Ironclads of the Civil War

Table of Content


This paper seeks to understand the purpose of the ironclads, their effect on the Civil War, and the effect they had on the sailors who operated them. While it remains the case that the land battles and personalities dominate the literature on the American Civil War, the naval battles were equally as important, and, as this paper will show, at least as important as the land battles of the war.

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I. Introduction

class=WordSection2>On looking over the history of the rise of the wed even from the writings of the earlier and more or less partisan historians, a reader will not fail to be impressed with the wonderful resourcefulness that was displayed in meeting the unexpected exigencies of war. Viewed from. an absolutely impartial standpoint, the South apparently accomplished the impossible. The young Confederacy succeeded against heavy odds in making something out of almost nothing. There was no naval warfare in the proper sense of the word during the four years’ conflict; there were no fleets that met in battle at sea, and only two or three actions that could be touched upon in strictly naval annals. But at the outset, in the making up of the Government of the new republic, there was formed a Navy Department whose accomplishments, struggling against the difficulties that confronted it, were little short of marvelous, considering the limited time, available for preparation, in a country almost barren of ship-yards and other means of providing and equipping sea-going vessels, not to mention warships (Miller, 1912, Vol III)


            The South (known as the CSA, the Confederate States of America) had many disadvantages when compared to the North in 1860. He had fewer people, fewer industrial cities and establishments, and had a weaker economy in general. As the war began, the Southern strategy was to fight a purely defensive war, forcing the North to be the invading party, and hoping to stir up anti-war sentiment in the north. The weaknesses of the South were the true basis of the ironclads and the real impetus behind their development. They were designed, in other words, to compensate for northern superiority in nearly every respect.

            The ironclad was basically an armored, steam powered ship built over the hull of a older wooden ship, through with a flat bottom. Their primary military purpose was to smash through the northern blockade of southern ports. This blockade was to prevent southern cotton from getting to its primary European markets and hence raising revenue (Still, 1961, 330) for the war effort. But secondarily, the ironclad was a way of making up for northern superiority in fighting ships, since, as a matter of course, one ironclad was worth several wooden ships in terms of durability, as well as firepower. This paper will conclude that the ironclad strategy failed on nearly all counts.

            Furthermore, the ironclad was a flat bottomed ship, which means it could patrol the shallows along the southern coast, removing the increasingly common northern Marine landings on the southeastern coast (Still, 1961, 332). Ultimately, about 20 of these vessels were made in both northern and southern factories and docks.

            It should also be mentioned that the South sought to build these not merely for military reasons, but to convince the European powers that the South had a good chance of winning, and hence, convince the Europeans (especially the French and British) that the South was a viable military power. Whenever an ironclad hit a Union ship, telegrams were immediately sent out to the foreign dignitaries and consulates in southern port cities (Still, 1961, 337).

            While the ironclads were durable and powerful, they had several weaknesses that will be outlined in more detail below. These included very poor maneuverability, as well as creating unsanitary conditions for the crew. These two important weaknesses (and there are many more) ended up doing as much bad as good for the southern cause during the war and they were too much for the tremendous hopes the CSA command placed in them.

II. The Ironclads

            Few engineers took the ironclad project seriously at the start of the war (Milligan, 1984, 126). The very real weaknesses of the design made the early attempts in America futile, but it was only the increasing cost of the war that permitted the Confederacy to being producing these at the highest rate this weakened economy could muster. The real failure was that the CSA lost the element of surprise, as the North could manufacture ironclads faster than the south.

            At the very least, about 122 tons of iron encased these ships per unit, making them an next to impossible to steer. Their early appearance was against northern warships heading south, and these early appearances, despite all the problems, were victories for souther navies, the first off  Fort McHenry in Virginia (Milligan, 1984, 128). Nevertheless, once the North was able to begin manufacturing ironclads (in 1862) the purported advantage of these disappeared.

            Of its many strengths, the first ironclads did keep casualties low, since few cannon shots entered the iron, and no rifle bullets from opposing ships did so. Hence, it was, at first, a sought after assignment for southern sailors. But soon after the victory at (or off) Fort McHenry, the weaknesses of the ironclads became painfully clear. All counts hold that the great advantage of the ironclads were their (general) imperviousness to cannon shot as well as rifle fire.

            First of all, they strained the southern economy. These were very expensive to build, and hence, taxed an already weakened and sealed off economic system of the Confederate States. The required a large amount of iron and a large amount of labor.  Secondly, they were painfully slow due to their massive weight, and the early steam engines did not do their job properly. They were, furthermore, difficult to maintain. Thirdly, they had little storage space for fuel, and hence, had very limited ranges. Fourth, they could not hold the current, and going against the current, would even drift backwards (Milligan, 1984, 130). Fifth, as mentioned already, they had poor turning speeds, and lastly, and possibly the most important, they consumed an absurd amount of fuel, taking coal away from other applications throughout the CSA (Still, 1961, 338). Hence, if the ironclad was an integral part of a southern strategy, it was a very poor one in that the ironclad ship drained in huge amounts precisely those things in which the south was deficient: iron, coal and skilled labor.

            Nevertheless, the union sailors were convinced of their power, and these ironclads, especially of southern origin, did extensive damage to shipping, through this was more out of CSA desperation than a serious strategy. In some ways, the ironclads mirrored the kamikaze program in Japan near the end of the war: it derived from the loss of too many ships and planes, it came from desperation from a losing war, a fact made clear by the end of 1862. The ironclads were the Confederacy’s last hope after the humiliating defeats culminating in Gettysburg. Ultimately, it did little more than prolong the war.

III. First hand Accounts

            Primary source accounts of the ironclad fights abound. As a matter of course, those making the reports or witnessing the battles were impressed with the ironclads and their battle readiness despite obvious weaknesses.

            S. Dana Green, the chief officer of the Monitor (a union ironclad built at new York Harbor) writes concerning the battle with the Confederate Virginia ironclad in 1862. He does confirm that the external iron plating did keep casualties lower than the wooden ships. The primary fear, however, is that the crews of the CSA ships would attempt to shoot through the port holds, leading to a situation where the crew could be smoked out. This fear continues through all the first hand accounts of these battles. In other words, the ordinary sailor felt safe in the iron plating, but did fear the idea that a lucky shot could set the interior ablaze, cooking the crew inside (Green, 2005). He does mention this occurrence during the battle when he writes: “Soon after noon a shell from the enemy’s gun, the muzzle not ten yards distant, struck the forward side of the pilot-house directly in the sight-hole, or slit, and exploded, cracking the second iron log and partly lifting the top, leaving an opening.” This shows the vulnerability of the ironclads in close-up fighting.        But the most substantial eyewitness account is given by a land-based officer for the CSA, Col, William Norris, who was a signal corps chief, writing after the war in 1879, based his account on first hand accounts from actual sailors in the Virginia. He makes several salient points about live on the ironclad.

            First, there was a substantial fear among the CSA sailors that the ironclads were not seaworthy. It was the case that these ships did take on water substantially, and, despite the protection of the iron sheets, these ships did take on water given their tremendous weight.

            Secondly, he remarks that the engines on these ships, rather crude steam engines, gave out regularly, not exactly soothing to the crew. But the worst part of the ironclad was the conditions within, thirdly, the armor itself. At any given moment, one-third of the crew was sent ashore on sick leave. The iron shielding kept in the fumes and soot from the coal burning engines, and conditions were painfully hot and the air radically unhealthy. He writes:

class=WordSection4>The quarters for the crew were damp, ill-ventilated and unhealthy; one-third of the men were always on the sick-list, and upon being transferred to the hospital, they would convalesce immediately. She steered very badly, and both her rudder and screw were wholly unprotected. Her battery was magnificent, of course, for Catesby Roger Jones had planned and equipped it; and that he had no peer in this branch of his profession (ordnance), I believe that every fair man in the ‘old navy’ will concede.

