Ships during the Civil War


April 27th 1865

On April 27, 1865 the steamboat Sultana sunk in the muddy waters of the Mississippi river. The steamer was seven miles north of the town of Memphis Tennessee, the ship exploded then went down with her crew and 2,300 just released Union POW’s.

The worst maritime disaster for the time, the sinking would be a final chapter in a series of atrocities that would befall the young states of America.

The timing of the disaster could not have been at a more muddied era. The Civil War, with all of its bloodshed, made the sinking just another massive loss of life. Both Union inspectors and Southern administrators investigated the circumstances that surrounded the explosion.

The complexity of the era, involving General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, President Lincoln’s assassination, and the ending of the Civil War, made the sinking a side act.

A couple thousand deaths, especially victorious Union troops, did not allow much sympathy for the entire country. When the news of many deaths from the local battlefields hit the news daily, the loss was seen as a due of war. The war was over; this was a maritime tragedy of epic, proportions.

The overcrowded Sultana on it's final voyage

The overcrowded Sultana on it’s final voyage

The men that lost their lives were no less important than the troops that died on the field of battle. The investigation of the sinking discovered that it was mechanical failure that sent the men to their watery graves. Boilers were the engines that supplied the power of a steamship. One exploded and sent the prisoner transport to the bottom of the Mississippi river.

The terrible tragedy uncovered the slick “money-making” deals of the men who ran the transports, and forever labeled the carriers of men as those who needed to be watched. The administration detailed the disaster in a series of articles and reports. One of the most blatant acts of greed was that the ship was commissioned to not carry more than 365 passengers.

Questions arose that the overcrowded conditions of the steamship could have been the reason the boilers were overworked then exploded. If not for the greed of a few the lives of many could have been saved. War is a moneymaker for those who prey upon the vulnerable, the weary, and the innocent. The loss of life is a terrible thing to happen after a war is over, yet it does happen.


USS Kearsarge

The USS Kearsarge, a 1500-ton Mohican class Union warship, was constructed in Maine in 1861. This ship was built with funds from the Civil War Emergency Shipbuilding Program under the supervision of Admiral Selver. What the Union needed was a Confederate raider hunter, what they got was one of the finest naval vessels of the entire war.

If not for the courage of the crew aboard the Kearsarge, many more millions of dollars worth of ship and supply, would have found its way to the bottom of the ocean.

Commissioned in 1862, the Kearsarge was first sent to European waters. She was sent there in order to find the Confederate raider, the CSS Alabama.

The Alabama was wrecking havoc on the Union’s merchant marine trade and it needed to be found. The Wolf of the Deep was found at Cherbourg, France and after an epic sea battle, the Wolf was laid to rest.

This prompted the Union to issue a Certificate of Merit honoring the vessel for gallantry in a wartime situation. The Kearsarge was a hero; the north was once again safe to resume its massive influx of supplies and other wartime necessities in the Atlantic.

USS Kearsarge in 1861

USS Kearsarge in 1861

After the sinking of the Alabama, the Kearsarge was sent back to the United States to continue searching for Confederate ship killers. This went on until the end of the war and the ship was sent to Europe for repairs. Never again would the Kearsarge be involved in a major naval battle, she had done enough for her country.

The Kearsarge would be used as a sentry vessel and to show military naval superiority when needed for the rest of her sailing career. She was decommissioned in 1866 but returned to service in 1869 and sent to The Pacific coast of South America. Sailing across the world then returning, the Kearsarge would wind up in California in 1870.

She was once again decommissioned and put in dry status. This would not stop her and once again, the Kearsarge would find herself lapping waves in the waters of the world. The US Navy needed to show some military might after the end of The Civil War so off the cruiser went to Asia.

The Kearsarge started the United States Navy off as the navy to be wary of in the world. Before that, Great Britain was the major naval power with France and Spain a close third and fourth, respectively. Ships like the Kearsarge and even the Monitor and Merrimac, defined the tenacity of the naval forces of the Americans.

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USS Monitor

The USS Monitor, a 987 – ton armored turret gunship was built in New York in 1862.

The Union leadership had the insight to proclaim a bill that would adequately finance the building of the ships of war that would serve proudly in the fight against the Confederate states.

She would be the prototype for more of the new ironclad warships developed by the Union in response to the mechanized force of the Confederacy.

The “monitors”, for both sides, would meet in a climatic clash heard around the world. Commissioned on February 25, 1862, she would soon be underway to her first mission, the epic battle against The Virginia of the Confederacy.

