Aye Candy: C.S.S. Manassas
Everybody knows about the famous Confederate ironclad Virginia, even if they insist on calling the vessel by its previous name, Merrimack. But there was an earlier Confederate ironclad, that went into action in the defense of New Orleans in the fall of 1861, almost five months before Virginia steamed out of Norfolk to attack the Union fleet anchored in Hampton Roads.
C.S.S. Manassas was originally conceived as a privateer, a privately-owned vessel that, holding a commission from the national government, would be formally authorized to attack (and hopefully capture) enemy shipping. Like Virginia, Manassas was built up from the hull of an existing vessel, in this case the twin-screw steamer Enoch Train. Soon after her completion in the fall of 1861, Manassas was taken over by local military authorities for use in the defense of New Orleans and the mouth of the Mississippi. In October 1861, Manassas participated in a surprise attack on the Federal fleet at the Head of the Passes. The ironclad was seriously damaged in that fight, losing her iron ram, chimneys and having one of her engines knocked off its mount. Under the command of A. F. Warley, however, Manasssas managed to withdraw successfully. The vessel was soon thereafter directly purchased by the Confederate government, and formally commissioned as a C.S. warship.
Manassas went into action again in April 1862, when the Union Admiral Farragut ran his fleet past Forts Jackson and St. Philip. Manassas was in the thick of the action, successfully striking both U.S.S. Mississippi and U.S.S. Brooklyn. A the Union fleet continued upstream, Manassas followed, until Mississippi came about and charged the ironclad. Lt. Warley avoided a collision, but grounded his ironclad on the bank in the process, where she was pounded by Mississippi‘s broadside. Manassas eventually slipped off the bank and drifted downstream, on fire, until the flames reached her magazine. The explosion completely wrecked the vessel.
There are many modern illustrations and models depicting C.S.S. Manassas, and they vary considerably. Many appear to be based on a 1904 drawing by R. G. Skerrett (above), that was used in the ORN. Although Skerrett was a skilled artist who brought much of the Civil War at sea alive with his artwork, he’s most reliable when working directly from photographs or other contemporary sources. In the case of ships for which he had no detailed contemporary image sources to work from (e.g., U.S.S. Westfield), he’s less reliable. In the case of Manasssas, Skerrett’s drawing seems to make the vessel too small overall, with a tiny pop-gun mounted in her bow. Sources conflict on exactly what type of gun Manassas carried — and she may well have been fitted with different pieces at different times in her short career — but generally they agree that the piece was at minimum a 32-pounder, not an insignificant piece, especially at short range.
Several contemporary sources suggest, for example, that the ironclad had two chimneys, arranged side-by-side like contemporary river steamers. South Carolina digital artist Dan Dowdey, for example, used this arrangement in his recreation of Manassas (above). I like Dowdey’s work generally, and particularly his envisioning of Manassas, with the additional nautical bits (e.g., actual bitts) that aren’t mentioned in most accounts, but are necessary to make the real vessel functional.
A colleague recently shared with me reconstruction drawings of C.S.S. Manassas prepared by W. E. Geoghagen in the mid-1960s. Geoghagen was a maritime specialist with the Smithsonian Institution, working with Howard Chapelle, the dean of historic American naval architecture. Geoghagen was also working in that period with Ed Bearss and the National Park Service on the U.S.S. Cairo recovery and reconstruction. I don’t know what sources Geoghagen used for reconstructing the upperworks of the C.S.S. Manassas, but the lower hull of the vessel he drew does conform to the known dimensions of Enoch Train, 128 feet between perpendiculars, and 26 feet in beam. Geoghagen’s drawing depicts a single, thick chimney very similar to Skerrett’s, but with a pronounced rake; I’ve chosen to go with two chimneys, with minor alterations of the topside openings necessary to accommodate them.
But enough prattle. Here’s the pics. Full-size versions available on Flickr: