Brass Napoleon Award Were Confederate Ironclads Worth The Effort/Cost?

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DaveBrt

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On other recent threads, the idea has been stated that the Confederate ironclads (the home brew variety) were useful. One poster stated "Where they existed, the Confederate ironclads had an impact. They were very disruptive on the Mississippi while they could be kept in operation. The existence of the Tennessee affected and delayed the assault on Mobile. And the existence of the Albemarle was an operational problem which was not resolved until Cushing pushed a mine into it."

My contention is that ironclads were of value in only the following places:
New Orleans -- the cost of loosing control of the Mississippi River was so great that they had to be used to prevent the loss.
Wilmington and Charleston -- the need to keep these blockade runner ports open was so great that the ironclads were worth the cost
Mobile -- the loss of the only remaining east-west RR line, through Mobile and by barge across the river, made this a serious pressure point that had to be defended

None of the others, including Virginia I, was worth the effort because of strategic factors. In Virginia I's case, Norfolk was going to be captured soon, by direct assault or from the South. The ship did not delay the Union more than a few days and had no chance to prevent the actual outcome.

Keep going down the list of ships and find one that mattered -- in Savannah? in the Chattahoochee River? as a single ship in the upper Mississippi? in Shreveport? in the NC Sounds? in Richmond? The cost, however, was noticeable -- RR cars required to carry the guns, engines and armor to the building ironclads, the loss of RR rails that could have been re-rolled (if the rollers had not be monopolized by armor production) and used to keep the RRs operational, the requirement for mechanics to build them, etc.

In my opinion, Davis should have reigned in Mallory and allowed only the ships that mattered to be built. But how did he know which ones would matter? It was not the ships, it was the strategic targets that needed to be defended that mattered.

(It is really quite analogous to the German Navy in WW1. The huge expenditure for the battleships brought no useful return and no one should have expected such return.)
 
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jgoodguy

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On other recent threads, the idea has been stated that the Confederate ironclads (the home brew variety) were useful. One poster stated "Where they existed, the Confederate ironclads had an impact. They were very disruptive on the Mississippi while they could be kept in operation. The existence of the Tennessee affected and delayed the assault on Mobile. And the existence of the Albemarle was an operational problem which was not resolved until Cushing pushed a mine into it."

My contention is that ironclads were of value in only the following places:
New Orleans -- the cost of loosing control of the Mississippi River was so great that they had to be used to prevent the loss.
Wilmington and Charleston -- the need to keep these blockade runner ports open was so great that the ironclads were worth the cost
Mobile -- the loss of the only remaining east-west RR line, through Mobile and by barge across the river, made this a serious pressure point that had to be defended

None of the others, including Virginia I, was worth the effort because of strategic factors. In Virginia I's case, Norfolk was going to be captured soon, by direct assault or from the South. The ship did not delay the Union more than a few days and had no chance to prevent the actual outcome.

Keep going down the list of ships and find one that mattered -- in Savannah? in the Chattahoochee River? as a single ship in the upper Mississippi? in Shreveport? in the NC Sounds? in Richmond? The cost, however, was noticeable -- RR cars required to carry the guns, engines and armor to the building ironclads, the loss of RR rails that could have been re-rolled (if the rollers had not be monopolized by armor production) and used to keep the RRs operational, the requirement for mechanics to build them, etc.

In my opinion, Davis should have reigned in Mallory and allowed only the ships that mattered to be built. But how did he know which ones would matter? It was not the ships, it was the strategic targets that needed to be defended that mattered.

(It is really quite analogous to the German Navy in WW1. The huge expenditure for the battleships brought no useful return and no one should have expected such return.)
Interesting subject. I'd opine that knowing what matters up front is difficult.
 

rebelatsea

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Interesting subject. I'd opine that knowing what matters up front is difficult.
We come back basically to yet another leader with his country embroiled in war who didn't understand (or didn't want to understand) what a navy was for or should do, which is in it's simplest terms to keep an enemy out of your waters. .

DaveBrt, I make you nearly right,
1) The defence of, and possession of the Mississippi in it's entirety should have been a priority, losing that allowed the
Union to spilt the south, and penetrate up the tributary rivers into the country, which had the result of allowing
precious resources and territory to be taken and occupied.
2) The James river squadron was absolutely necessary to prevent a waterborn assault on Richmond, or to be more precise
Tredegar.
3) The major Atlantic and Gulf ports needed to be held against the USN. Indeed the USN should have been kept away
from Southern coasts.