The Confederates answer to the Unions Monitor was The Virginia. This first class iron clad vessel with her gallant fearless crew, had just left the scene of the destruction she was capable of.

The two ships that were destroyed by the Virginia were Union war ships out of New York. This made The Virginia a “marked” ship by the Union who wanted her sunk to the bottom of the ocean, immediately.

USS Monitor in 1862 with dented turret from Confederate artillery

USS Monitor in 1862 with dented turret from Confederate artillery

The battle, although the first between two ironclad vessels, ended in a pseudo-draw, the affect that the battle had on the outcome of the war was undeniable.

By skirmishing with The Virginia at Hampton Roads, The Monitor prevented her adversary from stopping the blockading action of the Federals at the port. By not allowing the Virginia to open the blockade, the route for the Confederacy now had to go around the port. a big body blow to the war effort of the South.

USS Monitor construction plans

USS Monitor construction plans

Following this historically relevant action in the sea, The Monitor stayed in the Hampton Roads vicinity and in 1862 was actively engaged along the James River in water support for the army’s Peninsular Campaign. Later that same year, The Monitor was ordered to North Carolina and it was here that she would meet her untimely demise.

A fierce storm swept through the Cape Hatteras Peninsular and sank The Monitor. The end of the road for such a noble vessel. The remaining monitors of the Union force would all play pivotal roles for the Union cause.

The role of the ironclad vessels during The Civil War was highly beneficial. Not only for the million of dollars of damage each side inflicted on each other’s merchant trade, but for the attention taken away by having a ship watch for the ironclads. A win win for both sides when this phenomena occurred. Towards the end of the war, the celebrated ships were more circus acts than actual naval vessels. People would line up to catch a glimpse of the ironclad monstrosities.

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USS Housatonic

The USS Housatonic was one of the Civil War’s fabled war ships that sailed the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.

The ship was built at the Boston Navy Yard in Massachusetts in 1861. The ship was massive, measuring over 200 feet in length and was 40 feet wide. It was steamed by two main boilers and had one backup auxiliary-boiler.

The ship easily had enough power to spare and it would need that as it fought off the rag-tag Confederate boats that made up the Rebel navy.

The first action in the Civil War that the Housatonic saw was in April 1863, playing a supporting role to Admiral DuPont’s attempt to take Fort Sumter, the Housatonic fired volley after volley at the forts walls causing significant damage.

On the night of February 17, 1864 the crew of the U.S.S. Housatonic had sighted something floating in the water about 300 yards away from the stern of the ship. Wondering if it was a log, a porpoise or other harmless object allowed the Confederate submarine to close the gap and slip under the radar so to speak of the Union’s vessels heavy guns.

USS Housatonic

USS Housatonic

The problem with the U.S.S. Housatonic was that as a submarine came closer and closer the guns of the big Federal war ship could not be lowered low enough to be effective against the submarine.

The Housatonic’s crew did all they could to try to avert the attack but it was no use; the Hunley rammed an explosive charge into the ship’s starboard side. Five minutes is a long time when a ships on fire and your life’s at stake, but the U.S.S. Housatonic was then underwater after 10 minutes.

As the Union blockader’s slipped beneath the waves, five of its valiant crewmen died either from the blast by the H.L. Hunley or by drowning. The surviving crew members scrambled to any floating devices they could find in the water and were later picked up by a Federal Rescue Ship.

The USS Housatonic is famous for becoming the first victim in history to be sunk by a submarine. The Hunley also sank shortly after the sinking of the Union ship. All hands lost.

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USS Galena

The USS Galena was one of the most impressive ironclad ships during the Civil War. In the Civil War, sea-superiority was of high importance. This 950-ton ironclad gunboat was built in Connecticut at the famous Mystic Island shipyard.

Commissioned in April of 1862 the USS Galena was immediately sent to Hampton Roads Virginia to team up with other warships to help blockade the rebel port.

A short time later the Galena was sent up the James River to the city of Richmond the Confederate capital.

On May 8th the Galena engaged an 11 gun Confederate battery at Rock Wharf Virginia, and a 12-gun battery at Mother Tynes’ Bluff. Galena silenced all but one of the Confederate guns. The ship kept fighting until the Confederate battery was left in flames.

Months passed and the ship saw little action until receiving news that Union gun ships destroyed the Virginia. With no other orders but to patrol the waters of the Atlantic, the Galena was sent off to raid and soften up some of the cities that the Union army was trying to capture.

