Union Ironclad Ships During the Civil War

Instructor: Gaines Arnold
This lesson instructs the reader regarding ironclad ships used by the Union Navy during the Civil War: names of famous ships, discusses types of ironclads, and talks about their impact on the present navy.

The United States Navy Prior to the Civil War

The United States was reactionary when the Civil War began, meaning the Union did not initiate the War, but they did engage when attacked. The Confederate shelling of Fort Sumter in South Carolina began the war and it quickly escalated to serious battles between the armies of the Confederacy and Union. But, most people do not realize that the navies of the North and the South were just as crucial to the war effort as the armies.

As the Civil War started, President Lincoln was informed that the United States Navy was in a sad state. Very few ships were available as most were either on foreign duty far from the US, or they were in such disrepair as to be unusable. One of Lincoln's first acts was to order his Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, to completely blockade Southern ports. This was a 3,000 mile problem that would take a great deal of imagination and hard work to accomplish. However, through the commissioning and refitting of civilian vessels, and repairing existing ships, Welles was able to comply with the order.

However, another problem became quickly apparent. The Confederate States of America (CSA) had no naval vessels at the beginning of the war, but realized they would have to combat US sea power. Their solution was to refit hulls and superstructures of existing wooden, steam-powered vessels with iron plates.

The Union Ironclads

From the beginning the Union took the stance that they would construct ships specifically designed as ironclad rather than converting wooden ships for the purpose. Though they did have some converted ironclads, Welles turned to ship builder John Ericsson. He had a design for a ship that was completely encased in iron, offered a very low profile (the main deck rose just 18 inches above the water) and had a two-gun revolving turret. It was christened the USS Monitor and was incredibly maneuverable.

USS Monitor
USS Monitor

This type of ship was designated the monitor design, but more were built following the casemate design. These ships were similar to wooden ships in that they had high hulls that slanted inward from the waterline, but many of them resembled a box and were very unwieldy when fighting a battle. The Confederates also constructed ironclads with pointed prows that they called 'rams' which acted to crash into a wooden vessel and sink it rather than destroying it with cannon fire.

Ironclad Battles

At the beginning of the War both sides were working hard to construct a navy sufficient to support what their ground forces were doing. Using their early ironclads against wooden Union ships, the Confederacy had an early edge that they tried to exploit. And while they had a great deal of success against inferior wooden-hulled vessels, the Union soon launched the Monitor to stifle any thoughts of superiority.

During the first day of the Battle of Hampton Roads, which took place in the James River and Chesapeake Bay, the CSS Virginia was able to destroy several wooden Union vessels. But on the second day, the USS Monitor arrived on the scene. This new, low-profile ironclad was able to sail rings around the bulkier CSS Virginia and had better armament with its swiveling turret. However, the battle was not conclusive as neither the Monitor or the Virginia suffered greatly.

Battle of Hampton Roads
Battle of Hampton Roads

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