly twice as much. New York produced more than twice. Only in land area did the south exceed the north – 780,000 square miles compared to 670,000 square miles. However, the north had 22,000 miles of railway to move men and material, the south only 9000. From his days in the Senate Mallory knew his navy would always be inferior in numbers of ships. He also understood the South would never be able to match the industrial capacity of the North. Fully realizing the enormous odds against them, the former Senator from Florida and Chairman of the United States Naval Affairs Committee drew upon that experience to quickly develop a five part naval strategy designed to give the Confederacy a fighting chance. His overall strategy is summarized as follows:
- Construction at home or purchase abroad of Ironclad ships for defense of major ports and inland waterways.
- Construction or purchase of conventional ships of the line to serve as commerce raiders. (By preying upon the North’s merchant fleet, Mallory hoped to disrupt or, at least, discomfort the Northern economy and draw off blockading ships.)
- Arming all Confederate naval vessels with large caliber rifled guns of the type invented by Lieutenant John Mercer Brooke.
- Establishment of shipyards and ironworks to support construction goals.
- Placement of the best people in key positions. A system of promotions and appointments based on demonstrated courage and merit replaced the United States Navy tradition of promotion based on seniority.
When President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers, President Davis countered with a call for 100,000, authorized Privateering and began issuing letters of Marque and Reprisal. President Lincoln responded by proclaiming a blockade of the southern coast. It soon became evident the North also intended to split the Confederacy in two with a thrust down the Mississippi culminating at New Orleans. This necessitated the addition of four more items to Mallory’s naval strategy:
- Construction or purchase of blockade-runners to export cotton and bring in vital war materials.
- Increased emphasis on Confederate built Ironclad vessels to protect vital ports and European built Ironclads to break the blockading Union fleet.
- The addition of gunboats and torpedo warfare (naval mines laid in static fields or delivered by submersibles or torpedo launches) to supplement the Ironclads.
- Increased navy interest in costal fortifications, up to this point a function of the Army, State or local militia.
To implement his strategy, Mallory organized the Confederate Navy into four offices. These offices were equivalent to the bureaus of the United States Navy with which he was familiar. The Office of Provisions and Clothing responsibilities included manufacturing, acquiring and distributing uniforms and equipment to the Navy. It also acted as Paymaster to all Officers, sailors, contractors and civilian employees. The Office of Medicine and Surgery saw to the health of the sailors and set up Naval Hospitals. The Office of Orders and Detail oversaw the Navy’s paperwork, made personnel assignments and set personnel policies. Lastly, the Office of Ordnance and Hydrography was charged with design, construction and armament of naval vessels. As the war evolved, a Submarine Battery Service was added to develop and fully employ torpedo (mine) warfare. A Secret Service was also added to the Navy Department. This office was not concerned with gathering military intelligence as its name might indicate. Its function involved procuring warships and associated supplies and equipment abroad. Mallory did not favor privateering because it alienated the English and eroded their support. In an attempt to regulate this segment of the war effort, Mallory organized all personnel into Regular Navy, Volunteer Navy or Provisional Navy billets.
C. Relative Strengths and Weaknesses
In 1860, the population of the twenty-three states remaining in the Union numbered approximately 20 million. The population of the eleven seceding states was 9 million, out of which 3.5 million were slaves. Two factors mitigate this huge disparity in numbers. The labor of the 3.5 million slaves allowed a greater percentage of white Southern males to serve while almost half of the Union forces were employed in garrisons or guarding lines of supply. Of the remaining Union forces, almost half served in some logistical or other support element. Given further reductions for illness, leave, etc. at any given time only one quarter of the men in blue were actually available for front line combat. Still it was rare for a Confederate force to come close to parity much less outnumber a Union force.
Geographically the balance of power was a tossup. The South’s 3600 nautical mile coast line with 10 major ports and 180 inlets, bays and river mouths would be difficult to defend but equally difficult to blockade. The Appalachian Mountains gave some protection to Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. The Mississippi River, her tributaries and numerous other inland waterways were natural supply lines and therefore tempting routes of invasion. They were also natural barriers, which in the age of the rifled musket greatly enhanced defense. The lack of improved roads and limited railway net (only ten southern seaports had rail connections; of those only six had interstate rail connections) in the South that hampered strategic movement of troops, supplies and vital war materials also limited any Union offensives into those areas. Geographically then victory would go to him who could first, best and most wisely utilize the natural features of the land.
In 1860, the South produced 3 per cent of the nation’s firearms, 6 per cent of its cloth and overall only 1 per cent of the nation’s total industrial output. Granted, it would take some time for the North to mobilize its industrial base. Despite Herculean efforts, limited manufacturing capability of all types was one area that would plague the Confederacy throughout the war. Most telling was the South’s dependency upon the North for locomotives, rolling stock, rails, boilers and steam engines. Only unrestricted trade with Europe could overcome the deficiency in industrial capacity, especially heavy industry, and skilled labor.