The USS Galena in 1864 after it's conversion to a wooden ship

The USS Galena in 1864 after it’s conversion to a wooden ship

On one occasion as the Union warship steamed along the James River, Confederate gunners badly damaged the ship, killing 12 of her crewmen. The Galena was sent for repairs in City Point. After restoration, the Galena was sent up the James River again to assist General McClellan’s army during the Campaign of the Virginia Peninsula. This time the Galena would be primed and ready for action.

Returning to Hampton Roads in May of 1863 she was then sent over to the large shipyards in Philadelphia for alterations and more repairs. In February 1864 as the Civil War was coming to an end the Galena was retro fitted once more, stripping off her iron plating, enlarging her gun batteries, and installing a sail rig. The Galena had gone from a thinly armored war ship, to one of the fastest and heavily armed Union steam warships in the entire Navy.

In May 1864 the ship joined the West Gulf Blockading Squadron based out of Florida. During one battle in which she was assisting the USS Oneida to safety the ship once again was damaged severely, but held on. The ship was decommissioned a few years after the end of the Civil War and later rebuilt as a new ship with the same name. It was a very dependable and sturdy ship prompting the U.S. Navy to give her an honor of the highest order in naval warfare.

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Union Navy

The Union Navy was a well-designed and well-maintained naval force and completely ruled the seas and the rivers during the Civil War.

The Confederates never assembled an armada or a small fleet that could challenge the Unions superior naval position. The economies of both the North and the South were vastly different.

In the Union economy, there was an impressive population of skilled workers and an industrial juggernaut that was transformed almost overnight from a strictly commercial endeavor to a war-machine that could supply an enormous army for years.

The South had cotton and slaves, some tobacco and determination. The economy of the Confederacy, although quite impressive in it’s own right, was not the mass-industrial giant of the North. The South could not afford to build an impressive naval armada and did well with what it had to work with, even by Northern standards.

The Union, with it’s superiority in the naval department would have no trouble sailing up and down the Mississippi until they reached Vicksburg and the other Southern ports of call. Here the Union armada would be put to the test with epic battles against the lesser yet scrappy Rebel boats. The North understood all too well the position of the Confederate Navy, there was none.

USS Monitor after the battle with the CSS Virginia

USS Monitor after the battle with the CSS Virginia

The Rebels could not fight a ship-to-ship sea battle and the North knew this. What the North had to do was use their superiority in the water to their fullest advantage and that meant blockading southern supply lines. The absoluteness of the Union victory was never in question after the Union took control of the Mississippi.

The end was near and the vastness of the Union military machine was in full swing. At the end of the Civil War the Union navy was considered to be one of the best in the entire world, not just in regards to their superiority against the lesser Confederate sea power.

The only real naval threat that the Union navy had to deal with was the ironclad. The South had devised a way to retrofit their wooden ships into these iron boats capable of destruction against any wooden ship the Union had. This presented a great problem for the Union commanders and was about to be finalized.

The CSS Virginia, a converted Union wooden ship, was about to meet the Union mighty ironclad, The Monitor, in what was to be billed as an epic sea battle. Both ships battled fiercely for hours but in the end the battle ended in a draw with neither ship able to penetrate the others thick iron skin.

The superiority of Union naval forces meant victory at sea for the North and spelled the end for the South.

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USS Constitution

The USS Constitution was given the affectionate nickname “Old Ironsides”. There is only a handful of endearing ships that have belonged to the US Navy and this ship, this magnificent ship, tops that list.

Large and swift, she commanded the sea during the early 1800’s and is one of the only ships from that era still in commission today.

Longevity has a name, The USS Constitution.

The Constitution was built of hard and resilient live oak with some of her boards a full seven inches thick.

This ship was built to sail the pre-steel seas and she did a great job of that task for over a decade.

Paul Revere had a hand in supplying the ship with its formidable skin fashioning the ships copper spikes and skirt ring.

USS Constitution under sail in Boston in 1997

USS Constitution under sail in Boston in 1997

If you enjoy building model ships you can create the USS Constitution yourself. This model goes into exquisite detail of this historical ship.

In 1803 she was designated the flagship of the Mediterranean squadron under the watchful eye of Captain Edward Preble. She saw her first real action protecting American interest in Africa off The Barbary Coast. Tripoli was her next stop, blockading the port and bombarding the fortifications until the Tunisians struck a peace treaty.

