Confederate Ironclad Ships During the Civil War

Instructor: Gaines Arnold
In this lesson, the reader will learn about ironclad warships that fought on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War, their construction, famous battles, and future significance.

The Shift from Wood to Iron Ships

Sailing ships had always been wooden. It was unthinkable to most people that metal could be used as a construction material for ships. But, engineers in the 14th century had come upon a solution. In 1592, Korea built an ironclad warship, called the 'turtle ship' to fight against the Japanese. However, it was propelled with sails and, primarily, oars, so many discount it as a true ironclad and list the CSS Virginia (or Merrimack) as the first of the true ironclads used in battle. But what does it mean for a ship to be ironclad?


Most large, modern ships are metal from keel to the instrument towers; the only wood used is for decoration. Ironclad warships were actually wooden structures that had iron plating affixed for added protection. The plates covered the hull (at least to the waterline) and the decking. For maximum protection, these ships were also steam powered because a wind powered ship would have had added vulnerabilities. One ironclad warship could take on an entire navy of wooden ships (steam or wind powered) because they were relatively impervious to cannon fire.

Confederate Ironclads

That is why the Confederate Navy employed ironclad ships in large numbers during the American Civil War. The Union Navy had blockaded all Southern ports early in the war with their much larger navy and industrial ability to create more ships quickly. The Confederates had no navy at the beginning of the war, but realized that they needed to combat the North with some innovation that would help them open ports and secure interior rivers. The Confederate Secretary of the Navy, Stephen Mallory, reasoned that steam-powered ironclads, which had been built by the French and English in recent years (1859 and 1861 respectively, but not used in battle), would allow the CSA to have a small navy powerful enough to combat the numerical superiority of the Union Navy.

Confederate ironclads
Confederate Ironclads

Thus, Mallory commissioned a small fleet that would largely be built by independent contractors. These ships were of a variety of designs, built in river and port cities, and served with varying degrees of distinction. In all, the CSA commissioned and built more than 20 ironclad ships and batteries. These ships would not determine the fate of the CSA, but because they were the first iron-hulled ships used in actual warfare, they were significant.

Famous Ironclad Battles During the Civil War

There were actually relatively few engagements between Confederate ironclad ships and Union Naval vessels (both ironclad and wooden), but they proved that these designs were feasible. Probably the most famous engagement was between the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor. The CSS Virginia was a formerly wooden ship named USS Merrimack that had been abandoned by the Union at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyards at the outbreak of the Civil War. The new ironclad version wreaked havoc on the Union wooden navy during the beginning of the Battle of Hampton Roads sinking both the USS Cumberland and USS Congress. Due to the success of CSN ironclads, the USN had commissioned the USS Monitor. The USS Monitor and CSS Virginia met in Chesapeake Bay on May 9, 1862 and fought to a draw; neither ship was destroyed. However, the CSS Virginia was forced to retreat and the Union blockade stood.

CSS Virginia
CSS Virginia

The majority of Confederate ironclad ships either never fought or were largely ineffective. Since this was a new technology, there was no set design and some trials worked better than others. Some ironclads never made it much past the docks where they were constructed. However, at least one had a very distinguished career.

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