- The Washington Times - Friday, September 1, 2006

The Confederate government under the leadership of Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory embarked on an ambitious shipbuilding program that included construction of about 50 ironclad gunboats, 22 of which were officially commissioned. Only the hull of one, the CSS Neuse, still exists, at a museum in Kinston, N.C., and the story of its short career is illustrative of the obstacles that hindered the entire ironclad program.

“The time is at hand,” Gen. Robert E. Lee wrote to President Jefferson Davis in early 1864. “I can now spare troops for the purpose [of retaking New Bern, N.C.]. … A bold party … aided by the iron clads … would clear the waters of the enemy.” Davis was forced to write back that the ships were not finished and would not be ready in the immediate future. Such was the unfortunate status of the Confederacy’s long-running attempts to arm itself with a navy.

Confederate ironclads might have changed the course of the war. Iron and steel vessels were new in the early 1860s and, in conjunction with the use of steam engines, were fueling a revolution in commercial shipbuilding. The design of warships quickly followed suit, and in 1862, the famous battle between the Monitor and Merrimac officially opened the new era of the ironclad gunboat.

The Confederate navy was strapped for resources and desperate for weapons to counter a Union fleet that ultimately would comprise nearly 1,000 vessels and blockade the most significant portions of a vast 4,000-mile coastline. One successful strategy the Confederate authorities employed was to use fast blockade runners to maintain trade with the outside world. Another was to commission raiders, such as the CSS Alabama, to prey on Union shipping. Neither of those strategies was of any value if all Confederate ports were closed or hemmed in by combined land and naval forces.

The Confederate ironclad building program was designed to counter Union superiority that early in the war relied primarily on wooden-hulled ships. Later in the war, the ironclads became critical pieces in Confederate attempts to recapture ports desperately needed by blockade runners, which supplied armies in the field, and were particularly important to Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Construction on the CSS Neuse was undertaken initially by Howard & Ellis, private shipbuilders of New Bern, in fall 1862 at Whitehall, N.C., along the Neuse River. The project was commissioned and financed by the Confederate government and Mallory. At least four other ironclads also were under construction in other parts of the state.

The Neuse was to be 158 feet long, with a 34-foot keel and a draft of about 8 feet. Three woods were used: gum for the primary spine along the bottom, pine for the majority of the hull, and white oak for parts of the floor and upper structure. After the first phase was completed, the designers planned to add two layers of iron-plate strips roughly 2 inches thick and up to 8 feet long that would be hung on large wooden pegs protruding from the upper hull and gun structure, thus encasing the entire ship above the waterline in bulletproof, artillery-proof armor.

Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside conducted a series of attacks on the coastal region of North Carolina in 1862 and captured Roanoke Island, New Bern, Beaufort and other strategic towns. His forays into the interior threatened the construction of the Neuse and other North Carolina ironclads, and in December, Union authorities erroneously reported having severely damaged the ship on a raid near Whitehall.

The minor damage was repaired quickly, and in 1863, workers floated the vessel downstream to Kinston, where the navy officially took over the installation of the armor plating and twin 8-inch guns. The Confederacy, however, was strapped for iron, and construction was delayed repeatedly by haggling over what small amounts were available and the transport needed to move it anywhere. (One of the iron strips alone could weigh as much as 800 pounds.)

The vessel still lacked much of the second course of iron plate when, uncompleted, it was rushed into action in early 1864 to aid in the attempt to recapture New Bern. Commander Benjamin Loyall and the crew of the Neuse were nonetheless in high spirits and confident of the outcome: “Take the city … sink the gunboats … and have a fine time.”

Half a mile down the river, however, the Neuse caught on the bottom and would not budge. A month later, it steamed back to Kinston, having never fired a shot in the New Bern campaign or moved farther downstream.

For the better part of the next year, low water, lack of logistical support, and obstructions in the river prevented the Neuse from entering action. When Union forces approached Kinston in early 1865, the third and final commander of the Neuse, Joseph Price, realized that he likely would have to scuttle the vessel to prevent it from falling into enemy hands.

The officers and crew were able to bring the gunboat to bear on approaching Union cavalry and gamely shelled the enemy until practically surrounded. Price, following Gen. Braxton Bragg’s orders, saved what materiel he could and then rigged explosions that sent the Neuse to the bottom of the river.

The Confederacy spent considerable money and time trying to make armor-clad vessels such as the Neuse ready for war. There is no doubt that such vessels could have made a difference — and did in isolated cases, such as the destructive foray late in the war by the Neuse’s sister ship, the CSS Albemarle. The underachieving and ill-fated Neuse was symptomatic of larger logistical problems the Confederate government ultimately couldn’t overcome.

“If all of them had actually gone into service,” North Carolina historian William Trotter wrote recently, “Federal naval power would have been swept from the coastal waters of North Carolina in a matter of days.”

“The gunboat,” as the Neuse was called by locals, came to rest in the mud on the bottom of the river and remained buried there for more than 100 years. In the 1960s, a series of attempts eventually succeeded in raising the greater portion of the original hull to the surface. The vessel was moved up the shore, survived a hurricane and flooding, and then was cut into three pieces for transportation.

Today, the reassembled hull can be viewed in a small museum at the CSS Neuse State Historic Site at 2612 W. Vernon Ave. (U.S. 70 Business) in Kinston (252/522-2091 or www.cssneuse.nchistoricsites.org). It is the only surviving Confederate ironclad. Although the CSS Neuse had little military impact on the outcome of the war, the surviving remains have influenced and impressed many visitors since then.

At the time, even Robert E. Lee pinned great hopes on such vessels, and Union naval commanders designed their tactics in anticipation of encountering the ironclads. Had the ironclads become fully operational, the direction of the war almost certainly would have been altered.

Jack Trammell works at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., and recently visited the CSS Neuse. He writes about the Civil War and recently finished his doctorate at Virginia Commonwealth University. He can be reached at jacktrammell@yahoo.com.

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