PART II 1861 – Lost Opportunities
When the war began the Union navy numbered, on paper at least, ninety ships. Forty-eight were unfit to go to sea, in extended lay up or in shipyards for overhaul and, therefore, not immediately available. That left forty-two vessels in active commission. Of those forty-two, only twenty-four were modern steam powered vessels. Eighteen of those were on foreign station and would take some time to recall. This left six modern steam ships and eighteen older sailing vessels to initially implement President Lincoln’s blockade. Other sources state, of the ninety vessels on the Navy Register in 1861, forty-eight were unfit and twenty-eight were on foreign station, leaving only fourteen immediately available for blockade duty. In either case, the Union and Confederate navies were as close to parity as they would ever come. Within four years, the Union would purchase 418 warships and construct an additional 208 (including 65 Ironclads). The Union navy would peak at 670 vessels, crewed by 51,500 officers and men, but that was years away. (During this same period, the Confederacy built or purchased 130 vessels and peaked at 5200 officers and men.) In 1861, there was a brief opportunity for the Confederacy to seize the initiative.
Confederate Secretary of the Navy, Stephen Mallory was well aware of this rare and fleeting opportunity. When established 21 February 1861 the Confederate navy consisted of the Fulton, an old side wheel steam ship built in 1837 and laid up at Pensacola for repairs, four captured revenue cutters, three commandeered slave ships and two small steamers – a total of ten ships mounting fifteen guns. Even by incorporating the state navies Mallory could not hope to match even fourteen Union men of war currently ready for duty, much less those that would rapidly become available. Mallory further realized the Confederacy could never hope to match the Union in manpower or industrial output. Therefore, as early as 26 April 1861 he wrote:
I propose to adopt a class of vessels hitherto unknown to naval service. The perfection of a warship would doubtless be a combination of the greatest known ocean speed, with the greatest known floating battery and power of resistance.[ii]
On 10 May 1861, Mallory clarified his intentions in a letter to the Chairman of the House Committee on Naval Affairs stating:
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. If we cope with them upon the sea we follow their example and build wooden ships, we shall have to construct several at one time; for one or two ships would fall an easy prey to her comparatively numerous steam frigates. But inequality of numbers may be compensated by invulnerability; and thus not only does economy but naval success dictate the wisdom and expediency of fighting with iron against wood, without regard to first cost.[iii]
Accordingly, construction of Ironclads began at Norfolk, New Orleans and Memphis. Almost immediately, the weakness of the Southern economy became apparent. In a parallel effort, agents were dispatched overseas to purchase European armored vessels. The French and English were not anxious to sell their most modern and powerful warships to an untested Confederacy. Negotiations began for construction of others but the South would have to act quickly before neutrality laws became an issue
Jefferson Davis did not share Mallory’s appreciation of the vital role of sea power. Davis chose to ignore the critical precautionary statement “without regard to first cost.” The first setback for the infant Confederate navy came with the first budgets. From April 1861 to August 1862, congress allocated over $330,000,000 to the army. Less than $15,000,000 was budgeted for the navy. To make matters worse, the navy did not have direct control of its funds. After negotiating with contractors at home or agents overseas for purchases, it had to apply to the Treasury Department for payment. This added layer of unnecessary bureaucracy was more than inconvenient. The payment delays it caused would shortly prove critical. In spite of Mallory’s best efforts, only seven Ironclads were laid down in 1861. Of those seven, only the Manassas, a commandeered privateer, saw action in the opening year of the war.
In addition, at the beginning of the war the Union retained Fortress Monroe in Virginia, Forts Taylor and Jefferson at Key West and Fort Pickens near Pensacola. On 29 August, Union forces under Flag Officer Stringham and General Butler captured Forts Hatteras and Clark closing Pamlico Sound. The Confederacy lost use of almost two hundred miles of North Carolina coastal waters in this one action. In September, Ship Island, between Mobile and New Orleans fell to Union forces. On 7 November, Flag Officer DuPont captured Port Royal, South Carolina south of Charleston. In the euphoria following First Manassas, the implication of these defeats was lost on Davis and the Confederate government. The Union gained bases and anchorages necessary to implement an effective blockade in the event of a prolonged war. In the hubris following First Manassas however, few anticipated a prolonged war. It was not an auspicious beginning for the infant Confederate navy.
PART III. 1862 – Triumph and Disaster
When completed promptly, the ironclads of 1862 served with distinction. Enduring some of the most brutal combat of the war, they routed or held at bay Union fleets twenty times their number. Gallant as they were, their careers were altogether too brief. In addition, the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson in February and Island Number Ten in April opened the Tennessee, Cumberland and Mississippi Rivers to Union invasion. Natchez, Vicksburg and Memphis were now vulnerable to Union attack. The loss of Roanoke Island in February, Fernandina, St. Augustine, Jacksonville and New Bern in March, Fort Pulaski in April and Norfolk in May was an unmitigated disaster for the Confederate Navy. Their loss gave the Union an unbroken chain of bases, anchorages and coaling stations from Fort Monroe to New Orleans to serve the blockading fleet. Only Wilmington, Charleston and Mobile remained open to commerce. Most grievous was the loss of New Orleans. Diplomatically, it discouraged the ambitions of Napoleon III in Mexico and, with them, possible support of the South. It lifted Northern morale in a year bereft of major Union victories. Second only to New York in population, wealth and commerce, the Crescent City should have been defended with the same tenacity as Richmond later in the war. Instead, the 30,000 troops raised, trained and equipped in the first year of the rebellion served in Tennessee and Virginia. Only 3,000 local militia, two incomplete forts and one immobile Ironclad faced Admiral Farragut in April 1862. For the Confederate navy, New Orleans’ considerable shipbuilding potential would never be realized. Coupled with the loss of Norfolk, Southern shipbuilding efforts were drastically set back. Many claim the war was lost on 24 April 1862. The Seven Days battle in June, Second Manassas in August and Fredericksburg in December blinded the Richmond government to all this however. On land they still felt invincible. The loss of a few ships and coastal fortifications, even the loss of New Orleans, were of little consequence in their view.
PART IV 1863 – A Mortal Blow
The loss of so many ports, islands and fortifications along the Southern coast had three main effects. One, it tightened the blockade making import of vital war materials more problematic. In 1861 the chances of avoiding the blockade were 1 in 9. In 1862 the odds dropped to 1 in 7. Now they fell to 1 in 4. Two, the presence of Union forces in North Carolina threatened the Wilmington and Weldon railroad, the principal supply line of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Three, the very real threat of raids or invasion by Union forces now stationed in those areas pushed the Confederate shipbuilding effort inland, fragmenting and greatly reducing its efficiency. Naval works were established in such unlikely places as Atlanta, Columbus, Selma, Montgomery, and Charlotte. Ironclads were constructed in clearings along riverbanks. These ‘shipyards’ consisted of forges requisitioned from local plantations, employing those blacksmiths and carpenters not yet enlisted in the army. While relatively safe from Union incursion, these out of the way places suffered from a lack of transportation connections. Materials, if they could be found, were difficult to deliver. Vital supplies often sat for months in warehouses awaiting shipment. Finding skilled labor in remote locations further slowed an already slow process. Many of the carpenters, ironworkers, machinists and mechanics desperately needed by the Navy were already serving in the Army. Secretary Mallory made repeated request for their release. Without Jefferson Davis’ support, those requests were largely ignored. If delayed until late summer when water levels fell, many vessels were unable to reach their intended area of operation until the fall rains came. Hence, only one major naval engagement, involving ironclad the Atlanta, took place in 1863.
On land, the defeat at Gettysburg ended Confederate offensive operations in the North. Without an Ironclad to help protect her Vicksburg also fell. Of the two, the surrender of Vicksburg proved most decisive. As President Lincoln observed in 1861, “The Mississippi is the backbone of the Rebellion. It is the key to the whole situation.” Control of the Mississippi gave the Union great freedom of operation. Cut off from the rest of the Confederacy, Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana could be largely ignored. The loss of troops and supplies from those areas severely impacted the remainder of the Confederacy in its ability to continue the war.
PART V 1864 – Lost Victories
The Confederate Ironclads of 1864 also served with distinction keeping vital ports open until the last days of the conflict. Had they been augmented with only a few sister ships in the first year of the war, the outcome of the rebellion might have been considerably different. Time was running out for the Confederacy, however.
As Mallory observed:
The United States have a constructed Navy; we have a Navy to construct…but naval defenses of a country have ever necessarily been of tardy growth, and in this age, when the steam engine is as essential to the warship as her battery…the difficulties, delays, and expenses of creating a navy are immeasurably multiplied and increased. [iv]
Compounded by the calamities of war, those ‘difficulties’ included:
* An underdeveloped, decentralized and fragmented industrial base
* An inadequate, and rapidly deteriorating, transportation system
* A lack of skilled labor exacerbated by a bureaucratic payment method leading to strikes and short sided army personnel policies, which the Davis government refused to correct
* A lack of experienced seamen
* An inadequate coastal defense system causing the loss, destruction or transfer inland to less efficient sites of industrial facilities
* The destruction of numerous Ironclads before completion
* States rights (many states withheld vital troops and supplies)[v]
* Allocation of funds to the Army and Navy
* Poor policy decisions such as the cotton embargo, authorizing privateers and, even, the location of the Confederate capitol
* An overly aggressive strategy on land. (Lee and a virulent Southern press persuaded Davis to forego the defensive posture he initially favored)
As a result, many Confederate Ironclads did not survive the prolonged construction process. Those actually commissioned required fifteen months or more to complete. Their opponents required six months or less from keel laying to combat.
