This model of the Confederate casemate ironclad Wilmington is based on reconstruction plans drawn in the 1960s by W. E. Geoghagen, a maritime specialist at the Smithsonian Institution. Geoghagen’s drawings, in turn, are based on surviving plans prepared by the Confederate Navy’s Chief Constructor, John L. Porter (1813-1893). Full-size images are available on Flickr.
Wilmington was the last of three ironclads built at her namesake city during the Civil War. Neither of the first two had accomplished much during its service. The first, North Carolina, was structurally unsound and, like many of her type, was woefully underpowered. North Carolina was used in the brackish Cape Fear River as a floating battery until she sank at her moorings in September 1864, her bottom eaten through by teredo. The second ironclad, Raleigh, had been completed in the spring of 1864 and sortied to attack the Union blockading fleet off Fort Fisher. Raleigh managed to drive off several blockaders but upon her return upriver grounded on a sandbar and broke her keel, effectively making her a total loss.
Construction on the new ironclad began soon after Raleigh’s loss, in the late spring of 1864. In designing the vessel, Porter sought to remedy two serious flaws exposed by Raleigh’s brief sortie against the Union fleet: first, that she lacked sufficient speed to close the range and force a fight, and second, that she drew too much water to safely operate in the Cape Fear estuary.
Porter’s design is almost unique among Confederate ironclads, with a long length-to-beam ration of more than 6.5-to-1, perhaps in imitation of the long, fast blockade runners that operated between Wilmington, Bermuda and Nassau. The new ship, dubbed by locals as the future C.S.S. Wilmington, was unusual above deck, too. While almost all Confederate ironclads built or planned for construction in the Confederacy during the war followed the pattern set in 1862 by the famous C.S.S. Virginia (ex-U.S.S. Merrimack), by using a single, large armored casemate to house the ship’s battery, the vessel being built at Wilmington would have two small, low, casemates, each with a single, heavy gun working on a pivot on the inside. Each miniature casemate was fitted with seven ports, 45 degrees apart, giving the guns a wide (if narrowly segmented) field of fire. While the Confederacy lacked the resources to construct a revolving turret like those fitted on the Union Navy’s monitors, Porter’s design was a serious attempt to replicate the monitors’ greatest tactical advantages: all-around fire by a few, very heavy guns, and presenting the enemy’s gunners with a very small target. She is somewhat unusual for Confederate ironclads in that she was not built to be fitted with a ram.
Unfortunately, Wilmington never saw action, and was never formally commissioned. (Nor was the vessel ever officially named Wilmington; that’s what the locals called her.) She was still on the stocks, nearing completion, when the city of Wilmington was evacuated. This vessel, representing perhaps the most advanced design of ironclad built in the Confederacy during the war, was put to the torch to keep her from falling into the hands of Union troops.
Because Wilmington was never completed, we cannot know exactly how she would have appeared in service. Bob Holcombe, in his masters thesis “The Evolution of Confederate Ironclad Design” (East Carolina University 1993), notes that 150 tons of one-inch plate taken from the decrepit old North Carolina might have been intended for Wilmington’s open deck. In recreating the ship, I’ve left the deck unarmored, but I did put plating over the timbered knuckle that extends outboard on either side of the ship. This model represents a “what if” depiction of the ship as she might have looked if she’d been completed and fully commissioned, sometime in the summer of 1865. I don’t think this ship (or several of them) would’ve changed the overall equation at Wilmington and Fort Fisher, but it’s intriguing to imagine how she would have performed in action. With the right engines (probably a practical impossibility in that time and place) she might have been a real menace to the blockaders as a hit-and-run raider.
Special thanks to Kazimierz Zygadlo for his assistance in compiling material on this remarkable warship-that-almost-was.Alongside the Union river monitor U.S.S. Onondaga, for comparison.
The other day, when I was poking around the web for images to go with my post on the H. L. Hunley spar, I came across this image (right) of a U.S. Navy engineer officer. My immediate reaction was, that’s a kid dressed up in somebody’s uniform. But it’s not; the notation on the back of the CDV reads, “Uncle Will Law as a Naval Officer Civil War.” Uncle Will was Third Assistant Engineer William Francis Law, appointed in November 1861. Law died on September 24, 1863 of unstated causes.
I’ve been able to find very little about Law in readily-available sources. The second image in the auction lot is a photograph of U.S.S. New Ironsides, that served off Charleston; written on the back of that card, in the same hand, is the note “Uncle Will Law’s ship Civil War.” According to Porter’s Naval History of the Civil War, Law was serving aboard U.S.S. Pinola at the capture of New Orleans in April 1862, and was still part of her complement the following January 1, as part of Farragut’s West Gulf Blockading Squadron. It seems he turns up exactly once in the ORN, a one-sentence mention in a routine report from Commander James Alden to Farragut on September 14, 1862: “Mr. Law succeeded in repairing the Pinola by making a new stem to her Kingston valve.”
