Engines of Rebellion: Confederate Ironclads and Steam Engineering in the American Civil War

Engines of Rebellion: Confederate Ironclads and Steam Engineering in the American Civil War

by Saxon Bisbee

Hardcover(First Edition)

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A challenge to the prevailing idea that Confederate ironclads were inherently defective.
The development of steam propulsion machinery in warships during the nineteenth century, in conjunction with iron armor and shell guns, resulted in a technological revolution in the world’s navies. Warships utilizing all of these technologies were built in France and Great Britain in the 1850s, but it was during the American Civil War that large numbers of ironclads powered solely by steam proved themselves to be quite capable warships.  
Historians have given little attention to the engineering of Confederate ironclads, although the Confederacy was often quite creative in building and obtaining marine power plants. Engines of Rebellion: Confederate Ironclads and Steam Engineering in the American Civil War focuses exclusively on ships with American built machinery, offering a detailed look at marine steam-engineering practices in both northern and southern industry prior to and during the Civil War.
Beginning with a contextual naval history of the Civil War, the creation of the ironclad program, and the advent of various technologies, Saxon T. Bisbee analyzes the armored warships built by the Confederate States of America that represented a style adapted to scarce industrial resources and facilities. This unique historical and archaeological investigation consolidates and expands on the scattered existing information about Confederate ironclad steam engines, boilers, and propulsion systems.
Through analysis of steam machinery development during the Civil War, Bisbee assesses steam plants of twenty-seven ironclads by source, type, and performance, among other factors. The wartime role of each vessel is discussed, as well as the stories of the people and establishments that contributed to its completion and operation. Rare engineering diagrams never before published or gathered in one place are included here as a complement to the text.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817319861
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 08/07/2018
Series: Maritime Currents: History and Archaeol Series
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 280
Sales rank: 566,526
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Saxon T. Bisbee is the vessel manager and nautical archaeologist at Northwest Seaport Maritime Heritage Center in Seattle, WA. He is coauthor of The Scuppernong River Project: Explorations of Tyrrell County Maritime History.

Read an Excerpt



Offers are invited by this Department ... for constructing Engines, Propellors, and boilers for [war] vessels.

— Confederate States Navy Department contract form, 1861

Looking back from a twenty-first-century vantage point, we can readily see that virtually all of modern technological society has its origins in the nineteenth century. Rapid and revolutionary changes occurred in the ways people lived, worked, and waged war. Some of the greatest effects of the technological advances of that century were seen in the world's navies, and from these changes emerged the concept of modern naval engineering and practice. Wooden, sailing line of battleships had seemingly remained little changed for centuries, yet in the mid-nineteenth century they were made obsolete, giving way to vessels armored with iron and steel, equipped with rifled guns, and powered wholly by steam. These powerful weapons were termed ironclads.

The acceptance and spread of the armored, self-propelled warship represented a truly revolutionary change in warfare at sea, and many remarked upon it. A particular event in 1862 spectacularly emphasized that process. According to historian James Baxter, "The Elizabethan seadogs who circled the globe with [Sir Francis] Drake might have felt at home in the sailing sloop of war Cumberland, as she sank with colors flying on the 8th of March, 1862. Of the five great naval revolutions of the nineteenth century — steam, shell guns, the screw propeller, rifled ordnance, and armor — one only had influenced her design or equipment. Nothing but her heavy battery of 9inch smooth-bore shell guns would have seemed wholly unfamiliar to the conquerors of the Spanish Armada." The vessel responsible for the Cumberland's demise, CSS Virginia, was an ironclad, a product of industrialization in Great Britain, France, Russia, and the United States.

The engagement referred to has become one of the most famous naval battles in world history, and it took place March 8–9, 1862. It was fought in two parts, the first of which (on March 8) resulted in the figurative "death of the wooden warship," whereas the battle on March 9 was the first ever fought between armored steam-driven warships. The two primary participants were the aforementioned CSS Virginia (more often remembered by its previous name, the Merrimack), and USS Monitor. Although the former had once itself been a wooden warship, it was converted to an ironclad and proved the superiority of ironclads over wooden vessels, whereas the Monitor in turn rendered the Virginia obsolete by its use of a revolving turret. The conflict in which these two vessels participated became known as the Battle of Hampton Roads, fought during the American Civil War.

