Spanish 3rd Class Gunboats

Gunboats “General Blanco” and “Lanao”

Gunboat “General Blanco”

Gunboat General Blanco. Midsection cross-section frame (drawn by one of the crew)

The Spanish Empire, once the greatest in the world, largely disappeared during the Napoleonic era, leaving only a few colonies in Africa (Morocco), the West Indies (Puerto Rico and Cuba), and the Pacific Ocean (the Philippines and smaller island groups, among them the Carolines and Marianas). During the latter years of the 19th century, anticolonial movements emerged in the most important of Spain’s possessions, the Philippines and Cuba. Spain’s Restoration Monarchy, which had been established in 1875, decided to put down these insurgencies rather than grant either autonomy or independence. The Spanish Army crushed the first outbreaks, the Ten Years’ War (1868-1878) in Cuba, and the First Philippine Insurgency (1896-1897).

Spain attempted to gain support from the great powers of Europe but failed to do so. The nation had no international ties of importance, having followed a policy of isolation from other nations during many years of internal political challenges, notably the agitation of Carlists, Basques, Catalonians, and other groups. Wide- spread domestic unrest raised fears of revolution and the fall of the Restoration Monarchy. Given these domestic challenges, Spain did not involve itself in external affairs. The European powers, preoccupied with great issues of their own including difficulties with their own empires, refused to help Spain, having no obligations and no desire to earn the enmity of the United States. Bereft of European support, Spain had to fight alone against a formidable enemy.

Popular emotions influenced the Madrid government to some extent; many Spaniards believed that the empire had been God’s gift as a reward for the expulsion of the Moors from Europe and believed that no Spanish government could surrender the remaining colonies without dishonoring the nation. War seemed a lesser evil than looming domestic tumult.

GENERAL BLANCO Class gunboats

These steel-hulled vessels were built in 1895-96 at Cavite for service in the Philippines against the insurgents. They were built in lieu of the series of torpedo-boats that were originally planned in the 1887 shipbuilding program.

The vessels of the GENERAL BLANCO class are as follows:


    60 tons, 11 knots., Armament: 1 x 42mm/42cal quick-fire gun, 1 machine gun.

    The vessel was named for General Blanco, who served as general-governor of the Philippines at the time, prior to being sent to Cuba, where he spent the Spanish American War.

    Career: She was built for service on Lanao lake.

    Details and fate are unknown.

LANAO (1895)

    60 tons, 11 knots, Armament: 1 x 42mm/42cal quick-fire gun, 1 machine gun.

    The vessel was named for a lake on the Philippine island of Mindanao.

    Career: She was built for service on Lanao lake.

    Details and fate are unknown.

Specifications: General Blanco, Lanao

General Blanco launched 8/18/1895

Lanao launched 9/22/1895

Displacement 65 tons

Dimensions (length × width × bead height × draft) 25.0 × 4.8 × 2.0 × 1.3 metres

Powerplant 2 propeller shafts, 20 kW

Speed 11 knots

Range 1200 miles (coal 7 tons)

Armament 1 – 42mm, 2 (1 on Lanao) – 25mm, 2 – 11mm mitrailleuse

Crew 29

U.S. Navy (ex-Spanish) gunboat Villalobos

American Gunboat Operations, Philippine Islands

Following the Battle of Manila Bay on May 1, 1898, U. S. Navy ships blockaded Manila until army forces could arrive. In August, army troops captured the city. Over the next five months, gunboats helped U. S. troops seize key positions around the islands. When the Philippine-American War began in February 1899, naval gun- fire helped repulse Filipino attacks on Manila. In the insurgency that followed, U. S. Navy gunboats provided essential mobility to American troops and played a vital role in winning the Philippine- American War. Indeed, gunboats were absolutely essential during an insurgency that theoretically spanned some 7,000 islands and 500,000 square miles of terrain.

Rear Admiral George C. Remey, who commanded the Asiatic Squadron, deployed its gunboats and other small warships to four patrol zones: one on the island of Luzon; the second on the islands of Panay, Mindoro, Palawan, and Occidental Negros; the third on the Moro country of the Sulu group and southern Mindanao; and the last one on the Visayas group composed of Cebu, Samar, Leyte, Bohol, Oriental Negros, and northern Mindanao from the Straits of Surigao to the Dapitan Peninsula. Some gunboats patrolled as far away as Borneo and China to cut off arms shipments to the Filipino guerrillas.

The gunboats patrolled Philippine waters to isolate Filipino forces on individual islands and interdict the flow of arms and supplies to them. The gunboats also supported ground operations with fire- power, escorted troop transports, covered landings, and evacuated endangered garrisons. Ships, particularly the army’s improvised troop transports, frequently ran aground, and gunboats then helped pull them free, frequently under hostile fire. At night, gunboats sailed deep behind insurgent lines, landing and retrieving scouts who reported on enemy positions and strength. The gunboats maintained communication with scattered army and marine garrisons and mobile columns and delivered their supplies, pay, and mail.

To supplement its meager forces, the navy seized 13 former Spanish gunboats and converted yachts and other small civilian craft to naval service. Most of these gunboats, particularly the converted yachts, were of small size. They averaged about 90 feet in length and carried a variety of weapons including 1-, 2-, and 3- pounder guns; 37-millimeter cannon; Colt and Gatling guns, and various small arms. Among them, however, were a few heavily armed warships such as the Petrel, an 892-ton, 176-foot gunboat armed with four 6-inch guns that earned it the nickname “Baby Battleship.” A landing force from the Petrel seized the important port of Cebu in the first weeks of the war.

Despite the acquisition of Spanish and converted civilian ships, the navy could rarely deploy more than two dozen gunboats to patrol the thousands of islands and numerous navigable rivers of the Philippines. Dispersed across the islands, gunboats generally operated singly or in pairs.

Fairly typical of gunboat operations were the final campaigns to secure the island of Samar. Despite earlier campaigns there, including a celebrated effort by Major Littleton W. T. Waller and 300 marines, Filipino insurgents continued to operate on Samar, eluding U. S. forces in its dense jungle and mountainous terrain. In January and February 1902, the gunboats Frolic and Villalobos carried soldiers on a series of raids on Samar that yielded valuable intelligence and led to the capture of Filipino commander Vicente Lukban. Four more gunboats arrived in March, and these allowed their commander, Lieutenant Commander Washington I. Chambers, to blockade the island, cutting off vital supplies to the insurgents, particularly food, which Samar imported from neighboring islands. In April, Chambers’s squadron embarked the troops of Brigadier General Frederick D. Grant and carried them deep into the island along its rivers. These forces overran the insurgents’ main camp and harried them across the island in a three-week campaign that forced their surrender, ending the war on Samar two months before the official proclamation of peace on July 4, 1902.

As the war wound down, the navy shifted gunboats to other operations. Some worked to suppress the slave trade among the Moros in the Sulu archipelago, southern Mindanao, and southern Palawan. Others hunted pirates in Philippine and Chinese waters. Gunboats thus played a vital role in the Philippine-American War. Without them, conquest of the Philippines might well have been impossible.

HMS Taciturn on Station

HMS Taciturn – Royal Navy T Class Submarine. Artist Tom Connell

It was now two weeks since Taciturn had left Portsmouth, with the boat’s men restricted to just one wash a day for hands and face. There was only enough water for one full body wash a week per man. Everybody was beginning to stink and the rancid body odour was far from pleasant in such a confined space, although submariners cultivated a tolerance for it.

The boat’s interior was damp and chilly, with an increasing amount of condensation, caused by warm bodies and hot-running equipment in a cold hull. Some sailors guessed Taciturn was within the Arctic Circle and speculated the submarine sighted had been a Russian. The mysterious noise persisted, forcing the boat to surface and dive three times during the night of 18 September. Lieutenant Commander O’Connor considered abandoning the mission. There was no way they would remain safe in Soviet waters with such a giveaway. Hurley reflected in his diary: ‘it was pointless to go on as, if located, we would either be a grave embarrassment to HM Government or dead!’

That morning an aircraft contact, moving very fast, was picked up 200 miles away. It seemed from the electronic signature that it was a Soviet Badger bomber. The big jet eventually passed right overhead, travelling at 550 mph. Hurley noted: ‘It’s our first real contact with our “Comrades”.

At 17.30 on 19 September the boat surfaced; a potential source for the noise was found in the casing and thrown overboard.

Hurley by now had a boil and felt dreadful, with a heavy cold.

The Coxswain – a senior rating, third-most important man in the boat after the captain and First Lieutenant – told Hurley he would find a means of curing it. Had Taciturn possessed a naval doctor he might well have lanced the boil and drained the pus away. That was an extremely painful process and might have risked reinfection or the infection spreading, particularly with so little water available to wash. The Coxswain used a warm compress to bring pus to the surface and, once this had been done several times, the boil burst of its own accord.

As Taciturn got closer to Soviet waters O’Connor stepped up silent running and decided to make a broadcast, stressing the need for absolute stealth.

‘In many ways we have managed to cut down on noise but from now on we will have to be really quiet all the time. There must be no crashing around with stores, no shouting or hammering or dropping hatch covers.’

He gave them as much detail on the mission as he was allowed: ‘I am unable to say where we are. But we are in the operational area and for 48 hours, starting from yesterday afternoon, we are in a heavily patrolled U-boat area [Soviet submarine patrol zone]. During the subsequent 48 hours we will cross a line into an area heavily patrolled by both submarines and surface vessels. On the other side of that line is an area that will be most interesting and keep us very busy.’

They would be evading Russian attention while getting close enough to record intelligence. The boat stopped snorting at 02.30 with the intention of not doing so again for at least 24 hours to minimise potential exposure. Taciturn would reduce use of machinery to only the essentials, conserving battery power and keeping noise down.

There would be no hot meals during the day – just sandwiches for lunch (no banging around the galley with pots and pans). It also reduced the drain on battery power and ensured people could stay at their stations and not move about to go and get hot food.

Taciturn crept forward at minimum speed, reducing prop noise. Any sailors off watch were ordered into their bunks. Most lights were turned off, as were nearly all heaters. They must conserve the battery at all costs.

Hurley was soon afflicted with a rumbling stomach, scribbling down his thoughts as he lay in his bunk: ‘We bake our own bread, which soon goes. Tea, milk, sugar and water must be watched carefully and often dinner is very small as it’s cold, though normally supper is a good large meal. It’s not that we are starved so much as the long gaps between good meals (which are really good) and the fact that, if one is hungry, there is no bread to fill up on as is normal. But before we are through things will be a lot worse.’

Water consumption was still too high – some 300 gallons a day – but offset by a distiller creating fresh supplies.

The First Lieutenant warned if water usage continued to exceed 250 gallons daily he would shut off the supply completely. No mugs of tea, no washing at all or indeed any activity that required water, for at least 12 hours. The rations state was not good either – there was food for 19 days left, but the boat was expected to be out a further 29.

As if all that wasn’t trying enough, because Taciturn was not going to surface for some time, rubbish could not be ditched overboard. The stench of trash added to that of filthy bodies, made an almost unbearable combination. Hurley noted in his diary: ‘things are becoming tighter and the living harder’.

A sub-surface contact was reported during the Morning Watch, with a strong likelihood of a Russian submarine.

This was no surprise as they were well into the home waters of the Red Banner Northern Fleet.

Taciturn faced the dilemma of staying deep to remain undetected, or coming up to periscope depth and raising her Electronic Counter Measure (ECM) mast to spy on Russian activity. There were several air contacts and more signs of a Soviet submarine nearby.

Taciturn became a tomb – silent, cold, dark, with only the on-duty watch out of their bunks. The captain banned anything but necessary movement’.

During the evening of 22 September, as Taciturn cautiously poked her snort above the waves, telegraphists listened in on the wireless frequencies. They picked up a transmission from a Russian submarine, only 7,000 yards away (not even four miles).

Even when that potential threat melted away, Taciturn ceased snorting every hour so sonar operators could listen for any Russians nearby. It meant the batteries were not fully charged by dawn and it was dangerous to poke the snort mast above the surface during daylight. Tempers frayed, people flashing up at the slightest provocation. Hurley put it down to ‘boredom, lack of regular food, cold and headaches (which most people seem to have) and Rum, which is I think the main cause’. Yet, without the daily ration of rum to take the edge off things, life really would be beyond a joke.

There were indications of a determined effort to flush out Taciturn. Mysterious vibrations and bumps reverberated through the hull, which were possibly the Soviets chasing phantoms with depth charges. A message was passed along from the Control Room asking if anybody had heard an actual explosion in the water. In the early evening of 23 September, Taciturn detected a Soviet submarine very close. People moved as silently as possible to Listening Stations, using slow deliberate motions to avoid bashing into anything and creating noise. They taped the sound signature of the Russian boat. Over the next 63 minutes, the target did plenty to give itself away, using a snort mast and also active sonar pings.

Was it a Whiskey or a Zulu? There were plenty of them around, with Soviet yards constructing 262 between 1950 and 1957 (236 Whiskeys and 26 Zulus). The British boat’s conversion to Super-T had taken more than two years to complete (from the end of 1948 to the spring of 1951) and her displacement was now 1,740 tons submerged. The Whiskey was 1,350 tons and a Zulu weighed in at 2,350 tons dived. Taciturn was more than 293ft long, the Whiskey 249ft and Zulu 295ft. As foes they were well matched.

Taciturn picked up various unidentified noises before again detecting the definitive sound of a submarine. The British boat closed down the distance to make further recordings but the contact faded.

A snowstorm offered an opportunity to snort under cover, reducing surface visibility by obscuring the tip of the mast. It didn’t last long. Likely-looking blizzards were spotted elsewhere through the periscope but nothing came Taciturn’s way, so she was unable to snort again. The air grew fouler and increasing efforts were made to reduce battery consumption.

Lieutenant Commander O’Connor’s orders stated that if Taciturn knew the Russians had spotted her she was to head home immediately.

A really determined search was now being made by the Soviets in the area where Taciturn had first detected a Russian submarine. There was a lot of air activity over that patch of sea. Up to three destroyers were carrying out search patterns. O’Connor concluded he had no choice but to withdraw.

Once inside a NATO exercise area Taciturn would be permitted to break radio silence, letting FOSM and the Admiralty know the patrol had been concluded. It was estimated they would reach the UK in around seven days. O’Connor took Taciturn as deep as he could and piled on knots to leave the Soviet patrol line far behind. The ECM operators picked up aircraft, two of which appeared to be running search patterns. At 20.00 on 27 September, Taciturn surfaced, remaining there for 24 hours, a strong swell making it difficult for her men to sleep as the boat rolled badly. Overnight Lt Cdr O’Connor was able to send his signal.