The ship patrolled the waters off the coast for nearly two-years after the peace accord was signed, to enforce the order. Returning to the friendly confines of The US, she would be re-fitted in Boston and prepared for her next cruise. The year was 1812 and relations with the United Kingdom had deteriorated to the point of war. As the war with Britain seemed inevitable, the ship was sent to rendezvous at sea with a squadron of ships and prepare for war.

This is the first picture taken of the USS Constitution in 1858

This is the first picture taken of the USS Constitution in 1858

During The War of 1812 “Old Ironsides” saw plenty of action against the British, the first would be against the British frigate, The Guerriere. The Brits found her off the Eastern coast of America and the battle began. The shots from The Constitution found their mark and

The Guerriere found herself drifting hopelessly in the Atlantic as the ship kept brushing off the cannon fire from the British sailing ship, as if they were rubber balls thrown against a wall. Earning her namesake. The Guerriere was so badly damaged the sailors scuttled her leaving her to sink to the bottom of the ocean, another victim against The Constitution.

A second battle would be fought in the open sea when the British frigate, Java, met The Constitution. Different frigate, same result. The Java can still be dove upon by divers, resting peacefully at the bottom of the sea.

USS Constitution being used as a barracks in 1905

USS Constitution being used as a barracks in 1905

After defeating the two British ships at sea, The ship was given a heroes fan fare when she returned to port and the United States was seen as the worlds leading naval power, from then on. The morale of the American people was the highest it had been since the Revolutionary War, these were good timed indeed.

The Constitution would continue to put her wood at the backsides of the British naval forces and the Peace Treaty of 1815 was signed. Once again the United States had fought and won a predominately sea war and crowned herself Queen of the World.

The only action the ship saw during The Civil War was in the field of training. “Old Ironsides” had seen her last days of fighting but could still be a valuable resource for training sailors.

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The H.L. Hunley was not the first submarine in the world but it was the first one to sink a ship.

The Confederate submarine was and still is a national treasure as it was recently dug out of 131 years of sea muck and put on display at a conservatory in the U.S.

This submarine was a courageous effort by the Confederates in attempting to stop the flow of the Union merchant marine chain.

The Union relied heavily on its ability to ferry in supplies up and down the Eastern Coast during the Civil War and the boat was meant to be a thorn in the side of that endeavor.

Her first and only action of the war would be had on the dark night of February 17th, 1864 when she would silently creep ever so close to the USS Housatonic.

The Housatonic was a sloop of war on the Union side and was floating in the Charleston Harbor when the explosion went off. The submarine had succeeded in setting off a very big detonation device that sent both the Housatonic and the submarine to the bottom of the harbor.

Hunley submarine sitting on the pier

Hunley submarine sitting on the pier

The explosion was so severe that it gauged a gaping hole into the side of the Housatonic and the blast field was so large that it destroyed the little submarine as well.

The boat had earned it’s place in naval warfare history as the first submarine to sink an enemy ship but it lost it’s own use and the only thing left is the wreck of this submarine. To describe the submarine one only has to imagine a very larger rum barrel with both of it’s side armed with sea worthy items.

The inside of the Hunley drawn by it's creator

The inside of the Hunley drawn by it’s creator

The best-selling author and treasure hunter Clive Cussler discovered the wreck in 1996. The team was able to bring the submarine up to the surface and in one piece. The discovery of the submarine marked the end of an era in which ingenuity by the Confederates with limited supplies and funds, showed that they were determined to give it their all during the Civil War.

The submarine, after careful examination by a team of leading sea warfare vessels, were astounded when they saw the submarine. If you are interested in owning your very own replica of the Hunley the H. L. Hunley Model Ship Wood Replica is a great model of the submarine that makes an excellent conversation piece.

The Hunley was a handcrafted piece of metal that was expertly crafted and quite ingenious considering the time of its creation. We must recall that the time of the submarine was one if great loss of life but that sometimes, the intelligence of men would and could be demonstrated. The boat would show that side of the Confederates but would do little to achieve the goal of the vessel, win the war.

The Confederates lost the war and the ending is well known; yet the degree of ingenuity that they displayed was not lost on hatred of Johnny Reb by the Union. The Union would have it’s own little submarine and that would prove to be just as effective if not more during the Civil War.


CSS Virginia

The CSS Virginia was born when it was left to dry rot in the sun, the remains of the USS Merrimack were found by the Confederate authorities after the Union abandoned the yard. The year was 1861 and six months later the Virginia was launched.

The ironclad ram boat was a ‘Frankenstein’, pieced together from the old Federal gunship and transformed into an impressive iron war cruiser.