            However, while he paints this sad picture of the crew, he does mention that it did defeat the first Union fleet, harmed the blockade and defeated the Monitor of the Union.  He also quotes the speech of the captain, a Cpt. Buchanan of the Virginia, who, while aware of the dangers, stressed the women and children of the Confederacy who would be manhandled if their mission failed. Cpt. Buchanan spent much time worrying about he morale of the increasingly sick crew, and continually harped on the importance of the navy to Confederate chances in the war (Norris, 1917).

            It remains the case that, as the victories of the ironclads increased, that the salvation of the Confederacy was placed in the hands of the navy. This point is rarely made in the literature, but the report (April, 1862) of the Secretary of the Navy for the CSA, a S. R. Mallory, to President Davis stresses the victories of his naval forces and suggests a strong investment in the ironclads. He goes so far as to say, “I regard the possession of an iron-armored ship as a matter of the first necessity. Such a vessel at this time could traverse the entire coast of the United States, prevent all blockades, and encounter with a fair prospect of success their entire navy.”

            He also holds that the crew of the Merrimac, about which he was writing, was noticeably cool and collected during the fight though under harsh conditions. It is true that the naval secretary would have an interest in stressing his own role in the war, it remains trtue that most observers thought he navy would save the Confederacy (Mallory, 1862). To take one example, the commander of the Norfolk station for the CSA, Gen. Benjamin Huges, writes in March of 1862 that the only thing that saved the union fleet was the appearance of the Monitor. Gen. Huges holds that the ironclads will save the CSA because, among other things, “they can pass by [shore] batteries with impunity” (Huges, 1862). It seemed that the CSA had found its equalizer. Nevertheless, his last paragraph dashed all hopes: “As the enemy can build such boats faster than we, they could, when so prepared, overcome any place accessible by water. How these powerful machines are to be stopped is a problem I cannot solve. At present, in the Virginia, we have the advantage; but we cannot tell how long this may last.” In other words, the advantage was for the CSA to put these in service first, and do a fast amount of damage before the Anew York harbor engineers could respond. Of course, that time had passed very early, the project was doomed from the start for this reason, if for no other.

            At the same time, the Secretary of the Navy under Lincoln, Gideon Welles, wrote in 1862 that he was tremendously impressed with the action of the ironclads on both sides. He holds that the older naval guns have now become obsolete, but the weakness of the Merrimac was that it “drew too much water,” and hence, the flaw was in the design, not the concept (Annual Report of the Sec. Of Navy, 1862, December 1). It seems that Welles was the first to realize that the ironclads had changed warfare forever.

            It may be useful to deal with some issues concerning the life of ordinary sailors. Though there are no easily available primary sources on specifically, the life of an ironclad sailor, there is plenty on the life of an ordinary sailor during the Civil War. In general, it seems that a sailor’s life was a difficult one. The Essay “A Sailor’s Life” by naval expert Harold D. Langley (2002) made these observations about the struggles of the ordinary sailors. First, there were constant personality clashes. Long term confinement in small spaces led to fighting and grudges that the officers tried in vain to stop. Second, training in basic skills was perfunctory, and the basics only were taught, leading to accidents. Alcohol abuse was common, and sickness coming from bad nutrition, venereal disease (from shore leave) and crewmen suffered often from boredom and despondency.

            If one adds to this the dangers and problems of the ironclads, then the sailor’s live was a bad one. The only thing that saved the ironclad sailors was that their voyages were never far from land and were generally shorter than the wooden ships that had far farther ranges. Nevertheless, Langley does hold that sailor were fed better than the infantry, and he mentions the rather interesting concept that integration between white and black sailors was a fact due to their shared sufferings.

            To summarize, then, several points should be made. First, the ironclad was created to do harm to northern shipping and to break the blockade. The point was that the ironclad was worth more than a wooden ship, and hence, iron could make up for the larger numbers of warships at the disposal of the Union forces (cf. Anderson (1962) for a detailed description of this strategy).