The boat would make the final part of her passage home on the surface, Taciturn proceeding down through the Minches, lids shut, snort mast bringing in the fresh air while getting rid of fumes and foul odours.

Hot meals were back on the agenda.

In his diary Hurley reflected on the peculiar and arduous existence of submariners: O‘no one really can know what life in a boat is like, not even the General Service [surface navy] ratings until they do a trip. Some of it is unbelievable: the condensation which is like rain at times, the fog, literally, [inside the boat] when we surface quickly, the varying pressure when snorting on one’s ear drums, the damp and cold and absolutely cramped style (35 bodies in a [bunk] space smaller than our kitchen at home), lack of water, fresh air, daylight, sleeping in one’s clothes for weeks. No one is a hero because of this and no one really grumbles, but anyone who says submariners have an easy life and don’t deserve the extra pay ought to see for themselves.’

On 3 October Taciturn came alongside at Faslane, the small, very basic submarine base at the Gareloch, in the mouth of the Clyde. Hurley was unimpressed, declaring it ‘just a small enclosed gravel area with little or no facilities and when we arrived no depot ship either’.

The day Taciturn reached Faslane, Russia launched Sputnik 1, the first man-made vehicle to be successfully sent into outer space. A fortnight later a US Navy submarine came into Faslane, dropping off a package, which was taken to the US Air Force airhead at Prestwick Airport. The American submariners whom Taciturn’s men socialised with claimed their package contained film of Sputnik being sent into the heavens. This was unlikely, as it was launched from Kazakhstan, a long way from any sea a Western submarine might penetrate.

The Russians were, however, conducting nuclear weapons tests on Novaya Zemlya. As with the British submarines, aside from the captain and a select few, nobody in the American boat knew exactly what they had been doing or precisely where. They did know that it was cold, damp and dangerous, and that the Soviets didn’t want them there.

French Navy: 1870s to 1904 Part I

French cruiser Chasseloup Laubat, on the Hudson River, New York.

The maritime strategy of the Third Republic in the years before the First World War falls into two very different phases.

From 1871 to the last decade of the 19th Century strategic thinking has been described by one French historian as a ‘Cold War’ against the traditional enemy Great Britain. Naval thought in this period believed that this must sooner or later end in full open warfare between the two nations. Although Emperor Napoleon III did not personally subscribe to this view his early 1860s navy was one of the finest in French history, leading the world in technology and superior to a neglected Royal Navy. Almost at the end of his reign a largely unexpected factor in naval strategy appeared with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Naval policy moved to the Mediterranean with Toulon as the major base. For ‘Cold War’ theorists a capability of closing the Canal to British merchants and warships was tempting and led to the quest for a Red Sea naval base. Paradoxically, though the trade and strategic common interests of Britain and France was to lead to joint French-British naval operations to ensure free movement through the Canal in 1881, 1915, 1939-40 and 1956.

By the end of the 1870s many French warships had been overtaken by technological developments and become obsolescent while the Royal Navy had returned to development. It was becoming clear that a major warship construction programme to match Great Britain was out of the question. Thinking and policy had therefore to be reviewed, and on both land and sea argued for the building up of colonial and naval force that would make France so close a second-ranking power after Great Britain and the Royal Navy that French interests would be secure, particularly in the Mediterranean. The colonial empire was to provide resources, additional military manpower and bases. These base ports were to constitute points d’appui, of strength from which blue water warships could set forth to harry British commercial shipping in a guerre de course war of attrition. For the defence of the Atlantic and Channel coasts much cheaper vessels, coast defence floating battery ships and light forces would suffice. The head of government, Jules Ferry, in his first 1880-81 and second 1883-85 administrations strongly supported the acquisition of colonies, though this policy was later to be the prime cause for his fall from power. The governments that followed him over the next fifteen years were only relatively less enthusiastic. Alliance with Russia, cemented with exchange naval visits, was seen as an important part of the containment of British expansions. A Russian naval visit to Toulon in 1893 provided a political ‘naval scare’ reaction in London. A group of naval theorists headed by Rear Admiral Aube, author of an important work, La Guerre Maritime et les Ports Français, and mostly composed of young officers, the Jeune École, envisaged an encircling chain of worldwide bases extending from Tunis, Obock (later Djibouti), Madagascar, Mayotte (Comoros), Saigon, a base in Tonkin, Nouméa, Tahiti, Tuamatu (Papua), the Panama Canal and Guadeloupe. By 1890 a rationalisation had proposed three major fortified bases, Martinique, Dakar and Saigon, with seven smaller and only lightly defended sally ports, Guadeloupe, Haiphong, Nouméa, Diego-Suarez, Port Phéton (Tahiti), Libreville and Obock. For the defence of the metropolis Dunkerque, Brest, Lorient and Toulon were to continue their traditional functions, Toulon benefiting from concern over Italian naval building. Anti-British feeling reached a crescendo at the time of the Fashoda crisis in 1898, with increased support for all the overseas bases. But already the growing military and naval threat of Imperial Germany was beginning to concentrate minds on the much more serious threat to the nation.

Warship construction was to reflect the changes in policy. The government that immediately followed the end of the Second Empire still aspired to follow the traditional naval policy of a fleet equal or superior to Britain’s Royal Navy based on a line of capital ships, called ‘First Rate Armoured Ships’ at the time. These capital ships were to be supported by ‘Second Rate Armoured Ships’ for coastal defence, by ‘armoured cruising ships’ and a number of sloops and gunboats. In 1872, before the drive for colonial expansion had come to dominate policy, the Minister for the Marine, Admiral Pothuau, set out a traditional and modernisation programme for the decade. This programme was almost immediately faced with the problems to bedevil French naval construction for the next hundred years, the ever-increasing costs of the technological advances needed for warships, inadequate access to iron and steel and, compared with Great Britain the small number of shipbuilding yards. Construction of major warships often took five or six years, sometimes even longer. Politically the public saw spending on the Army as the priority and the navy greatly reduced, some even arguing for its abolition. Pothuau’s options were limited.

The Marine 1879-80

The Marine’s line of capital battle ships that France could put to sea at the end of the 1870s was in consequence formed of obsolescent ships built in the years before or during the Franco-Prussian War, with the few more modern vessels completed in the following eight years, much but not all of the 1872 programme, forming a total of twenty-one (not including one purchased from the United States which proved to be valueless).

The ships were a very mixed collection. The earliest sixteen were old-fashioned broadside ironclads, the latter five were central battery vessels. The mix of construction patterns and different armaments created difficulties of maintenance and supply of the 1870s ships still in service, the oldest was Solferino completed in 1862, a sister ship had earlier been destroyed in a fire. These were designed by the pioneer of ironclad ships, Henri Dupuy de Lome, they displaced 6,700 tons and were built with a massive ram bow, to be a feature of French capital ships for the next twenty years, they were well armoured, equipped with ten 9.4-inch guns and could manage a top speed of 13 knots but still retained a full barque rig of sail. Following Solferino were the ten ships of the Provence class completed between 1865 and 1867; these were Flandre, Gauloise, Guyenne, Magnanime, Provence, Revanche, Savoie, Surveillante, Valeureuse, and Héroine averaging 6,000 tons. Their armaments varied and were altered from time to time in the 1870s being usually eight 9.4-inch and four 7.6-inch guns, their speeds varied between 13 and 14 knots, all again were barque rigged.

Design then moved from broadside main armament to broadside barbette battery ships with the Océan class completed in 1872-3, Océan, Marengo and Suffren. Much thicker armour protection had raised tonnage to an average of 8,800 tons. Their main armament included four 10-inch and four 9-inch guns, their speeds remained at 13 to 14 knots, their rig for sail was reduced to barquentine. They also carried dropping gear for four 14-inch torpedoes.

Two further ships, Friedland and Richelieu were the last to be under construction before the fall of Napoleon III, each taking nine years in building and only entering service in 1876. Friedland displaced 8,800 tons with armour and speed similar to the Océan class but with a main armament of eight 10.8-inch guns. Richelieu and the last three ships to be at sea by the end of the decade, Colbert, Trident and Redoutable were slightly larger but otherwise similar, these too lost their sail rigging after entry into service.

In support of this battle fleet were a variety of vessels, eleven ‘Second Rate’ coast defence vessels armed with 6.4-inch guns, four armoured rams with 9.4-inch guns and a speed of 12 to 13 knots to provide force behind the rams, and six coastal bombardment monitors armed with two 9.4 or 10.8-inch guns. All these, less expensive than the ‘First Rates’ and therefore welcomed politically were thought to be useful as a second line, capable of dealing with damaged enemy ‘Frist Rates’ and chasing enemy cruisers away.

The three classes of ‘armoured cruising ships’ ranged for 3,500 to 4,000 tons in size. The five smaller vessels were armed with four or six 7.6-inch guns, the six larger with six 9.4-inch and one 7.6-inch gun. The ‘First Rates’ were mostly based at Toulon, the coast defence ships at Cherbourg and cruisers at Brest poised for a sortie into the Atlantic. In addition there were thirty-eight ‘unprotected cruisers’ with tonnages and armaments varying greatly. The majority were armed with 6.4, 5.5 or 4.7-inch guns depending on their size, the larger last three had 7.6-inch guns. The earlier ships speeds did not exceed 14 knots, the last could raise 16 knots.

Much thought and experimentation was given to torpedo boats, the possibilities of the torpedo as an excellent naval defence weapon against the known ‘close blockade’ strategy of the Royal Navy in the event of war becoming even more clear. In 1875-6 nineteen small torpedo boats were built, twelve in Britain. Their tonnage ranged from 10 to 26 tons and they were poor sea boats. In 1877 a further twenty-eight all over 30 tons were built in France. The torpedoes carried were carried in a variety of ways, some as spars in the bow of the boat, others in bow tubes, others in a launching gear to be slung over the side of the boats. The boats speed was some 18 knots with crews of eight to ten men. They were presented as a mobile defence ‘David’ against an adversary’s battleship ‘Goliath’ attacking ports, and also as ‘democratic’ in comparison with the ‘reaction’ of battleships. They were very popular among young officers, a posting infinitely preferable to being a junior officer on a ‘First Rate’ even if at this stage they only served in home ports. Critics of the torpedo boats pointed out that they were dangerous for crews who became exhausted very quickly in anything approaching a choppy or rough sea, and that their chances of striking an opponent’s big ship were doubtful, especially if their target warship and others subjected them to a hailstorm of light weapon fire. Some also argued that smoke from their funnels would provide the torpedo boats with cover for a close approach, others said that smoke would confuse the torpedo boat’s aim.

Warship Construction 1880-99

The next fifteen years became ones of controversy over the structure that the Marine should adopt in the increasingly bitter ‘Cold War’ with Great Britain. At international level as well as Russia other possible naval allies were sought, one was Japan when the highly skilled designer Emile Bertin was at work in the Japanese arsenal at Yokosuka. In France in rigorous, at times passionate, debate admirals and strategists, notably Étienne Lamy, argued over the bases and ships most likely to mount a successful challenge to the Royal Navy’s two-power standard and battleship building programme. The Jeune École with Admiral Aube briefly Minister for the Marine in 1886-7 saw the battleships as expensive, vulnerable to torpedoes and a naval guerre de course as the future pattern of naval warfare. They argued that over fifty torpedo boats could be built for the cost of one battleship and small fast cruisers could sail out from worldwide points d’appui to attack British trade while all that was needed to secure metropolitan and overseas ports were flotillas of torpedo boats. Others believed that effort would have to be concentrated on a smaller number of more powerful bases, particularly if those overseas were going to require a land force garrison. Interest became focused on three areas, the Atlantic where ships from Dakar together with others in Martinique from where ships in the Caribbean could jointly threated Britain’s trade with the New World, and the Indian Ocean where Britain’s links with India could be cut and French links with Indochina made more secure. The difficulties facing the French economy in the 1880s fuelled debate at the political level. Imperialists favoured expansion into Tunisia – partly to forestall Italian ambitions – and Indochina together with designs upon Madagascar. Operations were to follow, although many argued that they were not affordable. Many naval officers too were concerned that so much of the Marine’s budget was being spent on bases and colonial interior occupation rather than on ships, while Italy was now a growing menace.

Until the middle 1890s the capital ships completed for the Marine were the nine whose construction had begun in the 1870s, together with thirteen that were completed in this period. Except for the first three, the two Courbet class, Courbet and Dévastation and the Admiral Duperré none were rigged for sail. They and others to follow in the 1890s merit their description by Oscar Parkes, the British battleship historian

Since the seventies French design had exhibited a strong leaning towards the bizarre and ‘Fierce face’. Piled up superstructures, preposterous masts, uncouth funnels, tumblehome sides and long ram bows with no attempt at achieving any symmetry or balance in profile produced an aggressive appearance …

Perhaps subconsciously the Vauban tradition had entered into the minds of constructors; it was certainly a period of great uncertainty over design and experimentation.

Courbet, a central battery ship after nine years of building entered service in 1886. She and her sister Dévastation completed in 1882 displaced 10,500 tons and were armed with four 13.4-inch guns and had a speed of 15.5 knots. Admiral Duperré of 11,000 tons was of a more advanced design with four 13.4-inch guns mounted in pairs in barbetttes near the bow and stern. Her speed was slightly slower. All three ships carried four torpedo tubes. The next six ships, four of the smaller Terrible class of 7,500 tons, Caiman, Terrible, Indomptable and Requin and two of the next class Admiral Baudin and Formidable of 11,700 tons, all followed the centre line barbette plan, the Terrible ships with two huge 16.5-inch guns and the Admiral Baudin ships with three 14-inch pieces, all with speeds of 14 knots. The next ship, Hoche was the first to have her two 13.4-inch gun main armaments in single turrets with a further armament of two 10.8-inch guns; as a ship she was faster reaching 16 knots but unstable in a seaway. Equally unstable, spoken of as ‘submarines’ were the next three ships, completed after ten years in building in 1893, were the 10,500 ton Marceau, Magenta and Neptune with twin 13.4-inch guns, two each in in barbettes fore and aft. The last ‘First Rate’ laid down in the 1880s was the 11,000 ton Brennus, with three 13.4-inch guns in two centre line turrets, two forward, on aft. Brennus also carried four of the much improved 18-inch torpedo tubes and had a speed of 18 knots. In general, all the 1880s ships were unstable, too much having been attempted on the displacement and the 13.4-inch gun was unsatisfactory, replaced in many ships by 10 or 12-inch later in service.