About Law’s civilian life, I’ve been able to find even less. He is almost certainly the William F. Law, age 17, who was the eldest child of Benedict and Anna C. Law of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, just west of Harrisburg, at the time of the 1860 U.S. Census. He graduated from the Carlisle Boy’s High School in 1858 and, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer of June 28, 1861, graduated from the Polytechnic College of Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, specializing in road building. Polytechnic was one of only a handful of universities in the United States at that time that offered engineering degrees, and Law’s academic background may have set him a little apart from his fellow engineers. Seagoing engineers in that day, both in the Navy and in the merchant service, were more commonly men with practical experience on shore in machine shops, foundries or similar trades.
I haven’t been able to confirm Law’s service aboard U.S.S. New Ironsides, as indicated on the back of the auction house photo; his name does not appear on these lists of ship’s officers transcribed from the National Archives. If he did serve aboard that ship in the summer of 1863, he saw a tremendous amount of action off Charleston.
One final note — in his undated portrait, taken at the Bogardus studio on Broadway in New York, Third Assistant Law looks to be wearing a gold-braided hat borrowed from a much more senior engineering officer. Maybe the sword, too. Gotta look good for the folks back in Carlisle, I suppose.
On July 2, 1861, the U.S. Steamer South Carolina appeared off the bar at Galveston, the first Federal warship to be positioned on the Texas coast since the state declared its secession several months before. South Carolina‘s commander, Captain James Alden, Jr. (right, 1810-77), later summarized the event in three brief sentences in a dispatch to the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles (ORN 16 576):
I have the honor to report that I arrived here on the 2d instant, and immediately hoisted a signal for a pilot for the purpose of communicating with the shore. In a short time a pilot boat came off, bearing a flag of truce and a document, a copy of which is herewith sent. In reply to it I enclosed a copy of your declaration of blockade, with a single remark that I was sent here to enforce it, which I should do to the best of my ability.
Fortunately we have a fuller picture of the events of that day. The war was a new, untested thing — the shocking casualties of First Manassas were still almost three weeks off — and both sides were still feeling each other out. From the Galveston Civilian and Gazette Weekly, July 9, 1861:
The Blockade at Last.
Yesterday forenoon the lookout on Hendley’s buildings ran up the red flag, signalizing war vessels, with the token for one sail and one steamer beneath, bringing groups of curious observers to the observatories with which Galveston is so well provided. In due time the dark hull of a large steam propeller loomed up above the waters, followed by a “low, black” but by no means “rakish looking schooner,” and approached the anchorage outside the bar.
By order of Capt. Moore, of the Confederate States Army, Capt. Thomas Chubb, with the pilot boar Royal Yacht, with our fellow citizen John S. Sydnor, proceeded to board the steamer, which proved to be the South Carolina, formerly in the New York and Savannah trade, but now converted into a war vessel.
The Royal Yacht, in answer to the pilot signal of the steamer, hoisted a flag; but the steamer evidently intended to force them to board the schooner; but this was not the intention. Capt. Chubb, on seeing the jack was down, put about for the city, being at the same time out of range, when the steamer hoisted a white flag. The Yacht then sent a boar alongside, bearing Col. Sydnor and Capt. Chubb. They were received with due ceremony and marked politeness. Col. Sydnor having delivered Capt. Moore’s letter, Capt., Alden gave him written notice of the blockade. A conversation of about an hour ensured, during which Capt. Alden was assured of the entire unity of our people in reference to resisting the oppression of the North. Capt. Alden expressed great regret that matters had reached such a pass, but said he was here to do his duty to his government, and that the intention was to enforce obedience to it. He gave no assurances as to the means which would be adopted to carry out his intentions as far as we are concerned.
The hatchways being closed and guns all covered, it was impossible to form any exact conclusions as to the strength of the steamer. She has six large guns, evidently 42 pounders, one large swivel near her bow, and at her stern two brass 6-pounders, all ready mounted for use as flying artillery. But a few men appeared on deck, and the only clue furnished as to her complement was in her clothing hanging up today. Capt. Chubb thinks there are about 150 on board.