The Civil War is one of the most scrutinized conflicts in American and world history. This conflict saw four long years (1861–1865) of bloody fighting between Union and Confederate forces. The great land campaigns carried out by Robert E. Lee, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Ulysses S. Grant are very well covered in academic and popular works, but technological development during what is often considered the first modern war has not been examined as extensively. Like all large conflicts, the Civil War became an effective proving ground for new military technologies, including ironclads. Armored vessels marked the peak of technological development during the conflict and indeed became one of the Civil War's most famous aspects.

The development of effective steam propulsion technology was one of the greatest factors in the realization of ironclad warships during the 1850s and 1860s. Unfortunately, serious studies concentrating on the marine propulsion machinery of the Civil War era are quite rare. Confederate ironclads in particular have garnered very little attention regarding their machinery, although the Confederacy was often quite creative in building and obtaining marine power plants. The improved mid- and late-war models built with experience gained from the Virginia's deployment especially deserve consideration.

Not widely appreciated is the fact that technical data for many Confederate ironclads still exists, albeit in scattered locations. Examination of this data offers a very interesting and broad picture of how marine steam machinery was manufactured, obtained, and dispersed to the appropriate vessels throughout the Confederacy.

Although the Confederate States of America ultimately began construction on about fifty ironclads of various types, only twenty-five saw any sort of active service. This work focuses exclusively on those with American-built machinery, offering a detailed look at marine steam engineering practices in both Northern and Southern industry before and during the Civil War. In addition, four nearly completed ironclads are examined in detail because of the high quality of their late-war hull designs and machinery.

In all, twenty-seven vessels — those completed and nearly completed, having received at least a portion of their machinery before destruction — are discussed in this book. There were probably more than this number in reality, but a lack of records prevents any certainty. For instance, whereas the mighty CSS Mississippi is well covered, the "Bigbee boats," three or four ironclads under construction on the Tombigbee River of Alabama that were nearly complete at the time of their destruction, are not. Such is the case with most of the unfinished ironclads — there are only small hints and uncertainties. Therefore, although there are many interesting possibilities for future research on both the foreign-built and the unfinished ironclads, this work concentrates only on the finished products, as well as a few of those nearly finished: the Mississippi, the Jackson (often called the Muscogee), the Milledgeville, and the Wilmington.

The Formation of the Confederate States Navy

The beginning of the Confederate States Navy lay largely in the separate policies of the seceding states. When the Civil War began, several vessels were seized for military service, but the Confederate naval forces of 1861 were a far cry from those that allowed the completion of CSS Virginia one year later. Indeed, by and large the Confederate navy ultimately pushed the boundaries of ingenuity and changed the character of war at sea. All this becomes more impressive when one realizes that it had to start from almost nothing, for the navy's first few small and widely scattered vessels were weak and unfit. The fledgling fleet needed the guiding hand of an able administrator, and it soon received one.

The extraordinary resistance shown against the Union navy, the skilled development of the ironclad, commerce raiding, and mine warfare programs were all mostly a result of one man: Stephen Russell Mallory. This capable and innovative administrator served for the entire Civil War period as the Confederate secretary of the navy, and he built it into a modern and effective military service by 1865. By that time, the ironclad program was the most important component of that service. To fully appreciate Mallory's achievements in this area, we must look in detail at his first major challenge: actually organizing a navy.

Little is known about the future secretary's early life, and even the exact year of his birth is uncertain. Several birth dates, ranging from 1811 to 1814, are stated in various works, but the consensus now is that he was born around 1813. It is established that by the age of nine Mallory was living on Key West, where he spent his entire youth and early adulthood. He became quite familiar with the sea and ships even while practicing as a Florida lawyer, and his intelligence and reputation helped him acquire a US Senate seat in 1851. In 1853 he began his first major appointment, as chairman of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee, a post foreshadowing his office during the Civil War. The Florida senator, always interested in ships and naval affairs, executed his duties zealously. This had the unfortunate effect of gaining Mallory few friends in naval service because of his support of unpopular legislation, such as reinstating the use of corporal punishment and the formation of the Naval Retiring Board for older officers. Nevertheless, many of the bills he supported passed, and Mallory remained a capable chairman until the advent of the Secession Crisis.