Less expensive than the ‘First Rate’ were ten ‘Second Rate’ coast defence ships, two of the 5,000 tons Tonnant class were armed with two 13.4-inch guns, the remaining eight of the Fuseé and Achéron classes with a single 10.8-inch weapon. Four armoured cruising ships were completed in the 1880s, all rigged for sail with armaments of four 9.4-inch and one or two 7.6.-inch guns; they were obsolete in both design and speed, 14.5 knots, before they were even completed. Of more use was the first Protected Cruiser, Sfax, of 4,000 tons armed with six 6.4-inch and ten 5.5-inch guns, torpedo tubes and a speed of 16.7 knots. Sfax represented the Jeune École plan for point d’appui based commerce raiders. Thirteen Unprotected Cruisers of tonnage between 2,360 and 3,700 tons armed with 5.5-inch guns, some also with four 6.4-inch weapons and one with only 3.9-inch all joined the fleet. As an experiment four ‘Torpedo Cruisers’ with 3.9-inch guns and five torpedo tubes and eight fast torpedo gunboats were also built, along with a small number of sloops and conventional gunboats.

The arguments of the Jeune École were to take shape in the form of the seventy small torpedo boats that entered service in the 1880s. the first twelve were all under 30 tons, some only 9 tons, all except for two could only carry one 14-inch torpedo mounting, most could manage 17 to 19 knots. The remaining fifty-eight were larger, capable of operating in open seas, with tonnage moving from the 43 tons of the earlier boats to the 53 tons of the last. These carried four torpedoes and most reached speeds of 20 knots or more.

Much still remained experimental. It was thought at first that the smaller boats could be carried into action aboard larger warships, but it soon became clear that this idea was unworkable. The larger warships would have to come to a halt to drop the boats, causing disorder and risks to themselves, seas might be too rough, few large ships had the space to carry torpedo boats particularly if the boats themselves carried spar torpedoes, and in any case spar torpedoes could be fixed on the bows of their own picket boats. Instead a merchant transport ship, Japon, was modified as a torpedo boat carrier, carrying six small boats. But to the middle 1890s it was still claimed that the continued onset of a mass of torpedo boats would prevail over battleship squadrons though critics developed the argument that the development of searchlights would illuminate the boats for easy destruction by battleships guns.


HMS Taciturn, one of the ‘Super T’ conversions, by Tom Connell.

Forays by British submarines into dangerous waters off northern Russia could only happen thanks to Hitler’s scientists and engineers.

In the closing weeks of the Second Word War a special commando unit, which boasted James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, as one of its operational planners, had raced for Nazi technological secrets. It wanted to secure them before they were destroyed or the Soviets got them. One of the key achievements of 30 Amphibious Assault Unit (30 AU) was capturing snorkel technology and also advanced submarines at Kiel on Germany’s Baltic coast. The British amassed nearly 100 surrendered German submarines at the Northern Irish port of Lishally, near Londonderry.

The Type XXI U-boat was a revolutionary kind of submarine, with high-speed batteries providing up to 17 knots submerged. This was extraordinary when the most Allied boats could manage submerged was 9 knots. Snorkel masts enabled Germany’s advanced diesel submarines to stay submerged – and safe from enemy attack – while venting generator fumes, recharging their batteries and sucking in fresh air.

Capable of impressive submerged endurance, via use of the snort mast (as the snorkel became known), the Type XXI had a sleek, supremely hydrodynamic hull form, with no external guns other than cannons mounted within the fin.

Combined with boosted battery power delivering high underwater speed a Type XXI did not have to surface to attack a convoy. It could fire 18 torpedoes (three salvoes) in around 20 minutes, which was as long as it took any other submarine to load a single torpedo.

The Type XXI could manage 50 hours submerged on batteries at full capacity (charged), an endurance that could be doubled by reducing energy consumption by 50 per cent. Other submarines could only achieve half an hour submerged on battery power, or 24 hours if they shut almost all equipment down. Using the snort to recharge the batteries, the prime objective for a Type XXI was an entire patrol submerged (and it took only three hours’ snorting to recharge batteries). It was also very stealthy at low speeds, using what were called creeping speed motors (on rubber mountings) to absorb noise. The Type XXI could safely dive up to 440ft (90ft deeper than the most modern Second World War-era British submarine), with a crush depth of more than 1,000ft.

Fortunately for the Allies only two ‘electroboots’ ever deployed on combat patrol during the Second World War. Crew training, technological defects common to any cutting-edge technology, and intensive bombing kept the majority of the 120 ‘electroboots’ non-operational. They were captured or destroyed. Even more remarkable were Type XVIIB boats, which used air-independent hydrogen peroxide propulsion, removing the necessity to even poke a snort mast above the surface.

Following a series of top-level meetings, it was decided the British, Americans and Russians should each have ten U-boats of all varieties, the remainder to be scuttled in Operation Deadlight.

The Soviets had limited contemporary experience on the open ocean in any kind of warship – during the Second World War the Red Navy fought mainly in littoral waters or operated along rivers and other inland waterways.

As a result the Russians requested that Royal Navy crews sail their allocated U-boats to Leningrad. The Soviets hid their lack of confidence on the high seas behind claims that they were being given defective submarines. The British had, though, delivered detailed seaworthiness assessments of the boats to their new owners.

The Americans, who took two XXIs, would base the design of their new Tang Class upon the Nazi boat type. They also reconstructed some of their newer Second World War-era submarines, under a programme entitled Greater Underwater Propulsive Power, or GUPPY, to incorporate German innovations.

Some Type XXIs were even pressed into service, the British operating two. While one was scrapped in 1949 after running on trials, the other was given to the French. They commissioned seven ex-German U-boats into their fleet, one of the Type XXIs seeing service into the late 1960s.

Even the Swedes, neutral during the conflict, recognised the necessity of acquiring revolutionary U-boats if their own navy was not to lose its status as a leading submarine operator. They raised U-3503 – scuttled inside their territorial waters – from the bottom of the Baltic and towed her to a naval base. Experts carried out a dry-dock inspection of her innovations before the submarine was scrapped. In the mid-1950s, when they needed to revive their submarine arm as part of NATO, the West Germans adopted a similar practice, locating U-boats sunk during the war and raising them.

Faced with a sudden need to match the West’s operational capability the Russians made the most of their inherited U-boats. Four of the ten they received from the British were Type XXIs, seeing service in the Soviet’s Navy’s Baltic Fleet for nine years. They also wasted no time in replicating the Type XXI in the Zulu and Whiskey classes of diesel boat. The British decided to implement what they had gleaned from the XXIs in a radical reconstruction programme for some of their T-Class submarines. Eight boats, including HMS Taciturn, were taken in hand between 1950 and 1956. Cut in two, they had a whole new section inserted containing two more electric motors and a fourth battery. It gave them a submerged top speed of between 15 and 18 knots but this could only be maintained for a short period. There were no external guns – these were removed as part of the rebuild – for they were given sleek streamlined outer casings. A large fin enclosed the bridge, periscopes and masts. Space was also made for specialist intelligence-gathering equipment.

Taciturn and her reconstructed sisters were known as the ‘Super-Ts’. Externally she bore little, if any, resemblance to the submarine that had emerged from the Vickers yard at Barrow-in-Furness in the north-west of England in 1944. Taciturn was blooded in action against the Japanese. She sank a number of small vessels and also joined forces with her sister submarine Thorough, both using their 4-inch deck guns to bombard shore targets. The first to receive the Super-T conversion, Taciturn was a perfect solution for cash-strapped Britain, almost bankrupted by the Second World War, yet needing to match the rising threat of Russian naval power. Construction of brand-new boats was not possible for some years. Submarines built to combat Hitler’s Germany and militaristic Japan were refashioned using the fruit of Nazi science to become the best Britain could send against the Soviets.

It was Vice Admiral Sir Geoffrey Oliver who proposed the Royal Navy’s much reduced submarine force should take the war to the enemy.

Staking out Soviet submarine bases in the Kola Peninsula and on the shores of the White Sea, they would eliminate the threat before it could break out into the vastness of the Atlantic. Oliver, who first went to sea as a midshipman in the battleship Dreadnought in 1916, also saw action in the Second World War as a cruiser captain. He had even commanded carrier strike forces, so was a well-rounded tactician, though never a submariner. His April 1949 paper – written when Oliver was Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff (ACNS) – gave impetus to the conversion of Taciturn and her seven sister boats into Super-Ts. If things turned hot they would sink Soviet boats in the Barents Sea, hunting down and killing them with torpedoes, or laying mines.

The precedent for using submarines to destroy other submarines had been set in the recent world war. British boats sank 36 enemy submarines, while the Americans claimed 23 Japanese. All but one of the targets was sunk while on the surface. The distinction of hunting and killing an enemy submarine while both were submerged fell to Lieutenant James Launders in HMS Venturer. His successful attack on U-864 off Norway, on 9 February 1945, remains the only one of its kind and was achieved after Venturer trailed the zig-zagging enemy boat for some hours. Having fixed the German’s position – and likely future track – via ASDIC, Launders fired a spread of four torpedoes, at 17-second intervals. U-864 managed to evade three, but steered into the path of the fourth and was blown apart.

By the mid-1950s Britain’s navy simply had to be more aggressive and push its submarines forward, to repeat Launders’s remarkable feat in order to make up for withered global sea control capability. It had not only ceded supremacy on the high seas to America, but was facing relegation into third place by the burgeoning maritime might of the Soviets. Even before the Second World War Stalin had been urging Red Navy chiefs to build a battle fleet that would break free of the traditional coast-hugging role. Within three months of the fighting in Europe ending, Stalin decreed the USSR should create a powerful ocean-going navy. Unfortunately, the vessels that started to come off the slipways, such as Sverdlov Class cruisers, were outmoded before they were launched. They replicated Nazi technology without taking it much further.

May 1955 saw the creation of the Warsaw Pact, which militarily melded the USSR with its satellite states in Eastern Europe to counter NATO.

Emboldened by Kremlin concessions to protests for more freedom in Poland, on 23 October 1956 200,000 Hungarians took to the streets, objecting to the presence of Russian troops in their country. Their revolution was brutally suppressed by the Red Army. Around 20,000 Hungarians paid with their lives for daring to try and cast off the Soviet yoke.

Even as Russian tanks crushed dreams of democracy on the streets of Budapest, the Soviets were threatening nuclear war against Britain and France in response to an invasion of Egypt.

The Americans did not back their Second World War allies’ bid to take back control of the Suez Canal by force, while the new Soviet overlord, Nikita Khrushchev – supporting the fervent Arab nationalist leader Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser – warned he would unleash ‘rocket weapons’ against London and Paris.

Despite a measure of military success, it was President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s fury at his allies going it alone that forced them, ultimately, to withdraw from Suez. The Cold War had turned nasty, but open warfare between the two armed camps had been avoided. Beyond confrontations on land, lethal shadow boxing between the naval forces of East and West was already a facet of the Cold War confrontation.

In April 1956 the mysterious disappearance, and probable murder, of a frogman trying to spy on Soviet warships within sight of Taciturn’s home base in Gosport heightened tension.

The Russians were returning the courtesy of a British naval diplomatic mission to Leningrad the previous year. As the aircraft carrier HMS Triumph and her escorts sailed up the river Neva, they passed building yards containing dozens of surface warships and submarines in various states of completion. Many in the British naval community had refused until then to believe the Soviets really were undertaking such an ambitious programme. Their hosts had not actually meant to leave so much on display. When the British naval squadron sailed back down the Neva, smokescreens were generated in front of the building yards. With Triumph’s height as an aircraft carrier, it was still possible for naval intelligence specialists to take photographs.

When the Russian Navy sent the cruiser Ordzhonikidze to Portsmouth she carried no less a person than Nikita Khrushchev. On the British side there was a great desire to learn as much as possible about the Russian warship – a temptation too hard to resist, especially as she was parked in the centre of the Hampshire harbour.

Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabb, a well-known veteran of daring underwater exploits in the Second World War, was ordered by M16 to see what he could find out about the Ordzhonikidze. Crabb had already covertly inspected the propulsion of a Sverdlov Class cruiser in 1953 -Sverdlov herself, when the vessel was anchored at Spithead for the Coronation Review of Queen Elizabeth II – discovering an innovative bow thruster. Three years later it was worth seeing what else might be below the water-line. Crabb stayed at the Sally Port Hotel in Portsmouth with his MI6 handler, who signed the register as ‘Mr Smith’. After the former naval officer departed to carry out his dive, ‘Mr Smith’ cleansed the room of Crabb’s civilian clothes and other belongings. Newspapers were soon carrying stories about Crabb disappearing on an espionage mission. The Navy maintained he was testing new diving equipment in Stokes Bay, just down the coast, rather than diving in Portsmouth Harbour. Soviet sources said sailors aboard the cruiser had spotted a frogman. An official complaint was lodged with the Foreign Office. Nobody publicly admitted to anything. The head of MI6 was forced to resign by the Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, for launching an ill-advised mission without specific authorisation by the government. The Navy had allegedly assisted MI6, providing a boat and a naval officer to support Crabb’s dive.

It was claimed the local Special Branch squad sent someone to rip out relevant pages in the hotel register.

The furious British government cancelled various military intelligence-gathering operations, including deploying submarines into the Barents Sea. This caused massive loss of face for the Royal Navy but in the absence of British boats taking part, the Americans received a confidential briefing on surveillance skills from Cdr John Coote. He had captained the Super-T boat HMS Totem on at least one recent spying mission in the Arctic. At one stage Totem had to surface so one of her officers, Peter Lucy, could carry out temporary repairs to a defective S-band search-receiver. Mounted in the periscope it picked up potential threats by detecting radars of searching aircraft and surface vessels. Normally such a procedure required a workshop, but Totem was hundreds of miles from home. Lucy would be working solo in the housing at the top of the fin and if the Russians loomed over the horizon Coote would dive the boat under him. Lucy would have to swim for his life and, if captured, probably suffer a grisly fate at the hands of Soviet interrogators. Several months later, Cdr Coote told senior British naval officers and the US Navy that intelligence gathered on the Soviet Navy in the Barents had revealed a weakness in its AS W capabilities. To gain such an edge risks were justified.

Not long after Coote showed the Americans how valuable Royal Navy missions in the Barents were, the British PM was warned that without them the US-UK defence relationship was at risk. It was felt the Americans would press ahead with the submarine surveillance programme anyway, denying the British access to data collected. Eden was still worried about the possibility of such forays sparking a hot war, so he remained true to one of his favourite sayings: ‘Peace comes first, always.’

Eden’s subsequent Suez misadventure led only to national humiliation and his resignation, in January 1957. Harold Macmillan, a firm supporter of the Anglo-American ‘Special Relationship’, succeeded him. The new PM authorised resumption of British participation in submarine deployments to the Barents. He was only too well aware that Soviet military doctrine was following a new direction that would require intelligence gathering in Northern seas. For while Khrushchev agreed with the need for a powerful global navy he saw there was no point in trying to match Western strength, but rather to outflank it. A battle-cruiser programme was cut, the number of Sverdlovs under construction revised downwards. Khrushchev announced a ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’, which sought to steer the Russian armed forces away from huge, lumbering conventional formations, to smaller high-tech units. They would deploy missiles with nuclear warheads.

