Outgunned and outsupplied, the fledgling Confederate
Navy used technological ingenuity
to level the playing field.
By Kenneth P. Czech
When the Civil War erupted in 1861, the Confederate states were determined to protect their seacoasts and inland waterways. However, they lacked an adequate naval force with which to do so. To compound the problem, the Southerners were arrayed against one of the most powerful navies in the world. Matching the Federals ship for ship was an impossibility. The South would have to rely on ingenuity, determination and courage.
The onus of creating a force capable of fighting the Northern squadrons fell upon Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory. Mallory recognized immediately the shortcomings of the newly seceded states. The South lacked the industrial plants, resources and skilled workmen that were so abundant in the North. The few experienced naval officers and sailors had, for the most part, been channeled to the army. Mallory was forced to turn to less orthodox ideas and methods to combat Federal oceangoing and riverine flotillas.
Ships could be purchased from British and French dockyards, but having warships built abroad required an extended time frame–a luxury the South did not enjoy as Northern gunboats and frigates began blockading the coasts. What was needed, in Mallory’s mind, was a technological innovation that could tip the scales in the Confederates’ favor. Breakthroughs in the fields of armored ships, powerful naval guns,
submarines and torpedo warfare for a time seemed to give the Rebels the edge they needed. The ensuing David-and-Goliath fight between South and North on inland rivers and the high seas is richly detailed in Raimondo Luraghi’s A History of the Confederate Navy (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., $39.95).
Facing an uphill battle, Mallory built ironclad ships as a means of destroying Union wooden frigates. The construction of CSS Virginia from the burned hulk of the abandoned steam frigate Merrimack has been well-documented. Not only did the new Confederate “monster” sink the wooden Union warships Cumberland and Constitution, she subsequently ruined Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s planned timetable and attack route on the James River. The North, of course, successfully countered with its own ironclad, Monitor.
Mallory hoped ironclads like Virginia would be the ultimate weapon to disrupt and destroy the Union blockade. The race to build ironclads, however, was one the South could not win. As author Luraghi, a professor of history at the University of Genoa, points out, the South lacked the shipyards, foundries and expert workmen to commit to such a grandiose task. Because of a shortage of iron, railroad rails had to be substituted, rolled at inadequately manned and machined tool shops. Armor and naval guns were often found along railroad sidings, dumped by the army when they needed to use engines and flatcars. Yet, despite these problems, makeshift Confederate naval yards managed to produce such fearsome ironclads as Arkansas and Tennessee. Too many other vessels, in various stages of construction, had to be destroyed as advancing Federal troops threatened their capture.
While Mallory continued to search for the ultimate weapon with which to destroy the coastal blockade, Confederate naval men were developing a variety of secondary weapons, including submarines, torpedo boats and mines. As Luraghi notes, the South might have been better served by committing its limited time and resources to creating a larger fleet of such auxiliary vessels. The submarine Hunley, though flawed, sank the Union warship Housatonic. Torpedo boats like David attacked under the cover of darkness and sank or damaged a number of Union warships. Mines (called torpedoes in the Civil War) sank or disabled at least 50 Federal ships. More important, they effectively screened several Confederate ports, thereby preventing Union amphibious operations.
Among the more colorful and widely studied elements of the Confederate Navy are the efforts of commerce-destroying cruisers. Florida and, most notably, Alabama succeeded in sinking and capturing millions of dollars worth of Federal shipping on the high seas. Intrigue and espionage surrounded such ships since they were built in foreign waters as commercial vessels, then transformed into raiders once they reached international zones. Building commerce raiders in England and France was a test of Southern subterfuge versus Federal diligence in holding foreign governments to existing neutrality laws. Curiously, Luraghi provides copious details concerning Florida and Alabama yet pays scant attention to Shenandoah, one of the most successful of the Confederacy’s high-seas cruisers.
The Confederate Navy was doomed from its infancy. Lacking funds, manpower and an adequate industrial base, it managed, somehow, to stymie Federal efforts in a number of locations. But bravery, ingenuity and innovation could not compete for long against the powerful Union industrial complex. The scintillating actions of Virginia, Hunley and Florida were not enough to outweigh Yankee tonnage, firepower and numbers. Federal naval experts quickly responded to Confederate inventiveness by designing their own series of ironclads (complete with steam-powered turrets), anti-torpedo nets and shallow-draft, armored gunboats.
Luraghi’s work, encompassing 30 years of research, supplants earlier efforts by Thomas Scharf in terms of examining overall Confederate naval strategy and the effects of the South’s inadequate industrial complex on its waterborne efforts. Luraghi adequately details the collision between Federal and Confederate fleets, but his real strength lies in his analysis of Confederate ambitions and frailties. The author’s meticulous annotations and splendid bibliography are also valuable. A History of the Confederate Navy is sure to be the benchmark of Southern naval history for years to come.