Stephen Mallory was therefore wrong on three counts in domestic term s ignoring the European efforts:
Not creating a Mississippi fleet.
Trying for an oceanic (or at least seagoing navy) to start with.
Not creating a coast defence navy.

Having said that - was there anyone better qualified to be Secretary of the Navy ?
 
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DaveBrt

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We come back basically to yet another leader with his country embroiled in war who didn't understand (or didn't want to understand) what a navy was for or should do, which is in it's simplest terms to keep an enemy out of your waters. .

DaveBrt, I make you nearly right,
1) The defence of, and possession of the Mississippi in it's entirety should have been a priority, losing that allowed the
Union to spilt the south, and penetrate up the tributary rivers into the country, which had the result of allowing
precious resources and territory to be taken and occupied.
2) The James river squadron was absolutely necessary to prevent a waterborn assault on Richmond, or to be more precise
Tredegar.
3) The major Atlantic and Gulf ports needed to be held against the USN. Indeed the USN should have been kept away
from Southern coasts.

Stephen Mallory was therefore wrong on three counts in domestic term s ignoring the European efforts:
Not creating a Mississippi fleet.
Trying for an oceanic (or at least seagoing navy) to start with.
Not creating a coast defence navy.

Having said that - was there anyone better qualified to be Secretary of the Navy ?
Mallory was the best the South could have hoped for. But, like any service head, Mallory saw everything through the eyes of his service. It was up to Davis (and Congress to an extent) to see the big picture and correctly prioritize. When national leaders refuse to do this, or come to the wrong priorities, they loose.

WW2 Japan had the same problem -- #1 need was to secure the incoming supplies, but they chose to make the conquest of China and the attack on the US battle fleet higher priorities.

WW2 Germany made the punishment of Hitler's enemies #1 priority. This led to the attack on the USSR before other festering sores were dealt with completely. It also led to Germany declaring war on the US for no reason.

Britain was the master of keeping the eye on the ultimate goal and shifting temporary targets in order to achieve victory. From the Dutch wars to the Cold War, they got it right every time -- except when trying to figure out the American problem.

Regarding Mallory's three mistakes:
Failure to create a Mississippi navy -- agree
Trying to create a blue-water navy -- agree
Not creating a coast defense navy -- I think that is what he was trying to do with the ironclads. But as I said above, his job was to help achieve the strategic goals of the country -- in the CS/CSN situation, the number 1 goal was to keep the internal and external supply lines open, not create a coast defense navy. The coast defense ironclads not related to the Mississippi River or the blockade running were wasted projects.

Regarding the James River squadron to prevent a river attack on Richmond -- do you have any documents that show that the US was deterred from making such an attack by the presence of these ships? I don't know of any.
 

DaveBrt

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As a deterrent, I think that they were worth the effort; as a weapon, not so much so.
Can you point to any serious attacks that were deterred by the presence of CSN ironclads, except in the places I listed them as useful?
 
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Mark F. Jenkins

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Raimondo Luraghi's history of the Confederate Navy attempts to build a case that, once the South stopped trying to build big blue-water ironclads and concentrated on smaller "harbor defense" type ironclads, that they were more successful. (Or that might have come from William N. Still, Jr.'s Armor Afloat. Or possibly both. I need more coffee this morning...) The primary evidence presented for this, I believe, is Charleston, the James River, Savannah, and Mobile.

It's convincing on the face of it, since it was late in the war before those places fell to the North.

However... there's an interesting exception that I think torpedoes the idea: Wilmington. Although two ironclads were built to defend the Cape Fear, they were notably unsuccessful and not a real obstacle. The main obstacles were 1) Fort Fisher and 2) Union failure to do anything about it earlier.

Of the others, Savannah and Mobile were sealed off by the seizure of the fortifications at the coastline (Mobile had to wait till late in the war, true, but it was intended for earlier), Charleston was heavily defended (and the Union was notably inept in several attempts there), and the James River really had to wait until there were land armies to cooperate. The winning combination, ultimately, was a combined (joint) arms approach with both Navy and Army working together, but it seems to have taken rather a long time for the Union to get that lesson, even given early evidence of it along the upper Mississippi.

While I would be very sorry to lose the Confederate ironclads (they're interesting!), the Confederacy really should have put together a more coherent defense strategy based on delay at minimal cost-- which in the naval sphere, unquestionably pointed to torpedoes, which had a demonstrably powerful effect, both in sinking Union vessels and in sharply increasing the caution of Union vessel commanders after they'd seen some of those sinkings.
 

redbob

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Can you point to any serious attacks that were deterred by the presence of CSN ironclads, except in the places I listed them as useful?
I can't really say that ironclads acted as much of a deterrent as the combination of strong fortifications- Drewry's Bluff, Fort Fisher, the ring of forts around Charleston and Mobile and the threat of the ironclads to Union forces attempting to gain entry to areas. The ironclads were probably seen more as a "bogeyman or wildcard" threat to Union forces than a real one.
 