Many of these new weapons would, from the 1950s onwards, be tested at firing ranges and detonation test sites located on the island of Novaya Zemlya. The Barents, Arctic and Kara seas washed its shores, but it was from the western side that it was most approachable by submarines.

To Khrushchev nuclear weapons were a means to achieving superpower punch while enabling a reduction in military spending, diverting resources instead to the civilian economy. Submarines armed with missiles would be a key component of the USSR’s defence revolution. To enact this element Khrushchev turned to a man he had served alongside during the 1941–45 war, Sergei Gorshkov, making his old comrade in arms Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Navy in 1957. The ascent of Gorshkov would reinvigorate the Soviet Union’s naval forces and make them more aggressive, both in home waters and overseas.

On 9 June 1957, what remained of a corpse in a diving suit – minus head and hands – was found in the sea off Chichester. It was difficult to identify, although a scar on a knee was supposedly a match for Crabb. While an inquest recorded an open verdict the coroner decided that, on balance of probability, it was him. One popular theory was that Crabb had been spotted by the Russian cruiser’s own frogmen on security duty. He had either been captured alive and taken aboard ship or killed in the water. More recently it has been suggested Crabb was sucked into the Ordzhonikidze’s screws. When at anchor in a foreign port, the cruiser turned them vigorously from time to time as a standard counter-measure against snooping frogmen.

With Crabb apparently suffering a grisly fate at the hands of the Soviet Navy – during a spying mission just a few hundred yards from Taciturn’s home berth at HMS Dolphin – did any submariner need to be reminded the Cold War could be fatal?


Monitor vs Merrimac. Merrimac had more guns, but monitor had heavier guns, and a turret that allowed it to always fire on the Merrimac. Merrimac was also underpowered, and very difficult to steer. Though both ships suffered some damage, the Merrimac retired first. The Merrimac never fought another battle. It was scuttled to prevent it coming into union possession. BOB HOLLAND

What If: The Confederate Navy Triumphant

Yorktown, Virginia

At Yorktown, on the James Peninsula jutting between the York and James Rivers in the sovereign state of Virginia, the thick fog had lifted by mid-morning to reveal a line of trenches separating two armies. Guns silent, regiments of both sides stood at parade rest. Promptly at 10.00 a.m., the easternmost army began to stack its weapons, then to march in what seemed unending lines through the ranks of its captors. A military band set the tone for the event, playing an old tune (one learned by the bandmaster from his grandfather, whose father had heard the same song played here years before): The World Turned Upside Down.

Later that day, as two generals met at Yorktown (the one to surrender his sword, the other to commiserate with his vanquished former brother-in-arms), another ceremony took place at a fortress on the tip of the Peninsula. Here, the commandant surrendered his sword and his command to a battered naval captain (left arm in a sling and right eye bandaged) accompanied by a rather roly-poly civilian. When the exuberant politician and his entourage posed for pictures alongside the shamed enemy officer, the naval captain slipped away to the parapet. There he gazed into the harbor at his similarly battered vessel. As the gusting wind streamed its tattered red, white, and blue banner from the ship’s oft-fished flagstaff, he tried to recall what it was that the newspapers had quoted the President as saying a few weeks ago. “In the end, it will not be the ships of iron but rather the steel wills of our loyal sons that decide the outcome of this struggle.”

“Perhaps Davis is right,” thought Catesby ap R. Jones (captain of the C.S.S. Virginia by the grace of God and the commission of the Confederate Congress), “but I rather think that we were just damn lucky, and I will take all the iron ships that I can get.”


The election of Abraham Lincoln as the sixteenth president of the United States in November 1860 launched his nation into a bloody civil war. South Carolinians had sworn that victory for the Black Republican would be followed by the secession of slave-holding states from the Union. They, and like-minded cohorts in the remaining six states of the Deep South, made good on their promise as the lame-duck President Buchanan did little (and the president-to-be even less) to prevent this fracture of a nation.

Secession tested loyalties. Military and naval officers as well as private citizens had to choose between regional affiliation and duty (often sworn duty) to the concept of an indivisible national entity. Even without consideration of duty, the choice was not always easy since ties of clan, friendship, and economics frequently crossed the Mason-Dixon Line. Here and there, voices of sanity competed with hawkish cries and strident martial airs, their pleas for logic and reason unheeded. They, too, eventually succumbed to the madness of fratricide.

One such voice belonged to William Tecumseh Sherman, President of Louisiana Seminary of Learning and Military Academy. A Northerner by birth and a graduate of West Point, Sherman had come to appreciate the cultured pace of life in the South. Despairing at the news of South Carolina’s break from the Union, he wrote a stirring and prophetic letter to his friend, Professor David F. Boyd:

“You, you the people of the South, believe there can be such a thing as peaceable secession. You don’t know what you are doing. I know there can be no such thing… You people speak so lightly of war. You don’t know what you are talking about. War is a terrible thing… The Northern people not only greatly outnumber the whites at [sic] the South, but they are a mechanical people with manufactures of every kind, while you are only agriculturalists… You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical and determined people on earth—right at your doors. You are bound to fail… At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, and shut out from the markets of Europe by blockade, as you will be, your cause will begin to wane…”

They did not listen; the general Southern populace was firmly ensnared in the rage militaire. As the break-away states began to seize arsenals and properties of the United States, some cooler heads closely considered the exact arguments that Sherman had addressed to his friend. A number of those calculating thinkers joined the secessionist congress, meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, in early February 1862. Though a constitution would not be adopted until the eleventh of the following month, the Provisional Congress of the new Confederate States of America elected Jefferson Davis as its first president, with Alexander Stephens as his vice-president. Davis immediately sought to make sense of the madness by seeking qualified men to assume the key cabinet positions in his government. When, on February 21, Congress created a Department of the Navy, Davis immediately called upon his old friend Stephen R. Mallory of Florida to become the Secretary of the Navy.

Planning the Impossible

As a former United States Senator, one of Mallory’s many appointments had been to the Senate Naval Affairs Committee, a position that he had held for a decade. There he had championed a stronger U.S. Navy, pushing programs ranging from shipbuilding to mandatory performance reviews for officers. The irony of the situation, as he assumed the title of Secretary of the Navy, was not lost on Mallory: without his efforts the mariners of his former country would have been far less able to prosecute war upon his new homeland—a homeland miserably prepared for a war at sea.

Sherman had been correct—agriculture was the South’s economy. There were few seagoing vessels based in the states of the Deep South, and it possessed no ships of war. Aside from scattered fishermen, the South produced few mariners, and those of Southern extraction had been on New England vessels for so long that even fewer would return home. New Orleans had a relatively large shipyard and Pensacola a smaller one while a number of civilian contractors existed in scattered ports, but the new nation lacked ordnance and powder factories, ironworks, machine shops, canvas lofts, and ropewalks. Sadly, the transport infrastructure in the Confederacy was almost as weak as its shipbuilding facilities. Rather than extensive railroads and macadamized roads, Mallory’s new country had long depended on its numerous inland waterways and a well developed coastal trade for its transport needs. The Secretary more than suspected that the Union Navy would soon seek to disrupt such watery highways.

Nor did it take a genius to realize the manner in which the U.S. Navy would prosecute its war against a South so absolutely dependent upon trade with Europe. With only 42 active vessels (and many of those scattered on distant stations around the globe), the Union’s Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, would put a token blockading force off each Southern port while aggressively converting to warships anything that would float and building vessels as rapidly as possible. As excess forces came available, they would be used to capture island bases to support the blockade, or simply to capture Southern ports. Meanwhile, rapidly converted gunboats would support a Union thrust down the Mississippi River, effectively isolating the Trans-Mississippi command from the remainder of the Confederacy.

As Mallory began to organize his department he carefully considered, then prioritized, the needs of his nation based upon the obvious enemy plans. First, the defense of the Mississippi River and the nation’s ports clamored for attention. Second, a means to defeat any Union blockade must be found. Third, the vulnerability of the commerce of the North, spread widely across the Seven Seas, must be exploited. And, an unlikely fourth, if possible the war must be taken to the coasts and port cities of the United States. To accomplish any of these goals, Mallory had to build a navy from scratch. At the same time, he found himself forced to wage political war against a president whose knowledge of naval matters could be “captured in a thimble, still leaving room for a lady’s thumb” and against a congress divided by the very states’ rights that had created it.

Mallory’s initial defensive plan stressed strong land fortifications at harbor mouths and along the Mississippi River and its key tributaries. At each port, and along the Mississippi, gunboat squadrons would be needed to support the fortifications and to assist defending Confederate field armies. At the same time, transports would be in desperate demand to supplement the underdeveloped rail system of the South. By early March 1861, the Confederate Navy consisted of only ten vessels, ranging from the antiquated sidewheeler Fulton (U.S.S. Fulton until taken while in ordinary at Pensacola) to revenue cutters and slavers seized by the provisional government. Altogether, they mounted only 15 guns. Incorporation of state navies would eventually add fewer than two dozen small warships to these forces, all as miserably armed as the original ten vessels. This fell far short of the hundred or more strongly armed ships needed for defensive purposes alone.

To add to the woes of the secretary, heavy artillery and munitions were in short supply. To equip new fortifications adequately meant denying strong firepower to converted warships. The South also lacked foundries and machine shops; in fact, it did not possess any of the facilities to build the steam power plants needed in modern warships, and could provide fittings such as shafts and screw propellers only with great difficulty. Of course, neither engines nor screws would be in great demand until adequate shipyards could be erected. When, on March 15, Congress approved the construction or purchase of ten additional vessels for port defense, Mallory remained uncertain as to whether engines and armament could be obtained for them.

A Turning Point

It must have galled Mallory to realize that each day over a dozen modern commercial steamships entered and exited the ports of his nation and that the seizure of even a few of them would have provided the nucleus of a blue-water navy for the Confederacy. However, they flew the flags of European nations, and Mallory knew that recognition by and support from those very nations provided the only hope for final independence of the Confederacy. It was his concern with the perception of his homeland by these foreign countries that led to heated words between President Davis and his Secretary of the Navy at a Cabinet meeting on the afternoon of March 18.

It was after the discussion of old Sam Houston’s refusal to swear an oath to the new Confederate government of Texas and the steps to be taken to force the surrender, preferably without bloodshed, of Fort Pickens in Pensacola and Fort Sumter in Charleston that Jefferson Davis announced his intention to issue Letters of Marque and Reprisal to Southern ship owners.4 Mallory reminded the president that privateering had been labeled illegal by the Declaration of Paris of 1856. Davis responded that neither the United States nor the Confederate States had signed that agreement, and thus he was not bound to follow it. Furthermore, South Carolina’s congressmen thought privateering a fine idea—in fact had suggested it to him because privateering had been profitable for Charleston in the past. Then the tone of the meeting intensified.

Mr. M. {Secretary Mallory} questions: “These are naval men?”

President {Davis}: “Well, no, at least I don’t think so.”

Mr. M.: “Do they have extensive connections with European governments, then?”

President: “No, but they…”

Mr. M. (growing red in the face, interrupting): “Then I must say that this is idiocy! We have no ships! We have no engines! We have no cannons! And we cannot anger the very people that we hope to sustain us in our hour of need! Such action would be as asinine as this proposal for a cotton embargo of European markets that is spreading through the newspapers!”

President (agitated): “I will not have…”

[At this point, the handwriting of the note taker becomes illegible as if scribbled hurriedly, though “Damn you!” appears at least once.]

Mr. M. leaves the room after threatening to tender his resignation.

President: “My apologies gentlemen, but better ended now than later. Let us move on to the discussion of the cotton embargo proposed by the representatives from Texas…”

The next afternoon, Secretary Mallory approached the president in private (resignation in hand, it should be added). Though their meeting is not recorded, President Davis’s appointment book for that day notes that all meetings after Mallory’s appearance were canceled. It can be assumed that both men realized that the pressure of forming a new nation had led to the harsh words of the preceding day. Apparently, Mallory managed to sway the often unswerving Davis to his point of view, as two days later (and with the support of Davis), he addressed Congress on naval matters. If a nexus can be identified wherein the course of the Confederacy turned sharply from potential disaster to possible success then this speech marks that juncture of time and action:

“Honored representatives of this Confederacy, I thank you for the time to discuss the needs of our naval establishment and the situation in which the coming conflict—and have no doubt that it will come—finds us. We are a newly birthed nation whose life blood is commerce. We lack the self-sufficiency of a long established country, and we require access to Europe. Our cotton must reach the markets of the old countries, and we must have European goods unloading in a constant stream at our wharves if we hope to see this great endeavor succeed.

Sadly, our seaports and rivers are vulnerable to any aggressor. The loss of even one major port, once overrun by an enemy army supplied from the sea, will be a dagger aimed at our heartland. Already, the United States refuses to surrender the forts at Charleston and Pensacola—bastions that by right belong to our nation. Two of our great ports are thus already plugged, and near a hundred ships under the Stars and Stripes ready to blockade the rest.

Yet we do not have a single ship capable of challenging potential blockaders. Our handful of gunboats mount fewer guns than one first-rate screw frigate. Yes, we have gunboats building, but there is no guarantee that we can find the engines to power them or the cannons to give them teeth. We have neither foundries nor machine shops, though they do exist—in Europe.

Now two bills, the one for the establishment of privateers and the other for an embargo, and both quite damaging to our maritime position, may well appear before you. They must not be passed. International law, as observed by the great nations of Europe, prohibits private vessels of war. For us to flaunt that law would be viewed as the naive arrogance of mere children and would not create the friends that we so dearly need. If any man would serve this nation rather than seek to line his own pockets, then let him enlist himself and his ship in this glorious cause! There will still be prizes, but let us not anger our friends across the Atlantic with the legitimacy of their taking.

As for this cotton embargo, do not allow it! When has an embargo succeeded? Did those of the founding fathers prevent their bloody struggle against tyranny? Did Jefferson’s embargo (and the hardship that it caused, you learned at your father’s knee!) stop a war? Did Madison’s embargo during that same war do ought but make the common people hate him? Now is the time that we must establish our credit abroad! We must show the nations of Europe that we value our economic ties! We must let them know that the mills of Lancashire and the looms of France will not wait on us! And if the bales stop flowing and their mill workers cry of hunger and need, it will not be on this Confederacy that those powerful Admiralties turn their ire. Oh no, gentlemen, to us they will extend their hands to reach the one that we have already given them.