The ship was just what the Confederates needed to stem the flow of union merchant marine traffic that dominated the oceans of America.

The North had enjoyed superiority in the naval theater with both military and commercial traffic but the Virginia was the answer to that problem. Cast from pure Virginia iron, the new class ship could take anything the Union could blast at her and could pack a big licking herself with her seven- inch guns and stern mounted ram. The ram turned the entire vessel into a weapon, a weapon that sent two bigger wooden Union ships to the bottom of the river.

CSS Virginia during the Civil War

CSS Virginia during the Civil War

The CSS Virginia had its problems. Firstly, it required a deep draft, which severely limited the places in which she could navigate. Secondly, she was cumbersome to sail and lacked the proper power train to sail in rough waters. Basically she was contained to the calmer waters off Norfolk Virginia.

If you enjoy replica model ships the CSS Virginia Limited 34″ – Wooden Model Ship – Civil War Model Ship Replica – C is a very detailed model of the CSS Virginia.

The iron clad was able to make some waves when in March of 1862; she had her first naval battle, sinking two Union war ships, The Cumberland and then The Congress. The affect of iron over wood was devastatingly clear, as the ironclads came into the war the days of the big wooden sloops was over. The ship is best known for her monumental battle with her Union counterpart, the USS Monitor, with whom she fought to a draw in March 1862.

The damage that both ironclads inflicted on the others wooden navy was not to be weighed in amount of ships sunk or crippled, but in the exiting of the wooden ship as a viable battle unit. Nevermore would a wooden ship be held accountable in a modern war naval effort, anywhere.

Over the next two months the two ironclads kept each other in check. The Virginia never met up with the Monitor again and was scraped by her crew in May 1862.The Virginia and the Monitor both were pioneering ships that changed the way sea battles would be fought throughout the world. The bulky wooden boats had seen their last days on the water, at least in the war effort.

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CSS Alabama

The CSS Alabama was called the ‘Wolf of the Deep’. This Confederate raider was responsible for so much damage and destruction during the Civil War. One of the more interesting developments of the war was how the Alabama came to become such a pirate of the sea. In July 1862 Captain Semmes, of the Confederate navy, was ordered to the shores of England and pick up a ship.

The English, who were Confederate sympathizers, throughout the entire war, built the ship. The goal of the south was to lay waste to the immense commercial capability of the north, and secure a wider passage for their own naval and commercial vessels. The plan went well and on August 24, 1862, the CSS Alabama was met at sea to be outfitted as a war ship.

Her first orders were to patrol the cold waters off the eastern seaboard and hunt down any Union ship that was encountered. For the rest of the year, the Alabama would sink or burn 29 Union commercial ships. These ships were the lifeblood of the Union supply system.

Although the Union had under their belt, a gigantic industrial backbone that could absorb an immense amount of lost ships, this was inflicting the war. After destroying another 40 Union merchant ships, the Alabama started to display the ravages of all those raids. The Alabama was in need of repair and re-tooling in the summer of 1864.

The south chose another friendly ally to help their cause and that was France. The French, long time Confederate sympathizers, were more than willing to help and opened the Port of Cherbourg to accept the ailing Confederate war ship. On June 11, 1864 the CSS Alabama was docked at the French port and readied for a face-lift.

Little did Captain Semmes know, but the Union had sent a tag-along to follow the Alabama overseas. That ship was the Kearsarge. The northern ship was patiently waiting just outside of the port and her Captain had only one thing on his mind, to destroy The CSS Alabama.

The Alabama was done with her repairs and steamed out to meet the Kearsarge on June 19, 1863. The Alabama immediately opened fire on the Kearsarge and the battle had commenced. The Alabama was not a very good war ship nor was it designed to be. It was created as a raiding vessel, one that would be light and fast.

No heavy guns that were the standard for warships of the Civil War on the Alabama, and this was to be her downfall. When the Alabama had closed to within 1,000 yards, the Kearsarge returned fire and hit the Alabama hard. After numerous volleys the two ships circled each other like two angry dogs awaiting the chance to attack. According to survivors, both ships fired volleys at each other until one was damaged and ceased it’s firing.

The CSS Alabama was heading to a watery grave; the ‘Wolf of the Deep’ was to be no more.

The battle took little more than an hour and the victor, The Kearsarge, would also be the rescuer of the Confederates that had either been forced into the water or jumped. The rest of the crew of the Alabama escaped with the assistance of a French yacht, The Deerhound. The fleeing sailors would find a safe refuge in England and miss the rest of the war.


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