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

Bisbee, Saxon T., Engines of Rebellion: Confederate Ironclads and Steam Engineering in the American Civil War. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2018. 264 pp.

Review by Dr Howard J. Fuller, PhD
University of Wolverhampton (UK)

It’s good news to see that scholarship like Saxon T. Bisbee’s Engines of Rebellion continues on the Confederate Navy’s ironclad program. Contemporary naval histories of the American Civil War like Admiral David Dixon Porter’s (1886) rather downplayed the South’s effort to maximise the latest technological advances in the naval state-of-the-art—in an asymmetric war effort against the North’s overwhelming maritime, industrial and financial resources. But as later research by William N. Still, Jr. in the late 1960s and early 1970s revealed, for as limited as the Confederate ironclad program proved to be, with most of its metal monsters left incomplete for lack of labor and iron, and then destroyed on the stocks to prevent capture, twenty-three casemated ironclad-rams were completed—and ‘Ram Fever’ in the North gave these naval units a strategic value as floating batteries or a ‘fleet in being’ far beyond their actual powers as conventional warships.

For as starved for proper (centralised) government support as the Confederate Navy was, which might have officially diverted manpower for coal to get the Tredegar Ironworks in Virginia working at full capacity for once, and railroads carefully husbanded rather than stripped for armor-plating given the lack of 2-inch plates from Southern rolling mills, one wonders how the Civil War might have stretched longer had the South fashioned no ironclads at all? Would Charleston have held out if the CSS Chicora and Palmetto State were not lurking in the inner harbor, protecting the line of obstructions between Forts Sumter and Moultrie from any demolition attempts by the Union blockading squadron? Would Farragut have stormed into Mobile Bay sooner if not for the CSS Tennessee, requiring not just one but four Union monitors to be gathered as a sufficient ‘margin of safety’ before the attempt was finally made in August 1864? Despite the repulse of the powerful James River Squadron of ironclads Virginia II, Fredericksburg and Richmond at Trent’s Reach (23 January 1865), notably by the 15-inch guns of the double-turreted monitor USS Onondaga, all three vessels were able to retreat in good order back up to the Confederate capital. Here, their new commander, Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes, languished for the next six weeks—until ordered to scuttle his ships with the evacuation of Richmond. “The movements of the ships being confined to the head-waters of a narrow river,” he recounted in his Memoirs, “they were but little better than prison-ships.” Nevertheless, Semmes believed that even as floating batteries his damaged ironclads, “moored across the stream, in the only available channel, with obstructions below me, which would hold [any ‘fleet of the enemy’] under my fire, and that of the naval batteries on shore by which I was flanked,” still insured the defence of Richmond by water.

As Bisbee’s new study charts, ironclad by ironclad, the most technically demanding aspect of their construction was their steam machinery. And whereas by the beginning of the conflict in 1861 there was no factory in the South which could produce a reliable marine engine, the situation had radically improved by the spring of 1865. Readers might be surprised to learn that the Confederacy produced its own horizontal direct-acting steam plant—small and light enough for shallow-draft vessels with limited hull space. Not every rebel ram was powered from the converted guts of a tugboat. Even then, the ability to ram was highly over-rated—the original CSS Virginia on the first day of the Battle of Hampton Roads was only able to strike a mortal blow against the USS Cumberland because the hapless Union sailing frigate was immobile. Psychologically, the ability of Confederate ironclads (with even their sloping 4-inch thick iron shielding) to shrug off anything the Union Navy could fire at them short of a monitor-mounted 15-inch gun was more the point. So was the fact that all of the Confederate Navy’s ironclads—unlike those of the U.S., Britain, France or Russia—were mastless and with few exceptions, screw-propelled. Miserable to serve on, unseaworthy, and short-lived with their green wood hulls, they were still fairly well-armed and tough nuts to crack. The saga of ‘makeshift’ men-of-war like the CSS Arkansas in 1862 and the CSS Albemarle in 1864 was proof of that.

This was therefore the essence of the “Ironclad Revolution” underway in America and Europe by the 1860s, forcing modern navies into a “guns vs. armor” race which carried over well into the twentieth century. Large standing navies, dominated by their wooden hulls and sails, were suddenly liabilities in combat. Had the (shallow-draft, mastless, screw-propelled, and heavily-armored) USS Monitor not shown up on the second day of the Battle of Hampton Roads, the Virginia would have carried on violently stripping away every wooden vessel from the Union blockade she could reach. As Bisbee rightly concludes, the Confederate Navy’s ironclad program “allowed for the creation of what may tentatively be labelled the first all-modern navy.”

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