Capt. Alden expressed the belief that his Government would soon be able to bring the Southern States into subjection, and, on being told that all classes of our people would suffer extermination first, seemed much surprised. He seemed disposed to converse freely in relation to our troubles, and received the plain talk and patriotic response on our two citizens on good humor. He said he was able to enforce the demands of his Government, and, if necessary, shell us out. He was assured that, whenever it came to that, we would give him a warm reception.
There was one feature in this affair worthy of note. Col. Sydnor is a native of the South, while Capt. Chubb was raised in the same town (Charleston, Mass.) with Capt. Alden. He was thus able to hear from his lips the unmistakable evidences that all our citizens of Southern, Northern, as well as foreign origin, are determined to fight to the last sooner than submit to the detestable rule of Lincoln.
The following is the reply of Capt. Alden to Capt. Moore’s note:
U.S. Steamer South Carolina
Off Galveston, July 2, 1861
Capt. John O. Moore, C.S.A., & c.:
In answer to your communication of this date, I take the liberty of enclosing a declaration of blockade, which I am sent here to enforce, and am
Respectfully your obedient servant,
James Alden, Com’r U.S. Steamer South Carolina
Declaration of Blockade
To all whom it may concern:
I, William Mervine, flag officer, commanding the United States naval forces comprising the Gulf squadron, give notice that, by virtue of the authority and power in me vested, and in pursuance of the proclamation of His Excellency the President of the United States, promulgated under date of April 19 and 27, 1861, respectively, that an effective blockade of the port of Galveston, Texas has been established, and will be rigidly enforced and maintained against all vessels (public armed vessels of foreign powers alone excepted) which attempt to enter or depart from said port.
Signed, William Mervine,
Flag Officer U.S. Flag Ship Mississippi, June 9, 1861.
I certify that the above is a true copy, James Alden, Com’r U.S. Navy.
Neutral vessels will be allowed fifteen days to depart, from this date, viz., June [sic.] 2, 1861.
James Alden, Com’g.
The Hendley Buildings on Strand Street, Galveston, in the 1870s and in 2011. As one of the tallest commercial buildings in town at the time of the Civil War, the Hendley Buildings (or Hendley’s Row) were a natural lookout point for observers watching both the Gulf of Mexico and Galveston Bay. A red flag flown from this building on July 2, 1861 announced the much-anticipated arrival of the Federal blockade. Upper image: Rosenberg Library.
U.S.S. South Carolina, as drawn in 1948 by Eric Heyl. Via U.S. Naval Historical Center. South Carolina was built as a civilian packet steamer to operate on the Atlantic seaboard between Savannah, Charleston, Norfolk and Boston. She was iron-hulled, 217 feet long, 1,165 tons burthen. She served in the Gulf Blockading Squadron in 1861 and 1862, and spent the balance of the war with the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Sold out of the Navy after the end of hostilities, she became the civilian steamer Juanita in 1886. Her hull survived until 1902 when, as a barge, she foundered in a blizzard.
Additional details of the meeting between Alden, Chubb and Sydnor appeared in the New York Herald Tribune of July 31 quoting another Galveston paper:
In the course of the conversation, Capt. Alden expressed a desire to receive friendly visits from our citizens, and stated that he should especially be glad to have a visit from Gen. Houston. Col. Sydnor informed him, in reply, that though Gen. Houston had been a devoted Union man to the last, yet that now he had declared that he could no longer support the Stars and Stripes, but would fight to the last for the flag of the Confederate States. Capt. A. expressed his surprise and regret at this, and that his Government has no friends in Texas. But he said, nevertheless, he desired a friendly intercourse with our city, and hoped he might be hospitably received should he make us a visit.
Col. S. replied that he could not promise what kind of reception our authorities would give him. Capt. Alden inquired if there was not plenty of fish along our shore; he had heard there was, and he desired to catch some. He was informed that they were abundant along the beach, but that it might not be altogether prudent for his men to approach to near. Much of the conversation was in a jocular vein.
For all the strained humor about Alden’s interest in catching “fish,” both sides were in deadly earnest. Alden and South Carolina‘s crew wasted no time, celebrating the Fourth of July by capturing six small schooners, Shark, Venus, Ann Ryan, McCanfield, Louisa, and Dart. After providing his unwilling guests a large dinner in honor of the date, he sent them into Galveston under a flag of truce on Venus, McCanfield and Louisa, after judging those vessels worthless as prizes. The others Alden retained in hopes of fitting them with armament and using them for work in shallow water, close inshore.
One of the freed passengers, curiously enough, was John A. Wharton (right, 1828-65), who would later command the 8th Texas Cavalry, Terry’s Rangers, and eventually rise to the rank of Major General in the Trans-Mississippi Department. According to the Herald Tribune, Wharton was allowed to keep his personal valise, but the military goods he was coming back to Texas with — two boxes of arms purchased for Brazoria County, ten gross of military buttons, cloth for military uniforms “and a six-shooter” — were all seized by Alden’s men as contraband.