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Mark F. Jenkins

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The ironclads were probably seen more as a "bogeyman or wildcard" threat to Union forces than a real one.
"Ram fever" was very real, but was not a universal malady-- Farragut was rather resistant to it. In any case, once there were sufficient Union ironclads to have a few along, that largely neutralized the Confederate ironclad threat.

Leaving Union ineptness aside (though unquestionably a factor), the best-defended point along the coast was Charleston, which had a multilevel array of land and water based defenses, ironclads, torpedo boats, mines, obstructions... all of the different types of defense supported each other.
 

DaveBrt

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Raimondo Luraghi's history of the Confederate Navy attempts to build a case that, once the South stopped trying to build big blue-water ironclads and concentrated on smaller "harbor defense" type ironclads, that they were more successful. (Or that might have come from William N. Still, Jr.'s Armor Afloat. Or possibly both. I need more coffee this morning...) The primary evidence presented for this, I believe, is Charleston, the James River, Savannah, and Mobile.

It's convincing on the face of it, since it was late in the war before those places fell to the North.

However... there's an interesting exception that I think torpedoes the idea: Wilmington. Although two ironclads were built to defend the Cape Fear, they were notably unsuccessful and not a real obstacle. The main obstacles were 1) Fort Fisher and 2) Union failure to do anything about it earlier.

Of the others, Savannah and Mobile were sealed off by the seizure of the fortifications at the coastline (Mobile had to wait till late in the war, true, but it was intended for earlier), Charleston was heavily defended (and the Union was notably inept in several attempts there), and the James River really had to wait until there were land armies to cooperate. The winning combination, ultimately, was a combined (joint) arms approach with both Navy and Army working together, but it seems to have taken rather a long time for the Union to get that lesson, even given early evidence of it along the upper Mississippi.

While I would be very sorry to lose the Confederate ironclads (they're interesting!), the Confederacy really should have put together a more coherent defense strategy based on delay at minimal cost-- which in the naval sphere, unquestionably pointed to torpedoes, which had a demonstrably powerful effect, both in sinking Union vessels and in sharply increasing the caution of Union vessel commanders after they'd seen some of those sinkings.
Richmond and Savannah fell late, but the CSN presence did not matter in either case.

Mobile was sealed as a blockade running port when its sea forts fell, but I said it was important for its railroad connection, which was obvious in February '62 and was not disrupted in the Mobile area until the war was over.
 

DaveBrt

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I can't really say that ironclads acted as much of a deterrent as the combination of strong fortifications- Drewry's Bluff, Fort Fisher, the ring of forts around Charleston and Mobile and the threat of the ironclads to Union forces attempting to gain entry to areas. The ironclads were probably seen more as a "bogeyman or wildcard" threat to Union forces than a real one.
They probably did provide a margin of defence in Charleston. The US ironclads could probably have pushed past the forts and into the inner, poorly defended, harbor -- to be met by the ironclads.
 
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archieclement

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seems a lot of hindsight to conclusions.......not sure how in some of the cases it could have been obvious their impact was going to be limited when construction was started.

and disagree a bit that they somehow didn't focus on the Mississippi River, both the New Orleans and Memphis fleets showed they put emphasis and were doing what they could to protect the Mississippi, as far as ironclads on the Mississippi the two cities most capable of production Memphis and New Orleans were lost early on, so not only did ironclads need produced...........but the shipyards and skilled personnel capable of building them also needed somehow produced......and also the western railroad network to aid in production was weak.........

EDIT Added- IIRC The biggest hindrance in the south in producing ironclads was the powerplants.....they couldn't produce them.........Even if produce shipyard, hull and roll iron plate, still need a capable powerplant to power it........
 
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redbob

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"Ram fever" was very real, but was not a universal malady-- Farragut was rather resistant to it. In any case, once there were sufficient Union ironclads to have a few along, that largely neutralized the Confederate ironclad threat.
Plunging fire from fixed fortifications seemed to provide more of a threat to Union ships than ironclads did. Also, as good as a 7" Brooke Rifle was, it was never going to be a close in match for a 15" Rodman.
 

DaveBrt

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"Ram fever" was very real, but was not a universal malady-- Farragut was rather resistant to it. In any case, once there were sufficient Union ironclads to have a few along, that largely neutralized the Confederate ironclad threat.