The issues in this naval bill now before you are self-evident. But I would like to summarize the key items. The bill proposes the immediate establishment of a National Naval Arsenal at New Orleans, to include a powder mill, a naval cannon foundry, a general purpose foundry, four new slips for large vessels, a drydock, and boiler and engine manufacturies. As the manufacturies will not be ready for at least a year, agents will be authorized to purchase engines and miscellaneous accoutrements abroad for the building of four warships at New Orleans capable of challenging and defeating any blockading force on our coasts. Nor will we neglect our Atlantic coast while this force is building; large gunboats will be bid to private contractors in the ports designated by this bill. Again, agents dispatched to Europe will endeavor to purchase engines for these vessels. Artillery and munitions for coastal fortresses must be ordered as well. Sundry other items also appear in the bill.

Honored representatives, this will not come cheaply. No navy ever has. We may well mortgage our future for a generation—but, I promise you, there will be a future to mortgage. Without this effort, without this great outlay of wealth, that future may not arrive at all. Let us not quibble over dollars. They are small things when stacked beside our freedom. Had the Athenians quibbled when Themistocles asked that their silver be turned into warships, then the iron heel of a Persian tyrant would have trampled that glorious democracy. Had the Roman senate held close the coins needed to build a navy (and to build another when storms destroyed the first!), that fair Republic would have fallen to the mercantile tyranny of Carthage. I do not know exactly what lies before us, but I do know this: To surrender the sea is to surrender our democracy and our republic. And we must not let that happen.”

Within days, newspapers began hailing Mallory as the “Southern Themistocles.” The passage of the new naval appropriations was never in doubt, and though the price of “Mallory’s Navy” would create a national debt that would not be repaid during his lifetime, at least there would be a nation to repay it. Within a week of the speech, the first naval purchasing agents sailed for Europe, but by then the Confederacy’s prominent Secretary of the Navy had turned his attention to other opportunities.

Yards for the Confederate Navy

By the end of March, even faint hopes of reconciliation between the Confederacy and the United States had evaporated. Lincoln decided, in the waning days of that month, to hold Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens. The border states, especially North Carolina and Virginia, had already rejected secession once—now their loyal and disloyal citizens alike waited nervously for the first fratricidal shells to fall. Of course, some citizens alleviated their nervousness with action, especially in the organizing of militia and “volunteer” units. In wavering Virginia on the third day of April, one such unit, the Washington Rifles, elected a 37-year-old graduate of West Point as its captain. William Edmundson Jones, better known as “Grumble” to those around him, was an experienced soldier and local politician. Little could he have imagined on that day that his loyalty to Southern ideals would place him first on the field of battle for his state.

In Montgomery, Mallory still wrestled with creating a navy. Delegating minor tasks such as the creation of uniforms, flags, and forms to his growing staff, he focused on placing ships and men on the water. To lure those who would have become privateers, Mallory offered generous bounties for prizes taken by the Confederate Navy—75 percent of auction value, as well as gun money and head money for enemy warships, to be divided among crew and officers. To encourage ship owners to risk their vessels in national service, Mallory promised 20 percent of the auction value of each prize for division among the owners of vessels loaned to the national government for conversion to warships. By the end of the first week of April, a dozen large steamers and three times as many smaller vessels had been deeded to the government. Hundreds of men—including far too many whose only experience of salt water had been that prescribed by a physician for sore feet—had flocked to recruiters in ports throughout the Confederacy, ready for their share of the prize money.

Over the following months, the Confederate naval apparatus would take shape, but in those first weeks Mallory and his subordinates faced overwhelming logistical restraints: no uniforms, few barracks or tents, little preserved food and naval stores, a severe shortage of artillery and munitions, a lack of drydocks and experienced artificers to convert their new found wealth of vessels to something resembling a navy, and a shortage of experienced naval officers to bring order to the chaos in every Southern port.

When, on April 7, Davis notified his secretary of the navy that the governor of South Carolina had ordered communications between Fort Sumter and Charleston cut in preparation for forcing the issue of ownership of the bastion, Mallory requested permission to initiate what in modern parlance would be called a “black op.” With the president’s approval, Mallory dispatched a trusted lieutenant to Virginia with a written plea to an old acquaintance, the governor of that wavering state. Though the actual missive was destroyed by the governor, its contents remain well known: if Virginia should join the Confederacy, then every effort must be made to secure the Gosport Naval Yard near Norfolk. If the yard could be taken quickly, the Confederacy would gain a well-stocked, first-class naval facility. And Mallory did not trust the United States simply to turn it over to its rebellious sons. The governor shared Mallory’s concern, and quietly called upon an old and trusted friend, Grumble Jones (breveted to major), to begin shifting his company to Norfolk. There Jones would take command of local militia. Working with Southern sympathizers stationed at the yard, Jones was ordered to seize the facility if Virginia prepared to leave the Union.

At 04.30 a.m. on April 12, the first shots struck Fort Sumter. The following day, Major Robert Anderson surrendered his battered command. Two days later, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers as a force to march south and end the rebellion. Missouri and Kentucky refused to send soldiers against their sister states, while Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas took the first steps to leave the Union and join the Confederacy. On April 17, Virginia’s legislature officially voted in favor of secession, and its governor telegraphed Grumble Jones to act immediately. By 11.00 p.m. Jones had led his forces through the main gate at Gosport, skirmishing as they went with a small guard of Marines and sailors. As Jones wrote:

“Forming the Rifles into a volley line in the field across from the gate, I called upon the officer of the guard to surrender his small force in the name of the Sovereign State of Virginia and the Confederate States of America or I would order my men to fire. Before he could reply, the boys being a mite high strung had heard the word fire, released a shamefully ragged volley, and headed for the gate in what they thought was a charge. The Union boys took off, and a race commenced that did not end until my boys had followed some of them onto a big ship docked in the harbor. Following at a more sedate pace, I took the color guard to the quarters of Commodore [Charles S.] McCauley and allowed him to change from his nightshirt to a uniform before accepting his sword. The next morning we locked up 107 prisoners, all those who refused to swear allegiance to Virginia or the Confederacy, and began to organize batteries to receive the expected Yankee visitors. Losses all around were about 23 wounded or injured—mostly from fist fights and stumbling around boats.”

It was well that Jones organized his defenses so quickly, as Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles had already dispatched Captain Hiram Pauldry’s Pawnee with a force of Marines from Washington to burn the yard. Pauldry’s arrival at Norfolk was met with enthusiastic though inaccurate fire from shore batteries. Unwilling to risk his ship and Marines against an obviously prepared defense, Pauldry returned to Washington.

According to his clerks, Mallory danced in delight when he first heard the news of the capture of the yard, complete with its large drydock, ropewalks, foundry, machine shop, boiler shop, covered ways, and overflowing store houses. Some 1,200 cannon, including over 50 of the new Dahlgren guns, and tons of munitions were among the booty. Best of all, along with several old sailing ships stored in ordinary and the yard’s steam tugs, Jones had captured the seven-year old screw frigate Merrimack. Docked for repair of its ailing steam engine, the ship had been rigged for scuttling, but the headlong charge of the Washington Rifles had captured the vessel before its captain could react. Mallory wasted little time in shifting war materials from the naval yard to his scattered squadrons forming at Southern ports.

Though Mallory could immediately use the materials captured at Gosport, the use of the vessels captured there was a tad more perplexing. Those ships ranged from the antique frigate United States (of War of 1812 fame) to the old 74-gun ship of the line Pennsylvania and, of course, the modern Merrimack. The non-steam warships were so vulnerable as to be useless, except as floating batteries. Even the Merrimack, despite being a first-rate steam frigate, did not stand a chance against an entire fleet and could only be used as a raider if it could escape the Union vessels soon to invest Hampton Roads. Similarly, the yard itself remained relatively useless unless the blockaders could be defeated. Mallory foresaw only one answer to this dilemma, proposing on April 26:

“… 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…”

That answer was to build, to convert, or to acquire seagoing ironclad vessels.


Ironclads and Gunboats

Mallory’s role took on increased urgency when Davis approved a bill on May 3 that proclaimed a formal state of war existing between the Confederacy and the United States. Forced to act by this declaration, European nations officially recognized the Confederacy as a belligerent, though not as a nation in its own right. Britain’s Queen Victoria declared her nation a neutral in the conflict, though the world knew that the day’s greatest maritime and industrial state’s definition of “neutrality” could be somewhat flexible.

Mallory’s decisive actions in the first weeks of his tenure began to bear fruit during May. At Gretna, Louisiana, the first naval cannon was cast on May 4, while 2-inch wrought iron plates followed by the end of the month from a new mill in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. These fruits of hard Southern labor wended their way to New Orleans and the rapidly expanding naval yard in that city. There, two private shipbuilding firms would be authorized to build the first ironclads in the western Confederacy, the Louisiana and the Mississippi.

Slowly, but steadily, naval squadrons began to emerge from the initial chaos in Southern ports. By the end of May, some 20 gunboats, equipped with one or two guns each, patrolled the Mississippi, supported by a transport squadron of six fast steamers. Squadrons of six to ten steam vessels of varying sizes, configurations, and capabilities trained at each of the major Southern ports. Additionally, state navies such as the “Mosquito Fleet” of North Carolina patrolled coastal estuaries and sounds. The command situation improved dramatically with the secession of Virginia when over 100 officers and nearly as many enlisted ranks decided to “go South.” Several former Union officers would quickly prove worthy of the task at hand.

On June 9, lookouts aboard the U.S.S. Massachusetts, part of the small squadron supporting Fort Pickens and the blockade of Pensacola, spotted a plume of smoke on the horizon. Investigation revealed it to be the British registered steamship Perthshire, its holds laden with cotton. After seizing the neutral ship (the first such seizure of the war) for carriage of contraband, an examination of its log and manifests shocked the American captain. The ship had unloaded six steam engines, six screws and shafts, and sundry machine parts at New Orleans a week earlier. Worse, a copy of the New Orleans Picayune dated June 6 revealed that a Confederate squadron of three steamers under the command of Commodore Franklin Buchanan had sunk or captured the two small Union warships blockading the mouth of the Mississippi.

Unfortunately for the Confederacy, the Union Navy was growing by leaps and bounds. Welles purchased or purloined anything that floated, from trans-Atlantic steamers to ferryboats to private yachts, and the yards of the North quickly converted them to warships with the addition of weapons and naval officers. Within weeks, New Orleans was again blockaded, and the interdiction of the Southern coast as a whole stiffened day by day as the war progressed. Twice, once at Charleston and once at Mobile, small Confederate squadrons challenged the blockaders. In both cases, lives were lost and ships damaged, but the blockade remained. Until ironclads could be completed, the blockade would only strengthen.

On July 11, plans and money for conversion to ironclads of the captured Merrimack as well as the United States and the Pennsylvania were approved by the Confederate Congress, though modifications to the Merrimack had been underway since June 10, the day that it was renamed C.S.S. Virginia. The two larger ships would have the upper decks cut away and replaced by iron casemates amidships. Angled so as to deflect enemy shells and meant to extend below the waterline to protect vital machinery, the casemates featured two layers of 2-inch wrought iron plate backed by over a foot of oaken timbers. The hulls, armored by a layer of 2-inch plate extending six feet below the waterline, showed only a foot of freeboard. The Virginia would mount six 9-inch Dahlgren smoothbores, three to each broadside, and four heavy rifled guns as bow and stern chasers. Pennsylvania, now known as Alabama, would carry two fewer broadside guns. Both vessels would be fitted with heavy iron rams.

Knowing that the casemate-ironclads would be slow and ponderous, Mallory selected a different design for the conversion of the old United States. Renamed Hart of the Confederacy, the vessel would be built for speed. With masts and upper works cut away, the hull would be plated with 2-inch wrought iron over its old (but relatively sound) oaken timbers. Its new freeboard of eight feet demanded additional armor amidships where its vulnerable boiler and engine would rest. Thus, the designer added an additional belt of 2-inch plate extending five feet below the waterline. Six 9-inch Dahlgrens fired to each broadside, but their gunports were only two feet above the water in order to lower the vessel’s center of gravity. This limited the usefulness of the cannons in any but the calmest seas. The true killer for the Hart would be the spar torpedo—a 20-foot pole, dropped at the last minute before contact to project from the bow, with a keg of gunpowder triggered by a percussion cap at its end—and its ram-tipped, heavily reinforced prow.

From its date of approval, numerous problems confronted the conversion efforts. A shortage of artificers and shipwrights meant that work on the vessels had to proceed sequentially. Tredegar Ironworks in Richmond, slated to produce the 2-inch wrought iron plate for the ironclads, had to convert its facilities from 1-inch plate production before it could begin to roll the required size plates. Then, as plates began to accumulate, Mallory had to squabble with the army, engaged in its own buildup of supplies and men, for train engines and cars to move them to Gosport. Most seriously, capture of the Perthshire by the U.S.S. Massachusetts had led to a diplomatic protest by the United States to Great Britain, forcing the British government to stop the shipment of twelve additional steam engines and other materials to the Confederacy. Fortunately for Mallory, Britain, in immediate response to the Trent Affair of November 1861, released six of the engines for immediate delivery to the Confederacy. Escorted by H.M.S. Warrior, the shipment arrived in Wilmington, North Carolina, on November 24. By Christmas, two of those engines had arrived at Gosport for installation in Alabama and Hart—a most acceptable present for Secretary Mallory.

As Mallory wrestled with building a navy to challenge the blockade, his nation’s fortunes on land and at sea twisted and turned. In the east, Confederate forces had stopped a premature advance from Fortress Monroe through the James Peninsula to Richmond at the Battle of Big Bethel on June 10. At Manassas, Virginia, green Confederate troops had outlasted green Union soldiers on July 21. The routed Yankees fled to the defenses of Washington without pursuit by the disorganized Southern army. Success in eastern Virginia offset losses in the western portion of the state, which eventually allowed the admittance of West Virginia to the Union.

In August, a U.S. fleet commanded by Flag Officer S.H. Stringham supported the troops of General Ben Butler in capturing Forts Hatteras and Clark on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Unable to face an overwhelming force on the open sea, Rebel naval forces under Flag Officer W.F. Lynch continued to challenge Union control of the (now closed) Pamlico Sound. On October 1, C.S.S. Curlew, Raleigh, and Junaluska captured the Union steamer Fanny (later C.S.S. Fanny) with enemy troops aboard. This Mosquito Fleet continued to sting the Union until overwhelmed by constantly increasing numbers of warships. It had, for all practical purposes, ceased to exist by the time Union forces under Flag Officer L.M. Goldsborough and General Ambrose Burnside captured Roanoke Island in February 1862, effectively closing Albemarle Sound. The lack of effective naval opposition then allowed Union forces to establish themselves on the mainland at New Bern during early March. By that month, Northern amphibious forces had seized several points along the Southern coasts, including Port Royal, South Carolina and Fernandina, Florida.