During the crisis, Senator Mallory, like many others, was torn between his conflicting duties to his home state and the federal government. In March 1861 this issue became null when the senators from the seceded states were removed from the Senate roster. Mallory himself, along with several other Southern politicians, had actually left office in February. Soon the future Confederate naval secretary was heading for Montgomery, Alabama, where both the Confederate government and Mallory's most challenging project were taking shape.

Montgomery was chosen as the first Confederate capital simply out of necessity. It was far from Union lines, and the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States and its standing committees, among them the Naval Affairs Committee, first met there on February 19, 1861. The previous day, Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi was sworn in as president. (Throughout his career Davis never showed much interest in naval affairs, and throughout the war he seemed to relegate them to secondary importance.) Matters continued to move quickly, and the Confederate Navy Department was established on February 20. Five days later, President Davis nominated Stephen Mallory to his cabinet as naval secretary. The organization of a true navy soon began.

Following a revolutionary pattern similar to that of eighty years before, the seceding states quickly set about establishing small state navies for local protection. The new organization under Mallory ultimately inherited little from these ragtag forces, for the only vessels the seceded states were able to use were small steamers or other secondhand vessels. South Carolina's navy was certainly the best, although it was still pitifully small, composed of only the old sailing revenue cutter Aiken (one gun); the tugboat James Gray (rechristened the Lady Davis in honor of the new Confederate president's wife); the little steamers Catawba, Gordon, and Seabrook (each hastily fitted with a small-caliber gun); and a few small sailing boats formerly in the Lighthouse Service.

Mississippi had no navy at all, choosing instead to concentrate on land defense, and Mallory's home state of Florida had only a small ex–US Coast Survey schooner. Alabama seized a revenue cutter and a US Lighthouse Board tugboat; Georgia acquired two sidewheelers, the Savannah (ex Everglade) and the Huntress; and Louisiana and Texas had only three small revenue cutters between them. This was the entirety of the Confederate vessels obtained in the first round of secession, but Mallory later gained the large steamers Patrick Henry and Jamestown, the tugboat Teaser, and four smaller vessels when Virginia and North Carolina seceded. Even when fully armed and outfitted, however, the armament of all the state navy vessels combined amounted to no more than twenty guns, not even equivalent to the armament of a single US sloop of war.

Despite the enormous organizational tasks they faced, Secretary Mallory and other Confederate leaders understood that a war with the states remaining in the Union was inevitable and that they must act quickly. Therefore, with what few vessels he had, Mallory set about organizing a naval infrastructure. When the Confederate capital was relocated to Richmond, Virginia, the secretary and his assistants set up the Navy Department offices at the old Mechanic's Institute on Ninth Street. Four bureaus were established: the Office of Orders and Detail, the Office of Ordnance and Hydrography, the Office of Provisions and Clothing, and the Office of Medicine and Surgery. In addition, the Confederate Marine Corps and the positions of chief naval constructor and engineer in chief were subsequently created. All functioned very similarly to the venerable departments of the US Navy.

Starting with only that handful of vessels gained from the absorbed state navies, Mallory quickly implemented a mass building strategy to counter the numerically superior Union navy. Because of his several years as chairman of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee and his great interest in new shipbuilding technologies, Secretary Mallory was keenly aware of the latest developments in naval armaments and armored vessels. He also supported the development of new methods of warfare, such as the use of mines (then called torpedoes) and commerce raiding. Although these weapons had occasionally been deployed in previous conflicts, Mallory's adoption of them using the modern technology of the 1860s allowed their use on a scale never before seen in naval war. The nascent Confederate navy stood poised to overwhelm the aging wooden ships of the Union with ultramodern cruisers and ironclads — quality against quantity, if only enough time could be had to fully realize the construction programs.