But these initial moves were still just a prelude; a few weeks later, Captain Alden and South Carolina would open the war for real along the Texas coast.
John Newland Maffitt (1819-1886, right) was one of the best-known of all Confederate naval officers. In 1861, after serving nearly 30 years in the U.S. Navy, Maffitt resigned his commission and entered Confederate service. Maffitt is best known for his command of the commerce raider Florida, which in a single cruise destroyed or captured 47 U.S. merchantmen, but he also commanded the ironclad ram Albemarle and ended the war commanding blockade runners. Maffitt was an aggressive officer. A reporter for the New York Herald who encountered Maffitt in neutral Havana wrote, “Captain Maffitt is no ordinary character. He is vigorous, energetic, bold, quick and dashing, and the sooner he is caught and hung the better it will be.”
Maffitt was particularly suited to blockade running, having spent half his Navy career surveying the U.S. coastline and preparing detailed hydrographic charts. In the closing months of the war, Maffitt commanded the government-owned blockade runner Owl, a 446-ton steel-hulled paddle steamer built at Liverpool in 1864. Owl was a large ship, though, which was a liability in shallow Texas coastal waters. During her one run into Galveston, Maffitt’s ship very nearly suffered the same fate as Denbigh would just a few weeks later, and in the same spot — on Bird Key. The following article, from the Galveston Weekly News of April 26, 1865, tells the story. One of the assisting vessels, the Laird-built steamer Lark, would soon become the last blockade runner to clear a Confederate port.
Galveston, April 16, 1865
Ed. News: — We regret to have to be under the necessity of condemning the press for any one thing, and are well aware that they have much to attend to from day to day, for the interest of their readers and the benefit of the Confederacy, but cannot imagine how the people of Galveston should ever have entertained the idea of allowing our Confederate friend, Capt. Maffitt, to be passed unnoticed. We are well aware of his previous history, connected with the U.S. Navy, where he has shown himself worthy of the recommendation of the Secretary of the Navy, and are, also, well aware that when hostilities between the United States and the Confederate States commenced, that he was among the first of the Navy to volunteer his aid and services for the freedom of that new and young Confederacy. His efforts have been untiring, and his usefulness, while in command of the C.S. Steamer Florida, in destroying the commerce owned by our enemies, is too well known to be repeated by us. All we will say, is that he was among the first to participate in the destruction of the commerce of the United States, which effect has been equal to battles won; and none can say that his career since, up to the present hour, has not been wholly devoted to the cause. How like a sailor and a man, did he stand by his ship, the Owl, when, in the hour of peril, within reach of Yankee guns, and had they known his situation, could have captured ship and crew.
A few of us, at the earliest possible moment, visited his ship, for the purpose of rendering assistance; and, among the number, was Capt. McGarvin, with his steamer, the Diana, whose timely assistance, together with the whole-souled Capt. George Blakely, of the steamer Lark, rendered timely and efficient aid. Upon arriving alongside, all were anxiously looking to see Capt. Maffitt, who was standing in the gangway of his ship to receive us, but none could recognize him, as we expected to find him fixed up with gold lace &c., but it was not so. He looked more like a cool, unconcerned passenger than a Captain in the C.S. Navy, with a Scotch cap, a torn coat, and a pair of rubber shoes, without socks. This was the condition in which we found him, but any sailor knows full well how to meet another. He was glad to meet us. His vessel had been in imminent danger for a long time. His previous reputation was at stake. His hard work, together with sleepless nights, and kind and encouraging words to to his men were, with the assistance of a few others, crowned with success, and the good ship Owl, with her gallant Captain and crew, are now safely anchored in our beautiful Bay – the first C.S. ship that ever visited our waters. . . .
The crew are good, as we call ourselves good judges, and witnessed their hard labor in the hour of trial, and their great regard for their commander.
The ship can’t be beat, as is as fine a craft as ever floated, and if Yankee gunboats ever get after her, she will show them a light pair of heels, and the officers will cry, “come on, old Abe!”
Decades later, this account would be resurrected by a Daily News reporter and rewritten. He kept most of the details the same, but changed the timeline to have it happen in broad daylight, with Maffitt braving a torrent of Yankee shot and shell to bring his runner into Galveston to the cheers of thousands lining the wharves. Thus historical fact became historical fiction.
This post is adapted from a piece I wrote for the Denbigh Project, here.