Leaving Union ineptness aside (though unquestionably a factor), the best-defended point along the coast was Charleston, which had a multilevel array of land and water based defenses, ironclads, torpedo boats, mines, obstructions... all of the different types of defense supported each other.
Regarding ram fever, remember that I started with the idea that Virginia I should not have been built since it was very vulnerable and did not contribute to achieving any strategic goal. With no Virginia I, would there have been ram fever? Would there have been a monitor?
 
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Mark F. Jenkins

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In terms of the contemporary technology, the most effective coast/river defense strategy was a "stop them and shoot them" arrangement, with a physical barrier to limit vessels' movement (ideally with mines in addition) and fortifications to both protect the barrier and to shoot up the ships once their mobility was hampered by the obstructions. The two components were mutually supporting, with the barrier preventing ships from simply running past, thereby protecting the fort, and the fort protecting and maintaining the barrier. In situations where one of the two components was missing, or were too far apart (like at Fort de Russy on the Red River), the defense was much weaker.
 

Mark F. Jenkins

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Regarding ram fever, remember that I started with the idea that Virginia I should not have been built since it was very vulnerable and did not contribute to achieving any strategic goal. With no Virginia I, would there have been ram fever? Would there have been a monitor?
I really think the Union would have preferred to not get into the ironclad arms race, since they already had a significant 'conventional' advantage. However, once in, they were in to win.

There were Northern ironclad proposals prior to Virginia, but she was the real spur to their rapid development.
 
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We come back basically to yet another leader with his country embroiled in war who didn't understand (or didn't want to understand) what a navy was for or should do, which is in it's simplest terms to keep an enemy out of your waters. .

DaveBrt, I make you nearly right,
1) The defence of, and possession of the Mississippi in it's entirety should have been a priority, losing that allowed the
Union to spilt the south, and penetrate up the tributary rivers into the country, which had the result of allowing
precious resources and territory to be taken and occupied.
2) The James river squadron was absolutely necessary to prevent a waterborn assault on Richmond, or to be more precise
Tredegar.
3) The major Atlantic and Gulf ports needed to be held against the USN. Indeed the USN should have been kept away
from Southern coasts.

Stephen Mallory was therefore wrong on three counts in domestic term s ignoring the European efforts:
Not creating a Mississippi fleet.
Trying for an oceanic (or at least seagoing navy) to start with.
Not creating a coast defence navy.

Having said that - was there anyone better qualified to be Secretary of the Navy ?
One huge disadvantage an expanded Confederate Navy had was lack of manpower. The Union Navy per @Pat Young was composed of approximately 40 percent immigrants and African Americans. It has been estimated blacks made up 20 to to 25% of the Union Navy.
The Confederate Army was always desperate for manpower with desertion being a major problem.
In addition the Confederacy was unable to produce it's own warships and had to rely on on British builders who in turn were vulerable to eventual Union diplomatic pressure i.e. the Laird Ram Affair.
Even the Confederate raiders were essentially foreign manned and foreign armed ships.
Yes the Confederacy need a much larger navy but it had no practical way to establish one.
Leftyhunter
 

DaveBrt

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seems a lot of hindsight to conclusions.......not sure how in some of the cases it could have been obvious their impact was going to be limited when construction was started.

and disagree a bit that they somehow didn't focus on the Mississippi River, both the New Orleans and Memphis fleets showed they put emphasis and were doing what they could to protect the Mississippi, as far as ironclads on the Mississippi the two cities most capable of production Memphis and New Orleans were lost early on, so not only did ironclads need produced...........but the shipyards and skilled personnel capable of building them also needed somehow produced......and also the western railroad network to aid in production was weak.........
National strategy requires the head of state and his advisors to determine what the country must have in order to survive and to win. The South knew immediately that they had to have imports to arm and fight. They also knew that they had to move significant logistical elements across the country and only the railroad could do that because of the growing blockade. So you can see the need to defend certain ports for the blockade runners and certain points for the logistics movement (Mobile, Fts Henry and Donaldson, the Mississippi River, etc).

Figuring these out is not magic or backward analysis -- Japan, the US and England all knew they had to have full use of the sea lanes in WW2, the documents are there to prove it. There are no documents that I know of that show the result of an early analysis by the South of what they had to do and save in order to achieve independence. The result of this lack of strategic direction was every problem being treated when it came up, not against a plan, but just what can be done now regarding this problem. There was never any reason to build ironclads in the NC Sounds or at Columbus, Ga. Arkansas was finished too late to matter in the Mississippi.
 
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