Confederate naval innovations of the Civil war

Confederate naval innovations of the civil war

            The Civil War is immensely relevant to American history as it is the event which shaped the present state of the nation.  It was a battle which divided the nation into two: the Union and the Confederacy.  If the Union did not emerge victorious in the war, the United States of America would not exist.  During the war, the Union was superior in naval capabilities compared to the Confederate states.  This caused the Confederacy to resort to radical methods and resourcefulness to level the playing field when it came to the naval aspect of the war.  This research paper aims to discuss the naval innovations of the Confederacy during the American Civil War.

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            The American Civil War was considered as the biggest naval war to occur during its time.[1]  The naval aspect of the war was extensive; what started as a struggle on the coasts of the North and South eventually expanded to the Indian Ocean and the English Channel.  It was therefore important for both the Union and the Confederacy that they were properly equipped for the battle on water.  The Union had no difficulty, as they had the resources to effectively undertake combat in the seas.  They had the necessary equipment needed to succeed in the naval battle.  This was not the case with the Confederacy.  The Confederate Navy had limited resources, forcing them to discover innovative ways to fight the war at sea.  One of those innovations was the use of commerce raiders.[2]

It was the Confederate Navy who first took commerce raiders and used them for naval warfare.  It is with the use of the commerce raiders that the Confederacy was able to match the maritime advantage of the Union.[3]  One good example is the CSS Atlanta.  CSS Atlanta was originally named Fingal, a merchant steam ship constructed in Scotland in 1861.[4]  Later, the ship was utilized as a blockade runner.[5]  By that time, the ship was already renamed to Atlanta.  The ship sailed as a blockade runner on November 1861 into Savannah, Georgia; at the time, the ship carried a significant number of weapons and other military equipment.[6]  When Union troops blocked all exits from Savannah, the ship was purchased by the Confederate army and was recreated into a casemate ironclad.  The weight of the ship was 1006 tons and its length was 204 feet.[7] It had the capacity to carry a total of 165 people, including military officers.[8]

            Another commerce raider used by the Confederate Navy was the CSS Alabama.  Among all the commerce raiders that the Confederacy used, this ship was the most well-known and successful in its endeavors.[9]  The ship was manufactured in 1862 by a company called Laird and Sons, which was based in Birkenhead, England.[10]  The company created the ship especially for the Confederacy.  The ship was initially launched into sea from Liverpool with the name Enrica on July 29, 1862. It was commissioned by the Confederate Navy on August 24th, and had assumed the name Alabama.  The exploits of CSS Alabama was short-lived, as it sailed for only two years.[11]  However, the ship still had remarkable contribution to the war.  Under the supervision of Captain Raphael Semmes, the ship successfully seized more than 70 Union ships; it was also able to sink a gunboat.  Unfortunately, the ship

suffered the same fate as the gunboat, when sank under the attack of the USS Kearsage in 1864.[12]

            Another Confederate naval innovation during the Civil War was the H.L.Hunley submarine.[13]  This submarine was crucial not only to the Confederate cause, but also to the history of maritime warfare itself.  This is because it introduced a means for underwater battle that proves to be advantageous and effective.  The Hunley was not the first American submarine, but it is the very first submarine that successfully sunk a ship.[14]

            The Hunley was constructed in Mobile, Alabama by a company called Parks and Lyons in 1863.[15]  The submarine was built from a steam boiler made of iron and shaped like a cylinder.  This steam boiler was given more depth and was elongated by adding “tapered ends,” turning it into a submarine.[16]  The design of the submarine required nine crew members: eight people were tasked in cranking the propeller by hand, while one crew member was in charge of steering the submarine.  Both ends of the submarine had ballast tanks; those tanks can either be filled with the use of valves or drained dry with the help of hand pumps.  There is an excess ballast attached under the hull with the use of iron weights.  In case the vessel required added buoyancy, the iron weight could be removed from inside the submarine.[17]

            The Hunley submarine made history on February 17, 1864.[18]  The USS Housatonic was a warship that weighed 1,240 tons and carried 16 guns.  On that fateful night, the submarine attacked the ship when it was situated in Charleston Harbor near South Carolina.  The Hunley used a spar torpedo which contained explosives and was linked to a lengthy pole.  The torpedo penetrated the wooden side of the ship, and the explosive was detonated by the rope attached to the submarine.  The explosion was strong enough to cause the submarine itself to sink.  However, it was also successful in sinking the USS Housatonic.  The H.L. Hunley submarine was the very first submarine in history to sink a ship during the war.[19]

            The torpedo is yet another naval innovation at the disposal of the Confederate Navy.  To begin with, it was the weapon which assured the success of the H.L. Hunley in its attack of the USS Housatonic.  According to the Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia, a torpedo is defined as an underwater weapon used for naval purposes.  It is the main weapon of the submarine, and can be used for both offense and defense.[20]  It has a destructive quality because of the gunpowder which it contains.  The torpedo is most effective in sinking ships because “incompressibility of water” and the gasses which come from the gunpowder.[21]

