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How the Confederacy changed naval Warfare.

Ironclads and torpedoes

The outbreak of the war between the States found the Southern Confederacy cut off from all access to the sea, and destitute of all means of naval attack or defence.

When the Federals abandoned the navy-yard at Norfolk, they destroyed the dry-dock and shipping, and all other destructible means for building or equipping war vessels.

The Merrimac, a fine United States frigate, was burned and sunk at her moorings; but in a few months, by the skill of Captain John M. Brooke, of Virginia, she was raised, repaired and converted into the famous ironclad Virginia, which destroyed or routed the entire Federal fleet in Hampton Roads.

The Virginia first encountered the United States frigate Cumberland, which she crushed and sank. That gallant ship went down with her colors flying and her men fighting her guns till they were drowned at their posts of duty. The iron beak of the Virginia was torn off in the collision.

The Virginia next attacked the frigate Congress, and destroyed her with her guns, and then turned her attention to the frigate Minnesota, which in flying from the Virginia had grounded in water too shoal for the Virginia to enter. [76]

The two pounded away at each other at long range. While the damage to the Virginia was not great, the Minnesota suffered so severly that her captain reports that he had resolved to abandon and destroy her, when he saw the Virginia, after her engagement with the Monitor, turning toward Norfolk to procure a new beak and repair other damages.

Our noble admiral, Franklin Buchanan, of Maryland, was struck down by a severe wound while fighting the Congress. The command of the Virginia then developed upon Captain Catesby Jones, of Virginia, under whom the fighting was continued to its successful issue.

At daylight of the second day the Monitor, which had come in during the night, was discovered lying by the Minnesota. She bravely advanced to battle with the Virginia, and for more than an hour the most remarkable combat the world had ever seen was sustained by these two ships, until the captain of the Monitor was wounded, when his ship escaped into shoal water and never again ventured out to attack the Virginia.

During the fighting of the two days the heavy guns of Newport News, and of the Cumberland, Congress, Roanoke, St. Lawrence, Minnesota and Monitor, had inflicted some damage on the Virginia, and ever since her beak had been wrenched off by the sinking Cumberland she had been leaking. There being no Federal ship to offer or accept battle, she returned to Norfolk to repair damages.

Some weeks later, with a new beak and again ready for battle, the Virginia sailed out from Norfolk to attack the reinforced Federal fleet, then bombarding our batteries at Sewell's Point. When she hove in sight, this whole fleet, consisting of the Monitor, two other ironclads, ten wooden frigates, etc., ceased firing and incontinently fled to shoal water and the protection of Fortress Monroe.

The Virginia pursued them as closely as her draught would permit, and challenged the Monitor to come out and fight; but neither she nor any other ship would venture out from their place of refuge, and the Virginia retired to her anchorage off the mouth of James river, in full view of her enemy. She daily renewed her challenge to battle, and remained unmolested until the Confederate Government withdrew the troops and vessels towards Richmond, when the Virginia, drawing too much water to get over James river bar, was dismantled, abandoned and destroyed by her crew. A few years ago the United States Congress voted $200,000 prize money to the crew of the Monitor for destroying the Virginia! [77]

This demonstration made by the Confederacy of the power of armored ships set all the great naval, powers to building ironclad navies.

At a vast cost of time and money and of terrible disaster to themselves, the French led off with a great fleet of ironclads, which kept the sea in a gale of wind in the Bay of Biscay, and made England anxious about her naval supremacy.

England at once built the Captain, the Iron Duke, the Vanguard and others of that class of ships that could withstand any artillery then in use, and at the same time keep the sea in any weather. Of these the Captain was the last completed, and the most approved by naval men of all ironclads at that time afloat. One day she was cruising with the ironclad fleet. Her commander was Captain Burgoyne, and on board of her was Captain Cowper Coles, who had designed her. The squadron was well out to sea. The wind freshened. The order to shorten sail came too late for the Captain. She careened heavily. The sea piled upon her, bore her over, and she went down, bottom up, in sixty fathoms of water, carrying with her over six hundred officers and men.

