Saturday, February 25, 2012

Gunboats or Ironclads: Virginians vs. the 'Cotton Kings'

Model from of a 'Maury Gunboat.' Confederates planned to build 100 of these for $2 million to defend their coast and inland waterways. 

The Confederate government in the months following the First Battle of Manassas through that fall and into the winter found itself warring with the Virginia state government and its powerful congressional delegation led by former President John Tyler over how best to defend its Atlantic Coast, the Chesapeake Bay and the tidal rivers so crucial to its economy.
  The “one battle” war had proved an illusion.

 As the months dragged on and credit became harder to secure, choices had to be made.  The armies in Virginia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, along the Gulf Coast, and across the Mississippi had to be fed, clothed, armed, and cared for when disease struck or its soldiers were wounded in combat. They had the highest priority.

 For the Navy, the junior service in priority, the Virginians wanted gunboats to harass blockaders and hold off invaders in its coastal waters, and Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen Mallory wanted floating iron fortresses to defend ports along the 3,500-mile coast and Mississippi, vessels possibly capable of terrorizing Northern ports.

Either would be teamed with forts on land; heavy artillery, including confiscated naval  guns;   mines and other obstructions; snipers along the rivers; and civilian steamers now armed and sheathed. 

For a time, the Confederacy gambled that it could afford both.  When it became clear that it couldn’t.  Old scars from earlier political battles between Matthew Fontaine Maury and the Virginians, led by Tyler and Governor John Letcher,  on one side, and Mallory, President Jefferson Davis, and Confederate “blue water navalists” on the other would become fresh wounds that left the Confederacy’s naval efforts shattered and its treasury drained.

As we mark the150th anniversary of the Battle of Hampton Roads, the clash of the ironclads with its oft-told tales of how CSS Virginia came to be and how John Ericsson’s radically designed Monitor made its way into the Union fleet, it is time to shine light on the “gunboat war,” a bitter campaign fought solely inside the Confederate government at Richmond.

Davis -- West Point graduate, hero-volunteer from Mississippi in the Mexican War, and a former secretary of War – concentrated on fighting on land.  To him, a Confederate Navy was an afterthought. Privateers with letters of marque and reprisal were at the outer limits of his naval concepts. For the most part, he left naval matters in the hands of his former Senate colleague Mallory, a Floridian.

Now at war, Maury saw himself as a man singularly equipped to create an almost impenetrable defense of Southern ports, inlets and waterways.  As a member of the governor’s advisory council, a de facto war ministry, he layered Virginia’s defenses to his liking for months before the state’s army and navy were absorbed into the Confederate armed forces.

While Mallory thought  “small,” in Maury’s words, about coastal defense, the commander dreamed large – as he had  done in the turf wars to expand the National Observatory. After demonstrating the effectiveness of mines before First Manassas and being named head of Confederate coastal defenses, he plotted how to build a new class of gunboats.

To prepare the way, Maury, writing as "Ben Bow,” used the influential Richmond Enquirer for  guerrilla strikes against Davis and Mallory, dubbed the “Cotton Kings.” Starting in late September 1861, he blasted the  administration’s moves as “mere makeshifts” when it came to naval defense. He compared its two requests for naval appropriations to  creating “a navy without vessels  [to having] lamps without oil.”

As chairman of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee, Mallory survived a war through the press and in Congress with Maury; and he was not about to countenance another one with an officer directly under his control.  In less than a week, the secretary ordered Maury to Cuba to buy weapons. It clearly was an order to bring Maury, at the time one of the nation’s most prominent scientists, to heel.

The reaction among the Virginians and in the Confederate Congress was outrage.  With Tyler, whose political cachet remained powerful; the Virginia congressional delegation; and Charles M. Conrad, the chair of the House Naval Affairs Committee and a former United States secretary of War, setting the debate’s tone, the Confederate Congress declared the commander was too valuable where he was. The gunboat plan would live as long as Maury was in Richmond.  Mallory was working on that.