The Confederate navy secretary's approach to new construction consisted of the following: a large number of small, simple-to-construct wooden steam gunboats would be built, allowing time for a smaller number of larger and more powerful ironclads to be built in conjunction with the construction or obtaining of cruisers, often from foreign contractors, for commerce raiding. Whereas the commerce raiders were primarily built abroad because of the Confederacy's strong ties with Great Britain, the wooden gunboats and ironclads were mostly contracted out to private builders throughout the Confederate States. By July 1861 the gunboat and ironclad programs were in full swing, and the first major commerce raiders, led by CSS Sumter, had begun their first depredations against Union merchant vessels. The Confederate navy, though hastily organized with no important base to build on, had successfully begun operations.

The Confederate Ironclad Program

The origin and first steps of ironclad construction were envisioned by Stephen Mallory and executed by a few select men. It is well-known that the secretary was long fascinated by the new rifled ordnance developed in Europe and the utilization of steam-driven ironclads. He therefore set out to enact a program centered on these two new weapons. Whereas armored floating batteries were first tested in action during the Crimean War, the new technologies of explosive shells and rifled ordnance had not been combined with armor on steam vessels by the 1860s. Even though nearly one hundred ironclads were built or being built in Europe by the Civil War, they did not utilize rifled guns and still clung to auxiliary sail power. Although ships like HMS Warrior were certainly powerful, their place in the battle line was not yet firmly established. In contrast, Mallory intended his ironclads to be an ultimate frontline weapon against the Union.

As the former chairman of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee, Mallory had experience in funding ironclad construction projects, and he was soon successful in convincing the Confederate Congress to raise two million dollars for purchasing one or two European ironclads. His view of ironclads as the future of naval technology proved prophetic: "I regard the possession of an iron-armored ship as a matter of the first necessity. ... If to cope with them [Union navy ships] upon the sea, we follow their example and build wooden ships, we shall have to construct several at one time. ... But inequality of numbers may be compensated by invulnerability, and thus not only does economy but naval success dictate the wisdom and expediency of iron against wood."

This began the Confederate ironclad program, both at home and abroad, for Mallory also began a massive building program for ironclads within the Southern states. He was aided by several men of like mind in those early days of 1861. The most important among them were riverboat builder E. C. Murray of Kentucky, later the builder of CSS Louisiana; Lieutenant John M. Brooke, an ordnance expert and later the head of the Office of Ordnance and Hydrography; and Naval Constructor John L. Porter, later the chief naval constructor and the designer of nearly all Confederate ironclad types. Although Porter had designed an ironclad as far back as 1846 and Murray had proposed a design in April 1861, it was ultimately Brooke's ideas that were first incorporated into the type of ironclad that Mallory desired. Many of Porter's concepts of 1846 were also used, as well as several new ones he developed during the design process for a new Confederate ironclad. By June 1861 the process was well under way of constructing what Mallory saw as an ideal design.


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Table of Contents

List Of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

A Note On Units Of Measurement xiii

1 Origins, Background, And Technical Developments 1

2 Conversions 30

CSS Manassas (Ex-Enoch Train) 30

CSS Virginia (Ex-Uss Merrimack) 38

CSS Baltic 55

3 Early Nonstandard Designs 60

CSS Louisiana 60

CSS Arkansas 67

CSS Georgia 81

4 The Richmond Class Ironclads 86

CSS Richmond 86

CSS Chicora 94

CSS Palmetto State 97

CSS North Carolina 100

CSS Raleigh 105

CSS Savannah 109

5 The Tennessee Class Ironclads 118

CSS Tennessee 118

CSS Columbia 127

6 Other Standard Hulls 131

CSS Charleston 132

CSS Virginia II 133

CSS Nashville 137

7 Early Attempts At An Alternative Hull Form 143

CSS Tuscaloosa 143

CSS Huntsville 146

8 Diamond Hull Ironclads 149

CSS Albemarle 150

CSS Neuse 156

CSS Fredericksburg 160

CSS Missouri 162

9 Uncompleted Vessels 170

CSS Mississippi 171

CSS Jackson 175

CSS Milledgeville 177

CSS Wilmington 179

10 Results And Overview 182

Appendix: Confederate Ironclad Steam Machinery Specifications 187

Notes 197

Glossary 229

Bibliography 237

Illustration Credits 245

Index 249

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