            The Confederate Navy maximized the use of the torpedo during the war.  According to General Rains of the Confederate Torpedo Service, 123 torpedoes were placed in the Stono River and Charleston Harbor to hinder all Union efforts to take control of the city.[22]  Of the 12 ships that were sent to the river of Roanoke, six were sunk by torpedoes.  When five iron clad ships were sent to capture Mobile, Alabama, three of the ships were demolished with the use of torpedoes.  These instances cemented the torpedo in the history of war as one of the most destructive weapons.[23]

            Another naval innovation from the Confederate Navy in the Civil War involved guns.  As was earlier stated, the Confederacy used commerce raiders to fight the Union forces.  However, these raiders were not created for the purpose of battle; the only advantage it had was that it had enough speed to avoid confrontation with the Union warships.[24]  Hence, the Confederate naval troops had to resort to guns to defend themselves from their opponents.  The innovative gunnery of the Confederate Navy is best exemplified by the guns of the aforementioned CSS Alabama.[25]

            The CSS Alabama was equipped with several weapons.  It had broadside guns of “six 32-pdr. smoothbores” which was later developed with “24-pdr. rifled pieces”[26]  These guns were fashioned to be used the same way as all the other naval weapons in the past.  The target is first anticipated to appear within the line of fire before the gun can be fired.  The other two pieces of gunnery in the ship were called “pivot guns”: it consisted of a “7-inch rifled piece and an 8-inch smoothbore gun”.[27]  It was these pivot guns that proved to be a Confederate innovation.  The pivot guns were created in response to the problems posed by the broadside weapons; the guns were built to reduce the weight and the number of people needed to prepare the broadside gunnery.  When the ship was sailing, the guns were situated in line with the “central axis of the ship”[28]  This allowed forward or backward movement in tune with the motion of the ship.  If the gun was to be used against an enemy, the weapon (gun and its carriage) were transferred to one of the sides of the ship with the use of deck slides.  These slides were similar to railroad tracks.  The gun was to be handled around several pivot points which enables the gun to shift from one side to the center of the ship; the gun can also move to the other side when the situation calls for it.  The entire process of handling these guns required much effort and time.  In addition, when the ship was already in the midst of battle, often the guns were left situated on only one side of the ship.  This limitation allowed the guns to be fired from only one side.  This is the reason why the broadside guns eventually became situated on one side of the ship.[29]

            The CSS Alabama was able to use her innovative gunnery with the fight against the USS Hatteras in January 1863.[30]  In this fight, the Confederate ship led the Union boat in a chase; this caused the USS Hatteras to be separated from the other Union ships.  When it became dark, the CSS Alabama turned around and kept a close distance with the USS Hatteras.  The distance between the two ships was 25 yards.  Due to the darkness, the commander of the Union ship Commander Blake was unable to determine the identity of the boat.  Captain Semmes of the CSS Alabama deceived the commander by identifying the ship as the British-owned HMS Petrel.  However, when Commander Blake was about to send a boat, Captain Semmer revealed the ship’s real identity and fired at the Union steamer.[31]  The first shot came from the pivot gun; the other shots that followed came from the broadside guns.  A shot from the 7-inch rifle also caused hit the engine of the Union ship, which became a source of fire.  The duration of the engagement between the two ships was only 13 minutes.    Eventually the USS Hatteras was destroyed.  This encounter was the first event wherein a steam warship caused another warship of its kind to sink.[32]

            One of the most innovative things that the Confederacy can claim involved ship building.  Compared to the Union which had maritime advantages, the Confederacy was plagued with numerous problems.[33]  One of the biggest difficulties that the Confederate Navy had faced was the inadequacy of ships.  The Southern states only had several ships, most of which were old steamers made of wood.  These proved to be insufficient in a naval battle against the Union.  To be at par with the superior Union Navy, the Confederate Navy had to exert greater effort to produce more ships.  This effort called for lending, manufacturing, buying or even seizing ships, and it has to be done with minimum amount of time.  The Confederate Navy constructed their fleets at major ports; the fleet in question included even small boats which could be purchased or built.  The fleet also included the huge ironclads.  The fleets eventually acquired the name “mosquito fleets’ because of the way they were constructed.[34]

            Another naval Confederate innovation was the conversion of boats and the use of cotton as armor.[35]  To begin with, the Confederate Navy turned simple riverboats into rams.  The process started with the fortification of the boats’ bows.  Then, cotton was placed on the decks to protect the boats.  This served as the boats’ armor.  This is the reason behind the name “cottonclad.”[36]  In 1861, fourteen rams which used to be riverboats became part of the “River Defense Fleet” of the Confederate Navy which was situated in New Orleans.  Also, the Confederacy reinvented simple riverboats into gunboats.  They did this by adding weapons on the deck of the said ships.[37]

