Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Aye Candy: C.S.S. Manassas

Posted in Technology by Andy Hall on March 18, 2013


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:













15 Responses

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  1. Robert Moore said, on March 18, 2013 at 3:19 am

    If the stacks were removed, and replaced with a submarine sail, I’d say the part above water would look like an early Cold War U.S. attack sub!

  2. Bob Huddleston said, on March 18, 2013 at 2:23 pm

    Andy, a great post. However the email link, “Aye Candy”, is broken.

    • Andy Hall said, on March 18, 2013 at 2:28 pm

      Sorry about the link. I inadvertently hit “publish” before the post was ready, which sent it out automatically by e-mail to subscribers. When I took the post offline and scheduled it for later, that broke the link sent in the e-mail notices. Sorry about that.

  3. Jim Schmidt said, on March 18, 2013 at 4:13 pm

    Gorgeous renderings Andy! Our mutual friend Fr. Steve Duncan is working on a USS Hatteras model from a kit…he posted a few pics on Facebook this weekend…it’s looking great.

    • Andy Hall said, on March 18, 2013 at 4:25 pm

      Thanks, Jim. I hear he’s doing a traditional mass for the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg this summer. Father Corby lives!

  4. corkingiron said, on March 19, 2013 at 11:04 am

    You have some of the neatest toys to play with!

    Do you know why the Confederate Government took over command of the vessel after the first engagement? Did the damage that was suffered convince the private owners that there was insufficient profit in the venture to continue? Or, by formally commissioning it as a CS warship, did it give the Confederate authorities the right to use it in raising the blockade, rather than in search of plunder?

    • Andy Hall said, on March 19, 2013 at 11:14 am

      My understanding was that they took it over before that first action, just about as it was being completed. (You know, the oppressive hand of big gubmint interfering with private enterprise.) By the late summer/fall of 1861 it was very clear that New Orleans was the next big target in implementing the Anaconda Plan. (Author Charles Dufour calls the passage of the forts in April 1862 as “the night the war was lost,” which may not be too far off the mark.) The CS government’s purchase of Manassas late in 1861 simply made formal what was already reality in practice.

      (Similarly, the CS government here in Texas had chartered the civilian river steamer Bayou City as a transport, but after it was converted to a makeshift gunboat and used successfully at the Battle of Galveston, they bought it outright for $50,000.

      Finally, ongoing discussion with some online colleagues who are more familiar with the primary sources on Manassas has given me a much clearer picture of what the vessel’s armor was like, and it ain’t the iron plate shown above. I’m still figuring out how to model that digitally.

      • Ward Shrake said, on July 28, 2014 at 7:33 pm

        re: “Finally, ongoing discussion with some online colleagues who are more familiar with the primary sources on Manassas has given me a much clearer picture of what the vessel’s armor was like, and it ain’t the iron plate shown above. I’m still figuring out how to model that digitally.”

        I’m curious if there might be some additional comments on that subject, at some point? Any updates?

        I ask in part because I built a (non-digital) model of the Manassas, some few years ago. It’s not a model that’s likely to be all that well known in certain circles: even though I’d published a rather lengthy article about it a few years back. Admittedly, virtually no “serious” researcher is going to be looking at the first volume of “Steampunk Modeller” (a special issue published in England, by the makers of “Sci-Fi & Fantasy Modeller”) in an attempt to find any scale modeller’s mostly-serious take on what the boat might have looked like … but since I write for them from time to time, anyway, and they were putting that special issue together at about the time I was working on finishing that model up, that’s where I submitted photos of the build-up and (some of) the research data I’d used when I took my stab at hull shape, detailing, etc.

        I’d be curious to know if I’m the only person that tried to interpret the 2D sketches seen on history dot navy dot mil?

        And would be very curious to see what others have dug up, in regards to the “Turtle’s” armor?

        I’m happy to see any discussion at all about this boat! Several years ago, when I was doing searches on the I’net, it wasn’t like a whole heck of a lot came up! It’s cool to see the detailed work, above … and the comments about on-going research still happening, behind the scenes somewhere, has me curious!

        I’d love to see some updates — (straight text, even; if new pics aren’t ready) — hence my asking about it.

        • Andy Hall said, on July 28, 2014 at 9:03 pm

          Ward, thanks fro taking time to comment. I haven’t got any new images to show, but I can share some additional insight that may be useful. Some colleagues and I had a long online discussion about this vessel a while back, comparing all the written descriptions and drawings we could, and came to the general consensus that Manassas was covered in railroad iron, laid fore-and-aft. Specifically, it would have been strap rail (below), a type of rail that was common in the antebellum South and in Louisiana, that would have been easily adapted to this project. On a model this would look very much like narrow deck planking, except out of iron instead of wood. It seems to be a bit beyond my modeling skills to do that effectively with the digital model, what with its compound curves.

          • Ward Shrake said, on July 29, 2014 at 3:58 am

            Thanks for that info! That’s the first picture I’ve seen of actual southern rail of that period; although from the looks of it, I kinda had the idea right, even if I probably got the sizes way wrong. (I had guessed maybe two inches in width; but with a basically rectangular cross section: as shown in that image.) Even at that larger size, it was a major pain for me to add a gazillion “iron planks” by hand, one at a time, to my physical, non-digital, 1:48 scale model. Took a solid week, just to “plank” the “turtle back” area on that model! And even so, it wasn’t the world’s most perfect final result. It got the idea across, for the article I was writing then … which I suppose was good enough.

