Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Confederacy's First Ironclad and Her Attack on a Wooden Ship

As head of the U.S. diplomatic mission to the free city of Hamburg, James Anderson was quite far away from Civil War. During his daily business in September 1861, the war came to him.  One day, he encountered a German citizen who had just left New Orleans. This citizen, who had Union sympathies, provided Anderson with a sketch and description of a "turtle"-like ironclad (shown above) with a "hellish engine" under construction. The ironclad's builders, according to the information, wanted to ram the steam sloop USS Brooklyn.  Anderson quickly passed the intelligence to Secretary of State William Seward.

The man behind this turtle from Hell, was New Orleans river pilot John A. Stepheson. Having failed to get any support from the Confederate government for his idea, Stepheson raised money on his own and converted an ice breaking tugboat into an ironclad ram. He wanted to construct "such a vessel that would be able to drive off or sink the most powerful man-of-war without the use of cannon or other instrument of warfare."

Once constructed, the Confederate government came to its senses and bought Stepheson's warship. It named her CSS Manassas.  In October 1861, Confederate Naval officers took Manassas and several other small ships down the Mississippi River and attack the Union squadron  of three ships at the Head of Passes.  What is the first ironclad attack against a wooden warship, Manassas went after the steam sloop USS Richmond under the command of Commander John Pope (not to be confused with the Union Army general John Pope).  Neither side distinguished themselves in the battle as Manassas' ram attack only achieved a glancing blow, some of the rockets fired by the Confederate squadron meant to set off a series of fire rafts landed on their own ships, the Union squadron' cannon fire was erradtic, and both sides ships ran aground attempting to engage.

The Confederate squadron withdrew back to New Orelans, but not after putting enough fear into Pope to order a retreat.  "Put this matter in any light you may, it is the most ridiculous affair that ever took place in the American Navy," Gideon Welles wrote to David Dixon Porter after the war. Pope later asked for medical leave.  Welles made the request permanent and forced Pope out of the service. Manassas, in the mean time, was made ready to defend New Orelans.

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