PART VI 1865 – Gotterdammerung
New technology is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it can give a country a decisive advantage. On the other hand, developing and applying new technology takes time. For the South in 1861, steam powered, armored warships were the key to victory but they were not granted the time to develop them. Union incursions into vital areas resulted in a fragmented construction system. In the case of the CSS Jackson, her boilers and engines were manufactured in Columbus; her shafting came from Charlotte, her cannon from Selma, the sights from Atlanta and the carriages from Charleston. All depended upon an increasingly unreliable railroad controlled by the army. The army’s first priority, naturally, was delivery of food, uniforms, ammunition and powder to her units in the field. Skilled labor is also required for new technology. There too, a short sighted army was increasingly reluctant to release soldiers, no matter how urgently needed by the navy or how vital to the country. A total lack of standardization also made completion of Confederate Ironclads in a timely manner impossible. No two Confederate ships were exactly alike. While ingenious and necessary, using the boilers from one ship, the engines from another, the shafting and propellers from yet another and whatever labor was available meant each ship was unique. Each part required custom fitting. Each vessel varied drastically in quality. The shortage of such basic items as oakum, nails and bolts often halted construction. When (if) completed, fitting out with anchors, chain, line, and other naval supplies could add weeks, if not months. Officers were plentiful; trained crews were not. The Confederacy proved remarkably innovative and made great strides in four years but the South ran out of time. In the case of the Jackson, she never fired a shot in anger. After two years of effort, just weeks prior to completion, raiding Union cavalry destroyed her. Resourceful and resolute to last, the Confederate navy could not overcome the inherent weakness of the Southern industrial base and the forces arrayed against it. In the end, it was too little, too late.
PART VII. Conclusion
Excellent records exist on many Confederate Ironclads. Others are extremely sketchy. Many of the specifications in the index, therefore, are approximate. When in doubt, I have indicated them as ‘uncertain’ or ‘unknown’. In my research, I found at least partial records on sixty Confederate Ironclads. Their fate is listed as follows:
Lost due to accident – 3
Surrendered – 4
Captured – 3
Impounded – 4
Destroyed to prevent capture – 20
Never completed – 25
It is interesting to note that only one Confederate Ironclad was sunk in combat. Although roughly constructed and crude compared to Union vessels, the Confederate Ironclad was undeniably effective. The impact of just one Ironclad at Vicksburg, Hampton Roads, Mobile and Plymouth is well documented. Where they served in squadrons (Richmond, Charleston, and Savannah) the cities they protected held out, in spite of overwhelming Union naval force, until the last days of the war when taken from the land.
If the Confederacy had fought a war of defensive maneuver on land, conserving her resources and giving up space for time as Joe Johnston did in the Atlanta campaign, the price of Union victory might have been too high. The will of the North was a fragile thing. Without the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the election of 1864 could have gone to someone willing to recognize the South. In conjunction with a strategy of defensive maneuver on land, if Jefferson Davis had given greater support to the Confederate Navy, without question a greater number of Ironclads would have been completed and seen action much earlier in the conflict. Their presence would have prevented or, at least, delayed opening of the Mississippi to Union invasion; the capture of Vicksburg, New Orleans, Mobile and the South’s other major ports. As far as overseas commerce was concerned, the average life expectancy of a blockade-runner was four and one half voyages. Weakening, much less, eliminating the Federal blockade would have increased the import of vital war materials, no doubt prolonged the war and made European intervention more likely.
But the outcome of any war is far more than numbers, resources and industry; all of which the Confederacy lacked. It is also the story of personalities and politics. Short sighted political decisions, an overly aggressive military strategy, poor economic decisions (such as the embargo of cotton), unfavorable manpower and monetary allocations and lack of appreciation for and support of the navy doomed the Confederate Ironclad as much as any lack of resources, industry or manpower. Ben Franklin’s cautionary tale certainly applies. Stephen Mallory made perhaps the best assessment of the Confederate navy however:
I am satisfied that, with the means at our control and in view of the overwhelming force of the enemy at the outset of the struggle, our little navy accomplished more than could have been looked or hoped for; and if I have ever felt any surprise connected with its operations, it was that we accomplished so much.[vi]
[i] John Keegan, Fields of Battle (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 206
[ii] Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Ser. II, Vol. II, 51
[iii] Ibid., 67-69
[iv] Report of the Secretary of the Navy to the President, 27 February 1862
[v] Ironically one of the major causes of the secession would be one of the major downfalls of the Confederacy.
[vi] Letter from Mallory to Rochelle, 21 May 1867