            However, the most innovative naval contribution of the Confederacy to the Civil War was the construction of ironclads.  The naval war began as a battle that involved ships made of wood; eventually, wood was replaced by iron.[38]  The use of ironclad was one of the most significant innovations of the Confederate Navy.  It was under the leadership of Stephen Mallory that the Confederate Navy was able to reinvent warship building with the use of iron instead of wood.  Ironclad ships presented the Confederacy with the hope of defeating the Union Navy.  The ironclad ships of the South were not left unnoticed by the Union Navy.  They created a three-point plan to guarantee their victory in the war.  One of the points of the plan was to block the technological advancements of the Confederacy, most especially the creation of the ironclad ships.  Ironclad ships came in many forms.  These forms include “ironclad frigate, ironclad stoop, ironclad turret ship, broadside ironclad and ironclad ram, ironclad sidewheel ram, ironclad casemate ram, ironclad floating battery, ironclad river gunboat.”[39]

            The naval innovations of the Confederate Navy in the Civil War cover a wide range of objects.  The innovations began with the resourcefulness brought about by the lack of ships.  The Confederate Navy successfully utilized commerce raiders as warships.  Then there is the use of the H.L. Hunley.  This Confederate submarine was the first underwater vessel to cause a warship to sink.  The success of the submarine can be attributed to yet another Confederate innovation: the torpedo.  This underwater weapon also caused many Union warships to sink.

            The naval innovations continue with the creation of the pivot guns.  The pivot guns were a Confederate invention.  The pivot guns in the CSS Alabama were effective enough to destroy the USS Hatteras.  Again, this Confederate vessel made history as the first steamship to cause a similar ship to sink.

            The most apparent Confederate naval innovation concerned ship building.  It was the Confederate Navy which transformed riverboats into rams and gunboats.  This transformation required sturdy bows and artillery.  The Confederate Navy was also responsible for using cotton as ship armor.  However, the most innovative Confederate contribution of all was the creation of the ironclad ships.  The building of these ships altered the landscape of maritime warfare as it ushered in an era of warships made of iron.  The naval war began as a battle of wooden ships.

            The Confederacy may not have won the Civil War.  Despite all their efforts, they still were not able to succeed.  Nonetheless, their naval contributions will remain relevant in the history of warfare due to the innovations they have introduced.


“CSS Atlanta.” American Civil War. (accessed September 24, 2008).

Konstam, Angus, and Tony Bryan. Confederate Raider 1861-65. New York: Osprey Publishing, 2003.

Naval Historical Center. “H.L.Hunley, Confederate Submarine.” Naval Historical Center. (November 14, 2003). (accessed September 24, 2008).

Pike, John. “Civil War Ironclads.” Global Security (April 27, 2005). (accessed September 24, 2008).

Pike, John. “Civil War Warship Types.” Global Security (April 27, 2005). (accessed September 24, 2008).

Rains, G.J. “Torpedoes.” Southern Historical Society Papers 3, nos. 5 & 6 (2002):

Williams, Charles. “CSS Alabama.” Confederate Navy (2005). (accessed September 24, 2008).

Williams, Charles. “CSS Atlanta.” Confederate Navy (2005). (accessed September 24, 2008).

Williams, Charles. “Index.” Confederate Navy (2005). (accessed September 24, 2008).

[1]Charles Williams, “Index,” (Confederate Navy, 2005), (accessed September 24, 2008).
[2] Angus Konstam & Tony Bryan, Confederate Raider 1861-65 (New York: Osprey Publishing, 2003), 35.
[3] John Pike, “Civil War Ironclads” (Global Security, 2005), (accessed September 24, 2008).
[4] “CSS Atlanta,” (American Civil War), (accessed September 24, 2008).
[5] Konstam and Bryan, Confederate Raider 1861-65, 35.
[6] Op. cit.
[7] Charles Williams, “CSS Atlanta,” (Confederate Navy, 2005), (accessed September 24, 2008).
[8] Ibid.
[9] Konstam and Bryan, Confederate Raider 1861-65, 45.
[10]Charles Williams, “CSS Alabama,” (Confederate Navy, 2005), (accessed September 24, 2008).
[11] Op. cit., 45.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Naval Historical Center, “H.L.Hunley, Confederate Submarine” (Naval Historical Center, 2003), (accessed September 24, 2008).
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.
[20] G.J. Rains, “Torpedoes,” Southern Historical Society Papers 3, nos. 5 & 6 (2002):
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid.
[24]Konstam and Bryan, Confederate Raider 1861-65, 41.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Ibid., 42.
[32] Ibid.
[33] John Pike, “Civil War Ironclads” (Global Security, 2005), (accessed September 24, 2008).
[34] Ibid.
[35] Ibid.
[36] Ibid.
[37] Ibid.
[38] Ibid.
[39] John Pike, “Civil War Warship Types” (Global Security, 2005), (accessed September 24, 2008).

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