The ship went down like a diving-bell, full of air, and many of her men lived for hours, perhaps for days, in consciousness of their fearful fate. Soon after this awful calamity the Iron Duke narrowly escaped the same terrible fate. The Vanguard went down with six hundred men. Of her whole crew not one escaped. A little later the Grosser Kurfurst foundered, carrying down her whole crew of over one thousand men.

To balance this fearful suicidal destruction of armored ships, we can only point to the sinking, in the harbor of Lissa, of an Italian ironclad by an Austrian, during the late war between Austria and Italy.

Napoleon's great fleet attempted to enter one of the German Baltic ports during the Franco-Prussian war. Colonel Von Sheliha, the engineer who had so well guarded Mobile with torpedoes, was charged by Von Moltke with the torpedo defence of the German ports.

In entering one of them, the leading French ship was struck by a torpedo, whereupon the whole of that great fleet returned to Cherbourg, where it has been rusting and rotting ever since.

During the last war between Russia and Turkey, the great ironclad fleet of the Turks, after losing four ships sunk by Russian torpedoes, was paralyzed and useless for the rest of the war. [78]

In the Franco-Chinese war, the French torpedoes destroyed the whole Chinese fleet. The iron-clad flagship was blown to atoms by a torpedo boat.

Thus the Confederacy, having set all the world to building ironclads, taught it how powerless they are against torpedoes.

Our torpedoes were very rude. Some were demijohns charged with gunpowder. The best were beer-kegs loaded with gunpowder, and exploded by sensitive primers. These were anchored in every channel open to an enemy.

The official reports show that sixty-eight Federal vessels were destroyed by torpedoes during the war between the States. Twelve were sunk in Mobile Bay. The great ironclad Tecumseh was the first and greatest victim. She was leading Farragut's fleet into Mobile Bay, and running close into Fort Morgan, when a torpedo struck her. She instantly careened and went down, carrying in her one hundred and fifty officers and men. With them lies their noble Captain Craven, one of the bravest and best of American captains. As his ship was struck, Craven was by the foot of the ladder leading up to the open deck, from which he could escape. The pilot came running to get out that way; Craven stepped back, saying, ‘After you, pilot,’ and went down with his ship. The pilot lived to record this act, more noble than Sydney's.

Eight of the Tecumseh's men were out on her deck when she went down. They sprang into the sea. Some were rescued by our men; others were picked up by the Hartford's boats, for when brave old Farragut saw the Tecumseh sink, he took the head of his fleet, hove to under the fire of our guns, and lowered his boats to save those struggling men.

Seeing this, noble old Dick Page, commanding the Confederate forts, ordered: ‘Pass the order to fire no shot at those boats saving drowning men.’

These are the chivalries which make war glorious.

While their stationary, defensive torpedoes were so destructive, Confederate ingenuity was active in creating aggressive torpedo boats, which, making no noise nor smoke, and lying deep in the water, could, at night, approach and sink a ship at anchor.

The United States frigate Ironsides was the greatest ironclad then in existence. She lay in Charleston harbor, and was an object of great desire to the young Confederate naval officers. And one night Lieutenant Glassell, of Virginia, went out to attack her.

His boat was the torpedo David. She was made of boiler-iron, [79] was cigar-shaped, was noiseless and smokeless, and bore a torpedo in her bow.

Her crew were Glassell, a pilot, and an engineer. She approached her great adversary, which loomed grandly up against the sky, without discovery till close aboard.

Glassell stood in the hatchway with his gun ready, and answered the sharp hail of the officer of the deck by a shot.

At the next instant the torpedo struck the Ironsides abaft the wheel, and wrecked her from stem to stern.

The volume of water thrown up by the explosion overwhelmed the torpedo boat, filled her and extinquished her fires.

Her crew swam away from her. Glassell was picked up, taken aboard ship, and put in irons.