            Question: is that discussion you mentioned accessible to the public, somewhere on the I’net? Is it a thing where someone like me can come in, after the fact, and read what you folks had discussed? I guess I’m just stoked that conversations like that are even happening. Wasn’t the case, years ago; or at least, if it was, it wasn’t something that I was aware of. Seemed like the poor Manassas was doomed to massive neglect … even though, arguably, it was one very interesting “game changer”.

              • Ward Shrake said, on July 29, 2014 at 1:36 pm

                Awesomeness! Thanks much for that link! I’m really gonna enjoy reading through it!

                I see that you have a sense of humor about some things, as well as being a thorough and careful researcher; which is all good, in my opinion. Keeping in mind where I had first published these images — which is likely an automatic credibility buster! — I’ll submit the following link to the drawings I had come up with (drawn, myself) a few years ago. The original version (not the tracing) of the 1861 sketch by Chalaron was my primary bit of info that I based those drawings on … having later filled in some of the details using the newspapers accounts by Peetz, and some other sources.


                Having posted that link, I’ll be quick to note that there are “serious” parts to it, and some that are less so. My goal was to do the analytical work I did, for my own purposes (to be able to “see” an orthographically valid interpretation of the Chalaron sketch, etc.) … but once it became a “share this with others” kinda thing, some liberties were clearly taken.

                The main thing that I was all excited about was the implied shape of the craft’s ramming bow. Having had a decent amount of experience in analyzing 2D photos and stuff, for things like Studio Models of spaceships and the like, from various TV shows, etc., when I saw those sketches (the original and the tracing) attributed to Chalaron, I felt a model could be made from that “profile” view and that “cross section”. The bow, I felt, made a lot of sense … but at a glance at the original artwork, I could see how some folks would just think I made that bow’s shape up, out of thin air. There was a lot more to it than that … but, to be on the safe side, you’ll notice I named the craft the “Steam Atragon” instead of the Manassas. (Even though I feel a lot more of it’s orthographically valid than might seem to be the case, when one just takes a passing glance at what I drew up.)

                Anyway … thanks again for the link to that conversation; which I’ll gladly check out!

              • Ward Shrake said, on July 29, 2014 at 8:50 pm

                (Answering a comment you made on Civil War Talk, over here, instead — since I’m not yet approved for making comments, over there.)

                You had mentioned that the Manassas may be buried; but weren’t aware of any sort of imaging technology that could penetrate through that sort of a barrier. There’s a local company called Stolar Research which makes things along those lines, and holds many patents related to that sort of general problem. Decades ago, they were — (going by what locals who have lived here all their lives have long told me) — initially developing technologies to make mines safer, and so on, by being able to more accurately figure out where cavities were, etc., etc., fairly deep into the ground. As far as I know, more recently they were also tasked by the military with expanding on that same sort of technology for the purpose of locating intentionally-buried, underground explosives and the like. But see for yourself, over on the company’ public web site … but it seems to me that there really is technology that could locate the Manassas, underground. I can’t speak for the company in any way, and don’t know precisely what they’re capable of … but given the things they’ve been doing for decades, it seems to me that yeah, locating the Manassas (especially given a fairly good, above-ground starting point, for such a search) does seem to me like it would be do-able with such “toys”. Seems a matter of geting the right technology, and the people to operate it, interested enough to “go and look around”.


                The main part of the company relocated, a few years back, towards the state’s (New Mexico’s) larger population centers … but people I know, here where the company was first located, may be able to get some inquiries going, to see how dumb this idea is. So far, though, it doesn’t seem totally dumb to me. Seems like “connecting some dots”?

                I for one would love to see the real thing — in whatever state is currently is — located and conserved. I’m sure a lot of people would love the answers that only that would supply.

  5. Woodrowfan said, on March 21, 2013 at 7:09 pm

    Wonderful graphics Andy, as always, but you’re missing the big story…how did the CSA deploy that little yellow ironclad shown in the first picture? I’m not sure about torpedoes, but I bet it had plenty of spitballs to fire at the enemy!

  6. Callan Braman said, on December 1, 2017 at 5:59 pm

    Hi Andy, love the CGI model of Manassas, and I would say it’s fairly accurate! If you haven’t read “Promotion or the Bottom of the River” by John M. Stickney, I definitely recommend it! It’s the biography of Captain Alexander F. Warley, her commander, and goes into some rather interesting and juicy details about the ship. Stickney is of the opinion that she did indeed have 2 stacks, and her length was actually increased to 143 feet upon conversion and her beam to 33, so she wasn’t a small vessel by any means like Skerrett makes her out to be.

    She was kind of a clunker too, making at best 6 knots in a river whose current was 4. Stickney also states her stacks were telescoping, an interesting feature, and that she had water pumps connected to her boilers that allowed her crew to pump scalding water onto her decks in the event of boarders.

    Her pilot house was stated at being way in the back, which Stickney points out was pretty poor design since there was plenty in the way to obscure the piloting of the vessel! I did find her length of particular interest, since that’s darn near shy of half a football field, which would definitely make her as unwieldy as Warley complained about, since that’s a lot of weight for her engines.

    I just finished the chapter on the Battle of the Head of Passes, and will be starting the Battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip next, but definitely recommend this book if you get a chance! It not only details Manassas, but Warley himself was a very fascinating individual and the first captain to command an ironclad in combat in the war!

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