Not trusting Mallory at all, Maury turned to good listener Letcher and his allies in the Virginia Convention, sitting as the state legislature, with his "big gun and little ship” plan.  The ships became known as the "Maury Gunboats."

Maury did not want a ship "stout enough to keep the sea.”  Instead, he envisioned "steam launches each capable of carrying two rifled pivot guns and no more.  Their structure should be simple and plain and as economical as possible.  They should be literally nothing but floating gun carriages” with crews of forty men and no accommodations.

The commander wanted to build the gunboats quickly and turn them loose on the federal fleet in the Chesapeake Bay's shallow waters and North Carolina's tidal rivers and sounds. Shipwrights in the bay counties of Mathews and Gloucester would be the primary builders, and they could do the work, along with soldier-artisans about to go into winter quarters. Other yards in coastal North Carolina were also available. They already were engaged in building a “mosquito fleet” of converted tugboats for Maury’s longtime friend, Captain William P. Lynch.  

"Going out like a nest of hornets, they will especially, if the building and the fitting out be kept from the enemy, either sink, capture or drive away from the Chesapeake and its tributaries the whole fleet which the enemy now has or probably will in that time in these waters.” Then the "nest of hornets” could close off the maritime traffic through the Virginia capes, starve out Fortress Monroe, and  threaten Washington.

In late October, a Union fleet of more than twenty ships loaded with thousands of troops steamed to Port Royal, about halfway between Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia. With no gunboats to hinder them there and few coastal defenses of consequence, the Union Navy covered the landing and beachhead that “would serve all the future needs of the army and navy,” meaning no need to return to Hampton Roads to refit. The Union blockade was taking hold.  

Thomas Jefferson Page, a seasoned Confederate naval officer,  wrote: "Suppose a fleet of twenty of these boats in the harbor of Port Royal at the time of late attack from the enemy, can any one fail to perceive that the result would have been vastly different.”

In the wake of the latest debacle on the Carolina coast, Maury lobbied the Virginia Convention even more strenuously for his gunboats.  The Virginians' renewed insistence, especially that of Tyler, and the tightening blockade moved the Confederate Congress to approve $2 million to build one-hundred  vessels.  On Christmas Eve, Davis signed the bill putting Maury in charge of building the fleet that "shall present little more than a feather edge” to naval invaders.

Like the hundreds of thousands of dollars set aside to rebuild Merrimack and other ironclads in the South, this was a high stakes roll of the dice with no guarantee of success.

When members of the Virginia Convention approached Mallory about carrying out Maury’s plan, the secretary said even as they spoke he had agents scouring the countryside for engines.  For now, the Virginians were satisfied.  Tyler  happily reported that Maury had “woven a proud chaplet around her brow by having won a name all over the world which reflects new luster on the name of Virginia” by advocating the state’s strong defense.  

After the Christmas 1861 holiday, Maury, with his son John, set about getting the gunboats on the ways.  But supplies, especially boilers and the heavy oak for the hulls, proved difficult to come by.  Over fears of new attacks in Virginia, Maury’s idea to free soldiers with carpentry skills from Army duties in the winter was rejected. 

Despite these setbacks, construction started on the Mattaponi and Pamunkey rivers, near West Point, and also along the Rappahannock and at the Norfolk naval yard. Talbott & Brothers, a large Richmond foundry, turned over its entire business to the Confederate Navy in February 1862 and announced the delivery of five double engines for the gunboats.  The next month as the Battle of Hampton Roads loomed, Maury advertised for “negro laborers to cut timber for the vessels.” 

Ideas that flowed so easily from Maury's mind to his pen ¾ like constructing one-hundred  gunboats, or building charts for each ocean, or cataloging every star or determining the best crossing point on the Central American coast  ¾ again were proving difficult to execute, even when the ideas had Mallory's wholehearted support.  The “nest of hornets” project did not. It also was soon to lose its congressional support.

But that is a tale for another day – after the sesquicentennial observance of the Battle of Hampton Roads and the beginning of the Peninsula campaign. 


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