In the western Confederacy, Rebel gunboats and fortifications had proven no match for their opponents. Union forces repulsed a Confederate invasion of “neutral” Kentucky, then, spearheaded by seven armored riverboats commissioned in January 1862 (others would quickly follow), smashed Confederate defenses along the Tennessee and upper Mississippi Rivers. By the end of February, Confederate forces had abandoned Nashville, Tennessee, to consolidate in northern Mississippi. The Trans-Mississippi theater witnessed a seesaw war for control of Missouri, eventually decided by the Union victory at Pea Ridge, Arkansas, in March 1862. Forced back on both banks of the Father of Waters, Confederate defense of that mighty river appeared doomed.

By late February 1862, Mallory found himself under considerable pressure from Congress and the public to break the tightening blockade of Southern ports, free the coasts of North Carolina, and to provide additional naval support for the upper Mississippi. Mallory promised decisive action in March and April as his ironclads at New Orleans and Norfolk became available. Meanwhile he continued to send raiders to sea, hoping to force the Union Navy to react, thus weakening the blockade. Welles refused to respond, however, claiming that the losses would be small and those few raiders that slipped through the tightening cordon would be captured upon their return. This did little to console Northern businessmen, who claimed some $10,000,000 in shipping and goods destroyed in the opening months of the war. Quietly but steadily they began to shift vessels and cargoes to foreign flags. In fact, some clandestinely supported blockade running into the Confederacy.

Another officer receiving considerable pressure from his administration was General George McClellan, commanding the Union’s Army of the Potomac. McClellan had trained his army hard since becoming its commander; now Abraham Lincoln wanted him to use it to capture Richmond and end the rebellion. The North’s “Little Napoleon” did not wish to waste his men on a march through northern Virginia against prepared Confederate defenses. Instead, he proposed to move his army by sea to the James Peninsula, then, with Fortress Monroe secured as his base of supply, swiftly advance the 60-odd miles to the Rebel capital. His flanks protected by naval forces advancing up the York and James Rivers, McClellan’s outflanking maneuver would nullify the strong defensive positions in northern Virginia and guarantee a victory. His plan approved by a president desperate for any form of advance, McClellan began chartering the 400 merchant ships needed to move and supply his army. Then, at around 12.45 p.m. on March 8, his efforts paused as a strangely shaped vessel approached Union blockaders in Hampton Roads—the C.S.S. Virginia, supported by the wooden gunboats Beaufort and Raleigh, also of the Gosport Squadron, was about to place its mark on naval history.

Mallory had hoped to commit his Gosport Squadron of ironclads in mass, but delays in acquiring engines, shafts, and armor plates had slowed the conversions. By early March, only Virginia was ready for combat. Even it lacked the heavy iron shutters for its gunports, while newly minted Captain Catesby ap R. Jones (promoted for his fine effort in readying the vessel) seemed less than happy with the top speed of eight knots that its old engine could produce. Trials had revealed additional problems: awkward turning ability (30 minutes to turn through 180 degrees), vulnerability of the hull armor (covered with readily available 1-inch instead of 2-inch plate due to shortages) when the vessel rode light, and the Virginia’s deep draft which led to tricky maneuvering in shallow water. On the other hand, Mallory’s early recruiting efforts had given Jones time to whip a rather lubberly bunch of men into something resembling a naval crew.

Lieutenant Lucien W. Carter, late of the Mosquito Squadron’s Curlew, would captain Alabama, which floated at Gosport on March 8. Only some three weeks from readiness, the converted two-decker would become the squadron’s flagship. Filling the slot of commodore had been a difficult choice for Mallory. He would have preferred shifting the experienced and aggressive Buchanan from New Orleans for this critical role, but that city was a logical target for Union assault. Instead, the secretary chose another veteran of North Carolina’s Mosquito Fleet, Captain W.F. Lynch, for the role. Delayed by the conflict raging in the Carolina sounds, Lynch would not arrive at Gosport until March 14.

Raphael Semmes had accepted command of Hart of the Confederacy in mid-February. Semmes had already gained a reputation for boldness while commanding the raider C.S.S. Petrel out of Charleston. As a lieutenant, he had twice ran the blockade of Charleston to capture a total of 15 prizes—including a Union blockader. Unlike other raiders, Semmes had returned home with his vessel, boarding and capturing the enemy warship that stood in his way on the last trip. While recovering from a slight wound received in the action, he had requested a large, heavily armed steamer for his next raid. Instead, Semmes found himself promoted to captain and hustled to Gosport to command the vessel he later described as “the fastest, deadliest little ship in the world.” However, as Virginia steamed into Hampton Roads, Hart, the most difficult of the three conversions, still lacked most of its armor. The chief architect had informed Mallory that it could not possibly be seaworthy, even for trials, before the end of April.

First Battle of Hampton Roads

Lincoln’s North Atlantic Blockading Squadron mustered over 50 vessels, and five floated in Hampton Roads on March 8. Closest to the Elizabeth River and Gosport anchored Cumberland, a 24-gun sailing sloop, and the 44-gun sailing frigate Congress. The 50-gun screw frigates Roanoke and Minnesota, as well as the 44-gun sailing frigate St Lawrence were in positions to support the two vessels that would be the first target of the untested Confederate ironclad. It took the slow-moving Virginia more than an hour to reach gunnery range. Confident in their ability and without knowledge of the capabilities of the enemy, the Union officers of the Cumberland and Congress beat to quarters, but remained at anchor (powered only by sails, their maneuvering would have been severely limited in the tight confines of the Roads at any rate).

Shortly after 2.00 p.m., the ships exchanged their first shots. Jones, determined to destroy the more dangerous of his enemies first (though smaller than its mate, Jones knew that Cumberland carried the heavier battery), used his under-gunned wooden consorts to distract Congress. As Virginia closed the range, the superiority of its iron-plated casemate became evident. The heaviest Union shells failed to penetrate its thick hide, while Confederate artillery wrecked the sloop’s hull and created carnage among its crew. Finally, the Rebel ram pierced the side of the doomed ship. Splintered beams and suction pinned the Rebel ship in place as Cumberland rapidly settled to the bottom. At the last moment, as water sluiced across the ironclad’s deck, Jones’s straining engines managed to pull Virginia free. Its ram remained embedded in the wreckage of its victim. Even as their vessel settled beneath them, frustrated Union gunners continued to exchange fire with the Rebel cannoneers. Still unable to penetrate Virginia’s armor, they did manage to disable one of its broadside guns before, around 3.30 p.m., Cumberland slid beneath the waves.

Reinforced by the wooden gunboats Teaser, Jamestown, and Patrick Henry of the James River Squadron, Jones turned his attention to Congress, whose captain, endeavoring to gain the cover of Union shore batteries, had deliberately grounded his vessel. Taking position a mere hundred yards from the stern of the grounded frigate, Jones pounded it into submission in little over an hour. Unable to take possession of the surrendered craft as shore batteries and Union marksmen continued to target his ships, Jones ordered shot heated in his boilers. Around 5.00 p.m., Jones signaled his squadron to make for his next target, leaving the once proud Congress in flames.

The three remaining Union vessels in and near Hampton roads had rushed to join the fracas—perhaps a bit too quickly, as all three had run aground. Once freed, the outclassed Roanoke and St Lawrence had scurried for the safety of Fortress Monroe’s massive batteries, but Minnesota remained firmly aground. Jones aimed his command at that vessel, but a falling tide and shoal water prevented him from closing the range. Instead he retired to an anchorage beneath the Confederate guns at Sewell’s Point. For the price of some 60 dead and wounded, two cannons damaged, a few iron plates buckled, and an iron ram lost, Virginia and its wooden consorts had destroyed two Union warships with heavy casualties to their crews. Despite a pesky leak in the bows, munitions and coal remained to destroy the last three Yankee blockaders on the morrow. Then, perhaps, there would be time to test his vessel in the wider waters of the Chesapeake before returning to Gosport.

At 6.00 the next morning, Virginia and the five gunboats of the James River Squadron upped anchors and steamed through the mists to destroy the still grounded Minnesota. There they found a tiny vessel, a mere “cheesebox on a raft,” awaiting them. It was another ironclad, the U.S.S. Monitor. Welles had not stood idle at the threat of Mallory’s conversion of Rebel ironclads. Rather, he had solicited bids for a number of these vessels for his own navy, several of which were already performing superbly on western rivers. The most unique of the designs, however, was the Monitor. Relatively fast and maneuverable, the shallow draft vessel carried only two heavy guns, but both were protected by a thickly armored, revolving turret. The only major flaw in the design was that the deck, mere inches above the waterline, would be continually awash in any but calm waters. In fact, the warship had almost sunk during heavy seas on its journey from Long Island to Hampton Roads.

For four hours that morning, the two marvels of the age of steam and iron fought, with neither gaining an advantage. Once, Jones managed to ram his enemy, but the only result was increased leakage in Virginia’s already damaged bow. Then, the Rebel ironclad shuddered to a halt, aground on a mud bank. For an hour, the two ships pounded away, Monitor working closer and closer to the immobile behemoth. At the last minute, a shell struck the pilothouse of the tiny warship, temporarily blinding its commander. For 20 vital minutes, Monitor abandoned the battle while an inexperienced officer took the con. During that time, Jones managed to ease his battered vessel from the mud. Listening to the council of his officers that the dropping tide and leaky condition of Virginia could combine to see the vessel again aground, the frustrated Confederate captain abandoned the field and returned to his anchorage at Sewell’s Point. The following day, he steamed for Gosport and a drydock, temporarily conceding Hampton Roads to the enemy.


Though the first day of battle had sown panic in Washington, it had calmed after the standoff of the second day. McClellan queried Welles as to the U.S. Navy’s ability to contain the Rebel ships in Hampton Roads. Receiving a positive response, he began to shift his army to the Peninsula, knowing that the commitment of Union naval assets to the blockade of the Roads meant that he would have little support for his flanks along the James and York Rivers. By April 4, over 100,000 men of the Army of the Potomac were prepared to advance against weakly held Confederate fortifications stretching from Yorktown along the Warwick River. The next day, Little Mac, receiving reports of inflated Confederate strength from his intelligence agents, upset with the Navy’s refusal to support his advance along the York River, and angry at President Lincoln for keeping General McDowell’s I Corps in front of Washington instead of releasing it to the Army of the Potomac, prepared to besiege the Rebel defensive lines rather than lose men to direct assault. In the weeks it took McClellan to ready his siege guns, the besiegers became the besieged.

As Welles concentrated 21 warships near the James Peninsula, including the new ironclad Galena, the iron-hulled Naugatuck, and three fast steamers converted into rams, dockyard workers and ship crews at Gosport worked 24 hours a day to repair Virginia and to finish the conversion of Alabama and Hart. On April 1, Alabama began its trials. Its newer engine gave it a top speed of ten knots, though the same concerns with draft and maneuverability as plagued Virginia still existed. Three days later, Jones’s command (proudly bearing many of the scars remaining from its two days of battle) left drydock. Two additional inches of plate had been added to its hull, the two damaged cannon had been replaced, its heavy gunport shutters were added at last, and several damaged plates on its casemate were repaired. With a new ram attached to its bow, Virginia seemed to tug at its moorings, anxious again to face the enemy.

Semmes’s Hart, though he had briefly tested its engine and screw, remained in the hands of the workers. By April 10, the installation of its hull plating complete, only the armored pilothouse needed to shield its still exposed wheel and command station on the quarterdeck remained to be added. Semmes had already ballasted and coaled his vessel, though powder and spar torpedoes remained to be shipped as soon as workers finished the wheelhouse.

At 10.00 a.m. that day, Commodore Lynch met with his captains, including those of the seven wooden gunboats assigned to his support. Glancing at a telegram from Mallory, the commodore informed his officers that the situation did not look good on the James Peninsula. Though the army was being concentrated as rapidly as possible opposite the Yankees, they would be outnumbered almost two to one, and any hard push could well reach Richmond. Unless the pressure could be relieved, the army would be forced to abandon Norfolk. The abandonment of the Confederacy’s only fully developed naval yard was not only unpalatable, it was unacceptable; and in the eyes of the Secretary of the Navy, such a disaster could well mean the loss of the war. The only possible resolution to the conundrum in Virginia was the defeat of the blockaders standing off Fortress Monroe and a Confederate naval blockade of McClellan’s forces in Virginia.

Having been ordered to accomplish that feat, Lynch proposed to stage his ships immediately to Craney Island at the mouth of the Elizabeth River. There they would load five companies of militia, split among the vessels to serve as marines, then steam to engage the enemy on the morning of April 12. The meeting ended, and one by one ships began to leave the yard. Last in line was the Hart, its crew dangerously shifting barrels of powder from a hoy towing alongside while the noise of saws and hammers still echoed from its quarterdeck. By 6.00 the next morning, workers had completed a makeshift bulwark of 4-inch wooden beams chest-high around the vulnerable wheel and three-quarters plated it with poorly fastened 1-inch wrought iron. Most of them then tumbled into boats as Hart eased from its anchorage, though several sought and gained Semmes’s permission to remain aboard as crewmen.

Union Commodore Louis M. Goldsborough, Flag Officer of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron and personally commanding the fleet off Hampton Roads from the deck of Minnesota, possessed an excellent defensive position for his ironclads. The channel between Fortress Monroe and Confederate-held Willoughby’s Point stretched for less than four miles, flowing around an island known as the Rip Raps on which he had mounted heavy batteries of artillery. Shoals further reduced the space for maneuver. Rather than risk his vulnerable wooden vessels in the channel, Goldsborough had placed only his strongest hulls—Monitor, Galena, and Naugatuck—there, keeping the bulk of his fleet two miles to the east. If hard pressed, his first line could withdraw for a battle of maneuver; if it managed to hold the Rebel ironclads, he could run down in support.

Second Battle of Hampton Roads

At 8.00 a.m., the Galena’s lookouts spotted the approaching Confederate ironclads, Alabama and Virginia abreast and Hart of the Confederacy lingering astern. The vulnerable Rebel gunboats followed, wary of closing the range too swiftly, though at six knots (the best that Virginia’s struggling engine could do against a making tide), the range seemed to close slowly indeed. At 9.00 a.m., Monitor’s big Dahlgrens opened the ball. A few minutes later, Galena scored first blood, its opening broadside shattering Alabama’s starboard quarterboat, splinters wounding a Confederate sharpshooter crouched by the ship’s funnel. By 9.30, the firing was general as shells glanced from the armor of both sides. Closer and closer crept the casemated leviathans, obviously intent on ramming the Union vessels. But all three were nimble, and maneuvered to escape collision while they themselves ineffectually pounded the enemy. Then, seeming to leap from between the larger Confederate ships, Semmes’s Hart, black smoke streaming from its stack and the very deck vibrating with the revolutions of its single shaft, arrowed towards Monitor at the amazing speed of 17 knots.