The other two men escaped discovery, and after swimming a while, found themselves near to the David, which was still floating, waterlogged.

They got on her, bailed her out, got up steam, and reached Charleston before daylight.

The most remarkable career in all torpedo history is that of a little torpedo boat built in Mobile Bay.

She was made of boileriron, was cigar-shaped, about thirty-five feet long, five feet deep, two and one-half feet wide.

She was propelled by the manual power of eight men, who, sitting on either side of a long shaft, revolved it, and so worked the propeller secured to it.

The captain stood in a circular hatchway, well forward. He steered the boat to right or left, and also regulated the depth at which she would move.

When I saw her trial trip she towed a floated torpedo, dived under a ship, dragging the torpedo, which fairly exploded under the ship's bottom, and blew the fragments one hundred feet into the air.

Not being able to use her against Farragut, I sent her by rail with her trained crew to Beauregard, to be used against the Ironsides, which Glassell had not yet demoralized.

Beauregard called for volunteers to take her into action. Lieutenant Pavne, of the Confederate navy, a native of Alabama, and eight sailors of the Confederate navy, volunteered to take her.

She lay close by a tug, from which, one by one, the crew descended into her, through the little round hatch, and moved on each to his seat.

Payne entered last. He was standing in the hatchway, ready to [80] stoop and to close it upon them, when the swell of a passing steamer rolled over her, poured into the hatchway, and sank her instantly in deep water. Payne sprang out upon the tug; the two men next him followed; the other six went down with the boat.

After a few days she was raised and again made ready for action, and again Payne and eight Confederate sailors volunteered, and again on the eve of starting, she filled and sank, and Payne alone escaped.

A third time she was raised and taken in hand by McClintock, her owner, and his trained crew.

In Stone River she gave an exhibition of her power to sink and travel at any depth below the surface. Presently she disappeared, and was not seen again till divers found her on the bottom of the river with her nine dead men.

She was again raised and made ready for action, and Lieutenant Dixon, Twenty-first Alabama Regiment, and eight Confederate soldiers got permission to attack the Housatonic, a fine new corvette, just come down to join the fleet off Charleston.

Dixon was a Kentuckian. He was moved by high principle in making this venture. He had taken active part in the construction of this vessel, had caused other men to perish in her by dangers he had not shared, and now bravely demanded this opportunity.

The Housatonic lay close inshore, on soundings.

The torpedo, submerged, reached and struck her, tearing off, as her captain reported, the whole stern of his ship, which sank in three minutes upon a sandy bottom, but without losing a man.

The torpedo disappeared forever. Several years after the war, wreckers were sent down by our Government, in submarine armor, to wreck the Housatonic. They reported the torpedo boat to be lying on the sea's bottom, about one hundred feet from her victim.

The crew had all, no doubt, been concussed, and, as the fishes are, instantly killed by the explosion. Had Dixon raised his boat above the surface before exploding the torpedo, they might have all escaped death or capture.

The records of war contain no act of daring equal to this of brave Dixon and his crew.

After her brief attack upon the Virginia, the Monitor rendered no important service during the war; and while under tow and convoy she went down with part of her crew off Hatteras.

Since her record was made no foreign power has built any vessel like her. [81]

Those of the United States did us Confederates but little harm during the war. Seven of them now lie in James river; most of the others are rotting elsewhere.

The Puritan and one or two others are under repair, and will be useful in harbor defence, for which alone such vessels may be serviceable.

I have been induced to make this summary of naval experience of the past thirty years because of the interest which has recently been aroused in improving our navy and our harbor defence, and have stripped the history of the Monitor of all but its bare facts, in the hope and duty to present it fairly. There is not a man or woman educated north of Mason and Dixon's line during the past thirty years who does not believe the Monitor was the victor in the battle in Hampton Roads. Their school histories all teach that, and from the same unwholesome source our children learn that and many other erroneous versions of the conduct of their fathers in the great war between the States.

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