            It is true that the naval victories of the CSA were almost entirely based on the ironclads, and that many observers were convinced that this movement can save the CSA, or at least do enough damage that the Union would sue for peace. It is clear that the ironclads changed naval warfare, and that modern warships derived directly from their example.

            The problems with the ironclads was their design: they were heavy, hard to turn and maneuver, and took a large amount of increasingly scarce fuel to function. Jefferson Davis fought the battle between land forces under Lee, and the sea forces that, while important, did not affect the general population as the land forces did. Land forces wanted the same fuel and investment the sea forces did, but the greater visibility of the infantry, plus the charisma of Lee turned the CSA defense budget towards the infantry rather than the ironclads. Not to mention the fact that the ironclad was very expensive to produce. It took on water due to its weight, and the engines were rather crude. The worst elements, however, came from the unsanitary air within the armor. In other words, the ironclad was not viable as a long term CSA strategy.

IV. Conclusion:

            The Ironclad was a flat bottomed, steam powered warship used by the CSA early in the war to force northern shipping and naval forces to sue for peace. The CSA strategy, both on land or sea, was to inflict enough damage on the northern forces so as to force them to sue for peace. Hence, the ironclad, was, among other things, a way to do this in the shortest amount of time. Despite the problems inherent in the ironclad design, there is some evidence that it was feared by the crews both on shore batteries as well as wooden warships. The ironclad could bypass shore batteries, hitting them with heavy guns while being basically impervious to outside fire. If anything, it may be surmised that the ironclads lengthened the war, since, without them, the northen blockade would have been more effective, and the southern shore forts such as McHenry would have fallen much quicker. At the same time, the constant CSA drive for international recognition was at the center of the ironclad production, since the creation of these ultra-modern warships would impress Paris and London, allowing the latter to considered the CSA safe from Union sea assault, and, hence, a viable military power. This too, failed.

            Although the ironclad was of seminal importance in naval warfare, the debut of the iron warship was a failure at all levels. The most that could be said for them was that they did protect the crew inside from rifle fire that would have killed far more in wooden ship. It may even be theorized that it hurt the CSA, in that it drained iron, coal, machinery and labor that may have been put to better use elsewhere.

            Gideon Wells, Secretary of the navy under Lincoln, makes it clear that there was no ironclad production prior to the Southern program. Hence, the CSA did at first, have the element of surprise (like the English tank in World War I), but the north was able to take advantage of its superiority in industry to eliminate this advantage quickly. This is the bottom line (so to speak) of the final defeat of the CSA on the sea.


Anderson, Bern. (1962). By Sea and River: The Naval History of the Civil War. Knopf.

Davis, William, C. (1975) Duel Between the First Ironclads. Doubleday. (Used for basic references)

Langley, Harold D. “Images of War 1861-1865.” in Fighting for Time, Vol IV.

Welles, Gideon. “Annual Report of the Navy Department.” December 1, 1862 (

Huges, Benjamin. “Concerning the Battle of the Monitor and Merrimac.” March 10, 1862. (

Mallory, S.R. (1862) “Report on the Battle of the Monitor and Merrimac.” April 10, 1862. (

Norris, William. (1917) “The Story of the Confederate States’ Ship Virginia.” Southern Historical Society Papers 4.(

Green, S. Dana. (1862) “Battle of the Ironclads, 1862.” Century Magazine. (

Milligan, John. (1984) “From Theory to Application: The Emergence of the American Ironclad War Vessel.” Military Affairs 48. 126-132

Still, William N. (1961) “The Confederate Naval Strategy: The Ironclad.” Journal of Southern History 27. 330-343

Miller, Francis ed. (1912) The Photographic Encyclopedia of the Civil War (Vol III). The Review of Reviews.


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Ironclads of the Civil War. (2016, Oct 25). Retrieved from

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