Semmes intended to combine his untried spar torpedo with a ramming attack. As conceived, the spar torpedo was a simple weapon. Mounted on a pole held upright above the ship’s bow until released seconds before impact, the pole would fall forward into a slot on the bulwark. Projecting downward to or immediately below the waterline of the enemy ship, contact would ignite a percussion cap, thus triggering the barrel of powder and, ideally, opening a hole in the side of the enemy ship. The weapon’s operators had been trained to wait until the last minute to drop the infernal device, as the force of the waves could snap the spar or even trigger the torpedo early. Once fired, it would be the crew’s job to mount another torpedo as Hart maneuvered for the next attack.


An untested weapon often produces surprising results. Sixteen-year old Ensign Mercutio Albert Palmer, having never dropped the torpedo while underway and distracted to the edge of paralysis by shot whizzing over and into his vessel, closed his eyes and misjudged the release. Rather than striking Monitor at its waterline, as intended, the late release of the torpedo caused it to strike the turret at the point where one of its Dahlgrens exited the gunport. The resulting explosion funneled directly into the turret through that gap, instantly killing every man inside with concussion as well as igniting a powder charge being inserted into the cannon. Popping rivets actually killed two men on Hart. Its way partially checked by the force of the torpedo, Semmes’s ship still stuck Monitor hard enough to knock the Union warship’s engine shaft out of alignment, though the vessel’s overhanging armor prevented a rupture of its hull. Semmes, thrown from his feet by the collision, ordered his engine put astern as flames poured from the shattered turret of the now drifting Monitor. Within ten minutes, he had ascertained that four men had been killed and two were missing (all from the bow of the ship), while six men had suffered various injuries below deck. More importantly, his Hart’s heavily reinforced bow had withstood the explosion and the ramming without major damage. Ordering a replacement crew to ready a new spar torpedo, he steamed for the Galena, now engaging the slower Alabama within range of the Rip Raps battery. Closer to Fortress Monroe, Naugatuck’s iron hull was proving no match for Virginia’s rifled cannon. With its single gun dismounted and the hull shattered and leaking in several places, Naugatuck turned towards the open waters of the Chesapeake at best speed.

Lieutenant Carter and the inexperienced crew of the Confederate flagship were having a tough time of things. In a running battle with the nimbler Galena, Carter had inadvertently allowed his vessel to close with the heavy Union battery on the Rip Raps. At close range, the solid shot could, if not penetrate, then severely buckle or loosen casemate armor. Worse, such hits caused great splinters to fly from the oak backing of the plates, killing or injuring a number of men in Alabama’s casemate. But disaster, when it struck, came from a light pivot gun on Galena. Commodore Lynch had just ordered Carter to close Virginia when a shell struck the observation slit in Alabama’s pilothouse. Jagged metal splinters decapitated the Commodore, disemboweled the helmsman, and ripped away Carter’s left arm. At full speed and rudder locked amidships by the now unconscious hand of its captain, the flagship headed directly into the Chesapeake—a beeline for the remainder of Goldsborough’s squadron.

Galena turned to follow, but its first officer noticed Hart, coming ahead at full steam. He ordered his guns turned on it a mere minute before a parting shot from Alabama smashed into the quarterdeck, sending that brave man to his eternal reward. Columns of water rose around Hart, a difficult target due to its approaching aspect and its great speed. One round hit its angled bow, and glanced away. Another whistled low over the deck before penetrating the funnel. Then just as its spar torpedo dropped into contact low on Galena’s stern quarter, a shot ripped completely through Hart’s unfinished wheelhouse. Blasted by the force of the exploding torpedo, its wheel splintered and its rudder swinging freely, Hart clipped the stern of the Union ironclad, then began an uncontrolled, full speed turn back into the waters of Hampton Roads. Galena, shipping water through its ruptured stern, quickly lost power and grounded on a sandbar near the Rip Raps, out of the battle.

Though he had observed Semmes incapacitate Monitor, Jones remained unaware of the tragedies playing out on Hart and Alabama, both of which appeared to be moving under their own power and direction. His vessel had suffered minimal damage thus far in the engagement, and since the commodore was obviously taking his flagship directly for the remaining Union ships, how could Jones not do likewise? Ordering full speed ahead, Jones was pleased to see that both Virginia and Alabama would hit the Union line at about the same time. Meanwhile, the wooden gunboats lagging behind the Confederate ironclads increased their speed, except for Teaser, which slowed to pluck a battered Ensign Palmer from the water, then closed to accept the surrender of the smashed Monitor. The premier Union ironclad would eventually reach Gosport under tow—a visible sign of Confederate naval might.

Goldsborough, having watched his strongest vessels shattered by the Confederate ironclads, formed his 11 available ships into a line of battle and waited for the oncoming enemy. Anchored by the 50-gun screw frigates Minnesota and Roanoke, as well as the 44-gun sailing frigate St Lawrence (towed by the steam tug Dragon), eight additional lightly armed screw and sidewheel steamers prepared to greet the upstart Rebel navy with a storm of shot. As the range closed, Virginia’s grizzled quartermaster whispered, “Looks like Hell’s a comin’,” as the heavy Yankee ships disappeared behind a wall of flame-riven smoke. A moment later, shot from the Union line rang like hail from the casemate as it stripped away virtually every outside fitting and reduced Virginia’s stack to an ill-drawing nub. Then thunder cracked as Confederate gunners returned fire.

As Virginia approached the strong center of the Union line, Alabama closed the more vulnerable side-wheelers forming its vanguard at the oblique. Only as the flagship’s guns had fallen silent after engaging Galena had executive officer Donald Clarence Collins, stationed on the gundeck, discovered the carnage in the pilothouse. By the time the fallen men had been carried below and control of the vessel regained, shot was again striking the ironclad’s hull. Collins ordered fire returned, then a hard turn to port that he hoped would bring the ungainly Alabama parallel to the Union line at close range.

By the time Jones’s ship reached the enemy line, funnel damage had reduced its best speed to less than four knots, allowing Roanoke to dodge its dangerous ram with ease. Though three of Virginia’s guns were out of action (one with its muzzle blown away, two more with shutters jammed closed), those that remained raked Roanoke’s stern and Minnesota’s bow with devastating accuracy. Two shot bounced the length of Roanoke’s gundeck, temporarily disabling fully a third of its guns and puncturing its funnel between decks. As thick black smoke filled the gundeck and poured from the vessel’s gunports, panic seized some of the warship’s crew. They leaped into the chill waters of the Chesapeake to escape a ship they thought aflame.

Though only one round stuck Minnesota, the gun captain firing it had the presence of mind to load two bags of grape atop the solid shot. The 1-inch balls scythed through the Union crews laboring at their heavy bow chasers, and snapped lines and stays that whipped in their own dance of death. The heavy shot smashed into the foremast of the steam-frigate. Its stays cut away by grape, the mast toppled, crashing into Minnesota’s funnel as it fell. Furled sails caught on the ragged edge of the stack, then ignited as embers from the ship’s boilers spewed from below. Some guns fell silent as the Union flagship’s captain ordered his men to deal with the more immediate danger posed by fire and tangled wreckage. Those gunners remaining at their posts redoubled their efforts as Virginia cleared the Union line and again crossed their sights. To their amazement, the Confederate ironclad appeared to have lost all headway, and was now drifting stern first less than 20 yards from the Minnesota’s heavy artillery.

Alabama’s turn to port had placed it less than 50 yards from the Union van, four wooden sidewheelers equipped with one or two medium caliber guns each. To Lieutenant Collins, gazing from the battered vision slit of the abattoir that was Alabama’s pilothouse, this seemed an unequal contest as his heavier guns shattered the sidewheel of the leading vessel. A roar accompanied the explosion of its boiler, taking the now sinking vessel out of the contest. He changed his mind when the fourth ship in line turned towards his ironclad, the reinforced ram at its bow looming larger by the second. With one of Alabama’s bow pivot guns engaged to starboard and unaware of the menace fast approaching, the other had time for only one round before the ram would strike—and it missed. The bow-to-bow collision tossed the men of both ships like rag dolls. Had the Yankee ram struck Alabama at a right angle, it may well have penetrated its thinner hull armor. As it was, the Union steamer’s reinforced bow glanced off the even heavier prow of the ironclad, then scraped the length of its port side. The scraping did little damage to the ironwork of Alabama, but the starboard paddlewheel of the Union steamer smashed itself against the Confederate ship’s hardened bow. Then, pressed firmly against the enemy hull by its rapidly spinning port paddlewheel, the steamer’s frail wooden sides encountered the projecting eaves of Alabama’s casemate. The iron eaves gouged several planks from the Union vessel’s side. Ten minutes later, the damage so severe that its crew could not stem the inrushing sea, the plucky steamer sank. By that time, the two remaining steamers had turned out of line, hoping that rapid maneuver would serve where armor was lacking. Collins left them for his wooden consorts now joining the battle, and shaped a course for a cloud of smoke less than a half mile away. The stab of flames within it marked the location of an uneven battle between Virginia and the remainder of the Union fleet.

The Virginia drifted, boxed by the three Union frigates and the four smaller vessels that had trailed them. In some sense a victim of its own success, its single screw had fouled a length of hawser lost by Roanoke early in the engagement. Over a dozen shells a minute, some fired ranges of less than 30 yards, struck Virginia as it lay helpless. Even an ironclad had its limits, and sheared bolts and oaken splinters screamed inside its hellishly hot, smoke-filled casemate. One enemy shell exploded as it struck an aft gunport, shutters already jammed open by an earlier blow. Upending a Brookes Rifle and killing every man of its crew, the carnage from that single shot added a little more depth to the inch of blood already seeking drainage from the casemate’s deck.

Deafened by the cannonade, Jones felt rather than heard the cessation of Union shot ringing on battered armor as he staggered from the pilothouse across the shambles of his gundeck to check his remaining two guns. Had the squadron finally arrived? He glanced through a shattered gunport in time to see the reinforced bow of a Union gunboat block his view. Deaf or not, he heard the crushing blow delivered to the mid-section of his command. Flung to the deck, Jones’s world turned red as the blood of his dead filled his mouth and eyes while pain coursed through his newly broken left arm. Consciousness briefly fled, its restoration matched the return of a hail of enemy shot. Below deck, his crew fought to staunch seams sprung by the enemy ram. Virginia’s three inches of good Tredegar iron backed by 24 inches of solid oak had held—barely. Wiping blood from his eyes, Jones looked again through the shattered port. The Union gunboat, disabled by a fortunate shot from one of his remaining guns, limped slowly away, but a brief rift in the smoke showed a second ram, scarcely 300 yards distant, bearing down on the helpless Virginia. The smoke dropped again, and Jones braced himself for the blow to come, and for the death to follow. Finally the steamer, a vee of water streaming from its bow, surged from the manmade mist—on a course that would miss Virginia completely! Jones did not trust his eyes as a ragged fellow, blood dripping from numerous wounds and one hand on the remaining spokes of a splintered wheel, saluted his command. Thirty seconds later, Raphael Semmes slammed Hart of the Confederacy into the side of Roanoke.

Of the five men crowded around Hart’s poorly shielded wheel when Galena’s shot had struck home, only Semmes survived. Dazed and bleeding from numerous lacerations (upon his eventual death at age 79, an autopsy would recover seven metal splinters lodged in his body from this day’s action), it had taken long minutes for his crew to extract him from the wreckage and to regain control of their ship. Having broken immediate contact with the enemy, Semmes paused to take stock of his vessel. Though the attack on Galena had destroyed the spar torpedo fittings and wrecked the quarterdeck of his command, neither speed nor maneuverability had been impaired. His guns had fired only one or two rounds each so far (at high speed—Semmes’s preferred speed—fire was inaccurate and water tended to enter through their gunports). Most importantly, the ram-bow showed no sign of weakness or leakage.

Then Semmes ordered full steam for the distant cloud of smoke surrounding the engagement between Goldsborough and the Confederate squadron. Circling the rear of the Union line, Hart rammed a surprised gunboat, shearing completely through its foredeck, then slowed to let his guns engage a second steamer before aligning his warship on the center of the smoke covered fracas. Gathering speed, he saluted Virginia (which from visible damage, he expected to sink anytime), then rammed one of its three large tormentors. Roanoke, already battered by shots from Virginia and now engaged on its starboard side by Alabama, immediately began to sink. Locked into his prey by the inrush of seawater, Semmes backed engines to no avail. The weight of the sinking vessel pulled Hart’s bow so far down that the tips of its rapidly spinning screw actually emerged from the sea. Then Hart popped free, though not without cost as its abused engine coughed and died. Cursing, Semmes ordered his guns to open fire on Minnesota and his engineers to get the engine working. Caught in a crossfire between the remaining guns of the Confederate ironclads, the bulk of his squadron sunk or dispersed beyond his control and his own ship heavily damaged, Goldsborough ordered his flag hauled down. At 2.58 p.m. on April 12, St Lawrence, unable to escape in the light onshore breezes, followed suit. Only the tug Dragon and the damaged Naugatuck escaped the debacle to take word of the defeat to Washington.

To Victory

Rumor spread, and with it panic: the strong Rebel squadron was steaming up the Chesapeake; it would bombard Washington and bring Maryland forcibly into the Confederacy; it had been sighted in Delaware Bay, heading for the shipyards of Philadelphia or the teeming docks of New York. While governors and mayors sent telegram after telegram to the White House begging for soldiers and guns, Union Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, ordered ships scuttled to block the Potomac, and Lincoln sent the few regiments that he could spare to Baltimore, intent on holding Maryland in the Union. More than aware of the vulnerable position of the slow-moving McClellan’s Army of the Potomac on the James Peninsula, Lincoln ordered him to capture Richmond now or to begin shifting his army back to northern Virginia. Convinced by Confederate deception and the incompetence of his personal intelligence operatives that any advance on Richmond would meet defeat at the hands of superior numbers, Little Mac called for transports and hunkered in his entrenchments opposite Yorktown. The besieger had become the besieged.

In truth, the victorious Confederate ironclads were in less than pristine condition. Jones, his broken arm in a sling, took command of the Alabama, and the heartbreakingly battered Virginia limped for Gosport with some 200 of the squadron’s wounded aboard. The severely handled prize Minnesota went with it. Semmes, his engines repaired, reported to Jones that his vessel was ready for combat, hiding the fact that long stints at the pumps were required each hour to keep Hart afloat, and that, despite the efforts of his engineer, Hart’s steam plant could offer only 12 knots at best. Anchoring the St Lawrence, its cannon manned by gunners rapidly shipped from Gosport, to block entry to the harbor at Fortress Monroe, Jones left two gunboats to support it and steamed with the remainder of his squadron around the Peninsula and into the York River. For four weeks, his squadron reinforced by a trickle of Confederate gunboats converted from captured Union transports, Jones blockaded the James Peninsula. Daily skirmishes with Union gunboats took a toll on both sides, but few supplies arrived for the trapped Union army, and even fewer men were successfully withdrawn from the peninsula. Virginia, its worst injuries barely repaired and its guns replaced, rejoined the squadron in ten days. Jones returned to its deck in time to face a Union fleet hastily recalled from a planned invasion of New Orleans and intent on breaking the blockade and extricating the hungry and demoralized Army of the Potomac. In exchange for his right eye, lost to a cutlass when desperate Union sailors actually boarded Virginia, Jones won the Second Battle of the Capes.

Meanwhile, in the fertile Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Confederate General Jackson smashed the Union forces arrayed against him once Stanton shifted regiments and even brigades from that arena to defend Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York from a feared invasion. Then he entrained his battle-tested corps to support the Confederate siegelines at Yorktown. The hurried recall of Union troops from the western fields of battle to the east allowed Confederate forces to recover from the bloody struggle at Shiloh Church in early April and regain Nashville. On April 30, Commodore Buchanan led two new ironclads and a score of wooden warships down the Mississippi from New Orleans and soundly defeated its Union blockaders. Wiring Richmond that “The Father of Waters again runs unvexed to the sea,” he then directed his vessels in a lightning campaign that saw all significant Union naval presence driven from the Gulf of Mexico.

On May 15, President Abraham Lincoln slumped at his desk. Two messages rested between his outstretched arms. One, a request from McClellan to be allowed to surrender his starving army to the Confederacy, noted that General Robert E. Lee (the replacement for General Joseph E. Johnston, wounded by a Union sharpshooter in front of the Yorktown lines) offered most generous terms. The other, delivered that morning by the ambassador from Great Britain, declared that Britain would soon move to recognize the Confederate States of America formally as a sovereign nation with all the rights thereof. Her majesty’s ambassador had advised the president that where Britain led, the remainder of Europe would soon follow. Further, Union interference with British trade into ports where, obviously, a blockade no longer existed, would be met with far more than words. Three days later, McClellan surrendered his army to General Lee and Fortress Monroe to Captain Catesby ap R. Jones of the ironclad Virginia.


On June 30, 1862, representatives signed the treaty that officially ended the brief Civil War and recognized the Confederate States of America as a sovereign nation in its own right. Ten years later, June 30 would become an official holiday in the Confederacy: Navy Day, in honor of the service that had contributed so much to establish the new nation. That particular day would never be celebrated in the old Union, where flags still fly at half-mast and 26 forever empty seats in the senate chambers are draped in black each June 30—a silent protest at what Mallory and his navy once accomplished.

The Reality

Stephen Mallory, though he did much in creating a navy for the Confederacy, did not perform the miracles needed to win independence for his homeland. Be thankful for that. Victory would have meant the continuation of the institution of slavery, an institution that the South would not have willingly abandoned for generations (if at all). Even now, the lingering remnants of the mentality created by that old evil erodes much slower than one could wish.

Sherman, in his letter to David Boyd, had the right of it. The greater resources and mechanical might of the North created a basis for victory almost impossible for the weaker Confederacy to overcome, while the blockade discouraged the importation of war materials desperately needed in the South. Add to that the disorganized and sometimes almost inexplicable actions of the Confederate state and national governments, and the miracle is that the rebellion continued into 1865. Nowhere was the disorganization of the Confederacy more apparent than in its attempts to construct a navy.

The Confederacy laid the keels for over 20 ironclads (in almost as many locations as there were warships built). Often constructed in cornfields instead of proper yards, this haphazard collection of vessels was meant to challenge the offensive might of the ever-strengthening Union Navy. Unsurprisingly, the challenge failed. Built of often sub-standard materials by unskilled labor, the ironclads were invariably underpowered. Strive as bravely as they might, the inexperienced crews of Confederate ironclads were unable to resist Northern incursions, especially those supported by concentrations of Union ironclads, much less break the blockade of Confederate ports.

Yet control of the sea offered the best chance for the South to win the Civil War. Its ports kept open for European imports and a denial of Union amphibious capability would have concentrated more resources in Southern armies. Perhaps with more resources, the talented commanders of Confederate armies could have won the key struggles ashore. Or, perhaps, had Mallory been a true Southern Themistocles, the Confederate States Navy could have won the war for them.


Denny, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle of the Life of a Nation (Sterling Publishing, New York, 1992).

Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative, Fort Sumter to Perryville (Random House, New York, 1986).

Miller, Nathan, The U.S. Navy: A History, 3d ed. (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 1997).

Morrill, Dan, The Civil War in the Carolinas (Nautical & Aviation Publishing Company of America, Charleston, 2002).

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of Rebellion, (Government Printing Office, Washington, 1894–1927).

Still, William N., Jr., Iron Afloat: The Story of the Confederate Armorclads (University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, 1985).

Symonds, Craig L., The Naval Institute Historical Atlas of the U.S. Navy (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 1995).

By Wade G. Dudley

Byzantine Fire on the Water

The low state of medieval maritime technology ensured that battle tactics were just as basic. They had hardly progressed since Roman times. Confrontations at sea remained messy affairs that almost invariably devolved into unpredictable ship-against-ship mêlées. This helps explain why large-scale naval engagements were rare during the Middle Ages. Few naval commanders were willing to risk all in a single battle subject to so many uncontrollable variables. As on land, clashes at sea normally occurred only when one side or both could not avoid it.

The fact that there was no reliable ship-killing weapon compounded the uncertainty surrounding the outcome. The waterline ram or rostrum of the classical era was ineffective against the sturdier, frame-first hull construction which began to develop in the Mediterranean as early as the seventh century and found full implementation by the eleventh century. It proved utterly futile against the more robust ship architecture of the northern seas, even in Roman times. In his Commentarii de Bello Gallico (‘Commentaries on the Gallic War’), Julius Caesar said of the dense oak vessels of the Gauls, ‘Our ships could not damage them with the ram (they were so stoutly built).’ As a result, no warship in either the north or the south was known to have sported a ram by the seventh century. It was replaced on the Byzantine dromōn by a spur, a sort of reinforced bowsprit used to assist in seizing and boarding an enemy ship. The only weapon developed in the medieval period capable of destroying an entire vessel was ‘Greek fire’, a secret petroleum-based incendiary invented by a Syrian artificer named Kallinikos in the seventh century. Documentary and graphic sources indicate that it was spewed from specially constructed siphon tubes mounted on the bows of dromōns. Unfortunately its utility was extremely restricted. It had limited range and could only be deployed in calm or following winds.

Siphons for spewing ‘Greek fire’ were eventually mounted on protected platforms at the bow and possibly amidships. The parapeted forecastle (xylokastron) housed the main siphon, called the ‘raven’ (katakorax), while the castle amidships was the kastelloma. The aftercastle contained the kravatos, a structure to shield the kentarchos or captain.

The First Siege of Constantinople and the Advent of ‘Greek Fire’ (672–7)

Once Muawiyah had moved his capital to Damascus and consolidated his grip on power, he began preparations for an enormous expedition against Constantinople itself. In 672 he was ready. The caliph unleashed at least two separate fleets on the south coast of Asia Minor. Their activities must have kept the Karabisian fleet fully occupied. Both Crete and Rhodes were raided. One Arab fleet wintered in Cilicia (the southeastern coast of Anatolia) and the other in Lycia (on the south-central coast). Word of these incursions galvanized Constans’ son and successor, Constantine IV, into action. According to Theophanes, the emperor ‘built large biremes bearing cauldrons of fire and dromones equipped with siphons and ordered them to be stationed at the Proclianesian harbour of Caesarius [Constantinople’s Theodosian harbour]’. In 673 Muawiyah’s fleets surged into the Sea of Marmara and ravaged the Hebdomon district just southwest of Constantinople, then captured Kyzikos on the south shore of the sea. Here they established a base camp for incessant attacks on the city.

Constantinople would endure this maritime assault for the next several years, but the emperor was in possession of a terrible new weapon which would finally – and precipitously – end it. Residing in the city at that time was a Christian refugee from Heliopolis in Syria (modern Baalbek in Lebanon) named Kallinikos. Theophanes described him as an ‘architect’ or ‘artificer’ who had ‘manufactured a naval fire [or sea fire]’ which floated on the surface of the sea and could not be extinguished by water. Its precise ingredients were kept a closely guarded state secret and remain a mystery to this day. This has led to endless speculation through the ages and repeated attempts at replication. A similar Muslim concoction of the twelfth century was said to have included ‘dolphin’s fat’ and ‘grease of goat kidneys’. Early scholarly conjecture centred on saltpetre as the main component (as in gunpowder) or some form of quicklime, but recent empirical investigations, particularly by renowned Byzantinist John Haldon, have revealed that its primary ingredient was probably petroleum-based – most likely naphtha or light crude oil. The Byzantines had access to the oil fields of the Caucasus region northeast of the Black Sea where crude seeped to the surface. The theory is that Kallinikos may have distilled this into a paraffin or kerosene, then added wood resins as a thickening agent. The mixture was then heated in an air-tight bronze tank over a brazier and pressured by use of a force pump. The final step was the release of the flammable fluid through a valve for its discharge from a metal-sheathed nozzle, affixed with a flame ignition source. In a 2002 clinical test of this theory, Haldon and his colleagues, Colin Hewes and Andrew Lacey, were able to produce a fire stream in the neighbourhood of 1,000 degrees Celsius that extended at least 15m (49ft).

It was very probably a compound similar to this that Constantine caused to be loaded onto his dromōns in the autumn of 677. The fearsome new weapon was unleashed from swivel-mounted siphons in the forecastles with horrific results. Theophanes testified almost matter-of-factly that it ‘kindled the ships of the Arabs and burnt them and their crews’. To the Arab victims of his frightful invention, it must have seemed like some early version of ‘shock and awe’. The fact that they would have had no idea of how to combat the weapon must have compounded their panic. Water would have been ineffective. At that point they could not have known that the only way to extinguish the ‘liquid fire’ was with sand, vinegar or urine. The siege soon collapsed. What was left of the Arab armada withdrew, only to be severely mauled by a violent winter storm while passing abeam Syllaem in Pamphylia (on the south coast of Asia Minor between Lycia and Cilicia). Theophanes said, ‘It was dashed to pieces and perished entirely.’

The Second Siege of Constantinople and the Fall of the Umayyad Dynasty (717–50)

The continuing turmoil in Constantinople could not have gone unnoticed in Damascus. Earlier that same year Sulayman ibn Abd al-Malik assumed the caliphate and inaugurated his rule by propelling his brother, Maslamah ibn Abd al-Malik, into Asia Minor at the head of 80,000 troops, while a huge armada of reportedly 1,800 vessels made its way around the south coast. Constantinople was about to experience its most dire confrontation with Islam until its final fall over seven centuries later.

The details of the ensuing epic engagement are discussed in a separate section at the end of the chapter as an example of sea combat in the period, but it suffices to say here that it unfolded in a manner similar to the siege of 672–8, with much the same result. As the Arab forces approached Constantinople in the spring of 717, Leo the Isaurian, the strategos of the Anatolikon Theme, engineered a coup to replace the ill-suited Theodosios III on the throne. Under his inspired leadership as Leo III, the Byzantines then used dromōns spewing ‘Greek fire’ to break up an Umayyad attempt to blockade the Bosporus. The besieging Arab army fared even worse. A particularly harsh winter ravaged it with deprivation and disease. And the following spring offered little relief. Nearly 800 supply ships arrived from Egypt and Ifriqiyah, but their Coptic Christian crews switched sides en masse. Without the precious provisions which these ships carried, Maslama’s troops fell easy prey to the Bulgars of Khan Tervel, with whom Leo had formed a propitious alliance. The Bulgars butchered some 22,000 of the Arabs. Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz, the new caliph, had little choice but to recall his forces. It was a battered Umayyad army that retreated across Asia Minor in the autumn of 718 and only five vessels of the once massive Muslim armada managed to run the gauntlet of autumn storms in the Hellespont and Aegean to reach their home port.

It was a disastrous Muslim defeat, which should have put Islam on the defensive for decades to come, but inexplicably Leo chose this time to delve into the religious controversy that was to be the bane of Byzantium. In 726 he inaugurated Iconoclasm (literally, ‘the smashing of icons’) by ordering the removal of the icon of Christ over the Chalke entrance to the imperial palace in Constantinople. In 730 he followed up this action with an imperial decree against all icons. This polemical policy was to rend the fabric of the empire for the next fifty-seven years. It proved particularly unpopular in Italy and the Aegean areas. In early 727 the fleets of the Hellas and Karabisian Themes revolted and proclaimed a certain Kosmas as emperor. Leo managed to devastate and disperse these fleets with his own, again using ‘Greek fire’, the secret of which was apparently restricted to Constantinople at the time.

The episode, nonetheless, prompted the emperor to dissolve the troublesome Karabisian Theme and restructure the provincial fleets in order to dilute their threat to the throne. Leo placed the south coast of Asia Minor, formerly a responsibility of the disbanded Karabisian Theme, under the authority of the more tractable droungarios of the Kibyrrhaeot fleet, whose headquarters was transferred to Attaleia (present-day Antalya). Land-based themes, like the Hellas and Peloponnesos, were also allowed to maintain fleets of their own. These modifications to fleet organization were probably intended to help defuse naval power and make it more subservient to the emperor.

Despite their humiliating failure before the walls of Constantinople, the Umayyads took advantage of continued Byzantine upheaval both in the palace and in the Church to nibble away at the edges of the empire. A long period of raid and counter-raid ensued between Damascus and Constantinople, mostly involving either Egypt or Cyprus. But ultimately the Byzantines’ advantage in naval organization, possession of ‘Greek fire’ and virtual monopoly of such critical shipbuilding materials as wood and iron ensured they would prevail, at least in the eastern Mediterranean. The climax of the contest came in 747, when the Kibyrrhaeot fleet surprised an enormous armada from Alexandria in a harbour on Cyprus called Keramaia (exact location unknown). ‘Out of 1,000 dromōns it is said only three escaped,’ professed Theophanes. This was undoubtedly a chauvinistic exaggeration, but Umayyad naval power was evidently broken by the outcome of the battle and never again posed a serious threat to the Byzantine Empire. The Umayyad Dynasty came to an end just three years later when the Abbasids led by Abu al-Abbas as-Saffah crushed Caliph Marwan II at the Battle of Zab (Mesopotamia) in late January 750. The subsequent Abbasid Caliphate moved its capital from Damascus to Baghdad and focused its initial attention on the East.